By Sally Bedell Smith. 663 pages. Random House. $30.

With the Diamond Jubilee celebration of Elizabeth's 60-year reign just over, what better time to delve into this remarkable woman's extraordinary life. Problem is, the anniversary has prompted a mini-squall of titles, and it isn't always easy to decide which to trust. A tip: Any book that carries a recommendation from great British historian Paul Johnson is a sure bet, and Sally Bedell Smith's imposing, yet nimbly written, biography dwarfs the field. To be sure, this ground has been plowed before, and there is none of the scandalous hearsay that others have used to peddle their wares. What Smith brings to the table is a healthy respect for the institution of monarchy itself and a refreshingly clear understanding of the role Elizabeth plays both as sovereign and doyenne of a large, somewhat dysfunctional and often querulous family. It's all here, including the tragedy of Diana, whose mendacity with those closest to her was disquieting. A most satisfying and enjoyable read, one to be savored at length.



By Joyce Carol Oates (Ecco, 428 pages, $26.99)

Madness and malevolence squirm on almost every page in Joyce Carol Oates' 38th novel, a sprawling tale that showcases both the strengths and weaknesses of Oates, 74, one of America's greatest living novelists. Mudwoman is M.R. Neukirchen, a brilliant university president who is haunted by memories of the abuse inflicted by her birth mother before she was adopted by a genial Quaker couple. M.R.'s adulthood is plagued by nasty, intrusive strangers and disturbing events, many with ties to post-2001 U.S. politics and policies. Oates' dark brilliance is ever evident in her main characters, complex souls with mysterious corners in their psyches, and in her cartoonlike minor ones, who are usually dangerously undereducated and undermedicated men with yellow teeth, beady eyes, dirty hands and bad grammar. But "Mudwoman," which Oates' publisher is touting as one of her "giant" novels, is deeply flawed. Characters you're sure will become pivotal instead just disappear. It's hard to tell sometimes whether Mudwoman is doing or dreaming, as in one nasty scene in which she dismembers a "conservative" colleague. And Oates' moments of genius get lost in the time-hopping, dash-heavy narrative. Still, a failed novel by Oates would be a masterpiece by many another writer, and her chief themes -- that demons denied or ignored inevitably will rise up to sabotage an individual or a nation and that human nature is rarely admirable ("What is man? A ball of snakes," she quotes Nietzsche as saying in her epigraph) -- are nothing to sling mud at.