by Carol Easton.
Little, Brown, 560 pages,
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Agnes de Mille (19061993) has been described as "perhaps the best dancer ever to write and the best writer ever to dance." As a choreographer, "she created new ways of seeing and thinking about dance." And "she brought fresh air into ballet and irrevocably changed dance on the Broadway stage" with her work in Oklahoma, which converted dance from the peripheral ornament of a musical show to an integral part of the action. As a writer of elegant, witty, sometimes impassioned memoirs, she exercised the autobiographer's traditional right to tell things her way. Practically speaking, she condensed the trivial, minimized the embarrassing (unless it could be turned into comedy), and omitted what she preferred not to remember. Ms. Easton's biography follows De Mille regarding the trivial and, to some extent, the embarrassing, but what the dancer chose not to remember has been thoroughly researched and proves thoroughly interesting. Her mother, the daughter of Henry George of the single-tax theory, was a more possessive and misguided parent than De Mille ever admitted, and her uncle Cecil, the director of flamboyant Hollywood epics, a source of unprovoked resentment. Ms. Easton's analysis of the content of De Mille's ballets is intelligent, her use of quotation adroit. Her biography can only add to De Mille's posthumous stature as a major contributor to dance in America. De Mille could be hell to work with, but she was a grandly amusing woman and a wonder of accomplishment.
by Yevgeny Yevtushenko.
415 pages, $25.00.
Buy Don't Die Before You're Dead
Mr. Yevtushenko's exciting novel about the 1991 attempt to overthrow Mikhail Gorbachev's government puts the reader right on the barricades along with the author. It throws together personal observation, real and imaginary characters, actual and fictional events, satire and tragedy, past and present, prose and poetry. The fictional characters include an honest, and therefore disaffected, policeman, an émigrée poet returned from Paris, and a former soccer star fallen into drunken decay. The real characters, with the exception of Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin, and the author, are given generic names such as "the Crystal-Clear Communist" and "the Great Degustator." The fictional characters permit the author to portray aspects of Soviet society such as the expatriate literary colony in Paris and the future of superannuated athletes. The soccer player provides some superb comedy--a ludicrous teenage drinking party and a tournament in which a team of creaky but wily veterans tries to lose at least one game to its generous but inept local hosts. The dazzling variety of effects in Mr. Yevtushenko's semi-history winds down with a wistful poem, "Goodbye Our Red Flag," and a postscript denouncing the war in Chechnya: "Now Russia is nowhere--between the past and the future. Nevertheless that is better than ending up behind the barbed wire of the past. Maturity is measured by the number of lost illusions."
by Cindy Lee Van Dover.
Addison-Wesley, 183 pages, $20.00.
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Ms. Van Dover is an oceanographer and a former pilot of Alvin, a deep-sea submersible used to explore the ocean floor, once thought to be lifeless, now known to harbor a variety of organisms. At 9,000 to 12,000 feet below the surface strange creatures cluster around hydrothermal vents and subsist on chemicals extracted from the erupting water. The vents sometimes create chimneys that can collapse at a touch, which makes maneuvering Alvin a delicate matter, and there is a constant possibility of landslides and earthquakes. The author describes this bizarre underwater world with a mixture of almost lyrical visual pleasure and a run of technical terms to mind-boggle the uninitiated. She also reports some unnerving details: deepwater shrimp are disgustingly inedible, and Alvin, which is the size of two bathtubs, carries three people on its nine-hour hitches.
The Underground Homeless
of New York City
by Margaret Morton.
Yale, 160 pages, $45.00/$20.00.
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In the 1970s a two-and-a-half-mile railroad tunnel along New York's Hudson River frontage was abandoned. By 1991 more than fifty otherwise homeless people were living in that tunnel, where they had contrived the rough equivalent of a hunting and gathering society, self-supporting and unobtrusive. Amtrak, proposing to reactivate the tunnel, wanted them ousted. Before that happened, Ms. Morton managed to photograph the dwellings in the tunnel--which ranged from a bedroll on a ledge to rooms with furniture, stoves, bric-a-brac, and pets--and to interview some of the inhabitants. The interviews that accompany her striking photographs reveal stories of hard luck, unhappy marriage, poor judgment, and substance abuse, but they also reveal the impressive amount of energy, ingenuity, and plain grit required of loners who are surviving outside orthodox society. The tunnel people may not be sober nine-to-five types, but they are neither lazy nor stupid. They deserve respect as well as sympathy.
by Salman Rushdie.
Pantheon, 448 pages,
Mr. Rushdie's new novel is so intricate, so multi-faceted, and so fast-moving that it keeps the reader dizzily enthralled from beginning to end. It may also add a Hindu curse to the Islamic price on the author's head, for beneath the surface glitter of the tale lies a protest against the rise of chauvinistic Hindu fundamentalism and the dissolution of a once tolerant and flexible culture. The Moor of the title, who has nothing to do with Othello, is Moraes Zogoiby, the story's narrator. He is the last male survivor of two European families that flourished for centuries in the spice trade of the Malabar Coast. The Portuguese Da Gamas claim illegitimate descent from the great Vasco--improbably. The Jewish Zogoibys are suspected of descent, also illegitimate and improbable, from Boabdil, the last Sultan of Moorish Spain. The Da Gamas thrive on art, violence, and personal eccentricities of which walking a stuffed dog on a leash is a mild example. The Zogoibys remain largely offstage, but the activities of Moraes's father, Abraham, indicate a talent for finance, political intrigue, revenge, and dissimulation. The characters speak with a wild, crackling eloquence; comic, horrible, and fantastic events merge and conflict; and the history of modern India rumbles in the background. In addition to everything else, the work is enormously entertaining.
The Atlantic Monthly; February 1996; Volume 277, No. 2; pages 113-114.