Brief Reviews


by Pheobe-Lou Adams

Anatomy of Restlessness

Bruce Chatwin, best known as a superb travel writer, on occasion wrote book reviews, essays, stories, and articles. Those collected here reveal a quirky wit, an inclination to beat sacred cows, and a stupefying range of information. A piece called "The Morality of Things" jumps from Jeremiah to chimpanzees and proceeds through Freud, the Grail Quest, Proust, museum collections, fetishism, Marx, animal behaviorists, and the sexing of things, although "one cannot with certainty predict the sex of, say, the sun. . . . For the Rwala Bedouin of Arabia the sun is a mean and destructive old hag, who forces the handsome moon to sleep with her once a month, and so exhausts him that he needs another month to recover."

The Gettin Place

If they were white, instead of a mixture of Mexican and African-American, Ms. Straight's characters would be a family of industrious bourgeois trying to hold their own against urban developers and historical preservationists. This is not intended as a derogatory judgment. The underlying point of Ms. Straight's intricately plotted, exciting, infuriating novel is the degree of efficiency and energy lost to society when people like the Thompsons are mistrusted by the police and abused by the law. It is a painful story, violent, ultimately sinister, and most expertly written.

The Journal of
Antonio Montoya

Mr. Collignon's novel interweaves intriguing ideas on the relation between art and religion and between family history and family solidarity, doing this obliquely through a story in which half the characters are charming, amiably meddlesome ghosts. This is a distinctive and appealing first novel.

With Custer on
the Little Bighorn

William Taylor enlisted in the Army in 1872, at the age of seventeen. He wound up in the 7th Cavalry, under George A. Custer, and survived the Little Bighorn because he was among the troops commanded by Marcus Reno at that disastrous battle. He was discharged from the Army in 1877, for failing health, and during the rest of his life collected information about Custer's defeat and wrote his own account of the episode. His notes and manuscript, bounced from hand to hand, have finally surfaced for publication. Taylor was observant at the time, did sound research later, and wrote well. About the Sioux he reflected, "They seemed to us, in all their hideousness of paint and feathers, and wild fierce cries, like fiends incarnate, but were they?"--for he was well aware of the broken treaties that provoked the Indian militance. No one who values American history should overlook Taylor's contribution.

Charles Rennie

Mackintosh (1868-1928) was and remains the most notable figure of what was known at the turn of the century as the Glasgow School--architect, decorator, graphic artist, painter, and furniture designer. He created chairs with extravagantly high backs that were useless for fending off drafts, and these elegantly inconsistent objects can be seen as a summary of his style--a combination of the attenuated and the opulent, the grimly austere and the lushly romantic. The various essays in this splendidly illustrated study of his work cover its relation to the character of Glasgow, its somewhat tenuous connections to other aesthetic developments of the period, and the contributions of Mackintosh's wife and associates to the energetic artistic activity of their city. Mackintosh was remarkable for more than original vision: The Hill House, with a façade as grim as a broch and an interior full of fairy-castle glitter, came in under budget.

Kandinsky and
The Blue Rider

The authors begin the history of The Blue Rider in 1911, when Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc resigned from the New Association of Munich Artists, an organization of innovative artists founded only two years earlier under Kandinsky's leadership. The dissidents' next project was the publication of The Blue Rider, designed to be a journal on the arts "with contributions written exclusively by artists" and inspired by "a shared faith in a spiritual renewal of our civilisation." The editorial staff consisted of Kandinsky and Marc. The contributors ranged from the distinguished to the obscure. The illustrations juxtaposed advanced contemporary work and antique folk art. The financing was annoying--at least to the editors--and the politicking over contributors was intricate. The eventual publication was a striking success and appeared to justify Kandinsky's idealistic anticipation of an art that would override nationality and frontiers and reach "simply humanity." Then came the First World War, and the first Blue Rider remained the last. The authors have done admirably in describing the associates of Kandinsky and Marc, the large number of people involved in the enterprise, and the alliances and hostilities that agitated the contentious art world of the time. The book ably re-creates a herd of highly interesting mavericks. It also has excellent illustrations.

Not Much Fun:
The Lost Poems of
Dorothy Parker

Mr. Silverstein's introduction provides as much as one needs to know about Parker, and does it briskly and capably. (The inevitable Parker anecdotes and quotations are wisely confined to footnotes, where they do not create direct competition.) As to the "lost" poems, they are those, mostly early, that Parker did not see fit to include in any collection--probably because they frequently foreshadow more-polished later versions of the same tartly irreverent notions. Parker herself once described her verse (she rejected the status of poet) as "horribly dated--as anything once fashionable is dreadful now." These poems (oops -- verses) are very far from dreadful. If many arouse a sense of déjà vu, some retain their original snap.

Already he is hailed as great
By cultural minorities,
For all his works have been, to date,
Suppressed by the authorities.

Our literati have confessed
Nothing succeeds like the suppressed.

Recent books by Atlantic authors:

Sahara Unveiled: A Journey Across the Desert,. Pantheon, 352 pages, $24.00. Langewiesche is an Atlantic contributing editor. This book grew out of his November, 1991, cover story, "The World in Its Extreme." (For more on William Langewiesche's travels in the Sahara, see our current feature The Desert Extreme.)

The Price of a Dream: The Story of the Grameen Bank and the Idea That Is Helping the Poor to Change Their Lives,. Simon &Schuster, 370 pages, $25.00. David Bornstein's article "The Barefoot Bank With Cheek," about the Grameen Bank, was published in the December, 1995, Atlantic.

Mona in the Promised Land,. A portion of this novel first appeared as the short story "What Means Switch" in the May, 1990, Atlantic.

The Bride Wore Red,. Bridge Works, 216 pages, $19.95. "Grace," a story in this collection, first appeared in the August, 1991, Atlantic.

The Atlantic Monthly; September 1996; Brief Reviews; Volume 278, No. 3; pages 112-114.

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