Brief Reviews--June 1997

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From Nineveh to
New York

Austen Henry Layard, a young Englishman with more pedigree than money, was poking about the Middle East when, in 1845, he discovered the remains of Nineveh and organized its excavation. Assyrian art was an astounding and disconcerting revelation to midcentury Britain. Layard was a relative of Lady Charlotte Guest, the daughter of an earl and the wife of Sir John Guest, a magnate in the iron business. Lady Charlotte took to Assyrian art at once and with enthusiasm. By means that today would be considered highly improper (and that did raise a few Victorian eyebrows), she procured enough Assyrian sculpture and artifacts to add a "Nineveh Porch" to the Guest estate of Canford Manor. The porch was a wild mixture of Victorian Gothic taste and modified Assyrian motifs. The antiquities were real -- a most extraordinary collection to have been in private hands. The pieces were eventually dispersed, hawked about by an art dealer, and flirted with by several museums; they wound up in the Metropolitan as a gift from John D. Rockefeller Jr. Display space was always a problem. At one point it seemed that "these marbles, which began their Western career in the Canford stable, might spend the remainder of their days in the Metropolitan's garage." (Under plastic, because the roof leaked.) Mr. Russell writes with unpretentious efficiency, seldom revealing his own opinion of the events he reports, which involve aesthetic theory, social wire-pulling, religious misinterpretation, and a number of interesting people -- beginning with Lady Charlotte, who had a weakness for young men on the make. It is a truly remarkable story.




The Gospel
According to the Son

Mr. Mailer told one of his publisher's editors, "Novelists are supposed to look into the eye of the tiger," and certainly a life of Jesus related by Jesus himself is a daring enterprise. The result, however, is not particularly surprising. Mr. Mailer presents a good man, who does indeed hear divine instructions and advice, whose miracles are genuine (and also exhausting), and who loses his temper, contradicts himself, worries about the source of his power, and fears for the future of his people and the movement he has started. What is missing in this reasonable character is any hint of the magnetically persuasive preacher that Jesus must have been. Satan and Judas have considerably more energy, probably because Mr. Mailer had less Scripture and therefore more freedom in imagining them. One can hardly hold this against the author: Milton had similar trouble. Satan is a great scene stealer.


Lawyerland

Mr. Joseph, once a lawyer himself, persuaded attorneys and one judge to talk about the profession. It may be the interview format, which records words but not timing or tone of voice, that makes these people seem pointlessly belligerent, fond of spiteful gossip, and very protective of their tails. They create a general atmosphere of discontent, but one does not learn anything definite about the law in their company.


Doo- Dah!
Stephen Foster and
the Rise of American
Popular Culture

As everyone surely knows, Stephen Foster (1826-1864) was a prolific composer of American popular songs that spread around the world. Bayard Taylor (1825-1878) heard "Oh! Susanna" sung in Hindi in Delhi. Foster's songs were irresistible. Foster himself was a feckless drunk who managed to be paid very poorly for his music at a time when other popular composers prospered. Mr. Emerson covers the rise of American popular culture as well as Foster's sad career, and does it well. He describes the development of the minstrel show, the interweaving of African and European musical traditions, the erratic effects of racism, the influence of imports like Jenny Lind, and the devious methods of publishers. It is all thoroughly interesting.


From the Outer
World

In their thorough and lucid introduction to this collection of travel reports, the Handlins describe perceptions of and attitudes toward the United States in non-European countries. The visitors' observations that constitute the body of the book vary widely in point of origin and point of view. A few are by well-known authors -- Rabindranath Tagore, Octavio Paz. Most are by journalists or students or diplomats. These travelers observed racism, economic disparity, poor school systems, and a number of other regrettable but familiar deficiencies. They occasionally found something to admire. What holds a reader's attention, providing occasional surprises and even amusement, is the way a particular writer views his material and the relationship of that view to his personal background. Travelers, whether they want to or not, carry their own countries with them, and some of the countries one encounters in this collection are decidedly engaging.


Mexican Hat

Mr. McGarrity is a skillful writer who weaves an intricate plot about misdoings in the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico. The mystery starts with a crime as old as poaching and ends with one as contemporary as today's headlines.


Dawn of Art:
The Chauvet Cave

The Chauvet Cave was found in 1994, and has been identified as the oldest painted cave yet found anywhere, with artwork more sophisticated than that of later date, and depictions of animals not seen elsewhere. The three discoverers provide a spirited account of their excitement and delight on opening the amazing cavern. Handsome photographs present a very small sampling of the paintings. This book, published promptly in 1996, is being repromoted because it is unlikely that anything more will emerge from Chauvet for some time to come. The French government has, as usual, assumed possession of the cave to ensure its protection and careful study. The landowners affected by the procedure do not agree on their property lines but do agree that the compensation offered them by the authorities is inadequate. The triangular row is now in the courts. As Jean Clottes, the president of the International Committee on Monuments and Sites, observes in his epilogue to this beautiful and frustrating book, "If it has waited for thirty thousand years, what are a few years more?"

Recent books by Atlantic authors:

Glued to the Set: The 60 Television Shows and Events That Made Us Who We Are Today Stark is a regular contributor to The Atlantic, and portions of this book were originally published in these pages.






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