Brief Reviews



In Search
of Planet Vulcan



Readers unversed in astronomy should not be put off by the technical terms that necessarily flourish in this account of scientific wild-goose chasing, for they do not in the least obscure a fine tale full of eccentric characters and odd coincidences. The hypothetical planet Vulcan, lying between Mercury and the Sun, is the only possible means of accounting for Mercury's peculiar orbit under the Newtonian system, and such a planet could, presumably, best be detected during a total eclipse. Years of futile study, professional rivalry, alleged sightings, and acrimonious debate preceded the eclipse of July 29, 1878, when the Moon's shadow would "arc across the vast western United States" from Yellowstone to the Gulf of Mexico. Every astronomer worth his telescope was posted in a hole or on a height along that line. Even Thomas Edison was there, ensconced in a chicken coop to keep the pervasive dust from deranging the invention that he hoped would measure the temperature of the Sun's corona. It did. The astronomers were less fortunate. Vulcan remained invisible except to James Craig Watson, of Ann Arbor (an impassioned Vulcanite), and one dubiously reliable amateur. The affair produced a thundering row and language unsuited to the dignity of science, for it put a spanner in the works of Newton's clockwork universe. Mr. Baum and Mr. Sheehan tell the complicated story very well indeed, providing sharp background detail and a certain amount of deadpan humor. They reveal a world unknown except to stargazers.

Apocryphal Tales



Mr. Capek's "fables and would-be tales" are suavely savage satires on political practices and human characters -- the characters being historical or mythical worthies (Pilate, Don Juan), the political practices universally recognizable. The pieces are individually clever and thoughtful, and should be absorbed in small doses. Taken all at once, the bitter flavor becomes monotonous.


The White Tecumseh



Professor Hirshson believes that William Tecumseh Sherman's greatest talent as a military commander was his ability to move troops over long distances while keeping control of a dangerously extended supply line. This opinion has not prevented the author from creating a lively biography of a man who becomes steadily more interesting as his story unfolds. Sherman was no stolid war machine. He was subject to fits of paranoia and spasms of unjustified optimism. He was usually right, but his mistakes were doozies. He wrote acidly amusing letters to his family (a large and politically influential clan), who responded in kind, and quotations from Sherman's private correspondence give the text an unmilitary sparkle. So do peripheral episodes culled from contemporary memoirs. During a truce Colonel Samuel Lockett, the chief engineer of the Vicksburg defenses, went snooping to observe the Union formation. He was collected by Sherman, who gave him letters from Northerners with friends in the besieged city. "The general then invited Lockett to sit with him on a nearby log, where each praised the engineering work of the opposing army." Lockett was so captivated by the conversation that he forgot what he had come there to do. Battles and campaigns are, of course, well and thoroughly described, but the accompanying maps are too small to be of much use.


The New Life



Mr. Pamuk's witty, elegant novel opens with an epigraph from Novalis: "The others experienced nothing like it even though they heard the same tales." This is a warning. Every reader is invited to make his own experience out of an ironic, fantastic tale of picaresque wanderings by bus around Turkey. There are elements of the macabre, the burlesque, the nostalgic, and the lyrical, and underlying them all is the implication that spiritual values are incompatible with the secular society created by Atatürk, whose image is as ubiquitous as Big Brother's. There is also the implication that spiritual values are a delusion of youth. However one chooses to see this teasing, multifaceted work, it provides stimulating reading.


The Bacon Fancier



Mr. Isler's four stories are set in Renaissance Venice, in late-eighteenth-century England, aboard a Victorian ocean liner, and in modern New York. They all concern Jews who wish simply to get on peacefully in a gentile world, and who on the whole succeed, but not without encountering prejudice, interference, and female goyim. The stories are slyly amusing, shrewd in social understanding and period detail, and rich in literary reference. They are a pleasure to read.


The Names of Things



The author's great-grandfather allegedly "knew seven dead languages," so Ms. Morrow's love of words and her enthusiasm for tracing their origins and connections may be inherited. She also has a painter's eye for color and a good traveler's knack of finding, and adroitly describing, engaging people wherever she goes. These qualities make her account of zigzag journeys through the Egyptian desert, into the Sudan, and along the shores of the Red Sea like nothing one has read before. The continuity is sporadic; the sights, sounds, and sensibility are unique and magical.


The Spoils
of War




Looting may not have caused the first war (whenever in the mists of prehistory that occurred), but it has flourished in all known wars, and the Second World War was no exception. Works of art disappeared all across Europe, and thousands remain unaccounted for. As Lynn H. Nicholas puts it in her contribution to this book, items "were confiscated by governments, stolen by individuals, sold willingly or under duress, bartered for food, or simply hidden, forgotten, and randomly moved from place to place." Even when objects are found, determining legal ownership, combating various statutes of limitation, and locating heirs of deceased owners can cause interminable delays. This account of the situation begins with essays by scholars from various countries, summarizing what their national losses are. The scholarly pieces are followed by reports from people who collected stolen art at the end of the war or have tracked it down since. Their accounts are colloquial and sometimes peppery -- good reading, and calculated to arouse sympathy for all the experts now contending with the enormous problems of who stole what, where it may be lurking, and who really owns it.






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