Brief Reviews

Genuine Reality:
A Life of William James


It takes some time for Ms. Simon to get to her subject, because William the philosopher, Henry the novelist, and their three sad siblings were products of an upbringing by Henry James Sr., an unsuccessful aspirant to the status of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Henry Sr., inconsistent in his thinking and his actions, was an eccentric who requires space to explain, and the biographer rightly gives it to him. When she reaches William, the text is no less interesting, for her subject battled ill health, shyness, and a series of false starts before discovering his abilities as a thinker and a psychological innovator. He quickly earned respect for his ambition to "have settled the Universe's hash," but his own condition was a permanent problem. As an inquisitive and open-minded investigator, he would try anything, from European spas and local "mind cures" to injections of goat's lymph and now-illegal substances similar to opium. Ms. Simon has a wealth of good material to discuss or to quote -- James's letters to family and friends are witty, candid, and often mischievous -- and she describes his shifts in philosophical thinking lucidly. He was a remarkable man with ideas in advance of his own time and still in the forefront.

The Road to Ubar:
Finding the Atlantis of the Sands


Mr. Clapp was making a documentary film about the reinstatement of oryxes in Oman when he and his wife got a first, limited view of Arabia's Empty Quarter. They were fascinated. The need for an excuse to return led Mr. Clapp into research that turned up the city of Ubar -- rich, wicked, and destroyed by Allah for its sins. Legendary -- or was it? It took years of study, the collecting of allies, help from NASA, preliminary investigation by helicopter, miscellaneous contributions, and the support of the Sultan of Oman to get the final expedition assembled. Three vehicles bucketed off into the waste of sand that had defeated all previous searches, and found Ubar. Although the reader knows from the start that the city was found, and excavated, the story Mr. Clapp tells is an engaging blend of humor, suspense, mundane difficulties, and exotic detail. "Weeks later, a courteous yet understandably skeptical American Express agent allowed that losing-one's-checks-while-paying-a-ransom-for-goats-frightened-to-death was surely the most unusual explanation he had ever heard."
Tales of the Night

Mr. Høeg's short stories are full of echoes, full of ideas, and cover so much ground and so many aspects of life that about all a reviewer can safely report of them is that the date 1929 appears often, distinguished scientists and scholars hover on the periphery, and events never proceed as the reader expects. In short, they are splendid stories and not to be missed by anyone who enjoys elegant writing and intellectual vigor.
Snow

Ms. Howie has the true storyteller's ability to command a reader's attention with the first paragraph. Her narrator is a woman of thirty whose affairs -- mental, physical, marital, and financial -- can all be filed under M for Mess. In desperation she packs up her two cats and heads north looking for snow. Snow becomes fantasy. One of the cats talks. A stupid and surly bear appears, along with images from the woman's past. At that point the author loses control of her psychotherapeutic parable; redundancy sets in, and with it boredom. This is a first novel, however, and the writer is worth watching.
The "Divine" Guido

The author is a professor of art history with an unusual approach to his subject, Guido Reni (1575-1642). He discusses the interlocking effects of "Religion, Sex, Money and Art" in the work of a painter who was violently pious, an addicted gambler always greedy for money, a believer in witchcraft, a homosexual by inclination (not necessarily by practice), and a man very testy about his social status. Not an attractive figure. The author attempts to sort out how much of Reni's conduct is attributable to ideas common at the time and how much can be considered the painter's personal invention. The discussion is most interesting when the author concentrates on his own reading of Reni's work (excellently illustrated) and his interpretation of Reni's actions, less so when he depends on outside authorities -- for it seems that Professor Spear has never met a quotation he didn't like.

Recent books by Atlantic authors:

Under the Red Flag One of the stories in this collection, "Resurrection," first appeared in The Atlantic.


The Atlantic Monthly; March 1998; Brief Reviews; Volume 281, No. 3; pages 116-118.


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