Brief Reviews



Waiting to Fly: Escapades With the Penguins of Antartica


Mr. Naveen is the founder of an organization designed to raise public awareness of marine resources and the project director of the Antarctic Site Inventory. He counts penguins. It is thought that an ongoing census of penguin populations may provide useful information on climate changes. In any case, Mr. Naveen loves and admires his birds, which consist of gentoos (fairly easy to study because a bit timid), Adélies (livelier), and chinstraps (plain belligerent). They are all described as brushtailed. The tails are helpful in counting eggs, which remains a hilariously risky business for the snooping naturalist. Mr. Naveen does very well indeed in describing the charm of penguins, the beauty of the Antarctic, the strange magic of the area, and the doings (which are sometimes close to demented) of the many explorers who have worked there. He also repeats information, throws in needless autobiography, rivals Mrs. Malaprop in his indifference to the dictionary, and occasionally attempts literary elegance. It may be a bit churlish to mention these deficiencies, but they do get in the way of all his good information and of his fine and funny penguins.


Werewolves in Their Youth


Mr. Chabon's short stories center on men who are having trouble with women, money, or their own ineptitude. The tales are not monotonous, because the troubles are as varied as the victims. The misfit young werewolves are genuinely sinister. The overcautious young husband merits sympathy along with chuckles. The case of the psychologist who is writing a book of advice for parents but cannot cope with his tantrum-prone small daughter is neat comic satire. The final story is an imitation of H. P. Lovecraft but not irrelevant to the author's theme of male subjugation. Mr. Chabon's boys are a sad lot, but he plays fair. His girls are no bargain either.


More Bread or I'll Appear


Ms. Martin's inventive control of incident, her ability to create eccentric characters who are also convincing, and her acerbic, obliquely comic style steadily divert the reader. They also delay the realization that her novel is either a black comedy or a lament about the combination of Ireland's history and modern condition which produces a lunatic in every family's attic. The children of Ms. Martin's sample family are brought up on "television, history, and the church; death as entertainment, death as catalyst, death as salvation." They scatter about the world, surviving some amazing adventures on the way, but the bitter heritage remains.


Duke Hamilton Is Dead!


The fourth Duke of Hamilton was Scottish and a Tory -- more or less. The fourth Baron Mohun was Cornish and a Whig. Both were ambitious, well-known politicians and, like most of their peers, heavily in debt. Through family marriages, both had inheritance claims to a valuable estate. On the morning of November 15, 1712, they duelled in Hyde Park. It was no first blood, honor satisfied affair. They fought to kill, and both succeeded. Lady Mohun was annoyed because her husband's bloody corpse damaged a bedspread. Lady Hamilton fled the dank ancestral stronghold to become a social ornament in London. The inheritance row continued to drift "upon the sluggish waters of the Court of Chancery." To the country at large, the affair was a symptom of the bitter quarrel over who was to succeed the ailing Queen Anne. Mr. Stater approaches the case from that point of view, providing an interesting and informative study of a period when changing social and financial patterns made politics a truly dangerous game. The story includes much anecdote, savage journalism, and characters ranging from a polished Irish scalawag to Peter the Great.


Controversies and Commanders


The "Dispatches From the Army of the Potomac" that Mr. Sears briskly discusses in this selective history of the Civil War are, on the whole, deplorable episodes involving professional rivalry, self-serving chicanery, and plain lies. A defense of "Fighting Joe" Hooker comes as welcome variety. As the author puts it, "It was a rare moment indeed when the generals of the Union's principal army marched in step, or even in the same direction." Robert E. Lee had reason to be grateful for those men. The Union dead did not.


The Mummies of Ürümchi


Ms. Barber is a widely known expert on ancient textiles. She begins her study of mummies that have been found in the Tarim Basin, in Central Asia, with a man buried around 1000 B.C. at Cherchen, on the southern rim of the Silk Road. He was six feet six inches tall, with light-brown hair, round eye sockets, a high-bridged nose, and a lush beard -- neatly trimmed. He was an unquestionably Caucasian type in an area long thought to have been inhabited exclusively by Mongols -- and there are many similar mummies, dressed in colorful woolen clothes, leather footgear, and a variety of felt bonnets. They did not have metal or pottery grave goods -- only cloth, baskets, and small bunches of ephedra twigs. As Ms. Barber points out, the absence of metal and pottery may mean merely that such items were ritually unsuitable. The attempt to identify those long-gone people leads Ms. Barber from weaving patterns to the history of languages to the development of woolly sheep to climate changes to the records of early Chinese administrators and early modern explorers. Apart from arousing curiosity about the presence so far to the east of people who probably spoke a relative of Celtic, the book is a splendid illustration of the variety of disciplines involved in archaeological research. It is also full of odd bits of information, such as the proprietary instincts of archaeologists, who become so possessive about the subjects of their study that they will defend people who have been dead for 3,000 years from any accusation of incompetence.


Suzanne Valadon: The Mistress of Montmartre


Valadon, growing up poor in nineteenth-century Paris, became an artists' model in her teens. She worked for anyone and everyone, posing for Puvis de Chavannes's ethereal nymphs and Renoir's luscious popsies. She taught herself to draw and eventually to paint, with advice and encouragement from Dégas and Toulouse-Lautrec. She drew with a firm line and a total lack of sentimentality, which limited her sales to the discriminating few. She made no concessions to what was considered, even in her bohemian world, proper female behavior or suitable female subject matter. Her son (father unknown, a claim possibly genuine for once) became the painter Maurice Utrillo. She led an amazing life, supplying her biographer with a mass of anecdote and gossip, an exhilarating assemblage of associates, and the most exciting milieu in the history of Western art. Ms. Rose makes admirable use of the splendid material she has to work with.

Presented by

The 86-Year-Old Farmer Who Won't Quit

A filmmaker returns to his hometown to profile the patriarch of a family farm

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The 86-Year-Old Farmer Who Won't Quit

A filmmaker returns to his hometown to profile the patriarch of a family farm

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

Video

An Ingenious 360-Degree Time-Lapse

Watch the world become a cartoonishly small playground

Video

The Benefits of Living Alone on a Mountain

"You really have to love solitary time by yourself."

More in Entertainment

Just In