Brief Reviews

River-Horse:
The Logbook of a Boat Across America

Mr. Heat-Moon's plan to cross the United States by boat required a series of friends as copilots, all referred to as Pilotis, a fiberglass C-Dory stripped down like a Viking war galley, and a mythical character known as the prudent mariner, whose advice usually took effect by hindsight. There was also a land-based tow wagon hauling a boat trailer for the unavoidable portages. The weather was good and bad, the water was easy or terrifying, the stopping points were canal ghost towns, active cities, historical sites (Mr. Heat-Moon has a fine taste for those), and one spooky island. The people met along the way ranged from dour lockkeepers to local literati. (Mr. Heat-Moon has a fine ear for telling speech and great skill in quick characterization.) The log of the Nikawa records a splendidly impractical adventure, which the reader is privileged to share.

Darkling I Listen

Writing of Keats's last days in Italy, Mr. Walsh does well by the loyal, long-suffering Joseph Severn, who accompanied Keats to Rome with no idea of the fatal ordeal to come, for the poet's illness had not yet been recognized as tuberculosis. The biographer includes details often overlooked by writers covering Keats's entire life, and these are not necessarily as important or as revealing as Mr. Walsh believes. He offers considerable information on the later life of Fanny Brawne, which was not, in terms of the period, particularly remarkable except for her marriage to a man a dozen years younger than she. What the author does not consider is the possibility that Keats's overwrought, neurotically possessive love letters to Fanny -- letters that should have caused a sensible young woman to break off the engagement -- were a symptom of his disease. Mr. Walsh makes claims of perceptive revelation that his text does not altogether support.

The Basque History of the World

Mr. Kurlansky began covering Basque affairs for the International Herald Tribune twenty-five years ago. He has the highest regard for Basques -- a people with a unique language, firm traditions, and a recognizable territory, but no country and no government. They have character, however, well illustrated a thousand years ago, when they had established a trade in salt-cured whale meat. They hunted whales in the Bay of Biscay, in small shore-based boats. Then came a Viking incursion. The Basques observed dried codfish (air-dried and as hard as a board) and superior shipbuilding technique. They adopted the technique and went north to codfish water. They applied their salt-cure method to the cod, and did great trade with the new product, whose descendant is still in grocery stores. By the time Mr. Kurlansky's lively, anecdotal, all-encompassing history of Basque ingenuity and achievement concludes, one is inclined to believe that all Spain would benefit if Basques were politely recruited to manage the country's finances and technology and otherwise left to do things their way on their home ground.

The Headless Bust

By Mr. Gorey's standards, this is an amiable work -- no hint of horrors offstage, and largely trifling troubles reported in casual verses. The subtitle may explain the author's purpose: "A Melancholy Meditation for the False Millennium." Possible translation: "A Weary Protest Against Pointless Excitement."

The Stupidest Things Ever Said by Politicians

This collection of inanities should be kept out of the hands of the mentally deficient, lest more of them be inspired to run for public office.

The Girls

The girls are four Jewish sisters separated by distance and position. Jenny, Ms. Yglesias's protagonist, is a well-controlled intellectual, a renegade who writes and lectures under a gentile pseudonym. When she gets a frantic appeal for help, she flies to Miami Beach prepared to do her best. She is eighty years old, the youngest of the four, and quickly gets into a noisy squabble with the next older sister. Flora is emotionally exuberant, lives in a purple apartment, dyes her hair crow-black, and provides comic entertainments at geriatric gatherings. The collision between Jenny and the garrulous Flora is funny and also sad, for their shared problem is the older sisters, both near death and needing care. As a study of spirit and courage in old age, the novel is acute and sympathetic. As a visitor's view of Miami Beach and its population of the lame, the deaf, and the wheelchaired, it is cruel. In its view of the affluent Orthodox disporting themselves in expensive wigs and miniature yarmulkes attached with bobby pins, it is downright venomous.

Dr. Seuss Goes to War

Geisel's Seuss signature (the "Dr." came later) began at Dartmouth, when he had a row with the authorities over bootleg booze. One of his German grandfathers had established a brewery in Springfield, Massachusetts, and young Theodor could hardly have been expected to take Prohibition seriously. After some cartooning for Judge he did advertising work ("Quick, Henry! The Flit!") and connected with the newspaper PM in 1941. PM could be infuriatingly self-righteous at times, but it was firmly anti-fascist and "against people who push other people around," two points that suited Geisel. His editorial cartoons appeared from 1941 to 1943, when he received an Army commission. The drawings, instantly recognizable in style, furiously attacked isolationists, appeasers, racists, Charles Lindbergh's America Firsters, Father Coughlin's anti-Semitism, dawdling politicians, indolent citizens, profiteers, and anyone else impeding the abolition of Hitler, Mussolini, and the Japanese war machine. Geisel later explained, "I was intemperate, unhumorous in my attacks . . . and I'd do it again." Mr. Minear's text gives solid context to the drawings resurrected in this collection. They were not entirely unhumorous. They were, and are, great cartooning.


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