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Books Brief Reviews



by Phoebe-Lou Adams


The Ice Finders
by Edmund Blair Bolles.
Counterpoint, 257 pages, $24.00.

As Mr. Bolles points out, the Ice Age is today so well established as historical fact that it is difficult to accept its origins as a crackpot theory with which a previously respectable scientist disgraced himself and reduced a gathering of colleagues to unseemly uproar. The young Louis Agassiz, well regarded for studies of fossil fish, confounded fellow geologists by proposing that all Europe had once been engulfed by a monstrous glacier. Men accustomed to glaciers that stay put on Swiss mountains found the notion of a mile-thick, continent-wide tide of ice impossibly fantastic. The arguments dragged on for years. Agassiz made converts, but the influential Scottish geologist Charles Lyell was for a while a stubborn opponent. Agassiz's case depended on the application of common sense to meticulously observed physical evidence, and that evidence did not include a monstrous glacier. The case was finally settled, backhandedly, by Elisha Kent Kane, of the U.S. Navy. He was vainly looking for the lost expedition of Sir John Franklin, but he went farther north than anyone had previously done, observed the Greenland ice sheet, named the Humboldt glacier, and returned to publish an account of what he had seen, complete with illustrations (military officers were expected to be good draftsmen in those pre-camera days) -- and there was Agassiz's glacier. Mr. Bolles's account of the long dispute is consistently interesting for his description of the participants and their various alliances, whimsies, and jealousies, for the grim ordeal of Kane's party, and for the author's style, which is peppery and sometimes startlingly eloquent. The Greenland glacier "was there in front of Kane, prowling across the earth, as unexpected by science as was the first dinosaur bone."

More on books in The Atlantic Monthly and Atlantic Unbound.

Each highlighted book title can be ordered from Amazon.com.

Browse an anthology of Brief Reviews by Phoebe-Lou Adams


Voyage to the North Star
by Peter Nichols.
Carroll & Graf, 352 pages, $24.00.

Mr. Nichols loves ships and respects the sea. He despises trophy hunters and wealthy irresponsibles. His novel begins with a self-made millionaire in the 1930s, a man confident that his money, untouched by the depression raging across the country, enables him to do whatever he fancies. He fancies a quick, comfortable arctic safari from which he will return with the greatest collection of specimens ever to dazzle the Explorers Club. He has an exceptionally fast ship, a captain late of the British navy, a French chef, a black butler to serve cocktails, a variety of first-class guns with equivalent ammunition, all hands outfitted by Abercrombie & Fitch, and a box of dynamite to control inconvenient icebergs. What can possibly go wrong?There are three men aboard who know what can go wrong. Their efforts to fend off disaster lead to an ironic conclusion, as savagely unjust as the depression that provides the story's overall backdrop. This is not a pleasant novel, but it is admirably written and exciting all the way.


The New Sweet Style
by Vassily Aksyonov,
translated by Christopher Morris.
Random House, 496 pages, $29.95.

The hero of Mr. Aksyonov's novel is Alexander Korbach, known as Sasha, a wildly versatile performer and impresario driven from the Soviet Union for irreverent indifference to the principles of socialist realism. He arrives in the United States, where practically nobody has ever heard of him, and scrabbles a catch-as-catch-can living. The situation enables the author, himself a Soviet refugee, to describe aspects of American society from a wry alien perspective. At the same time, the tale celebrates the endurance of Jewish traditions and family connections, for Sasha finds American kinsmen and ultimately a rather astounding ancestor. Mr. Aksyonov's style is idiosyncratic, surprising, and witty, if at times a bit overflirtatious with the reader. That excess is forgivable in a novel of wide range and generous invention.


Hunting Badger
by Tony Hillerman.
HarperCollins, 275 pages, $26.00.

The latest of Mr. Hillerman's Navajo police mysteries derives from his exasperation with the Federal Bureau of Ineptitude, which recently conducted a manhunt in his area by bringing in city agents to flounder in strange canyons while local police officers familiar with the territory sat at roadblocks. That practical connection aside, Mr. Hillerman provides his usual fine descriptions of weather and scenery, his usual deceptive plot, and the always engaging characters of Leaphorn and Chee.


Dreams and Destinies
by Marguerite Yourcenar,
translated by Donald Flanell Friedman.
St. Martin's, 126 pages, $21.95.

As Yourcenar explained, and Mr. Friedman's introduction repeats at scholarly length, the distinguished French novelist recorded certain persistent dreams as a substitute for the autobiography that she chose not to write. They are intriguing dreams, irrational but coherent, frequently suggesting scenes from unwritten novels. The contemporary circumstances of the dreamer's waking life are, except for the bald fact of an unhappy love affair, never mentioned. Settings are precisely described; so are persons. The writing is always elegant. The reader can certainly enjoy and admire this strange work, but must take personal responsibility for any biographical information derived from it.


A House for My Mother
by Beth Dunlop.
Princeton Architectural Press,
192 pages, $34.95.

If a young architect has reasonably affluent parents, his first commission is likely to be a house for those parents. Ms. Dunlop surveys twenty-five such houses, all of them handsome, ranging in style from solidly conventional to modestly eccentric. The photographed rooms have the sleek, uninhabited look characteristic of their genre, in which the appearance of an overflowing wastebasket or an unmade bed would be equivalent to an earthquake. The most interesting example reported is the case of a woman who wanted a tower. Given a mountainside locale, her son created a house semi-underground. The woman had to try again, with a beach site, to get her elevation.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "America the Irrational," (November 3, 1999)
Wendy Kaminer, the author of Sleeping With Extra-Terrestrials, sees a disturbing decline of reason in our public life.

Interviews: "A Cold, Comic Heart," (October 20, 1999)
Leslie Epstein, the author of the new novel Ice Fire Water, talks about Hollywood, the Holocaust, and why his critics are nuts.

Recent books by Atlantic authors:

The Women Who Wrote the War by Nancy Caldwell Sorel. Arcade, 458 pages, $27.95. Nancy Caldwell Sorel for many years wrote the Atlantic feature "First Encounters," which was illustrated by her husband, Edward Sorel.

Sleeping With Extraterrestrials: The Rise of Irrationalism and Perils of Piety by Wendy Kaminer. Pantheon, 279 pages, $24.00. Wendy Kaminer is a contributing editor of The Atlantic.

Ice Fire Water: A Leib Goldkorn Cocktail by Leslie Epstein. Norton, 288 pages, $23.95. Leslie Epstein's fiction has appeared in The Atlantic.


Phoebe-Lou Adams has written her Atlantic book column, under a variety of titles, since 1952.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; January 2000; Brief Reviews - 00.01; Volume 285, No. 1; page 128-130.