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Books Brief Reviews

Illustration by Edel Rodriquez

by Phoebe-Lou Adams


The Red Rose Girls
by Alice A. Carter
Abrams, 216 pages, $39.95.

Anyone familiar with the finely illustrated books and magazines of the early 1900s will recognize the style of the Red Rose Girls. They were expert and successful illustrators. Their names were Jessie Willcox Smith, Elizabeth Shippen Green, and Violet Oakley. They met in Philadelphia, a city more hospitable than most to female art students, and in 1901 formed a cooperative community there in what had been the Red Rose Inn. It was a charming place, with grounds and gardens and space for independent studios, aged parents, and pets. The fourth, and senior, member of the group was Henrietta Cozens, a nonpainter who managed the establishment. The girls had personal styles and specialties and seldom collaborated, but they considered one another sisters and wrote gushingly affectionate letters when apart. By the time the group split, with Green's marriage in 1911, Havelock Ellis had issued warnings about lesbianism, and the communal life considered "charming, even noble" when the group began was viewed with derision and suspicion. Probably there was a lesbian element in their relationships, but it hardly matters now. Ms. Carter's account of the Red Roses provides interesting social history, quotations, and illustrations that recall excellent painting and beautiful books.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "Passion's Progress" (April 20, 2000)
Edna O'Brien talks about how her new book, Wild Decembers -- in which heartache is prefigured by a tractor -- fits in with her own "inner gnaw."


Wild Decembers
by Edna O'Brien.
Houghton Mifflin, 272 pages, $24.00.

Ms. O'Brien always writes well about her native Ireland. This novel is set in a mountainside town where good talk and civic gaiety mask old grudges and never-forgiven offenses. When an Irish-Australian who has inherited property arrives with the first tractor ever seen in the area, action is to be expected. The tractor is secondhand and subject to the vapors. The Australian has a fiancée in the Antipodes. The young woman on the nearest farm has an overprotective older brother. Trouble develops, but only after amusing events and the appearance of highly engaging locals. A sad novel, but fun to read.


Ravelstein
by Saul Bellow.
Viking, 240 pages, $24.95.

Mr. Bellow's Abe Ravelstein is a professor who has always lived beyond his means, usually at the expense of admirers and devoted students, while cultivating a network of such students holding high positions. He is a notable, respected influence behind many scenes. One never learns exactly where and how that influence operates. He has written a book on his educational theories and, to his surprise, has become a rich man. He recruits his friend Chick to write not exactly a biography but rather a memoir of his life. This is a strange request, because Chick is the older of the two by about twenty years. As Chick recounts the affair, the reader gets a prolonged character sketch and a great deal of talk before actual action emerges. This so-called novel is more a meditation on contrasting temperaments, contrasting principles, and death than it is a normal narrative.


Blue Angel
by Francine Prose.
HarperCollins, 314 pages, $25.00.

Ms. Prose writes with subtle, mischievous humor, but her novel concerns yet another middle-aged schoolmaster led astray by a female student. The student is scrawny, perforated for every variation of the nose ring, and distinctly daft -- all unusual qualities in this type of character and therefore to be commended. The theme itself is approaching the status of a cliché.


James Dickey
by Henry Hart.
Picador, 794 pages, $35.00.

Mr. Hart disapproves of Dickey's conduct, which was admittedly far from admirable even when the poet was sober, and also doubts the value of Dickey's later work, offering little evidence in support of that opinion. The result is a biography persistently derogatory in tone, crammed with picayune detail, and encumbered with every name the author can find to drop, no matter how irrelevant.


The Temple of Iconoclasts
by J. Rodolfo Wilcock,
translated by Lawrence Venuti.
Mercury House, 208 pages, $14.95.

The late J. Rodolfo Wilcock was born in Buenos Aires and belonged to the literary group surrounding Jorge Luis Borges. The connection shows, although Wilcock's short, obliquely satirical pieces lack Borges's depth of unnerving implication. Wilcock describes imaginary sciences and philosophies with deadpan sobriety and wild terminology. These inventions are individually piquant, but become surfeiting if swallowed in one gulp.


Ellet's Brigade
by Chester G. Hearn.
Louisiana State, 312 pages, $34.95.

Charles Ellet Jr., born in 1810, was a self-educated engineer and a notable builder of bridges when the outbreak of the Civil War diverted his attention to ships. He believed that unarmed (meaning without naval guns) rams could devastate the Confederate Navy on the Mississippi, and he persuaded Edwin M. Stanton, Lincoln's Secretary of War, to authorize the construction of a ram fleet. The rams were not attached to the Navy or to the Army, neither of which knew quite what to do with them. Reinforced river steamboats, they were largely crewed by civilians, officered by Ellet's sons, nephews, cousins, and in-laws, commanded by Ellet and after his death by his brother, and answerable only to the Secretary of War. Though the rams were a queer lot, they were faster and more maneuverable than proper ships, and they did some very good service before the unit was disbanded, in 1864. Mr. Hearn's style is utilitarian, but the strange story he has to tell will certainly please Civil War buffs.


The Truth About the Irish
by Terry Eagleton.
St. Martin's, 192 pages, $18.95.

Mr. Eagleton, repudiating donkeys and leprechauns, offers his version of "Romantic Ireland's dead and gone." It is designed to be both funny and informative, and it is just that.


The Sagas of Icelanders
with a preface by Jane Smiley
and an introduction by Robert Kellogg.
Viking, 848 pages, $40.00.

As Ms. Smiley puts it in her helpful preface to this collection of tales, the world of the medieval sagas is "both intensely familiar and intensely strange." The tales are also varied, from long to short and from realistic to eerie. The translations are into straightforward modern English, with none of the inappropriate archaisms of some nineteenth-century versions. The saga writers told things straight, and their method still works.


Hair: Public, Political, Extremely Personal
by Diane Simon.
St. Martin's, 256 pages, $23.95.

Ms. Simon became curious about hair because she was dissatisfied with her own. The hair question led her from African braiders (threatened with licensing problems) to Orthodox Jewish wigs (highly profitable but causing family arguments) to baldness corrections (worrisome choices) to depilatories and the problems of male transvestites. The report is factual, anecdotal, and often amusing. Ms. Simon does not attempt to account for the human habit, seemingly worldwide, of obsessively fussing over whatever pelage is available.


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

Illustration by Edel Rodriquez.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; May 2000; Brief Reviews - 00.05; Volume 285, No. 5; page 128-130.