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Books Brief Reviews

Illustration by Scott Laumann

by Phoebe-Lou Adams


They Drew Fire:
Combat Artists of World War II

by Brian Lanker and Nicole Newnham.
TV Books/HarperCollins,
192 pages, $39.95.

There was so much photographic coverage of World War II, and it was so promptly and efficiently distributed, that combat artists received little attention. But they were there, many of them, maintained by all the service branches. They did good work, and the authorities had their pick of it. Most of it, therefore, lurks in official hands, carefully preserved but not offered to the public. This book is a revelation. It includes interviews with artists still living, several of whom were much surprised that anyone should be taking an interest in what they did so long ago. There were no rules for the artists, no prohibitions, no demands for prettification. Subject matter ranged from card games to piles of corpses, and technique from grim realism to stylized fog. Photographers usually counted as war correspondents. The artists served with the military. The human eye, and hand, and sensibility, give their record impressive power.


The Settlement of the Americas
by Thomas D. Dillehay.
Basic, 392 pages, $27.50.
Web Only: Uncommon Reader
An interview with Phoebe-Lou Adams, whose last column appears in this issue, and a sampling of five decades of her Brief Reviews.

More on books in The Atlantic Monthly and Atlantic Unbound.

Browse an anthology of Brief Reviews by Phoebe-Lou Adams

From the archives:

"The Diffusionists Have Landed," by Marc K. Stengel (January, 2000)
You've probably heard of those crackpot theories about ancient Phoenicians or Chinese in the New World. Maybe it's time to start paying attention.

Mr. Dillehay is campaigning against what he calls the Clovis model, the widely accepted theory that the Americas were first populated by nomadic hunters who used stone weapons of distinctive design, known as Clovis points. These big-game hunters supposedly advanced from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego in roughly 500 years, exterminating wildlife all the way. Clovis proponents have dominated North American archaeological circles for years. Meanwhile, South American archaeologists have examined a number of sites yielding earlier dates, different tools, and suggestions of as much gathering as hunting. A case of this type requires evidence. Mr. Dillehay provides it, moving soberly from dig to dig, enumerating non-Clovis discoveries. His style is utilitarian, suggesting the scraped-bare landscape of an archaeological excavation. There are few illustrations. This is a work designed for readers seriously interested in the question of who got here first.


The Vanishing American Outhouse
by Ronald S. Barlow.
Viking Studio, 142 pages, $19.95.

The outhouse, backhouse, privy, loo, with similar titles ad infinitum, was once ubiquitous, there being no substitute for it. It deserves commemoration. Mr. Barlow has collected photographs of elegant historical examples (a circular brick structure, meant to be bear-proof) and decaying shanties. He includes plans for the "sanitary privies" that were instituted by FDR in the hope of improving rural conditions during the Depression, bits of poetry (suitably bad), and old postcards (suitably simple-minded). There is considerable information about the actor Chic Sale and his best-selling small book The Specialist. Outhouses are a subject with serious roots which no one is obliged to take seriously. Mr. Barlow's tribute is properly flippant.


Light House
by William Monahan.
Riverhead, 223 pages,
$21.95.

By accident, Mr. Monahan's rattle-witted hero gets his hands on a mass of cash and runs off with it. He takes refuge in a decrepit inn somewhere in Massachusetts, with the owners of the money in pursuit. The out-of-service lighthouse offshore shelters a hermit. The inn's landlords are a limp-spined would-be intellectual and his permanently enraged wife. There is a professional literary adviser on the premises, along with one of his followers, a paranoid Grub Street hack. All these characters are more or less loony, and so is the action, which occurs in the midst of a horrendous northeaster. There is not a quiet moment in this slapstick satire -- or a plausible one, either.


And Quiet Flows the
Vodka, or When Pushkin Comes to Shove

by Alicia Chudo,
edited by Andrew Sobesednikov.
Northwestern, 232 pages,
$14.95.

Only a true lover, and most learned follower, of Russian literature could give it such a walloping in parody and paraphrase as Professor Chudo does. Her footnotes are a problem, though. Some of them may be genuine.


Black Mass
by Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill.
PublicAffairs, 304 pages,
$26.00.

The authors are well-respected Boston journalists. They have spent years covering the Whitey Bulger story, an extravagant case of misconduct by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and associated corruption. Bulger is now on the Ten Most Wanted List. His FBI protector is in the toils of the law. Investigation is belatedly sorting out the pattern of racketeering, drug dealing, arms smuggling, and murder that Whitey conducted unmolested. The story is complicated. The authors have done a fine job of elucidation. The text ends with a question: "Where's Whitey?" There seems to be no suspicion that Whitey is dead -- although quite a number of people must wish he were.


Colter
by Rick Bass.
Houghton Mifflin, 197 pages,
$22.00.

Mr. Bass loves beautiful country, and weather (preferably autumn), and bird hunting (although, or perhaps because, he is a bad shot), and the energy and grace of bird dogs. He describes his pleasure in the field in loving detail. His story of Colter, "the best dog I ever had," ends as such tributes have for more than 2,000 years. "He went into the dark; / Along those roads we cannot hear him bark."


Weeds
by Howard Bjornson.
Chronicle Books, 70 pages,
$19.95.

Most of the weeds that Mr. Bjornson has photographed were found fairly close to his studio in Chicago, so not everyone's favorite nuisance may be represented. Those that are, extracted from their common tangled habitat, have been converted to distinctive beauty by the photographer's eye and lens.


The Name of the World
by Denis Johnson.
HarperCollins, 129 pages,
$22.00.

Mr. Johnson's narrator is a middle-aged professor whose grief over the deaths of his wife and daughter has reduced him to a life of mere academic duty and social paralysis. His story of how he is jolted out of his rut is well told and arouses sympathy, but one is left with the impression that his life after his recovery would make a better tale.

Recent books by Atlantic authors:

Engines of Tomorrow: How the World's Best Companies Are Using Their Research Labs to Win the Future by Robert Buderi. Simon & Schuster, 446 pages, $27.50. A portion of this book grew out of "The Virus Wars," in the April, 1999, Atlantic.

Drowning Ruth by Christina Schwarz. Doubleday, 400 pages, $23.95. The novelist Christina Schwarz contributes regularly to The Atlantic.


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

Illustration by Scott Laumann.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; August 2000; Brief Reviews - 00.08; Volume 286, No. 2; page 97-98.