m_topn picture
Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

Go to this issue's Table of Contents.


Discuss this article in the Books & Literature conference of Post & Riposte.


"77 North Washington Street" (August 2000)
The Atlantic's editors pay tribute to Phoebe-Lou Adams.

"Brief Reviews," by Phoebe-Lou Adams (August 2000)


From the archives:

"A Rough Map of Greece: The Road to Pylos" by Phoebe-Lou Adams (January 1963)
"The pots were the real thing, and years of expert digging have brought up Nestor's capital, which proves to be the most comprehensible and delightful of the Mycenaean remains." A travel dispatch.

"The Cost of Vanity," by Phoebe-Lou Adams (April 1962)
"A fur rug is provided for the feet, and a golden chair for Madam to dry off on. The chair is probably permanent, but there must be quite a turnover in rugs." A trip to New York's most famous beauty salon.

"Through a Lens Darkly," by Phoebe-Lou Adams (April 1955)
"There are only about half as many photographs of weddings as of courtships. They're considerably less active, too." Casting a skeptical eye on the Museum of Modern Art's celebrated photo exhibition "The Family of Man."

WEB-ONLY SIDEBAR | August 2000

A rare and difficult trick

A sampling of five decades of Phoebe-Lou Adams's brief reviews



A BLESSED GIRL by Lady Emily Lutyens. (Lippincott, $4.00). The letters of a Victorian damsel to an elderly clergyman, most of them about the girl's struggles against the improper advances of a third-rate poet. Nobody ever had more fun playing with smoke than Emily, and it's a pleasure to watch her at it.

November 1954


PONDORO by John Taylor. Simon & Schuster, $4.95. Mr. Taylor, a professional ivory hunter, sets out to prove that his trade is a fairly commonplace one, but the tales he tells do nothing, fortunately, to support his thesis.

December 1955


THE SHAKESPEAREAN CIPHERS EXAMINED by William F. and Elizabeth S. Friedman. Cambridge University Press, $5.00. Colonel and Mrs. Friedman, professional cryptographers, have great fun with the rich and strange characters who have unearthed coded messages in Shakespeare's plays, even while they demolish the alleged codes.

November 1957


THE VANISHING EVANGELIST by Lately Thomas. Viking, $4.95. When Aimee Semple McPherson, that chiffon-swathed bride of holiness, vanished into the Pacific Ocean and reappeared weeks later with a yarn about kidnapping, the state of California took action as lunatic as the situation itself. Mr. Thomas does the affair hilarious justice.

July 1959


THE OLD WEST IN FICTION edited by Irwin R. Blacker (Ivan Obolensky, $7.50) is a laudable attempt to prove that westerns are so literature. The writers represented in this anthology range from John Steinbeck and A. B. Guthrie to Zane Grey and Ernest Haycox, and all Mr. Blacker has proved is that westerns can be literature when a good writer elects to write one.

November 1961


THE RAYMOND CHANDLER OMNIBUS (Knopf, $5.95) contains four of Chandler's best mystery stories -- The Big Sleep; Farewell, My Lovely; The High Window; and The Lady in the Lake. This is information enough for Chandler devotees. I would recommend the book to followers of James Bond, but I fear Marlowe's wit would be too subtle for them.

May 1964


THE AMERICAN SCENE (Knopf, $8.95) is a selection of essays and letters by H. L. Mencken, edited by Huntington Cairns. Mencken's hellfire sermons against the dishonesty, hypocrisy, cowardice, and general silliness of his countrymen still throw sparks, although many of his targets have changed their outward forms considerably since he last shot at them. But nobody is perfect, and when the sage of Baltimore announces that "poetry is essentially an effort to elude facts, whereas prose is a means of unearthing and exhibiting them," one can only murmur, Boobus Americanus.

May 1965


THE CANTERBURY TALES. Random House, $7.50. It always seems faintly boorish to complain of a work undertaken by a competent author with the intention of aiding the cause of literature, but David Wright's translation into modern prose of Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales is really too much for good manners to bear. In the first place, Chaucer himself is not all that difficult to read. In the second place, Chaucer was a master-hand at getting comic or satiric or emotional effects by the juxtaposition of sounds and by subtle shifts in the timing of his lines. All this automatically disappears in the prose version. Frantic efforts by the prose paraphraser (translation is the wrong word for the business) may preserve part of it, but there is no indication that Mr. Wright has made any effort at all or has even noticed that the baby has gone out with the bathwater.

July 1965


THE ARTIST AS CRITIC: CRITICAL WRITINGS OF OSCAR WILDE edited by Richard Ellman. Random House, $10.00. His book reviews and occasional pieces prove that while Wilde could be superbly malicious with fatheads, he was a generous and painstaking critic, quick to find merit and delighted to announce the discovery. It is easy to damn a book amusingly. Wilde could praise amusingly, a rare and difficult trick.

May 1969


THE NATURAL HISTORY OF THE VAMPIRE by Anthony Masters. Putnam, $7.95. Mr. Masters has sorted through anthropology, psychiatry, mythology, and even idle gossip, and packratted a mass of information on the vampire superstition. As to the reasons for the belief, the reader can take his pick of a dozen guesses, educated and otherwise. Illustrations and bibliography. Happy Halloween.

November 1972


THE ENCHANTED PLACES by Christopher Milne. Dutton, $6.95. The son of A. A. Milne recalls the trials and pleasures of being, and not being, Christopher Robin. Pooh addicts will no doubt treasure these revelations. The unconverted will remain so. Illustrations.

May 1975


THE INCOMPLEAT ANGLER by Robert Deindorfer. Dutton, $8.95. Mr. Deindorfer, an admirer of Izaak Walton, undertook to fish the great angler's streams -- no small project, since Walton fished for anything, with anything, anytime, anywhere, and on any water bigger than a puddle. Not content with all this, Mr. Deindorfer tried whenever possible to duplicate Walton's technique and gear -- an eighteen-foot rod with a line of braided horsehair tied to the tip. Traditional British phlegm was not equal to the sight of a mad American crawling through nettle patches with this obsolete weapon. Mr. Deindorfer had a wonderful time collecting reactions and conversations from stunned locals. He also collected fish. The account of his adventures makes a delightful book, although it may be a bit too good for any but anglers and very honest men.

August 1977


RUDYARD KIPLING by Lord Birkenhead. Random House, $15.00. The late Lord Birkenhead undertook this life of Kipling on what must be one of the worst agreements ever made by an author. Birkenhead contributed his time, work, and expenses to the project while Kipling's daughter, Mrs. Bambridge, retained power of total veto over publication. She exercised that veto without explanation or discussion, and the book has waited thirty years in limbo. Now that it has at last appeared, it proves to be a first-rate biography, well written and exceedingly well documented, for Birkenhead had access to still-living people who had known Kipling at almost every stage of his career, from cub journalist to crusty national monument. Kipling's literary work, his public services, and the events of his life are presented with clarity and good judgement, and while the book is far from idolatrous, it is generally sympathetic. Why did Kipling's daughter object to it? Possibly because of the portrait of Carrie Balestier Kipling, of whom nobody ever spoke a kind word, including (despite gallant efforts) Birkenhead. This generally detested woman was, after all, Mrs. Bambridge's mother, and the truth must have hurt.

January 1979


THE WORLD OF HENRI ROUSSEAU by Yann le Pichon. Viking, $75.00. As a young man, the author took music lessons from Rousseau's granddaughter, who showed her pupil a book of animal pictures that had belonged to the painter. M. le Pichon recognized the originals of Rousseau's fantastic beasts and set about hunting down other mundane sources for the artist's dream-world images. These facts are presented in the introduction to this book, and the reader can safely quit right there, for M. le Pichon is the kind of writer whose answer to any textual problem is a quotation from Baudelaire. The viewer, however, can forge delightedly ahead, for the visual evidence in this essentially visual case is well organized, well annotated, and fascinating in its revelation of the tacky collection of picture postcards, magazine illustrations, advertisements, and blurred snapshots that Rousseau turned into magic and mystery. The book is lavishly supplied with color plates, some of them reproducing paintings that are otherwise difficult, if not impossible, to see, and is altogether a treasure for the observer. Translated by Joachim Neugroschel.

December 1982


TRUMAN CAPOTE by Marie Rudisill with James C. Simmons. Morrow, $12.95. In the course of describing the peculiar upbringing of Truman Capote, his Aunt Marie complains that her nephew has for years refused to speak to her. This memoir is not likely to improve family relations.

May 1983


PRINCE OF CATS by Arjan Singh. Merrimack Publisher's Circle, $15.95. Mr. Singh has devoted himself and his farm to nurturing orphaned leopards in hopes of returning them to a successful life in the wild. The available wild lies on the Indian-Nepalese border, with disapproving Indian farmers on one side and Nepalese fur poachers on the other. It also abuts a railroad, and how does one explain trains to a leopard? Mr. Singh describes his problems with spirit and his leopards with touching affection. Already responsible for conservation work on behalf of the tiger, Mr. Singh is -- there is no other word for it -- queer for big cats, and after meeting his leopards the reader is quite likely to share his enthusiasm. His nerve is another matter.

January 1985


THE PRIVATE MARY CHESNUT edited by C. Vann Woodward and Elizabeth Muhlenfeld. Oxford, $8.95. Mary Chesnut's Civil War memories have for years been a fine source of information for both historians and novelists. What Chesnut wrote after the war, however, was not what she had written in her diaries during the 1860s. She elaborated events and characterizations, and, more important, modified many of her highly acerbic comments on the errors of the Confederate authorities -- military and civilian -- and on the maddening follies of her friends and kin. She was a witty, intelligent woman, well placed to collect facts, news, and gossip. She combined devotion to the Confederate cause with an utter detestation of slavery and had, by her own admission, a tongue and temper that sometimes got beyond control. In diaries she could let off steam without embarrassment, and she did. What survives of a much longer original text is presented in this well-annotated edition. It is, naturally, overloaded with minor comings and goings (one gets the impression that no well-born southerner ever willingly spent a day at home), but the social trivia is more than counterbalanced by Chesnut's tooth-and-claw candor.

March 1985


RAVENS IN WINTER by Bernd Heinrich. Summit, $19.95. "As an academic field biologist," the author begins, "I have the duty of finding out about our natural world." His loving description of the Maine woods makes it clear that Professor Heinrich's duty is also his pleasure, for which he will forgo comfort, safety, and Thanksgiving dinner. He started his study of the social habits of ravens in a tar-paper shack shared with a dead goat, progressed in time to better quarters, and learned that "you know winter has finally arrived when it starts snowing inside a cabin that you thought was well chinked." That goat was the first in a long line of corpses lugged up the mountain to entice the birds, and there is a certain macabre amusement arising from the vision of the professor backpacking carrion by the hundredweight through knee-deep snow. A student of ravens, it appears, must be infinitely patient, indifferent to cold, and strong as a horse. Elegant writing is presumably not an actual requirement, but Professor Heinrich, provides that as well, and his step-by-step account of his research has the narrative pull of a good detective story.

October 1989


UNDERSTANDING THE DEAD SEA SCROLLS: A Reader from The Biblical Archaelogy Review edited by Hershel Shanks. Random House, $23.00. Regardless of whether one is seriously concerned about the origin (were they Essene, were they not?) or connections (were they allied to the Sadducees, were they not?) of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the often testy essays in this collection provide fascinating, exasperating, and even comic information about the archaeological protocol and scholarly dog-in-the-mangerism that have kept much of "the greatest manuscript discovery of the twentieth century" unpublished, and therefore virtually undiscussed, for more than fifty years.

August 1992


LOVE FROM NANCY: The Letters of Nancy Mitford edited by Charlotte Mosley. Houghton Mifflin, $35.00. Nancy Mitford, witty novelist, biographer of Madame Pompadour, friend of Evelyn Waugh, and impassioned Francophile, was also a prolific and amusing correspondent. The letters collected here were largely directed to English friends and relatives of her own generation, meaning that most of them survived being Bright Young Things in the 1920s and stood their ground through the Second World War. Not war, nor a bad marriage, nor the British tax collector could suppress Mitford's love of malicious gossip or dim her eye for bad clothes. After a royal wedding she described Princess Margaret as "unspeakable, like a hedgehog all in primroses." Mitford's connections were almost entirely of her own well-pedigreed class, and the editor has accounted for all of them, with parents, spouses, and occupations, in case they had any, in footnotes. These notes are generally helpful, but there are moments when a non-U reader may feel like one stranded on a rainy weekend in a remote country house with nothing to read but Debrett. Such moments are rare. Mitford's letters are, overall, a lively, observant, agreeably acid record of her particular time and class.

February 1994


ASLEEP IN THE SUN by Hans Silvester. Chronicle, $29.95. Mr. Silvester provides another photographic report on the Greek island cats -- this time as examples of how to enjoy a proper siesta. Useless advice. We poor human beings can consider sun, shade, breeze, and good company, but we cannot defy gravity on top of a potted plant, nor can we ever look as elegantly flexible as cats. We can only admire them.

April 1998


Previous page: "Uncommon Reader"
An interview with Phoebe-Lou Adams.


Return to 77 North Washington Street (August 2000)

Return to Brief Reviews (August 2000)

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.