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D E C E M B E R 2 0 0 0
Updike: America's Man of Letters
by William H. Pritchard.
Steerforth Press, 364 pages, $27.00.
This study of John Updike's body of work can't match Nicholson Baker's brilliant, eccentric meditation on Updike, U and I. But although William H. Pritchard's chronological approach can be plodding and his prose pedestrian, his is nevertheless a valuable, quietly passionate work. By examining every genre of Updike's writing -- fiction, criticism, memoirs, poetry -- comprehensively, keenly, in a style free of academic jargon, Pritchard amply demonstrates Updike's "fearsome articulateness, at all moments, on all subjects, in all forms"; his extraordinary writerly gift of transforming "homely" materials (what Updike characterized as "the whole mass of middling, hidden, troubled America") "into radiance"; and his place beside William Dean Howells and Edmund Wilson as a critic "committed to speaking with conviction, wit, and authority about the intellectual and moral condition of his native land," who relies on "nothing more than a cultivated intelligence and assiduous reading." Pritchard is a perceptive critic in large ways (he judges Updike's greatest strength as lying in "his capacity for admiration") and in small (he effectively uses Updike's hilariously subtle depiction of the junk food that the incorrigible Harry Angstrom unhedonically ingests in Rabbit at Rest to illuminate what he calls that novel's "metaphorical, figural density"). Unsurprisingly, Updike's more than fifty books are of uneven quality, but Pritchard's measured examination of them justifies applying Updike's judgment of Nabokov to Updike himself: "the best writer of English prose at present holding American citizenship, the only writer ... whose books, considered as a whole, give the happy impression of an oeuvre, of a continuous task carried forward variously, of a solid personality, of a plenitude of gifts exploited knowingly."
-- Benjamin Schwarz
The People of the Sea
by David Thomson.
Counterpoint, 240 pages, $25.00.
David Thomson's nonesuch of a book, originally published in 1954, recounts his intermittent travels along the Atlantic shores of Ireland, the Hebrides, the Orkneys, and the Shetlands in search of old-timers who could tell him about legendary relations between mankind and the seal "people." Atlantic gray seals (selchies), with their huge eyes and mournful voices, have for ages seemed closer akin to our species than to any other that swims under the waves, and many old songs carry refrains like "I am a man upo' the land, / I am a selchie in the sea." Thomson (1914-1988), who was a documentary writer for the BBC, began his literary career with the publication of this perfectly pitched book. It carries the smell of the seaweed, the scratchiness of the crofters' life, the bitterness of their beer, and its very sound is music. The People of the Sea should raise the sights of any reader who relished, for example, Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia.
-- Peter Davison
The Wild Frontier
by William M. Osborn.
Random House, 384 pages, $24.95.
This inelegantly written and poorly argued book makes an important point: More atrocities were committed in the nearly 300 years of what William M. Osborn calls the American-Indian War than in all other U.S. wars combined. And Indians committed many of them -- in fact, Osborn estimates, more than whites. His study, which is based on secondary sources, points out that many Indian tribes had ferociously fought one another and seized one another's land long before the white man came. Rape, torture, and the murder of women and children were regular features of Indian warfare against whites, and Indians were responsible for an enormous number of white civilian casualties -- 1,500 along the Ohio River alone from 1782 to 1790. Osborn doesn't exonerate the whites, of course, and he soberly chronicles the well-known massacres of Indians at Wounded Knee and Sand Creek, among other sites. Refreshingly, he concentrates on the Colonial period rather than the Plains wars, but this means he gives short shrift to perhaps the fiercest of the American-Indian struggles -- that which pitted the clannish and violent Texans against the lethal and often sadistic Comanches. Nearly three centuries of savage war exacted a terrible price on white Americans no less than on Native Americans. D. H. Lawrence wrote, "The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted." After reading Osborn's harrowing, if often awkward, account, the reader better understands how that soul froze.
-- Benjamin Schwarz
by A. L. Barker.
Carroll & Graf, 192 pages, $22.95.
This is another of those dryly amusing novels -- like those of E. F. Benson and Barbara Pym -- that make one grateful not to live in an English village. A. L. Barker trains an unsentimental eye on her myriad eccentric characters, who trip and entangle one another as they bowl along, intent on their selfish whims. The action centers on the guests of Bellechasse, a modest pension on the Cornwall coast, most of whom are pining for love they've been denied. Barker snaps breezily from one point of view to another, shifting scenes every few pages, but just when the narrative seems no more than a hodgepodge, she begins to weave the characters' stories together and reveals unexpected and satisfying thematic connections. There's humor at the surface here, but darkness at the heart.
-- Christina Schwarz
The Illustrated Story of Copyright
by Edward Samuels.
Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's,
288 pages, $40.00.
Not since Benjamin Kaplan's magisterial and prophetic An Unhurried View of Copyright, published in 1967, has anyone written so lucid and entertaining a book about this nearly deadly but intrinsically fascinating subject. Oceans of water have flowed under the narrow bridge of copyright since 1967, and Edward Samuels, a professor at New York Law School, manages to convey in words and pictures all that any layman needs to know about the theory and practice of copyright, along with the latest in technology and the oddest of anecdotes. His book should find a place on the desk of every publisher (online or offline) and also on those of songwriters, illustrators, art directors, and computer hackers.
-- Peter Davison
Introduction to Animal Rights
by Gary L. Francione.
Temple University, 280 pages, $19.95.
Although the notion of animal "rights" is often pooh-poohed as mushy and sentimental, this cleanly written, clearly argued book demonstrates that much of this criticism is itself the product of sloppy thinking, which permits what Gary L. Francione calls our "brute preferences" to determine our morality. Francione, probably the leading legal scholar in the field, builds his case on Jeremy Bentham's compelling argument that in considering the protection offered to animals, "The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?" Francione argues that by "degrading animals into a class of things" (as Bentham wrote), we perforce permit the most horrific things to be done to them. Indeed, the book amounts to an indictment of humanity, which "bring[s] billions of sentient animals into the world for the sole purpose of killing them" and which consigns the overwhelming majority of its most favored creatures, dogs, to a life of pain, fear, and loneliness. We are willing, Francione points out, to ignore animals' suffering "whenever we benefit from doing so -- even when the benefit is nothing more than our pleasure or convenience." This book is all the more disturbing by virtue of its cool reasoning and absence of rhetoric.
-- Benjamin Schwarz
Lies: A Diary 1986-1999
by Ned Rorem.
Counterpoint, 400 pages, $30.00.
This fifth volume of diaries written over a half century by a celebrated composer keeps faith with its naughty predecessors by voicing flashy opinions on all sorts of subjects. Example: "Well, I never understand poetry, which is why I set it to music. (Both clauses of that sentence are untrue.)" With comparable presence of mind Ned Rorem praises his admirations (Paul Goodman, Paul Bowles, Simenon, Gloria Vanderbilt) and excoriates his bÍtes noires: Elliott Carter, William Faulkner, Beethoven. The diary bulges with gossip, cattiness, good sense, complaints of every stripe, and the pathos of an aging man whom we see losing his mother, his father, several close friends, and (to AIDS) his beloved companion of three decades. It voices continual fears for Rorem's reputation as a composer while recording the completion of a prodigious amount of new work, both musical and literary, and describing dozens of occasions in his honor. It's a hypnotically readable narrative, which mellows closer to pathos as it advances into old age: "My body is a little boy's, longing to be defiled (not as a woman, as a little boy) by a grown-up, a gentle child-abuser."
-- Peter Davison
Recent books by Atlantic authors:
Eastward to Tartary: Travels in the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Caucasus by Robert D. Kaplan. Random House, 384 pages, $26.95. Portions of this book first appeared, in somewhat different form, in the September and November issues of The Atlantic.
Battle of Wits: The Complete Story of Codebreaking in World War II by Stephen Budiansky. The Free Press, 426 pages, $27.50. Stephen Budiansky is a correspondent for The Atlantic.