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Books Brief Reviews

by Phoebe-Lou Adams


True at First Light
by Ernest Hemingway.
Scribner, 320 pages, $26.00.

Patrick Hemingway, who edited this "fictional memoir," provides a graceful introduction that does not explain the condition in which the author left the material, or whether he ever talked about it with his son. What the reader gets here is a story about the problems besetting Hemingway as the leader of a safari that is a semi-official arm of the Kenyan game department. It is not a traditional hunting party. The object is to kill destructive or dangerous animals, including baboons. (This last matter is not described, lest baboon-lovers take offense.)The tension of lion and leopard executions is superbly conveyed, as are the joking and teasing among the men and that peculiar, depersonalized alertness that comes with total concentration on the surrounding environment. This is all sound Hemingway. The problem with the book is the lack of any conclusion. The time is shortly before Christmas, when a great party is planned for the camp and all the neighbors and connections. There is much reference to the Birthday of the Baby Jesus. Miss Mary (Mrs. Hemingway, and the only woman in camp) insists that a particular tree be transplanted into camp as a Christmas tree. Nobody tells her that this species of tree is the source of a violent drug. The Africans, confused and gullible about European habits, believe that Miss Mary's determination to shoot a particular lion is, like the tree, part of her religion. Some of them also enjoy membership in a mischievously hedonistic religion concocted by Hemingway. The several Muslims, of course, do not participate in the follies of unbelievers. A mission school in the area requires its students to wear heavy shoes but seems to accomplish little else. All these religious elements appear to be leading to some explosion or merger at the Christmas party, but that party never comes. The text simply stops. Possibly Hemingway never got around to deciding between a bang and a whimper. As for the work's being a memoir, Hemingway did not keep diaries or journals, and the present text includes (along with other intriguing and amusing side issues) the statement "All a writer of fiction is really is a congenital liar who invents from his own knowledge or that of other men. I am a writer of fiction and so I am a liar too." One can only wonder why he never came to the end of this good lie.

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

Related features:

Flashbacks:"Tracking Hemingway," (July, 1999)
Atlantic articles from 1939 to 1983 -- by Edmund Wilson, Malcolm Cowley, Alfred Kazin, and others -- track the strengths and weaknesses of this American literary lion.

American Graffiti: "At Lunch With Hemingway," by Sven Birkerts (July, 1999)
The exclusive Atlantic Unbound interview with the author of In Our Time, The Sun Also Rises, and now True at First Light.


Great Stone Circles
by Aubrey Burl.
Yale, 200 pages, $30.00.

Mr. Burl is an archaeologist well known for his studies of megalithic structures in Britain, Ireland, and Brittany. His latest analyses of a number of sites involve diagrams, measurements and maps (not all readily decipherable), and expert photographs of the surrounding territory -- frequently handsome country. Why these structures were built and how they were used remains unknowable. Physical comparisons are possible, however, and Mr. Burl's argument for Breton influence on Stonehenge is impressive.


Nansen: The Explorer as Hero
by Roland Huntford.
Barnes & Noble, 610 pages, $19.95.

Fridtjof Nansen (1861 -- 1930) was born in Oslo to an unimpressive lawyer and his aristocratic wife. The boy became an expert skier and matured into the classic Nordic type -- tall, blond, and handsome. He studied zoology, which led to a trip on a sealing vessel for the collection of marine specimens. Sealing meant the Arctic and the ice, and Nansen was off to international heroic status as leader of the first expedition to cross Greenland and later of the Fram journey that established the action of currents in the Arctic Ocean ice pack. Mr. Huntford's account of Nansen's other accomplishments is thorough and necessarily (and rewardingly) long, for Nansen can be considered a founder of the sport of mountain skiing and wrote a revolutionary doctoral thesis on the operations of the nervous system. Nansen claimed that he was given his doctorate out of pity, because the authorities thought he would not survive his proposed crossing of Greenland. The theory remains a basic element of modern neurology. Nansen invented improved gear for arctic travel, although the stove was not as effective as he had hoped. He was active in the complicated diplomatic maneuvers surrounding Norway's independence from Sweden, and became Norway's first ambassador to England. He wound up, after the First World War, in charge of repatriating displaced refugees. In 1925 he was elected Lord Rector of St. Andrew's University, in Scotland, and delivered a quietly witty speech advocating, in essence, independent thinking and the nerve to go it alone. He subsequently "attended the Rectorial dance" and whirled about the floor "until long past 1 a.m." That figures, for Nansen had a considerable reputation for what his biographer terms "womanizing." It is probable that he simply neglected to dodge beauties who threw themselves at him. Mr. Huntford, with much material to quote from and a lively period in both exploration and politics to cover, has produced a splendid biography of a splendidly versatile man.


By Airship to the North Pole
by P. J. Capelotti.
Rutgers, 224 pages, $26.00.

When Nansen's Fram emerged from the ice pack and headed home, its first stop was at Virgo Harbor, in the Spitzbergen Archipelago, where the crew came upon the Swedish engineer Salomon Andrée preparing for a balloon flight to the North Pole. The flight was a disaster, and subsequent attempts by the American journalist Walter Wellman barely got off the ground. They did provide much copy for his paper. Both expeditions left a lot of debris at Virgo Harbor, and the value of examining such material is the subject of Mr. Capelotti's book. He has conducted archaeological work on the site. The first section of his text, on the flights and the men involved, is active and opinionated. The following, archaeological section is fairly technical and ultimately demonstrates first that explorers do not always report precisely what they did, and second that scholarly interpretation of their reports is not always accurate either.


Dancing With Cats
by Burton Silver and Heather Busch.
Chronicle, 96 pages, $16.95.

Author and photographer document the performances of people who dance with their cats. Whether or not one accepts the claim that the practice demonstrates "a way of exploring new spiritual insights that will guide us in the third millennium," the cats look great.


Phoebe Lou Adams is The Atlantic Monthly's staff writer.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; August 1999; Brief Reviews - 99.08; Volume 284, No. 2; page 93-94.