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O C T O B E R  1 9 9 9

Books Brief Reviews

by Phoebe-Lou Adams


The Conspiracy of Ignorance: The Failure of American Public Schools

by Martin L. Gross.
HarperCollins, 308 pages,
$25.00.

Mr. Gross, an acid critic of public affairs, uses a wide array of statistics and a certain amount of anecdote and quotation to demonstrate that our school system has fallen into the hands of people with small ambitions and second-rate brains. The news media tend to cover this subject piecemeal -- a poor showing on the latest international test of this or that. Mr. Gross covers the field and presents a comprehensive picture of a bad situation from respectable historical root to current wilting branch. He offers a list of possible corrections, but warns that reforms will not be easy. The status quo provides a safe haven for the lazy, the dull-witted, and the red-tape weavers. A lot of parents will have to organize and raise a lot of protest if major changes are to occur. Mr. Gross has issued a call to arms.


Illumination and Night Glare

by Carson McCullers,
edited and with an introduction
by Carlos L. Dews.
Wisconsin, 280 pages, $24.95.

Seven months before her death, in 1967, McCullers told an interviewer that she planned an autobiography because she "became an established literary figure overnight, and I was much too young to understand what happened to me or the responsibility it entailed"; she hoped that her story might prepare future artists to accept such a situation better. This generous scheme was never carried out. Crippled by a series of strokes, reduced to slow and painful dictation, McCullers was unable to establish any direct connection between early success and juvenile folly, which appears to have consisted of a bad marriage -- an error too common to be attributed to literary position. The "Illumination" of the title refers to the moments in which she either recognized the makings of a story or saw how to construct recalcitrant material. There has to have been a process leading to such insights, but this she didn't explore. Probably no fiction writer should be expected to undertake psychological archaeology, much less reveal the content of such a dig. Regardless of its limitations, this autobiography was a heroic last-ditch effort. It might have been a very different book if McCullers had lived to finish it.

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The Crime of Olga Arbyelina
by Andrei Makine,
translated by Geoffrey Strachan.
Arcade, 256 pages, $24.95.

Olga, Princess Arbyelina, first appears in 1947, drenched and half naked, sitting dazedly on a riverbank beside a dead man. The French police, after overhauling everyone in the odd little colony of Russian expatriates where Olga manages the library, decide that the death was an accident and dismiss Olga's claim that she killed the man. The question that intrigues the reader is what crime, if any, Olga has committed, and why. Mr. Makine explores that problem with an interweaving of history and personal character. His heroine's life has been a road of wild ups and downs. Along the way she has lost the ability to appreciate or judge events. She sees episodes as random, without logical cause or predictable result. She retains, however, an intense sensitivity to atmosphere, which entitles Mr. Makine to make brilliant use of his ability to evoke the natural world of changing skies and shifting winds. One can smell wet woods and hear the rustle of falling snow in his prose. The semi-detachment that has enabled Olga to survive years of confusion finally fails her, and it is left to the reader to decide whether she is a criminal or a victim.


'Tis

by Frank McCourt.
Scribner, 367 pages, $26.00.

The author of Angela's Ashes continues that beguiling memoir with an account of his life in America. He arrived in New York at the age of nineteen, with bad teeth, an eye infection, no proper education, no connections, and very little money. One expectation was fulfilled: the place was indeed thick with young people whose teeth were "like snow drops." Being a great storyteller, Mr. McCourt makes his greenhorn bumblings marvelously entertaining. Who else could manage a disastrous entanglement with Olivier's Hamlet and lemon-meringue pie?


At the Full and Change of the Moon

by Dionne Brand.
Grove, 304 pages, $24.00.

The author is a poet, which may account for a style that at times produces striking effects but more often seems to impose an ornamental screen between the reader and the novel's characters. Those characters are the scattered descendants of an African slave in Trinidad, surviving, well or badly, far from Africa. Their story deserves more grunge and grit than Ms. Brand allows.


The Sisters of Henry VIII

by Maria Perry.
St. Martin's, 272 pages, $23.95.

Henry's sister Margaret was married to James IV of Scotland, who maintained an exceptional number of royal bastards, got himself killed at Flodden Field, and left his widow to cope with Scotland's disorderly nobility. Her subsequent marital adventures scandalized her brother. Mary, the younger sister, was married to Louis XII of France, who was elderly and ailing, and soon died -- probably quite happy. Mary then married an Englishman of her own choice, although much diplomacy and bad temper were involved. Tudor England was as addicted to record-keeping as modern Washington. Ms. Perry's work, which is essentially a history of the Tudor family, is so swathed in brocade and cloth of gold that it is sometimes difficult to remember that there were real people behind the accounting department.


The Palladium of Justice

by Leonard W. Levy.
Ivan R. Dee, 128 pages,
$18.95.

Mr. Levy, a legal scholar and historian, briskly and clearly explains the "Origins of Trial by Jury." Anyone interested in how our courts became what they are, and why they do what they do, will find his book enlightening.


The Essential New English Canaan

by Thomas Morton of "Merrymount,"
edited by Jack Dempsey.
Digital Scanning, Inc., 650 pages,
$59.95/$39.95.

Morton's account of the New World, published in 1637, was in three sections: a description of the native peoples, a survey of the "commodities" (meaning potential sources of profit) available in the area, and the story of his own experiences, which were unfortunate. Morton liked and respected the Indians. He set up a trading post known as Merrymount. He entertained Indians around a Maypole. From the point of view of his Puritan neighbors, he incited heathenish orgies and cut into the beaver trade. They called him a gun runner and twice shipped him back to England. Morton has been mined by historians for three centuries, but his original text -- lively, opinionated, and often witty -- lurks in rare-book departments. Dr. Dempsey's discreetly modernized, lavishly annotated version is worth attention. If one accepts the claim that Morton was "America's first poet in English" (he did write verse), we started below scratch.

Recent books by Atlantic authors:

Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City by Elijah Anderson. Norton, 352 pages, $25.95. A portion of this book first appeared as "The Code of the Streets," The Atlantic's cover article for May, 1994.


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

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; October 1999; Brief Reviews - 99.10; Volume 284, No. 4; page 112-114.