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Books
Brief Reviews
by Phoebe-Lou Adams


Strange Pilgrims

by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Knopf, $21.00.

The twelve stories in this collection are somewhat closer to ordinary reality than is usual with Mr. Marquez's exuberantly baroque fictions, but only somewhat. The style is restrained, but ordinary reality constantly glides into an unreality that nevertheless reflects reality. Most of the stories have to do with some form of exile. A deposed political leader tries to maintain dignity and even hope while surviving on what amounts to the casual charity of strangers. The breakdown of a rented car leads to obliteration by a mindless bureaucracy. The loss of his interpreter leaves a light-headed but reasonably capable Latin American as isolated in Paris as a castaway on a desert island. Aside from one orthodox and therefore disappointing ghost story, the tales are all both interesting as stories and provocative for implications that reach beyond the immediate events they describe.



The Last Hunt

by Horst Stern.

Random House, $18.00.

Mr. Stern's novel is set in an unidentified Eastern European country before the Communist disintegration. It has three protagonists: an elderly German financial wizard of international renown, a local guide and game warden, and a very large bear. They can be taken to represent the power of capitalist development, the situation of the ordinary citizen under a Communist dictatorship, and the natural world, which stands small chance against either of them. An ideological reading does not detract from a good, suspenseful hunting story with ironic details concerning just why the German is allowed to hunt an exceptional bear and how the guide arranges that hunt--for the influential dignitary cannot be permitted to find no bear or to shoot the wrong bear. It is a grim adventure but compelling reading.



Decider

by Dick Francis.

Putnam, $22.95.

In Mr. Francis's fictional world there are rarely motives for crime other than money and insanity. His narrator, a large and normally peaceable architect and builder, encounters both when he becomes involved with a titled tribe that has several dubiously normal members, a great deal of money, and a racetrack. Tribal members cannot agree on the future of that track, and things explode in a way highly satisfactory to connoisseurs of intricate misdoings.



Glad Tidings: A Friendship in Letters

edited by John D. Weaver.

HarperCollins, $25.00.

Mr. Weaver, a long-standing friend of the late John Cheever, shares his correspondence with that novelist. The two met in 1943, as sergeants making training films for the Army Signal Corps; took to each other; and remained in touch as long as Cheever lived. Because Mr. Weaver kept letters, whereas Cheever did not, the men are not equally represented--regrettably, for Mr. Weaver's letters (he eventually kept copies of them) are worthy of their recipient. It was a thoroughly amiable exchange, each participant intending to please and amuse the other with wit, gossip, news of mutual friends and enemies, shared memories, catchphrases, and old jokes. There were no political comments more profound than Cheever's report on the 1954 election: "This neighborhood--there are seven registered Democrats--is very quiet." The neighborhood was in Westchester County, and Cheever may have misstated Democratic strength, for he did not let mere fact interfere with a good line. There were no flights into literary aesthetics, but some vituperative complaints about editors and publishers. Cheever reports on a New Year's party of "about a hundred guests, . . . most of them about a hundred years old and they stand around looking like old Christmas trees that have lost their needles but not their ornaments." Mr. Weaver reports on hospital food "catered by an outfit that manages to make French toast out of shirt backings." They were, in short, having straightforward, unpretentious fun with their letters, which truly offer glad tidings to the reader.



Polar Bear

photography by Dan Guravich, text by Downs Matthews.

Chronicle Books, $27.50.

Both photographer and writer have long acquaintance with polar bears and succeed very well in conveying their admiration for these clever and beautiful animals. Mr. Matthews also reveals that a television documentary some years ago that showed a polar bear attempting to attack a cameraman protected by a steel cage was a fraud. The bear had taken no interest in the man until the cage was smeared with sardines, which were what he was looking for when he upset it. Should there be regulations requiring truth in nature photography?



The Ghost of the Executed Engineer

by Loren R. Graham.

Harvard, $22.95.

The author is a professor of the history of science at MIT. His subject in this work is "Technology and the Fall of the Soviet Union," a discussion deriving from the career of Peter Palchinsky, an engineer whose ideas got him exiled by the czarist regime and executed by Stalin. It was something of a feat to have offended those disparate tyrannies. Palchinsky did it by maintaining that the single most important factor in engineering decisions . . . was human beings. Successful industrialization and high productivity were not possible . . . without highly trained workers and adequate provision for their social and economic needs. An investment in education promoted industrialization more than an equivalent investment in technical equipment, since an uneducated or unhappy worker would soon make the equipment useless. Palchinsky also advocated careful consideration of terrain, ecological effects, and future conditions of transport before any installation was sited. The Soviet hierarchy's childish demand for the immediate creation of the world's largest steel mill, longest railroad, and greatest number of atomic power plants ignored Palchinsky's principles, produced impractical and dangerous facilities, and contributed mightily, in Professor Graham's opinion, to the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is an interesting argument and, while not presented overtly as a warning to technologically minded societies, certainly implies a need for caution.



Fishing by Mail

by Vance Bourjaily and Philip Bourjaily.

Grove, $21.00.

The Bourjailys conducted "The Outdoor Life of a Father and Son" by letter, a correspondence touched off by a request that Philip, who writes for various sporting journals, contribute to an attempt "to provide insights into the character of the angler in today's society . . . what his act of fishing means to him--and what he thinks it means to the society in which he lives." Never having given a thought to that question, Philip was considerably taken aback. He consulted his father, who confessed to "a gentle stew of bemusement." The letters, however, continued, and developed into an exchange of fishing and hunting reminiscences that will surely delight honorable anglers and gunners. The Bourjailys are not trophy chasers. They are prone to broken hooks and missed shots, wretched weather, useless gillies, bottomless mudholes, and big ones that get away. They are also very good writers.



The Arabists: The Romance of an American Elite

by Robert D. Kaplan.

The Free Press, $24.95.

This book grew out of the August, 1992, Atlantic cover story, "Tales From the Bazaar."


Copyright © (1993) by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; November 1993; Volume 272, No. 5; pages 158-161.

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