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Books
Brief Reviews
by Phoebe-Lou Adams


A History of Warfare

by John Keegan.

Knopf, 384 pages, $27.50.

Mr. Keegan begins his examination of warfare by defying Clausewitz with "War is not the continuation of policy by other means." He goes on to discuss war making in terms of methods, which have progressed from largely ritual displays of hostility doing limited damage to modern slaughters with sophisticated long-range weapons, arguing that through most of history, conscious policy has had little to do with actual fighting. The text is rich in unexpected detail and unorthodox interpretation, which makes it steadily provocative reading. It is not, in the end, encouraging. Mr. Keegan insists that there is a "warrior culture," which "exists in parallel with the everyday world but does not belong to it" and "follows it . . . at a distance." Thanks in part to that distance, war has become an insupportable habit. Mr. Keegan recommends a return to the primitive habits of "restraint, diplomacy and negotiation."



The Robber Bride

by Margaret Atwood.

Doubleday/Nan A. Talese, 466 pages, $23.50.

Zenia was dead, to begin with. Tony, Charis, and Roz, the university contemporaries whom she robbed of men and money, have observed, with relief, the burial of a container of ashes. They are understandably dismayed when Zenia reappears, as solid and sinister as ever, in a joint called the Toxique. The three victims are now middle-aged, and while they still suffer from the virtues of the woman more precious than rubies, they have certain abilities not assigned to that maid of all work with a sideline in real estate. Tony is a professor of military history, Charis is given to meditation and herb teas, and Roz is a successful financier. The question that moves the novel forward, as opposed to its flashbacks into the disastrous past, is whether their combined expertise is enough to thwart whatever mischief Zenia has in mind. Ms. Atwood makes her characters believable, as she does the men whom they inexplicably value--for not one of those fellows could be trusted even to put out the garbage. The settings, from bohemian Toronto to a rundown farm to a college building mustily devoted to "worthy but impoverished departments," are as clearly evoked as the characters. The amoral, spiteful, ruthlessly self-interested Zenia is almost too bad to be true, but she represents all the impulses that Tony, Roz, and Charis have repudiated or suppressed. Good women, in Ms. Atwood's view, are their own enemies, and whether one agrees with her opinion or not, she has written a brilliantly intelligent novel to support it.



Oak Island Gold

by William S. Crooker.

Nimbus/Chelsea Green, 128 pages, $11.95.

Anyone with a weakness for lost mines and sunken galleons should be intrigued, although not ultimately enlightened, by Mr. Crooker's account of nearly two centuries of futile digging and pumping on a small island off the coast of Nova Scotia. Ever since a young man came upon a clearing where an old tackle block hung from a tree limb over a depression in the ground, treasure hunters have poured money (and lives) into the ensuing hole. Despite financial losses and squabbles over excavation rights, enough has been learned about arrangements on Oak Island--an artificial beach and underground water conduits--to indicate that someone went to a great deal of trouble there, and presumably for valuable reasons. Responsibility for the hypothetical valuables has been assigned to Captain Kidd, burying loot like a proper pirate (which he probably was not), and even to Francis Bacon et al., bent on simultaneously concealing and preserving the original manuscripts of Shakespeare's plays--which they, of course, actually wrote. Mr. Crooker's own theory, which he frankly presents as currently unprovable, has the merit of conforming to eighteenth-century practice at its worst and of linking to a definite historical event. The whole tale would be preposterous did not the publisher acknowledge "the financial support of the Department of Communications and The Canada Council." That sounds serious.



Judith Leyster

James A. Welu and Pieter Biesboer, project directors.

Worcester Art Museum/Frans Halsmuseum, distributed by Yale University Press, 391 pages, $60.00.

Although Judith Leyster (1609-1660) was a member of Haarlem's Guild of St. Luke, maintained a workshop with at least one student, and was in her time both accomplished and successful as a painter, art historians forgot about her for two centuries. She was, to be sure, a woman. She was also, as the authors acknowledge, not an innovator. One of her paintings was long attributed to Frans Hals and fell sharply in value when Leyster's hand was recognized. Her subject matter was frequently that widely popular in the Dutch genre market--laughing children embracing realistically disgruntled cats, and merry meetings. Merry meetings required at least one musician, one drunk, and one suspiciously gaudy blonde beauty, plus as many auxiliary revelers as the painter's energy and the patron's purse could accommodate. The text suggests that such paintings were warnings against wine, wenches, and wasted time. To a modern eye, the warning is invisible. Merry meetings may, however, have contributed to Leyster's eventual obscurity. After some years as an independent businesswoman, she married Jan Miense Molenaer, a painter who specialized in the subject, and her own work apparently ceased. The authors offer no personal information about Leyster, because none survives, but a great deal about her contemporaries, their techniques, and the stylistic influences, art-market operations, and ideas current in the period. The book is admirably illustrated and, as the subtitle promises, reconstructs "A Dutch Master and Her World."



Bomber's Law

by George V. Higgins.

Holt/John Macrae, 272 pages, $22.50.

Mr. Higgins's acidic novel opens with two plainclothes policemen sitting in a car waiting for a suspect to appear. They are a grouchy veteran and the younger colleague to whom he is turning over the investigation, and they hate each other for reasons of origin, education, connections, temperament, and previous association. Most of these reasons emerge in their garrulous, raspy conversation. No Higgins character has ever been taciturn. The novel does have a plot, involving that dilatory suspect, but the principal thrust of the book is sociological. The author is explaining, by illustration, the irrelevant personal prejudices or resentments or obsessions that can--and in this case do--derail what should be a relatively simple police action. The various episodes (they do get out of the car) are sad or funny or savage, but all combine to display the peculiar world, both professional and private, in which these men operate. The plot is merely an excuse for the illustrations.



Dreams of Exile

by Ian Bell.

Holt, 296 pages, $25.00.

Mr. Bell is a frankly prejudiced biographer of Robert Louis Stevenson. He has no use for anyone--W. E. Henley, for example--who questioned his subject's activities or accomplishments, and he resents the literary attempts of Stevenson's wife while acknowledging her loyalty and courage. These animosities aside, Mr. Bell has produced a well-organized account of Stevenson's progress from fragile only child to negligent student to nonpracticing lawyer to bohemian dilettante (his father was a patient man with a sound income) to successful, respected author. For a man plagued by illness, Stevenson covered an amazing amount of territory and did an astounding amount of work. His nomadic life is worth the attention Mr. Bell has given to reconstructing it.



Camille Pissarro

by Joachim Pissarro.

Abrams, 310 pages, $67.50 until 1/1/94, $75.00 thereafter.

The author is a great-grandson of the painter considered by many to have been the real originator of the Impressionist school. He is also an art historian and concentrates on Pissarro the painter, paying minimal attention to other aspects of his subject's life. Politically, however, Pissarro was sympathetic to anarchism, if only as a theory (bomb throwing horrified him), and in his work that cast of mind led to a demand for absolute freedom. He abhorred "any art whose function is to deliver a message, to render or express an idea, to arouse a sentiment, or to tell a story." That noncommitment may explain why, for all the skill and visual beauty of his paintings, Pissarro was never as successful in his own time as some of his less austere contemporaries. The book's illustrations are lavish and include many works not otherwise available for viewing. No question, he was a superb painter of what he chose to see. The observer can make his own guess as to why Pissarro chose to see it.



The Phantom Empire

by Geoffrey O'Brien.

Norton, 281 pages, $20.00.

Mr. O'Brien believes that movies influence both public opinion and private conduct. He also believes that public opinion and events influence moviemakers wishing to turn a profit. His elaborate reflections on these less than arcane points are easily read and easily forgotten.



Journey

by Guy Billout.

Creative Editions, 32 pages, $16.95.

The humorous vision here will be familiar to everyone who has seen Guy Billout's drawings in The Atlantic Monthly.


Copyright © (1993) by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; December 1993; Volume 272, No. 6; pages 142-145.

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