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Books
Brief Reviews
by Phoebe-Lou Adams


My Own Country

by Abraham Verghese.

Simon & Schuster, 416 pages, $22.50.

Dr. Verghese was born in Ethiopia of Indian parents and educated in Ethiopia and India; he arrived in the United States (not for the first time) as a qualified doctor in 1980. His interest lay in internal medicine and infectious diseases. By 1985 he had found a post at East Tennessee State University which involved working at a Veterans Administration hospital and the nearby Johnson City Medical Center. He also had a grant for private research on "peevish" hamsters. He had enough, in short, to keep an industrious doctor well occupied. Shortly before his arrival, however, Johnson City had encountered its first AIDS case and had gone into what can fairly be named a panic. Dr. Verghese had dealt with AIDS previously, and as the number of cases increased, he became responsible for treating them. His memoir describes individual patients and what he learned of their histories. It reports local reaction, which ranged from kindness and intelligence to terrified rejection--in some cases by medical colleagues. Because he could not cure the disease, Dr. Verghese concentrated on providing comfort and encouragement and frequent visits, becoming, in effect, a family doctor in the (possibly idealized) nineteenth-century style. He came to view his patients as his people, following their nonmedical problems and weeping, privately, over their sufferings, which were often hideous in appearance as well as in effect. He had never foreseen such obsessive professional concern, nor had his Indian-born wife: "AIDS had become a mistress that took me away from home and that I could not introduce in conversation when I was at home." Dr. Verghese's book is remarkably informative both about AIDS as a disease and about its effect on the people, including those treating it, in the surrounding society. The memoir is also very well written, with a nice appreciation of human character and local setting.



The Endangered English Dictionary

by David Grambs.

Norton, 288 pages, $23.00.

Mr. Grambs has assembled "Bodacious Words Your Dictionary Forgot," words that do exist, and appear in somebody's dictionary. Frequently Latinate and polysyllabic, they are defined in an amusingly contrasting mundane style that arouses respect for Mr. Grambs's ingenuity. "Xiph . . . the swordfish"--"a soupcon of herbs in the xiph." "Latrede . . . slow"--"an infuriatingly latrede waiter." "Premorse . . . having the end broken or bitten off"--"my suspiciously premorse popsicle." "Adoxography" means "good writing on a minor subject." There appears to be no comparably inclusive word for "blunderly disceptation by scribaceous clerisy," which is unfortunate. A term covering clumsy debate by pen-happy literati would be a handy weapon.



The Sixteen Pleasures

by Robert Hellenga.

Soho, 332 pages, $22.00.

Mr. Hellenga's engaging novel concerns the adventures of an American woman, an accomplished restorer of old books, who, being at emotional loose ends and bored with her job, impulsively heads for Florence to volunteer her services in the wake of the flood that damaged books as well as buildings and paintings. She becomes involved with an Italian lover, a nunnery, and a fine bibliographic intrigue. The characters are convincing, the confusion and damage in the city are depicted with liveliness and plausibility, and the amount of suspense that Mr. Hellenga generates from the details of book and painting restoration is astounding. Who would expect to have cold chills and raised hackles over leather tooling?



Graveyard Working

by Gerald Duff.

Baskerville, 185 pages, $18.00.

A comic version of the southern Gothic genre may not be exactly reasonable, but Mr. Duff's novel is grotesquely amusing until its inappropriately bloody conclusion. The tale starts with two elderly sisters, widow and spinster, still delicately clawing each other over long-gone rivalries, and expands to include their younger relatives (one man garrulously impassioned about septic tanks, another trying ineptly to raise Christian guard dogs to supplement his preacher's salary), neighbors engaged in a slapstick hunting party, and eventually the whole district, converging for the annual cleanup of the cemetery. Old Sully, who is black, considers the lot of them daft, and he is right--but they do provide action and comedy if one is not too squeamish about the proprieties.



Sanctuaries of the Goddess

by Peg Streep.

Little, Brown/Bulfinch Press, 224 pages, $50.00/$19.95.

Ms. Streep discusses the places, from cranky caves to Bronze Age Knossos, dedicated to the great goddess once worshipped across Europe. She does not pretend that it is possible to reconstruct rituals or do more than speculate, vaguely, on antique beliefs. The book's lack of maps and structural diagrams makes it difficult to grasp either the full shape of sanctuaries or the surrounding topography, but the illustrations, by various photographers, are handsome and impressive and may entice previously indifferent readers to look for further discussions of this remote faith. There is a bibliography to encourage research.



Once Upon a Time

by John Barth.

Little, Brown, 408 pages, $23.95.

What Mr. Barth has written is both a novel in the form of a memoir and a memoir in the form of a novel. The work leaps from one of these stools to the other and never rests easy on either of them, for the fiction demands no commitment and the fact commands no belief.



Edouard Vuillard

by Gloria Groom.

Yale, 270 pages, $60.00.

Ms. Groom presents a careful study of Vuillard's work as a "painter-decorator," work little known because much of it has drifted into unsuitable locations. Vuillard was connected with the fin de siecle Nabi group, painters who, with the support of some critics and over the objections of others, advocated a revival of coherent interior decoration designed to give a house "a pervading personality." Vuillard did handsome, tapestry-like paintings for that purpose for a number of patrons. What he, and his decorator colleagues, overlooked was the nature of the society in which they operated. Patrons got divorced and divided the paintings. They moved, and the paintings did not fit the walls of their new habitat. Some appear to have been simply careless with pieces that were quite delicate, for Vuillard seldom used oil and canvas for his decorations. Ms. Groom has tracked down what remains of Vuillard's decorative work and describes its origins and history with pleasant authority. The illustrations are generous, but the large scale of the originals makes it impossible in most cases for a book-sized reproduction to convey more than a hint of the actual effect.



People Have More Fun Than Anybody

by James Thurber, edited by Michael J. Rosen.

Harcourt Brace, 192 pages, $22.95.

The pieces and drawings assembled here have not been included in previous Thurber collections. It is hard to see why, for they are as funny, surprising, elegant, and subtly provocative as one would expect from that superb writer and draftsman. Happily, we have them now.



Oleander, Jacaranda

by Penelope Lively.

HarperCollins, 133 pages, $20.00.

Ms. Lively, born in 1933, spent her childhood in Egypt, where her father worked for a British bank and her mother did what the wives of such colonial representatives usually did--directed servants and entertained. Their daughter hardly knew either of them. She had no steady playmates and little contact with any visiting adults. Her only companion was Lucy, first a nanny and then a somewhat idiosyncratic governess. Ms. Lively's memoir of that isolated childhood is a balance, or perhaps a ricochet, between what she can actually remember and what history tells her was going on. There is seldom any correspondence between the two, and the book therefore becomes a frequently subtle exploration of the limits of juvenile perception.



Becoming Attached:

Unfolding the Mystery of the Infant-Mother Bond and Its Impact on Later Life

by Robert Karen.

Warner Books, 512 pages, $24.95.

This book grew out of The Atlantic's cover story for February, 1990.


Copyright © 1995 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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