J U N E 1 9 9 4
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.