m_topn picture
Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

J U L Y   1 9 9 4

Books
Brief Reviews
by Phoebe-Lou Adams


F Was a Fanciful Frog

by Edmund Dulac.

Abbeville/Library of Congress, 28 pages, $8.95.

Dulac (1882-1953) was an artist and designer who flourished in the days of beautifully illustrated books. He also wrote. This facsimile of his alphabet in limericks contains delightfully witty drawings and items such as "L was a Lorn little lass / With a grief that no grief could surpass. / John had left for the field / With his sword, lance, and shield, / And his luncheon inside his cuirass." It must be admitted that Dulac was not a master of the limerick, but John's weeping damsel and disapproving horse compensate for all textual deficiencies.



Like Hidden Fire: The Plot to Bring Down the British Empire

by Peter Hopkirk.

Kodansha, 384 pages, $25.00.

Having chronicled the Anglo-Russian contest for influence in central Asia in The Great Game, Mr. Hopkirk has turned his attention to the turn-of-the-century German attempt to gain control of the same region, which became little short of bizarre. Wilhelm II envisioned what one of his supporters described as an empire stretching "from the North Sea to the Persian Gulf, absorbing Holland, Switzerland, the entire Danube basin, the Balkans and Turkey," not to mention the Russian Caucasus and, ultimately, India. The Kaiser had India very much in mind, and hoped to arm a Muslim-Hindu rising there. This led to a comic-opera gun-running plot that got nowhere, and to the Berlin-to-Baghdad railway and an alliance with Turkey, which alarmed both Russia and Britain. When the Kaiser provoked, perhaps unintentionally, the First World War, German operations in the East were curtailed and a number of brave and clever agents were left floundering. Their British opposite numbers, who had not been idle, were little better off. Mr. Hopkirk's history starts rather slowly, because he must explain the diplomatic background in Europe from 1890 to 1914, but when he gets to on-the-spot action, the tale is absorbing and well populated with odd characters. There are the two wily Germans who made it to Afghanistan through dreadful country and the Allied cordon designed to stop them, there to encounter the equally wily, graciously hospitable, permanently evasive Emir. There is Enver, the de facto ruler of Turkey, officially a German cat's-paw but harboring his own imperial ambitions. There are acknowledged British agents, disguised spies, and military commanders, all of whom dodged about, losing here and winning there. By the war's end the area harbored Germans, English, Turks, White Russians, and Bolsheviks, while the indigenous inhabitants included pro- and anti-German groups, pro- and anti-British groups, pro- and anti-Russian groups, anti-everybody Persians, rival Muslim sects, unaligned tribesmen, and simple bandits. There were train chases, gold thefts, a siege, captures and escapes, flights by night, and chaotic communications. Mr. Hopkirk has done a splendid job of sorting out the whole wild affair. He believes that he has even discovered what became of the gaudiest of the British intelligence officers, Reginald Teague-Jones, who disappeared from all records at the end of the war. One hopes that his supposition is correct. It is, by the way, advisable to have a map at hand when reading this fine book, for the geography involved is a formidable expanse.



Blacker Than a Thousand Midnights

by Susan Straight.

Hyperion, 384 pages, $21.95.

It is not necessary to have read Ms. Straight's previous novel to appreciate her new work, because the connections with I Been in Sorrow's Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots are based on cultural inheritance rather than previous events. The setting of the present book is a fringe suburb of Los Angeles, a poor, drug-and-gunfire-ridden neighborhood where blacks, Chicanos, and Asians compete for survival and honest householders of any group maintain themselves with difficulty. Ms. Straight's hero is Darnell, a bright young black man of part-Indian ancestry who loves high, wild country and fires. He has been happily fighting the latter in defense of the former, but when the State of California cuts funding despite a six-year drought, his job disappears. This does not surprise him. As a black, he was last hired and will be first fired. Meanwhile, he has acquired a wife and a baby daughter, and to be dependent on his wife's salary and his own help-out jobs with his testy father's tree-pruning business is a steadily depressing humiliation. He is caught between his desire to support his family as he believes a man should and a society in which jobs are scarce, the police offer no protection, the courts supply no justice, and clients for whom his father has done good work for years still lock their doors while the crew is on the premises. Ms. Straight makes Darnell's consciousness of constant danger and potential harassment vivid even in minor episodes: standing on a lawn, he automatically notes a hovering police helicopter and assumes that because the client is with him, he will not be suspected of burglary. Darnell's gravelly, skin-of-the-teeth world, with its network of family supports and resentments, becomes totally believable, as do his friends and relatives, the younger of whom gradually disappear into drugs or jail or death. Although the story is told entirely through Darnell's ideas and perceptions, the author quietly contrives to draw attention to the economic system and the ecological follies that burden citizens of all colors. The motif of fire runs throughout the book, an appropriate metaphor for a destructive and distorted world. Ms. Straight has written a novel that builds absorbing action and solid characterizations on a foundation of sound, disturbing thought.



Nineteenth Century Art

by Stephen F. Eisenman, with contributions by Thomas Crow, Brian Lukacher, Linda Nochlin, and Frances K. Pohl.

Thames and Hudson, 376 pages, $45.00.

This handsomely illustrated volume is subtitled "A Critical History," a description that applies to the position of the artists it covers rather than that of the contributing authors. The basic proposition is that with the breakdown of the old system of patronage by Church and State, artists had the freedom (even the necessity, if they wished to attract exceptional notice) to create their own iconography through either subject matter or presentation, and that the best of such personal art was "critical," usually a protest against an increasingly industrialized society and the social displacements and readjustments that were entailed. The artists whose work and ideas are considered begin with David and conclude with Cezanne, and the interpretations of their work are thoughtful, well related to factual background, usually enlivened by anecdote, and seldom encumbered by aesthetic jargon. Only major illustrations are in color, but one cannot expect everything.



Seismosaurus the Earth Shaker

by David D. Gillette, with illustrations by Mark Hallett.

Columbia, 224 pages, $39.95.

Seismosaurus was a very large animal even by dinosaur standards. Mr. Gillette, instrumental in excavating its so far unique skeleton, describes the problems of extracting huge bones from rock layers, speculates on the presence of gizzard grit (that the beast choked itself to death by trying to swallow an excessively large rock seems a bit farfetched--it should have had better sense), and discusses the process by which some bones become fossils. The writing is brisk and agreeable. Dinosaur enthusiasts should thoroughly enjoy the book, and the information on fossilization is worth the while of any reader interested in the remote past.



The Myths of August

by Stewart L. Udall.

Pantheon/Cornelia & Michael Bessie, 416 pages, $25.00.

There have been other reports on the damage done to American civilians by atomic-weapons tests, but none more thorough and ultimately infuriating than Mr. Udall's analysis of the irresponsible arrogance and calculated deceit practiced by the Atomic Energy Commission and the military during what he calls "Our Tragic Cold War Affair With the Atom." The deaths and illnesses--some of which could have been prevented by the dissemination of correct information--emerge as the practical aspect of what amounted to an abandonment of civilized ethics, a deliberate betrayal of citizens by the authorities assigned to protect them. The text is dense and sometimes rambles, but it should, however painfully, be read.



A Better Place to Live: Reshaping the American Suburb

by Philip Langdon.

University of Massachusetts, 288 pages, $29.95.

This book evolved from The Atlantic's cover story for March, 1988.


Copyright © 1995 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
m_nv_cv picture m_nv_un picture m_nv_am picture m_nv_pr picture m_nv_as picture m_nv_se picture