m_topn picture
Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

A U G U S T   1 9 9 4

Books
Brief Reviews
by Phoebe-Lou Adams


Shear

by Tim Parks.

Grove, 211 pages, $21.00.

Nicholson, the protagonist of Mr. Parks's novel, is an English geologist sent to a Mediterranean island to inspect a quarry. He has with him his very young mistress, whose "explosion had blown off the weathered crust on him, taken both of them to a primitive state of fused magma." There is a good deal of this sort of metaphor in a tale told entirely through the thoughts and sensations of a man who habitually translates reality into mineral terms. By the time Nicholson asks himself why he is "forever casting about for analogies instead of dealing quickly and sensibly with the facts, forever chasing the kind of insubstantial profundities that preceded sleep," the reader is tempted to ask, Why indeed? For there is a plot underlying pluton and graining patterns and crystal stress. Nicholson is troubled by heat and glaring sun, and bedeviled by women. There are the mistress, the enigmatic local doxy whom he carelessly acquires, the complaining wife back in England, and a widow whose husband was killed on a construction job by a piece of stone from the quarry. She has come all the way from Australia seeking explanation or revenge or both. Nicholson is lured into taking an interest in the widow's troubles, which ultimately forces him to make decisions in terms of people and ethical responsibility rather than feldspar and biotite. This is a type of "shear"--incompatible pressures exerted on rock--to which Nicholson is not accustomed, and the problem posed by the novel is, How will the man react to it? That question becomes provocative and exciting.



D-Day

by Stephen E. Ambrose.

Simon & Schuster, 656 pages, $30.00.

"June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II"--the subtitle is a fair description of what Mr. Ambrose considers, with good reason, to be one of the most remarkable military operations in history. His account of D-Day skillfully combines official facts with the personal recollections of survivors, both Allied and Axis. It is a complicated story, from debate over the site of the proposed landings, to the intricate equipment employed, to the difficulties of assembling the enormous Allied force, to the charades that kept the Nazis uncertain and confused about what that force would do. There was also, of course, the collection of intelligence about the battle terrain and a minute-by-minute schedule of the proposed action. The information on the terrain was inadequate and the schedule went to pot at the opening move, forcing Allied troops to do what they could rather than what they had been assigned to do. That sort of thing led a Navy man, scrabbling along with a rifle in an infantry group, to complain that it was just what he had joined the Navy to avoid. While Allied troops improvised, Nazi troops followed their pre-attack orders, and those orders remained unchanged because most German commanders were miles away, attending a conference or otherwise engaged or "rendered immobile by the intricacies of the leadership principle in the Third Reich." There have been other books about D-Day and will be more, but it seems unlikely that any can more effectively combine information on material details (including the fantastic but effective British contraptions known as Hobart's Funnies) and command decisions with anecdotal accounts of what men saw, horrible or ludicrous, and did, heroic or stupid, on that terrible, improbably successful day.



The Impossible Country

by Brian Hall.

Godine, 352 pages, $23.95.

Mr. Hall traveled around Yugoslavia in the last months before the country shattered into secession and civil war. It was not his first visit, so he had friends to stay with and connections to re-establish. He could get about, talking to people and listening to people, and Mr. Hall is a fine listener. He knows the relevant history, too, and when Croat nationalists maintain that Bosnia "'had always belonged to Croatia,'" can inform the reader that the claim is based "on an interpretation of a somewhat obscure passage in the historical writings of the tenth-century Byzantine emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus." Similar old claims, along with equally old feuds and group stereotypes, lurked behind the surface opinions of almost all of Mr. Hall's informants, while almost all of them also professed a desire for peaceful cooperation and a belief that diplomacy would bring that about. Mr. Hall does not accuse the Yugoslavs of hypocrisy. He presents, with sympathy and frequently with humor, the inhabitants of a country that never was a country, a disparate people who were never united except by their resentment of a foreign conqueror. The book is a tragic portrait and an excellent piece of reporting.



The Bird Artist

by Howard Norman.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 289 pages, $20.00.

The time of Mr. Norman's novel is 1911; the setting is Witless Bay, a coastal village in Newfoundland; and the narrator is Fabian Vas, a young man who draws birds when he is not busy at the boatyard or making love to a hotheaded young woman named Margaret. Fabian is on the way to modest success as a bird artist, but he is uncertain, somewhat inarticulate, and altogether too immature to resist his parents' determination to marry him off to a cousin whom he has never met. His parents' situation is no enticement to matrimony and provokes a blowup that converts Fabian's wedding into gruesome farce. The subsequent sorting out of guilt and retribution is not happy, but it is a fine example of a family and a close-knit community holding the law at bay. Mr. Norman writes well, in a stripped-down style that suggests a Viking galley--nothing superfluous, everything present working to perfection.



Love and Hatred

by William L. Shirer.

Simon & Schuster, 400 pages, $25.00.

It would be heresy worthy of the stake to suggest that Leo Tolstoy was less than a great novelist, but it is surely safe to describe him as an abominable husband. Mr. Shirer's account of what he subtitles "The Troubled Marriage of Leo and Sonya Tolstoy" attempts to be fair both to the self-righteous genius and to his overworked, overemotional, and eventually neurotic wife, and succeeds insofar as it covers their differences. It does not explain how they ever stood each other at all (at times they certainly did), nor does it offer extensive information not already available to anyone acquainted with the miseries of that reciprocally willful and inconsiderate couple. The book may be considered a hike over a largely well-traveled trail, very well conducted for a companion unfamiliar with the territory.


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