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Books
Brief Reviews
by Phoebe-Lou Adams


In the Lake of the Woods

by Tim O'Brien.

Houghton Mifflin/Seymour Lawrence, 306 pages, $21.95.

On its simplest level Mr. O'Brien's novel is about the disintegration of a marriage based on concealment. On its several other levels it is about isolation, childhood influences, the power of memory, and the actions of men at war. The hero is a politician whose promising career has been destroyed by the revelation of his misconduct in Vietnam. His wife, well aware that Vietnam torments his dreams, had known nothing of the murder and massacre underlying the nightmares. The husband is equally ignorant of her opinions on several important matters. When the two retreat to a cabin in the wilds of Minnesota to recover from the shock of a disastrous election, their partnership explodes. Exactly how it explodes is left to the reader's imagination, for the novel is provocatively open-ended. It is also idiosyncratic in form, incorporating chapters consisting entirely of quotations from diverse sources, all relevant (at least obliquely) and all footnoted, including those invented by the author. Mr. O'Brien is equally skillful in evoking the horrors of the Vietnam War, the woods and wilderness of the Canadian border, and the characters of the people who reach out to each other but never quite touch. This is a fine and intelligent novel.



Another World

by Jan Myrdal, translated by Alan Bernstein.

Ravenswood Books, 206 pages, $19.95.

The author is the son of Alva and Gunnar Myrdal, Nobel laureates but, according to this autobiographical novel, deplorable parents. "Autobiographical novel" is in this case a nebulous term. The author explains, in a testy postscript, "I'm writing a story about an eleven-year-old who moves into a new world," but ends that paragraph with "as I have not forgiven, I have not forgotten." What he has not forgiven is a parental indifference amounting to psychological abuse; what he has not forgotten is the mixture of suspicion and curiosity with which, at age eleven, he confronted American society and the city of New York. Determined not to appear a bumbling immigrant, he carefully observed local table manners, and presents a comic ballet of crisscrossing cutlery. He uses the same soberly factual technique in describing his home in Sweden, a house designed for his parents by a fashionable avant-garde architect and, as the point-by-point account makes clear, a structural monstrosity. This memoir--one really cannot accept it as fiction--should be a warning to all parents. Be gentle to your little boy; don't beat him when he sneezes. Of course he does it to annoy, but he may grow up to be a writer.



The Virginia Adventure

by Ivor Noel Hume.

Knopf, 491 pages, $35.00.

As the chief archaeologist at Colonial Williamsburg and a longtime resident of Virginia, Mr. Hume is highly qualified to discuss what went on in the first English settlements at Roanoke Island and James Towne. Roanoke remains a mystery and probably always will, but through excavations (however amateurish) and surviving records (however piecemeal and contradictory) Mr. Hume has reconstructed a great deal of the activity at James Fort, later James Towne and eventually little more than a dockside for inland areas. Dealing with old records presents problems that the author explains with wry resignation. There are various references to fortifications, for example, but how are they to be interpreted when "the word 'palizado' could mean anything from an entire wall to a single stake"? Mr. Hume is not a debunker. He looks for the probable facts behind the legends. John Smith was certainly a shameless tooter of his own horn, and not one to let mundane accuracy dilute a good story, but he did, Mr. Hume finds, assert efficiency and common sense among a rabble of contentious layabouts. It is a pleasure to find tradition supported and enlarged by scholarship and a charming prose style.



How to Travel With a Salmon and Other Essays

by Umberto Eco, translated by William Weaver.

Harcourt Brace, 256 pages, $18.95.

Mr. Eco's assembled essays are impishly witty and ingeniously irreverent. The salmon of the title is a cover for a suave diatribe against badly managed pseudo-luxury hotels. A spoof of intergalactic science fiction needles military protocol and positively shoots down utopian visions of equal rights for all. Mr. Eco is always amusing and never hesitates to make his audience think.



Witness

by Susan Middleton and David Liittschwager.

Chronicle, 256 pages, $50.00/$29.95.

This is a sort of family photograph album, the family being "Endangered Species of North America"--beautiful, odd, familiar and unfamiliar--with concise information on the species' habitats and enemies. The photographers hope that these portraits of animals and plants will assist in renewing the Endangered Species Act. One can only hope that they will do that, for these fellow citizens are too interesting to lose.



Hunting Dinosaurs

by Louie Psihoyos with John Knoebber.

Random House, 288 pages, $40.00.

Mr. Psihoyos is a photographer, and his assistant, Mr. Knoebber, is a man of many careers, some "best left unlisted and for which he has never been convicted." The two ranged the world, looking up and interviewing paleontologists and photographing dinosaur skeletons reconstructed through the efforts of dedicated, often volunteer, fossil hunters. The style of the text is colloquial to the point of chattiness, appropriate in a field where two revered early practitioners, the rival collectors Cope and Marsh, resorted to bribery, sabotage, and bone rustling. Dinosaur enthusiasts have never been solemn academicians.



Adobe

by Orlando Romero and David Larkin; photography by Michael Freeman.

Houghton Mifflin/David Larkin, 240 pages, $50.00.

The authors extol the merits of adobe, a building material cool in summer, warm in winter, readily available, inexpensive, easily worked, environmentally harmless, and, with proper care, capable of lasting for centuries. They make a convincing case for all but the ease of care, which amounts to meticulous and extensive annual maintenance. They also emphasize the beauty of adobe buildings, from a mosque in Mali to houses in California, and of this there can be no doubt whatever. Michael Freeman's photographs reveal that the soft, flowing lines of mud-brick construction retain their elegance whether they house a frontiersman's gear or a formal drawing room.



Searching for Mercy Street

by Linda Gray Sexton.

Little, Brown, 320 pages, $22.95.

Ms. Sexton is the daughter of the poet Anne Sexton. Her "Journey Back to My Mother" is partly an attempt to escape the influence of that difficult and sometimes abusive parent and partly a justification of her decision to allow a biographer full access to the details of Sexton's neurotically disordered life. Readers of that biography, which annoyed relatives and disillusioned admirers, will find little new information in Ms. Sexton's memoir. Any reader will understand why her prose occasionally verges on the frenetic. The book is best viewed as a therapeutic exercise--an attempt to exorcise the maternal ghost.


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