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Books
Brief Reviews
by Phoebe-Lou Adams


In the Place of Fallen Leaves

by Tim Pears.

Donald I. Fine, 310 pages, $21.95.

The official narrator of this amiably attractive novel is Alison, the youngest child of farmers in a remote valley of Devonshire. The family is large, universally eccentric, and more prosperous than the thirteen-year-old girl realizes. During the fiercely hot, dry summer of 1984 Alison observes her relatives, all of whom, in their separate ways, turn even odder than usual. So does she. So does the rector. So, in the background, does the whole village. In addition to Alison, and improbably pretending to be Alison, is an omniscient third-person narrator who reports what the girl neither sees nor could understand. The arrangement works because the transitions are smoothly made and permit the inclusion of such matters as the traditional hostility of the local farmers to the local viscount and the theological problems of the rector, all of which contribute to the liveliness and quirkiness of the action. The novel is very active indeed, both in the past of brawls and a quarry flood and in the present, where Alison and the viscount's son harmlessly haunt the quarry pool and less harmlessly investigate a barn. By the end of the summer everything has changed for Alison except her sense of a family solidarity that will continue into the future as it has lasted through its long past. Mr. Pears's writing is graceful, sometimes lyrical, often amusing, and always engaging.



Reef

by Romesh Gunesekera.

The New Press, 144 pages, $20.00.

Triton, the novel's first-person protagonist, is eleven years old when his uncle turns him over to Mister Salgado, "a real gentleman," to do "whatever the hell he tells you." The place is Sri Lanka, wavering between traditional placidity and political uproar. Triton dutifully learns to please his kindly employer, becoming the ideal houseboy-cook, totally devoted to the well-being of Mister Salgado. Aside from cooking, which he does superbly, and keeping the mildly decrepit establishment in order, Triton's only interests are admiration for the beauty of his island and every book he can lay hands on. His only sympathies are with the affairs of Mister Salgado and his circle. Triton should be dull, but Mr. Gunesekera's skill makes the young man's narrow view revealing, by implication, of a disintegrating society, and his sometimes imaginative notions worth respect. The tale has a touch of magic in it, and the descriptions of lush Sri Lankan scenery are delightful.



A Way Through the Wilderness

by William C. Davis.

HarperCollins, 400 pages, $30.00.

Mr. Davis's history of the Natchez Trace and the southern frontier abounds in anecdote--some of dubious provenance--and practical detail. One learns who operated early inns and where, what their prices were, and which provided the worst accommodations and the least-edible food. One learns that the first official road, replacing Indian trails, ran well behind schedule and well over the projected cost. One encounters Indians both friendly and hostile and a traveler who, lavishly entertained with dishes almost entirely composed of variations on the sweet potato, went to bed on a mattress stuffed with sweet-potato vines and dreamed "that we had turned into a big potato, and that some one was digging us up."Mr. Davis has assembled a fine hodgepodge of information, some serious, some trivial, some exotic. What he has not done is offer any clue as to how the prices he quotes compared with those current in longer-settled areas, or how money values of the early nineteenth century compare with those of today. A financially minded reader must resort to a personal computer for that sort of thing. Those content with wild characters, tall tales, shipping traffic on the Mississippi, and southern politics can forge happily ahead on their own.



East, West

by Salman Rushdie.

Pantheon, 224 pages, $21.00.

Set in the East, the West, or where the twain uncomfortably meet, Mr. Rushdie's short stories expertly accomplish what the author intends to have them do, from arousing a chuckle to chilling a spine.



The Notorious Life of Gyp: Right-Wing Anarchist in Fin-de-Siecle France

by Willa Z. Silverman.

Oxford, 352 pages, $27.50.

When a French aristocrat of the nineteenth century found herself encumbered with an uncongenial and improvident husband, one permissible recourse was the pen. Marie de Gonneville, first separated from her husband, Arundel-Joseph, last of the Mirabeau counts, and then widowed by that clumsy nobleman, turned to novel writing with some success. Her one child, whose name ultimately became Sibylle-Gabrielle Marie-Antoinette de Riquetti de Mirabeau, comtesse de Martel de Janville, did the same with immense success. She signed herself "Gyp," pretended to be an army officer with a satirical view of fashionable society, perfected (if she did not entirely invent) the enfant terrible as narrator in the persona of Petit Bob (who also drew caricatures), and aroused social disapproval, political excitement, and the respect of Henry James (whose admiration may have come from Gyp's ability to tell a tale fast and entirely through dialogue --things he could not do). She was an altogether remarkable woman, a combination of fanatical nationalist and right-wing anarchist, capable of recruiting a mob and of informing a court that her profession was "Anti-Semite,"which was at least partly true. Her influence during the Dreyfus Affair was pernicious. She died in 1932, aged eighty-three, and was projecting a new book as late as 1930. Ms. Silverman has written an admirable biography of this enormously productive and frequently inconsistent author, offering reasonable explanations for Gyp's attitudes and opinions and providing a sound re-creation of the society that she inhabited, entertained, and disturbed.



Charles M. Russell: Sculptor

by Rick Stewart.

Amon Carter Museum/Abrams, 400 pages, $95.00.

Mr. Stewart is the curator of western painting and sculpture at the Amon Carter Museum, but his study of Russell's sculpture extends far beyond the museum's collection. He begins with a brisk, well-written account of Russell's picturesque career, proceeds to the intricacies of settling the artist's estate and that of his devoted and stubborn widow, and concludes with a survey of all known Russell works, including the unauthorized and even fake pieces that appeared after Nancy Russell's death. Anyone who hopes to buy a Russell bronze should take warning from that final section. The range is booby-trapped. Noncollectors can simply enjoy the photographs of the muscular, evocative Old West figures that Russell created, not only in bronze but out of "wax, wood, string, hemp, paint," with the occasional incorporation of wire, pins, tacks, or anything else that came to hand. The contents of the toolbox with which Russell was working at the time of his death included (besides eight modeling tools) wire, thread, glue, two tin spoons, a handleless china cup, a dozen other oddments, and "1 pair old Black Silk Gloves Tied Together." Along with his gifts as a painter, a sculptor, and an author, Russell was an uninhibited master of mixed media.


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