m_topn picture
Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

J A N U A R Y   1 9 9 6

Books
Brief Reviews
by Phoebe-Lou Adams


Invisible Allies
by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn,
translated by Alexis Klimoff and Michael Nicholson.
Counterpoint, 352 pages, $29.50.
Read the first chapter of
Invisible Allies

Mr. Solzhenitsyn could not have disseminated his writings in the Soviet Union or smuggled his works to the outside world without the help of admirers who typed and stored manuscripts, provided hideouts where he could work undisturbed, and acted as couriers. It was time-consuming work, decidedly dangerous, and, of course, unpaid. Mr. Solzhenitsyn cannot compensate his supporters except by making a public tribute to them, for many are now dead and some he never knew. His sketches of those he did know and his accounts of what they did introduce the reader to brave, dedicated, generous people, some of whom acted out of a desire to reform Soviet society while disagreeing with Mr. Solzhenitsyn's vision of the shape that reform should take. Many of these allies were women--possibly women found it easier to avoid the eye of the secret police--and all of them ran a very serious risk of abuse, imprisonment, and murder. The author believes that an attempt was made to murder him, and an appendix containing the 1992 statement of a former KGB agent appears to confirm that. Altogether, this memoir presents a grim contrast between the Soviet government's brutality and stupidity and the nerve and ingenuity of its citizens.



At Eighty-Two
by May Sarton.
Norton, 350 pages, $23.00.

The late May Sarton, poet and novelist among other things, kept a journal through her eighty-second year. It is a chronicle of good friends, correspondence leading at times to a "disastrous pile" of unanswered letters, excitement at the production of a play written long ago, and the eccentricities of her overweight cat, who, given food recommended by the vet because Pierrot "will not like it and will not eat it," fairly wolfed it down. The journal also records the annoyances of old age: uncertain balance, clumsy fingers, mislaid names and objects, inadequate strength, frequent pain, and the admission that "words do not obey me anymore"--infuriating for a professional master of words. Sarton was saddened by the belief that "my work has missed the boat," the boat being serious critical attention, and consoled herself by quoting Hilaire Belloc on his own work: "His sins were scarlet, but his books were read." She remained capable of determining "to make a new start and to pull myself up by the bootstraps and behave better altogether." She cannot do that now, but her books will continue to be read.



I. M. Pei
by Michael Cannell.
Carol Southern/Crown, 402 pages, $35.00.
Read the first chapter of
I. M. Pei

Ieoh Ming Pei was born to a prosperous banking dynasty in Suzhou, a city renowned in China for beauty and elegance. Pursuit of an architectural education brought him to the United States and Chinese communism kept him here. Mr. Cannell's study of the career of the "Mandarin of Modernism" is less the biography of an individual--his subject is noted for a combination of great charm and impenetrable reserve--than it is a history of the architecture of the past fifty years. It covers influences--traditional, modernist, postmodernist--and technical innovations and intra-professional arguments, illustrating these developments with Pei's buildings and the uproar they sometimes caused. His Hancock tower alarmed the citizens of Boston by spewing windows onto the sidewalk; once brought to order, the skyscraper proved both handsome and unobtrusive. His proposal to build a glass pyramid as the new entrance to the Louvre kept Paris in a fierce tizzy of argument for months; when finished, the pyramid won acceptance and applause. One learns a great deal from this book about the peripheral problems, both diplomatic and financial, of large-scale construction. One does not learn much about I. M. Pei except in the character of accomplished and successful architect. And, come to think of it, why should one want to? The buildings are what matters.



Assassination
at St. Helena Revisited

by Ben Weider and Sten Forshufvud.
Wiley, 555 pages, $30.00.

The late Sten Forshufvud was a Swedish dentist with a side interest in toxicology and an enthusiasm for Napoleon. In reading the memoirs of people who knew the Emperor on St. Helena, he realized that most of them, allowing for differing vocabularies and points of view, were describing a man suffering from chronic arsenic poisoning. He succeeded in collecting well-provenanced samples of Napoleon's hair and submitted them to Dr. Hamilton Smith, of Glasgow University, for analysis. The arsenic was there. This finding was first published in 1961, and evolved into reasons for assuming that a supposedly devoted member of Napoleon's staff--Count Charles Tristan de Montholon--was the poisoner. Ben Weider, another Bonaparte buff, who collaborated with Forshufvud on a subsequent book, has some reason for presenting this revised and expanded version, because the earlier account did not entirely eliminate the possibility that the British rid themselves of an expensive prisoner. More-recent and more-refined examination of the hair samples establishes that the British contributed no more to the murder than a stupid doctor. The style of this book suggests that most of the writing was done by Weider, who has an unfortunate tendency toward repetition and linguistic melodrama. Readers who can tolerate that, and are curious about what actually happened on St. Helena, will find the history interesting. They will also learn how to disguise a murder, provided they can lay hands on the substances that actually killed Napoleon. He did not die of arsenic.



Poles Apart:
Parallel Visions of the
Arctic and Antarctic

by Galen Rowell.
Mountain Light Press/University of California, 184 pages, $39.95.

Mr. Rowell is a fine outdoor photographer who captures nature's aspects from minute plants to gigantic icebergs. In showing his pictures he has come upon people who imagine polar bears on the Ross Ice Shelf and penguins at Point Barrow, and he has therefore compiled this book of photographs illustrating the differences between the North Pole and the South. The photographs are beautiful in themselves, sometimes surprising (a polar bear romping amiably with a sled dog), sometimes amazing (a penguin rocketing out of a wave crest), and always informative. Mr. Rowell's text is gracefully written and poignantly sympathetic to the creatures and the country that he records.


Visions of the North:
Native Art of the Northwest Coast

by Don and Debra McQuiston.
Chronicle, 120 pages, $35.00/$19.95.

The McQuistons, father and daughter, appear to be the instigators and editors of a book with text by Lynne Bush and photographs by Tom Till. It is a handsome book, because the subject matter is handsome. Insofar as information is concerned, four cooks have made a weak broth.



The Spirit Level
by David Barber.
Triquarterly Books/Northwestern University Press, 76 pages, $29.95/$12.95.

David Barber is the assistant poetry editor of The Atlantic. A poem from this collection, "The Lather," appeared in the September, 1995, Atlantic.


Copyright © (1996) by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; January 1996; Volume 277, No. 1; pages 112-114.

m_nv_cv picture m_nv_un picture m_nv_am picture m_nv_pr picture m_nv_as picture m_nv_se picture