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Books
Brief Reviews
by Phoebe-Lou Adams


Paul Gauguin:
A Complete Life

by David Sweetman.
Simon &Schuster, 600 pages,
$34.50.
Buy
Paul Gauguin: A Complete Life

Mr. Sweetman points out that "the one thing about which Gauguin was fastidiously honest is his frequent claim that he wasn't." "I am," the painter wrote, "a savage from Peru. If I tell you that on my mother's side, I descend from a Borgia of Aragon, Viceroy of Peru, you will say it is not true. . . ." It was true, among much else that was not, and this is the sort of thing to keep both biographer and reader alert. It is Mr. Sweetman's intention to account for the development, the imagery, and the meaning of Gauguin's brilliant but enigmatic paintings. There is the man with the white horse, the nude Tahitian beauty, the idol, the monster, the crouching mummy, the white cat--and the anonymous figures drifting or lurking in the background. These motifs appear in various combinations throughout the work Gauguin did during his two stays in Tahiti and his last, disease-ridden days in the Marquesas. Mr. Sweetman makes intelligent and plausible connections between the images and the painter's private and professional objectives. Gauguin yearned to make a large, preferably scandalous, splash in the Paris art world; he became enthusiastically involved in the post-Darwin, anti-industrial upsurge of unorthodox spiritual cults, including the Rosicrucians; and he developed his own concept of a universal faith "of eternal renewal, of rebirth and continuity and, ultimately, of hope." The promise of "A Complete Life" can raise the specter of mindlessly assembled trivialities.There is no such danger in Mr. Sweetman's admirable book, in which everything contributes meaning to Gauguin's work and illuminates his strange, stubborn, disaster-ridden life.



The Battle for History:
Re-fighting World War II

by John Keegan.
Vintage/Random House,
128 pages, $10.00.
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The Battle for History:
Re-fighting World War II

Mr. Keegan is a distinguished military historian, but this book is not a history of the Second World War. It is an explanation of why no inclusive history of that war has yet been written or perhaps ever will be, and what amounts to a reading list for anyone wishing to learn about the conflict from the best of the piecemeal accounts available. The text is brisk, lucid, dryly witty, and ideal for its intended purpose.



Rain of Iron and Ice
by John S. Lewis.
Addison-Wesley, 288 pages,
$25.00.
Buy
Rain of Iron and Ice


Mr. Lewis is a codirector for science at the NASA/University of Arizona Space Engineering Research Center for Utilization of Local Planetary Resources and the commissioner of the Arizona State Space Commission. He knows a great deal about asteroids, meteorites, and meteors, and he takes the Earthbound reader on a dizzying tour of the routes these objects follow and the spots where some have collided with Earth. More than 200 impact sites have been located, although such study was long delayed by an intellectual elite dominated by "snotty ignoramuses who have evidently never been outside at night." What has happened 200 times can happen again, and Mr. Lewis proposes plans for averting what could be a planetwide catastrophe. His text is not merely alarmist. He views asteroids as potentially beneficial. It is estimated that the smallest known metallic asteroid contains "over $1,000 billion worth of cobalt, $1,000 billion worth of nickel, $800 billion worth of iron, and $700 billion worth of platinum metals."Mr. Lewis envisions crushing this asteroid--its name is Amun--and bringing it to Earth "in tiny, safe packages." He also assumes that should Amun or its like set a collision course for Earth, there will be ample time to deflect it--if not to collect that enticing bonanza. Mr. Lewis takes long views and makes them exciting.



Journey to the
Land of the Flies &
Other Travels

by Aldo Buzzi,
translated by Ann Goldstein.
Random House, 160 pages,
$23.00.
Buy
Journey to the
Land of the Flies &
Other Travels


Mr. Buzzi's travels are an idiosyncratic mixture in which real places and precise details are interlocked and superimposed upon one another so that one is rarely certain where the author actually is. His "facts" are sometimes debatable. If "'cabbage-eater' is what the Russian is called in America," it must be in a restricted milieu. An Italian train ride somehow leads to reflections on James Joyce, who "took a route opposite to that of a normal writer: he began with a classic (Dubliners), continued with writings that became more and more complicated (Portrait of the Artist, Ulysses), and ended with a novel (Finnegans Wake) that is untranslatable and practically unreadable." Wherever he is and whatever his target, Mr. Buzzi is surprising.



Ambrose Bierce:
Alone in Bad Company

by Roy Morris Jr.
Crown, 306 pages, $30.00.
Read the first chapter of
Ambrose Bierce:
Alone in Bad Company

Ambrose Bierce (1842­1914?) wrote a review that should be posted in every publisher's office:"The covers of this book are too far apart." He also wrote an all-purpose inimical epitaph:"Here lies 'So-and-so'--as usual." He advised readers of his San Francisco newspaper column, "Don't believe without evidence. Treat things divine with marked respect--don't have anything to do with them. Do not trust humanity without collateral security. . . ." As a social or literary critic, he used an elephant gun indiscriminately on mice and dinosaurs. As a fiction writer, he began in the wake of Bret Harte and was later swamped by Mark Twain, but the best of his macabre tales, whether coldly ironic or comically bloody, retain a unique power to chill the reader. One critic stated that "death is Bierce's only subject."There was reason for that preoccupation. Bierce enlisted in the Ninth Indiana Volunteer Infantry Regiment at the start of the Civil War and served at Shiloh, Chickamauga, and Chattanooga, and in numerous less famous but effectively murderous actions before his luck ran out, in 1864, at Kennesaw Mountain. He recovered from the head wound but not, Mr. Morris argues, from what he had seen--although it was more than twenty years before he turned war memories into fiction. Bierce was, by the way, a very good soldier who left the Army as an officer, and Mr. Morris, a Civil War historian, admirably describes the battles Bierce fought and the conditions he met. The author does well in reconstructing Bierce's subsequent life as an abrasive newspaperman whose up-and-down career left him, at age seventy-one, out of fashion and a job. He went off to Mexico, allegedly to view another civil war, and disappeared. Speculations about his fate have continued ever since. Mr. Morris disbelieves most of the theories about Bierce's death and despises some of them. His own theory is as unprovable as any, but it suits both Bierce's independent character and his penchant for creating annoyance. This is a fine biography of an eccentric who remains wickedly quotable.



The Demon-Haunted
World

by Carl Sagan.
Random House, 480 pages,
$25.95.

Professor Sagan's protest against superstition and the uncritical acceptance of pseudo-scientific claims may not be read by the audience he hopes to reach; they presumably enjoy reports of rape by Bigfoot. Even the already-converted skeptic, however, is likely to find novel points of interest in the author's analysis of flying saucers, alien abductions, and memories retrieved under hypnosis.



Acid
by Edward Falco.
University of Notre Dame, 248 pages, $25.00/$14.95.

"The Artist," one of the stories in this collection, first appeared in the October, 1994, Atlantic.


Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; March 1996; Volume 277, No. 3; pages 124-126.

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