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Books
Brief Reviews
by Phoebe-Lou Adams


Jerzy Kosinski

by James Park Sloan.
Dutton, 505 pages, $27.95.
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Jerzy Kosinski

Jerzy Kosinski was a recent immigrant to the United States when his first novel, The Painted Bird, was widely praised and became a virtual cult item among undergraduate readers. His second, Steps, won the National Book Award. Both, like his subsequent novels, were based on childish fantasies of power and revenge expanded to incorporate an adult understanding of sex and money. From a rigidly literal viewpoint, Kosinski was a chronic liar. He had been trained to lie as a small boy while his Jewish parents (their real name was Lewinkopf) evaded Nazi destruction by masquerading as Christians in a small Polish town, and Mr. Sloan attributes his subject's later preoccupation with questions of identity, privacy, and secrecy to that early experience. Kosinski's literary distinction led to connections in influential circles, where he was respected as a man of wit, charm, and genius . . . and as a great raconteur. In 1982 the Village Voice, probably for reasons of literary politics, published "Jerzy Kosinski's Tainted Words,"an attack accusing him of working for the CIA, misrepresenting his past, plagiarizing a pre-war Polish novelist, and hiring ghost writers to create his books. Mr. Sloan does not quote from that piece or give more than a quick summary of its contents. He points out that none of the alleged ghosts has ever emerged as a fiction writer, and that only one claimed to have done more than smooth Kosinski's unidiomatic English. The plagiarism charge, unless actual copying of the victim's text is found, can be dismissed as absurd. Creators have presumably been borrowing from their predecessors ever since the first yarn spinner sat by a cave fire explaining how the mammoth got away. Justified or not, the attack seriously disturbed Kosinski, and may have contributed to his suicide--although nine years seems a long delay in succumbing to public humiliation. Aside from the Village Voice omission--which rankles--Mr. Sloan's biography is a thorough, interesting, sympathetic account of a man who "lived in an age of incongruities" and became in consequence "actor, celebrity, and trickster . . . both less than a writer and more."



The Bürgermeister's
Daughter

by Steven Ozment.
St. Martin's,
240 pages, $23.95.
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The Bürgermeister's Daughter


About 1525 the wealthy and influential bürgermeister of Schwäbisch Hall learned that his daughter Anna was juggling two lovers and had, during his absence, entertained one of them with a raid on the paternal wine cellar. He disinherited her. Anna, who was no meek maiden, sued. The action continued until her death, in 1552, with claims and counterclaims proceeding through the various courts available in the Holy Roman Empire--courts that often disagreed on their areas of jurisdiction and even viewed one another as rivals. Professor Ozment's reconstruction of this family money row develops into an account of the religious and social upheavals of the period and into analyses of inheritance law, the position of women, business practices, and local political chicanery. It is, in short, a very considerable history by an accomplished scholar, covering everything from women's hats to papal wars.



Dream Fish and
Road Trips

by E. Donnall Thomas Jr.
Lyons & Burford, 184 pages,
$22.95.
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Dream Fish and Road Trips


The unpretentious ease of Mr. Thomas's fly-fishing memories derives from his love of wild country, his respect for any fish that "turned aerial cartwheels and otherwise conducted themselves . . . well on the end of the line," and his belief that fishing, regardless of expectations or results, is fun. "And fun is never disappointing."



Edouard Manet

by Beth Archer Brombert.
Little, Brown,
528 pages, $29.95.
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Edouard Manet


Discretion was expected of a nineteenth-century gentleman, and the painter Manet (1832­1883) was a gentleman by birth who remained true to the standards of his class--to the restrained annoyance of his biographer. Ms. Brombert can only speculate about discontent with his fat wife, guilt over their illegitimate son, and love affairs with women including Berthe Morisot. There is no evidence on any of those matters, and the biographer gives them rather too much space. What Ms. Brombert does very well indeed is to describe Manet's professional situation as a painter of contemporary life, much admired by his colleagues and much reviled by conservative and intemperate critics. The fury Manet aroused may have been caused in part by the mischievous question implied in one of his most famous works: Why is a naked female in an improbable setting and titled Venus a respectable nude, but a scandal if she is called Olympia and reclines on a modern bed? What are you fellows really admiring? It remains a question worth considering, although Manet's status as a great and innovative painter poses no question at all.



The
Mediterranean Cat

by Hans Silvester.
Chronicle, 144 pages, $29.95.

Mr. Silvester's new cats are as divertingly posed and as superbly photographed as those in his Cats in the Sun. He introduces them with an amiable reminiscence of his personal cats, but gives no information on how much watching and waiting lies behind his pictures.



Bella and Me

by Herblock.
Bonus Books, 47 pages,
$12.95.
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Bella and Me


Visually, Bella is the zaniest cartoon feline since Krazy Kat. In character she combines recalcitrant teenager and severely demanding wife. One can only chuckle and wonder about the target of Herblock's amusing volley.



The Book of Secrets

by M. G. Vassanji.
Picador/St. Martin's,
352 pages, $24.00.
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The Book of Secrets


Mr. Vassanji was born in East Africa and educated in the United States. His novel, set in his native country, presents a puzzle arising from the 1913 diary of a British colonial administrator and the descendants of people mentioned in that oddly surviving book. Perhaps more important, the story covers the history of Indian-Muslim immigrants to East Africa from the First World War to the present, the tight-knit community they established, and the rise of one family from illiterate poverty in Dar es Salaam to wealth and status in London. The novel is well written, multi-layered, and teasingly inconclusive, and offers a view of an area seldom treated in fiction.



The Secret of
the Incas

by William Sullivan
Crown, 496 pages, $35.00.

Mr. Sullivan candidly explains that his study was inspired by two books--Alexander Marshack's The Roots of Civilization and Hamlet's Mill, by Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend. The first demonstrates the enormous antiquity of moon-calendar keeping, and the second argues the factual content of myths. Mr. Sullivan sees Inca myth as a coded record of astronomical events with a bearing on Inca religion. He does not expect to be taken seriously by archaeologists, astronomers, anthropologists, or myth experts, and he probably won't be, but even if one assumes that the puzzle the author claims to have solved was of his own creation, his book is of interest as the record of an intellectual obsession.



True Love Waits

by Wendy Kaminer.
Addison-Wesley, 304 pages,
$22.00.

Several of the essays in this collection originally appeared in The Atlantic.



The Ends of the Earth:
A Journey at the Dawn of the 21st Century

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The Ends of the Earth:
A Journey at the Dawn of the 21st Century

by Robert D. Kaplan.
Random House, 496 pages, $27.50.

Portions of this book first appeared in The Atlantic.



Asking for Love

by Roxana Robinson.
Random House, 288 pages,
$23.00.

Several of the stories in this collection first appeared in The Atlantic.


Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; April 1996; Volume 277, No. 4; pages 124-6.

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