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Books
Brief Reviews
by Phoebe-Lou Adams


Browse an anthology of Brief Reviews by Pheobe-Lou Adams

Accordion Crimes
by E. Annie Proulx.
Scribner, 381 pages, $25.00.
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Accordion Crimes

"The accordion was so natural, a little friend. Easy and small to carry, easy to play, and loud, and can play bass rhythm and melody. Just the accordion and nothing else and you've got a dance." This is the opinion of a Mexican-American character, but it could just as well have come from any of the immigrant musicians who populate Ms. Proulx's splendid novel. The accordion of the title is an old-style, tenderly handmade instrument brought over from Sicily around 1890. Through murder, theft, carelessness, and even honest purchase, it crisscrosses the country, passed from one ethnic group to another. It enlivens a makeshift beer garden in South Dakota, where the German colony has a hard time during the First World War. It gets to Maine and Texas and Chicago, where old Mrs. Przybysz, a magnificent cook in the classic Polish style, has a daughter-in-law who makes "a fish shape from cottage cheese, canned tuna and Jell-O, with a black olive eye." Time passes, instruments grow more complicated, and the little old squeeze-box deteriorates from abuse and neglect, but it can still interest a Basque sheepherder. The immigrant groups through whose hands it passes also suffer abuse, neglect, and hard luck. They die of poor doctoring and alcohol and unpredictable accidents; their children scatter; their heritage is eroded. Ms. Proulx describes these people and their problems and their stubborn hopes for the future or regrets for the past with extraordinary conviction and a skill peculiarly her own. There appears to be no narrator between the reader and the characters. Here they are--this is what happens to them. Of course there is a narrator, invisible and omniscient, who slides into big scenes without warning, introduces important information as mere background detail, and arouses sympathy while seeming to cast a cold eye on all the action. Ms. Proulx is a magician.



The True History of Chocolate
by Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe.
Thames and Hudson, 288 pages, $27.50.
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The True History of Chocolate

Sophie D. Coe died before completing her engaging history of chocolate, which has been finished by her husband. The book covers archaeological information about the presumed use of chocolate from the Olmec to the Aztecs. The Aztecs flavored it with some surprising substances, and Europeans initially hated it. Sweetening converted them. As the drink spread across Europe, there were fierce debates about its medicinal effects--one school certain that it was a beneficent nutrient, the other denouncing it as sheer poison. There was also ecclesiastic debate as to whether it should be prohibited in Lent. That one was settled fairly quickly: the Jesuits were profitably cultivating and exporting the beans. All of this seems amusingly like our own times, and the Coes tell the story well.



The Frog
by John Hawkes.
Viking, 208 pages, $21.95.
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The Frog

Mr. Hawkes's novel concerns a small French boy who obsessively watches a large frog. When he falls asleep beside the pond, the frog invades his stomach, creating a lifetime of grotesque complications. Presumably the arrangement is designed to mean something beyond whimsy--the isolation of the artist, perhaps? --but neither the events nor the author's highly mannered style is of much help in determining what that something is.



The Gospel of Corax
by Paul Park.
Soho, 320 pages, $25.00.
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The Gospel of Corax

Corax, the narrator of Mr. Park's novel, is a second-generation Roman slave who takes advantage of his master's death to run away. He is determined to reach his ancestral country--an India of which he knows only his father's tales. He has an abnormally active imagination, a knowledge of languages, herbs, and surgery, and considerable talent as a thief. In Caesarea he encounters Judas ish Kariot--"a spy for Pontius Pilate"--and a group of Jewish rebels, including a large, violent, and seemingly stupid member of a "community of Jewish fanatics and thugs called `Essenes.'" This fellow, Jeshua, becomes Corax's companion on the long walk to India through the disordered fragments of Alexander's empire. Their adventures are wild, and complicated by the fact that both slide steadily further into mysticism. The novel is continuously interesting both for the lively action and for the historical detail, from political conditions to the names of surgical tools, with which Mr. Park supports his provocative tale.



Houseboat on the Seine
by William Wharton.
Newmarket, 240 pages, $22.95.
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Houseboat on the Seine

Mr. Wharton bought a fire-damaged houseboat very cheap, repaired it, and decorated it with gold brocade (also very cheap). As a boatman, he hardly knew a binnacle from a belaying pin, but he considered that no problem because a houseboat cannot go anywhere. He was wrong. It can go down, and when he took his eye off it, it did. The rescue operation involved two Breton brothers of formidable energy and ingenuity, family, friends, bystanders, and maltreatment of Mrs. Wharton's small English car. Accounts of restoring a damaged dwelling are usually beguiling, and Mr. Wharton's gracefully written memoir is a nice example of the genre. Is it atavistic longing for a better tree that makes such stories appealing?



The Statement
by Brian Moore.
Dutton/William Abrahams, 250 pages, $22.95.
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The Statement

Mr. Moore's novel follows the pattern of manhunt suspense tales but is unusual for the type. The quarry is Pierre Brossard, a Vichy collaborator who has been on the run for forty years. He has been protected by conservative elements in the Catholic Church and by sympathizers in the French government, but times have changed, power has shifted, and when a revengeful Jewish group picks up his trail, his safe places begin to close down. The chase, while properly exciting, is subordinate to the author's examination of the ethical positions that led decent clerics to defend a bad man and enabled a bad man to indulge in delusions of virtue. The argument is grimly intelligent..



The Hotel in the Jungle
by Albert J. Guerard.
Baskerville, 340 pages, $23.00.
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The Hotel in the Jungle

There was no hotel in 1870, when the first North Americans turned up in a poor village on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, in Oaxaca, Mexico. One survived, returning in 1922 to find the village adorned with a resort hotel equipped with gamblers, prostitutes, and a Stanley Steamer. The village was still poor sixty years later, when a woman scholar arrived looking for information about her predecessors. The hotel was in bad shape, but the Stanley could still achieve motion, and the abandoned city of Casas Grandes, which all these people were determined to visit, was still sinisterly there, luring travelers into the past. Mr. Guerard mingles real, semi-real, and invented characters, the past and the present, the unchanging jungle and the feeble veneer of progress, to fine effect in a novel that is cleverly designed, expertly written, and unnervingly spooky.



The Dances of Africa
by Michel Huet,
with text by Claude Savary.
Abrams, 172 pages, $39.95.
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The Dances of Africa

Mr. Huet first visited Africa at the end of the Second World War, and has returned many times to photograph what remains of traditional ceremonies. These are rapidly vanishing; in one instance he had to bribe a village to re-create paraphernalia that had been thrown away. His photographs are splendid, delighting the eye with brilliant color and magnificent masks. The text, by Claude Savary, the president of the Swiss Society of African Studies, is an ethnographer's dry once-over-lightly, seldom telling what an unprofessional viewer would like to know--such as why the Samo cover themselves with cowrie shells so completely that they suggest London pearlies, where those shells come from, and who controls what must be an extensive trade in them.


Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; July 1996; Brief Reviews; Volume 278, No. 1; pages 109-110.

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