A U G U S T 1 9 9 6
by Phoebe-Lou Adams
Browse an anthology of Brief Reviews by Pheobe-Lou Adams
My Uncle Napoleon
by Iraj Pezeshkzad,
translated by Dick Davis.
Mage, 514 pages, $29.95.
If one came upon this novel with none of the prefatory information
provided by Dick Davis, one would be amazed that such a giddily uproarious
mixture of farce and slapstick could be published in dourly pious Iran. The
explanation is simple. It was published in the days of the Shah, was enormously
popular, became a great success as a television series, and continues to be
widely and happily read. Mr. Davis compares it to P. G. Wodehouse's Bertie
Wooster stories and to Anita Loos's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as a
fantastic, satirical exaggeration of social circumstances that do exist. The
nameless teenage narrator is, like the rest of his extended family, afflicted
by the self-appointed patriarch known privately as Dear Uncle Napoleon. The old
boy is a devoted admirer of Bonaparte and has come to imagine that he himself
is a formidable enemy of the British, who are bent on revenge against him for
activities that actually amounted to no more than firing "a few bullets at a
couple of footloose bandits during Mohammad Ali Shah's reign." Disrespect for
Uncle's delusions sets off a family row of stupendous intricacy and absurdity.
It begins with social status, water supplies, small brawls, the police, money,
a mouse, and a sweetbrier bush--and proceeds into chaos. The novel is funny in
an uninhibited, larger-than-life style seldom practiced today, but readers with
no memory of Iranian history before the Second World War will do well to
consult the glossary before embarking on the text, for Uncle Napoleon's
paranoia does have a connection, however feeble, with reality.
The Life of Mina Loy
by Carolyn Burke.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux,
494 pages, $35.00.
Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy
Mina Loy (1882-1966) was the daughter of a Hungarian Jew who prospered
in the men's-clothing trade in Britain. There he married an English rose who
developed into such a thornbush that nothing their daughter Mina subsequently
did can be considered unreasonable. She began as an art student, joined
avant-garde groups in Paris, and exhibited with some success. She also married,
by mistake, an Englishman who dragged her off to Florence. She became an
associate of the Futurist movement. She wrote poetry that impressed Ezra Pound
and other members of the developing modernist school. By 1916, when she arrived
in New York, Loy had a considerable reputation as a "new woman." She was an
artist, a poet, and an individualist who had mislaid a husband and left two
children behind in Italy. She was also a notable beauty--never an impediment in
attracting public notice. Ms. Burke has done extremely well in describing the
variety of distinguished people Loy knew and in chronicling the cultural
disputes in which they engaged, making her book as much a history of
early-twentieth-century aesthetics as it is a biography of a woman who took
part in all the turmoil.
The Lost Lunar
by Mina Loy.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux,
238 pages, $19.00.
The Lost Lunar Baedeker
Roger L. Conover, the editor of this collection of Loy's poetry plus a
few prose pieces, warns that she "is not for everyone. . . . if her poems do
not immediately repel, they possess." That is a fair assessment, but readers
interested in the wilder shores of poetic experiment will find Loy worth their
Mucha: The Triumph
of Art Nouveau
by Arthur Ellridge.
Terrail, distributed by Stewart Tabori
Chang, 223 pages, $24.95.
Mucha: The Triumph of Art Nouveau
Alphonse Mucha's softly colored, curvilinear style ranked as the epitome
of Art Nouveau decoration, from his first success in 1894 with a poster for
Sarah Bernhardt to his fall from fashion after the First World War. He was
versatile, designing everything from elegant jewelry to biscuit tins, and so
industrious that the events of his life, briskly reported by Mr. Ellridge, are
principally commercial. He was, however, an advocate of Czech independence and
Slavic culture, and in his later years donated large works on those themes to
the city of Prague. When Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia, Mucha was among the
first to be questioned by the Gestapo, but he died of pneumonia before he could
be put in prison for designing currency on which "the man in the center of the
bill was not an Aryan" and "the hammer and sickle was a sign of Bolshevik
leanings." It was an incongruous end for an artist whose work--as this book
generously illustrates--reveals only a liking for peaches-and-cream beauties, a
romantic affection for his country's past, and an amiable desire to please his
by Mark Twain.
Random House, 420 pages,
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
The discovery of what is presumed to be the first draft of Twain's great
novel provides reason for the publication of "the only comprehensive edition."
It is a handsome book, with fine antique illustrations, but there is no need to
discard one's present copy of Huckleberry Finn. All this edition really
proves is that Twain was a careful writer who sometimes changed his mind but
always knew what he was doing.
by Allen Wardwell.
Monacelli Press, 336 pages, $85.00.
Allen Wardwell, formerly the curator of primitive art at the Art
Institute of Chicago, worked for fifteen years on this study of "Northwest
Coast Indian Shamanism and Its Art." The illustrations are lavish and
beautiful. The objects depicted range from large garments to small amulets, all
clearly invested with power. Exactly what sort of power remains indeterminate,
because, as the author explains, each shaman had his own assembly of spirit
guides and helpers and adjusted his rituals to the situation of each patient.
The book therefore gives only a limited view of shamanistic thinking, but a
wonderful view of shamanistic equipment.
by Valentin Rasputin,
and Gerald Mikkelson.
417 pages, $40.00.
According to Margaret Winchell and Gerald Mikkelson, Valentin Rasputin
was perhaps "the most gifted and influential Russian prose writer of the last
thirty years of the Soviet era." Much of his work is fiction, but this text is
not. It is an impassioned, almost lyrical, appreciation of his native Siberia,
a complaint that its history has been generally ignored, and a denunciation of
the Moscow policies that have mindlessly exploited and damaged the country.
Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights
The Atlantic Monthly; August 1996; Brief Reviews; Volume 278, No. 2;