D E C E M B E R 1 9 9 6
by Phoebe-Lou Adams
Each book title highlighted below can be ordered from Amazon.com.
Browse an anthology of Brief Reviews by
of Edward Gorey
by Clifford Ross
and Karen Wilkin.
Abrams, 192 pages, $29.95.
In his interview with Mr. Ross, Edward Gorey speaks of
his likes and
dislikes and aspects of his career with what appears to be amiable candor. Ms.
Wilkin discusses Gorey's work as illustrator, author, stage designer, and
miscellaneous creator with the admiration it deserves and intelligent attention
to the artist's use of literary references and multilingual word games as
adjuncts to his drawings. Having noted Gorey's "allusions" to the work of other
artists, she adds that "references to antecedents, whatever their origins,
function like complex seasonings in the cooking of a brilliant chef; they may
be essential to the result, but they are interesting only because they
amalgamate to make something completely new and distinctive." Neither Mr.
Ross's interview nor Ms. Wilkin's monograph answers the question that teases
Gorey admirers: Why does he choose to set his macabre, ironic, satirical,
frequently inconclusive fantasies in Edwardian England? Not that the omission
detracts from the pleasure provided by the book, which presents almost enough
Gorey drawings along with its sound text. There can never be quite enough Gorey
by Beryl Bainbridge.
Pantheon, 416 pages,
Morgan, the first-person narrator of Ms. Bainbridge's
novel, is a young man connected with the world of international high finance
and high living, but he is not quite as solidly gilded as the friends with whom
he proposes to drink, dance, gamble, and flirt (and, if possible, seduce) his
way across the Atlantic aboard the RMS Titanic. He has actually done
work on the ship's design -- "wash-basins in the third class accommodation
areas." That experience is of no advantage when the iceberg strikes, but before
the catastrophe Morgan meets, and describes, and suffers from a fine variety of
characters. Ms. Bainbridge has a remarkable gift for evoking the manners and
thinking of people of another time through unobtrusive detail and subtle
control of style. Mr. Frick's Pomeranian scuttles "squealing under the
ottoman," and Morgan's dry understatements could fit well into The Prisoner
of Zenda. The novel is a fine tale and a fine glimpse of a world bound for
by George Mackay Brown.
Phaidon, 240 pages, $69.95.
The poems that Brown (1921-1996) selected for this
volume all originate
in his character as an Orkneyman conscious of the conditions and history of his
native place. He writes of treacherous seas, empty nets, and rocky fields, but
also of unpretentious courage, luck, and sunlight converting death to new
growth. The poems are generally unrhymed and terse, and the rhythms are those
of the speaking voice. There are echoes of Norse kennings (the sea is a "dark
net") and of Welsh triads: "Three winter brightnesses -- / Bridesheet, boy in
snow, / Kirkyard spade." There is, however, nothing provincial or quaint about
Brown's work. Whether his speakers are overworked farmers or hungry fishermen
or gold-hunting Vikings, their actions are relevant to the modern world. They
remind the reader that the story is still not "long to tell," and still leads
to "a quieter alehouse, / Free drink, no hangovers."
The Last Ranch
by Sam Bingham.
Pantheon, 363 pages, $27.50.
Mr. Bingham spent a year in the San Luis Valley of
encroaching desertification threatening both ranchers and farmers led to
attempts to understand the process and to slow or even reverse it by natural
means. The author reports not only on the frequently eccentric people involved
in that attempt but also on the history of the area, which includes South Farm,
a large tract that in forty years went through the hands of six owners, all of
whom lost money; the obliteration of an old Spanish town; and endless official
bumblings. It was a great day when the Bureau of Land Management and the Fish
and Wildlife Service exchanged words, for that had never happened before. The
book expands into other areas and other continents. It is altogether a hugely
informative and very well written examination of a widespread problem that has
only recently begun to receive serious study and for which there is not yet a
hint of a remedy.
by Tanith Lee.
Overlook, 514 pages,
The author has so obviously done long and earnest
background for her novel about the French Revolution that it seems ungrateful
to report that the material remains research -- but that is the case. The
characters do not arouse interest beyond that inherent in their historical
positions, and sentences such as ". . . then the cannon slid smiling back into
view, licked their lips, and coughed out the thunder of death" do not improve
A Christmas Carol
MCE Publishing, 176 pages, $19.95.
The point of this publication, supervised by Dan
Malan, of The
Classics Collector magazine, is the presence of "45 lost engravings by
Gustave Doré" along with 130 other Victorian illustrations. Doré
was working for a French magazine -- Journal pour Tous -- and anyone who
expects the equivalent of the superb illustrations for the Rime of
the Ancient Mariner or Don Quixote will be disappointed.
Doré did a fine job -- his ghosts are the scariest, his poor the
shabbiest, and his Scrooge the meanest among the examples on display -- but it
was a job for an ephemeral publication, not to be compared with the artist's
independent projects. The full Dickens text is of course present; this reprint
is an interesting oddity.
Magruder: His Life
by Paul D. Casdorph.
Wiley, 400 pages,
John Bankhead Magruder, West Point 1830, was nicknamed
"Prince" for his
addiction to elaborate manners, social merriment, and fancy uniforms. Like
other Virginians, he joined the Confederacy, ending the war as a major general.
His biographer believes that Magruder has been unjustly neglected, and perhaps
he has. He did good service in the Mexican War and had sound ideas about mobile
artillery. There were people who thought highly of him. There were those who
did not. One fellow West Pointer described him as "ambitious, unscrupulous,
treacherous, and dissolute" but "a dashing fearless soldier." This sounds like
Flashman -- barring the fearlessness -- but the paucity of anything but military
documents has prevented Mr. Casdorph from finding much flash in Magruder's
life. One has the impression that Prince John was a more complicated and
interesting man than a conscientious, soberly honest historian can track
Recent books by Atlantic authors:
Same Place, Same Things by Tim Gautreaux.
St. Martin's, 224 pages,
$20.95. Two of the stories in this collection first appeared in The
Lies of the Saints by Erin McGraw.
Chronicle, 208 pages, $11.95.
Two of the stories in this collection first appeared in The Atlantic.
Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights
The Atlantic Monthly; December 1996; Brief Reviews; Volume 278, No. 6;