m_topn picture
Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

J A N U A R Y   1 9 9 7

Books
Brief Reviews
by Phoebe-Lou Adams


Each book title highlighted below can be ordered from Amazon.com.



Browse an anthology of Brief Reviews by Phoebe-Lou Adams


Herman Melville

by Hershel Parker.
Johns Hopkins, 962 pages, $39.95.

This first volume of Professor Parker's biography of Melville ends in 1851, when the author presented to his revered friend Nathaniel Hawthorne an inscribed pre-publication copy of Moby-Dick. "Take it all in all, this was the happiest day of Melville's life." Professor Parker occasionally indulges in such ex cathedra certainties, but take it all in all, he is a sound, sensible biographer and so thorough that he will probably be accused of monumentality -- translation: unnecessary detail, such as which cousins attended whose wedding. The charge is not deserved. The detail matters. Herman was the second son of Allan Melville and Maria Gansevoort. The Boston-based Melvilles had tenuous connections with Scottish nobility. The Gansevoorts were solidly entrenched among the patroon families of old New York. Both of Herman's grandfathers had served with distinction in the Revolution. These were capable, prosperous, socially secure people. Allan Melville, however, died relatively young, leaving his large family with some fine furniture and a pile of fecklessly incurred debts. The surviving relatives had no intention of paying those debts if it could possibly be avoided, and to that end kinsmen on one occasion sued each other. Going to sea was a standard possibility for a young man with reasonably good health, an inadequate education, and no money. Melville went a-whaling, jumped ship on a cannibal isle, made his way home, and wrote Typee. It was a notable, and provocative, success. He continued to write. The women of the family also wrote. They were industrious and lively letter writers and habitual letter keepers. Professor Parker has had a vast amount of material to work with and has made good use of it. His life of Melville, which hurried readers may find overinclusive, becomes a history of manners, amusements, business methods, politics, American whaling and international maneuverings in the South Seas, literary cliques, publishing practices, copyright law, and the erratic eccentricities of reviewers. When possible -- and it frequently is -- such information is presented with sly, deadpan humor. Melville emerges from this background as a man living and working in a real world full of real, amusing, brilliant, and sometimes rascally people. Well-chosen quotations establish that Melville himself was a charmer, a grand yarn-spinner, a wild driver, and a man who could describe a winter gale in the Berkshires as indicating "too much sail on the house" and a need to "go on the roof & rig in the chimney." He was also, of course, a serious writer, steadily expanding his range and his thinking, and on the way to becoming the great writer who deserves all of Professor Parker's admirable work and all of a reader's attention.



The Fallen Man

by Tony Hillerman.
HarperCollins, 294 pages, $24.00.

Acting Lieutenant Jim Chee is not comfortable with the paperwork required by his promotion, and Joe Leaphorn is bored with his recent retirement. A skeleton found by accident brings these edgily allied veterans of the Navajo Tribal Police into action and provides the reader with another of Mr. Hillerman's elegantly plotted puzzles. As usual, the tale includes evocations of splendid scenery and sympathetic respect for the Navajo nation.



Natural Worlds

by Robert Bateman and Rick Archbold.
Simon & Schuster/Madison Press,192 pages, $60.00.

Mr. Bateman is a superb painter of the animals that he loves and of the natural world that they inhabit. His affection and admiration fairly leap out of his depictions of puffins and polar bears, lions and loons. He fears for the future of all these fine creatures as human encroachment reduces their habitats and human chauvinism ignores their rights. He "can't imagine anything more complex, varied and beautiful than the planet earth -- or anything more worth saving." His subjects support that position.



Paris in the
Twentieth Century

by Jules Verne,
translated by Richard Howard.
Random House, 256 pages,
$21.00.

The young Jules Verne's vision of a future Paris was uncannily accurate in many respects -- heavy traffic, crowded housing, elaborate communication systems, and angular women -- but he neglected to provide an intriguing plot and his conclusion was pure gloom. His publisher balked, and the text has only now achieved print. It is interesting for the points on which Verne was right, and also for those on which he was wrong. He foresaw a France devoid of political parties.



The Language of the Body:
Drawings by Pierre-Paul Prud'hon

by John Elderfield and
Robert Gordon.
Abrams, 221 pages, $75.00.

Pierre-Paul Prud'hon (1758-1823) was a painter and decorator who enjoyed considerable success before withdrawing into collaboration with Constance Mayer. He did less and less painting of his own but spent a great deal of time on what was usually considered student practice -- chalk studies of nudes. Prud'hon was a masterly draftsman, and the drawings (académies) reproduced in this generously illustrated book are impressive. They are also a bit strange. The female nudes are graceful nymphs doing nothing in particular. The male nudes, in contrast, are usually actively posed and frequently display girlishly pretty heads incongruously attached to heavily muscled adult bodies. Mr. Elderfield's text never truly accounts for this sexual disparity, but he makes a brave attempt at it, and the drawings can easily and happily be enjoyed for their own sake.


Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; January 1997; Brief Reviews; Volume 279, No. 1; pages 96-98.

m_nv_cv picture m_nv_un picture m_nv_am picture m_nv_pr picture m_nv_as picture m_nv_se picture