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Books
Brief Reviews
by Phoebe-Lou Adams


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The Peale Family:
Creation of a Legacy 1770-1870

edited by Lillian B. Miller.
Abbeville,
320 pages, $65.00.

Charles Peale, the son of a well-connected clergyman, was transported to the colonies circa 1736 on a charge of embezzlement. He became a schoolteacher, earning more respect than money, and the father of an unexpected dynasty. His son Charles Willson, having studied with Benjamin West, taught first his brother James to paint and then as many of their children and connections, male or female, as could be persuaded to hold a brush. He gave his own sons encouraging names: Raphaelle, Rembrandt, Rubens, and Titian were all sound painters. There were Polk cousins and Peale cousins, variously accomplished. The family genealogy covers two pages of this large, lavish history, and although one cannot complain of a plethora of Peales, they can become a bewilderment. They were not innovators in the medium. They were impressively capable in portraiture, landscapes, miniatures, and still lifes, but no Peale seriously deviated from the principles Willson had learned from West. They were innovative in other areas, for Willson was interested in almost anything available -- art, antiquities, mechanics, exploration, public affairs (he served in the Revolution), natural history (he excavated a mammoth skeleton) -- and determined to spread enthusiasm for and knowledge of all these subjects. To that end he founded a public museum in Philadelphia and the family learned taxidermy, label writing, methods of curatorship, and the painting of naturalistic habitats in which to display specimens. Such backgrounds were previously unknown, as was a collection of paintings and general material open to the public for a small fee. Willson's sons established similarly inclusive museums in Baltimore and New York. They all eventually went broke, but they are the ancestors of the Smithsonian and of every art museum in the country. Ten authors have written about the Peales to create a comprehensive, beautifully illustrated study of this "family of artistic overachievers." They do not always agree. Ms. Miller commends Willson's advice to "keep an even temper of mind" and "never to return an injury." Brandon Brame Fortune believes that Willson bullied Raphaelle for drinking too much, getting the gout, and painting charming still lifes, which his father considered the lowest form of subject matter. According to an eighteenth-century critic, "They cannot Improve the Mind, they excite no Noble Sentiments." Such disagreements only serve to enliven a well-written and very handsome book.


The Conversations at
Curlow Creek

by David Malouf.
Pantheon, 240 pages, $23.00.

Mr. Malouf's novel is set in Australia in 1827, in a wilderness area where an escaped convict has been caught and is to be hanged in the morning. The officer sent out to supervise the execution is Irish, and so is the prisoner. As the two talk at intervals through the night, their disparate characters and backgrounds produce some oddly similar questions and also the dissimilar answers arising from dissimilar origins. Something resembling metaphysical sociology underlies Mr. Malouf's tale; invention and elegant prose make it an interesting work.


Andorra

by Peter Cameron.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux,
263 pages, $23.00.

Mr. Cameron's protagonist, on the run from unspecified disaster, arrives in his imaginary Andorra, from which Spain can be reached by crossing the Pyrenees, and Turkey by sailing west. There is a small expatriate society, principally female, leading the man into romantic imbroglios that he does not much enjoy. Neither, in the end, will the reader, for Mr. Cameron has committed the dishonesty of creating a first-person narrator who never refers to what must, until the final pages, be constantly on his mind. It is a trick that wastes a reader's attention.


Thinking in Pictures

by Temple Grandin.
Vintage, 222 pages, $12.00 paper.

Dr. Grandin teaches a course in livestock handling at Colorado State University. She has held a number of other posts, has published a number of professional papers, and is a well-known authority on the management of animals. She is autistic. This account of "My Life With Autism" is not limited to her own experiences. She describes the several variations of the condition as well, but it is her personal vision that is most likely to fascinate the reader. She can see, in her mind, a projected construction in all its detail. She can see why cattle follow one route without protest but object to another that appears equally inoffensive to the average eye. She seems to see people across the equivalent of a very wide ice field, and would prefer that they remain there. She is no misanthropist but rather an intelligent and courageous alien who has learned to function successfully in an unsuitable world. She is amazing and informative. Her original title for this book was A Cow's Eye View, which would have been unduly flattering to cows, but not altogether inappropriate.


Yo!

by Julia Alvarez.
Algonquin, 350 pages, $18.95.

Yolanda -- Yo -- García, who lost her accent in Ms. Alvarez's earlier novel, is the pivotal though not always the central figure in a series of interlocking short stories. Some are told from a character's point of view, some in a character's speaking voice. In both cases these people have a sharp, colloquial vitality regardless of their conduct or locality -- and the localities stretch from New Hampshire to the Dominican Republic, while the conduct leaps from sex to politics. Yo becomes the artist as wandering trickster, fomenting trouble or falling into it wherever she turns up. Her adventures make excellent reading.


The Man in the Box

by Thomas Moran.
Riverhead, 272 pages, $21.95.

The hero of Mr. Moran's novel describes his youth in a Tyrolean village during the Second World War. The place is so small and remote that, barring certain shortages, the war might as well be on some other continent -- except for the man in the box. The boy's father, a respected citizen (he does do a bit of smuggling across the Italian border) with a vaporous adherence to the Nazis, has concealed a refugee Jewish doctor in his haymow. The boy and his dear friend Sigi, a blind girl, are assigned to deliver the fugitive's food. The children talk to the refugee, and much of the book's interest lies in the contrast between the rambling but sophisticated reminiscences of the doctor and the coarse, limited life in the village, where the presence of a pretty schoolmarm can arouse a storm of lubricious male curiosity and a tempest of female spite. While the children try to reconcile what they hear with what they see, the narrator presents suspense, horror, and slapstick absurdity with the same cool detachment, as things that happened a long time ago. If the book's basic theme of survival is a common one, its construction is distinctly unexpected.


Honoré Daumier

by Bruce Laughton.
Yale, 200 pages, $55.00.

Professor Laughton's study of Daumier (1808-1879) concentrates on the artist's later work, in which his experience as a savagely witty political satirist expanded into a broader, officially more serious field. Much of the author's attention is devoted to Daumier's technique of superimposed watercolor washes, and his description of these and the resulting effects raise strong suspicions about the quality of the book's reproductions. The paucity of early cartoons gives a reader little with which to compare Daumier's sometimes startling late oils. All in all, this has to be considered a work of limited interest.


Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; January 1997; Brief Reviews; Volume 279, No. 2; pages 108-110.

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