by Phoebe-Lou Adams
of Planet Vulcan
by Richard Baum and
Readers unversed in astronomy should not be put off by
terms that necessarily flourish in this account of scientific wild-goose
chasing, for they do not in the least obscure a fine tale full of eccentric
characters and odd coincidences. The hypothetical planet Vulcan, lying between
Mercury and the Sun, is the only possible means of accounting for Mercury's
peculiar orbit under the Newtonian system, and such a planet could, presumably,
best be detected during a total eclipse. Years of futile study, professional
rivalry, alleged sightings, and acrimonious debate preceded the eclipse of July
29, 1878, when the Moon's shadow would "arc across the vast western United
States" from Yellowstone to the Gulf of Mexico. Every astronomer worth his
telescope was posted in a hole or on a height along that line. Even Thomas
Edison was there, ensconced in a chicken coop to keep the pervasive dust from
deranging the invention that he hoped would measure the temperature of the
Sun's corona. It did. The astronomers were less fortunate. Vulcan remained
invisible except to James Craig Watson, of Ann Arbor (an impassioned
Vulcanite), and one dubiously reliable amateur. The affair produced a
thundering row and language unsuited to the dignity of science, for it put a
spanner in the works of Newton's clockwork universe. Mr. Baum and Mr. Sheehan
tell the complicated story very well indeed, providing sharp background detail
and a certain amount of deadpan humor. They reveal a world unknown except to
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by Karel Capek,
translated by Norma Comrada.
Catbird Press, 192
Mr. Capek's "fables and would-be tales" are suavely
savage satires on
political practices and human characters -- the characters being
mythical worthies (Pilate, Don Juan), the political practices universally
recognizable. The pieces are individually clever and thoughtful, and should be
absorbed in small doses. Taken all at once, the bitter flavor becomes
The White Tecumseh
by Stanley P. Hirshson.
Wiley, 496 pages,
Professor Hirshson believes that William Tecumseh
Sherman's greatest talent as
a military commander was his ability to move troops over long distances while
keeping control of a dangerously extended supply line. This opinion has not
prevented the author from creating a lively biography of a man who becomes
steadily more interesting as his story unfolds. Sherman was no stolid war
machine. He was subject to fits of paranoia and spasms of unjustified optimism.
He was usually right, but his mistakes were doozies. He wrote acidly amusing
letters to his family (a large and politically influential clan), who responded
in kind, and quotations from Sherman's private correspondence give the text an
unmilitary sparkle. So do peripheral episodes culled from contemporary memoirs.
During a truce Colonel Samuel Lockett, the chief engineer of the Vicksburg
defenses, went snooping to observe the Union formation. He was collected by
Sherman, who gave him letters from Northerners with friends in the besieged
city. "The general then invited Lockett to sit with him on a nearby log, where
each praised the engineering work of the opposing army." Lockett was so
captivated by the conversation that he forgot what he had come there to do.
Battles and campaigns are, of course, well and thoroughly described, but the
accompanying maps are too small to be of much use.
by Orhan Pamuk,
translated by Güneli Gün.
296 pages, $24.00.
Mr. Pamuk's witty, elegant novel opens with an epigraph
from Novalis: "The others experienced nothing like it even though they
heard the same tales."
This is a warning. Every reader is invited to make his own experience out of an
ironic, fantastic tale of picaresque wanderings by bus around Turkey. There are
elements of the macabre, the burlesque, the nostalgic, and the lyrical, and
underlying them all is the implication that spiritual values are incompatible
with the secular society created by Atatürk, whose image is as ubiquitous
as Big Brother's. There is also the implication that spiritual values are a
delusion of youth. However one chooses to see this teasing, multifaceted work,
it provides stimulating reading.
by Alan Isler.
Viking, 214 pages,
Mr. Isler's four stories are set in Renaissance Venice, in
late-eighteenth-century England, aboard a Victorian ocean liner, and in modern
New York. They all concern Jews who wish simply to get on peacefully in a
gentile world, and who on the whole succeed, but not without encountering
prejudice, interference, and female goyim. The stories are slyly amusing,
shrewd in social understanding and period detail, and rich in literary
reference. They are a pleasure to read.
Names of Things
by Susan Brind Morrow.
Riverhead, 288 pages,
The author's great-grandfather allegedly "knew seven
so Ms. Morrow's love of words and her enthusiasm for tracing their origins and
connections may be inherited. She also has a painter's eye for color and a good
traveler's knack of finding, and adroitly describing, engaging people wherever
she goes. These qualities make her account of zigzag journeys through the
Egyptian desert, into the Sudan, and along the shores of the Red Sea like
nothing one has read before. The continuity is sporadic; the sights, sounds,
and sensibility are unique and magical.
edited by Elizabeth Simpson.
Abrams, 336 pages,
Looting may not have caused the first war (whenever in
the mists of
prehistory that occurred), but it has flourished in all known wars, and the
Second World War was no exception. Works of art disappeared all across Europe,
and thousands remain unaccounted for. As Lynn H. Nicholas puts it in her
contribution to this book, items "were confiscated by governments, stolen by
individuals, sold willingly or under duress, bartered for food, or simply
hidden, forgotten, and randomly moved from place to place." Even when objects
are found, determining legal ownership, combating various statutes of
limitation, and locating heirs of deceased owners can cause interminable
delays. This account of the situation begins with essays by scholars from
various countries, summarizing what their national losses are. The scholarly
pieces are followed by reports from people who collected stolen art at the end
of the war or have tracked it down since. Their accounts are colloquial and
sometimes peppery -- good reading, and calculated to arouse sympathy
for all the
experts now contending with the enormous problems of who stole what, where it
may be lurking, and who really owns it.
Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly
Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; July 1997; Brief Reviews; Volume 280, No. 1;