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Books
Brief Reviews

by Phoebe-Lou Adams


Angel in the Whirlwind:
The Triumph of the
American Revolution


by Benson Bobrick.
Simon & Schuster, 553 pages,
$30.00.


Mr. Bobrick's history of the American Revolution is not, he declares, written to promote any revisionist theories or supersede any previous works. His ancestors fought on both sides in the war, and he has an enthusiastic personal interest in it. Such an interest is the only sound reason for writing history, and in this instance has produced a splendidly lively retelling of "a remarkable story. "Mr. Bobrick does not hurry his narrative. He includes minor but meaningful details. He establishes the background of important people. He explains the kind of regulations that had galled the Colonists for years: "As early as 1699, the Crown had banned the exportation to England of American wool or woolen materials," to protect the British cloth trade. He describes the construction of the Turtle, "the first submarine in military history," although she accomplished nothing against a British copper-bottom. He quotes lavishly and effectively from letters by men who were not haunted by nitpicking journalists and had no need to mask themselves with bland governmentese -- a language happily undeveloped in those days. One encounters, directly, Jefferson's liking for formally polished rhetoric, Adams's lawyerly addiction to accumulated evidence, and Washington's awe-inspiring ability to combine -- with no hint of effort -- lucidity, courtesy, and enormous practical intelligence. The courtesy was maintained even in bizarre circumstances. When "Light-Horse" Harry Lee proposed the ferocious execution of deserters, Washington advised moderation. Beheading, he thought, "had better be omitted."

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Straight Man

by Richard Russo.
Random House, 391 pages,
$25.00.


Mr. Russo's latest novel is designed to provide intelligent entertainment and does precisely that. His protagonist is a mildly discontented, semi-burnt-out academic who, as chairman of the English department at a state university constantly threatened with budget cuts, takes mischievous pleasure in upsetting the eccentric members of his disorderly platoon. One would not expect to find this sly boat-rocker on a television newscast flourishing a live goose and threatening a massacre of ducks. Mr. Russo brings that and subsequent uproars off deftly, with crackling dialogue, persuasive characters, and amusing satire.


The Merry Heart

by Robertson Davies.
Viking, 385 pages, $27.95.


This collection of speeches and occasional pieces by the late novelist allows a reader to enjoy the company of a fine writer with a great love of books and a great range of knowledge and ideas. Some of Davies's ideas are iconoclastic, and will delight those who share them while stimulating those who do not. All his judgments are interesting, steeped in humanism, and most elegantly put.


Perdido

by Rick Collignon.
MacMurray & Beck, 221 pages,
$19.50.


The protagonist of Mr. Collignon's novel is Will Sawyer, a dropout from gringo society who has landed comfortably in a small mountain town in New Mexico. The local language is Spanish, but most of the inhabitants are bilingual, which has enabled Sawyer to get by for nearly twenty years with a limited grip on Spanish. He has a house, a sufficiently prosperous contracting business in partnership with his friend Felipe, and a casual mistress. He also has a great interest in old stories about the town that he considers his home. The old stories are usually just that -- what can be done about skeletons found years ago in the loft of a church? -- but one story is recent enough, and odd enough, to provoke Sawyer's curiosity. He begins asking questions. To his surprise, this sets off an eruption of anger and outrage and actual danger. Years of resentment against Anglo meddling and Anglo money come to the surface, showing Sawyer his alien status and reminding the reader of the subtlety and persistence of inherited cultural attitudes. These sociological underpinnings rarely appear on the novel's surface, which offers fine descriptions of scenery and weather, small-town chitchat, complaints about irrigation water  -- until the violence breaks out. Mr. Collignon has created a distinct and meaningful world.


Inventing Memory

by Erica Jong.
HarperCollins, 300 pages,
$25.00.


Ms. Jong's novel begins in the twenty-first century, with a young woman engaged in research on the history of Jews in America. She finds her own female ancestors and puts together a partly imaginary, partly documented account of their doings. It amounts to a survey of what women with nerve and talent have accomplished in the twentieth century. Sarah, fleeing Russian pogroms, arrived around 1900 and achieved great success as a portrait painter. Her daughter Salome fled to Paris in the 1920s, met everyone from Picasso to Edith Wharton, wrote controversial novels, and produced Sally, a singer wildly admired in public and neurotically miserable in private. The editor is Sally's daughter, who has not yet done anything remarkable. The affairs of these women are interlocked throughout with events in the world at large. Because the book is a feminist history, the male characters (with one major exception) are poor investments, but the author has given the boys a fair shake. They are not stereotyped boobs and boors but men with reason for their disabilities. Ms. Jong's writing sparkles with wit and intelligence all the way, as one would expect from this highly accomplished author.


Los Alamos

by Joseph Kanon.
Broadway, 403 pages,
$25.00.


Expert writing, an adroitly managed plot, and a totally convincing evocation of the last months of the Second World War make this espionage novel well worth the attention of serious readers. Mr. Kanon introduces ethical concerns that reach beyond the genre's standard questions of who is stealing information or plotting sabotage.


The Maya Textile
Tradition


edited by Margot Blum Schevill,
photographs by Jeffrey Jay Foxx.
Abrams, 232 pages,
$49.50.


The authors who provide the text for Mr. Foxx's brilliant photographs present weaving as a survival of Mayan religion and a symbol of the whole Mayan civilization, and their accounts of the geography, history, and accomplishments of the Maya make that interpretation believable. The book is beautiful to look at, whether or not one has an interest in Mayan culture.



Recent books by Atlantic authors:

Know Thine Enemy: A Spy's Journey Into Revolutionary Iran by Edward Shirley. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 247 pages, $24.00. A portion of this book first appeared, in somewhat different form, as "Not Fanatics, and Not Friends," in the December, 1993, Atlantic Monthly.


Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; August 1997; Brief Reviews; Volume 280, No. 2; pages 96-98.

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