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Books
Brief Reviews
by Phoebe-Lou Adams


The Djinn in the
Nightingale's Eye


by A. S. Byatt.
Random House, 288 pages, $19.00.


This small book contains five so-called fairy tales. What is a fairy tale, exactly? In Ms. Byatt's hands it is a vehicle for the exposition of ideas on art, society, ethics, and freedom, and for the questioning of those ideas, with all these matters expressed in exquisitely light, witty, oblique terms. Princesses wander through magic woodlands, a pig survives dragons, and the djinn -- once out of his bottle -- is a djinn like no other. Ms. Byatt mentions "flashes and floods of paradisal light in odd places and at odd times." Her tales cast just such light.

Fantastic Tales

edited by Italo Calvino.
Pantheon, 416 pages, $27.50.


Mr. Calvino's introduction to this anthology is an acutely thoughtful discussion of what makes a fantastic tale, how the genre developed during the nineteenth century, and the reasons for its abiding popularity. Some of the tales are well known, some not. Most are by European authors. One Russian specimen hardly qualifies as fantasy -- but the editor could not resist it. One can see why. It is a wicked charmer.
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Pickett's Charge
in History and Memory


by Carol Reardon.
University of North Carolina,
296 pages, $29.95.


Whoever defined history as an agreed-upon lie was not acquainted with the aftermath of Pickett's charge at Gettysburg. Journalists could see no more than a fraction of the action, if they saw any at all. Participants saw even less. It took five days for definite word of Lee's defeat to reach Richmond (in bootlegged northern papers) and longer for it to travel south. Newspapers were filled with melodramatic babble, and battle survivors, when consulted, contradicted one another. Even the duration of the initial Confederate artillery attack remains in dispute; estimates range from minutes to hours. Such discrepancies are not, however, the real focus of Ms. Reardon's investigation. She examines the mixture of local patriotism (Virginia), local resentment (North Carolina et al.), Reconstruction politics, campaigns for reconciliation, and moonlight-and-magnolia fiction that eventually made Gettysburg the best-known battle of the Civil War and Pickett's Charge the heroic high point of the Rebel cause. Ms. Reardon's text is well supplied with anecdote and quotation and covers events as recent as a 1922 Marine Corps re-enactment of the action to see "What would have happened at Gettysburg if the armies of Meade and Lee had met with modern weapons and equipment?" The conclusion: Lee would have lost, but given air observation, he probably would not have launched an attack against "the entire Army of the Potomac." Quite apart from its notable historical interest, Ms. Reardon's work is a splendidly lively study of the manipulation, not necessarily deliberate or malign, of public opinion.

Making Faces:
Using Forensic and
Archaelogoical Evidence


by John Prag and Richard Neave.
Texas A&M, 256 pages,
$39.95.


Using what they describe as thoroughly scientific methods, the authors have reconstructed the faces of unidentifiable skulls for the British police, with such success that they have been recruited to make a number of such reconstructions for archaeologists. These jobs require historical research, caution in handling decrepit bones, and some guesswork in filling gaps. The authors' encounters with Philip of Macedon and King Midas lead them into antique medicine and myth. Their work with the badly damaged skulls behind the gold masks at Mycenae produces faces that would look well at the local chamber of commerce. Bog bodies present a different set of problems, handsomely solved. The account given by Mr. Prag and Mr. Neave will please anyone interested in their technique or their subjects. Readers averse to old bones will not benefit from it.

Egon Schiele

by Magdalena Dabrowski
and Rudolf Leopold
Yale, 363 pages, $60.00.


The art collection of Rudolf Leopold, displayed in this volume, well represents the brilliant draftsmanship, idiosyncratic color, and intense, often neurotic power of Schiele's work. Ms. Dabrowski's introduction tells enough about the painter's family background to account for his sexually morbid self-portraits and enough about turn-of-the-century Viennese society to account for his épater le bourgeois female nudes. Schiele was under thirty when he died in the flu epidemic of 1918. One can only wonder where his art would have gone in the 1920s, because in some respects he was already ahead of them.

Into Africa

by Marq de Villiers and Sheila Hirtle.
Firefly Books, 400 pages,
$29.95.


"Africa," according to the authors, "is going in all directions at once" and always has been. Their report combines a firsthand account of the inconsistencies, accomplishments, and plain horrors currently reported by the media with Africa's long history of rising and falling empires, wise kings and bloody tyrants, shifting territories and migrant populations. It is a history as disorderly as that of Europe, and the authors would have the outside world understand that Africa is a conservative continent that maintains a constant state of flux. They also assert that "hardly anyone in Africa any longer blames Africa's problems on colonialism." Altogether, this book presents unfamiliar facts reinforcing an unusual point of view.

Panther in the Basement

by Amos Oz,
translated by Nicholas de Lange.
Harcourt Brace, 160 pages,
$21.00.


Mr. Oz's reminiscent novel describes the doings of a twelve-year-old boy in the last year of British control in Israel. Young Proffy has organized a pro-Israel underground cell that proposes to blow up Buckingham Palace or perhaps 10 Downing Street. These heroic dreams are no danger to anybody, but Proffy's friendship with a kindly British soldier causes his two fellow panthers to accuse him of treason. Around this juvenile imbroglio Mr. Oz creates a vivid picture of life in Jerusalem, with sharply drawn characters doing what Proffy reports without necessarily understanding it. The novel offers an unexpectedly charming and humane memory of a tense, tough time.

Pfitz

by Andrew Crumey.
Picador,164 pages, $20.00.


Mr. Crumey has written a fantastic novel about a fantasy. An eighteenth-century prince, presumably in Central Europe, designs a series of imaginary cities, the last of which he proposes to create in actuality, devoting his entire country to the project. His people are real, as is the work they do on the dream city. Eventually real and unreal merge, interact, and form a tale that is part quirky amusement and part sly satire on governments, bureaucracies, and the reader's expectations.

The Gashlycrumb Tinies

by Edward Gorey.

The Curious Sofa

by Ogdred Weary.
Harcourt Brace,
each 64 pages and $9.00.


Both these early works of Mr. Gorey's are being reissued for the pleasure of lovers of fine drawing, deadpan horror, and discreet pornography.

Recent books by Atlantic contributors:

Dog's Best Friend: Annals of the Dog-Human Relationship by Mark Derr. Holt, 380 pages, $25.00. Portions of this book first appeared, in different form, in The Atlantic Monthly.
From the archives:

  • "Books and Authors: Drawing Without a License"
    An Atlantic Unbound interview with Edward Sorel, author of Unauthorized Portraits.


  • Unauthorized Portraits by Edward Sorel. Knopf, 192 pages, $40.00. A number of the satirical drawings in this book first appeared as illustrations in The Atlantic, many of them for the regular feature First Encounters, written by Sorel's wife, Nancy Caldwell Sorel.

    Speaking Freely: A Guided Tour of American English From Plymouth Rock to Silicon Valley by Stuart Berg Flexner and Anne H. Soukhanov. Oxford University Press, 472 pages, $39.95. Anne Soukhanov is the author of the regular Atlantic feature Word Watch.


    Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
    The Atlantic Monthly; December 1997; Brief Reviews; Volume 280, No. 6; pages 128-130.

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