M A R C H 1 9 9 8
by Phoebe-Lou Adams
A Life of William James
by Linda Simon.
Harcourt Brace, 496 pages, $35.00.
It takes some time for Ms. Simon to get to her subject,
the philosopher, Henry the novelist, and their three sad siblings were products
of an upbringing by Henry James Sr., an unsuccessful aspirant to the status of
Ralph Waldo Emerson. Henry Sr., inconsistent in his thinking and his actions,
was an eccentric who requires space to explain, and the biographer rightly
gives it to him. When she reaches William, the text is no less interesting, for
her subject battled ill health, shyness, and a series of false starts before
discovering his abilities as a thinker and a psychological innovator. He
quickly earned respect for his ambition to "have settled the Universe's hash,"
but his own condition was a permanent problem. As an inquisitive and
open-minded investigator, he would try anything, from European spas and local
"mind cures" to injections of goat's lymph and now-illegal substances similar
to opium. Ms. Simon has a wealth of good material to discuss or to
quote -- James's letters to family and friends are witty, candid, and often
mischievous -- and she describes his shifts in philosophical thinking lucidly. He
was a remarkable man with ideas in advance of his own time and still in the
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The Road to Ubar:
Finding the Atlantis of the Sands
by Nicholas Clapp.
Houghton Mifflin, 331 pages,
Mr. Clapp was making a documentary film about the reinstatement of
oryxes in Oman when he and his wife got a first, limited view of Arabia's Empty
Quarter. They were fascinated. The need for an excuse to return led Mr. Clapp
into research that turned up the city of Ubar -- rich, wicked, and destroyed by
Allah for its sins. Legendary -- or was it? It took years of study, the
collecting of allies, help from NASA, preliminary investigation by helicopter,
miscellaneous contributions, and the support of the Sultan of Oman to get the
final expedition assembled. Three vehicles bucketed off into the waste of sand
that had defeated all previous searches, and found Ubar. Although the reader
knows from the start that the city was found, and excavated, the story Mr.
Clapp tells is an engaging blend of humor, suspense, mundane difficulties, and
exotic detail. "Weeks later, a courteous yet understandably skeptical American
Express agent allowed that
surely the most unusual explanation he had ever heard."
Tales of the Night
by Peter Høeg, translated by Barbara Haveland.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux,
304 pages, $23.00.
Mr. Høeg's short stories are full of echoes,
full of ideas, and
cover so much ground and so many aspects of life that about all a reviewer can
safely report of them is that the date 1929 appears often, distinguished
scientists and scholars hover on the periphery, and events never proceed as the
reader expects. In short, they are splendid stories and not to be missed by
anyone who enjoys elegant writing and intellectual vigor.
by Betsy Howie.
Harcourt Brace, 160 pages,
Ms. Howie has the true storyteller's ability to
command a reader's
attention with the first paragraph. Her narrator is a woman of thirty whose
affairs -- mental, physical, marital, and financial -- can all be filed under M for
Mess. In desperation she packs up her two cats and heads north looking for
snow. Snow becomes fantasy. One of the cats talks. A stupid and surly bear
appears, along with images from the woman's past. At that point the author
loses control of her psychotherapeutic parable; redundancy sets in, and with it
boredom. This is a first novel, however, and the writer is worth watching.
The "Divine" Guido
by Richard E. Spear.
Yale, 430 pages, $60.00.
The author is a professor of art history with an
unusual approach to his
subject, Guido Reni (1575-1642). He discusses the interlocking effects of
"Religion, Sex, Money and Art" in the work of a painter who was violently
pious, an addicted gambler always greedy for money, a believer in witchcraft, a
homosexual by inclination (not necessarily by practice), and a man very testy
about his social status. Not an attractive figure. The author attempts to sort
out how much of Reni's conduct is attributable to ideas common at the time and
how much can be considered the painter's personal invention. The discussion is
most interesting when the author concentrates on his own reading of Reni's work
(excellently illustrated) and his interpretation of Reni's actions, less so
when he depends on outside authorities -- for it seems that Professor Spear has
never met a quotation he didn't like.
Recent books by Atlantic authors:
Under the Red Flag by Ha Jin. University of Georgia, 207 pages, $22.95.
One of the stories in this collection, "Resurrection," first appeared in
Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly
Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; March 1998; Brief Reviews; Volume 281, No. 3;