J U N E 1 9 9 8
by Phoebe-Lou Adams
The Hidden Ground
by Philip Callow.
Ivan R. Dee,
Mr. Callow has written this fine biography out of long admiration for Chekhov's
work and genuine affection for a man who was, he believes, more of our time
than of Tsarist Russia. One need not agree with that point to enjoy a very
well-written, intelligent account of Chekhov's remarkable literary career and
of his private actions -- which were lively and far-flung. Either by temperament
or as a side effect of the tuberculosis that killed him at forty-four, Chekhov
had an itching foot. In Moscow he deplored meanspirited vulgarity and yearned
for the country. In the country he complained that he had neither quiet for
writing nor leisure for fishing. Moscow he could do nothing about, but his
summer places were always overstocked with guests whom he had himself invited,
and surrounded by peasants whom he had deliberately alerted to free medical
treatment. His own health was always poor. His trip to Siberia to study penal
colonies was undertaken despite the protests of family, friends, and publisher
but produced a brilliant fusion of travelogue and reportage -- a work of lasting
significance. It also produced three mongooses that, with no cobras to hunt,
added to the normal chaos of Chekhov's establishment. That establishment
included parents, a younger brother, the frequent presence of a fanatically
devoted sister, and sporadic incursions by two older brothers, one somewhat
feckless, the other fatally so. It was no place into which to insert a wife -- a
fact that Mr. Callow overlooks in his discussion of Chekhov's wary avoidance of
matrimony. When he did marry, late and close to death, there was domestic civil
war. Lives of authors are frequently books in which nothing happens except
pen-scratching. In Chekhov's life all sorts of things happen constantly. He is
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Hullabaloo in the
by Kiran Desai.
Atlantic Monthly Press,
Ms. Desai's giddily irreverent novel concerns Sampath, a young Hindu with no
ambition for anything but quiet solitude in a cool spot. His town is hot and
crowded. His father is financially ambitious. His mother is daft about food,
and his grandmother is daft about health. Sampath finds a deserted orchard and
settles in a guava tree, where he inadvertently becomes the local holy hermit.
In crackling, witty, sharply visual prose, Ms. Desai mocks pious enthusiasm,
official incompetence, domestic confusion, young love, marriage customs, sacred
monkeys, and a few subsidiary targets. She is a delightfully funny, amiable
satirist, with the Puckish view that "this their jangling I esteem a sport."
by Marla Prather,
Alexander S.C. Rower, and
The text follows Calder's career and discusses his materials and methods, which
is sensible because the artist himself said all anyone needs to know about the
meaning of his airily enchanting sculptures: "I want to make things that are
fun to look at, that have no propaganda value whatsoever." The pieces
photographed in this volume are splendid fun to look at. Any propaganda value
lies in the eye of the beholder.
by Michael Pitts and Mark Roberts.
Mr. Roberts is the man primarily responsible for the excavations at Boxgrove,
Sussex, which produced evidence of human presence in England half a million
years ago, a date earlier than previously assumed and earlier than such
evidence elsewhere in Europe has indicated. Mr. Pitts is an archaeologist and a
writer for academic journals. Their collaboration is not always well organized,
but this is, for antiquity buffs, an exciting report. It covers the history of
the dig, gives considerable information on earlier archaeological efforts and
theories, and describes mundane matters like funding, staffing, and the storage
of bones from shrews and rhinoceroses. The people who shared what was then a
beach with some animals that are now extinct or confined to the tropics were
great makers of hand axes. An expert modern butcher was recruited to tackle a
deer carcass with a battery of hand axes. He skinned and cut up the animal with
no trouble and thought well of the tools. The old makers must have known what
they were doing. They are described as considerably taller than the later
Neanderthals, much given to running about, and innocent of dental hygiene. The
evidence for this description consists of a partial leg bone and two teeth.
The Dreams Our
Stuff Is Made Of
by Thomas M. Disch.
Mr. Disch's subtitle -- "How Science Fiction Conquered the World" -- gives no warning
of the point that the author, as a writer of the genre, finds exasperating.
Although it has a worldwide audience, science fiction has never conquered the
highbrow critical establishment. Mr. Disch wonders why. He covers the history
of the form, summons the ghosts of Jonathan Swift, Mary Shelley, and Edgar
Allan Poe, relates science fiction to politics, sociology, military strategy,
and feminism, and does it well (barring some carelessness with peripheral
references), and cannot see why first-class science fiction is not considered
as good as any other kind. For a man of his obvious intelligence, this is
surprising myopia. People read science fiction for fun. High Art should be read
for Duty, on the advice of a Literary Critic and with interpretation by a
Professor. Why should critics exert themselves in a field where their services
are neither needed nor wanted?
Shut Up and Deal
by Jesse May.
Although it is offered as a novel, Mr. May's book is more an extended
monologue. The speaker is a professional poker player who describes the odd
people on the circuit, the maddening or ludicrous vagaries of the cards, and
the addictive power of games in which the official object -- winning money -- is
actually less important than the excitement of risk. There is no plot, merely a
distinctive and convincing voice speaking bluntly about a grim, comic, grungy
by Wendy Wick Reaves.
Early on in this survey of twentieth-century caricature there is an amusingly
economical line drawing of a genial, jowly cardinal. It looks thoroughly
modern. It was done before 1633. Kindly caricature was not invented in the
United States, but it flourished here from, roughly, 1900 to the Second World
War, with innovative artists employing avant-garde styles to portray not the
character of the subject but the public perception of a well-known personage.
There was much skill and wit involved in the game, and rarely even a hint of
malice. Ms. Reaves's presentation of these clever drawings can raise a chuckle
even when one has no recollection of the celebrated subject.
Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly
Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; June 1998; Brief Reviews; Volume 281, No. 6;