D E C E M B E R 1 9 9 8
by Phoebe Lou Adams
by Beryl Bainbridge.
Carroll & Graf, 190 pages, $21.00.
The reader of Ms. Bainbridge's obliquely angled novel never directly
meets Master Georgie -- amateur photographer, physician, head of a well-heeled
and respectable Liverpool family in the mid nineteenth century. He is described
by three people. The adoring Myrtle is a waif taken in by Georgie's parents and
gradually incorporated into the family. Dr. Potter is his brother-in-law, a man
who seemingly has never been self-supporting in all his scholarly life. Then
there is "the duck-boy," a tough street urchin who grows up to be a tough
small-circus performer. They all wind up in the Crimea, because Georgie has
taken the war seriously. The novel creates, with conviction, a small segment of
Victorian society in which surface propriety conceals some distinctly improper
arrangements. Whether she is describing the morbidly comic or the dubiously
experimental or the savagely bloody, Ms. Bainbridge writes with cool detachment
in a prose as clear as gin. Her use of historical detail is subtle and
surprising and functions brilliantly. This is a memorable novel, in part
because the reader is left worrying the unanswered question -- Who was Georgie
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The Undiscovered Chekhov
by Anton Chekhov,
translated by Peter Constantine.
Seven Stories, 224
The thirty-eight pieces in this collection are very early work,
published in the 1880s, when the young author was studying medicine and
supporting feckless relatives. They are not the equal of the great later work,
but their popularity at the time is entirely understandable. They were, and
still are, frequently amusing, novel in construction (Chekhov had approached
invention of the O. Henry trick ending), irreverent in subject matter,
provocative by implication, and full of vitality. Chekhov made his satirical
points by ricochet, but they were sharp. Mr. Constantine deserves much
gratitude for retrieving this neglected material.
A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia and Other Stories
by Victor Pelevin,
translated by Andrew Bromfield.
New Directions, 224
Reading Mr. Pelevin's short stories in tandem with early Chekhov
produces a sense of déjà vu. The modern Russian author is an
adroit inventor of absurd satirical fantasies, but his targets are those of
Chekhov -- inefficiency, arrogant petty authorities, ignorance, drunkenness, and
general incompetence. Mr. Pelevin adds government gobbledygook to the list (the
Czar's government did not supply that in any quantity) and omits sexual
follies. It seems that the twentieth century has made less impression on Russia
than one might expect.
The Last Dinosaur Book
by W.J.T. Mitchell.
Chicago, 321 pages,
The author is a professor of language and literature with an
interest in iconography. He considers the dinosaur a cultural icon and proposes
to describe its "life and times." He sees it as representing a variety of
notions, often contradictory. As a detector and analyst of iconic symbolism,
Professor Mitchell is formidably ingenious. He does not consider the
possibility that widespread interest in dinosaurs may be merely a manifestation
of that meddlesome curiosity (It's new -- let's investigate) that has carried
Homo sapiens sapiens from mudholes to the moon. One need
not share the author's views in order to enjoy his book. The man is amusing to
Dinosaur Impressions: Postcards From a Paleontologist
by Philippe Taquet,
translated by Kevin Padian.
Cambridge, 244 pages,
Mr. Taquet is a distinguished French paleontologist who has hunted
dinosaur bones from Morocco to the Gobi, with side trips to Laos and South
America and visits to everywhere else. His book consists of accounts of what he
found in various places, reports of what others have found, geological
explanations, adventures along the way, and historical anecdotes. When Andrew
Carnegie presented a model of his dinosaur to France, a celebratory gathering
of scientists and dignitaries expected a speech from the President of the
Republic. President Arnand Fallières had probably never given a thought
to dinosaurs in his life; confronted with the huge skeleton, he could say only
"Quelle queue! Quelle queue!" -- and "tail" has the same connotations in
French as in English. Mr. Taquet's book is charmingly written, generous with
credit to fellow scientists, terse in describing mean climates and bad roads,
and eloquent in conveying the excitement and growing delight the author felt
when "a few bony fragments" emerged as "the whole right side of the skull of a
superb Protoceratops." Enormously informative about dinosaurs, and a
real pleasure to read.
The Haunted Tea-Cosy
by Edward Gorey.
Harcourt Brace, 64 pages,
Mr. Gorey could, no doubt, conjure perversely sinister chuckles from an
antimacassar, but a tea-cosy serves just as well. No Gorey admirer should
overlook this "Diversion for Christmas."
Harvest Son: Planting Roots in American Soil
by David Mas Masumoto.
Norton, 302 pages,
Mr. Masumoto's previous memoir concentrated on his peach orchard. This
one covers, in a deceptively casual style, the history and present condition of
a Japanese farming community in California, where Asian immigrants have
suffered injustice and abuse. The author did not himself experience either the
early days of landless field work or the wartime confinement in what amounted
to prison camps. He has heard about those days, however, and reports them with
no overt rancor. He is equally gentle in describing the decay of Japanese
cohesion and tradition in his town, which he regrets but sees no way to combat.
It is farming that excites Mr. Masumoto. He can keep the reader in sharp
suspense over rain on the raisin harvest. He grows almost lyrical on the merits
of the farm dump -- the repository of what may come in handy some day and, given
farmers' ingenuity, often does. His humor is understated but pervasive. He is a
remarkable writer with a field, and a sensibility, peculiarly his own.
Field of Thirteen
by Dick Francis.
Putnam's, 287 pages,
It takes space to set up a horse theft or a racing scam, and to do it in
short stories, Mr. Francis has had to reduce the solid background detail and
tart social perceptions that distinguish his novels. The thefts and scams are,
however, admirable; a couple are so enticingly plausible that the author
appends advice to his introductory notes: "Don't do it!"
Recent books by Atlantic authors:
God: Stories edited by C. Michael Curtis. Houghton Mifflin, 416 pages,
$30.00/$14.00. A number of the stories in this collection first appeared in
The Atlantic Monthly, and Curtis is one of the magazine's senior
Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly
Company. All rights
The Atlantic Monthly; December 1998; Brief Reviews; Volume 282, No. 6;