A LETTER TO MYSELF (Farrar, Straus, $4.95) by FRANÇOISE MALLET-JORIS is a leisurely extended essay in which the French novelist meditates on the conditions of her life and art. She is trying to decide why she writes at all and finally admits that she does not know, but on the way to this conclusion she discusses publishers, literary friends, critics, publicity, and life in the country with an amusing mixture of good humor and savagery.
Somewhat by accident, PETER THROCKMORTON, an impassioned diver, became an important part of an expedition sent by the American Council of Underwater Archaeology and the University of Pennsylvania to the south coast of Turkey. Off Cape Gelidonya the expedition found and studied the wreckage of a Bronze-Age ship, the oldest ship yet recovered from the past. It was an accident in that Mr. Throckmorton was not an archaeologist, but no accident at all in that he had been prowling around for months with the Turkish sponge fishermen and knew where old ships were to be found. His account of the adventure, THE LOST SHIPS (Atlantic-Little, Brown, $6.95), is a continuously fascinating saga of dealings with Turkish fishermen, contention with wind and sea and lack of fresh water, and struggles with the neurotic vacillations of the Turkish port authorities at Bodrum, who seem to have been quite mad. Provincial Turkish officials generally strike Westerners as mad, I believe; there is probably some failure of communication between the two groups. Actually, only about a third of the book is devoted to the formal expedition. The first and larger section describes Mr. Throckmorton’s life in the decaying port of Bodrum and on the sponge boats, and it is full of strange tales of diving accidents, old seaside legends, funny and horrible events.
Retired from colonizing Virginia and mapping New England, Captain John Smith wrote his memoirs, probably in the hope of arousing further interest in the New World and some sort of commission for himself. He was a naive author, and described his youthful service in the Transylvanian wars with such swashbuckling confusion that generations of historians have called him a liar. PHILIP L. BARBOUR is not the first to suspect that Smith was as truthful as most old soldiers, but he has done a particularly thorough piece of defense and rehabilitation in THE THREE WORLDS OF CAPTAIN JOHN
SMITH (Houghton Mifflin, $7.50). The explanation of the weird names and weirder geography in Smith’s memoirs turns out to be simple and reasonable: he knew no German and spelled by ear. On the New World his narrative was always treated with more respect, and here Mr. Barbour has not been required to do elaborate linguistic detective work. Instead, he has tried to figure out who really financed the Jamestown colony, and cannot get beyond probabilities. This life of Smith is careful and complete but lifeless; neither Smith nor anybody else ever recorded anything distinctive about the man, and his character eludes research. Smith remains an abstract figure, a symbol of the explorer and colonial organizer, a type but not a person.
THE BEAR WENT OVER THE MOUNTAIN (Macmillan, $6.95) is an anthology of “tall tales of American animals,” collected and edited by ROBERT B. DOWNS, dean of library administration at the University of Illinois. There is absolutely no reason on earth for this book except that about half of it is prostratingly funny.
In STALKING THE BLUE-EYED SCALLOP(McKay, $4.95). EUELL GIBBONS, who did an attractive book on how to find, cook, and eat wild plants, pays a similar compliment to the creatures of the seashore. The book contains much exotic information: the octopus uses stones as tools, and the geoduck clam is to be hunted only at midnight “two days after the full of the Mad Moon.” Mr. Gibbons’ recipes sometimes assume that the reader is already an adept seafood cook (see his reckless instructions for oyster stew), but his principles are reliable. “At one time I added such things as chopped parsley, minced onion, chopped peppers, chopped celery, bread crumbs and other things to my Crab Cakes, but by experimenting I gradually made the amazing discovery that Crab Cakes are much better when made of crab.”