Brief Reviews

Mr. Campbell, a freelance journalist, visited Bosnia in the interim between the Dayton Peace Accords and their implementation. He visited Kosovo shortly after Serbian troops began the campaign of "ethnic cleansing." He saw no formal military action on either visit, and subsequent events in Kosovo dwarf what he did see. His report is valuable nonetheless for a brisk history of the centuries-old grudges haunting the region, and for descriptions of cranky mountainous country, vile roads, and local opinions -- among them, and perhaps most important for future political considerations, the complaint of a frustrated peacekeeper: "I can't point a gun at someone and order him to stop hating his neighbor."

The narrator-protagonist of Mr. Seth's novel is a London-based musician and violin teacher. He has a pleasant flat and a cheerful young mistress. He plays second violin in a respected, not spectacularly revered, quartet. He does not have much money, is basically a bit bored with life and decidedly bedeviled by regrets for a lost love, and fears that his fine but borrowed fiddle may be repossessed by its owner. When the lost love reappears, little good comes of it. The fiddle floats in limbo. The overstrung fiddler tries to maintain a stiff upper lip while privately dithering with worry. It is not a happy or a lively story but it is continuously interesting, because of amusing peripheral characters, satirical vignettes of a pompous music critic, a wily banker, and a "sticky fan," and information on instrument auctions, plus the problems and finances of a group on tour. The dialogue has a nice snap to it. The basic point emerges only gradually, but it is supported by accumulated evidence. It is a simple point: Music is the only reality that matters.

Captain Tyng's memoir, edited by Susan Fels, was written in his old age but covers his early career, from 1808 to 1833. He was born in 1801 to a Boston lawyer, a Harvard man who expected his sons to become well-behaved scholars. Charles was not well behaved and resisted scholarship with such fury that he was sent to sea as a "sailor boy" at the age of thirteen. By 1833, when the memoir breaks off in the midst of the author's cholera attack, he was a veteran captain, a shipowner, and a successful international merchant. He had begun his mercantile career very early, with an "adventure" in South American monkeys and parrots. They sold at a fine profit in Leghorn. He had sailed several times to China, circled the globe, avoided pirates in Malaysian waters, outwitted mutineers, and dealt firmly with crewmen who confirmed the old adage that only fools and drunkards go to sea. He had also persuaded his father that Harvard was not life's only and indispensable goal. He told a wonderful story with clarity (barring the professional lingo) and touches of dry humor. No admirer of Americana or sailing ships should miss Captain Tyng.

Mr. Nicholson's "portrait of Duke Ellington" is a tribute to the great and original musician and composer, constructed out of what people who knew him reported publicly about Ellington. The Duke himself wrote little, and what he wrote was as deliberately artful as his standard "I love you madly" greeting to audiences. One learns from this book that Ellington was a very private man who kept his projects to himself until they were ready to go (which could be astoundingly soon) and converted his undoubted ideals into music rather than words. Mr. Nicholson's assemblage of reminiscence portrays Ellington the showman, managing brilliant but disorderly bandsmen, conducting international concert tours on barbarous schedules, and constantly writing his unique music. What more does anyone really need to know?

Ms. Paine went to work in Tokyo at the request of an old friend and colleague in the software-manufacturing business. She knew nothing about Japan, and a quick whirl at Berlitz gave her little of the language. Her book is a belated bread-and-butter letter to the Japanese colleagues who did their courteous and truly kind best to make the misfit comfortable. Ms. Paine admits that she feels herself a misfit anywhere, given to expecting the worst while simultaneously longing for the status of sophisticated world traveler. The contrast is sometimes piquantly amusing, sometimes mildly exasperating. Her employers supplied her with a fine apartment. One comes to wish that she had spent less time in it.

If a fiction writer imagined Byron, with all his friends, relatives, and associates, the result would be a thundering picaresque novel with strong gothic elements -- and the author would probably be reproached for excessive resort to sexual misconduct, financial chicanery, psychological blackmail, and forthright improbability. Ms. Eisler's life of the real Byron is written in the spirit appropriate to such material. She reports gossip, chooses the gaudiest of several possible explanations for any episode, and confines psychological speculation to the simplest level. She uses quotation to good effect, and may entice deprived readers to enjoy the full text of the wickedly witty Don Juan. Solemn scholarly paraphernalia (of which there is plenty) is relegated to the servants' quarters in the back pages. This is a splendidly readable biography of a perpetually fascinating genius.

In 1868 all Madrid, with the exception of Don Jaime, is preoccupied with political plots and rumors of the Queen's abdication. Don Jaime is a fencing master devoted to honor and his art. He is an anachronism, which causes him serious difficulty with murders and stolen documents. The tale is offered as a mystery, but the mystery is long in developing and preceded by much lyrical reference to violet eyes and other female charms, and Don Jaime remains an ignorant bystander all the way. One has the impression that the author never quite combined his inventions with his historical setting.

Phoebe Lou Adams is The Atlantic Monthly's staff writer.

The Atlantic Monthly; July 1999; Brief Reviews - 99.07; Volume 284, No. 1; page 97-98.