Brief Reviews

by Laurie Winn Carlson.Ivan R. Dee, 197 pages, $24.95.

THOREAU did not live to finish the great botanical work of which this material was to have been part. What Mr. Dean has deciphered and edited ranges from very short identifications of plants to long, detailed, elegantly precise descriptions of plants, their blooming and fruiting seasons, their preferred locations, and Thoreau's view of their merits. There is a positive hymn of praise to huckleberries, low, high, and swamp, with regional variations and advice on harvesting the swamp variety -- with hands raised high and feet imperfectly balanced on tussocks. There is little transcendental theory in the text, but much love of nature's bounty and beauty. Thoreau's generosity of spirit enabled him to find merit in the skunk cabbage.

MS. Griffin's study of "the other woman" begins with some provocative ideas about why women become mistresses and who those women are. She discusses the letters of Heloïse (of dubious authenticity), the institution of the royal mistress, and the life of George Eliot. When the author reaches modern times, the text becomes no more than a polished version of checkout-line scandal sheets.

THE Great Game, that officially unadmitted Anglo-Russian rivalry for control in Central Asia, began in 1812. The East India Company had hired a horse doctor (the first qualified veterinarian in Britain) to improve the seedy mounts of its cavalry. Finding that impossible in company territory, William Moorcroft headed north in search of better animals. He observed, and reported, Russian agents. The company and the government were alarmed. The Russians, too, were alarmed, because their interest in commercial and political influence was genuine. There ensued almost two centuries of spying, bribery, bullying, disguise, deception, and bloodshed. The people involved, well described in this very active history, were brave men and patriots, wily adventurers and scalawags, and even Theosophists. The unlikeliness of that last group is characteristic of the whole affair. One veteran authority told the authors, "In the light of history, I think the Game really was a game, with scores but no substantive prizes."It makes a fascinating story, however, and the authors do it full justice.

DE Custine (1790-1857) was born into an aristocratic family whose liberal ideas did not save his father and grandfather from the guillotine. Connections and some property survived, however, enabling Astolphe to indulge in a minor literary career. He published La Russie en 1839 and became temporarily important, only to fall into obscurity except in Russia, where the book remained anathema to the Tsar and the Communists alike. His account of his travels in Russia was personal and subjective, and for that reason describes conditions that can be recognized as still relevant. Ms. Muhlstein's life of this retiring observer cannot make him personally engaging, but it can, and does, provide a revealing picture of the turbulent times in which he lived.

BLUE Dog, once seen, is unforgettable. Mr. Rodrigue describes the origin of the image in his Cajun background and its growth into an obsession that dominated and altered his painting. His earlier paintings, some of which are included in the book, have a slightly eerie cast but none of the power of Blue Dog, whose staring yellow eyes reflect whatever is in the head of the viewer. That is what Mr. Rodrigue hopes they will do.

THIS handsome book is based on the map collection of Norman B. Leventhal, whose career as a Boston developer and contractor led him to an interest in the city's past. There is much more to the book than old maps. Seven experts contribute essays on aspects of the town's history, from Revolutionary worthies to ropewalks and a dump. Since the construction of its first wharf Boston has maintained a state of flux, its citizens constantly lowering heights, raising hollows, and digging holes. They are currently engaged in digging an enormous hole to improve traffic flow. Perhaps it is that combination of idealism and practicality that gives Boston its abiding charm.

EXPERTS on Einstein were surprised by the fairly recent revelation that he and his first wife, Mileva Maric, produced a daughter before they were married. The child, called Lieserl, was left with her maternal grandparents in what is now Serbia, and all mention of her in the surviving correspondence soon disappeared. Ms. Zackheim set out to learn what became of Lieserl. Almost half of her book is devoted, with understandable feminist bias, to the Einsteins' disastrous marriage, but when she gets to the actual investigation, she can report on Serbia in 1995 as professional journalists do not. She saw official corruption, smuggling, military brutality, privation and injustice, and an intimidated population. She did not find Lieserl, but her theory of what happened to the child is plausible.

MS. Carlson approaches the Salem witch trials by asking what symptoms the victims complained of and what, realistically, could have caused them. She has found similar cases reported elsewhere in the Colonies and in Europe, and makes a persuasive argument for a disease now known as encephalitis lethargica. It created an epidemic around the time of the better-remembered flu epidemic of 1918. Seventeenth-century doctors, of course, knew nothing about it. Ms. Carlson writes well, at times even humorously. Because she concentrates on medical evidence, she is not obligated to consider the thinking of the Salem judges whose demands for more accusations and acceptance of "spectral evidence" created the murderous aberration.

Phoebe-Lou Adams has been on the staff of The Atlantic Monthly for fifty-five years. She has written Brief Reviews, under a variety of column titles, since 1952.

The Atlantic Monthly; December 1999; Brief Reviews - 99.12; Volume 284, No. 6; page 129-130.