m_topn picture
Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

D E C E M B E R   1 9 9 4

Brief Reviews
by Phoebe-Lou Adams

The Father

by Alfred Habegger.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 550 pages, $35.00.

If he had not fathered Henry the novelist and William the philosopher, Henry James senior would probably be no more than a semi-forgotten member of the large group of unorthodox theorists who agitated nineteenth-century minds. Mr. Habegger's biography proves that the man rewards personal attention. Son of a self-made financial and political bigwig in Albany, Henry lost a leg in his teens, drank his way through Union College--which in those days granted a degree to anyone who paid his bills and made an occasional appearance in a classroom--and in a spasm of high-mindedness elected to follow his brother William into the ministry, entering Princeton Theological Seminary. Princeton was a stronghold of rigid Presbyterian doctrine and that did not last long, but the high-mindedness did. Henry spent the rest of his life collecting, partly assimilating, amalgamating, and publicly expounding liberal social and religious ideas. Swedenborgianism, utopianism, free love, socialism, transcendentalism, primitive Christianity--he wrote and lectured on all of them, undistracted, thanks to his inheritance, by the need to earn money. He attracted considerable interest but never a following, probably because would-be followers drawn to one book found much of its content repudiated in the next one. In detailing James's career, his biographer has created a thoroughly interesting, wide-reaching study of the whirlwind of ideas that confronted intelligent people in the mid-nineteenth century. The book is well worth reading, and although Henry James senior may have been, basically, an inconsistent thinker with an exceptional gift of palaver, he had his points. A man who despised Bronson Alcott cannot be casually dismissed.

A Year in the Maine Woods

by Bernd Heinrich.

Addison-Wesley/William Patrick, 259 pages, $22.00.

Mr. Heinrich is a professor of zoology at the University of Vermont and the author of Ravens in Winter. His latest book is an account of a full year in a cabin among trees, birds, insects, and animals, all of which he observed with endless enthusiasm. The charm of Mr. Heinrich's writing lies partly in his ability to describe weather and wildlife and partly in the curiosity that impels him to discover that red squirrels harvest maple syrup. The book is also a window on the past for anyone interested in such matters as how much wood is required to heat an ill-caulked cabin and how to conserve water by putting the well a long way from the house.

Lost Moon

by Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger.

Houghton Mifflin, 378 pages, $22.95.

The mission of Apollo 13, launched in 1970, was to orbit the moon, performing a previously untried maneuver en route; make a landing in a rough and untouched area; and return with the usual collection of rocks. Moon landings had become routine, but there was nothing routine about the voyage of Apollo 13. Jim Lovell, in command of the three-man expedition, eventually found himself trying to control an out-of-balance, "powered-down spacecraft" with a "useless instrument panel" and dependent on an air supply jury-rigged with tape and cardboard, while Mission Control in Houston scrambled for schemes to correct the ship's problems. Mr. Lovell and Mr. Kluger, a journalist and a contributing editor of Discover, have described the flight in the style of a science-fiction novel, shifting from the disabled Apollo to Houston to NASA's financial diplomacy to the various companies responsible for the construction of the ship to the tight-knit astronaut community to the barbarous conduct of the media, which, not content with official information, asked permission to set up a broadcasting rig on the Lovells' front lawn. The book's construction works very well indeed, both as immediately observed history and as a tale of adventure to chill a reader's spine.

African Warriors

by Thomasin Magor.

Abrams, 256 pages, $60.00.

Ms. Magor spent six years studying and photographing the Samburu, cattle-keeping nomads who inhabit a remote and difficult corner of northern Kenya. Her text describes a highly mannered, formal, rigidly hierarchical society that efficiently maintains survival in distinctly inhospitable terrain. Her photographs show the beautiful young people of that society, the men in particular adorned with paint, beads, feathers, and elaborate coiffures. The author fears that civilization will submerge the Samburu and their delightful finery, and photographs of the community elders support that fear, revealing two shirts and at least three European hats. Viewers can be grateful for the grace and elegance that Ms. Magor has recorded.


by Peter Hoeg, translated by Barbara Haveland.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 277 pages, $22.00.

Mr. Hoeg's novel, which ultimately develops into meditations on lineal versus circular time and routine as an illusion of control, is more practically concerned with the miseries of three young people who have fallen into the well-intentioned but ice-cold clutches of the Danish orphanage system. Peter, the narrator, is fourteen and appears to have done nothing worse than be late for classes and run away from dismal institutions. Katarina, slightly older, asks questions. August, the youngest, is plainly psychotic. All three have been shoved into an elite school where, they realize, they should not be. Their attempts to find out what is really going on and why lead to disaster, but along the way provide a nerve-wracking picture of bureaucratic stupidity and discreet corruption. The novel is episodic and frequently oblique, but provocative in its evocation of juvenile loneliness and confusion.

My Life With Noel Coward

by Graham Payn with Barry Day.

Applause, 320 pages, $24.95.

Mr. Payn, singer and actor, was Coward's friend and companion for thirty years and is now the administrator of the Coward estate. Mr. Day's credentials are varied but must be sound, for this collaboration is an exceptionally lively and convincing portrait of Coward as playwright, composer, director, performer, amateur painter, and indomitable perfectionist. It includes unpublished material such as numbers cut from shows, casual notes, and never-collected pieces on acting (Coward thought poorly of The Method) and critics--"I think it is so frightfully clever of them to go night after night to the theatre and know so little about it." There was great intelligence behind Coward's crackling wit, but his judgment was not infallible. The authors chronicle miscastings, inadvertent cannibalization, misdirected faith, and even Coward's belief that he could cook--a notion of which his devoted friends did not try to disabuse him. One can see why. Coward emerges here as a man who deserved love and loyalty.

Conor: A Biography of Conor Cruise O'Brien

by Donald Harman Akenson.

Cornell, 590 pages, $35.00.

Conor Cruise O'Brien Anthology

edited by Donald Harman Akenson.

Cornell, 370 pages, $39.95.

Conor Cruise O'Brien has been a contributor to The Atlantic for more than three decades. A portion of the Anthology first appeared in this magazine.

Copyright © 1995 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
m_nv_cv picture m_nv_un picture m_nv_am picture m_nv_pr picture m_nv_as picture m_nv_se picture