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F E B R U A R Y   1 9 9 5

Brief Reviews
by Phoebe-Lou Adams

A Feather on the Breath of God

by Sigrid Nunez.

HarperCollins, 180 pages, $18.00.

The first-person narrator of this first novel is the daughter of an unprosperous Chinese and the German wife he acquired while serving in the Second World War. How and why this happened is a total puzzle to their daughter growing up outside New York City, where both her parents are uncomfortable aliens and she herself feels anchorless. The novel is an intelligent and poignant examination of social and erotic displacement, and written with such extraordinary and seemingly unstudied conviction that one accepts every word of it as the truth. An impressive debut.

Family Secrets

by William M. Murphy.

Syracuse, 540 pages, $39.95.

Mr. Murphy is an acknowledged authority on the Yeats family--that is, "William Butler Yeats and His Relatives," whose activities are reported in this book. Mr. Murphy promises the reader factual information unencumbered by literary interpretation, art criticism, aesthetic estimate, or psychological speculation, and he keeps his word except on those occasions when he must decide which family member is least mendacious. Willie and Lily and Lollie and Jack (officially William Butler, Susan Mary, Elizabeth Corbet, and John Butler junior) were the offspring of a marriage between Susan Pollexfen and John Yeats. The Pollexfens were business people with a high regard for money. They were nonintellectual, glumly pious, and socially glacial. The Yeatses were Anglo-Irish gentry, landowners and clergymen, merry idealists with a high regard for learning. The match would probably have been awkward in any case, but when John quit a promising legal career to become a painter, feckless finance and professional disappointment led to perpetual disorder. The children, however, were all successful in their separate ways--William as a poet, Jack as a painter, Lily and Lollie (sometimes referred to, with acid Irish wit, as the "weird sisters") in the revival of arts and crafts that accompanied the Irish renascence. They met or knew or quarreled with almost everyone of note in Ireland at the time. The gossip and tensions and rivalries that Mr. Murphy has revealed are fascinating, while the financial maneuvers of the sisters amount to a small saga. Mr. Murphy has avoided posthumous psychologizing, but he cannot avoid genetic theory, for the Yeatses were very conscious of the incompatibility of Yeats and Pollexfen blood. John senior, broke in New York and the recipient of money from William, put the family position neatly: "It was like a Yeats to send this money and make no fuss about it. It was like a Pollexfen to have it to send."

The Black Book

by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Guneli Gun.

Farrar Straus Giroux, 400 pages, $25.00.

On a winter day in Istanbul, Galip comes home from his languid law practice to find that Ruya, his wife and also his cousin, has run away. He assumes that she has taken refuge with her half-brother Jelal, a widely read newspaper columnist, but Jelal is also missing, from both the paper and his formal address. Galip goes sloshing through slush and grime in search of the errant pair. The novel is constructed in alternating chapters--one describing Galip's wanderings and the strange and garrulous people he meets, who all tell him strange stories; the next reproducing one of Jelal's old columns, which also contain stories and which Galip studies in the hope of finding a clue to the writer's whereabouts. The flow of seemingly unrelated tales suggests a Thousand and One Nights kaleidoscope, but there is a single concern underlying the shifting surface, and that is the question of identity--What is it, what is its value, what stability does it have? Jelal's name derives from that of a medieval mystic and poet who advised, "Appear as you are, be as you appear. You are not this body, but a spiritual eye--what the eye of man contemplates it becomes." Jelal describes, and Galip experiences, a state in which each is watched by a disembodied eye that is also what it watches. Jelal refers frequently to historical figures and to Hurufi, a mystical sect practicing a method of divination based upon numbers assigned to letters of the alphabet. Galip tries the method on Jelal's columns without success. It is likely that only a Muslim or an Islamic specialist can grasp all the implications that the author has embedded in his brilliantly shifting text, but one of them must be Turkey's difficulty in maintaining national identity in its Janus-faced position as the western fringe of the Middle East and the eastern fringe of Europe. With the questions it raises and the author's satirical jabs at literary critics, imported fads, civic authorities, and "small towns where they're big on their religion and their graveyards," Mr. Pamuk's novel is exciting. It gives both the imagination and the intelligence thorough exercise.

Great Women of the Bible

by Dorothee Solle, Joe H. Kirchberger, Herbert Haag, and others.

Eerdmans, 295 pages, $75.00.

Representations of biblical women in art and literature are the announced focus of the authors. The text includes relevant excerpts from the Bible, rather summary accounts of the use made of such texts by authors from early times to our own, and commentaries of a contemporary feminist character which naively stress the obvious and cannot be considered either literature or art. The illustrations provide a vivid record of the styles in which differing cultures have visualized scriptural heroines and victims. There is also generous material on nonbiblical legends and traditions from the Middle East.

The Hippopotamus

by Stephen Fry.

Random House, 304 pages, $22.00.

Mr. Fry's novel, an odd mixture of the sentimental and the ribald, is in the end a comedy in praise of sex, alcohol, kindness, and common sense, items that the author considers interdependent. Readers who cannot tolerate that view had best avoid the book--but they will be missing some real fun.

Noah's Choice: The Future of Endangered Species

by Charles C. Mann and Mark L. Plummer.

Knopf, 336 pages, $24.00.

This book grew out of the authors' January, 1992, cover story for The Atlantic, "The Butterfly Problem."

The History of the Blues

by Francis Davis.

Hyperion, 224 pages, $24.95.

The chapter on Robert Johnson in this book originated as an article titled "Blues Walking Like a Man," in the April, 1991, issue of The Atlantic.

Copyright © 1995 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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