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Brief Reviews
by Phoebe-Lou Adams

Browse an anthology of Brief Reviews by Pheobe-Lou Adams

My Uncle Napoleon

by Iraj Pezeshkzad,
translated by Dick Davis.
Mage, 514 pages, $29.95.

If one came upon this novel with none of the prefatory information provided by Dick Davis, one would be amazed that such a giddily uproarious mixture of farce and slapstick could be published in dourly pious Iran. The explanation is simple. It was published in the days of the Shah, was enormously popular, became a great success as a television series, and continues to be widely and happily read. Mr. Davis compares it to P. G. Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster stories and to Anita Loos's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as a fantastic, satirical exaggeration of social circumstances that do exist. The nameless teenage narrator is, like the rest of his extended family, afflicted by the self-appointed patriarch known privately as Dear Uncle Napoleon. The old boy is a devoted admirer of Bonaparte and has come to imagine that he himself is a formidable enemy of the British, who are bent on revenge against him for activities that actually amounted to no more than firing "a few bullets at a couple of footloose bandits during Mohammad Ali Shah's reign." Disrespect for Uncle's delusions sets off a family row of stupendous intricacy and absurdity. It begins with social status, water supplies, small brawls, the police, money, a mouse, and a sweetbrier bush--and proceeds into chaos. The novel is funny in an uninhibited, larger-than-life style seldom practiced today, but readers with no memory of Iranian history before the Second World War will do well to consult the glossary before embarking on the text, for Uncle Napoleon's paranoia does have a connection, however feeble, with reality.

Becoming Modern:
The Life of Mina Loy

by Carolyn Burke.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux,
494 pages, $35.00.

Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy

Mina Loy (1882-1966) was the daughter of a Hungarian Jew who prospered in the men's-clothing trade in Britain. There he married an English rose who developed into such a thornbush that nothing their daughter Mina subsequently did can be considered unreasonable. She began as an art student, joined avant-garde groups in Paris, and exhibited with some success. She also married, by mistake, an Englishman who dragged her off to Florence. She became an associate of the Futurist movement. She wrote poetry that impressed Ezra Pound and other members of the developing modernist school. By 1916, when she arrived in New York, Loy had a considerable reputation as a "new woman." She was an artist, a poet, and an individualist who had mislaid a husband and left two children behind in Italy. She was also a notable beauty--never an impediment in attracting public notice. Ms. Burke has done extremely well in describing the variety of distinguished people Loy knew and in chronicling the cultural disputes in which they engaged, making her book as much a history of early-twentieth-century aesthetics as it is a biography of a woman who took part in all the turmoil.

The Lost Lunar

by Mina Loy.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux,
238 pages, $19.00.

The Lost Lunar Baedeker

Roger L. Conover, the editor of this collection of Loy's poetry plus a few prose pieces, warns that she "is not for everyone. . . . if her poems do not immediately repel, they possess." That is a fair assessment, but readers interested in the wilder shores of poetic experiment will find Loy worth their attention.

Mucha: The Triumph
of Art Nouveau

by Arthur Ellridge.
Terrail, distributed by Stewart Tabori
and Chang, 223 pages, $24.95.

Mucha: The Triumph of Art Nouveau

Alphonse Mucha's softly colored, curvilinear style ranked as the epitome of Art Nouveau decoration, from his first success in 1894 with a poster for Sarah Bernhardt to his fall from fashion after the First World War. He was versatile, designing everything from elegant jewelry to biscuit tins, and so industrious that the events of his life, briskly reported by Mr. Ellridge, are principally commercial. He was, however, an advocate of Czech independence and Slavic culture, and in his later years donated large works on those themes to the city of Prague. When Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia, Mucha was among the first to be questioned by the Gestapo, but he died of pneumonia before he could be put in prison for designing currency on which "the man in the center of the bill was not an Aryan" and "the hammer and sickle was a sign of Bolshevik leanings." It was an incongruous end for an artist whose work--as this book generously illustrates--reveals only a liking for peaches-and-cream beauties, a romantic affection for his country's past, and an amiable desire to please his clients.

Adventures of
Huckleberry Finn

by Mark Twain.
Random House, 420 pages,

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

The discovery of what is presumed to be the first draft of Twain's great novel provides reason for the publication of "the only comprehensive edition." It is a handsome book, with fine antique illustrations, but there is no need to discard one's present copy of Huckleberry Finn. All this edition really proves is that Twain was a careful writer who sometimes changed his mind but always knew what he was doing.

Tangible Visions

by Allen Wardwell.
Monacelli Press, 336 pages, $85.00.

Tangible Visions

Allen Wardwell, formerly the curator of primitive art at the Art Institute of Chicago, worked for fifteen years on this study of "Northwest Coast Indian Shamanism and Its Art." The illustrations are lavish and beautiful. The objects depicted range from large garments to small amulets, all clearly invested with power. Exactly what sort of power remains indeterminate, because, as the author explains, each shaman had his own assembly of spirit guides and helpers and adjusted his rituals to the situation of each patient. The book therefore gives only a limited view of shamanistic thinking, but a wonderful view of shamanistic equipment.

Siberia, Siberia

by Valentin Rasputin,
translated by Margaret Winchell
and Gerald Mikkelson.
Northwestern University,
417 pages, $40.00.

Siberia, Siberia

According to Margaret Winchell and Gerald Mikkelson, Valentin Rasputin was perhaps "the most gifted and influential Russian prose writer of the last thirty years of the Soviet era." Much of his work is fiction, but this text is not. It is an impassioned, almost lyrical, appreciation of his native Siberia, a complaint that its history has been generally ignored, and a denunciation of the Moscow policies that have mindlessly exploited and damaged the country.

Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; August 1996; Brief Reviews; Volume 278, No. 2; pages 93-94.
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