m_topn picture
Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

D E C E M B E R   1 9 9 6

Brief Reviews
by Phoebe-Lou Adams

Each book title highlighted below can be ordered from Amazon.com.

Browse an anthology of Brief Reviews by Phoebe-Lou Adams

The World
of Edward Gorey

by Clifford Ross
and Karen Wilkin.
Abrams, 192 pages, $29.95.

In his interview with Mr. Ross, Edward Gorey speaks of his likes and dislikes and aspects of his career with what appears to be amiable candor. Ms. Wilkin discusses Gorey's work as illustrator, author, stage designer, and miscellaneous creator with the admiration it deserves and intelligent attention to the artist's use of literary references and multilingual word games as adjuncts to his drawings. Having noted Gorey's "allusions" to the work of other artists, she adds that "references to antecedents, whatever their origins, function like complex seasonings in the cooking of a brilliant chef; they may be essential to the result, but they are interesting only because they amalgamate to make something completely new and distinctive." Neither Mr. Ross's interview nor Ms. Wilkin's monograph answers the question that teases Gorey admirers: Why does he choose to set his macabre, ironic, satirical, frequently inconclusive fantasies in Edwardian England? Not that the omission detracts from the pleasure provided by the book, which presents almost enough Gorey drawings along with its sound text. There can never be quite enough Gorey drawings.

Every Man
for Himself

by Beryl Bainbridge.
Pantheon, 416 pages,

Morgan, the first-person narrator of Ms. Bainbridge's latest historical novel, is a young man connected with the world of international high finance and high living, but he is not quite as solidly gilded as the friends with whom he proposes to drink, dance, gamble, and flirt (and, if possible, seduce) his way across the Atlantic aboard the RMS Titanic. He has actually done work on the ship's design -- "wash-basins in the third class accommodation areas." That experience is of no advantage when the iceberg strikes, but before the catastrophe Morgan meets, and describes, and suffers from a fine variety of characters. Ms. Bainbridge has a remarkable gift for evoking the manners and thinking of people of another time through unobtrusive detail and subtle control of style. Mr. Frick's Pomeranian scuttles "squealing under the ottoman," and Morgan's dry understatements could fit well into The Prisoner of Zenda. The novel is a fine tale and a fine glimpse of a world bound for disaster.

Selected Poems

by George Mackay Brown.
Phaidon, 240 pages, $69.95.

The poems that Brown (1921-1996) selected for this volume all originate in his character as an Orkneyman conscious of the conditions and history of his native place. He writes of treacherous seas, empty nets, and rocky fields, but also of unpretentious courage, luck, and sunlight converting death to new growth. The poems are generally unrhymed and terse, and the rhythms are those of the speaking voice. There are echoes of Norse kennings (the sea is a "dark net") and of Welsh triads: "Three winter brightnesses -- / Bridesheet, boy in snow, / Kirkyard spade." There is, however, nothing provincial or quaint about Brown's work. Whether his speakers are overworked farmers or hungry fishermen or gold-hunting Vikings, their actions are relevant to the modern world. They remind the reader that the story is still not "long to tell," and still leads to "a quieter alehouse, / Free drink, no hangovers."

The Last Ranch

by Sam Bingham.
Pantheon, 363 pages, $27.50.

Mr. Bingham spent a year in the San Luis Valley of Colorado, where encroaching desertification threatening both ranchers and farmers led to attempts to understand the process and to slow or even reverse it by natural means. The author reports not only on the frequently eccentric people involved in that attempt but also on the history of the area, which includes South Farm, a large tract that in forty years went through the hands of six owners, all of whom lost money; the obliteration of an old Spanish town; and endless official bumblings. It was a great day when the Bureau of Land Management and the Fish and Wildlife Service exchanged words, for that had never happened before. The book expands into other areas and other continents. It is altogether a hugely informative and very well written examination of a widespread problem that has only recently begun to receive serious study and for which there is not yet a hint of a remedy.

The Gods
Are Thirsty

by Tanith Lee.
Overlook, 514 pages,

The author has so obviously done long and earnest research as background for her novel about the French Revolution that it seems ungrateful to report that the material remains research -- but that is the case. The characters do not arouse interest beyond that inherent in their historical positions, and sentences such as ". . . then the cannon slid smiling back into view, licked their lips, and coughed out the thunder of death" do not improve matters.

Charles Dickens'
A Christmas Carol

MCE Publishing, 176 pages, $19.95.

The point of this publication, supervised by Dan Malan, of The Classics Collector magazine, is the presence of "45 lost engravings by Gustave Doré" along with 130 other Victorian illustrations. Doré was working for a French magazine -- Journal pour Tous -- and anyone who expects the equivalent of the superb illustrations for the Rime of the Ancient Mariner or Don Quixote will be disappointed. Doré did a fine job -- his ghosts are the scariest, his poor the shabbiest, and his Scrooge the meanest among the examples on display -- but it was a job for an ephemeral publication, not to be compared with the artist's independent projects. The full Dickens text is of course present; this reprint is an interesting oddity.

Prince John
Magruder: His Life
and Campaigns

by Paul D. Casdorph.
Wiley, 400 pages,

John Bankhead Magruder, West Point 1830, was nicknamed "Prince" for his addiction to elaborate manners, social merriment, and fancy uniforms. Like other Virginians, he joined the Confederacy, ending the war as a major general. His biographer believes that Magruder has been unjustly neglected, and perhaps he has. He did good service in the Mexican War and had sound ideas about mobile artillery. There were people who thought highly of him. There were those who did not. One fellow West Pointer described him as "ambitious, unscrupulous, treacherous, and dissolute" but "a dashing fearless soldier." This sounds like Flashman -- barring the fearlessness -- but the paucity of anything but military documents has prevented Mr. Casdorph from finding much flash in Magruder's life. One has the impression that Prince John was a more complicated and interesting man than a conscientious, soberly honest historian can track down.

Recent books by Atlantic authors:

Same Place, Same Things by Tim Gautreaux. St. Martin's, 224 pages, $20.95. Two of the stories in this collection first appeared in The Atlantic.

Lies of the Saints by Erin McGraw. Chronicle, 208 pages, $11.95. Two of the stories in this collection first appeared in The Atlantic.

Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; December 1996; Brief Reviews; Volume 278, No. 6; pages 124-126.

m_nv_cv picture m_nv_un picture m_nv_am picture m_nv_pr picture m_nv_as picture m_nv_se picture