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Brief Reviews
by Phoebe-Lou Adams

The Hidden Ground

by Philip Callow.
Ivan R. Dee,
428 pages, $30.00.

Mr. Callow has written this fine biography out of long admiration for Chekhov's work and genuine affection for a man who was, he believes, more of our time than of Tsarist Russia. One need not agree with that point to enjoy a very well-written, intelligent account of Chekhov's remarkable literary career and of his private actions -- which were lively and far-flung. Either by temperament or as a side effect of the tuberculosis that killed him at forty-four, Chekhov had an itching foot. In Moscow he deplored meanspirited vulgarity and yearned for the country. In the country he complained that he had neither quiet for writing nor leisure for fishing. Moscow he could do nothing about, but his summer places were always overstocked with guests whom he had himself invited, and surrounded by peasants whom he had deliberately alerted to free medical treatment. His own health was always poor. His trip to Siberia to study penal colonies was undertaken despite the protests of family, friends, and publisher but produced a brilliant fusion of travelogue and reportage -- a work of lasting significance. It also produced three mongooses that, with no cobras to hunt, added to the normal chaos of Chekhov's establishment. That establishment included parents, a younger brother, the frequent presence of a fanatically devoted sister, and sporadic incursions by two older brothers, one somewhat feckless, the other fatally so. It was no place into which to insert a wife -- a fact that Mr. Callow overlooks in his discussion of Chekhov's wary avoidance of matrimony. When he did marry, late and close to death, there was domestic civil war. Lives of authors are frequently books in which nothing happens except pen-scratching. In Chekhov's life all sorts of things happen constantly. He is wonderful company.
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Hullabaloo in the
Guava Orchard

by Kiran Desai.
Atlantic Monthly Press,
224 pages, $22.00.

Ms. Desai's giddily irreverent novel concerns Sampath, a young Hindu with no ambition for anything but quiet solitude in a cool spot. His town is hot and crowded. His father is financially ambitious. His mother is daft about food, and his grandmother is daft about health. Sampath finds a deserted orchard and settles in a guava tree, where he inadvertently becomes the local holy hermit. In crackling, witty, sharply visual prose, Ms. Desai mocks pious enthusiasm, official incompetence, domestic confusion, young love, marriage customs, sacred monkeys, and a few subsidiary targets. She is a delightfully funny, amiable satirist, with the Puckish view that "this their jangling I esteem a sport."

Alexander Calder

by Marla Prather,
Alexander S.C. Rower, and
Arnauld Pierre.
367 pages, $65.00/$37.00.

The text follows Calder's career and discusses his materials and methods, which is sensible because the artist himself said all anyone needs to know about the meaning of his airily enchanting sculptures: "I want to make things that are fun to look at, that have no propaganda value whatsoever." The pieces photographed in this volume are splendid fun to look at. Any propaganda value lies in the eye of the beholder.

Fairweather Eden

by Michael Pitts and Mark Roberts.
352 pages, $28.00.

Mr. Roberts is the man primarily responsible for the excavations at Boxgrove, Sussex, which produced evidence of human presence in England half a million years ago, a date earlier than previously assumed and earlier than such evidence elsewhere in Europe has indicated. Mr. Pitts is an archaeologist and a writer for academic journals. Their collaboration is not always well organized, but this is, for antiquity buffs, an exciting report. It covers the history of the dig, gives considerable information on earlier archaeological efforts and theories, and describes mundane matters like funding, staffing, and the storage of bones from shrews and rhinoceroses. The people who shared what was then a beach with some animals that are now extinct or confined to the tropics were great makers of hand axes. An expert modern butcher was recruited to tackle a deer carcass with a battery of hand axes. He skinned and cut up the animal with no trouble and thought well of the tools. The old makers must have known what they were doing. They are described as considerably taller than the later Neanderthals, much given to running about, and innocent of dental hygiene. The evidence for this description consists of a partial leg bone and two teeth.

The Dreams Our
Stuff Is Made Of

by Thomas M. Disch.
Free Press,
272 pages, $25.00.

Mr. Disch's subtitle -- "How Science Fiction Conquered the World" -- gives no warning of the point that the author, as a writer of the genre, finds exasperating. Although it has a worldwide audience, science fiction has never conquered the highbrow critical establishment. Mr. Disch wonders why. He covers the history of the form, summons the ghosts of Jonathan Swift, Mary Shelley, and Edgar Allan Poe, relates science fiction to politics, sociology, military strategy, and feminism, and does it well (barring some carelessness with peripheral references), and cannot see why first-class science fiction is not considered as good as any other kind. For a man of his obvious intelligence, this is surprising myopia. People read science fiction for fun. High Art should be read for Duty, on the advice of a Literary Critic and with interpretation by a Professor. Why should critics exert themselves in a field where their services are neither needed nor wanted?

Shut Up and Deal

by Jesse May.
217 pages, $12.95.

Although it is offered as a novel, Mr. May's book is more an extended monologue. The speaker is a professional poker player who describes the odd people on the circuit, the maddening or ludicrous vagaries of the cards, and the addictive power of games in which the official object -- winning money -- is actually less important than the excitement of risk. There is no plot, merely a distinctive and convincing voice speaking bluntly about a grim, comic, grungy world.

Celebrity Caricature
in America

by Wendy Wick Reaves.
320 pages, $45.00.

Early on in this survey of twentieth-century caricature there is an amusingly economical line drawing of a genial, jowly cardinal. It looks thoroughly modern. It was done before 1633. Kindly caricature was not invented in the United States, but it flourished here from, roughly, 1900 to the Second World War, with innovative artists employing avant-garde styles to portray not the character of the subject but the public perception of a well-known personage. There was much skill and wit involved in the game, and rarely even a hint of malice. Ms. Reaves's presentation of these clever drawings can raise a chuckle even when one has no recollection of the celebrated subject.

Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; June 1998; Brief Reviews; Volume 281, No. 6; pages 112-114.

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