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Brief Reviews
by Phoebe-Lou Adams

The Cats of Lamu

by Jack Couffer,
photographs by Jack and Mike Couffer.
Lyons Press, 168 pages, $24.95.

LAMU is a small archipelago off the coast of Kenya, once an important point in the trade from Africa to the East. When Mr. Couffer came upon it, the place was a beautiful backwater inhabited by fishermen, mostly Muslim, and cats, possibly descended from those revered in old Egypt. These feral cats are slim, with long legs and tails, and have been recognized as a distinct breed. Mr. Couffer took to studying them, but could not maintain the detachment proper to an animal behaviorist. The group -- he calls it a pride -- close to his house offered such a variety of conduct and such distinctive faces that the members acquired names like Ink Spot and Midnight, Lady Gray and Kinky. Neighboring, less polished tribes included Ugly and Captain Hook. Mr. Couffer discovered -- and describes with a mixture of precision and sly humor -- territories, social ranks, protocol, family connections, and communication systems among his cats. He warns that "the price one pays to play at studying cats is high," for he has trespassed over garden walls, has leaped out of the way of a battle, and once had to "spend half the night watching cats sniffing urine." His report on Lamu and its cats is charmingly written but ultimately a bit sad, for modern improvements and the tourist trade have encroached on the area. Meddlesome off-islanders propose to bring the feline citizens to order with a neutering campaign, regardless of the fact that those citizens have kept their own order for centuries and have cleaned the streets as well. The photographs are numerous and handsome.
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Browse an anthology of Brief Reviews by Phoebe-Lou Adams.

The Odd Sea

by Frederick Reiken.
Harcourt Brace, 201 pages,

Mr. Reiken's novel can be considered a coming-of-age story, but it is unusual, and unusually interesting, because his adolescent narrator is much less self-centered than most of his kind. Philip Shumway's multi-talented, admired, even adored older brother, Ethan, has walked down the driveway and vanished. Philip does not record only his own grief and bewilderment. He observes, and tries to understand, the reactions of his parents, sisters, and friends -- including a patroness at the neighboring art colony. He tries to reconstruct Ethan's activities before his disappearance. He learns a lot, and so does the reader, although the question of the position and effect of art and artists remains metaphorical and as unanswerable as it has always been. The members of the Shumway family become thoroughly real people as they cling together while coping with their loss in highly divergent ways. The novel is set in a small town in western Massachusetts, with the weather and look of that hill country most effectively described. The opening episode will stir the blood of anyone who has ever had the luck to encounter perfect skating conditions on wild ice. The book is a first novel, skillful and much more than promising.

Hen Frigates:
Wives of Merchant
Captains Under Sail

by Joan Druett.
Simon & Schuster, 274 pages,

A hen frigate was a commercial vessel with the captain's wife, and possibly children, aboard. Ms. Druett has assembled a great deal of information about the seagoing women, and it is surprising. Some captains taught their ladies to navigate, for the practical reason that there was often nobody else aboard who knew how to do it. In emergency wives, and in one case a daughter, brought ships safely to port. Boredom and isolation were the enemies in good weather, combated by sewing, fancywork, reading, and writing letters and journals. Those last items have been a fine source of detail for Ms. Druett, revealing, among other things, that all sailors could sew and some were expert embroiderers. The text is organized around topics rather than people, which makes it difficult to follow the activities of a gaudy character like Shotgun Murphy, but in general the system works well and casts light on an odd corner of nineteenth-century life.

Beyond Recall

by Robert Goddard.
Holt, 310 pages,

Mr. Goddard's mystery novel is the type in which a rich and unpleasant old coot is murdered in the library and the police must sift through the heirs for the culprit -- but with a difference. Great Uncle Joshua is a very likeable old coot; he is not murdered in the library or even on the premises; and the police do a poor job of sifting. An amateur -- himself one of the heirs -- has to tackle the case years later. The book has a large cast of characters, not always efficiently controlled by the author, and some dubious motivation, but no shortage of action.

Cursed Days:
A Diary of Revolution

by Ivan Bunin,
translated by Thomas Gaiton Marullo.
Ivan R. Dee, 286 pages,

Bunin (1870-1953) was among the last Russian writers of upper-class origin. His family were landowners and, until emancipation, serf owners. Bunin knew village peasant life more closely than did the liberal urban intellectuals who acclaimed the merits of the "folk." The folk, in Bunin's opinion, were ignorant, gullible, violent, dirty, and totally unfit to take a hand in government. The revolution of 1917 horrified him. As a writer, however, he could not resist keeping notes on what he observed. He published the notebook -- in exile -- in 1936, but it has never before been translated into English. Thomas Gaiton Marullo, an authority on Bunin and his times, has done an admirable job as both translator and editor, providing footnotes that explain what was really going on, as opposed to the rumors recorded by Bunin, which were mostly false. Bunin's text depicts contrasts: Enthusiasts hailing the revolution and promising death to the bourgeoisie, and anti-Bolsheviks applauding the Whites in the safety of private quarters. Streets patroled by armed thugs, usually bowlegged and munching sunflower seeds, and quiet citizens dreaming of help from the French or the Germans. Everybody hungry and cold, but audiences gathering to hear Bunin's anti-revolutionary lectures. Bunin's despair over the destruction of his country is moving -- he truly suffered -- and his prophecies of a disastrous future were often correct, while his blunt contempt for anyone not of his own well-bred class is an inadvertent explanation for some of the Bolshevik excesses that he deplored. As both a human document and a historical record, this book deserves attention.

Will This Do?

by Auberon Waugh.
Carroll & Graf, 288 pages,

Mr. Waugh's autobiography will presumably do for admirers of his novels; avid devotees of his father, Evelyn; confirmed Anglophiles; and all who enjoy the sound of names, notable or not, dropping like autumn leaves.

Recent books by Atlantic authors:

The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus, by Charlotte Allen. The Free Press, 400 pages, $26.00. A portion of this book appeared, in somewhat different form, as The Atlantic's cover story in December of 1996.

Plenty of Nothing: The Downsizing of the American Dream and the Case for Structural Keynesianism, by Thomas L. Palley. Princeton, 238 pages, $27.95. This book grew out of an article titled "The Forces Making for an Economic Collapse," which was part of The Atlantic's cover subject in July of 1996, "Recipe for a Depression."

Off the Beaten Path, edited by Joseph Barbato and Lisa Weinerman Horak. Farrar Straus & Giroux/North Point Press, 262 pages, $24.00. "The Half-Skinned Steer," by E. Annie Proulx, one of the stories in this anthology, first appeared in The Atlantic,last November.

Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; July 1998; Brief Reviews; Volume 282, No. 1; pages 104 - 106.

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