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Brief Reviews
by Phoebe-Lou Adams

Bech at Bay
by John Updike.
256 pages, $23.00.

Mr. Updike's stories are subtitled "A Quasi-Novel," presumably because they share a protagonist, Bech, and a mockingly mordant view of the literary world. Bech (this is his third appearance) is a Jewish-American author of more reputation than sales. As a cultural guest in still-Communist Prague, he is attracted to politically incorrect types. As president of the Forty, an institute for the elite of arts and letters, he is both victim and beneficiary of a plot that surprises the reader as much as it does the unwary Bech. In a leap into fantasy he murders hostile reviewers. He is ultimately inconvenienced by the Nobel Prize. The story of the Forty, whose active members are a dozen or so self-important dodderers and whose support derives from a nineteenth-century snake-oil fortune, is cruel but highly amusing. The campaign against critics contains superb pastiches of mean reviews -- unless Mr. Updike is paraphrasing the real thing -- and it is also wickedly funny. It is fair, as well, in a way. Revenge backfires. Quasi or not, this book is a fine send-up of the literary life -- witty, malicious, and fun to read.
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What Painting Is
by James Elkins.
272 pages, $25.00.

Mr. Elkins has been a painter and an art teacher, and seemingly remains a student of alchemy. He advises readers to consider painting -- the attempt to make something meaningful out of powdered rock and water -- as akin to alchemy, whose practitioners strove to make meaning and power out of chemical substances they did not understand by methods that were uncertain. "When nothing is known," Mr. Elkins points out, "anything is possible. An alchemist who added 'aqua regia' to 'luna' might not have had any idea what could happen. An artist who mixes salt into a lithograph, or beats water into oil paint, is taking the same kind of chance." In the author's view, substances, even colors, have character, and will exert it regardless of an artist's intention. This is a novel way of considering paintings, and excitingly different from standard art criticism.

by Nanci Kincaid.
396 pages, $21.95.

Ms. Kincaid's novel describes the lives of women who have the misfortune to be involved with football in southern towns where the game, and victory, are the center of civic attention. She constructs the story through the voices of wives, mothers, and girlfriends, who are lively, often peppery speakers. Despite the variety and plausibility of the monologues, the tale eventually becomes monotonous, because the ball game always wins.

Collected Fictions
by Jorge Luis Borges,
translated by Andrew Hurley.
566 pages, $40.00.

A Borges invention can start anywhere, hint at unlikely sources, and proceed by pseudo-banal routes to unprecedented goals; it always takes the reader on a roller-coaster ride into some previously unsuspected dimension. This collection of the great magician's work is a new translation and includes one piece never before put into English.

A Traitor's Kiss:
The Life of Richard
Brinsley Sheridan,

by Fintan O'Toole.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux,
544 pages, $30.00.

At the age of twenty-six Richard Brinsley Sheridan "had in the previous three years married one of the most beautiful women in England, fathered a healthy child, taken control of a great theatre, and written three of the most successful plays of the century." What else could he do but go into Parliament? He did, and served for more than three decades with intelligence, liberal principles, and a certain amount of guile. It was an extraordinary career for a Celtic Irishman without major family connections or independent fortune. That Sheridan died poor, disillusioned, and a bit mad is not surprising. The social and political world that Mr. O'Toole ably reconstructs was as savage as our own.

Presumed Ignorant!
by Leland H. Gregory III.
216 pages, $9.95.

Mr. Gregory maintains that every item in this collection of ludicrous laws and daft decisions is genuine. Individually, the absurdities are amusing. In the aggregate, they indicate that it will not be enough to kill all the lawyers. Legislators and judges must also go to the lamppost.

Serendipities: Language and Lunacy
by Umberto Eco,
translated by William Weaver.
Columbia University,
128 pages, $19.95.

Professor Eco examines, with wit and elegance, some of the many cases in which a mistaken belief has led to a sound result. He does not ignore cases in which such a belief has led to a great waste of effort. Readers who enjoy this author's grace of style and mastery of odd anecdote will find his reflections delightful.

N. C. Wyeth
by David Michaelis.
576 pages, $40.00.

Wyeth was one of the greatest of illustrators in the days when magazines and fine books carried pictures by artists instead of arrangements by photographers. Illustration, however, was considered little better than a craft, and Wyeth persistently longed for time (and funds) to do "serious" painting. He never found it. He did found a dynasty of painters, but this he could not foresee through the years of complaint and depression and bad temper over what he considered the inadequacy of his work. How much of his trouble arose from the influence of his mother -- a real terror of sugarcoated tyranny -- and how much from the rapid social changes of the time cannot be determined, although Mr. Michaelis puts much sensible effort into the question, and the reader cannot avoid taking a steady interest in it.

Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; November 1998; Brief Reviews; Volume 282, No. 5; pages 137-138.

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