Savage Grace
By Natalie Robins and
Steven M. L. Aronson
(William Morrow)
Leo Hendrik Baekland, "Father of Plastics," invented Bakelite. His grandson, Brooks, married Barbara. Barbara and Brooks begat a son, Tony, who grew up to be a writer and artist of some talent. He was also homosexual. Barbara tried to straighten out Tony by sleeping with him. This didn't work so well. When Tony was twenty-six his tempestuous relationship with his mother had its final eruption --- Tony stabbed his mother to death and was sent to England's Broadmoor prison.

Brooks and Barbara and Tony spent much of their lives in the company of the international literati set. Some of the members of that set interceded with the authorities on Tony's behalf and convinced them to release Tony to go live with Barbara's mother in New York.

Tony lived with his grandmother for awhile and then she started repeating herself which he found irritating so he threw a telephone at her and stabbed her a few times. She lived and Tony was sent to Rikers Island prison.

After awhile Tony committed suicide by putting a plastic bag over his head. Somewhat earlier his father, Brooks, ran off with Tony's girlfriend (after a fashion) Sylvie but they're no longer together.

Contrary to Norman Mailer's dust jacket praise this is not as good an oral history as Edie. Edie Sedgewick may have been destructive and self-centered but she did have an appeal both sensual and intellectual. If Tony Baekland possessed such an appeal the authors have failed to convey it; he comes off as just plain awful.

--- Gilo Coatimundi

Another Man's
Charles Fountain
George Frazier was a columnist in a Boston newspaper for many years. His was a column of opinions, acerbic, acidic even. His targets were the obvious ones for his times --- Agnew, Nixon, various trivial pop celebrities, Boston Irish pols in or on their way to jail. Frazier wrote with an easy graceful style and he affected a high sophistication. When he died in 1974 as a result of too much booze, cigarettes and such, his readers missed him.

Now we have Another Man's Poison, a biography of Frazier. It is a curious piece of work. The path of Frazier's work is chronicled carefully enough. Portions of his writing are printed at length, sometimes too much length --- for the whiny complaints of yesteryear do not make interesting reading. At no point in the account does the writer provide any significant interpretation or analysis. The story seems to have no shape, direction or purpose. Why Frazier acted so destructively as he did, what emotional relationships he developed, and with whom, we do not know. What we are to learn from his life, what was the point, we cannot tell.

Furthermore the author is actively sneaky about what he reveals. He seems open enough but listen to this:

    He began to acquire a circle of friends, and though he played this aspect close to the vest, included among that circle was a love interest.

Who was that love interest? We do not learn for it is never mentioned again. Why then is it mentioned at all?

Several other such innuendos about Frazier's sex life lead this reader at least to ask could this be a modern day version of "the love that dare not speak its name?" If so, a flat-out account of the matter could have helped the reader to better understand Frazier. If not then why the hocus-pocus?

The author has his arch mannerisms. He refers to Roger Angell, The New Yorker sports writer as baseball scrivener non pareil. Frazier, himself a stylist, would have hated that one.

In sum, this is a sanitized story of a sad life, an account of a man with talent who chose to fritter it away. The book will be of interest to his friends and former readers. It will have no larger appeal.

--- Hugh Gregory Gallagher

The Upper Valley
An Illustrated Tour along
The Connecticut River
Before the 20th Century

Jerold Wikoff
(Chelsea Green)
Joseph Smith almost lost his leg from osteomylitis, but it was saved by Nathan Smith, founder of Dartmouth Medical School. The Shaker sect of Enfield required joining members to take a vow of celibacy, and would separate husband and wife to assure observance. Isaac Bullard of Woodstock, Vermont, by contrast, started a religion that practiced free love, and he wore a bearskin girdle. [He] considered washing a sin, and boasted that he had not changed his clothes in seven years.

The turnpikes of Vermont --- connecting many villages --- prospered as toll roads until the coming of the Vermont Central Railroad. They fell into disuse until the arrival of the automobile in the 1920s. Roads through the swamps were called "corduroy" roads. Saw mills and grist mills predominated in the Connecticut River Valley area (grist mills as in "grist for the mill" were to grind harvested grain; saw mills ground old saws.) (We just stuck that in to see if you were minding your p's and q's.) The Sokokis and Abenakis Indians succumbed not so much to war and white men's hostility as to their small pox, measles, and venereal diseases. One of the lakes near the river is called Lake Memphremagog. Just try to pronounce that one.

Rudyard Kipling lived four years in Brattleboro, because his wife had grown up there. They had two horses. One was named "Nip" and the other --- ready? "Tuck." Nathan Smith, the medico who operated on Joseph Smith, revolutionized American medicine. Before his coming, a multiple fracture in arm or leg resulted in automatic amputation of the offending limb, without anaesthetic (Smith got his earliest training because he was willing to hold down patients under the saw "without flinching.") Nathan Smith was so inspiring in his lectures to the students at the young and newly founded Dartmouth College that President Wheelock would attend, and once was so moved that he subsequently opened the mandatory evening prayers with the following words:

    Oh Lord, we thank Thee for oxygen gas, we thank Thee for hydrogen gas, and all the gases. We thank Thee for the cerebrum, we thank Thee for the cerebellum, and for the medulla oblongata.

All these facts appear, amongst copious illustrations, drawings, and photographs, in The Upper Valley. Well-written and nicely set, it is an obscure book on an abstruse subject that is recommended to those who have $29.95 and a yen for the past.

--- R. David Cohen

Pictures from
The Water

Adventures of a
Westerner in Japan

John David Morley
(Atlantic Monthly Press)

    Boon once sat in a train that was held up for ten minutes (in Tokyo not just a delay but a disaster) as railwaymen wrestled on the floor of the car with a violent epileptic. No impatience, no abuse, not even any indication of distaste. Before the stretcher bearers arrived to carry the man off, one of the staff leaned over him and wiped the effusions from his mouth with a clean handkerchief, which he then replaced, quite unself-consciously, in his own pocket.

Who brought these terrible, kind, meticulous, vicious, beautiful, cold, passionate people to earth? I speak of the Japanese, but John David Morley does it so much better. The Japanese must be the most contradictory creatures walking this world. They are subtle. They are crass. They have a supremely refined sense of natural beauty and they enthusiastically embrace the grotesque and artificial. They sip tea served in freshly-cut bamboo shoots and they wolf down Kentucky Fried Chicken and Big Macs.

Mr. Morley's book comes at us, Rashoman-like, from every direction. At the start of the book he quotes The Kojien to tell us that

    the mizu-shobai or water trade is a vulgar term for any precarious form of trade yielding an income entirely dependent on the patronage of its customers; for example, entertainment provided by geishas, bars, cabarets and so on.

Fortunately Mr. Morley then drags us through some of the seamier sides of Tokyo night life but, as the good Japanese he had to become to produce a piece of writing like this, he also brings us with him as he romances the enigmatic and lovely Mariko (they meet in obscure villages, make love in forgotten shacks and high grass fields); meets with the family of his roommate; carries on a friendship with the curious Ichimonji.

    According to Ono Susumu in his book Nihongo no nenrin (The year-rings of the Japanese language) the inhabitants of the country which two thousand years ago was known as Yamamoto had originally not known any word for nature. The term shizen was only later imported from China. The fact that there was no word for nature, Ono argued, justified one in assuming that there was no very clear concept of it either. In the Japanese understanding, nature had never constituted a discrete entity out there, something to which man stood in opposition, but the world in its entirety, embracing all things, organic and inorganic alike, a great symbiosis of which man was an inseparable part. Despite their reckless invasion of the natural environment in the twentieth century the Japanese still cherished this view of man-innature with feelings akin to reverence. It was strikingly epitomised by a remark, quoted in Tanaka Yasumasa's Gendai Nihonjin no ishiki (The Consciousness of Contemporary Japanese), to the effect that man at work in the rice fields seemed "less like an animal than a plant endowed with reason."

This is superb writing about exceptional subject matter. If one goes with it, this is as much as can be understood about Japan without actually being there.


--- Wanda Felix

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