The Los Angeles Times from Los Angeles, California on September 27, 1987 · 279
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The Los Angeles Times from Los Angeles, California · 279

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Sunday, September 27, 1987
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279
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TitlePage NONFICTION LAST LETTERS: PRISONS AND PRISONERS OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION by Olivier Blanc; Translated from the French by Alan Sheridan (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux: $22.50; 250 pp. ). Occasionally an accident of research produces a book more interesting than the one the historian originally intended. While shuffling through some dusty documents from the French Revolution, Olivier Blanc came across a stack of letters written by prisoners about to face the guillotine. It seems that revolutionary authorities routinely intercepted all correspondence from the condemned, stuffing hundreds of farewell missives into bureaucratic files where they have remained to this day. Blanc's was quite a find, for these documents provide a fascinating new human dimension to the momentous events of 1789. About half the book consists of the letters themselves, elegantly translated by Alan Sheridan, the other half of how the historian sees them. Most are as interesting for what they do not say as for what they do: curiously, few of them expressed any deep religious sentiment. This may seem strange, as the opponents of revolution have often been depicted as stalwarts of the church. But recent historians have argued otherwise, and the farewell notes collected here appear to bear them out. What did concern the condemned was money and property. "I owe citizen Sassier . . . seven livres, ten sols," wrote one prisoner to his daughter, "pay them to him." "Be so kind," a son asked his father, "as to tear up the note of the money that you were good enough to lend me. The tone was sober, even business-like, but not entirely. Many of the doomed wrote movingly to ease the grief of family members and to ask that their short lives be remembered. Thanks to the vagaries of archival preservation, we can remember them still. Edward Bcrenton THE RHS ENCYCLOPEDIA OF HOUSE PLANTS INCLUDING GREENHOUSE PLANTS by Kenneth A. Beckett (Salem Houses $34.95; 492 pp., illustrated). The serious indoor gardener already has dozens of books to choose from on the care and feeding of house plants, but few match in scope, authority and sheer volume this offering from the Royal Horticultural Society. It is a staggering and impressive venture, detailing roughly 4,000 plants, more than you'd ever find in your neighborhood nursery, and picturing in beautiful, true color 1,000 of them. There are brief, readable histories of house plants along with a discussion of how to select, propagate and prevent pests and disease from ruining them, but the heart of this hefty volume is its 442-page "House Plants From A-Z." Along with a description of the plant's genus, origin and special characteristics are symbols detail PAGE 4SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 27, 1987 ing the plant's proper environment, temperature, light and watering requirements and its habit and shape. Though there has been an American consultant, many of the plants discussed as suitable only to a greenhouse or sun room do quite well outdoors, and indoors without a glass enclosure, in many of Southern California's microclimates. While this is a definitive volume, its sheer weight tends to make it unwieldy, though it surely deserves a spot on your gardening bookshelf, alongside the indespen-sible house-plant care book from Dr. D. G. Hessayon, "The House Plant Expert," which specifies what can go wrong and what to do about it for 550 plants, an invaluable area that this encyclopedia doesn't cover, its one failing. Barbara Saltzman WHO NEEDS THEATRE? by Robert Brustein (Atlantic Monthly Press: $18.95; 336 pp.). "Who Needs Theatre?" is a collection of essays written between 1980 and 1986 by Robert Brustein, drama critic of The New Republic and artistic director of the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard. Learning, intelligence and a passionate commitment to the theater are everywhere apparent in these pages. But curious to say of such a devotee as Brustein, his essays are of the greatest value when he is most detached in his approach. They tend to ride off the rails into a no man's land of misapprehension just when he is most involved, personally or intellectually, with what he observes and discusses. Thus, his pieces on the meaning of Lillian Hellman's anger, or the essentially rhetorical difficulties underlying the South African political drama "Born in the R.S.A." are cool, incisive and integrated in subject and argument But his puffery for his former student Christopher Durang's "The Marriage of Bette and Boo," a jejune broadside at modern American family life using TV sitcom characterizations as its blunt instruments of satire, is embarrassing. His panegyric to Marsha Norman's '"Night Mother," which he first produced, is positively loopy; he sees this attenuated suicide drama as an accretion of details that is Chekhovian in its beauty of form; the night I saw it the man in front of me, after having watched the protagonist fill candy dishes and write shopping lists all evening, jumped up from his seat and said, "She should have shot herself an hour ago," thus hitting the nail Brustein doesn't even seem to know exists. His review of "Sunday in the Park With George" is the only truly fine one on this work I have seen; his reportorial skills accurately describe what is on the stage, his critical skills determine precisely its lack of aesthetic cohesion. The same faculties desert him as he tells us of Robert Wilson's "Einstein on the Beach." His considerable praise is imposed on the work, not discovered from his analysis of it. We can't take his judgment of the piece seriously, because he can't describe it in a way that convinces us that he or anyone else could know what it is. He can only give an account of various protracted, inchoate scenes, of indeterminate significance. By presenting no realistic intellectual basis for his encomium, he renders it spurious. So the book goes, veering back and forth between insight and imperception. If you are interested in what ideas a leading light of serious American theater has been promulgating, for good and ill, Brus-tein's "Who Needs Theatre?" is definitely for you. Vincent Curcio Fiction IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER by A. J. Quinnell (New American Library: $17.95; 324 pp). Is nothing sacred? This thriller deals with a conspiracy by senior Vatican officials, who are willing to violate Christian ideals to kill the leader of the Soviet Union before the Kremlin can carry out another attack on the pontiff's life. The cast mixes fictional individuals with real living ones, among them Pope John Paul II who is kept in the dark about the plans for the preemptive strike through sins of omission by his John Poindexter-like subordinates. The book jacket describes the work as "set on the cutting edge between documented fact and masterfully crafted fiction." It is an open question who is cut by this cutting edge. Archbishop Paul C. Marcinkus, former head of the Vatican bank, has sued to stop distribution of the book, which presents him as having attempted murder. There are other living clerics, who like the Pope and Archbishop Marcinkus, might be less than delighted to find their names in a book of this sort, especially in one that contains graphic sex scenes. No decision is expected in the case before next week. Past and present Soviet officials are also named. The action, and there's plenty of it, takes place during the reign of the late Soviet leader Yuri V. Andropov, the target of the Vatican's hit man. Andropov was head of the KGB when John Paul was shot and wounded by Mehmet Ali Agca in May, 1981. The hit man is the fictional Mirek Scibor, a renegade major from the Polish secret service who has his own reason for wanting to kill Andropov. Scibor's motive is "pure hatred" for Andropov for a "base and vile" act that Andropov had committed several years previously. The time element involved in the motive is a significant flaw that reveals a lack of understanding of just how news of dramatic events gets around in East Bloc countries. Author Quinnell also doesn't give Andropov his proper title. These might be minor considerations in a thriller, except for Quinnell's intent to lend what the publisher calls "a sense of historical accuracy" to the tale by using the names of living persons. Still, the author has fashioned an exciting, fast-paced and suspense -ful thriller with many ingenious twists to the plot as Scibor overcomes one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after another in the relentless pursuit of his quarry. Such a protagonist is, of course, aided by a beautiful woman, in this Thinking About Pound on Shattuck Avenue by Tom Clark Thinking about Pound on Shattuck Avenue is like genuflecting in hiking boots a classic case of being overequipped. If we live in a sea of insincerity, and they say, how many additional drops does it take to make a wave? Forlorn as driftwood, The ABC of Reading sits untouched, swamped by enough Chez Panisse to give Neptune a heartburn. At the brink of the frankly autobiographical one hesitates. Can one live with grace in such a place? Is escape possible? were my thoughts of the day So what else is new . . . A clerk looked my way. Art in our time is a toy of the middle class, I said, squirming in my bike pants in the pasta maker bookshop. Gourmets fidgeted all around me, eyes glued to the pages of the RUke cookbooks. Under the effete weight the hardwood floors contracted. Death came very near. It is really all around us, a pang of dissonance hidden in the surreptitious music of the cash register, in the timid squeak of earth shoes, " behind the piped Sibelius-pitched much too law for dogs to hear, the melody of the death of culture. The poets are dead. Ezra floated home on a boat of flowers just in time. From "Disordered Ideas" by Tom Clark (Black Sparrow Press: $17.95, cloth, $9, paper; 205 pp.). Born in Chicago in 1941, Clark served for 10 years as poetry editor of The Paris Review, of which he remains an advisory editor. He has published numerous volumes of poetry, including "Air" (1969), "Stones" (1970), "When Things Get Tough on Easy Street" ( 1978) and "Paradise Resisted" ( 1984 ) ( Black Sparrow) . He has written biographies of Ted Berrigan, Damon Runyan and Jack Kerouac. Clark is also the author of a recently published novel, "The Exile of Celine" (Random House). case a virginal nun whom the wily clerical conspirators have enlisted in the plot to kill Andropov. Harry Trimborn OUR MAN IN MONGOA by Alex Alben (Charles Scribner's Sons: $15.95; 240 pp.). Mongoa may be a Fourth World island even a Fifth World one blessed with King Stanley who was only 30 units short of a degree at USC when hereditary duty carried him home. Queen Julia came back with him, a Palos Verdes cheerleader who talks like a Valley girl and dresses from mail-order catalogues. Bongoa, next door, may be a Fifth or Sixth World island, ruled by Chief Muzorewa, a one-time Stanford man who talks like an Oxford don but paints his bare chest like one of the good old tribal boys. A rare and precious natural re source is what turns Mongoa and Bongoa into a Polynesian battleground, complete with a small nuclear threat and a limited Soviet invasion. Barbarians from the First World have come to discover vital interests; each power woos a different member of a fractious royal family, starting with Princess Oc-tavia who had already murdered male heirs to the throne even before the French, the Soviets and the South Africans arrived. Walter Peabody is the American Central Intelligence agent, an honorable bumbler, who saves each world from self-destruction and perfidy. Author Alben starts with a satiric needle jabbing all cultures, then blunts it with too many murders, too many conflicts of diminishing interest and, finally, with a chase scene that winds up all the way back in Washington. Here is a silly novel that falls long of being perfectly silly. Art Seldenbaum THE BOOK REVIEWLOS ANGELES TIMES

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