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MAGNETIC NORTH: A Trek Across Canada ...

MAGNETIC NORTH: A Trek Across Canada by David Halsey, with Diana Landau (Sierra Club Books: $12, illustrated). When David Halsey conceived the idea of crossing Canada on foot in 1977, the friends he planned to go with recognized the idea for what it was--the quixotic daydream of a rank tenderfoot. Halsey had only a rudimentary knowledge of wilderness-survival techniques and the vaguest grasp of the difficulties and dangers that lay between Fort Langley, British Columbia, and Tadoussac, Quebec. Undaunted, he set out alone, but was soon joined by photographer Peter Souchuk: The two men saved each other’s lives more than once. Halsey became an eager student of woods lore, and his most effective teachers were the Cree Indians who adopted him. The journey across the continent became a journey to greater maturity and an understanding of nature. In his journal, the initial bravado quickly gave way to an honest account of how arduous traveling by foot, canoe and dog sled really was. The amateur explorers had to combat numbing fatigue, insect bites, blisters, broken glasses, broken bones, inadequate and/or bad food, treacherous rapids and the devastating cold of the sub-Arctic winter. Although the expedition ended successfully, its success failed to satisfy Halsey: Four years later, he succumbed to manic-depressive illness and killed himself. Diana Landau completed the book, working from his journals.

DEAR DIGBY by Carol Muske-Dukes (Washington Square: $8.00). This comic novel fails because the author attempts to tell too many stories in too few pages. The embrangled plot combines a blackly comic update of Nathanael West’s “Miss Lonelyhearts” with a Baby Boomer’s struggle to deal with the family rift she caused by protesting the Vietnam War, a rather labored challenge to the conventional definition of sanity in a world gone mad, a mystery involving a psycho who stalks the streets of New York, an improbable romance, and an indictment of the abuse women often suffer at hands of ostensible care-givers. The flashes of first-rate writing suggest that Muske-Dukes, a noted poet and critic, could have written any one of these stories capably, but she can’t quite piece these disparate elements into a coherent narrative. The palpable tension she builds, as the narrator’s curiosity about an anonymous admirer chills into fear of a dangerous sicko, collapses under the heavy-handed attempts at comedy involving the nutty feminist terrorist cabal, W.I.T.C.H. (Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell).

CARNAL ACTS by Nancy Mairs (HarperPerennial: $10). A sharp, no-nonsense feminism characterizes Mairs’ reflections about living with the degenerative disease, multiple sclerosis. In straightforward, entertaining prose, she challenges the obsessive American refusal to acknowledge the possibility of crippling illness--as if discussing a disease might summon it, like the evil eye. Mairs dismisses the namby-pamby euphemisms for her condition, challenged and differently abled, but rejects any attempt to describe her life as heroic. “What I’m trying to do is normalize that pain, making it seem not rare and tragic but natural and manageable. Of course you feel pain if you or someone you love has MS, pain made up of sorrow and anxiety and anger and discouragement. But pain is not necessarily a sign of trouble. In this case, it’s simply an appropriate response, indicating emotional health.”

THE ENCHANTER by Vladimir Nabokov, translated by Dmitri Nabokov (Vintage: $9). Written in France in 1939/40, this little-known story prefigures “Lolita.” Nabokov treats the subject of pedophilia more harshly than he did in the later novel, rather self-consciously playing off the tale of Little Red Riding Hood. The carnal monster who narrates “The Enchanter” lacks the limp, apologetic charm of Humbert Humbert; the mother of his intended victim, a vague, fussy invalid, never musters the cultural pretentions that make Charlotte Haze a comic figure. Nabokov’s later gift for elegant mockery had not yet blossomed fully, and the cold, almost clinical tone makes this tale of a scheming, amoral child-molester seem repugnant. “The Enchanter” is interesting as the remote ancestor of a much greater work, rather than for its intrinsic merits.

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THE KINSEY INSTITUTE NEW REPORT ON SEX by June M. Reinisch with Ruth Beasley (St. Martin’s Press: $14.95, illustrated). In 1989, researchers at the Kinsey Institute administered an 18-question test on the basics of sexual behavior and hygiene to 1,974 randomly chosen American adults. (True or False: “Unless they are having sex, women do not need to have regular gynecological exams.”) Of that group, 55% failed and another 27% received D’s; only 4.5% got B’s or better, revealing just how ignorant most Americans are of the elementary facts of human sexuality. This book contains the answers to 650 of the questions most commonly asked of the scientists at the Institute. Many of the inquiries read like letters to Dear Abby; the answers are precise and unflinching, though never salacious. In an era of rampant venereal disease, increased teen-age pregnancy and AIDS, ignorance is not bliss, but life-threatening. Parents who are unsure how to answer their children’s questions will find this reference especially useful, although most children apparently aren’t being taught about sex at home--or anywhere else.

THE TIE THAT BINDS by Kent Haruf (Henry Holt: $9.95). This powerful first novel interweaves the stories of two generations of neighboring families in the bleak sand-hill country of eastern Colorado. Denied a life of her own, Edith Goodnough bravely faces life on a remote family farm. When a hideous accident cripples her father, she patiently cares for the vicious old man, enduring his physical and verbal abuse with irrefragable aplomb. John Roscoe, the neighbor who once courted Edith, watches over her through the long, grim decades, assisting her whenever and however he can. His son, who narrates the story, assumes the role of protector after his father’s death, and passes on the tradition of selfless devotion to his daughter. Haruf’s crisp, clean sentences capture the character of Sanders Roscoe, an unassuming man whose unflinching loyalty to his father’s vision renders him heroic.

PLANET UNDER STRESS: The Challenge of Global Change edited by Constance Mungall and Digby J. McLaren (Oxford University Press: $24.95, illustrated). Compiled for the Royal Society of Canada, “Planet Under Stress” offers a noticeably different view of the major ecological problems facing humanity, and some of their possible solutions. Although much of the information is familiar, the authors of these essays present the facts with unusual clarity: Life on Earth is threatened by the presence of too many people, who wastefully consume too much fossil fuel. Each chapter examines the effects of a specific problem resulting from this condition: water pollution and the increasing threat to the oceans and ground water; the growing desertification of the planet; air pollution and the greenhouse effect; the accelerating destruction of the ozone layer. The authors stress that solutions exist for many of these problems, but they also emphasize that any meaningful solution must be global in scope.

THE CHINESE WESTERN translated by Zhu Hong (Ballantine: $4.99). The eight stories in this collection of contemporary Chinese fiction all are set in the sparsely populated western and northwestern provinces. Although the government in Beijing seems very far from this arid region of subsistance agriculture, the self-serving abuses of bureaucrats and party officials are taken as givens. In Jia Pingao’s “How Much Can a Man Bear,” a woman who has been wrongfully jailed on political grounds declares, “But from the commune level right up to the district, all the people who conducted secret trials and torture are fixtures.” All of the stories focus on characters who manage to defy or elude these petty officials. The brash narrator of Zhu Xiaoping’s “Chronicle of Mulberry Tree Village” slowly discovers how a wily peasant leader aids his people by outwiting government agents. More clearly than any newscast, the bitter descriptions of rural life in these stories reveal why the Chinese ruling clique fears perestroika- style liberalizations.

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