Sky Time in Gray's River
Living for Keeps in a Forgotten Place
Robert Michael Pyle
Houghton Mifflin: 256 pp., $20
ROBERT PYLE is an old-fashioned naturalist who believes in unadorned observation of the natural world. Most writers in this genre nowadays include their emotional dramas; Pyle is happy just recording the doings of flora and fauna on his acreage in Washington's Gray's River Valley. He wanted "a place where I could see something new every time I stepped outside." Himalayan blackberries, mew gulls, dunlins, juncos, hellebores and trilliums -- the book is as populous as "Walden," teeming with diversity (of smells, sounds, colors) that is slowly slipping away from us. The sight of a rustic bunting, usually found in Siberia or Japan, thrills him. "My daily walk to the compost heap is the closest thing I know to sacrament": This earnestness, this observation and reflection, not ironic or politically incorrect (or even politically correct), is like a warm bath, erasing the static.
Off the King's Road
Lost and Found in London
Other Press: 312 pp., $24.95
"IT took ten years to get from our wedding at the Brooklyn Jewish Center on Eastern Parkway [to] a mansion on the Palisades overlooking the Pacific." Phyllis Raphael thinks she's made it when she and her husband, Bob-the-producer, move to L.A. They have three children, and in 1968, when Bob says they're moving to London while he works on a movie, off they go. Bob arranges all: the Bentley, the town house off the King's Road, and the affair with an actress, which he reveals soon after their arrival. "Off the King's Road" is a memoir of a particular time in London: a time of psychiatrists pushing sex with strangers and acid trips, people crashing on your sofa, and children wondering who the adults are and who's in charge. Add the perspective of an entitled, totally dependent girl from Brooklyn via L.A. and you've got Alice through the looking glass. Raphael's first chapter, in which she proudly recalls the Night Marlon Brando Made a Pass at Me in a Restaurant, has the feel of a beautifully decorated house with cold floors. Her decision to stay in London with her children after Bob leaves is the first she's made for herself in a long time and a turning point in this fascinating book. Her weeding through London's poseurs and hypochondriacs to find a good man is laugh-aloud funny. She emerges a full-fledged single woman, and the memoir ends with her departure for New York ("Why can't we stay in one place?" her son asks). "Men," she thinks as her brass bed is off-loaded from the QE2. "New York was full of them."
The Real Life of the Hottentot Venus
Random House: 176 pp., $23.95
SAARTJIE BAARTMAN, a Khoisan (what Europeans called a Hottentot), was born in South Africa in 1789. In 1807, her betrothal party was raided, her father and fiance were killed, and she was taken to Cape Town as an indentured servant. She fell in love and had a baby, who died. In 1810, her employer took Saartjie to London and charged admission to see the "Hottentot Venus" in Piccadilly. He dressed her in a body stocking and had her sing and play a small guitar-like instrument. "[T]he words 'Hottentot' and 'Venus' carried a potent force," Rachel Holmes writes. "They coupled Eros with notions of ugliness, desire with degradation, license with taboo, transcendent goddess with carnal beast." The British loved "buttocks, bums, arses