Books of the region: bugs, ducks, killers

September 21, 1997|By James H. Bready | James H. Bready,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

On anyone's short-list of the important nonfiction books since World War II, two are by Rachel Carson. "The Sea Around Us" (1951) and "Silent Spring" (1962), serialized, were high points in William Shawn's New Yorker tenure; then they spellbound the nation's book readers - and still do. Carson, a marine biologist and the hard-working editor-in-chief of Fish and Wildlife Service publications, lived in Silver Spring. With imperfect health and many family burdens, she was dead of cancer at 56, in 1964.

Someone who could both absorb endless scientific minutiae and transmute them into lucid near-poetry, Carson lived for her work; i.e., quietly. Much deserved, a biography would also be difficult to write. Happily, "Rachel Carson, Witness for Nature" (Henry Holt. 634 pages. $35), by Linda Lear of Bethesda, is sensitive, scrupulous (200-plus interviews, 95 pages of notes) and a consistently fine read.

In the 1930s, after three years' grad work at Johns Hopkins (Homewood and Broadway), Rachel Carson sold free-lance features to The Sun, at $20 each. The Sunday editor, Mark Watson, said yes to shad and starlings as topics, no to ticks and natural soil poisons.

Later, it was the foolhardy overuse of synthetic poisons - commercial pesticides - that induced Rachel Carson to ring the alarm bell in "Silent Spring." The bell, amid furious controversy over pollution, wastes and runoffs still tolls.

***

With the high holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur impending, Eli W. Schlossberg's book, "The World of Orthodox Judaism" (Jason Aronson, Northvale, N.J. 110 pages. Paper. $18) provides, for onlookers, a clear, straightforward description of Torah-based rituals and customs.

***

In the standard legend, Baltimore just before the Civil War was a haven for free blacks. Census figures show more of them than in any other U.S. city, even with slavery also going on here. Baltimore was such a boom town that it could support both workforces.

But about 1850, Christopher Phillips, a Kansas history professor, makes painfully clear in his "Freedom's Port: The African-American Community of Baltimore, 1790-1860" (University of Illinois Press. Paper. 350 pages. $21.95), the bloom fell off. Slaves freed below the Potomac went farther north; in Baltimore, for several years, not one manumission occurred. Why? A wave of European immigrants brought job competition, even as slavery's hirelings kidnapped freedmen, to sell them.

In 1861, racial tension was high in Baltimore.

***

One killer-on-the-loose novelist will be strong on dialogue, another on psychoses. Barbara Lee of Columbia offers isolation, nervousness, fear. Is there someone else in this house? Eve Elliot, her narrator, lives alone; she is an agent for Anne Arundel County shorefront real estate, and it's hard to show a place and work out a deal without being alone at some point. One, then another, female colleague has been murdered.

"Final Closing" (St. Martin's. 276 pages. $22.95) also has good language and authentic shop talk. But in essence, this is the kind of book that renders a reader's hearing abnormally acute.

***

In a scholarly sense, Bennard Perlman may be said to own the Eight. As modern historian of the start-of-the-century New York artists whose subject matter won them the alternate title, Ashcan School; as the biographer of Robert Henri, and now as editor of the correspondence between Henri and John Sloan ("Revolutionaries of Realism." Princeton. 350 pages. $35), Perlman is the genre's ranking authority.

Glackens, Davies, Prendergast, Shinn, Luke, Lawson - they live again in these scrawled messages, along with a treasury of photos, drawings, headlines; again they harpoon the stuffy, upper-crust art of the Academy.

***

How collectors do prize their old, carved, painted wildfowl decoys. When one is the murder weapon in Helen Chappell's latest Eastern Shore detective novel, "Dead Duck" (Fawcett. 197 pages. Paper. $5.50), rival collectors ignore the corpse: "Was the 'coy damaged?"

Hollis Ball, Watertown Gazette reporter, is again the focus of local frictions involving a bad judge, colorful natives, an unidentified murderer, the lead police investigator, an annual decoy convention and her story deadline. Chappell, of Easton (she also whittles Oysterback tales for this newspaper's op-ed page), allots an unfailing flow of good lines to one character after another. On Page 110, a ghost gets off the pun of the year.

James H. Bready writes a monthly books column on regional books. Previously he worked as a reporter, editorial writer and book editor for the Evening Sun.

Pub Date: 9/21/97

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