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Tonight, you may have five or 10 minutes to yourself. That's plenty of time to read, or at least to get a good start on, some of the stories in Joyce Carol Oates's The Museum of Dr. Moses: Tales of Mystery and Suspense (Harcourt, $24, 229 pages).
Then you can count on a delicious sleep of troubling dreams. How can you not, after such unsettling images as this one from "Valentine, July Heat Wave": A Victorian bed contains "a seething blanket of flies," but you'll have to read for yourself to understand why. The barest outline of the story is that an obsessive husband suspects that his wife is - or isn't (his obsession needs no confirmation) - having an affair.
If you have more time, try reading these tales alongside the ghost stories of M.R. James, and you may notice a common thread. Both authors build their plots around someone plunging unwittingly into macabre disaster. There's much menace tucked away in dark corners of the world, and the curious, as James's antiquarians are, suddenly find themselves in great peril.
For Oates, though, the dangers aren't so tucked away - they don't require any knowledge of Latin ciphers or unusual artifacts to unleash long pent-up horrors. No, for Oates, the world of grisly terror is ready at hand; its predators "cruising rainwashed streets as a shark might cruise the ocean openmouthed seeking prey" in "Stripping."
If not on those streets, they might be seen among the joggers on the wooded path around a college in "Hi! Howya Doin!" Or one of them may be your stepfather, as in the title story, in which Dr. Moses maintains a grotesque museum (hint: he's a retired coroner) in an unassuming upstate New York town.
Anyone moved by Oates's classic tales of contemporary malevolence - "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" and "Heat," for example - will find much here to keep the ghoulish fires burning. You'll also find stories diverse in presentation, story line and evocative details.
Prolific as she is, can we just get over the usual comments about her productivity (usually delivered by critics with a mocking tone)? Can't we just stop and marvel at her inventiveness?- AP
Another book about the Rothschilds?
Plutocrats - A Rothschild Inheritance, by George Ireland (John Murray, Â£30, 448 pp.), is about the first British-born brothers, a quartet that inherited a fortune from their German-born father Nathan but went on to become the richest family in England. Ireland documents their tutored education, abilities and astonishing social success at the highest levels of society, told largely in quotes from letters, theirs and others, as well as in contemporary reports. Admired for their talents as hosts as well as for their reputations as honest financiers, they were thoroughly English as sportsmen, breeding winners, riding regularly to hounds, taking spills and, on other occasions, bringing down numberless luckless birds.
They also brought down a few ladies, but soon made good and loving marriages - and ate far too much. They consorted largely with dukes and duchesses, were admired for firmly adhering to their religion but lost a clever sister, Hannah, to the earl of Rosebery in a church marriage, but all was soon forgiven. In the battle against "Jewish Disabilities" they found allies in Quakers and Catholics, who were fighting for rights of their own. A Quaker accompanied Lionel to his seat in the Commons, at the culmination of a 12-year battle to circumvent the Christian oath.
This book sinks at times under the weight of countless name-droppings, but offers, inter alia, a wonderful picture of early Victorian high society, one dominated by titles, money and horseflesh. The Rothschilds did not pursue titles. They were anyway regarded as princes of the realm and were great patriots. They financed Wellington's Peninsula War and Disraeli's purchase for Britain of the khedive's Suez Canal shares.
- Meir Ronnen
The Meinertzhagen Mystery by Brian Garfield (Potomac Books, $27.50, 352 pp.) is a near-hysterical character assassination of Richard Meinertzhagen (1877-1967), the flamboyant soldier, adventurer, ornithologist, author and Zionist. The book's subtitle sets the tone: "The Life and Legend of a Colossal Fraud."
Tall, handsome and dashing, Meinertzhagen began his wartime military career in East Africa and was responsible for an ambush that turned into a massacre of tribesmen. As a 40-year-old major of intelligence in Allenby's army, he claimed to have dropped, under fire, the haversack full of maps and documents that was supposed to mislead the Turks after he galloped along their Gaza front.
Garfield shows that the haversack ploy was not Meinertzhagen's idea and was tried here by three different officers, but Allenby associated it with Meinertzhagen.
Garfield introduces Meinertzhagen's visit to Israel in 1953 with a gratuitous account of Ariel Sharon's attack on the village of Kibia; it was a house-to-house operation, not an artillery attack as Garfield claims. At first a casual anti-Semite, Meinertzhagen became a Zionist in 1917 after meeting Chaim Weizmann and Aaron Aaronsohn, the organizer of the Nili spy ring in Zichron Ya'acov. At the peace conference of 1919 and later, his work for a Jewish national home was invaluable.
But it ruined his career in the British army. Years later, David Ben-Gurion welcomed him to Jerusalem as a hero.
According to Garfield, Meinertzhagen could never resist reinventing himself and there is no evidence that all the numerous adventures recorded in his diaries ever happened. There is no record of his meeting with Hitler while carrying a loaded pistol. Garfield could not find anyone in Haifa who remembered Meinertzhagen joyfully joining a group of Jews in a shoot-out with Arabs in 1948.
Garfield makes much of the fact that Meinhertzhagen was barred from the British Museum for several years after he was suspected of stealing half a dozen bird skins. Yet he admits that Meinertzhagen was one of the deans of ornithology, who bravely spent years traversing Mongolia on foot in search of rare avian specimens.
The dust jacket of this book is covered with a blurred photo of Meinertzhagen, as if to emphasize his shiftiness. There's a perfectly sharp version inside the book.
Garfield's research would have us wash our hands of Dick Meinertzhagen. But when I finished his book, I had a feeling I must go wash my hands. - Meir Ronen