Captives and What They Say About Us

Sunday, December 21, 2008

THE ORDEAL OF ELIZABETH MARSH A Woman in World History By Linda Colley | Anchor. 361 pp. $16.95

Elizabeth Marsh's life story is the stuff of great historical novels. In 1756, Marsh, the 21-year-old daughter of a British shipbuilder, was traveling unaccompanied on a merchant ship headed from Gibraltar to England when it ran into some unfriendly Moroccans. Marsh was held hostage for several months by the sultan Sidi Muhammad, and once released, married one of her fellow captives, a fitfully successful merchant with whom she later had two children and moved to India.

Despite the conventions of her times, Marsh traveled extensively, often on her own, and wrote a memoir about her Moroccan saga called The Female Captive (which she published anonymously but with the revealing caveat: "Written By Herself"). Princeton historian Linda Colley has plucked Marsh's forgotten story from the shadows, and in her biography The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh, puts her life in context of the global changes of the 18th century. Colley's book is a thoroughly researched, scholarly work, and though it is occasionally dragged down by esoteric asides, it is driven by a dramatic -- and even inspiring -- personal tale.

BEARS A Brief History By Bernd Brunner | Translated from the German by Lori Lantz Yale Univ. 259 pp. $15

To think about bears is to put yourself in a quandary, according to Bernd Brunner: "Are they teddies to love, endangered animals to save, or beasts to fear?" Perhaps you don't think enough of bears to ponder such profundities, but after reading Brunner's Bears, a scientific and cultural history of the animal, you will. This slim, heavily illustrated volume is packed with intriguing facts and miscellany. In it you will learn, for example, that all bears are thought to have descended from an animal the size of a small terrier, that Darwin hypothesized that bears "could one day evolve into completely aquatic creatures" and that in the 18th and 19th centuries people took in the cubs of bears they'd hunted, thinking they "could serve as droll counterparts to their own children." This last fact goes to the heart of Brunner's thesis: that bears and humans have had a long and complex relationship but that "many if not most humans in the world today no longer understand what it means to live with bears." True enough, but Brunner, an independent scholar and author of an equally quirky study of the aquarium, The Ocean at Home, has gone a long way to demystify the iconic creature.

From Our Previous Reviews

· Jude Morgan's novel Symphony (St. Martins, $14.95), based on the tempestuous -- and true -- romance between a 19th-century French composer and an Irish actress, "is a deeply empathetic exploration of obsession and art," wrote Eugenia Zukerman.

· The novel ABC by David Plante (Anchor, $14.95), which centers on a grief-stricken father's obsession with the origins of the alphabet, is "unafraid of confronting the sort of philosophical issues that the late Ingmar Bergman did in his films," commented Elizabeth Hand.

· Bruce Watson revisits the infamous case of the radicals Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti in Sacco & Vanzetti (Penguin, $16), offering an account "that is sure to bring him vilification from true believers of all viewpoints," wrote Jonathan Yardley.

· In Schulz and Peanuts (Harper Perennial, $19.95) biographer David Michaelis "shows us how generic postwar anxiety and personal grief combined to create the most popular comic strip ever written," wrote Julie Phillips.

· Michael J. Neufeld "invites readers to make their own judgments," about Wernher von Braun, "the Third Reich wunderkind who built the V-2," wrote Guy Gugliotta of Neufeld's biography Von Braun (Vintage, $18.95).

· Based on interviews with more than 1,000 survivors of Stalin's prison camps, The Whisperers, by Orlando Figes (Picador, $20), "is a riveting pastiche, at once solemn and lively, of the stories of barely literate peasants and sophisticated urbanites, executioners and collaborators, prisoners and children," according to Vladislav Zubok.

Nora Krug is Book World's paperbacks columnist.

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