Short Reviews

Acting Out: Coping with Big City Schools

by Roland Betts
Little, Brown, 264 pp., $8.95

Golden Bats and Pink Pigeons

by Gerald Durrell
Simon & Schuster, 190 pp., $9.95

Spooks: The Haunting of America
The Private Use of Secret Agents

by Jim Hougan
Morrow, 478 pp., $12.95

Leon Trotsky

by Irving Howe
Viking, 214 pp., $10.00

The History of Australia: The Twentieth Century, 1901-1975

by Russel Ward
Harper & Row, 515 pp., $19.95

Sun, Moon and Standing Stones

by John Edwin Wood
Oxford University Press, 217 pp., $14.95

“Everything in New York is locked,” this regrettably accurate book begins, and “Schools are no exception.” Betts, a fugitive after ten years as teacher and administrator, suggests that acting out is appropriate in a system that won’t pass any test, and his humorous, anecdotal observations will easily slide into place, alongside roll books and lunch debris, in urban teachers’ rooms. For Betts knows what teachers’ colleges rarely mention: that the head custodian and payroll secretary carry more weight than the principal, that tenure now is an endurance test, that PA systems are as disruptive as classroom fights, and that in some schools the Board of Education is a wooden paddle. Furthermore, he justly gives bathrooms and corridors their extracurricular credits, and devotes whole chapters to daily preoccupations like clothes, smells, and the teachers who never get air time: rookies (“Beginning to teach is like coming into puberty a second time”) and substitutes, including the nearlegendary West Side wonder, No Drawers. Albert Shanker is criticized for his inflexibility, both by Betts and by John Holt, who has written an admiring introduction. But Acting Out is essentially exasperated recapitulation rather than outraged exposé. A sad and funny book, keen-edged and, like the kids who can’t read on grade level, likely to be passed along.

Gerald Durrell belongs to that legion of conservationists supporting captive breeding of endangered species, a policy successfully employed at his New Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust after roundup expeditions like the one described in this book. “We looked not unlike the strangely ill-assorted collection of individuals that the Bellman had taken with him to hunt the Snark.” Along with his trusty colleagues, Durrell explored Mauritius, east of Madagascar, for small, breedable colonies of geckos, skinks, boas, bats, and pigeons. The elusive, appealing bats look “like strange, indignant, miniature flying teddy bears”; the cyclamen-pink pigeons, easier to catch, emerge as more memorable couples—the male bows “with a loud, husky chant,” and the vacant female resembles “a Regency maiden about to have the vapours.” As usual, Durrell captures small moments of enchantment along with his zoological specimens, and the unscheduled events add immeasurably: a perilous rock climb where a previous explorer almost lost his “unwhisperables,” a night spent chasing giant landsnails away from the food supply, and an overlong exposure to Jak fruit, ugly, knobby bat bait which exudes a lingering, near-lethal smell.

Spooks is an encyclopedia about the private use of secret agents by multinational corporations and the rich, compiled (with considerable secrecy) by the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine. He begins with Mitch WerBell (The Wizard of Whispering Death), an OSS veteran, who now operates The Farm in Georgia, a clandestine factory devoted to perfecting the tools and techniques of sniping, counterinsurgency, and the coup d’état. WerBell invented the fantastic silencer for the lightweight machine-pistol that fires 14 rounds per second, whispering phyyt, phyyt. He found a group of multimillionaires to put up the money for his corporation (many are named herein), sold arms to Idi Amin, Arabs, Jews,…

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