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Book Notes


ISSUE:  Summer 2010

HISTORY

Citizens of London, by Lynne Olson. Random House, $28
The politician and diplomat John Gilbert Winant is an almost forgotten figure in American history yet, along with Edward R. Murrow and Averell Harriman, he was instrumental in bringing about the alliance between Great Britain and the US during World War II. Olsen, in her extraordinary well-written book, hopes to revive interest in Winant’s indispensable role in wartime England as well as his accomplishments serving President Franklin Roosevelt during the New Deal. Drawing on primary sources and an extensive bibliography, Olsen, a former Moscow correspondent for the Associated Press, has written a riveting behind-the scenes political and social history of the alliance, and the wartime rivalries between both countries. The narrative is told from the perspective of Winant, Murrow, and Harriman, each of whom played an important role in convincing a cautious President Roosevelt and a skeptical American public that Great Britain was worth saving, at a time when Britain appeared to be Hitler’s next victim, and an isolationist US Congress feared any form of intervention that might lead to war. Winant, who succeeded the appeasement-minded Joseph Kennedy as Ambassador to Great Britain in 1940, quickly earned a place in the hearts of the British people, assuring them as they endured German air raids that America would inevitably come to their assistance. Murrow, covering the “Blitz” from London, used his news broadcasts to urge the American public to support Great Britain, and Harriman, as Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease administrator, played an important role in smoothing over the fragile relationship between Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
—Jack Fischel

Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815, by Gordon S. Wood. Oxford, $35
This history of the United States from the ratification of the Constitution until the end of the War of 1812 synthesizes an astounding amount of research. All facets of American life are covered, from foreign relations to the Supreme Court to western expansion to the role of women. Such a broad and comprehensive work defies easy summary or encapsulation. However, one interpretive theme stands out more than others: the rise of what Wood calls “the middling class” in the wake of the Revolution. This social change, he argues, helps explain the rise and fall of the first party system. The Federalists declined in political power because they still looked at the world in older terms; they thought that society should be ordered along the lines of a meritocracy or a natural aristocracy. While this view enjoyed support in the early years of the republic, the expansion of the middling class rendered it less persuasive. As Wood notes, “not only were the middling people popularizing America’s culture, but they were as well creating the country’s sense of identity, even its sense of nationhood.” Wood describes how changing social conditions in the quarter of a century following ratification of the Constitution necessitated the reinterpretation and reformulation of the political system laid down in that document. Americans of all classes struggled to define and make sense of the Constitution in the light of an emerging social order the Founders had not foreseen. This theme, of course, makes up but a small part of Wood’s work, which reads so smoothly and quickly that one may forget it is nearly eight hundred pages long.
—Peter Leubke

John Marshall: Writings, edited by Charles Hobson. Library of America, $40
In the orgy of anxious narcissism that has marked America’s recent, self-congratulatory fascination with the Founding Fathers, few figures have been left unmolested by the multitudinous scribblers eager to complement our self-regard. John Marshall is the greatest among these lucky few. This is doubly ironic: First, Marshall’s influence on the young United States, through his thirty-four year tenure as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, was vast; his greatest innovation on the Court—the idea of judicial review, the idea that the Federal judiciary has the right and even the duty to assess laws for their compatibility with our Constitution—is so profound as to be like gravity: noticeable only by the most strenuous imaginative effort to conceive of our world without it. Second, in his own time, Marshall was partly responsible for an anxious spasm of hagiography like our own. (Two generous excerpts of his Life of George Washington are included here, in case anyone wishes to compare recent efforts with their distinguished antecedents.) But what a blessing to have this collection. It includes not only excerpts of his Life of Washington, a generous sample of his letters, and a few of his early speeches, but also a broad selection of the opinions he wrote as Chief Justice. This is what the Library of America is made for: a careful distillation of one remarkable American whose influence and intellect was made palpable by the power of his pen.
—Charles Mathewes

Life Flows On in Endless Song: Folk Songs and American History, by Robert V. Wells. Illinois, $25 paper
The author, a historian by profession and lover of folk song by lifelong habit, has combined vocation and avocation in this lively work about the connections between folk ballads and the times and personal experiences that gave rise to them. The book is arranged by theme—love gone wrong, war, slavery, religion, labor, and hard times, to name but a few. To illuminate these topics, the lyrics to numerous traditional songs are provided, and they speak most eloquently about their subject matter. No amount of scholarly commentary could add much, and it is to the author’s credit that he refrains from trying, allowing the words themselves to speak. In addition, a separate chapter focuses on Huddie Ledbetter and Woody Guthrie, two of the iconic names of the genre. Wells writes lucidly although some might think that such an engrossing topic merits a more foot-stomping or emotionally engaging treatment. It is, however, blessedly free of the jargon that renders many a work of criticism nearly unreadable. Those who consider folk song at its best to be the purest form of social history will thoroughly enjoy this book.
—Lou Tanner

The Long Shadow of the Civil War: Southern Dissent and Its Legacies, by Victoria E. Bynum. North Carolina, $35
Bynum considers the histories of Southern Unionists during the Civil War and its aftermath. Choosing families as her focus, she finds that for unionists like Newt Knight, of the Free State of Jones fame, and Warren Collins of Texas, loyalty to family came before any abstract political loyalty to the Confederacy. When faced with repression from Confederate authorities, Knight and the Collinses turned against the Confederacy and allied with other disaffected people, both black and white, to protect their families from conscription and impressments. The “multi-racial communities” which emerged from these wartime alliances left long legacies in the postwar South. Bynum substantiates her general claim that recovering the stories of these families dispels the notion of a monolithic white South dedicated to the Confederacy. Acknowledging these communities and their own civil wars adds to the complexity of our understanding of the South. Knight and Collins can stand as heroes of a different kind of imagined South, one where whites rejected a slaveholder’s republic. Bynum maps a road that few took, but the evocative stories of these families demand notice.
—Peter Luebke

FICTION

The Ask: A Novel, by Sam Lipsyte. FSG, $25
In his fourth book, the brilliant satirical novel The Ask, Sam Lipsyte dares his language to perform outrageously. He knows well how to chisel merciless and misbehaving sentences. For example, America did not merely win the Cold War, it “dick-smacked the Soviets.” And the fall of the Soviet Union was not merely “the death of analog,” but “the beginning of aggressively marketed nachos.” Lipsyte’s antihero Milo Burke is a donut-munching onanist, a failed artist-cum-university fundraiser, and a cuckolded family man—in other words, an Everyman. To save his job, he must land the Big Give from his old college buddy Purdy, who uses Milo to liaison with Purdy’s illegitimate son, the double-amputee Iraqi war vet Don Charboneau. Don is aggravated and angry: “Vasquez was right ahead of us and I saw her head explode off her neck, about three seconds before our Humvee blew off. I bet you really care.” In the end, the sad undercurrent of this otherwise hilarious satire describes our cultural failures. In our insanely infodemic world, everything from war to environmentalism, from natural childbirth to enlightenment itself has become a product—like nachos. And still the money’s in the wrong hands and our attention’s in the wrong direction. In other words, our most vital stories, those not tidily market ready, go unheard. Nevertheless, Lipsyte has found a way to make his riotous narrative music ring out. His star is rising, his song worth hearing.
—Paul Charles Griffin

The Autobiography of Fidel Castro, by Norberto Fuentes, translated by Anna Kushner. Norton, $27.95
This abridged translation of the original two-volume faux autobiography is fascinating reading from virtually any perspective. If the dictionary had a picture aside the Spanish anatomical term, cojones, it should be of Fidel Castro. Whether one is interested in Castro’s sexual adventures, his style of governance, his relationship to Che Guevara, or how he managed to dance—and survive—while caught between Kennedy and Khrushchev in the missile crisis, one will find a historic figure in fresh perspective. But the reader can never quite dismiss this persistent intruding thought: this book is fiction—Fuentes is not Fidel Castro even though he writes as if he were. But after acknowledging that fact, how much of the book is “fictional-false” and how much is “truth” anchored in Fuentes’s personal relationship with Castro, his own participation in many of the events recounted, or on good judgment arising from his obviously diligent historical and documentary research? Most readers will conclude that this first person fiction is a blend of all these. This fake autobiography may be more truthful, insightful, and “true” than if Castro wrote it himself. For those caught up in the idea of a Cuban role in John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the book offers little new information, but it seems plausible that Castro was more preoccupied with trying to avoid his own assassination than planning someone else’s. Whether it is true, as Castro claims, that there were more than six hundred attempts on his life, there is no doubt that his longevity is a political and personal miracle. For those particularly interested in the US–Cuba relationship through the years, there are some surprising and intriguing anecdotes. And, as in all of history, key choices could have made differently. Many opportunities for a more fruitful relationship with the US were lost, and since this is told ostensibly from Castro’s point of view, he places the blame on fumbling and incompetence in the US government.
—Richard C. Collins

Parrot & Olivier in America, by Peter Carey. Knopf, $26.95
There is a Rabelaisian adventure in this ambitious, unfulfilling novel that keeps promising to make its rude and unruly presence known but never quite does. In Carey’s deftly researched picaresque, he fictionalizes Alexis de Tocqueville, the chronicler of early America, as Olivier de Garmont, the somewhat spoiled child of nobles who survived the French Revolution but never got over it. Learning is Olivier’s religion (“My lungs were clogged, my heart was disturbed, but my Latin declensions must still be learned.”), but when he sets off for the bustling backwater of America, he comes close to discovering a new one. Carey tells Olivier’s story half from his stiff-necked blueblood’s perspective and half from that of a quizzical older servant, Parrot, the bastard child of an English printer, who ran afoul of the law some years back and has actually been employed to spy on Olivier. They make an odd couple, Carey’s alternating streams making clear the two don’t know each other well at all, and each experiences the democratic new world in entirely different ways. The scenes are scrupulously detailed and filled with many pointed little comic episodes. (If you want to learn about eighteenth century book printing, this is the place.) But Carey’s prose quickly founders due to a murky, wayward plot that never catches fire.
—Chris Barsanti

POETRY

Lucifer at the Starlite, by Kim Addonizio. Norton, $23.95
In Addonizio’s fifth collection, “The gods are rinsing their just-boiled pasta / in a colander, which is why / it is humid and fitfully raining / down here in the steel sink of mortal life.” All the critics make similes for Addonizio: her poems are like “a runaway train under perfect control” (Thomas Lux), like “driving down a deserted road, late at night, and hearing a song on the radio so good you just have to pull over” (Martin Espada), “like swallows of cold, grassy white wine” (Booklist), like “house parties with the doors thrown open,” (San Francisco). While it’s true that Addonizio is a poet of prodigiously racy talent, the similes abound because no one seems to know exactly what to say, with literal meaning, about a poet who is both pushing the boundaries of the art of modern love and ending up, at the last, neither pointedly funny nor actually affecting. Many poems troll undercurrents of global catastrophe—the war in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, the Asian tsunami of 2004—and these poems end up feeling overly workshopped, rather than the product of a particular and scintillating self. Addonizio’s talent comes across when she upsets her rhythm. When she creates a syntax of surprise, these poems can sing: “Instead, / clean sweat & grapefruit, how you greeted // every dog on the street, puppy, / & how once I knelt, my mouth fastened // to you.”
—Lilah Hegnauer

Nox, by Anne Carson, New Directions, $29.95
The experience of reading Anne Carson’s Nox is as tactilely pleasing as it is emotionally engaging. In an attempt to cope with the death of her brother, Carson has created a collage of artifacts—piecing together typewritten prose with handwritten scribblings and family photographs. The manuscript, housed in a box, is a single accordion-folded sheet, which the reader must unfurl slowly, page by page—it becomes clear that Carson aims to school her reader in patience when deciphering texts. She opens with Catullus’s elegy to his brother in the original Latin, and then throughout the text defines each word of the poem. She describes the frustrating process: “I came to think of translating as a room . . . where one gropes for the light switch.” By interspersing personal narrative with the Latin original, Carson disorients her reader, causing as much uncertainty in the experience of reading as there is in the act of translation. Nox testifies not only to the impossibility of faithful translation—whether that of a foreign tongue or of personal experience—but also to Carson’s refusal to cease trying. After explaining that the Greek root of the word “history” means “to ask,” she states, “It is when you are asking about something that you realize you yourself have survived it, and so you must carry it, or fashion it into a thing that carries itself.” While Nox’s narrative may never perfectly translate Carson’s loss, it succeeds as an evocative artifact of personal history.
—Kate Ringo

Pierce the Skin: Collected Poems, 1982–2007, by Henri Cole. FSG, $25
Few poets of our time have so insistently mined such expansive, often times jarring meanings from life’s familiarities as Henri Cole. “I don’t want words to sever me from reality. / I don’t want to need them,” he writes in “Gravity and Center,” and indeed his career as represented by Pierce the Skin is one that has generally moved, á la James Wright, from the formally florid to the syntactically and rhetorically blunt. The presence of both styles in this collection is in itself quite remarkable and indicative of a formal dexterity rarely found in contemporary American poetry. It is Cole’s ability—like that of his acknowledged master Elizabeth Bishop— to make the reader see the familiar as anything but familiar and to deftly stage scenes in which “the banal shatters everything.” As Cole writes in “Mask,” with characteristically deceptive candor and perhaps also with stylistic self-reflexivity, “ordinary life had come as far as it would, / like a silver arrow hitting cypress.” And if Cole has already more-or-less arrived at the last stop of his stylistic trajectory, wherein language becomes less self-conscious, and direct statement stands as a consistent, healthy offset to the indulgences of description, that ride as captured by Pierce the Skin stands as a major event in contemporary poetry.
—Steve Barbaro

Toxic Flora, by Kimiko Hahn. Norton, $24.95
In her eighth collection, Hahn extracts beauty from the specific, the scientific, in poems inspired by articles from the “Science Times” section of the New York Times. In the section which lists each poem’s corresponding article, Hahn says that one of her “challenges was to live up to [the authors’] own gorgeous and urgent writings.” The overall tone is factual, dispassionate, and impersonal, but the endings tend to subvert that objective distance. Nearly every poem ends with a turn—a narrative tidbit, a personal reference, a human connection, or a daring generalization. In “Aepyornis Maximus,” the extinction of the elephant bird is compared to “the way my first marriage feels like someone else’s colony / in someone else’s fervent geography.” Describing the Madagascan moth, which lands on the magpie when it is asleep and drinks its tears, “Sustenance” ends with a personal connection: “A darling friend profoundly understands / since she makes her livelihood exacting pain.” In ethology, a discipline where anthropomorphism is a sin, where affective language such as “children” or “parents” is discouraged, the links that Hahn draws feel like small rebellions. Such sudden glimpses we get of the speaker, of the mind behind the facts, are what make the poems more than condensations of the longer articles. Over time, these revelations add up, and Hahn’s familiar themes emerge—the brutality of family and the way language and ritual disguise bloody realities. An interlude lists descriptions of sexual cannibalism, from the most emotionless (“an evolutionary advantage to being eaten”) to the least (“complicit in their own deaths”). Toxic Flora is performed on such a finely tuned scale, with such discipline, that each tiny deviation from the overall tone can be recognized as an emotional earthquake.
—Wanling Su

Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty, by Tony Hoagland. Graywolf, $15 paper
Hoagland’s fourth full-length collection provides an imagistic manual of our cultural moment, from the plight of Britney Spears to the current economic crisis. In these poems, mass-produced and manufactured objects become highly personal, as he showcases the human tendency to instill possessions with sentimental value. He avows, “One could probably explain the whole world in terms of Plastic.” Later in this poem, entitled simply “Plastic,” he reveals the heart of his project, wielding a toothbrush as muse and asking, “And what about plastic that has become dear to you? / Personal plastic?” Hoagland does not, however, give preferential treatment to this worship of the manmade but instead parallels it to the more traditional meditations on pastoral beauty. In “Field Guide,” he recalls a dragonfly alighting on a feather and quietly equates this to the practice of a benevolent library book reader: “I mention this in the same way / that I fold the corner of a page // in certain library books, / so that the next reader will know // where to look for the good parts.” The pages of Hoagland’s book are home to forty-six poems, all of which deserve to be dog-eared, and Hoagland, a true cultural distillery, situates his readers firmly in the present—pointing out the animals, pop stars, and physical materials that compose his world-—with the taxonomic precision of a field guide editor and the eloquent yet biting tongue of a poet.
—Kate Ringo

NONFICTION

Mark Twain’s Book of Animals, edited by Shelley Fisher Fishkin. California, $27.50
Mark Twain thought Darwin had it wrong: instead of man ascending from the lower animals, Twain believed in “the Descent of Man from the Higher Animals.” Known for his folksy humor, Twain also had a savage streak that attacked the stupidities of the human race and the cruelties of God, their maker. Twain grew up among animals, and never got over the day he shot a songbird for no reason beyond boyishness. As an adult, he surrounded himself with cats, remarking, “If man could be crossed with the cat, it would improve man, but it would deteriorate the cat.” His stories and sketches constantly depict animals and excoriate the injuries human beings impose on them. Later, Twain became a leader in animal protection organizations, especially those opposed to vivisection. This carefully selected anthology draws on fifty years of his writings from the 1850s to 1910, from both published and unpublished works. He first achieved fame in 1865 with his “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog,” where a cheat does in a gambler using an innocent frog. Twain had no illusions about some animals, especially the camel and the various flies that make people miserable. Three anti-vivisectionist pieces are the most harrowing. Shelley Fishkin puts all these works and issues into context in an introduction and afterword. Barry Moser’s incisive wood engravings make it clear that the animals have no illusions about us.
—Don Fry

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr. Norton, $26.95
Carr ventures into cyberspace and reaches a gloomy conclusion: “as we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence.” We can’t concentrate, think deeply, or even achieve empathy and compassion. Augmenting our humanity actually erodes it. Expanding an essay published in the Atlantic (“Is Google Making Us Stupid?”), Carr poses his problem then detours into a familiar history of information technology and neuroscience. Central to his eventual argument is neuroplasticity: our brains change in response to repeated actions and tool usage. Neuroplasticity ensures that “[w]ith the exception of alphabets and number systems, the Net may well be the single most powerful mind-altering technology that has ever come into general use.” In the internet’s vast, gossipy electronic agora, we always want to know what’s happening or seek advice. That on-line behavior alters our neurons, and these new mental habits persist off-line. We can filter information rapidly but can’t relax our minds or sustain contemplation. Bodies of knowledge and experience fracture into information. Institutions such as Google reinforce the idea of the world as data and our minds as supervisors of search engines, further entrenching the new “intellectual ethic.” That newly hegemonic ethic shapes even Carr’s much needed critique—his “Digression” chapters pursue tangents like a web surfer clicking hyperlinks. He skims information and ideas from neuroscience and media studies, but doesn’t immerse his argument in the depth of any discipline. Though his depiction of “The Shallows” of contemporary thought is astute, it could go deeper still.
—Mark Shively Meier

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