Cotton and Race in the Making of America: The Human Costs of Economic Power, by Gene Dattel. Ivan R. Dee, $28.95
This fascinating book reminds us that what remains one of America’s most divisive issues has its roots in the dismal science. Dattel clearly demonstrates that any attempt to understand American slavery is doomed to failure unless there is a reckoning as well with the worldwide financial web that was taking shape around the cotton trade. In other words, globalization is nothing new. As the author notes, slavery before the invention of the cotton gin in 1793 was becoming less profitable and many foresaw—perhaps too optimistically—its dying a peaceful death. But with the rise of the Cotton Kingdom in the old Southwest, slavery was given new territory and showed signs of renewed vigor. While many have traditionally viewed cotton and race as simply Southern phenomena, Dattel demonstrates their centrality to the larger American story. He points out the countless ways in which Northern states—before and after the Civil War—made it difficult, even impossible, for those held in slavery to leave the region of their enslavement. In so doing, he demonstrates powerfully that racism was a monopoly of no one region but had continental roots. The author continues his account to the mid-twentieth century when mechanization broke much of that nexus, though leaving in its wake other problems perhaps even more insoluble. This is an excellent book with an important tale to tell.
Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression, by Morris Dickstein. Norton, $29.95
Dickstein, one of the ablest of chroniclers of American cultural life, provides an account of the 1930s that leaves little out. Though the political history of the decade is in no way slighted, it is the cultural life, as the subtitle makes clear, that is the focus of the book. To that end, film, literature, photography, and music—to name but a few of the subjects covered—come under exhaustive scrutiny. The author has an encyclopedic familiarity with the period, having clearly read and thought deeply about all the various art forms of that traumatic time in American history. Despite its declared aim of concentrating on the intellectual side of the human experience, some will no doubt wish he had spent more time discussing the New Deal and the political context within which this burst of creativity took place. The international context, too, gets less attention than some will think necessary. Those are legitimate criticisms but the book succeeds admirably in what it sets out to do. FDR and Hollywood, Gershwin and Armstrong, Steinbeck and Fitzgerald, and Astaire and Rogers all receive their due in this marvelously detailed treatment of a rich if troubled time.
A Dangerous Stir: Fear, Paranoia, and the Making of Reconstruction, by Mark Wahlgren Summers. North Carolina, $39.95
Most historians write about what happened in the past. Summers, in his new history of Reconstruction, instead writes about what failed to occur. Following the tremendous bloodletting of the Civil War, politicians turned towards the task of setting the country back to some kind of normalcy. While previous historians have described what happened, Summers instead chronicles the fears that gripped people of the era, including the paramount fear that the country would descend again into war. Some Republicans feared that Andrew Johnson would reveal himself as a military dictator and crush democracy. Democrats saw threats to the stability of the country in the halls of Congress, where overzealous politicians would overthrow the President and seize the country for themselves. In both cases, the US as a republic would end. And while these specters remained unrealized, politicians of all stripes missed few opportunities to score political points by playing on these fears. As Summers succinctly puts it, when these fears are taken into consideration, it becomes clear “that the first purpose of the North’s war was to save the Union, with its republican institutions intact, and that Americans had less of our later certainty that the settlement that they had made would last.” He shows that the first priority in Reconstruction was responding to fears that the Constitution was still in mortal peril, and that securing equality for African Americans or remaking Southern society were secondary concerns.
In the Shadow of the Enemy: The Civil War Journal of Ida Powell Dulany, edited by Mary L. Mackall, Stevan F. Meserve, and Anne Mackall Sasscer. Tennessee, $44.95
While narratives of the American Civil War by soldiers are common, sustained accounts by civilians are fewer. With this volume, readers now have a superb account of a Southern woman with which to counterbalance the weight of military testimony. Ida Powell Dulany lived at Oakley Plantation in Fauquier County, Virginia, on the frontlines of the Civil War and within famed partisan John S. Mosby’s theater of operations. Dulany’s diary, covering all four years of the Civil War, reveals her personal turmoil. Worried about her husband’s safety in the Confederate Army, she had also to manage the estate and maintain a brave front for the various family members sheltered at her home. Her private fears, as she confides them to her diary, often vividly contrast with her public façade. In one particular instance, upon hearing an unexpected carriage arrive at the house, Dulany described how “wild with terror . . . I rushed into the parlor entirely speechless and frightening Anna and Mr. Grayson half to death by my terror stricken countenance . . . and then went out to face my terror.” Although this alarm proved to be a false one, her agitation had been real enough and she chided herself for “having so little self possession.” Thorough annotation identifying people, events, and allusions assists in comprehension.
Strategies for Survival: Recollections of Bondage in Antebellum Virginia, by William Dusinberre. Virginia, $40
What was the balance between American slaveholders’ power and slaves’ control over their own destinies? This long-debated historical question forms the basis for this thoughtful new book on slavery in nineteenth-century Virginia. Dusinberre evaluates the master-slave relationship through a previously underused source: interviews of former slaves and their immediate descendants conducted by black Works Progress Administration workers in 1937. These interviews reveal a broad spectrum of slave experiences, from harsh deprivations to some degree of master “benevolence.” Dusinberre splits his analysis into three sections. The first, “Alleviations,” shows that some slaves who lived in cities or were light skinned could sometimes find a degree of mitigation from the oppression of slave life. Most bondspeople, however, were destined to serve difficult masters. The final two sections, “Offenses” and “Responses,” contrast the atrocities committed by slaveholders against their “property” and the ways in which slaves took control of their lives by building communities, engaging in religious practice, and defying their masters. Dusinberre emphasizes a middle ground between ultimate oppression and black autonomy, a conclusion that mirrors recent work by Annette Gordon-Reed (The Hemingses of Monticello) and Joshua D. Rothman (Notorious in the Neighborhood). Although some may question research based primarily on interviews and memoirs, Dusinberre is careful to corroborate stories and account for inconsistencies. Strategies for Survival may even serve as a template for other historians working with similarly complicated and scant sources.
—Rachel A. Shelden
An Uncompromising Generation: The Nazi Leadership of the Reich Security Main Office, by Michael Wildt, translated by Thomas Lampeter. Wisconsin, $36.95
Auschwitz is associated in the popular imagination with the Holocaust, but the Einsatzgruppen killing squads in Poland and the Soviet Union were equally murderous. The Einsatzgruppen were just one of the units administrated by the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (Reich Security Main Office, RHSA), which merged the Gestapo (Secret State Police), Kripo (Criminal Police), and the Sicherheitsdienst (Security Police) of the SS. Founded in 1939 and headed by Reinhard Heydrich, the RHSA’s mission was to fight all “enemies of the Reich” inside and outside the borders of Nazi Germany. Wildt, a professor of history at Humboldt University in Berlin, has written an indispensable and provocative study of the key members of the RSHA, which focuses on their intellectual evolution from university students to practitioners of mass murder. Far from being bureaucratic “desk murderers,” the heads of the RSHA were active participants in the mass killings perpetrated by their Einsatkommandos units in the occupied territories. Born between 1900 and 1910, the future leadership of the RSHA missed serving in World War I but did grow into maturity during the Weimar Republic. Wildt notes that “war, revolution . . . and the hyperinflation of 1923 had made a decisive . . . impression on them. It was difficult to convince this generation of the future viability of liberal civil society.” Instead, they were attracted to Hitler’s promise of a “racially” revived Germany and the prospect of an ethnic reorganization of Europe, wherein the Aryan race would dominate the Slavic people of the East. Nazi ideology of Aryan superiority identified Jews as the primary obstacle to the realization of a racial utopia, and this necessitated their removal, if not annihilation. The leadership of the RSHA, were far from a “study in the banality of evil,” but true believers committed to the necessity of mass murder.
Le Cid and The Liar, by Pierre Corneille, translated by Richard Wilbur. Mariner, $13.95 paper
Wilbur’s many translations of Molière and Racine epitomize the possibilities and problems of putting seventeenth-century French theater into modern English. Translating Molière presents the lesser challenge: Anglo-American satirical conventions and registers align easily with those of The Misanthrope and Tartuffe. The most serious pitfall, which Wilbur invariably (and happily) avoids, is missing Molière’s rare, exquisite forays into the lyrical. Racine, by contrast, poses almost insurmountable obstacles. The language of his tragedies is resolutely plain: its loftiness and power depend on the cultivated reader’s sensitivity to partially buried analogy as well as allusion to history and myth. In his version of Phèdre, Wilbur stumbled, creating a bombastic early-modern style to bridge a gap between Racine and, perhaps, Shakespeare. Wilbur has much greater success with this translation of Corneille, whose registers—high and low—dovetail approximately with our own. Wilbur’s Le Cid and The Liar are certainly the soundest and most readable in English since John Cairncross’s, and they seem just as performable.
—David Lee Rubin
Dreaming in Books: The Making of the Bibliographic Imagination in the Romantic Age, by Andrew Piper. Chicago, $35
By some accounts, new media technologies like web publishing, iPhones, and Kindles have combined to threaten the relevance of published books. Piper, however, places these developments in historical perspective by examining the relationship that developed among print media in the Romantic era. Nineteenth-century Americans and Europeans “became bookish” by investing books with new social importance, imagining a book not as a solitary tome but as one volume in a vast network of published materials—similar, Piper argues, to how we think about the connections among media forms today. In the early nineteenth century, the number of books and the rate of their consumption skyrocketed. Publishers put folk tales and songs on the page for the first time, editors compiled collections of works in unprecedented numbers, and women carved out bibliographical places as translators. Readers used books in new ways as well: they conversed by making marginal notations and inscribing and circulating texts. As illustrated books proliferated, readers expected to see both text and image on the page and began to treat non-print objects, such a notebooks, sketchbooks, and scrapbooks, as “bookish spaces.” Piper’s deep engagement with scholarly discussions and his heavy use of academic terms may discourage general readers interested in Romantic literature and culture. Though Piper’s book will appeal most to the academic crowd, it is sure to reorient readers’ perspectives of the history of media and the state of contemporary print culture.
—Whitney A. Martinko
The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, by Elif Batuman. FSG, $15 paper
Part adventure chronicle, part exegesis, part literary memoir, Batuman’s collection of essays is, above all, a love story. The book details paths she has taken to learn more about the objects of her devotion: the great works of Russian literature. First as an aspiring novelist, then as a doctoral student of literature and freelance writer for publications such as the New Yorker and n+1, she travels to far-flung locales—Uzbekistan, St. Petersburg, and Tolstoy’s estate. She pursues the dead writers’ footsteps and descendants, investigates a possible murder, learns Uzbek in Samarkand, tries and fails to get along with Isaac Babel’s wife and daughter, and visits a massive ice palace replicating one built in 1740 for the wedding of two royal jesters. Perhaps her most moving essay, however, “The Possessed,” involves no more than a group of Stanford literature graduate students in Palo Alto. They circle around a fellow student, Matej, whose preternatural charm inspires Batuman to compare him to the dangerously compelling central character of Dostoevky’s Demons. As the coterie forms and reforms around Matej, they learn from their professor René Girard his theory of mimetic desire, which posits that love is a form of egotism. Even as Batuman falls for Matej’s charm, she fights Girard’s teachings. She believes differently: that love leads to generosity, and the love of literature to greater understanding. In her comic, poignant, beguiling book, Batuman succeeds marvelously in illuminating her version of love.
The Scandal of Susan Sontag, edited by Barbara Ching and Jennifer A. Wagner-Lawler. Columbia, $24.50
Susan Sontag once said that a writer is someone who is “interested in everything.” Sontag herself was one such writer, and the twelve essays here illustrate Sontag’s inexhaustible interests, her intellectual “promiscuity.” Such is the “scandal” of Susan Sontag’s life: she refused to be pinned down to one role, jumping from essayist to director, actress, playwright, storyteller, and finally, celebrity as the oft-photographed muse. Sontag’s varied interests emerge: camp, French existentialism, New Wave cinema, illness, and activism. Sontag was a public figure adamantly opposed to the airing of her private life. But there were contradictions there. Jay Prosser’s essay, “Metaphors Kill,” for example, examines the gap between Sontag’s illness essays (“Illness as Metaphor” and “Aids and Its Metaphors”) and her own battles with cancer, as revealed by emotional excerpts from her journals. By the end of the collection, Sontag’s robust intellect nearly falters next to her apparent emotional fragility, a side of the prismatic Sontag few were allowed to see. The final essay, Wayne Koestenbaum’s “Susan Sontag, Cosmophage,” serves as a brief ode to the late Sontag, the capable intellectual who “ate the world,” and was the eager champion of all topics and experiences.
The Bigness of the World, by Lori Ostlund. Georgia, $24.95
In these twelve stories, Ostland’s debut collection, the characters suddenly find the rigid order of their the daily lives breaking down, or they abandon that order, hoping for salvation through drastic change (often through travel, to places like Indonesia, Malaysia, and Morocco). In “Dr. Deneau’s Punishment,” we encounter an aging, irascible math teacher, who has managed to work his homosexuality into an acceptable niche of his orderly life, by confining it to admiring his comely “houseboys.” When unfair accusations arise, he is fired, and the comforting arrangement of his life falls away. In the title story, we see the world through the eyes of a child whose eccentric babysitter, Ilsa, provides a magically enigmatic perspective on life. Ilsa is “absolutely petrified” of abbreviations and cries out “Death be not proud!” at the sight of crushed insects. For the protagonist and her brother, with their unimaginative, workaholic parents, Ilsa becomes a kind of revelation. Although this collection offers a variety of voices, all have in common a certain delectable cynicism. However—and this is what makes the book so good—the armor of cynicism always crumbles before the vastness of the world, leaving the characters tragically and nakedly human.
—Joshua Thomas Armstrong
Dangerous Places, by Perry Glasser. BkMk Press, $16.95 paper
These six stories set in the Midwest and New York City feature wildly diverse characters bound by one commonality—that their ordinary lives are made extraordinary by sudden, dangerous circumstances. In the first piece, “An Age of Marvels and Wonders,” the elderly narrator, resigned to a life disappearing before him, falls in love with a young woman. When confronted by her jailbird ex-husband, the old man uses deadly violence to protect her. His life changes, becoming more hopeful and urgent. In “Fishhook,” we watch a college student spy on a thief at his summer job. And when the thief brings his son shoplifting with him, he gives the student, and the reader, a closer look at what it takes to get the heart beating harder. If there’s one message here, it’s that danger, in all its manifestations, introduces excitement into our suburban existence. We are thrilled by the spectacle of it, and then shocked by its realness. And that’s Glasser’s goal, to get us closer to the realness. He asks us to consider the lives his characters lead. He lets us listen to the sound of their blood flowing, and then asks if it really sounds different from our own.
—Lee Clay Johnson
Hell, by Robert Olen Butler. Grove, $24
Butler’s new novel magnifies the morbidity of his short story collection Severance by a power of ten. Severance gave us a series of beheaded individuals telling 240-word stories, which, in Butler’s estimation, are all the words a severed head has time for before losing consciousness. Now, Hell catches up with a cast of historical and contemporary characters after their earthly time has expired. We follow Hatcher McCord, anchorman of the Evening News from Hell, as he interviews the eternally damned for his news segment, Why Do You Think You’re Here? McCord inadvertently discovers that Satan may not be omniscient and receives a tip from Dante’s Beatrice that escape from Hell is possible. The resulting search for a way out stretches across the vividly imagined landscape of Hell and thrusts us into contact with its most illustrious denizens. The joy of this book lies in the spectacle of seeing who’s in Hell and witnessing their personal torments. The usual suspects are there (Judas Iscariot, Hitler, Richard Nixon, the Bushes) but so is everyone else, from minor nuisances (Celine Dion) to the downright saintly (most of the popes, Mother Teresa). With its breakneck pacing, fantastical cruelty, and biting caricatures, Hell reminds one of a thoroughly modern Candide.
Look at the Birdie: Unpublished Short Fiction, by Kurt Vonnegut. Delacorte, $27
These fourteen stories, plus drawings by Vonnegut, depict people who face the reality of their lives and usually embrace the positive therein. Fuzz Littler suffers exile in a basement office in “FUBAR,” until a gorgeous new secretary helps him reconsider his tedium and isolation beside the company gym. In a story set in the Great Depression, Anne and Henry, charmed scions of wealthy families, follow an abject inventor to his garret. Amidst a fit of worry, Anne’s mother suddenly envies the couple, for “[s]he was saying that she herself had never grown up, had never looked closely at tragedy. She was saying that the most beautiful thing money could buy was a childhood a lifetime long.” Indeed, Vonnegut’s characters strive to recover childhood’s clarity of moral principles while dispensing with its ignorance. Sometimes, their gambits fail. Red Mayo tries to woo his illegitimate daughter away from her current father. Nancy instead returns to Red the only thing he had given her in life. In “The Good Explainer,” Barbara mocks the enterprise on which Vonnegut seems to have embarked. She sardonically justifies her scheming: “‘Because you were always so much better than I was at explaining why everything we did was all for the best,’ she said, ‘every step of the way.’” Nonetheless, these stories ask us to look for the best. The foreword suggests Vonnegut did not consider them finished in his lifetime. Minimally edited, they may preserve a few redundant phrases, but display much compassion, craft, and cleverness.
—Mark Shively Meier
The Lieutenant, by Kate Grenville. Atlantic Monthly, $24
This philosophical novel circles around ideas of empathy, of seeing worlds from the point of view of another being, including God. Daniel Rooke grows up as a loner, publicly dopey but inwardly a math genius. The Astronomer Royal of England discovers his talent and takes Daniel under his wing (or telescope). Daniel joins the Royal Marines and serves as a lieutenant on the expedition to New South Wales to establish a penal colony there in 1788. He builds his own observatory to study a comet and begins a friendship with the Aborigines, especially a girl named Tagaran. The pair slowly and comically learn each other’s language—the ultimate form of empathy—and fumble toward each other’s culture. Noun by noun, we watch as they misunderstand each other. Rooke’s friend, Talbot Silk, writes stories about the natives, trying to make the strange familiar, while Daniel tries to see the strange as strange. The serpent arrives in this intellectual Eden, not in the expected form of sex, but of violence that escalates into in retribution. The British will always be British, the military will always be military, and the Aborigines will always be Other. Empathy slams up against identity. Grenville explores mathematical, linguistic, and psychological issues with lyric narration and deft touches of observation.
The Lost Books of the Odyssey, by Zachary Mason. FSG, $24
Some books you just don’t want to end: Parzival, Beowulf, Emma, and Homer’s Odyssey. This learned novel ostensibly translates forty-four Oxyrhynchus papyri that preserve alternative versions of bits and pieces of the Odyssey. Fortunately Mason, a computer scientist publishing his first novel, makes no attempt to sound Homeric or formulaic or even poetic, and the characters retain their traditional features. Agamemnon and Menelaus are still pompous and inept, Athena is sly, Achilles is ferociously arrogant, and Helen is, well, Helen. But Odysseus emerges as even more multi-faceted, clever, and cruel than the Homeric epic cycle made him. In his signature scene, he lands in Ithaka several times, each with different results. Characters undeveloped in Homer get personalities here, such as Scylla and the sirens. Sometimes the gods write the epic, and sometimes Odysseus does. Sometimes the standard version, Homer’s, turns out to be the variant. Underneath the disparate narratives runs a theme of lycanthropy, as well as confusion about who’s divine and what that means. Many fragments have footnotes, which play textual and metaphysical and epistemological games with the reader. Even the shortest and simplest chapters have washes of postmodern irony, with Kafka and Borges lurking in the background. But it gives us more Odyssey, and anything about Odysseus, the quintessential Western seeker, is worth reading.
Rien Ne Va Plus, by Margarita Karapanou, translated by Karen Emmerich. Clockroot, $15 paper
Karapanou is one of Greece’s most beloved novelists, yet she remains relatively unknown in the US, despite having fans like John Updike and Jonathan Safran Foer. Rien Ne Va Plus, originally published in 1991, has only now been translated into English, just one year after Karapanou’s death. A gesture toward the author’s continued legacy, this translation delivers the essence of the author’s style, a delicate balance between dark and light, haunting scenes cut with sharp, ironic wit. Rien ne va plus, the phrase that is delivered in roulette when “the game becomes fate,” is a central metaphor for Karapanou because her novel tells the story of the dissolution of a marriage twice: first from the point of view of the wife, the second using a rearrangement of themes from the first. Karapanou’s concern is the pain of love—the trauma of giving oneself over to another and the fear of trust—though Karapanou’s pleasure is analyzing how these emotions affect the subconscious depths of her characters. These feelings reverberate deeply in Rien Ne Va Plus as the threads that lead the reader from one chapter to the next, wherein the history of the marriage she has created is playfully jumbled. As rien ne va plus connotes this feeling of either/or, win or lose, Karapanou’s treatment of fear and love worms its way into the reader’s memory with its suggestion that it is emotions that are sturdy, while our lives are what is left to chance.
Lao-tzu’s Taoteching, translated by Red Pine. Copper Canyon, $18 paper
Since the sixth century BCE, the Taoteching has been read, explained, and discussed by some of the greatest thinkers in Chinese history. Chinese readers are accustomed to reading it with the help of commentary that examines every verse or line, and Western readers are at a “great disadvantage without the help of such materials.” Red Pine, an award-winning translator of Buddhist and Taoist literature, introduces Western readers to both the text itself and the traditions it has inherited. His translation is intelligent, heartfelt, yet concise. Each of the eighty-one verses is followed by remarks from figures as diverse as Ssu-Ma Ch’ien, the first century BCE historian who wrote the first definitive history of China, to Yen Fu, a nineteenth-century naval officer and scholar who interpreted the Taoteching through the prism of Western philosophy. The original Chinese text is also provided. The comments are often short, not exceeding a paragraph, and some comments are as cryptic as the actual text. Around seven to twelve thinkers comment on a given verse. In this way, meaning is built, as if the book were “a conversation between Lao-tzu and a group of people who have thought deeply about his text.” Red Pine criticizes scholars who attempt to “force the Taoteching into the categories of modern discourse,” Here he lets the book speak for itself, while helping us hear what it might be saying.
Planisphere, by John Ashbery. Ecco, $24.99
Eminently youthful in his eighties, Ashbery continues to write an insistently slippery lyric. At a stage of life when more austere practitioners in the English tradition, such as Yeats and Stevens, were tending toward either the mystical or a grand literary self-consciousness, Ashbery remains autobiographically reticent and completely immersed in the myriad happenings of general human life, both historical and contemporary. Planisphere is concerned with both everything and nothing: these poems are exercises in the balance between a short attention span and a boundless phenomenological curiosity. “Mysterious barricades, a headrest (of sorts), / boarded the trains at Shinjuku junction/ to the palpable consternation of / certain other rubberneckers,” Ashbery writes in the title poem, with his typical playfully broad scope. And hard and perhaps futile as it is to try to characterize a general “Ashbery formula,” his insistence on having it all ways in Planisphere does occasionally result in a certain incompleteness, as some of the poems, such as “The Forseeable Future,” “Episode,” and “Poem” seem too abrupt as acts of accumulation, both in terms of content and the diffusive presentation of the material. Yet overall there is something, as always, impressive and uniquely winning about the experiential and rhetorical ground covered by Ashbery, as well as the consistent elusiveness of the narrators—the seemingly effortless mastery of negative capability being central to Planisphere. Aggressively embracing the disparate, even infinite trajectories of thoughts and occurrences, the poems of Planisphere are like a series of cosmic hugs.
A Village Life, by Louise Glück. FSG, $23
In her eleventh volume of verse, Glück uses an unnamed Mediterranean village as the vehicle for meditations on aloneness and the certainty of death. Although a narrative about specific people lurks within this forty-one-poem sequence, Glück has no use for names or personal histories. Like Wallace Stevens in his late work, she is a philosopher whose utterances come out as poetry. Here she speaks through “Earthworm”: “[A]s men and women / you were never free / to register in your body whatever left / a mark on your spirit.” In “Tributaries” the couples sitting around the village fountain have “been exiled by the world of hope, / which is the world of action, / but the world of thought hasn’t as yet opened to them. / When it does, everything will change.” And of the moon, she writes with devastating conviction in the title poem, which closes the volume: “It’s dead, it’s always been dead, / but it pretends to be something else, / burning like a star, and convincingly, so that you feel sometimes / it could actually make something grow on Earth. // If there’s an image of the soul, I think that’s what it is.” These still, somber poems are at their best when Glück makes her oracular pronouncements without recourse to the village or its inhabitants. She does not know the place or its people nearly as well as her own mind and spirit, and one feels the imbalance of perspective on almost every page.
Coyote at the Kitchen Door: Living with Wildlife in Suburbia, by Stephen DeStefano. Harvard, $24.95
It is standard fare to bad-mouth suburban sprawl and its derivatives, such as increased traffic, wildlife destruction, and spoiled views. Wildlife biologist DeStefano touches on the typical tropes, but he ultimately rises above the lot with his unique takes on development and conservation. In the process, he highlights those most affected by human sprawl—wildlife. As the division between civilization and wilderness blurs, various species have adapted differently to the changes. Many species are diminished; others like the coyote flourish. Once restricted to the western prairies, that adaptable animal now inhabits most of urban and wild America. By writing in a first-person perspective, DeStefano deftly blends natural science and memoir. Still, at its heart, the book is a call to reconsider how we define progress and growth. DeStefano might earn his salary counting foxes and analyzing biological studies, but he writes, “We all make our living off the land … everything that you depend on for survival and a good and decent life depend on the land—and that is true whether you live in a cabin in the wilderness, a small community in farming country, a high-rise condominium in the city, or a house in the suburbs.”
Googled: The End of the World as We Know It, by Ken Auletta. Penguin, $27.95
In this breezy history of Google, Auletta’s much-touted access to the company’s idiosyncratic founders yields some choice quotes about the scope of their ambitions, particularly this one from Larry Page: “If we solve search, that means you can answer any question . . . which means you can do pretty much anything.” In Auletta’s telling, this blithe “why not?” attitude—shared by Page with co-founder Sergey Brin, another Montessori-educated child of academics unused to hearing “no”—is a critical driver behind the company’s world-changing success. Google’s engineer-driven culture, emphasizing efficiency and innovation over all, is another trait helpful for blowing past bureaucracy-ridden giants like Microsoft. These tendencies, though, also leave the trailblazing infonauts comically confused about concerns raised by their information monopolies (“a deafness to fears that can’t be quantified”). Auletta’s dutiful account of Google’s rise to media dominance tends toward style-free reportage that’s more engaged by high-stakes dealmaking than anything else, but he doesn’t duck the big questions or allow himself to be blinded by his subjects’ uncontested brilliance. As he notes sardonically near the conclusion, as the company fights off more blindsiding criticism about their monopolistic overreach, “Google’s founders and many of its executives share a zeal to digitize books, but don’t have much interest in reading them.”
In Cheap We Trust: The Story of a Misunderstood American Virtue, by Lauren Weber. Little, Brown, $24.99
This study of thrift in America traces attitudes and practices starting before the Revolutionary War and ends with our current struggle to recover from last year’s financial collapse and the growing alarm about environmental degradation. Is thrift a virtue? Or is it stinginess? Thrift has played a changing and contradictory role. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and other early patriots promoted thrift as a way of opposing British control. During World Wars I and II, Americans bought war bonds and did without. Sacrificing and saving during times of war was patriotic and virtuous, and helped the nation devote its resources to the war effort. During the Depression, frugality was the only option. At the ends of these struggles, Americans swung to the other extreme and spent lavishly to satisfy their pent-up desire for everyday goods and luxuries. Those who maintained their frugal ways were labeled “cheap” or “miserly.” Following the Cold War and the oil crisis in the 1970s, the ever-optimistic President Reagan prodded Americans to spend, consume, and enjoy America’s unchallenged supremacy. After 9/11, Mayor Giuliani and President Bush urged everyone to shop rather than hunker down in fear. No one has urged Americans to be thrifty to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Weber’s clear and compelling narrative reveals thrift as an on-again/off-again practice tied to peace and war, politics, and the state of the economy.
—Joan B. Fry
The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America, by Laura Dassow Walls. Chicago, $35
Walls extends the assessment of the influence of the Prussian, Alexander van Humboldt, beyond its usual concerns—on American literary, geographic, and scientific life and landscape art—and aims to re-orient our understanding of the current relationship between science and the humanities. Put another way, she wants a science that is less reductionist and narrowly conceived, one that combines aesthetics and ecology with intense, accurate observation. This view of Humboldt’s union of science, literature, and art could overturn the orthodox view of C. P. Snow’s “two cultures” by reuniting them in a more vital cooperative quest. Von Humboldt, a scientist, writer, traveler, and political activist, certainly deserves a wider appreciation of his stature, his philosophy of science, and his influence on American discovery and literature. This is an exciting and revealing book for those interested in American history and literature, environmental studies, and eco-criticism, as well as for those who desire to learn more about this remarkable man.
—Richard C. Collins
States of Emergency: The Object of American Studies, edited by Russ Castronovo and Susan Gillman. North Carolina, $55 cloth, $19.95 paper
“As this volume suggests,” notes contributor Kenneth W. Warren, “for some time now the aim of American studies has been the critique of American studies.” Disciplinary introspection is indeed one consequence of the revolutions that broke open the humanities and the social sciences during the past three decades. In asking what is the object—meaning both “the point” and “the subject”—of American studies, editors Castronovo and Gillman aim to provoke scholarship that “is attuned theoretically to questions of both time and space.” What would it mean to study America without limiting oneself to its national borders or to its typical chronology? Nan Enstad, who writes about cigarette toxicity, and Wai Chee Dimock, who discusses “World History According to Katrina,” focus on space, noting that chemical pollutants and raging flood waters do not respect boundaries—of the body or the state. Time dominates elsewhere, as in Robert S. Levine’s meditation on how awareness of our extinction changes our consciousness. Ian Baucom, in a dense but inspired essay, traces the history of today’s unlawful combatants to find what role “the unjust enemy [has] been made to fill in the long modern history of law-making and law-preserving violence.” In this collection, the “war on terror” and Hurricane Katrina loom large, and the use of object as a verb—“to signal disagreement or voice opposition”—figures prominently. The contributors aim to rectify what Anne McClintock, in her superb essay on imperial paranoia, photography, and torture, calls “the forgettings of official history.”