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Book Notes


ISSUE:  Spring 2006

 
HISTORY

Born Jewish: A Childhood in Occupied Europe, by Marcel Liebman. Verso, December 2005. $25
This fascinating and scathing indictment of Belgian Jews who cooperated with Nazis during the reign of the Third Reich first appeared in French in 1977. It is worth a translation into English, ably done here by Liz Heron. Liebman’s family was not Belgian, though they lived there. Deported to Nazi concentration camps, Liebman and his brother survived. Liebman’s first-person account of collaboration between wealthy Belgian Jews and the Nazis supplements the claim Hannah Arendt made (Eichmann in Jerusalem) that such incredible betrayal had happened. Liebman’s book deserves a wide readership, for it raises anew the frightening question of what humans will do to survive. The 1991 film Europa, Europa! detailed the struggle of a solitary Jewish boy who not only collaborated with the Nazis but even posed as one, all in order to survive. When self-interest clashes with loyalty to a religious group, self-interest sometimes wins. Liebman’s position was complicated by the fact that he opposed Zionism; Liebman’s loyalty to other Jews ends before the recreation of Israel after the War. Given the remarkable interest Americans have taken in Edward P. Jones’s The Known World, about blacks who owned other blacks as slaves in the nineteenth century, we can expect a number of educated readers to make a point of reading this terribly sad take on betrayal of one’s group.
—John Portmann

Slavery and the Peculiar Solution: A History of the American Colonization Society, by Eric Burin. Florida, September 2005. $59.95
The author, who teaches history at North Dakota, has given us a meticulously researched biography of one of the oft-overlooked cul-de-sacs in American history. Founded in 1816, the ACS attempted to deal pragmatically with an issue that all too many preferred either to ignore or to address with rhetoric that left little room for compromise. Believing that whites and blacks could never live together peacefully on the North American continent, it sought to persuade whites north and south, free blacks, and those slaves whose masters could be talked into manumitting them, that a repatriation to Africa of as many persons of color as was possible was best for all concerned. Liberia, the intended destination, would become a beacon of Christianity on the Dark Continent, an economically useful foothold, and the solution to a problem that might otherwise wreck the still youthful American experiment in freedom. While some whites feared it would undermine slavery, others, including some members of the ACS, felt it would on the contrary strengthen the Peculiar Institution. Abolitionists like Garrison denounced it for its racist assumptions. Thus opinion among whites was often bitterly divided. Mildly surprising was the fact that many black, both free and unfree, were just as much at odds. That the latter in fact—far from being mere passive participants in the colonization enterprise—were instead such active agents is one of the fascinating findings herein. All this Burin lays out in compelling detail. If the book is not one that will find a wide readership, the fault does not lie with the author, who has written an excellent book about a subject of real importance. That the ACS ultimately failed or that it was based on assumptions few would today share does not lessen its importance.
—Lou Tanner

BIOGRAPHY & MEMOIR

Scar Tissue, by Gustavo Pérez Firmat. Bilingual Press, December 2005. $12 paper
Cuba, always Cuba. The day he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, Gustavo Pérez Firmat, professor of Spanish and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, recorded in his diary, “I wondered whether Castro would outlive me, as he outlived my father.” Cuba, father, body, exile—exile from his birthplace, from his family, from his wife, from sex, from health—all recorded in poems that shift, with his moods, from moving to banal to repellent to chilling. Like watching a train wreck we cringe at the horror yet cannot avert our eyes, and read on. Pérez Firmat confronts his cancer with brutal honesty as it affects his mind, his sexual proclivities, his body, his erections, his semen, his life, his memories. A dead father, with issues never resolved; a living mother, with issues never resolved; a supportive wife, with issues never resolved; two children, with issues never resolved. Cancer forces one to think deeply about resolution, the past and the future, and Pérez Firmat does so in this brief and troubling book.
—David T. Gies

Quick-Eyed Love: Photography and Memory, by Susan Garrett. SMU, November 2005. $22.50
Imagine you’re behind a camera taking a picture. You’re drawn to your subject—an empty field, a bridge in the mist, someone waiting for a bus—but you don’t quite know why. “Beauty in the ordinary,” as Susan Garrett writes, “beauty in what is there.” You focus the lens, release the shutter, develop the film, await the print. Only after it emerges from the fixer, when it comes to life in the darkroom, do you see what’s framed there—what you’ve captured—and it isn’t always what you thought you’d seen. For one thing, it’s just a moment—“a minute truth,” to use Garrett’s words. But she also writes, “The wonderful thing about photography is that it can be true and symbolic at the same time. The human figure is completely alone, one of a kind, and at the same time, Everyman. A representation that is not.”

The experience of reading Garrett’s book is a little like waiting for that anticipated image to appear in the tray of developer and ending up somewhere else altogether. It’s not only a personal memoir that explores the struggles (and triumphs) of her mother, a young woman plying her trade as a photographer in Philadelphia in the 30s and 40s, and doing so as a single parent. It’s also a history of photography and a who’s who of the photographers of the time—Margaret Bourke-White, Alfred Stieglitz, Lewis Hine, Georgia O’Keefe, to name a few—as well as an homage to those lesser known. Woven through the story are meditations on beauty, imagination, truth, passion, joy, memory, loss—their potent and evanescent mix as they pertain to life and art.

“Photography,” she writes, “is an art like no other. It is generous. It does not exclude. It let my mother educate herself, gather facts by seeing.” Similarly, one senses the author’s own generous and inclusive spirit as she explores her mother’s life and, by extension, her own. Her edgy intelligence and an unflagging, almost scientific, curiosity in how things work not only orders things nicely as the story progresses, but also enriches us page by page, makes us see the world with new eyes. Just as we might in the darkroom. Just as, one imagines, Susan Garrett herself gradually begins to see her mother anew—certain mysteries illuminated, things discovered, magic revealed by the very deliberations that seemed before to obscure it. Garrett has a poet’s eye for the fine, telling, lyrical detail, a storyteller’s rich sense of narrative. And in the end, of course, she has a photographer’s eye, too. “Fact and life always dominate,” she writes. Likewise these true and trustworthy elements happily commingle in her book.
—Sydney Blair

Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life, by Julia Briggs. Harcourt, November 2005. $30
Julia Briggs’ excellent new addition to the myriad critical works on Virginia Woolf is offered to the “common reader” as a biography distinct from the norm, aiming to “lead readers back to her work with a fresh sense of what they might find there” by focusing on Woolf’s “genesis and process” of writing. Charting the maturation of her novels through diaries, essays, lectures, and letters, Briggs is interested in the development of Woolf’s aesthetic psyche, and it is this focus on the interior life of the author’s mind, rather than the realities of Woolf’s social life, that enables a fresh portrait of the most prolific of Bloomsbury intellectuals. Chronologically progressing through each of Woolf’s fourteen major publications, every chapter summarizes and interprets a work and concludes with an “Aftermath” which delineates the continued reception of the book from the time of its publication through the present. While this biography of her novels structurally confuses the sequential events of Woolf’s life (the reader learns more about Woolf’s childhood in the last chapter than in the first), Briggs deftly weaves the sempiternal threads of Woolf’s life, including her Sapphic relationships and bouts of “madness,” into her chronicle of the intellectual process. It is Briggs’ focus on Woolf’s oscillating relationship with her own work that remains the most compelling aspect of the biography. Writing fiction was the means through which Woolf appreciated and contravened her codified societal boundaries, and thus the prospect of a new work was a panacea, offering escape into intellectual absorption from the turmoil of daily life, and a terrifying necessity, “like being harnessed to a shark.” Bereft of the ability to create fiction against the horrifying reality of World War II, Briggs concludes her biography by suggesting Woolf’s sense that modern civilization “live[d] without a future” precipitated her suicide.
—Heather Miner

FICTION

The Elagin Affair and Other Stories, by Ivan Bunin, translated from the Russian by Graham Hettlinger. Ivan R. Dee, October 2005. $25
Bunin is a backward-looking writer, sometimes nostalgically gushing, sometimes creating a precisely remembered old Russia from his exile. Of the six stories in this volume the messiest is the best. “Sukhodol” is the history of an estate told by a long-lived servant in response to questions by a young relative of the old masters. They were terrible the way Ivan the Terrible was terrible—derangedly impulsive for good or bad. The angle of narration is successful because the old woman both feared and loved them, and, above all, loved the place. When Bunin is paying attention to the lives of servants and peasants he’s at his best. He’s at his windiest when sympathizing with the love-sick upper-class Mitya in “Mitya’s Love,” for the most part a woe-is-he story. The most engaging scenes occur when a loutish estate steward pimps for Mitya. The title story, “The Elagin Affair,” is also tiresomely sympathetic to the young officers—spoiled brats with the sensibilities of frat boys but in this case one of them is more murderous. But three of these stories—“Sukhodol,” “Tanya,” and “The Scent of Apples” are on a par with Turgenev’s A Sportman’s Sketches. “Sukhodol,” a novella at seventy pages, is rich and wonderfully layered. It is even better than Bunin’s most famous story “The Gentleman from San Francisco.”
—John Casey

Between Camelots by David Harris Ebenbach. Pittsburgh, October 2005. $24
This year’s winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize is an exceptionally fine craftsman of that difficult and demanding art, the short story. In the title story, “Between Camelots,” one character says he spent his teen years and early twenties “going from Camelot to Camelot . . . everybody loves everybody . . . the whole thing collapses again . . . up and down, up and down.” Another character responds: “How do you know you’re not just between Camelots right now?” They’re strangers; the two meet at a party where one waits for a blind date who never materializes. Their interaction is brief but so emblematic of this collection: they’re strangers but they illuminate a darkened world with the intimacy of what they reveal. Most of the characters in Between Camelots make observations that sound astute because they are: “Familiar people sound unique, distinct, he thought, because you hear them with more parts of you. Unfamiliar people, though, make noises like foreign languages.” This collection of fifteen stories is lean without being spare; large though it’s small, (one story is only two pages, another, three). Stewart O’Nan, the judge for the prize, praised Ebenbach’s work by saying the stories are “sometimes hopeful, often sad, with just a taste of the strange.” Of his own work, Ebenbach says his characters struggle “to forge and keep connections with people, and so often fail to hold on.” I agree, though it seems many characters end up like the protagonist in “Getting Back onto Solid Foods” sitting in a booth built for two, alone. It has been said that a good short story does the work of a novel, so if that’s true, this slim volume does some pretty heavy lifting.
—Mariflo Stephens

Copy Cats, by David Crouse. Georgia, October 2005. $24.95
Genuine interpersonal communication is nowhere to be found in Copy Cats, the first collection of stories by David Crouse. No one in these eight tales can understand anyone else; every relationship—father and daughter; boyfriend and girlfriend; husband and wife—is fraught with bitter emotional peril. In one of the two standout stories, “Morte Infinita,” a young girl’s life with her depressed father is rooted in the context of Halloween. As the young Kristen notes, “the heroes are boring. . . . The monsters are the only ones who do anything interesting with their lives.’” Here there be plenty of human monsters, including the title character in “The Ugliest Boy,” whose physical perfection is marred by a scarred face that earns him the moniker Barbeque. This “monster” is the cipher through which an emotionally distant young man comes to grips with his own horrible experience—and yet the relationship between the two, however distant, seems utterly alive in its execution. The same can be said for the opening story, “Kopy Kats,” in which another of Crouse’s existential young men questions the reality of storytelling after a man collapses at a copy store. In retelling the story to his girlfriend (and, by extension, to us), he notes that when the door hits the old man in the head, it “made a horrible sound that . . . was too much the sound of metal edge on bone. It was too close to real.” Horrible as the reality of Crouse’s universe can be, it is startlingly realized and undeniably affecting.
—Zak M. Salih

POETRY

After, by Jane Hirshfield. HarperCollins, February 2006, $23.95.
The sixth collection of Hirshfield’s poetry comes to us with much anticipation (Given Sugar, Given Salt, her fifth book of poetry, came out in 2002) and proves that it is more important than ever for contemporary poets to concern themselves with our lived world, our fears and unease, and bring light to the places of our consciousness that need a fierceness like Hirshfield’s to keep them alive.

Often meditative and short, the poems in After have a starkness that is often disarming. She writes in “After Long Silence,” “words are not the end of thought, they are where it begins.” As the first poem in this collection, it sets the tone for where the collection will go: confidently confronting the intangibility of human existence. These poems’ topics range from global warming to insomnia, passion, cheese making, and sneezing. She engages historical figures from Rembrandt, Poe, and Tu Fu to Linnaeus, Roget, and Darwin. The beauty of these historically engaging poems, though, is that they remain firmly tied to our contemporary world. Far from shunning the topics that plague our times and hiding in the romanticism of historical figures and periods, Hirshfield uses these figures to illuminate her highly relevant poems.

In “Pocket of Fog,” Hirshfield writes “To be undivided must mean not knowing you are,” and indeed, the poems are aware of their divisions, yet they are always unpretentious in this examination. Perhaps one of the most striking poems in After is “I Write these Words to Delay.” In this poem, Hirshfield likens her writing to a flock of sheep and herself to a sheepdog. Then she reverses the comparison, meditates on it, and then admits “I write these words to stay in that silent, unfevered existence, / to delay the other words that are waiting.” The beauty of this poem is its complexity, its human confession that even a beautiful meditation, even poetry, even one’s life work, is incomplete, is an evasion of sorts, and in rare moments we are aware of this. To be so divided, conscious of this division, and yet attentive to her work is the gift Hirshfield gives readers in this collection.
—Lilah Hegnauer

The Niagara River, by Kay Ryan. Grove Press, November 2005. $13 paper
The sturdy, narrow columns of type manifesting Kay Ryan’s short poems belie her concern with the liminal. What is unseen and unarticulated informs the work of all artists, but Ryan’s somewhat playful, speculative voice makes dramatic use of the scant physical evidence her poems offer, her tropes logically expanding to offer pointed comment. Minimalist in feel and tidy in construction, almost always ending with a neat echo of sound that ties up the poem with the efficiency of a rhymed couplet, the poems can suggest the illusion of infinity created by looking into a mirror and seeing only its reflection of the behind you. Fernando Pessoa provides the epigraph to one poem and his disarmingly modest and meticulous way of observing can appropriately be compared to Ryan’s: “A pitcher molds / the air in it, dividing / from the air beyond / the air it holds. And / should the pitcher / vanish, something / would take a minute / to escape, a gradually / diminishing integrity, / a thinning pitcherful / of pitcher shape.”
—Karen Kevorkian

Facts About the Moon, by Dorianne Laux. Norton, November 2005, $23.95
Laux’s fourth collection of poems gives us more of what we have come to love and crave from this poet: startlingly distinctive vocabulary, sensual engagement with the body, and beautiful articulation of the ranges of human life coupled with a commitment to the details of particular human lives.

Some samples of the distinctive language of this book are her description of the northern lights as “those alien green curtains,” the color of ravens’ wings is “silt-shine,” a crossing of elk across a highway as “slow as a Greek frieze,” an old waitress’s arches fallen “like grand cathedrals,” and the development of a fetus as a “sideshow trick.” “Face Poem,” though, gives new meaning to even Laux’s specific brand of distinctive language. This poem is a rollicking accumulation of descriptions: “Your craggy mountain goat face. / Your mole-ridden, whiskered, stumpy fish of a face . . . / jaw like a hinge, washboard forehead . . . / Your used car lot of a face, the bumpers / and sprung hoods and headlights of your eyes, your DieHard / battery of a face . . . five knuckled slug / of a face.” It takes readers through a gamut of images that have the effect of not only creating the intimacy the you and I of the poem share, but also the intimacy the poet shares with everything she encounters.

In Facts About the Moon, Laux insists that there is a persistence in life that is not limited to the desire of humans for persistence (of love, of distinctive towns, of nature), but also includes persistence of life that is separate, and often unconcerned, with humanity. Her attention to detail comes across less as a matter of craft than a matter of being in the world, of encountering everything with an eye toward intimacy with the encountered world.
—Lilah Hegnauer

Open Field: 30 Contemporary Canadian Poets, edited by Sina Queyras. Persea, July 2005. $18.95 paper
How many Canadian poets can most readers of this journal name? Margaret Atwood? She’s here and represented by at least one noteworthy poem, “The Loneliness of the Military Historian.” Anne Carson? She’s here, represented by eight prose “short talks” from the 1992 volume of that name. Michael Ondaatje? He’s here with a gnomic sequence called “The Nine Sentiments.” But beyond this famous triad? Perhaps the more experimentally inclined might recognize Christian Bök, whose five ingenious prose riffs, each one built of words using only the same respective vowel, present the most interesting of many language experiments. But even this much acquaintance still leaves twenty-six other poets, most but not all of whom have some affiliation with colleges or universities, like their counterparts south of the border. The foreword by Molly Peacock and introduction by Sina Queyras both understandably reach for generalizing formulations about Canadian poetry, which people skeptical of such generalizations may not necessarily endorse, generalizations such as “Could it be that Canadians might have an edge when it comes to listening to the still-wild voices?” or “we are Canadian, and our impulse is more likely to connect, connect.” These generalizations pass quickly, though, and soon this richly varied collection, with what Queyras calls its “particular blend of formal and innovative work,” transports the uninitiated to a world at once uncannily familiar and unfamiliar, a world infused with, to borrow Peacock’s formulation, “a peculiar brand of Canadian surrealism.” If some problems of inclusion and exclusion beset a “Canadian” book that represents an officially bilingual country with only one poet translated from French, much remains for a non-Canadian reader to admire and, if Canada really is “immensely proud of its poets,” as Peacock claims, to envy.
—Stephen Cushman

GENERAL NONFICTION

Incongruous Entertainment: Camp, Cultural Value, and the MGM Musical, by Steven Cohan. Duke, November 2005. $23.95
A pun on the title of the 1974 musical franchise That’s Entertainment! and its sequels, Incongruous Entertainment is an equally serviceable metaphor for Steven Cohan’s approach in this lively homage and critique of camp in the MGM musical. For as “entertainment” is not exactly the word one would typically use to describe academic writing, Cohan proves to be an exception, as his scholarship, like any good musical, smoothly blends theory and fandom, camp and culture, into a fascinating, elegant composition. Chapters on Hollywood’s gay workforce and the marketing machinery behind such iconic productions as Meet Me in St. Louis and Singin’ in the Rain, stars like Esther Williams, Judy Garland, Debbie Reynolds, and Lena Horne, Gene Kelly’s contested masculinity and choreography, and Garland’s internet afterlife, illuminate Cohan’s thesis that camp, which he defines as “the ensemble of strategies used to enact a queer recognition of the incongruities arising from the cultural regulation of gender and sexuality,” and mainstream heteronormativity are not mutually exclusive but rather are essential elements that find robust, vibrant life in this popular genre. Describing the presence of one starlet in a frothy, over-the-top number, Cohan wittily recalls the scene, “As the men sing her praises while dancing, the Lady mimes narcissistic enjoyment of her glamorous features while pointing them out. She is all motion. With her head bobbing as if too loosely fastened to her neck by a diamond choker, her gesturing overly animated and excessive in drawing attention to her body, the Lady’s frantic movements call to mind a puppet without strings, a Judy with too much punch.” Cohan himself, however, lands the right critical punch in this study, square in the middle of two other incongruities, nostalgia and relevance.
—Tiffany Gilbert

Sprawl: A Compact History, by Robert Bruegmann. Chicago, November 2005. $27.50
Sprawl, defined as “unplanned, scattered, low density, automobile-dependent development at the urban periphery” has become a bogeyman for many politicians, planners, environmentalists, and so-called “new urbanist” architects and planners. This book is presented as “the first major book to strip urban sprawl of its pejorative connotations.” Bruegmann, an urban historian, takes some of the polemical wind out of the anti-sprawl forces and that is a useful corrective. He demonstrates with historical evidence that suburbanization, if not sprawl, has been a tendency for centuries, and in many nations. As he argues, suburbanization is not necessarily destructive, but a positive response to affluence and to a love for pastoral settings. Bruegman also shows how a superficial understanding of the forces of sprawl will lead to inadequate responses to it.

But Bruegmann spends more time debunking the contemporary anti-sprawl movement on grounds that are less historically than ideologically based. Sprawl, especially in the US is the result of deep-seated desires to escape the city, of mythical notions of property rights, and of the misguided belief that expansive growth is necessary for economic vitality and human progress. But debunking the popularly accepted and often shallow explanations of sprawl, and highlighting the inadequacies of the new urbanist approaches is easy. Impressed by the historical perspective, the reader will be disappointed if she expects to discover ways to address the contemporary issues of population increase and urban expansion.

The author largely regurgitates the arguments of the development industry fundamentalists in their belief that markets serve better than planning, and that architects and planners are elitists. Sprawl is a word that designates a real concern: how can nearly 300 million American live in places free from the threats of haphazard development, fiscal failures, environmental deterioration, and a depressing sense that the juggernaut cannot be stopped. Bruegmann obviously knows that, but he offers little help.
—Richard C. Collins

Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy, by Jacob Hacker & Paul Pierson. Yale, October 2005. $25
These two respected political scientists and students of public policy argue that American politics is today generating a seeming paradox: the Republican party is strikingly far from America’s political center and still heading “for the fringes,” and yet wins elections rather than being punished by moderate voters as US history and our analytic assumptions would suggest. They attribute this largely to agenda-setting and muscular manipulation of the policy process. For example, Republicans craft a tax cut plan that defers both features that would be least attractive to average voters: its greatest budget-busting consequences and its disproportionate payoff for wealthy taxpayers. In the course of the book, they analyze both how this new politics has come to pass and what can be done to “overcome” the forces creating this new politics. A reviewer could summarize their nuanced discussion of several major public policies, especially tax cuts. But what stands out even more than their analysis is the authors’ descriptions and tone. For them, Republicans are “extremists” while Democrats are specifically not. American democracy is “under siege” and “under assault.” President Bush, with the support of his party’s elite, is “riding roughshod over established democratic procedures.” This sort of description is one short step away from over-the-top claims that Bush’s politics are a form of fascism descending on America. Amidst elections, judicial proceedings, and the workaday assaults of the press, it simply isn’t clear that democracy isn’t working and that anyone is undermining it. It also isn’t clear that occasional disconnects between opinion polls and policies are something new or especially worrying, since they tend to get re-connected by elections over time.
—Gerard Alexander

UVA FACULTY BOOKS

Concerning the Book That Is the Body of the Beloved, by Gregory Orr. Copper Canyon Press, September 2005. $18 paper
Gregory Orr’s new book is dazzling and timeless. Sure, the trappings of modern life appear at the edges of these poems, but their focus is so unwaveringly aimed toward the transcendent—not God, but the beloved—that we seem to slip into a less cluttered time. It’s an experience usually reserved for reading the ancients, and clearly that was partly Orr’s inspiration. I’m reminded of nothing so much as Issa’s haiku (translated by Robert Hass): “The world of dew is the world of dew. / And yet, and yet—.” Like this tiny rumination, Orr’s poems don’t feel like dusty museum pieces, because there’s too much urgency of emotion, like the whisperings of a lover. Yet, the poems are almost never autobiographical in any discernible way; the emphasis is entirely off of the quotidian and on the big questions that most contemporary poets fear to ask. Mary Oliver describes the effect as “Whitman without an inch of Whitman’s bunting.” That’s it—but only partly. To be sure, Orr is striving for Whitman’s sense of the Soul, but Whitman sought connection through the self, the body, and meticulous cataloging of the temporal world. These poems turn away from the self and toward the world, but like Georg Trakl, Pablo Neruda, or James Wright, the voice is so crystalline and distilled that what we see is not the world or the beloved so much as a shimmering reflection of the poet himself. As Orr writes, “Nothing more beautiful than the body / Of the beloved that is the world. // Nothing more beautiful than the voice / Of the beloved, calling our name.” It’s like studying a lover’s face reflected on the surface of a glittering pond. The effect is blinding and impressionistic, but the careful study of what is barely seen reveals more than any total picture ever could.
—Editors

The Happiness Hypothesis. Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (Why the Meaningful Life Is Closer than You Think), by Jonathan Haidt. Basic Books, December 2005. $26
Jonathan Haidt wants to make you happy. Or, rather, he wants you to know that happiness is possible, that certain basic tenets of happiness can be distilled from the wisdom of the ancient world. Drawing on thinkers from across the globe (India, China, the Mediterranean World), Haidt finds happiness, as did the great thinkers of yesteryear, in balance, in the “between” of life. Haidt discusses ten Great Ideas and how they have shaped the world in which we live, and his personal, frequently autobiographical style makes the book a joy to read. He cites recent studies in psychology to demonstrate his points and bolsters his arguments with fresh insights and telling examples. This is not pop psychology (although it is often hip in its sly acknowledgement of today’s student culture) but rather a serious and erudite meditation on religion, literature, psychology, philosophy, and science, and how these all fit together to suggest ways to live the, well, happy life.
—David T. Gies

 

Hierarchy, Commerce, and Fraud in Bourbon Spanish America: A Postal Inspector’s Exposé, by Ruth Hill. Vanderbilt, January 2006. $59.95
Richly detailed, amply documented, and wholly original, this book looks at eighteenth-century Spanish America through the dual prism of literature and history. The real focus, though, is race and class in the Spanish colonies, and Hill illuminates these two topics by weaving together seemingly disparate materials gathered from not only standard literary and historical texts, but also from documents on religious practices, commercial ventures, political institutions, travel and trade, and sexual conduct. She studies “networks” of individuals, whose professional and personal lives crossed in ways we had not previously seen, and whose activities reveal corruption, sexual scandal, racial tension and class conflict in the colonies. One main thread of the book centers on a man named Alonso Carrió de Lavandera, author of the best-known book in colonial Spanish America, El lazarillo de ciegos caminantes (“The Guide for Blind Rovers”), which contains—when read through Hill’s eyes—startlingly new information about the Viceroyalties of New Spain and Peru (which encompassed the greater part of Spanish America in the eighteenth century). Hill rightly challenges scholars to look beyond the Anglo-Franco bias that has prohibited us from seeing “other sources and motivations for criollo resentment and protonationalism.” This is a stunning achievement, an aggressive polemic, and a wake-up call to modern scholarship of Spanish America. As she writes, “We do not get the field we deserve, of course, but the field that we build, and we have not yet built models that truly capture the entanglements, nuances, and maddening contradictions of the first century of Bourbon rule in Spain and Spanish America.” Hill is building those models, and the entire field is richer and more interesting because of her efforts.
—David T. Gies

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