Water for Sale, by Fredrik Segerfeldt. Cato Institute, June 2005. $12.95
The Cato Institute can be depended upon to publish work which genuflects before the market, abhors government regulation, and searches for situations in which the miracles of privatization can be achieved. This book holds to the Cato model, but the Scandinavian author, even if he is no less enamored of privatization, addresses the potential for improved systems to distribute drinking water in developing nations in a balanced manner.
As W. H. Auden has observed, “Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.” The dismal and tragic situation in which some 1.1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water and, as a result, suffer debilitating sickness and death, cries out for creative responses. Where the basic need for water requires some people to pay vendors a third of their income for it, and where the relatively affluent who get piped water may not want to pay slightly higher prices to expand distribution to those with less income, the situation also demands a probing assessment of water distribution systems in developing nations.
So even if Segerfeldt’s book is based on the same theoretical premises that the Cato Institute so slavishly follows, the book is important for bringing the depressing situation to our attention and urging all of us to contemplate strategies to change it. Just as importantly, the book demonstrates how barren are the debates between public and private when invariably the effective response is some combination of the two.
—Richard C. Collins
The Faith of the American Soldier, by Stephen Mansfield. Tarcher, May 2005. $19.99
No one will accuse Mansfield of writing an unnecessarily difficult book. By the same token, few people will praise Mansfield for writing a difficult book. We Americans are still a nation at war, and this book seeks to portray American soldiers in a glowing, endearing light. Far from atheistic monsters, our soldiers are moral patriots who think regularly of God. Mansfield enters rich scholarly terrain on the battlefield, with its peculiar power to pose moral challenges and test religious beliefs. This book reads like an extended magazine article, which may be precisely what some readers are looking for. Scholars seeking a sensitive integration of the Iraq war into, say, a rich treasure trove of reflection on the just war tradition will be disappointed. Professors are not likely to assign this book for classroom use, which is not to say that casual readers will fail to see value in what is, after all, a popular book.
Vile France: Fear, Duplicity, Cowardice, and Cheese, by Denis Boyles. Encounter Books, March 2005. $23.95
Depending on one’s politics, France-bashing is—for an American—either outright fun or a suppressed urge; for only a minority is it disturbing on principle. For Denis Boyles, it’s fun, but too much fun. While some of the stories Boyles digs up (especially of French media bias) are informative and will be new to most readers, their merits are overwhelmed by his axe-grinding and the exaggerated (and explicit) mischievousness of this book. There is no doubt that French governments periodically aim to inhibit the exercise of American power. This is not, as some liberals might hope, because they are on the side of the angels—their historic support for Saddam and for Rwandan genocidaires, their ruthlessly unilateralist military interventions in Africa, and their hesitation to let the West intervene in Darfur all suggest that France is as self-interested and anethical as any other world power. There is also little doubt that the French journalistic and intellectual class are deeply and sometimes virulently anti-American, believing and propounding things about the U.S. that even most American progressives would recoil from saying. This book’s playful tone doesn’t eclipse its deadly serious intent to counter these slanders and puncture the pomposities that often lurk behind them. But it is unlikely to be successful, given its underresearched content.
The Thames, by Jonathan Schneer. Yale, May 2005. $35
The author, a professor of modern British history who clearly enjoys both social and cultural history (if in fact they are separate phenomena), has written a book that will greatly please Anglophiles in particular. Locating the Thames at the very center of English (and British) history—not at all a far stretch—Schneer ranges widely. From prehistory through Roman and Saxon times, from the signing of the Magna Carta at Runnymede in 1215 to the moody paintings of that river by J. M. W. Turner in the first half of the 19th century, and from the London dockers’ strike of 1889 to the recent efforts to redevelop the docklands of the East End, he casts a very wide net indeed. Reflecting his own interests in labor history and politics as well as artistic and intellectual trends, The Thames should be a welcome addition to the library of the more eclectic reader. Not surprisingly given the broad subject matter, it is more a book for the intelligent general reader who already possesses a good background in British history than it is for the specialist. It is replete with anecdotes and is episodic in its approach. A scholar with a deep familiarity with British history, Schneer has—eccentrically perhaps—chosen rebellions, mutinies, and strikes as well as better-known incidents to explore. In doing so he may disconcert those who prefer their pageantry royal and Shakespearean, but this is a book that will reward handsomely anyone with a real interest in the entire sweep of British history. The book is well written, and though it reflects the vast knowledge of a serious scholar, it is highly readable.
The Romanian Revolution of December 1989, by Peter Siani-Davies. Cornell, April 2005. $45
Among the Communist governments in eastern Europe that collapsed, nowhere was the overthrow as violent and bloody as in the Romanian revolution of 1989, which cost more than 1,000 lives. Siani-Davies, utilizing a wide variety of Romanian sources, has written a detailed history of the revolution that brought the overthrow of the Communist government in Romania and the execution of the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena on Christmas Day, 1989. The revolution stemmed from an attempt to evict a dissident clergyman from his residence in the town of Timisoara. Protests by factory workers followed, and then riots snowballed into a revolution and spread to other Romanian cities, including Bucharest. Street demonstrations brought suppression by the feared security forces. There were mysterious “terrorists” who were blamed for the great loss of life following the death of the Ceausescus. The revolution continued for months afterward. The Romanian revolution became the first national revolution in which television played a prominent role. At times the events were reminiscent of the fall of the Bourbon monarchy in 1789.
Medieval Religion: New Approaches, edited by Constance Hoffman Berman. Routledge, April 2005. $34.95
This work on medieval church history is part of the Rewriting Histories series, which focuses on the new findings on historical themes that have come out in the last twenty years or so. As is evident from the title, the present work amplifies our understanding of the various facets of medieval religion, namely, religious speculation and social thought, reform and growth in the clerical hierarchy, women and the practice of asceticism, and contemplation and increasing violence and exclusion. A collection of fifteen scholarly essays that attempts to “revise” the dominant views presented in historical studies of the medieval world, the work thus challenges the standard interpretations. Fascinating in many ways for the points of view presented (and thus for those being challenged)—for example, that crusades were understood by the crusaders themselves not as a holy war but as an act of love, that women were far more integral to the religious life than has been acknowledged (to the extent that supporting religious women became a means for men’s own salvation), and that, contrary to the prevalent view of the absolutely authoritative papacy in the medieval church, the cardinals have been shown to have exercised a significant advisory power—these findings will continue to influence the subsequent research that will be undertaken in the field. The spectrum of issues raised, from Christians’ own understanding of their religion to how they thought and dealt with the Jewish and Muslim “others” and finally to the role of women in social and religious spheres, makes this collection an indispensable resource on some of the most widely debated issues. Though the conclusions will continue to be debated for some time to come, this book is a welcome addition, given the paucity that marks the historical studies on the Christian world in the Middle Ages.
Retreat from Gettysburg, by Kent Masterson Brown. North Carolina, April 2005. $34.95
For those who are interested in the battle of Gettysburg and its repercussions, Brown provides a well-researched account of Lee’s withdrawal. His access to the official military records allows him to raise the interesting point that, although the battle might have been a tactical defeat for the Army of Northern Virginia, at the operational level, they withdrew from Pennsylvania with an enormous quantity of supplies that allowed them to continue to fight throughout the summer of 1863.
That being said, the two biggest shortcomings of the book are the poor quality of the maps—which are presented with black terrain features and gray bars to represent units—and the overwhelming minutiae provided without a clear thematic framework. Books about battles—or, in this case, their aftermath—are critically dependent on having good maps to depict the battle space and using proper icons to indicate the sizes and types of units as well as their locations. Better-designed maps placed at the beginning of each chapter would have helped clarify the movements of the various units throughout the ten-day operation. The book also appears to be intended for Civil War buffs who are extremely familiar with that era and the war itself. For example, Brown adopts the custom of the time and simply refers to the various units—even down to the brigade and battalion levels—simply by the names of their commanders but without providing an order of battle list until the reader reaches the appendices.
Brown presents extremely detailed accounts of the activities of the Army of Northern Virginia, including many first-person accounts taken from letters, diaries, and official reports. However, there is an old principle in military writing called the Bottom Line Up Front—or BLUF for short—that, used in dealing with a complex subject like a retrograde operation, would definitely have helped keep the narrative focused. He becomes so involved with the minute descriptions that he frequently loses his way, and the individual chapters lack coherency. I would have preferred a more organized approach in breaking down the stages of General Lee’s withdrawal from Gettysburg, with more tactical summaries of what his and his generals’ intents were, followed by a description of what actually happened, and then flavored with the first-person accounts of the soldiers’ and civilians’ activities.
Thomas Jefferson’s Military Academy: Founding West Point, edited by Robert M. S. McDonald. Virginia, March 2005. $35
The least often cited of Jefferson’s noteworthy accomplishments is his founding and supporting the development of the United States Military Academy at West Point. When cited, it is usually to point out the inconsistency of his having previously argued that the establishment of a military academy would be an unconstitutional extension of governmental powers or to note the irony of its establishment by a president known popularly as a distinctly unsoldierly person with a dreamily bucolic vision of American peace and liberty. This excellent book demonstrates how very Jeffersonian his initial rejection and subsequent adoption of this project were and how it fit into the complex plans he fostered for the young American nation. The project was a practical one, nourished by Jefferson’s actual fiercely protective stewardship of the security of the young Republican nation to which he had been the intellectual midwife. West Point, as an institute for the study of engineering and mathematics, was also an opportune first step in the establishment of other national institutes of higher learning. It would supply not only officers, but builders, scientists, and explorers. Importantly, these better-educated future leaders—broadly representative of the Republican citizens of the nation—would in time outnumber the existing officer corps made up of Federalists whose training had been something of a privileged military apprenticeship. In these essays, a rich new vein of historical investigation that was pioneered by Theodore Crackel is explored, providing fresh and important insights into the thoughts and actions of our most complex president. They also consider the establishment of West Point within the context of contemporary European trends in military education. The extent to which the ensuing development of West Point as an element of American society has represented an important and somewhat overlooked aspect of the Jeffersonian legacy is also considered. These fine essays should have broad appeal to specialists and to the general reading public.
—Robert S. Rust, M.D.
A Circle of Sisters: Alice Kipling, Georgiana Burne-Jones, Agnes Poynter, and Louisa Baldwin, by Judith Flanders. Norton, March 2005. $27.95
There was, in Victorian England, an itinerant Methodist preacher named George MacDonald, a good if unremarkable man leading what would just pass, economically, for a middle-class life. Among the children he had with Hannah MacDonald, his wife, were four daughters: Georgiana, Alice, Agnes, and Louisa. These four, while appearing incidentally in hundreds, perhaps thousands, of historical and biographical studies, have never had a book to themselves, until now. Georgiana became the wife of the painter Edward Burne-Jones; Alice, the wife of Lockwood Kipling and mother of Rudyard Kipling; Agnes married Edward Poynter, who became in time both director of the National Gallery and president of the Royal Society, the first man ever to hold both posts; Louisa married Alfred Baldwin and became the mother of Stanley Baldwin, who was three times prime minister of Britain.
The girls were smart, literary, demanding, perhaps a little cool: Alice and Louie were beautiful, Agnes a bit less so; Georgie was plain. Each was allowed to marry for love (only Baldwin among the young men had anything approaching prospects: the artists were poor), and each brought only herself and no property to the marriage. Were they simply lucky in marriage? Perhaps not: only Alice, it seems, had what we would call a happy marriage. Burne-Jones cheated on Georgie, with quite public humiliation. Agnes and Louie were almost constantly ill with vague ailments.
Their story, as told by Judith Flanders, is fascinating, funny, poignant, and richly detailed. Flanders is an excellent prose stylist with an eye for the comic. She offers throughout the text wry comments on events. This book, her first, though her second to appear in America, dovetails nicely with her brilliant study Inside the Victorian Home. Flanders is a social historian of my favorite kind: she has immersed herself in the practical details of day-to-day Victorian life, and so the history of the MacDonald sisters, while featuring a marvelous cast of characters (John Ruskin, William Morris, Swinburne, and others), also gives a vivid portrait of Victorian domestic life. We learn about illness and home cures, about the labors that wash day entailed, about the state of domestic plumbing, and all manner of other fascinating details that help us to see not just who these women were, who they knew, and what they did, but what their lives were actually like.
The Troubled Republic: Visual Culture and Social Debate in France, 1890–1900, by Richard Thomson. Yale, March 2005. $60
Thomson, professor of fine art at the University of Edinburgh, has written an excellent book about a fascinating decade in modern history. His subject is the intersection between visual art and political, social, and economic change in fin de siècle France, and in exploring this he guides us with skill and erudition. Looking at sculpture, painting, and the graphic arts, as well as the still relatively new medium of photography, Thomson examines the vigorous debate France was then having with itself and shows us how this can be read in what he clearly believes is an underappreciated part of the documentary record of the time. In doing so he looks at four themes in particular. One he sees in the contemporary concerns about national decadence in the wake of the debacle of the Franco-Prussian War and the way these were reflected in the artistic depictions of the human body and sexuality. Second was the new emphasis on the rapidly growing role of the crowd. Social unrest was on the minds of the French. Religious imagery represented a third great theme of art as the Catholic Church clearly felt itself to be under assault by the forces of secularism. Religion, then as now, was a great battlefield. Finally, Thomson looks at the cold war between Germany and France and specifically at the desire of the latter for revanche after its loss of Alsace-Lorraine in 1871. The author writes with grace and wit, and the book is stunningly illustrated. This is an exciting book, one that will delight both lovers of art and those interested in the political and intellectual history of this anxious decade.
Envisioning an English Empire: Jamestown and the Making of the North Atlantic World, edited by Robert Appelbaum and John Wood Sweet. Pennsylvania, March 2005. $24.95
By assembling this collection of essays by a number of distinguished scholars in history and literature, the editors have contributed an important new compilation explaining the intricacies and difficulties of early European exploration and colonization, particularly in North America. While the focus of the work is the English settlement of Jamestown beginning in May 1607, the authors explore a wide range of related subjects, including Native Americans’ experiences in England, Captain John Smith’s exploits as a soldier in Turkey and elsewhere, the issues of slavery in the New World, and parallels between England’s colonization attempts in Ireland and North America. While exploring the efforts to establish and perpetuate what became the first permanent English colony in North America, the authors provide a sound and informed understanding of the dynamics not only of the struggles of the original settlers, but also of the global forces working both for and against this bold and sometimes desperate enterprise. This is a highly recommended source for the serious scholar, as well as for anyone wishing to understand one of the most important periods in history.
—Daniel B. Smith
Along the Maysville Road: The Early American Republic in the Trans-Appalachian West, by Craig Thompson Friend. Tennessee, March 2005. $42
Compared with other major thoroughfares of the early republic, the Maysville Road has received very little attention from scholars. But, as Friend asserts, it is hardly insignificant. Between 1775 and 1835, thousands traveled this sixty-five-mile stretch through north-central Kentucky, bringing with them “goods and ideas, spreading American cultures to the new nation’s frontiers.” Friend’s examination is made up of two components—a biography of the road and a cultural and economic study of how this road shaped the region and in turn the development of the American West. And though this work is regional by design, it echoes and reaffirms the cultural, political, and economic shifts and changes America was experiencing as a whole. Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of the book is the author’s familiarity with the people and places that influenced the route. Friend also included numerous photographs and maps to visually acquaint the reader with the route’s history. The author’s intimate knowledge not only greatly enhances the depth of his argument but also makes the book a pleasure to read.
Line Break: Poetry as Social Practice, by James Scully, with a foreword by Adrienne Rich. Curbstone, August 2005. $14.95
The difference between political and nonpolitical writing, Terry Eagleton wrote, “is just the difference between the prime minister and the monarch: the latter furthers certain political ends by pretending not to, while the former makes no bones about it.” It’s a matter of complicity: poets who fail to question embedded ideology do the state’s business, whether or not they acknowledge it. This is not news, and Scully didn’t pretend it was when these essays were first published in 1988, though the present political climate, where no truth seems to be nonpolitical, has made useful its reissue. Distinguishing true political poetry from that which only protests, Scully derides poetry written out of concern for the writer’s sensibilities, which is likely to be based on habit and prejudice rather than debatable ideas. To not accept the challenge of critical consciousness is to exist in “social silence,” letting the language of the institutions that manage our lives speak for us. Scully extensively offers the work of Roque Dalton, a Marxist-Leninist Salvadorean poet, as a lived political poetic. These poems are astute, witty, and pointed, and in great contrast to the literary high style of W. H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux-Arts,” where, in an image taken from a painting by Breughel, Icarus falls into the sea unobserved. In a meticulous reading, Scully faults this poem for its indifference to Icarus and for its turning away from the world’s creative mess, a silence complicit with elite values. More examples, other than Dalton’s, of good political poetry would add to this collection, as would a taxonomy of the political implications of poetic technique that the title of the book seems to promise.
The Extravagant: Crossings of Modern Poetry and Modern Philosophy, by Robert Baker. Notre Dame, July 2005. $65 cloth, $30 paper
The Extravagant is a fascinating and ambitious study of the interplay between philosophy and poetry in the modern period. Plato famously banished poets from his philosopher’s ideal state. There followed a long tradition of tension between a philosopher’s more rigorous and rational pursuit of truth and a poet’s seemingly more intuitive, perhaps irrational utterance of deep truth. Since Kant’s provisional answer to Hume’s radical skepticism, however, there has been an important current in Western philosophy that sees in poetry (and, more broadly, the arts) the possibility of accessing truths that philosophy cannot, in any traditional, rigorous manner, articulate. Baker is interested in how poetries and modern philosophies “often read like a multi-dimensional meditation on various forces or events irreducible to conventional models of representation.”
Baker’s broad, fast-moving treatise examines these “crossings” between poetry and philosophy, beginning with the sublime in Kant, Wordsworth, and the postmodern philosopher Lyotard. The “extravagant” as a term is related to our culture’s notion of the sublime: Baker speaks of the word’s root meaning as a wandering beyond, which can be seen alternately as a surpassing of conventional boundaries and as a longing, in having so crossed, to return. Baker moves on to consider Faustian themes in Rimbaud, Nietzsche, and Bataille, and what he terms “Apocalyptic Negativity,” the felt need of the artist not only to utterly transcend but even to destroy conventional literary and social constructs, in Kierkegaard, Dickinson, Mallarmé, and Derrida.
Baker sees the relation between modern poetry and philosophy taking place under the penumbra of the death of God and finds in such thinkers as Hegel, Wordsworth, and the romantics generally a tendency to retain the transcendent framework of traditional theologies, the “‘absolute’ order of truth and spirit,” while transcending or rejecting the concrete or historic manifestations of the tradition. With Nietzsche we find a movement forward, into the abyss left by the absence of God, rather than a more or less hidden nostalgia for a return to a time of metaphysical certainties. As Baker writes, “romantic and modern poetries are the preeminent force fields in which displaced religious dynamics have been explored in modern culture.”
Consuming Silences: How We Read Authors Who Don’t Publish, by Myles Weber. Georgia, April 2005. $49.95 cloth, $19.95 paper
Silence is fascinating. It is also something we little expect from those we call authors. Myles Weber wants to change all that. In this fresh and exciting study, he suggests just how compelling and informative authorial silences—those long, sometimes interminable gaps in a writer’s publishing history—can actually be. Consuming Silences is one of the most enjoyable critical books I have read in some time. It starts with what every book should, a seemingly absurd yet provocative proposition—not publishing as a career move—and then makes a compelling and, here’s the rub, clearly written argument. Refreshingly free of the jargon of literary criticism, Weber’s slim book is both theoretically savvy and delightfully accessible. Its five chapters turn on the tension between the author-legend (the idea of the author that emerges from the literary works) and the author-function (the author as configured by readers, reviewers, and promotional machinery), lucidly demonstrating the author as a multiply authored text. Chapters on Tillie Olson and Ralph Ellison offer the most dynamic readings of the static we misinterpret as silence. In that white noise, there are words being spoken; we need only listen a bit more closely. Postmodernism has done little to displace the impact of popular faith in literary genius. What is an author? Foucault’s famous question remains unanswered for good reason. Weber sheds a bright light on the Romantic ghosts that continue to haunt our contemporary sense of creativity, genius, ownership, and literature. Startling, challenging, and rewarding, Consuming Silences helps us rethink what we thought we knew about authors and literary consumers.
Faculty Towers: The Academic Novel and Its Discontents, by Elaine Showalter. Pennsylvania, February 2005. $24.95
Elaine Showalter delights in revealing that she has been portrayed in academic fiction twice: “once a voluptuous, promiscuous, drug-addicted bohemian, once a prudish, dumpy, judgmental frump. . . . I preferred being cast as the luscious Concord grape to my role as the withered prune.” Faculty Towers is her merry survey of academic fiction, or the Professorromane: the stories of faculty members that record their petty grudges, promotion anxieties, and ill-fated student crushes. Showalter begins with the novels of the 1950s (The Masters, Lucky Jim), which portray the Oxbridge college as a snug, self-satisfied haven for academics concerned with the power struggles that may corrupt their scholarly ideals. Later novels, such as The Odd Woman, Nice Work, and Straight Man, take a more cynical view of academic life: political correctness, tenure tragedies, and sexual harassment reduce academics to petty infighting and self-destruction. The generous plot summaries and laugh-out-loud quotations of the novels’ witticisms, alongside Showalter’s sly anecdotes, make for a read as thoroughly enjoyable as the novels themselves.
—Robin E. Field
The Perversity of Poetry: Romantic Ideology and the Popular Male Poet of Genius, by Dino Franco Felluga. SUNY, January 2005. $65
Dino Felluga works up a complex mixture of theory and history to explore the writing and reception of Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron, far and away the two most popular poets of the Romantic period. The Perversity of Poetry examines how both poets employed the genre of romance to opposite political ends, but the bulk of its energy is devoted to analyzing their reception history from the time they published to the mid-19th century. The book makes the argument that the marginalization of poetry allowed critics to portray the genre as either an illness (both for the poet and for society at large) or a panacea.
Felluga brings an array of sophisticated theoretical tools drawn from Marxist and psychoanalytic traditions to bear on the discourse surrounding Byron and Scott. These he employs lucidly and, by and large, convincingly to tease out the social and psychological structures at play and the cultural and political work done around the poetry. Occasionally the weight of so much theory threatens to mystify what it seeks to illuminate, as when Byron’s “spirit of liberty” becomes in Felluga’s hands a “hauntology of the self.” But no one can accuse the book of being insufficiently grounded in history; the overwhelming amount of evidence introduced for every point it makes is a welcome change from flights of new historical fancy that draw on only one example.
The strongest aspect of the book is its carefully crafted structure, roughly chronological, that successfully carries a number of interrelated arguments from beginning to end. It starts with a chapter on the medical discourse surrounding the man of genius; the second chapter discusses Scott’s recuperative romance as a cultural “fetish” that cheerfully acknowledges the emptiness of the ideology it nonetheless calls upon. This chapter also imbricates an argument about the technology of the book that requires a detour into marketing practices and publishing history. In the third chapter, the technology of the book reappears within a larger argument about Byron’s melancholic use of romance to critique the present. The book ends first by returning to the medical discourse introduced in the first chapter, here extended into the Victorian period, then by briefly treating Tennyson’s Idylls of the King as a revealing attempt to fulfill the contradictory critical demands for romantic poetry.
No Country for Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy. Knopf, July 2005. $24.95
When Ancient American History is taught in the Classics Departments of the future (a blip in the rear view of bigger and better empires), will Cormac McCarthy be read at all? Why not? If any writer knew that the end was inevitable, it was Cormac. Since Blood Meridian (but before then, too), McCarthy has been the Bard of the Great American Decline. A pact made with the devil at conception—a contract that will drip blood long after the devil’s gotten bored of us. A nation born into its own hell. Time spent with McCarthy has taken us through our own dark history: the genocide of the indigenous American peoples, the loss of the open range, the development of atomic energy—through the division of atoms, particles built so small only God could have made them, but that America was the first to undo. We are a country that has repeatedly failed to live up to its own expectations while somehow at the same time contributing to newer and bigger horrors. It’s only a matter of time before we do ourselves in. And then who’ll feel sorry for us? Not Cormac.
In No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy follows the bodies through Vietnam and into the ’80s (or early ’90s—it’s never really clear), where drug cartels grow fat on our sin and pick their teeth with our pride (read: morals). Once again, an everyman is caught in the riptide of history and placed before the muscle/the muse/the WD-40 of corruption. This man, Llewelyn Moss, is a retired vet who finds a bag of cash amid the ruins of a busted drug deal. The man holding the rifle (there are a lot of guns to be found here) and coldly deciphering destinies with a clear-eyed understanding of the place where all paths end (relatively speaking) despite the best efforts of (we hope) decent people, is Anton Chigurh (pronounced like “sugar,” which displays a similarity to—you guessed it), himself a Vietnam vet but of a different kind. The fact that both men spent time overseas in Indochina spreading the American dream (the American way: i.e., killing—one better at it than the other) is significant. While Moss and Chigurh were away, their generation, decadent and self-important, indulged, and in the process, somehow drugs became “cool.” The devil sold us on the idea that drugs made us “free” and “freed our minds” or made love “free.” Not an apple, exactly . . . but close. The popularization of drugs paves the way for South American Pure, which dissolves, like acid, our borders (a constant theme in McCarthy) and seeps into the veins of our youth. Both men return to a different country. Although living in a trailer with his wife (the way most good people in McCarthy books do: somewhere just above the poverty line but not starving), Moss holds to the old beliefs, having processed the experience of Vietnam well. Chigurh, like Judge Holden of Blood Meridian (only more somber, more composed—maybe even more corporate?), returns and sees the evil to be done, and if not evil, then a good bit of corruption. But what is evil if not another outlet for good deeds? Here, evil is more pure than good intentions (echoes of Eliot). It was the Bible’s first story that laid the groundwork for Western thought (although it could be argued that the first story of any religion begins with balance, what something is and what something isn’t): the notion of knowledge and power and right and wrong—but in the end what does it matter, since the big guy himself gave up and left us to our own devices (and this was early in the game). Between these two men is an old sheriff, a man older than both who is more familiar with the country before Vietnam and before drugs, who finds himself trying to stay between these two lost boys in the hope that success in this will somehow redeem his faith in “this country.” But he is old. And if you thought it would work out, you didn’t read the title. It’s not a plot spoiler to reveal that things don’t go exactly as planned—for any of the men (even Chigurh receives some comeuppance in the end, satisfying for those of us who stood horrified as Judge Holden danced merrily into the night). What is more surprising about McCarthy’s book is his prose—this drastic change in style, bone-white in its efficiency, bleached by the sun until all that’s left is simple sentences and descriptions (nouns and verbs) and dialogue written as if Raymond Chandler landed in Texas and were made deputy. The surprises come from what is not on the page, regarding both words (art) and actions (plot—several significant scenes and major deaths happen off-page). It is the sheriff who is left to remind us that life in “this country” is about “defeat. It was being beaten. More bitter to him than death.” His revelation: “You need to get over that.” And there’s the rub. It’s what makes living during the American age of history so hard. Because, after all, the morality of this country has long been nurtured by corruption and greed and destruction, the inevitable end result is no more likely to change than Chigurh’s coin is likely to land on heads.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See. Random House, July 2005. $21.95
Written with the delicate precision of an ivory quill on rice paper, Lisa See’s latest work, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, chronicles the friendship of two women physically and emotionally bound to Chinese tradition and to each other. Contracted at seven years of age to be lifelong confidantes, or laotongs, Lily and Snow Flower endure the excruciating pain of footbinding and awkward passage into adulthood together, etching their discoveries and disappointments onto the grainy surface of a fan in the secret women’s language of nu shu. Destined, because of their sex, for lives of sacrifice and seclusion, nu shu gives flight to Lily and Snow Flower’s most private desires and imaginings: “With her bold act, I realized the true purpose of our secret writing. It was not to compose girlish notes to each other or even to introduce us to the women in our husbands’ families. It was to give us a voice. Our nu shu was a means for our bound feet to carry us to each other, for our thoughts to fly across the fields as Snow Flower had written. The men in our households never expected us to have anything important to say.” But it’s a secret untranslatable in nu shu that threatens to tear their relationship apart at the seams. See, in exquisitely drawn language, embroiders a love story that is as layered and textured as the bridal clothes Lily and Snow Flower sew to mark their departure from their “natal families” and entry into the mysterious world of marriage, where they have one purpose and expectation: to bear sons. Like the fan on which Lily and Snow Flower catalogue their loves and losses, this novel touchingly and permanently leaves its imprint with the reader long after the last page has been read. —Tiffany N. Gilbert
The Company Car, by C. J. Hribal. Random House, May 2005. $24.95
This rewarding story of a 1950s Catholic family caught up in the desperation of a Chicago suburb and the isolation of a Wisconsin farm captures just the right balance of harmless naïveté and anxious provincialism. Hribal’s effective and unpretentious prose will resonate with anyone born or raised in the Midwest. His self-centered, quasi-alcoholic Wally Czabek is an instant classic: a chemical salesman who exterminates rodents with fire, marries his wife on a game show, critiques life with clichés, and spends more time at the bar than with his family. Wally’s wife, Susan Marie, is likewise compelling by virtue of her ordinariness; like any other 1950s housewife, she suffers her husband’s schemes and her enduring lonesomeness with both good humor and bitter tears. By turns beguiling and repellent, this is a story a midwesterner has to read in small doses. Commenting on the loneliness of marriage, on the cruelty of siblings, on the lunacy of large, bored families, Hribal’s prose often reads more like a devastating case study than a lighthearted summer novel.
A Perfect Stranger, by Roxana Robinson. Random House, April 2005. $23.95
Here is a remarkably thoughtful collection of short stories that touch, however subtly, on the modern feminine experience in America. These thirteen narratives—concise, fluid, and stimulating—are each graced with a compassion and vision that jar notably with the frenzied, cynical tone of many other recent volumes. It is this quiet empathy that unites the otherwise distinct offerings in this collection. In “The Football Game,” Robinson depicts the angst and excitement of a sheltered young girl’s first real transgression; in “At the Beach,” she captures quite profoundly the visceral fear of a parent who’s lost her child in a crowd; in “Assez,” she writes of a woman who comes to grips with her disintegrating marriage while on vacation in the south of France. These stories are not always pleasant, but they are consistently enjoyable. The writing is confident, and the message is hopeful.
Collected Stories, by Carol Shields. Fourth Estate, February 2005. $29.95
This satisfying volume gathers together fifty-six short stories by the Pulitzer Prize–winning writer Carol Shields (1935–2003). In addition to reprinting the contents of her three published story collections—Various Miracles, The Orange Fish, and Dressing Up for the Carnival—the book offers a graceful introduction by Margaret Atwood and one “new” story by Shields, the last she wrote, called “Segue.” (Atwood’s essay and the story “Segue” appeared in the Winter 2005 issue of VQR.) Readers already familiar with Shields will relish this leisurely tour of her short fiction, in which small moments of ordinary life open into revelations. Newcomers to Shields will discover a rich trove of quirky, honest, surprisingly hopeful stories about being human.
Tropical Fish: Stories out of Entebbe, by Doreen Baingana. Massachusetts, February 2005. $24.95
In the visually and emotionally rich Tropical Fish: Stories out of Entebbe, Baingana traces the lives of three Ugandan sisters from preadolescence to adulthood, following them as they shift social classes, fall in and out of love, and cross oceans during the course of their lives. Tropical Fish is composed of a series of linked short stories, providing intimate, narrow glimpses of each sister’s life that ultimately roll into a sweeping narrative culminating in the return to Uganda of the youngest sister, Christine, after years in America in the satisfying “Questions of Home,” a story rendered infinitely more complex with the previous seven stories present in its subtext. Baingana deftly describes both the physical landscape and her characters’ emotional terrain. Her narrative voice is strong, endowing the smallest situations with remarkable power. Although this first-time author sometimes flounders, especially in her excessive use of similes and metaphors, Baingana’s lush language and compelling stories manage to find their way around the occasional misstep, resulting in an entertaining and fulfilling work that brings a faraway world intimately close as the sisters pass through the familiar stages of growing up and finding home.
Italian Tales: An Anthology of Contemporary Italian Fiction, edited by Massimo Riva. Yale, February 2005. $30
A first thing to note about this accessible anthology of translations gathered and edited by Massimo Riva is that it has been put together according to the guiding principle of “enduring value” rather than the one of “novelty.” As a consequence, its reader should not expect to find the most recent, fashionable, and often ephemeral products of the Italian cultural industry within its pages but, rather, the voices of some of the most established and seasoned writers of Italian literature over the past three decades. Even though we are dealing with modern rather than strictly contemporary “tales,” this volume succeeds nevertheless in updating a literary vision of Italy that is still too frequently associated in the English-speaking world with just a few icons of the past (such as Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio) or of the (more or less recent) present, like Calvino and Eco. The eighteen selected pieces, each by a different author, that constitute this anthology were originally published in Italian between 1975 and 2001 and are thematically grouped into four sections (“Ruins with a View,” “Memory Lanes,” “Vanishing Points,” “Views from Afar”). Each of them is preceded by a brief introductory note by the editor, as well as a biographical sketch and a bibliography of the writer in question. What ultimately unites such diverse narrative styles and perspectives, this “cacophony of voices,” is a peculiarly “Italian” way of considering writing as a unique paradoxical “home”: a compass that may help us locate ourselves in a cultural and existential condition dominated by increasing feelings of displacement and disorientation.
180 More: Extraordinary Poems for Every Day, edited by Billy Collins. Random House, April 2005. $14.95
This collection, selected and introduced by former Poet Laureate of the United States Billy Collins, brims with wit, honesty, insight, and intelligence. It follows Collins’s 2003 collection Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry, itself a print successor to the surprisingly popular Poetry 180 website, aimed at high school audiences and launched by Collins and the Library of Congress in 2002. That website, which features one poem for every day of the school year, continues to average over one million hits per month. After reading through this equally outstanding collection of poems, it’s not hard to see why.
Collins is up to something much bigger than merely anthologizing good poems. He’s striving to return poetry to ordinary people’s lives, and part of that effort is introducing them to poets whose work is “accessible.” As he argues in this volume’s introductory essay, “accessible” does not necessarily mean “readily understood.” Collins uses the term to describe poetry that is “easy to enter,” that welcomes readers rather than stiff-arming them with purposeful obscurity. He suggests that poetry should challenge and transport readers, but that in order to do so a poem must first engage them: “If a poem has no clear starting place, how can it go anywhere? If a poem does not begin in lucidity, how can it advance into the mysterious?”
It is precisely this combination of clarity and mystery, observation and imagination, seriousness and playfulness, that makes the poems in this collection so consistently delightful. They range from “Why It Often Rains in the Movies” to the inventive, vicariously satisfying “Hate Poem” to F. J. Bergmann’s hilarious apology to William Carlos Williams for “smashing your red wheelbarrow . . . [also] the white chickens” in his plum-colored SUV. Jason Bredle perfectly describes a social outcast who thinks he’s a swinger in “Girls, Look Out for Todd Bernstein,” and Mark Halliday catches the rough vigor of everyday speech in “Dorie Off to Atlanta.” One could go on like this for quite some time. Thanks to the hospitality of Billy Collins and his collaborators, there are many poems here to enter and enjoy.
School of the Arts, by Mark Doty. HarperCollins, April 2005. $22.95
Doty’s seventh collection grounds subtle meditations on time and death in the quotidian—humans and dogs, nightclubs and airplanes, a dismantled church spire, a cottage painting at a Cape Cod street fair. More haunted by time than death, Doty writes that we “live in the night of time, . . . the new scours singularity away.” When the author says he “hate[s] time,” the mediating voice of his partner responds, “how else would we gain souls.” The work achieves a layered and inhabited vision through its familiar characters; the dog who weaves throughout suggests a mythical “golden” companion—though we know “Arden” is real as he hobbles through old age, struggling towards the end of a walk in the collection’s closing poem. The voices convey a vision of time as “materiality, intersection / of solidity and flame / where quick and stillness meet / materiality the impenetrable thing.” Doty writes that materiality is untrustworthy, though it seems that time is the untrustworthy element in these poems. We find the sun “angling over the apartments to the west / so that light would bisect . . . / the grand houses that were suddenly not of the last century but of the century before.” This is one of many marvelous instances in the book where time is wielded as a penetrating tool, lifting and cleaving the layers that make up our daily lives. We find ourselves as readers standing in sudden, startled light where past, present, and future intersect.
—Sarah Estes Graham
Ledger, by Susan Wheeler. Iowa, April 2005. $14
A ledger keeps a record of what’s owed and what’s gained. In the first poem, Wheeler offers a generative moment, when “a dream began to grow in me. / Or despair, and so I chose the dream,” and after waking, “beside me, pinned to a green leaf, / in plastic and a neat hand, a full account. I had indeed still / lived, and been woke for more.” “More,” indeed, is what these poems offer, with the sexual charge that does not satisfy: “This, a life / that’s woven wrong, and, woven once, disbraided, sits // like Halloween before a child, disguised in its red / Santa suit, making its lap loom the poppy field // Dorothy wants to bed. Can I have and the song’s begun.” The need to account is explored in urgent tropes of work, finance, and commercial exchange throughout the book. Her poems sizzle with all the stuff of the world that beguiles and betrays; she enlarges lyric possibility with her close observation of the ordinary, reveling in the texture of naming. While there’s a kind of security gained in identifying and accounting for all this materiality, despair is an undercurrent. Intercutting lists of “Tyvek Bruce Willis Buffalo Bertelsman Turtle Wax Tiger Balm” with fragments of the literary, historical, and personal eliminates hierarchy of value, commodifies the nonmaterial; even memory is artifactual. A master of the quick cuts and language play that are characteristic of the postmodern lyric, her lineation and sound patterning are at times traditional, containing the poem’s abundance. At other times stanzas, phrases, and words are strewn across the field of the page; narrative is suspended, punctured, blasted apart. It’s like looking through the window of a speeding train, yet “What is this but an arrangement of figures on an open field? But they overlap—and this is the heart . . . // the heart of the bind of the debtor: a debt becoming due.”
Bosh and Flapdoodle, by A. R. Ammons. Norton, March 2005. $22.95
A. R. Ammons died in February 2001 at the age of seventy-five, a member of the extraordinary generation of American poets born in the 1920s. Written during the end of 1996, this is Ammons’s twenty-fifth book of poems and his first posthumous one. Readers of this prolific writer’s earlier work will recognize both the form of Bosh and Flapdoodle, a seasonal series that begins in late October and follows the dwindling of fall into the winter solstice, and its format, the colon-soldered, unrhymed couplets used earlier in Garbage and Glare. They will also recognize the distinctly Ammonsian tones of voice, the witty mixing of triviality and sublimity, grittiness and elegance, Germanic concreteness and Latinate abstraction. This book, along with Glare, its immediate predecessor, firmly establishes Ammons as the preeminent American poet of getting old. American literary history includes few major poets who have stared so starkly and unswervingly at their own aging. Whitman has several underrated poems about old age, as does William Carlos Williams. Frost and Stevens have some as well. But no one has put his or her own aging on record as relentlessly as Ammons, and the results are not designed to soothe and mollify. Those who already love Ammons’s work will find here an irreverently loose, flattened “prosetry” (his coinage), which complements and in some ways completes earlier lyric compressions and intensities; those who come to this book unfamiliar with Ammons’s work should make sure to read some of his poems written before 1990 before they draw any large conclusions.
Refusing Heaven, by Jack Gilbert. Knopf, March 2005. $25
After winning the Yale Younger Poets prize in 1962 for Views of Jeopardy, Gilbert published only at great intervals: Monolithos in 1982, The Great Fires in 1994, and now Refusing Heaven. Though years have passed, Gilbert’s style has remained consistent. His poems are generally short and are built on a series of declarative sentences: “Our body is not good at memory, at keeping. / It is the spirit that holds on to our treasure.” The poems have the feeling of being pared of all that is superfluous: thought, language, and imagery. The opening lines from “The Other Perfection” are a good example: “Nothing here. Rock and fried earth. / Everything destroyed by the fierce light.” Gilbert is emotionally direct. He often writes about his relationships with his ex-wife Linda Gregg and his late wife Michiko Nogami and about the passage of time: “There is a vividness to eleven years of love / because it is over. A clarity of Greece now / because I live in Manhattan or New England.” To my mind there is no one quite like Jack Gilbert. Reading his poems, as I have with great pleasure for over twenty years, I feel the strong presence of a man who earns his poems through close observation and attention to his craft. The highest compliment that I can pay to Gilbert is to say that I have a poet friend who is terminally ill and on his deathbed he has returned most often to the poems of James Wright, Elizabeth Bishop—and Jack Gilbert.
Rope Bridge, by Nan Cohen. Cherry Grove Collections, March 2005. $17
Though this is her first book, Nan Cohen’s poems have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies and have won her various honors, including, most recently, a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award. In this collection, bridges serve as an organizing motif: in their different ways, these poems are about crossing from one stage or moment of a life to the next. Sometimes that process involves facing hard things—fear, death, and “that slow disaster, time”—but the poems approach such subjects with redeeming clarity. Throughout the book, Cohen combines humor with a sturdy grace. “Dr. Steiner” is surely the loveliest account of visiting an otolaryngologist you’ll ever come across. And here are a few lines from “Between Voyages”: “I love the unexpected alleys terminating in a brass memorial / to some poet or playwright, the shop windows full of — / live turtles once, / once a flock of gloves all hanging by their fingertips.” Through travel, through art, even on the freeway (“A sign is / a yellow diamond / a black deer leaps across / for the next 15 miles”), we learn a little more every day. The speaker of “A Northern Winter,” for instance, has seen the ominous tracks of the glacier. A gentle intelligence characterizes the book’s most satisfying moments. The title poem is a fine example: in “a classic experiment / on the attribution of a heightened state,” crossing a treacherous rope bridge makes a subject more likely to find the assistant who meets him on the other side “Very” attractive. “Who would say: it is fear that takes my breath . . . ?” Instead, “one by one, the men who crossed the bridge, / who did not fall, chose love for their reward, / saw it coming to meet them, smiling in welcome.”
Lost for Words: The Hidden History of the Oxford English Dictionary, by Lynda Mugglestone. Yale, May 2005. $30
The Oxford English Dictionary, known the world over as the OED, is now almost a kind of cultural archetype, signifying scholarly authority, breadth, and depth. In Lynda Mugglestone’s excellent history, we see the OED from the other side, as it were. Originally projected as a ten-year project, the first volume took nearly half a century to complete and, naturally, went way, way over budget as well. The Oxford Press trustees, or Delegates, who had approved and oversaw the production, were terribly concerned that the project of creating the definitive dictionary, a source of national interest and pride, would flounder under the weight of its own immensity. James Murray, the legendary chief editor, emerges in this story as the immovable object withstanding the force of constant pressure from the Delegates to speed up and trim down the process of creating the dictionary.
“I am doing what God fitted me for, & so made my duty,” Murray wrote to a friend, and so, while he noted he was “fully alive to the difficulties, financial and other, of the situation,” he would not deviate from his efforts “to realize, within the narrowest limits possible, the ideal of a dictionary on historical bases.” The importance of the word “historical” underlies one of the central issues of the dictionary project: the OED was not intended to dictate how words should be used, nor what words were properly a part of the language, but rather to be a comprehensive recording of every word that was in fact employed in the English language, without regard to the editors’ opinion of the word itself.
Mugglestone’s book opens with a fascinating narrative account of these early days, telling how people around England and around the world sent in slips of paper with word definitions, origins, and usages. The sheer physical task of dealing with the hundreds of thousands of slips of paper, and then shaping the results slowly into some sort of editable, and then printable, form, was nearly overwhelming. “Haunted by the sense of the ideal—and it’s elusiveness,” Murray and his staff could work upon an individual word for months. The Delegates urged that Murray stick with a 6-to-1 ratio of length in comparison with Webster’s famously comprehensive dictionary, which is to say that the OED would be six times as long, but finally, after a long-running argument, an 8-to-1 ratio was seen as possible only “with daily stringent application of the screw.”
The remaining chapters of Mugglestone’s book, rather than continuing the narrative, explore particular issues that arose in the creation of the OED. One controversy stemmed from what to do with scientific words, a subject of some importance, as the Victorian worldview was reeling from the impact of discoveries in biology and astronomy in particular. Were scientific terms real words of the living language or simply technical jargon coined by scientists for their particular uses? The inclusion of scientific words in the dictionary was seen as a kind of validation of the basic importance and cultural worth of science. Mugglestone concludes with a brief look at the electronic form of the OED, the OED Online. She notes how the questions and controversies of the early years have filtered down to the present day. The initial budget for the OED Online was £34 million, more than a hundred times the cost of the first edition. Words such as “girlpower” and, my personal favorite, Homer Simpson’s own “doh” (with the citation from the show being “‘Look out, you dern fool! You’re going to cut off your . . .’ ‘D’oh!!!’”) have entered the dictionary and it seems would have met with James Murray’s approval, as a pure lexicographer, because they are, after all, words that English speakers are known to have employed.
Olympic Wandering, by David Lundberg. Zante, July 2005. $19.95
David Lundberg describes Olympic Wandering as “time travel through Greece” and uses a concatenation of stories about Ulysses to explain Greek character, both ancient and modern. Lundberg chose Ulysses to illustrate the versatility and remarkable resilience of Greek character, because even though the Trojan War stories center on Helen and Achilles, the real hero was Ulysses. His brilliant abilities as a warrior, mediator, strategizer, and persuasive speaker and, above all, his dedication to his home and to his family form, to Lundberg, the Greek character. The fourteen short chapters of part one swing back and forth from past to present to future, recounting Agamemnon’s and Menelaus’s recruitment of Ulysses to participate in the Trojan War, Ulysses’ preparations to join the Greek forces, his excursion to Skyros to find Achilles, the war itself (which streaks by in six pages), and selected episodes describing his fabled return to Ithaca, which most readers know from Homer’s Odyssey. Part two (also fourteen short chapters) explores modern Greece and the personalities and temperaments of Greeks living in northern and central Greece, on the islands of the Saronic Gulf, and on Cephalonia, Lefkas, and Zakynthos, the islands that are home to Lund-berg’s wife’s family. It offers readers vivid descriptions of the country and a blitz history of Greece, from the Trojan Wars to independence. Lundberg believes that Greece stands alone in this technological age that has made the world small, and where global markets threaten to bring sameness to formerly distinctive cultures. The Greek character will not succumb to international homogenization, because it is stubbornly imprinted with the air, the land, the sea, and the sky; with the Greek language and culture; with fierce self-reliance; and with an age-old devotion to home and family. Olympic Wandering is memoir, history, travelogue, cultural commentary, and a tribute to family, friends, and strangers who live in a country that Lundberg loves.
—Joan B. Fry
Nerve Endings: The Discovery of the Synapse, by Richard Rapport, M.D. Norton, May 2005. $23.95
In Nerve Endings, neurosurgeon Richard Rapport delivers a brief yet enchanting account of Santiago Ramón y Cajal and Camillo Golgi, two scientific luminaries whose neuroanatomical studies at the turn of the last century helped establish both the neuron and the synapse as fundamental concepts necessary to understanding the structure and function of the nervous system. Although Cajal and Golgi were bitter scientific adversaries, together they shared the 1906 Nobel Prize