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Book Notes


ISSUE:  Fall 2008

History

Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution, by Ian Kershaw. Yale, June 2008. $35
Kershaw is best known for his work on Nazi Germany and his two-volume biography of Adolf Hitler. This volume collects a number of Kershaw’s essays from 1981 to 2006. Arranged into several topic groupings, including the role of Hitler in the Final Solution and the degree to which German popular opinion shaped Nazi policies and goals, the essays—to which Kershaw has made a few changes—provide a good historiographical overview of the last twenty-five years of scholarship on Nazi Germany. Some articles touch upon arguments that still provoke scholarly debate, while others are more products of their time, addressing issues that no longer interest scholars as much. Of note as well is Kershaw’s introduction, where he explains his motivation for writing some articles and identifies trends in the scholarly literature he was attempting to address or respond to when he wrote a particular piece. Although the lack of a bibliography detracts somewhat from its value, this collection brings together the engaging and penetrating work of a senior scholar in the field.
—Peter Luebke

Buried in the Bitter Waters: The Hidden History of Racial Cleansing in America, by Elliot Jaspin. Basic, May 2008. $26.95
Jaspin, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, has given us a riveting account of a dozen cases of racial expulsion in the United States. While most incidents occurred in the South, others took place in the Midwest—notably Missouri and Indiana—and predominantly in counties where few blacks had traditionally lived. The incidents explored here date from the end of Reconstruction until the 1920s. The details vary but the overall pattern is strikingly similar. A crime or alleged crime led not only to the punishment—frequently by lynching—of the accused but also to further reprisals against entire communities and, ultimately, to the forcible expulsion of all or at least the overwhelming majority of blacks. Thus, numerous counties that once held significant black populations became in subsequent decades almost exclusively white. It is indeed a “hidden history,” and Jaspin deserves our thanks for bringing it to light. This he did by combing meticulously through census statistics, contemporary newspaper accounts, and property deeds; in some cases he interviewed descendants of persons involved and the present-day residents of counties he studied. Jaspin logged many miles visiting these localities and familiarizing himself with them. It does not make for easy reading, but his impassioned exploration of the underbelly of the American past is even-handed nonetheless and provides an essential view of how history at the local level is often more gripping than the perspective from on high.
—Lou Tanner

The Return of History and the End of Dreams, by Robert Kagan. Knopf, April 2008. $19.95
Too many so-called realists of foreign policy tend to be chicken hawks in disguise, Cold War–pining neocons swaddled in Beltway think-tank safety and eternally frustrated by the vagaries of twenty-first-century realpolitik, which steadfastly refuses to conform to their World War II–tinted militarist fantasies. Robert Kagan is a different kind of realist, as he shows in this sober-minded and slim handbook for the new “new world order.” He takes a slap at the Fukuyama-inspired mentality that believes liberal democracy will rule the planet once globalization does away with all the tottering old autocracies. Crisply walking readers through a world in which liberal democracy is falling by the wayside in favor of old-fashioned conflicts for raw materials and status, Kagan effectively argues that the twenty-first century will come to most resemble the nineteenth. Continuing a thread from his 2007 book, Dangerous Nation, Kagan includes America in his list of powerful nations willing to disregard the “international order” so as to get what they want. “The great fallacy of our era,” he writes, “has been the belief that a liberal international order rests on the triumph of ideas and on the natural unfolding of human progress.” In this timely analysis, Kagan sounds less like the neocon he’s often ridiculed as being and more like evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, who fought the arrogant notion that evolution was a rational and linear march, with modern man as the only logical endpoint.
—Chris Barsanti

Three Days in the Shenandoah: Stonewall Jackson at Front Royal and Winchester, by Gary Ecelbarger. Oklahoma, April 2008. $29.95
In the spring of 1862, Confederate General Stonewall Jackson erupted into popular consciousness. While he had earned his sobriquet in 1861 on the battlefield of Manassas, he had spent most of his time since then in the Shenandoah Valley. As Union General George B. McClellan bore down on Richmond with a massive army, Confederate President Davis and his trusted military advisor General Robert E. Lee directed Jackson to engage in offensive operations in an attempt to prevent further Union troops from joining the army surrounding Richmond. Jackson succeeded brilliantly. Ecelbarger takes a close look at the crucial point of Jackson’s Valley Campaign—the battles that took place from May 23 through May 25, 1862. Over these three days, Jackson managed to instill fear into the highest levels of Union command, especially President Lincoln. In response to Jackson’s victories at Front Royal and Winchester, Lincoln sent troops earmarked for McClellan to the Shenandoah Valley, playing directly into Confederate strategy. This book reveals that, despite popular perception, Union General Nathaniel P. Banks put in a decent performance against Jackson, and that Jackson in fact blundered badly on numerous occasions during these three days. Ecelbarger synthesizes a variety of primary sources to create a fast-paced and clear narrative. Several more maps would have benefited the work, especially one that showed the major theaters of war in Virginia. Otherwise, his book provides cogent analysis of an important Civil War campaign.
—Peter Luebke

The Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power, by Gene Healey. Cato Institute, April 2008. $22.95
The main obstacles to George W. Bush’s rehabilitation as a historical figure will not be his liberal critics. Instead, the most potent opposition to improvements in Bush’s “legacy” will come from principled conservative thinkers—those who originally supported Bush as one of their own but later watched with mounting alarm as the war on terrorism was habitually used as a pretext for building a kingly presidency. Healey’s book both reaffirms the virtues of a presidency limited by constitutional checks and explains the history of departures from that American tradition. After all, Bush’s construction of a muscular wartime White House, as Healey thoroughly documents, was hardly unprecedented. But the most fundamental aim of this book is the reestablishment of the true conservative doctrine of limited executive power, which reclaims the political gospel from administration apostates who found the war on Bush’s watch a propitious moment to realign conservatism with unrestrained presidential power under the creed of the “unitary executive.” Not content to let the political wreckage that creed has wrought speak for itself, Healey claims that catastrophe is the inevitable result of investing too much trust and power in one person.
—R. L. Riley

April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Death and How It Changed America, by Michael Eric Dyson. Basic Civitas, March 2008. $24.95
Dyson, one of the most influential voices in sociopolitical commentary on issues of race and racism in America, is critically concerned with how Dr. King’s life has been remembered and the extent to which his moral vision has been upheld. On the fortieth anniversary of Dr. King’s death, Dyson calls attention to the structural and institutional forces that still hamper black Americans, as well as pointing to dynamic and incredible achievements. He attempts to measure black Americans’ distance from the Promised Land through statistics that paint a picture of concentrated poverty, unemployment, imprisonment, violent crime and mortality, and downward mobility. However, turning to the examples of Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and finally Barack Obama, Dyson shows how contemporary black Americans are paving the way to fulfilling Dr. King’s dreams and advancing into new and unexplored territory.
—Tristan S. Bridges

A History of Modern Israel, by Colin Shindler. Cambridge, March 2008. $23.99
One can imagine the anxieties of university press editors acquiring books about Israel, given the politicized pressures they are likely to come under. This volume, issued in the year of Israel’s sixtieth anniversary, is unlikely to attract controversy, partly because Shindler is judicious. For example, on the hot-button question of how the Palestinian refugee community came to be—did Israel’s founders expel hundreds of thousands of Palestinians as part of a vast ethnic cleansing strategy, or was it largely inadvertent rather than planned, or indeed were Arab leaders at fault, hoping to clear the field before making war?—Shindler gives each viewpoint a brief hearing. That said, more often than not Shindler will disappoint committed anti-Zionists and the sharpest critics of Israel. Consider his discussion of the frantic Palestinian-Israeli negotiating that took place under pressure from Bill Clinton at the end of his presidency. While Shindler mentions in a sentence that Israeli policies may have hardened Palestinian attitudes, his analysis makes the case that blame for the failure of the negotiations ultimately lies on the Palestinian side, especially with Yasir Arafat. But the book’s central disappointment is its disproportionate allocation of space. About half the book is devoted to events just since 2000; the period from 1947 to 1999 is crammed into the front. For example, the founding 1948 war receives a brief discussion of arms purchases and outcomes, with hardly any mention of actual military events, despite the fact that these dramatic months helped shape Israeli society and policy—and international perceptions of Israel—for decades afterward.
—Gerard Alexander

Fiction & Poetry

I See You Everywhere, by Julia Glass. Pantheon, October 2008. $24.95
In National Book Award–winner Julia Glass’s third novel, sisters Louisa and Clem Jardine take turns recounting their lives across twenty-five years. Cautious Harvard grad Louisa, an artist turned Manhattan arts editor, resents and envies her younger sister, a seemingly carefree wildlife biologist, an inadvertent man-eater, and their parents’ obvious favorite. Clem is too heedless to be blameless. The grudges and confidences, the triumphs and disappointments of these women map complex emotional terrain, and Glass’s gift for characterization fleshes her women to life. But much of the narrative tension derives simply from trying to piece together what has happened—whom Louisa married, how Clem’s last relationship ended—in the months or years that gape between chapters. As Clem hopscotches from job to job and man to man, she remains nearly as opaque to us as she does to her sister, but, in the way of prodigals, she charms and engages, while dutiful Louisa begins to curdle with age. Their lives, says Louisa, are “like a double helix, two souls coiling round a common axis, joined yet never touching.” Without a few messy intersections, shared DNA isn’t enough to imbue this meticulously crafted tale with the fierce investment of family feeling.
—Sarah L. Courteau

Fine Just the Way It Is: Wyoming Stories 3, by Annie Proulx. Scribner, September 2008. $25
In these wrenching stories, Annie Proulx proves her claim to the Cowboy State, whose hard land and hard lives she worked over in two previous collections. Seven tales of bad luck, fatal mistakes, and family betrayals, leavened with two humorous and much slighter pieces featuring the Devil himself, take in the arcs of lives cut short by death or dead ends. Among the characters Proulx observes with an eye that is neither sentimental nor judgmental are a nursing-home-bound ranch hand with an ugly family secret, a hiker who makes a rash decision after a romantic breakup, and a teenage pioneer couple struggling against circumstances so harsh that having each other turns out not to be enough. In the final and most affecting story, “Tits-up in a Ditch,” a young woman joins the army and goes to Iraq to support the child she conceived during a short-lived marriage—and then fate really begins to turn the screws. Elevating these tales above relentless tragedy are Proulx’s flint-hard prose and her visceral appreciation of the land and the people she describes. Her language accords her characters dignity even when their situations do not, as when a rainy day dawns for her geriatric cowhand: “Nothing in nature seemed more malign to Ray Forkenbrock than this invisible crawl of weather, the blunt-nosed cloud advancing under the lid of darkness.” Dead men tell no tales, but they don’t need to with Proulx around to take up the slack.
—Sarah L. Courteau

Dear American Airlines: A Novel, by Jonathan Miles. Houghton Mifflin, June 2008. $22
Nowadays everybody hates the airlines. This novel’s narrator, Benjamin R. Ford, stuck in Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, the armpit of American transportation, on the way to his daughter’s same-sex wedding, passes the time by writing the rant we all wish we had composed, telling off American Airlines, all airlines, and all airline terminals. But his raving keeps leaking out the side and turning on himself and his life as an alcoholic, slacker poet who is translating the third novel of Alojzy Wojtkiewicz, which is about a wounded Polish soldier lost in the Second World War. Bennie’s past involves accidental pregnancies, lunatic relatives (including the mother he lives with, who communicates by Post-it note), and lots of self-aware denial. By turns sophomoric, sexist, and politically incorrect, and always mordantly funny, the novel weaves together his disastrous life, his current mire, and scenes from the Polish novel, all in a dizzying mixture of past and present tense. (The embedded novel bits are fascinating enough to form the core of a separate book.) And suddenly, he’s writing at 35,000 feet, free at last. Perhaps the airlines should stock copies, lot of copies, to pass out to stuck passengers.
—Don Fry

Happy Trails to You, by Julie Hecht. Simon and Schuster, May 2008. $24
The unnamed, neurotic, vegan, baby-boomer narrator of Julie Hecht’s earlier stories returns in this latest collection to offer up more deadpan—and spot-on—commentary about modern society. “This was the time when any sense of human dignity disappeared,” Hecht’s narrator observes while watching the marathon television coverage of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. “I saw an esteemed professor of law use the word ‘slobber.’ I couldn’t believe the word. ‘Saliva,’ he said, then he said, ‘slobber,’ then, ‘from kissing.’ That was the end.” We’re told that this woman, who spends a lot of time wandering around Nantucket, obsessing about Paul McCartney, bottled water, and homeopathic remedies, is a successful photographer, which seems believable enough, given her trenchant focus on small detail—she’s able to capture ironic moments wickedly and brilliantly through her own somewhat distorted lens. But even brilliant moments will only take you so far. Hecht’s relentlessly disaffected prose style can ultimately seem distancing. And, overall, her narrator remains willfully elusive—not just unnamed but unknowable. She may freely share her tics and neuroses, but only to deflect you from looking for other, deeper truths. In the end, it’s frustrating that this character is so talented at aiming her devastating lens but won’t risk exposing herself.
—Suzanne Freeman

The God of War, by Marisa Silver. Simon and Schuster, April 2008. $23
The Salton Sea, a saline lake once touted as a tourist destination for weary Los Angelinos, has shrunk over time, the mineral content of its waters becoming more and more poisonous for fish and the birds that feed there. Along the polluted banks of this lake Silver’s second novel takes place, and this setting is, perhaps, the book’s greatest strength, offering a bleak backdrop for the story of Ares, a twelve-year-old boy struggling with the twin burdens of poverty and responsibility. Ares lives with his mother and mentally handicapped brother, Malcolm, in a trailer near the Salton. He is the stable one, yet his desires and frustrations roil beneath the surface. Their mother is a free spirit whose fierce and loyal love for her sons is also somewhat careless in its unwillingness to admit the nature of Malcolm’s condition. Ares slowly buckles under the pressure of caring for a sibling who cannot show him affection in return. He seeks out a friendship with Kevin, the highly disturbed and dangerous foster son of the school librarian. This charged relationship finally brings the book to its climax of inevitable violence. The novel is strongest when it places its characters within their corroding surroundings and forces them to reckon with themselves or one another. When the story jumps ahead twenty-nine years in the last chapter, to show what time has done to Ares and his family, one can’t help but wonder if it would have been better to allow the characters to stay mired in time and uncomfortable place.
—Erin Brown

The Disagreement: A Novel, by Nick Taylor. Simon and Schuster, April 2008. $24.95
John Muro turns sixteen the day Virginia secedes from the Union. The war dashes his dream of studying medicine in Philadelphia, and instead he leaves Lynchburg for the University of Virginia. His education shifts from Dr. Cabell’s Anatomical Theatre to Charlottesville General Hospital, where the influx of wounded outstrips the rate of medicinal resupply. Meanwhile, Muro resolves disagreements with his family by turning his back on them. He saves and befriends a Yankee amputee, criticizes the morals of his roommate Braxton Baucom while benefiting from his largesse, and eventually marries Dr. Cabell’s niece, Lorrie Wigfall. An invitation to Philadelphia at the end of the war entwines these three new relationships and simultaneously threatens them all. Muro decides not to dissolve these unions when he realizes “the eternal moment” is gone, the moment “between youth and manhood, a divine interstice, where the benefits of both were present without the accompanying curses.” Taylor moves the story along in short chapters—which ring like brisk blows on an anvil—as he turns from one subplot to another.
—Mark Shively Meier

The Shadow of Sirius, by W. S. Merwin. Copper Canyon, September 2008. $22
The past is “a house long gone into air”; it is “the flutter of tires over a brick road.” In Merwin’s world, nothing persists but change, and this book is first of all about loss. But despite this fixation, he insists there is something eternal—even if it is only our persistent questioning of the world. It has always been “the same question,” the same “orbiting phrase” our parents asked “before us as we say it / in the language we speak now.” In other words, he writes, the rushing “river still seems not to move / as though it were the same river.” These quiet, unpunctuated poems become, at times, almost banal. “From what we cannot hold the stars are made,” Merwin writes. But the poems are saved by the precision of their observations about the impermanent world. He shows that beauty is constantly being created, even as it fades and dies. He remembers bats as a species that once sailed “out blind along their own echoes.” They sounded out the world with “high infallible cadenzas only / they could hear completely,” but which we still speak of now. Birds flew and go on flying, voices “glittering in their exalted tongue.”
—Honor Jones

Matter of Fact, by Eamon Grennan. Graywolf, June 2008. $15, paper
Framed by three epigraphs—from Celan, Stevens, and Milosz—Grennan’s newest book of poetry is brave, adventuresome, and maybe a little full of itself, but justly so. The poems here are smart, tight, surprising, with some of the most inventive syntax being written today. Each poem is full of the detail and clutter and fullness of a lived landscape, and the best poems in the book pulse with a cadence that seems inevitable or unequivocal: “one tawny leaf starched / to a spectre of itself on old snow, a late / beckoning.” There is nothing new in the subjects of Grennan’s poems: love, loss, landscape, homeland, weather as a foil for the interior world, and change. But over the years he has become harder and harder to quote in excerpts, because it is the musicality of his language that wields the poems into meaning. Grennan resists acknowledging a dichotomy between lyric and narrative, and instead creates lines that have at once a dozen ways of saying “green”—“mutton-fat jade,” “bleached artichoke,” “avocado,” “ashen gold”—and a dozen ways of repeating a particular emotional tenor—”taking a last look / / at the solid stuff they’re leaving,” “If we could feel in the day by day / the way things are,” “Although things vanish,” and “The light dying and you look back at it.”
—Lilah Hegnauer

Literary Studies

House of Wits: An Intimate Portrait of the James Family, by Paul Fisher. Henry Holt, June 2008. $35
Fisher’s biography provides a detailed account not only of the lives of Henry and William James but also of the other influential members of the family. Fisher consolidates several biographies by intertwining the lives of the overbearing Henry Sr., his economical wife, Mary, and their five children: Henry, William, Alice, Wilkie, and Bob. The narrative emphasizes the senior James’s influences on his children, who would inherit his hypochondriacal tendencies, his dependence upon frequent travel to escape difficulty, and his obsession with fame. Vivid depictions of the changing landscape reanimate a culture moving toward the twentieth century. This descriptive background of the tumultuous period provides insight on the family’s struggles, including Alice’s suffering under gender conventions, Henry’s sexual confusion, and the financial devastation Wilkie and Bob suffered as a result of the unstable American economy. Fisher clarifies where his interpretations differ from other biographers’. He also glosses the literary discourses on Henry’s literature and discovers influences from his family other biographies have overlooked. This thorough analysis contributes significantly to the scholarship on each member of the James family and provides a biography that is both extraordinarily comprehensive and entertaining.
—Josh Konkol

The Library at Night, by Alberto Manguel. Yale, April 2008. $27.50
Every decade or so, somebody publishes a general history of books, reading, or libraries. The process tends toward incest, since most merely pillage their predecessors. But Manguel, arguably the best popular writer on books, has a new take on the library, mostly his own. He studies what libraries mean and have meant, organized around two images: “the vertical ambition of Babel with the horizontal greed of Alexandria.” He details many handy ways hoards are stored and displayed. And he pays attention to the dark side as well: “To hold and transmit memory, to learn through the experience of others, to share knowledge of the world and of ourselves, are some of the powers (and dangers) that books confer upon us, and the reasons why we both treasure and fear them.” Those plural pronouns, us and we, refer to the whole human race, not just book nuts. In short, this rich volume brims with astute poetic observations unburdened by theory; it offers unfamiliar anecdotes as well, the best about a rural lending-library system in Colombia based on delivery by donkey, called “Biblioburro.”
—Don Fry

Why Poetry Matters, by Jay Parini. Yale, April 2008. $24
Even in literary circles, poetry is seen as the genre most removed from the quotidian. Contemplative, self-reflexive, indulgently literary, poetry seemingly wallows in the things that separate it from everyday experience. But Parini argues that this most insular of mistresses remains relevant in a culture increasingly antipathetic toward literature and the literary. Why Poetry Matters offers multiple arguments for the centrality of poetry to everyday life, among them its heightened sensitivity to the particularities of language, its mediation of the ways human beings understand the natural world, and the ways that poetry has always been involved, though at times obliquely, with the political. For anyone with an appreciation of poetry, or literature generally, Parini’s claims are convincing, but they do little to establish why poetry matters to our fundamental well-being in the ways that politics or nutrition or meteorology do. Those looking for a book to convince disinterested or dubious friends and family that, in fact, poetry does matter—must look elsewhere. But those seeking a reaffirmation of poetry’s merits will be rewarded by Parini’s book.
—Evan W. Rhodes

My Unwritten Books, by George Steiner. New Directions, January 2008. $23.95
Borges had his imaginary libraries, Stanislaw Lem wrote ironic reviews of imaginary volumes, but those works seem like children’s games next to My Unwritten Books, critic Steiner’s breast-baring, self-flagellating collection of essays about seven books he never wrote, most often because his nerve failed him. Many of the originating ideas for these undone works hardly seem dangerous—love for his dogs, the future of literacy, the interplay between sex and language, or the mystery of why an obscure fourteenth-century Italian poet was burned at the stake with all his books. But these themes are just flags of convenience under which Steiner launches his quicksilver curiosity. Weird and uncomfortable questions quickly begin detonating: Do the Jews (of which Steiner is one) constitute a race? Is the absence of God as powerful an idea as His presence? And why would Steiner confess under torture to save his dogs, but not to save his family? Steiner has read everything, and his familiar voice—dizzyingly allusive and immodestly pedantic (for example, “Not many today, I presume, read the works of Francesco degli Stabili”)— can be trying. But his metaphors are lapidary (the Jews are “this small, sharp-edged pebble in the shoes of mankind”), and his frank explorations of his own dark sides—his critic’s envy of genius, his sexual proclivities, and his distaste for the leveling aspects of democracy—can be bracing. In fact, each essay seems far more satisfying than the complete treatment would have been—we get the full flame of Steiner’s intelligence without being smothered by his erudition. From not being able to write certain books, Steiner has produced one that is often magisterial, sometimes embarrassing, and never less than fascinating.
—Robert Lalasz

General Nonfiction

Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, by Eric Alterman. Viking, March 2008. $24.95
In the ongoing debate between America’s liberals and conservatives, a recurring conservative charge is that modern (as opposed to classical) liberals do not depart from or visibly grapple with foundational ideas. For example, conservatives argue that modern liberals do not have a core canon of twentieth-century books from which they trace a substantial amount of their thinking, as conservatives have with books by Russell Kirk, Friedrich Hayek, Frank Meyer, and others. That charge needs to be addressed, and this book’s title suggested it was a candidate for the job. But Alterman, a longtime political columnist in the Nation, may be too engaged in the day-to-day fray for that. Readers can find here lively bite-size discussions of almost every issue in the headlines, from campaign finance to health care to media bias. Alterman spends a lot of time chasing down hypocrisies and weaknesses in conservative adversaries with whom he is in virtual debate. But that is part of the problem: he is at least as committed to the intellectual equivalent of negative ads as he is to making a positive case.
—Gerard Alexander

The Age of American Unreason, by Susan Jacoby. Pantheon, February 2008. $26
America is ill with “a powerful mutant strain of intertwined ignorance, anti-rationalism, and anti-intellectualism,” argues Jacoby with a studied fierceness that flirts with the polemic. Employing cool and mainstream academic discourse, without pandering or playing to the converted, she shows by example that the nation’s current intellectual well-being is woefully neglected and not likely to get better anytime soon. Following in the footsteps of Richard Hofstadter, Jacoby depicts a history of cyclical anti-intellectualism in America, from the damaging legacy of the South’s disregard for education to the baffling modern-day claims of rarified neocon intellectuals that they somehow speak for the common “folks” (a word that comes in for particular abuse here). Unapologetically fussy about the disappearance of what she terms “the culture of effort” and skeptical of the internet era’s snake-oil salesmen, this self-described “cultural conservationist” is also too much of a realist to do more than chart the decline of a nation whose middle class once eagerly strove to be cultured, and now wants only to be coddled.
—Chris Barsanti

Motoring: The Highway Experience in America, by John A. Jakle and Keith A. Sculle. Georgia, February 2008. $34.95
Jakle and Sculle have produced a readable history of the highway system and what it reveals about expectations of mobility. Americans have always been suspicious of toll roads, instead paying for improvements through somewhat hidden gas taxes. The authors argue that this suspicion occurred because the open, accessible road became tied to American ideals of freedom and equity. Likewise, clearly legible road signs, evenly paved roads, and standardized numbering of highways reinforced the idea that anyone could choose to visit any part of the country. At the same time, the car could maintain privacy within the public space. Hence the evolution of drive-through or drive-up businesses: restaurants, banks, movie theaters, and even churches. With vintage postcards and a wide array of sources, Motoring provides a fresh background to the unremarkable roads we so often travel.
—Demere G. Woolway

Sensing the Past: Seeing, Hearing, Smelling, Tasting, and Touching in History, by Mark M. Smith. California, February 2008. $55 cloth, $19.95 paper
At once a review of the growing literature on the history of the senses and a statement concerning the directions the author promotes, Smith’s brief is structured as a response to the dominant trope in this field, that of the “great divide” (as explicated by Marshall McLuhan and Walter Ong) between preliterate oral cultures and the culture of modernity, which relies on literacy, scientific observation, and, above all, the dominance of the sense of vision. While Smith recognizes the important contributions of McLuhan and Ong, he finds their models of sensory history simplistic. In the five chapters (one for each of the senses) that make up the body of the book, Smith shows that in the history of Western civilization the senses other than vision did not lose their importance after the rise of print culture; rather, their significance was redefined in relationship to vision. Thus, for example, if modern racial classifications seem at first glance to be visually organized systems based on color terms, in practice people often turn to other senses (smell, hearing) to assign the “correct” racial label in cases where the evidence from skin color is indeterminate. In each chapter, Smith efficiently reviews the often fascinating work on the senses, focusing on the West (from antiquity to the present) because that is where most of the scholarship is, but with some attention to the non-Western world as revealed, primarily, through the study of colonial encounters. Smith ends with a call for histories of the ways the senses are defined in relation to one another at specific places and times. Above all, Sensing the Past calls attention to the astounding variety of ways in which cultures can organize the senses to signify social and cosmological realities.
—Richard Handler

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