Skip to main content

Notes on Current Books, Autumn 1995


ISSUE:  Autumn 1995

Zaretsky’s local study of the people of the Gard is a valuable addition to a slowly growing body of work on the Vichy regime produced by North American scholars. Zaretsky innovates by studying opinion in a region of France with a long history of religious division between Catholics and Protestants. He views public reaction to the regime, in part, through the prism of religion by closely monitoring the religious press, official statements by the hierarchy of all churches, and available opinions of parishioners. His discussion of “collaboration” and “resistance” continues recent scholarly trends by adding greater nuance to our inherited understanding of these often overly simplified issues. He concludes that, despite acceptance of Protestants within the family of France by the National Revolution, Protestants reacted to the Vichy regime with greater reserve than Catholics. Catholics, too, eventually opposed the government after it started drafting its young men for forced labor in Germany.

Feminists, Islam, and Nation: Gender and the Making of Modern Egypt, by Margot Badran. Princeton $35

Badran’s study of the emergence of feminism in late 19th- and early 20th-century Egypt draws upon a wide variety of unused sources—memoirs, fiction, letters, and oral histories—to construct a fascinating portrait of how Egyptian women acquired agency. This work makes a significant contribution to the literature since it debunks two current myths—that Islam is somehow hostile to feminism and that feminism is strictly a Western invention. Badran’s work is essential reading for all interested in gender, history, and cross-cultural studies.

The Civil War in Popular Culture: A Reusable Past, by Jim Cullen. Smithsonian $29. 95

Skillfully written, well researched, brimming with valuable insights, Cullen examines the Civil War from several 20th-century perspectives. These include treatment of Lincoln by both historian and novelist, movies such as Gone with the Wind and Glory, battlefield reenactments, and rock’n’roll. The “rock” foray is probably the least successful, even Cullen conceding evidence is fragmentary at best. Throughout the journey he is caught up in the ongoing skirmish between academic historians and popular writers, each determined to present the 1860’s on their terms. Despite such differences, all of them apparently are certain American culture and character were defined forever by the Civil War. Nevertheless, even those who remain skeptical (probably a solid majority) can learn much from Cullen’s perception and wit.

The Origins of Middle-Class Culture, by John Smail. Cornell $39. 95

Following the trail blazed by E. P. Thompson into the history of class and class formation in England, John Smail’s book adds to our understanding of “class” in 18th-century England, and more specifically provides a well-crafted model of historical scholarship in support of the cultural theory of class formation. Using both Marxist and post-structuralist analysis, Smail convincingly argues that the century between the Restoration and the Industrial Revolution saw the emergence in Halifax, England of a new commercial class made up primarily of large-scale manufacturers and merchants, a new commercial and professional elite bound not only by common economic, but also social and political interests. Increasingly identifiable by a distinctive set of values, gender relations, and social practices, both public and private, Smail argues that by the mid-18th century this group of Halifax tradespeople began to feel and articulate their common identity against the interests of both workers and the idle rich, i. e., they fashioned a distinctive middle-class culture which became the point of reference for viewing their own community and the larger world around them.

German Nationalism and Religious Conflict: Culture, Ideology, Politics, 1870—1914, by Helmut Walser Smith. Princeton $39.50

For the many Germans who believed that German history was peculiarly Protestant and “that Roman Catholics somehow constituted inauthentic Germans,” national unity depended upon “breaking the power of Rome on German soil.” But “the central irony of Germany’s long history of religious division” was that the attempted national integration of Catholics only heightened confessional conflict. Smith’s provocative argument, therefore, is that nationalism divided, rather than unified, German society.

American Beginnings: Exploration, Culture, and Cartography in the Land of Norumbega, edited by Emerson Baker, et al. Nebraska $35

This collection of essays is drawn largely from a conference held in 1988 to celebrate the donation of the Lawrence Smith (of Philadelphia) and the Harold Osher collections of maps and globes to the University of Southern Maine. The subject is the European settlement of Norumbega, that part of eastern New England centered on the Penobscot river, and the theme is the myth and reality of the cartographical exploration and description of the New-World conquest. The contributions are of uneven quality, but those by David Quinn on early mapping, by Richard d’Abate on place-names, by John Reid on political definitions, and by Edwin Churchill and Emerson Baker on the development of Maine, in which maps are shown not only as invitations to further colonization, but as powerful instruments of cultural possession and political control, should be of particular interest to historians.

Lustmord: Sexual Murder in Weimar Germany, by Maria Tatar. Princeton $23

This book must have gone to press at about the same time the “trial of the century” was just beginning to take shape in Los Angeles—and what a coincidence! It’s a long way from L. A. to pre-Hitler Germany, but for some reason the carving up of women by deranged men varies only in the insignificant details. Professor Tatar discusses several famous serial murders in Germany and goes on to weave her story through the movies (Fritz Lang, Hitchcock, Brian De Palma) and modern German and American social mores. This is awful, grisly stuff, but the author keeps the material under tight control and tells a story we had probably best hear.

Excellent Cadavers: The Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic, by Alexander Stille. Pantheon $27.50

Organized crime of the sort J. Edgar Hoover used to say did not exist still exercises a powerful hold on at least three countries: Italy, Russia, and the United States. It brought the Italian Republic to its knees, as Alexander Stille relates in this magnificent study in investigative journalism, and what happened in Italy is just a foretaste of what is coming in Russia. Born out of the poverty and despair of Southern Italy and Sicily, the Mafia has its claws in most of Europe and North America and sinks them in deeper each day. This book should be must reading for citizens concerned about the very life of the republic.

Counter-Revolution: The Second Civil War and Its Origins, 1646—1648, by Robert Ashton. Yale $45

Ashton’s work attempts to focus on the royalist, conservative adherents of the king and their ability to pick up arms anew in 1648. While right to focus on the royalist cause, Ashton spends far too much time on detail, virtually swamping his reader with information. This excess points up the real problem with this work: it has no clear thesis. If the author seeks to portray the king as politically maladroit, he is not saying anything new; if he seeks to bring in the issue of the conflicts of three kingdoms, then one might more profitably read Conrad Russell. The lack of concentration or an organized, logical selection and presentation of data render this book nearly unusable. The royalists deserve better.

Turning Points in Modern Times: Essays on German and European History, by Karl Dietrich Bracher. Harvard $49. 95

Bracher, one of the preeminent German historians of this generation, continues his work of joining together the best in historical research with the analytical tools of political science in this volume of essays. Long concerned with totalitarianism of both the left and right, Bracher warns that the temptation of surrendering human rights to ideologies promising progress to some state of human perfection continues to threaten human society, even after the demise of both Nazi and Soviet Communist totalitarianism. Even democratic states, given the loss of individual identity in the mass societies of our post-modern world, can fall prey to this alluring, if false, hope for the creation of a perfect society. Bracher rightly warns that driven by such ideologies, humans permit themselves any fashion of barbaric behavior necessary to the attaining of such goals.

The Abolitionists & the South, by Stanley Harrold. Kentucky $29.95

Although this title is carefully constructed and accurate, what follows really concerns the border South and efforts to weaken or eradicate slavery in that region. Copious footnotes and bibliography (about one-fourth of the book) reinforce a tale reminiscent of the civil rights struggle of more recent decades. Both very complex movements drew support from religious and political bodies and faced internal disagreements concerning goals and methods, as well as strains of inherent racism. Harrold has done an excellent job of inter-weaving recent research and scholarship into his tale.

Landscape and Memory, by Simon Schama. Knopf $40

So vast is the undertaking, so broad the canvas, so great the clusters of words and images, so rapid the shifts from scene to scene, so many the characters who appear in the story, so impressionistic and personal the style, that the reader may very well give up the attempt to set the events cited in a useful historical context. Yet as a provocative and erudite commentary on different ways men have of looking at the natural world, and on the transformation of the landscape in the human imagination, there is much to be learned, and many lucious fruits to be gathered from Schama’s tree.

Industrializing America: The Nineteenth Century, by Walter Licht. Johns Hopkins $38. 95 cloth, $13.95 paper

Professors seeking a solid survey of the 19th-century American economy for their U. S. History survey courses should place this book on their textbook order forms without hesitation. Although Licht’s brief work crosses the usual survey course boundary of the Civil War and Reconstruction, no other recent book provides such an intelligent synthesis of the best research from historians of commerce, industry, and labor, and does so in a manner comprehensible to intelligent college students. Licht’s treatment of politics is relatively weak and the tariff issue in particular is slighted, but his conclusions about American industrialization are level-headed and mercifully free of economic jargon and theoretical cant. Historians who do not specialize in economic history may draw as much from this book as will their students.

New South-New Law, by Harold D. Woodman. Louisiana $19.95

Woodman, among the most distinguished historians of the South, delivered die Walter Lynwood Fleming Lectures at Louisiana State University in 1990. His chosen topic was the legal foundations of credit and labor relations in Southern agriculture after the Civil War. The centrality of sharecropping and crop liens to the post-bellum South is well recognized; Wood-man shows us how these systems evolved from the ruins of slavery.

LITERARY STUDIES“The Changing Same”: Black Women’s Literature,Criticism, and Theory, by Deborah E. McDowell. Indiana $12.95

Not simply a collection of essays from one of America’s foremost critics of African-American literature, “The Changing Same” is also a remarkably courageous book, in which Deborah McDowell returns to her own earlier work with a critical eye, reexamining her assumptions and reinterpreting the subjects of her scholarship in light of current developments in African-American and feminist theory. The essays themselves examine defining moments of African-American women’s fiction and its reception: the “Women’s Era” of the 1890’s, the Harlem Renaissance, and the “New Black Renaissance” of the 1970’s and 80’s. But what makes the book unique is that McDowell has resisted the urge to rewrite these essays, choosing instead to “reopen discussion of particular issues” by providing interpolated commentary throughout the text—responses to the questions and criticism of others, as well as her own second thoughts about the topics at hand. “I want to suggest something of a round table,” McDowell writes in the preface, “moving from place to place, the mode of dialogue and discussion that surrounded the study of black women writers in the 1980s.” Both historically informed and theoretically ambitious, “The Changing Same” should take its place among the “must read” books on African-American women’s fiction.

In Search of the Classic: Reconsidering the Greco-Roman Tradition, Homer to Valery and Beyond, by Steven Shankman. Venn State $18.95

Shankman’s thesis is a bold one: a defense of a normative definition of the classic based on readings of individual literary texts. To justify this derivation of theory from practice, the author presents a loose and uneven concatenation of critical theory, intertextual analysis, and old fashioned close reading. Since he is a classicist by trade, it is not surprising that his chapters on Plato, Homer, and the history of pastoral are excellent and informative, while their counterparts on Defoe, Pope, Diderot and Valery seem light by comparison —an impression furthered by a very limited engagement of relevant criticism. That the author shows himself to be a sensitive and capable reader (especially of Greek and Roman literature) makes one regret all the more that this book’s search for the classic belongs primarily to its introduction and conclusion.

Purloined Letters: Originality and Repetition in American Literature, by Joseph N. Riddel. Louisiana $30

Edited by Mark Bauerlein, this scintillating collection of essays by the late Joseph Riddel is a fitting tribute to a fine and influential scholar. These essays were written over the course of 30 years (though three are published here for the first time) and represent Riddel’s view that the canon and its definers determine what comes to be called “American literature,” not the other way around. In these days of canon reformation, the idea may not seem particularly startling. The collection reminds us, however, that Riddel was among the first to approach American literature in this way, and his insights remain valuable and relevant to today’s scholarship. Rauerlein has ordered the essays in a logical and illuminating matter. The first explores how America’s first writers “invented” a new language for the New World, and others focus on the writings of such “standard” authors as Emerson, Melville, and Hawthorne.

The Image of Antiquity: Ancient Britain and the Romantic Imagination, by Sam Smiles. Yale $35

Modern archaeological studies have tended to show that popular conceptions about famous monuments of ancient Britain like Stonehenge are false. But that does not mean that these ideas, which can generally be traced back to the 18th century, did not have a powerful shaping influence on British culture. In this book, Smiles goes on an archaeological expedition of his own, digging into, not the British soil, but the British archive, and uncovering many unexpected treasures. He shows how antiquarians of the 18th and 19th centuries gradually constructed an image of the ancient British past, and how this image influenced artists and writers, especially among the Romantics, who in turn contributed to the shaping of Great Britain’s sense of its history. In the process, Smiles shows how many important cultural phenomena, which might at first seem unrelated, are in fact tied together by a common concern for ancient Britain: the Ossianic poems, Blake’s Jerusalem, John Martin’s paintings, even Bellini’s opera Norma. As befits a volume published by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, the book is well illustrated, though one might wish that some of the illustrations were in color.

Against the Grain: “The New Criterion” on Art and Intellect at the End of the Twentieth Century, edited by Hilton Kramer and Roger Kimball. Ivan R. Dee $35 cloth, $16.95 paper

The New Criterion has been one of the leading voices in the culture wars of the 1980’s and 1990’s, and this well-chosen collection of essays from its pages provides a representative sampling of the substantial contribution the journal has made to clarifying and illuminating contemporary debates concerning the arts and their place in modern society. The essays are by a wide variety of authors and cover a wide range of topics, from classical music to economics, from Willem de Kooning to Jean Baudrillard. Some of the essays betray their journalistic origins and may seem a bit dated by now, but on the whole it is remarkable how well they hold up, showing that thoughtful responses even to passing trends can be of lasting interest. It is fitting that the volume culminates in an essay by Harvard’s brilliant political theorist Harvey Mansfield, Jr. on “The Debate on the Constitution,” a review of a Library of America volume of writings concerning the ratification of the U. S. Constitution. This insightful essay is perhaps the best example of how discussing a timely subject can open up timeless vistas on a perennial problem.

Parables of Possibility, by Terence Martin. Columbia $27.50

Subtitled “The American Need for Beginnings,” Parables of Possibility examines canonical and popular texts that illuminate American culture’s unique fascination with beginnings. Martin begins his study with a carefully researched exploration of what he calls the process of “rhetorical negation”—how Americans define themselves and their country by what America does not have. He proceeds to trace the history of what seems almost a truism—that Americans are thrilled by clean slates and endless possibility. His detailed analysis of the significance of this phenomenon is important precisely because we have come to take it as an unexamined fact that America loves beginnings. While Martin’s interdisciplinary approach yields fruitful results, only those diligent enough to read the entire book will be able to truly appreciate them. Martin’s vague chapter titles make it nearly impossible to read just parts of his argument. This is particularly unfortunate since he tends to go on too long about some topics and texts that hold less interest for the reader than, say, his discussion of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’sHerland or Melville’s Moby Dick.

Resisting Representation, by Elaine Scarry. Oxford $15.95

This book of five essays both extends and modifies Scarry’s earlier work on the cultural significance of the body, its literary and philosophical representations. In readings of texts ranging from pain reliever ads to the writings of Hardy, of Beckett, of Thackeray, and of Boethius, Scarry traces the ways the body has been formed and deformed by the human imagination. Her readings together offer us new ways of thinking about bodily form and mentality. Always deeply learned and provocative, this book documents a history of the body where life and thought intersect. Scarry’s essays remind us that that intersection is forever complex, often turbulent.

Henry James and the Art of Nonfiction, by Tony Tanner. Georgia $22.50

Tony Tanner’s collection of essays on James’s nonfiction is based on a series of lectures he presented at the University of Georgia a few years ago. Tanner’s main goal is to demonstrate that just as James transformed the novel as a genre, so he left his mark on travel writing, literary criticism, and autobiography. As one of our most eloquent and brilliant students of English literature, Tanner is the ideal candidate to give this important part of James’s oeuvre its due. Tanner’s insights into the “art” of James’s literary criticism should encourage today’s literary critics to rethink the purposes and limitations of their craft.

Evolution and Literary Theory, by Joseph Carrol. Missouri $44.95

In this critique of poststructuralism, the author bases himself on the startling premise that literature is a biological phenomenon. Why? Because literature is a form of knowledge, and knowledge is biological. Poststructuralism separates literature from knowledge and other biological phenomena. In the process of presenting this very broad argument, the book integrates evolutionary theory with critical concepts from traditional literary theory, leading the author to provide illuminating readings of nearly two dozen philosophical and literary figures that include Coleridge, Trotsky, Freud, Conrad, and George Eliot.

William Faulkner: The Contemporary Reviews, edited by M. Thomas Inge. Cambridge $95

Hundreds of reviews of the work Faulkner published between 1924 and 1962 are reprinted in this latest volume in Cambridge University Press’s University Archives series. Faulkner’s readers tend to either love his work or hate it. As one reviewer noted, Faulkner is either “one of the most naturally gifted [or] the most disastrously undisciplined and . . .self-indulgent of American writers.” The critical tides have since turned unwaveringly in favor of Faulkner the genius. Nevertheless, Inge’s selection of contemporaneous reviews rightly includes many that question both Faulkner’s ability and his sanity. For the most part, M. Thomas Inge’s choices make sense, and his introduction is cogent and thorough. Inge writes that he chose not to include Robert Penn Warren’s seminal New Republic essay (1946) because it is anthologized elsewhere, but the omission is regrettable. The inclusion of Warren’s essay would help readers to understand the turning point in Faulkner criticism it helped to precipitate.

The Short Story: The Reality of Artifice, by Charles E. May. Twayne $23.95

Though intended for students, this manual has much to offer teachers and general readers of artistically ambitious brief fiction. The author of several highly regarded books on the genre, May succinctly and clearly summarizes the development of its theory and practice by reference to key Western texts, for some of which he provides thumbnail explications. The book comes complete with references to virtually all important secondary writings available in English, as well as an irreducible reading list of important examples, both canonical and emergent. While anyone may challenge this or that interpretation, judgment, omission, or inclusion, the volume is an excellent starting point for serious reading and reflection.

Manuscript, Print, and the English Renaissance Lyric, by Arthur F. Marotti. Cornell $19.95

Marotti’s work is an important one. It traces with impeccable scholarly accuracy and detail the transformative nature of the print medium, which plays a fundamental role in legitimatising verse as a literary genre. His comprehensive examination of the dissemination of Renaissance lyric poetry by way of the manuscript system, the textual properties of the manuscript, and its sociological function as a sexual and political document is lucid and meticulously documented. Such thoroughness sets the stage well for the second half of the book, which explains the informative and fascinating reasons for why the English lyric’s movement from manuscript to print was inevitable but slow.

The Poetics of Perspective, by James Elkins. Cornell $39.95

This magisterial study of the problem of perspective—for art historians, literary critics, psychologists, mathematicians—will unquestionably and indelibly mark the ways that we talk about pictorial representation. Elkins carefully traces the history of both the theory and the practice of perspective from the Renaissance to modernity. He examines such important figures as Alberti, Vasari, Dürer, Panofsky, Merleau-Ponty, and Lacan in order to show how perspective itself was transformed from an idea for the construction of pictures to an idea for the construction of the self, a metaphor, whether linguistic or epistemological, for subjectivity. Using the tools of interdisciplinary inquiry, Elkins’s book adroitly surveys a vast terrain of historical ideas.

The Origin of Satan, by Elaine Pagels. Random House $23

Like The Gnostic Gospels, The Origin of Satan offers an extraordinary reading of ancient controversies surrounding the Judeo-Christian religion. This time, Pagels’s exegesis of the gospel focuses on the problem of evil. Tracing the evolution of Satan from a diffuse evil force to the specific, personified enemy of God and humanity, Pagels concerns herself primarily with the social meaning of the devil. She has gathered an impressive array of primary sources to support her argument that just as early Christianity was shaped by the supposed “intimate enemies” of the new faith, so contemporary society continues to explain the power of evil, irrational forces by constructing an historically specific “other.” During the Cold War years, for example, what Reagan called the “Evil Empire” served as this other. Pagels presents her multifaceted, complex investigation of the conception and perception of evil throughout Western history in a way that speaks to both to the specialist and the common reader.

LIVES & LETTERSThomas Jefferson’s Travels in Europe, 1784—1789, by George Green Shackelford. Johns Hopkins $34.95

In this refined monograph George Shackelford focuses on Jefferson’s experience as a cultural tourist, and the effect of that experience on his aesthetic ideas; he purposefully ignores the impact of Jefferson’s European travels on his political and social ideas. In opposition to the well-worn thesis that Jefferson’s European experience only ratified and enriched long-formed standards of classical beauty, Shackelford argues that the experience broadened Jefferson’s cultural horizons and led him to reject ornate manifestations of classicism in favor of the simpler aesthetic of his mature years. This thesis is not quite as original as Shackelford contends, but he musters the evidence thoroughly and convincingly and presents it with a grace and organizational simplicity that does justice to the subject. The implications of this thesis for Jefferson’s political and social thought, and particularly for his (not obviously anticipated) emergence as a champion of democracy in the 1790’s, remain to be explored.

Oceans of Consolation: Personal Accounts of Migration to Australia, by David Fitzpatrick. Cornell $55

This volume provides a fascinating glimpse into the lives and attitudes of Irish migrants to the Seven Colonies of Australasia in the 19th century. Fitzpatrick presents a rich textured and nuanced reading of 111 letters between emigrants and “the old country,” telling us much not only about the aspirations of emigrants, their successes and disappointments, but also about the culture and style of the correspondence itself. A substantial contribution to both Irish and Australian history.

Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel: A Biography, by Judith Morgan and Neil Morgan. Random House $25

Who in the world pronounces “Seuss” as “Zoice”? Yet, that is the German pronunciation of Ted Geisel’s mother’s maiden name. He first used it when he was being disciplined for an escapade in college. Since he was forbidden to serve as editor of the newspaper, he signed his name as “Seuss.” He added the “Dr.” at a later date, explaining that it compensated for the doctorate he never won at Oxford. In 1927, while working for Judge, he expanded his name to “Dr. Theophrastus Seuss” for a recurring feature called “Boids and Beasties, a Department for Indefatigable Naturalists.” One is carried along in this biography by an inexhaustible supply of anecdotes and humor, describing the life and reflecting the thinking of this man who never grew old. His idiosyncratic thinking was the source of cartoons, illustrations, and ideas for books both for children and adults. Much is included of the business of publishing, marketing, and advertising. Ted Geisel was not one to knuckle under to editors but knew that there was a shrewd and best way to get ahead. Reading of his ability to keep in touch, however, with the “child within” renews the child in the reader. His refreshing view of the world is the main source of enjoyment in this marvelous biography.

From the Perspective of the Self: Montaigne’s Self-Portrait, by Craig Brush. Fordham $32.50

Though it makes unconvincing claims for originality, this study of the Essays is a useful rethinking and redocumentation of the French Renaissance author’s project as well as its execution. Montaigne sought primarily to represent his doubting mind as it examined its own changing textures, layers, and convolutions. Arguing that everyone contains the “complete form of the human condition,” Montaigne appears less narcissistic (and culture-bound) than he no doubt was. Nonetheless, argues Brush, his technique and style constitute a useful model of self-discovery and its literary expression.

The Life of Graham Greene. Vol.II:1939—1955, by Norman Sherry. Viking $34.95

Graham Greene lived out his days bound tightly by the tension that underlies Christianity, especially in its Roman Catholic form, and therein lay both the source of both his artistic genius and his never-ending emotional agony. In the second volume of his study of Greene’s life, Sherry tends to lose sight of this central truth about the writer, but nevertheless the creative forces that produced The Third Man, The Quiet American, and other inspired works receive some significant review, as does—perhaps excessively—Greene’s destructive relationship with Catherine Walston. This is not great literary biography but rather serviceable literary history.

The Papers of Jefferson DavisVol. 8: 1862, edited by Linda Laswell Crist et al. Louisiana $65

This most recent volume of the Davis Papers is really a descriptive catalogue rather than a documentary edition, and its usefulness for serious scholars of the Civil War is limited. The editors have collected about 4,200 Davis documents (discounting variants) from 1862, of which only 133 are printed in the present volume. Some 2, 000 others are abstracted. This would be an acceptable strategy for dealing with the overwhelming number of documents produced during 1862 if the published volumes of the Davis edition supported a definitive microfilm or CD-ROM edition that included all of the documents collected by the project, which they do not. The industry and scholarship of the editors is unimpeachable, but their edition seems hopelessly old-fashioned and its scope completely inadequate to the materials being presented.

Stalin’s Letters to Molotov, 1925—1936, edited by Lars T.Lih, Oleg V. Naumov, and Oleg V. Khlevniuk. Yale $25

Whatever the future may hold in China aside, the opening of some of the old Soviet archives is the mother of all scholarly lodes in this century, a “find” to rival Schliemann’s excavations and the finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls. In this first volume of Stalin’s letters we learn that what we always thought about the dictator was correct, squared; and the volume ends as the really big purges begin. The one-time seminary student emerges, Hitler-like, not merely as monster but also as actor: there is calculation behind every word he puts down on paper. Useful to specialists in Soviet history as this collection is, it holds still more value for the psychopathologist of the future.

Henry Clay Frick: The Gospel of Greed, by Samuel A. Schreiner, Jr. St. Martins $24.95

Frick was perhaps the capitalist par excellence of the Gilded Age. Born in humble beginnings, becoming a millionaire by the age of 30, joining in partnership with Carnegie in the greatest industrial empire of the time, Frick was clearly an extraordinarily gifted man. Yet he left the nation not only the magnificent art collection now housed at the Frick Museum, but also the bitter memories of the Homestead massacre, the most famous industrial confrontation of the 19th century, so brutal an episode that it may have lost the Republicans the election of 1892, while assuredly gaining Frick the undenying emnity of unionists and his senior partner. Frick provides a good mirror onto the complex world of the late 19th century, and Schreiner tells his story conscientiously and well.

Harry and Teddy, by Thomas Griffith. Random House $24

Henry R. Luce, co-founder of Time, Inc., and Theodore H. White, who made his name working for Luce in China, were the journalistic Mutt and Jeff of Sinology in more ways than one. Luce was born there of missionary parents and, although he never learned the language or really knew much about the country, believed it his divine mission to teach the West how to save China. White, a poor Jewish kid from Boston who became one of John K. Fairbank’s prize students at Harvard, went out to China a boy reporter and cut his reportorial teeth on Chiang Kai-shek’s perfidious manipulation of Luce and through him America. This insider account of the adventures of an odd couple is a treasure.

Dared and Done: The Marriage of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, by Julia Markus. Knopf $30

Markus has written a biography, not of Elizabeth Barrett alone, nor of Robert Browning, but of the relationship they created together. Her deft and absorbing account neglects neither their social and political milieu, nor their artistic enterprises, nor the emotional realities that shaped their lives together. In the process, Markus redresses the contemporary lack of attention to Elizabeth and her poetic achievements, rescuing, for example, the Sonnets from the Portuguese from their current greeting-card status. The book is exceptionally well plotted, reading at times like a novel rather than a historical work; the scholarly apparatus are present, but unobtrusive. Like the marriage itself, this book is a remarkable achievement.

Mid-Life: Notes From the Halfway Mark, by Elizabeth Kaye. Addison-Wesley $18

This is a book about mid-life by a woman who, as a one-time Hollywood journalist, has spent much of her time among worshippers of youth. Considering that, Kaye’s book is surprisingly reflective and introspective. Back in her native New York, she chronicles the considerable difficulty she had coming to terms with aging. Though still beautiful, she is a childless divorcee, and she writes with sensitivity about the sense of options closing around her. At the same time, options that she has always had—of attending glamorous Thanksgiving parties with the Hollywood elite, for example —come to seem meaningless and even depressing, but she does not know what to replace them with. Though cautiously optimistic at the end of the book, she has clearly encountered a “dark night of the soul” in entering her fifth decade, and she writes about the experience with honesty, sensitivity, and the sense of urgency which accompanies genuine suffering.

Conflicting Paths: Growing Up in America, by Harvey J. Graff. Harvard $39.95

Harvey Graff’s book provides the most thoroughly researched and comprehensive study of the history of American childhood there is. Graff draws upon more than 500 personal narratives, including memoirs, diaries, and letters to support his analysis of how childhood, adolescence, and the process of “growing up” have been understood from the 18th century to the present. He focuses on the social and historical changes that have shaped the American childhood but views this “big picture” from the standpoint of dozens of narratives detailing individual and familial childhood experiences. Graff’s last chapter offers a thoughtful and timely discussion of the social and individual ramifications of the “disappearance” of childhood in the late 20th century. The book would be an even more valuable document of American life if it included illustrations.

John Quincy Adams and the Public Virtues of Diplomacy, by Greg Russell. Missouri $42.50

Russell, a political scientist at Oklahoma, largely avoids the jargon and the oversimplified, mechanistic interpretations which so often weaken the efforts of members of his profession to write about the past. Russell quotes excessively from some writers without always establishing a connection to Adams, but he has made a valuable addition to the surprisingly skimpy literature on this remarkable man who, before his term as president, was the foremost American diplomat of his generation. Russell provides an insightful discussion of the philosophical, religious, and even literary foundations of Adams” views on international relations, and he argues convincingly that Adams” unique and astute combination of realism and moralism remain relevant today.

FICTIONWalking the Dog, by Bernard Maclaverty. Norton $20

The stories in this collection are quiet and generous and amazingly powerful in their intimacy. Maclaverty’s fiction draws out the magic hidden beneath the surface of simple lives with unexpected grace. A married couple visit the beach and without knowing they are looking for it, come to a sort of understanding. “The thought of leaving Jimmy came into her head but it seemed so impossibly difficult, not part of any reality. Nothing bad enough had happened—or good enough to force her to examine the possibility seriously . . . People stayed together because it was the best arrangement.” Maclaverty understands that real power lies in the threat of violence, not in the act of violence itself. As in “The Silent Retreat,” when a boy studying to be a priest is threatened at the point of a gun by a prison guard, the strength of the story lies elsewhere, somewhere behind the silence of the unused gun. In the magnificent title story a man is kidnapped by IRA hitmen while out walking his dog at night. The encounter is so brief that “He wouldn’t even have been missed yet” but that time is tight with terror. The emotion in these stories is earned. “The Wake House” carries the hush and pain of a funeral not in its sentiment but in its words. Maclaverty tells his stories with humor and understanding and with perfect control. Each line in this collection seems to have a thousand reasons for being there.

Burn, by John Lutz. Holt $22.50

This is the ninth in a series starring Florida private investigator Fred Carver. A woman accuses a successful businessman of stalking her, and Carver is hired by the man to establish his innocence. Is he innocent? Is the woman crazy? Is he providing himself with a pretext for a self-defense murder? Is she? Carver aims to find out and does, but not before there is plenty of menace and mayhem. Lutz’s story is well-plotted and moves right along, except for a subplot that features his black girlfriend Beth, but his portrait of Carver’s nemesis, Lt. McGregor is really over the top. And unlike more complex and satisfying mysteries, where moral quandries remain after the last page has been turned, Lutz resolves all problems in a single act of violence. Resolution rarely comes with the funeral pyre.

Interstate, by Stephen Dixon. Holt $25

Stephen Dixon is a gifted short story writer, an innovator and craftsman of the first rank. No other writer has done more to energize the form in decades. His stories derive their power from a dazzling sense of immediacy, a blitz of words that leave the reader breathless and that resonate long after the last page. His new novel, inter-state, raises interesting questions about how well his talent translates to a longer medium. It is full of the same jangling detail and appealingly awkward dialogue. Dixon begins with random violence, a father and his daughters are shot at on the interstate by a madman and one of the daughters is killed. “He screams in pain, glass in his head and a bullet through his hand, yells “Girls, you all right?” for there’s screaming from in back but only one of them, and his oldest daughter says “Daddy, Julie’s not moving, Daddy, she’s bleeding, Daddy, I don’t see her breathing, I think she’s dead.”” The scene glows but as the novel progresses, following the father’s obsession with finding the killers and then the father’s own death in a diner robbery and his living daughter’s reaction, the pacing and technique become serious issues. Reading interstate is something like watching a 24-hour fireworks display. The beauty of the showering sparks wears off after a while. It’s still present, just as it was in the first explosion or on the very first page, but the reader becomes numb to it. interstate is a grand, exhausting novel, amply exploring the depths of love and loss but its impact is diminished by the density of Dixon’s prose, a talent better suited to the short form. Dixon, however, deserves to be read. His stories are pure and perfect gems.

Art and Lies, by Jeanette Winterson. Knopf $22

Winterson’s autobiography Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit traces her interesting, idiosyncratic journey from a childhood spent with fundamentalist parents to the awakening of a secular self-concept as a lesbian, a self-concept which involved her in wrenching away from her parents’ moralism. In her latest novel, Art and Lies, she seems to have reverted to the preaching done by her parents, only with art and sexuality taking the place of religion. Oddly enough, the novel contains fewer and less interesting stories than the autobiography, and is, if anything, less concerned with scene, character, dialogue, and voice, and more concerned with a kind of didacticism, even moralism. The book is marred by preciosity, and the kind of self-consciousness that should probably characterize autobiography, but it seems that in every book Winterson has become less and less interested in telling stories and more interested in presenting herself almost melodramatically as literary artist and sexual being.

The Distinguished Guest, by Sue Miller. HarperCollins $24

Like her previous novel, For Love, The Distinguished Guest is an ambitious but ultimately disappointing exploration of middle-aged “yuppies” in the midst of a domestic crisis. The novel’s central characters are an architect and his French wife, a caterer whose domestic skills rival Martha Stewart’s. The couple must open their recently empty, House Beautiful-ready nest to the husband’s ailing mother, who is on a retirement home waiting list. No average old lady, Lily became famous when she was 72 after she published a memoir about her life with and divorce from a Civil Rights activist and minister. According to her son, however, she was a cold and inadequate mother, and he remains angry about it. A writer invites herself to the Maynard’s home so that she can conduct an extended interview with Lily. This tired plot device —a stranger reporting on the doings of the family-in-crisis—wears thin very quickly. In addition, the reader has difficulty sympathizing with these characters because they have no more depth than the characters in a “B” movie. Miller is at her best when she is describing how Lily’s mind deteriorates as her Parkinson’s disease worsens. The “quotations” from Lily’s memoir are also beautifully written.

The Matisse Stories, by A. S. Byatt. Random House $17

This charming small volume (41/2 × 7”) contains three stories by a Booker prize-winning author. Already a bestseller in England and Canada, it would make a perfect gift to a book-loving friend. The elegant illustrations for each story are line drawings by Matisse, and the paper cover shows three paintings in color, each of which figures in some way in a story. The stories tell of the situation and feelings of ordinary women, which suddenly explode in unexpected ways. The combination of well-written events with suggestions of art masterpieces is a stroke worthy of the praise this book has received.

The Only Thing To Fear, by David Poyer. Tom Doherty Assoc. $22.95

The previous novels of the author were good. This one is great. It will challenge your historical imagination to its psycho-logical depth in its audacious and intriguing plot. Suppose a high-ranking Soviet defector is deposited by a German U-boat on the shore of the Chesapeake Bay, to join a treacherous American traitor in April of 1945, in an assassination of F. D. R. who died of a “massive cerebral hemorrage” on April 12, 1945, as reported by the news media, without regaining consciousness. The Third Reich hoped that President Tru-man, fearing a Russian military victory would result in a world dominated by communism, would join the Germans with the Allies to prevent this unthinkable result.

Grave Music, by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles. Scribner’s $20

This, the fourth in the series involving Inspector Bill Slider, is a lightly textured and tightly written puzzler. Romantic angst rather than gritty realism is the hallmark of Ms. Harrod-Eagles” approach to the mystery, bringing her more in line with Marsh than McBain. But for devotees of the cozy, the Slider series makes for a good read.

The Good Negress, by A. J. Verdelle. Algonquin $19.95

A. J. Verdelle’s debut novel has received a good deal of lavish advance praise, and there can be no doubt that she deserves it. The Good Negress is an exceptionally well crafted, beautifully told story of a young black girl struggling to reconcile her rural Virginia roots and the urban ways she is reintroduced to when her mother reclaims her. In the early 1960’s, Denise brings with her to Detroit the housekeeping skills her Virginia grandmother has taught her and a country dialect a teacher instantly recognizes as a liability that must be eradicated and replaced with standard English. As Denise learns this “official” language and the mores that accompany it, the language in which her story is told changes. Verdelle deftly matches the book’s language with that of her growing protagonist. One of the best things about this remarkable novel is that it can be read and enjoyed on a variety of levels. The young may identify with the growing pains of the book’s adolescent heroine, academics may analyze its sophisticated representation of the ways in which language shapes reality, and all can sit back and be entertained by the story.

Harmony in Flesh and Black, by Nicholas Kilmer. Holt $21

“Art is violent,” says Fred Taylor, a Boston art consultant who is the hero of this new mystery series. And so it is when Fred is around. Who knew that the pursuit of beautiful paintings could lead to such murder and mayhem. A Vietnam veteran with a dark-tinged past, Fred is the business partner of a rich aesthete whose passion is art collecting. The discovery of a brilliant work of doubtful provenance in the hands of a down-and-out pornographer leads to a gathering of art professionals who flock round the painting like vultures about carrion. Kilmer has a bit of trouble making the plot go, and his characters need some shaping to sustain the reader’s interest. But when the talk turns to painting, there is real passion on the page.

A Clear Conscience, by Frances Fyfield. Pantheon $20

A Fyfield mystery proceeds by indirection and proves as bewilderingly complex as life itself. Fyfield’s heroine of several novels, Helen West, is a crown prosecutor in London with a small circle of friends, most of whom are occupied in some way with the law, either as lawyers, judges, or police. Just lately she has had an inordinate number of cases of domestic assault to prosecute. Thus the plight of battered women forms the context of the action, but not in any “movie of the week” kind of way. The treatment is subtle and nuanced; the characters are vividly drawn, and the whole more like a literate novel about murder than the “he said, she said” script-writer’s version of a story that passes for a mystery these days.

Impressions of Theophrastus Such, by George Eliot. Iowa $24.95

This is Eliot’s last novel, generally disregarded in recent years as an eccentric and precious trifle, and long out of print in this country. It is, in fact, a wonderfully inventive and witty book, a kind of monologic novel (Thomas Love Peacock in a drier vein and reduced to a single voice) that wryly satirizes the intellectual currents of the Victorian age, while adding a new inflection to Eliot’s meditations on many of her perennial concerns. The slim volume is padded out, one regrets to say, by one of those introductions at which the supernumeraries of English departments excel—tedious jargon, earnest moral bom-bast, a prose less aphoristic than sloganeering —and these pages can contribute to the reader’s appreciation only by being ignored. Still, it is cause to celebrate that this text has been rescued from its dungeon and set free again to breathe the open air.

Men In Black, by Scott Spencer. Knopf $23

Here is a writer’s nightmare. You’ve written two serious novels to critical acclaim but they haven’t made a dime. So you write how-to books and self-help books, and everything you despise, to support your family while you make time to write your “real” books. And then it happens. You hit mega-success with a book on UFOs that you wrote pseudonymously because you were ashamed to put your own name on it. Your publisher sends you on a book tour (after thinking about hiring an actor to stand in for you) to flog the book that is making you a wealthy man. This is the premise of Spencer’s comedy of manners, which is not only funny, but sprinkled with insight. The book is written with a kind of rueful gusto (how else to describe the feeling of achieving success for something un-deserved while watching the treasured bits of your personal life being scattered to the four winds).

NATIONAL &INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRSMiracle Under the Oaks: The Revival of Nature in America, by William K. Stevens. Pocket Books $22

If Gregg Easterbrook’s much-discussed book A Moment on the Earth: The Coming Age of Environmental Optimism provides a survey of good news about the global environment, then William K. Stevens’s Miracle Under the Oaks: The Revival of Nature in America offers a similar ecological hopefulness writ small. Along the north fork of the Chicago River, a resourceful group of volunteers has slowly been transforming a series of abandoned lots into the oak savannahs that once flourished in these places before the arrival of Europeans. By clearing brush, collecting native plant seeds from nearby lots, and staging controlled burns—all just half-an-hour from Chicago’s Loop—these amateur restorationists have succeeded in doing what many professional scientists thought un-likely, if not impossible: they have brought back a vanished ecosystem. At the center of this effort is Steve Packard, whose enterprising struggle to overcome the skeptical resistance to prairie restoration provides the driving energy behind Stevens’s narrative. Though not blindly optimistic, Stevens demonstrates just how much can be accomplished by a dedicated group of individuals bent on restoring nature to its precolonial state.

We Scholars: Changing the Culture of the University, by David Damrosch. Harvard $15.95

However postmodern it may seem, the fragmentedness of today’s academic life results directly from disciplinary and institutional blueprints borrowed from German universities of the late 19th century. If Teutonic departmentalization, specialization, and ever-ramifying sub-specialization assured solid, rigorous scholarship by the metric ton, they also promoted territorialism, alienation, and worse: the risk of triviality combined with a resistance to general discussion. As a corrective, Damrosch persuasively argues for a broad array of cross-disciplinary and, above all, collaborative strategies designed to create a genuine community of scholars while enforcing high standards and preserving individual accountability. To dismiss Damrosch’s idea as unrealistic or covert educationist propaganda would be an error. Many of the remedies have been successfully tested in “laboratories” as respectable as graduate or undergraduate courses in physics (at Harvard), chemistry, history, English, and French literature (at the University of Virginia), to say nothing of medical schools throughout the country. Moreover, thanks to fax and e-mail, collective works of broad-based scholarship can and indeed are being shaped for diverse audiences through intensive dialogue among co-authors and editors. Damrosch has thus provided an invaluable glimpse into “what is passed, or passing, or to come.”

The Hidden History of the Vietnam War, by John Prados. Ivan R. Dee $27.50

Well documented and ably presented, these 28 chapters take the reader through stupidity, miscalculation, and deceit that end in defeat. Prados is especially lucid on Tonkin Gulf and the Tet Offensive, although more maps (2) and illustrations (0) would have helped. Personal portraits highlight the human side of the struggle, and the concluding pages—”Victory as an Illusion”—should be required reading for every president, secretary of defense, and member of Congress. Two basic truths emerge that any American involved in decision-making relative to this tragedy must have known (or should have): it’s their country and, whether the Vietnamese live north or south of some line, they were calling the shots. As it turned out, those in the north did it better than our guys.

Kicking Back: Further Dispatches from the South, by John Shelton Reed. Missouri $22.50

This delightful volume collects

0 Comments

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Recommended Reading