Kamen has updated his classic study of the Spanish Inquisition which, while not the most virulent of the Inquisitions in early modern Europe (the courts in Antwerp alone executed 103 heretics between 1557 and 1562, “more than died in the whole of Spain” during that five-year period), did persecute recent Jewish converts to Catholicism, Humanists, Protestants, Muslim converts, and “heretical” Catholics in a vain attempt at religious homogeneity. Kamen marshals evidence from a wide range of sources to offer a close look at the bureaucracy, regional differences, structure, problems, and historical context of this despised institution. Kamen has been criticized for treating the Inquisition too gently, but this book is essential reading for anyone interested in the topic.
A dozen essays, thoughtful and thought-provoking, by a distinguished intellectual historian and historical critic. Haskell’s topics range from the economics of American slavery to academic freedom and the moral structure of modern thinking on rights. Many of the essays are reprinted; all deserve to be reread.
Come Shouting to Zion details the religious interaction between whites and slaves in the American South and Caribbean. A fascinating comparative study on conversion experience, this work admits to being too broad in scope to lay down any hard and fast theories on who contributed what to Protestant Evangelicalism in the mix of African world views with orthodox Christianity. However, the authors do show convincingly that white efforts to stamp out African practices fail at least up to 1830. Frey and Wood have done a wonderful service to scholars of American religious history by placing in one text a plethora of examples of black/white contributions to present day Evangelical piety.
England in 1819 identifies a particular moment in the British Romantic period when “history” was reconceived in ways that have only recently become controversial. The book lays out a broad picture of political and intellectual issues that dominated the public discourse of 1819 England, a nuanced analysis of the great literary productions of that year, and a sophisticated discussion of the ways in which Romantic historiography has predicted and determined our own critical practice of looking back on the Romantic period. In his original deployment of the concept of “case” (cause, casuistry), Chandler finds a comprehensive idiom for the “spirit-of-the-age question” as it appears in writers as diverse as Barbauld, Scott, Byron, Hazlitt, Keats, Shelley, and many, many more. Always theoretical, Chandler lets us make a case study of his own work, as he performs all the familiar operations of contemporary New Historicist romanticism, but with a rare breadth of scope and an amazingly detailed recovery of a single historical year.
In this work of intellectual and cultural history, Albert J. von Frank argues that the case of fugitive slave Anthony Burns helped significantly to ignite a “pocket revolution” in Northern anti-slavery thought, a revolution that moved the United States toward civil war as much as any political event. Incidents like the 1854 escape, recapture, and trial of Anthony Burns, the author suggests, humanized slavery for New Englanders in ways that the passage of laws like the Kansas-Nebraska Act did not, and presented them with a form of public drama that galvanized them against the power of the Southern “slavocracy.” Central to von Frank’s work is his effort to place the ideas of New England Transcendentalist intellectuals— Ralph Waldo Emerson most particularly—at the heart of Massachusetts antislavery activism in the mid-to-late 1850’s. Many historians have presented Transcendentalist intellectuals as irrelevant and somewhat ridiculous extremists whose theories of self-liberation were too abstract to engage the issue of slavery in any important way. But von Frank insists that readers take seriously the roles of ideas and idealists in effecting social change, and instead argues that in the wake of the Anthony Burns case, antislavery actually became an implicitly crucial component for Emersonian thinkers, whose vision in turn helped propel the sectional conflict that increasingly divided the nation.
In this deeply researched and beautifully illustrated book, Peter Hatch, director of Monticello’s gardens and grounds, tells the story of how he recreated the orchards, vineyards, and gardens set out by Thomas Jefferson over a long career of experimental horticulture. Woven around this narrative strand are a short history of early American efforts to grow grapes for winemaking, descriptions of orchard practices and scores of now-obscure varieties of fruit, and individual chapters on the early cultivation of apples, peaches, cherries, plums, almonds, strawberries, raspberries, and a host of other fruits. One chapter discusses many of the most influential early works of American pomology. This volume is a treasure, one to dip into in stolen moments from the garden.
In this fascinating account of a crisis which nearly resulted in nuclear disaster, the author provides a detailed account of what has come to be known as one of the most dangerous times in human history. Using his already extensive knowledge on the subject, combined with information only recently made available, White examines the situation with the clarity, depth, and insight which such a critical event demands. Beginning with the situation immediately preceding the crisis, the Soviet and Cuban motivations for the deployment of nuclear missiles are then considered. The options and decisions of the Kennedy administration are examined and followed by a day-by-clay account of the two weeks which followed the U.S. discovery of the weapons. The author then provides insight into how the crisis modified both the Soviet and U.S. approaches to superpower relations in terms of a wiser, but nonetheless intensified, nuclear policy. An important contribution.
This book is a recent contribution to the burgeoning literature on the political economy of the late colonial and postcolonial periods. The established decolonization literature has centered on, and debated the relative importance of, three factors in the end of colonial rule: indigenous nationalism, the international balance of power, and changing views within colonial metropoles. Tignor chooses three key British colonies in Africa to assess the role of an often neglected actor; international and local business interests. He finds that the latter had a limited impact on decolonization, preferring instead to leave political outcomes to rising nationalist leaders and departing colonial masters. Similarly, he argues that each newly independent state’s economic policies—which differed markedly—were the result of nationalist attitudes and the international Cold War context. The author uses recently released archival information and historical business records to document his accounts. Because of its focus, comparative framework, and sensitivity to social science method, Tignor’s book will appeal to social scientists as well as historians.
For a generation the “revisionist” historians of Russia have followed the Bolshevik lead in banning the study of religion, but now some of their own students are beginning to question the interdiction. In this fine study of the attempts of Russian believers to fight back, Glennys Young of the University of Washington restores some balance to the study of the early revolutionary era, and some compassion for the doomed. Her study is magnificently researched and beautifully written, and it is one more welcome nail in the coffin of “revisionism.”
Derek Sayer brilliantly maps out the terrain of Czech history in this learned work. Focusing on the ways in which Czechs have constructed their national identity over the centuries, Sayer has written a marvelous account of the ambiguities and tensions of Czech history, and in the process makes an important contribution to our understanding of the processes of modernity from the perspective of a country that has too often been ignored by historians.
This is an extremely important book. Hale traces the process by which Southerners developed the system of racial separation, made it seem “sane,” and aligned its ideas of racial superiority and inferiority with national values. She argues that after the Civil War, in the face of a rising black middle class, whites turned to segregation to impose a racial caste system. “Since southern black inferiority and white supremacy could not, despite whites’ desires, be assumed, southern whites created a modern social order in which this difference would instead be continually performed.” All blacks were inferior because they occupied inferior space, thus uniting all whites across class and gender lines. Segregation both responded to and utilized the performative nature of consumption— blacks could purchase the same goods as whites but only in deferential ways. Segregation, however, contained internal contradictions: blacks and whites still interacted, and blacks did not always appear sufficiently inferior to whites. White Southerners erased such contradictions with racial violence, papering over gender and class divisions among whites and challenging black autonomy created in separate black spaces. In the Civil Rights Movement, African Americans subverted the performance of racial hierarchy, exposing the absurdity of using violence to enforce a supposedly natural racial order, and transforming blacks’ performance of inferiority into one of moral supremacy. Hale’s well-crafted work exposes how whiteness was constructed and rendered invisible through a national culture based on an illusion of egalitarian consumerist democracy that in truth only applied to whites. Most importantly, by showing the process by which white racial privilege became imbedded in American culture, she encourages Americans to engage in a historical reckoning with our racial past and to imagine a different future.
This is the first comprehensive history of Southern diplomacy during the Civil War in many years; as such, it is welcome, despite its flaws. Hubbard, director of the Abraham Lincoln Memorial Museum at Tennessee’s Lincoln Memorial University, apparently has little experience with writing for publication. His prose could benefit from extensive revisions for both grammar and clarity. Furthermore, he does not always evince a clear grasp of political context or of the political backgrounds of many of the diplomats in question. At the same time, Hubbard presents a largely convincing analysis of the failures of Confederate policy, although his work needs to be supplemented by Howard Jones’ Union in Peril (on Union efforts to block British aid to the Confederacy) and other works covering weapons procurement in Europe. The Confederate government, Hubbard contends, ignored veteran diplomats in favor of politicians. These neophyte emissaries, without regular communication with Richmond, were wedded, like their government, to a naïve faith in the righteousness of their cause and in the irresistible power of cotton. They repeatedly missed opportunities to secure European aid and recognition by adopting what Hubbard argues were more promising strategies.
“In 631 days,” writes Duncan, “six billion people will celebrate the new millennium. Few will realize that the day was determined by an obscure 6th-century monk wanting to commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ, and who, by the way, got the date wrong.” Indeed, Duncan’s chronicle of human time reckoning is mostly about people getting things wrong—the wrong date for Easter, the wrong length of the solar year, the wrong celestial equation. But this story is also about fascinating political allegiances, remarkable superstitions, and—in the case of Julius Caesar—raging hormones: all of which determined to some extent the way we count days today. Duncan’s thorough study supplies intriguing answers to questions we have always wondered about and even some we haven’t: why does a week consist of seven days? Is January 1 just an arbitrary date to begin the new year? How did the Romans solve complicated mathematical and astronomical problems when they couldn’t think in fractions? Although the editors seemed to have missed a few too many typos and omissions to win awards, Duncan’s book is still a very entertaining read.
The author begins by expressing her desire to explore the connections between African American women’s activism and their religious belief at the beginning of the 20th century. While she succeeds in documenting the activism side of the equation, Ms. Weisenfeld falls short when it comes to addressing adequately the theological beliefs that motivated these women’s social efforts. Moreover, she raises an interesting question, why did black women join the YWCA movement which was intent on controlling their segregated institutions, but the book provides little in the way of an explanation. In part, this shortcoming arises from the author’s attention to race and gender at the expense of class. Other recent studies of turn-of-the-century African Americans have shown that upper- and middleclass blacks often embraced white Victorian ideals of uplift as well as notions of black identity. Weisenfeld portrays her subjects as above the class fray, which rings hollow.
Poet and memorialist William Corbett has compiled a readable guidebook to the New York of writers, publishers, their hangouts and hangers-on. Readable, but not complete enough or 100% relevant and accurate. Why is there no entiy on the extremely influential Louis Untermeyer, or on the Algonquin as a literary hotel— not simply the venue of Round Table Wits and Wannabes? What accounts for an entry on Wallace Stevens, who, as Corbett admits, was never part of the New York scene? Addresses of the great and near great are frequently omitted (e.g., Philip Roth’s W.85th Street eyrie) or wrong (Woody Allen occupies a penthouse on Fifth Avenue, not a flat on Central Park West). Because the entries are enthusiastic and full of fresh detail, this book survives such nit-picking, but like Cleopatra, it makes most hungry where it most satisfies.
Judging by its title, readers will expect that Yaffe’s book deals with Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. And it does. But it deals with a great deal more. Taking up Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, Bacon’s New Atlantis, and Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise, Yaffe provides a wide-ranging and probing reflection on the portrayal of Jews and Judaism in early modern thought. His innovative approach to the problem of Shakespeare’s treatment of Shylock can stand for the originality of his book as a whole. Counter to the prevailing tendency among critics to view the dramatist as anti-Semitic, Yaffe raises the intriguing possibility that Shakespeare presents Shylock not as a typical Jew but as a bad one. Yaffe argues that Shylock’s difficulties arise precisely from his departures from Jewish law, which partly result from his being corrupted by the commercial ethos of Venice. Maintaining Merchant of Venice as a reference point, Yaffe analyzes the other works, managing to bring about some striking and illuminating juxtapositions. For example, he cleverly compares the dispute over Biblical interpretation between Shylock and Antonio with Spinoza’s new philosophical canons for reading the Hebrew Scriptures. Yaffe’s interpretations are likely to prove controversial, but they are always thought-provoking.
Fuentes, the distinguished Mexican novelist and essayist (and perennial candidate for the Nobel Prize), stands uncomfortably between nationalism and cosmopolitanism. His discomfort, however, is one of his strengths, for he writes with a deep concern for the political realities of his native countiy and a vast knowledge of international cultural trends and politics. He is critical of both, and refuses to offer simplistic visions or facile solutions to either. In works such as The Buried Mirror, Change of Skin, Terra Nostra, Old Gringo, The Death of Artemio Cruz, and others, he questions both national identity and “modernity” (globalization). Van Delden analyzes the tension in Fuentes’ writing and provides a portrait of one of Latin America’s leading intellectuals. With notes, bibliography, and index.
Navarette’s book is an informed and informative contribution to the recent surge of critical studies on the myriad ways in which late-Victorian discourses of cultural decay are mirrored in the realm of popular fiction. Her perspective is often appealingy quirky; who before now has thought to bring Henry James, Arthur Machen, Vernon Lee, Joseph Conrad, and Walter de la Mare into the same critical framework? The book as a whole is most valuable in its range of reference and its accumulation of telling and provocative detail. While its large arguments often fail to persuade, its local insights are unfailingly stimulating.
“A poem is a gesture into silence, an attempt to reclaim the stillness and clarity broken by the fall into language,” begins the final essay of this eloquent and gratifying collection. Because Parini appreciates not only the richness of poetry, but its stillness too, he has produced a calm and reasoned, but no less quirky, set of reflections on composition. Here is a broad range of thoughts, from serious literary criticism to delightful, personal meditations on baseball, small New England towns, and—to some degree—politics. Parini’s book is a find; it is large enough to speak authoritatively on poetry and poetics, but intimate enough to linger on the language.
Winterowd’s institutional history of the English department comes with the proviso that he, as a long time player, is part of the story, that his “wit” will inform the prose, and that he, as an iconoclastic Composition Professor, will be on the defensive in arguing for the central place of composition studies in the development and maintenance of English departments. Each of these threads, along with the obvious chip on his shoulder regarding the low academic standing of composition studies, weighs down and colors an otherwise interesting story. He twists and contorts his interpretations of literary figures and theory in order to fit his agenda. Of interest is his tracing the influence of seminal textbooks on the field.
From the 1860’s through the 1880’s, suicide remained at the center of Russian public discourse. As Irina Paperno demonstrates in this fascinating look at Russian fiction, newspaper articles, suicide notes, and medical reports, the act of suicide in 19th-century Russia became the source of discussions on immortality, religion, free will, and the relationship between the individual and society, among other topics. As a result of the attention paid to this “suicide epidemic,” Paperno concludes that suicide became a cultural artifact in 19th-century Russia and thus served as a symbol of the age.
This collection of 46 essays by Vargas Llosa was written over the course of about 30 years and ranges in subject matter from historical events (and this includes everything from the Cuban revolution to the 1982 World Cup in Spain to the reduction of John Wayne Bobbitt’s penis) to literary figures, such as Hemingway, de Beauvoir, Joyce, Bataille, Bellow, and García Márquez; to political leaders, including Marx, Havel, and Che Guevera. While many of the essays focus on particular persons or events, Vargas Llosa considers more general issues of a literary and/or political nature in such essays as “Literature and Exile” and “The Truth of Lies.” This collection blends the personal, the literary, and the political in the way Vargas Llosa’s works often seem to do: with a self-indulgent flair that charms the reader, while making him or her somewhat pleased and somewhat disgruntled at having been charmed.
What distinguishes the language of poetry from the language of prose? The ineffable answer to this ancient question is the subject of Emerson Marks’ excellent historical study of the nature of poetic language. Marks begins with Renaissance theorists who were first staking a claim for the literary possibilities of English as opposed to Greek and Latin, and French, the dominant language of the English court. From there he moves on to detailed explorations of Neoclassical, Romantic, and Modern theorists, paying especial attention to Coleridge and Eliot. Marks is an excellent prose stylist: this book shines with intelligence and a light, dry wit. This is a fine work for anyone interested in poetry and literary theory, but it shouldn’t be pigeonholed as a book for specialists: it is a lucid study of the history of a grand, if intractable, idea, and would reward any reader interested in the history of ideas.
A literary critic who has hiked all but a few hundred miles of the Appalachian Trail over the past 20 years, Ian Marshall is uniquely qualified to survey the literature of the AT, as the 2,150-mile-long trail is called, and he does so with a style as fresh as the pine-scented air and clear mountain streams of the Appalachians themselves. Making his way from Georgia to Maine over the course of 13 chapters, Marshall surveys a wide range of literary periods and genres, including Cherokee myths; William Bartram’s Travels (1891); Mary Noailles Murfree’s Prophet of the Great Smoky Mountains (1885); Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders (1913); Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974); the literature generated by the Spotswood Expedition to the Blue Ridge; Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1785); Charles Brockden Brown’s Edgar Huntly (1799); the poetry of Whitman, Ginsburg, and Frost; the fiction of Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne; and Thoreau’s Maine Woods (1864). With the mind of a scholar and the surefootedness of a veteran hiker, Marshall is an ideal guide to the rich literary history of the mountainous eastern United States.
This richly learned book traces the development of memorial writing in the West, by focusing on those genres of inscription that commemorate the dead. Petrucci is a world-renowned paleographer who brings to his examination of “written death” the intimacy with script that has characterized his previous scholarship. In this book, he examines tomb-writings, funeral remains and markings, scrolls, manuscripts, and printed hooks in order to reconstruct carefully the motivations and technologies employed across the ages to represent the dead. In its scholarly range and speculative importance, this book stands out.
Tate brings into rich dialogue two traditions of creativity and speculation that rarely have the opportunity to speak to one another, namely, African-American literature and post-Freudian psychoanalysis. The author examines black desire, subjectivity, fantasy, loss and reparation, and joking in the works of Emma Kelley, W.E.B. Du Bois, Richard Wright, Nella Larsen, and Zora Neale Hurston. Of great value to the scholar of literature is the model she provides for scholarship that attempts to show the ways in which “high” theory illuminates literary and cultural production.
With The Riverside Milton, Flannagan contributes a volume of Milton’s works to those of Chaucer and Shakespeare, already published by Riverside. Collecting Milton’s poems and prose once more, from the sonnets and psalms to the marvelous epics, is neither likely to be rebellious nor revolutionary. Indeed, this edition revisits much of the material in the standard editions. While Milton scholars will certainly evaluate the subtle editorial choices made here, there is no doubt that this edition is significant, intelligent, and beautiful. From the detailed discussion of spelling irregularities in Milton’s published work to the copious, rich annotations, The Riverside Milton is a first-rate critical edition. By highlighting the principal issues of Milton’s work in a series of critical introductions, Flannagan makes this volume useful to new students as well. Finally, perhaps what is most striking about The Riverside Milton, the format is outstanding. Each book of Paradise Lost begins with one of the impressive illustrations from the 1688 edition. Each page of poetry that follows is a beautifully printed column above a wide base of notes that contribute but do not interfere. Scholars, students, and other admirers of Milton ought to be well-pleased.
A not altogether interesting or enlightening take on Flaubert’s masterpiece, Maraini’s book does manage from time to time to unearth a gossipy gem or two concerning Flaubert’s intensely frustrating relationship with Louise Colet, the real-life Emma. While many have tried (with greater success than Maraini) to negotiate the volatile waters of the Flaubert-Colet liaison, this book is perhaps the first to propose the eyebrow-raising possibility that what attracted Flaubert most to Colet was her androgynous beauty. And even as he deplored and mocked her neurotic obsessions, it was Flaubert who secretly kept her bloody handkerchief and went to sniff her old clothes, long after their relationship mercifully came to an end. For those familiar with Madame Bovary and with the particulars of Flaubert’s love life, Searching for Emma will be a tedious read. But it might also serve as a decent introduction to one of the greatest works in the French canon.
In 1981, Dillon displayed her command of the biographer’s art with A Little Original Sin: The Life and Work of Jane Bowles. Now Dillion turns to the husband of this two-author couple. And the new book is properly called a “portrait,” for it is not a conventional biography of the legendary author of The Sheltering Sky (1949). It is more like a long magazine article—a “meditation on the nature of biography,” Dillon says—in which she pursues particular elusive questions, such as the strange marriage between two homosexuals and the relationship between art and experience. The reader thus travels inside not only the mind of the subject but the author as well. The result is creative and engaging, and, like life, inescapably mysterious.
Revisionist commentary of recent years has sought to rehabilitate the late President Richard M. Nixon. He is presented as a flawed but colossal statesman, whose RealPolitic genius led to the opening of China, among other foreign policy triumphs. His role in the Watergate scandal is portrayed as a series of peccadilloes, venial sins of his craft as master politician. Greg Mitchell would have us believe otherwise. He has filtered through long-lost records of the 1950 California Senatorial race in which Nixon faced Helen Gahagan Douglas, former actress, progressive Democrat and proto-feminist. Nixon, fresh from his victory in the Alger Hiss case, won the race by portraying Douglas as The Pink Lady, a left-leaning Communist sympathizer. Mitchell demonstrates the cold-blooded deceit Nixon employed in destroying Douglas politically and provides ample evidence that “Tricky Dick,” the sobriquet she coined, would also serve as a fitting epitaph for the only president in American history forced to resign in disgrace.
As the author observes, there are two biographies of the subject to be written: an intellectual biography and one that deals more with the psychology of the subject. She has written the latter. As such it is a straightforward, unsubtle but absorbing account of the greatest American art critic of our century. Part of the fascination of Greenberg’s life has to do with his participation in the exciting milieu of New York intellectuals of the 1940’s. Although Greenberg could be brutally combative and arrogant, indeed cruel and manipulative, there is something poignant, in the end, about his story.
Gildersleeve (1831—1924) made his reputation as a classical scholar fresh from the German schools first at the University of Virginia, and then at Johns Hopkins, where he founded and edited the American journal of Philology. But he saw events in a much larger historical context than that of ancient Greece, and throughout his life, in notes, letters, articles, and diaries, he offered a sustained and perceptive commentary on current events and issues. As a Southerner, he enlisted after Fort Sumter and later contributed a series of editorials to the popular and secessionist Richmond Examiner. Intelligent, informed, often provocative, but always reasonable, he has important things to say about the substance of Southern culture, the conduct of the war, the financial crisis of 1863, blacks, slavery, miscegenation, the Jews, and the shortcomings of American government. These essays, along with some autobiographical writings and related material, including his famous The Creed of the Old South, are here reprinted in a meticulously edited and annotated collection which no historian of the period should ignore.
Dunn examines Franklin D. Roosevelt’s policies toward Josef Stalin by focusing on his ambassadors to Moscow: William C. Bullitt, Joseph E. Davies, Lawrence A. Steinhardt, William A. Standley, and W. Averill Harriman. Roosevelt imagined that a warm friendship with Stalin would promote cooperation. Except for Davies, the most incompetent, the other ambassadors soon learned that Stalin wanted only concessions from the United States; he offered nothing in return. Dunn accuses Roosevelt of contributing to the spread of Stalinism in Europe by appeasing Stalin even to the day of his death. Because Roosevelt believed that the Soviet Union was moving toward democracy, he did not fear Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. Roosevelt’s admirers may be shocked, but Dunn has written a well researched, fascinating history of Soviet-American relations at the highest level.
Parrish, our most prominent historian of the state of Missouri, has produced the first modern scholarly biography of one of Missouri’s key 19th-century politicians. Frank Blair, son of Andrew Jackson lieutenant Francis Preston Blair, was a leading Benton Democrat in St. Louis who became an important conservative Republican and spokesman for President Lincoln in Congress. Even while serving in the House of Representatives during the Civil War, he became one of the Union Army’s best and most popular political generals. After the war, he and other members of the powerful Blair clan led conservative opposition to Radical Reconstruction. This is a well-researched and solid biography, lacking only some needed detail on such matters as the role of the Blair and Benton hard money doctrine in 1850’s politics. One also wonders how a man with no military experience could became such a good soldier, especially given his “off-season” commitment to politics. Still, this is the best study of Blair and his family that we are likely to have in the near future.
There is much to be said for the old adage about not judging a book by its cover. John Wayne’s image on the front of this book is enough to entice any film buff or student of modern American culture to take a look; and the jacket promises an in-depth and lively examination of both Wayne’s personal life and his films. Unfortunately, Ronald Davis fails to deliver in almost every respect. His insight into the nature of Wayne (who, it must be admitted, was a very coarse man) is unimpressive and crippled by the refusal of Wayne’s family to grant access to the actor’s papers. Nor does Davis shed much light on the importance of the Duke as a cultural icon. The author’s prose is wooden; his narrative anecdotal and repetitive, being in the end little more than a summary of Wayne’s films. The result is bland and unappealing.
A Word for Nature profiles four 19th-century conservationists whose impact upon modern-day environmentalism has been profound: George Perkins Marsh, whose Man and Nature (1864) is arguably the earliest important work of environmental thinking in America; Henry David Thoreau, whose Walden (1854) became the bible of the back-to-the-land movement in the 1960’s; John Muir, whose popular Mountains of California (1894) followed close on the heels of his founding of the Sierra Club in 1892; and John Wesley Powell, whose Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States (1878) helped Americans begin to understand the landscape of the desert Southwest. By placing these early conservationists in a broadly contextual account of 19th-century society, economics, politics, and culture, Dorman helps us to see the value of their original achievements as well as the extent of their influence upon the modern environmental movement.
In this engaging and often humorous memoir, Reichl details the intricacies of food and relationships in her life. From her earliest years when she looks in the refrigerator to predict her manic-depressive mother’s mood, through her later experiences with cooks from all walks of life, Reichl learns not only to prepare a fine meal, but to prepare and live a full life as well. Reichl’s story includes many tempting recipes (barring, perhaps, the offering from her mother, “The Queen of Mold”).
In this brief biography (part of the Cambridge Series of “Musical Lives”) the author weaves together the basic facts of Debussy’s life and career with a non-technical appreciation of the character of his music; which is accessible to the non-specialist. The author is particularly provocative when he suggests that the label “Impressionist” used to describe Debussy has led to an appreciation of the “delightful surfaces of his music” at the expense of the “rough, dangerous, even cruel undercurrents.” Much of Debussy’s influence in our century, it might be added, has everything to do with these undercurrents.
The late Dmitri Volkogonov was a mediocre general and a worse historian, but he had one supreme advantage: both Gorbachev and Yeltsin allowed him into the innermost archival sanctum, and therefore we have to read his books. This last one contains no surprises and nothing really new, but the tidbits and moderately juicy morsels from archives still closed to ordinary researchers make it interesting. All in all it adds up to yet another demonstration of the tendency of bureaucracies to advance unscrupulous timeservers to the top.
There is a level of truth beyond the strictly factual and measurable, and in this study the noted writer D.M. Thomas attempts to achieve it. Paying direct and sustained tribute to Michael Scammell’s powerful 1984 biography, Thomas takes the facts and goes off on flights of fancy and whimsy, not always to the benefit of the search for truth on any level. Nevertheless his book is welcome, if only because a master writer can bring in whole new sectors of the reading public which would otherwise not bother with the great chronicler of the Gulag.
It is a pity that Kenneth Tynan is forever linked to his light porn show, Oh! Calcutta! He was so much more than the adolescent of that period, so much more than the unwitting harbinger of an age of cultural decadence. One of the most learned men of his time, he helped set the stage for the national cultural revival of Great Britain. Witty and sage at the core, he could be surprisingly banal and common, but he was rarely dull. He knew everyone worth knowing and many he ought to have avoided, but he loved life as few people know how, and his letters reveal many of his secrets.
Most of us bristle because she publishes so much—two novels a year, plays, poetry, essays, short stories for more than 35 years. Why then would anyone want to read a biography of a writer we want to avoid? She is too much around. Precisely so that, if we misunderstand her, which many of us do, we can begin to know a literary talent who has been an indelible presence in American letters since she arrived. Balzacian in her generous curiosity about American life, and Jamesian in her eye for detail, this literary omnipresence is wonderfully explored. Johnson can at times be too protective and loyal to his subject; but he presents the phenomenon of JCO in human terms. An important book.
A much-lauded but little-known novelist and short story writer, Hoffman has written a crackerjack suspense novel. Ex-con Charles LeBlanc, estranged from his rich and influential Tidewater Virginia family, is accused of the bombing that killed his brother’s family at the old homestead. Charles is the perfect scapegoat for the murders—with ample motive and opportunity to have committed the crime. Forced to do some digging into the family’s past in order to clear his name, Charles lights out for West Virginia, where he enlists the help of a bunch of colorful characters. This is a good story, well-told.
The book begins with a simple mistaken identity, one lover recognizing another in an entire stranger, only to be shocked at his error. From this fracture the idea expands: the woman wonders how she has changed with age; the man considers the other selves he might have been. As their thoughts, and companion anxieties, consume them, they lose the sense of their own identities and, perhaps more importantly, the sense of what constitutes the base of identity, what composes a human—a body, a mind or memory—against an animal, a machine or nothing at all. Kundera’s books, however, thrive not only on their ideas, but also on the way he depicts them, his playful use and reuse of a seemingly idle platitude to disrupt what had seemed familiar. Identity, in this sense, is no exception. The ideas cleverly blend humor and severity as they repeat in different combinations. What begins as benign cynicism reveals itself to be the seed of terror. What Identity lacks is any substantial sense of reality in history, character, or scene. With nothing to unsettle or disrupt, the book fails to move the reader or demonstrate the significance of the idea. The supposedly troubling loss of certainty about the self is no more disturbing than the thought one might have while reading it that he or she might have been the postman outside, delivering the mail, rather than the reader himself. Or, perhaps not. The characters, rather than entreating our sympathy, vanish before they can wholly form, failing to mark the loss of anything.
This translation of a French/Creole novel does ample justice to Chamoiseau’s unique turn of phrase. The plot involves the investigation of the death of a Creole storyteller in mid-performance, and the atrocious way the witnesses are treated by the police. By telling the story through many different points of view, the conflict between the Martinican Creole language and culture and that of the French government is explored in all its complexity. With an ethnographer’s eye and a poet’s voice, Chamoiseau puts the reader in the middle of a legal and cultural conflict. With precise and expressive translations and an afterword written by the translator, this edition of the novel makes the French Caribbean world accessible to all readers.
Set in contemporary Baltimore on the border between a deteriorating Jewish neighborhood and a crime-ridden black neighborhood, the world of Mickey Lemer and his kosher bakery is shot through with racial tension, tribalism, and working class frustration. Closer to home, Mickey’s French violinist wife is growing increasingly remote while his 18-year-old unfocused son has struck up a close friendship with the bakery’s black driver. But Mickey, the ex-boxer, baker, and troubled father infuses his life with a love and passion that holds his world together until tragedy strikes and his wife is killed in a robbery. Grief-stricken, Mickey heads to France to search for his soul and his wife’s hidden secrets. The plot then twists in surprising directions as Mickey and his cast of characters are forced into self-reflection. Hond is masterful at drawing this world and subtly capturing the voices and interactions of the characters while mining serious issues.
The second novel by this author is just as exciting as his first (The Unlikely Spy). Silva writes with intensity, his plots are intriguing and different, and his characters are complex and fascinating. The assassin in this thriller is one of the most ruthless creations in fiction, his missions complex, his victims varied, including an old girlfriend of the CIA agent Michael Osbourne, which makes the plot even more compelling with the connection. Silva creates a page-turner tale of power, politics, and even romance that has all the ingredients of a suspense masterpiece.
Holly Winter can easily be described as a dog enthusiast. She is a columnist for Dog’s Life and the very proud owner of two champion Alaskan malamutes, Rowdy and Kimi. In an effort to obtain the title of Rx. D. for Rowdy, by presenting him as a therapy-dog-in-training at a retirement home, Holly becomes involved in a case of fraud and murder. With the aid of her dogs and a trio of Sherlock Holmesian scholars, Holly is able to help send the killer to the dog house, or rather the big house. While the murder plot is not particularly complicated, the unique and witty perspective of Holly Winter makes this novel dog-gone fun to read.
In this imaginative and engaging novel, Robert Noah constructs a plausible reality around the actual 1911 theft of Leonardo’s masterpiece from the Louvre and the also authentic 1932 Saturday Evening Post report of a man calling himself Marquis de Valfierno and claiming responsibility for masterminding the theft. Noah’s story posits motive and means for the caper, suggesting it as the culmination of an impressive career of forgery and bamboozling by a likable band of swindlers and their charming ringleader. A convincing pretender to aristocracy himself, the Marquis delights in targeting newly affluent, but ever artless American industrialists. Noah rounds out the story of often undiscovered fraud with deft characterization and the creation of realistically complicated relationships between and among his characters. The writing is often as subtle as the brushstrokes of the paintings it describes, rewarding the reader for close attention to the particular and likewise offering a satisfying larger picture of what may well have been.
Giardina is an accomplished short story writer in the tradition of Cheever and Updike, taking the angst of professional males (and some females) as his territory. But I find his stories morally troubling: the stories seem to be about characters whose lives are bleak and empty. But perhaps it is Giardina’s vision that is bleak and empty, and so he makes cruel judgments about characters not because they are bankrupt but because they lead ordinary lives and don’t quite know how else they should live. The author gives them no help, and I’m sure it has crossed his mind that you can live an ordinary life, sense that it is not limitless in its possibilities, and not plunge into the heart of darkness. But still the pitiless vision of the writer looking at these people is what dominates most of the stories. Giardina is talented, creative, and intelligent, but I sense a cruel streak.
In the first four stories of his new collection, White Boys, Reginald McKnight uses dreams, lies, and the tale-within-the-tale to depict how confused his characters feel. Two of the first person narrators are African-Americans on research leave in Senegal, where they blunder and offend at every turn in the road. Intermixed between these stories are two others set in the States on military bases and again told in the first person. McKnight knows how to weave and pace his tales so that the reader never feels trapped or harangued by the disgruntled voices of his characters. The themes of confusion and prejudice are chillingly brought to a head in the last and title story. Told in the third person, “White Boys,” is an on the edge kind of tale where each scene ratchets evil a notch deeper and leaves the reader retching with relief.
Shapiro is most successful with the fables that deviate least from Greco-Roman objectivity, linear organization, and insistence on eternally recurring traits. But when his source texts are most Lafontainian—skeptical or epicurean in viewpoint, dense, resonant, and conflictual in method as well as radically creative with genre norms—Shapiro corrects the French poet’s eclecticism by skillful massaging, tweaking, and pruning. The result is an undeniably delicious read—fluent, lively, and transparent—but like Fifty Fables of La Fontaine, Fifty More is less a translation than a thorough-going and backward-looking adaptation, as remote in profile from the original as La Fontaine’s fables are from their classical models.
Mary Shelley’s second novel, Valperga has not been reprinted since its publication in 1823. The title refers to the castle of the heroine of the story, Euthanasia, whose love for and eventual conflict with the soldier of fortune Castruccio is set against a backdrop of 14th-century Tuscany. Stuart Curran tries very hard to establish the relevance of Valperga to the political preoccupations of the 1990’s, declaring enrapturedly in the introduction that the “self-possessed feminist ideal of Mary Shelley’s carries a passport into the twenty-first century and a just society still to be instituted.” Leaving aside the question of whether it is a justifiable basis upon which to judge the worth of the novel, Curran’s assertion is in reality inapplicable to this ponderously dull and conventional historical romance. The editorial notes are as pedantic as Shelley’s detailing (unconvincingly) the politics of medieval Tuscany. Of value only to academics searching for a research topic and insomniacs in desperate need of a sedative.
La Plante is best known for being the writer and creator of the superb BBC series Prime Suspect. This novel bears little resemblance to the stark, compelling story and characters of that series. Here a faded Hollywood diva sits at the center of a “moonlight and magnolias” Gothic plot which brings together “big bidness,” gambling, incest, and voodoo in an unholy mess. The personal lives of the heroine, ex-cop Lorraine, and her two sidekicks keep getting in the way of a plot that takes too long to develop. Where is Helen Mirren when you need her?
Each story in this debut collection is a small jewelled human drama. Byers peers into ordinary lives, at ordinary painful crossroads, and carefully unfolds the loss and compromise and finally the small redemptions. These are quiet, unhurried but haunting tales, mostly centering on older men, in which the payoff is in texture, detail, and wisdom rather than in grand epiphany. For the Pacific Northwest setting and the subject and tone, it is hard not to think of Raymond Carver’s influence, but the richness and depth also invokes John Cheever. These comparisons are not made lightly as Byers’ stories and talent are cut of the same cloth.
Dr. Michael Malone, a retired cardiologist turned medical malpractice lawyer, is in the middle of a divorce when his estranged wife, a high-powered assistant district attorney, is murdered. Who has a better motive than the good doctor-lawyer? And who has seriously angered the police representing the victim of a police harrassment case? Let’s say, it doesn’t look good for Malone. Despite his dilemma, Malone doesn’t take it too seriously and neither should the reader. This is light, breezy entertainment with little or no emotional investment. In this case, television does it better.
A compelling portrait of a young musician at once lover and protégé, and painfully aware of the need to disentangle the two. The Page Turner shows Leavitt’s always discerning yet tender fascination with love, a love complicated and deepened through a multitude of forms— between a mother and her son, between generations, despite inequality and working with and against our pride. Leavitt weaves an honest and humane tale from the passions that subtly undermine our desire, the memories that complexly structure and inhibit our present attachments, the psychology of need and envy that obscures the object of our longing, making it “never mine.”
Stanley Crouch is a master essayist— inventive, engaging, prodding, and, best of all, fiercely independent. He writes not just what he thinks, but what he knows; he feels, he says, “right in the middle of