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Notes on Current Books, Spring 1993


ISSUE:  Spring 1993

Axtell has the rare ability to write about the European presence in America without the hand-wringing of the Left or the clenched fist of the Right. The eleven essays here, most of them originally given as lectures, are fresh, engrossing, challenging, and entertaining. “Humor in Ethnohistory” alone is worth the price of admission. Axtell is a scholar in love with his subject and with the English language. This passion is evident throughout, but most cogently articulated in “History as Imagination,” the one piece not devoted specifically to Indian-white affairs. Instead, this essay stands as a thoughtful introduction to the book and to Axtell’s principles. He is one historian mindful of the fact that Clio, after all, is one of the Muses.

Chancellorsville 1863: The Souls of the Brave, by Ernest B. Furgurson. Knopf $25

Although Chancellorsville, the unnamed battle in The Red Badge of Courage, epitomized Civil War battlefield experience for Stephen Crane, most military historians have viewed it more abstractly as a great chessboard on which Lee made some of the best moves of the war and Fighting Joe Hooker some of the worst. Furgurson’s new study of the battle, the first in 30 years, has the merit of providing both personal and strategic perspectives. Drawing on an impressive array of firsthand accounts, Furgurson vividly describes the bloody fighting in the densely wooded Wilderness. At the same time he clarifies the strategic and tactical complexities of the battle by portraying it as a series of encounters rather than a single continuous action. Civil War buffs will find nothing new in Furgurson’s conclusion that Stonewall Jackson’s accidental death at Chancellorsville doomed the Confederates to defeat at Gettysburg several weeks later, but they will appreciate his emphasis on the importance of combat leadership at all levels.

From Counter-Reformation to Glorious Revolution, by Hugh Trevor-Roper. Chicago $29. 95

One question that might attend any reading of Trevor-Roper’s learned disquisitions on the ecclesiastical and political history of the 17th century is, why do critics persist in commending him for all the wrong reasons? It is extraordinary how lavishly his admirers praise his prose, chiefly for its alleged “elegance,” or how extravagantly he is lauded for his supposed “mastery” of the form of the historical essay. In point of fact, his prose is remarkable mostly for its dependable dryness; his locutions do not so much please, as they fail to offend; he has no style to admire. And as for his formal “mastery,” his essays are nothing if not amiably desultory; they are vagrant and dilatory idylls. The true virtue of TrevorRoper as an historian and essayist lies in the fact that, though his scope of sympathies is narrow (and in the case of religious disputes, all but nonexistent), his scope of interests is immense. His careful attention to the involutions of particular historical situations, his stern clarity of judgment, and his broad erudition combine to make his essays enlightening and provocative. This volume is an ideal selection of his scholarly offerings, perfect for the reader whose curiosity is any match for the author’s ability to illuminate obscure aspects of history’s innumerable complications and enigmas. Trevor-Roper is always able to show one something one would not otherwise have noticed.

Singing the Master: The Emergence of African American Culture in the Plantation South, by Roger D. Abrahams. Pantheon $25

Ostensibly an occasion for masters to display their munificence, the corn shucking festivals of the Old South presented slaves with an opportunity to satirize the white folks in speech, song, and dance, thereby shaping the event for their own purposes. This meeting of European and African cultures makes for an interesting story, which Abrahams tells in clear and compelling prose. In addition, he offers a copious bibliographical harvest of primary and secondary sources. Students of the South cannot afford to ignore this book.

The Park and The People: A History of Central Park, by Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar. Cornell $35

More than a patch of land between Mia Farrow’s and Woody Allen’s respective apartments, Central Park is one of the great spaces anywhere! Its fascinating history from the 1860’s to the present is vividly recounted in this well-researched, exemplary study, which is filled with photographs, prints, cartoons, and maps that help bring the beautiful green world invented by Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux into view. The greatness of the park lies in its function as a democratic public space, still “the most democratic space,” the authors reminds us, in all New York.

To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign, by Stephen W. Sears. Ticknor & Field’s $25

The 1862 Peninsula campaign was the largest of the Civil War, when more than a quarter of a million men assembled in Virginia to battle for the capital of the Confederacy. This detailed account of George McClellan’s plan to advance from Yorktown to Richmond offers a rich analysis of the Union general’s mistakes and problems as his grand scheme to strike a fatal blow to the South faded into a sweltering summer retreat. Before that summer ended Robert E. Lee had replaced Joe Johnston as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia and turned the face of the war to other arenas far away from Richmond. Sears, a master historian who combines military analysis with interesting narrative, has created the first full-length account of the campaign ever written. The book’s maps are of excellent quality and the appendices consisting of a tabulation of forces in the two armies are a useful supplement to a valuable contribution to Civil War history.

Fire from Heaven, Life in an English Town in the Seventeenth Century, by David Underdown. Yale $28. 50

The Renaissance was an age of “reform” of society and “refashioning” of individuals. Both themes come together in Underdown’s discussion of the town of Dorchester in the aftermath of a disastrous fire in 1613. In reconstructing the town, local Puritans strived to create a “godly New Jerusalem” based on religious commitment rather than on a tolerant Elizabethan oligarchy in which status depended on rank and privilege. Reorganization of the church and local government eventually collapsed under the weight of a restored monarchy and local resistance to change. But through his investigation of a half-century of attempted reform, Underdown is able to bring to life the people who inhabited the town which Thomas Hardy was to make famous in The Mayor of Casterbridge.

The Business of May Next: James Madison and the Founding, by William Lee Miller. Virginia $24. 95

There are lots of narratives that describe the drama of the Constitutional Convention, but few that convey the richness and complexity of thought expressed by the members of the Convention. By focusing on James Madison and his contribution to the Constitution’s framing and the establishment of the Republic, Miller succeeds in demonstrating how the Virginian’s ideas were made manifest in the nation’s political structures. In a conversational style, Miller places Madison’s ideas in their historical and philosophical context, correcting misreadings and exploring a host of nuances that have slipped by less careful interpreters. Particularly useful are the chapters on slavery entitled “The Peculiar Federalist Paper,” and Miller’s analysis of the concept of public good called “Was the United States Founded on Selfishness?” For those whose concern extends from the early Republic to present-day politics, this book will bear repeated readings.

Reappraising the Munich Pact: Continental Perspectives, edited by Maya Latynski. Johns Hopkins $10. 95

So long as China remains a sleeping tiger there is no country left to appease, and therefore we may be spared the spectacle of politicians hurling “Munich” at each other for a while. This “reappraisal” concentrates on the Czechs and Poles, bringing some new perspectives, but basically we have long known what, and who, went wrong at that fateful conference in 1938.

Lost Comrades: Socialists of the Front Generation, 1918—1945, by Dan S. White. Harvard $34. 95

The Europeans who embraced socialism after 1918 did indeed, as White demonstrates in this fine study, constitute a distinct and unique generation. White employs this tricky historical concept to good advantage as he pursues the Socialists in the interwar and war years when they came up against the horrifying truth that as many people believed in fascism as in socialism, and that governments were powerless in the face of the Depression that pitted the two against each other.

A History of Russian Poetry, by Evelyn Bristol. Oxford $39. 95

Even people who do not like poetry, or who profess not to understand it, often find themselves enchanted by the Russian poetic genius. In this splendid history, Evelyn Bristol preserves much of the magic of the Russian originals as she gently guides the reader through what is surely the grandest tradition in any Indo-European language, English not excepted. Highly recommended.

City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 17901920, by Timothy J. Gilfoyle. Norton $24. 95

A combination of comprehensive research, imaginative use of sources, graceful prose, and persuasive analysis marks this engaging history of New York’s “century of prostitution.” Gilfoyle skillfully reconstructs the “geography of sex,” showing the districts where prostitution flourished, while also examining the relationships between real estate ownership, rent prices, commerce, and the city’s social elite, and how these factors changed over time. He provides profiles of prostitutes, both as individuals and aggregate numbers, attitudes toward commercial sex, the rise of a male “sporting culture” that thrived on highly public sex displays, prostitute portrayals in literature and art, the connection between politics, police and the courts, and prostitution. Finally he analyzes the decline of prostitution as a public and popular activity at the heart of the culture of New York City. Full of colorful characters and the city’s most fabled neighborhoods, City of Eros is social history at its best.

Southern Stories: Slaveholders in Peace and War, by Drew Gilpin Faust. Missouri $24. 95

Specialists in Southern history are no strangers to Drew Gilpin Faust’s work; this collection of ten essays, originally published from 1977 to 1992, demonstrates not only her familiarity with primary and secondary sources but also her talent for making characters vivid. These essays are “stories,” after all; not fictions, certainly, but narratives in which the pull of flesh and blood emerges from the footnotes.

LITERARY STUDIESDoubling the Point: Essays and Interviews, by J. M. Coetzee. Harvard $45 cloth, $19. 95 paper

J. M. Coetzee is increasingly recognized as one of the foremost novelists in the world today, but few are aware of his stature as a literary critic. His book White Writing is perhaps the finest study available of the issue of colonialism and postcolonialism in literature, but the fact that it deals with South African writers little known outside the country, such as van den Heever, has no doubt frightened off potential readers. And Coetzee’s many essays on well-known writers such as Kafka and Beckett have been scattered throughout largely obscure scholarly journals. David Attwell has made a valuable contribution by bringing together almost all these essays in one convenient volume (unfortunately it does not include Coetzee’s “The Novel Today,” one of his most interesting and inaccessible essays). The book also has a good deal of new material in the form of interviews Attwell conducted with Coetzee, which create an autobiographical context for the essays. Together they demonstrate what a careful and thoughtful reader Coetzee is, and frequently illuminate his own achievements as an author, especially the long article, “Confession and Double Thought,” which in discussing first-person narrative in Tolstoy, Rousseau, and Dostoevsky sheds light on Coetzee’s brilliant manipulation of point of view in his novels.

Only Mystery: Federico Garcia Lorca’s Poetry in Word and Image, by Sandra Forman and Allen Josephs. Florida $24. 95

Lorca was the consummate artist, a prodigiously gifted poet, illustrator, painter, and singer who drew deeply from the myths of his native Andalucfa to create his mesmerizing work. Forman and Josephs have fused selections from Lorca’s verse, prose, and drawings into a theater piece first performed in 1988. In book form, with additional photos by Josephs, this dramatic presentation retains its power. Lorca’s drawings, some reproduced in full color, illustrate moments—an image, a verse— from his poetry and suggest the complex mind of the artist. A few poems are presented in the original Spanish, with English translations. The introductory essay by Josephs (overly alliterative at times) tells of the essence of Andalucfa, “a living museum stretching from the Neolithic age to the present” in the words of Julio Caro Baroja. With its index of poems, appendix, and bibliography, this is both a useful and a beautiful book.

The Best American Essays 1992, edited by Susan Sontag. Ticknor & Fields $21. 95

Justly praised in these pages in the past, “The Best American Essays” series, which previously included some moving and delightful work, has sadly descended to unforeseen depths. If this volume represents the best recent essays in America, we might well conclude that the history of the American essay has come to an end. There is some fairly lugubrious prose offered up to the reader—pieces on Shakespeare and the literary “canon,” for example, that deserve, instead, to be published in the PLMA. There are several clever pieces by well-known novelists and essayists that remind us that even the best writers can write too much. Vidal holds his own with a fine appreciation of Lincoln, and there are a few other good essays here, but this is definitely not a book to curl up with in front of the fire!

The Invention of the Renaissance Woman, by Pamela Joseph Benson. Penn State $14. 95 paper

We read on the cover of this book that the “profeminism” of Renaissance literature has not been taken seriously because the playfulness of such writing was previously seen as part of a game. The author of this learned survey of women in Renaissance literature is, however, playing for keeps. Tracing the emergence of the “independent” female from Boccaccio to Spenser in Italian and English literature, the author ranges widely, covering Castiglione, Ariosto, Thomas Moore, and Sir Thomas Eliot. She provides an excellent bibliography of primary sources in a book which will be useful to those interested in the vast, growing field of feminist studies of the Renaissance.

Sororophobia: Differences among Women in Literature and Culture, by Helena Michie. Oxford $29. 95

The striking cover photograph—two identically dressed, nearly identical, crabby Victorian girls—aptly initiates Michie’s project. She dissects two conceptions of woman: the traditional patriarchal view of women as Other, site of difference and disorder, and the feminist view of women as identical, distinguished more by their sisterhood than by their individual identities. Using feminist theory even as she interrogates it, Michie shows how these identities play themselves out in both literature and popular culture. In a time when culture depicts women either at each other’s throats or joined in cheery, uncomplicated sisterhood, Michie’s subtle and original probing of women’s relations with each other is especially welcome.

In Full Flower, by Lois W. Banner. Knopf$25

The subtitle of this book—”Aging Women, Power, and Sexuality”—does not reveal its ambitions: Banner attempts to examine the figure of the aging woman throughout the history of the West. Beginning with an interesting analysis of Norma Desmond in the film Sunset Boulevard, Banner discusses women as diverse as the Odyssey’s Penelope, Queen Elizabeth, Colette, and the Wife of Bath. An uneasy mix of social and literary history, the book falters under its ambitions, gracelessly handling its double burden of exposition and analysis. The former is marred by sketchy portraits of distant cultures and factual errors (Shakespeare was not a courtier of Elizabeth, nor was Actaeon torn apart by wild boars); the latter from awkward prose and indiscriminate use of secondary sources. Chapters about the 20th century are the most successful; Banner’s reflections on the conflicted figure of the menopausal woman, for example, give the book an urgency its subject deserves.

Faultlines, by Alan Sinfield. California $48 cloth, $19 paper

In this stimulating collection of essays— subtitled “Cultural Materialism and the Politics of Dissident Reading”—the England of Elizabeth I is not the rigidly hierarchical, quasitotalitarian state that figures in much recent new historicist criticism. Rather, it becomes a place of vigorous and divisive debate—about the uncertain footing of Protestantism among alternative faiths; about the degree to which war exacerbated the schisms between monarch and nobles it might have been expected to heal; and about the role such competing discourses play in the rise of subjectivity. An unusually cohesive collection, Faultlines focuses on the literature of Sidney, Shakespeare, Herbert, and Spencer, yet never loses sight of the participation of these texts in the ideological contentions of early modern England.

Victorian Women Poets: Writing against the Heart, by Angela Leighton. Virginia $14. 95

This well-written book is a valuable introduction to the neglected poetry of L. E. L., Augusta Webster, Michael Field, Alice Meynell, and Charlotte Mew, and a fresh reinterpretation of the more familiar work of Felicia Hemans, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Christina Rossetti. Many of these poets were well known in their time, but have been shoved into oblivion in favor of their male contemporaries. In each chapter, Leighton concisely recovers the poet’s biography and then skillfully discusses the author’s major preoccupations and rhetorical strategies. Highly recommended!

Testamentary Acts: Browning, Tennyson, James, Hardy, by Michael Millgate. Oxford $49. 95

According to this biographical book, biographies are often made not only by biographers but by authorial manipulation. Millgate describes the efforts of various male authors to control their posthumous image, efforts ranging from the mundane to the scandalous, from writing selective and self-serving autobiographies, or producing collected editions that not only “collect” but exclude, to destroying letters and other documents. Millgate convincingly demonstrates that we should be more alert to how these acts of self-definition shape our reception of an author’s life and work.

New Essays on The Last of the Mohicans, edited by H. Daniel Peck. Cambridge $24. 95 cloth, $10. 95 paper

With interest in Cooper rising (thanks in no small part to the recent movie version of Mohicans), the timing for the release of this volume couldn’t be better. Academics and general readers alike will be well-served by this collection, which features stimulating and clearly-written original essays by H. Daniel Peck, Wayne Franklin, Terence Martin, Nina Baym, Shirley Samuels, and Robert Lawson-Peebles. A selective bibliography for further reading is appended.

Comic Moments, by Fred Miller Robinson. Georgia $27. 50

While not a sustained formal argument, Robinson’s book nonetheless develops a sense of the comic through the author’s method of looking closely at a wide range of “texts” from fiction, drama, film, art, poetry, and jokes. In 25 deftly written chapters, Robinson explores how contradictions are “both expressed and overcome” in comic moments from Chaucer to Jonathan Demme. Jargon is banished, and lucidity reigns.

Illustration, by J. Hillis Miller. Harvard $35

J. Hillis Miller’s project in this book is to give a sympathetic introduction to and critical evaluation of the newly emerging— and largely undefined—field of cultural studies. Cultural studies often specialize in promoting the arts of minority groups: women, Africans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, etc. Cultural studies also want to engage in an ideological critique of the existing established arts. Hillis Miller appreciates the concerns of cultural studies and applauds their effort to illustrate the socio-economic and political background in which a painting or a novel originated. However, he is skeptical with regard to the claim made by cultural studies to merely “illustrate” the “background.” A mere illustration is not possible, Hillis Miller argues. Already the distinction between “background” and “foreground” of the cultural milieu in which a work of art got composed involves a value judgment and presupposes certain reading techniques. The author stresses the continued importance of rhetorical reading or “so-called deconstruction” for a self critical evaluation of the interpretative work carried out by cultural studies. An interesting work with many colorful illustrations.

LIVES & LETTERSThe Selected Letters of Bertrand Russell, Volume 1: The Private Years, 1884—1914, edited by Nicholas Griffin. Houghton Mifflin $35

It certainly is a relief to learn that “one of the towering intellectual figures of the twentieth century” could be as goofy as the rest of us when it came to falling in love. With all these steamy love letters, one tends to skip those in which the mathematical philosopher and logician writes of higher things. This volume documents Russell’s emotional history and his professional career. In choosing from 40 to 50 thousand letters in Russell’s archives, Griffin, a Canadian philosopher professor and editor of Russell’s Collected Papers, has tried to cover “as many facets of Russell’s life as possible.” But he wisely excluded letters of interest only to specialists. The love letters begin with those to Alys Pearsall Smith, a Quaker feminist whom he married in 1894 when he was 22. The marriage failed. His next passion, Lady Ottoline Morrell, whom he met in 1910, inspired adolescent declarations: “You have released in me imprisoned voices that sing the beauty of the world.” Griffin has chosen 70 of more than 1000 letters Russell wrote her during this period. Griffin’s annotations are meticulous; his informative, linking commentaries and narrative notes are gracefully written, making this a valuable epistolary biography. The only flaw in the book: the publishers listed illustrations on page vi, but there is no page vi, nor is there a single illustration in the entire volume—an unconscionable omission.

Perry of London: A Family and a Firm on the Seaborne Frontier, by Jacob Price. Harvard $30

In this short volume, Price has added significantly to our understanding of how colonial Chesapeake trade was run. The Rise of the House of Perry, from modest beginnings in the 1660’s to dominance of the tobacco trade within 30 years, is matched for insight only by its precipitous Fall over the next 30 years, destroyed by commercial, managerial, and political misjudgment.

A Life in Music, by Daniel Barenboim. Scribner’s $23

The impersonal photograph of the author staring out from the cover of the book introduces the reader to the monotone of the book, which seems to have been largely written by the editor (Michael Lewin) from tape recordings. A life in music is almost an ironic title, since the “life” is scarcely told. There are, for example, only a few brief references to Barenboim’s brilliant wife, the cellist Jacqueline du Pre, who died in 1987. Barenboim has sought “to write what it feels like to be obsessed with music.” He has done this without passion. For such passion we must turn back to the music itself.

An Historian in the Twentieth Century: Chapters in Intellectual Autobiography, by Max Beloff. Yale $25

E. H. Carr once cautioned that to understand history it is vital to understand the historian. Lord Beloff, one of Britain’s most eminent scholars, makes clear the wisdom of this injunction in these mature distillations of 60 years of reading, writing, and thinking about the past. His trenchant, iconoclastic views on such topics as American party politics, French intellectuals, Russian imperialism, and post-colonial Africa, reveal traditional European sensibilities and an agressively conservative intellect.

Letters of Delegates to Congress, 17741789, Volume 19 (August 1, 1782-March 11, 1783), edited by Paul H. Smith, Gerard W. Gawalt, and Ronald M. Gephart. Library of Congress $35

Unless a general reader gets excited by watching C-SPAN, he had better leave this volume for the specialist. But scholars have a valuable resource at hand here. During the months covered in this installment (of a projected 25-volume series), the delegates handled military retrenchment, severe financial strain, and overtures of peace. The meticulous editing, brisk notes, and detailed index make this an essential tool for political historians.

African Laughter, by Doris Lessing. Harper Collins $25

In 1924, a five-year old English girl and her parents emigrated to the British colony of Southern Rhodesia in southern Africa, where she was raised on the family farm that was carved out of the unyielding bush. As a result of her outspoken opposition to the oppressive white minority government, she was exiled to London at the age of 37. There she became a distinguished prizewinning author of international stature. In 1982, two years after the colony achieved its independence following 10 years of violent bloodshed, she made the first of her four nostalgic visits to her homeland, the last being in 1992. This incisive memoir is her report on the labor pains in the forging of the new country of Zimbabwee from the ashes of colonial domination. Her poetic descriptions of the unbridled natural splendor of the land and spirit of the people are so graphic that there is no need for any illustrations. The reader is given a factually accurate and mature insight into the problems that plague modern Africa in general and the promising future of Zimbabwee in particular.

Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman, by James Gleick. Pantheon $27. 50

The author of Chaos turns his attention here to a figure of whom the normally reserved inhabitants of the modern scientific community feel comfortable in using the word “genius.” Feynman was as notorious among the lay public for his flamboyant eccentricities and unabashed vitality as he was revered among physicists for his visionary reconstruction of quantum theory and his unexpected insights into so many of the slippery quandaries of modern physics. Gleick’s biography is wonderful, maintaining the precarious balance between Feynman’s personality and accomplishments with apparent ease, and making accessible to the reader with a modicum of scientific learning the direction, if not the substantial content, of Feynman’s thought.

Samuel Barber: The Composer and His Music, by Barbara B. Heyman. Oxford $45

Late in Samuel Barber’s career, critics of the composer, encouraged perhaps by the disastrous 1966 debut of Antony and Cleopatra, became more strident in their complaints that his was an outdated music, trapped in the language of post-romantic tonality; indeed, the triumphs of his later years (such as 1971’s The Lovers) went largely unappreciated. Now we can recognize in Barber a composer whose musical idiom was genuinely rich, individual, and deft, bound to no rules that did not accord with its essential romantic expressiveness. He was perhaps America’s greatest composer in range, skill, and sheer appeal, and Heyman’s biography is a fitting tribute: meticulous, acute, and fascinating. It will be the starting point for all future Barber scholarship.

Louisiana Women Writers: New Essays and a Comprehensive Bibliography, edited by Dorothy H. Brown and Barbara C. Ewell. Louisiana $32.50

Like those in most compilations, the essays presented here are uneven. The real star of this show (taking up one third of the space) is the bibliography compiled by Dorothy H. Brown, a stunning picture of the vast written record left by some 200 women from the 19th century to today. In terms of productivity alone, the major women writers include Mother Teresa, Austin Carroll, Eliza Anne Dupuy, Ruth McEnery Stuart, Jeannette Walworth, Sallie Bell, and Mary Bryan—none of them household names. In her introduction, Barbara C. Ewell regrets the lack of scholarship given to these writers; Brown’s bibliography is a welcome first step toward increasing our knowledge and understanding. Scholars should follow her lead.

Pilgrim in the Ruins: A Life of Walker Percy, by Jay Tolson. Simon & Schuster $27. 50

In Pilgrim in the Ruins, the first major biography of Walker Percy, Jay Tolson has produced a sturdy, well-crafted study of the writer, his work, and the continuities between them. Working with Percy’s cooperation from 1987 until the author’s death in 1990, Tolson was granted interviews with Percy as well as access to his letters, papers, and personal records. The result is an illuminating account of an author whose life, according to Tolson, contained the kind of quiet, poetic drama that grows out of a quarrel with one’s self. “At issue in Percy’s plumbing of the soul’s restlessness is a large question,” writes Tolson. “Is there an individual, irreducible self that is worth saving? And, if so, how best to preserve it in an age that reduces the self to a problem that is to be solved by one or another therapeutic regime or else subsumed under some progressive ideal of a larger social good?” Seeking the gounds for such existential musings in the South’s “interconnected legacy of family and regional history,” Tolson traces the influences on Percy of his father’s suicide, his poet-uncle William Alexander Percy, his medical career, his conversion to Roman Catholicism, and his growing circle of friends and family. Perhaps best remembered for The Moviegoer— which won the National Book Award in 1962—Percy here emerges as a novelist and moralist whose work is an attempt “to find the glimmer of comic hope behind the stern tragic mask.”

Beatrice Webb: A Life, by Carole Seymour-Jones. Ivan R. Dee $30

In this curate’s egg of a book, Ms. Seymour-Jones provides a portrait of Beatrice Webb that is both sensitive and cloying. Webb, often dismissed as a cold, haughty intellect bereft of emotion, is here revealed as a woman who sacrificed romance and self-indulgence for a higher calling, unleashing internal tensions that led to fits of depression and anorexia. Nonetheless, Webb’s intellect did reign supreme, and her published diaries and letters remain the best guide to its power (as well as her unfailing social snobbery).

Song of Love: The Letters of Rupert Brooke and Noel Olivier, edited by Pippa Harris. Crown $22

In 1908, Rupert Brooke, age 20, met the 15-year-old Noel Olivier and became enchanted with her. Until his death in 1915, he maintained a curious friendship and romance with her, and their letters reflect both the passion and idiocy of youthful infatuation. Brooke is, of course, the better known of the two, as his death elevated his saccharine doggerel to the status of revered classics, but it is Olivier (who herself went on to become a noted pediatrician) who emerges as the more interesting, lively, and touching figure. These letters offer haunting glimpses of educated British society at the time of the Great War and of the particularly effete literary milieu that the sterner eventualities of history swept away.

Letters 1905—1965, by Albert Schweitzer. Macmillan $35

The scope of Schweitzer’s interests and achievements was monumental—physician, musicologist, Biblical hermeneutician and historian, theologian, worldrenowned philanthropist, and (perhaps the noblest pursuit of all) scholar of Bach—and the entire range is reflected in these correspondences. One will perhaps discover little new about the man by reading this volume, but it forms a fascinating chronicle of the development of the ideas and values that came to guide this most remarkable 20th-century figure. Small biographical details abound, enriching the text considerably.

FICTIONHello Down There, by Michael Parker. Scribner’s $20

In an auspicious first novel, Parker depicts the labyrinthine ties that bind together the citizens of Trent, North Carolina. After an accident in which he kills his fiancee, Edwin Keane, Chapel Hill educated and scion of Trent, finds himself facing a host of problems, among them morphine addiction and the inability to rid himself, as he says, “of everything I hated about my life and was too chicken to change.” When he meets Eureka Speight, he finds not only an audience for his words of redemption, but the impetus to purge his body of his addiction. The two travel to a hospital in Kentucky where Edwin finds some relief, but then they return again to Trent, seized by its baleful tentacles which stretch across all lines, whether they be state, class, or love. Reading this novel might remind one of what Wallace Stevens said about poetry, that anybody can make a clam play an accordion, for that is to invent, not discover. This is a novel of discovery. Its ambitiousness, exacting language, and the voice of a new author already sure of himself make it a conspicuous addition to Southern letters.

The Wedding Dress, by Carrie Young. Iowa $16. 95

A book like this reminds every reader of why they read and every writer why they ever wanted to write in the first place. The seven short stories in this collectiion are as fierce and beautiful as the Dakota Plains themselves. The author sets these stories there, where she grew up, and offers us not a glimpse but a penetrating stare into the eyes of the pioneers who peopled this territory through the Dust Bowl years.

New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best 1992, edited by Shannon Ravenel. Algonquin $10. 95

This is the seventh and, all in all, the best so far in Shannon Ravenel’s (and Algonquin Books’) evolving annual anthology of Southern fiction. There are 17 new stories, some by known masters of various ages—Lee Smith, Peter Taylor, Padgett Powell, James Lee Burke, Robert Olen Butler—and others by newcomers, including first published stories by Susan Perabo and Elizabeth Seydel Morgan. In addition to the usual contributors’ biographies, there is a photo of each writer and a brief commentary on the story by the author. An appendix lists the addresses of the many magazines consulted for this anthology, and the “Preface” touches on the subject of American little and literary magazines. Except for the absence of any strongly experimental work, a by-now predictable absence in this anthology, the collection is diverse and lively, a place to encounter old friends and to hear new voices.

Trial by Water, by George Cuomo. Random House $21

A thriller with heart, a courtroom drama with resonance and compassion, George Cuomo’s new novel (and his first in 20 years) tells the story of a kind of highschool prank that gets out of control and turns into nightmare. At the center of the story is the strongly realized Florian Rubio, father of a young man charged with a serious crime. Trial by Water is a page-turner with class and implications. The sense of time and place (now in upper New England) is wonderfully realized. This is solid and thoughtful fiction. The publisher compares it to To Kill a Mockingbird and Russell Banks’ The Sweet Hereafter. These are valid analogies to which one should add one more—The Just and the Unjust by James Gould Cozzens.

Fidelity, by Wendell Berry. Pantheon $20

Each of the five stories in this collection deals with the ties which bind people to the past, to the land, and to each other. “Making It Home,” which tells of Art Rowanberry’s return to Kentucky after World War II, is as understated and clear as Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River.” Another story, “A Jonquil for Mary Penn,” is an evocative counterpoint to Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” Tragedy exists in Berry’s fictional world, as “Pray Without Ceasing” demonstrates, but all events are ultimately redeemed by human and divine love. The title story is the weakest of the lot—Berry preaches a bit too much here—but the book happily concludes with the affecting “Are You All Right?” These stories certainly are, and through them Berry shows why he is a major American writer.

Maqroll, by Alvaro Mutis. Harper Collins $20

In this collection of three novellas concerning the exploits and musings of Maqroll the Gaviero (the Lookout), Mutis again distinguishes himself as one of the most intriguing modern Latin American writers of fiction. Maqroll is a marvellous creation, at once a bleak amoralist and a pious student of St. Francis, an adventurer, lover, and skeptical philosopher. The stories of his dark and often surreal experiences as a sailor, tapster, and gunrunner contain much that is amusing and a great deal of pathos, and the tale of his final confrontation with mortality—his crossing of the river Styx, so to speak—is almost hypnotically luminous.

The Hurricane Season, by Rosemary Daniell. Morrow $20

A first novel by an author who has already written within other genres about the habits and dispositions of contemporary Southern women, this book revisits that theme within the framework of the first-person account of the life and trials of a fairly successful woman painter, most of whose adult life is lived in and around New Orleans. The most significant (and the most heartrending) theme of the narrative consists in the relations between the protagonist and two of her children, both doomed creatures.

A Fine Italian Hand, by Eric Wright. Scribner’s $20

An actor is found stabbed and garroted in a sleazy Toronto motel. The work of the Mafia collecting on a bad gambling debt? So it would seem. But when the Italian community protest what they see as slander, the police brass bring in Staff Inspector Charlie Salter to take the heat. Charlie has the ability to get along with just about anyone, and soon has a disparate team of coppers working on the case. Charlie leaves the fisticuffs, guns, and gymnastics to other heroes; he’s a schmoozer and a thinker, who wears out a pair of shoes in each mystery he appears in. And he always gets his man.

Caetana’s Sweet Song, by Nélida Piñon. Knopf $24

Why is it that so many South American novels center around whores with golden hearts and poetic work patterns? The women in this book inevitably remind one of Gabriella and many others, yet because Caetana’s Sweet Song comes from a woman’s pen they have dimensions that Amado and Borges and Marquez have not reached. Set in a godforsaken Brazilian town, the novel is as lush and sensuous as the jungle.

Looking for Atlanta, by Marilyn Dorn Staats. Georgia $19. 95

Margaret is a woman who can no longer live the way in which she was accustomed. Her daughter died, her husband left her, and suddenly she is flung into a world for which her proper Southern upbringing had not prepared her. This is the premise of Marilyn Dorn Staats’ funny and touching first novel. Staats explores the struggles of middle age, racial harmony, and the price Southern women paid in the 80’s for being behind the times. The novel gains immediacy by connecting itself with the Atlanta child murders. It is an impressive first novel.

Mustang Sally, by Edward Allen. Norton $19.95

A lively, captivatingly written novel of contemporary academic and sexual mores, narrating the brief but variously disastrous involvement of a college professor with an ex-student of his whom he meets on a gambling trip to Las Vegas, and who currently works as a prostitute. Whether or not so intended, the book would constitute a plausible start for a promising film script.

Cry Me a River, by T. R. Pearson. Holt $21. 98

Pearson, author of the well-received A Short History of a Small Place, will garner even more fans with this deft and vigorous novel. Set in a small South Carolina town, the story’s narrator—an unnamed policeman—promptly tells us about the first murder victim, also a cop. What makes this conventional-sounding work so refreshing are, among other things, its dark (but down-to-earth) humor, its sharplyetched characters, its compassion for both the victims and their families, and its combination of modern and traditional narrative forms. Read the book before seeing— what is sure to be—the star-studded film.

Wake the Dead, by Dorothy Simpson. Scribner’s $19

This is the eleventh in Dorothy Simpson’s series of Inspector Luke Thanet mysteries and centers upon the murder of a prominent member of Parliament’s bedridden mother. It would be churlish to expect more of this novel than it gives: it is diverting, in an unthreatening way, and can be consumed in under two hours with no ill effects. The characters are decently limned, Thanet’s personal worries over his young daughter’s paramour are plausible and amusing, and the conclusion of the mystery is not blazingly obvious on the second page.

Sam’s Crossing, by Tommy Hays. Atheneum $20

Set in contemporary Atlanta, this tender and compelling story centers around Kate and Sam, a vibrant and loving couple in their late-twenties. Kate (a social worker) wants marriage and a family, while Sam (a would-be writer, who works at a book store) isn’t sure he’s ready to take on those responsibilities. Do they break up? And if so, does their love survive? You’ll have to read the book for yourself. But you won’t be sorry. For scene after scene in this remarkable first novel is sated with rich, Southern details, as well as an elegant and irresistible poignancy. The gifted author is an assistant director of the M. F. A. Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.

The Peculiar People, by Jan de Hartog. Pantheon $23

By turns lyrical, riveting, comic, and profound, this historical novel tells the story of Mordecai Mong, Quaker evangelist, visionary, and lecher. After leaving England for a missionary tour of America in the 1830’s, Monk finds himself involved with the Quaker community of Pendle Hill, Indiana, and in particular with the saintly Lydia Best. The Quakers’ engagement with the issues of the day—slavery, Indian removals—become major themes, captured in a tightly-spun plot. A thoughtful and challenging book.

Katerina, by Aharon Appelfeld. Random House $18

Steeped in the tradition of Kafka, Bruno Schultz, and Robert Musil, Appelfeld has been celebrated by Primo Levi, among “writer-survivors” for his unique voice, “eloquent through reticence.” The force and poetry of Appelfeld’s voice are especially present in this moving novel about a Gentile housekeeper who worked in Jewish homes before World War II. He speaks through his heroine, who poignantly describes the disappearance of the Jews.

NATIONAL & INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRSWhat It Takes: The Way to the White House, Richard Ben Cramer. Random House $28

Russell Baker claims that in 1, 047 pages, Cramer does for American politics what Marcel Proust did for French social and cultural history. A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for his reporting from the Middle East, Cramer seeks to understand what made six men run for president in 1988: Republicans Bush and Dole; Democrats Hart, Gephardt, Biden, and Dukakis. What drives a man to risk everything for the sake of ambition? Why does a candidate think he ought to be president and eventually conclude “I am going to be president”? Cramer tells each candidate’s story, first, from the outside and, second, from inside or “behind their eyes.” He interviews more than a thousand people. He reads back quotations to witnesses and every section of the book pertaining to candidates to them or a family member or closest aides. Cramer’s book is probably the most remarkable book on politics you will ever read. “An event.” “. . .hot, jarring, unsentimental prose,” say the reviewers. Scorching accounts of the realities of politics, says this reader.

Epics of Everyday Life: Encounters in a Changing Russia, by Susan Richards. Penguin $12. 50

It is not easy to write about Russia and the other countries of the late, unlamented Soviet Union. The scale is too grand, the panorama too vast, the human scene almost impossibly variegated. Susan Richards tries to give us a glimpse of a corner here, a scene there, a happening someplace else, and she brings a sense of humor and good cheer to her peoject—but it does not add up to much more than a kind of folksy travelogue. As Russia in crisis is producing no literature worthy of the name, so no one has been able to capture the facts of the great transformation.

The Pacific Century: America and Asia in a Changing World, by Frank Gibney. Scribner $40

This is a well-illustrated companion volume to a TV series which, judging from the book’s contents, should both enlighten and entertain its viewers; however, it can be read for its own sake. It provides a credible survey of its large theme, based on much research, as well as on the author’s recollections of his own protracted and diverse experiences in the Far East (as a naval officer, journalist, industrial executive). The contemporary histories of Japan and China constitute the most significant theme, but North and South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and occasionally other Asian countries, are also considered.

Anti-Semitism: The Longest Hatred, by Robert S. Wistrich. Pantheon $25

First given definition as a term in the 1870’s by Wilhelm Marr, “anti-Semitism” has a long history, from its pagan roots to the present. The author, who is a professor of history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has written this overview to accompany the Thames Television series on the subject. All such histories are written from the perspective of the present, and the final chapter on the Middle East makes one ponder anew the very resistance to the idea of the legitimacy of the state of Israel as the latest reflex of contempt in an enduring history of hatred.

The Forgotten Americans: Thirty Million Working Poor in the Land of Opportunity, by John E. Schwartz and Thomas J. Volgy. Norton $19.95

Work hard and dependably and you will earn a decent living, right? Wrong! The authors spell it out that twelve million working heads of American families earn less than enough to provide the basics for themselves and their dependents, the nearly thirty million of them living below the level of self-sufficiency. Add the welfare-dependent numbers to these and the resultant total should induce a searching reexamination of the basis of our economy and polity. With a blizzard of figures, the authors maintain that two simple steps would bring about equity: raise the minimum wage level by a few percentage points, and expand “the special tax credits for fully employed workers in a manner tied directly to the threshold of selfsufficiency.”

Education without Impact, by George H. Douglas. Birch Lane Press $19.95

A useful contribution to the contemporary debate about the rights and wrongs (especially the latter) of higher education in contemporary America. The author, who teaches English at the University of Illinois, emphasizes the extent to which the ethos and practices of graduate training have overridden, and made more difficult the pursuit of, the colleges’ original mission to impart to young undersgraduates a liberal education.

The Total Art of Stalinism: Avant-Garde, Aesthetic Dictatorship, and Beyond, by Boris Groys. Princeton $19.95

Herman Goering said that when he heard the word “culture” he reached for his gun. Stalin had a different reaction: when he heard the word “revolution,” he reached out for the most banal, timid, and obedient artists and writers and composers he could find. The idea was of course to transform culture the way bolshevism transformed politics, and to a frightening extent it succeeded. This essay by a German historian deserves a wide audience.

The Invisible Epidemic, by Gena Corea. Harper Calling $23.

The World Health Organization predicts that by the year 2000 women will outnumber men as victims of the 20th-century’s last plague: HIV infection leading to AIDS. Yet in this country for the first ten years of the epidemic, AIDS was treated largely as a disease that confined itself to men. The signs of AIDS in women went undiagnosed as potential cures for the disease were tested only on men, and little health care or research money was appropriated to address the gender-specific needs of infected women. Corea, an investigative journalist who has written two earlier books on women’s health issues, reveals these and other data as building blocks within a larger argument: American medical care is tainted with the same corrosive sexism that pollutes other areas of our national life. Negligence and victimization of women with AIDS fit the larger pattern, and the spread of the disease in this country is to some degree caused by the backward attitudes held so strongly by both the male dominated medical establishment and their counterparts in Congress.

Liberalization and Democratization: Change in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, edited by Nancy Bermeo. Johns Hopkins $35

Having totally failed to understand what was happening in the Soviet Union, political scientists around the world are scrambling after the fact to demonstrate why it was all inevitable. This work brings to bear the learned opinions of some very fine scholars such as the editor, Andrew Janos, Timur Kuran, and Russell Bova. The views they express are generally sound, if a bit late. Timur Kuran’s essay on the “element of surprise” helps redeem the enterprise.

Trading with the Enemy: A Yankee Travels through Castro’s Cuba, by Tom Miller. Atheneum $24

Never before has Cuba seemed so close, so warm, so accessible to a country which has imposed the harshest economic blockade ever placed against a neighbor. Miller’s descriptive acumen and his eye for irony make this engaging book both informative and important. Castro’s Cubans suffer endless lines for consumer goods, ubiquitous socialist sloganeering, and a maddening bureaucracy, but do so with patience and eternal optimism. They are here displayed as a friendly and open people who hope for better times while still supporting the positive reforms in education, health care, and literacy for which they can be justifiably proud. This portrait is Cuba close up, without the political rant of either country’s politicians getting in the way. We learn of living patterns, baseball, Cuban Jews, the Hemingway legacy, the racial mixture, the “Socialism or Death” bakeries and ice cream stands, the love of family, and the subtle resistance to billboard politics that mark modern-day Cuba. “Nobody on the bus shouted out |SOCIALISMO! despite a roadside sign urging travelers to do so,” Miller writes with his accustomed drollery. This is a touching and perceptive book.

Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality, edited by Toni Morrison. Pantheon $15 paper

“An accusation of such weight as sexual misconduct would probably have disqualified a white candidate,” writes Toni Morrison in her introduction to this collection of 19 essays reflecting on the Anita HillClarence Thomas hearings. But in “racialized” America, Morrison argues, troubled issues like sexual violence are routinely “inscribed upon the canvas/flesh of black people”—hence Thomas’s nomination to the Supreme Court was not withdrawn and a humiliating public spectacle ensued. These timely essays examine the conflictual intersection of race, gender, and class solidarities and attempt to deconstruct what Morrison calls the “ancient inflammatory codes deployed to do their weary work of obfuscation.”

Laying the Ladder Down: The Emergence of Cultural Holism, b

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