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Notes on Current Books, Spring 2000


ISSUE:  Spring 2000

With Cavespace to Cyberspace, Fishwick, one of the nation’s leading pundits of pop-culture, takes us on a delightful romp through history. He examines the development of popular culture not only for other academics but for those who enact this culture everyday. To this end, Fishwick translates his penetrating, archhistorical gaze into a style at once genial and accommodating while not relinquishing any of the weightiness of his observations. The result is a series of lively, wide-ranging vignettes. The scope of this is perhaps best illuminated by a sequential selection from the index: Microsoft; Middle Ages; Middle East; Mikado, The-Millenium; Milton, John. Such a book is bound to be diffuse, sacrificing depth for expanse; but with everything sacrificed, something else is gained. Besides, do we really need another dusty academic tome on pop-culture that no one reads? Instead, Fishwick has written something worth reading.

Five Days in London, May 1940, by John Lucaks. Yale $19.95

Eminent historian Lucaks describes the pivotal and suspenseful days between Friday, May 24 and Tuesday, May 28 of 1940, which marked a turn in British policy towards Nazi Germany: from one of uncertainty to one of resolve in going to war against it. Winston Churchill, seen by some as a rash reactionary, was the key figure responsible for this change. But first he had to overcome opposition and doubt that had been sown by some men within his own fragile government, in particular the Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax. Lucaks has a storyteller’s gift and writes beautifully on a subject that might by lesser historians be taken for granted. Must reading for any World War II scholar or buff.

Civil War Macon: The History of a Confederate City, by Richard W.Iobst. Mercer $35

Local Civil War history greatly enriches understanding of the sources and effects of that conflict, as is proven by this first-class example. This young deep-Southern city contained a remarkably heterogenous population and great industrial aptitude. Portraits of wartime experiences of local white Georgians and of Union prisoners at Camp Oglethorpe are vivid and thought-provoking. The account of life among local slaves and free blacks, except as laborers, is less thorough. Information concerning the ingenuity and determination with which ordnance research and the manufacture of arms were undertaken breaks much new ground in Civil War history. There is a rich store of social, political, medical, architectural, and engineering history. There is little information about the war’s aftermath. This is a pity, because one comes to care about the fate of Macon’s citizens, their prisoners, and their slaves. Illustrations are sufficient, but the index is not.

The Sun in the Church, by J. L. Heilbron. Harvard $35

This ample book examines the history of the cathedral as solar observatory, doing so with great erudition and rigor. Focusing on the oldest cathedral observatory, San Petronio in Bologna, the author presents a great deal of technical material concerning Renaissance astronomy that requires patience on the part of the reader. But the deliberate reader will be amply rewarded by an understanding of how the church responded to Renaissance astronomical theories. This study is in fact as much a historical investigation of the church as an institution as a study in the history of science. It illuminates the manner in which scientists confronted church doctrine.

Grand Delusion: Stalin and the German Invasion of Russia, by Gabriel Gorodetsky. Vale $29.95

In this fascinating account of the events leading up to the June 22,1941 invasion of the Soviet Union by Hitler’s forces, Gorodetsky draws on established sources and newly available material to provide his interpretation of the machinations and thinking that preceded the fateful decision to attack. While it is obviously a work of historical research based on solid facts, the writing is thoroughly engrossing and agreeable to the point that the reader has the feeling of reading a novel rather than what could be a history textbook. In a very convincing manner, Gorodetsky argues that rather than being a successful surprise, and necessary, preemptive strike by Hitler that simply outwitted Stalin and his plans against Germany, the initial success of the attack was actually due to Stalin’s genuine desire to remain at peace. Whether or not convinced by the arguments, the reader must be impressed by the author’s research and reason. An important contribution.

A Concise History of China, by J. A. G. Roberts. Harvard $16.95

To encapsulate the history of China from the Peking Man to Deng Xiaoping within 300 pages is no mean feat, and it is achieved in this lucid account with extraordinary success. The first half of the book is an interpretation of China’s early and imperial history, and the second deals with modern developments arising from the impact of the imperialist West and the Communist revolution. The account derives as much from up-to-date archeological information regarding early China, as from the multiplicity of recent interpretations of later history.

Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881—1999, by Benny Morris. Knopf $40

If you are looking for historical details of the military and diplomatic aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict, you’ve come to the right place, as this 750-page work is as comprehensive as its billing. However, if you are seeking to understand the more abstract aspects of the conflict, such as notions of justice, you will find little help here. Though Morris claims to be “objective,” his point of departure is of Israeli entitlement to what is now the nation of Israel. And while Morris, an Israeli professor, is considered a leading revisionist for debunking Israeli myths (such as his here noting that Israel actually enjoyed military superiority in its War of Independence) and while he can be equally hard on both sides, it does not change the fact that this is still history from the victor’s point of view.

The Power of Kings: Monarchy and Religion in Europe, 1589—1715, by Paul Kléber Monod. Yale $35

In this comprehensive work, Monod explores the relationship between the decline of mysticism in Christianity and the shift of European political ideology from belief in the divine authority of monarchs to the view of rulers as mortal servants of the state. It is a compelling parallel logically presented and argued, but its development is often weighted down with superfluous quotes and repetitive justifications. Any reader dedicated enough to filter through the excess will find a wealth of insightfulness; most will simply give up.

The Paths of History, by Igor M. Diakonoff. Cambridge $54.95

A hapless, ill-founded book, chock full of historical errors and theoretical inaccuracies. In an attempt to reformulate Marx’s five-stage theory of social development as an expanded eightstage theory, Diakonoff twists, or better, perverts, the meaning of history as a cycle of progression and regression in order to justify an overtly tendentious theme: namely, that the “historical process shows symptoms of exponential acceleration.” Diakonoffs fears, expressed on the last page, that he is guilty of mistakes and imprecision are unfortunately well founded.

Long Day’s Journey: The Steamcoach Era in the Northern West, by Carlos Arnaldos Schwantes. Washington $60

A prequel and companion to Schwantes’ wonderful Railroad Signatures Across the Pacific Northwest (1993), this is a majestic history of how preindustrial modes of transport in the Northwest worked to move goods and people and connect the region with the rest of the country. Schwantes employs a host of photos, posters, ads, and personal accounts to paint a picture of how the technology of the time was linked to and pushed by the needs of miners, mule trains, pioneers, and developers. Equally adept with narrative as with economic analysis, Schwantes places the reader into this rough and tumble landscape, moving with ease between the individual and the system. With 225 captivating illustrations and photos this is popular history at its best, wrapped in a first-class production.

London 1900: The Imperial Metropolis, by Jonathan Schneer. Yak $29.95

In 1901, Charles Masterman, liberal politician and friend of Bloomsbury, explored the triumphs and limitations of London as imperial metropolis in his classic, The Heart of the Empire.Schneer, almost a century later, returns to the theme and invokes the atmosphere of a London that was both dependent on Empire and alien from it. Empire was exotic (plants, animals, images) and strange (people, dress, custom, food). The ambivalence is well captured in this clear and well-written analysis of popular culture and party politics at the end of the Victorian era.

Slaves and Slaveholders in Bermuda, 1616-1782, by Virginia Bernhard. Missouri $37.50

For all the scholarship about slavery in the Western hemisphere, Bermuda stands out as an understudied colony in the Atlantic World. Founded in 1612, Bermuda was one of the earliest English New World colonies and, as Virginia Bernhard demonstrates, the site of an unusual slave regime. In the early years of settlement, white Bermudians relied on African labor primarily because Africans possessed skills the English lacked—as pearl divers, cultivators of West Indian plants, and weavers of palmetto leaves into baskets. Unlike other colonies, however, Bermuda’s size precluded the development of a plantation economy with its large agricultural labor force. The colony turned instead to a maritime economy in which black Bermudians had a significant degree of autonomy, and which in turn had important implications for the nature of race relations on the island. Without denying the presence of racial hierarchy, violence, and white dominance, Bernhard teases out from the often-limited public record the remarkable extent to which white and black Bermudians shared their society, lived and worked closely with one another, and were mutually dependent on one another. Bernhard’s work offers an important new perspective on the relationship between race and slavery in the Americas.

The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction, by Linda Gordon. Harvard $29.95

In 1904, a New York Catholic charity organization sent 40 Irish orphans to a mining town in Arizona to be adopted. Most of the adopting families were Mexican, and the local Anglos became outraged that “white” children were to be raised in nonwhite homes. They kidnapped (“rescued”) the orphans, and nearly lynched the French priest who had arranged the adoptions. Ultimately, the U.S.Supreme Court ruled in favor of the vigilantes’ actions. Through this series of events, historian Linda Gordon explores a multitude of significant historical issues, including racial identity and the hardening of racial categories, the economics and culture of mining in the Southwest, class formation, and ideas about gender and women’s role both in private and public. Her painstaking research unearths a detailed picture of social life in an obscure mining town, in which ideas about and boundaries between different racial groups and different class affiliations were becoming sharper. It is both a marvelous work of history and a fascinating read.

Empire Express: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad, by David Haward Bain. Viking $34.95

Meticulously documented and researched, Empire Express is a detailed account of the merger of the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific railroad lines in 1869.This history begins in 1843 and ends in 1873, spanning three decades during which massive changes occurred in the United States. Bain has gathered together numerous anecdotal accounts drawn from diaries, journals, and correspondence of many of the major players as well as some of the minor (though no one would mistake Bain for Howard Zinn here). This account masterfully moves between the national debates and the local discussions to capture and represent the climate surrounding the project. While lengthy at 711 pages (and 55 more of notes), Empire Express is a highly readable and thorough account of the building of the transcontinental railroad, an event which went a long way in sealing and synthesizing the United States into a nation.

King Philip’s War: The History and Legacy of America’s Forgotten Conflict, by Eric B.Schultz and Michael Tougias. Countryman Press $29.95

An attractive history of an unattractive subject, this book chronicles in precise detail the history of one of the most bitterly fought but also least known conflicts in American history. The war had a definite and lasting impact in New England, but was even more traumatic for the Indians involved, who lost perhaps 3,000 killed out of a total population of 20,000, with numerous families being uprooted or sold into slavery. The authors pay due attention to the wider social and historical implications of the war, but their true purpose is twofold: to trace the course and location of the events in as much detail as possible for the benefit of historical tourists, and to let the participants speak for themselves in the form of liberal quotations from original documents. The book is very nicely laid out and easy to use, as well as being a pleasure to read.

Walter Benjamin and the Aesthetics of Power, by Lutz Koepnick. Nebraska $50

This at times brilliant account of philosopher Walter Benjamin’s writings on the interanimating relationship of mass cultural forms and fascism contributes significantly to our understanding of Nazi culture. Anyone interested in the history of the Third Reich and its social and political projects will be find this book freshly illuminating.

The Korean War: No Victors, No Vanquished, by Stanley Sandier. Kentucky $19

With the excellent histories of the Korean War by Max Hastings and Clay Blair already available, one might well ask why Stanley Sandier has made his own attempt. Sandler’s book, though considerably shorter than its predecessors, is perhaps less accessible to a general audience. The author presupposes both knowledge of and interest in military history, and has little to say about political aspects of the conflict. His summary of the war has the advantage, however, of a more expert and specialized attention to military detail than most other books on the subject, and it provides insight into many peripheral aspects of the fighting not hitherto explored. This, rather than the “recently released Sovietera documents” trumpeted by the publishers, is the real attraction of the book, for it is difficult to see where the source material used for this study substantially differs from that already perused by earlier historians.

LITERARY STUDIESThe Cambridge History of American Literature, Volume 7, Prose Writing 1940—1990, edited by Sacvan Bercovitch. Cambridge $85

As with the other volumes in this series, Prose Writing 1940—1990, is a broad, expansive, and uneven work. The volume is split into the subgenres: Drama, Fiction, and Society, After the Southern Renascence, Postmodern Fictions, and Emergent Literatures. The two weak links, Drama and Southern Renascence, consist of a brief introduction followed by short pieces on major players in the genre. These sections barely get off the ground whereas the others are effectively organized into a progression of essays that in roughly 100 pages provide nuanced treatments of their respective genres, illuminating changing issues of style and content.

Rereading Frye, edited by David Boyd and Imre Salusinszky. Toronto $21.95

The extensive influence of Northrop Frye, Canada’s most legendary literary-critic, on our understanding of literature, culture, and the art of criticism is still just beginning to come into focus. The more we examine this notorious giant, the more we realize that Frye has beat us to the punch, for despite his architectonic impulses, he seems to have pre-figured much of the cultural criticism currently in vogue amongst English Departments around the nation. Rereading Frye attempts to reclaim this oftmaligned figure in light of his unpublished manuscripts. But beyond the introduction to these new papers, there doesn’t seem to be much new in these essays. They illuminate interesting points of Frye’s thought, but nothing that a careful reader wouldn’t have already noticed. As one colleague says, “I’ll leave the critics of critics to themselves and stick to reading Frye.” An excellent choice.

The James Dickey Reader, edited by Henry Hart. Simon & Schuster $16

In an essay entitled “Spinning the Crystal Ball” (included in Hart’s edition) Dickey asserts that “the test of all theories of poetry is the land of poetry they produce. . . .” Hart’s edition is true to this thesis: poetry and poetics go hand-in-hand. The Reader includes selections from Dickey’s poetry, fiction, and prose criticism. In terms of poetry and fiction, Hart’s selections enable readers to grasp the range of Dickey’s achievement, from his earlier, conventional, more “anecdotal” mode, to his shift to a more progressive, “baroque” style. Hart’s generous sampling of Dickey’s prose emphasizes Dickey’s importance as a theorist and critic of modern American writing. As a whole, the Reader provides an hors d’oeuvre tray of Dickey’s work. The selections, which include some previously unpublished work, are a bit trendy—but provide a good means of introducing the multivalent Dickey to the first-time reader.

The South in Black and White: Race, Sex, and Literature in the 1940s. North Carolina $34.95 cloth, $16.95 paper

Drawing exhaustively from a variety of historians, cultural critics, and other literary artists, Professor Jenkins explores the “irreducible complexity, or ambiguity, or indeterminacy, of human identity” in the lives and works of W.J. Cash, William Alexander Percy, Lillian Smith, and Carson McCullers. His close reading of primary text, cultural context, and personal history reveals how each of these writers feels peculiarly out of place—especially in terms of sexual identity—in the 1940’s American South. In seeking to cope with this alienation, each author “consistently returns to metaphors that compare his own status to that of the blacks around him: misunderstood, misrepresented, misidentified.” This feeling of alienation based on the writers’ sexual confusion and ambivalence combines with their confusion and ambivalence in race relations to shape the literature they produce. While the writers’ experiences need not “be conceived of as monochromatic and uniform,” for each of them, the black condition serves as representative for their own sexual alienation. In the end, Jenkins ties together inextricably white sensibilities and experiences with black sensibilities and experiences. This thoroughly researched book enters the contemporary literary and cultural discussion in an up-to-date, highly relevant fashion which makes it central to modern studies of race, sex, and culture in Southern literature.

Theorizing about Myth, by Robert A. Segal. Massachusetts $50 cloth, $15.95 paper

This is a bright and informative little book in which the author, who holds a senior position at the University of Lancaster, confidently picks up the gauntlet dropped by modern writers on the origin, substance, and function of myth in order to compare and assess their theories. Less a critical analysis of individual views than a taxonomy of philosophical, psychological, religious, and anthropological positions shared and disputed over the last hundred years, the survey ranges from the important work of Edward Tylor on the literal interpretation of myths to the popular Jungian romanticized constructions of Joseph Campbell. Along the way there are useful discussions of the ideas and opinions of Frazer, Jung, Weston, Eliade, Rank, Lord Raglan, and others, in which the distinctive approach of each is set off from the common scholarly ties that bind them together.

Reading Dreams: The Interpretation of Dreams from Chaucer to Shakespeare, edited by Peter Brown. Oxford $60

This volume brings together seven new essays by eminent literary scholars on the interpretation of dreams from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. With Chaucer and Shakespeare as critical nodal points, Langland (Piers Ploivman),the Gawain-poet, and Milton receive more than adequate treatment. A mixed bag of theoretical and methodological approaches characterizes this volume, and it will be of much use to scholars, literary and historical.

The Best American Essays, 1999, edited by Edward Hoagland. Houghton Mifflin $27.50

The editor is to be congratulated for putting together one of the best volumes in this series in many years. His own introduction, “Writers Afoot,” is a lovely, brief evocation of the pleasures of prose, which effectively sets the tone for the entire volume. There are essays here on beauty and spiritual meditation; essays on Ernest Hemingway and Pierre Bonnard; essays on personal experience that range over a wide variety of topics. Some of the pieces are remarkable for their brevity; they demonstrate how much can be said in few words. In brief, this book is a pleasure to read—cover to cover!

Inside Modernism: Relativity Theory, Cubism, Narrative, by Thomas Vargish and Delo E. Mook. Yale $30

This useful, intelligent, and careful book is concerned as much with the methodology of interdisciplinary scholarship as it is with Modernism. The authors see Modernism, which they place between the 1880’s and World War II, as a consistent structure of cultural values that manifested itself across disciplines. Those values, for Vargish and Mook, include a shift in attention “from a presumed external reality” to questions about “observation or measurement of the world” and “from normative standards for objects and events” to “the apprehension of objects and events as inextricable from their context.” The authors confine their study to fields in which they have expertise; they are much concerned to pinpoint demonstrable homologies across fields while critiquing suggestive if imprecise similarities that cannot be supported by the primary sources.

On Trust: Art and the Temptations of Suspicion, by Gabriel Josipovici. Yale $27.50

Ranging broadly over the history of Western literature from the Hebrew Bible and Homer through Dante, Shakespeare and the Romantics to Kafka and Beckett, the author writes in opposition to the “hermeneutics of suspicion.” He concludes by observing the lesson of literature in the last two centuries is not that culture conceals hidden strggles to power; on the contrary, he insists, we learn from this body of writings that, at bottom, it is impossible to exist without trusting! To deny trust, Josipovici insists, is to deny life itself. He finds the very fullness of being, in Giotto’s Charity, as celebrated by Proust—a figure who personifies an acceptance of the fact that life is lived in the world of others!

The Public World/Syntactically Impermanence, by Leslie Scalapino. Wesleyan $17.95

Leslie Scalapino is a prolific experimental writer (she would prefer the term “radical,” in part because her special brand of a poetics of critique tries to turn its severe gaze onto the avant-garde as well as the usual suspects of capitalism, imperialism, and more traditional literary practices). Since the 80’s, she has produced many books which have been beautiful, difficult, and provocative as well as lyrical, philosophical, and intensely moral in their mix of prose and poetry. Yet, in this new effort, Scalapino’s compositional methods seem to impede her very project of crossing into the “public world” or of communicating a type of interventionist poetics. In her attempt to “deconstruct,” “dismantle,” and “undercut,” in the essays of the first part of this book, her work seems to falter and fail, becoming airless abstractions that come too close to the oppressive structures that she wants to replace.

Still the New World: American Literature in a Culture of Creative Destruction, by Philip Fisher. Harvard $29.95

Fisher’s second book in a year, Still the New World uses literature to base its contention that all Americans are immigrants, entering a constantly evolving capitalist system. The study uses a range of canonical 19th-century figures— Whitman, Melville, Twain, Howells, and James, as well as Winslow Homer—to outline the representation of “creative destruction,” an economic term that Fisher applies to literary output. Basically, the term describes the phenomena where each succeeding generation destroys the mores of its parents and creates mores of its own so that American democracy is constantly in flux. Instead of lamenting the passing of older social orders, Fisher’s study seems to admire the resiliency of American capitalism. This “creative destruction” is necessary to democratic practice and the creation of democratic social space, most readily illustrated in the homogenization of the American suburb. Still the New World is a sweeping and thought-provoking study.

In Praise of the Variant: A Critical History of Philology, by Bernard Cerquiglini, translated by Betsy Wing. Johns Hopkins $36

For those who wonder at the attraction of philology, the 82 pages of this book should offer insight. This English translation makes this valuable little volume available to non-French-speakers 11 years after its initial publication. Cerquiglini excavates the foundations of philology, finding them resting in 19th-century nationalism and a markedly post-medieval idea(l) of “the author.” Although these are surely not new notions (nor were they even in 1989), Cerquiglini narrates and explicates them in a thoroughly appealing and convincing manner, and corrects many old canards. The extent of his gallocentrism can be a little galling at points; he seems to ignore Old English entirely in describing the rise of vernaculars: “The page that was blank from the 6th century to the millennium would be first written on again in Gallo-Roman territory.” Nevertheless, Cerquiglini’s ruminations on the constituting of French, the fixing of morphemes in writing, provides an approachable, yet incisive look at the real meat of philology, the sort of contribution to scholarship that it is uniquely equipped to undertake.

A Passion for Books, edited by Harold Rabinowitz and Robin Kaplin. Times $27.50

There is a certain irony in the appearance of this bibliophile’s treasury in the age of the internet when the book’s very death has been proclaimed repeatedly by the technocrat. No matter that hundreds of thousands of books are published round the globe each year. This volume from a wide variety of writers—including John Updike, Susan Sontag, and Umberto Eco—is a medley of essays on the reading, borrowing, lending, care, and appreciation of books. Anatole Broyard speaks for many in his essay, “Lending Books,” when he says that he feels about lending a book “the way most fathers feel about their daughters living out of wedlock.”

Trash Culture: Popular Culture and the Great Tradition, by Richard Keller Simon. California $15.95

The author makes the interesting and not altogether unconvincing point that works of popular culture are related to the “great tradition” of high art. The Fairte Queene, for example, is the urtext that stands behind Star Wars, as the author shows, and advertising promises a “utopia” of goods, he suggests, related to More’s Utopia.Simon’s suggestive book compels us, however, to contemplate the differences between high art and popular culture, between Madame Bovary and Cosmopolitan, between the beautiful and fashion, between the magic of language and banality, between insight and easy solutions, etc.

Criticism and Modernity, by Thomas Docherty. Oxford $70

This work deals with the intriguing question of the relationship between politics and esthetics. It traces the conditions under which criticism emerges as a sociocultural practice within the institutionalized forms of European modernity and democracy. It argues that criticism is born out of anxieties about national supremacy in the late 17th century, resulting in the emergent national cultures of the 18th century being sites for academic argumentation about the proper relation of esthetics to ethics and politics. At the broad levels of a sociology of knowledge, the work is an attempt to address the question of the legitimacy of academic work, especially in the humanities.

The Invention of Literature: From Greek Intoxication to the Latin Book, by Florence Dupont, translated by Janet Lloyd. Johns Hopkins $48

The assertion that classical writings do not constitute literature as we understand that term and that modern classicists and philologists err in attempting to assign specific meanings to ancient texts is novel and stimulating. Regretfully, this well-written book exhibits that unfavorable bias that derives from selectivity and distortion of data in the service of the novel and stimulating hypothesis. The premises: that ancient Greeks feared the power of written word over the will of the reader and that classical texts were unreadable malleable contracts between declaimer and audience, just do not make sense. Else why was such enormous money and effort expended during classical times in contentious and specific textual criticism of what Dupont terms “shreds of words.” Saving and savoring these books were, in fact, one of the reasons for the existence of the great Alexandrian and other libraries. Readers should anticipate considerable stimulation, richly admixed with frustration.

Why Read the Classics? by Italo Calvino. Pantheon $26

In this collection of essays, the most extensive collection of Calvino’s literary criticism available in English, the author posits a definition of the classic that is as pragmatic as it is poignant. Why read the classics? In many instances, a classic is a text which one has always already read. The classic, according to Calvino, is part of a collective memory, residing in the reader’s unconscious before the first pages are turned. The texts discussed in this collection range from the traditional works by Homer, Ariosto, Ovid, Voltaire, and Dickens to works by Calvino’s own contemporaries, including Borges and Pavese. What emerges through this collection is a vision of the classics that is highly personal: a library as a cabinet of memory or a map of the soul in which disparate moments coalesce into a continuous present. This map enables the reader to approach literary history through the intellectual history of a major writer, to see literature as an active constituent within memory and the imagination that participates in the production of new texts.

How Our Lives Became Stories: Making Selves, by Paul John Eakin. Cornell $16.95

Making Selves is an appropriately plural title for this fascinating new book on autobiographical writing. In a bold reassessment of an always lively field, Paul John Eakin re-formulates the way in which we experience self. Appropriating recent discourses from cognitive science to developmental psychology, he manages to create a unified theory of dynamic narrative discord—the making of selves: not one, but several. This book offers an engaging introduction to identity and narrative; Eakin not only surveys the prevailing theories as well as recent developments in a number of distinct fields but also discusses how his own views on the topic have changed over the course of years of work on autobiography. This is a well-written, timely, and progressive book—a surprisingly rare mix.

LIVES & LETTERSMy Friend, My Friend: The Story of Thoreau’s Relationship with Emerson, by Harmon Smith. Massachusetts $29.95

Even if they already know better than to think of Thoreau as the worshipful disciple who sought nothing more than to put into practice his master’s transcendental theories, this bracingly clear, humanely intelligent book has much to offer both professional and lay readers. Unencumbered by overtly self-conscious theorizing, Smith’s readable narrative follows these two giants from their meeting on April 9, 1837, through Emerson’s delivery of his eulogy at Thoreau’s funeral on May 9, 1862.The narrative often represents the excruciating ambivalence of feelings Emerson and Thoreau had for one another in ways that assume a familiarity and comfort with 20th-century approaches to psychology. But Smith’s skillful probing of each man’s depths—through close attention to famous works, letters, and each writer’s massive journal—is so sensitive, sympathetic, and gentle that he leaves the first law for all would-be healers, Do no harm, wonderfully unbroken. Highly recommended.

James Madison: Writings, edited by Jack N. Rakove. Library of America $40

The 197 letters, essays, speeches, and other writings which compose this volume make it the most comprehensive one-volume collection of Madison’s papers ever published. Here are the documents upon which his reputation rests: his Memorial and Remonstrance, the draft Virginia plan, speeches in the Constitutional Convention and Virginia Ratifying Convention, essays for The Federalist, the Virginia Resolutions, and the Report of 1800.As the texts of 151 of the documents in this collection were taken from The Papers of James Madison, the modern edition being edited at the University of Virginia, their accuracy can be presumed as well. But the volume is somewhat disappointing in that it gives short shrift to foreign affairs, containing only a handful of documents from the 16 years Madison spent as secretary of state and president. Given the fact that the Library of America editions of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson comprise 1149 and 1600 pages respectively, might the editor have been allowed more than 966 pages for the work of one of the most important political thinkers in American history?

James Tissot: Victorian Life/Modern Love, by Nancy Rose Marshall and Malcom Warner. Houghton Mifflin $27.50

This volume beautifully celebrates the fascinating Anglo-French artist James Tissot, who captures the Victorian world—the luxury, fashion, and materialism of the upper middle-class and also the nuances of its yearnings. Tissots’ paintings are well illustrated here in color (along with his prints), and each work is accompanied by an informative, if not provocative, commentary. It is suggested, for example, that in his H.M.S.Calcutta, in which the female form is displayed amply from behind, the painter might be slyly alluding to the French phrase quel cul tu as.Maybe?

George IV, by E. A. Smith. Yale $35

Historians have found little to praise about King George IV (1820—1830). E.A.Smith has written a splendid biography reassessing the life and reign of a king, traditionally pictured as a pleasure loving, dissolute dilettante, interested only in wine and women. He quarreled constantly with his father, George III, who forced him into a loveless marriage with a German princess. Smith’s excellent revisionist study of George IV, while not avoiding his sins, throws new light on his troubled relationship with his father. The author analyzes the king’s services to the arts and his contributions to the architecture of London. Finally, Smith stresses the influence of George IV on the British constitution, arguing that he laid the foundations of the constitutional monarchy.

Senator Thomas J. Walsh of Montana: Law and Public Affairs, from TR to FDR, by J.Leonard Bates. Illinois $39.95

Thomas J. Walsh, hero of the Teapot Dome scandal, is the last prominent progressive senator to be the subject of a major biography. This long-awaited book was a labor of love, distilled from research that occupied the entire professional lifetime of the late Professor Bates. It was worth waiting for. The determined IrishCatholic Montana lawyer comes to life in a well-balanced account of a very interesting reformer. The personal aspects of Walsh’s life are especially richly conveyed. Deft consideration of the national context of Walsh’s career is as would be expected of a well-respected historian of progressivism. The depth of understanding of Montana political and social life is quite exceptional. This splendid book will assume an important place in the history of an era in American history during which determined, forceful, eloquent, yet practical individuals such as Tom Walsh fought resolutely to “do the right thing” in government.

Captivity Narrative, by Mary Ann Samyn. Ohio State $25

The perilous rapture of fugue state whets every line of this highly original book, which borrows and embellishes early American captivity narrative’s textural and textual impulses to explore the complex thrall of emotional bondage, ransom, and flight. If the speakers in these rapt poems sometimes seem as interior, fragile, and disembodied as Rhoda in Virginia Woolfs The Waves, who was afraid to step over a puddle reflecting the sky’s anarchy for fear of disappearing (“Lock of evening, / I’m down on my knees. / My voice pleads and shreds./ A black lake at each wrist, / wind carries off my arms, / these twigs that beg,” Samyn writes in “Reality Trick”), the poems are also full of willful yearning and trenchant wit [in the brilliant “Mockingbird Pie,” she writes: “Enough of their all-night riddling: / the way they cry / covet covet I and think they’re you.”; in “Feminism, The Body, and The Machine”: “I am searching / for a limb to go out on— / some little thing that will help me / write more than a torso— / (that old lyric problem—)”]. These speakers face down the cruel whimsy of affection in contrapuntal morions and etymological plunderings which at once exalt the “beauty of capture” and the “thrill of ransom,” making consummate, and even redemptive, those moments before restoration, before rescue: “The dash says I know you— I The dash says / hurry up! / no, / wait—”

The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, Volume 4: 1911—19, edited by Thomas Pinney. Iowa $62.95

Anyone interested in British literature, European society, World War I, and Rudyard Kipling will profit from this penultimate volume of the great writer’s outgoing letters. Kipling supported the British effort in the Great War by writing patriotic verses, making recruiting speeches, and printing such propaganda as France at War, The Fringes of the Fleet, and The Eyes of Asia, The letters concern these works, as well as Kipling’s pre-war Rewards and Fairies and Songs from Books, and the post-war The Years Between, his last book of poems, which embodied the bitterness he felt after losing his only son John, killed at the Battle of Loos. The editor has provided a chronology and very useful annotation. But instead of an analytical index, he has supplied a register of names and correspondents (a cumulative index will appear in the series’ final volume). This is adequate, but fails to identify such subjects as automobiles and toilets in the south of France. These gems, and the great amount of personal material in the letters, are what make this volume so valuable.

Because Cowards Get Cancer Too: A Hypochondriac Confronts His Nemesis, by John Diamond. Random House $20

A print and radio journalist with a weekly column in the London Times, Diamond has crafted a direct and moving account of his first year following a diagnosis of throat cancer. Devoid of the saccharine or the trite, Diamond reports on the trials of having cancer with a spare, tight style that pulls the reader along, from the great fears of death and loss to the lesser challenge of telling an acquaintance he has cancer. This is not to say that Diamond does not reveal his very human reactions. Sadness for his wife (who has lost several family members to cancer), denial, and rage all form a part of the telling, but in a shaded and restrained fashion. Ultimately, Diamond’s tale is not one focused on emotion, triumph, or platitudes for survival, but instead is a haunting tale of passion, persistence and dolor. The story is well-told, with moments of humor and ample evidence of a dry wit and great intelligence, but it is the suffering of the author, his wife, their children, and their friends which undergird the tale. An unsentimental narrative that may be difficult for cancer survivors and their families, Diamond has produced a phenomenal book which will likely set even the most unreflective to pondering their own mortality.

Migration and the Origins of the English Atlantic World, by Alison Games. Harvard $45

Almost 80,000 people left England during the 1630’s and embarked on journeys to disparate British colonies in the Atlantic region. By analyzing a ship’s roster from the middle of this decade of exodus, Alison Games uncovers the divergent forces fueling this migration and does a remarkable job of uncovering the personalities on board, relating the passengers’ own account of their motivations and plans when possible. While attending to the New England and Chesapeake Bay colonies of North America, Games also focuses on English migration to the Caribbean, an area often neglected by scholars. Games’ relaxed prose style makes this study a compelling read in its own right, while her division of the ship’s manifesto into tables recording the age, sex, and vocations of its passengers makes her work an invaluable tool for scholars of Renaissance England, early American history, and colonialism.

The Last Will and Testament of an Extremely Distinguished Dog, by Eugene O’Neill. Henry Holt $15

This short book might have been saccharine and unreadable, but it is not. Instead, O’Neill’s paean to his loyal, honorable, sensitive, and loving dog will give all dog lovers a glow of recognition and warmth. The loss of a beloved pet produces unbearable pain in those who have basked in the magic of a relationship with a canine based on mutual trust, joy, and happiness. It is cruel that the master frequently outlives the dog, and the pain of separation is acute. Yet O’Neill mixes sadness with humor (“I would like to believe that there is a Paradise. Where one is always young and full-bladdered. Where all the day one dillies and dallies. Where each blissful hour is mealtime”) and the result is a thoroughly engaging way to remember a lost pet. “No matter how deep my sleep I shall hear you, and not all the power of death can keep my spirit from wagging a grateful tail.” There might even be a lesson here for humans. Twenty-five original hand-stitched quilts portraying the life of her Border collie illustrate this gracious text.

Voices of Russian Literature: Interviews with Ten Contemporary Writers, by Sally Laird. Oxford, $45

When one of his lady friends expressed an interest in meeting a celebrated writer, Samuel Johnson replied, “Dearest Madam, you had better let it alone; the best part of every author is in general to be found in his book, I assure you.” Johnson may have been right, but the desire to get to know the man (or woman) behind the book has lingered—and indeed intensified— over the years, and the “interview” has emerged as a popular genre in response to this intensifying desire. Readers who wish to learn more about contemporary Russian authors such as Andrei Bitov, Fazil Iskander, and Tatyana Tolstaya will be delighted with this new collection of interviews, skillfully conducted and translated by freelance writer Sally Laird. Each interview reveals an individual mind, but, taken together, the ten interviews in this book also add up to an insider’s view of Russian literary history since the 1950’s.

Stephen F. Austin: Empresario of Texas, by Gregg Cantrell. Yale $29.95

It is remarkable—even stunning—that no biography of Austin, one of the fathers of Texas, has appeared since 1925.In that time, Sam Houston has received several full-scale treatments (at least two just in the past ten years), while David G.Burnet, Thomas J.Rusk, Samuel Williams, and other Texas leaders have also attracted modern biographers. Austin, however, died before he could play a significant role in the Republic of Texas, and he was, it must be said, not the sort of colorful frontiersman often celebrated in Texas. While any study of Austin would be warmly welcomed, Cantrell’s biography is as close to definitive as is possible, given the paucity of sources on certain phases in Austin’s life. Cantrell writes well and is sensitive to complexities of Stephen Austin, as well as his father, the ambitious and intrepid Moses Austin. Perhaps most impressive is Cantrell’s handling of Austin’s long and often intimate involvement with Mexican politics.

The First Time I Saw Paris: Photographs and Memories from the City of Light, by Peter Miller. Times Books $30

Peter Miller, a small town American boy, visited Paris in the 1950’s with a camera and a voracious sense of wonder. The sensitive black and white photographs, and the accompanying memoirs, attempt to lay bare both the city and the young Miller of that period. The photographs do not display mature artistry, but their very naiveté captures well a mythic Paris which exists, perhaps, only in the imagination of the very young and very romantic.

Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume 2, 1933—1938, by Blanche Weisen Cook. Viking $34.95

The high standards established in the first volume of Ms. Cook’s biography of the most influential and significant of modern first ladies are maintained in this splendid sequel. The focus is on the pivotal early years of the first Roosevelt administration. Mrs. Roosevelt maintained a largely private profile during this time, but Cook makes clear her importance to FOR and the New Deal programs that she believed in, perhaps more strongly than her husband. Indeed, the manifold strengths of Eleanor Roosevelt, in her relationships with the president and others, as well as in her convictions of what constituted appropriate morality for a modern nation are key to Ms. Cook’s extraordinary exploration of this extraordinary woman.

FICTIONMountain Time, by Ivan Doig. Scribner $25

In Doig’s new novel, 50-year-old Baby Boomer Mitch Rozier drives from Seattle to Twin Sulphur Springs, Montana, for what looks like another of his father’s impractical business ventures. However, we soon learn that the older Rozier is dying of leukemia, and has a few other surprises as well. When Mitch’s girlfriend, Lexa, and her gorgeous sister Mariah show up, the plot starts taking even more turns, especially as a backcountry hike goes wrong. This is the heart of Mountain Time, and the book does best on Doig’s home turf along the Continental Divide. The story has a bumpy beginning—forcing in scenes about San Francisco Rollerblading and the Exxon Valdez oil spill—and the dialog is often awkward. Still, Doig lets his characters drive the plot more than any single message, and his superimposition of environmental awareness upon our high-tech over-connected world makes for an enjoyable read.

Look Back All the Green Valley, by Fred Chappell. Picador $24

With this novel, Fred Chappell combines his skills as storyteller, poet, and critic to draw to a close the beloved Kirkman saga. Ten years after his father’s death, Jess Kirkman returns to his mountain home in western North Carolina to help tend to his sick mother and to settle the family accounts. He takes the old key ring his father always carried and unlocks in his father’s workshop a world which he had never known. Following a baffling paper trail, Jess discovers that his father’s legacy is considerably more complicated than he had thought. The man who had always been a prankster was also a visionary philosopher and scientist; a dreamy aesthete and concerned friend; a poet and an interpreter of literature. In all things, Jess discovers his father was a bit of a mystery, a man he had only somewhat known. The journey also turns into one of self-discovery for Jess who finds himself on a Dante-esque journey into his own past. Following what has become a standard Chappell movement, Jess bounds through the mountain world in which his father had lived, recalls the fantastic episodes of his life, and listens to the combination myth/fairy tale/histories of the old folks. In all these, Jess inevitably calls forth from their graves the inhabitants of this rich, vivid world of imagination and re-embodies the characters —and this word is precise—of his life. The memories he conjures are complemented by things which are “not memories exactly, but echoes of sensations of long-ago time.” Chappell invites the reader one last time to travel through a magical world so we can collectively bid farewell to all those characters who have enriched it.

Alice Springs, by Nikki Gemmell. Viking $23.95

In this stunning novel, Australian writer Nikki Gemmell writes of extremes: of blacks and whites, trust and betrayal, love and the empty openness of loss. She situates her story in the Australian outback which is described with a toughness and a lyricism that reflects her narrator’s soul as profoundly as it conveys the landscape itself. Phillipa “Snip” Freeman, the narrator, is a young and fiercely independent woman who has received a large check and a mysterious note upon her grandmother’s death in which she is instructed to “hunt” her father “down.” She embarks on a quest with a truck and a traveling companion named Dave, a man who evokes all that Snip experiences in the world of men: love, fear, disappointment. They travel into the Australian interior where she finds not only her father but also truths that reframe her perceptions of her past, her future, and her very being. This novel is a best-seller in Australia and is certainly deserving of such a standing in this country. It is a lovely work, a coming of age piece, the maturing of a young woman into a new frontier of soul and experience that comes to look a bit like salvation.

The Road to Mars—A Post-Modern Novel, by Eric Idle. Random House $24

Late of Monty Python, Eric Idle is clearly a funny man. And now he has written a truly strange book. The style is akin to that of Neil Gaiman—filled with all manner of facts, beautifully crafted and erudite, but somehow just strange—not connected in the “normal” manner. The plot, while odd, seems plausible: an android writing a thesis on comedy (which he doesn’t understand, being an android) and gaining data by accompanying two stand-up comedians on a galactic tour. But in truth, the plot is no more than a convenient excuse from which to meander. Fortunately for us, Idle meanders with wit, ingenuity, and energy. I could spend many lines trying to convey a sense of The Road, but we will both be better off if you read for yourselves. Just don’t worry if you don’t understand.

These Bones Are Not My Children, by Toni Cade Bambara. Pantheon $27.50

Published posthumously, These Bones Are Not My Children is Bambara’s chilling fictional account of the spree of Atlanta child murders that occurred in the late 1970’s and into the 1980’s. Told mostly from a mother’s point of view, the novel captures the communal anxiety and the police insensitivity surrounding the crimes and the investigation. While deeply personal and affecting in its detailed characterization and gripping plot, Bambara’s book provides a view into the structural inequalities in post-civil rights era Atlanta. The murders mobilize the community while the authorities sit on their hands; and a mother tries to raise her children in the increasingly hysterical environment. The fabrics of family and community are stretched to the breaking-point. It is a very rich and worthwhile read.

Dearly Departed, by David Housewright. Norton $23.95

Holland Taylor—with a masculine, gruff name like that, you know he has to be a private detective—is a likeable, smart, and believable character. What’s more unusual is that his supporting cast are also well-rounded and crafted in detail; just enough oddities to keep things interesting. By itself, that would have been enough to keep the pages of Dearly Departed turning. Housewright manages, though, to surround his people with a plot that finds a rare novelty in the picked-over field of detective mysteries and a setting—rural Wisconsin—that has charm and depth. In the end, of course, it’s just a detective story. But this is a solid, worthy piece of entertainment, at the top of the craft.

What the Body Remembers, by Shauna Singh Baldwin. Doubleday $25.95

Baldwin’s novel is set in the Punjab during the years leading to India’s Independence, and partition, in 1947.By focusing on a Sikh family, What the Body Remembers manages to provide a different perspective on that tragic and brutal period which so often is expressed in terms of the confrontation of Hindus and Muslims. The viewpoint is, as well, a feminist one: the two central characters are the middle- and teen-aged wives of a wealthy Sikh landowner. The dilemma of these women, caught in a struggle for the favor of an aloof husband, becomes a metaphor for the Indian subcontinent itself, riven by the divide-and-rule policy of its British overlords. Baldwin adds a fresh voice to the extraordinary generation of writers of Indian origin who have contributed so profoundly to English literature.

The Adventures of Allegro Fullerton: Or, A Memoir of Startling and Amusing Episodes from Itinerant Life, by Robert J.Begiebing. New England $24.95

Widowed at 20 and facing a life of unremitting farm toil, the eponymous heroine takes to the road as a limner, or itinerant portrait painter. The year is 1836.Her success is mixed—her portraits prove popular, but a series of adventures finds her taken captive by a white slaver, sheltering in a Utopian community, and finally st

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