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Notes on Current Books, Summer 2000


ISSUE:  Summer 2000

American historians have long emphasized the role of the railroad in transforming 19th-century economic and social life, political processes and ideological persuasions, legal doctrine and strategies of business management. This pathbreaking book, based on meticulous research in archives scattered all over the South, puts the railroad lawyer at the center of all these dramatic changes. And it is a tour de force. Thomas describes the things lawyers did, why they did them, and how they felt about the work from the earliest stages of railroad construction (acquisition of charters and rights-of-way) to the later stages of defending mature enterprises against all sorts of attacks (rate regulation, personal-injury suits, Jim Crow laws). The result is not just a splendid work of history. It is the best account ever written of the tension between professional opportunity and professional responsibility, on the one hand, community sentiment and the lawyer’s quest for community approbation on the other. The book deserves a prize as well as a wide audience.

“Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!” A History of Exploitation Films, 1919—1959, by Eric Schaefer. Duke $21.95

This extraordinary book provides a thorough and engaging history of the classic American exploitation film. Schaefer is wonderfully attentive to the ideological motives and political circumstances that are responsible for these films, whose memorable titles include: The Naked Truth, Reefer Madness, The Flesh Merchant, and The Desperate Woman. Not only is a wide range of films treated, but often they are treated with great theoretical insight. So, for example, Schaefer reads the burlesque genre through the lens of contemporary gender analysis. A big and important book.

Reflections on a Ravaged Century, by Robert Conquest. Norton $26.95

This collection of essays by the renowned Stalinist historian, author of the classics, The Great Terror and Harvest of Sorrow, argues that evil ideas were responsible for millions of unnecessary deaths in this century. Having noted that 30 million people were killed by wars and 170 million by totalitarian regimes, Conquest writes, “ideas that claimed to transcend all problems, but were defective or delusive, devastated minds and movements and whole countries, and looked like plausible contenders for world supremacy.” He sees the Communists as no better than the Nazis, citing such evidence as a remark by Ilya Ehrenburg, Stalin’s poet laureate, about the kulaks, who were eradicated because they resisted collective ownership: “Not one of them was guilty of anything; but they belonged to a class that was guilty of everything.” Eloquently mixing history and literature and philosophy, Conquest, 82, is one of the last of a dying breed of literary historians; this book is among his finest.

The Kennedys and Cuba: The Declassified Documentary History, edited by Mark J. White. Ivan R. Dee $28.95

White has produced yet another invaluable resource for those interested in the John F. Kennedy administration and its policies and actions regarding Castro’s Cuba. The volume contains an excellent selection of documents, some only recently made available, detailing the correspondence and memoranda of the main actors—the United States and the Soviet Union—in Kennedy’s attempts to first oust Castro from power in Cuba and then to deal with the Cuban Missile Crisis and its aftermath. Separate sections address the Bay of Pigs and Operation Mongoose attempts at removing Castro. Documents pertaining to the nuclear missile crisis are then provided and followed by the record of a relative reduction in tension between East and West. A very well conceived collection. Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in these subjects.

Mountain Rebels: East Tennessee Confederates and the Civil War, 1860—1870, by W.Todd Grace. Tennessee $40

A prodigious wealth of new information concerning the Civil War has been published in the past decade. It is suiprising how much we did not know, and disappointing to learn how superficially we have formulated our views concerning the people who fought and endured that fascinating tragedy. Todd Grace’s account of East Tennesseans is among the very best of these new studies, portraying the Confederate side of a region whose Unionists have achieved greater scholarly attention. From it most of us will learn more than we ever knew about a distinct regional culture that reluctantly, dividedly entered a war that would blight its rich agricultural promise. Grace has distilled a clear and compelling portrait of the views of the men and women who constituted this “lost tribe,” their cultural ties, wartime activities, and disturbing post-war fate. With the loss of the flower of its young leaders—dead in battle or of disease, else banished in a post-war diaspora—the region lost a fiercely independent, hard working, upright, and largely non-slaveholding yeomanry. One joins Groce in admiring this complicated culture and mourning its loss.

Railways and the Victorian Imagination, by Michael Freeman. Yale $39.95

In this wide-ranging and thoroughly researched book, Michael Freeman demonstrates that one can give a comprehensive portrait of Victorian Britain from the perspective of the burgeoning railroad industry. He shows that this industry was central to the whole Victorian economic achievement, but also that the transformation it brought about in the British landscape profoundly affected 19th-century cultural developments. The book is a treasure trove of illustrations, ranging from paintings by such artists as John Martin and J.M.W.Turner to all sorts of railroad memorabilia (including fascinating maps, advertisements, and cartoons). Freeman reveals how railroads kept cropping up in unexpected places in Victorian culture—in children’s books, for example (like Cousin Chatterbox’s Railway Alphabet), or in popular music, like G.P.Norman’s “The Great Semaphore Song: There’s Danger on the Line” (“sung with the greatest success by G.H.MacDermott,” as the quaint advertisement assures us). This richly textured book deepens and broadens our understanding of the Victorian Age, and it should be of great interest to railroad buffs as well.

Murdered by His Wife, by Deborah Navas. Massachusetts $25

This short history of the murder of Joshua Spooner in Brookfield, Massachusetts, in March 1778 and the execution of his wife Bathsheba and three accomplices four months later recounts a case as sensational to contemporaries as the O.J.Simpson trial was to us. The beautiful and high-spirited daughter of General Timothy Ruggles, a giant of a man who probably would have commanded the Continental Army if he had not been a Loyalist, Bathsheba found herself trapped in a loveless marriage to an abusive husband. Becoming desperate after discovering she was pregnant by a 17-year-old Continental soldier whom she had boarded during his trip home, Mrs. Spooner recruited two British Army deserters to help her kill her husband and stuff his body down a well one dark night as Spooner returned from the local tavern. Navas provides insights into Bathsheba’s psychological state and also considers the political, cultural, and gender prejudices that prevented the state from staying her execution until she could give birth. The author also provides the full texts of newspaper accounts, trial records, and other primary sources dealing with the crime. This readable book introduces an infamous local episode to a wider popular readership.

A Culture of Fact: England, 1550—1720, by Barbara J.Shapiro. Cornell $42.50

Shapiro traces the evolution of the concept of fact and the development of methods for establishing facts that occurred when this concept was taken from law and extended by historians, chorographers, travel writers, the press, naturalists, theologians, and novelists. Common law made two important contributions to the widening domain of fact: the use of lay jurors to determine legal facts promoted the idea that competence to determine facts was widely distributed, and common law standards for evaluating evidence provided a model for evaluating evidence in non-legal domains. By combining a broad knowledge of primary materials with a sharp eye for conceptual change, Shapiro has written an excellent work in intellectual and cultural history.

Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” Speech Fifty Years Later, edited by James W.Muller. Missouri $27.50

Winston Churchill may well have been the greatest orator of the 20th century, and one of his most famous speeches was “The Sinews of Peace,” delivered at Westminster College in Missouri in 1946.This is the speech in which Churchill memorably used the phrase “iron curtain” to characterize Stalin’s carving out a Soviet empire in Eastern Europe. Having been partly responsible for Stalin’s triumphs, Churchill at least deserves credit for sounding his clarion call against the dangerous spread of Soviet communism. This volume commemorates the occasion of one of Churchill’s great acts of statesmanship, reprinting the original speech, together with Margaret Thatcher’s “New Threats for Old,” given on the 50th anniversary of “The Sinews of Power” at the same site. The volume also includes a number of essays by distinguished Churchill scholars, reflecting on the significance of his speech from a variety of perspectives, from the political to the literary. In a world in which politics has largely been reduced to 30-second campaign commercials and photo-ops, it is well to think back on a moment when a carefully considered and well-crafted speech worked to change the course of history.

LITERARY STUDIESLiterary Imagination, Ancient and Modern: Essays in Honor of David Grene, edited by Todd Breyfogle. Chicago $50 cloth, $19 paper

In the course of a long and distinguished career as a member of the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, David Grene has acquired a long and distinguished list of students and colleagues. Thus when a group of them assembled to produce a volume of essays in tribute to Grene, the result is more impressive than the usual academic festschrift. The contributors include such luminaries as Saul Bellow, Seth Benardete, Joseph Frank, and Conor Cruise O’Brien. And the diversity of the essays matches Grene’s own wide range of interests. Appropriately for such a famous scholar and translator of Greek literature, roughly half the essays deal with ancient literature, including a particularly valuable piece on “Poetry and Philosophy in Aristophanes’ Clouds” by James Redfield. The rest of the essays range all over the literary map—from Shakespeare to Irish literature to Rousseau to Dostoevsky and finally on to American literature. The essays are held together by the fact that the contributors share Grene’s own broadly humanistic concern with literature as a mirror of the perennial problems of man’s existence.

Boredom and the Religious Imagination, by Michael L.Raposa. Virginia $40 cloth, $13.95 paper

Raposa’s fine study takes a comprehensive, though not exhaustive, look at boredom’s place in religious thought and practice. His argument, that boredom is an important sign both interpreted by and interpreting religions, should induce the reader to pay attention to boredom in order to understand many aspects of religious life. With C.S.Peirce always informing his thinking, Raposa describes boredom as a subjective state in which things lack meaning, although boredom need not be considered negatively, as many aspects of spiritual life require disinterest, detachment, and repetition, all of which we associate with boredom. Raposa begins by situating boredom both religiously, giving much attention to Christian acedia (“spiritual dryness” ), and philosophically, through the eyes of Pascal, Kierkegaard, and Heidegger. Subsequent chapters contrast indifference with aesthetic disinterest and address redundancy’s role in religious practice. Raposa’s last chapter counterpoises boredom and Peirce’s semiotic category of musement, which is characterized by attentiveness, imaginative play, and abductive reasoning, all of which the bored individual Announcing the 2000 lacks. Indeed, the book is an example of musement in action, and the reader may finally conclude that this state is contagious. Raposa concludes with an interesting postlude on waiting, which the author argues is an important spiritual exercise in its own right. Scholars in many fields, and general readers alike, should find something valuable here.

Cartographies of Desire: Captivity, Race if Sex in the Shaping of an American Nation, by Rebecca Blevins Faery. Oklahoma $39.95

In Cartographies of Desire, Faery recontextualizes the stories of two women’s very different captivities in the 17th century. Faery begins in well-charted territory, addressing the fears of white patriarchy through Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative. But Faery’s pursuits take a more interesting turn when she investigates the appropriation of Pocohontas throughout nearly 400 years of Anglo-American culture. While drawing out the young native’s own unwritten story of captivity by “civilization,” Faery follows the story through many manifestations (even Disney’s recent movie) to the state of white and native American relations today. Throughout the text, Faery finds a nice balance between academic investigation and personal narrative, making the book not only sophisticated enough for scholars but also entertaining for readers outside her field.

Dreaming by the Book, by Elaine Scarry. Farrar, Straus & Giroux $26

Scarry is an anatomist of the imagination, if a dynamic power admits of anatomization. Her book explores how the “verbal arts” provide so potent a tool for our own imaginings—how the radically uniconic characters of language can manage to provoke so regularly the extremities of presence and, in her terms, solidity, in the mind’s eye. But to realize this aim, she must also spend a good deal of time talking about the workings of the imagination, and it is in this discussion that the book’s value is revealed. Although at times the book veers toward the precious in its discussions of flowers, cardinals, and various pieces of bric-a-brac, it never becomes precious: her inquisitiveness is too sincere for that. Her method is simple: she watches, with painstaking patience and stillness, before the mind’s machinations. Her approach bears some resemblances to Aristotle’s, especially in her direct attention to reality rather than sideways glances at her peers in references, though the references are there in apt abundance. Erudite in literature and literary theory, she is almost as adept in cognitive psychology and philosophy. Indeed she has written an appendix to Aristotle, perhaps best entitled De Imaginatione, though I wonder whether it fits better to the end of his De Anima, “On the Soul,” or his Poetics. Either way, if you would like to think about the processes and offices of the imagination, you will find this book a wondrously generous guide.

Bloomsbury and France: Art and Friends, by Mary Ann Caws and Sarah Bird Wright. Oxford $35

Caws and Wright have divided their large and lavishly produced Bloomsbury and France into three parts: early visits of Bloomsbury figures to France; the Bloomsbury painters who settled for longer periods and interacted with important French artists (beautifully illustrated); and the relationship between certain writers, Roger Fry, for instance, and French writers and critics. The book draws upon previously unpublished correspondence, memoirs, and photographs. Remarkably, for all the introspection the contact provoked within that insular group, its members remained as apart from the vibrant intellectual and political currents of French life in the early decades of the century as the British were from Indian culture during the Raj. This carefully researched work makes an important contribution to our understanding of Bloomsbury.

Envisioning Africa, by Peter Edgerly Firchow. Kentucky $34.95

Subtitled “Racism and Imperialism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,” Firchow addresses negative readings of Conrad’s story perpetrated by certain modern critics, chiefly those of the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe. The author takes these critics to task for questionable leaps of logic, misconstructions, and distorted readings. Firchow’s verdict, based on a thorough and well-researched analysis, is scathing. Maps, photographs, illustrations, a plentitude of end-notes, an impressive bibliography, and an appendix that includes an eye-witness account (translated from the German) are brought to bear in this interesting work that is both a defense of an acknowledged masterpiece of English literature and an attack on sloppy criticism. The professor has done his homework and makes his case for Conrad with a scientist’s meticulousness. His book will be essential for Conrad scholars and a fascinating read for anyone with an interest in literary polemics and/or late 19th-century European colonial activities in central Africa.

Shakespeare’s Twenty-First Century Economics: The Morality of Love and Money, by Frederick Turner. Oxford $35

Turner examines Shakespeare’s use of economic obligation as a community-building force in his plays and sonnets. Dislocating money from its purely materialist context, Turner finds a spiritual value generated in the playwright’s characterization of contracts and bonds. Cordelia in King Lear, for instance, expresses a moral as well as a financial debt when she says she loves her father “according to [her] bond.” Such bond relationships contain within them, Turner says, “mysteries of growth and profit that we have already found in the natural processes Shakespeare celebrates in the Sonnets and The Winter’s Tale.” Turner’s addition to previous scholarship on economics in Shakespeare is his identification of an ultimately generative and transformative force in the social emotions linked to business transactions.

The Novels and Plays of Eduardo Manet: An Adventure in Multlculturalism, by Phyllis Zatlin. Penn State $42.50

Manet (b. 1930), a Cuban exile living in Paris, now writes in French, the language in which most of his plays have been performed (although his 1969 Les Nonnes has been translated into 21 languages). Little known outside the world of French letters and his native Cuba, he has nonetheless garnered praise and prizes for his work. His novels have been nominated for the Prix Goncourt, among other accolades. Yet this double exile (once from Batista’s profligacy and again from Castro’s repressions) resists easy categorization. Zatlin’s excellent introduction to his work will bring Manet deservedly to a wider audience. She is balanced, informative, probing, and graceful in her assessment of Manet’s comic and tragicomic writing.

The Trouble With Principle, by Stanley Fish. Harvard $24.95

Stanley Fish revels in controversy and provocation. He is thoughtful, frequently original, often wrong, and always powerful. In this new book he tackles his usual breadth of subjects (targets, perhaps) to lay out what he thinks he believes about truth, reason, political theory, belief, and liberalism. He opens with a thought about Peckinpah’s The Wild, Bunch—“it’s not giving your word that’s important, it’s who you give your word to”—which reminds the reader that the movie, while being somewhat philosophical, is also downright bloody. Fish, like The Wild Bunch, is bloody but never boring. He forces one to think thoughts agains the grain, to question assumptions and reject received opinion. He has some strong things to say about Rosenberger v. University of Virginia (1995), the Wide Awake case.

The Union Image: Popular Prints of the Civil War North, by Mark E.Neely and Harold Holzer. North Carolina $45

This over-sized, aesthetically pleasing book uses more than 150 prints to examine changes in public opinion in Northern society during the Civil War era. Excellent reproductions of original prints form the core of chapters that link various facets of artistic imagery to the history of the war and American popular culture. Topics examined include military portraiture, soldier life in camp, privation on the home front, battle prints, and campaign ads from the 1864 presidential election. Perhaps most interesting is a chapter on postwar portraiture of the victorious military and political leadership, some of the first battles to shape the national memory of the war. The authors also discuss the changing roles of women and black Americans in the course of the war, including the depiction of troops storming Fort Wagner that graces the cover.

Shakespeare’s Kings, by John Julius Norwich. Scribner $30

Here is a book so charmingly written as to be difficult to put down—an historical account of Shakespeare’s English Kings from Edward III to Richard III, a valuable, interesting, and very informative companion for the lover of the history plays. Insofar, it partakes of the charm of Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare. It is not a deeply analytical work, tormenting itself and the reader with the difficult issues of facts and art, Shakespeare’s intentions, and the role these plays fulfilled in the establishment of British national identity. This will be an advantage to the generalist, little enough caviar for the specialist. As with Shakespeare himself, the author becomes engrossed in the telling of a delightful and well-researched tale and cannot be bothered to clutter it up with uncertainties. It is nonetheless true that all but the most analytical will enjoy having this volume at their elbow.

What Nietzsche Really Said, by Robert C. Solomon and Kathleen M.Higgins. Schocken $23

Solomon and Higgins have set out to save Nietzsche from shallow readers and term-droppers (those who pull terms from context). They provide a decent historical and intellectual context for the philosopher and his work and their book is an adequate primer for someone unfamiliar with Nietzsche’s work beyond the ‘God is dead’-type adages. But their deep investment in Nietzsche betrays a lack of objectivity; they often seem to be crusaders, protecting even Nietzsche himself from his well-known rhetorical wrath. They even go so far as to reduce his thought to two ‘Top Ten’ lists of people he admired and despised. In a world where there is hardly time enough for one to read the actual texts, books like this may become prevalent; but they are no substitute for “what Nietzsche reallysaid.”

The Lost Suitcase: Reflections on the Literary Life, by Nicholas Delbanco. Columbia $24.95

The first essay of this eloquent and gratifying collection ends with a meditation on the ancient cave paintings in Lascaux, France. Posing the impossible question, “How was this done?,” Delbanco seems also to be addressing the mysterious, enduring images of good writing. In Lascaux “the artist who outlined the mammoth’s tusks could not have seen the painted tail; it would have been impossible, while working, to view the creature steadily and whole.” Such is the case with writing. The modern writer works in the same darkness that overwhelmed the artists at Lascaux, “with no notion of what lasts,” with no complete view of the creature created. Yet the results can astound and persist. The weight and inspiration of darkness is a common theme in these essays, as is travel and death, leaving the reader rather pensive and melancholy—but also attuned to the glorious possibilities of written works of art.

Signatures of Graces: Catholic Writers on the Sacraments, edited by Thomas Grady and Paula Huston. Dutton $23.95

In this erratic, but at times lyric, collection, eight Catholic writers of fiction take on the seven sacraments, mixing Church history with personal anecdotes from their spiritual journeys. In Patricia Hampl’s meditation on penance, we learn the ancient origins of “the solemn drama of the little black box” as she rediscovers her need for spiritual reconciliation. Huston’s treatment of matrimony begins with an outrageous story of religious tourism and ends by lingering on the aftereffects of adultery and annulments. With such a promising premise, it is a shame this collection turned out so uneven. The essay on Holy Orders, for example, enriched by passages of medieval poetry and perceptive thoughts about the mystery of God, is indeed pious and fulfilling, while the entries on confirmation and even baptism read like warmed-over homework assignments. As with any real-life quest for God, this book is marked both by dreary dry spells and unexpected flashes of grace.

The Friendly Jane Austen: A Well-Mannered Introduction to a Lady of Sense & Sensibility, by Natalie Tyler. Viking $26.95

Jane Austen is big right now. Almost all of her work has been sumptuously filmed, and her books are selling like hot cakes. For those who just can’t get enough of her, The Friendly Jane Austen should be a welcome treat. The latest in Viking’s Friendly pop reference series, the book offers quizzes; complete guides to every novel and major character; portraits, photographs, and elegant pen-and-ink illustrations; interviews with novelists and Austen scholars; a filmography; a bibliography; and a slew of recipes. We get in-depth reports on Austen’s view of walking, childbirth and money; an explanation of primogeniture; a look at Georgian London; a description of Austen’s clothes; and much, much more. A delightful book.

Reading 1922: A Return to the Scene of the Modern, by Michael North. Oxford $35

Professor North’s latest work sets out to challenge and generate new understandings of the concept of modernism through an examination of a single, seminal year.1922 witnessed the publication of a number of influential works including Ulysses and The Waste Land. However, North also concerns himself with lesser known works such as Zane Grey’s best-selling The Day of the Beast and Charles (a.k.a. Charlie) Chaplin’s My Trip Abroad. North sets out to contextualize our understanding of aesthetic or “High” modernism against the fraught, churning cultural backdrop of the early 1920’s in America, Europe, and beyond. His command and clever juxtapositions of materials both expected and esoteric are impressive. At various turns, we learn of Virginia Woolf’s fascination with the new technology of skywriting, and James Dewey’s heated relationship with Anzia Yezierska, author of the lurid Salome of the Tenements.Often, much of Reading 1922 feels like inspired literary journalism rather than the provocative criticism of modernity one would expect, but as an exercise in cultural reading North manages to further complicate and revitalize debates over what it means for any text, or any person, to be called modern.

Romanticism and Colonial Disease, by Alan Bewell. Johns Hopkins $45

This exhaustively documented study assesses the epidemiological impact of British imperialism on native and colonial cultures during the Romantic period. Bewell’s dissection of the Romantic literature reveals a contagion of anxiety —a diagnosis indicative of self-revelation and contemplation by the various authors on the worldwide costs of empire and morbidity. The impact of global pathogenesis on the formation of national identities informs current historical, literary, medical, economic, and political scholarly debate. The intellectual range of this book should invigorate the critical examination of the relationship between pathology, literary creativity, historical experience and British hegemony. As a nurse and historian, I found it a thought-provoking and fascinating interdisciplinary exploration.

LIVES & LETTERSIn Montaigne’s Tower, by Hilary Masters. Missouri $19.95

“Almost every important writer in the American anthology,” notes Masters, “has explored this region we call our past.” This collection of essays, then, would seem to locate Masters himself as one of these great American writers. With an eye for life’s essential tensions, Masters renders in lucid detail the moments in his past that define him. But they are moments available to us all—emotion, experience, expression. In each of these brief essays, Masters moves smoothly through the deep reservoir of shared cultural meaning—a uniquely American experience. And this is what makes this collection of essays so enjoyable to read, so familiar, so valuable.

Yeats’s Ghosts: The Secret Life of W. B. Yeats, by Brenda Maddox. HarperCollins $32

Acclaimed biographer of James Joyce’s wife, Nora, Brenda Maddox has now written a spirited and incisive life of the great Irish poet of the 20th century, W.B.Yeats. Focusing on the last two decades of Yeats’s life, Maddox explores in engaging prose the poet’s love affairs, his flirtation with right-wing politics, and his immersion in the mysteries of the occult. At the center of this neat biography, which often treats the great poet with beguiling wryness, is Yeats’s marriage late in life with an Englishwoman named Georgie. Maddox persuasively traces through Georgie’s Automatic Script the hidden story of Georgie’s efforts to capture her husband’s sexual and imaginative attention. The result of Maddox’s careful toil is a well-researched and sprightly biography.

Gone: The Last Days of The New Yorker, by Renata Alder. Simon & Schuster $25

This is a nasty, and utterly fascinating, book. Renata Alder, long-time former reporter for The New Yorker, details her anger and distress over the post-Shawn decline and death (her word) of the noble weekly. Ranging between sour grapes, lucid reporting, charming stories, and pointless anecdotes, she writes an insiders book about New York and writers in New York. Her portraits of Lillian Ross, Adam Gopnik, Penelope Gilliatt, Robert Gottlieb, and Tina Brown are devastating, revealing both her penchant for unpleasantness and her capacity for acute observation. Even William Shawn himself comes across as an autocratic, bumbling, and meanspirited (although “brilliant”) editor, inspiring fear among the staff and showing favoritism throughout his reign. While railing against the decline in the fact-checking department, she herself falls into minor error (Borges never received the Nobel Prize) and contradiction, and consistently reveals her unusual love/hate/fear relationship with Shawn (“I was afraid to make him angry”; Janet Malcolm, who so adroitly reported the psychological machinations of Jeffrey Masson and Joe McGinniss, would have a field day with this book). Like watching a car wreck, reading this Fear and Loathing at The New Yorker is a painful but hypnotic experience.

First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, by Loung Ung. HarperCollins $23

In Angela’s Ashes Frank McCourt says nothing can compare with “the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.” Loung Ung might disagree. Born to a middle-class Phnom Penh household, Ung suffered Cambodia’s darkest years—the Khmer Rouge rule of 1975 to 1979, which left more than 1.5 million dead from starvation, disease, forced labor, and political execution. It is a genocide forgotten by many Americans, but Ung’s first-person present-tense account resurrects this human tragedy. In 240 pages, Ung creates a vivid narrative about her family’s survival, and as her title indicates, its losses. Ung’s writing is clean and direct, the events painted in lucid, if sometimes horrifying detail. The little girl who comes to America at the end of this book is one we feel we know, a girl who has told us her story—an awful piece of history we’ll never forget.

Waiting on the Bounty: The Dust Bowl Diary of Mary Knackstedt Dyck, edited by Pamela Riney Kehrberg. Iowa $37.95

This book provides an unusually intimate view of the trials, tribulations, and tedium of farm life on the southern plains during the Great Depression. A companion volume to the editor’s published dissertation, Rooted in Dust: Surviving Drought and Depression in Southwestern Kansas, it consists of entries extracted from more than 3,000 manuscript pages of a diary kept by a little-educated middle-aged woman from 1936 until 1941 and provides much material to begin meeting the 1981 challenge of historian John Mack Faragher to understand American history from the inside-out by studying the lives of rural women. Dyck’s life, self-defined by family, home, and farm during a time of tremendous economic and environmental stress, reminds us how hard things were for Dustbowlers just 60 years ago: her farmhouse in southwestern Kansas had neither electricity, telephone nor indoor plumbing. Bleak prospects propelled her adult children off the farm, Dyck’s most poignant loss. Their return visits with her grandchildren and daily radio broadcasts were her greatest pleasures amidst an unending repetition of chores. Mary Dyck’s chronicle of persistence and hope makes for touching, if rather dry, reading.

The Papers of Jefferson Davis, Vol. 10: October 1863-August 1864, edited by Lynda Lasswell Crist, Kenneth H.Williams, and Peggy L.Dillard. Louisiana $95

The period covered by this volume was an increasingly unhappy time for the 55-year-old president of the Confederacy, as grim military, political, and economic realities imposed upon the dreams of the still ardent Southern nationalist. As he stood near the site of General Braxton Bragg’s victory at Chickamauga in October 1863, Davis expressed his deep conviction of the Confederacy’s eventual success “under the blessing of Providence.” Eleven months (and four commanders) later, Atlanta, the Deep South’s primary supply center, was surrendered to General Sherman. The 2,000 documents printed, extracted, and calendared in this volume have been selected for publication from about 4,500 Davis items of the period. They detail: his trip to Georgia to inspect the Army of the Tennessee; Robert E.Lee’s successful defense of the capital; Confederate diplomacy; failed attempts to influence the U.S.presidential election; increasingly desperate homefront conditions; issues of state rights; and the personal tragedy of Davis’s five-year-old son Joseph’s death. Through it all, Davis bravely soldiered on, as an increasingly unappreciated sentry of hope for his people.

Founding Friendship: George Washington, James Madison, and the Creation of the American Republic, by Stuart Leibiger. Virginia $35

This book examines the friendship and working relationship between James Madison and George Washington and makes a case for the importance of their collaboration in the creation and adoption of the U. S. Constitution and the establishment of the American Republic. Their shared commitment to republicanism during the later years of the, revolutionary war, reinforced during the 1780’s by their work on Potomac River improvements, blossomed into a friendship that at critical times, was crucial to the success of their joint endeavors: the framing and adoption of the Constitution, Washington’s precedent -setting conduct as president, and the creation of Washington, D.C.Drawing heavily on the modern editions of the correspondence of Washington and Madison, Leibiger has fashioned a persuasive portrait of a great collaboration.

Nat King Cole, by Daniel Mark Epstein. Farrar, Straus & Giroux $27

Nat King Cole was a seminal figure in American popular culture. The first African-American to have his own network television show, he was the most reluctant of pioneers, a quiet man intent on making a good living for himself and his family. This biography of Cole by Daniel Mark Epstein is remarkable for many reasons. He captures the life and joy of the Chicago jazz scene in the 1930’s with a vital prose style that makes the reader want to head for the record store in search of old reprints. Here is one description of the young Nat Cole playing a breathtaking solo: “At the ninth bar the kid threw his right hand far east to grab whatever notes he could find up there and came down with clams, cherrystones, raw noise. Rut it hardly mattered as Nat cut the notes into double-eighths, sixteenths. All the while that stride rhythm kept going strong, rocking in the bass . . . and all the kids in the ballroom were on their feet dancing.” This sort of electric prose is combined with extensive research and interviews to give a deep portrait of a brilliantly talented man walking the line between critical acceptance and popular success, the potentially great jazz pianist and the hugely successful ballad crooner. Through it all runs the tension thrust on Cole as an entertainer in a culture that embraced his sound, but not his race.

Sherman’s Civil War: Selected Correspondence of William T.Sherman, 1860—1865, edited by Brooks D.Simpson and Jean V.Berlin. North Carolina $45

William T. Sherman’s correspondence reflects his own colorful and highly opinionated personality. As a result, this well-selected compilation of more than 400 of his letters is full of quotable references to political and military leaders, as well as acid comments on the press. U.S.Grant comes in for his share of criticism, as do of course his less successful compatriots, but on the whole Sherman was not averse to giving credit where it was due. Sherman’s analysis of Union strategy and Grant’s command reflects his perceptive military eye. Perhaps with an eye to posterity, Sherman permeated many of his letters with sometimes fiery justifications for his treatment of Southern civilians. The editors have done a professional and impeccable job of transcribing, laying out, and annotating the documents, making this volume accessible as well as useful.

Richard I, by John Gillingham. Yale $30

For three centuries David Hume’s view of Richard as a failure who waged an unsuccessful crusade that impoverished England and led to the dissolution of the great Angevin Empire has enjoyed general acceptance. This splendid analysis restores considerable luster to this great monarch, demonstrating the deftness with which the Lionheart dealt with the complex social, political, economic, military, and religious forces of his age. We also learn much of how such forces shaped historical views of Richard in subsequent ages. This is a vivid and very well-written book, much better acquainting us with Richard I, his father, queen, and brothers, with his adversaries Saladin, Philip Augustus, and the many other great and colorful figures of that fascinating era. Here is an account of the only international figure among all of the English monarchs that is worthy of its great and complicated subject. Remarkable for so comprehensive and scholarly a monograph, it is quite difficult to put down.

I May Not Get There with You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr., by Michael Eric Dyson. Free Press $25

Reverend Dyson, author of Making Malcolmon Malcom X, trains his sights on the other iconic figure of the 1960’s civil rights movement: MLK.Dyson’s stated intent is “to rescue King from his admirers and deliver him from his foes” which he fulfills not by offering any new factual material but by offering new contexts through which to view him. Broken into three major sections—ideology, identity, and image—the book considers King thematically. Dyson considers his subject as a person, replete with foibles, shortcomings and also the ability to grow or evolve intellectually. While Dyson’s candor is to be commended, the book often reads, if not as sensational, at least as superficial. For instance, King’s difficulties with gender are interesting, but the volume assumes the historical record without offering it as evidence; we have to trust Dyson’s explanations without much support other than brief citations in the endnotes. So the book may be of most use to King scholars and those already familiar with the details of King’s life.

James Joyce, by Edna O’Brien. Lipper/Viking $ 19.95

The author of this latest short biography in the Penguin Lives Series plops her reader down in the middle of a characterization stylistically inspired by the prose of its subject. The unknowing reader (can there be such a critter?) must surely wonder upon what has been stumbled— these words are not in my dictionary!—wasEdna perchance in her cups? Had Edna no editor? No fear, her narrative soon straightens out into more conventional shape. The pattern and the pain of this prodigy’s life is grasped and felt. Periodically, though, Ms. O’Brien, an unabashed fan, veers off into her own brand of Joycean wordplay. She is having fun with the language (snorkeling where Joyce dove deep) and one senses that this spirit, intensified to ecstasy, is what kept Joyce functioning in a life that seems to have been ever at his throat, that would have undone a man less obsessed. O’Brien gives a taste of all this including a sense that this spirit was occasionally his worst enemy, particularly regarding his relationships with friends and family. One either likes this sort of thing (Ulyssesand Finnegan’s Wake) or one doesn’t, but it is impossible not to admire the adamantine will of this proud, sad, half-blind, half-mad man to live and write in what must have been the only way that made sense to him, loneliness and hardships be damned. A bibliography is included for those wishing to know more.

The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, Volume 35,edited by Barbara Oberg. Yale $80

May 1-October 31, 1781 was bracketed by the rejection of Franklin’s resignation as minister to France and by the surrender of Cornwallis. Despite continued frustration with the unrealistic financial expectations, suspicions, and criticisms of Congress, Franklin’s letters exhibit remarkable resourcefulness, vigor, and correct decisiveness in carrying out his duties. Activities of British peacemakers, the politics surrounding appointment of the American Peace Commission are included. Confirming the political indispensability of Franklin, the letters illuminate the social and intellectual life of the great man and of his family—books, Indian languages, natural history, printing, hospital design, mining, and a charming account of Franklin’s wax bust. Little wonder Jefferson’s famous demure on “replacing” Dr. Franklin.

The Collected Letters of Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle, Volume 27: 1852, edited by C.L.Ryals and K.J.Fielding Duke $60

The letters in this volume—49 percent never before published—cover the period from revision of John Sterling and the writing of Frederick the Great. Thomas Carlyle’s vitality and scorn for falsehood and mediocrity is on display, his stimulation by exiled revolutionaries, his practical view of history and progress. Here also are his prejudices and disappointment with people and the ugliness of everyday realities. The marginalia collected here are particularly revealing of the complex and contradictory forces that comprised his great intellect. Jane Carlyle is no less complex and interesting. Splendidly edited, this volume continues to reveal fine vignettes of life and times, issues embraced and those neglected, by the Carlyles and the members of their brilliant circle.

The Papers of John C. Calhoun, Vol. 25: 1847-1848, edited by Clyde N.Wilson, Shirley Bright Cook, and Alexander Moore. South Carolina $59.95

This volume, which brings the senator from South Carolina to within a year and a half of his death, coincides with the first session of the Thirtieth Congress of the United States. It is therefore no surprise that most of the documents published herein concern the futile political opposition of the Southern statesman to three main forces: American infatuation with imperial conquest during the Mexican War; the evils of an aggressive and unprincipled party system; and the apparent determination of the Northern majority to reduce the South to a permanently exploited political minority, primarily through the Wilmot Proviso, which would prohibit slavery in the territories. As Calhoun attributed these forces to American forgetfulness of the republican virtues of their fathers, his words are well worth rereading today. In casting his gaze over the European revolutions of 1848, Calhoun also began to formulate his greatest work, A Disquisition on Government, which provided constitutional justification for later secessionists.

FICTIONLosing Nelson, by Barry Unsworth. Doubleday $23.95

In this story of a lonely man’s obsession with the British naval hero Horatio Nelson, Barry Unsworth rewrites the rules of the historical novel again. By filtering full-blooded accounts of epic naval engagements like Trafalgar and the Battle of the Nile through the deteriorating mind of his narrator, Unsworth comes close to striking the English character at its heart. Even when the line of suspense doesn’t come perfectly off the reel, or the schematic of the narrator’s deepening pathology shows through, Unsworth’s compassion and talent for the unexpected—the perfect scene or emotional twist—saves him. The real tension lies in the narrator’s inability to resolve Nelson’s butchery with his heroism, a conflict that leads to a horrible, fitting conclusion.

When Angels Sing, by Turk Pipkin. Algonquin $14.95

Though this Christmas story lacks the art of Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol,” it does get you to shed a tear or two. In 128 pages, a young boy-watches his brother drown on Christmas day and carries the grief well into adulthood. Years later, when his own son is in peril, he prays for a miracle. It comes in the form of Old Saint Nick—or a man who bears an uncanny resemblance. If that plot sounds predictable, it is, but it’s also forgivable in this kind of story. With settings as diverse as San Antonio, the mountains of New Mexico, and present-day Los Angeles, Pipkin manages to build a contemporary fable that only gets unpleasantly saccharine toward the very end. By that time, the season’s sentimentality is upon us, and we close the book with a merry nod, ready to believe, however briefly, in all good things.

Facing the sky, by James Calvin. Henry Holt $23

I enjoyed this novel, but I can only recommend it wholeheartedly to fans of the recent outpouring of literature about the American West. Galvin is a major poet, one of the best now working, but his prose is ruminative and simile-heavy; it doesn’t crackle like his great poems do. The book is also a bit imprisoned by its subject matter and themes—cowboys and their struggle to make a living in the increasingly precarious world of ranching. There are great anecdotes about roping cattle and wild horses and doing other forms of ranch work, but ultimately I couldn’t develop the fervent distaste for land developers that the novel seems to require of its readers. I kept thinking of the contrast between this novel and the movie Shane, where the ranchers are the bad guys clinging to an outmoded form of life. Here the ranchers are the good guys clinging to an outmoded form of life. Galvin’s nostalgia is powerful, but vegetarians and suburbanites won’t share it.

Afterburn, by Colin Harrison. Farrar, Straua & Giroux $25

Harrison’s fourth novel, with its fine writing, gripping plot, and carefully researched detail, is a veritable anatomy of the literary thriller. Its intelligent arrangement of themes—torture, sex, death, and money—beg to be taken seriously, and the principle characters—a former pilot and POW, a small-time criminal, and a sexually and mathematically gifted young woman afoul of the mob—are rounded enough to make their amorality seem symptomatic of something. This is one cold novel, though, without passion in either its athletic sex or its’ graphic violence. Its considerable intelligence is that of the engineer, not the philosopher, and it leaves you wondering if this is what happens when all vestiges of Romanticism are stripped from the genre of Conrad, Greene, and Chandler.

The Fan Maker’s Inquisition, by Rikki Ducornet. Holt $22

Set against the backdrop of the French Revolution, The Fan Maker’s Inquisition recounts the fictitious trial of Gabrielle, a woman known for her association with the infamous Marquis de Sade. The charges brought against Gabrielle by the Comitè de Surveillance include being a lesbian and a libertine, creating erotic fans for debauched aristocrats, and collaborating with Sade on a book denouncing the persecution of the Mayas in 1562 by the Spanish Inquisitor Bishop Diego de Landa. Through Gabrielle’s testimony, Ducornet exposes the institutionalized, closed-minded brutality of the Revolution and the Inquisition, and prompts a reexamination of the definition of perversion.

Blue at the Mizzen, by Patrick O’Brian. Norton $24

Napoleon having finally been subdued in the previous installment (The Hundred Days), Capt. Aubrey and his enigmatic surgeon-scientist-secret agent sidekick, Dr. Maturin, are sent off to South America in the beautiful Surprise,ostensibly on a mapping expedition, but chiefly to provide a bit of realpolitik to the Chileans in their battle for independence from Spain. Complications and adventures occur from the start— there is not much here that Aubrey/Maturin readers have not seen before. This does not detract, however, for it is their unique companionship we seek—Aubrey the dashing hero with feet of clay; Maturin, timid-seeming, inept as a sailor yet remarkable in unsuspected ways, and deadly when angered—and pleasurably share in the head-long rhythms of O’Brian’s deftly precise prose. In these things, Blue at the Mizzendelivers most satisfyingly. It is a fitting end to the series as Aubrey finally achieves his long-sought ultimate prize on its penultimate page. Unfortunately this 20th volume marks not only the end of O’Brian’s immensely popular Aubrey/Maturin novels but the end, as well, of this modern master’s literary achievement. O’Brian died earlier this year leaving the Surprise forever on “course for Cape Pilar and Magellan’s Strait.”

Murder@maggody.com, by Joan Hess. Simon & Schuster $22

This is the 13th novel in a mystery series featuring Arly Hanks, the sheriff of Maggody, Arkansas, who narrates this tale with bemused detachment. The plot centers on the introduction of computers into the high school-and the havoc email and the Internet unleash in this tiny community—including murder and lesser evils too numerous to mention. Arly alternates between wry commentary on the foibles of her flock—depicted for the most part as cartoonish caricatures of rural types—and condescending hyperbole in which incest and stupidity get prominent play. Can Arkansas really be like this?

Undue Influence, by Anita Brookner. Random House $24

“The scheming restless gods of Olympus, preoccupied by their love affairs, seemed to me a far more accurate reflection of the world as we know it, than a deity who purports to be benevolent but who is in fact indifferent, unreachable, at least by those who feel they have no claim other than their own human need.” This observation of the protagonist of Brookner’s novel, a young woman who works in a bookshop, is a clue to the fact that her books are about more than the seemingly empty lives of ordinary people, for they are deep meditations, of universal significance, on human existence. Typically excellent, this grave, slow-paced, and beautifully wrought novel is often wry and wise. It will not disappoint truly attentive readers.

Chaos Theory, byGary Krist. Random House $24

Two friends—one white, one black—are tooling around Washington, D.C.one night after a boring party and decide to score some weed. They end up defending themselves against a strung-out junkie who tries to rob them; the next day they read in the papers that a cop has been murdered there. For a few days they keep up a brave front, but when detectives come by their houses, they can sense their once-bright futures being slowly snuffed out. From this premise Krist spins a tale of conspiracy, race relations, and bureaucracy run amok, all in the guise of a believable thriller.

Wonderful Town: New York Stories from The New Yorker, edited by David Remnick. Randon House $26.95

The editor of The New Yorker exploits the occasion of this distinguished magazine’s 75th anniversary by gathering a bunch of stories about New York. After all, as Remnick says, “The magazine has been a thing of its place, a magazine of the city.” What a wonderful idea! Here John Cheever, Woody Allen, Philip Roth, James Thurber, Lorrie Moore, S.J.Perelman, among many other luminaries, are crowded together, like commuters on the rush-hour IRT, in a glorious evocation of the greatest city on earth. The sum is greater than the parts!

Miss Wyoming, by Douglas Coupland. Pantheon $23

A former child star, a big-shot movie producer, and the quest for an authentic life are all spun together in an L.A.whirl that also includes data miners, video store clerks, old friends, and a shared propensity to vanish. While Coupland’s ability to both satirize and appropriate popular culture remains razor-sharp, Coupland continues to break new ground as a novelist, crafting stories with wit and charm. His whimsical plots spin out a world both odd and familiar. He avoids reuse of the devices that drove his first novel Generation X, and while he has visited the conflicts that drive this tale before, they are conflicts common to all people. The novel’s story is an eternal one—the search for self, for love, for life with meaning—that has been visited by many authors, but is revived anew in Coupland’s highly enjoyable telling.

The New Sweet Style, by Vassily Aksyonov. Random House $29.95

Aksyonov’s newest novel is the exuberant, kinetic, sprawling story of the travails of Alex Korbach, an avant-garde cabaret and theater director who is exiled from the Soviet Union for his sharp satires and rebellious rock star persona, and must start from scratch in America. This is the first novel Aksyonov has written in English (his previous novels include the brilliant Generations of Winter, which spans an epic 28 years of Soviet history), but there are no limits to Aksyonov’s manic fluency. The “new sweet” style showcased here is a combination of extravagance, stylized dialogue, and rampant verbal miscegenation. His chubby postmodern wonder-novel links Dante’s Beatrice, a space-orbiting archaeologist, perestroika politics, a genealogy-obsessed American millionaire, and a welter of other seemingly unconnected phenomena into a jostling, cacophonous, exhilerating whole—a a whole which is held together almost entirely

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