Power, Justice, and the Environment: A Critical Appraisal of the Environmental Justice Movement, edited by David Naguib
Pellow and Robert J. Brulle. MIT, November 2005. $25 paper
In the 1970s and ’80s scholars and activists began to publicize correlations of exposure to environmental hazards with the geographies of disenfranchised populations. By the 1990s that publicity had made some effect upon mainstream environmentalism and federal policy, but since then the environmental justice movement (EJM) seems to have stalled. This collection of essays evaluates the EJM as it enters a new era, questioning the political purchase of its national strategy, anticipating its adaptations for the globalization of economy and risk, and debating the obstacles to the EJM’s political effectiveness. Contributors include academics and activists, often paying useful attention to the role of their collaboration in the development of the EJM. The collection might have been still more useful had the editors invited more academic contributors from beyond the field of sociology. For a movement adapting civil rights and environmentalist rhetoric, perspectives from political science, geography, ethics, and religious studies would seem apt. Indeed, the activists’ essays tend to range across disciplinary domains, concentrating into geographical proximity a diverse array of relevant topics. Yet that diversity contributes to just the problem the editors want to address: how the complexity of environmental justice frustrates coherent analysis, proliferates relevant researches, and diffuses community participation. Their response manages that complexity by proposing manageably simple sociological frames, and thus these essays may encourage wider discussion. As it stands, the collection will prove stimulating to students, activists, and researchers. Public policy advocates and analysts will appreciate its evaluations of discursive and political strategy, while activists and teachers may applaud the inclusion of narrative conversations and cases.
On Shifting Ground: Muslim Women in the Global Era, edited by Fereshteh Nouraie-Simone. Feminist Press, November 2005. $18.95 paper
Fourteen distinguished scholars discuss how the interconnected web of economic globalization, transnational networks in new information technology, and the revival of Islam have opened up new opportunities for, and have in turn been transformed by, Muslim women. An underlying common theme of the contributors is their challenge to the colonially rooted, monolithic representation of Muslim women as voiceless and invisible victims (“behind-the-veil”) of the Islamic patriarchy in both traditional and modern eras.
Toward this end, the book competently shows how new global technologies have empowered Muslim women by providing novel channels through which to make themselves seen and heard, thereby to explore their identities as they remake the public sphere. This exploration takes place especially in negotiating the gender-neutral interpretation of their religion as well as in their struggle against patriarchy and struggle for full citizenship through greater participation in civil society. It is interesting to note that the authors take no pains to prove misogyny among Islamist movements and instead look at how Islamist women negotiate their gender identity within the movements they belong to, which in a sense facilitate public actualization of their agency. Along with calling attention to these avenues for empowerment, this anthology establishes how Muslim women already have had rich histories of activism and of resistance to subordination. Its authors confront both the traditional patriarchy in the Muslim lands—especially that of women’s relationship with the holy text—and emancipatory Western feminism, particularly its teleological and Western-centric notions of modernity and secularity.
Added to its theoretical potency for emphasizing equally the empowering effects of structural forces and the priority of women’s agency, On Shifting Grounds is a fresh addition to feminist studies not merely for its unique theoretical statement and rich case materials but for its challenge to the universalist presumptions of Western feminism.
—Halil Ibrahim Yenigun
Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America, 1492–1830, by J. H. Elliott. Yale, May 2006. $35
Sir John Elliott, the undisputed dean of Hispanic New World and Golden Age historians, brings his formidable knowledge to bear on this important topic. His access to documentation and his nuanced reading, subtle marshaling of the facts, and elegant prose come together in a book destined to be the standard reference in the field. Spain and Britain contested the Atlantic for centuries; their relationship ebbed and flowed, from deep mutual hatred and suspicion to accommodation and, at times, even trust. These nations created very different, yet intertwining, empires in the New World, colonizing different territories (“micro-worlds, each with its own geographical and climatic characteristics”) and creating structures that reflected the goals, foibles, and economic necessities of the Old World. Elliott compares the two styles—and the results—brilliantly, fusing two seemingly separate histories into one compelling and detailed story. By looking at family, race, religion, war, agriculture, trade, and the costs and consequences of the enterprise, Elliott enables us to see with impressive clarity how “a host of personal choices and the unpredictable consequences of unforeseen events” shaped the creation, development, and ultimate loss of two great empires.
—David T. Gies
To Rescue My Native Land: The Civil War Letters of William T. Shepherd, First Illinois Light Artillery, edited by Kurt H. Hackemer. Tennessee, April 2006. $42
The Voices of the Civil War series by the University of Tennessee Press has presented a number of first-rate Union and Confederate accounts/memoirs, diaries and journals, and sets of letters. The William T. Shepherd letters constitute a valuable addition to this body of published primary material. A nineteen-year-old volunteer in 1861, Shepherd served first as an artillerist and later as an ordnance officer. He participated in the battles and campaigns of Belmont, Forts Henry and Donelson, Shiloh, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga before being mustered out of service in the summer of 1864.
A prolific and thoughtful correspondent, Shepherd commented usefully about, among other topics, his motivations and political views, logistics, and interactions between Union soldiers and Confederate civilians. He explained in the spring of 1861 why he, a devout Christian and loyal citizen, should don a blue uniform: “The cause is a good one, especially as a person who knows the love of God can be of service to his Heavenly Father as well as his country—I care not for military honors & glory.” The awful carnage of Shiloh in April 1862 confirmed Shepherd’s earlier suspicion that military service would bring him no sense of glorious achievement. Writing several weeks after the battle, he remarked that the “death groans of thousands of human beings rent the air in wild confusion . . . my heart sickens and longs for communion with the hallowed scenes of home and dear Friends.” Readers overwhelmed with the number of collections of published Civil War soldiers’ letters would do well to consider William Shepherd’s—which are better than most and almost certain to enhance anyone’s understanding of the conflict.
Two Confederate Hospitals and Their Patients: Atlanta to Opelika, by Jack D. Welsh. Mercer, March 2006. $35
This volume offers, in fewer than 200 pages, a wealth of material regarding Confederate hospitals that served the Army of Tennessee in the Civil War’s Western Theater. The author of standard reference works on the medical histories of all Union and Confederate generals, Welsh provides descriptive analysis and a great deal of aggregate data as to types of wounds, diseases, diagnoses, numbers of patients, and many other topics relating to the two hospitals, which began their work in Atlanta in 1862 and closed in Opelika, Alabama, in 1865. Welsh credits Dr. Samuel H. Stout, medical director of the Army of Tennessee beginning in late March 1863, for the creation and preservation of meticulous records that made this volume possible. No other large Confederate military organization boasts as impressive a base of raw evidence. Welsh charts the various moves of the hospitals, traces the ways in which medical care and procedure changed in response to military events, and discusses the leading medical causes of discharges and deaths (typhoid fever, chronic diarrhea, pneumonia, and battle wounds were most frequently listed as a cause of death). Two excellent appendices provide biographical information about several dozen surgeons and a glossary of terms used by Civil War physicians. An accompanying CD-ROM includes a listing of more than 18,000 patients. Overall, this is a most useful addition to the literature on the medical front of the Civil War.
Mussolini’s Italy: Life Under the Fascist Dictatorship, 1915–1945, by R. J. B. Bosworth. Penguin, February 2006. $35
Until now, books about Mussolini’s Italy have focused primarily upon Mussolini and his inner circle. Bosworth’s book, however, bucks that trend. Mussolini’s Italy is not necessarily a study of politics and how the Fascists eventually rose to power, although this is an important part of the work. Instead it focuses on how the Fascist regime affected the everyday life of Italians. Bosworth has discovered that Italians did not surrender themselves wholeheartedly to the will of the state, but instead maintained very strong local, regional, and familial ties. He argues that these local relationships were just as responsible as the state, if not more so, for shaping the opinions and ideas of Italians. Bosworth does not contend that Italians weren’t pro-Fascist; rather, he says that during the regime’s lifetime, being Italian certainly also meant being Fascist. He argues, however, that regionalism was an obstacle to absolute ideological control that the Fascists were never completely capable of overcoming. The book is an impressive piece of scholarship, but many parts often come across as apologetic, especially when Italy is directly compared to Germany. Although the Italian regime was not as brutal as the German one, the book in certain points borders on playing down the crimes Italian Fascists committed on the grounds that they were not as cruel as the Nazi’s horrors. Comparisons to Hitler’s regime are inevitable, but such comparisons are troublesome when presented in a relativistic manner such as Bosworth’s. This fault is only a minor one, however, and does not depreciate the overall value of a truly important work.
Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939–1945, by Catherine Merridale. Metropolitan, January 2006. $30
Too often military history foregrounds the generals and effaces the armies, those masses of unknown soldiers whose lives and experiences go unrecorded. In this powerful book, Merridale tells the story of Soviet soldiers, their lives, battles, sufferings, and deaths in World War II, from the first days of Germany’s invasion of Russia to battles on the streets of Berlin. Much has been written about American, British, and German soldiers, but Merridale has filled an inexcusable gap in World War II history by focusing on Red Army soldiers. She has used police archives, soldiers’ letters, the Soviet army’s records on morale, and even soldiers’ diaries (which were forbidden). She visited battle sites and interviewed veterans. Merridale not only destroys myths concocted by the Soviet government about the Red Army, but she also tells the story of the soldiers’ families and how they suffered during the war. This most unusual military history explores part of the Second World War that for too long Moscow had kept hidden.
Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War, by Harry S. Stout. Viking, January 2006. $29.95
Surprisingly little has been written on the religious aspects of the Civil War or on the importance of this conflict in the history of American morality. Therefore, Stout’s volume is a monumental addition to the fields of Civil War studies and American religious history. While Stout’s conclusions aren’t exactly revelatory, his careful synthesis of military events and the accompanying moral questions is commendable. Working chronologically, Stout maps moral and religious changes onto the military history of the war. He discusses the evolutions of the Northern and Confederate jeremiads and the persistence of a sense of chosenness and divine guidance in the rhetoric of both sides. Stout speaks of the “just war” throughout his discussion and points to the Emancipation Proclamation as the moment at which the conflict descended into total war. He adeptly examines the complexities of a war in which both sides appeal to the same God and claim divine sanction, and shows how American religion changed in the long run. For example, the belief that victory was divine reward and defeat was God’s punishment led to the millennialism that characterized American Christianity of the late nineteenth century. Ultimately, Stout declares the Civil War morally just. Seeing in America the world’s best hope, he further argues that preserving the Union was a global necessity. Stout also concludes that the Civil War marked the beginning of nationwide civil religion. Some may argue for earlier origins of this civil religion, and others may question his judgments about the war’s place on the spectrum of just and unjust wars. However, no one can come away from Stout’s impressive work without agreeing that the Civil War was unquestionably a defining moment for religion in America.
—Ann W. Duncan
Caribbean Rum: A Social and Economic History, by Frederick H. Smith. Florida, November 2005. $59.95
Smith, a professor of anthropology at William and Mary, has applied the tools of his field to the rum trade, a subject that has been the province of the historian, and given us the multidimensional treatment that this complex subject demands. Few readers will be surprised to learn that sugar and its alcoholic by-product played an enormous role in the Atlantic slave trade and in the shaping of the societies of the New World. But it is Smith’s larger treatment of the Caribbean’s Peculiar Beverage in the long history that follows Emancipation that will fascinate those who want to know how the story developed from there. The author casts a very wide net. Some may associate rum primarily with Jamaica and Barbados, and Smith examines its importance to the former French and Spanish colonies. The role of religions—both traditional African spiritualities and those that emerged in hybrid forms under slavery, such as Santeria—comes under scrutiny as well. And Chinese and East Indians, armed with their own distinct cultural and religious traditions, come into the picture. The effects on the rum trade of temperance advocates and of experiments with Prohibition bring the story toward the present day; rum’s vital place in staples of Caribbean culture such as calypso music is likewise discussed. The illustrations that accompany the text are well chosen, and the bibliography is rich, if confusing in its organization. A bibliographical essay would have been a welcome addition. The book is weakest as it enters the twenty-first century, with a few halfhearted and inevitable references to globalization. A more detailed treatment of this theme would be a valuable contribution.
The Southern Diaspora: How the Great Migrations of Black and White Southerners Transformed America, by James N. Gregory. North Carolina, October 2005. $59.95 cloth, $19.95 paper
Numerous books deal with the migration of blacks to the North after the Civil War, and others treat the movement of white Southerners in the same direction or to the West, notably California. Gregory, a professor of history at the University of Washington, insists on looking at the great dispersal as two sides of the same coin, however great the obvious differences between them. This unfamiliar juxtaposition makes for compelling reading as the focus shifts back and forth, from white to black. Charts demonstrate the sheer magnitude of this great internal migration, which was every bit as enormous as those better-documented emigrations from Europe. Though the statistics alone are overwhelming, it is the cultural impact that fascinates. This the author traces by looking closely at staples of popular culture as diverse as The Grapes of Wrath, Amos ’n’ Andy, and The Beverly Hillbillies, and at entertainers such as Louis Armstrong, Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, and Merle Haggard. The South’s impact on American religion, politics, and culture has been profound. Harlem and the Okies alike have Southern roots. Whether as the “problem child of the nation” during the Civil Rights Movement or the spiritual home of much that makes up twentieth-century American culture, the South has long been at or near the very center of the nation’s experience ever since Appomattox. Gregory’s book deserves an enthusiastic reading.
Yeats and the Logic of Formalism, by Vereen M. Bell. Missouri, January 2006. $37.50
Charles Altieri once condescendingly described Yeats’s poetic persona as “heroic self-projection” based on a continual “crowing about the solitary will’s triumph over incoherence.” In Vereen M. Bell’s new study of the Yeatsian canon, this supposed “crowing” is reduced to a more humble form of contemplation racked with doubts about the ultimate worth of human life. Taking on an impressive range of W. B. Yeats’s poetry in a relatively concise manner, Bell shapes a philosophical pattern that is thematically if not conclusively consistent. Bell traces Nietzschean attitudes through Yeats’s work, identifying both Yeats’s acknowledgment of an existential universe and his attempts to impose a meaningful, redemptive order upon the chaos. Art is projected as a rare remedy (or mere refuge) from mortality, which constantly threatens to evacuate any semblance of meaning in one’s life. Yeats wrote poetry to make life (or at least life as represented within those crafted lines) more bearable, and to transcend the squalor of the quotidian; yet he did so without confidence of success, feeling consigned to a paucity of options.
Consequently, at times his dependence upon poetry to provide life with spiritual and emotional sustenance occasionally overshadows consideration of the world beyond the text, as reflected in his aristocratic, eugenicist politics, a politics that “gradually withdrew into the shelter of aesthetic humanism.” Yeats’s idealism pushes against a resistant desperation, one never completely dissuaded by the soothing charms of the artistic mentality, or what Bell refers to as his “aesthetic ideology.” Bell claims that Yeats nurtured a belief in the ability of poetry “to shape and direct human life,” but he doubted the likelihood of salvation through art; his life work reveals a nagging “obsession” to “override the uncertainty that always seems to be at the edge of his thought.” Through his detailed explication of Yeats’s poems—including the qualified humanism of “A Prayer for My Daughter,” the threatened civility of “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,” and the disenchanted romanticism of “Adam’s Curse”—Bell illustrates this struggle, this vacillation from hope to despair and back again.
The dominant philosophical tenet that finally emerges from Yeats’s poetry (and Bell’s study of him) is a celebration of the power of the human mind, for it is only through the mind that one can come to terms with one’s existence—even religious creeds can only be understood as products of the mind. “Easter 1916,” for example, is not powerful due to a transcendental message or its potential for metaphysical revelation, but rather due to its own textual features, its “intensity of pattern, a thematic organization,” which derives from the creative mind. Though Bell suggests that Yeats sometimes believed that art could save him even from death, the mind’s physical mortality is not really the point. Poetry, the result of the mind’s prolific ability to create order, to find meaning, and, if only momentarily, to dispel despair, offers an alternative, however conditional and limited, to the prospect of surrender to nihilism.
—Britt R. Johnson
The American Transcendentalists: Essential Writings, edited by Lawrence Buell. Modern Library, January 2006. $18.95 paper
Buell, professor of American literature at Harvard, has done a splendid job of presenting in one hefty but manageable volume the core writings of the Transcendentalist movement. Buell provides a clear, workmanlike historical introduction, then presents generous selections based on topic or theme—Anticipations, Manifestos and Definitions, Secular Reform, and Literature and the Arts, among others—and ends with a section of Remembrances, being late-nineteenth-century essays by the likes of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James, looking back from their near perspective on the Transcendentalists.
Of necessity, Emerson dominates this book, as he did the Transcendentalist movement. His seminal essay “Nature” is included in its entirety. Emerson’s prose voice might take some getting used to these days. His high style, heavy on aphorism, can seem too sonorous, but the range and brilliance of his thought remains no less than astounding. “Nature” celebrates the near infinite power of the enlightened soul within the American landscape, and captures Emerson at his highest and his most human. In the woods, he says, “I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. Almost I fear to think how glad I am. . . . There I feel that nothing can befall me in life,—no disgrace, no calamity (leaving me my eyes), which nature cannot repair.” I’ve always loved Emerson for that one exception, “leaving me my eyes.”
Buell provides a short introduction to each of his selections, giving the context of the work within the larger movement and offering a few additional thoughts and notes: it is here, in these shorter pieces, that Buell’s own joy in the material is most evident. The selections themselves are broadly extracted from the major figures of the movement, and are of generous length. He cannot include the whole of Walden, which Buell rightly calls “the greatest of all Transcendentalist classics.” He offers instead a fascinating selection of Thoreau’s journal entries (many of which found their way into Walden) from his time at Walden Pond. These entries in turn are prefaced by a short selection from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s notebooks, describing a walk he took to Walden Pond two years before Thoreau moved there, including a description by Hawthorne of “a little hamlet of huts or shanties, inhabited by the Irish people who are at work upon the railroad.” It was one of these shanties, of course, that Thoreau bought to dismantle and use as the base material for his small house.
Poe, Fuller, and the Mesmeric Arts: Transition States in the American Renaissance, by Bruce Mills. Missouri, December 2005. $39.95
In somewhat obtuse language, this scholarly study traces the connection between Edgar Allan Poe’s and Margaret Fuller’s writings and theories concerning animal magnetism, somnambulism, and hypnosis as rendered in newspapers, literary and medical journals, pamphlets, and books. Through examining the works of Poe and Fuller, Mills attempts a deeper understanding of how the nineteenth-century literature responded to dynamic cultural forces. For many influential writers of the period, the call for a national literature had evolved into attention to the state of one’s own mind, to the manifestations of the highest states of mind and the effects of literary choices on readers’ psychological modes. Poe and Fuller, as Mills argues, increasingly rooted their epistemology and literary forms in psychological findings on mesmeric consciousness. While the book should evoke interest among Poe and Fuller scholars, the writing can be tedious and obscure at times, and may not prove engaging for the general public.
Essential History: Jacques Derrida and the Development of Deconstruction, by Joshua Kates. Northwestern, November 2005.
$74.95 cloth, $29.95 paper
In this new contribution to Derrida studies, Joshua Kates sets out to make up for the lack of a truly global interpretation of Derrida’s thought. He seeks to develop a comprehensive view of Derrida, who has been lost in the rift between one camp that labels him a radical skeptic subscribing to linguistic determinism and another that sees deconstruction in greater proximity to traditional philosophy. All in all, Kates has less sympathy for the first view. The problem with the commentators in general, he maintains, is their reification of Derrida’s works as an essentially homogeneous whole. As an alternative, he proposes a genealogical or developmental approach to Derrida’s thought that would emphasize not only continuities but also discontinuities and ruptures, notwithstanding Derrida’s own denial of such a major development in his thought.
Still, Kates is able to tease out the developmental trajectory of Derrida with an eye on his pre-deconstruction works to present Husserlian phenomenology as the philosophical milieu in which deconstruction was first forged. At the boundary of this legacy, Kates thinks, Derrida discovered the motive and need for deconstruction. Even when Derrida finally moves from a Husserlian to a Heideggerian path and encounters Foucault and Levinas, he utilizes the intellectual tools he borrows from Husserl. Yet, this does not overshadow Kates’s main point that there is a stark rupture between Derrida’s pre-deconstruction and post-deconstruction works, despite the opposite common wisdom.
Kates mostly speaks to the other commentators rather than to the reader, such that the bulk of the work presents itself as interpretation and, largely, rebuttal of other commentators, not actual interpretation of Derrida himself. This potential drawback is to a certain extent redeemed in the last two chapters, yet the reader is expected to master the body of commentaries on Derrida in order to get the most out of this book. Just the same, the author can be said to have commendably established a developmental view of Derrida.
— Halil Ibrahim Yenigun
Bleak Houses: Marital Violence in Victorian Fiction, by Lisa Surridge. Ohio, November 2005. $55 cloth, $24.95 paper
For Surridge’s well-documented study of spousal abuse in Victorian Britain, she sifted through parliamentary debates, newspaper accounts, and court records from the early 1830s through the fin de siècle, and she proposes, “Narratives of marital violence permeated Victorian middle-class culture, even as these very narratives threatened to undermine its central tenets of domesticity, marriage, and protective masculinity.” Surridge suggests that the 1828 Offenses Against the Person Act and the 1857 Divorce Act brought first working-class violence, and then middle- and upper-class violence, out of the private sphere of the home and into the communal realm of print discourse. By exposing domestic violence to the public eye, wife abuse came to constitute an appalling rupture in the Victorian conceptualization of marriage. This movement toward the increasing exposure of domestic violence and shifting societal responses, Surridge argues, was actively confronted in nineteenth-century fiction. The focus of the study opens by situating the early work of Dickens within journalistic accounts of working-class domestic violence. Surridge then turns to Dickens’s Dombey and Son and Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall to scrutinize how these authors responded to the progressively more extreme debates on domestic violence in mid-nineteenth-century discourse: while Dickens ambiguously upholds female passivity as an avenue through which spousal abuse is defeated, Brontë polemically advocates for female resistance, suggesting that submissiveness exacerbates masculine aggression. As responses to the Divorce Act of 1857 and its public reception, George Eliot’s “Janet’s Repentance,” Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, and Anthony Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right reflect the escalating pertinence of marital violence to reconsiderations of gender roles in marriage. In abrading traditional conceptions of the marital function, both realist and sensational tales thus inaugurated fictional exploration of late-Victorian feminism and the problematic of the New Woman in the fin de siècle fiction of Mona Caird and Arthur Conan Doyle.
Come Together, Fall Apart, by Cristina Henríquez. Riverhead, April 2006. $24.95
Henríquez, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and one of “Fiction’s New Luminaries” in the Summer 2004 issue of VQR, presents a stunning debut collection of eight stories and a novella, all of which take place in Panama. Unlike so many stories “about” an exotic locale, which tend to read like fictionalized guidebooks, these bring the country to life with fluency and verve, its sights and sounds observed from the thoughtful distance of a writer removed by a generation (Henríquez was born in Delaware, her father in Panama). Whether from the point of view of a university student living on the beach in El Rompío, or a young woman selling appliances in Panama City, or an American wife visiting the Gamboa rain forest, the stories never fail to delight with cultural detail: “pineapples hanging from columns of rope”; the time when “the panaderías start their lonely business of rolling dough in the early half-light of morning.” More importantly, the stories lend fresh insight to human circumstances that transcend setting—girls growing up without fathers, teenagers discovering the heartbreak of first love. In the opening trio (“Yanina,” “Ashes,” “Drive”) we encounter more than one “seriously fucked chica”—young, headstrong, seriously likable women navigating quietly desperate lives, women who would be at home with the characters of Junot Díaz.
But the collection has surprises in store. In “Mercury” and “The Wide Pale Ocean,” two extraordinary girls come of age and come to terms with the burden of being a daughter. In the wonderfully anomalous fable “The Box House and the Snow,” a girl known as “the daughter” enacts this burden by holding up the snow-soaked roof of her father’s house. And in the book’s greatest marvel, the breathtaking novella “Come Together, Fall Apart,” fifteen-year-old Ramón is unable to support this weight, as he watches his father’s roof collapse along with his country. Here, in his diary of the weeks surrounding Noriega’s capture in 1989, history bursts onto the page: “Near the beginning of it all a homemade bomb exploded near my Tía Reina’s car while she was stopped at a red light. It landed on the sedan next to her and spit out like a firecracker, tearing through the passenger side of her Toyota, crumbs of the fiery metal burning tiny holes through her skirt.” Henríquez’s stories have the same impact, searing with a brightness that is hard to forget.
The Madonnas of Leningrad, by Debra Dean. Morrow, March 2006. $23.95
In her debut novel, Dean has created a moving and beautiful tribute to the human spirit. During the Siege of Leningrad, the young orphaned Marina, a tour guide in the Hermitage, lived with hundreds of others in the basement of the great museum, where they removed paintings from their frames so that the art could be sent to safety. During this confinement, an old babushka taught Marina how to build “a memory palace,” in which she imagined the angels, saints, nudes, and Madonnas of those paintings in great and gorgeous detail and which sustains her now in her struggle against the early stages of Alz-heimer’s disease. As Marina endures bouts of memory loss, she returns to her beloved, shattered city, its harsh weather, to the man who becomes her husband, to her co-workers and relatives. Dean moves from the present day, in America, to the Siege and back, and in and out of the minds of Marina, her children, and her husband. As Marina’s mind disappears from her body—much like those paintings disappeared from their frames—everyone suffers from her loss, but when Marina seeks refuge in her past Dean’s writing is so vivid one feels redeemed, as Marina does, by the fabulous art. Despite a somewhat melodramatic plot twist at the end, this haunting novel will be etched forever in the reader’s mind.
The Space Between Us, by Thrity Umrigar. Morrow, January 2006. $24.95
Umrigar’s second novel uncoils in the kitchens and bedrooms of contemporary Bombay. In these spaces, where “evil had a domestic side,” Sera Dubash and her aged maid, Bhima, share the oppression known to their gender but live isolated from each other by class and circumstance. Sera and Bhima veer between paternalistic inequality and genuine friendship. In a house that “felt tomblike” and “prevented her from reaching out to others, from sharing her darkest secret with even her closest friends,” Sera appreciated Bhima’s discreet solidarity. When each woman’s troubled marriage ends, they invest their hopes in their heirs. Sera even pays to educate Bhima’s orphaned granddaughter, Maya, so the girl can escape the slum that traps Bhima. Yet Maya’s unexpected pregnancy jeopardizes her education and Bhima’s and Sera’s affections for her and for each other.
As Bhima’s attempts to safeguard Maya’s future and to maintain hope for her own existence drive events forward, the novel’s narrative consciousness excavates the past. We’re shown government hospitals, a bootlegger’s den, and swank dinners; gender and economic domination figure harshly everywhere. A rare likable man is the Afghan balloon vendor at the beach. The balloonwalla’s “beautiful brown hands, hands that created poetry out of nothing,” hold what Bhima considers the “secret of loneliness. How to live with it, how to wrap it around your body and still be able to make beautiful, colorful things, like he did with those balloons.” Bhima perceives freedom in this secret, despite the different resources she and Sera have to achieve stability and power.
A neatness of plot and the sense of worlds parallel but distinct pervade the book. Sometimes the technique works, such as in the captivating scenes where we learn the fate of Bhima’s daughter and son-in-law. But it can seem heavy-handed, too, especially if paired with lengthy introspection, such as when Sera and Bhima almost repeat each other’s thoughts or when the book’s main riddle is solved. What is more, in a book so attuned to the deleterious effects of social structures, salvation seems an oddly individual matter. A reader interested in gender politics or contemporary India may find the entertainment mostly worthwhile but the intellection behind it disappointing.
Hoodlum Birds, by Eugene Gloria. Penguin, April 2006. $17 paper
Each of the poems in this stunning collection creates a different world in sensuous miniature, and in each, the poet negotiates between sharpest detail and broadest universality, mediating for the reader the contradiction between complex beauty and concepts elusive in their indefinable nature. Gloria’s postcolonial eye lingers on images from Bilbao to Manila, Santiago to San Francisco; and against the backdrop of these shifting landscapes, his couplets and tercets, along with their literary, historical, and scholarly references, convey a concern with textuality and literary artifact. In “Female Figure (Sybil With Erasure),” the poet conflates himself with his signature: “My mark infers an absence, / its swift flowing gesture illegible.”
Childhood figures and characters circulate, emerging slowly from embodied language and vignettes of familial trauma. The poems obsess over sensory remembrance, parsing, as the poet claims in “Two Blondes and a Turquoise Cadillac,” “the self,” “surging forward / as if to fill a void, think of the void / as history they will one day retrieve.” This idea of inevitable discovery, of personal excavation, animates the textured detail and sadness of the later poems in the collection. “The Block” and “The Idea of North” articulate a desire to recover and revise the poet’s own history. Declaring first, “Let there be gardens in my bad old yard,” he realizes ultimately, “The idea of north means to risk / not coming back to what you’ve left behind . . . ”
“North,” understood as a means of navigating, but also as freedom, signals a transition in the poet’s use of lyric. In the final section of the book, Gloria’s language takes on a more mercurial phrasing, challengingly inconclusive yet beautifully unbroken. Increasingly personal characters—the “autumnal / father,” and the “bad uncle”—are brought forward alongside mysteriously vague figures, such as “the man with two jobs [who] is already late for one.” Recognizing that memory, like history, cannot be altered but must be recovered, he engages the senses to trace the geography of alienation, reconciliation, and paradox. The final paradox, unsurprisingly, hinges upon detail and definition—the tension between fixity and movement. The poet has “everything that proves my existence,” but regardless, the soul “must be [as] transient . . . traveling people / with no fixed address or home.”
The imagery of birds, while subtle, matches the trajectory of recurrence on which the poems operate. In “Aubade,” a poem of animated grief, the poet watches the sun rise, the “fire spark . . . a nascent thing, immigrant and lonely,” and thinks of birds and their alighting. Birds, like the poet’s eye, circle and watch.
In the Middle Distance, by Linda Gregg. Graywolf, March 2006. $14 paper
Gregg’s aesthetic is one of absence. Stark in vocabulary, rhythm, and line, meticulously balanced in tone, her poems contain exactly rendered manifestations of being. Poetry, as well as being, she seems to say, lives not in words but in the silence that follows them, that which “continues here in the desert while / the night train passes through Marfa / louder and louder, like the dogs whining / and barking after the train is gone.” Absence imbues with meaning what is remembered, “the stillness eating the absence.” Not a voice choked with loss, her stance is the powerful one of a maker. “I am here struggling / with the desert and used-up words. / Stillness, sacred, death, peace and fairness.” Memory provides a “middle distance,” a place “where the hard things are,” where nothing gets excited, where everything is forever “almost ripe.” Poems reiterate place and love lost in the solitude they claim: “Women have houses now, and children. / I live alone in a kind of luxury. / I wake when I feel like it / read what Rilke wrote to Tsvetaeva.” Reiteration suggests ritual and, with it, ritual’s alchemy. Of the returning moon, she writes, “I don’t expect the light to save me . . . / . . . I believe / I am being born a second time / in this very plain way.”
Green Stars, by Charlotte Hilary Matthews. Iris Press, February 2006. $24 cloth, $14 paper
A funny thing happens about three-quarters of the way through a Charlotte Matthews poem. There’s a turn, a hinge moment, when something the speaker has been dwelling on prompts her to consider something altogether different, gives her insight she wouldn’t otherwise have had. In “The Shape of Memory,” for example, she turns from the birth of a neighbor’s calf—“When Mr. Hall came in his truck / to open the gate, he did not speak. / He stood watching a long time, / hands steady on the cold chain”—to a vivid recollection of being taught to clean trout as a child: “The wellhead is scarlet with fish blood. / Cattails click on the shore road. / My father is watching over me / in case I ever have to do this alone.” There’s no logical connection between the poem’s occasion and its synthesis. The connection is fundamentally illogical, sustained only by the leaps of an inward-turned mind. The pleasure of never foreseeing where Matthews is going is one the great offerings of Green Stars.
The challenge for Matthews is the challenge for any practitioner of the personal lyric: she must make of subject matter that’s intensely her own a poetry that’s not uniquely so. She must go beyond the experience itself, which is singular, to get poems that are relevant and even necessary to the lives of others. Her transcendent moments are startling. They’re lucid, and the fact that they’re often non sequiturs makes them appear as spontaneous to the poet as they are for the reader. From the well-titled “What I Wanted to Tell You,” for example: “How an old man I met knew / it was going to rain when the pin oaks / turned their leaves underneath. / Just now I must wait for the voices / around me to be heard.” This is the confident voice of a poet who knows the power of the word, and who trusts the poem to justify the leaps of an idiosyncratic mind.
The stuff of these poems—family, childhood, place, animals—is endlessly rich, familiar, and comforting. Matthews has a handle on her material that suggests long acquaintance and acute observation. She’s a poet not of isolation but of communion, community, and, in her own term, “rapture.” Green Stars is daring in its connections. It will reward readers looking for an enlightened poetry of the personal vernacular in the world they know.
Off the Rim: Basketball and Other Religions in a Carolina Childhood, by Fred Hobson. Missouri, April 2006. $19.95 paper
To the few cosmopolites not wedded to a sports team for life, this book will seem at times comical, disturbing, perverse. To all those provincials whose childhood dreams, adolescent crises, marital and career triumphs and adversities have been charted by the endless stats of baseball cards, the elusive calls of radio sportscasters, or the nodding appreciation of that single lost jump shot whose arc mapped the destinies of souls, this book will be all too recognizable. To both groups of readers this book is aimed. Hobson turns upon himself the subtlety and analytical rigor that have made him one of his generation’s finest literary scholars, producing a memoir that is grounded in various communities and constituencies—his father’s Democratic politics, his mother’s Methodist spirituality, his own baptism by basketball—yet is also deeply personal, even solitary. Matters of race, family, and personal exploration, the sort of material Hobson has explored in his many books on Southern literature and American intellectual history, remain central here. Hobson’s longtime readers will recognize and appreciate his evocative, gentlemanly style and be startled by an intimacy often withheld in his prior work; his new readers will appreciate the child that is father of the man, and the jump shot that is father of both.
Chances Are . . . : Adventures in Probability, by Michael Kaplan and Ellen Kaplan. Viking, March 2006. $26.95
In the game show Let’s Make a Deal, contestants selected from three doors. Two doors hid a goat, one a fabulous prize. After the contestant made his choice, host Monty Hall would open one of the other two doors, revealing one of the goats. The contestant then could either stay with his door, or switch. One might think that the odds are even, but that would be wrong—a switch doubles the odds of winning. This strange truth is known to mathematicians as the “Monty Hall problem.” Such everyday statistical oddities litter the landscape of Chances Are . . . . Some are jaw-dropping, others more pedestrian, but they amount to an enjoyable look at the application of statistics to subjects as varied as war, weather, insurance, medicine, and law. The discussion is interesting enough to shine through muddled prose and some uninspiring accounts of great moments in the history of statistics. Chances Are . . . succeeds despite itself.
William Wegman: Funney/Strange, by William Wegman and Joan Simon. Yale, March 2006. $45
The disconcerting misspelling in the title of the book captures Wegman’s penchant for keeping us slightly off guard, forcing a double take, a reconsideration of what we have just seen. People believe they know his work—those cute photos of his Weimaraners all dressed up as humans—but the Wegman analyzed in this volume is a serious and major player in the contemporary art scene. Wegman works in large-scale Polaroids, charcoal, ink on paper, oil, and video, and his sense of “funney” exposes his roots in the surreal. Simon’s exhibition catalog accompanied the first retrospective of his work in more than fifteen years, displayed recently at the Brooklyn Museum. The title comes from an unnerving ink drawing that captures perfectly Wegman’s brilliance and his goofy, even subversive, perspective on life. The new “dog” photos—“Skelly,” “Eyes,” “Armored”—reassure us that he has lost none of his touch.
—David T. Gies
Creators: From Chaucer and Dürer to Picasso and Disney, by Paul Johnson. HarperCollins, March 2006. $25.95
This book can be seen as a companion piece to Intellectuals, Johnson’s earlier bestseller, but the two books differ notably in tone. While Johnson’s harshness stood out in Intellectuals, and was criticized (perhaps unfairly), in Creators his admiration is manifest. The book contains thirteen chapters profiling one or two creative artists from literature, the fine arts, and music. These are biographical appreciations, rich in detail and anecdote and Johnson’s own confidently expressed opinions. Johnson is an old-fashioned storyteller. His critical insights may not be profound, but his book is exceedingly readable. In the chapter on the artists Turner and Hokusai, for instance, he writes of Turner’s dedication to this craft: “When he was sixty-seven, he wanted to make accurate sketches for a big oil he was planning, to be called Snow Storm: Steam Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth. He had himself lashed to the mainmast of the Ariel, in what turned out to be a gale, and continued sketching.” If a recurring theme emerges from Johnson’s book, it might be how the humble virtues of hard work and dedication seem to be necessary servants to the seemingly higher grace of creative genius.
Lost Mountain: A Year in the Vanishing Wilderness, by Erik Reece. Riverhead, February 2006. $24.95
In September of 2003, University of Kentucky professor Erik Reece visited Lost Mountain, situated on the Cumberland Plateau of the Appalachian Mountains. Exactly one year later, that mountain was gone, having been strip-mined for the coal within. Lost Mountain is Reece’s month-by-month chronicle of the systematic removal of a 300-million-year-old mountain and of the effects of the coal mining industry on the people and environment of Appalachia.
The book is not so much a journal as it is an unmasking: of the myriad ways that the coal industry has found its environmental restrictions lifted under the Bush administration, of the language used to euphemize the destruction of a landscape, and of those who wield the smallest amount of power in their struggle for sustainable, healthy living, the Appalachian poor. Reece bears witness to the devastations of strip mining to entire communities, from the creeks whose contents are poisoned by acid mine water and the degreasing solvents that coal companies spray on their equipment, to the homes weakened by blasting and then washed away by the flooding that results from loss of vegetation and improper placement of valley fills. He charts what he terms the “elaborate shell game” that coal companies play, in which a parent company leases equipment to a number of smaller companies that actually do the mining and, once finished, declare bankruptcy in order to forfeit any responsibility of reclamation, leaving the land naked, toxic, and useless. This kind of mining, Reece maintains, is “the industrial equivalent of an ice age glacier.”
Reece writes at times with a naturalist’s lyric ease, at others with the urgency of the activist’s call to arms. “To have an economy based solely on the short-term growth of our gross domestic product,” he states, “follows a dangerous and absurd logic—that we can have infinite growth based on the use of finite resources.” Indeed, by the end of this careful and illuminating chronicle of destruction, Lost Mountain begins to represent all that is heedlessly selfish in America’s attitude toward its environment. As one eastern Kentuckian tells Reece, “We all live downstream.”
Cézanne in Provence, by Philip Conisbee and Denis Coutagne. Yale, February 2006. $60
While in Paris and its environs, Cézanne studied the paintings of the old masters and apprenticed with Pissarro; he associated with friends Monet and Zola and was a warrior in the battle for modern art and ideas. But it was to Aix-en-Provence and to his studio at the Jas de Bouffan that he always returned. It was there that he painted many of his masterpieces—regional landscapes and portraits of the locals, still lifes and remarkable figure studies. This exquisite book, published on the centennial of Cézanne’s death, is a companion to a major exhibit of works the artist created in and around his hometown. Essays written by Conisbee and Coutagne and a group of accomplished art historians place the over 170 color plates and numerous other images into an artistic, social, and historical context that serves to underscore the achievement of this father of modernism.
Self-Made Man: One Woman’s Journey into Manhood and Back Again, by Norah Vincent. Viking, January 2006. $24.95
In a daring and often dangerous experiment, journalist Norah Vincent used a fake beard, a bulked-up frame, and voice lessons to pass as a man for a year and a half. “Ned” spends time in a bowling league, at strip joints, in the heterosexual dating scene, at a monastery, in the door-to-door sales force, and—a particularly risky move—at a men’s retreat in the woods—all in order to explore aspects of modern masculinity, including friendship, sex, money, and competition. Self-Made Man, Vincent’s account of these experiences, is often fresh and insightful; after visiting strip clubs as a man, she notes that strippers are presented not as real women but as “factory-authorized, snipped, treated.” But while she prepared herself physically for the project, I found myself wishing that she had undergone similar intellectual preparation through outside research. Vincent, acknowledging this omission, warns, “Nothing I say here will have any value except as one person’s observations about her own experiences.” Sadly, I agree. Many of her observations, though intriguing, fall flat. While working for a sales firm, a comment by a male co-worker affirms “with startling precision” her earlier analysis of the male fascination with artificial women “like a Barbie doll.” But self-affirmation is the best Vincent can do. Avoiding the research of others certainly helped give Vincent a fresh perspective, and Self-Made Man is an interesting first word on what it means to be a man in modern America. But because of its limited scope, it provides little more than a conversation piece.
—Stephen W. Murphy
Lincoln Perry’s Charlottesville: Paintings by Lincoln Perry, with text by Ann Beattie. Virginia, December 2005. $39.95
Perry’s bold colors and haunting figures settle into a place—Charlottesville, Virginia—that has captured his attention for a number of years. Perry sees things the rest of us do not see, or do not see at first glance, and the results, rich with light and motion and depth, are haunting. One’s first reaction is a sort of joy, an exhilaration produced by bodies that sit or play or jump or run, but soon another feeling takes over, and the action behind and beyond the scene depicted gently eases the viewer into darker psychological space. Some of the gorgeous paintings in this book tell a story, a sequence of events that suggests mysterious happenings, places transformed by time, loss, or puzzlement. One cannot stop looking at the images, some suggestive of a post-Cubist aesthetic, others hinting at Joseph Cornell’s boxes, others still evoking murals of ancient times. Perry captures a real and imagined Charlottesville with such power that one will want to return to it, and to this book, forever. Beattie, Perry’s wife, offers an introduction that contextualizes the artist and his work in that wonderfully suggestive and angled way that characterizes her own fiction.
—David T. Gies