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Book Notes

ISSUE:  Fall 2006


Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope, by Shirin Ebadi with Azadeh Moaveni. Random House, May 2006. $24.95
Shirin Ebadi is Iran’s first female judge, but soon after the Islamic Revolution she was demoted to the position of a clerk in the same court she presided over for more than a decade. Later, she was locked up with drug addicts and prostitutes. She was also targeted for assassination. Alarming as her meticulous recording of atrocities is, Ebadi’s memoir is ultimately a story of resolve and a declaration of victory. Her rebellious voice refuses to be muffled by harassment, venomous attacks, even death threats. In spite of numerous obstacles, or perhaps because of them, the author refuses to disappear from the courtroom or the public square. For her advocacy of human rights, especially those of women, children, and political prisoners, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003. She is the first Iranian citizen and the first Muslim woman to be so honored. Iran Awakening offers a nuanced understanding of Iran. Avoiding entanglement in the perennial veiling/unveiling debate, Ebadi avoids using the oppressed Muslim woman litany as a publishing ploy and marketing tool. She challenges all those who see an essential incompability between Islamic teachings and human rights, democracy, or women’s rights. Knowing vengeance or hostility is not the answer, she focuses on non-violence and dialogue as the two central tropes of her memoir. She maintains, over and over again, that Iran’s salvation must come from within.
—Farzaneh Milani

Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy, by Noam Chomsky. Metropolitan Books, April 2006. $24
Everything Americans thought they knew about bringing freedom and democracy to the world turns out to be but a noble dream; the nightmare is that to which one awakes. The United States government’s ostensible mission, the promotion of democracy at home and abroad, turns out to be disastrous for actual democracy promotion. Chomsky, a linguistics professor at M.I.T., analyses US pronouncements concerning democracy promotion in terms of actual outcomes. In countries such as Chile, Guatemala, and Iran (among many others), US promotion of democracy masked egregious humanitarian disasters, the latest one unfolding in Iraq. Chomsky argues that the logic of US policy—or the apparent inconsistency in what it says and does—is entirely consistent given its real purposes. US commercial and strategic interests determine how US power is deployed, usually at the expense of (and not in behalf of) popular government—government based on the consent of informed, rights-bearing citizens. The US has a history of subverting actual democracy, in terms of rigged elections or outright toppling of democratically elected leaders, if it conflicted with US commercial or strategic interests. The towering irony in Chomsky’s argument is that by the definition it uses to categorize potential recipients of its democratizing mission, the United States is itself a “failed state.” Failed states often have democratic forms but lack the will or ability to “protect their citizens from violence and perhaps even destruction,” and “regard themselves as beyond the reach of domestic or international law.” The American people (i.e., those in whose name the government carries out its democratizing mission) consistently oppose US foreign policy outcomes, to the extent that they know what those outcomes are. Chomsky argues that a world superpower that claims the right to remake other nations, by overthrowing governments, invading, or imposing sanctions is by its own definition the world’s most powerful failed state. Chomsky’s clear, concise, and compelling arguments about some of the biggest global issues of the age illustrate why he easily won last year’s Prospect magazine poll of the 100 most influential global public intellectuals.
—Calvin Schermerhorn

Organic, Inc.: Natural Foods and How They Grew, by Samuel Fromartz. Harcourt, April 2006. $25
No wonder there now is a fledgling food reform movement calling itself Beyond Organic. After reading Organic, Inc. one begins to understand why some would feel a need to go “Beyond Organic.” The current requirements for labeling a good as organic would, theoretically, permit frozen Twinkies at your Whole Foods outlet. This is not what organic food advocates originally had in mind. They had a notion that “organic” would lead to a sustainable relationship between soil, food, farming, eating, and human health. Fromartz shows how “organic” foods and the legal use of the organic label has evolved to diminish its meaning. As Fromartz points out, the definition of the organic label was a proxy for the issues that divided the food industries. This book also demonstrates how the skills and perspective of journalists can produce in-depth accounts of social, political, and economic phenomena that go beyond mere reportage, or “he said/she said” accounts of controversial issues. Fromartz, a business journalist, effectively integrates interviews with key actors in the corporate, government, and organic farming sector, along with savvy analysis of the economic, regulatory, and consumer dynamics that are in play. He also personalizes the book with accounts of his own quest for healthy food while shopping, testing organic food for attractiveness and taste, while maintaining a certain distance as an “objective” surveyor of a remarkable story. The organic food market has burgeoned from a negligible, marginal operation of a few farmers, environmentalists, and health advocates, to an $11 billion dollar business dominated by large corporations who grow, package, process, and distribute foods which are certified as being free of at least the worse kinds of pesticides. In this story, one gains a fuller appreciation of the ability of the American consumer to exercise power through its purchases of commodities, but even more, the power of the “government–food industry complex” to deflect serious challenges to the dominant farming, distribution, processing, and marketing of Food Inc. (to use Fromartz’s term), which has lowered the production cost of “organic” foods while still charging a premium for them, threatened the economic viability of small organic operators, and hijacking the word “organic” to their corporate goals.
—Richard C. Collins


Agincourt: Henry V and the Battle that Made England, by Juliet Barker. Little, Brown, June 2006. $27.95
Henry the Fifth never recovered from Shakespeare, who cast him in the folkloristic role of the unlikely rapscallion prince who comes to the throne and redeems his nation from vicious aliens. Henry the Fifth is a great play, my favorite in fact, full of speeches tailormade for Laurence Olivier, great contrasts of the pompous and effete and incompetent French nobles with our ordinary British lads, plus Henry himself, the Lad of Lads. The whole plot turns on the underdog English, muddy and dispirited and grossly outnumbered, facing certain annihilation by seemingly all the knights of France. Henry wins, of course, and turns the play into a comedy as he charms Catherine, the enemy’s daughter, into marriage. Written at the height of English chivalry, the play slights two things: logistics and chivalry. Barker spends exactly one chapter (of eighteen) on the actual battle. She uses the first half of her biography establishing the character of Henry as he appoints himself a government full of competent and reliable administrators and commanders. She shows in depth what it took to equip an army and a navy, especially how to pay for it all. Archers won the battle, so let’s look at arrows, for example. To qualify for combat, an English archer had to aim and fire ten arrows per minute; experts could fire twice that number. Each archer carried 60 to 72 at a time. Henry had to order arrows by the tens of thousands, pay for them, transport them to France, and retain enough for a battle after the siege of Harfleur and a long forced march to Agincourt. Barker quotes the surviving original documents and speeches, all cast in the language of chivalry rather than national warfare. She corrects Shakespeare’s cartoonish parody of the French, showing them as talented and experienced warriors, but not disciplined or very organized. The French horses turned the field into a quagmire the day before, and the flower of French chivalry died in mud up to their knees. The survivors became Henry’s prisoners, and all performed their chivalric duties, even at the cost of lifetime imprisonment. The great strength of this book lies in clear exposition of how medieval armies worked, and how Henry performed as the head of government. The weakness is Shakespearean; Barker also falls for the fabulously attractive Henry, and every page glows.
—Don Fry

A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation, by Catherine Allgor. Henry Holt, April 2006. $30
Allgor’s previous book, Parlor Politics, dealt with how the ladies of Washington “helped build a city and a government.” In this book she examines the woman she considers the leader of the group, Dolley Payne Todd Madison, wife of fourth president James Madison, the woman who, supported by a few henchwomen, was the queen bee of Washington social and political life for decades. Although Allgor describes James and Dolley as America’s first political couple, she presents a Dolley who bestrode Washington like a colossus, snuff box at the ready, ostrich plumes nodding from her signature turban, with James, like a vestigial appendix, somewhere at her side. When the thirty-three year old Dolley arrived in Washington in May 1801, because her fifty year old spouse was named Secretary of State by Thomas Jefferson, she was already planning James’s presidential campaign. A Mark Hanna in skirts, she manipulated and entertained her way through all sectors of the district’s power elite, undercutting with her all-inclusive social affairs the misogynistic Jefferson’s attempts to exclude Federalists and control Republicans by means of small, easily-managed dinner parties. Dolley is also described as “an influence peddler” who had “a long and successful career staffing the federal government with friends and supporters.” Allgor’s feminist ideology, like a fun-house mirror, gives a distorted reflection of the facts and, like Soviet cold war polemics, describes incidents in ways that are not quite true, but close enough to reality to mislead the unwary. The book also suffers from a casual, not to say sloppy, approach to scholarship. Even if one credits the publisher for the many disconnects between the numbering and placement of the endnote numbers on the pages and the endnotes themselves, the book is still riddled with inexcusable errors. The author pays little attention to dates and details, combining quotes from letters written by Jefferson decades apart in a way that suggests they were written at the same time, misdating important treaties and events (the Jay treaty was not in 1795, the Haitian revolution did not begin in 1804, British minister Anthony Merry was not received by Jefferson in 1801), and inserts translations from the French that are not only gratuitous, but ludicrous (a chapeau bras is not a “brass helmet” but a small, folding tri-corner hat). The author seems to have no filter for facts or accuracy. Hearsay, rumor, and reality are all given the same weight. Unable to differentiate between some and one, she tells us that Dolley “had the men of Philadelphia in pout” when the source she quotes mentions only one man, that all Southern white elite families were accustomed to dine on fine linen and expensive china while being attended by half-naked slave relatives, that all politicians regularly engaged in brawls and fistfights on and off the House floor. All this being said, it must be admitted that Allgor writes in a sprightly and entertaining style. She might consider switching to fiction where style outweighs accuracy every time.
—Mary A. Hackett

Measuring Heaven: Pythagoras and His Influence on Thought and Art in Antiquity and the Middle Ages, by Christiane L. Joost-Gaugier. Cornell, January 2006. $45
Though best known today for a geometry theorem named in his honor, the Pythagoras of independent scholar Joost-Gaugiers’ study is arguably the most influential figure in all of human history. As the original Greek “philosopher” (he coined the term), his likely champions and proteges include a who’s who of antiquity and early Christianity, including Sappho, Plato, Arisotle, Cicero, Ovid, Philo, Seneca, Emperor Julian, Emperor Hadrian, Eusebius, St. Jerome, and St. Augustine. His areas of influence span all of the “liberal arts” (a Neopythagorean term), but his greatest contributions may be religious. Remembered as a virgin-born, miracle-working son of God born well over five hundred years before Jesus, Pythagoras is credited for first articulating the concepts of Monotheism, the soul, and reincarnation, as well as for promoting and modeling a lifestyle of ideal virtue and austerity. Joost-Gaugier credits this diversity of belief for preserving Pythagoras’ reputation well into the Middle Ages, where his biographies continued to be copied in monasteries and Pythagorean numerical and cosmological symbolism reproduced in Gothic cathedrals. Rather than attempting the impossible task of deriving a verifiable historical figure and his original set of doctrines from the centuries of legend, Joost-Gaugier instead amasses chronologies of the evolving “perceptions” of her subject’s character and his teachings. The book’s three-part organization produces some overlap and repetition as the author surveys the same themes as well as many of the same authors and texts as she travels from ancient Greece to medieval Europe three times. She first gathers biographies of the man, then accounts of his and his later followers’ attributed philosophies, and then the presence of both Pythagoras’ physical representation and his esoteric influence in visual arts and architecture. Stylistically, the text of each chapter is a long sub-divided list, with one to several paragraphs devoted to each historical source within each period and subtopic. Though lay readers may decide to read only her concluding summary chapter, Joost-Gaugier’s summaries are a useful step in outlining and appreciating multidisciplinary history of Pythagorean influence over the last two and a half millennia.
—Chris Gavaler


Southern Writers: A New Biographical Dictionary, edited by Joseph M. Flora and Amber Vogel. LSU, June 2006. $55
The fecundity of Southern literary soil has often been remarked. Richness and diversity in high yield has continued now for nearly four centuries. The reasons for this are not entirely clear, but much may be surmised reading the stimulating entries in this new edition of Southern Writers. Even greater diversity of the regional production may be appreciated in a collection that has increased from 379 to 604 entries, with what is likely a reasonable degree of loosening of the definition of the southern writer on the basis of personal or literary influences on their writings. The definition comprehends most aspects of writing, although novelists and poets are richly represented, while historians and political theorists are generally neglected. There seems, upon reviewing the list of entries (rightfully including Jefferson, Madison, Richard Henry Lee, etc.) to have passed over Calhoun, Woodrow Wilson, or the Dabneys: Richard Heath or either of the two Virginiuses. If Hodding Carter made the cut, why didn’t Douglas Southall Freeman? Although in retrospect a minor light, Parson Weems should have met both regional and influential standards. There may be some among the writers who rose to prominence after 1979 whose names will be quietly dropped in an edition several decades in the future and perhaps a few neglected names that will rise to prominence. But lines need to have been drawn and it is clear that whatever quibbles one may have, this glass is surely more than 95% full rather than a few percent empty. Because of that fact, few readers will be acquainted with all or perhaps even many of the individuals considered in the valuable and stimulating resource. It is difficult to put this book down without peeking at the entries on favorites—about whom something new is likely to be learned; or about those whose acquaintance has not yet been made—an introduction that is likely to lead to sampling of their work. The entries are graceful, interesting, and demonstrate uniform attention to condensing information about the personal lives, works, and influence of each writer. This information is gleaned presumably either from a careful search of all the most recent scholarship on long-established authors or from direct conversations with the more recent ones. The later approach imparts a slightly more gossipy feeling to entries concerning some recent authors—sometimes concerning aspirations or travails that may in time seem less substantial than the less accessible personal struggles and mysteries of writers from bygone eras. This is more than a reference volume. It is a thoughtful survey of the evolution of Southern writing.
—Robert S. Rust

Recovering Your Story: Proust, Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner, Morrison, by Arnold Weinstein. Random House, March 2006. $26.95
Weinstein, a professor of comparative literature at Brown, is a passionate and lucid teacher, one of the most graceful expositors of literature in the nation. In this literary appreciation-cum-memoir, he puts his gifts to work for an unpopular cause: the continuing relevance of the great books that “read us,” as he claims—that recover the reader’s life through their experimental investigations into time, relationship, gender, and history. His avowedly humanist appeal is intended for the beginning or casual reader of Modernist fiction, making a case for the narrative expedition into the interior recesses of the soul, with (sometimes intimate) biographical anecdotes and heartfelt paeans. Weinstein’s book acts as an accessible invitation to the “common reader,” digressing fluidly and comfortably on Albertine, Molly Bloom, love, hate, consciousness, madeleines, mothers, and wives (among others). For those who have already read the staple works of Modernism that he discusses, his book will give much intellectual pleasure and lend new insights. For those who have not attempted the Modernist canon, this personalized exegesis may provide little incentive for the hard work of reading; they would be better advised to listen to one of Weinstein’s excellent recorded lecture series on the same authors.
—Gabriel Hankins


The Foreign Correspondent: A Novel, by Alan Furst. Random House, June 2006. $24.95
Though not a formal series, Furst’s novels, of which this is the ninth, are set in 1930s and 1940s Europe and feature similar protagonists—single men, in physical or emotional exile from their countries, who face a “world gone wrong, the pulse of evil and the unending flight from it, had turned life on its wrong side.” The men—a Polish army officer, a Soviet journalist, a Dutch sea captain, a Hungarian diplomat, and in this case, an Italian foreign correspondent—are men of the world who faced with evil choose in some small way to fight it. And this choice both defines their lives and saddles them with its consequences. In this latest novel, the foreign correspondent, Carlo Weiss, originally from Trieste, but now based in Paris, reports for Reuters by day and is the editor of a small Italian resistance magazine by night. A target of the Italian secret service, and threatened by both the French and British intelligence services, Weiss tries to navigate through each day when the slightest misstep could mean assassination, repatriation, or detention. This novel, like those before it, is a treat. The characters are acutely observed, the period details are correct, and the whole effect is lushly cinematic, as in the best black and white movies. These are classic tales that deserve a large readership.
—David B. Mattern

District and Circle, by Seamus Heaney. Farrar, Straus, May 2006. $20
Heaney’s twelfth collection of poems displays the Nobel Prize winner exercising the full range of his powers. The poems traverse a wide range of form, theme, and subject matter, but there is a tight, vivid energy throughout. Underlying all seems an uneasy longing, richly detailed, for the world and language of his youth, an Ireland where the threat of violence was ever present. The opening poem of the collection, “The Turnip Snedder,” can stand as an emblem for much of the work. The snedder is an ancient farm tool, a “clamp-on meat mincer” with “juiced-up inner blades” which turns the turnips into a “raw sliced mess.” The first tool of many to appear in the book, the snedder is given a voice: “‘This is the way that God sees life,’ / it said, ‘from seedling-braird to snedder.’” To hear in the workings of a farm tool the thoughts of God is vintage Heaney. Consideration of Last Things, of mortality, of history, both political and literary, inform these poems, counterpoised with the hard, specific facts of the earth: an alder tree, a fireman’s helmet, the heft of a sledge. It is clear where Heaney’s loyalties lie: in the conclusion of a sequence of poems dedicated to the late Czesaw Miosz, Heaney writes of that great poet’s love of the world, even under the aegis of eternity: remembering the squeaking melody of a man playing the musical saw, Czesaw (and Heaney) hear a music he “would not have renounced, however paltry.” In Súgán, one of the loveliest poems in the book, Heaney weaves (implicitly, ever so lightly) the memory of work on the farm to his work as a poet, recalling “hay being coaxed in handfuls from a ruck” and how “Sun in my face, a power to bind and loose/ Eked out and into each tug and lap.” This is poetry securely earned, richly wrought, strong both by virtue of its tensions and the consonant-rich language that must surely be Heaney’s greatest gift.
—Peter Walpole

When All Is Said and Done, by Robert Hill. Graywolf, April 2006. $20
Striking and spirited in its presentation, this short, rapid-fire novel reads like a hymn to the travails of love and work, marriage and babies, illness and sex, sexism and the ’60s, Revlon and Bergdorf’s. Its framework is a Jewish couple in an exclusive New York suburb, but its reach is clearly more universal. To be sure, Dan and Myrmy’s union is peculiar (filled as it is with anxiety, pretentiousness, social catastrophe, and pages and pages of run-on sentences), but grossly appealing nonetheless. The charm undoubtedly comes from Hill’s manic yet controlled writing, at once observant and hilarious. When Dan has nearly maimed himself helping Myrmy, once again, with something remarkably trivial, his description of his high-maintenance wife is one case in point: “And just like my own mother, Myrmy’s doing her damnedest to hold back on some little social lesson, some little etiquette enhancement so that devotion can get its due. She’s a good woman, she really is, never better than when she’s corralling herself back into her own pen without any arched-eyebrow lasso from me.” Exquisitely perceptive and a little bit catty, Hill’s novel goes down in one smooth, satisfying gulp.
—Wade Edwards


The Essential Chaplin: Perspectives on the Life and Art of the Great Comedian, edited with and introduction by Richard Schickel. Ivan R. Dee, July 2006. $27.50 cloth, $16.95 paper
That Charlie Chaplin, long the most famous person in the world, exerted his singularly powerful and enduring hold on several generations of moviegoers hardly qualifies as news. That he has moved such disparate figures as Winston Churchill, Graham Greene, Gilbert Seldes, Alistair Cooke, Edmund Wilson, James Agee, and Theodor Adorno, (among many others) to attack, defend, justify, rhapsodize, agonize, and otherwise utilize his work for their own occasional, and often deadly serious, prose—well, that calls for more reflection. The distinguished film historian and critic Richard Schickel, compiling this mercurial anthology of writings about Chaplin—reaching from the early days of Mack Sennett one-reelers to J. Hoberman’s fine tribute on the hundredth anniversary of the actor’s birth—sought to include writers with day jobs other than movie reviewing. Thus the book’s best feature is its organized cacophony, its trace of this astonishingly long and rich body of work and personal travail (after all, no star’s career is complete without its share of offscreen mayhem, and Chaplin obliged all too well in this, too) in some several dozen voices of fading or lasting memory, and with countless aesthetic and ideological grudges beyond the narrow province of the movies. There is much to savor in these essays; and the book might also serve as a worthy companion to a reader’s return to Chaplin’s films themselves. The only grudge The Essential Chaplin invites of its reader arises from its near-biblical profusion of typos. Considering that their subject is a man whose drive for perfection pushed him to film scores of takes for even the simplest of camera shots, one might have expected the author and the publisher to hire a copyeditor with a bare modicum of the same attitude. Instead, it seems, they hired someone more like our beloved Tramp himself, for whom all work was anathema, and for whom even the simplest job could be botched, bungled, or at the very least, blemished.
—Robert Jackson

Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs, by Psyche A. Williams-Forson. North Carolina, May 2006. $55 cloth, $19.95 paper
Subtitled “Black Women, Food, and Power,” this lively and engaging work examines the cultural, symbolic, and economic role of the familiar domestic fowl in African American tradition from the plantation era to present day. The title itself is taken from a remark made to a reporter in 1970 by the daughter of a woman who had been a “waiter carrier” in Gordonsville, Virginia; a vendor of fried chicken, biscuits, coffee, and other fare to passengers on passing trains. The house had been purchased by her mother with the proceeds of this enterprise. As a means of church and school fundraising as well as the basis for personal livelihoods; as the centerpiece of choice of the traditional Sunday meal; as a symbol of personal culinary prowess and inter-generational survival against all adversity, “the gospel bird” surpassed and endured. Drawing on sources as diverse as cookbooks, cartoons, personal interviews, commercial advertisements, and contemporary comedy, this work is a celebration of taste and tenacity that is likely to be the envy of Colonel Sanders and practically anyone else. Pull up to a table, serve yourself, and enjoy. No bread crumbs here.
—Hugh Gildea

The Book of Lost Books: An Incomplete History of All the Great Books You’ll Never Read, by Stuart Kelly. Random House, April 2006. $24.95
“Littera scripta manet,” said Horace, “the written word remains.” Wrong. The written word gets lost, forgotten, burned, edited, outlawed, bowdlerized by spouses, hidden, stolen, misplaced, planned but never started, left unfinished, eaten by worms, turned into fuel, walled up, discarded by libraries, untranscribed, flooded, shredded, erased, written over, consumed by its own acid paper, unrecorded, abandoned, stolen, set aside, misremembered, unpolished, recorded only in undeciphered languages, censured or censored, buried, flushed, declared politically or theologically incorrect, stored in impenetratable archives, classified, bombed, faked, or left out of a book on lost books. Some works existed in only one copy, since lost, while some ephemera, such as broadsides or popular textbooks, get read to tatters. The wonder is that anything survives. Kelly offers his annotated catalogue of this devastation as “an alternative history of literature, an epitaph and a wake, a hypothetical library and an elegy to what might have been.” A compulsive list maker, like most literary scholars, he surveys what we have lost, from the other parts of Homer’s epic cycle to Georges Perec’s unfinished puzzles, with about half of the authors before Milton. If you’re a person who wants to read everything ever written, this book may be a tragedy. But it might also be a comedy if you survive long enough to read what’s left.<
—Don Fry

Fire in the Ashes: God, Evil, and the Holocaust, edited and introduced by David Patterson and John K. Roth. Washington, December 2005. $45
In the context of an academic world prone to high levels of specialization, obscure prose, and a model in which scholars work alone to produce tomes that are read by relatively few, Fire in the Ashes takes a distinctly different approach. The book emerges from conversations that have taken place between Jews and Christians over the last ten years during the Pastora Goldner Holocaust Symposium at Wroxton College in Oxfordshire, England, and is the second in a series of books that this symposium has set up on post-Holocaust studies. The book’s structure signals its origins in conversation: framed by a prologue and postscript written by the editors, the book’s three parts—“The Burden of Evil,” “Searching Traditions,” and “Beyond the Ruins?”—include eleven sections, each consisting of an essay, two responses, and then a response to the responses by the essay’s author. But the book is distinct not only for its dialogic structure, but also for the way the contributors together grapple deeply with some of the most pressing and disturbing questions that the Holocaust raises about God, evil, and religious faith. The contributors discuss and debate whether, after the Holocaust, belief in God is possible, and if so, what new forms it might, or must, take; whether we should revise or get rid of theodicy, that is, the attempt to affirm God’s goodness and justice in the face of the evil that has occurred in the world; whether the burden of evil should fall on God, humanity, or both, and how the Holocaust reconfigures out understanding of each. The editors declare that “the very credibility of Western religious traditions” is at stake in this book, and the mini-conversations included bear out that declaration, but the effort of the contributors leans towards finding possibilities for faith after the Holocaust, as they look for elements in the Jewish and Christian traditions that might be retrieved and examine specific Jewish and Christian beliefs and practices for how they might help us to live in a world in which the Holocaust has occurred.
—Jennifer L. Geddes

Still Looking: Essays on American Art, by John Updike. Knopf, November 2005. $40
Few readers think of John Updike as an art scholar or art critic, but this is his second book of art essays, following his 1989 collection Just Looking. He published most of these eighteen essays in The New York Review of Books, but several appeared as prefaces and chapters. Updike excels not at theorizing about pictures, but at analyzing America and what it means to be American. Most of these pieces sprang from exhibits, and the reader follows Updike through the shows, enjoying impressions not meant to be systematic or professional, but personal, historical and moral. As usual, our guide takes the contrarian view, for example, dismissing John Singleton Copley’s “Death of Major Peirson” as “a spectacular expenditure of skill in a jingoistic cause, a celebration, in the teeth of British defeat in the American colonies, of British valor and sacrifice elsewhere.” And he can turn a phrase with the best, speaking of Frederic Edwin Church’s “luridly ruddy skies” or “the auspiciously named Church,” or Sanford Robinson Gifford’s “restraint of the exquisite,” or European art that Winslow Homer “so elegantly ignored.” The best chapters take us inside our most American painters: Homer and Edward Hopper. This book, despite its excellent plates, is not about art; it’s about character—your character and mine.
—Don Fry


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