Blessing Same-Sex Unions: The Perils of Queer Romance and the Confusions of Christian Marriage, by Mark D. Jordan. Chicago, June 2005. $29
A thoughtful and provocatively sustained analysis of gay marriage, Jordan’s book will undoubtedly cost him a few friends. He targets the Roman Catholic Church’s theology of Christian marriage, which he finds much more elastic than most presume. He targets pseudo-Christian queer couples, who want a sanctioned church wedding without a genuine commitment of faith. And he targets the American bridal industry for propagating a ceremony so artificial, expensive, and hip that it loses all transcendental meaning. Jordan’s research runs deep and his conclusions are worthwhile. What’s missing from this volume is a consideration of well-informed, honestly faithful Christians—both queer and straight—who wrestle with the question of gay unions. Perhaps no such populace really exists?
Terror, Incorporated: Tracing the Dollars Behind the Terror Networks, by Loretta Napoleoni. Seven Stories Press, May 2005. $17.95 paper
Napoleoni has written an interesting book that focuses on the economic history and operations of terrorist organizations. She traces the emergence of modern terrorist groups as state-sponsored organizations used to further the ends of the respective superpowers during the Cold War through their growing economic independence via kidnapping, extortion, the drug trade, and the like, to the opportunities provided by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to the collapse of the Soviet Union, to the emergence of the Modern Jihad.
The book provides descriptions of many terrorist organizations, concise recountings of their histories, and it often supplies dollar amounts and facts about GDPs, trade information, black market activities, etc., but it frequently does not provide any sort of context into which these figures can be understood or it simply makes claims that are not supported by relevant facts. Two examples: “In 1998, the fall of Suharto opened the door to Islamic financial institutions. Money from Arab countries began to pour in. . . . During the first six months of 2002, trade between Indonesia and nine Arab countries rose by $1.95 million, of which $950,000 were Indonesian exports.” No information is provided on the trade figures with the unnamed nine Arab countries for the previous years before 2002 or during Suharto’s regime, so it is difficult to assess the validity of the conclusion or if those amounts are even meaningful. In another instance, she writes, “Far from being defeated or even seriously wounded, since 9/11 al-Qaeda and its global network of affiliates, cells and sleepers, have grown exponentially and today are more elusive than ever.” Again, she provides no figures or estimates to support this assessment of exponential growth.
Lastly, I would have preferred an explanation or illustration of the operation of a hawala and why they are more effective in operating in Muslim countries than traditional banks, and I would have liked to have seen some ideas or suggestions on how to limit the growth of the terror economy or some analysis of its weaknesses.
Henry Adams and the Making of America, by Garry Wills. Houghton Mifflin, September 2005. $30
Garry Wills is one of the intellectual stalwarts of our time. As a historian, writer, and social critic he has won prestigious awards. Is it curious, or is it telling, that he chooses not to take, or has not been offered, a prestigious academic chair? In this important book Wills launches a broadside across the bow of academic history and English departments for negligence and nonfeasance. He’s not one of the brethren?
He claims that Henry Adams’ nine volume History of the United States of America During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson (4 volumes) and History of the United States During the Administrations of James Madison (5 volumes) is a “nonfiction prose masterpiece” and it would have been long recognized as such, except that the historians never read beyond the first volume, and the English professors never got beyond his later book, The Education of Henry James.
Wills’ claim for Adams’ work, or his attribution of blame may be arguable, but this book, quite apart from those features is a wonderful trip. Reading this book is like going over your old textbook in American history but seeing that familiar history in a new light, and with an enriched sense of paradox and irony. And if in some places the reader isn’t sure whether one is getting Adams’ or Wills’ view of Jeffersonians, it’s less important than the narrative itself. Wills compares Adams’ versions with those of others who have written on this crucial period, and more often than not, finds Adams’ accounts more comprehensive, more astute, and more vividly recounted.
Wills views Adams, the founder of the history department at Harvard, as an early progenitor of the “new history,” a history which doesn’t confine itself to heroes or to military events, but which incorporates social, military, economic, and diplomatic history with ingenuity in research. The fact that Adams had a deep personal and ancestral interest in this period, Wills maintains, did not lead to “filiopietism” but to an appreciation for American political pragmatism.
1945: The War That Never Ended, by Gregor Dallas. Yale, September 2005. $40
This book should be read by every American who has even a modest interest in understanding the “war that never ended,” which is the author’s term for the period between 1945, the last year of military activity in WWII, and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Dallas rightly observes that “no politically agreed peace was ever established as a whole” for WWII. Arguably, if there had been a peace conference the post-war geography might have been different. But if the absence of a formal peace treaty process may have been the starting point for this book, it certainly isn’t the major theme or orientation. 1945 is not about a year, but a fundamental, historically based challenge to what he calls the American “myth” of WWII.
Despite the author’s protest that polemics is not his style, this is a polemic, but one that is buttressed by extensive research and the author’s status as a student of the history of other wars and post-war debacles He says the US “myth” of WWII is that it was a great victory, and that the post-war Europe recovery followed from a generous and strategic masterstroke called the Marshall Plan. He says that the perspective of many Europeans who experienced WWII is not that it was a victory, but a bare survival, and remote from the facts that he marshals and interprets.
Dallas claims that there is a “hole” in history regarding the consequences of post-1945 on many in central, eastern and southern Europe. He speaks of the plight of refugees, repatriates, and displaced peoples. He claims that these people suffered the consequences of the fact that the US was over its head while thinking that it was only “above it all.” Dallas also claims that the people of Europe would have been spared much except for American ignorance of European geography and Russian history, and a military strategy influenced too much by US elections and communist spies in key posts in the government. His basic argument is that the shape of post-war Europe depended upon whose armies were located where, and the US actions presaged the repatriation fiascoes, gulag internments, and the Iron Curtain.
This is a serious revision of history for many Americans, even if the pro-British military versions of the war, which are repeated here, are known. Dallas relies on some new archival sources to buttress familiar claims, but it is the thoroughness of his research from diverse secondary sources, and his identification with those who might have suffered less if the US had been less concerned about being tainted with colonialism and more concerned with Soviet ambitions, that distinguish the work.
Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and the Renaissance in Florence, edited by David Franklin. Yale, August 2005. $65
It is hard to imagine that we have not heard most of what could be said about the twin giants of Florentine Renaissance art, Michelangelo Buonarotti and Leonardo da Vinci. But this catalogue, produced to accompany an exhibit at the National Gallery of Canada, provides us with an unusual view of the period from 1500–1550, when Medici Florence provided the context for a unique era of artistic creativity. The book includes not only wonderfully rich plates showing premier works of the two grand masters—such as Michelangelo’s sculptures for the Medici Chapel and Leonardo’s Annunciation—but also places those works within a developing consistency of style shared by artists such as Piero di Cosimo, Andrea del Sarto, Cellini, Bronzino, and others. The authors ultimately challenge the conventional designations of “High Renaissance” and “Mannerism,” arguing it is more useful to look at continuities during the period than to view groups of painters and sculptors as stylistic rivals from competing camps. The book concludes with the assertion that the appearance of Georgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists marked a watershed event, and his opposition to artistic innovation marked the end of the Florentine Renaissance.
Documenting Spain: Artists, Exhibition Culture, and the Modern Nation, 1929–1939, by Jordana Mendelson. Penn State, August 2005. $55
The decade from 1929–1939 was a sort of Golden Age for documentary film work in Spain, both in the cinema and in still photography. In spite of the advent of the brutal Civil War in 1936—or, perhaps because of the nature of that conflict—Spanish artists grabbed still and movie cameras to document the world they lived in. The new technologies, combined with the growth of the mass media and the desire to display images publicly in the cinema and in exhibition halls, allowed Spain to see herself as never before and to project that image outside its borders. Mendelson’s well-documented study sees this cultural phenomenon (illustrated with 156 black & white and color plates) as a recognition of the country’s modernity, or what modernity might have looked like in the Spain of the 1930s. Divided into case studies, the book studies the Pueblo Español of 1929 (still a tourist attraction in Barcelona today), several pieces by Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel, Buñuel’s masterful Las Hurdes: Land Without Bread (1933), the documentary work of groups like the Misiones Pedagógicas during the Second Republic, Josep Renau and the Spanish Pavilion at the International Expo in Paris in 1937 (for which Picasso painted Guernica), and finally, Dalí’s writings and associated paintings on Millet’s Angelus. Smart, original, and well written, this book gives us a fresh view of artistic (documentary) activity during one of Spain’s most intense and troubled times.
—David T. Gies
Stealing God’s Thunder: Benjamin Franklin’s Lightning Rod and the Invention of America, by Philip Dray. Random House, August 2005. $25.95
Lightning, terrifying in its destructive force, was very poorly understood in Benjamin Franklin’s day, as Philip Dray relates in this fascinating study. While Franklin was not the first to come to something like a more modern understanding of the nature of lightning, he was one of the first to articulate clearly that lightning might simply be akin to an electric spark, albeit on a vast scale. Popularly, of course, lightning was widely regarded as a fairly unmistakable token of the wrath of God. In Europe, the traditional response to an impending storm was to ring the church bells in an effort to beseech God’s mercy. The church bell tower being typically the tallest structure in the area, this practice had dire consequences for the bell ringers, dozens of whom, over the decades, died from lightning strikes. Finally, Dray recounts, a pamphlet was circulated against the practice with a title that would be comical were the facts not so macabre: “A Proof that the Ringing of Bells During Thunderstorms May Be More Dangerous Than Useful.” Still, when Franklin first devised, manufactured, and installed his lightning rods, with some demonstrable success at deflecting the awesome destructive power of lightning bolts, there were widespread and quite serious reservations. If God wants to strike someone down, after all, who are we to deflect the blow?
As Dray relates, the lightning rod gradually gained more widespread acceptance, both for earthbound structures and for ships. Dray goes on to explain the near mythic stature that Franklin gained, especially in France. The lightning rod became a potent symbol of man’s ability to wrest power from the highest of authority. It seemed but a small stretch, during the American Revolution and the buildup toward the French Revolution, to suppose that if man can defuse the power of God’s lightning, he might also shrug off the yoke of earthly kings.
Dray’s writing throughout is clear and lively. Someone looking for a detailed biography of Franklin might want to turn elsewhere, but as a study of Franklin as a scientist and of eighteenth-century scientific culture generally, Dray’s is a fascinating work.
Between Salt Water and Holy Water: A History of Southern Italy, by Tommaso Astarita. Norton, July 2005. $24.95
The author, a native of the region and now a professor of History at Georgetown, has given us an excellent overview of the past of one of the most fascinating if now overlooked parts of Europe. Though his story begins with a brief account of early contacts between Carthaginians, Greeks, and later Romans, it is only with the arrival of Arabs and then Normans in the ninth and eleventh centuries respectively that southern Italy begins to truly take on a distinctive personality of its own. Figures such as the Norman brothers and adventurers Roger and Robert Guiscard, the Arab geographer al-Idrisi, and the endlessly curious Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II helped create a culture as vibrant as any in contemporary Europe—and far more so than most. Guelphs and Ghibellines, Angevins, and Aragonese can all be found here, lending their own ingredients to an already heady brew. Renaissance and Counterreformation, Goethe and the Grand Tour, the Risorgimento with the impossibly romantic Garibaldi and his Red Shirts, and more modern phenomena such as Fascism, Communism, and the Mafia, likewise make their appearances. This is indeed a rich book though it remains a narrative history without the footnotes for which some might long. Those who wish for a more detailed and truly analytical work must go elsewhere though the author does provide a useful bibliography as well as numerous helpful illustrations, even if the latter are unfortunately all in black and white. The curious general reader should treasure this book.
Five Days in Philadelphia: The Amazing “We Want Willkie!” Convention of 1940 and How It Freed FDR to Save the Western World, by Charles Peters. Public Affairs, July 2005. $26
The subtitle breathlessly says it all. Peters, a longtime journalist and editor, has written an account of a fascinating moment in American and world history, when the fate of millions literally did hang in the balance. Wendell Willkie, whom the author clearly admires did indeed aid Roosevelt in his theretofore rather surreptitious campaign to prepare the country for the coming war with Germany and its allies. Virtually alone within his party, the former Democrat argued strenuously and courageously for preparedness and thereby furnished FDR with political cover for decisions he perhaps could not have taken on his own, lest he incur the wrath of a still isolationist country. Peters does not at all strive to conceal his views on the period and this is refreshing. Willkie, the newcomer to GOP ranks, contended for the nomination against Taft of Ohio, Dewey of New York, and Vandenberg of Michigan and was expected by few to prevail. Peters’ recounting of the maneuverings of the Republican candidates, all of whom were convinced isolationists or at least kept their true feelings well-hidden, reads like that of a political insider. The blow-by-blow account makes for compelling reading. The reader who yearns for a detailed analysis of the roots of contemporary American foreign policy or wishes for a more thorough exploration of world developments of that perilous time should look elsewhere. However, for those who like an exciting read about a time when politics was less packaged and more personal—and long for examples of greater vision and less blind partisanship—Five Days in Philadelphia will provide much satisfaction and moments of real inspiration.
Black Doves Speak: Herodotus and the Language of Barbarians, by Rosario Vignolo Munson. Harvard, July 2005. $14.95
Everybody calls Herodotus “The Father of History,” but we could equally well call him the father of anthropology. As background to his history of the Persian War, he sketches the various ethnic groups, which he views as civilizations, of the Mediterranean world, and their interactions, mostly with Greeks, Egyptians, and Persians. Every civilization, from village to empire, tends to regard itself as superior to outsiders who speak unintelligibly, differently, or even oddly. The ancient Greeks and the Egyptians took this snobbery to extremes, calling anyone who did not speak their language “barbarians,” a term derived by onomatopeia from the sound of dogs barking. Herodotus used his Histories to teach the Greeks the dangers of this stereotype, according to this new study by Munson, a classics professor at Swarthmore, who sees the historian believing that “a study of the . . . customs . . . of different societies will display in most cases the equal competence of all men.” Munson devotes a chapter to Herodotus’s distinctions among Greek speakers, and another to his byplay of customs and languages among speakers of other tongues. A third chapter deals with Herodotus using translation as interpretation, and the final chapter analyzes his stories where language plays a role in the plot. He shows how Herodotus the persona demonstrates linguistic competence, broad knowledge of cultures, digging for assumptions, and insistence on accuracy as the means to escape one’s own ethnocentricity. Based on this book, we could call Herodotus the father of ethnic tolerance.
Bluebirds Used to Croon in the Choir, by Joe Meno. TriQuarterly, November 2005. $21.95
In this set of seventeen brisk and funny stories, Joe Meno creates a fictional world so strange, so absurd that it could almost be real. Despite the stories’ eccentricities, however, they rarely seem artificial or overblown. This is because Meno creates each of his characters with a deep and elaborate architecture, one that imbues their eccentricities with meaning and makes them seem vividly—even painfully—human. The brother and sister who sedate small animals and dress them in dolls’ clothes? They want to put on a parade for their despondent mother (and ward off thoughts of their father’s suicide). And the parentless teen who steals luggage from airport terminals? He just wants to see the “family stuff” (clothes, pills, pictures) inside.
As progressive as Meno is concerning voice and texture, he is just as conservative in matters of form. Each piece in Bluebirds conforms to a familiar model of the short story in which all is bent towards a final epiphanic moment. In most of these stories, the moment in question is well-earned and pays off beautifully. In others, however, the pay-off moment seems hurried or forced. In “Be a Good Citizen,” for example, the reader is left wondering how and why the protagonist’s feigned coughing fit constitutes an ending, and whether a page or two more of development might have made this character and her story seem less abridged.
On the whole, though, these stories are slick, engaging, and full of parents lost, marriages failed, aunts and cousins lusted after, fatal ailments suspected, but also miracles performed, futures seen, friends and sacrifices made, moments shared, and pasts finally understood. They have, in other words, all the stuff of modern life in them—all that is funny and sad and wonderful and, yes, deeply strange.
A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, by Yiyun Li. Random House, September 2005. $21.95
“Being someone’s child,” says one of Li’s narrators, “is a difficult job, a position one has no right to quit.” In this affecting and delicately constructed collection, winner of the inaugural Frank O’Connor Prize, being a parent is a difficult job too, as is being a spouse, sibling, lover, widow. For many of these characters, caught between the previous generation’s Communist China and the romantic freedoms of the Midwest, the burden of kinship is inseparable from the immigrant experience on which so much of American literature depends. What makes Li’s interpretation of this experience unique is the parents’ desperation to marry off their children (and sometimes the children’s desperation to marry off their parents), and especially the inappropriate brand of love her characters find instead. In “Extra,” an aging woman whose arranged marriage has disastrously failed becomes infatuated with a young boy at the school where she is a maid. In “After a Life,” two first cousins, determined to wed despite their families’ protests, produce a mentally ill daughter who haunts their marriage. In “The Princess of Nebraska,” a young woman who becomes pregnant by a gay friend decides to keep the baby: “Being a mother must be the saddest yet the most hopeful thing in the world, falling into a love that, once started, would never end.” While these succinctly stated abstractions work powerfully in exposition, they sometimes come off as flat and unbelievable in dialogue: “Yang needs us no more than that glove needs us for our admiration.” Perhaps this peculiarity is due to the fact that Li (who moved to the US in 1996 and received her MFA from Iowa) has only been writing in English for an impressive seven years. Or perhaps it is simply one of the untraversable obstacles that in this book divide one person, generation, or culture from the next. In the final, titular story, two elderly characters, a Chinese man and an Iranian woman, discover the inevitable beauty of this language barrier. Finding that their native tongues are the most intimate means of communication, he tells her in Chinese, “That we get to meet and talk to each other—it must have taken a long time of good prayers to get us here.”
The Wake, by Margo Glantz, translated from the Spanish by Andrew Hurley. Curbstone Press, September 2005. $14 paper
Winner of the Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Prize in Mexico and finalist for the Herralde Prize in Spain, this compelling novel by Mexican author and critic Margo Glantz tells the story of Nora García, Juan’s ex-wife, who arrives to attend his wake in the village where she lived with him many years ago. This stream-of-consciousness first person narrative examines Nora’s feelings while she observes the people who have gathered at her old house to pay tribute to Juan, a famous pianist. Also a musician—she plays the cello—her reminiscences follow her thoughts structured as a music variation, going back and forth, just as she dwells on Bach’s Goldberg variations as interpreted by Gould at various stages of his career. Nora remembers the old times and compares how Juan looks now dressed in plain clothes with a crucifix on his chest in contrast to the elegant leanings he cultivated when they were married. What is fascinating about this novel is the narrator’s train of thought evoking her life and feelings for Juan. Detailed descriptions of fashionable items that Juan loved and his clearly articulated explanations about musical topics hint at how she listened to him, but also remind her of their disagreements. Another motif is Juan’s heart condition, which lends itself to Nora’s reflections on her complex relationship to her ex-husband. The narrator wonders what she feels now and how she felt when she was his wife, what other people attending the wake feel, and how Juan was before he died. She remarks on several occasions that there is no one accepting condolences, and thinks that perhaps people should offer them to her, but no one approaches. Nora appears as a highly sensitive and cultured woman who remembers her past and her attachment to her former husband.
—María Inés Lagos
An Atomic Romance, by Bobbie Ann Mason. Random House, August 2005. $24.95
Mason’s first novel in over a decade is the love story of Reed Futrell, a fifty-something maintenance engineer at a uranium-enrichment plant, and his biologist girlfriend Julia, whose worries over Reed’s possible radioactive exposures continually keep her at a distance. Although the book is in part about the threat of atomic annihilation, it rarely feels dangerous, especially with respect to the fate of the lovers; there is little doubt that Reed and Julia, both charming and reasonable, will find their way back to each other. Furthermore, the stakes between Reed and Julia and between Reed and his work history are sometimes unclear: the book flirts with distinctions of masculine warfare and feminine peacemaking, but it can’t quite commit to this unwieldy subject, and for the most part regards plutonium, uranium, and beryllium as though they were lead paint—deadly, but unattached to human intention. As in Mason’s first and most famous novel, In Country, which interrogated the legacy of the Vietnam War and Agent Orange, her treatment of the big issues, although admirable and well-researched, is less impressive than the everyday particulars that in the 1980s put her in the company of K-Mart realists Ann Beattie and Raymond Carver. Her characterization is as sharp and as generous as ever; Reed Futrell is brought to life so warmly that for days after finishing the book, I found myself looking for him on the street. Like her characters (and like Stephen Hawking, whose A Brief History of Time is invoked in Julia’s pick-up line), Mason is obsessed with the big and the little, the endless expanse of the universe and the unimaginably microscopic cell. Inevitably, it’s the small she does best, the effortless details which populate her characters’ lives—the loose leather straps on a pair of clogs, the way a man talks to his dog: “Woof woof. We’re in total agreement.”
The Difference Between Women and Men, by Bret Lott. Random House, July 2005. $23.95
Lott renews his reputation as a master writer from the very beginning of this distractingly artful collection of short stories. Almost everything about Lott’s prose is mesmerizing: the long, graceful phrasing; the atmospheric brooding; the prevalence of well-wrought pain, jealousy, and anxiety. Yet, the author’s magic remains somewhat disappointing, if only because the art of this volume reveals nothing but misery about its subjects. In the title story, an exceedingly detailed account of a marriage breaking up, and a companion piece of sorts to another bitter story called, “A Way Through This,” Lott seems to stop short, just as the reader is ready to turn from the words to the meaning. In “Rose,” to cite another example, Lott gives us a disturbing story of a woman who cherishes the dead infant she keeps hidden in loving splendor in the floor boards under her bed. The apprehension of the woman is so striking and, for the reader, so debilitating that it’s very hard to turn the page. But the beautifully repellant art makes us continue, almost in spite of ourselves: “Then, when each of them met the nothing end of their nothing lives, she would be there on the other side of the muddy disconsolate river of death, and they would see her upon the opposite shore, see she’d crossed pristine and glistening and dressed in pure pure white to the cold bald great hereafter.” This is a tremendously good collection of stories, all of which seem utterly soulless and riddled with conflict and exquisite pain.
God Lives in St. Petersburg, by Tom Bissell. Pantheon, January 2005. $20
Bissell’s inaugural collection of witty, worldly stories proves a fine companion for his nonfiction debut, Chasing the Sea, in which the author chronicles his return to Uzbekistan and his travels there alongside a native guide and interpreter to the catastrophic, nearly waterless Aral Sea. Only one tale in God Lives in St. Petersburg, however, is set in this region where Bissell once worked as a Peace Corps volunteer: aptly titled, “Aral” depicts a defunct KGB officer’s bitter ensnarement of an environmental biologist commissioned by the UN to study the ecological disaster. Instead Bissell’s protagonists, most of them Americans abroad, share a common emotional and intellectual geography—“the boundless naiveté Americans had for places that weren’t America”—that seems to dissolve the boundaries between stories and unite the collection nearly seamlessly.
In “Death Defier” (originally published in the Summer 2004 issue of VQR), two journalists marooned in Afghanistan must rely upon the dubious goodwill of a warlord who sends one on a highly suspicious journey to save the other. In “Expensive Trips Nowhere,” a couple who actually pays for a hike through Kazakhstan finds their marriage at a breaking point once the husband fails to protect his wife from bandits, and their guide, a war hero, later takes an interest in her. And in the title story, a missionary discovers that the faith with which he intends to save a people is not only unwanted and impractical but also ineffective in stifling his forbidden desire.
Only “Animals in Our Lives,” at the book’s conclusion, shuttles the reader back to America, where the incapacity for interpersonal communications seems to persist even on these characters’ home turf as Franklin, an English teacher who abandons his job in Kyrgyzstan, returns to Michigan for a relationship that, as it turns out, is a more hopeless territory than the place he left. But whether set here or afar, Bissell’s stories are not so much about the misunderstandings between Americans and foreigners or Americans and themselves as the confusion among people in general and—like the zoo Franklin tours with his girlfriend as their romance ends—what a strange, inevitably disastrous thing it is to be human in this world, trapped with other members of the same species.
The Trouble With Poetry, by Billy Collins. Random House, October 2005. $22.95
The new collection by Collins, former US poet laureate and National Public Radio favorite, should bolster his standing as America’s most popular poet. All the poems in The Trouble With Poetry are accessible and thoughtful, many are funny, and worth reading aloud to a friend. Collins is gifted with the ability to find a happy conceit and then present it without trying to load the poem with more than it can bear. In this collection, the poem “Flock” is perhaps the best example of his shorter work. The poem opens with an epigraph from an article on printing which reports that it required the skins of 300 sheep to make one copy of the Gutenberg Bible. Collins plays off this observation to make an excellent, eloquent point on the simple integrity of animals. In “The Revenant,” the spirit of a family dog who was put to sleep comes back to tell his master, “I never liked you—not one bit.” The dog-spirit goes on: “I hated the car, the rubber toys, / disliked your friends and worse, your relatives.” It’s a funny idea, treated very well, and Collins knows not to push it too far, but ends with a laugh, that in heaven everyone reads and writes, “the dogs in poetry, the cats and all the others in prose.”
In his most powerful poetry, Collins seems to lull the reader with his calm, conversational tone and then shifts the poem at the end into a more serious or poignant stance. “The Lanyard” recalls the gift of a tacky string lanyard the poet made for his mother at summer camp: “She gave me life, and milk from her breasts/ And I gave her a lanyard.” This juxtaposition, known to all parents and, eventually, to most children, Collins turns to good effect: “not the archaic truth / that you can never repay your mother, / but the rueful admission . . . I was as sure as a boy could be / that this useless, worthless thing I wove / out of boredom would be enough to make us even.”
Perhaps the best poem in the book, “Statues,” expresses the basic longing for life that underpins the largely cheerful worldview of Collins’ poetry. Thinking of municipal statues of military heroes, Collins goes on to imagine statues not of soldiers on horseback, but “the others / who had simply walked through life.” He thinks of the sickly, of the victims of accidents and of murder, and then of a statue of himself, “down on my knees, eyes uplifted, / praying to the passing clouds, / forever begging for just one more day.”
Billy Collins is a domestic poet, a poet of the backyard and a glass of wine on a summer evening. Of our best poets, Collins calls to mind Richard Wilbur. Collins cannot match Wilbur’s technical brilliance as a wordsmith, and his range of subject matter is not quite so broad. but the two poets share a kind of frank optimism or benevolence that is not bland nor remotely insipid, but simply warm and human.
Billy Collins Live: A Performance at the Peter Norton Symphony Space. Random House Audio, August 2005. $19.95
Hearing a poet read his or her own work is a great aid to comprehension. In the case of Collins, hearing him read is good fun, too. Billy Collins Live is a recording of a benefit reading from April of 2005. Several poems from The Trouble With Poetry appear on the CD. After a short and very funny introduction by the actor and comedian Bill Murray, Collins reads twenty-four of his poems, offering short, amusing comments on many of them. The choice of Murray to introduce Collins is appropriate: Collins is both a poet and an entertainer, a rare combination in America. Indeed, he comes across in the reading as part poet and part stand-up comedian, with a deadpan, low-key style. When his poems shift, as they often do, into a more serious vein, their impact is all the greater for the contrast.
100 Essential Modern Poems, edited by Joseph Parisi. Ivan R. Dee, October 2005. $24.95
Typically, a poetry anthology offers several poems from major poets, and then a handful or even just one or two poems from poets of lesser reputation. Many, but not all, anthologies add a short paragraph of elementary biographical information for each poet. This splendid new anthology offers a different formula. Eighty poets are represented by a total of just one hundred poems, so the great majority of poets are represented by one poem only. However, Parisi gives each poet a lengthy and well-considered biographical and critical introduction. The resulting book, for a poetry anthology, is of course rather prose-heavy. But as a rich, concise education in modern poetry this book can scarcely be surpassed.
Parisi begins with Yeats and ends with Rita Dove. Of course, lists of the hundred greatest (or essential) movies or novels or modern poems are splendid for the purpose of starting an argument. I found myself in almost complete agreement with Parisi’s choice of poets, even down to the particular poems selected. I would have lobbied for John Montague, and perhaps Jack Gilbert, two venerable contemporizes that Parisi omitted. It seems that Amy Clampitt, Jorie Graham, and Irving Feldman each might deserve a poem, though Feldman may be consoled by the fact that Charles Olson, the Black Mountain poet with whom he famously feuded, missed the cut as well. Nearly every other modern poet of importance is represented.
Parisi does an excellent job of explaining the strengths and beauty of each poet so that each is presented sympathetically. In a brief, engaging introduction Parisi expresses the hope that this anthology will serve as “a concise yet detailed introduction to modern poetry” and a guide and an encouragement to the reader in the face of “the Great Walls of Poetry in the larger bookstores.” Certainly having but one poem by Dorothy Parker, Richard Wilbur, James Wright, and Jane Kenyon is not nearly enough. For myself, this volume will serve as an invaluable resource to lead me to poets that I don’t know well, and back again to those whose poems I love.
The Violence, by Ethan Paquin. Ahsahta, September 2005. $16
No longer always considered the very essence of expressed art, poetry has fallen precipitously in esteem, even among poets. Ethan Paquin conveys contemporary sensibility, then, in placing the sources of his work in things “bigger and better” and “deeper” than poetry. Such a statement might be either snide or filled with pathos. Whichever, Paquin’s third volume, The Violence, puts all, even this reviewer, on hold in such poems as “Post-Post Poem”: “the critics / are right;” he continues “my / poems are not/ poems,” but “evidence in / a really dinky/ box.” This figure suggests these poems are facts, and therefore, according to Paquin, more than poetry. In this volume the poems explore primally felt experience—the chill of rain (Metametahead”), soreness in specific muscles (“Rumination of Sad Object in Defiance of Metaphor”), sour stomachs (“The Violence”). Paquin is not afraid to cuss, and this turn from discretion is of a piece with his occasional typographical gestures: a strikeout (“The Silence, the Rain and the Road”), blank spaces (“Where Were You,” “Oratio Moderna”), and altered layout (“Detritus”). Communication slips in The Violence because feelings are not instantly words; and sometimes when feelings are, we bowdlerize.
—Milton L. Welch
Body of the World, by Sam Taylor. Ausable Press, September 2005. $14
Sam Taylor’s first book of poetry is strange and delicious. Strange because it insists on the connectedness between individuals, objects, and the earth, not in a new-age or easy way, but in a Whitman-esque, often uncomfortable way: “There are many things I know are part of me / that I’ve never seen—like the sweet onion / grass on a French hillside . . . / . . . Also, electric cattle / prods rammed inside Tibetan nuns” (“For Love”). Delicious because it insists on the salve of musicality to calm its intensity (an in another way, heightens its intensity in a different direction): “he sat, as if keeping watch / over the whole brusque, swooned, seasick, siren night” (“Background”) and “In her, / the world turns to watercolor, borders soft / and careless—the birds become branches, / their song, meadows, rolling, rising into silos” (“Walking with Chloe”).
Taylor’s is a disturbing book that challenges the reader to follow his leaps of imagination into unfamiliar territory. By mesmerizing readers with almost-ethereal lyric: “the rain crystalline by streetlight, / the wheat in its monk’s robes silently climbing / its spiral stairs,” he is able to yank the reader back out with almost-base turns of phrase in the same poem: “We say my you sure are // a horny bitch today” (“After Charon: A Late Aubade”). He uses this same technique again in “Human Geography”: “A leave may be more than a prayer. / Silence might be what words are saying. // . . . Placing your hands in your pocket / and breathing as you walk through Wal-Mart // might be the path to salvation. A cell-phone, / a rubber ball, whatever you touch, may have felt / pain, making it, bringing it to you.” By leading readers in with the meditative and pulling them out with the worldly, Taylor performs a rare feat: he explodes the moment of experience into a justified complexity, an earned density.
Greek Lyric Poetry, by Sherod Santos. Norton, September 2005. $24.95
Translation is a truly thankless undertaking; the translator is perpetually haunted by the dilemma of whether to render a text literally or for meaning, a task that more often than not ends up offending the sensibilities of both sides’ supporters. Translating poetry takes this problem to the next level, as not only word choice but also such issues as meter and format must be considered. Sherod Santos has tackled a still larger undertaking—translating ancient poetry whose cultural context is now so foreign to the modern reader that, lest their meaning be lost, the significance of even simple images must often be explained. In his introduction, Santos calls the poems of this volume not proper translations, in the strict sense, but not exactly imitations or paraphrases either. I suppose I think of them more as collaborations, for while they’re firmly grounded in poems composed more than two thousand years ago—and wholly dependant on the scholarship from those intervening years—they still tend toward a kind of self-sufficiency, or at least a kind of felicity that comes from pursuing more the tonal than the denotative meanings of the originals.
This is an important point for any reader approaching this text to understand, for the deviations from the original Greek are frequent and more liberal than most classicists would prefer. The poetry itself is rendered quite beautifully, if in modern English meters rather than those the Greek poets themselves employed, and the introduction and endnotes do help to acclimate the unfamiliar modern reader somewhat. Nevertheless, many poems and poets are omitted from the endnotes, thus leaving the newcomer to Greek poetry completely in the dark. Furthermore, though the poems are broken down helpfully into blocks produced in roughly the same time period, no explanation of why such distinctions are important is given. Many of the notes are unsettlingly simplified, and even present as fact mere scholarly supposition. To make such leaps of fancy in the poetry, having acknowledged beforehand that such was intended, is one thing, to do so in the notes entirely another. Troubling also is the arbitrariness of the poems selected for inclusion in this book. All have their allure, but certain poets, important from their own time straight down to our own, are given significantly shorter shrift than one would expect from a work entitled Greek Lyric Poetry. Clearly, Santos has picked and chosen according to his own preference rather than history’s. Still, given the difficulty of the task and the expansive scope of the subject matter, any attempt at encapsulating all the wonders of Greek lyric in a single volume under 200 pages would seem to fall short. In the end, Santos must be commended for bringing back into the limelight some beautiful ancient poetry in a manner that will at the very least engage the modern reader to consider that a mere two thousand years does little to change the human experience, even if he does disappoint a few stauncher classicists along the way.
—T. A. Garvey
The Verse Book of Interviews: 27 Poets on Language, Craft, and Culture, edited by Brian Henry and Andrew Zawacki. Verse Press, August 2005. $16
Many of us have read these interviews in Verse magazine, and now we can enjoy them and give them to others in book form. In addition, many of the interviews in this book are new, never before published in Verse magazine. For those unfamiliar with the Verse interviews, this book is wide-ranging in many ways. These substantial interviews with poets of many different countries, ages, and aesthetics are always in-depth and shy away from the “where do you write and how” questions that lead to banal and boring interviews.
From talking about the joy of memorizing poems: “it’s wonderful to memorize poetry. . . . It’s a pleasurable thing, and especially if it is fostered in the home” (August Kleinzahler), to frustration with the canon: “I had the canon pointed at me. I got Ezra Pounded” (Martin Espada), to poetry as pleasure: “I don’t care so much about being understood now, but I want to give pleasure” (Medbh McGuckian), and “poetry has to be able to give pleasure before it’s understood; that’s why you want to understand it” (Reginald Shepherd); from praise for difficult poetry: “Why should everything be immediately accessible?” (Agha Shahid Ali) to mixed emotion about collective efforts: “There needs to be some collective efforts to do certain things, like get a press going or get a reading series going . . . but it takes poets to write poems . . . I actually don’t give a shit about collaboration because I want to write my own poems” (Anselm Berrigan), it is evident that this collective effort between Brian Henry and Andrew Zawacki is a good thing. They bring us a collection of interviews that engage the reader in questions of contemporary poetry; these are poets who all “add something to the world that wasn’t there before” (Reginald Shepherd).
Sweet Dreams: Contemporary Art and Complicity, by Johanna Drucker. Chicago, July 2005. $40
Sweet Dreams challenges the critical legacy of the avant-garde and postmodern art movements through a lively survey of the re-emergent studio culture. Drucker argues that the critically prized paradigms of “negativity” and “opposition” in avant-garde critical thought are reductive and untenable. Oppositional thinking, for Drucker, sets up false categories of “good” and “bad” art, finding inherent moral and aesthetic value in anything opposed to commercial culture; this obscures the enduring issues of complicity and careerism by making false claims of artistic purity. In her exploration of contemporary artists, Drucker celebrates the engagement and affirming tendencies of these new artists, in contrast to the reflexive detachment and negativity which earlier critical movements seemed to require. In addition to adding a more realistic and nuanced understanding of “complicity” to the critical lexicon, Drucker reminds us that art is a first-order project. The inventive impulse should not be restricted by critical demands; when we reduce art to good or bad objects “according to their degree of conformity to critical expectations,” we do so at our own peril. While at first glance the book may seem geared toward the serious student or art historian, many of the issues brought up in the critical histories of the first several chapters could easily apply to fields such as music and creative writing. Drucker’s enthusiastic survey of contemporary art in the latter sections of the book should serve as a helpful and eye-opening guide for the novice as well as the artist and critic.
—Sarah Estes Graham
My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student, by Rebekah Nathan. Cornell, September 2005. $24
While the “Ivory Tower” of higher education in American is often faulted for being out of touch with the country around it, it is an open secret among academics that many are similarly out of touch with their own students. In this fascinating ethnography, “Rebekah Nathan” (a pseudonym for Cathy Small, recently unmasked by the New York Sun) relinquishes her job as a professor of anthropology at “AnyU” (actually NAU—Northern Arizona University) and enrolls as a freshman to become one of those students with whom she has shared a campus, but little else.
Engaging yet scholarly, Nathan applies the techniques of anthropological field research to the modern undergraduate experience. Through formal interviews, informal data collection (such as topics of conversations of passersby, and ethnic diversity in a dining hall), and detached observation, Nathan explores college life with the eye of a social scientist, but from the perspective of a student.
While the anonymity of a pseudonym promises juicy details, there were few to be found. Some insights presented in the manner of an objective anthropologist effectively illustrate prevalent trends (such as attitudes towards cheating), but overall this tone undermines the narrative at the heart of the book. Indeed, Nathan is most compelling when relating her own preconceptions as a professor to her new life as a student. From scheduling constraints, to riding the bus system, to balancing difficult required courses with easier electives, the realities of being a college student surprise Nathan and will be a welcome reminder to many readers in the academy. While the book presents a portrait of today’s student in which classes often take a back seat to socializing, jobs, and extracurricular involvement, Nathan’s experience reminds the rest of us to be compassionate. In their shoes, we would be the same way.
A Man Without A Country, by Kurt Vonnegut. Seven Stories Press, September 2005. $21
A man has a right to be crotchety when he’s reached the age of 82. But if Vonnegut is crotchety, we need more of it. This little gem, presumably entitled as it is because Vonnegut wishes to separate himself from the policies of the US government in the world, demonstrates the opposite. Vonnegut is an American with a strong sense of his personal origins and his ties to what he calls “freshwater socialism.” His frustration and even despair at the Bush administration is secondary to his deep-seated pessimism about the essential driving forces of the US no matter which party is in power. Vonnegut’s deep-seated pessimism about the future is tied to the sense that the country’s “addiction to fossil fuels” will cause us to commit “violent crimes” to get “what little is left.”
But the reader needs to be assured that Vonnegut has not sacrificed his sense of humor or irony to produce a mere political screed. The author of the iconic Slaughterhouse Five covers a lot of territory, albeit with short steps. With chapter titles such as “Here is a lesson in creative writing” to “Okay, now let’s have some fun” he combines biography, literary theory, and playful vignettes. The book itself includes some of his own drawings and doodles on pages suitable for framing. For example, one reads “We are here on Earth to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you any different.”
There a few belly laughs too. For example, as a past honorary president of the American Humanist Association he recalls his presentation at a memorial service the association convened to honor Isaac Asimov who was his predecessor as president, and who had just died. He says that he received one of the most exuberant and longest laughs of his life from the assembled humanists when he reached the podium and intoned that “Isaac is up in heaven now.”
—Richard C. Collins
Skyscrapers: Structure and Design, by Matthew Wells. Yale, September 2005. $45
The human spirit has always attempted to soar upward, reaching metaphorically to the Heavens (the Tower of Babel comes to mind). Today, with modern technology and heightened ambition, architects and builders reach ever higher, either to save valuable space or to feed competing egos. Whatever the motives, the results are frequently stunning. From New York to London, from Malmo to Kuala Lumpur, from Frankfurt to Hong Kong, new skyscrapers dot the cityscapes of the world and surprise us with their ability to defy gravity, resist natural disaster (we hope), and inspire awe. This richly illustrated book takes us on a tour of twenty-nine case studies—descriptions of buildings and meditations on their designs, materials, and purpose. The color photographs and graphic designs enrich our understanding of these modern temples; Wells explains how they get built, how they stay up, and what construction features are unique to each. Some provoke us to scratch our heads in wonder, others drop the jaw. All are fun to look at and contemplate.
—David T. Gies
The Kantian Imperative: Humiliation, Common Sense, Politics, by Paul Saurette. Toronto, August 2005. $35
With the publication of the Critique of Pure Reason in 1781, Immanuel Kant effectively refigures the terms of modern philosophy by announcing a new “critical” approach. Rejecting dogmatic faith in ontological and deep metaphysical assumptions, Kant simply lays out a series of rules that, he believes, the human subject must be able to follow implicitly in order to comprehend, organize, and make sense of itself and its surroundings. This critical philosophy highlights a simple rational capacity of the human mind, and many since Kant have interpreted this as a rather modest philosophical foundation upon which to construct ethical and political theory. Indeed, following Kant a primary task of political theory is to cultivate the “imperative image” of practical reason, to construct formal codes and political procedures out of this fundamental human capacity to categorically follow rules. From the broadly liberal perspectives of Rawls and Habermas to the communitarian writings of Charles Taylor, this basic Kantian impulse continues to animate some of the most influential strands of contemporary political theory.
But perhaps the critical philosophy does not provide as modest a theoretical foundation as we tend to presume. Such is the contention that drives Paul Saurette’s The Kantian Imperative. According to Saurette, Kant’s theory of rational subjectivity cannot by itself account for apodictic recognition of the imperative form. Kant’s moral subject, his autonomous individual, is also constituted through a rhetorical appeal to “common sense” and is supported by a non-rational or affective appeal to personal humiliation. Saurette shows how, despite Kant’s claims to the contrary, rational capacity is not for Kant the only politically relevant feature of human life. This revelation is in itself an innovative contribution to Kantian scholarship, but it is only half the story. The Kantian Imperative is at its best when it teases out the implications of this reading for contemporary political reflection.
According to Saurette, Kant shows how claims to practical reason, if they are to be persuasive, must be supplemented by an ethos of cultivation—precisely what Kant does in making his appeals to common sense and personal humiliation. In suggesting that Kant’s moral theory relies on more than pure theoretical cogency, The Kantian Imperative contributes to an emerging literature that, in the wake of various postmodern critiques of philosophical foundationalism, seeks to supplement rationally grounded political theory with broader ethical attitudes and practices. This broader ethical turn within academic political theory resonates with an enlargement of the political, so much so that the concept of the political has lost much of its conceptual significance. Saurette’s book, which includes a fascinating epilogue on the affective dimension and the concrete political realities of a post-9/11 world, is a thoughtful attempt to keep pace with this trend and preserve a sense of real political relevance.
The Three-Pound Enigma: The Human Brain and the Quest to Unlock its Mysteries, by Shannon Moffett. Algonquin, January 2006. $24.95.
What could be more fascinating than the human brain? In the tradition of Oliver Sacks, Moffett takes us on a journey to meet the people who study the brain and learn their discoveries. Written as a series of essays, interspersed with little tutorials describing the brain at different periods of development, The Three-Pound Enigma provides a lively, yet meandering tour through the modern science of the human brain. Rather than describing the facts of the brain in detached and scholarly style, Moffett humanizes the quest for the brain’s secrets by visiting the sundry cast of characters, including renowned philosopher of the mind Daniel Dennett, dream researcher Bob Stickgold, and neurosurgeon Roberta Glick.
While this approach may make each individual essay more interesting, ultimately the focus on personal narrative undermines the coherence of the book. The collection thus seems like a series of episodes in a PBS series rather than a unified volume about modern cognitive science. Rather than gently guided from one topic to the next logical step, the reader is awkwardly shuffled from a dream laboratory, to the controversial (and some would say marginal) topic of dissociative identity disorder (or multiple personalities), to the infant field of neuroethics. Despite this flaw, and the weakness of certain chapters relative to others, those who enjoyed Sacks’ Anthropologist on Mars or other popular work on the brain should find this book an engaging read about the fascinating bridge between brain and mind.
Making Modern Science: A Historical Survey, by Peter J. Bowler and Iwan Rhys Morus. Chicago, May 2005. $25
The late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries provide a fascinating vantage point from which to survey the scientific developments that have led to our late-modern post-industrial society. This is a time marked not only by tremendous advances in science and technology, but also by increasing uncertainty about the means and ends of our efforts to better understand and manipulate the world in which we live. In a time of ecological destruction, debates over “intelligent design” and evolution, heated rhetoric about the ethical status of new biotechnologies, and strong ties between the scientific community and the “military-industrial complex,” it is ever more difficult to know what “good science” actually means.
Into the midst of this uncertainty, historians of science Bowler and Morus have injected a refreshing dose of clarity and historical perspective. Making Modern Science is a caution to those who put too much stock in the objectivity of science. Examining episodes in science as diverse as the chemical revolution, debates over the age of the earth, the Darwinian revolution, and twentieth-century physics, the authors demonstrate provocatively how difficult it can be to separate the often radical religious and political motivations of scientists from their scientific research. In addition, they show how our myths about “good” and “bad” scientists often obscure the significant contributions made by those labeled “bad scientists” or “pseudo-scientists” by later generations.
At the same time that they challenge our myths of scientific objectivity, however, they also challenge those who are too quick to despair of the possibility of better understanding our world. Making Modern Science provides a detailed and fascinating glimpse into the vibrant tradition of scientific inquiry that has so shaped our contemporary world, for good and for ill. Bowler and Morus have written an excellent historical survey that general readers and scholars alike will find rich and stimulating.