The Fall of Baghdad, by Jon Lee Anderson. Penguin, October 2004. $24.95
There are the events around the war—water shortages, last-minute evacuations, Sahaf the Information Minister defiantly pronouncing the slaughter of U.S. soldiers even as they roll into Baghdad—which are startling. But this book’s chief virtue is Anderson’s juxtaposition of Iraqis’ attempts to maintain normal life on the eve of war against the bizarre cast of Westerners whose congregation to see that war creates a kind of morbid circus. Which is more the spectacle: Iraqis at the barber as air-raid sirens wail or visitors risking their lives for their various causes? Miss Germany arrives to fulfill her pageant promise to discuss peace with Saddam. Human Shields drive from London in a red double-decker led by a man who says the CIA carried out the 9/11 attacks and that in Palestine politics are “black and white.” Anderson’s focus on the lives of those he meets spares us from one more polemic and gives us something more interesting: a world on its head. The Iraqis are eager to help, subtly indicating their gratitude for U.S. intervention; the Westerners are unhinged and oppose it. Amidst sanitized policy debates, Anderson’s portrayal of the oddness of it all is a breath of fresh air.
The Obligation of Empire: United States’ Grand Strategy for a New Century, edited by James J. Hentz. Kentucky, September 2004. $35
Since even before September 11th, Americans have had to confront the question: what should be the role of the United States in a world transformed by the falling away of its only near rival and the emergence of a “unipolar” world? Recent events have only heightened the urgency of discovering answers. This edited volume addresses this issue in two ways. Its first section usefully offers readers a sharp debate over grand strategy, with different authors (some of national stature) showcasing four competing proposals: neo-isolationism, “selective engagement,” more consistent cooperation with international institutions, and a more neoconservative emphasis on U.S. primacy and power. Without speaking to their overall persuasiveness, the two best reads are those by Doug Bandow and Charles Kupchan, though the latter hews closely to his earlier book, The End of the American Era. In many books, such discussions of (literally) global policy would be the beginning and end of things. This volume adds a second section with a distinct agenda: connecting grand strategy to the more specific policies the U.S. must adopt toward specific regions of the world. Chapters of very uneven detail and quality address U.S. policy opportunities and constraints in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and, not surprisingly, the Middle East. It is unfortunate that such a volume uses an otherwise interesting essay on the views of Reinhold Niebuhr in place of a conclusion that might have more systematically connected questions of grand strategy to the region-specific chapters. Readers will nonetheless find food for thought.
State-Building: Governance and World Order in the 21st Century, by Francis Fukuyama. Cornell, June 2004. $21
Since the end of the Cold War (and especially since the terrorist attacks on the United States on 9/11), the problem of weak, failing, and failed states has grown steadily in importance on the security agendas of the United States and most of the developed world. Concomitantly, international financial institutions, humanitarian organizations, and other NGOs have been struggling to resolve the numerous problems associated with weak and dysfunctional governance structures in states across the globe. In this short but packed volume, Francis Fukuyama addresses a number of critical issues that must be confronted if the developed world is to make any headway in resolving the problem of failing states. First, Fukuyama examines the theoretical literature on the sources of state strength with the intention of discerning the factors that are “most susceptible to formalization and hence to transferability across societal or cultural boundaries.” Among those factors, institutional design stands out as an important and potentially transferable feature affecting the quality of state function. Yet, Fukuyama argues, there is simply no single, stable set of rules about institutional design that can yield high quality results across different settings. In short, public administration is far more an art than a science. Local factors matter significantly and belie attempts of successful state-building replication. Finally, Fukuyama turns to the matter of international legitimacy and the normative implications of sovereignty violations that externally imposed state-building projects necessarily entail. It is on these issues that Fukuyama’s political stripes are shown most clearly, arguing against notions of internationally-based legitimation. State-Building offers a number of intriguing insights and a healthy dose of skepticism that governments and NGOs should consider as political development strategies are designed and implemented.
—Spencer D. Bakich
Rising From the Muck: The New Anti-Semitism in Europe, by Pierre-Andr Taguieff. Ivan R. Dee, June 2004. $26
Taguieff, a French political scientist and essayist on racism and nationalism, alerts readers to “the new anti-Semitism” (literally, “Judeo-phobia”) in Europe in general but especially France in particular. Against the backdrop of post-1945 unacceptability of anti-Semitic beliefs (or at least their public expression), Taguieff examines the gradual but still relatively recent return of these sentiments to the public arena. Perhaps as in past centuries as well, this upsurge has a historically distinct tone, especially in its periodic guise of anti-Israelism and its roots in communities of discourse among some Islamic immigrants to Western Europe. He concludes that since the 1970s, “Judeophobia based on racism and nationalism gave way to Judeophobia based on anti-racism and anti-nationalism,” especially anti-Israelism. The roots of this in immigrant communities is if anything the author’s primary focus, a focus that reflects the growing—but usually gingerly expressed—concern that many have with the radical Islamist subculture that has emerged in France more than anywhere else in Europe (with its closest rival in Britain). The essays that form the bulk of the book provide lengthy examples and measured analysis of anti-Semitic declarations and slants in various venues. Ultimately, while Taguieff is interested in the causes of this post-1945 upsurge, his greatest passion is reserved for the purpose of establishing that these sentiments are strikingly tolerated by those who might be expected to know better, in the media, universities, and the intellectual world more broadly. As he puts it, at no point since 1945 have anti-Semitic ideas “met so little intellectual and political resistance” as in the last four years. He finds this poignantly shocking in the country that bequeathed the world the most celebrated intellectual narratives of human and civil rights and moral universality.
In the Shadow of ‘Just Wars’: Violence, Politics and Humanitarian Action, edited by Fabrice Weissman. Cornell, April 2004. $52.50 cloth, $23.95 paper
In the Shadow of ‘Just Wars’ wrestles with the nature of humanitarian action in a world where violence is all too frequent and the complexities of international politics difficult to navigate. In the past few years “just wars” have proliferated. The United Nations, the United States and other world powers have increasingly used their military power to fulfill what they deem to be the demands of international justice. Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, East Timor, Sudan—these are all conflicts that quickly jump to mind. In many of these situations, humanitarian aid organizations have joined in this fight for justice by supporting one of the warring parties. Unfortunately, however, the call of international justice often clashes with the primary humanitarian responsibility of aiding innocent victims.
Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has complemented its unparalleled work on the ground with profound reflection on the subversive nature of its humanitarian mission. Aid givers must confront the dominant visions of international justice and order with the actual suffering of innocent civilians who too often become the “collateral damage” of benevolent military action. With insightful case studies of conflicts ranging from East Timor and Afghanistan to Sudan and Colombia, and thoughtful considerations of issues such as the responsibility of humanitarian aid workers in war crimes trials and the growing tension between Islamic, Christian and secular humanitarian NGOs, In the Shadow of ‘Just Wars’ is a significant and sobering work that should be engaged by humanitarians, politicians, and responsible global citizens alike.
Surprise, Security, and the American Experience, by John Lewis Gaddis. Harvard, March 2004. $18.95
The Bush administration fundamentally transformed American grand strategy in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. The National Security Strategy published a bit over one year following those attacks laid bare the manner in which the U.S. would seek national security in times when surprise attack was possible and increasingly devastating. For historian John Lewis Gaddis, the strategy embodied in that document is not a product of an era posing unique threats to America. Rather, the primary concepts entailed in the Bush Doctrine—preemption, unilateralism, and hegemony—find precedence in the nineteenth-century strategy designed by John Quincy Adams after the British attack on Washington, D.C. on August 24, 1814. In this volume of interpretive history, Gaddis compares the strategies of three presidents (Adams, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and George W. Bush) in response to surprise attack by examining the extent to which each adopted the means of preemption, unilateralism, and hegemony in order to ensure the physical security of the U.S. Gaddis’s conclusions reveal an intriguing commonality of focus among those presidents who were forced to guide the nation in times of peril. This is not to say that all responded in the same manner (where FDR eschewed unilateralism, George W. Bush is far more amenable). Rather, that these themes have persisted over two centuries and have had a tremendous influence on American relations with the world during times of peace. This book is likely to engender an important discussion about the sources, principles, and effects of American foreign policy throughout the nation’s history.
—Spencer D. Bakich
Forgotten Founder: The Life and Times of Charles Pinckney, by Marty D. Matthews. South Carolina, August 2004, $29.95
Charles Pinckney of South Carolina—member of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, four-time Republican governor of his state, U.S. minister to Spain—has long deserved a definitive biography. This, unfortunately, is not it. Matthews has gathered the pertinent facts of Pinckney’s life and traced the trajectory of his public career, but the book leaves much to be desired. It is poorly written, with such awkward phrasing in places that the author’s meaning is often obscured. Mistakes abound, from the relatively unimportant—writing “Isaac Coe Barret” for U.S. consul Isaac Cox Barnet—to the more problematic—identifying James Madison as the author of the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798. More troubling still is that Matthews at times badly misreads the historical record and his evidence. For example, U.S. minister James Monroe was not expelled by the French government in 1796 but recalled in disgrace by his own government. And Matthew’s argument, made at length throughout the book, that Madison thwarted Pinckney’s career at every turn out of jealousy of Pinckney’s role at the Constitutional Convention, is based in large part on a misreading of a letter to which Matthews gives great and undue weight. There was no animosity toward Pinckney on Madison’s side, just a realistic assessment of his lack of ability as a diplomat. The fact is that Charles Pinckney was a key figure in South Carolina politics who organized and sustained the Jeffersonian-Republican party there. For that and other contributions he deserves better.
—David B. Mattern
Elizabeth’s London: Everyday Life in Elizabethan London, by Liza Picard. St Martin’s, July 2004. $27.95
In Elizabeth’s London, Liza Picard attempts to give an account of the “everyday” lives of the men and women in the city during the reign of Elizabeth I (1558–1603). After a too-brief prologue that summarizes England’s history from the War of the Roses to Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne, she begins by describing London, the place, delving into the details surrounding the river, sewer system, main streets, architecture, and furniture. The second part of the book is devoted to the people of London and their lives—what they wore and ate; their health and family life; the way they worked, played, and worshipped; what laws governed them.
Picard succeeds in her mission to dig up the obscure and often ignored practical details of life in Elizabethan London, but unfortunately, because the book lacks a larger, unifying vision, the parts fail to cohere into a whole. The presentation of the information requires the reader to link one section with another, one chapter with another; but with no overarching claim to hold them together, the parade of quaint details becomes rather tedious. In addition, Picard falls into the trap of claiming to represent the majority with evidence culled from a small sample of the population. Though she claims to present the everyday lives of ordinary Londoners, a good many examples are taken from the aristocratic class (especially the section on dress). The end result is that the “ordinary” Londoners of her book seem to live very middle-class lives. Lastly, Picard eschews critical distance and insistently infuses the Elizabethan Londoners with her own worldview—a persistently irritating feature of her writing style.
This is not to say that the book is not entertaining at times. I certainly learned a thing or two about Elizabethan London while reading Picard’s book at the beach. If this is how the book is meant to be consumed, as beach reading, then it serves its purpose just fine. As a serious and challenging work of scholarship, however, it has a long way to go.
Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle, by Stephen Biddle. Princeton, July 2004. $37.50
Stephen Biddle has written perhaps the best volume on the causes of battlefield victory and defeat in a generation. Military Power posits that a particular method of force employment at the tactical and operational levels of war, termed the “modern system,” accounts not only for the lopsided American victories in wars of the recent past, but also for successful campaigns since 1917–18. Moreover, and more generally, Biddle’s argument places such issues as the role of technology, communications systems, and overall troop strength into proper perspective. While many contend that doctrinal and technological innovations revealed in the Second World War augured a fundamental transformation in warfare (i.e., blitzkrieg and the tank), Biddle demonstrates that the modern system of force employment was born out of the years of bloody stalemate on the western front in World War I. This system (a blending of cover, concealment, fire, and movement) is transnational in character, yet is extremely difficult to employ in practice. It is this difficulty that determines variations is battlefield fortunes. The primary reason for this system’s success is its ability to mitigate an army’s susceptibility to the lethality of the modern battlefield. And, the implications for those who have failed to adopt the modern system are devastating: without the ability to survive and maneuver under withering fire, and lacking the ability to exploit technological advances, nonmodern militaries are destroyed quickly—even if they have a significant numerical advantage over an opponent. Biddle evaluates this argument in a number of ways, including in-depth historical case studies, large-n statistical tests, and a Defense Department experimental simulation. Combined with a highly sophisticated formal model (confined to an appendix), such empirical rigor has never been matched in related works. This is a seminal work on an issue of critical importance.
—Spencer D. Bakich
The Grand Idea: George Washington’s Potomac and the Race to the West, by Joel Achenbach. Simon & Schuster, June 2004. $26
This book contains the story of a river and a man, the first nicknamed “The Nation’s River” and the other “The Father of our Country,” and a vision—a vision of unity, of commerce, of profit, of exploration, and of expansion. In a sense the river and the man created one another, for George Washington was born and nurtured and spent his entire adult life within sight of the Potomac’s flowing waters, and it was his vision that established on the river’s banks the seat of the most powerful nation in the world. Their respective histories go back further than the time of Achenbach’s story, however, which begins in 1784. By that time the generations of Indians, Spanish, and English who had successively lived in the Potomac River basin had mostly quit the area. And Washington the gentleman farmer, who with his family and slaves made his living by farming the lands near the river’s edge and hunting the river’s abundant fish, had won the American Revolutionary War and become the most famous man in the world. By then the river was ancient and Washington middle-aged, so Achenbach begins in midstory.
“I am become a private citizen on the banks of the Potomac, & under the shadow of my own Vine & my own Fig tree, free from the bustle of a camp & the busy scenes of public life.” True enough, but, as Achenbach so deftly chronicles, Washington was no idler, and his days were filled with business, both private and public. He especially wanted to revive his farms at Mount Vernon, and, after that, to inspect his western lands. In his mind, they were connected by the Potomac, which he believed would one day, in the author’s words, “become the great commerical artery to the West.” This, in a nutshell, is the author’s central story, and he tells it well. The Grand Idea is engaging social history presented in a contextual manner; the result is a historical meditation that is winding, discursive, engaging, fascinating, readable, enjoyable, and highly recommended.
—Frank E. Grizzard, Jr.
Promethean Ambitions: Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature, by William R. Newman. Chicago, June 2004. $30
Most books on alchemy mock its practitioners, or slyly appreciate them as the pioneers of modern chemistry, or teach you how to become an alchemist, sort of Alchemy for Dummies. Newman, Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at Indiana University, takes alchemists seriously, playing them against ongoing debates: nature versus nurture, man’s provinces versus God’s, nature versus art, artificial beings, and the relative superiority of various arts. He sees his theme as “the boundary between art and nature.” If an alchemist apparently made gold, had he really transmuted one natural thing into another, or had he merely made something that represented the precious metal? Newman begins predictably with the Greeks, focusing on stories of artists as well as on Aristotle, but devotes most of his attention to the period 1200 to 1700. He proceeds chronologically, and the reader can watch each theorist or practitioner take bits and pieces from his predecessors and develop them. Paracelsus comes off as a fraud, wallowing in obscurity, not unlike modern Deconstructionists. Newman discusses Bacon and Newton and even Darwin as bouncing off alchemy or quietly sharing some of its assumptions. And the centuries-long discussion turns out to have set the terms of our modern ethical qualms about cloning. Ethicists and biologists have much to learn from this book.
American Indian Education: A History, by Jon Reyhner and Jeanne Eder. Oklahoma, June 2004. $29.95
Reyhner and Eder assemble an expansive tour of Indian education in North America, beginning in early-sixteenth-century Spanish colonial mines and concluding in twenty-first-century nonassimilationist “English Plus” reservation schools. Though the overview—an expansion of an earlier book and related articles—includes Mexico and Canada, the authors focus the bulk of their attention on the United States and the twentieth century. The Colonial period receives only a brief chapter, reducing, for example, the Moravian missionary effort to four sentences. Nonetheless, the history is rich and accessible and an apt introduction for any newcomer to the subject. Specialists may also find the scope useful, especially the themes and parallels revealed between remote times and locals. Continuing “outrages upon the Indians” were noted early by President Washington, and mandatory education was conceived as a corrective and an alternative to extermination. However, until roughly the 1930s, both private and public education efforts were part of a self-proclaimed “civilizing” enterprise, overtly Christian and fundamentally opposed to native culture. While Reyhner and Eder amass a spectrum of failed ethnocentric programs, their project is not simply historical: they trace past approaches in order to direct future education in far more productive directions. The authors convincingly assert the need for bilingual schools geared toward mutual accommodation in order to reinvent an educational system that the U.S. government in 1969 declared “a national tragedy.” Teachers and policy makers should welcome this compilation.
The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, by Gordon S. Wood. Penguin, May 2004. $25.95
For the past decade we have seen a significant surge in the number of biographies written about the Founding Fathers, a phenomenon some have derisively labeled “Founders Chic.” Gordon Wood’s The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin is not just another entry into the bloated corpus of “Founders Chic.” In fact, Wood is a bit perplexed how, when, and why Benjamin Franklin became a so-called Founding Father in the first place. Focusing on the process of “becoming”—each chapter title begins with that verb—Americanization puts Franklin’s tortured journey toward “Founder” under the microscope with fascinating and surprising results. Wood’s Franklin is quite different from the myth. Far from the hard-working, self-made Philadelphian of “Poor Richard” fame, Wood cuts through the legend to the historical man. Here we see Ben as we never really have before: Franklin the ardent royalist who encouraged Britain to pass the Stamp Act and consolidate Crown authority; Franklin the aspiring, somewhat effete gentleman who used patronage to gain wealth and influence; Franklin the American diplomat who was loved far more in England and France than he ever was in the new United States; Franklin the victim who suffered withering attacks from his enemies in the Revolutionary leadership; and Franklin the pathetic old man who had to list all his achievements during the Revolution in order to convince a reluctant Congress to reimburse him for diplomatic expenses. In many ways, Americanization is an extension of Wood’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Radicalism of the American Revolution (1991). Franklin’s struggles with a monarchical culture that became republican and ultimately democratic personify the larger processes many other Americans dealt with as a result of the Revolution, according to Wood. In fact, Wood explains that the results of this radical Revolution that all Americans since the 19th century have lived with—including the celebration of individualism, hard work, and self-made men—created the mythical Ben Franklin and obscured the real man in the first place. Respectful but not genuflecting, moving but also searching, this is biography at its best.
—Robert G. Parkinson
Bataan: A Survivor’s Story, by Lt. Gene Boyt, with David L. Burch. Oklahoma, April 2004. $24.95
Although marketed as a prisoner-of-war story, the late (died 2003) Eugene Boyt’s experiences as a POW in the Philippines and Japan in 1942–45 make up the lesser part of this slim book. In simple prose, Boyt recounts an impoverished childhood in pre-Depression Oklahoma and service in the Civilian Conservation Corps in Arizona in the mid-1930s, where he won a rare scholarship to attend the University of Arizona. He completed his education at the Missouri School of Mines (now the University of Missouri, Rolla), was promptly commissioned in the army corps of engineers, and within weeks found himself in the Philippines. Boyt’s was an unusual assignment. He first oversaw the expansion of the rude flight facilities at Clark Field into a base with the capacity to accommodate heavy bombers that began to arrive near the end of 1941. After the withdrawal into Bataan, Boyt served with the Philippine Army’s 201st Engineer Battalion, a unit comprised of unskilled laborers who only days earlier had been civilians. Their utter lack of combat training did not preclude their commitment to battle, with predictable results. Boyt is the only known veteran of this unit to publish an account of his experiences; as such, his is an invaluable memoir, both a tribute to the men with whom he served and an indictment of America’s lack of preparedness as it entered World War II.
The Planting of New Virginia: Settlement and Landscape in the Shenandoah Valley, by Warren R. Hofstra. Johns Hopkins, April 2004. $49.95
The research that lies behind some books simply puts others to shame. The Planting of New Virginia is one of these impressive works. The product of a life’s work, Warren Hofstra traces the development of European settlement in the Shenandoah Valley by examining the many multivalent influences that converged to create a specific and lasting landscape in western Virginia. Hofstra’s field of vision is impressive. Not only does he pay particular attention to the consequences of contingent events like clashes between Indians and settlers, but his causative model also ranges widely from the abstract—such as the economy of the Atlantic world and turbulent imperial politics—to the more concrete—including the centralizing power of county lines, courts, and roads. In other words, the omniscience of The Planting of New Virginia offers readers a fascinating picture of the ways in which 18th-century Virginians crafted, controlled, and imagined their landscapes. There is, however, one thorny problem with the argument, focusing on the overall importance of the Shenandoah Valley. Hofstra contends that the model of dispersed farms surrounding market towns that developed in the valley constituted a “symbol” that would “come to embody what was quintessentially American in small-town, main-street communities, many of which still populate the land today” (325). But whether or not this argument is valid—and Hofstra does present solid evidence to back up his case—the presentation is a bit misleading because the author neglects to acknowledge the elephant in the living room: the New England town model. Part of the significance of Hofstra’s thesis is to see a Southern influence on that 19th-century “Main Street U.S.A.” stereotype, but by simply ignoring what historians have largely agreed upon—that the town model of Massachusetts and Connecticut that spread through northern Ohio and into the Midwest had a powerful influence on that development—the reader is left to wonder whether this isn’t special pleading. This qualm aside, The Planting of New Virginia is an important work that challenges early American historians to interrogate their topics from all avenues—especially from the ground up.
—Robert G. Parkinson
Conjectures of Order: Intellectual Life and the American South, 1810–1860, by Michael O’Brien. North Carolina, March 2004. $95
Conjectures of Order describes antebellum Southern thought and provides rich social and personal contexts for its intellectuals. The two volumes are complementary. The first is “partly social history”; the second is “an account of the Southern intellectual tradition and the men and women who made it.” O’Brien’s three period designations—late Enlightenment, Romantic, early realist—are reductive, but the labels never obscure the rich tapestry of ideas and individuals. To take but two examples from this 1,400-page work, O’Brien informs on slavery and race as well as on Cavalier origins of Virginia. Antebellum Southern intellectuals did not mix the idea of “slavery” and “race.” Slavery was thought local, the South’s “peculiar institution”: that European intellectuals rejected slavery was seen as meddling. Unlike slavery, race was cosmopolitan, a part of broader discussions on reconciling biblical ideas, especially timelines, with discoveries in geology and botany. For the idea of Virginia’s Cavalier origins, O’Brien charts the early development in works of fiction as well as elaboration by proponents William C. Rives, Henry Augustine Washington, and William Alexander Caruthers. However, the idea was “vulnerable to evidence”; in his correspondence, historian Hugh Blair Grigsby rejects Virginia’s Cavalier origins. A rare work, deeply researched, sympathetically written, and critically engaged both in its subject and in its own moment in the field. As the dust jacket would have it, even “magisterial.”
The Handbook of African American Literature, by Hazel Arnett Ervin. Florida, August 2004. $45
Hazel Arnett Ervin’s concise reference book provides specific information about a fascinating subject that has gained long-overdue prominence in the academy. Ervin’s use of a wide variety of resources enables this work to be a true handbook of African-American literature. A holistic approach gives readers an opportunity to grasp the totality of the genre through Ervin’s wide-angle lens that focuses on social, political, intellectual, historical, cultural and literary markers. Especially helpful are the classic and contemporary references listed at the end of each entry and the bolded words used for cross-referencing. The names of lesser-known authors sit comfortably alongside the names of well-known authors, allowing readers to appreciate the growing canon surrounding African-American literature. Three appendices are useful. The first appendix in particular provides a diasporic and chronological survey of African-American, African and Anglophone Caribbean literature from the 18th to the 21st century. In addition to attention on the various forms of written expression, oral expression is credited and forms such as rap, hip-hop and the spoken word are given due space. Ervin’s accessible handbook is an interdisciplinary resource that will be welcomed by a wide-ranging audience.
Playing the Races: Ethnic Caricature and American Literary Realism, by Henry B. Wonham. Oxford, June 2004. $45
How does one explain the fact that the central figures of late-nineteenth-century American literary realism—writers who prided themselves on depictions of American society that they claimed were vivid, honest, and accurate—regularly employed racial and ethnic stereotypes in their work? Many critics have explained it as a damning inconsistency and condemned the realists for their nativist sympathies. These critics are only partly right, according to Henry B. Wonham, who offers in this book a more nuanced account of the realists’ complex relationship with ethnic stereotypes. In an insightful study of William Dean Howells, Mark Twain, Henry James, Edith Wharton, and Charles W. Chestnutt, Wonham shows that ethnic caricature was actually an integral component of realist art. The realists, he argues, were attracted to caricature for two main reasons—not only did it police the boundaries of white middle-class normalcy by mocking cultural outsiders like African Americans and ethnic immigrants, but it also, through its transparent absurdity and artificiality, suggested that individual identity might be constructed and performative rather than predetermined and permanent. This idea possessed immense appeal for literary realists, who sought to puncture tired social abstractions and delve beneath the surface of individual identity. Wonham finds the same double movement at work in the ubiquitous graphic caricatures of the period, many of which were published as illustrations in realist articles and novels. By attending to the simultaneously conservative and radical work of caricature, Wonham opens new ways of reading even well-known books like Huckleberry Finn, which he claims reveals Mark Twain’s penchant for the “humorous” creation, deconstruction, and re-creation of an endless sequence of racial stereotypes. Perhaps the book’s most interesting chapter examines the ways in which the African-American writer Charles W. Chestnutt worked from within the tradition of racial stereotyping to subvert ideas of biologically grounded racial inferiority. Filled with fresh ideas and insights, this book successfully demonstrates that ethnic caricature was, surprisingly, right at home within the world of American literary realism.
Utopia Limited: The Sixties and the Emergence of the Postmodern, by Marianne DeKoven. Duke, June 2004. $23.95
For those who actually experienced what DeKoven describes as the “long ’60s” as young adults, as she did, this decade will always represent a pivotal time, if for no other reason than the intense personal passage it represented. But in this book she sets out some of her own experiences in this time, but only as prelude. She commits herself to show how the ’60s represent more than a point in her own life, but a pivotal point in the movement from modernism to postmodernism. She avoids the best-of-times-or-worst-of-times judgments of many who have studied the ’60s in favor of a relatively neutral assessment of how modernity and postmodernity coexisted in the thinking of those texts that either were influential in shaping the ’60s utopian mood, or were written by those who shaped those times.
She has identified what she considers representative texts of the ’60s and put them under her microscope. She finds simultaneity within a declining modernism and a postmodernism emergence. By examining writers such as Herbert Marcuse, Hunter Thompson, Alan Burroughs, Toni Morrison and others, she persuasively documents the “cusp” and the “pivot” that the ’60s encompassed. This book persuasively documents the emergence of postmodernism in literature, art, architecture, journalism, and politics, even as the utopian strain within ’60s modernism loses momentum.
One senses that the rise of “second wave feminism” is perhaps a key impetus for this wide-ranging and occasionally ingenious textual analysis. If one is interested in defining the elements that distinguish the modern from the postmodern in American culture, this book deserves a prominent place on the shelf. DeKoven’s reach is impressive, whether she is critiquing the SDS’s Port Huron Statement and comparing it to the Declaration of Independence or citing architect Robert Venturi’s Learning from Las Vegas as a canonical piece for postmodernists or praising Toni Morrison’s Beloved as a jewel of American feminist creativity. Even if the educated reader may not immerse oneself in all of the chapters with equal depth, it is certain that some of them will be worth the plunge.
—Richard C. Collins
Soldiers Once and Still: Ernest Hemingway, James Salter, and Tim O’Brien, by Alex Vernon. Iowa, June 2004. $39.95
This is a scholarly, ambitious, comparative study of the prose of three veterans who experienced wars that nearly spanned the twentieth century. Hemingway drove an ambulance in WWI; Salter flew a fighter plane in the Korean War; and O’Brien carried a rifle in Vietnam. Vernon uses the oeuvre of Hemingway as a reference point for what is alike in their novels—a common attention to masculinity, death and sacrificed love—and what differs under the influences of varying cultural and familial backgrounds and individual war experiences. Hemingway’s literary treatment of sex shows the restraint of lingering Victorianism, whereas Salter’s characters—created in the context of midcentury and postmodern mores—need not swear undying devotion to their bed partners. Hemingway’s protagonists express disillusion with war; but Salter’s jet pilot exalts in the sensual loneliness of combat in the sky; while far below in the jungles, O’Brien’s trudging infantryman is wondering why he didn’t go to Canada and skip all the “glory and honor.” Whatever the differences in literary expression of the veterans-turned-writers, a trace of war runs through even their nonwar writings. When interviewed by Vernon, Tim O’Brien explained this personal baggage veterans carry as, “You don’t have to be in Nam to be in Nam.” Vernon looks at the full body of literature of the authors but scrutinizes in particular detail the better-known narratives (and those he rates highest)—e.g., Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime (1967), and O’Brien’s Northern Lights (1975) and The Things They Carried (1990). Though this book seems suited especially for literary critics and serious scholars (who else would recognize words like Bildungsroman?), writers will find Vernon’s dissection of novels instructive and stimulating. Vernon, who now teaches literature and writing, graduated from West Point and served as a tank commander in the Gulf War.
The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History, by Walter Benn Michaels. Princeton, June 2004. $24.95
There is something in what he writes, but there is not everything. In broad strokes Walter Benn Michaels critiques posthistoricism, poststructuralism, philosophers (Rorty, Rousseau), novelists (Octavia Butler, Toni Morrison, Bret Easton Ellis), and literary critics (Judith Butler, Greenblatt, Deleuze and Guattari, de Man, Derrida) for the contemporary propensity to make ideology ontology, that is, to elide or ignore a set of beliefs into or in favor of a subject position. The fundamental strength and weakness of the argument is its formalism as Michaels draws together seemingly disparate structures of thought. He attempts to convince the reader that to believe in the importance of the text’s materiality—the shape of the signifier—is to believe that a text has more than one meaning, which is the same as believing the text has no meaning, which is comparable to believing in the foundational status of identity, which expresses itself in the belief that history is experienced rather than understood. The connections he draws are often locally compelling—hence the provocative power of his work—but the scope necessarily makes them suggestive rather than convincing.
He is strongest in his critique of identity and weakest in his insistence that a text’s meaning is identical to the author’s intent. He writes of Wordsworth’s “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal” that no one can find the true meaning of this poem by looking to a nineteenth-century dictionary: meaning does not reside in language itself. Fair enough. But he further claims, “the question of whether Lucy—’rolled round in earth’s diurnal course / with rocks and stones and trees’—is utterly dead or more alive than ever is a question about what Wordsworth meant by ‘rocks’ not about what ‘rocks’ means in English” (115–16). The question of what Wordsworth meant by “rocks” will not determine the meaning of the poem a) because he probably meant more or less the dictionary definition and b) more fundamentally, because the question of what rocks and stones and trees mean for Lucy’s continued existence is precisely the question the poem asks, and if it offers a kind of answer that meaning cannot be registered at the level of each individual word (cf. Cleanth Brooks’s “The Heresy of Paraphrase”). This quick gesture towards literary criticism rather undermines the credibility of his project, since it is hard to imagine how any practicing literary critic would go about interpreting a poem by attempting to recover what the poet meant by each word.
A modest volume at 224 pages, it nevertheless ought to have been revised to eliminate the mind-numbing repetitions, not only of his larger points, but also of the many individual examples that recur as illustrations. Nevertheless, he is excellent at exposing the fallacies of others and the book is so comprehensive that it is sure to address an area or contemporary thinker of interest to any reader. It is also written so clearly that the leaps he asks his readers to make are exhilarating rather than bewildering. I highly recommend picking up a copy and skipping right to chapter three, “Historicism,” which contains all of his central points (except intentionality) and is the most compelling formulation of the argument.
Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South, by Ralph C. Wood. Eerdmans, April 2004. $22
To be “Christ-haunted,” in Ralph C. Wood’s echo of that marvelous phrase from Flannery O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood, is to be vexed by that “figure of the Nazarene who swings from limb to limb in the back of the Southern mind.” That same ancestral figure pricks Wood on his course throughout Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South, an admirably lively study of that particular mix of fundamentalist fire and Southern riotousness underlying O’Connor’s works of fiction. Wood’s Baptist background makes him one of the more sympathetic interpreters yet of O’Connor’s brand of savage parable. Rather than stress the gaps, though, between O’Connor’s Catholicism and the Southern stripe of Protestant fundamentalism at apparent odds with it, Wood strives to do justice to their affinities. His central aim is to show how two such lines of Christian faith ultimately combine in helping us to make sense of the wayward, willful characters roving over O’Connor’s cultural and spiritual landscapes. It is to Wood’s credit that, without undue sermonizing, this book does double duty as a readable guide to the theological bases of sin and salvation in O’Connor’s fiction, and as a tribute to how bravely and viscerally O’Connor’s voice speaks to whatever—or whoever—swings in the backs of our twenty-first-century minds.
—Jonathan G. Williams
The Internationalization of English Literature, by Bruce King, volume 13 (1948–2000) of the Oxford English Literary History. Oxford, March 2004. $45
Bruce King is one of the pioneering scholars of world literature in English, having written influential studies of emerging literatures in Africa, India, and the Caribbean. His new book shifts the critical and geographic terrain from the former colonies of Great Britain to Britain itself, where both immigrant and second-generation writers of non-European descent are responsible for many of the most important literary breakthroughs since World War II. 1948 is King’s point of departure—the year when the Empire Windrush transported the first shipload of Caribbean immigrants to England—and he tells the story of the internationalization of English literature decade by decade, in each chapter sequentially discussing key changes in poetry, prose, and drama, against the backdrop of changing social relations between the English and these new Black and Asian populations. The achievements of well-known individual writers, such as V. S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, Hanif Kureishi, Caryl Phillips, and Zadie Smith, are efficiently and effectively summarized and sampled, alongside those of less well-known but influential or historically notable minor figures.
Although several good anthologies and readers already exist in the field, this is the first comprehensive literary history of Black and Asian literature after World War II. As such, King’s book—judicious, thorough, steeped in its sources—is a major critical contribution to both “postcolonial” and “English” literary history, sure to be consulted and read by scholars and students hoping to understand the extraordinary diversification of English writing in the second half of the twentieth century. Because literary studies of British writing have lagged behind the decidedly cross-ethnic and multicultural emphasis of literary studies of American writing, King’s book represents a huge critical step forward. Although Britain is often represented as responding with racism and xenophobia to its immigrant populations, King argues that the country has been more welcoming to these diverse peoples than other European nations have been, and that this demographic shift is reflected in the half-century-long transformation of English writing from a monocultural to a multiracial literature. Whereas most volumes in the Oxford English Literary History series reconsider an already heavily studied and interpreted area of England’s literature, King’s book—the result of intense immersion in the primary materials and of many discussions with the writers themselves—freshly charts unexplored territory. This is a groundbreaking yet engagingly readable overview of one of the most important and exciting new areas in literary studies.
Soldiers of Salamis, by Javier Cercas. Bloomsbury, November 2004. $14.95
This riveting novel, a huge best seller in Cercas’s native Spain (it subsequently has been translated into fifteen languages and has won numerous literary prizes in Europe and Latin America), tells a “true tale” with such exquisite postmodern quirkiness and conviction that one never knows what is “real” and what is invented by a novelist named Cercas in his struggle to write a novel about the messy aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. The “true” anecdote flows from the “execution” of Rafael Sánchez Mazas, the most important theorist of fascist Spain in the 1930s, who was captured by Republican forces outside of Barcelona in 1939 and executed along with other prisoners. But in the confusion of the shooting, Sánchez Mazas managed to escape and hide in the dense woods for a time before being caught by a young soldier who, at the moment he cocked his rifle to shoot one of the Republican’s most hated enemies, somehow managed to shout “There’s nobody over here” in response to his sergeant’s query. He turned and walked away, allowing Sánchez Mazas eventually to walk to freedom and, it is clearly remembered, to life as one of Franco’s supporters. Cercas, the fictional novelist, wonders if that young soldier might still be alive today, and he begins a twisted intellectual journey to find an answer to that possibility and to write, finally, his novel. Is Miralles, the scarred veteran living in exile in an old-age home in Dijon, France, that young man? Clues build along with suspicion and tension, and Cercas’s meditations on history, memory, anonymity, and heroism, combined with the unforgettable characters he encounters (or invents) along the way, lend early canonical status to this book. Not without reason has Mario Vargas Llosa called it one of the best books he’s read in a long time.
—David T. Gies
Here Beneath Low-Flying Planes, by Merrill Feitell. Iowa, October 2004. $15.95
It’s not hard to see why Matthew Klam, himself a master at capturing love’s double-edged sword, chose this spirited collection as the winner of the 2004 Iowa Short Fiction Award. Like Klam’s debut, Sam the Cat (Random House, 2000), Feitell’s is hip and funny, but it’s more varied and more subtle, presenting a range of voices—young and old, male and female, married and single—that ask for more from themselves and from the world. Each of the eight stories takes place within a single, focused event—Thanksgiving, a bike race, a birthday party. This formula makes for a strong, distinctive style, and also for a stage on which lifetimes of hope and doubt are played out—the stories may be small in frame, but they’re vast in scope. In “It Couldn’t Be More Beautiful,” the wise, wise-cracking fourteen-year-old narrator mourns the loss of her older sister to a boyfriend, craving at the end of the story “the warmth of her undivided affections.” In “And Then You Stand Up,” a professor scarred by a car accident caused by her “overdue and botched clamoring for love” gains unexpected perspective from her best friend’s eleven-year-old daughter, who has entered puberty overnight. In “The Marrying Kind,” a woman attends the wedding of her ex-boyfriend, who on their recent “funnymoon” has gotten her pregnant. The narrator, like the characters in several of these stories, is confounded by the traditional contours of the married life, unable and unwilling to commit to it, yet persistently haunted by its allure. “How can you make a decision for the rest of your life,” she asks, “if you’re not even sure you’ve yet become the person you’ll always want to be?” In a blurb on the back cover, Antonya Nelson applauds, “Merrill Feitell loves her characters even if they don’t love themselves.” But what’s most endearing and true about Feitell’s characters is that they do love themselves—they’re people who care deeply about their lives, who struggle passionately to align them with their own ideal visions of happiness. In love with some moment in their pasts or their futures, they hold out for something better, even when something better doesn’t look like it’s coming.
The Inner Circle, by T.C. Boyle. Viking, September 2004. $25.95
This robust, impassioned novel, Boyle’s tenth, opens with two epigraphs. One is from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra; the other is from Alfred C. Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. The contrast is clear—this is a book about two kinds of sex: the amorous and the clinical. For Kinsey, the real-life biologist dubbed “Dr. Sex,” coitus has nothing to do with love; it’s an act to be enjoyed by everyone, with everyone. John Milk, the original member of Kinsey’s fictional research team, tries doggedly to follow his guru’s doctrine, but love keeps getting in the way—love for his feisty and unyielding wife, Iris; for Kinsey’s wife, Mac, to whom Milk loses his virginity; and for Kinsey himself, whose appetite for sex becomes disturbingly indiscriminate. This dynamic, ripe with the requisite seductions, betrayals, and bruised egos, is an engrossing one, and although the book only occasionally indulges in the graphic, the experience of reading it is inevitably voyeuristic. For all of the novel’s scandals and threats, however, the stakes don’t change much, and they don’t run very high. Sex and love remain symbiotic for Milk and separate for Kinsey, and somehow the dispute never endangers the pair’s friendship, or “the research.” This forced sense of accord is closely bound to the novel’s first-person point of view. Milk has the unwieldy job of narrating seventeen years of history from the perspective of 1956, after Kinsey has died; his stance becomes one of both homage to his beloved mentor and a timid record of his own objections. Compared to the rich panorama of voices in Boyle’s last novel, Drop City (Viking, 2003), Milk’s overblown outlook and naïve buoyancy are nothing less than exasperating. But readers who have fallen in the past for Boyle’s boisterous language, his animated characters, his absurd and impeccably crafted scenes, will not be disappointed. At one point in the Inner Circle’s travels, the group observes the engagements of a prostitute from behind the precarious secrecy of a hanging sheet, and readers will end up in the same position, absorbed despite themselves.
Wives and Lovers: Three Short Novels, by Richard Bausch. HarperPerennial, July 2004. $12.95
Wives & Lovers is a collection of three short novels left out of the earlier collection—one new, “Requisite Kindness,” and two omitted from last year’s Collected Stories. “Requisite Kindness” is a story about a father, forced to spend several snowed-in days with his dying mother, who is forced to confront the poor decisions he’s made in his life, as well as how his sons have struggled beneath the weight of his accumulated failures. In “Requisite Kindness,” Bausch’s talent for the simple observed detail is on display. Take for instance this description, post funeral, of Brian Hutton in the front yard of his grandmother’s home: “The smoothness of the snow in the lawn made him think about the fact that this was a house where no children lived.” The pristine yard weighs heavily on Brian, highlighting the empty last few years and the loneliness ahead for both him and his father.
“Spirits” is a story (“short novel”) that follows a couple as their young marriage quickly descends into an old one, combining multiple subplots that include an inappropriate comment made at an academic party and a serial killer. The resulting story is one of both psychological dissection and high literary art. But the brightest star of this collection, the one that legitimately earns the label “short novel,” both in ambition and scope, is “Rare & Endangered Species,” a stunning journey through the interconnected lives of family members and distant acquaintances, set off-kilter by the suicide of a loving mother. In the end, Wives & Lovers is essential to any library of which literary fiction is a part and should be enjoyed as a fitting supplement to the body of work that is The Collected Stories, a body of work that, thankfully, is still growing.
Eating Mammals, by John Barlow. Perennial, September 2004. $12.95
If Stephen King dealt in fables and mythmaking, the end result undoubtedly would be similar to the three novellas in John Barlow’s Eating Mammals. The dramatis personae reads like the guest list at a Ripley’s Believe It or Not convention, with each story centering on some extraordinary character or event. In the title novella, the waiter at a lavish hotel quickly becomes an apprentice to Michael “Cast Iron” Mulligan, a famous eating contest champion whose revolutionary grinder allows him to consume anything, including boats and chairs. “The Possession of Thomas-Bessie” is an exercise in the mythic and macabre, taking us through the formative years and experiences of a winged cat that wreaks karmic havoc wherever it goes. The collection ends with “The Donkey Wedding at Gomersal,” the report of a wild marriage between two cooking partners involving a massive pork pie filled with live piglets, a procession of donkeys and plenty of gawking spectators. It’s easy to see that Mr. Barlow’s mission with these three Victorian Era tales is to evoke “the grand histories of the ancient world, of myth and magic.” Inspired by true tall tales in the author’s past, Eating Mammals faithfully devotes itself to a spectacular sort of entertainment. The main attractions draw us in like an audience to a carnival exhibit, but once the show is over, little else remains to appreciate. As imaginative a storyteller as Mr. Barlow is, this collection is an enjoyable but ultimately forgettable diversion.
—Zak M. Salih
The Ghost Writer, by John Harwood. Harcourt, July 2004. $25
This first novel starts with the protagonist, a young boy growing up in a little town in Australia, doing what every youth growing up wants to do, burglarizing his mother’s dresser in search of secrets. She catches Gerard Freeman in the act, explodes in violence, and stops telling him stories about her (and his) past. To compensate, he digs further, gradually uncovering his great-grandmother Viola’s short stories, odd photos, and family papers, none of which quite add up. He also acquires a pen pal Alice, a crippled orphan who lives in England, and they swap family stories for years until they fall in love. Gerard goes to England to dig deeper, and to find and marry Alice, and suddenly finds himself living inside a ghost story. Several scenes in an abandoned house outdo anything Steven King or Anne Rice have written for subtle scariness, and they had to use monsters. Gerard (and the reader) quickly loses track of what’s real, what’s fictional, and what’s supernatural. The embedded narratives perfectly capture the tone of late Victorian popular fiction, and all the balls in the air come down at once in a surprise ending.
Four Souls, by Louise Erdrich. HarperCollins, June 2004. $23.95
“Revenge ran away with us, and then it turned around and ran over us,” says Nanapush, a character in Louise Erdrich’s new book, Four Souls. Indeed, the novel is about revenge gone awry. Native American Fleur Pillager is intent on destroying an unethical businessman in order to reclaim her land from him. She arrives at his home to find him deathly ill. So, she healed him in order to wreck him in good condition, which to her was the only honorable way a Pillager could take satisfaction in vengeance. However, her plans for revenge take a different turn after she marries the man and bears an autistic savant son with him. Back on the reservation, Fleur’s grandfather, Nanapush, fears that his archenemy Shesheeb has romantic designs on Nanapush’s common-law wife, Margaret. Nanapush concocts a ridiculous plan to murder Shesheeb. A tragicomic series of events ensue. Wearing Margaret’s ceremonial dress, Nanapush winds up spending a night trapped in a church basement, drinking his way through keg after keg of communion wine. Several threads connect Nanapush and Fleur. Nanapush says, “I shared with Fleur the mysterious self-contempt of the survivor. Pain took our minds off the greater pain that we still existed.” The surprising way Erdrich wraps up her tale neatly connects all the subplots and makes for a satisfying end to the story. Even though Erdrich does a good job of providing backstory for her characters, one would benefit by reading her earlier work (such as Tracks) to have a richer understanding of the characters who appear in Four Souls.
Between Two Rivers, by Nicholas Rinaldi. HarperCollins, June 2004. $24.95
New York City is a megacity that is best known in miniature. Life that happens in the “global” city occurs in miniature “locally” in each borough, in each block, in each building because it is a world in wonderful chaos where the very rich, the very poor, the old money, and the new immigrants come together every day. In Between Two Rivers Nicholas Rinaldi shows us the humanity of New York by opening the windows to Echo Terrace, an expensive condominium in Battery Park City, and introducing us to the wealthy, often eccentric residents and multinational staff. Battery Park City is built on landfill by the tip of Lower Manhattan—close to the financial district, as well as the Staten Island Ferry and the huge void that was once filled with the towering World Trade Center—the focal point of Lower Manhattan when the story begins in the summer of 1992. Much of what we learn about the residents in the nine years that follow is through the studied observations of Farro Fescu, the Rumanian concierge with “a strong sense of old world propriety.” This microcosm of New York is home to the punk clothes designer Ira Klempp, pompous Luther Rumfarm, the famous quilter Maggie Sowle, Nora Abernoth the collector of exotic animals, Theo Tattafruge, a skilled plastic surgeon, and many more we get to know. Rinaldi has created interesting stories for his complex characters and these stories are beautifully told and tied to historic events. One feels Echo Terrace is a real place, and at the end of the novel it is sad to have to say good-bye to these people who have shown us not only New York in miniature, but life as well. Nicholas Rinaldi is the author of two previous novels, The Jukebox Queen and Bridge Fall Down, and three collections of poetry.
—Maria Dominguez Chapel
Ordinary Wolves, by Seth Kantner. Milkweed, May 2004. $22
Mr. Kantner’s first novel is a thing of beauty. From the prologue to the final chapter he writes with a sustained power of observation and expression that is more than a pleasure to experience. His evocations of the joy and pain of existence for all the inhabitants of the Alaskan wilderness, through all its seasons, are born of a poetic and highly empathic nature combined with firsthand experience. Ordinary Wolves is the extraordinary coming-of-age story of Cutuk, a “white” boy with an Eskimo name, whose seminal heroes (role models) include an artist father named Abe who long ago jumped ship (let’s call it the USS Consumer Society) in favor of a back-to-nature life in the Alaskan wilderness, and Enuk Wolfglove, an old Eskimo hunter/warrior whose profound experience and knowledge of the wilderness are unrivaled. From the beginning this novel is a profoundly moving meditation on the agonies and degradation wrought upon the land, its creatures, its human conciousness and spirit, by the “Want-Everythings” of an otherworldly, cash-based society. Kantner’s people, the individuals and the families, the “winners” and the “losers,” are treated with the utmost sensitivity. The result is simply a great book.
Border of a Dream: Selected Poems, by Antonio Machado. Translated by Willis Barnstone. Copper Canyon, September 2004. $17
Twentieth-century Spain produced an explosion of extraordinary poets—Juan Ramón Jiménez (Nobel Prize 1956), Vicente Aleixandre (Nobel Prize 1977), Federico García Lorca, Jorge Guillén, Pedro Salinas, Rafael Alberti, etc. (the list is a long one) —but none is more beloved than Antonio Machado (1875–1939). His moving poems about childhood, the passage of time, Castilian landscapes, death, love, and nature tap i