Hunting Eichmann: How a Band of Survivors and a Young Spy Agency Chased Down the World’s Most Notorious Nazi, by Neal Bascomb. Houghton Mifflin, March 2009. $26
At the end of the Second World War, Adolf Eichmann managed to slip through POW camps and live quietly as a lumberjack before a network of former Nazis and sympathizers smuggled him to Argentina in 1950. By that time, Eichmann’s major role in the deportation and destruction of Eastern Europe’s Jews had become clear and he was a wanted man. Eichmann arrived in Argentina as Ricardo Klement, carrying a Red Cross passport, and disappeared; his wife and children also soon disappeared, presumably to join him. However, the West German government feared embarrassing revelations about former Nazis in its ranks should they try to extradite Eichmann from Argentina, and Israel lacked resources to pursue him—until 1959. A rash of anti-Semitic violence in Cologne plus another tip about Eichmann’s whereabouts convinced Isser Harel, head of the Mossad, that the world needed to be reminded of the horror of the Holocaust and its unpunished perpetrators: his intelligence service would capture Eichmann. Local volunteers and Israeli agents tracked Eichmann to a ramshackle home outside Buenos Aires. The Mossad team established safe houses, fake identities, and a plan to snatch Eichmann, which Peter Malkin and Moshe Tabor carried out on May 11, 1960. Ten days later, Eichmann was smuggled to Israel on the inaugural El Al flight from Buenos Aires. Throughout his trial, Eichmann averred that obedience to orders exculpated him. His rambling expositions, plus interviews and archives in Israel and elsewhere, allow Bascomb to recreate the Mossad’s pursuit and the motivations of hunter and quarry.
—Mark Shively Meier
Saving Savannah: The City and the Civil War, by Jacqueline Jones. Knopf, October 2008. $30
By the middle of the 1850s, Savannah, Georgia, had become the third-largest cotton port in the South, but with prosperity came a host of municipal problems, including unruly migrants, inadequate budgets for public works, and deadly yellow fever epidemics. Perhaps the largest problem for city leaders, and the hardest to reckon with, was the undermining effect of urban life on race-based slavery. Jones begins her book in the contentious decade of the 1850s, when national debates over slavery played out alongside local concerns about maintaining control of enslaved people. Jones details how enslaved blacks carved out space within the antebellum South, taking advantage of the opportunities afforded by urban anonymity, and she follows their ultimately futile attempts after the Civil War to build a city founded upon equality. Despite the focus implied by her subtitle, Jones is concerned less with the details of the war as it affected Savannah and more with the changing dynamics of slavery and race relations at work in the city before, during, and after the war. Jones writes that her book “is a story about the larger African-American freedom struggle, and about the way that struggle shaped the streets and households of Savannah and the rice and cotton fields of low-country Georgia.” She has succeeded elegantly in telling this story.
Jefferson Davis and the Civil War Era, by William J. Cooper, Jr. Louisiana State, October 2008. $24.95
Jefferson Davis’s wife, Varina, insisted after his death that her husband was never a politician. This new work proves her wrong by illustrating the extent of Davis’s political thinking. The nine essays here cover topics ranging from the Confederate president’s early career in Washington to Civil War memory in the late nineteenth century. Although the collection does not deviate substantially from Cooper’s masterful Jefferson Davis, American, the essay format allows Cooper to sharpen several arguments from that earlier work. For example, he argues that Davis’s antebellum political experiences had a significant impact on his behavior as Confederate president. Because traditional American politics had failed to contain disunion, Davis lost faith in that tradition’s ability to preserve any government, including his budding southern nation. The short length of the book—128 pages—does not prevent Cooper from introducing considerable nuance and meticulous detail into his study. He weaves military and political history through his narrative, with information that is not always flattering toward Davis. Because each essay is self-contained, the book suffers from some repetition. Still, Jefferson Davis and the Civil War Era is a boon for undergraduate professors and high school teachers who want to take advantage of Cooper’s analysis in a format better suited to short semesters.
—Rachel A. Shapiro
In the Hands of a Good Providence: Religion in the Life of George Washington, by Mary V. Thompson. Virginia, September 2008. $29.95
Evangelical Christian, Deist, atheist. In a centuries-long debate about the religious beliefs of America’s founding fathers, each of these terms has been offered to describe the religious faith of George Washington. After introducing readers to this longstanding controversy, Thompson weighs in by examining Washington’s writings and material life along with recorded observations of his religious practice. Thompson uses this broad variety of sources to examine why Washington distanced himself from the Anglican Church after the Revolution, what significance he may have attributed to religious texts and images, and why Washington displayed a great tolerance for all religious faiths. Considerations of these questions alongside others about Washington’s practice of prayer, Church attendance, and conception of “Providence” lead Thompson to conclude that Washington was most likely “a devout eighteenth-century Anglican” with latitudinarian beliefs, “a person who today might be called a liberal, low-church (or even Broad Church) Episcopalian.” Yet despite this conclusion about Washington’s faith, Thompson also stresses that historians can never truly know the religious beliefs of their subjects. This caution supports her aim of presenting evidence to her readers so that they may form their own conclusions. Some readers may find Thompson’s frequent use of long quotations and her reluctance to make strong arguments frustrating, particularly if they do not have a general knowledge of eighteenth-century America. However, if readers are looking for a thought-provoking book that lets its historical subjects speak for themselves, they are sure to be pleased with this study.
—Whitney A. Martinko
Religion and the Making of Nat Turner’s Virginia: Baptist Community and Conflict, 1740–1840, by Randolph Ferguson Scully. Virginia, August 2008. $42.50
Scully examines thoroughly the formation of the Southeastern Virginian Baptist Church with a keen eye on the Church’s place within larger, national questions of religious free exercise, political liberty, and race. Scully traces how the Baptists tied their struggle for religious freedom from Anglican interference to the republicanism that justified the American Revolution against royal interference. After the Revolution, the equation of conscience and liberty inspired some church leaders to preach the abolition of slavery, while both slaves and former slaves found partial inclusion within church institutions. However, the two groups differently interpreted church fellowship. White members saw church fellowship as a source of private salvation, emphasizing conscience. African Americans saw fellowship as the achievement of social parity, emphasizing liberty. When the church disagreement over slavery began to threaten white slave-holding members, Baptist leadership sought to unify white membership rather than make a clear statement on slavery, thereby reducing the racial parity and increasing racial tension. Turner’s rebellion in 1831 was, then, a declaration of independence from the Baptist establishment that had itself once rebelled against the unjust Anglican repression of conscience. Scully recognizes the irony but also the bitter results for all people of color in Virginia and across the South following Turner’s defeat.
—James M. Patterson
The Bible and the People, by Lori Anne Ferrell. Yale, December 2008. $32.50
Ferrell has produced a brisk and compelling cultural history of the English Bible from the Middle Ages to the present. She treats medieval illuminated manuscripts with the precision of a bibliographer and contemporary teen-magazine versions of the New Testament with the deftness of a cultural studies adept—but her real interest is in what the uses of these dramatically divergent forms of the Christian scriptures tell us about the relationship between the Bible and its readers across the centuries. Announcing this ambition clearly from the first chapter, she argues convincingly that medieval manuscripts were hard-working texts, not merely prettified display objects, and that through cultural forms like mystery plays, medieval commoners had a much better knowledge of the Bible than is often understood. This background positioned them extremely well to participate in the revolution of biblical (and general) literacy ushered in by the Protestant Reformation. Interesting anomalies abound amidst these developments—like the singular accomplishment of James Gibbs’s mid-nineteenth century, sixty-six volume “Kitto Bible” that interspersed 30,000 images from the full range of European art with the standard text of the Authorized Version. Gibbs’s eccentric endeavor serves as a particularly good example of what The Bible and the People does at its best—illustrating in vivid historical detail the paradoxical story of this book of books, the Bible, which is (across Anglo-American history) at once intimately familiar to its readers and yet deeply strange and foreign to those who think they have fully understood it.
A Whaler’s Dictionary, by Dan Beachy-Quick. Milkweed, November 2008. $20 paper
“The work of the world is never total,” says Dan Beachy-Quick in A Whaler’s Dictionary—a text whose very form suggests the futility of positing definitive, all-encompassing interpretations, specifically regarding Moby-Dick. Not a sustained narrative, A Whaler’s Dictionary consists rather of fragmented interpretations of Melville’s novel—usually two to three pages long but often densely philosophical—and the manner in which A Whaler’s Dictionary is to be digested is left to the whim of the reader, who is presented, at the conclusion of each entry, with a series of more-or-less related subject headings, the pursuance of which itself constitutes a journey of interpretive drift. Beachy-Quick is a poet whose project heretofore has consisted largely of reimagining early American subjectivity, and doing so in a manner that reveals not so much what is specifically American about what has happened in America as what is universal in the grab bag of American experience. A Whaler’s Dictionary is a worthy continuation of Beachy-Quick’s body of work, which, with its formal flexibility, is able to elucidate the novel’s many broader preoccupations—philosophical, linguistic, textual, physical—and expound upon them with equal parts clarity and depth. Whaler’s Dictionary manages to function as an oddly ideal work of criticism, breathing new life into Moby-Dick and showing how the novel subsists as an intricately living thing.
A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books, by Alex Beam. PublicAffairs, November 2008. $24.95
During the 1950s, University of Chicago president Robert Hutchins and philosopher Mortimer Adler tried but failed to inveigle the public into laying out serious money for an editorially feckless, unreadable, shelf-warping set of Great Books, which included an unusable two-volume index, The Syntopicon, listing snippets wherein canonical authors pronounced themselves on exactly 102 Great Ideas, each introduced by Adler in a breezy Thomistic overview. Hutchins and Adler also founded The Great Books Foundation to promote the Great Set (or partial reprints) for use in reading groups, schools, and colleges. But over time, the Foundation and its founders parted company on key issues. Until the second edition in 1994, for example, Adler famously refused to include works by women or persons of color, long a part of the Foundation’s expanded canon. Also in dispute was method, with Socratic questioning, reshaped by the Foundation as “shared inquiry,” supplanting Adler’s heavy-handed didacticism and Hutchins’s tetchy one-upmanship. All of this story could have made for fascinating reportage, but poorly grounded, loosely structured, and chock-a-block with red herrings, straw men, and ad hominem attacks on the protagonists, this tome rests on at least three doubtful presumptions: (1) if packaging and marketing are suspect, the product can’t be worth a damn (more broadly, the author seems cynical about Western, or any other, culture which he razzes whenever he can find an excuse); (2) careful construction, analysis, and critique of arguments about so-called masterpieces of human achievement (as well as the controversies surrounding their interpretation) simply waste energy; and (3) most importantly, A Great Idea at the Time is exempt from generally accepted standards of reasoning, evidence, and rhetoric.
—David Lee Rubin
John Milton: Life, Work, and Thought, by Gordon Campbell and Thomas N. Corns. Oxford, November 2008. $39.95
John Milton was born in 1608 and died in 1674, dates that neatly encompass one of the most tumultuous periods in British history. By the time he finished his epic masterpiece, Paradise Lost, Milton was nearly sixty and blind. He had weathered the Great Fire of London, a deadly plague, the beheading of Charles I, an especially bloody civil war, and the ascension of Oliver Cromwell to Lord Protector of the Commonwealth. Milton backed the anti-Episcopal cause in the 1640s and 1650s, and narrowly avoided execution after the Restoration. When Milton’s second wife deserted him, he lobbied self-servingly for divorce rights; when the threat of government censorship loomed, he published Areopagitica, a rigorous and religious defense of free speech. He endured the drowning of a college friend—the subject for the pastoral elegy “Lycidas”—and the death of two wives, a son, and a daughter. As Campbell and Corns suggest in this fine new study, Milton the man did not exist independently of Milton the political and moral animal, and Milton’s work can not be viewed separately from the tribulations of seventeenth century England. Much of Life, Work, and Art is historiographical: How have past biographers envisioned Milton’s world? What did they get wrong, and what did they get right? And how directly did Milton shape—and later, battle against—the intellectual climate of his time? Eventually, a singular and densely wrought portrait emerges. Milton was a tragic “hero,” Campbell and Corns write, and “what he achieved in the face of crippling adversity, blindness, bereavement, political eclipse, remains wondrous.”
Reading Matters: Five Centuries of Discovering Books, by Margaret Willis. Yale, November 2008. $30
This is a handsome, richly illustrated ramble through the history of book buying, with a heavy emphasis on the English book trade. Rather than trying for an inclusive survey or developing a particular thesis, Willis offers nine chapters, each of which could be profitably read as a stand-alone essay on particular individuals and trends. Her study begins with Bess Hardwick and the library she was able to amass as she married and maneuvered her way to increasing wealth and prominence in sixteenth-century England. The book continues with a fine chapter that serves as a minibiography of Samuel Pepys; one on Thomas Jefferson and the acquisition (and eventual dispersal) of his library, which served as the basis of the Library of Congress, in a sale that the debt-ridden Jefferson needed to make. The volume includes detailed excursions upon lending libraries, popular novels, and inexpensive books for the “common reader,” as well as the growing mass market for books in the twentieth century, and ends, on the last page, with a mention of Amazon.com. This is a charming book, full of digressions—biographical and historical nuggets abound—but is also clearly the fruit of a remarkable range and depth of research. Particularly interesting are descriptions of dozens of individual books, long lost to history but popular in their day, which Willis reclaims for the contemporary reader.
The Accordionist’s Son, by Bernardo Atxaga. Graywolf, February 2009. $25 paper
“Real life is sad . . . and . . . all books, even the harshest, embellish life,” the chief narrator of Bernardo Atxaga’s latest novel proposes near the book’s end. It is one of Atxaga’s virtues as a storyteller that palpable sadness—along with joy, local culture, the challenges of youth, language politics, nature’s ravishing beauty, the conflicts between urban and rural life—appears but by no means bogs down The Accordionist’s Son. Instead, these weighty themes are gently woven together to depict the story of David Imaz, who, in voluntary exile in California, his health deteriorating, decides to write his memoirs. Imaz constructs a slow-motion elegy to the pastoral hamlet of Obaba, located in Spain’s Basque country. Unable to escape the historical echoes of Spain’s brutal civil war and his own father’s possible role in a local massacre, Imaz’s political awakening comes slowly but inexorably, pushing him to a choice between his family or his people, the Basques. Atxaga writes elegantly, though his prose rarely calls attention to itself, except in the occasional deft description, such as that of an old boxer who “looked like a well-thumbed book.” Obaba and its inhabitants shimmer with life, each character carefully drawn, though the narrative occasionally lags, leaving gaps between Imaz’s bildungsroman and his later experiences with nationalism. But as a portrait writ large and small of a people simultaneously lifted and burdened by history, Atxaga’s novel succeeds marvelously—a welcome companion piece to his prize-winning Obabakoak.
The Journey: A Novel, by H. G. Adler, translated by Peter Filkins. Random House, November 2008. $26
One night, the Lustig family is forced from its home in the fictional town of Stupart to the first “gathering place for those people who were no longer wanted and yet who nonetheless were still there, since anyone who is condemned still exists before being destroyed, just as there must be a place for it all to occur, and so it all began here.” Sent on to the ghetto city of Ruhental, the family, except for the son Paul, succumbs to exhaustion or deportation to the “ark,” where a sorting hand ensures that the “people were finished off, the suitcase was sent to the museum.” The murderers become famous by erasing their victims en masse. Written in 1950 but not published in Germany until 1962, The Journey fictionalizes Adler’s own passage from Prague through the universe of concentration camps. Rather than document the incomprehensible, however, Adler evokes it while presaging later debates about trauma, commemoration, and guilt. As personal identity disintegrates, the narration weaves ironically and poignantly from one person to another to even inanimate objects. “Consciousness has split itself into two wings that have fallen from the body. Now the wings flutter on their own, sadness in their beating.” By combining the themes of Viktor Frankl’s search for meaning with the technique of Mrs. Dalloway, Adler creates an experience that most other Holocaust literature does not. And ultimately, his Paul “has become a person again. He has granted himself the highest honor, which no one else can give him.”
—Mark Shively Meier
Experimental Heart, by Jennifer Rohn. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, November 2008. $13.99 paper
At first glance, Jennifer Rohn’s debut novel raises more eyebrows for the premise of its plot—a romantic thriller set in the world of modern biomedical research—than for the writing itself. Initially, there is the surprise of a renowned scientific press publishing a novel and its equally unlikely premise—a tormented scientist narrator as eventual (and not entirely tragic) hero. Of course, we are quickly introduced to the effortlessly glamorous and brilliant colleague for whom our narrator falls head over heels. Yet as the story develops, despite an occasionally necessary suspension of belief, one is drawn inside the world Rohn has created. A molecular biologist herself and the founder of the online magazine LabLit.com, Rohn has taken a world that is mysterious and often ignored and placed it front and center in a way that appeals to scientist and non-scientist alike. If the best writing comes from those who write what they know, Rohn has succeeded brilliantly. The science serves the story, not the other way around, and that, perhaps, is why Rohn’s work is such an engaging read. In placing the universal struggle to untangle one’s personal and professional lives in the setting of international intrigue involving pharmaceutical development, corporate greed, and biomedical ethics, Experimental Heart is that most unusual debut: a truly fresh voice.
Chronic: Poems, by D. A. Powell. Graywolf, February 2009. $20
Chronic is Powell’s fourth collection of poetry and his first since the trilogy of Tea, Lunch, and Cocktails. “If I could make the world my own and be satisfied” writes Powell in the opening poem, and the rest of the book holds forth on this effort: claiming the world through the lens of AIDS, the erotic, heartsickness, and wit and trying to make a satisfied center within it. Powell’s poems address the other, the beloved, the constant “you,” as in “continental divide”: “for an ice age I knew you only as an idea of longing” and “you have surmounted the craggy boundary between us.” The title becomes multifaceted in its meanings—having to do with illness, and with the constant, recurring, continual, persistent, and unending themes in Powell’s poetry. How does one bridge the space between the self and the beloved, especially when illness becomes a third party to the companionship? How does one create refuge from “the treacherous body”? Is it only through “the mausoleum of refusal”? Most likely not, since the four-page title poem does become, at times, melodramatic. One wishes to excuse or make exceptions for Powell primarily because the rest of the poems are so good, but the parts of the title poem that are really good are the parts that ache with what’s held back, not “the same baffled heart I have always carried / a bit more battered than before.” Even still, Chronic is a mesmerizing collection. It pushes against “all the armor plates” around poetry and makes it “beautiful. unbeautiful. each with an aspect of exactness.”
Of This World: New and Selected Poems, by Joseph Stroud. Copper Canyon, December 2008. $18 paper
If one made a list of the most accomplished, least known poets writing today, Joseph Stroud would have to be near the top. For the past forty years, Stroud has written diverse poems of reverential attention and intricate simplicity, with little fanfare, and without involvement in writing programs or literary journals. Recently, a succession of preeminent poets—from Jim Harrison to W. S. Merwin—have expressed startled awe on discovering Stroud’s work. Now, Of This World makes the bulk of Stroud’s poems available in one volume. Ranging from prose poems and brief lyrics to extended lyric-narrative meditations, Stroud’s work engages subjects as sundry as the aftermath in Vietnam, the works of great painters, and the vulnerabilities of love. But, whatever his subject, Stroud’s true subject is always observation and wonder at the world’s luminous presence. Such luminosity is especially evident in Stroud’s numerous six-line poems—a form he seems to have both invented and mastered—which distill complex moments into stunningly succinct and vivid encapsulation. It is difficult to briefly quote Stroud for the very reason his poems are so rewarding: they rely not on showy language, but on a deceptively simple aesthetic that unfolds its achievement in the simplest language imaginable. For those weary of the smoke and mirrors of linguistic pyrotechnics, Of This World will offer a refreshing reminder of the enduring power of simplicity, sincerity, and plain craft.
The New North: Contemporary Poetry from Northern Ireland, edited by Chris Agee. Wake Forest, September 2008. $19.95 paper
The New North gathers fifteen of Northern Ireland’s up-and-coming generation of poets (born between 1956 and 1975) along with six older-generation poets (each contributing three poems) into a diverse and enticing anthology. A lengthy introduction by Agee gives a thorough, historical vantage point from which to view the poems. Agee discusses how the Troubles, “this long period in which political stasis, cyclical violence, and generalized social and economic stagnation became second nature to a riven culture,” created a need for poetry, where “the poetic ways and means were highly various, but holding one’s breath in the changed atmosphere was not an option.” The young poets collected here are varied in their aesthetic and thematic obsessions. Perhaps one of the most exciting additions to the growing new canon of Northern Irish poetry is Matt Kirkham. His series of “Museum” poems (“The Museum of Trash,” “The Museum of the Afterlife,” “In the Tea Museum”) are the highlight of the anthology.
Satin Cash, by Lisa Russ Spaar, Persea Books, August 2008. $14 paper
Emily Dickinson mused that her price was “A petal, for a paragraph.” Lisa Russ Spaar’s Satin Cash—inspired by that Dickinsonian sentiment and phrase—allies itself with such radical economies of beauty and pays in subtlety. The brushes with lush language characteristic of Spaar’s work are immediately apparent in a poem like “Ouija”—“Fob, gaud, tinsel / of winter stars, / cosmic bijou”—but quickly the lucid lyric questions and existential quandaries emerge: “what am I seeking / when I extend / my soul’s yes yes / toward you . . .” The interplay between linguistic bewilderment and psychic clarity draws Spaar’s poems within reach of both wonder and wisdom, in carefully alternating focus. Exemplary of this effect is the situation of “The Ice House,” as the speaker overhears her daughter’s garbled phone-fight with a boyfriend. The poet’s mind—at once sympathetic and self-restrained—wanders to an antiquated, subterranean ice storage shed, pondering its purpose: “so that, in the heat / of rage, or age, or passion, / what shivers of sweet sorbet, / what unlikely shocks of whine-numbing joy / issue from its galaxy, its dipper.” The movements between mother and daughter, between rage and numbness, between shivering pain and cold are exquisite layerings; they make the ice house its own odd stronghold, a cold comfort from some lost age. Persisting images of secure enclosures—wombs, rooms, gardens—are often passages outward in Spaar’s work, to a more strange, dangerous, and heartbreaking world. When the dollar’s down, the creative can find new coins of the realm. Invest in Satin.
Invisible Hands: The Making of the Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan, by Kim Phillips-Fein. Norton, January 2009. $26.95
After decades of neglect, it is now official: we are being pelted (if not bombarded) with studies of modern conservative politics. These studies range from Rick Perlstein’s books on Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon to historians’ soaking-and-poking of grassroots conservatism in Mississippi and Orange County, to attempts to develop a master key for explaining this unforeseen development in American politics. Many of these studies rely on an interpretive framework developed by liberals in the 1960s and 1970s, which suggests that conservatism eroded and then exploded the New Deal coalition by using cultural or identity issues—religion, cultural populism, and perhaps especially antiblack racial animus—to undercut a liberal consensus on economics. Phillips-Fein challenges this assumption, arguing that using culture as an explanation may be unnecessary, since the consensus on moderately progressive economics was not that strong to begin with. This is an intriguing and potentially important possibility. Unfortunately, the rest of this book is not designed to explore and test that thesis. Instead, it is an account of the daily activities and strategizing of free-market writers and activists who wanted to turn the tide of statism in economic matters in US policymaking. The discussion of figures like William Buckley, Clarence Manion, J. William Middendorf, Lewis Powell, and William Baroody is interesting, but it cannot determine how extensive the liberal economic consensus was in the Democratic party or the American public more broadly.
Michelangelo, Drawing, and the Invention of Architecture, by Cammy Brothers. Yale, September 2008. $65
Michelangelo lived in a world dominated by classical ideals, ruins, antiquarians, and Vitruvius. This study of his drawings focuses on his formative years, 1505–1534, from his plan for the tomb of Julius II to his design of the Laurentian Library. The author, associate professor of architectural history at the University of Virginia, puts Michelangelo’s sketches, drawings, designs, and buildings in sequences, showing how the artist’s ideas developed away from models and moved through copying, analyzing, distorting, rescaling, fragmenting, and reorienting to create ideas. Rather than capture what was in his head, Michelangelo thought and researched on paper, drawing different versions and aspects of an object right on top of each other. We watch him embrace eccentricity, manipulating the traditional triad of architecture, ornament, and figural sculpture until the architecture becomes sculpture, producing great art if somewhat difficult spaces. The author plays all this against sketches by contemporaries, bits of Michelangelo’s verse, excursions into Petrarch, and the artist’s experiments with depicting the human body. This fascinating volume lets us watch genius creating itself.