The Post-American World, by Fareed Zakaria. Norton, May 2008. $25.95
Zakaria’s day-job as Newsweek International editor and cable-news talking expert has given him an impressively breezy command of current affairs and a bone-deep knowledge of how to make such knotty issues relevant to the average person. He’d be the most fascinating guest at nearly any party. But here, while that same casually learned voice might put the reader at ease, it doesn’t help deliver the gravity of spectacular insight that made The Future of Freedom such a thrilling read. Zakaria’s thesis is that America today is neither falling behind nor remaining as powerful as she used to be (as many other talking experts would have it), but instead is simply dealing with “the rise of the rest.” This thesis is amply illustrated by Zakaria’s astute readings of the rise of India and China and the decline of Britain. But by the time he comes around to laying out (as all books seemingly must, these days) the way forward for America, in terms that are alternately chiding and reassuring (in short: stop worrying about things that don’t matter and get over yourselves), the book resembles more than anything else a Newsweek column that got out of control.
Capitol Men: The Epic Story of Reconstruction Through the Lives of the First Black Congressmen, by Philip Dray. Houghton Mifflin, September 2008. $30
In this new and much-needed study of black congressmen during Reconstruction, Dray skillfully weaves the personal stories of men such as Robert Brown Elliott, P. B. S. Pinchback, Joseph Rainey, and Robert Cain into the traditional story of the post–Civil War years. He argues that the tragedy of the Reconstruction era should not diminish the “inherent nobility” and courageousness of black politicians, who tried to remake the nation into a land of equal opportunity. Following in the footsteps of work by Eric Foner (Reconstruction) and Stephen Hahn (A Nation Under Our Feet), Dray illustrates the tremendous agency black officeholders had in shaping their own history: these men served as an inspiration to other freedmen, and most importantly, proved their loyalty, honesty, and intelligence as the country’s newest citizens. Dray’s real contribution, however, is in documenting the ways in which black officeholders helped to shape the political course of Reconstruction for all Americans. Elliott, for example, was instrumental in mustering Senate votes in support of Charles Sumner’s Civil Rights Bill, which eventually passed in 1875. Space considerations likely prevented Dray from fully examining the important relationship between black politicians and their constituents. Yet, while he tells a story of elites, Dray’s portrayal is expertly balanced between the discrimination black congressmen faced and their significant political triumphs.
—Rachel A. Shapiro
A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards, by George M. Marsden. Eerdmans, September 2008. $15 paper
In 2004, Marsden’s definitive critical biography of Jonathan Edwards, colonial America’s foremost preacher and theologian was published. Now he offers a remarkably economical introduction to Edwards’s life that will appeal to a broad audience. A Short Life is more than a condensation of Marsden’s magnum opus—it is a sweeping attempt to locate Edwards within his time and place. The book sets Edwards’s life within the overarching trends of religion, philosophy, and politics in eighteenth-century British America (all in fewer than 150 pages). Marsden achieves this feat by returning to his basic argument—that the life of Edwards was very similar to that of his contemporary Benjamin Franklin, but that the two men ultimately represent opposing American modes of participation in the Age of Enlightenment. Franklin embraced the materialist philosophy of his day, complete with its pragmatic moralism, and was eager to abandon the benighted theological controversies of his childhood. Edwards was similarly drawn to Newtonian mechanics and Lockeian moral philosophy, but he approached Enlightenment as an opportunity to rebut atheism and shore up theological tradition with arguments clarified and expanded through the possibilities of the new philosophy. The most surprising aspect of Marsden’s Short Life is his portrait of Edwards, the founding father of American evangelicalism, as a serious intellectual and a rigorous philosophical thinker.
Cuba in the American Imagination: Metaphor and the Imperial Ethos, by Louis A. Pérez Jr. North Carolina, August 2008. $34.95
Pérez’s work is a quietly ferocious critique of US foreign policy as seen through the lens of Cuban-US relations. Yet this is not a work aimed just at foreign policy wonks. It is a historical exploration of the role Cuba has played in the American imagination and will also appeal to readers interested in history and literary criticism. Pérez’s book covers almost the entirety of the history of both countries, but focuses on the events of 1898. The Spanish-American War was the decisive American intervention in Cuba that has driven Cuban-US relations along a rocky road since. The author explores this relationship through the metaphors used in his sources—Cuba as an undisciplined child or as a garden of earthly delights, for example—and considers what these metaphors reveal about US policy concerning Cuba. Metaphorical representation, Peréz argues, “served as the principal mode through which the Americans proclaimed moral leadership of the world, the way they persuaded themselves that the exercise of power over other people was right and proper.” But Pérez frames this conflict in much larger terms by arguing that Cuba has long been the laboratory for “American imperialism” and understanding US policy towards Cuba is to understand the American approach to the world. By the book’s conclusion, Pérez makes explicit a connection implied throughout: the metaphorical imperial ethos used to justify intervention in Cuba in 1898 was also behind the decision to invade Iraq in 2003.
Anglophilia: Deference, Devotion, and Antebellum America, by Elisa Tamarkin. Chicago, July 2008. $35
How could nineteenth-century Americans feel such a strong admiration for England mere decades after they had fought an eight-year war against their mother country? Tamarkin argues that Americans defined their own national identity in part by expressing their hopes and anxieties about their new nation in terms of love for another. Facing fears about the consequences of their democratic republic, Americans lauded Queen Victoria and her son with approving interest. Historians of the American Revolution turned a nostalgic eye to loyalists, casting their flight as a loss of social refinement. Black abolitionists linked themselves to British culture, emphasizing the virtue and gentility of a nation that had abolished slavery in 1834. And American colleges, particularly in New England, sought to emulate the social and intellectual life of British universities. Though Tamarkin’s book lacks a certain coherency and chronology, each chapter offers a thoughtful discussion of its subject with evidence drawn from popular literature, periodicals, and images. The author makes a compelling argument that not only did forms of anglophilia range across region, class, and race in nineteenth-century America but also that this sentiment was a central aspect of national antebellum culture. By bringing together a number of well-known subjects in a creative way, Tamarkin provides readers with a fresh look at the complex relationship that evolved between the United States and England in the years after the American Revolution.
—Whitney A. Martinko
White People, Indians, and Highlanders: Tribal Peoples and Colonial Encounters in Scotland and America, by Colin G. Galloway. Oxford, July 2008. $35
Calloway, a noted scholar on Native Americans, here probes their similarities with Highland Scots. As peripheral groups along the margins of the British Empire, Highlanders and Indians faced similar trials as that empire expanded—forced removals, coercion, and wrenching transitions to market capitalism. Initially, as the title of the book suggests, the English saw both groups as racially inferior. Calloway investigates how each group dealt with these challenges and finds that both Indians and Highlanders practiced similar strategies in an effort to maintain some level of autonomy and benefit from the empire. Despite such congruencies, however, Calloway notes that in the end the Scots “took their place on the white side of the racial divide.” Yet the similarities between both groups reveal much. In the mid-nineteenth century, for instance, the tribal pasts of both groups became romanticized; Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott memorialized Highland culture, while James Fennimore Cooper, among others, waxed nostalgic over the Indian. The fact that Calloway carries the interactions between these two groups through the beginning of the twentieth century proves elucidating; the British Empire in North America persisted beyond the American Revolution, and it was in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that the Highland Scots migrated in massive numbers to Canada. An interesting and illuminating read, White People, Indians, and Highlanders chronicles the similarities in experiences between tribal peoples on the margins of the British Empire, and by doing so also throws into stark relief the differences that allowed Scots to assimilate.
The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia, by Laura Miller. Little, Brown, December 2008. $25.99
Books evolve as readers do—anyone who’s gone back to a childhood favorite after years apart knows that. But rarely has the transformation been so subtly and intelligently documented as in this first book from Salon.com’s literary critic. Miller’s childhood love for the verdant, fantastical world of C. S. Lewis’s Narnia fell apart when, as a precocious thirteen-year-old, she was “shocked, almost nauseated” to accidentally discover their Christian subtext: Lewis wrote once that, with fairy tales like the Narnia stories, writers could “steal past those watchful dragons” of a reader’s wariness, instilling knowledge of Christ without tripping off the alarms of skepticism. Feeling Lewis’s subterfuges as a violation, Miller slammed the books shut, not reopening them again until an assignment about children’s literature forced a return to Narnia. But the experience of rereading Lewis after such a violent rupture proved fruitful. Miller’s book begins with Narnia, but digresses gently and thoughtfully through Lewis’s life, the life of his close friend and sometime muse, J. R. R. Tolkien, and problems of characterization, gender, xenophobia, class, and sadomasochism in Lewis’s writing. Pondering Lewis’s intellectual preoccupations, she discusses the functions of medieval allegory and tries to cram her doubter’s brain into the medieval theory of metaphor that Lewis loved so. At each stop, Miller examines with a calm generosity her own reactions as well as Lewis’s likely intentions. Some sections flag, seeming over-careful, particularly her retracing of Lewis’s steps in Ireland and England. But on the whole, The Magician’s Book is a rigorous tribute, not just to Narnia, but to the occasionally disturbing wonder of reading itself.
Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life, by Paul Mariani. Viking, October 2008. $34.95
A Victorian Anglican turned deeply devout Jesuit who wrote rhythmically raucous poems with a punch-drunk, pagan-like reverence for the natural world; a priest who preached about the necessity of human submission to God while at the same time professing that “Nothing else in nature comes near this unspeakable stress of . . . distinctiveness . . . this selfbeing of my own”; a ravenous polyglot who cherished the competition inherent in a simple spelling bee—all of these and other fascinatingly idiosyncratic juxtapositions shape Mariani’s biography of Gerard Manley Hopkins and help ease the reader into Mariani’s illuminating close readings of the radiant poems themselves. Biographer of other consciousness-burdened poets such as Hart Crane, Robert Lowell, and John Berryman, Mariani here expands his problematically hagiographical franchise across the Atlantic and back to the nineteenth century, only to retrace in Hopkins the same correlation between mental instability and a talent for tremendous formal innovation in the English poetic medium that he recognized in his other subjects. Yet amidst all the ideological grandiosity by which Mariani often defines Hopkins, and by which Hopkins also largely defined himself, this narrative deftly reenacts the crucial, and seemingly overwhelming, cognitive experience of Hopkins by using the present tense, re-presenting Hopkins as the poet himself encountered the world on specific days of his life. And more broadly—and with contemporary relevance—Mariani also subtly traces the manner in which even the most rigid of systems of human religion can allow for great regard for the environment and its well-being.
What We All Long For, by Dionne Brand. St. Martin’s, November 2008. $14.95 paper
Brand’s third novel explores Toronto and the lives of four young people brought together by loneliness and desire. Brand weaves the story of Tuyen and her brother Quy—who was left behind in Vietnam when the family immigrated to Canada—with glimpses at Tuyen’s life as an artist, a life shaped by family obligations, sexuality, racial identity, and friendships. Toronto is essential to the characters’ development: “It’s like this with this city—you can stand on a simple corner and get taken away in all directions . . . No matter who you are, no matter how certain you are of it, you can’t help but feel the thrill of being someone else.” With its urban spirit and diverse supporting characters (Oku, a poet; Jackie, a clothing store owner; and Carla, a bicycle courier), Brand’s style is reminiscent of Zadie Smith’s, perhaps a bit rougher around the edges. Multiple plot lines threaten the depth of analysis, leaving certain relationships outlined but never fleshed out. The novel races to a tidy ending; story lines converge and conclude surprisingly simply for characters of such complexity. Still, What We All Long For provides a unique portrait of contemporary multicultural life in Toronto and a compelling account of its characters.
Yesterday’s Weather: Stories, by Anne Enright. Grove, September 2008. $24
When the Irish writer Anne Enright is at her best—as she sometimes is in this new collection of stories—she yanks her readers almost violently into a story. “There was a new woman behind the counter in the newsagent’s,” she begins in “Wife,” “and it took Noel a while to realize that her throat had been slit.” At four-and-a-half pages, “Wife” is claustrophobic and devastating, and the fact that the actual violence remains just beneath the surface, bubbling up but never over, is to Enright’s credit. Only her countryman John McGahern could accomplish so much so briefly. Enright’s narrators, meanwhile, have voices that are tight and idiosyncratic. “The girl died,” begins another story. “Well, what was that to me?” And her women—these stories are overwhelmingly about women—are often exhausted, confused, beside themselves, and unhappy. A cleaning woman charmingly wonders at the fortune of her well-to-do son, only to be stabbed by his only want: “Then he turns around the night before his wedding day, and he says, ‘I never had a father,’ like it was all my fault.” There are thirty-one stories altogether, and it’s perhaps a few too many. Still, how pleasant it is to slog through a couple clunkers only to turn the page and be slapped around by Enright’s unexpected invitation into “The Portable Virgin”: “Dare to be dowdy! that’s my motto, because it comes to us all—the dirty acrylic jumpers and the genteel trickle of piss down our support tights. It will come to her too.” So much accomplished right there and yet so much to come.
Home, by Marilynne Robinson. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, September 2008. $25
Robinson returns to the 1950’s Iowa setting of her Pulitzer Prize–winning Gilead and ponders many of the same large questions of religion, remorse, and the odds of redemption. This time the story is a midwestern parable of the prodigal son, centered around three members of the Boughton family: ailing, aged Reverend Robert; his thirty-eight-year-old daughter Glory who has arrived to take care of him; and black sheep Jack who comes home after an absence of twenty years, penniless and, to a degree, penitent. “Home” may be a simple word, but Robinson makes clear the implicit irony—it’s never a simple place for adult offspring who dare to go back. Jack and Glory are thrown into a crucible of memory, misplaced hope, ghosts, and overgrown gardens. They attempt to cope with it all by turning to drink or to prayer, by tinkering with an old car, or trying to cook a perfect dumpling. And when all else fails, they fall back on good manners. This has always been Robinson’s great strength—her understanding that ritual and domestic detail are a form of salvation. This isn’t a fast-paced book, and there aren’t any big plot surprises. The pondering of scripture and theology can seem overweening at times. But the novel is absorbing and affecting and memorable because Robinson does let us see how to make that perfect dumpling. You drench it in a mix of sorrow and secret and truth, and stew it just to the point of heartbreak. Then, when you put it on the table, everyone sits up straight and eats politely. Maybe that’s all the redemption we need.
Frida’s Bed, by Slavenka Drakulic, translated from the Croatian by Christina Pribichevich-Zoric. Penguin, August 2008. $13 paper
Drakulic’s intensely intimate portrait of Frida Kahlo defies easy classification. Billed as a novel, it alternates between biography, diary, and art criticism. Third-person passages provide biography while subjectively speculating on Kahlo’s thoughts at various points in her life. These sections alternate with first-person testimonials—both imagined and taken directly from Kahlo’s writings (a blend of myth and fact echoing how Kahlo herself told stories)—and passages that describe individual paintings in Kahlo’s oeuvre. This device mirrors the out-of-body experience that Drakulic sees as central to Kahlo’s story. The text also defies linear narrative; it encompasses one day—the day of Kahlo’s death—but tells a comprehensive life story by weaving together past and present, creating a text that “reads” in some ways itself like a painting. But perhaps most notably, Drakulic presents Kahlo’s life and work through a gauze of ever-present pain, taking as its epigraph Kahlo’s own artistic statement, Mi pintura lleva el mensaje del dolor. [My painting carries within it the message of pain.] Drakulic’s voice is pared and direct, in contrast with the flamboyance associated with Kahlo; short, simple sentences hammer down like the throbbing of a headache. Drakulic suggests throughout that the power of Kahlo’s work lies in its ability to cry out with a pain that cannot be fully spoken.
Missy: A Novel, by Chris Hannan. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, June 2008. $24
Scottish playwright Chris Hannan’s first novel takes its title from mid-nineteenth century slang for laudanum, or liquid opium, and though its narrator is a nineteen-year-old prostitute (or “flash girl”) addicted to the stuff, it rages with an energy utterly antithetical to the reality-fuzzing effects of the missy itself. Hannan’s heroine, Dol McQueen, was dragged around the world by her wastrel mother before landing in the San Francisco fleshpots, circa 1862. Dol imagines herself a drolly clever spitfire, which helps her confidence when she and some fellow fallen women light out for Nevada silver mining territory after a friend kills herself. What follows is pure Western gothic in a violence-plagued frontier where Dol and her girls scrabble to survive without falling victim to preying pimps or their own short-sighted desires. While some of the plot devices have a stale quality—a stolen chest of prime opium, an easily foreseen betrayal—it is all vividly translated via Hannan’s densely lexicographic take on this edge of civilization where high-toned language vies with the raw reality of survival; one can imagine a similar result were Martin McDonagh (The Pillowman) ever to write a novel. Not surprisingly for a dramatist’s first fiction, Missy comes at the reader as though performed, in a gush of florid and staged dialogue, vividly rumbled through Dol’s charged, dizzy inner voice.
Verses and Versions: Three Centuries of Russian Poetry, selected and translated by Vladimir Nabokov, edited by Brian Boyd and Stanislav Shvabrin. Harcourt, November 2008. $40
Nabokov simultaneously introduces readers to scores of Russian classics and the tribulations of translation. He warns the would-be translator in one accompanying essay, “And the poem from the Persian / And the sonnet spun in Spain / Perish in the person’s version / And the person dies insane.” Indeed, Nabokov himself, translating from the 1920s into the 1970s, restlessly approached the same poems multiple times. Verses and Versions prints three tries at Pushkin’s two quatrains “Я вас любил.” [I loved you.] Those versions display how Nabokov shifted from a concern with retaining elements of the original form to a preference, starting around 1951, for literal accuracy. That accuracy benefits the student of Russian, as does the original Cyrillic accompanying each translation. For those who cannot read Russian but want to understand the original melody, the publisher has created a website with transliterations. The anthology’s depth and breadth, however, do not claim to be representative. Reading only the English could mislead one into lowered esteem for Russia’s poetry; Nabokov abhors translators who write new poems rather than follow the original. The nineteenth century, especially Pushkin and excerpts from his longer works like “Eugene Onegin” or “Mozart and Salieri,” occupies the most pages. Karamzin, Lermontov, Fet, and Blok all appear, but Vladimir Mayakovsky and Anna Akhamtova do not. The poems reflect Nabokov’s tastes, and as Boyd’s introduction explains, Nabokov considered Akhmatova, “along with Ezra Pound, as ‘definitely B-grade.’” Regardless, Verses and Versions remains a high-grade assortment of Russian literary gems.
—Mark Shively Meier
Inverse Sky, by John Isles. Iowa, September 2008. $16 paper
Many of these poems focus on the parceling and selling of Northern California. As the first poem states, “we see as we believe—our ability to interpret is based on assumptions created by a despoiled environment.” It’s a strong and troubling vision, and suggests that, as commodification dooms the land, it also affects the relationships of its inhabitants. Isles’ best poems are rich with sharp and fecund detail and well grounded in land- and streetscape. What makes the book additionally appealing is his sensitive calibration of the degrees to which our habitat is ruinously transformed. His emotional response to such change, complicated by an ongoing personal drama, often layers these conflicts in baroque tropes and lines of seductive intensity. At times his desire to make a statement leads to overdetermined use of imagery, which can lessen a poem’s acuity. These moments often position events ahistorically, nostalgically coloring the otherwise strong narrative line of the book and its charting of despair, both social and personal. However most of the work is explicitly realized and suggests genuine emotion, articulated by a poetic intelligence adroitly balancing language, drama, restraint, and conviction.
French Women Poets of Nine Centuries: The Distaff and the Pen, selected and translated by Norman R. Shapiro. Johns Hopkins, August 2008. $85
Pat adjectives come to mind: monumental, for instance, and authoritative, but likewise one not so pat: iconic. All three happen to fit this artistic and scholarly work of 1,229 pages. Not only does Shapiro cover the canon from Marie de France to Anna de Noailles, he extends it to include significant auteures from all periods (notably the twentieth century) whose work has rarely been collected or even anthologized. Shapiro’s headnotes, footnotes, and bibliographies consistently illuminate text and transposition, combining necessary facts with startling critical insights. The foreword and introductions, by recognized specialists (Roberta Krueger, Catherine Lafarge, Catherine Perry, and Rosanna Warren), clearly connect poetry and apparatus with the new literary history and current hermeneutics (with a refreshing diversity of ideas and methods). As a result, this book promises to figure not only in syllabi for courses in French and comparative literature as well as women’s studies, but also in translation workshops. The last explains iconic, which cuts two ways at once. Shapiro’s versions accurately mirror the forms, formats, materials, methods, and ends of the source texts on facing pages. Simultaneously they shine on their own as poetry in English. Chose rarissime!
—David Lee Rubin
The Natures of Maps: Cartographic Constructions of the Natural World, by Denis Wood and John Fels. Chicago, November 2008. $49
Maps, like literary texts or movies, the authors argue, are open to the postmodernist stance that rather than being objective, solid representations of a reality, maps help to construct “natures” of different kinds. The reader is encouraged to explore the individual maps as examples of the “new cartography” by viewing them and only later looking at the theories that lie behind the individual texts and maps. The arcane theories and links made to Foucault or Derrida may be a little tough on many map-lovers, but the “new cartography” that focuses on the social construction implicit in maps does highlight the limitations of thinking of maps as simply indicating, “this is there.” The ten different conceptions of nature presented here, along with the accompanying text, highlight the premises, ambiguities, and arguments of maps and will add to the enjoyment of map reading.
—Richard C. Collins
Egg & Nest, by Rosamond Purcell, Linnea S. Hall, and René Corado. Harvard, October 2008. $39.95
In artist Purcell’s newest book, she turns her eye to the veritable “cabinet of ornithological wonders” housed in the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology in Camarillo, California. A collaboration with Linnea S. Hall and René Corado (executive director and collections manager, respectively, of the museum), this book is stunning and disturbing. Photographs of birds’ eggs, nests, skin, and other ornithological wonders of the museum are all photographed in natural light. Hall and Corado write a history of egg collecting, encompassing biology, conservation, and ecology, reminding readers that “from the early 1800s until the mid-1900s, collecting birds’ eggs and nests for private collections and museums was a popular pastime. Today the practice is strictly regulated and, in some countries, completely illegal.” Some of the nests in these photographs are breathtakingly gorgeous, such as the warbling vireo nest with three eggs that is attached in the crook of a tree branch and surrounded by pine needles. Purcell’s photographs celebrate these specimens of natural history and also the tradition of the cabinet of wonders. The photographs carry with them a specific emotional register and gravity, especially in the sections on extinct and threatened bird species.
Nothing to Be Frightened Of, by Julian Barnes. Knopf, September 2008. $24.95
Memento mori usually have grinning skulls, either figuratively or literally—but none have been as amusing (or, ultimately, as scary) as Nothing To Be Frightened Of, Julian Barnes’ swirling new essay on God, memory, his fear of death, and his greater fear of the afterlife. (The book’s already famous opening line—“I don’t believe in God, but I miss him”—encapsulates Barnes’s brand of existential comedy.) Barnes, a self-described “happy atheist” in his Oxford days, has slid into nervous agnosticism as he approaches sixty, a decampment that earns the condescension of his briskly irreligious brother, an uber-rational philosopher, and his mother, who “made it sound as if being an agnostic was a wishy-washy liberal position, as opposed to the truth-and-market-forces reality of atheism.” Nothing threads an increasingly unreliable memoir of that dysfunctional family through Barnes’s droll but pitiless examination of issues big and small—like Pascal’s wager (for the “syncophantic chancer,” he says); whether evolution will outstrip human beings; the advantages of fiction over life; and whether God minds if we masturbate; to name but a few. The ghosts of thantophobic writers and artists abound—from Shostakovich, who told a violinist to play one of his quartets so as to make flies drop dead in mid-air, to Montaigne, whom Barnes reveres but whose death-obsessed life-coaching the author rejects as exhausting. Instead of answers, Nothing To Be Frightened Of offers mounting paradox, which turns out to be more satisfying than any dogma. Barnes keeps working the ground of his doubt, digging into its rich humus a little deeper with each pass—knowing he’ll never reach the bedrock of truth, and terrified of the worms.
The Terezín Album of Mariánka Zadikow, by Mariánka Zadikow, with an introduction and annotations by Deboráh Dwork. Chicago, September 2008. $35
Born in Munich in 1923, Mariánka Zadikow and her Jewish parents fled Germany in 1934, but they lacked the contacts and money to make it further than Prague. The Nazi empire engulfed their sanctuary; the family was deported in May 1942 to Terezín (Theresienstadt in German). Zadikow’s parents continued to work as artists, and Zadikow survived various labor details. Meanwhile, trains periodically departed for Auschwitz as others arrived in Terezín. Zadikow joined the choir of a clandestine opera company, and productions of Smetana, Mozart, and Verdi opened “a realm of serenity and joy” that “saved my sanity” in the transit camp. The operas also introduced her to the camp’s artists and musicians, and starting in September 1944, Zadikow canvassed them to sign her autograph book, or Poesiealbum, made of illegally obtained and bound paper. The full-color reproductions of each page include paintings and drawings with translations of the poems and other messages. One woman wrote, “For each drop of joy you pay with a chalice of sorrow,” while another man joked, “What was the name of that town where I met the little Zadikow girl?” Such handwritten words, from German and Czech to Dutch, Hebrew, Danish, and Latin, evoke a community of individuals and the cartography of Nazi terror, and annotations supply the fate of almost all the album’s 100 contributors. Many perished, but in Zadikow’s pages, almost all tried to focus on the drops, not the chalice.
—Mark Shively Meier
The Man Who Made Vermeers: Unvarnishing the Legend of Master Forger Han van Meegeren, by Jonathan Lopez. Harcourt, August 2008. $26
Imagine this as the plot of a novel: in the 1920s, a moderately talented Dutch painter reacts furiously to bad reviews and becomes a forger of Old Masters in revenge. He paints six phony Vermeers with biblical subjects, thus creating a religious phase in the master’s career and fooling many established experts. During World War II, he collaborates with the Nazis and becomes the richest painter in the world from his fakes. Then Hermann Goering decides he must have a Vermeer because the Fuhrer has two and buys the phony “Christ and the Adulteress” in 1943. Arrested after the war for trading with the enemy, the artist claims he faked Goering’s masterpiece to fool the Germans. He then becomes a folk hero in the Netherlands despite being sentenced to a year in jail for forgery. But that’s not fiction; it actually happened, and one of the fakes, “The Supper at Emmaus,” still hangs in the Boijmans Museum in Rotterdam. Lopez strips away the folk hero veneer of van Meegeren by deep research into archives and a thorough understanding of the complex world of art, faking art, and selling it. He says, “Although the best forgeries may mimic the style of a long-dead artist, they tend to reflect the tastes and attitudes of their own period.” The faked Vermeers don’t look like Vermeers today, but in the 1940s, they did, as well as looking like National Socialist art. Here is a serious, funny, ironic, informative study of a delicious scoundrel that reads like a novel.
M. F. K. Fisher among the Pots and Pans: Celebrating Her Kitchens, by Joan Reardon and Amanda Hesser. California, July 2008. $24.95
This year marks the hundredth anniversary of M. F. K. Fisher’s birth, and this brief retrospective of Fisher’s life as it unfolded in three settings (Whittier, California, then abroad in France and Switzerland, and finally in the Napa and Sonoma Valleys) includes twenty-seven recipes based on Fisher’s writings and yearly appointment books. The intimate book is also interspersed with photographs and original watercolors by Irish artist and illustrator Avram Dumitrescu. Fisher, whose first book on gastronomical writing, Serve it Forth, was published in 1937, is known for her innate hospitality, cooking with the seasons, simple preparations of ingredients, and an emphasis on the small details of a meal: “There is a communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk,” she wrote in The Gastronomical Me. In her forward, Hesser makes much of Fisher’s affinity for the inadequate kitchen, saying that at heart, Fisher was a restless vagabond who “reveled in the hardships of a place.” The recipes contained in this book betray that sentiment: while they’re heavily French-inspired, they’re also simple, wholesome, and inexpensive to make, often favoring a particular vegetable rather than meat as a main course.