Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language, by Seth Lerer. Columbia, April 2007. $24.95
Lerer, the Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities at Stanford University, offers a history of English beginning with the language’s first written appearance in “Caedmon’s Hymn,” circa 680. From there, the book travels through Beowulf, the Norman Conquest, Chaucer, and Shakespeare. Although this is fairly familiar history, Lerer keeps the story interesting by providing examples from the literature under discussion; less time is spent discussing the nuances of the Great Vowel Shift, and more on explicatory examples. Lerer’s analysis becomes particularly insightful in his examinations of the three major dictionary projects: Samuel Johnson’s, Noah Webster’s, and that of the creators of what would eventually be known as The Oxford English Dictionary. Each dictionary can be seen as a colonial force establishing the boundaries of what constitutes a language. Webster, in particular, envisioned his dictionary as solidifying a distinct American language by including regional words that did not exist in England and by dropping the u from words such as honour and colour. Such dictionaries are always political, as they selectively legitimize the words of the dominant culture. Attuned as Lerer is to the classed implications of these dictionaries, unfortunately he does not apply a similar scrutiny to his look at the mobility of American regional dialects. But I did appreciate Lerer’s discussion of the ways in which technologies and wars have slipped new words and new ways of using old words into the language. Ultimately Inventing English celebrates the continual change that makes the English language so intriguing to speak and to read.
—Demere G. Woolway
A People at War: Civilians and Soldiers in America’s Civil War, by Scott Reynolds Nelson and Carol Sheriff. Oxford, April 2007. $28
In the last twenty years many scholars have moved beyond looking at how politicians and armies shaped the Civil War and have focused on the social history of the conflict. Rather than concentrating on battles, leaders, and combat, this wave of scholarship investigates changes in culture, the institutions, and relationships among people. Scott Nelson and Carol Sheriff offer a concise summary of this body of scholarship. In a series of loosely chronological and semi-interlocking essays, they consider topics such as “Facing Death” and “The Male World of the Camp.” Although the book begins with “Bleeding Kansas” and concludes with the end of Reconstruction, Nelson and Sheriff focus on the war years. Intended as a college textbook, their volume does not offer a comprehensive overview, but it provides a readable springboard for further inquiry into the Civil War and the world of social history. Though quite good as a summary of social history, Nelson and Sheriff fall somewhat short of their goal to show “how civilians and soldiers understood the war and the changes it wrought.” Their downplaying both the importance of political activity and the direct relationship of military campaigning to the home fronts leads to an understanding of historical actors on the historian’s terms rather than on the subject’s terms. Though not a criticism, it should be understood that this book shows how some scholars today understand the Civil War more than it shows how the participants felt, thought, and acted.
Captain John Smith: Writings, with Other Narratives of Roanoke, Jamestown, and the First English Settlement of America, edited by James Horn. Library of America, February 2007. $45
In order to commemorate the quadricentennial of the founding of the English colony of Jamestown, the Library of America has introduced an extremely attractive and complete set of the firsthand accounts of legendary captain John Smith. Meticulously annotated by Jamestown historian and specialist James Horn, this volume includes fourteen black-and-white plate images drawn from the 1590s to 1630s, fourteen color plates that are roughly contemporaneous with Smith’s own writings, and an additional four maps printed in a separate appendix. And Jamestown enthusiasts and scholars will enjoy the inclusion of sixteen other narratives written by important figures such as Lord Thomas De La Warre and Sir John Rolfe. The central role of Smith to the history of the Virginia Colony, especially in his attempts to organize the settlers before the “Starving Time” of 1609–1610, will also prove a useful reference to anyone seeking a contemporary description of the daily life of the colonists and their relations with the local Powhatan Indians. The notes reveal fascinating background information not only about the period but also about the nature of the original sources themselves.
Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route, by Saidiya Hartman. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, January 2007. $25
“The country in which you disembark is never the country of which you have dreamed,” writes Saidiya Hartman in her eloquent meditation on dislocation and memory. In Lose Your Mother, Hartman traces the Atlantic slave route in Ghana in an attempt to demystify what she terms the “romance of origins.” The book is less a story about a search for a lost country than a painful portrait of disillusionment and loneliness. She finds herself disregarded equally by the expatriate population and by the locals themselves, many of whom rely on the tourism of slavery for their livelihood. “Ghanaians,” she writes, “had too many pressing concerns in everyday life to ruminate about the past.” Weaving together history and myth, her own personal experiences and those of the other African Americans she meets along the way, Hartman carefully depicts the imbalance of power between the descendants of those who were sent away and of those who remained. Hartman’s book provides a powerful exploration of naming and the language of exile, for “what orphan had not yearned for a mother country or a free territory? What bastard had not desired the family name or, better yet, longed for a new naming of things? Why not dream of a country that might love you in return?”
From Home Guards to Heroes: The 87th Pennsylvania and Its Civil War Community, by Dennis W. Brandt. Missouri, January 2007. $42.50
Composed of approximately 1,000 men, the 87th Pennsylvania Infantry was drawn mainly from York and Adams counties. By closely following these men and their home communities, Brandt aims to enlarge our understanding of the Civil War and attempts to show how antebellum society and culture shaped the way these men approached war and how their experiences in turn affected the home front. Brandt’s study is based on prodigious research in primary sources, including military records, pension files, newspapers, and personal letters. These sources are mined for descriptive elements and data, which are arranged in several helpful charts and tables. Brandt avoids the trap of focusing simply on battlefield movements and experiences, instead breaking his discussion into several chapters based around themes such as racism, discipline, and desertion. This is commendable, but at times his analysis is lost in the wealth of details regarding the experiences of individual soldiers. Brandt’s decision to root the study in analysis perhaps goes too far on occasion; his decision to “slip by tactical and strategic issues” means that the reader gets little sense of change over time and an inadequate understanding of what these men actually did. Brandt conveys the experiences of the men, but offers little context in which to root these experiences. Nevertheless, Brandt’s book is an ambitious work that is refreshing for its use of the regiment as a means of social inquiry.
Great Tales from English History, Volume 3: Captain Cook, Samuel Johnson, Queen Victoria, Charles Darwin, Edward the Abdicator, and More, by Robert Lacey. Little, Brown, December 2006. $23.99
At 11:35 a.m. on October 19, 1805, a telegram was sent to the British fleet in Cádiz, marking the beginning of the four-hour conflict that would become known as the Battle of Trafalgar. In its original form, the telegram read: “Nelson confides that every man will do his duty,” but someone suggested the change to “England confides” instead, and it was accepted. When the message was about to be broadcast, however, the signaling officer replaced “confides” with “expects,” simply because fewer flags were necessary to deliver the message, and the immortal phrase “England expects that every man will do his duty” was born. This is only one of dozens of pithy tales in Lacey’s book, the third in a series that seeks to tell the history of the island nation in a new way, succeeding marvelously in making its subject both accessible and interesting. His stories, each only a few pages long, describe England’s path from the insignificant periphery of Europe, through the glory of empire, and into the great wars of the twentieth century. He mixes political, social, and economic history, providing the reader with an understanding of the lives of those who call themselves English. In doing so, Lacey does not gloss over some of the darker aspects of his story; indeed, his narrative touches slavery, the struggle for women’s rights, and the brutality of English imperialism. Finally, the book does a marvelous job of inspiring the reader to learn more about everything from the breadfruit plant to the life of Mary Seacole.
How Russia Really Works: The Informal Practices That Shaped Post-Soviet Politics and Business, by Alena V. Ledeneva. Cornell, December 2006. $59.95 cloth, $22.95 paper
This book builds on the author’s earlier work, Russia’s Economy of Favours (Cambridge, 1998), by identifying and describing the informal practices that allowed Russia’s economy, political institutions, and society to function in the 1990s. She explains that the old Soviet way of getting things done through social networks (known as blat) has been monetized and transformed into bribery on a massive scale. The text emphasizes the difficulty of navigating Russia’s economic and political systems, which often function with overlapping and competing sets of formal and informal rules. Such duality creates the need for the informal practices described in each chapter. From “black PR” in political campaigns to various accounting and other financial schemes, Ledeneva shares how the country’s elites get things done, and in their own words, drawing largely on sixty-two in-depth interviews with fifty respondents who number among or work for the elites engaging in these practices. While acknowledging the illegality of the powerful and the harm they often cause, she adopts a nonjudgmental tone and seeks to show how integral these practices were to transitioning past socialism. The book does a great job of placing these practices in their proper historical context. The underlying story is one not only of adjusting to change but also of hedging against its risks by adapting existing methods and adopting new ones.
Literary History & Theory
The Story Is True: The Art and Meaning of Telling Stories, by Bruce Jackson. Temple, June 2007. $25
All stories are fictional, even true ones. Fiction is a mild form of lying, but more importantly, fiction imposes order and sense on facts, which lack both. As Bruce Jackson says, “Stories are the way we domesticate the world’s disorder. Facts are incidental.” This intriguing discussion of storytelling as a tool of meaning and thinking focuses on the operational level of ordinary life. Jackson has mastered the theorists and occasionally quotes them, but he chooses his language and examples from the familiar, exploring, for example, a Bob Dylan legend or his daughter’s story about a pet. Fifteen chapters examine the roles of audiences, wording, memory, time, and pictures. His most surprising chapter involves the first edition of James Agee and Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, whose foiling of normal expectations tells us much about those expectations as ordering devices. If you want to know how O. J. Simpson was found innocent or why newspaper stories appear to make sense but don’t, read this book. You’ll recognize yourself as a fiction-teller.
Shakespeare the Thinker, by A. D. Nuttall. Yale, April 2007. $30
This is a brilliant, deeply learned, deeply human reading of the major plays of Shakespeare. Nuttall, a professor of English at Oxford University, draws extensively from English history and Shakespeare criticism in his discussions of the plays. And he goes further: he pulls from childhood memories, conversations with students, current events, even television. But Nuttall is not offering a hip, contemporary reading of Shakespeare; rather, he is bringing everything he has to his criticism, honoring Shakespeare by not presuming to explain the plays through one pat theory or another, recognizing that these works call to the full range of human experience. Among the strengths of Nuttall’s readings is his willingness to modify his own earlier positions, admit his biases, and allow the possibility that other readings are better. One example from this rich and compelling book: consider the unremitting sadness of the universe of King Lear—Nuttall still believes, as he had written some years earlier, that King Lear is an anti-Christian play. But he goes on to offer a strong presentation of Stephen Medcalf’s reading of Lear, which contradicts his own. Medcalf argues for the coherence of the transcendent reading of A. C. Bradley, who saw in Cordelia a Christ figure whose very presence speaks of a higher world sustaining the play. Medcalf, Nuttall says, “is perfectly aware, as was Bradley, that King Lear shows no justice in this fallen world. After all, Christianity has always affirmed that we live in just that, a fallen world, and that the kingdom of Christ lies elsewhere. To look for justice here, then, is a theological mistake.” Nuttall is in the midst of powerful and clear-hearted thinkers; he sees the possibilities for truth all around; he offers his own thoughts with clarity and conviction, while honoring the thoughts of others.
Shylock Is Shakespeare, by Kenneth Gross. Chicago, December 2006. $22.50
There’s no need to guess where fancy’s bred in Shylock Is Shakespeare. It is with Gross’s whole heart devoted to this maltreated protagonist (and some decades’ worth of fine scholarship on the Bard as a provision) that he provides us with a remodeled character study, a genre of Shakespearian criticism instigated by late-eighteenth-century commentators and brought to its apotheosis by the high Romantics. The book launches itself from this tradition. A good portion of the study is an appreciation proper, spotted with sentimentalized, garlanded, and sometimes unnecessary elaborations (note Gross rolling on his palate the names Shakespeare and Shylock, then gurgling Shakelock into Shyspeare, like an oenophile discriminating flavors). At times it is a Bloomian transcendental meditation, at others a speculative soliloquy; if we want to play at Freudian analyst, the author has even included his own dream sequence. We notice that the book itself, like Shakespeare’s greatest characters, tries out many roles. But if William Richardson and his neoclassical company initiated a move from a criticism of dramatic propriety to one of individual psychology, and the hazy Hazlitt’s Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays “openly professed his idolatry” for the playwright’s completely natural personages, then Gross’s study is also distinctly a product of its modern upbringing. Proust, Borges, and Kafka are here, deeply resonating with the turmoil of their existential forefather, Shylock. Ingmar Bergman and Philip Roth show up as well, revisionist Shylockians, whose incarnations are the kindly, trinketed uncle of Fanny and Alexander and the mistrustful runner Pipik in Operation Shylock. But here we also have Gross providing a wealth of insight into Shakespeare’s first problem comedy, leaving us valuable analysis that flies well beyond the rampant references and convinces with its breadth and authority. As pop-crit as it may appear to be in its first thirty pages, the middle hundred are loaded with fine examinations of Shylock’s street presence, the shades of the casket test, and the hypocrisy of the trial scene. Using an approach as agile as his ranging associationism, it is in these moments of close scrutiny that Gross shows his finesse with different traditions of criticism, and indeed here that the weighty lead of hermeneutics outdoes the gaudy gold glittering at the outset.
Dirt for Art’s Sake: Books on Trial from Madam Bovary to Lolita, by Elisabeth Ladenson. Cornell, November 2006. $29.95
Realism causes a surprising amount of difficulty for would-be censors attempting to protect the morals of an innocent public. They fear that an accurate depiction of the baser elements of life might corrupt the unsuspecting. Elisabeth Ladenson traces the ways that this type of literary realism has been put on trial, beginning with Ernest Pinard’s moral crusades against Flaubert’s Madam Bovary and Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal. She appraises the challenges faced by Anthony Burgess’s trifecta of dirty literature: Ulysses, The Well of Loneliness, and Lady Chatterly’s Lover. Finally, Ladenson examines the legal opposition encountered by Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and Nabokov’s Lolita. Along the way, she picks up themes from the film adaptations of some of these books, showing how the same issues surrounding obscenity reemerge long after publication. Obscenity served differing purposes for each of these authors, so Ladenson does well to compare and contrast their aims. Particularly illuminating is her assertion that Lawrence and Hall are true moralists, as opposed to amoralists like Flaubert, Joyce, or, later, Nabokov; or immoralists like Sade or Baudelaire. Vice may be portrayed to advance a new system of virtue (moralism), as an artistic exercise (amoralism), or as enjoyable in itself (immoralism). Miller, however, escapes this spectrum, as he places himself outside of the realm of both art and morality. Ladenson’s sense of humor and expansive historical contextualizing make the book enjoyable, whether providing a close reading of Baudelaire’s lyrical comparison between roadkill and his beloved, exploring the various defenses adopted by the authors and their lawyers, or meditating on the mythos of the randy gamekeeper. She notes how, ironically, trials aimed at suppressing literary obscenity have ultimately helped to preserve these books as classics.
—Demere G. Woolway
The Kitchen Sink: New and Selected Poems 1972–2007, by Albert Goldbarth. Graywolf, March 2007. $26
Goldbarth’s mammoth new and selected is visually striking: an orange cover with art (by John Schoenherr) depicting a large finger stirring the cosmos. The poems contained within are equally striking. In “Human Beauty,” the title poem for the section of new poems, Goldbarth writes of a theater’s props crew unloading “a box / of paper snow” during a flash snowstorm in New York, and how that box “got dropped / and broken open, and that flash of white // confetti was lost / inside what it was a praise of.” This image is an imagistic statement on poetics for Goldbarth: that which praises in imitation must be broken open and commingled with the original; that is, poetry is not separate or should not separate itself from that which it contains. The genius of Goldbarth is that he never succumbs to a dogged poetics of limiting or exclusive interests. Each poem has the ability to “limn a line of spider silk glued loosely / in the wind” from its specific being to its underlying content without breaking that spell of the poem’s literal scene. It bears mentioning that the verbs and nouns that make up the lexicon of Goldbarth’s poems are consistently exquisite in their precision and range. This collection, as Goldbarth writes in his coda poem (“Field”), is “full / with biological processes, fish, fruit, / or the probability of their disappearance”; and its continual play with language, in a way that is both confrontational and delightful, is “a filigree / of focused expertise.”
Martial: The World of the Epigram, by William Fitzgerald. Chicago, March 2007. $35
How can one discover a world within a series of self-contained short poems? In answering this question, classicist William Fitzgerald draws the reader’s attention to the ways in which the verses of Martial deftly navigated through the quotidian life of ancient Roman society. Pairing the original Latin with a readable idiomatic English translation, Fitzgerald asks that we consider Martial’s epigrams as relevant not only to his own time but also to our twenty-first-century sound-bite culture. Exploiting the style of his predecessors, notably Catullus, Martial proved remarkably adept at mocking the pretensions of the earlier poets through the use of clever double entendres or ambiguities in the Latin language. Fitzgerald freely appropriates the work of postmodern literary theorists, especially when he asserts that Martial combined both the public spectacle of the fights with the mythical purpose that the fights supposedly served, to make palatable for audiences the past criminal actions of the gladiator. In another section of the book, Fitzgerald highlights how Martial practiced a kind of “urban” poetry that reveled in the rough-and-tumble found on the Roman streets. This perspective, he further contends, begins to give the reader of Martial a view into his world—a world preoccupied with mediating the relationships between the author, patron, and reader of poetry. This “society of the book” reveals just how much Martial’s poetry reflected its intended audience, perhaps most evident in the way in which the poet addresses an unknown reader who purchased a book of poems unbeknownst to the author. The anonymity of that reader, Fitzgerald argues, closely parallels the anonymity inherent in a consumption-driven society. Thus, far from being a poet of mere “inscriptions” or epigrams, Fitzgerald persuasively points to the ways in which present-day readers can discover a world in verse.
This Clumsy Living, by Bob Hicok. Pittsburgh, February 2007. $14 paper
There is nothing small about Hicok’s subjects, his “simultaneous cravings for order and disorder” creating a broadly inclusive and even surreal present moment. It’s a distinctive, even strange, lyric vision, existing in surprising conjunctions and resolutions. The speaker has a university job and comfortable rooms and a dog to walk as well as a magpie gaze that takes in death-dealing headlines and e-mail’s penis-enlarging spam. He risks diminishing a large subject by connecting it to the personal and small—“Let’s all add that to our lists: learn Spanish, meet Jesus, / stop the war”—a risk the greased-keyboard effect of some poems emphasizes. However, speed and the layers of image and event it brings into a poem also allow for sudden deepening, the sense of simultaneous occurrence that is the lingua franca of the lyric poem. How, though, does the writer make lyric capital of “the takeovers, / the injections, the money rape, the fist rape, / the thousand species of bomb”? Hicok’s resolutions are not didactic. Fiercely immediate, the poems reject the smoke and mirrors of high art and invite the reader into the process of their making. Hicok often tells us he is looking out the window or crossing a room, counting clouds or waiting for a call, but these are diversions, and he is wary of consolation: “It’s as if a room’s been built,” he writes, “a room / called Nature,” and when he tries to step inside, “the room doesn’t exist, / and I am nostalgic for what I have never seen / and I speak.” Morality, then, lives in acts of inquiry—“What if everything / we do is love, every horrible thing we do is love… . / What if there are no distinctions, and we, who are nothing but the impulse to distinguish, / to cut one thing from another, are wrong” (“My faith-based initiative”). This is a generously conceived and executed book that seems broader and riskier than his earlier work. His future books are worth anticipating.
Avocations: On Poets and Poetry, by Sam Hamill. Red Hen, February 2007. $19.95 paper
This collection of essays, gathered from the best of Hamill’s prose on poetry over the past eighteen years, is written with a kind of Buddhist urgency: that is to say, it is at once patient and biting in its pointing toward the issues facing contemporary poetry. Avocations reminds us of what other poets and writers have said about poetry and about living in the world. Stanley Kunitz: “All of contemporary culture threatens poetry. A primary attribute of the great art of the West is that it persists in opposing the solitary conscience to the overwhelming power of the modern superstate.” Heracleitus: “War is universal; justice is strife.” Gary Snyder: “As a poet, I hold the most archaic values on earth.” But to a greater extent, Avocations argues (successfully) against poets whose poems “reduce poetry to mere craft displaying wit or intellect.” And Hamill names names: Mary Jo Salter, Joseph Brodsky, among others. And to the greatest extent, Hamill praises those poets who have flown in the face of this “mere craft” and have a fearless, passionate imagination: Adrienne Rich, Dorianne Laux, Li-Young Lee, June Jordan, the Buddhist poets Wang Wei and Saigyo, Denise Levertov, Robin Blaser. His essays are as much about the poets he loves as they are about the relationship between writing and politics (a close one, he argues) or the relationship between writing and religion or meditation (one and the same, in their act of attention, he argues). These essays are about the politics of the body, the politics of the female body, the politics of form, and the politics of writing in a time of war (of course). Avocations is a book that claims and declares, even in its openness to many, many poems and poets, and its songs of love for them; it is a book that takes a stand for the poem as a means of change and a means of accessing the necessary in our world.
Guests of Space, by Anselm Hollo. Coffee House, January 2007. $15 paper
Hollo’s thirty-second book of poetry contains several risky attempts: a book-length sequence of sonnets, antiwar poetry, varied quotations embedded in the text of the page, titleless poems, and experimentation with the typography and layout of the lines. All of these risks should be commended, even in their failures, because it is rare to see a book of poetry attempt so much. Sections of Guests of Space have appeared in five separate chapbooks, as well as numerous literary journals, including Bombay Gin, the journal of Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, where Hollo has taught since 1985. Yet the collection reads like a continuous conversation between Hollo, metaphysicians, other poets, and friends. “Speech balloon above head reads ‘Does poetry help?’ / The answer to that is only if you can turn your head / Three hundred and sixty degrees, then turn it / Faster and faster, so it becomes a fuzzy blur— / In other words, if you’re an owl!” This is a book to read swiftly and repeatedly, growing confident in the fuzzy blur that Hollo creates with words.
The Book of Irish American Poetry: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present, edited by Daniel Tobin. Notre Dame, January 2007. $65
Tobin’s 900-plus-page anthology is a gem, albeit a heavy one. It is an effusive text of Irish American poetry, rather than of Irish American poets, and because of this it is inclusive in a way that one might not expect. For example, Gwendolyn Brooks’s “Bronzeville Woman in a Red Hat” is an often-overlooked poem that draws together Irish American and African American contexts. In Tobin’s anthology there is a feeling of the unruly that defies general decorum about how to and whom to anthologize; it’s rare to see an anthology contain within its covers the poetry of three Howe sisters: Fannie, Marie, and Susan. But since the net used is so broad, it generously crosses lines of genre, poetics, and place in every school and anti-school of American poetry, from Modernism to confessionalism and the Beats, from formalism to imagism, and from projectivism to the New York School and the Language poets. This is an anthology at once rigorously defined and researched and yet also open to every type of poet and poem. Most exciting is part three, “Further Harbors,” which includes the poetry of the most recent generation of writers, from Eamon Grennan and Eavan Boland to Alan Shapiro, Patrick Donnelly, and Kathy Fagan.
The Notebooks of Robert Frost, edited by Robert Faggen. Harvard, January 2007. $39.95
Perhaps the most delightful aspect of Robert Frost’s notebooks is their inscrutability. Transcribed and published for the first time, Frost’s jottings posed a wide variety of challenges to editor Robert Faggen: illegibility of handwriting, lack of dates on most entries, other chronology woes (Frost used a number of notebooks at the same time, and so many cover the same period), and a proliferation of allusions to be footnoted. Faggen handles these issues admirably, though often there is little that can be done; the pages, for example, are left hauntingly, though necessarily, riddled with the “[illegible]” mark. The text itself teems with striking but disjointed phrases and sentences, leaving us to meditate on what it is about “He could say things on deck to induce St Elmos on the yardarm” that could have inspired the line that follows, “The two bumps of Phrenology ideality are where the hours almost sprouted in sowing his wild oats”—not to mention what such a line might mean individually, or in relation to Frost’s more familiar published works. More directly accessible, perhaps, the poet’s characteristic aphorisms are everywhere to be found, some with strikeouts and additions, artifacts of the care with which he deepened his paradoxical sayings. Faggen examines this aspect of the notebooks nicely in his introduction; he deals less with other recurring forms: stories, drafts of poems, dialogues, teaching notes, and lists. Lists, indeed, are everywhere; Frost enumerates books to read, future writing topics (in no seeming order or relation, but having the sound of the best of his poetry), questions to ask his students in class and on exams, and puzzling items of which only he knew the common link. Here the long lucid prose of Henry James’s notebooks is nowhere to be found; in Frost’s more enigmatic text we get lost not in narrative but in the potentiality of impulsively recorded but conscientiously created thought and sound.
Best New Poets 2006: 50 Poems from Emerging Writers, edited by Eric Pankey; series editor, Jeb Livingood. Samovar, November 2006. $11.95 paper
As poets face increasing difficulty in finding audiences for their work, the book contest and its more capacious cousin, the anthology contest, have become two of the standard venues for new poets. The results can often seem stale and uninspired. Yet this collection stands out among the crowd claiming to represent emergent poets. Much of the editing and preliminary reading was done by emerging poets themselves, which results in an anthology that’s fresh and eclectic, and may actually represent a significant portion of the best new poetry being written by the next generation. Also notable about the anthology is its lack of any formal or subject bias. Traditional free verse, experimental versification, prose poetry, and many other forms make an appearance, all adding to a work that is not trying to push a definition of what poetry is. Rather, this anthology is simply a window to the ever-increasing community of small and large poetry journals and MFA programs. This anthology does not claim to represent a coming golden age of poetry, nor should it. But what this anthology does seek to do, it does well: it assures the reader that poetry, even in a generation of text messaging and MP3 players, is still alive and well. The youthfulness of the anthology, combined with the wide scope of its contents, is apparent in the poems, which are edgy and daring. Emerging, whether intentionally or not, as a younger sibling to the Best American Poetry anthologies, this series breaks new ground and provides fresh treasures.
Africa: An Artist’s Safari, by Fred Krakowiak. Maverick Brush Strokes, May 2007. $39.95
In his introduction, Krakowiak tells us that he traveled to Africa to see the wildlife in its natural habitat, before said wildlife is totally destroyed by the various incursions from the human population. As he traveled on safari in Zimbabwe and Botswana, Krakowiak kept an artist’s travel journal, which he shares with us. The text is not scientific by any means, but is a very personal view of the safari experience, offering, in sidebars, fascinating anecdotes of Africa and information about animals or the African people. One of the more valuable features of the book is a detailed chapter on how an artist prepares and packs for such a journey; this narrative will be very useful for the artist-in-training. The final chapter discusses Krakowiak’s education and development as an artist. The most dominant aspect of this book is the artwork that fills its 133 pages—it is a feast for the eyes. Having traveled in Africa myself, I was most impressed by Krakowiak’s adept and emotion-filled work, which offers his perceptions of the sights of Africa in a variety of media, including charcoal, ink, watercolors, and oils. The illustrations include sketches, working paintings with notes, and finished paintings.
—Jean L. Cooper
The Art of Lee Miller, by Mark Haworth-Booth. Yale, May 2007. $60
Lee Miller, née Elizabeth Miller Penrose (1907–77), socialized with many of the best-known artists of her era; she was a student and lover of Man Ray, posed for a portrait by Picasso, and inspired René Magritte’s Le baiser with her own photograph “Portrait of Space.” That photograph and others are the focus of Haworth-Booth’s The Art of Lee Miller. This coffee-table book reproduces a selection of work by or inspired by Miller. Her photographs are stunning in their examination of the surrealism of the everyday. Through artful cropping, composition, and rotating images, Lee makes even chairs seem strange. In her photos, a chandelier sprouts from Charlie Chaplin’s head and freshly poured asphalt threatens a bystander’s well-polished shoes. Later, as a photojournalist for Vogue during World War II, Lee recorded the surrealism of gas masks on photographers, clouds of napalm explosions, and a strangely whimsical portrait of herself in Hitler’s bathtub. Haworth-Booth’s commentary helps illuminate the technical elements of Lee’s work and provides some biographical information. At times, his analysis seems sparse: he asserts that Lee’s war photographs provided a woman’s take on evil without demonstrating how this might differ from a male perspective. Nevertheless, he provides a revealing reading of possibly the most disturbing image in the book: an untitled photograph of a severed breast served on a plate with cutlery and placemat. Haworth-Booth argues that the image twists and scrambles familiar messages, transforming the female body from object of desire into dead meat. He notes that this image, like the rest of Lee’s work, demonstrates how its author was a woman of remarkable daring, capable of challenging the most forbidding taboos.
Class Acts: Service and Inequality in Luxury Hotels, by Rachel Sherman. California, January 2007. $55 cloth, $21.95 paper
While workers and the working classes have been studied throughout the twentieth century, it was only in the last quarter of the century that scholarly emphasis began to center on service workers. In addition, as Rachel Sherman notes, since Thorstein Veblen published his Theory of the Leisure Class in 1899, the practices and habits of the wealthy classes have not received a lot of attention. Sherman ably fills this void by focusing on workers employed by hotels catering to the wealthy. Through research in the field as an employee of two different luxury hotels, in roles as varied as concierge, desk clerk, and housekeeper, Sherman has produced an intriguing study of a world that the average American never sees. She discusses not only the relationships between workers and management and between workers to workers, but also the more complex ones between workers and guests. By linking the socioeconomic and interpersonal elements of this microcosm of society, Sherman asserts that though workers envision themselves as independent actors in their jobs, the roles that they take on during their working hours tend to normalize the class-dependent behaviors required of them. As the American workforce moves from industrial to service, this study provides a much-needed look at class pressures acting within our society.
—Jean L. Cooper
Sky Time in Gray’s River: Living for Keeps in a Forgotten Place, by Robert Michael Pyle. Houghton Mifflin, January 2007. $20
This absorbing chronicle of life in the small community of Gray’s River in southwest Washington State adheres to the venerable tradition of devoting a single chapter to each month of the calendar year. A lepidopterist by profession, Pyle combines keen powers of observation and a profound understanding of the life sciences to communicate perceptive insights into the affairs of both the natural and human communities. Originally from Colorado, and after living and working in such diverse locales as the US’s Pacific coast, England, and New Guinea, Pyle found in Gray’s River the long-term home to which he had always aspired, and where he has now lived for three decades. In noting the course of the passing seasons, he also reflects on the agricultural and timbering heritage; the lives of the neighborhood families, newcomers as well as those long established; and the prospects of survival and continuity against an uncertain future. Life here, as in much of the Pacific Northwest, is powerfully informed by water: relentless rains and the rise and fall, and flooding, of rivers. Although shades of gray are central to the landscape, both the town and the river take their names from an explorer, Captain Robert Gray. Pyle describes with quiet and engaging eloquence a region that, to a less perceptive observer, might appear nondescript. And in so doing he provides inspiration for discovering the wonders and particulars that make the reader’s own home territory, wherever it may be, equally appealing and unique.
Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, by Barbara Ehrenreich. Henry Holt, January 2007. $26
This insightful book developed from a sense of loss: why have ecstatic rituals and festivities, once so universal, disappeared? In a celebratory examination of such occasions of “collective joy”—historically manifested in transcendental, even trance-producing, revels of feasting, masking, and dancing—Ehrenreich delineates the age-old struggle between Dionysus and an array of repressive adversaries, and the ultimate ascendancy of the latter in recent centuries. A fascinating retrospective of the tradition extends from the earliest cave dwellers down through the ages of the ancient Mediterranean world, to the seasonal festivals of Europe and the glorious excitement of carnival, and at last to the rock concerts and sports extravaganzas of recent times. She examines as well the increasing prevalence of melancholy and depression concurrent with the suppression, by increasingly hierarchical societies, of communal festivity. Although contemporary manifestations may seem meager in comparison to those of antiquity, the irrepressible human impulse to bond, celebrate, worship, and commune through collective ecstatic expression remains intact as a vital part of our heritage.
Matisse: Painter as Sculptor, by Dorothy Kosinski, Jay McKean Fischer, and Steven Nash. Yale, January 2007. $60
Matisse: Painter as Sculptor attempts to remedy a fault in Matisse scholarship, that the sculptures of Matisse are commonly viewed as inferior to his paintings. This gorgeous book is lavishly illustrated and examines more than forty of Matisse’s sculptures, reuniting them with his paintings, drawings, prints, and collages so as to investigate the relationship between his two-dimensional and three-dimensional work. The book’s release is also timed to coincide with the first major American museum exhibition of Matisse’s sculpture in over twenty years, taking place in Dallas, San Francisco, and Baltimore in 2007 and 2008. A catalogue of works, organized by subject, takes over the second half of the book, after five illustrated essays by art historians and curators.
Sergey Prokofiev, Diaries 1907–1914: Prodigious Youth, translated and annotated by Anthony Phillips. Cornell, December 2006. $45
These diaries, the first of three projected volumes, make it abundantly clear that, even if Prokofiev had not become one of the greatest musicians and composers of twentieth century, his remarkable prose merits publication. The first volume covers the interval from the dramatic appearance of the young prodigy through his years at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. This observant young man provides us with a panoramic view of life among the privileged in the last days of Imperial Russia, particularly its musicians, poets, philosophers, artists, and public figures. It is astonishing to consider how soon the world he vividly and candidly portrays will have vanished. We have no other example of so fine and detailed a firsthand account of the coming of age of such a celebrated musician, and we are fortunate it to have it so well translated by Phillips. One is privileged to observe, in the words of a very thoughtful person with a gift for language as well as for music, something far more persistent than old Russia and more universal than musical genius. It is Prokofiev’s account of the travails of growing through young manhood—the struggle of mind and spirit of an intellectually and emotionally zealous young man to find his friends, values, pastimes, and creative voice and purpose. Admixed with the breathless vigor and earnestness of youth are all of its vulnerabilities: the anxieties that seem so dire, a few truly tragic losses, and persistent craving for approval, affection, and understanding. These disclosures are at odds with the usual view of Prokofiev as a brash and self-confident iconoclast and they set into stunning relief the achievements of his student days.
—Robert S. Rust
Singled Out: How Singles are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After, by Bella DePaulo. St. Martin’s, November 2006. $24.95
Bella DePaulo seems to be happy as a single woman, and, in fact, she argues that single people can lead happy, productive, and fulfilling lives. This is quite a claim; after all, we hear daily in the popular press—and from noted “experts” on the subject of relationships and marriage—that single people are miserable, searching constantly for a partner (and feel like failures when they don’t snag one), doomed to die alone (probably surrounded by cats), unloved, incomplete, self-centered, immature, unfit as parents, and just plain weird. In this version of the story, marriage is the norm, and those who do not partake of it skew the results of tests designed to “prove” that coupling is what solidifies society. DePaulo, a noted psychologist, challenges these claims with statistics (presented with a sense of humor), and demonstrates rather convincingly that “singlism” and “matrimania” do a major disservice to individual rights and potential. She structures her book around ten “myths” of singlehood and suggests that societies would be more productive, and individuals happier, if we would simply recognize that some people are perfectly fine being single, and that they can be as productive, charming, fun, moral, and wise as their coupled counterparts. Bigotry, she suggests, doesn’t stop at class or color lines, and she provides dozens of examples and anecdotes, backed up with withering analyses of what she views as poor science, to prove her case. Singles are penalized in myriad ways (such as financially and socially), but DePaulo refuses to whine or complain; she simply lays out her argument in compelling detail. You might resist this going in, but you’ll come to the end of it convinced that “singlism” does indeed exist, and that we will all be better off getting over it.
—David T. Gies
Typecasting: On the Arts and Sciences of Human Inequality, by Elizabeth Ewen and Stuart Ewen. Seven Stories, September 2006. $34.95
This massive, energetic, and profusely illustrated volume presents a sweeping history of stereotyping in the modern world. The early chapters find the origins of contemporary stereotyping in Renaissance Europe. Developments in print technology (and the accompanying technology of mechanical reproduction of images), the gradual emergence of mass industrial social forms (in which one’s neighbors are strangers rather than kin), and, most crucially, an epistemology that defined “truth” in terms of apparently objective visual representations of reality—these are the ingredients that underpin both our concept of a stereotype and the circulation of stereotypes in the modern public sphere. The bulk of the book consists of chapter after chapter detailing the play of stereotypes in particular social domains, media, and institutions. The narrative is breathless and often fascinating, although the authors’ historical knowledge often seems broad but not deep. The Ewens never really develop a crucial point they raise at the outset, that modern stereotyping is a historically particular phenomenon, not a general feature of human thought. To put this another way: it may well be that all human thought is based on generalization, but the epistemology of visual truth that underpins modern Western stereotypes is not necessarily shared by other cultures. Regardless, the Ewens’ account of this particular way of seeing is provocative and useful.
The Smoke of the Gods: A Social History of Tobacco, by Eric Burns. Temple, September 2006. $29
Burns, host of Fox News Watch, has given us an entertaining account of one of our most familiar national vices, from the early days at Jamestown to the effort begun haltingly in the 1960s to severely curtail our intake of nicotine. He gallops through American history, tracing the story of tobacco wherever he finds it. This is narrative history with a lively, light touch and will likely find a willing audience. It does not, however, tarry long over the connection between tobacco cultivation and slavery or issues such as the effects on Southern agriculture, and on life in general, of reliance on a one-crop economy. Nor does it try to. The author aims to entertain and inform, and he does both very well.
UVA FACULTY BOOKS
The Mind of Thomas Jefferson, by Peter S. Onuf. Virginia, January 2007. $49.50 cloth, $19.50 paper
Onuf reminds us that our seeming familiarity with Jefferson’s language does not mean we truly understand Jefferson himself. In this collection of essays, Onuf, along with the occasional co-author, seeks to contextualize Jefferson and “sustain the tension between the past and the present.” To this end, he ranges far and wide investigating aspects of Jefferson’s thought and life, from politics to education, from race to religion. Perhaps the best example of Onuf’s approach comes from an essay, co-authored with Ari Helo, on Jefferson’s thinking regarding slavery. Innovatively considering the influence of the moral thought of Henry Home, Lord Kames, on Jefferson’s conception of community and the individual, Onuf and Helo restore overlooked implications to Jefferson’s use of the word rights. Onuf succeeds admirably in contextualizing Jefferson, revealing much about Jefferson and his world, as well as our own.
The Weight of Their Votes: Southern Women and Political Leverage
in the 1920s, by Lorraine Gates Schuyler. North Carolina, December 2006. $59.95 cloth, $22.50 paper
In the decades after the initiation of black disfranchisement in the South and the rise of the supposedly “Solid South,” one hardly expects to find substantial evidence of women, particularly black women, exercising much formal political power. Yet, Schuyler contends, far from being passive spectators in Southern politics, white and black women actively shaped the political discussion after obtaining the vote with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. Taking issue with earlier historians of women’s political activism who claimed that women either divided their votes or quickly retreated from electoral politics after winning suffrage, Schuyler thoroughly combed the archives to demonstrate how women in the South attempted to claim public space for themselves. By organizing political clubs, attending rallies, and conducting voter registration drives, women “demonstrated that white southern Democrats would not be able to control elections in the same ways as that they had in the past.” Indeed, Schuyler tells us, the presence of women in the electorate meant that the Republican Party might revive in the upper South and threaten white Democratic hegemony there. But even as white women achieved certain concessions from white Southern Democrats, “African American women in the South found few opportunities to exercise any real power within the political system.” After reading this book, this reviewer still wonders if newly enfranchised black and white women decided against mounting a challenge to Jim Crow more out of strategic concerns or because of strong racial divisions among the women themselves. Nevertheless, this book presents a highly original and convincing look at the contested right to vote.