Where Have All the Soldiers Gone?: The Transformation of Modern Europe, by James J. Sheehan. Houghton Mifflin, January 2008. $26
Using the Iraq War as a counterpoint, James Sheehan sets out to prove that in contemporary Europe war is virtually obsolete. The traumatic collective experience of Europeans with modern wars, namely World War II, emptied the desire for militarized power and replaced it with the desire for economic power. The subsequent absence of war, coupled with the United States–Soviet Union contest, helped tailor a new European state and international system in which “interdependent relationships . . . required and sustained peaceful exchange.” Indeed, Europe need only fear threats from outside her borders, roused by such persistently aggressive nations as the US. Eager European Union candidates such as Turkey, who have not proven their civilian status, further threaten the peaceful coalition. Only Sheehan, with an illustrious career of studying European history, can make such bold claims with so little documented evidence on European consensus. Nor does he successfully reconcile inconvenient violence, (e.g., in Kosovo), with his thesis. His most compelling proof of the de-legitimization of war lies in the quiet, democratic transitions of Greece, Portugal, and Spain. Yet his main talent is in balancing this neatly distilled history. His painstaking litany of modern European violence is enough to make any reader join the EU in its craving for peace. Despite the flaws, Sheehan’s utopian argument emerges as a deeply appealing one, and his condensed survey of modern Europe truly impressive.
OurSpace: Resisting the Corporate Control of Culture, by Christine Harold. Minnesota, May 2007. $24.95
In 1989, a group calling themselves the Barbie Liberation Organization switched the voice boxes from a group of Barbie dolls with the voice boxes of G. I. Joe figures. For some lucky children that year, Christmas morning brought G. I. Joes who twittered “Let’s plan our dream wedding!” and Barbies who barked “Eat lead, Cobra!” This is one of the most familiar examples of culture jamming, which Christine Harold defines as pranks, hoaxes, and parodies that turn aspects of dominant culture against itself. Such jams can take many forms, as in the advertising parodies of Adbusters magazine where Joe Camel is recast as cancer-ridden Joe Chemo. These parodies are continuing even as copyright laws become stricter and corporations more anxious to protect their intellectual property. Yet, Harold argues, this type of art as theft has its limits; the culture pirate remains dependant on dominant culture for creative fuel. Although she offers some provisional solutions, Harold’s main concern is acknowledging the constant and inevitable dialogue between art, corporate culture, and the public sphere.
Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, by Bill McKibben. Times Books, March 2007. $25
McKibben, author of The End of Nature, suggests that there is a basic question haunting our moment on earth: “Is ‘more’ better?” For thousands of years, the standard of living for human society remained relatively static, with the majority of people existing in a condition of general scarcity. But when living conditions began to improve, thanks to the power of industrialization and modern capitalism, the obvious conclusion was that “more” could only be better. Today, argues McKibben, this belief warrants revision. Measured in terms of growing inequalities within and across nations, a wealth of evidence suggests that “more” is no longer better—indeed, “more” may be very bad for us and our world. McKibben claims that the antidote for many global economic problems can be found locally. To this end, he argues that attention should be redirected towards more traditional means of pursuing prosperity within our communities, such as farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture farms (CSAs), community-based radio stations, and mercantile cooperatives. While a turn to the local may not be fast, cheap, or easy, it may very well prove necessary if we are to secure the thriving of human beings in the decades ahead.
The Disinherited: Exile and the Making of Spanish Culture, 1492–1975, by Henry Kamen. HarperCollins, December 2007. $34.95
Spain is a special case in Europe, according to Henry Kamen: “In other nations, the people arrive; in Spain, they depart.” Probably no other country, he contends, has had its exiles produce so many of its cultural masterpieces. If one looks at exiles’ successes, Spanish culture misleadingly becomes a story of constant achievement. Kamen, therefore, makes an astute distinction between “Spanish” culture (referring to the Iberian mainland) and a broader “Hispanic” tradition including Spain and its former colonies. In The Disinherited, Kamen’s focus is largely the former. One central question for him is whether exiles constitute part of their home country’s culture. For example, the Renaissance humanist Juan Luis Vives is almost always associated with Spain (his nation of birth), but to Kamen, there was “nothing Spanish” about him since he lived elsewhere during most of his lifetime. In conjunction with issues of national identity, Kamen also addresses the issue of how a “true Spain” can be defined when so much of its culture takes place outside of its borders. Looking to Catholicism as the most common unifying denominator, Kamen argues against using faith as a stand-in for all aspects of cultural identity. In the period he examines, up to 90 percent of Spaniards lived in the countryside where formal Catholic doctrine was of little importance to “essentially folk belief.” Although Catholicism did not unify Spanish culture, one ongoing theme for Kamen is the Spanish insistence on “remaining impenetrable,” which is evident in the expulsion of “threatening” parties and in resistance to French influence through the Bourbon monarchs. With The Disinherited, the ever-prolific Kamen has made another distinguished contribution towards improving our appreciation of Spain—traditionally, one of Europe’s most misunderstood nations.
—Daniel I. Wasserman
The Hour of Our Nation’s Agony: The Civil War Letters of Lt. William Cowper Nelson of Mississippi, edited by Jennifer W. Ford. Tennessee, September 2007. $48.50
William C. Nelson was a young college student at the University of Mississippi when the Civil War broke out. Enlisting early, he served first in Florida near Pensacola and then joined a unit attached to the Army of Northern Virginia. There he secured a position as a staff officer, which afforded him both an ideal vantage point and much time to write. As with any set of edited letters, the majority of this collection details the quotidian aspects of soldiering. Even so, numerous illuminating tidbits exist within. Cowper, though frustrated at being unable to protect his home in Mississippi from Yankee raiders, exhibits high morale throughout the war. Even after Gettysburg—which he acknowledges as a defeat—he writes that, “as to our army being utterly destroyed and demoralized, it is sheer nonsense.” A belief in divine will and strong religious feelings shines through in these letters, as well. At one point, Cowper muses: “I have thought that this war was ordered by Providence, as a means of settling definitely and conclusively the question of slavery: if slavery is a divine institute, I believe we will be successful.” Edited with the customary quality of titles in the Voices in the Civil War series, this collection of letters offers powerful testimony about the experiences of Confederate soldiers.
Splendid Failure: Postwar Reconstruction in the American South, by Michael W. Fitzgerald. Ivan R. Dee, June 2007. $26
In this new offering, accomplished historian Michael Fitzgerald asks why the northern public allowed violence to overwhelm the southern Republican coalition in the aftermath of the Civil War. In his brief and eminently readable analysis, Fitzgerald acknowledges that white southern terrorism, gendered power struggles, the ebb of wartime enthusiasm, and, especially, the fluctuations of the industrial and plantation economy all contributed significantly—and perhaps inevitably—to the collapse of Reconstruction governments. What has been neglected, he argues, is the fact that that northern and southern Republicans, both white and black, “eased the capitulation of national opinion to white supremacy in ways that should have been foreseeable.” While much in this short volume is familiar, Fitzgerald’s overriding concern with the political choices of a victorious power and the possibility of establishing democracy amid postwar violence make the book especially timely.
Small Strangers: The Experiences of Immigrant Children in America, 1880–1925, by Melissa R. Klapper. Ivan R. Dee, May 2007. $27.50
Small Strangers captures the essence of what it meant to be one of the many children whose families immigrated to America around the turn of the last century. Whether they traveled with their families to their new home or were born after their arrival here, each of these children faced enormous challenges and opportunities. They were the targets of a multitude of social programs and charitable initiatives instigated by “real Americans” who, while often well intentioned, just as often had mixed motives. The American mainstream saw most adult immigrants as hopeless cases, but in their children found an enormous opportunity to shape the future of immigrant communities and to “save” the country from being overrun by intellectually and culturally “inferior” peoples. While immigrant parents were proud to see their children prosper, they expected them to retain strong social and cultural ties to their ethnic communities. Thus, the children inhabited and even constituted the ground on which the battle for the future was fought, all the while struggling to forge their own identities and chart their own course. Organized around the stages of childhood and adolescence, Small Strangers provides a touching glimpse into the lives of these children. Klapper covers a broad range of experiences and cultures: Mexican, Norwegian, Japanese, and Korean as well as Irish, Italian, and Jewish viewpoints are offered. She draws on many personal accounts by immigrant children to enrich her text. While an even more extensive presentation of this material would have been useful, Small Strangers manages to do an excellent job of telling their stories and shedding light on their lives and their contributions to building America.
The Missouri Compromise and Its Aftermath: Slavery and the Meaning of America, by Robert Pierce Forbes. North Carolina, May 2007, $45
Ever since Abraham Lincoln famously mentioned that white southern interest in property in slaves “was somehow the cause of the war” in his Second Inaugural, scholars have expended considerable ink to explain the precise relationship of the “peculiar institution” to America’s bloodiest conflict. The events surrounding the Missouri Compromise, while cited in much literature about the coming of the Civil War, have produced relatively few detailed studies since Glover Moore’s The Missouri Controversy, 1819–1821 (1953). While Moore concentrated almost exclusively on the partisan dimension of the incident between Federalists and Jefferson Republicans, Robert Pierce Forbes, a lecturer of history at Yale University, includes the political narrative of the compromise in a larger story about the development of proslavery thought in the period from 1816 to 1854. Seeking to rescue James Monroe from the dustbin of forgotten presidents, Pierce claims that the slaveholding Monroe and his administration remained committed to ending the practice of slavery through the gradual emancipation and eventual colonization of freed African Americans. This antislavery nationalism was ultimately torn apart with the Missouri Compromise and the birth of Jacksonian Democracy that equated abolitionism with disunion and thus treason. While much of Pierce’s story will be familiar to specialists, his ability to question the depths of a proslavery “consensus” before 1819 is intriguing. Of additional interest is his conclusion, in which he takes issue with the way Americans attempt to tell or understand the story of America, “without acknowledging the fundamental contradiction of slavery that is at its center.”
Critical Americans: Victorian Intellectuals and Transatlantic Liberal Reform, by Leslie Butler. North Carolina, April 2007. $65 cloth, $24.95 paper
In this study, Leslie Butler examines the links between liberals in the US and Great Britain from the 1850s to the 1890s. She focuses primarily on four upper-class Bostonians: George William Curtis, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, James Russell Lowell, and Charles Eliot Norton. Not surprisingly, this cadre of New England reformers forged their friendship in the abolition struggles preceding the Civil War. Critical Americans explores the public and private writings of these men and highlights their correspondence with like-minded figures in Great Britain. As Butler convincingly shows, liberal critics in America engaged in a vibrant and lasting dialogue with their British counterparts over the meaning and application of democracy. Ultimately, Curtis, Higginson, Lowell, and Norton agreed that a universally beneficial form of democracy could be achieved if education and cultured pursuits became accessible to the masses. While Butler adroitly demonstrates the links between these Bostonians and their British counterparts, she pays less attention to how these reformers communicated with other intellectuals within the US. Even so, Critical Americans provides a fascinating picture of this intellectual exchange and illuminates the political, social, and cultural ramifications resulting from it.
Witch Hunts: From Salem to Guantanamo Bay, by Robert Rapley. McGill-Queen’s, March 2007. $29.95
What do the long-ago witch-hunts of Salem, Massachusetts, have in common with the contemporary persecution of suspected terrorists in prisons like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo? According to Robert Rapley, quite a lot. In both historical moments, the accused are assumed guilty before evidence has been sought, dubious information is accepted, and the entire enterprise happens under deep secrecy. Rapley also examines the witch-hunt characteristics of the Dreyfus Affair, the trial of the Scottsboro Boys, and Ireland’s arrests of suspected IRA members. All of these events show how those in power can easily become witch-hunters willing to do anything to find their scapegoats guilty. Rapley argues that the idea of witch-hunting gained a broader interpretation in modern times, perhaps most notably in connection to the American search for terrorists. He details the case of Maher Arar, a native of Syria who immigrated to Canada at age seventeen, as an example of the victim of a witch-hunt. When returning to Canada in 2002, Arar was arrested in New York and tortured under suspicion of being a member of al Qaeda. He was eventually deported to Syria for over a year, despite being a Canadian citizen. True to Rapley’s criteria, Arar was mistreated in search of a confession and was treated as though he had no rights. Likewise, authorities ignored inconsistent information while believing condemning information and treated the entire imprisonment with deep secrecy. Yet, what is the advantage to calling the persecution of Maher Arar a “witch-hunt”? While Rapley’s examples of other witch-hunts are probably not going to change the minds of anyone who already supports the American government’s actions, they do provide some historical perspective. Ultimately, Rapley shows the danger of a government body that thinks it always knows who the criminals are.
—Demere G. Woolway
Desert Gothic, by Don Waters. Iowa, September 2007. $16 paper
In this remarkable collection of stories, Don Waters presents ten lives that epitomize the journey toward volition in the face of frustration, absurdity and, realistically or metaphorically, the Nevada desert landscape itself. Waters’s subjects are nothing if not diverse: would-be authors segue into long-distance runners, prescription-drug middlemen, and the occasionally homeless. His imagery is uniquely vivid and dryly succinct: In “Mineral and Steel,” an ancient woman is introduced as appearing “prehistoric, with a smile straight from a horror flick. Four jagged teeth poked from her lower jaw, and that was it. With this scary quartet, she chewed on her upper lip like a camel”; a room in “Mormons in Heat” smells like “a difficult case of athlete’s foot.” When recalling the tenth hour of a race through the Chihuahuan Desert, the ultra marathoner in “Dan Buck” recalls, “I went momentarily insane, believing I was witness to my soul peeling from my body, like skin from an onion. It ran out in front of me and I was unable to catch it.” There is no disillusionment in Desert Gothic, nor a sense of cloying world-weariness: Eccentric though they may be, Water’s characters are, refreshingly, just what they are.
The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue, by Manuel Muñoz. Algonquin, May 2007. $12.95 paper
Muñoz’s new collection continues to map out the charred emotional topography he first explored in Zigzagger, his well-received debut of 2003. Muted, intimate, and masterfully restrained, these overlapping stories offer brief, revealing glimpses into the lives of Mexican Americans and immigrants trying to make a go of it in hardscrabble industrial communities on the decline in and around Fresno, California. Low-budget strip malls, cheap hotels, used car lots, nighttime bus stations, and half-deserted shopping centers provide a melancholy backlight to the wearying trials of dead-end jobs, hopeless love affairs, and frayed family ties that characters must endure while trying to maintain their dignity and give some semblance of meaning to their lives. Muñoz’s affecting combination of unsparing, sometimes lugubriously detailed realism and large-hearted tenderness lends the stories their suggestive delicacy and power. Each tale begins just after a traumatic turning point in its protagonist’s life and only gradually releases the relevant clues to give meaning to the change. “Lindo y Querido,” the first, and most exquisitely devastating story in the collection, depicts the inner struggle of an undocumented Mexican housekeeper to come to terms with the death of her son in a motorcycle crash. The protagonist of “Bring Brang Brung” reluctantly returns in quiet shame to the Valley—that “mess of lack, of descending into dust, of utter failure”—following the death of his homosexual partner and his own failed attempt to forge a new life in San Francisco. In “The Heart Finds Its Own Conclusion,” a woman arranges to meet her estranged cousin at a bus station to help rescue him from some unstated danger only to find his enraged, violent lover waiting for him with other plans. In “Señor X,” a young man is released from jail after doing time for forgery charges and befriends an aging local widower with disastrous results. Many of these stories deal with young men coming to grips with their sexuality in an overtly conservative, homophobic social milieu, yet Muñoz never allows politics to overwhelm the uniqueness of each character’s individual story. Given Muñoz’s ethnicity, some readers may expect to find whiffs of magical realism here, but the only magic found in this brilliant new book is Muñoz’s ability to turn the everyday dramas of ordinary people into high art.
—Michael R. Engle
The Complete Fables of Jean de La Fontaine, translated by Norman R. Shapiro. Illinois, October 2007. $25 paper
That Jean de La Fontaine problematized the fable genre is now well known, thanks to American, British, and German criticism of the late twentieth century. Even the French have reluctantly admitted this and dropped the Fables from the baccalauréat program, which privileges what Roland Barthes called the “readable” text, free of ambiguity, unstable irony, allusive metaphor, and aggressive (but usually covert) dialogue with earlier literature. Basing their projects on critical editions and schoolbooks composed under the old dispensation, previous Anglo-American translators of the Fables have perpetuated the image of La Fontaine as the Gallic Aesop, more intricately melodic and stylistically adroit, to be sure, but ultimately slick, straightforward, and commonsensical. Only Marianne Moore—in a self-indulgent and finally useless caprice—wandered away from that model, making the French poems over in the quirky image of her own, often zoological masterpieces. Now comes Norman Shapiro, whose La Fontaine not only coincides with current understanding of the original but also succeeds as poetry in English: subtly nuanced, dense, resonant, and compellingly re-readable. More than a prize, this rendering deserves a place of honor—with Terence Cave’s The Princesse of Cleves, John Cairncross’s Phaedra, and Richard Wilbur’s Misanthrope—in the classical canon “made new” for Frenchless readers of our time and place.
—David Lee Rubin
Some Nights No Cars at All, by Josh Rathkamp. Ausable, September 2007. $14 paper
Josh Rathkamp’s debut collection is repetitive, but admirably so: many of his best lines contain direct and abundant echoes, as in “Thinks that whatever happened / happened to make him / him” and “when it comes, it comes / big enough to burn us down,” and “However insignificant the things we build, / we build the thing.” This echo and reverberation takes on meaning for the reader, but I understand the repetition might be one of those things that, when brought to the attention of the poet, produces the “Oh, I never noticed that” reaction. I also find myself observing that in these poems their most interesting syntactical moments often turn on a hinge and mirror back what the poet just wrote, with some important variation. And Rathkamp is a master of syntax: “Do not blame me for the inconsistencies in this life—broken halos of moon, full halos of moon, no moon, a streetlight, and you, bug, underneath it dead.” Also, see “I’m the type of guy that leaves / ten minutes too early to appointments; / all yellow stains on snow alone; with no one to name me / like I did my father.” The semicolon to build a list! Rare bird, indeed; and difficult to execute, but it comes off in this poem brilliantly. “I watched her while she watched the morning,” writes Rathkamp, in typical fashion, writing (which is a particular kind of observing) about observing one thing that is observing another.
The Best American Poetry 2007, Heather McHugh, guest editor; David Lehman, series editor. Scribner, September 2007. $16 paper
Any superlative invites suspicion, such that a person unfamiliar with the Best American legacy (a project started in 1988 by series editor David Lehman in which one of “the best” American poets sifts through the submissions of the national journals that have sifted through the stuff they’ve already sifted through—simple Reaganomics, really—to put together an annual anthology) might say, “Who do these people think they are?” This year, “they” are Heather McHugh. Inevitably, in her selection there is the problem of subjectivity, though it is this factor that refreshes the series each year. Lehman introduces McHugh as one who “sets store . . . by word play, puns, rhymes, the hidden life of words, ‘the is in the wish, the or in the word. No word-fun should be left undone.’” And this collection ends up being what she looks for in current poetry, yet, (thankfully) is not necessarily all that’s being written. She admits in her own introduction that she hoped “to include examples from the provocative field of Web life today—various sonic and kinetic and electronic poetries. I wanted, that is, to add a CD; alas, it was not permitted.” In the end, what is included are poems by new writers as well as many by familiar poets. Remarkably, the work of these “olds hats” is rejuvenated by McHugh’s more current selections. Ben Lerner, a selection of whose Angle of Yaw is included in this anthology, offers a prime example of McHugh’s efforts to inject a sense of vitality. Lerner’s language does not sit; it turns on almost every word: “But I live here, says the model. And I respect that, says the painter. But I have enough respect for respect to insist. For insistence to turn the other cheek. For the other cheek to turn the other cheek. Hence I appear to be shaking my head No.” I would also feel neglectful if I didn’t mention Sabrina Orah Mark’s “The 10 Stages of Beatrice” as one of the highlights/oddities of this year’s Best. The poetry is its own proof, as in “Stage 5—Dread” / “Beatrice is covered in feathers and twigs. She believes she is a nest. This stage, if it occurs in winter, is also called ‘The Babies.’” This year, McHugh has fashioned a word-obsessed poetry and something that flirts with the term, “best,” but does not require it to impress us.
The Disappearing Trick, by Len Roberts. Illinois, July 2007. $19.95 paper
When Len Roberts passed away this spring, we lost one of our best narrative poets at the height of his powers. In the mid-seventies, Roberts began writing poems as a way of coming to terms with the death of an abusive and alcoholic father, eventually creating a series of elegies complicated by resentment, sympathy, and tenderness in equal measure. The Disappearing Trick, Roberts’ tenth full-length collection and the last to be compiled before his death, negotiates the same terrain of strained relationships and domestic dysfunction. Here, memories of a drunken father and self-involved mother continue to be explored alongside seemingly endemic illness and loss in his own generation as well as the depression and emotional detachment of his children. The narratives represented are punctuated by a sense of personal and spiritual guilt that has been ingrained in Roberts since Catholic grade school. To some extent, it is this guilt the book struggles against. This is made particularly clear in poems like “A Room for Jesus” and “The saints always,” where a young Roberts has carved curse words into the wood of a school desk: “. . . marks of sin Sister was sure to see / no matter how many beads of the rosary / I prayed, / no matter how many correct answers I gave.” While most of Roberts’ poems run about a page in length, they often consist of a single tortured sentence that unfolds in short, conversational lines and shifts between scenes and subjects without ever seeming fractured or unfocused. These poems enact the pivots of the mind on those events and circumstances we are ultimately unable to rationalize. In so doing, the “trick” is both the ultimate disappearance of relationships, as well as the poet’s attempt to wrest from this world some semblance of control through language. Roberts finds something redemptive in the act of suffering and directs us to find it there too.
The Biplane Houses: Poems, by Les Murray. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, May 2007. $23.00
The new collection from Australia’s most acclaimed poet is sure to delight readers with more of the acrobatic manipulation of language and imagistic flourishes that have defined Murray’s work since the seventies. If “punning moves toward music,” as Murray writes in “Black Belt in Marital Arts,” The Biplane Houses might be the poetic equivalent of the New York Philharmonic, a book endlessly attuned to the harmonies of multiple meanings and turns of phrase. This collection is largely interested, like its predecessors, in the violence contemporary cosmopolitan society inflicts on the dignity of a simplified life, a life like that of rural Australia’s farmers. This is, after all, a book dedicated “to the glory of God,” and these poems mark the spiritual significance of mankind and the natural world simply by treating such subjects with respect and reverence. In poems like “The Domain of the Octopus,” an extended description of the earth’s oceans and river-arms as octopus-like, “sand islands bulk in its craw,” is subtly transformed into a commentary on how little we comprehend the world, even when we’re looking right at it. Murray’s best work can be deceptive in the same way, with similar rewards and pleasures for the reader willing to approach it with fresh eyes and open ears.
The Clearing, by Philip White. Texas Tech, April 2007. $18.95
The winner of this year’s Walt McDonald First-Book Prize is, as Robert Fink writes in his introduction, “about the afterlife—not the life of the dead raised, as the apostle Paul wrote, ‘incorruptible,’ but the life of the spouse who did not die and now must somehow go on living the life that comes after . . .” The Clearing interrogates this afterlife, which locates itself in relation to trauma (the deaths of the speaker’s wife and parents), through a series of lyrics, rarely more than a page in length, that move delicately between elegy and prayer, the mythic and the personal. These poems are attracted to and compelled by the immediate physical world, triggered by the intimate details of daily life: the sound of men roofing a house, the simple flight of a crow, daylilies that “make no seed and therefore / build to no end but beauty.” But as images come into focus under White’s thoughtful pressure, they are inevitably suffused with sadness and recall the lost beloved. The reader is never more than one step removed from the referent of loss, and yet, even as the speaker mourns, the poems resist despair. Their emotion is never rendered maudlin or effusively sentimental. On the contrary, it’s the sober tone of White’s work that allows these poems to continue to find meaning in the transience of life. One of the book’s central images, the great, lone beech discovered by the speaker and his beloved in the title poem’s “clearing,” is built around the myth of Baucis and Philemon, in which Zeus allows a couple to be joined for eternity as a pair of intertwined trees. In The Clearing the physical union has been broken, but separation hasn’t ended the relationship. White’s speaker defines himself in terms of loss, but also finds a way to make absence palpable. The Clearing then works to effect its own prevailing symbol, becoming a place where the speaker and the lost beloved continue to find themselves “such knotted things.”
Things Are Disappearing Here, by Kate Northrop. Persea, April 2007. $14 paper
As Emily Dickinson famously wrote, “One need not be a Chamber—to be Haunted,” and an eidolic motion as numinous as the action of the mind itself floats through every stunning piece in Northrop’s second collection of poems. A baby abandoned in a field, a dream dog (“his name tags glitter / though nothing is written on them”), a figure in a museum diorama, a teenage couple killed in a car accident, a “you” who is as much the reader herself as any lost lover: no vexed or fictive entity is beyond Northrop’s unique, reconstructive, lyrical intelligence. The “here” of the book’s title is a palimpsestic theater of poetic consciousness peopled by a cast of dramatis personae, each at several removes from any definitive sense of self. Pitched between the mind’s “cool remove of moonlight” and the body’s “lurid plurals,” these poems enact the ineffable with a spectral exactness. In “The Pure Beauties,” Northrop marvels in “. . . they who never even knew of us / standing here in love / with the boats, our hearts, and losing them”), evoking Dickinson’s admonition that “The Brain has Corridors—surpassing / Material Place—” with illuminating credence.
—Lisa Russ Spaar
The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story, by Diane Ackerman. W. W. Norton, September 2007. $23.95
The narrative power of the Holocaust has been explored so many times as to risk turning the greatest human tragedy of the twentieth century into a cliché. Diane Ackerman, however, breathes new life into the collection of World War II narratives in the story of Jan and Antonina, a Polish couple who owned a prize-winning zoo in Warsaw. When the German invasion leaves their zoo partially destroyed, they exploit the Nazi fascination with manipulating and preserving species in order to save not only their zoo but many Jews who shelter throughout their shattered menagerie. They hide in cages and are presented as guests and visitors to the once vibrant and unparalleled Polish zoo. Jan and Antonina’s subversive activities extend beyond hiding Jews, and their story gives the reader personal and chilling access to the Warsaw Uprising and the struggle of day-to-day survival under an occupying force. Ackerman’s book is fresh, not only because of the new story it tells, but because of how seamlessly her story links the natural and human worlds. The book eases the reader out of the horrors of Nazi-occupied Poland and in to detailed, researched, and startlingly relevant descriptions of the species that the zoo housed. The animals’ response to the bombings, murders, and the destruction brings the book to a global level. The struggle to survive becomes universal, as do the cruelty and barbarism surrounding them. Ackerman’s admirable investigation of this war story will undoubtedly be with us for a long time, as a celebration of life surviving under cruelty and as a warning of the far-reaching effects of destructive, total war.
An Ocean of Air: Why the Wind Blows and Other Mysteries of the Atmosphere, by Gabrielle Walker. Harcourt, August 2007. $25
Here’s a question: if you took all the air inside of Carnegie Hall and weighed it, how much would it weigh? The answer, Walker explains, is on the order of 70,000 pounds. In this admirable field guide, Walker teaches the science of the atmosphere through the history of our developing understanding of it, with a pleasingly strong emphasis on narrative and anecdote. She begins with Galileo, who demonstrated that air has weight, and moves on through the personal histories and discoveries of Robert Boyle, Joseph Priestley, Antoine Lavoisier, Joseph Black, John Tyndall, and Svante Arrhenius. Along the way, we learn about the composition of air and how the atmosphere, through the respiration of plants and animals, keys the metabolizing of foods, and how trees draw carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to construct their massive bulk. As Walker explains, “the source of every ounce of the solid roots, trunk, branches, and leaves of Van Helmont’s [an early scientist who missed the point] willow tree was the carbon dioxide in the air around it.” Walker goes on to explain the nature of wind and the remarkable story of West Virginia scientist William Ferrell, who figured out why the winds blow as they do. There is a long and fascinating explanation of how Marconi used the atmosphere to bounce electromagnetic signals prodigious distances, to the amazement of the world and the profound interest of business and governments, giving birth to radio. There is much more in Walker’s book: the history of our understanding of the ozone layer and the terrible, unanticipated dangers of chloroflourocarbons, as well as the history of the discovery of the radiation belts that encircle the earth. This book is a splendid combination of good science writing and good history.
Building a Century of Progress: The Architecture of the 1933–1934 Chicago World’s Fair, by Lisa D. Shrenk. Minnesota, June 2007. $39.95
“Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms” served as the official motto of the Century of Progress International Exposition in Chicago. In her splendid analysis of the cultural iconography and architectural style of the 1933–1934 Chicago World’s Fair, Lisa Shrenk acknowledges the aptness of this motto in describing the architectural innovations first presented there. Forced to raise private funds for the project in the midst of the Great Depression, Rufus C. Dawes, president of the fair, and his associates continued to push on with their vision of an exposition that would point the way to a better tomorrow. To this end, lavish designs from noted architects Raymond Hood (designer of the Chicago Tribune skyscraper) and Paul Philippe Cret helped instill a modernist sensibility to the fair and showed how reliance on architectural science and technology would allow for a break with past architectural forms and building methods. Shrenk’s book also stresses the transatlantic dimensions of the visions of the American architects. Chicago architect George Frederick Keck’s particularly enthusiastic reception of Swiss-born designer Le Corbusier’s Vers une architecture (Towards a New Architecture), with its promotion of new building materials for large European social housing projects, directly inspired Keck’s House of Tomorrow, situated on the fairgrounds. The public reaction to these strange sights, according to Shrenk, revealed crowds “excited by the notion that easy, modern living would be waiting for them as soon as the economy recovered.” Still, many ordinary Americans and corporate leaders seemed more impressed by the possibility of adapting innovations in mass-produced building materials to traditional forms than in embracing European-style modernism. Ultimately, Shrenk concludes that the fair itself, in contrast with its 1893 predecessor, “played a less discernible role in the development of the American architecture despite the immensity of its innovations and its tremendous successes.” Whether that fact owes more to the lessened cultural impact of world’s fairs in the twentieth century or to the backdrop of the Great Depression is left to the reader to sort out.
Black Scholars on the Line: Race, Social Science, and American Thought in the Twentieth Century, edited by Jonathan Holloway and Ben Keppel. Notre Dame, June 2007. $85 cloth, $40 paper
This anthology includes thirty-one essays by African American scholars from Alexander Crummell to William Julius Wilson, arranged chronologically. The editors’ excellent introductory essay focuses on social science as an expression of society, not simply as a detached commentary on it. In the US, institutionalized racism has been central to American society, and black scholars have always had to work both within and against its constraints. This is as true, the editors argue, of contemporary academics in Black Studies programs as it was for W. E. B. Du Bois at the beginning of the last century. Moreover, they argue, the conventional critique of Black Studies as too political and insufficiently scholarly ignores the fact that the institutionalization of the modern social sciences was itself part of a political project to justify a racist social hierarchy. This volume will be particularly useful in courses on the history of American social science.
What Becomes You, by Aaron Raz Link and Hilda Raz. Nebraska, April 2007. $24.95
This strange and complex double memoir by writer, scientist, and performing artist Aaron Raz Link and his mother, poet and feminist activist Hilda Raz, explores the complexities of transsexual life and the parent-child bond during the process of gender reassignment and its myriad medical, social, legal, and personal intricacies. The first two hundred pages are written by Link, a smart and scientific writer who looks at gender issues with a taxonomist’s eye, while the last hundred are a reflection by Raz on the transformation of a child named Sarah to an adult named Aaron, following Link’s gender reassignment surgery at age twenty-nine. The dialogue between mother and son makes the memoir historically and socially important, and each side of the story is deftly written: “For Aaron, he’s the same person he’s always been. It’s taken me a long time to understand that Sarah was my hopeful projection” writes Raz. And Link remarks, “I didn’t change my name until I was almost thirty. Like sex, like your face, like the small patch of skin at the base of the neck or the spine where people like to be tattooed, a name marks the space where private meets public.” What Becomes You is an important memoir not only because of its timing, but also because of its good and tender writing about what it means to look critically at the self and negotiate a life “on the front burner of a debate.”
The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney, by
Michael Barrier. California, April 2007. $29.95
During the spring of 1941, Walt Disney faced a crisis. Financially burdened with poor box office receipts from Disney’s earlier feature-length films Pinocchio and Fantasia, the company that bore his name announced a series of cost-saving layoffs. In response, members of the animation staff along with their trade unionist allies attempted to organize an independent union for the animators. Six years later, an embittered Disney would recall during a congressional investigation that the strike was “communistically inspired and led.” Indeed, at the time of the strike, Disney had relished the chance to leave the country and embark on a trip to South America on behalf of the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs. Instances like the 1941 strike, where Disney’s financial ambition threatened to derail his artistic dreams, help provide an important theme for Michael Barrier’s wonderful new book. Rather than act as a definitive biography, Barrier attempts instead to offer an interpretation of “what the man Disney was like and why he still commands our attention today.” Barrier draws upon considerable archival material (including personal interviews and memoranda in the Walt Disney Archives) to present a portrait of a good man with what some might call a dark side. One of the fascinating aspects of this biography is Barrier’s discussion of Disney’s lessening involvement in the animation wing of his studio as he pursued new projects like live-action films and television, Disneyland, and EPCOT. In portraying the entrepreneurial side of Disney along with his vision and personality, Barrier has seamlessly merged the public and private personas of a man whose company has inspired countless generations of children and adults.
Images of Bliss: Ejaculation, Masculinity, Meaning, by Murat Aydemir. Minnesota, March 2007. $24.95 paper
There’s something sexy, pleasurable, and original in this dense, philosophical, clearly learned study of male orgasm, but that something remains maddeningly difficult to pinpoint—quite unlike the utterly conspicuous subject under consideration. Indeed, the moments of pleasure in this work remain few and far between—a phenomenon all the more disappointing given the author’s claim that male orgasm has historically been stripped of its bliss to make way for its manhood-defining properties. This is not to say that Aydemir does anything wrong; he just never does anything particularly disruptive or stimulating or—as a reader of such a volume might expect—orgasmic. His readings of Proust, pornography, post-structuralism, and Western art are smart and well researched, and help contribute to a deeper understanding of semen as a source of male subjectivity. However, his study is never particularly playful, despite its criticism that masculinity is often far too serious. Following a lively and concise introduction that nonetheless argues for a “differentiality of pleasure,” Aydemir gets bogged down in the not-so-recent, no-longer-sexy theories of Barthes, Lacan, Irigaray, and Derrida. These are all good people to know but also all theorists that, at this point, seem perhaps a bit obvious. As a resource or reference book, Images of Bliss will serve the reader well. As a gratifying examination of the limits of gender and identity, however, it leaves much to be desired.
The Letters of George Santayana, Book Seven: 1941–1947, edited by William G. Holzberger. MIT, January 2007. $70
This second-to-last volume of Santayana’s letters covers a difficult period in his life. During much of it he lived in unaccustomed lack of comforts and companionship in wartime Italy. Despite these hardships, this volume illustrates that Santayana thrived intellectually and remained productive in his small room in the nursing home of the Blue Sisters of Rome. Tucked up in bed with mended gloves during winters with insufficient coal, his overseas accounts cut off, Santayana entered his eighth decade completing his autobiography and his famous work The Idea of Christ in the Gospels. Although the world had once again gone mad, the philosopher in one of his letters reported that he had “never been more at peace and more happy.” This volume contains particularly interesting exchanges with Robert Lowell. It is charming to “overhear” the development of Santayana’s late-life friendship with the younger American poet and novelist. The abundant correspondence with family and various agents is more mundane but reveals much about the personal life of Santayana.
—Robert S. Rust
UVa Faculty Books
The Point Is To Change It: Poetry and Criticism in the Continuing Present by Jerome McGann. Alabama, April 2007. $60 cloth, $32.95 paper
Jerome McGann had us all going when he proposed an Experiment in Criticism (1972) to investigate the late Victorian aesthetic poet A. C. Swinburne. The book was written in the form of an episodic dialogue, with McGann inhabiting the roles of various authoritative Swinburne critics across the first half of the twentieth century. But like the intensive historicism for which he is now well known, this so-called experimental form actually had a venerable, traditional precedent. McGann’s resurrection of the Socratic dialogue, a form more widely used by philosophers, was a generic decision that did much to liberate the critical object from more recent scholarly writing’s hermitic seal. We could nearly feel Brooks ousted by Bakhtin, the well-wrought writer laid under the interpretive fields. And, yes, each separate “critic” was still only McGann. But this was more importantly a reinvigorating critical game, and a masque wholly appropriate to a dramatic lyricist like Swinburne. In this new compilation, McGann looses his distinctive brand of historicism on contemporary poetry. Despite regular visits from the specter of Karl Marx (the title is taken from his eleventh Theses on Feuerbach), McGann proves to have some new critical tricks up his sleeve. His essay on Clark Coolidge’s poetry, “Truth in the Body of Falsehood,” marries a poetics of reader interpretation to the rigors of strict contemporary formalism—The Crystal Text as Coolidge called it. “The Apparatus of Loss,” an essay on Bruce Andrew’s poems, finds the reader shining through the glossy “cracks” in poetry. “Looney Tunes and Unheard Melodies,” shows McGann using Jacques Jouet’s unorthodox linguistics to support an argument for a system of “anti-text” where the space between words allows for an infinity of others. Those fans of classic McGann need not despair: a lively debate on institutionalized Marxism, numerous Blakean dramatic critiques, and the intermittent lines of Byron, Keats, and Rossetti are present throughout.