London: A Social History, by Roy Porter.
In this new general social history of London, Roy Porter traces the development of the city from the Roman occupation of Britain to the present. Porter’s treatment of Roman and medieval London is spare; he lavishes most of his attention on the period between the Great Fire of 1666 and the end of the 19th century, during which London emerged from the mass of European cities and became a world capital. The development of the built environment provides the organizing theme of the work, into which Porter integrates a graceful synthesis of recent work in demographic and urban history. The 18th century is Porter’s specialty, and his treatment of the growth of the city and the transformation of its social life during the commercial and industrial revolutions of that century is crafted with the skills that distinguish him as one of the most gifted historial writers of this generation.
Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America, by Jackson Lears.
In this long-awaited book, Jackson Lears offers readers both a history of advertising and a meditation upon the culture that advertising promotes. What interests Lears most is how Americans came to believe that happiness always lies just beyond the next purchase. As a history, Fables of Abundance will give the general reader a good sense of advertising’s development, but adds little to what scholars of advertising already know. Lears’s real strength is as a cultural critic, and his book’s strongest sections focus less on advertising’s growth than on such opponents of advertising’s world view as the writer Frederick Exley and the artist Joseph Cornell. Fables of Abundance deserves the attention of all readers interested in our contemporary condition. Basic $30
Scenarios of Power: Myth and Ceremony in Russian Monarchy, Vol. 1, From Peter the Great to the Death of Nicholas I, by Richard S. Wortman.
Like all institutions that take themselves too seriously, the Russian monarchy came to an untidy end. But what a glorious ride it was! With all that Byzantine and Mongol heritage going for it, tsardom could not have done otherwise. In this first volume of his scholarly yet—amazingly, given the profession—readable study, Professor Wortman brings it all back to life.
Children of Bondage: A Social History of the Slave Society at the Cape of Good Hope, 1652-1838, by Robert C. H. Shell.
Shell’s interest is in the metaphor of family around which the slave-owning culture of the Cape was organized, both practically and ideologically He examines the role of gender and racial descent in the complex hierarchical system that evolved as a result of the slave-trade, and has a particularly interesting chapter on the role of language in the maintenance of subordination. The work is the result of impressively extensive research and profound conceptual thought, but is never dry or intimidating. Fascinating. Wesleyan $59.95
Rich Relations: The American Occupation of Britain, 1942-1945, by David Reynolds.
The three million Americans who passed through wartime Britain were referred to by the locals as “oversexed, overpaid, overfed and over here.” The Limeys, responded the GIs, were “undersexed, underpaid, underfed and under Eisenhower.” Reynolds tells the story of the two years when Britain, in George Orwell’s words, felt like “Occupied Territory.” This is a broad-ranging study—taking in issues of military strategy and command, but concentrating on the meeting of two cultures —or on more than two cultures as the social, sexual, and racial relations that the Americans brought with them reacted with the culture of their temporary home. Reynolds enlivens an impressive array of data with anecdotes of individual experiences, told often with an engagingly warm irony.
Random House $30
The CIO: 1935-1955, by Robert H. Zieger.
This book will undoubtedly take its place as the standard history of the Congress of Industrial Organizations. From its inception in 1935 until its amalgamation with the AFL in 1955, the CIO was at the center of America’s last great surge of labor organizing. The spread of unions to the South; the integration of African American workers in the North; the modern system of collective bargaining: all owed much to the initiatives of CIO leaders such as Carey, Reuther and Murray. Ziegler’s analysis of these and other developments is close and systematic. He is empathetic to the ideals of CIO unionism, without sacrificing awareness of its limitations (e.g., its blind spot regarding women’s unionization). It is institutional history written with considerable insight and no little verve.
North Carolina $39.95
The Banana Men, by Lester D. Langley and Thomas Schooner.
Here we are given the picture of the impact of that overflow of industrial and developmental energy in the United States so evident in the 50 years between 1880 and 1930, as it affected Central America. That this exported adventurism was little guided by either political or ethical considerations is typified by the careers of Lee
Christmas, an unabashed filibustero from Mississippi, and Samuel Zemurray, known as “the Banana Man,” who was a main developer of fruit growing. The authors take up the story, in particular of Nicaragua and Honduras, 60 years after their liberation from the decaying Spanish Empire, and give us a picture of a people lacking either cultural or economic homogeneity, whose condition was ripe for exploitation by North American and other adventurers.
War in Kentucky: From Shiloh to Perryville, by James Lee McDonough.
Auburn professor McDonough has written or co-authored several fine books on Civil War campaigns in the Western theater, but the present volume is not among his best. Despite McDonough’s impressive research, War in Kentucky appears loose and hurried, as if rushed into print. The few maps are hopelessly inadequate and convey little information on troop movements, rendering the little known battles at Richmond (Ky.), Munfordville, and Perryville nearly incomprehensible. At the same time, the Confederate invasion of Kentucky in the fall of 1862 has received much less attention than other Civil War campaigns have garnered, and McDonough’s new study, the first devoted entirely to the Kentucky invasion, is welcome, and his conclusions are reasonable and well-supported. Tennessee $32
The Transformation of Rural Life: Southern Illinois, 1890-1990, by Jane Adams.
From the vantage point of the social anthropologist, and through the particularities of the rural communities of Southern Illinois, Ms. Adams illuminates the transition from small-scale, interdependent farming of the late 19th century to the larger-scale, individualized agriculture of the late 20th. This is a story about the tensions between community and individualism; the complementarities of capitalism and government; the invention and reinvention of generational and gender roles in the fields and farmhouses. Its deliberately microeconomic perspective provides a richly textured account of the changes in rural life—their virtues and losses alike. For the reader who wishes to glorify either the past or the present state of American farming, Ms. Adams’ text provides a healthy and welcome dose of realism. North Carolina $49.95
500 Nations, by Alvin M. Josephy.
The work on which the early 1995 television series was based, this is a handsomely produced tribute to the victims of one of history’s most awful holocausts, the Native Americans. Living in harmony with nature, if not always with each other, those peoples built cultures that have for the most part been lost. The victorious Europeans slaughtered and corrupted and infected on such a scale that the survival of any people indigenous to the Western Hemisphere must be counted a major miracle. Browsing through this book, one is again struck by the horrors our ancestors wrought in the name of God and profit.
On the Teaching and Writing of History: Responses to a Series of Questions, by Bernard Bailyn, edited by Edward Connery Lathem.
In 1991, when the eminent historian Bernard Bailyn was a Montgomery Fellow at Dartmouth College, he responded to a series of questions put to him by two Dartmouth history professors, and his responses were recorded. This small volume is based upon and extends those conversations, offering valuable insight for both the general reader and the professional historian about the teaching and writing of history. Meta-narratives of this sort often grow old quickly, but Bailyn is engaging and accessible throughout, providing examples from his own teaching and writing and
displaying his remarkably wide knowledge of human affairs, from Classical Rome to Hill Street Blues. While some might find Bailyn’s dismissal of “fashionable doubts … about the attainment of absolute or perfect objectivity” too easy, few could contest his claim that “accurate historical knowledge is necessary for social sanity.”
New England $15.95
Capital Elites: High Society In Washington, D.C., After the Civil War, by Kathryn Allamong Jacob.
Adding to the recent work of scholars who have analyzed social elites in other major American cities, Jacob presents the first serious study of the several elite groups in the nation’s capital—official, financial, and hereditary—and their changing roles in the period of the city’s metamorphosis from town to metropolis. The book is not without flaws. She deals with Gilded Age scandals without making use of Mark Summers’ Era of Good Stealings, and she makes a few factual errors concerning political figures, which is surprising for someone who coedited the most recent Biographical Dictionary of the American Congress. Street maps could have been used in a more extensive analysis of residential patterns. Still, this is an entertaining and intelligent work which should interest both academics and general readers.
Scenes from the Life of a City: Corruption and Conscience in Old New York, by Eric Homberger.
Homberger provides an almost Breughelian portrait of New York in the mid-19th century. Bustling with character and contestation, Homberger’s recreation of the battles over abortion and typhoid, Tweed and Central Park is rich with evocation. Yet it never manages to transcend its narrow focus to give a full picture of the city, and the entire range of its complexities and contradictions. It is Breughel in monochrome. Yale $30
1915: The Death of Innocence, by Lyn MacDonald.
True to her practice in her four previous highly-acclaimed volumes of WWI history, MacDonald devotes her attention to details. She tells her story—that of the frustration on the fields of Ypres, Loos, and Gallipoli of British hopes that 1915 would bring a quick and triumphant end to the war—through letters, diaries, anecdote, and interviews with surviving veterans. It is a powerful account of the experience of warfare as it erupts into the lives and minds of the people who fight it. While the book is written for a popular audience, and MacDonald’s main interest is in war in its human aspect, her understanding and treatment of military technology and tactics are expert. Henry Holt $35
From Renaissance Monarchy to Absolute Monarchy: French Kings, Nobles-Estates, by J. Russell Major.
Crowning 45 years of research, Major’s encyclopedic overview of the evolution of the French state argues that the “absolute monarchy” was not produced by an alliance of the crown and towns against a rebellious landed aristocracy. Rather, the kings, starting with Henry IV, bound the aristocracy ever closer to the throne by ensuring their benefits from the royal bureaucracy, while royal ministers from Sully to Colbert toiled assiduously to increase the authority of royal officials at the expense of sovereign courts, provincial estates, and municipal councils. This densely packed and closely argued work will prove to be a valuable research and reference tool to teachers and scholars interested in the rise of the modern state.
Johns Hopkins $50
Twentieth-Century Spanish American Fiction, by Naomi Lindstrom.
This overview seeks to provide both the broad trends and some in-depth readings of selected master works of contemporary Spanish American fiction. Its traditional, chronological chapter divisions encompass modernism, realism, and naturalism, the avant-garde, the Boom, and the Postboom. By attempting too much the author leaves surprising gaps in the bibliography, although a full accounting of the rich narrative activity of Spanish American writers in this century would demand a much longer, much more complex book. Lindstrom writes a clear, unencumbered prose which recounts—mostly thematically—the major achievements of Spanish American writing in this century. Experts will not get much out of this study, but the general reader will profit from its organization, concise capsules of writers and their books, and brief plot summaries. Texas $37.50
Bearing the Dead: The British Culture of Mourning from the Enlightenment to Victoria, by Esther Schor.
It is Schor’s aim to replace the conventionally psychological approach to the phenomenon of mourning with a cultural approach: the difference being, in her own words, that “whereas a psychological account interprets mourning as a discourse between the living and the (imagined) dead, a cultural account interprets mourning as a discourse among the living.” To this end, Schor makes heavy use of the typically New Historicist metaphor of circulation, of value and meaning, between the political, social, and economic elements of a culture in her readings of literary text (the bulk of them from Wordsworth) and cultural practices. The subject is an intriguing one, and Schor’s approach to it well conceived. The book’s greatest defect is stylistic: Schor’s prose is unrelentingly dense, abstract and unwelcoming, although unimpeachably clear and precise.
The Subaltern Ulysses, by Enda Duffy.
This book is a contribution to the ongoing and fruitful critical enterprise of reconceiving modern Irish literature as postcolonial. Ireland was after all the first British colony to break away in the 20th century and to undergo all the strife and contention of decolonization. Critics have shown how the works of authors such as Yeats and Beckett reflect the crosscurrents of rebellion, independence, and nationalism in 20th-century Ireland. Duffy here undertakes a similar critical reexamination and reevaluation of James Joyce’s masterpiece, Ulysses. Duffy argues that Ulysses should no longer be read as the work of a High Modernist artist, chiefly concerned with questions of aesthetic form and literary tradition. Rather Duffy reads Ulysses as a response to all the problems bedeviling Ireland as it worked toward independence during precisely the period when Joyce was writing his novel. Duffy has much that is new and interesting to say about Ulysses; one only wishes he did not feel compelled to say it in the fashionable jargon of contemporary criticism. The book is peppered with barbarous words like somatize and interrogativity, sometimes piled up on top of each other into true towers of babble such as “high modernist metropolitan mandarinate” (no, this is not a way of describing the latest Chinese restaurant in Manhattan). Despite Duffy’s clotted prose, and his tendency to correlate Joyce’s writing too narrowly and too mechanically with current events, this book is a significant contribution to Ulysses scholarship.
Minnesota $44.95 cloth, $18.95 paper
Singers, Heroes, and Gods in the Odyssey, by Charles Segal.
Segal begins with Erich Auerbach’s famous contrast between the vertical depth
of the Hebrew Bible and the surface clarity of the Odyssey. He proceeds to show that the poem’s much admired limpidity has its own depths, depths that become fully visible only when style, narrative design, and mythical patterns are considered together. The three parts take up three themes, the mythical journey and its hero, the roles of bard and audience, and the roles of gods and prophets. These new and revised essays are a splendid introduction, or reintroduction, to the poem, for Segal handles depth of scholarship and detail with a masterful clarity of his own. Cornell $34.50
The Dialect of Modernism: Race, Language, and Twentieth-Century Literature, by Michael North.
This book is the second volume in Oxford’s acclaimed new series, Race and American Culture. North’s subject is two literary movements that are usually treated in isolation: the white Anglo-American modernism of Eliot, Pound, and Stein, and the Harlem Renaissance of black writers like McKay, Toomer, and Hurston. North argues that complex responses to black dialect strongly informed the literary achievements of both groups, as white writers appropriated stereotypical black speech and black writers tried to extricate themselves from it. For its attention to the crosscurrents between black and white writing and for its understanding of how early 20th-century literature responded to historically based views of linguistic “standardization” and “deviation,” this useful and intelligent book deserves to be read.
Great Sonnets, edited by Paul Negri.
This little book delivers exactly what it promises: it is a fine and incredibly inexpensive collection of English-language sonnets written between the Renaissance and the First World War. Among the highlights are miniature linguistic monuments by Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Wordsworth, Keats, Yeats, and Wilfred Owen. Pick it up, slip it in a pocket, and treat the mind to 14-line gems that sparkle with unforgettable phrases about love, war, death, sleep, silence, the seasons, and the divine. Dover $1
Writing Through Repression: Literature, Censorship, Psychoanalysis, by Michael G. Levine.
This book deals with a fascinating subject and one which is increasingly drawing attention from literary critics: the hermeneutics of censorship. Levine shows that censorship is an issue that links literary criticism and psychoanalysis, and he has many interesting points to make about the central importance of censorship in Freud’s thought. Levine analyzes the confusing and often confused aspects of Freud’s notion of censorship, asking some basic questions about the process: what part of the mind actually does the censorship, when does it happen, and why? Unfortunately Levine’s book grows weaker when he turns to literature. He gives us vignettes in the history of censorship and literature, and not a systematic treatment of the topic. He almost completely neglects the historical and political contexts of the issue (choosing to cite other people’s work in that area), and he relegates to a dismissive footnote the single most important and fruitful discussion of the hermeneutics of censorship, Leo Strauss’s Persecution and the Art of Writing (how fascinating it would have been to explore the connections between Strauss and Freud as Jews in the German-speaking world writing on censorship). With all these missed opportunities, Levine’s book ends up being very uneven in quality; he develops some insightful points about literature, such as his discussion of Ovid and Kafka on the subject of metamorphosis, but these points tend to be isolated, largely unrelated, and only loosely focused on the subject of censorship. Johns Hopkins $35
Northern Lights: A Selection of New Writing from the American West, edited by Deborah Clow and Donald Snow.
For those Easterners who have not yet been introduced to Northern Lights— perhaps the hippest magazine to come out of the West in the last ten years—prepare yourselves for a treat. After a decade of quiedy publishing the West’s finest writers in a noncommercial format, the editors have gathered the best of the magazine’s nonfiction and reprinted it in Northern Lights: A Selection of New Writing from the American West. Here is Gretel Ehrlich writing letters to the architect building her home, Edward Abbey taking on cattle ranchers and the beef industry, Richard Nelson describing the significance of naming places, Frederick Turner revisiting the massacre at Wounded Knee, and Marilynne Robinson meditating on Western myth and American culture. Even with such luminous essays as these to compete with, some of the best work is the product of writers yet to achieve a national audience, such as Leslie Ryan, whose “The Clearing in the Clearing” is one of the most riveting essays featured. “The language that arises out of the landscapes of the West,” write the editors in their forward, “is as rich and splendidly textured as the place it describes.” For writing as austere as the desert or as rich as an old-growth forest, turn to Northern Lights. It won’t let you down. Vintage $13
The Fate of Eloquence in the Age of Hume, by Adam Potkay.
Potkay situates the 18th-century British discussion of eloquence and politeness in terms of (what at the time were taken to be) their political and social implications. His study ranges widely, over classical and early modern works on rhetoric, as well as works by Hume, Pope, Gray, Sterne, and Macpherson. Potkay addresses a number of points of particular interest to students of Hume: he urges that Hume’s alterations in successive editions of the essay “Of Eloquence” reflect Hume’s attitude to the changing political situation in Britain; he explores Hume’s use of rhetorical categories to explain the causes and content of religious belief; and, more intriguingly, he argues that Hume’s doctrines of sympathy and of the force and vivacity of perceptions show the influence of rhetorical theory.
Under Construction: The Body in Spanish Novels, by Elizabeth A. Scarlett.
Feminist theory and narrative theory merge in Scarlett’s intelligent study of major Spanish novelists—male and female— from the end of the 19th century to today. She takes a long look at “physical discourse,” that is, the use of the body for various narrative purposes (the body as “textual marker”), in the writings of Emilia Pardo Bazan, Rosa Chacel, and Merce Rodoreda in the first three chapters. In the last two chapters, Scarlett offers briefer (but no less interesting) studies of Spain’s best-known modern writers—Camilo Jose Cela, Carmen Martin Gaite, Luis Martin-Santos, Julio Llamazares, Soledad Puertolas, Eduardo Mendoza, and Antonio Munoz Molina. Sprinkled among acute observations on these novelists are references to the likes of Fredric Jameson, David Mamet, Oliver Stone, Proust, and Freud. A challenging and provocative study. Virginia $37.50
Reading Dido: Gender, Textuality, and the Medieval Aeneid, by Marilynn Desmond.
This book purports to take a cultural studies approach to the historical and literary tradition of the Dido story, from its beginnings in classical myth to its medieval incarnations, but ends up nothing other than a quiescent philological treatment of the medieval story. The potentialities of the Dido story or refiguring the traditional methods and practices of medieval studies go unrealized. This book is emphatically not what the cover blurb claims it is: it does not “offer the reader a series of countertraditions that support feminist, antihomophobic, and postcolonial gestures.” Any gesturing is entirely the reader’s own, inscribed in a set of interpretive activities far beyond the range and ken of this book. Minnesota $17.95
Eloquence and Mere Life: Essays on the Art of Poetry, by Alan Williamson.
Williamson first reflects on poets who set the terms when he was starting out, Lowell, Bishop, Larkin, and, for him, the less known Eleanor Ross Taylor. A second section takes up larger issues, images in connection with Montale, politics in connection with Peter Dale Scott, Kundera, Yeats, C. K. Williams, and several contemporary Europeans. The third section is mostly about the poets Williamson cares for most, his age and younger, and how they placed themselves in relation to the traditions of their past. It includes a touching, insightful “My father’s T.S. Eliot and mine” (his father wrote the first book on Eliot). The book is a rewarding addition to Donald Hall’s “Poets on Poetry Series”.
Michigan $39.50 cloth, $13.95 paper
Literary Realism and the Ekphrastic Tradition, by Mack Smith.
This is a fascinating study. “Ekphrasis” usually means the literary depiction of visual art. Smith resumes the breadth the term once had, so as to include any work of art (e.g., a musical phrase in Proust). His thesis is that there is an ultimately irresolvable struggle between correspondence and coherence as views of representation, and that novels often render the struggle within themselves through scenes describing (and debating) a work of art. He devotes chapters to Don Quixote, Emma, Anna Karenina, Ulysses, and Gravity’s Rainbow. The writing is theoretically alert, attentive to the works, and clear. Smith does limit attention to the novel. Nothing here about
Auden’s “About suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters.” If ekphrastic poems do not often debate representation, that should matter to a larger view.
Perm State $35
LIVES & LETTERS
The Family Heart, by Robb F. Dew.
Readers of The Family Heart come to the same conclusion after the first 10 pages of this book that the writer herself determines in the last two pages. “This book isn’t even about Stephen’s coming out as a gay man,” writes Robb Forman Dew. Indeed, it’s not. It’s a book about compassion, about the fierce power of mother love, about what society accepts and does not accept. Though Dew’s latest book is titled The Family Heart: A Memoir of When Our Son Came Out, the work is much larger than mere memoir. What it’s really about is the inevitability of human fallibility and the redeeming and affirming birth of compassion. What’s really astonishing about this work is that Dew can handle humor in the midst of this. At one point she describes her unintentionally comic reaction upon learning of her son’s homosexuality: “You mean you let me decorate the Christmas tree all by myself every year!” Her son replies: “I didn’t think you’d want it done all in mauve.” Dew’s story is writ large and its message becomes universal as she explores homophobia and the nature of our society. In questioning her own values, she comes to examine the values of our culture. “Just what is meant by ‘a good family,?” she writes. When her son tells her he’s been involved with someone for a year, she automatically asks: “Is he from a good family?” Her son, apparently as gifted in wit as his mother, answers: “Yes, pretty good, but I’ve heard one of the sons is gay.” In The Family Heart we are privileged to get a glimpse inside a real one.
The King My Father’s Wreck, by Louis Simpson.
The King My Father’s Wreck is an evocative memoir in which poet Louis Simpson explores his relationship to his native Jamaica, his parents, and his life’s central experiences. Told episodically, these essays utilize Simpson’s characteristic pithy tone and straightforward delivery. Simpson discovered his love of literature early in life but found that this posed a problem for him as a citizen of a British colony: “The more I liked Shakespeare, the less able I was to find poetry in my surroundings, and the more uncouth the native speech sounded to my ears.” Now, late in life, finding poetry in his day-to-day experiences has become his central poetic ambition. Although Simpson believes that “fiction is more interesting, more alive, than most people’s lives,” he shows that this is not true of his own life. This is because he has the ability to illustrate the emotional struggles that lie behind life’s events and his deft use of particular detail, which are skills that he also shows in his poems. Story Line $14.95
Gertrude Stein, In Words and Pictures, edited by Renate Stendhal.
“A rose is a rose is a . ..” is only one such. Consider “I am yes sir I am I. /1 am I yes madame am I I.” Or more understandably, “I am because my little dog knows me.” This book, with its many many quotes from her many many works and pictures and captions of pictures and formal informal poses and no poses at all takes you into the life and times of Gertrude and Alice in a way that no mere text of letters could do. People who dislike Gertrude Stein will probably not be persuaded. But for those who have a slight curiousity about this woman, who readily acknowledge her genius and want to know more about her life, her style, her thinking, and her friends will find this book a compendium unlike any other. Recommended.
The Real Life of Mary Ann Evans: George Eliot, Her Letters and Fiction, by Rosemarie Bodenheimer.
Mining George Eliot’s letters for both biographical and rhetorical data, Bodenheimer brings the correspondence into compelling conjunction with the fiction. At her best, she writes eloquently and perceptively about such little-studied aspects of the novelist’s life as her relations with her lover’s sons and her attitudes toward autobiography. Particularly illuminating on the intricacies of reading personal letters, on Daniel Deronda, and on the issue of gossip in Middlemarch, she sounds less persuasive when she writes about Silas Marner and when she offers broad generalizations about Eliot’s psychology. Cornell $33.95
History Continues, by Georges Duby.
In these pleasantly-written, and elegantly-translated, autobiographical sketches, Duby draws back the veil to reveal the growth and development of his own historical studies and interests from the time he was a student in the 1940’s. As a confession of faith in the profession and an affirmation of the significance of the ideas and institutions of the Middle Ages, these are fascinating glimpses of selected passages in a distinguished scholarly career. As a chronicle, in which the facts for once are all in the author’s hands, it conveys the unfailing freshness and excitement of research among the parchment books and rolls, the satisfaction that comes from restoring the dead to memory, and the importance of prodigious reading, discipline, modesty, and imagination to success in the loneliest metier. Chicago $24.95
Pocahontas. The Evolution of an American Narrative, by Robert S. Tilton.
Pocahontas probably is only her nickname. The portrait in the National Portrait Gallery is inscribed “Matoaka aka Rebecka,” the first her proper Indian name, the other baptismal. She left no verifiable words of her own, Tilton points out. Her words and actions all have been formulated by others. Her father was surely the great chief Powhatan, she did marry John Rolfe, and, as Rebecca, visit England, where she died young. Whether she saved the life of John Smith, the act for which she is remembered, is questionable. Nevertheless, she is an abiding image in American history, an image whose uses and ambiguities (e.g., as to intermarriage) are nicely traced in this book. It would be worth reading before seeing the forthcoming Disney movie.
Cambridge $59.95 cloth, $17.95 paper
Vanessa Redgrave: An Autobiography, by Vanessa Redgrave.
Once hailed by Tennessee Williams as “the greatest actress of the English-speaking theater,” Vanessa Redgrave has written an engrossing, articulate, and moving account of a remarkable and unconventional life. From her origins in London as the daughter of famous actor parents (Rachel Kempson and Michael Redgrave), to her present day performances on the New York stage, Ms. Redgrave offers vivid and generous portraits of the people in her life, as well as insightful descriptions of her extensive stage and screen career. With unapologetic candor, Ms. Redgrave attempts to reconcile her artistic sensibilities with the political activism which has often rendered her damaging unpopularity. By the end of the book, what emerges is a portrait of a fiercely passionate, courageous, and extraordinary woman for whom the personal and the political are ultimately and inextricably linked. Random House $25
The Memory Book of Starr Faithfull, by Gloria Vanderbilt.
In 1931 the battered body of beautiful socialite Starr Faithfull washed up on a New York beach. She was 25 years old. Her diary—a “Memory Book”—was discovered; it contained erotic passages concerning her much older cousin, a former mayor of Boston. Vanderbilt takes this true story and fills in the gaps, creating her own version of the lost Memory Book. While the Memory Book is an entertaining read with its historically accurate portrayal of an era of flappers, bathtub gin, and Atlantic crossings, Starr’s own voice is monotonous and repetitive. Passages echo one another so often that the reader experiences deja vu. It is difficult to feel sympathy for a character who is a parody of lost innocence rather than an example. Knopf $24
The Topical Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by Glen M. Johnson.
The final volume is a series of three, this edition of four notebooks covers the last period of Emersons’s life. The scholar of Emerson will value the insight into the genesis of his thought, including the notes for the lectures on “Poetry and Imagination.” Other readers may enjoy the vigorous style, the epigrams and anecdotes, and the glimpse into the way a mind of the calibre of Emerson’s works in private.
The Letters of Lady Arbella Stuart, edited by Sara Jayne Steen.
Lady Arbella Stuart was niece to Mary Queen of Scots, and a no less intense and turbulent character. In her introduction Steen draws on the accounts of Stuart’s admirers and detractors to paint the picture of a woman who refused to submit to her culture’s definition of proper female behavior but struggled within and against the political system. The letters themselves, to many of the key figures in Elizabethan politics, show a passionate and intelligent personality in a fascinating chapter of history. Oxford $39.95
Philip Johnson: Life and Work, by Franz Schulze.
Judicious, witty, and unsparing, this is the first biography of one of the most prominent architects of our time, still active at 88. Architect of the minimalist luxe Glass House, the Crystal Cathedral, and the AT&T Building (with its distinctive notched roofline, like a Chippendale highboy), Johnson’s life is as eclectic as his art. Patrician, charming, and acerbic, the well-to-do Johnson flirted with philiosophy and classics at Harvard; with the politics of Nazi Germany and of demagogue Huey Long; and with any number of homosexual lovers. He emerges from Schulze’s study as a man owing his professional longevity not only to his aesthetic gifts but to the brazen self-advancement epitomized by his notorious self-assessment: “I am a whore.”
Agent for the Resistance: A Belgian Saboteur in World War II, by Herman Bodson.
This memoir reveals how the cruel German occupation of Belgium transformed a young pacifist into an active saboteur and “a cold killer” who could blow up 600 German troops on a transport train or murder Belgians suspected of collaboration. While Bodson’s “was only a tiny part of a grand and vast effort” to rid Europe of fascism, the ability of his men to impede the German war effort by, for instance, sabotaging the Berlin-Paris telephone cable on D-Day highlights the significance of this tiny part. His memoir is an important contribution to “the story of the underground [which] will never be known in its totality, never with great accuracy. It was too secret, too compartmentalized, and no archives were left to consult.”
Texas AirM $24.95
Failure Is Impossible, by Lynn Sherr.
The subtitle, Susan B. Anthony in Her Own Words, accurately, if not completely, announces the substance of this fascinating treatment of the thought and work of that person arguably the most influential in bringing about the enfranchisement of American women, a major component of the broader liberation of one half of our population. In addition to Anthony’s own words, from her journals, correspondence, and speeches, Sherr also includes excerpts of early diatribes of journalists and other opponents of the idea of votes for women in the early stages of the movement and, beginning in the second half of Anthony’s crusade, words of approval and encouragement, and ending up with encomiums of praise and appreciation for a life dedicated with single-minded devotion to a worthy cause. Sherr connects the quoted words with time, place, and other explanations.
Random House $23
The Concubine’s Children, by Denise Chong.
The Concubine’s Children describes a family split by chance, war, and culture. Chong recounts the history of her maternal grandparents: in 1913 her grandfather sojourned to the “Gold Mountain” of Canada in hopes of gaining the wealth needed to secure the prosperity of his family in China, her grandmother was later sent to be his concubine while his first wife remained in their ancestral village. The Concubine’s Children is a complex and moving account of immigration, acculturation, and exploitation. Ms. Chong writes powerfully and beautifully of her grandparents, their strengths and failings, and of the family they did not want to leave behind.
Summer Blue, by Floyd Skloot.
Skloot, a poet and novelist, writes with a poet’s eye about the summer travels of a young widower and his 15-year-old daughter, Jill, as they come to terms with the recent loss of her mother and Jill’s concomitant fitful entry into adulthood. Skloot’s prose is graceful and clear; his eye for detail is especially good. The book’s pathos stems from the necessary gulf between father and daughter. There is love between them, and a comfortable understanding built upon familiarity and fondness, but finally he must learn that Jill, like the other women in his life, is only partially revealed to him: Jill is a young adult, with integrity and mystery and trouble of her own. The book’s strength is in its clarity, one might almost say its modesty. It is the heartfelt, closely told story of two people working out their love for each other, nothing more, and absolutely nothing less. Highly recommended. Storyline Press $18.95
The Adventures of Maqroll, by Alvaro Mutis. Translated by Edith Grossman.
Readers first encountered the enigmatic seaman and world traveler Maqroll in Mutis’ 1992 recounting of his weird and wonderful adventures. Now, further episodes in the life of this wanderer are told in four novellas by one of Colombia’s most interesting prose stylists. Odd entanglements, memorable characters, and a deep insight into man’s moral life mark these colorful texts and invite readers into Maqroll’s special world. Mutis, who is the recipient of numerous prizes and whose poetry has appeared in The New Yorker, is a skilled writer whose originality shines clear in this book. HarperCollins $24
Dead Lagoon, by Michael Dibdin.
Aurelio Zen is descended from an influential Venetian family but now works for an elite investigative squad in Rome. Strapped for cash, Zen uses a pretext to return to Venice so he can pursue a lucrative case off the books. What he finds is a number of seemingly unrelated cases as shrouded with mystery as the city’s famous dense and impenetrable fogs. Full of color and a keen sense of place, Dibdin’s novel is a meditation on contemporary European problems as well as a mystery that readers of well-crafted fiction will enjoy.
Original Sin, by P.D. James.
P.D. James, the formidable queen of English mystery writing, is back with a literary flourish. Adame Dalglish, the brooding poet/detective, must figure out why someone has killed the head of an illustrious publishing company housed for many years in a Venetian palazzo on the Thames. James’ evocative prose brings the house and the river to life even as she describes the publishers and authors who fight and fume within those noble walls. Once again, James proves herself adept at spinning the web of a good mystery. But her real strength lies in her diverse characters— whether delving into the past of a temporary secretary who finds the first body or the complex relationship between the investigating officers. Knopf $24
Good Benito, by Alan Lightman.
Good Benito chronicles the story of a highly talented and successful theoretical physicist from his early science experiments to his mature academic career. The novel begins in medias res as Bennett is asked by his dean to wrest some results from a reclusive (and fat) genius who is presented to us as simply intuiting answers to problems that other practitioners will struggle for years to grasp, but who keeps all his lightning flashes hidden away in file cabinets, unpublished, disorganized, indecipherable. The opening encounter with the genius seems to foreshadow the closing episode of Bennett’s marriage to a talented but stubbornly underconfident painter who, like the genius, also resists exhibiting her work. But “good Benito” (a childhood nickname that seems apt for nine-tenths of the novel) inexplicably becomes cruel to this sensitive woman. Why? Because she needs his support? Because she lacks the ambition that Bennett has? Or because all along Bennett has been basically unable to love anything that isn’t pure and elegant as an equation? This is a highly readable book, with the beautifully lucid though somewhat bloodless prose style of Einstein’s Dreams, Lightman’s first novel. But I cannot tell if the moral of the story is enigmatic or just confused. Pantheon $21
Eyes of a Child, by Richard North Patterson.
The eyes in this case belong to Elena Arias, who is being whipsawed between the needs and desires of her high-powered lawyer mother and her ne’er-do-well father. They are locked in the mother of all custody battles, both angling for Elena’s love. The book centers on a murder trial, written lovingly with great attention to detail. Those associated with the trial—the judge, jury, prosecutor, and defense attorney—are all wonderfully drawn characters. The story outside the trial, however, is the one that will stay with the reader, for it shows how the most innocent of us can become enmeshed in tragedy. And how all it takes is a cunning enemy and a bit of bad luck to run seriously afoul of the law.
Open Water, by Maria Flook.
Like the predictable cycles of tide and current that nonetheless often break into violent storms, Flook’s second novel is built around a series of parallels that are as apt to give way to the unforeseen as to reflect the continuity of established patterns. Flook’s characters inhabit the beautiful resort shores of Rhode Island, but, apart from a few unintended visits, they don’t frequent the plush hotels or Victorian showplace mansions. Rather, these people are caught in strings of bad luck that their own impulsiveness, misjudgment, or the vengeance of enemies helps to perpetuate. There are accidental deaths at sea and in cars; drug addiction, wounded and dying animals; house fires—these and more punctuate lives filled to the brim with mischance. Yet the characters persevere, looking for love, cooking up schemes, working at jobs legal and illegal. Above all, they strive to remain true to whatever means most in their lives. Meanwhile, Flook places their actions amid richly described oceanfront landscapes, generously seasoning the idyllic with peppery dialogue and gritty humor. Pantheon $24
Arctic Navigation, by Elizabeth Arthur.
Elizabeth Arthur’s new novel is the story of Morgan Lamont, a young wealthy American woman who recollects her attempt to duplicate the disastrous Robert Falcon Scott expedition to the South Pole. To actually get to Lamont’s polar expedition, however, the reader must wade through 600 pages of recollections of Lamont’s youthful experiences. These, regrettably, and with tedious predictability, take the reader through a tour of every fashionable cause and trend of the 1970’s and 1980’s— from anti-imperialism to environmentalism to quantum theory. This wouldn’t be so bad were it not for the very pedestrian nature of Lamont’s musings on these subjects. If the reader actually manages to follow Lamont’s story through every twist and turn of her childhood and early adult life, the story of her ultimately successful trek across the Antarctic is well-written, but ultimately not inspiring. This book could have used a much more assertive editor, and 600 fewer pages. Knopf $25
Mirrors Kill, by Jack Curtis.
Tom Bullen has more than a passing acquaintance with the British secret services, having served as a courier from time to time during the Cold War. But he gets a little bit over his head in this ruthless tale of murder, betrayal, and high stakes chicanery. As a genre, the thriller is usually long on action and special effects and short on characterization, plausibility, and good writing. Curtis, by contrast, wields an able pen and concocts a satisfyingly complex story that reads remarkably well.
Galaxy Girls: Wonder Women, by Anne Whitney Pierce.
This collection of short stories offers snippets of the lives of 10 girls and women, from the awakening of a 12-year-old whose beautiful mother’s latest lover assures her that she, too, is lovable to an aging mother whose daughter joins her in an escape from a retirement home. Pierce’s style is clear and clean and her descriptions compelling and lifelike, but her plots and characters share a similarity that goes beyond sisterhood. Four of the 10 stories deal with women who have had siblings or friends die young, three by drowning. Two of the women are night nurses and two are photographers. Most have had distant or disapproving parents, usually mothers, and are dealing poorly with the men in their lives. In short, an enjoyable collection of stories that nonetheless leaves one with the impression of just having left a support group for the vaguely discontented.
Helicon Nine Editions $12.95
Black Cipher, by Payne Harrison.
This is a particularly inept example of the techno-thriller, combining all the wooden writing and paranoia of Robert Ludlum with the Wagnerian doomsday elements of Tom Clancy. The implausible plot centers on the efforts of a cryptanalyst to thwart a conspiracy to take over what remains of the British Empire. Studded with italicized exclamations that provide ersatz emotion, the writer’s real passion lies in the description of organizations and machines, on both of which Harrison lavishes great and loving attention to detail. Readers who get jazzed thinking of high-performance vehicles might enjoy this book; to the rest, it’s a clunker.
Kid’s Stuff, by Susan B. Kelly.
This is another mystery starring the likeable Inspector Nick Trevellyan. Quiet but persistent he gets to the bottom of a ring of child pornographers in the town of Penhaligon, District of Hop Valley, Cornwall, England. Not the usual crime for this scene, but soon there is a suicide (possibly a murder), a case of post-natal depression, some charming children and their horses, and a cast of unusual characters. A crashing climax lets you put the book down with a nod. Kelly has done it again as she finds her way into the upper ranks of British mystery writers. Scribner’s $20
The Paperboy, by Pete Dexter.
Jack James suffers from the younger brother syndrome—he lives in the shadow of the successes of both his newsman father and his older brother Ward, an accomplished investigative reporter. Jack’s role is to endure the unwelcome expectations that families impose on younger siblings. His adolescent failures leave him on the least favored seat in the news world, perched in the cab of a delivery truck. But since perspective is everything, Jack provides the clearest point of view for the telling of this tale of professional egos, smoldering id, and the journalistic investigation of a murder in Florida’s swampy backwaters. This is the fifth novel by Pete Dexter; like Paris Trout and Brotherly Love before it, Dexter fills this book with characters who intrigue us with their accommodation with cynicism and their capacity for evil. As before, Dexter is a deft guide to the rancid corners of an uninviting world.
Random House $23
The Nature of Longing, by Alyce Miller.
This collection of stories—eight in all— won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. The common denominator of the set is marginality, that characteristic setting characters apart from the main stream, not quite important enough to count to society generally, too peculiar to find a place in the social register. A black man visiting his aged white grandmother, a gay male librarian who yearns for the persona of his flamboyant female cousin, a mother of color who cannot bring herself to name her alien albino daughter—confusions of race and gender that call forth a yearning from the confused to belong to someplace, some group, someone. The stories reverberate with cries of the heart echoing from voices on every point of the multicultural landscape. Georgia $19.95
Angel Angel, by April Stevens.
A witty and compassionate domestic drama, Stevens’ first novel portrays the weary collapse of Augusta Iris after her feckless husband leaves her. Augusta’s two grown sons step in to help only to find themselves in panicked retreat; studious Mathew comes home from graduate school only to hide in his room as his mother does in hers, while Henry gets stoned and cuts lawns all summer long. Then Bette Mack, a no-nonsense girl in pink spandex, enters the family. The novel focusses on the sometimes alarming impact Bette has on a household numbed by despair and rootIessness; it avoids easy sentimentality by acknowledging the pain in Bette’s life as well as that in the Iris family. Admirable too is the quiet polish of Stevens’ prose and her unerring knack for dialogue both comic and real. Angel Angel is a poised, generous, and auspicious debut. Viking $19.95
NATIONAL & INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS
Campus Wars: Multiculturalism and the Politics of Difference, edited by John Arthur and Amy Shapiro.
Desperately needed since the early 80’s has been a serious overview of warrantable beliefs—left, right, and center—about the content of the curriculum, hate (versus free) speech, sexual harassment, and affirmative action. Edited by a philosopher of constitutional law and a legal historian, this anthology fills the void with solid, rigorous, and significant statements from all sides of the debate. Clarifying what incomplete and tendentious accounts had muddled, the essays (by Allan Bloom, John Searle, Stanley Fish, Catharine MacKinnon, Camille Paglia, Arthur Schlesinger, Hilary Putnam, and others) enable readers to study and judge the goals and assumptions, evidence and logic, conclusions and practical consequences of the major viewpoints. As such, Campus Wars is an invaluable corrective and more: it is required reading.
Among the Lowest of the Dead: The Culture of Death Row, by David von Drehle.
The perfect death penalty—predictable and swift—is not possible to legislate or to carry out. Drehle provides ample support for this in his absorbing book. He starts with the case of John Spenkelink as a model, telling of his crime, trial, sentencing, appeals, and eventual execution. He was the first person to receive capital punishment in the United States, after the Supreme Court lifted its ban in 1972. It took six years before his sentence was carried out. At the time of his execution 134 other prisoners were on Florida’s death row. It is understandable why each sentence of death carries with it the assurance of expenditures of millions of dollars and years of time, not to say the agonized efforts of lawyers and the arousing of public opinion, pro and con. Besides relating the technicalities of appeal, he gives attention to the prisoners, telling how they spend the years in high security and describing the gruesome crimes which brought them there. This book is neither a polemic against capital punishment, nor a sob story pleading for leniency. It will certainly carry further the dialogue regarding one of the more contentious laws on the books of the U.S. Times Books $25
The Empire of Fashion: Dressing Modern Democracy, by Gilles Lipovetsky.
The cynic will no doubt chuckle at the thought of a book on fashion serving as one of the first offerings in a series of translations entitled “New French Thought.” And indeed, Lipovetsky’s ability to gracefully link the ephemeral world of fashion to profound questions about freedom and the rise of individualism does remind one of the era when Barthes, Foucault et. al. made French intellectual life the most fashionable in the world. Lipovetsky traces the history of fashion, defined especially by its chartering of a break with tradition and its emphasis on individual choice, and shows that its growth has followed that of modern democracy. Today the logic of fashion has moved beyond the realm of clothing to determine the flow of virtually everything, including information and political ideologies. This is all for the best, though, because wherever fashion rules, individual choice and thus democracy are enhanced. Lipovetsky’s Panglossianism echoes that of earlier work in cultural studies, and the similarity may reduce the book’s shock value here. Yet Lipovetsky has serious things to say and an easy way of backing into fundamental topics in political and social theory. This book deserves a wide audience. Princeton $24.95
The Death of Common Sense, by Philip K. Howard.
The subtitle, “How Law is Suffocating America,” is explored at length with many illustrations: Mother Teresa, for instance, had to give up on her idea to use an empty building in the South Bronx to shelter the homeless because codes required an elevator in every renovated multiple-story building. The elevator made no sense because her Sisters of Charity never used them, and it would have cost too much. Multiply this by hundreds of examples taken from cases of EPA, civil rights, discrimination, and we look in vain for common sense. Questions of responsibility vs control, of discretion vs regulation, of individual flexibility vs a requirement that applies to all, and we have some of the answers to why there is a choking of democracy and growing cynicism toward government. Howard proposes remedies which in themselves are so sensible that one doubts their acceptance. The book, however, is current confirmation of Macawber’s proclamation, “If the law says that, then the law is a ass!”
Random House $18
The Struggle for Russia, by Boris Yeltsin.
By the time this review appears, Boris Yeltsin may well have passed from the Russian political scene. An heroic figure in 1989-1991, he reached the summit of his career and the maximum of his talent when he stood atop that tank to save Russia from the “vodka putsch.” It has been downhill, mostly, since that dramatic confrontation in August 1991. Unable to get a grip on himself, let alone Russia, he continues to cling to power, and no self-serving autobiography is going to alter the way history perceives him. In or out of power, Yeltsin has had his day. Times Books $25
Media Matters: Everyday Culture and Political Change, by John Fiske.
Well known in cultural studies circles, Fiske here focuses on a series of “media events” which occupied Americans between 1991 and 1993: the Dan Quayle-Murphy Brown debate over “family values,” the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings, the Rodney King beating and subsequent Los Angeles “uprisings.” Fiske perceptively analyzes the role of the media in playing to white male fears about black men and professional women. He does not, however, blame the media; rather, he argues that their stereotypical portrayals of public figures embody deep cultural anxieties and serve as a focal point for debate and political struggle. Fiske is above all concerned with questions of power: who controls media interpretations and how are alternative viewpoints suppressed or facilitated? Unlike much writing in cultural studies, Fiske’s book is clear and relatively free of jargon. It could be stimulating reading for a variety of audiences.
The State within a State: The KGB and Its Hold on Russia—Past, Present and Future, by Yevgenia Albats.
This book ought to be mandatory reading for everyone in government, the media, and academia who professes to known something about Russia. Ms. Albats, a courageous journalist, uncovers and puts on display that which every thinking Russian (but maybe only a dozen Americans) knows, namely, that the KGB lives. Not only that: it sends its operatives here, and government, academic, and media circles lionize them, give them space on the op-ed pages, make them professors, hold banquets for them. For shame. And God bless Ms. Albats and her publisher.
Farrar Straus Giroux $25
More Precious than Peace: The Cold War and the Struggle for the Third World, by Peter W. Rodman.
Ever since “Third World” and “Developing Nations” became everyday figures of political speech we have all assumed we knew what we were talking about. It turns out—no great surprise here—that we were wrong. In Mr. Rodman’s enlightening dissection of the great rivalry between the old USSR and the West, it turns out that both sides were merely playing a kind of poker in which each agreed to lose but disagreed on both amount and currency. This is a stimulating reassessment. Scribners $35
Common Places: Mythologies of Everyday Life in Russia, by Svetlana Boym.
Is anyone still interested in Russia? The books keep coming out, in part because of the time lag between contract and actual appearance, but Americans have greeted almost all of them with a bored yawn. The fate of 150,000,000 impoverished people living under a native Mafia just does not stir the imagination the way the old USSR did, mainly because it is not a threat. Ms. Boym, a filmmaker and essayist at Harvard, stitches together some highly impressionistic pieces in this rather pretentious academic exercise which will be of interest chiefly to the dwindling band of professors who make their living amusing each other.
Wedge: The Secret War Between the FBI and the CIA, by Mark Riebling.
Riebling’s impressive documentation of the 50-year-long rift between the Federal law enforcement agency and the younger spying and counterintelligence body is chilling, sobering, and thought provoking. He details the possibility that failures of coordination between the two were factors in such tragedies as the assassination of President Kennedy, the Watergate fiasco, the Iran-Contra illegality, right down to the Rick Ames revelations. Hoping that there might be some yet-undiscovered remedy for the conflict, the author perhaps unintentionally reveals once more the truth of the moral-ethical maxim that a desirable objective is diminished in the measure that immoral actions are used to achieve it.
Saving “Old Glory”: The History of the American Flag Desecration Controversy, by Robert Justin Goldstein.
Goldstein set out to write a book on the 1989—90 controversy as to whether the burning of the American flag should be an act protected by the constitutional right to freedom of speech: a controversy sparked by Gregory Lee Johnson’s 1984 flag-burning in Dallas. He ended up writing three books, of which this is the first to appear. The book traces the history of flag desecration and the legal decisions and public controversy that has surrounded it since the days after the Civil War, through the Vietnam era to the most recent controversy. Accounts of the minutiae of court decisions inevitably (I think) make for rather dry reading, but Goldstein’s treatment of the interaction between constitutional issues and public opinion is skillful, and his handling of the political and philosophical issues involved is fair-minded: not least because he carefully spells out his own position in a thoughtful preface, as a way, he says of putting the reader “on guard” against any bias which might creep into his account. Westview $29.95
The Myth of the Modern Presidency, by David Nichols.
The conventional wisdom among scholars of the American presidency is that a fundamental change took place in the nature of our nation’s highest office during the tenure of Franklin Roosevelt. After FDR, presidents were expected to be the initiators of legislation, the managers of an activist federal bureaucracy, and the shapers of the national morale. In a provocative and important book, David Nichols argues that the basic elements of what is called the “modern presidency” can be found in the Constitution and in the intention of the framers. Moreover, a close look at 19th-century presidential behavior reveals plenty of examples of what appear to be modern presidential performance. Nichols writes well and uses a wide range of sources in history, political science, and political theory. His book should stimulate a worthwhile debate about whether the American political system was radically transformed by the New Deal and the Second World War, or whether it just got bigger. Penn State $32.50
Allegories of America, by Federick M. Dolan.
Frederick Dolan examines American identity from the standpoint of contemporary political theory. Using an approach that makes use of some of the many narratives of American national identity, Dolan asks how America has formulated a coherent politics in the absence of a coherent metaphysics. His thoughtful argument begins with an analysis of John Winthrop’s mid-Atlantic sermons and ends with a fascinating discussion that explores the ways in which two fiction writers, William S. Burroughs and James Merrill, have contributed to the refiguring of political thought in the late 20th century. Allegories of America also includes a useful assessment of Hannah Arendt’s important contribution to American political theory, On Revolution. Cornell $15.95
Rajiv Gandhi and Rama’s Kingdom, by Ved Mehta.
In his latest collection of narrative essays on Indian politics, Mehta covers the crisis-ridden decade from 1982 to 1993, which witnessed the Bhopal Union Carbide disaster, the demolition of the Babri Mosque by Hindu fundamentalists, and the assassinations of Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv. Writing as an expatriate journalist, Mehta largely avoids analytical treatment of these complex events; when he probes deeper, he is liable to facile speculation. For example, he explains Indira Gandhi’s failure to avoid the fatal clash with Sikh separatists by giving credence to the rumor that she had lost her zest for life following her son Sanjay’s death years before. Mehta’s strength rather is in his fluid, entertaining style, through which he provides intriguing glimpses into the chaotic drama of modern Indian politics. Yale $20
After Colonialism: Imperial Histories and Postcolonial Displacements, edited by Gyan Prakash.
The 13 essays in this volume have been chosen from an ongoing seminar on “Imperialism, Colonialism, and the Colonial Aftermath” held at Princeton University between 1990 and 1992. The contributors are drawn from literary and cultural studies, anthropology, and history, and their work represents the latest in subaltern studies and theorizing about postcolonialism. According to the editor, “the essays in this volume … unsettle the calmness with which colonial categories and knowledges were instituted as the facts of history.” The contributors challenge disciplinary categories, conventional notions of cultural difference, and offer alternative “displacements,” but, as is often the case in collections such as this, the individual essays are of varying quality.
Princeton $49.50 cloth, $16.95 paper
Just Here, Just Now, by R.H.W. Dillard.
Original and fully developed metaphor is so rare in poetry, a poet is lucky to write one or two in a lifetime. So, in his new collection, Dillard wisely puts “Tips For A Traveler” on the first page. Yet, surprisingly, those that follow do not suffer by comparison, since he has a seemingly inexhaustible supply of rich imagery and variety of form, like the dark implication of “Brain Power” and the word-music of “Ornette”—not only fun to read, but involving, evocative—exactly what fine poetry is meant to be.
Louisiana $15.95 cloth, $8.95 paper
In the Country of Elegies, by T. Alan Broughton.
A poet writes his poems one at a time; his unfortunate reader is confronted by them all in an afternoon. These writings wash across you like powerful waves, following one after another. The elegies go from sad to sadder; each with its burden of unrecoverable loss. Also there are sets of poems under such headings as “Don Giovanni’s Dream,” and “Letters to Van Gogh” which come as close as one could want toward touching the frightening images of id within all of us. A rare, striking concept leaps out, like, “… even the stones must bend/to time’s slow current.” This is Broughton’s fifth collection of poems, which constitutes only a part of his work. It reveals, again, an outstanding talent for not stating the obvious.
Carnegie Mellon $11.95
White Pine, by Mary Oliver.
Mary Oliver believes that “[t]o pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” And each poem in White Pine illustrates this credo. Her language, as always, is direct and accessible, and her images are taken almost always directly from nature. Read as a group, these poems show a woman working to be happy and happily working: “What I want to know, please, is / what is possible and what is not. / If it is not, then I am for it.” At her strongest Oliver proves to be a wonderful guide to the natural world. She can run through the series of imitations in a mockingbird’s call, make one see how the owl’s face resembles that of an lynx, or convey without judgment the beauty and brutality in nature. At times, Oliver becomes sentimental, as when she talks to a toad as to Buddha or when she imagines a spider scolding her for walking through its web. And her world seems to have shrunk to the range of her morning walk. This said, White Pine certainly offers many pleasures for the reader, and those familiar with Oliver’s previous work will surely enjoy these poems as well.
Harcourt Brace $19.95 cloth, $11.95 paper
The Neighbor, by Michael Collier.
With their eloquent delivery, detailed descriptions, and emotional resonance, Michael Collier’s poems combine the pleasures of a meditative poem with those of a narrative. Collier can reveal the mystery and power that lies behind the objects and experiences that fill any ordinary life— playing with a toy steam engine or the appearance of a raccoon outside one’s window. In his poems about going to the barber shop, visiting a “head shop,” and watching an S & M movie, Collier succeeds particularly well in evoking their moods and atmospheres. And he doesn’t shy from addressing the more menacing aspects of life. At times a sense of malevolence runs just beneath the surface of the poems. One example is his portrait of “The Rancher,” who reveals a disturbing curiosity about his own daughter. Another comes in “2212 West Flower Street,” which evolves out of the memory of a neighbor’s suicide. All told, The Neighbor presents a rich and complex vision of the world we live in. Chicago $9.95
Mose, by Loren Graham.
This book-length poem starts with day 1740 and ends with day 1594, counting down as prisoners do until their sentence is served. On one level it views the world through the prisoner’s thoughts and letters which he futilely longs to be answered; at another level it deals with the question of whether hope can survive in the face of utter and complete adversity. On both levels the reader is pulled along by action and wrenching emotions. The author, an assistant professor of English at Lynchburg College, has produced a work in an original style with a voice that never falters—that of a simple man trying to cope with forces that are overwhelming.
Wesleyan, $22.50 cloth, $10.50 paper
Above the The Line: Poems, by Kathy Mangan.
Rarely do you pick up a book of poems and only put it down when all have been read. This is one such. The poems breathe with life, with love, with loss and humor. And there are sonnets! Six, in the book’s center, tell of the love of father who accepts ungratefully the necessary nursing care. Others scattered through, as if not to make a show, reveal the depth of Mangan’s art. Rhymed and unrhymed, the poems communicate the feelings and the close observation of nature, of family, and in direct conversation with the reader, the poet’s desire to get in touch and be in touch with life. She succeeds beautifully.
Carnegie Mellon $11.95 paper
One Train: Poems, by Kenneth Koch.
This is about the tenth book of poems by Koch. An inveterate writer, he has also produced a collection of plays, a novel and some short stories. When one writes so much, there is a danger of forgetting something, or turning out a work in which a critical part is missing. In the case of this book, it is feeling. One can read page after page and not be touched, which is a definition of boredom. A nine-page poem without punctuation or meter, with no story line, form or astute observation is “writing” but misses the mark in claiming to be “poetry.” The 20 pages of aphorisms called “Aesthetics” felt strained, as if he were putting forth too much effort to be clever. Koch would benefit by taking more thought and avoiding the temptation of putting everything down on paper that comes to mind. Knopf $20
Always A Reckoning, and Other Poems, by Jimmy Carter.
One of the most remarkable lives of our generation is encapsulated in these poems. Whether one agrees with this man’s politics or not, one cannot read his poems, written and collected in his most mature years, without feeling along with him that life is worth living and memories worth recording. In sonnets, in free verse, often in rhyme, or in lyrics of unexpected beauty, they limn a life of impassioned endeavor and simple rewards. The reader is taken from world-shaking events, such as Vietnam or Martin Luther King, to intimate confessions of love for Rosalyn who would “smile, and the birds would feel they no longer had to sing.…” Peanut farming and possum hunting get their fair share of attention. This book could well be set out where friends pick it up—and they will—whether of one political persuasion or another. Times Books $18
School Figures, by Cathy Song.
Whether describing everyday errands or probing the depths of emotion, the poems in Song’s third collection are at once vivid and restrained. Her conversational tones and fluid, short-lined rhythms, lend themselves to an understated assurance, allowing the poet to startle—even to shock: “Lau Gung, / husband in Cantonese— / forty years slapped into two syllables. / Lau Gung, / fish for dinner, / head on the platter.” Many of Song’s poems focus on her Asian-American upbringing, and especially on the role of women in her family. These portraits and histories with which the book opens gradually give way to glimpses of Song’s own young family. The love poems to husband and to children, however, acknowledge links to the preceding generations. Yet this continuity does not constitute the entire texture of the work. Song also sees the innumerable facets which add luster to the whole. When she writes of Chagall, the particularities of his surrealistic vision might be her own: “It must be summer. / Look how he floats toward her, / twists his body for the inevitable kiss. / Where did he come from, / out of the blue day or into it?”
Pittsburgh $19.95 cloth, $10.95 paper
Ghost Letters, by Richard McCann.
If you like these lines, then I think you will like this volume of poems: “I paid attention to the woman muttering beside me on the subway: My misery, so desperately unwanted and yet so self-inflicted. . . And to the voice that came to me one night while I was ironing my shirts: Tend to the resurrection of the world!” These lines are characteristic because they show McCann juxtaposing everyday details of a very ordinary life with the spiritual promptings that are constantly visiting this poet from a mysterious and deeply felt “other” region. The poems are subtle almost to the point of being prosaic, but they are finally and overwhelmingly poetic because of McCann’s Whitman-like sense of the rhythm of the long line, even of the paragraph, and because of his knack for finding just the right image or adjective to help you visualize a scene and understand the feeling that the scene evokes. These are haunting poems about dying young (the immediate context is the AIDS epidemic) but they are neither morbid nor sentimental. This is a religious sensibility coming to grips with a secular and mortal world, and the dramatic tension that builds in the course of the volume is impressive and thought-provoking.
Alice James Books $9.95 paper
Articulations: The Body and Illness in Poetry, edited by Jon Mukand.
Illness can be viewed in many ways. Here, more than 250 poems calmly state the view from the patient (Just Where Grace Resides), the one with the scalpel (Gentleness and the Scalpel), the family (Afraid to Name this Dying), and several others which deal with mental illness, social issues, and women. It is an impressive array of contemporary poets including newcomers as well as some well known such as James Dickey, Anne Sexton and Denise Levertov. The collection overwhelms, with the varieties of ailments and treatments, but taken a little at a time, like any good medicine, the poems can be helpful in facing the complexity of healing and of death. Mukand has an unusual combination of degrees, in English and medical research, and this book adds to his earlier collection, Sutured Words. Iowa $19.95
Complete Poems, by Basil Bunting.
Bunting has been recognized for many years as one of the most important British poets of the 20th century. This volume contains, among other works, the complete text of Briggflatts (1965) which has been described as “the finest poem to have been published in England since T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.” In the league of Pound, Eliot, and Zukofsky, this volume will be treasured. For those just becoming acquainted with “The Objectivists” the poems in this volume would be a good start; many are open narrative, exciting and easily understood. The best rank with Eliot’s Wasteland and in that genre are layered in meaning, replete with classical references familiar to only a few scholars and therefore hardly accessible to the general reader. Oxford $16.95
The Unbeliever, by Lisa Lewis.
These long-lined, unrhymed poems take to the page with the expansiveness of narrative. And, indeed, Lewis thrives on stories, taking as points of departure “the big Sunday paper [where] every story is about death”; an account of “Bridget . . . in the Plain Dealer, / Who was shot in the arm”; and her own glimpses of diners, drivers, and children at bus stops. While she sometimes seems unsure how to wind up her tales, with their digressions that loop from present to past, and from strangers’ lives to her own, Lewis is not telling stories merely for their own sake. Rather, she writes in part to understand if every human life is so full of error and misfortune as to amount to “another cosmic joke.” Her own life story encompasses a rage and injustice worthy of melodrama—yet the authenticity of Lewis’s emotion and her clarity of expression steer clear of such a pitfall. While portraying her younger self—an unwanted child of an unwed mother—as “that kind of girl,” a girl reckless with drugs and sex, Lewis offers not cliches of the tough life, but surprises and insights. If her world is full of abusive lovers, it also contains beauty, as when, on Christmas Eve she found “some proof / Of Holy Spirit: every candle bore / The same flame, as one fire in splinters.” Wisconsin $10.95
Philip Guston, 1975-1980: Private and Public Battles, by Kim Sichel and Mary Drach Mclnnes.
Philip Guston’s final paintings earned him both scorn and praise. The scorn came mostly from those inside the New York art establishment, while the praise came from those outside this influential circle. With the passage of time, these energetic— though often difficult works—continue to rise in importance. This book documents Guston’s struggles to make (and teach) art that went beyond the “nuts and bolts of painting technique” to convey a more passionate “personal mission.” Two essays, an interview, and descriptions of the photographic plates document Guston’s thoughts, influences, and dilemmas. For those unfamiliar with—or as yet unmoved by—these paintings, this book offers a concise and insightful overview. Washington $17.50
Honor, by Frank Henderson Stewart.
In this concise, closely argued essay, Stewart argues for a new understanding of the social phenomenon of honor. His core contention is that honor is best understood not as a quality, like integrity, or as a feature of some sort of vague social standing like a reputation, but rather as a right. In particular, to have honor is to have a right to respect among a community of equals. In demonstrating the value of this view, Stewart uses material drawn from contemporary and historical Europe, and he draws on his own research among the Bedouin of the central Sinai. Few if any of the scholars from the social sciences, law, and the humanities who will find Stewart’s work useful will have consulted his range of sources. Both for its bibliographical thoroughness and for its conceptual innovations, this is a valuable book that should not be missed by those interested in honor.
Chicago $11.95 paper
Fire From Heaven, by Harvey Cox.
Pentecostalism has been largely overlooked by scholars of religion until very recently. Dubbed “Holy Rollers” in the past, this Christian movement was deemed deviant for its emphasis on individual experience of contact with the Holy Spirit, which manifests itself in visions, healings, and, most often, speaking in tongues. Harvard theologian and best-selling author Harvey Cox has explored the many faces of Pentecostalism, visiting congregations in Korea and Colombia as well as in the United States. He proposes that this fast-growing movement appeals to those religious seekers who are turned off by staid, over-intellectualized faiths, and notes its appeal to women and others traditionally left on the margins of religious authority.
Going Abroad: European Travel in Nineteenth Century American Culture, by William W. Stowe.
Stowe’s aim is to investigate the variety of uses which American culture and writers of the last century made of European travel and travel writing towards the forwarding of their own political, social or personal agendas. This is the best sort of cultural history: it interests itself in the “minor,” without neglecting the “major”, including chapters on James and Emerson as well as one of the guidebook as liturgy.
Subversive Virtue: Asceticism, and Authority in the Second Century Pagan World, by James A. Francis.
Francis explores the phenomenon of asceticism and the reactions to it in the late Roman Empire which formed the context of the much more frequently discussed ascetical tradition in early Christianity. He discusses the moderate form of asceticism sanctioned by stoicism, and the more acute suspicion with which some contemporaries regarded behavior they regarded as threat regarded behavior they regarded as threateningly deviant. Impressively documented.
Penn State $32.50
A Hunger So Wide And So Deep, by Becky W. Thompson.
At last here is a book about eating disorders that does not focus on the experiences of white, middle-class, heterosexual women. This is a compelling analysis framed around starkly revealing life history interviews of women who are mostly of color, lesbian, and/or poor. It effectively belies potent myths that such women are less subject to the stresses that often produce eating disorders. Over- and under-eating behaviors are holistically viewed as logical responses to actual traumas of sexual and racial abuse, compulsory hetero-sexism, poverty, and acculturation. Even if one is not persuaded by her every conclusion, Thompson’s faithful importation of these long silenced voices is so powerful that it is unlikely her reader will ever view this complex topic in quite the same way again. Minnesota $17.95
Literary Trivia, by Richard Lederer.
In the beginning there was trivia. Then came along the game “trivial pursuits.” Next came the unwitting parody of “trivial pursuits” known as “cultural literacy.” Remember that? Now here we have a sendup of “cultural literacy” in the form of “literary trivia”—a series of questions about all the books you should have read and their authors. Do you know which Russian author died of an artery burst in the lungs? You don’t? Then you really need this unabashedly trivial book. Vintage $10
Revolution in Clay: The Marer Collection of Contemporary Ceramics, by Mary Davis MacNaughton, et al.
Fred Marer, a mathematics professor at Los Angeles City College, collected more than 900 pieces of ceramics from the early 1950’s into the 1990’s. A man of modest means, he formed friendships with young artists and often purchased their work at the time it was made. The artists he befriended included prominent California potters, who had studied at the Otis Art Institute, including Peter Voulkos and Paul Soldner. The works in Marer’s collection document the “transformation from the inward focus of abstract expressionism … to the outward concentration of pop and minimalism.” This development gave ceramics a respected place in the larger art world. While the exhibit includes international potters such as Hamada, Leach, and Cardew, the majority of the work is by California potters. Because of this geographical limitation, the accompanying catalogue reinforces the stereotype that “the revolution in clay” took place exclusively in that state. Even with this limitation, though, Mr. Marer’s collection illustrates a significant movement in clay.
The Ceremonial City: Toulouse Observed, 1738-1780, by Robert A. Schneider.
This, the largest city in Southern France, within sight of the Pyrenees, is the venue for a psycho-sociological exploration into the modalities of public ceremonies developed over the centuries to foster community in the broadest sense. Drawing on a journal-commentary prepared by a Toulousain named Barthes, described by the author as “an opinionated, cranky reactionary… .” whose written observations over the 42-year period right at the time of the disintegration of the Old Regime form the substratum of fact for Schneider’s analysis. Not light stuff, the author discusses three principal categories of ceremonies: religious, political, and public executions, and leaves the reader wondering why it did not all come to an end sooner.