Economic instability, racial strife, international turmoil, strident critics, and advisors jockeying for position provide the grist for current political analysis. Surprisingly, these issues are also central to Noble Cunningham’s Presidency of James Monroe, which examines the challenges confronting Monroe during the years 1817-1825. Monroe’s responses to the Missouri Compromise, the economic panic of 1819, and European expansionism show the development of a distinctive leadership style—careful deliberation, study of all viewpoints, and consensus-building among advisors. Within this primarily political narrative, Monroe’s humanity also emerges as he chats with his wife and a visitor about paintings, dashes off notes to Cabinet members, and wrestles with the political and moral implications of slavery. Despite an occasional minor historical error (Monroe had one daughter, not two, when he sailed for France in 1794), Cunningham has provided a vivid, complex depiction of early 19th-century America and of its leader.
Drew Faust has long been known as a leading student of Southern politicians and intellectuals; now she will also be known as one of the best historians of Southern women. Her new book, eagerly awaited, does not disappoint. It explores the letters, diaries, and memoirs of elite Confederate women to see how they wrestled with the dilemmas and dramas presented by the Civil War. Faust refuses to romanticize these women, to dwell entirely on what they lost: their husbands and sons, their slaves and plantations. She does not portray them as steadfast supporters of the Confederacy that claimed to fight for their benefit, nor as incipient feminists who used the war to escape from their constricted roles. Rather, Faust forces us to recognize these women as self-interested individuals, eager to keep what they deemed theirs. The resulting portrayal is not always attractive, but it makes these women, for the first time, flesh and blood.
There is a spendid symmetry to studying libraries to gain insight into the sociology, culture, and politics of learning. Ms. Van Slyck examines the Carnegie library movement through a sophisticated interdisciplinary prism. In particular, her reading of the cultural coding implicit in the architectural design of the library makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the limitations of the doctrine “free to all.”
This important book is a wonderful brew of social history—the well-told stories of individuals plumbed for larger meanings—and intellectual history—the exploration of one paradigm and the slow awakening of another. As the framework of her analysis, Norton explores the Filmerian worldview of Puritan New England, named after Sir Robert Filmer, the English theorist of paternal power, in which all secular systems of authority rested on the father’s governance of his subordinates. By mining the court records, and by contrasting the Chesapeake area, which developed a kind of Lockean society before John Locke, with New England, Norton is able to recreate social and power relationships within the family, the community, and the state. Best of all, the court records yield delightful stories that with Norton’s help open a window on a past long shuttered from view.
How did pioneer communities make the transition from self-sufficiency to market production? Indeed, was such a transition a fundamental element in American economic history? Ms. Dunaway provides a stimulating discourse on this issue by exploring one of the most peripheral and isolated of all American regions— Southern Appalachia. She discovers more market penetration in the 18th century than previously thought, noting however that the region never made the full transition to capitalism, atrophying instead under the marginalizing pressure of the global marketplace.
Historians trained in elite Soviet schools in the late Brezhnev era, as the authors of this work were, are slowly emerging into the sunlight. In the present case the authors delight in exploding the myths of their youth and in getting to the bottom, as they now see it, of the Cold War. Stalin emerges here as less calculating, Khrushchev as even more erratic (if that is possible), Beria still more sinister, and a couple of other Kremlin players as mentally unbalanced. Based on Western published works and some Soviet-era archives.
As a professional historian, Prestwich is, rightly, more interested in what contemporary writers and records have to say about military recruitment and supply, strategy and tactics, and sieges and battles, than in trying to explain the past by applying modern standards and distinctions. The result is less a survey of warfare in the Middle Ages, than a well-organized collection of examples, drawn from the sources, which illustrate different aspects of armies in England. This is a common-sense approach which allows the reader to understand, for instance, the importance (generally underrated) of medieval strategic thinking, the difficulties (generally unappreciated) of command, the limitations (generally ignored) of the mounted knight, and the elusive nature and influence of chivalry. Moreover, by showing that there were many fundamental changes in warfare between 1050 and 1450, the author reduces the historical significance of the so-called “military revolution” of the 17th century to a ripple on the surface of what logically is a far more extensive and complex medieval period.
This collection of 15 essays, all but one of which has been previously published, considers several topics: the origins of the Civil War, its relation to American society, whether Northern victory in the war was inevitable, Lincoln’s role in the war, and, finally, why the gulf between professional and popular history keeps growing. McPherson is the most popular historian writing today for two reasons: he writes about the Civil War, still an American obsession, and he has a deeply moral view of the events he writes about. He believes strongly that slavery was wrong, that Lincoln was a great leader who wanted to end slavery, and that the North in the end did fight for a just cause. This morality is evident in all of these essays. McPherson also knows an almost inconceivable amount about the Civil War, and he produces a very nuanced view of his subjects, as evidenced in his essays on why the Confederacy lost the war. The combination of morality and intellectual honesty manifested in these essays makes McPherson a very unusual historian and one worth reading and rereading.
It took a while for community studies, a mainstay of social science and New England history since the 1960’s, to come to the South. But those studies are now proliferating, bringing the same strengths and weaknesses they brought to other fields of study. Jonathan Bryant’s book is in many ways a model history of a Southern place. It is carefully researched, thoughtfully considered, and written with sensitivity. The story it tells is that of a once-wealthy county in relentless decline after the Civil War. The tragedy of Greene County is that the same war that ended slavery unleashed a series of changes that produced a different kind of poverty. Bryant weaves together the linked stories of black and white, measuring what was won and lost with emancipation. As with community studies in general, the answer is not surprising but it does possess the weight and scale of a particular place and time. Bryant’s book makes a familiar history more human—and all the more bittersweet as a result.
There’s a word which, like “liberal” and “conservative,” assumes whatever meaning the speaker intends, but when you hear “fascist” you’re almost never in range of a compliment. Images of jackboots, black or brown shirts, hair-cuts only slightly longer than Benito Mussolini’s, pistols, whips, and unspeakable horrors spring to mind. Those images bear considerable resemblance to the reality not only of fascism but also of its kissing cousin, communism. Professor Payne discusses the various varieties of fascism in this comprehensive survey, which incorporates the latest scholarly research.
Professor Thurston, who teaches Russian history at Miami University in Ohio, concludes this book with the note that “Twice in that period [1933—1941] amelioration in political life and use of the law, with the promise of even better to come, dominated the scene. But twice this direction was broken by unplanned events. Of course Stalin contributed much to the maliciousness of the period, but he did not need to rule by terror.” Basing his account on the Russian archives and a fresh reading of the secondary literature, Thurston is nothing if not provocative. A dust jacket blurb observes that this book is “sure to reanimate a debate.”
This fascinating new exploration into the myths of the Incas from the perspective of modern astronomy reveals why the Incas were willing to risk their entire civilization in a desperate gamble to halt the apocalyptic changes that they expected to occur on earth, changes caused, they believed, by the great transitions taking place in the heavens. The Incas’ interpretation of the astronomical events that they encoded in their myths reveals that their priests expected a great cataclysm to destroy their world at about the time that the Conquistadors happened to arrive in the New World, and thus the myths explain why the Incas so readily allied with the Spanish.
Southerners wince to see their rankings at the very bottom of every scale when it comes to education. As hard as it may be to believe, there was a time when it was even worse. In the late 19th century, in the wake of war and emancipation, illiteracy ravaged Southern states. And among the most backward states was North Carolina, now known for its relatively enlighted support for education. James Leloudis’ book tells the story of the beginning of this transformation, when a number of reformers remade education there. Like the story of all reform, this one is decidedly mixed, with tangled motives, unintended outcomes, blind spots, and active prejudices. Yet Leloudis’s solid account reminds us just what these reformers were up against and how difficult even the slightest reform could be.
Writing for the laity, Chadwick unleashes the formidable talents long exhibited in the scholarly world as the reigning dean of Christian historians. Chadwick enlivens the Christian experience while detailing the Christian faith’s spread throughout the world. He thankfully avoids theological jargon as he guides the reader through the thicket of assorted theologies birthed in churches these last two millennia. Both doctrinal and cultural developments unique to the various confessions receive fair and substantive treatment. Extensively and beautifully illustrated, this volume contains an array of full-color art works that could by themselves justify its purchase.
Tyler traces upper- and middle-class white women’s political activism, broadly defined, after women won the vote, attempting to determine whether women were able to integrate into traditional politics at large, or whether they maintained their clout through women’s organizations. She contends that these activists balanced their traditional role as Southern women while establishing a public female identity; by doing so, they quietly eroded male dominance without appearing to question the patriarchal ethos. Women’s “golden age” of activism began in the 1930’s with opposition to the policies of Huey Long, and extended into the sixties, when racial issues complicated traditional divisions. Women participated along traditional lines in a variety of ways, though they did not often hold office. Nevertheless, they refused to allow their organizations to become mere adjuncts of men’s organizations.
Charles Wright is one of the most important poets writing in America today. He is revered by other poets for his pitch-perfect ear and verbal brilliance. He continually surprises and delights with the structural inventiveness of his poems and books. And, of course, his vision identifies him as one who has something worthwhile to say. In The Point Where All Things Meet, Tom Andrews culls the best of the criticism written about Wright and presents it in an excellent volume that gives both an overview of Wright’s career and focuses attention to specific volumes, themes, and obsessions. Both critics (including Helen Vendler, Calvin Bedient, and David Kalstone) and poets (including David St. John, Edward Hirsch, and Michael Chitwood) are included, and this diversity offers a rich perspective of readings. From interpretations of Wright’s use of the simile to examinations of the metaphysical elements in his work, these essays illuminate and compliment Wright’s poems. The Point Where All Things Meet is an excellent critical collection.
We normally think of bibliography as a scholarly activity necessary only in the case of authors from the distant past. In Shakespeare’s case, for example, sorting out the good from the bad quartos among early editions may be essential just to establishing accurate texts of his plays. But as William Schaberg shows, even with a relatively recent author such as Nietzsche, careful bibliographical study may illuminate our reading of his works. Because Nietzsche was in effect forced to pay for the printing of many of his works himself, the publication history of his books is especially important, and Schaberg ends up telling a fascinating tale of the German publishing scene in the second half of the 19th century. This book is probably not for the general reader, but Nietzsche scholars will find it very useful, especially for all the facsimiles of title pages from Nietzsche’s publications it reproduces, and the detailed descriptive bibliography of all his writings it includes.
All but four of the 20 essays in this powerful collection originally appeared in a special issue of Modern Language Quarterly. Each author teaches in an academic department of literature and language, but we are given a variety of critical views and methodologies. The topics addressed range from promising trends in medieval studies (Howard Bloch) to a new conception of American literary history (Jonathan Arac) to a defense of free speech in response to the views of Stanley Fish (Annabel Patterson). For good or for ill, these essays demonstrate that contemporary literary critics are as much concerned with the social and political as with the aesthetic.
This is a fascinating history of British philosophical aesthetics in the 18th century, which situates the rise of interest in theories of beauty and sensation, so characteristic of this age, not simply in the early stirrings of empiricist phenomenology, but in forms of religious speculation that had begun to displace the Biblical image of God and creation as early as the Renaissance. Against the Platonist heterodoxies of Lord Shaftesbury, Paulson poses the more somatocentric aesthetics of Hogarth. In reaction to Shaftesbury’s remote and dilettantish God, Paulson opines, Hogarth forged his aesthetics from the economies of flesh—the human form, particularly the female, occupying a position for him between beauty and sublimity, in the realm of novelty and strangeness. Paulson also treats literary figures, such as Fielding and Sterne, as in some sense practitioners of the aesthetics of Hogarth, accomplishing in prose narratives innovations comparable to Hogarth’s upon canvas. This is a book, in short, that adds something new to its field, and one whose execution is admirable in every part.
This is the latest volume in Oxford’s series Women Writers in English 1350—1850, which has rescued a number of worthy texts from obscurity. Lady Eleanor embarked upon her career as a mystic early in the reign of Charles I, and over the course of 27 years produced more than 60 tracts of apocalyptic prophecy. Elliptical, obscure, often fustian, these texts are still the products of a keen and fertile mind, and one deeply imbued with learning. The style mimics the Christian Apocalypse, but abounds in literary turns—many of them felicitous—that are quite original with her; she even occasionally wrote in verse. In short, this is a delightful and unexpected find, a volume that calls attention to a strange and gifted writer whose works merit preservation, and even occasionally praise.
The groundswell behind The Ecocriticism Reader has been building for 25 years, as literary scholars have gradually become more and more interested in exploring literary representations from an ecological perspective. Now Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm have gathered 25 essays—both classic texts and original writing—from the leading practitioners of “literary ecology” and framed them with a helpful introduction and a list of recommended books, periodicals, and professional organizations. The introduction defines ecocritical discourse, traces its evolution from the 1970’s to the present, and organizes its contributions into three categories: “Ecotheory: Reflections on Nature and Culture,” “Ecocritical Considerations of Fiction and Drama,” and “Critical Studies of Environmental Literature.” The contributions are diverse in both content and approach, treating such topics as nature writing, deep ecology and post-structuralism, the picturesque aesthetic and the national park system, the pathetic fallacy, nature and silence, and Native American modes of perception. Contributors include Paula Gunn Allen, Neil Evernden, William Howarth, Annette Kolodny, Ursula K. Le Guin, Scott Russell Sanders, Leslie Marmon Silko, Frederick Turner, and Lynn White, Jr.
If the madness of the poet is a deep theme of 20th-century poetry, it is a subject, as this book makes clear, with an extensive history, which carries us back to the Renaissance, to Torquato Tasso. Focusing on Goethe’s response to Tasso and on Blake, Byron, Shelley, and Hazlitt, among others, the author illuminates the visionary history of literature, penetrating the “dark labyrinth of irrationality.”
Although Shinder’s fifth theme-oriented anthology lacks the emotional bite of his previous collections which dealt with parent/child relationships, the volume does demonstrate the firm hold that film has always had on the American imagination. These American writers are arranged chronologically from Robert Frost (b. 1874) to Tom Andrews (b. 1961) and ideologically from Vachel Lindsay on Mae Marsh to Thylias Moss on Hattie McDaniel. Adventures, Westerns, romances, and mysteries, John Wayne, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, and Marlene Dietrich are all subject matter for the muses of the 117 poets and three songwriters. A delightful collection of literary insights into America’s second most favorite thing to do in the dark.
A fine poet with a distinguished record as an editor of, and commentator on, recent American verse, Lieberman here comes to grips with master texts by James Dickey, Robert Penn Warren, Stephen Berg, and, above all, Robert Lowell, whose last phase Lieberman seeks to rehabilitate. Highly eclectic, the essays combine formal, biographical, and cultural analysis on an “as-needed” basis and achieve their delicate coherence as the reflex of one man’s deeply sensitive and informed reading. Nothing could be less academic or more provocative.
This fine collection of essays represents a true contribution to the fields of film, media, and Latino/Chicano studies. The book is broken down into two sections, the first section setting forth the theoretical apparatus and providing the historical context within which the texts will be examined, and the second section consisting of close readings of the various films, videos, and performance art pieces. Thus the essays which make up the section entitled “Critical Mappings” deal with the history of Chicano cinema in general, then the specificities of the Puerto Rican, the Cuban and Cuban exile, and the Latino lesbian and gay cinemas. The essays which make up the section entitled “Close Readings,” then, treat a wide variety of films, videos, and performance art pieces, from the mainstream and widely publicized (such as Stand and Deliver and El Mariachi) to the marginal and less well-known (such as One Moment in Timeand Welcome to America’s Finest Tourist Plantation). Indeed, this collection of essays is impressive in not only the quality of scholarship that the various authors demonstrate, which is consistently high, but also in the scope of material treated.
A fascinating anthology that begins with the journals and letters of women in “The Antebellum South” and finishes with essays and short stories of “The Contemporary South.” Each section is prefaced by an excellent longer essay and each writer by a brief but thoughtful introduction. Most interesting are the first three sections of the book, which include writings from 1861—1918. Filled with the probing, often heroic work of our earliest known Southern women writers, including Anne Newport Royall, the first American newspaperwoman, and Harriet Jacobs, writer of the first complete slave narrative by a woman and one of the most gifted writers in the collection, these testimonies both enthrall and disturb. Many of the early pieces are so riveting, and their writers so brilliantly detail the peculiarities of their era, that one is oddly disappointed when, in the last half of the collection, one turns to favorite but familiar fiction writers like Carson McCullers and Zora Neale Hurston.
Napoleon, it has been said, was the single greatest heroic figure of the 19th century (if for some he was Satanic). Even so, there has been no sustained, in-depth analysis of Napoleon’s image during the period. This book is thus an important and welcome chapter in the story of Napoleon’s historical image, offering thoughtful close examinations of how Napoleon was treated in the work of Wordsworth, Byron, Hazlitt, among others.
This book has been a long time in the making. It is clearly the culmination of years of reading, teaching, and directing Chekhov. Gilman, a professor of playwriting and dramatic literature at the Yale Drama School, has given us a personal and accessible work of criticism. Gilman relates Chekhov’s major plays to the context of Russian and European drama, and the larger culture of the period. All this is done elegantly enough. But the most valuable thing about this work, beyond its admirable familiarity with its subject, is Gilman’s portrayal of Chekhov as our contemporary.
Whereas Jeffrey Meyers’s last two biographies of Edgar Allan Poe and F. Scott Fitzgerald placed a premium on revealing the weaknesses of their subjects, Meyers’s new biography of Robert Frost provides a much more balanced portrait, acknowledging Frost’s faults as a person but not letting these drive an interpretation of the poetry. Much of the strength of Meyers’s text comes in reaction to Lawrance Thompson’s highly critical three-volume treatment of Frost, researched with Frost’s cooperation over a 25-year period. Thompson, Meyers claims, “knew too much and understood too little.” The tone of Meyers’s preface, in which he expresses his admiration for Frost’s personal characteristics, moral courage, and poetic achievement, suggests his approach throughout the text.”The Frost that emerges from this biography,” says Meyers, “is neither the hayseed sage that he cultivated in his public persona nor the ‘monster in human form’ portrayed by Thompson. He is, instead, a subtle and engaging, passionate and tragic figure.” Indeed, passion and tragedy are the special contributions of this new biography, which explores in detail Frost’s relationship with Kay Morrison, his secretary, following the death of his wife Elinor in 1938, and looks closely at the death of Frost’s children as important sources for his art. All told, Robert Frost may be Meyers’s best, most humane biography to date.
Orphaned in infancy, Mr. Duchin was semi-adopted by the late, great American statesman Averell Harriman and spent his childhood and adolescence in a secure, loving environment. After sowing some stray notes in Paris, where he knew the old Paris Review crowd, he returned to the United States and, like his father before him, became high society’s favorite bandleader. His stories of the rich and famous, some of whom treated him like the hired help he in fact was, make for delightful reading for everyone except, no doubt, Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman, our woman in Paris now, and whatever did the French do to deserve her?
Bram Stoker may seem like the ultimate one-trick pony—known today solely for having written Dracula—but actually he lived a very interesting existence, which brought him into contact with many of the most famous figures of Victorian England, such as Oscar Wilde, Arthur Conan Doyle, and, above all, the great actor Henry Irving, to the managing of whose career Stoker devoted much of his life. With all the recent interest among literary critics in Dracula,the time was ripe for a new biography of its author, and Barbara Belford has produced one that is thoroughgoing and readable. She is able to take advantage of much new information about Stoker that has surfaced since the last biography of him was written, and she also has done archival research that goes well beyond anything undertaken by her predecessors. As a result, her book sheds new light on many facets of Stoker’s career, not least on the composition of Dracula itself and the way it reflects Stoker’s complex relationship with Irving. Some may find Belford’s reading of Dracula reductively biographical, but some of the connections she draws between the novel’s plot and Irving’s virtually hypnotic domination over Stoker are fascinating and undeniable.
Edited by Laurence Sutin, son of the principals, this memoir opens to the easy-lived reader of these days the searing reality of human beings in the midst of their own self-inflicted destructive worst, namely, war. And, of course, at the same time can be seen the apogee of the power of human intelligence in the face of incredibly horrible challenges to survival. In their own separate word groupings, these two Polish Jewish refugees recount details of their lives in their home area of Eastern Poland during the years of World War II. The result is that the reader is slammed between feelings of admiration for the intelligence and spirit of self-preservation exhibited by the survivors, and loathing for the depths to which human beings are capable of descending.
Anthony Fleming (Sayers’ illegitimate son) planned an eight-volume edition of his mother’s letters. Clearly this was a women besotted with the sight of her own words (the speed of her novel writing in the 1930’s confirms this). Fortunately, however, Ms. Reynolds has limited herself to two volumes (the jejeune posturings of the early letters and the domestic detail of the later make me wonder how trivial the omitted letters must have been!). Sayers comes across as self-absorbed and at times over-bearing, intelligent without being intellectual, but a lively correspondent all the same. The sub-title misleads; only the final third has any links to the Wimsey novels, although the correspondence with Eustace Barton, her technical adviser on means of murder, is fascinating.
The fame of Ida Lupino has not worn well, despite her evident talents. Her acting career was mostly limited to now-forgotten films, and her directing to ephemeral TV movies. Donati makes no compelling case for a rediscovery, and his unmemorable book will do little to rescue Ms. Lupino from oblivion.
When Carlos Baker began work on Emerson Among the Eccentrics in the early 1970’s, he prepared a sketch of his plan for the book: “To write what will amount to a new biography of Emerson, developed by reference to some of his leading friendships, chiefly but not exclusively literary. These will include Alcott, Edward Thompson Taylor, Jones Very, Margaret Fuller, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Theodore Parker, Walt Whitman, Mary Moody Emerson, Charles Newcomb and Ellery Channing.” Baker died in 1987, having completed all but the final revisions to his manuscript, which has now been published with a brief introduction and an epilogue by James R. Mellow. Until now Baker has been best known as the author of Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story(1969), but that may change with Emerson Among the Eccentrics, a richly detailed study of Emerson’s social and intellectual circle and a valuable contribution to our understanding of 19th-century American life. Baker’s “group portrait” begins in the 1830’s, when Emerson is 27 and about to enter fully into public life, and ends in 1882, with Emerson’s death in his hometown of Concord. By drawing heavily on Emerson’s letters and journals, as well as on the writings of his contemporaries, Baker is able to show that Emerson “both half-created the climate of opinion by which he has nurtured, while partly adapting his opinions to the ideological environment which local and national events thrust upon him.”
Harold Ickes, FDR’s Interior Secretary and head of the PWA (Public Works Administration), has gone in recent years from obscurity to posthumous fame with Linda Lear’s study of his pre-New Deal career, T.H. Watkins’ massive comprehensive biography, and a rather odd psychobiography appearing in the past 15 years. Ickes remains endlessly fascinating, but even the most devoted admirers of his Autobiography of a Curmudgeon or his three volumes of Secret Diaries may wonder what more can be added to the Ickes material already available. Remarkably, Clarke does contribute new information and provides a detailed and readable account of Ickes’ New Deal years which supplements, but does not replace, that in Watkins’ Righteous Pilgrim. Like Watkins, Clarke had the full cooperation of the Ickes family, but, curiously, she makes no use of Watkins’ work. Pursuing research independently is one thing; ignoring a prize-winning biography is quite another. Still, Roosevelt’s Warrior is essential reading for students of the New Deal and for admirers of “Honest Harold” Ickes.
This comprises the second volume of the three-volume collection of the Freud-Ferenczi correspondence, and should be of great interest to those wishing to chart the road of this rocky friendship. Brilliant moments of self-analysis and analysis are contained here, analyses that clash, fall apart, and reconstruct before the reader’s eyes. The volume offers crucial insights into the psychoanalytic method and into the thin line between friendship and the analyst/analysand relationship.
Told to take all the food she would need for a year, an indomitable 45-year-old teacher from Pennsylvania set out in 1904 for a teaching post in the Alaska wilderness. Hannah Breece would spend the next 14 years doing the “beneficent work that only the government can provide” to bring the English language and American civilization to the Aleuts, Kenais, and Eskimos. As her great-niece and editor Jane Jacobs observes, Hannah Breece succeeded where others failed by her efforts to nurture her charges rather than control them. She fed their empty stomachs during famine years and taught them how to bake bread as well as the three R’s. Her first post was Afognak a settlement which once housed Russian convicts next to Kodiak Island on the Aleutian peninsula—several years and various villages later she arrives at Fort Yukon on the Arctic Circle having traveled by dogsled, river-boat, and foot trails and having survived encounters with bears, falls through the ice, and sub-zero cold and frozen bread and cabbages so hard only the blow of an ax could break them in two. This is a fascinating first person account supplemented by Jane Jacobs’ informative notes.
This is a fascinating gathering of essays on one of the great and influential figures in the history of American thought. Included here are tributes and reflections by Josiah Royce, George Santayana, Arthur Lovejoy, Walter Lippman and many others. In some cases, we are also given glimpses into the life of the extraordinary philosopher and psychologist, which reflect on his “genius for friendship.”
The author of the “Devil’s Dictionary” may have died in Texas, or New Mexico, or some-place, in 1914, or he may be alive today in some cave in Sonora; with Ambrose Bierce, one never knows. An authentic Civil War hero, the lead he carried in his body further poisoned his fragile tolerance of his fellow citizens. Wielding his pen with misanthropic dexterity, he skewered the pompous, the hypocritical, and the blissfully mediocre luminaries among us. They denied him their honors, on which he spat while reading— maybe still reading—their obituaries. We will never read his, but we can savor this good new biography.
In Sugar and Slavery, Family and Race, the world of the French Caribbean during the late slave era and emancipation is evoked through the letters and diary of Martinican planter Pierre Dessales. The private journal reflects an intractable and often brutal personality, while the letters provide a marked contrast, containing a much more restrained and judicious self-presentation. The editing of the volume is authoritative, cutting down what was once a four-volume work in French to manageable length while retaining details of interest for the historian or general reader. Additionally, two essential tools for the researcher are provided—a masterful introduction to the historical context of the diary, and a comprehensive index. While these permit the easy location of passages of particular interest, the book reads almost like a novel and can be read and enjoyed as a whole.
The last two volumes of Kelvin’s impressive undertaking cover the last years of Morris’ life, 1889—96, during most of which period Morris’ main concern was the Kelmscott Press. There are innumerable short notes on business matters, and it takes a patient reader to extract the true interest of the work: Morris’s developing thought on socialism, art and the aesthetic movement. The task is made pleasant by the attractive warmth of Morris’ character.
Bucking the Sun opens with a murder and ends with its solution, but this novel is anything but a fast-paced thriller. Doig follows the experiences of the extended Duff family as their lives intersect and overlap while they work on the New Deal financed Fort Peck (Montana) Dam project. Doig’s concentration on detail and historical accuracy, as well as his large cast of characters, demands the slow delivery. But what the novel lacks in pulse-pounding plot twists it gains in rich prose, human insight, and character development. Doig excels at creating the world in which his characters live and making the reader feel that he, too, inhabits that world. His storytelling is nuanced and always rings true. Bucking the Sun is an extremely satisfying book.
Winner of the Virginia Quarterly Review’sBalch Prize, Starling Lawrence is a literary inventor of the highest order. This long-anticipated collection of short stories is a quietly provocative examination of the vicissitudes of love, manifested in all its multiple guises. The bird-watching protagonist of “Desire Lines,” for example, cherishes her hobby to such a degree that, almost in spite of herself, she kills a rival. In “The Crown of Light,” a story which first appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review, an estranged farmer, longing for the fraternal warmth of his past, leaves his wife in the middle of the night and never returns. All of these heroes seem conflicted and ordinary and delicate, haunted by ghosts present or past, and all evoke an uncomfortable mix of sympathy and dread. Because Lawrence’s plots are simple and straightforward, devoid of distracting spins or complicated nuances, the reader is left with the shock of the obvious; love drives us all mad. This is the perfect collection to launch a storied career.
The author is an experienced sailor who has served as third officer on H.M.S. Rose, a modern replica of a British frigate of the period of the American Revolution. His first-hand knowledge of what sailors on merchant and naval vessels of that period endured and enjoyed is apparent in this, the first novel of a trilogy, Revolution at Sea,centered on the American Revolution. This is a novel of action and adventure which does not have the character development that distinguishes the nautical novels of C.S. Forster and Patrick O’Brian. It should be enjoyed as a bit of lively escapism that presents a vivid picture of the ordinary seaman’s life and work in the late 18th century.
Sky Over El Nido, winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, is a breath-taking first collection. Mayo’s characters are by turns wise-ass and wistful, romantic and stringently realistic. They are each infused with the contradiction that is modern day Mexico, the setting for most of these stories, the contradiction between a lush and mysterious past and a present in which, as in the title story, prison inmates imagine that their guard “has a closet full of women’s shoes, all stolen. He subscribes to a foot-fetishist magazine which arrives more or less every other month in a plain brown wrapper.” Or a young boy wearing a T-shirt from Sea World that reads “I heard Baby Shamu,” appears in a woman’s hallucination in “The Third Day.” In “The Wedding,” a mother plans her daughter’s nuptials in accordance with “the Martha Stewart coffee table book,” and a grandmother worries about “the high polyester content” of the dress she intends to wear. An art history student on a pilgrimage to a Mayan pyramid in “O” describes the Mexico of C.M. Mayo’s stories as “Neptune, with televisions.” These stories are vibrant, strange, loaded with offbeat humor, exquisite detail, and delivered with near perfect pitch. Sky Over El Nidoshimmers with life.
In her second novel, Livesey maps the nature of desire from its most innocuous to its most manipulative. The story begins when Ewan Munro, a successful London banker, finds a baby in the men’s room of a Perth bus station. He is on his way to visit his sister Mollie, and a moment’s indecision finds him back on the bus with the baby. Mollie, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, finds herself attaching to the baby she initially intended to give to the authorities. Meanwhile, the real father, a simple-minded, low-class thug from Perth, who left the baby and witnessed Ewan’s inadvertent kidnapping, begins to develop blackmail plans of his own. This is only the beginning of a novel that moves comfortably from the world of high-stakes London banking to working-class Perth, to the remote landscape of northern Scotland. In Criminals, Livesey, a native of Scotland, reveals how narrow the line is between wanting and taking, good intentions and criminal ones, absentmindedness and evil. This is a compelling novel that disappoints, however, in the final chapters, when threads of the story are resolved too quickly or not at all.
Sybylla Muldoon, public defender, has an ACLU card in her wallet, a job that keeps her on the edge of burn-out, a Supreme Court nominee for a father, and no social life. When she is called upon to defend a homeless man accused of stabbing a young girl, all these facts become relevant to the deepening mystery. Are her client’s ravings evidence of his psychosis, or of something more troubling? Muldoon is more congenial than the mystery itself, which is a bit of a no-brainer. And there are details which nag at the reader: would an experienced attorney be so careless about documenting the provenance of her evidence? Korelitz’s first novel is not the searing indictment of American justice promised by the dust jacket. It is a competently written mystery that occasionally gives one pause. Save this one for the beach.
This first novel is both creative and thought-provoking. The book is written as a first-person narrative from the perspective of Chai, a Chinese man who fled to Hong Kong as an adolescent and now works in New York as a financial analyst at an investment bank. The narrator takes an interest in Calvin Coolidge, the United States president whom most historians think is boring but who, Chai learns, was a deeply practical and ethical man. The author contrasts Coolidge and the American values he stands for with the violence of China under Mao and the free-wheeling capitalism of Hong Kong, where Chai had an affair 20 years ago with Selina, a woman he meets again in the course of the book. Torn between Selina and his wife and young child, Chai receives direction from Coolidge in a dream. This is an excellent novel; we can only look forward to seeing what Derbyshire produces next.
This fourth mystery in a series featuring art dealer Jonathan Argyle begins in a chatty, almost flippant style. Without giving it much thought, Argyle agrees to deliver a painting to Rome. That decision triggers a series of misadventures in which the painting is nearly stolen, the buyer is murdered, and Argyle chased all over Europe by a man “with a scar.” In the interim, a frothy entertainment becomes a complicated story of much deeper moral force whose roots are buried in the tumultuous events of World War II. And as the sleuthing comes to an end, the reader is treated to a surprisingly good, yet unsettling, conclusion.
In his new collection, the author of The Man Who Loved Levittown has deepened and broadened his range. Wetherell’s craft in these nine stories, his use of landscape and character, is more refined and ambitious, his vision emboldened by a deeper sense of history. In the title piece, an old man who once tried to bribe the customs house of Melville reflects on the power of stories.”In a Maritime Province” follows a photographer who must look to his daughter for guidance in grieving for his dead wife. And in a minor masterpiece simply entitled “The Snow,” a young boy trapped in his family’s cabin learns, through gestures both subtle and wrenching, about extremities of love, madness, courage, betrayal, and death. In the hands of a lesser stylist, these tales might turn melodramatic, but Wetherell’s steady hand delivers the simple pleasures of plot and human revelation. Old-fashioned virtues, these, and if Wetherell plays a flat note here, it is only when he tackles subjects that call for spare, ironic treatment, such as the media and politics. When he stays in the mode of modern fable, he is as good as any story writer working.
Award-winning mystery writer Wright begins a new series featuring retired Toronto policeman Mel Pickett. In a small town in northern Ontario, Pickett is building a log home and settling into the rhythms of country life when his peace is broken by the murder of Larch River’s biggest bully. There is no end of suspects; the victim was disliked by everyone in town but his sister. Pickett stays on the periphery of the investigation until the police grab a suspect, whose mother pleads with him to help free her innocent son. Even then, this 60-year-old man goes about his inquiries in a plodding, if thorough, way. The pace is also methodical—the writer more interested in the quirks of human nature than in criminal procedure. But that is all to the good, for added to a satisfying mystery, Wright limns a number of finely drawn characters who make this a book worth perusing.
More a series of well-crafted though loosely connected literary portraits than a novel in the traditional sense of the word, Neihart’s depiction of teen culture, boredom, and self-absorption tinged with sexual yearning ultimately fails to deliver more than a superficial snapshot of a rather colorless character superimposed upon a busy and loud New Orleans backdrop. The protagonist, Joe, drifts through his day alternately turning off, through drug and alcohol use, and turning on, particularly when confronted with other young men. However, there is nothing ultimately endearing or even interesting (being gay has long ceased to automatically make a character exotic or remarkable) about any of the central characters to stimulate emotional involvement or demand our attention here. This is essentially an expanded version of Neihart’s writing for The New Yorker.
What won’t a down-sized middle manager do to put bread on the table. Buoyed by his first success, John Tracer decides to become a private investigator. Called in to find the sister of his delusional neighbor, Tracer tracks her from Oregon to Los Angeles, stumbling casually upon the kinds of horrors that would give you or me the whimwhams. Billed as a “Tracer Family Mystery,” the book is by turns funny, whimsical, lurid, frightening, and definitely offbeat
Now available in the U.S., this haunting early novel by the Booker Prize-winning author is sure to roil the passions of its new readers. Simon Thebus, an elderly retiree, lives on his sister Audrey’s estate where Marion, a distant young relative also stays. Audrey hires a 20-year-old gardener, Josh, to restore the patrician grounds to its former glory. But Simon, resentful of Audrey’s dominance, has already begun to dig a secret tunnel. Josh threatens his longed-for autonomy. This and other misalliances trigger an eerie series of devastating blows into all their lives—until finally the suspense cracks the dangerous surface of the chapters which shift between the voices of Simon and Josh. Curiosity and voyeurism plummet into sexual depravity and forbidding cruelty. Frightening and extraordinary.
Jack Mauser lives in a Dantean world of fire and ice. He cannot escape the frigid image of his first wife’s death, walking away from him during a blizzard, into a snowbank where she sits down to die. For abandoning her only hours after their impetuous barroom wedding, Mauser is relegated in his own mind to the frozen confinement of traitors at the lowest level of Inferno. His memory is haunted with images of fire as well. A passionate midnight tryst in a convent garden with his second wife Eleanor provides an unintended view of the death-by-lightening incineration of an ancient and saintly nun. The fire motif announced in the title of the novel is also interwoven into the narratives that fill its pages. Most prominent of the “tales of burning love” are those told in the midst of another snowstorm. Thinking that Jack has died in a fire at his home, his surviving four wives gather to mourn his passing. Together they are stranded in a car and survive the night keeping each other awake with tales of their times with Jack. This is among the best of Erdrich’s novels, and she mines the riches of small-town connectedness, creating characters and coincidences of Dickensian dimension.
It is a shame this courtroom novel is being hyped as the next Presumed Innocent, for it is not remotely in that league. A plodding litigator with one of Boston’s white shoe law firms loses his job and risks his legal career to defend a friend charged with first degree murder. Forming the backdrop to the story is a legal mistake so massive that it will cost the firm millions. Throw in some clichéd characters—the patrician Yankee, the volatile Westerner, a drop-dead gorgeous high-powered lawyer, a fiesty and loyal female sidekick—and you can imagine the rest. The novel is deftly plotted, but Willett’s execution of it is as methodical and uninspired as his protagonist. He gets the job done, but the reader can claim little joy of it.
Ever since the publication some years ago of his beguiling and original Flaubert’s Parrot,Julian Barnes has staked his claim to the literary heritage of Nabokov. This smart collection of short stories only adds to his patrimony. Barnes’s prose is always a delight to read, not only for the imagination and simplicity of the tale, but for the sheer lyricism and intelligence of the page. This writer, clearly, is a master. Though Barnes’s new stories are amazingly diverse, each takes up an aspect of the British experience of France: royal mercenaries attack a Protestant village in the south of France; two frumpy spinsters bring their English anxieties to a run-down vineyard near Bordeaux; an oldish writer journeys to Paris in the year 2015. Fresh and enjoyable and aesthetically just, this collection begs to be read and savored and read again by anyone with a fondness for France or fine literary craftsmanship.