The subtitle of this book is “Englishness and the early Garden City movement,” Meacham traces the evolution of the garden city concept from its radical origins to its conservative realization. Anyone who has visited Letchworth, Hampstead, Welwyn or any other of the garden cities understands full well Mr. Meacham’s argument that the movement’s progressive impulses were subverted by rural idealism and suburban high-mindedness. What disturbed friends of mine who grew up in Letchworth in the 1960’s was the absence of one of the fundamentals of English culture—the public house. In this, unhappily, the radicals and the class-conscious conservatives were united—no working-class alcoholic excesses were to besmirch these havens of true Englishness.
In this slim volume, Genovese explores the tight connection Southern evangelical leaders drew between slavery and the Civil War. Vanguards in the defense of slavery per se, many of them nonetheless called for reform along what they considered Biblical principles, notably in encouraging literacy and protecting marriage among the enslaved. Blaming Northern abolitionists for hampering their antebellum efforts, they hoped in vain that Confederate independence would finally bring slavery in line with true Christian paternalism. Secession and war, they recognized, served the cause of upholding slavery; thus, when the Confederacy faltered, they interpreted it as God’s chastisement for their failures to reform the institution. Genovese highlights the severe “limits” of reformers’ ideology and the “timidity” of their actions (they seldom lobbied for legislative change), yet the reader senses he is rooting for them all along. Read alongside The World the Slaveholders Made (1969), Slaveholders’ Dilemma (1992), The Southern Tradition, (1994), and The Southern Front (1995), this book provides a fascinating perspective on Genovese’s ever evolving critical engagement with conservative white Southern ideology.
The idea of writing a nation’s history in under 300 pages may seem absurd, especially a country with as rich and extensive a heritage as Japan. Nevertheless, that is exactly what W.G. Beasley offers in this volume which caps a lifetime’s work for the learned scholar in and on the Far East. To be sure, The Japanese Experience offers a Western perspective on the island nation. And in so brief a space, this monumental project falls victim to inevitable economizing, the collapsing of multiple stories into a single, coherent narrative—such is, all to often, the nature of history. Despite these imposing obstacles, though, Beasley achieves a certain surprising success. His insight into the interrelated strains of religious and political imperatives that have shaped Japanese culture is extensive, cogent, and elegantly articulated. And his handling of Western influence shows both tact and honesty. In The Japanese Experience, Beasley offers readers a distilled yet sympathetic portrait of a country and culture once worlds away.
Baum, the author of a similar study of Massachusetts in roughly the same period, applies quantitative analysis of electoral results to a tumultuous time in the history of the state where he now teaches. Baum appears confident in the reliability of his methodology (primarily regression), and does little either to explain the process or to address questions many readers might raise about the results. Baum also assumes a great deal of knowledge of Texas politics; he often begins to analyze an election before he has bothered to name candidates and parties. That said, most of Baum’s conclusions are reasonable and sound, although the interpretations he challenges are often both narrowly focussed (involving, for instance, the results in individual counties) and advanced by local Texas historians. Overall, he concludes that Texas Unionism and, later, Republicanism had such a limited appeal (though far greater than Confederate apologists might expect) and suffered from such deep divisions over race that any opposition to the dominant Democrats could have enjoyed only limited and temporary success. This may not be surprising, but it is nonetheless likely true.
In this engaging bit of social history, Murray’s intent clearly is to entertain as well as to inform, with the text taking the form of well-researched anecdotes more or less casually linked together, with little or no analysis. The result is a pleasure to read. Murray moves from the premise that Regency England may be somewhat overlooked as an age of fops and dandies, characterized largely by the increasingly dissolute figure of the Regent, George, the Prince of Wales. What Murray fears may be lost in such an appraisal of the time is all the good bits, the high class courtesans, Almacks, the rather dreary club that everyone wished dearly to get into, Beau Brummell, the dandy who held well-attended audiences for the hours that it took him to dress, perfectly, in the morning. The almost breezy tone of the book belies the serious work that clearly went into the research. Murray had full access to the Chatsworth archives, and draws often and well from all manner of contemporary documents: letters, journals, newspapers and the like. Not a scholarly book, neither is it fluff: there is a wealth of detail put to the service of Murray’s fine eye for the comic and her plain, cheerful gift for historical narrative.
The author’s journalistic background is clearly evident in this anecdotal account of the British attempt to capture the American capital during the War of 1812. While the book is a good read and Pitch cites reputable sources, it is not always good history. Lore, legends, and dialogue are often seamlessly interwoven with the unfolding chronology without proper discrimination between fact and fancy or between scholarship and artistic license. Anyone wanting a readable but not always substantiated narrative recreation of such events as the bombardment at Baltimore, the battle of Bladensburg, and Dolley Madison’s hasty escape from Washington will find it here.
Like much of the literature on slavery in Richmond, Takagi details the practices of hiring out and boarding and writes about the use of slave workers in tobacco factories, ironworks, and flour mills. Historians have suggested before that the social conditions of city living made a slave labor system incompatible with urbanization, but Takagi poses a subtly different argument by making the ability of slaves themselves to shape their own lives despite their status central to the story of the difficulties of maintaining urban slavery. In cities, Takagi claims, slaves themselves took advantage of the opportunities offered them to play an active role in undercutting the control of their owners. In Richmond, because slave workers frequently were able to negotiate for cash wages, live in their own neighborhoods, elaborate kin ties, and establish their own churches, secret societies and other social institutions, by the time city authorities tried to crack down on their privileges it proved impossible. Takagi’s work also reminds us of the significant role enslaved workers played in the process of American industrialization and draws out the great irony that one of the places Southern slaves had the greatest control over their own lives was the very city that would become the capital of the Confederacy.
Japan underwent an unprecedented transformation in the seven years of American occupation and control that followed the end of the Second World War. How the country was “democratized,” and how in the process many Japanese still found it possible to deny the atrocities their armies had committed during the war, is a subject well worthy of attention. Dower’s ambitious attempt to answer these and other questions draws on a tremendous amount of fascinating source material drawn from evidently scrupulous research into the Japanese urban and popular culture of the period. It is clear that Dower knows his subject extremely well; unfortunately, however, his approach lacks the detachment necessary for a truly timeless piece of cultural history. Dower’s eloquent words of praise and contempt, sometimes merited and sometimes not, become irritating in a book of this length; and his open bias, however much it may recommend itself to many readers today, will inevitably establish this work as a dated think-piece rather than as a source of reference tool of use to future generations of students and historians.
O’Brian approaches this gigantic topic through a small window. Looking at a race riot growing out of an averted lynching in Columbia, Tennessee in 1946, the author explores how the changes brought by World War II altered race relations in the South. By examining various strands of Southern history, including the heritage of extra-legal violence against blacks, the economic changes for whites and blacks after World War II, and the relationship between politics and criminal justice, O’Brian unearths a complex history of African-American empowerment. Avoiding an overly rosy prognosis for modern race relations, the author makes a case for the demise of racial violence in the postwar era, and provides a model for future historical study, using discrete incidents to illuminate numerous larger social forces. Though her book does not fully fulfill the claims of its title, it still is an important contribution.
Kingston-Mann, who has written before about the “peasant question” in late Imperial Russia, gives a stimulating account of the passionate contemporary debate over this crucial issue. She decries the bias against rural Russians not only of Tsarist policymakers since at least the time of Peter the Great but also of prophets of revolution such as Marx and Lenin. Criticizing as “peasantophobic” most blueprints for Russia’s future, the author instead believes the peasant commune was often flexible and innovative as well as being a needed force for social justice in the countryside. A plea that would-be reformers of others’ societies take into account the historical and cultural differences between peoples and be wary of seeking to impose universal solutions makes this a book that will be satisfying to the historian and thought provoking for the more general reader.
France packs an impressive array of information into this authoritative study. Starting from the premise that geography, technology, and the interests of the landed gentry shaped Western warfare, he moves to analyze warfare in the medieval Middle East. Though not for beginners, France provides enough detail (including examples of battles with maps) to make his book accessible to an educated audience.
This collection of essays will prove useful to scholars interested in interactions among English women between 1450 and 1700. The editors define their keyword “alliance” very broadly as any “formally recognized relationship activated or chosen to the political advantage of its members,” and the result is that the collection is a rather loose amalgam. The ideological lenses used by the contributors include New Historicism, Marxism, Queer theory, and Postcolonial theory, and issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality are frequently raised. The contributors attempt to “read” materials like recipe books, portraits, and textiles in addition to literary texts to discover how women interacted with one another. Among the more intriguing essays in the collection are Karen Robertson’s analysis of Elizabeth Ralegh’s attempt to assert her property rights, Susan Frye’s discussion of the use of textiles as a means of female communication, and Lowell Gallagher’s chapter on Mary Ward’s “scandalous” founding of a religious community dedicated to the education of women.
Offering a history of post-revolutionary French mental institutions, the authors make the radical claim that the asylum was, contrary to the thesis of Michel Foucault, an important experiment in community-building and democracy. The asylum was, from the time of its inception, a Utopian project that aimed at rehabilitating, then reintroducing into society, the mentally ill. By analyzing why this project failed, the authors provide a crucial lesson about the nature of liberal institutions themselves—one markedly less pessimistic than that offered by critics of liberal projects like psychoanalysis.
In both broad strokes and fine details, J. S. Holliday captures the very first magical moments of California’s founding through the force and strength of its development during the famous Gold Rush. This is a powerful, compelling, and comprehensive narrative of four decades during the 19th century that sent thousands west to seek their fortunes. Holliday’s scholarship is extensive, his prose graceful. Combine this with hundreds of period photographs and illustrations, and this book is a must for anyone who wishes to catch the fever that infected an entire nation.
This book will surprise many people: though written by a professor of English, it does not argue that capitalism was simply a force for evil in the 19th century. Indeed, Zlotnick deals with the seemingly strange fact that many female novelists in the 19th century, such as Elizabeth Gaskell, wrote in support of capitalism and the industrial revolution. One of the standard charges against 19th-century capitalism is that it put women to work in factories. Zlotnick shows how easy it was to put a different spin on this fact; authors like Gaskell regarded this development as a form of liberation and wanted to preserve women’s freedom to choose their occupations (often against the efforts of male labor unions to bar women from factory work). Looking at a wide range of 19th-century literature, both female and male, high culture and low, Zlotnick forces us to rethink the whole issue of industrial capitalism and especially its effect on women in the workforce (including female novelists themselves, who benefitted greatly from the expanded market for literature capitalism made possible). This is a far-ranging and original book that should be required reading for all students and scholars of 19th-century literature.
Isaiah Berlin delivered these lectures in 1965, but he refused to have them published when he was alive, and this reticence is a mark of Berlin’s wise judgment. As his most extensive attempt to elaborate the Weltanschauung of the Romantics, to whom he owed so much, this work is both his most extensive analysis of Romanticism and the closest thing we have to a summa of Berlin’s own thought. While one finds Berlin’s usual wit, charm, and criticism-defusing self-deprecation, the argument is neither convincing nor interesting, composed largely of potted analyses and caricatures of straw-men. For a historian of ideas, Berlin is shockingly tone-deaf to the tenor of an age; for example, his dismissal of Bach confuses humility with provincialism and makes one wonder who is the genuine provincial. A thinker’s depth is directly related to the depth of their appreciation of their opponents; judged by this work, Berlin comes up short. Some forgive him by claiming he broke new ground in the thought of his day; but that is an explanation, not an excuse. If this is the sort of analysis that Berlin’s liberalism can offer us, so much the worse for that liberalism; and if we find it thought-provoking, incisive or educative, then so much the worse for us.
Eliza Heywood’s extraordinary riposte to Addison and Steele’s famous 18th-century periodical The Spectator has been difficult to attain, so we can be grateful to Oxford’s Women Writers in English series for putting almost a third of The Female Spectator back into print. Editor Patricia Meyer Spacks offers generous selections from almost all 24 books of the periodical. Her brief introduction views Heywood as a writer who embraces the ideology of moderation and practicality that so many of her contemporaries preached, but from a women’s perspective. It sets the author in the contexts of her time and discusses her work as a moral tract, an experiment in narrative construction, a social document, a treatise on education, and a feminist manifesto.
In Writing Under the Raj, Nancy L. Paxton examines novels written by men and women who lived in the colonial contact zone of British India from the mid-18th century up to the time of India’s independence. Paxton challenges the assumption that there was a dominant rape script in colonial literature in which colonizing women were threatened by colonized males. Paxton argues that a close study of the theme of rape in narrative uncovers many conflicts and unresolved ideologies involving power, sex, and violence. Her analysis of little-known works, including Victorian children’s stories, is detailed, thorough, and often illuminating. Drawing on current feminist and gender theories, Paxton attempts to raise awareness of the ways that literature has lent itself to “scripts” that conflate power, sex, and reproduction so as to make rape seem excusable in times of peace as well as war.
Although psychoanalysis has taken some well-deserved hits recently, Lane demonstrates in this refined and impressive book that certain insights derived from Freud, Lacan, and Foucault— even as they need some retooling—still go a long way toward explaining the politics of gender and identity in Victorian literature, a literature that helped spawn psychoanalysis. Defending his use of a discipline that has come under attack, Lane writes: “Many literary and cultural critics interpret power, desire, and even fantasy in Victorian culture without considering the psychic relevance of these elements; they try to explain this period solely through its social policies and legal mandates.” Focusing on male sexual expression, Lane thus resists the tendency to read 19th-century manhood as a coherent and unified construction. His critical eye lands not only on Hardy, James, and Forster—required reading for this sort of thing—but also on Bulwer-Lytton, Schreiner, and Swinburne. This volume represents the very best work in the field of male gender studies: a book that is broad in scope, rich in detail, and revelatory in its conclusions.
This is another excellent volume (the fourth) in the series generated by Michigan State’s Symposium on Science, Reason, and Modern Democracy. The essays deal with the problematic status of the arts under a democratic regime, taking up such issues as the relation of elite and popular culture and the impact of mass society on the development of the arts. The 12 essays are wide-ranging in every sense of the term, representing a diverse set of political and philosophical perspectives. The authors range from some of the most perceptive critics of popular culture writing today, such as Greil Marcus and Stanley Crouch, to distinguished academics, such as Arthur Danto and Gianni Vattimo. And the essays have been carefully chosen to cover the full spectrum of democratic culture, including movies, fiction, drama, architecture, classical music, popular music, and television. This volume thus makes a major contribution to the much debated issue of the status of the arts in democratic America today.
This wonderful introductory guide traces the many forms that writing has assumed over its evolution in the East and West. In addition to looking at the scripts and alphabets themselves, Brown examines the materiality of the writing process itself—what tools were used, what writing surfaces were used, and so on. The book is lavishly illustrated, with more than 70 color and black-and-white images, all of which provide an exciting guide to the function and materiality of writing as communication. This slim book will serve students well.
The Southampton Slave Insurrection of 1831, frequently referred to as “Nat Turner’s Rebellion,” was one of the bloodiest slave uprisings in American history, resulting in the deaths of dozens of blacks and whites alike. Memory of the event and its aftermath not only shaped the coming of the Civil War, but it has also inspired a wide range of cultural products from novels to histories to songs to poems to folktales. In this work, Mary Kemp Davis focuses on six fictional treatments of the insurrection, ranging in time from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1856 novel, Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp, to William Styron’s controversial 1967 book, The Confessions of Nat Turner (a concluding chapter discusses Sherley Anne Williams’ Dessa Rose, written in 1986). Davis investigates how each novelist in their own time revisits and grapples with the moral issues raised by Turner, even as they remain in dialogue with the earliest explanations of the insurrection from the 1830’s. Davis argues that all the authors share an effort to bring Nat Turner figuratively to judgment anew, yet ultimately she insists that the moral ambiguity of Turner’s enterprise is resistant to any attempt to fix him permanently “within the confines of art.”
This book is concerned with a period of transition in the history of 20th-century Anglo-American literature: an extended moment that follows the ideological and institutional exhaustion of high modernism and precedes the emergence of its post-modernist replacement. The markers of this in-between literary order are a deep instability in the constitution of literary objects and subjectivity, changes in the ways in which writing was produced and read, and an uneasy but inexorable struggle with the turbulent social and political transformations of the 1920’s and 1930’s. Miller derives the physiognomy of this Late Modernist interval through chapter-length readings of writers who exist at the margins of the canon: Wyndham Lewis, Djuna Barnes, Mina Loy, and Samuel Beckett. But the broader ambitions of this well-written and probing book are most plain in a long introductory section which attempts to define, historicize, and theorize the concept of Late Modernism. Here Miller examines the critical literature on modernism and postmodernism and reminds us of the methodological power of the interart perspective that is signalled in this book’s subtitle.
This book is about audience and performance in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Ovid is of course a tease: he tweaks our nose, winks, pulls us up short with surprises and wondrous effects. Who can forget the moment when Perseus is so taken by Andromeda that, in mid-flight, he almost forgets to beat his wings. The play of Ovid is here approached, however, from the point of view of a reader who, unfortunately, in the author’s academic and theoretical scheme, is none too playful.
This scholarly book charts progressions in the literature of the 16th and 17th centuries in England and New England, and details how English providence tales and witchcraft stories became models for American narratives of Indian captivity. Mr. Hartman demonstrates the elemental dependency of colonial American literature on earlier British art forms. This work describes how the colonial literature of New England came to synthesize religious faith, expressed in sensationalistic terms, with the “new science,” setting the stage for the American Enlightenment. Contrasts between the supernatural and the material world, and civilization versus the savagery of the frontier, are utilized to highlight the use of “low realism” and the eyewitness account in a new narrative literary form that is distinctly American.
With originality and impressive breadth, Clark examines modernism as a historical phenomenon. Moving from the French Revolution forward, he uses art historical movements and moments as a springboard for discussing the ways in which they were reactions to and reacted with the larger social and historical context of the times. This sets the stage for dark’s main theme: that modernism was a reactionary phenomenon that was born and died with socialism. Lucidly written, Clark is a master of contextual detail and at effortlessly moving the discussion between larger historical frameworks and the specific moments. Equal to Clark’s work is the book’s lovely production with 92 color and 160 b/w illustrations.
Since the 1952 publication of Harry Levin’s The Overreacher, Marlowe scholars have viewed Icarus as the primary archetype of the Marlovian hero. In Playing With Desire Fred Tromly suggests that the myth of Tantalus also lies behind Marlowe’s work in several important ways. Stage protagonists like Faustus, Tamburlaine, and Barabas are tormented by desires that are unattainable, minor characters like Bajazeth are slowly and spectacularly tortured, and Marlowe’s audience members are led to believe that they will witness varieties of absolute human conquest which Marlowe quite self-consciously withholds. Tromly suggests that Marlowe’s fondness for tantalization and teasing may have been a response to his colleagues’ inability to secure the civil service posts for which they had been trained. Tromly’s engaging and lucid book is itself Marlovian in its ambitious attempt to consider all of Marlowe’s poetry and drama, and his analysis is certainly tantalizing in that it seems to expose a fruitful new vein in Marlowe studies.
Accounts of John Berryman’s lectures on Shakespeare at Princeton, Cincinnati, and Harvard in the early fifties have suggested that these performances were brilliant and transformative, yet Berryman’s papers on Shakespeare have been largely unavailable to both scholars and the general reader. John Haffenden has meticulously brought them together in this collection, combining material which Berryman had intended for a “large psychosocial critical biography” of Shakespeare (in the manner of his study of Stephen Crane) with close readings of the plays, his textual studies of King Lear, and a fascinating exchange of letters with Shakespearean scholar W.W. Greg. Yet, most distinctive here, is Berryman’s particular sympathetic interaction with Shakespeare’s life and words: what one friend teasingly called Berryman’s “necrophiliac” desire to inhabit this artistic world puts the reader in the presence of both artists at once.
The most credibly praised (as well as the most aggressively promoted) biography in recent years, Strouse’s Morgan does far more than put a human face on the Wizard of Wall Street. Instead, the volume provides a rich political, economic, and sociological context permitting the reader to understand and judge J. Pierpont Morgan’s ends and means, whose persistently and profoundly controversial character Strouse never obscures. No less important to her is Morgan’s “inner matrix,” especially his odd amalgam of righteousness and libertine sensuality, genius and naïvete, polygotism and inarticulacy, unwavering nationalism and cosmopolitan culture. This account of the forces that drove Morgan’s choices as capitalist, collector, and adulterer, both compels and illuminates. A must-read.
Of the century’s half-dozen top spies, Richard Sorge was perhaps the best. Friend of the German ambassador to Japan, he learned Hitler’s secrets including the details of the invasion of the USSR, and passed them to Moscow. A hard-drinking dare-devil who more than once crashed his motorcycle while dead drunk. Sorge took some incredible risks and scored some astonishing coups. Caught, he behaved heroically before going to his death. Robert Whymant’s biography is a splendid account of a remarkable life.
Dark, brooding, sensuous, and intelligent, George Gordon, more famously known as Lord Byron, was the quintessential anti-hero; the 19th-century’s first superstar. And the celebrated precursor to the likes of James Dean, Mickey Rourke, and countless leather-clad rock-stars strung out on drugs, money, and fast living. Quite clearly, Byron is a poet for the star-hungry 1990’s. Or so one would assume from the paparazzi-like account of his life by Benita Eisler. For while much of her account of Byron’s life is accurate, interesting, and extremely cogent, she goes little further, failing adequately to explore the extent and importance of this great romantic’s astounding literary accomplishments. Unfortunately, this is a biography for our time.
With upwards of a dozen biographies of Conan Doyle published since his death in 1930, one might well ask why we need another? One answer, of course, is Sherlock Holmes, the most famous detective in English fiction, with whom the author grew impatient, but who, in turn, largely made his literary reputation. Another answer is that there was a good deal more of interest in Conan Doyle’s public life than the creation of his illustrious sleuth. Much of what he thought and did, however, is shrouded in mystery, and there is still only limited access to the family archives. Thus, the temptation for the biographer to recover the real man behind his books is very great. In response to this call, Stashower has given us a competent and engaging account from birth to death, which covers all aspects of Conan Doyle’s turbulent career and his extraordinary artistic range. It is, happily, less idealistic than Carr’s biography, less impressionistic than Pearsall’s, less contentious than Pearson’s, but, indeed, more critical than Higham’s or Hardwick’s, more thorough than Edward’s, and a satisfactory complement to Nordon’s serious and solid assessment.
Ahmed’s journey from a privileged Cairo upbringing to England to the U.S. is not in itself uncommon; however, the grace and fluidity of her writing coupled with her learnedness and insights make this journey of identity a wonderful read. While the themes of being an Arab, being a woman, and being an Arab woman make up the fabric of the memoir, she is careful to let her story teach us the cross-cultural and feminist lessons and avoids an easier didactic style. One is left not only with admiration for the author, a professor of Women’s Studies, but also with fresh insights into Islam and the state of feminism in academics and the real world.
This “short but sweet” book presents the transcripts of interviews with Nathan Boone. The Boone interviews were conducted in 1851 by Lyman Draper, a tireless collector of oral histories. Hammon, an amateur historian, brings the Draper interviews back to life in his compilation of a very interesting series of narrations that cover much of Daniel Boone’s life, as recalled by Boone’s last surviving child. Additionally, the reader is treated to a close and revealing view of the interviewing techniques of a grand master (Draper) who was then at the height of his career. This book also includes the family genealogies of the Boone, Bryan, Callaway and Van Bibber families, and several useful maps of the early settlements in Virginia’s Kentucky territory.
The Korean “police action” of 1950—53 is sometimes called “the forgotten war” by those who didn’t fight in it; but for those who did, like Dannenmaier, it’s far from forgotten. This book is a near-diary of reminiscences from his military service, especially his time in Korea (1952—53), interspersed with excerpts from his letters home. It is oddly affecting, combining as it does the aimless routine in military service (even in wartime) with the punctual moments of sheer terror that make the modern war memoir simultaneously so gripping and so confusing. The only complaint about the book is that there seems to be little point to it, beyond the bare narration of the author’s time in Korea. This seems a too-minor warrant for publication. Still, the book will help to remind us that this particular war did occur, along with all the cowardice, treachery, deceit, shame, horror, terror, rage, disgust, courage, kindness, mercy and love that characterize, albeit in idiosyncratic ways, every other one. In doing so it helps remind us that even if we’ve “forgotten” this particular war, it happened.
No writer has ever had a better partner than Vladimir Nabokov did in his beloved Vera. Herself an aspiring poet when the two met in Berlin in the 1920’s, Vera instantly recognized Vladimir’s genius and resolved to devote her life and her own considerable literary skills, to honing and polishing it. Despite Vladimir’s occasional straying, the two were inseparable at Cornell and Harvard, and in the long post-Lolita period in Montreux. Vladimir never doubted the depth of his debt to his wife, to whom this new biography does justice even though the author does not know Russian.
The story of the untimely death of Alexander Pushkin, Russia’s greatest poet, has been told many times. Enraged by the suggestion that his wife was carrying on an affair with a French officer, Pushkin challenged him to a duel that resulted in the poet’s death. The search for meaning in this tragedy has been the focus of a long series of investigations. There is thus little that is new for Serena Vitale to uncover in this account. But she does bring to the story a remarkable sense for the dramatic, and for the telling detail. In fact, the title, Pushkin’s Button, refers to one such detail, the missing button on Pushkin’s Guard’s uniform that symbolized his attempts at ironic detachment from the court scene. Vitale’s prose can be overheated as she takes us through a day-by-day account of Pushkin’s final days, but the reward for enduring it is a fascinating, pointillist reconstruction of a momentous event in Russian life and letters.
This is a fascinating book written in simple prose and humorous style, yet it is serious in its content, by a National Public Radio commentator, and a Washington Post and National Geographic reporter, who fell in love with the East and has become an “expert” on the region. The work amounts to memoirs and descriptions of first-hand experiences of living and traveling, by the writer and his American family, in Japan, China, Taiwan, Malaysia and other East and South Asian countries. It provides the reader with glimpses of daily life in these countries as viewed by Westerners; it also reveals those countries from the vantage point of their citizens. Additionally, the book also reveals impressions of America as viewed by citizens of those Eastern countries and insights of the writer. The book is divided into 10 chapters, in addition to appendix, acknowledgments, index, and a note on sources. Although it is not intended as a history source, there is much general history that the reader can learn from this book; also there are ample sociological/anthropological comments that can widen one’s horizons about lands that are little known in the West. A major attraction of this book is its amusing and entertaining presentation of daily interactions and scenes, especially through the medium of translations of English sentences into Japanese and other linguistic games that Reid employs very deftly.
Vaslav Nijinsky may well have been the greatest male dancer of the 20th century, and he was a key figure in the development of modern ballet. Unfortunately, at the height of his career he went insane. This diary was written during the six week period when Nijinsky lost his grip on reality. As such it is a fascinating document— painful to read at times, but revealing in all sorts of striking ways. Nijinsky knew many of the great figures of 20th-century culture, such as Igor Stravinsky, Serge Diaghilev, and Feodor Chaliapin. His comments on such figures present a weird mixture of lunacy and insight, and as a result it is difficult to put this book down once one starts reading it. The diary was originally published in 1936, but in a heavily edited version. This is the first complete and unexpurgated version in English translation and includes a great deal of scholarly apparatus to help make Nijinsky’s tortured writings comprehensible to the general reader.
The witty, beautiful Alma Schindler (1879-1964) consorted with some of the most celebrated men of the early 20th century: she married the composer Gustav Mahler, the architect Walter Gropius, and the writer Franz Werfel. She had a passionate affair with the painter Oskar Kokoschka and intense flirtations with the painter Gustav Klimt and the composer Alexander Zemlinsky. Several other artists, musicians, and composers admired her from afar. None of her suitors seems to have minded that she lacked a formal education, a fact she lamented, though her readers shouldn’t mind either: her sharp observations about the music, art, and theater of her day, intermixed with her conversations with herself about the romantic assets and liabilities of their creators, make for lively reading. Perhaps the most valuable aspect of the diaries is their day-by-day depiction of cultural life in fin-de-siècle Vienna, as Schindler faithfully records where she went, whom she met, and what she listened to or saw.
The essays in this book revolve around three themes: the portrayals of Abraham Lincoln as the Savior of the Union, as the Great Emancipator, and as a folk-hero for the common man. The focal subjects of the collection are Lincoln’s management of military affairs during the Civil War, his relationship with black Americans, and the host of Southerners who were implicated or involved in the presidential assassination. Lincoln’s attitude toward race relations is given fresh perspective through essays that explore contemporary black perspectives. By revisiting issues of equality and the role of government in democracy, these essays remind us that ideological foundations for modern society can be found in the American experiences of the Civil War era. A glaring weakness of this book is the absence of an index.
Mrs. Beevor grew up in Tuscany running naked in a sunlit “garden in the sky” on the roof of her English expatriate parents’ 15th-century fortress. Her story is redolent of basil leaves on slices of fresh tomato, grape harvests, and olive trees in the summer breeze. There are cameo appearances by Aldous Huxley, Bernard Berenson, Queen Sophie of Greece, and Mussolini. This welcome American edition of Mrs. Beevor’s only book (published when she was 82) makes one wish she had started reflecting and writing about Italy much sooner—although apparently she was too busy living a full and happy life.
Coal miner’s daughter and folklore legend Aunt Molly Jackson grew up in eastern Kentucky. She was “discovered” by the Dreiser Committee and brought north in 1931, when she was 50 years old, and sponsored and befriended by an illustrious circle of left-wing intellectuals and musicians, including Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passes, Alan Lomax, and Charles Seeger and his son Pete. Together with other transplanted folk musicians like Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, and Aunt Molly’s sister Sarah Ogan Gunning, Jackson served as a cultural broker, linking the rural working poor to the big-city left-wing activism.
This volume, the eighth of the Correspondence of James Boswell, one of three series in the Yale Research Edition of The Private Papers of James Boswell, was begun 40 years ago by Nellie Pottle Hankins, who died in 1993. Her colleague since 1962, John Strawhorn, a descendant of one of Boswell’s tenants, and volume co-editor since 1988, also died before the publication of this volume. Their life work will have limited appeal to general readers and perhaps only slightly more to Boswell scholars, but it is a goldmine of original material on late 18th-century rural Scottish society, economy, and agricultural history. The 207 printed letters between Boswell and Bruce, dating from 1762 to Bruce’s death in 1790, and the 93 exchanged between Gibbs and Boswell before the diarist’s death in 1793, show the biographer of Dr. Samuel Johnson in a new light, as a gentleman farmer. The volume is heavily annotated and is well-served by an introduction on the history of the Auchinleck estate, Boswell’s parochial responsibilities and county affairs, and the background to agricultural innovations and industrial developments in south-western Scotland on the eve of the Industrial Revolution, Other editorial aids include maps, a glossary, a list of members of the Bruce and Gibbs families, a description of the estate’s lands, and an analytical index.
Mostly set in or near the fictional hamlet of Tobaccoton, this collection of short stories is distinctly regional. Though we stray as far the Tidewater for a female crabber’s first love or to West Virginia when outsiders come to build a ski resort, our main locale is Hoffman’s Yoknapatawpha, a land of shortleaf pines and biting deerflies, “a tobacco-growing region shaped like a teardrop dangling above central North Carolina.” Constantly rich in tone and voice, these are tales of cross-class love and the wiles of “simple” country folk. A few twists feel a little too familiar, the stuff of rural myth, but haunting stories like “Tenant” echo long after reading. Rarely dwelling on an internal moment, these fictions cover months, years, lifetimes; but throughout that expanse, Hoffman has a knack for finding small details like a husband watching his wife light candles, “and in their wavering light a fallen lick of dark hair across her pale forehead appeared a wound.”
Buckley is surely the premier social satirist of our age. Fresh from his skewering of the culture wars in Thank You for Smoking, he now turns his attention to another rich corner of American self-parody—alien abductions. In this highly amusing excursion into the Twilight Zone, Buckley introduces us to John Oliver Banion, Washington TV pundit, who just happens to be abducted while playing golf at his exclusive country club (and again while en route to an auto dealer’s convention in Palm Springs). Could anything more go awry in Banion’s highly structured, highly certain world? Indeed, it can. Let us say merely that Banion gains a greater appreciation of the deviancy of government (and the governance of deviancy) by the end of this saga than would ever have been possible from his exalted position “inside the Beltway.”
If Julian Barnes’ 1996 collection of artfully crafted short stories, Cross Channel, put him in the running as Nabokov’s heir apparent, this latest novel celebrates his ascendancy. Readers familiar with Barnes know what a delight it is to read his work, not just for the handsome innovation of the tale, but for the sheer lyricism and intelligence of the page. In this futuristic tale— part postulate, part pasquinade—Queen Elizabeth is dead, the Royals are sliding into bankruptcy, and the tycoon Sir Jack Pitman has constructed an island of British history and tourism that rivals Jurassic Park for its sense of plastic verisimilitude. Reaching the conclusion of this novel, one will be hard pressed to decide whether the aesthetic splendor of Nabokov has been resurrected or decidedly overthrown.
Cossé’s bewitching little novel opens as Father Bertrand Beaulieu, editor of a French Catholic magazine, shuffles papers at his desk and sorts through the day’s mail: a ritual of quotidian inconsequence. But his life is changed forever when he comes across an envelope containing an incontrovertible proof of the existence of God. In the past he’s been sent dozens of such “proofs,” all of them flawed. However, this revelation—with all due respect to Jesse Ventura— will truly shock the world: people will live freer; governments will collapse; economies will be ruined; churches will be rendered useless. Indeed, upon hearing of the discovery, the prime minister of France, overwhelmed with love, quits his job to tend to his wife and his roses. Given the potential for civic catastrophe, how can such news best be unveiled? Better yet: how can it best be suppressed?
While nowhere near as vividly written as The Horse Latitudes, Ferrigno’s first novel, Heart Breaker, his fourth, holds together better as story. Val Duran, a one-time undercover associate of the DEA in South Florida, runs afoul of Junior, the last of the cracker drug lords, and is forced to resettle in Southern California. There he hooks up with a leggy marine biologist named Kyle, which only complicates matters when Junior makes his inevitable visit. Kyle has her own problems, which revolve around a family rich in money and dysfunction, and they provide spice for the resulting violent stew. Reminiscent of Elmore Leonard’s Florida novels in style and pace, this is highly recommended for those who relish literate crime fiction.
In his debut novel, Robert Draper deftly steers his reader off the main highways and deep into the red-dirt cotton fields and the dark pine forests that lie north of Houston, Texas to visit a company town where incarceration is the company business. Shepherdsville (standing in for Huntsville), Texas is the home of the state prison system bureaucracy and many of its notorious penitentiaries. The compelling story skips around the lives of two small-town boys who grew up together and remain bound to each other in ways that they do not imagine. One would become the town’s top prison boss; the other would become the prison’s only successful escapee. It is a story of loyalty, lies, love, and legacies among fathers, sons, and best friends. Those who have enjoyed the crisp writing and engaging character descriptions from Draper’s many pieces in Texas Monthly and GQ magazine will not be disappointed by his first novel. Draper starts off wordy in the first chapter (would anybody in North Texas really describe someone as “Mister Loquacious”?); but he quickly recovers his sense of economy and delivers a clear winner.
The magic of love is the theme of this superb novel. The protagonist, magician Fletcher Brandon, learns the at once pleasurable and painful secrets of love’s trickery as he becomes involved with and then must mourn the loss of his beloved. The trouble is he must convince himself that she’s really gone, that her death was not merely a performance, part of a magic act. This taut, suspenseful story is at turns comic, realistic, and tragic. Deeply enjoyable.
Rewriting the Arthurian legend can be a tricky undertaking; the main obstacle is to give the main characters new faces and new motivations for doing the things the reader already knows that they are doomed to do. Miles partially succeeds at this in Guenevere. In her story we follow Guenevere herself from happy princess to beleaguered queen (in her own right) to the repeated tragedies that befall her as Arthur’s queen. So far so good. It is the other elements where the story tends to break down; she makes the legend a story about the spiritual turf war between the Pagans and the Christians, and most of the characters rely more on stereotype for their personalities than actual characterization. Goddess worshippers are good, Christians are hypocritical or downright evil, etc. etc; we’ve seen this before, done better. While there are some novel aspects to Miles’ version of the story (it is fairly unique in the existence of Guenevere’s and Arthur’s son, not to mention a “happy” ending), this Guenevere does not make a substantial contribution to existing lore.
In this debut crime novel, Sergeant-Detective Emile Cinq-Mars of the Montreal police investigates the murder of one of his informants. An officer long celebrated for a series of highly-publicized arrests, Cinq-Mars’ success rests on a mysterious informant and an ability to act independently of departmental regulations. In this story, Cinq-Mars battles an organized crime wave and corruption in the police force to save an American girl embroiled in a counter-terror organization. While the novel is too long by half and the dialogue can be quite stilted, the descriptions of mid-winter Montreal and the conflict between English-speaking and French-speaking officers make for some interesting reading.
A crime novel mining the violent, drug-crazed creepiness of the Manson family and its ilk, with big screen aspirations, God Is a Bullet succeeds as a skin-crawling read. It also contains depravities that may inspire one to take more baths than usual. The writing has its qualities, but Mr. Teran’s tendency is towards style over substance. The poetry of his style suggests a deeper understanding of his themes and characters than is ever manifested. This failure to get beyond a vivid descriptiveness of grotesque surfaces, be they of landscape, character, or situation leaves the story marooned in the shallows. The evil Cyrus is Manson squared. His mindless sycophants are straight out of Mad Max. The more believable “good guys,” Bob Hightower and Case Hardin, a land of Mad Maxine, seem way out of their depth, considering what they are up against. The climactic battle scene is pure, comic-book spectacle.
The discovery and political exploitation of a lost notebook by Josef Stalin propels this harrowing portrait of Russia’s potential embrace of a new demagogue. Harris knows his Soviet history and how to embody its forces in striking, believable characters. Even when his plot begins to stretch credibility, Kelso, the disaffected Oxford don into whose hands the notebook falls, rescues the story with his scholarly detective work and compromised, ultimately pragmatic moral view. A CN