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Notes on Current Books, Autumn 2001


ISSUE:  Autumn 2001

The format of this publication is a series of six illustrated paperback volumes which together cover the history of the kings and queens from William I to Elizabeth II. Most of the text is taken from a single hardback book of essays by various scholars first published in 1975. The piece on the House of Windsor, however, is added, in spite of claims to the contrary, and the chapters on the Normans and Angevins seem to have migrated to Kenneth Morgan’s Oxford History of England (1984) and back again. But many of the plates in this edition are new, in color, and more carefully reproduced on better paper. For those who like old-fashioned English history centered on the kings and their families in short chapters written in an easy prose style with plenty of pictures, these pleasant volumes will provide a good deal of useful information in an unobtrusive scholarly way. Readers who are already well informed on the subject may complain that the historical background is too meager, the judgements too hasty, and the conclusions too uncertain, to provide a satisfactory reconstruction of 900 years. There are also problems with the chronology and the titles, which shift from period labels to dynastic ones thus dividing, for instance, the Middle Ages from the Wars of the Roses. In the end it is hard to avoid the impression that the modern royals, at least, were mostly an expensive and undistinguished lot who themselves provide the best argument for the current movement to abolish the monarchy.

The Miracle Years: A Cultural History of West Germany, 1949—1968, edited by Hanna Schissler. Princeton $22.95

West Germans struggled successfully during the 1950’s to clear away the rubble left in the wake of World War II. This collection of essays by leading historians of the period affords an excellent survey of the manifold ways in which the crimes and consequences of Nazism nevertheless continued to dominate the cultural landscape of West Germany from 1945 through the first half of the 1970’s even as the Third Reich’s physical traces faded from view. The book grew out of a conference held in 1996 and, like most such collections, includes contributions varying in approach and quality. The work is somewhat less cutting edge now than it was in 1996, as some of the pieces have in the meantime appeared elsewhere in fuller form, but it still represents in one sizable volume an overview of much of the leading scholarship of the cultural history of West Germany. The essays, addressed mainly to an academic audience, engage in novel ways with popular culture, memory, gender, race, and the emergence of consumer society to provide a rich account of a society that did not simply repress its past, but selectively and fitfully reworked it.

The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance, by Anthony Gottlieb. Norton $27.95

A new introduction to philosophy seems to hit the market every year. The executive editor of The Economist has now given it a try and has produced a wonderfully engaging account of what got Plato started and how the Western world responded to Aristotle’s inspiration. Plato was certainly not the first Western philosopher, technically speaking, but he kneaded and molded the insights of more primitive thinkers and bequeathed us a set of questions to which we have yet to find definitive answers (for example, how can we be sure that what we know is true? What is beauty? What is justice?). Written for the non-specialist, this volume will beautifully suit college-educated readers who have long wondered what they missed in university philosophy classes. The substance of this book nicely captures the first half of materials college students are required to know in order to qualify for the philosophy major in a number of different universities.

Libraries in the Ancient World, by Lionel Casson. Yale $22.95

If curious about ancient libraries—and who would not be—here is the place to satisfy that curiosity. This wonderful book assembles much of what is known about libraries from caches of Sumerian clay tablets to the foundation of monastic libraries in the 7th century AD. It is strange to think such a book would be hard to put down, but there it is. Not just a fascinating tale of the contributions of Aristotle, the Alexandrian Library of Ptolemy, the great private and public libraries of Rome, this slender book considers from a most apt vantage point the nature of education and culture. One learns not only of the origins of bibliomania, cataloguing, publishing, and book selling, but what is known of the dissemination of literacy, the origins of scholarly research, and selection of information for cultural preservation. It is surprising and gratifying to see so much of ourselves in the ancient bibliophiles, deeply disappointing to see then as now the sore losses occasioned by politics, upheavals, and shortsightedness. This tale of who saved what and when it was lost to history nourishes the faint hope that further tatters of ancient books might one day turn up as it celebrates the reasons we have what we have. Hopefully Casson will extend this marvelous account, similarly assessing the achievements and vicissitudes of medieval libraries.

Omaha Beach: A Flawed Victory, by Adrian R. Lewis. North Carolina $34.95

In this book on the World War II D-Day landings at Omaha Beach, Adrian Lewis argues that responsibility for the near-disaster of June 6, 1944 lay with commanders at the operational and strategic level, rather than with those at the tactical level. In other words, the problem was not with the plan for attacking Omaha Beach itself, but with the overall planning for Operation Overlord. A fine point, seemingly, but a significant one for military historians. American commanders in charge of the landing at Omaha resisted the framework imposed on them by their superiors and argued, among other things, for a night landing that would have been more likely to achieve surprise. Lewis adds that the planners of Overlord neglected numerous lessons learned from landings in the Pacific theater, as well as some basic principles of military doctrine. Lewis inevitably involves himself in a fair amount of second-guessing and criticism by hindsight, and in his highly technical analysis he sometimes fails to place himself in the context of an enterprise that was, after all, entirely unprecedented in scale. Still, many of his arguments are well-presented, and the book deserves to be taken seriously by military historians.

Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas, by Sally E. Hadden. Harvard $35

In Slave Patrols, Sally Hadden explores the origins, development, composition, and evaluation of slave patrols in Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Hadden covers both the perspectives of the slave catcher and the caught slave. Though organized primarily thematically, the book also explores the rise and fall of the slave patrolling system. Drawing upon a wide array of personal and public papers, Hadden examines slave patrols to explore how white Southerners, both slave-holding and nonslaveholding, regulated slavery on a day-to-day basis. Haddon brings much needed attention to a subject always in the background, but rarely the foreground of any study of slavery.

Exploration and Exchange: A South Seas Anthology, 1680—1900, edited by Jonathan Lamb, Vanessa Smith, and Nicholas Thomas. Chicago $18

The story of Western exploration and expansion from the people on the front lines. This volume captures the full range of characters on the Western side, from the first explorers to missionaries to literary adventurers. These hard-to-find narratives offer a first-hand account of the triumphs, tribulations, connections, and conflicts of cultural contact in the Pacific. Each tale embodies the conflicts and complexities of the Western Imperialist mind, insecure and uncertain in unfamiliar territory, struggling to expand their dominion and yet ridden with a guilty ambivalence about their effects on local populations. Rich in information and full of adventure, this volume is surely to be of great interest to historians, anthropologists, and connoisseurs of high adventure alike.

Castration: An Abbreviated History of Western Manhood, by Gary Taylor. Routledge $25

Taylor has written a thoroughly engaging and witty account of the history and misconceptions of castration, an act which, strictly speaking, concerns the removal of the testicles for punitive, political, spiritual, medical, or cultural reasons. Relying on religious sources as old as Origen of Alexandria, Taylor also slogs through Freud’s æuvre and literary texts such as Middleton’s A Game of Chess to pinpoint the importance of this at once monstrous and privileged procedure. Freud’s novel ideas of castration— which incongruously ignore the testicles altogether—are frequent targets of Taylor’s erudition and humor. Despite some misinformation about the Catholic Church’s position on birth control, and some annoyingly stylistic sidebars, Castration provides a useful, original, lively, and long overdue look at one mankind’s most essential physical and cultural components.

The Anti-Rent Era in New York Law and. Politics, 1839—1865, by Charles W. McCurdy. North Carolina $45

Charles McCurdy’s searching exploration of the course and consequences of America’s largest tenant rebellion offers readers valuable and discomforting insights into the dynamic relationship among law, politics, and social order in 19th-century America. McCurdy chronicles the conflict between eastern New York tenants and landlords, tied together through an arcane property rule established in the colonial period and still present in some deeds today. In the process, he deftly unveils the competing conceptions of democracy that sustained the conflict. Tenants saw the unwillingness of state legislators to override constitutional protections of property as a failure of democracy while landlords identified the protection of property as the bedrock of a republic. By highlighting the ways in which 19th-century party politics and legal theory inhibited solving a problem everyone abhorred, McCurdy offers us a compelling cautionary tale about the need to understand the limits and constraints of democratic institutions in our past and our present.

The Dynamics of Global Dominance: European Overseas Empires 1415—1980, by David B. Abernethy. Yale $35

This straightforward account is amazingly comprehensive in sketching and attempting to explain five centuries of world history. It contributes to a rapidly growing literature on European imperialism and the “world system,” a variation on the comparative study of modern capitalism that Marx and Weber pioneered. Abernethy’s book provides a curious blend of traditional social science and multicultural critique. On the one hand, his goal is a “causal explanation of historical trends”. On the other hand, he wants a theory that is sufficiently attuned to the problem of cross-cultural translation to take into account the “agency” of the colonized as well as the colonizers. Specifically, he argues that non-European polities often made a fatal mistake when they tried to make use of European powers for local political ends, only to discover, too late, that they could not control the ambitions of their new allies.

Novel History: Historians and Novelists Confront America’s Past (and Each Other), edited by Mark C. Carnes. Simon & Schuster $25

The appetite for historical fiction is vast these days, which probably says as much about the kind of history written by professionals as it does about the reading public. But what do professional historians think about historical fiction? Mark Carnes, a professor of history at Barnard College, asked a number of historians to discuss novels which fell into their areas of expertise (he edited a similar volume devoted to historians and the movies), and then gave the writers equal time to respond. The result is fascinating.

1688: A Global History, by John E. Wills, Jr. Norton $27.95

Wills, professor of history at the University of Southern California, has written a book that will fascinate both scholar and the dedicated general reader alike. With the current rediscovery of the phenomenon of globalization in mind, Wills has set out to explore the same theme in another era when the world had already begun to shrink due to the extensive missions of exploration, conquest, and conversion of the 16th and 17th centuries. Himself well-aware of these interactions as a result of his work on early Chinese-Western contacts, Wills demonstrates over and over again just how “global” the world of 1688 had become even by that early date. In doing this, he takes us on a tour of such well-known locales as the splendid court of the Sun King at Versailles, the Russia of Peter the Great at a time just before that ruler’s dramatic campaign to drag his country westward, and the England of the Glorious Revolution and Newton. He does not stop here, however. He carries us also to northwestern Australia for early encounters between Europeans and aborigines, the early “Pennsylvania” of William Penn and his Quakers, and further to China, Mexico, and Southern Africa, to mention literally but a few of the stops. The author’s breadth of knowledge is astounding and the detail in the countless portraits on this enormous canvas is exquisite. Scholars may find it insufficiently academic if still a good read. It is geared toward a thoughtful general public to be sure but deserves a wider audience.

LITERARY STUDIESThe Realms of Verse: English Poetry in a Time of Nation-Building, by Matthew Reynolds. Oxford $65

Matthew Reynolds chooses what may at first seem to be an odd angle from which to approach Victorian poetry, but he makes it work. He begins with Victorian interest in Italy—and not the romantic Italy of the Romantic poets, but the Italy of practical politics, the Italy men like Garibaldi were trying to create, as the issue of unification dominated Italian politics in the 19th century. Reynolds shows how fascinated the Victorians were in the Italian Risorgimento, which resonated in all sorts of ways with their own political concerns. Tennyson even met with Garibaldi when he visited England in 1864. Reynolds goes on to show convincingly that this interest in Italy shaped a good deal of Victorian poetry—not just the works of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning (who actually lived in Italy) but major works by Tennyson as well. After reading this book, Victorian scholars will never be able to read familiar poems like Aurora Leigh and “Andrea del Sarto” the same way again.

Essays on Conrad, by Ian Watt. Cambridge $52.95 cloth, $18.95 paper

This volume usefully collects Ian Watt’s essays on one of the focal points of his scholarly career, Joseph Conrad. It will evidently have to serve in lieu of the sequel Watt hoped to write to his famous Conrad in the Nineteenth Century, As a learned, insightful, and humane critic, Watt has much to tell us about Conrad, and these essays do not disappoint. Among the works covered are Almayer’s Folly, The Nigger of the “Narcissus”, Heart of Darkness, Typhoon, The Secret Agent, Chance, and The Shadow-Line. The volume ends with a fascinating essay on the myth of “The Bridge over the River Kwai.” As someone who actually worked on the River Kwai while a prisoner of war, and who returned to the site in 1966, Watt is able to offer a unique perspective on the pop culture myth that developed out of this strange episode in World War II history. Though not directly about Conrad, this final essay is deeply Conradian in spirit, as it debunks a Western myth about the Eastern imperialist frontier.

Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression, edited by Nell Casey. Morrow $23

This is a collection of short essays on depression by a variety of authors. Many different perspectives appear here, from those who suffer personally to those who love them; from those who battle their depression to those who embrace it. One of the most interesting essays is Susanna Kaysen’s “One Cheer For Melancholy,” a statement against the popular conflation of sadness with depression. Other essays are more autobiographical, including Larry McMurtry’s recollection of the depression that descended on him after heart surgery, and Rose Styron’s account of her husband William Styron’s battle with despair. Unholy Ghost provides a useful corrective to a market saturated with “self-help” books and popular works by self-appointed “experts” on depression. As the essays in this book reflect, depression is a condition that defies simple analysis. Readers with experience of depression are likely to be annoyed by some of the accounts presented here, but they are just as likely to find inspiration.

Baroque Bodies: Psychoanalysis and the Culture of French Absolutism, by Mitchell Greenberg. Cornell $39.95

One of the most learned critics of 17th-century French literature, Mitchell Greenberg consistently redefines his discipline with stunning innovation. In this very sophisticated, footnote-laden study, he explores French corporeality in the days of Louis XIV, moving expertly from canonical texts by Molière and Racine to less well-known narratives that deal with pornography, cross-dressing, and psychoanalysis. Yet, with Baroque Bodies, Greenberg has become, perhaps, a victim of his own erudition; this work is so rich and detailed that all but the most cerebral readers will struggle to keep up. Although it may seem silly to quibble about the accessibility of such an accomplished academic study, this book’s length apparently prohibits the translation of almost all French citations, most of which are crucial to Greenberg’s mission. For that reason, the audience for this work will be undoubtedly very small. With Baroque Bodies, Greenberg is at the top of his game, and frankly, it can be overwhelming.

Romantic Atheism: Poetry and Freethought, 1780—1830, by Martin Priestman. Cambridge $59.95

The 37th title to appear in the recent series of Cambridge Studies in Romanticism, Priestman’s book examines the social context within which Romantic poets challenged the long-standing doctrines of Christian theology. By examining not only the six canonical English Romantics (Blake, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron and Keats), but also lesser-known figures such as Richard Payne Knight and Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Priestman shows how the questioning of religious orthodoxy served as one of the crucial defining factors of the entire Romantic movement. Using the style and methods of New Historicist scholarship, Priestman draws not only on the well-known and much-anthologized works of Romantic poetry, but also on pamphlets, periodicals, and newsletters of the time. The picture he paints is one of a late 18th and early 19th-century print culture in Britain in the throes of religious controversy, repudiation, and reform. The book provides a wealth of historical detail and glimpses of fascinating, little-known texts of the period. It seems at times, however, that Priestman gives too little credence to the power and poetry of the religious worldview the figures he studies are trying to overcome. In doing so, he may downplay the non-ironical use of religious imagery and language in some of the poets he cites. Nonetheless, on the whole Romantic Atheism surveys the socio-religious upheavals of the time and their reflection and catalysis through literature in noteworthy fashion.

Symbolic Loss: The Ambiguity of Mourning and Memory at Century’s End, edited by Peter Homans. Virginia $49.50 cloth, $17.50 paper

Mourning, death, trauma, grief—these painful dimensions of human psychological experience have recently become vital areas of crossdisciplinary scholarship in the humanities and social sciences. Peter Homans has assembled a lively and informative series of essays about how groups and nations mourn collective losses through literature, monuments, historical scholarship, and other modes of symbolic representation. Indebted to the foundational psychoanalytic work of Freud, Klein, and Bowlby, the essayists more closely follow the lead of Alexander and Marguerite Mitscherlich, Philippe Aries, Geoffrey Gorer, and others who have integrated this understanding of mourning within the larger socio-historical contexts of war, collective trauma, slavery, mass death, and political history. Perhaps more serious engagement with the existing scholarship on literary and cultural mourning could have been fruitful. But overall, this excellent collection is to be praised for energetically bringing psychological insight to bear on historical experiences of mourning and loss, and thus affording genuinely interdisciplinary connections that future scholars will build on for many years to come.

The Invention of Middle English. An Anthology of Primary Sources, by David Matthews. Pennsylvania State $19.95

The ambiguity of the sub-title of this book (it is a collection of sources from the 18th and 19th centuries, not from the 13th and 14th) reflects the greater uncertainty of the label “Middle English.” Now generally accepted as referring to a definite period of linguistic and literary development and dominated by Chaucerian studies, but in reality a wholly artificial designation of disputed meaning and usefulness, the term seems to have been fixed in the modern academic vocabulary only quite recently. The discussion of its origins, and its development over the last 200 years by scholars trained in linguistic structure and theory, as well as by literary critics and editors, is here set out in a group of selected texts ranging from George Hickes (d.1715) to Walter Skeat (d.1911). The whole is preceded by a general introduction to important questions relating to the history of the English language in particular, and to the chronology of the English Middle Ages in general.

Grammars of Creation, by George Steiner. Yale $29.95

Bibliographical pyrotechnics aside, there’s very little to hold one’s interest in this book after the first 10 or 20 pages. Steiner is the consummate “great books” name-dropper, hyperventilating citations at an alarming rate. But one comes away with the impression that, like a child, Steiner uses phrases that sound good, but without understanding them. Conceived as a meditation on the “darkness” of the 20th century and its implications for our “grammar,” Steiner seeks to inquire into what happens after we have lost the capacity to begin, and thus the capacity to make art in the received ways. There is a real insight here into some of the most serious perplexities we face today. But for all Steiner’s erudite showboating, one senses a profound helplessness, a sheer stupefaction at what he sees as the calamity that has befallen Western Civilization, and a fundamental lack of faith in art’s capacity to inform or guide us today. At the heart of his manic narcissism, beyond his attempts to intimidate the reader with his learning, there is something desperate, panicky, almost hysterical in his erudition; confronted with the dangers, all he can do is allude. Such is the aesthete’s destiny: to be so enthralled by the commerce of admiration as to forget just why some things merited admiration in the first place. One hopes that the world of “arts and letters” will find better defenders.

Trickster Lives: Culture and Myth in American Fiction, edited by Jeanne Campbell Reesman. Georgia $12.95

The trickster figures of African-American and Native American cultures have increasingly gained attention. In its 13 chapters Trickster Lives addresses Louise Erdrich (10), Joel Chandler Harris (3), Jack London (7), Melville (6), gay Mexican-American lives (John Rechy, Walt Curtis (11)), and Mark Twain (4, 5). A Hawaiian trickster has one chapter (2), the relation between African-American and Cherokee accounts of Rabbit another (3). Houston Baker points out that a trickster can be not only disruptive, but conservative, in a sharp critique of some leading Black writers (13).(This fits a common Native American pattern in terms of which a trickster establishes cultural norms, having first learned by his own mistakes.) Lewis Hyde provides a cogent account of the presence in some cultures of tricksters who are women, and William Doty leads off with a valuable general overview of the trickster figure. There is much of interest to students of American literature. One caution is in order: as Sandra Baringer points out, “Stories vary.” Tricksters are not impervious to grief: in parts of North America the origin of death is told in terms of a trickster father’s grief. If female tricksters are rare, women’s telling, and thereby interpreting, of trickster stories is not.

A Theatergoer’s Guide to Shakespeare, by Robert Thomas Fallon. Ivan R. Dee $29.95

This work certainly is a guide as its title promises, but much more. It examines what the author considers to be the most frequently staged plays scene by scene and those less performed, act by act. The chapters clearly recount the sequence of events, but they are more than mere summaries of the plays. They comment on character, theme, setting and poetry, and provide elucidative comments for the general reader for whom the work is meant.

LIVES & LETTERSThe Correspondence of William James, Volume 9: July 1899—1901, edited by Ignas K. Skrupskelis and Elizabeth M. Berkeley. Virginia $85

The 470 letters to and from the great American philosopher that are printed in full in this volume (another 500 or so are calendared) plumb the intellectual currents that flowed across the Atlantic at the turn of the 20th century and provide insights into important philosophical questions of the day and the founding of modern psychology. Many of James’s outgoing letters contain intense self-diagnoses of the state of his mind and body, as the Harvard professor took a sabbatical year to travel to Europe, hoping to recover his health debilitated by heart problems. He also prepared his most influential lectures, the ten Gifford lectures delivered at the University of Edinburgh and published in 1902 as The Varieties of Religious Experience. James’s correspondence provides lively exchanges about such issues as idealism, consciousness, memory, and the will to believe, but also comprises a compendium of professional gossip, as well as offers fragmentary embryonic versions of his later pronouncements on pragmatism, pluralism, and radical empiricism. Consistent with the previous volumes of this highly commended series approved by the MLA’s Committee on Scholarly Editions, this volume includes a thorough introduction, informative annotations, textual notes, James family tree, biographical register, chronology of letters, and an analytical index.

Remember Me to Harlem: The Letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten, 1925—1964, edited by Emily Bernard. Knopf $30

This exciting collection of letters documents the close friendship between two important and influential figures of the Harlem Renaissance, the young and gifted black poet Langston Hughes and his early mentor, editor, and agent, Carl Van Vechten, who served as a white champion of black culture, at least until 1926 when he lost the goodwill of many blacks by publishing a novel controversially entitled Nigger Heaven. The correspondence tells a subtle and complex personal story of mutual affection, appreciation, and assistance set against a biracial backdrop of one of the most fertile cultural movements of the 20th century. As the two friends knew and discussed everybody who was anybody— musicians, writers, painters, and philosophers— black Harlem comes alive, as does the wider world in which the two bebopped. Numerous photographs, many taken by Van Vechten, supplement the text, and the editor has also provided a biographical directory of persons mentioned in the letters, four appendixes, a selected bibliography, and an index.

An American Family, by George F. Kennan. Norton $22.95

The brilliant life of George Kennan, distinguished Cold War diplomat and scholar, is, itself, the fascinating biographical subject of a number of books. In his book, An American Family, however, Kennan looks back to his roots, recounting the story of his family’s first three generations in America, from the early 1700’s into the 1800’s. Expanding on the research of his grandfather, Kennan produces a chronicle of life at the time of our nation’s birth. Not only does Kennan present a historical account of his family, but he also provides a broader glimpse of the society and culture of the northern New England frontier in this period. Kennan chooses not to bind himself by conventional historical restraints and instead incorporates historical fact, local anecdotes and lore, and scholarly presumption to provide an inspired narrative that is both educational and entertaining. The story of the Kennan family can be the story of many American families.

Lillian Gish: Her Legend, Her Life, by Charles Affron. Scribner $35

A biography of Lillian Gish, arguably the greatest silent film actress, was long overdue. Her important place in the birth of American film is generally appreciated. Her own life and personality, however, remain tantalizingly unclear. When Gish wrote or spoke about herself, it was generally with extreme reluctance, and she usually attempted to shift the subject to her sister Dorothy or her mentor D.W. Griffith. Charles Affron does his best to cover the gap, making use of some recently released papers at the New York Public Library. On the whole, however, he is unable to provide a very intimate portrait of Lillian Gish the person. This biography is essentially one of her professional career as an actress, containing only moderate insight into her political proclivities and very little insight into her private life. This is not really Affron’s fault, however; Gish was simply very successful in her desire to hide her personal life from the prying eyes of the public. This book remains a must-have for her fans.

Famous Women, by Giovanni Boccaccio; History of the Florentine People, by Leonardo Bruni; Platonic Theology, Vol. I, Books I-IV, by Marsilio Ficino. Harvard $29.95 each

With these three works, Harvard launches its I Tatti Renaissance Library. The author best known for his Decameron writes a series of biographies of women beginning with Eve. The author of a history of Florence, who served as chancellor of that city, writes a classic work of civic humanism in defense of Florentine liberty. The Neoplatonic philosopher writes about a philosophy that had a profound influence on Renaissance art, literature, and theology. The publisher is to be applauded for making available these classic texts, both in the original Latin and with excellent translations by Virginia Brown, James Hankins, and Michael Allen.

Raymond Roussel and the Republic of Dreams, by Mark Ford. Cornell $29.95

Mark Ford is by profession a poet, and it would take a poet to do justice to the biography of such an idiosyncratic, experimental, obsessive, overlooked dandy as Roussel. Roussel was indeed an odd figure: he never wore his clothes more than once, he rarely left his hotel when on vacation, and he spent much of his life with his mother. But his personal and literary style were influential for many experimental arists including Alain Robbe-Grillet, André Breton, and Foucault, who early in his career reveled in Roussel’s “lovely curiosity” and his “form of beauty.” Ford does a fine job of bringing out Roussel’s eccentricity; thanks to this biography, Roussel’s work might become a little less neglected.

The Commonplace Book of William Byrd II of Westover, edited by Kevin Boland, Kenneth Lockridge, and Jan Gilliam. North Carolina $39.95

This erudite edition of the sole extant commonplace book of William Byrd greatly enriches our understanding of this complex, insecure, accomplished Virginian/Londoner and the society in which he worriedly flourished. In some ways this collation of wisdom, historical anecdotes, scientific observations, jokes, and tales of scandal is more startlingly personal and intimate than his secret diaries, revealing Byrd’s attitudes and anxieties concerning health, aging, sex, women, political and social endeavor, philosophy and religion—his prejudices, yearnings, and ideals. It strongly conveys his troubled personality and the tumultuous intellectual and emotional struggle of inner man and outward appearance. The book also conveys the sense of humor, drive, and resilience of this fascinating man. The edition is greatly enhanced by thorough introductory consideration of Byrd, his society, and the history of the commonplace book as an educational exercise. The appended commentary on the sources and content of entries is another splendid achievement, providing an excellent foundation for further scholarly studies. This is a marvelous contribution to the understanding of an important man, an important document, an important era of human history.

Mad for God: Bartolomé Sánchez, the Secret Messiah of Cardenete, by Sara Tilghman Nalle. Virginia $49.50 doth, $16.95 paper

In 1553 an impoverished wool carder named Bartolomé Sánchez was denounced to the Holy Office of the Inquisition in the Castilian city of Cuenca. In the following trial Sánchez, far from hiding his heresy, proclaimed his beliefs with passionate conviction: kneeling before the cross was idolatrous; the priests were the biggest thieves in the world; the trinity was composed of God the Father, the Son, and the Virgin Mary; and he, Sánchez, was Elijah, the second Messiah sent to complete the process of salvation. The inquisitor, suspecting that Sánchez was not mentally competent to stand trial, spent many hours in conversation with his prisoner, trying to convince him to recant and save his soul. A last-minute confession during an auto de fe the following year saved Sánchez from execution, but for the rest of his known life, he shuttled between his village, inquisitorial jails, and insane asylums. Nalle’s riveting account evokes the anguished soul of this highly intelligent, semi-literate peasant, and in the process tells us much about the history of jurisprudence, insanity, and religious dissent in early modern Spain.

A Woman Unknown, by Lucia Graves. Counterpoint $25

Graves, the daughter of the poet Robert Graves, grew up on the island of Mallorca, and lived for years in Barcelona. In the repressed atmosphere of post-Civil War Spain, when Francisco Franco ruled with an iron hand (1939—1975), Graves struggled to find her identity, perched as she was between British literature and good manners, and Spanish exile. Yet she “moved easily between two separate worlds, changing my gestures, my facial expressions and my intonation as required, almost switching identities as I changed languages.” Who was she? Who is she? We meet the women in her life who helped shape her identity, women whose silent and noble struggle paralleled hers in many ways. Married to, and divorced from, a Catalán, Graves moves to London, but is called back to Barcelona by the illness of her aged mother, a journey which stimulated the meditations and memories encapsulated in this fine book.

Jane Austen (A Penguin Life), by Carol Shields. Penguin $19.95

Any biographer has to be a kind of private investigator, but the need is especially dire when the subject is Jane Austen: with only 160 letters to go on, one is left to decode her novels, seeking the life within the fictions. Shields does this beautifully, quilting together bits of biographical information and scenes or characters that seem to elaborate on them. A woman who couldn’t help but notice at 21 that she was “not very much in request” at balls, the men “rather apt not to ask me until they could not help it,” Austen never married, yet spent her life writing about courtship and marriage. Some have called her six great novels a bitter rant against these, but Shields depicts Austen’s heroines as her triumph, as she endowed them with the sense of control over their romantic destinies that she lacked.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass an American Slave: Written by Himself, edited by John W. Blassingame et al. Yale $20 cloth, $7.95 paper

One of the most important texts to emerge from America during the 19th century, Frederick Douglass’ narrative defined a genre with its vivid depiction of a nightmarish slavery told with an impassioned rhetorician’s tongue. Now this classic work is available in an authoritative edition priced for students as well as established scholars, and useful to both as well. Blassingame and his collaborators have done a fine job providing a thorough amount of material that enables readers to contextualize Douglass’s work and his words. Most interesting—and perhaps most useful for those teaching the text—are the reader responses to the original 1845 edition which provide a broad avenue into the major social issues that surrounded the tale at its first publication, for years afterwards, and that continue to haunt us today.

The Gang: Coleridge, the Hutchinsons, and the Wordsworths in 1802, by John Worthen. Yale $30

Three years after the first publication of Lyrical Ballads, the world changed. If not significantly for many, than immensely for a few: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, his poetic counterpart William Wordsworth, and the three women who dominated their mental and emotional landscape: Wordsworth’s sister Dorothy, his future wife Mary Hutchinson, and her sister Sara, adored by the ill-married Coleridge. In 1802, deep in the Lake District’s close quarters, tensions ran high, the moment a crucible for some of the finest lyric poetry of our age. Working from letters, diaries, and poems, John Worthen magnificently unravels the weave of emotion, excitement, and frustration that characterized the turning point of one of the most famously complex friendships in English letters.

Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Martin Luther King Jr., Eight White Religious Leaders, and the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” by S. Jonathan Bass. Louisiana $39.95

In an interesting turn on civil rights history, Bass focuses on white “moderate” responses to the struggle. By using group biography, he shows a more complicated relationship between whiteness and civil rights. More to the point, Bass reveals that the eight white clerics whom the “letter from Birmingham jail” addresses held positive positions on the advancement of African Americans in Southern society. However, the rhetorical effect of the letter galvanized opinion regarding slow progress. In this way, the eight white clerics became symbols of white resistance (even when they supported modest advances). In the tumultuous days of 1963, moderate meant Communist or Klanner equally. Bass advances the field of civil rights history with his balanced and thoughtful book.

To Keep the Ball Rolling: The Memoirs of Anthony Powell, by Anthony Powell. Chicago $27.50

Powell wrote four volumes of memoirs between 1976 and 1982: these four books were abridged and revised into one volume, To Keep the Ball Rolling, first published in Britain in 1983, but appearing in the United States for the first time now. The volume itself is sturdy and attractive, with 23 photographs, and a short foreword by way of an appreciation by Ferdinand Mount. Powell, of course best known for his 12-volume novel sequence Dance to the Music of Time, writes with a delicious clarity and light wit that might well be unmatched in English prose. To the luxurious prose should be added the delight that Powell knew everybody. Along with reflections on events of the times, great and small (the world wars, and the libel suit brought on behalf of nine year old Shirley Temple against Graham Greene) are portraits of T.S. Eliot, James Thurber, George Orwell, Evelyn Waugh, Edith Sitwell, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Green (who was a friend of Powell as a child at school), and many, many others. As a pure delight in itself, and as a window into an important and fascinating time in English letters, this book can hardly be praised enough.

Troublemaker: The Life and History of A. J. P. Taylor, by Kathleen Burk. Yale $35

Biographies of historians seldom make exciting reading. One exception, however, is the biography of A.J.P. Taylor, who at one time or another was an historian, essayist, journalist, popular radio and television personality, book reviewer, and Oxford don. Taylor’s last doctoral student at Oxford has written a fascinating, detailed biography of a very complicated man as well as an analysis of his research and writing. His private life involved three tempestuous marriages and six children; he was outspoken, sometimes quarrelsome and always opinionated. Taylor was probably the best-known British historian of the 20th century who wrote 23 books including his two masterpieces The Struggle for Mastery in Europe and English History 1914—1945. However, he is best remembered for The Origins of the Second World War. This volume was praised and condemned chiefly because Taylor argued that Hitler had no preconceived master plan, only exploited opportunities and was supported by the German people. A member of the Communist Party in his youth, after World War II Taylor became outspoken in his anti-American views and in his support for an Anglo-Soviet alliance. Taylor also gained renown in Britain for his lectures on radio and later on television and for his writing in the daily press all of which brought history into the lives of millions of people in Britain and supplied him with the income that he needed to support his life style. It is a delightful book about a controversial man.

Pearl’s Secret: A Black Man’s Search for His White Family, by Neil Henry. California $24.95

In Edward Ball’s Slaves in the Family (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998), a white descendant of slave owners finds his black relatives descended from former slaves. In Henry’s memoir, the slaves’ descendant finds relatives of his family’s white owners. Henry, a former Washington Post reporter and now a professor of journalism at Berkeley, combines his coming of age as an African-American, the story of his immediate family’s fight against racism in the South and later in Seattle, and reflections on race in America, woven around his quest. The reader learns a lot about family strategies to smudge the truth, and the value of forgiveness and acceptance. Henry appends five pages of thanks, including at least 10 people who read his typescript. They should have given it one more pass, editing out the bragging and preachy adjectives and adverbs, and bringing some order to the events.

“India’s Prisoner”: A Biography of Edward John Thompson, 1886—1946, by Mary Lago. Missouri $39.95

Author Lago has written a solid biography of an obscure figure in the tangled history of Anglo-Indian relations. Thompson, who went out to British India as a Methodist missionary but became disenchanted with both Wesleyanism and British rule itself, was poet, novelist, and lecturer on Indian history at Oxford. Inevitably, given his differences of opinion with British officialdom and his friendship with Gandhi, Nehru, and other nationalists, he also became a controversial figure himself during the waning years of the Raj. The father of E.P. Thompson, the late historian of the English working class and a vehement critic of Methodism, he is seen by Lago as a transitional figure between the unshakeably confident British world of the Victorian and Edwardian eras and the more skeptical and slightly less arrogant Raj of the interwar period. Readers will find much that is of interest here although it is not a book destined for a wide readership. Those who specialize in India will find it too much the biography of a peripheral and non-Indian character while many will wish it had been written in a more lively style. It is a biography—pure and simple—of a fascinating figure caught up in the drama that was the struggle for Indian independence. Those who read it with this in mind will not be disappointed.

FICTIONAverage American Boy, by Jerry Hammond. Mynah Bird $25.95

Once in a blue moon a rookie steps up to the major league plate for the first time and hits a homer. Retired psychiatrist Hammond has done exactly that with this, his first novel. Using the latest contemporary ways and means of story-telling, he presents the wild and wooly life of “Boy,” an autobiographical model and stand-in, from his beginnings as an Iowa farm boy to dangerous missions with the Eighth Air Force in World War II, and thanks to the G.I. Bill, his career as a doctor. Together with a rogue’s gallery of memorable characters, you have plenty of lively sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll, as, coterminous with the savage 20th century’s life and times, Boy marries some of his women and doesn’t some others; takes us here and there to interesting places and behind the deceptive facades of our prisons and public hospitals, all the way to the end of the line. Coming from a small press in Great Britain, this is an exciting novel that a reader might miss. The World War II experiences are as well-realized and powerfully written as anything written by any other American so far.

I, Roger Williams, by Mary Lee Settle. W.W. Norton $24.95.

Settle returns to her beloved historical genre in I, Roger Williams, this time taking up the cause and voice of a radical defender of his (and others’) freedom in both England and the New World. Settle’s stunning achievement here is to capture the voice of this ambitious, violent, cold, and principled man as he tells his story from Jacobean England to the edges of American’s Indian wilderness. She captures the rhythm of the language of King James’s England and of Plymouth America. Williams was persecuted for this ideas and words, not for his actions, but he was vilified in his native country and in America, where he was tried for heresy (the “heresy” being his attempt to get the Colonies to pay for Indian land they had stolen). He was persecuted for calling meetings, for speaking his mind, for demanding the most elemental civil rights. Threatened with jail and banishment, knowing that he could never return to England (which would have brought sure death), Williams’s story traces the growth of America, particularly as it dealt with the separation of church and state. Williams’s life is a cautionary tale, one which we would do well to listen to today.

Here’s to You, Jesusa!, by Elena Poniatowska. Farrar, Straus, & Giroux $24

Poniatowska’s classic 1969 novel (Hasta no verte Jesús mío), which has already been reprinted 28 times in Spanish, finally reaches an English audience. This is a Mexican classic, a major work of “testimonial” literature which tells an inspiring tale of revolution, struggle, and survival. Mixing fiction with real-life documentary information, Poniatowska challenges the official version of the events of the Mexican Revolution by recreating events as seen through the eyes of a working-class woman (“This is my third time back on Earth, but I’ve never suffered as much as I have now,” she tells us). As she does in the stark and harrowing La noche de Tlatelolco (1970), the author recreates a world of poverty, oppression, and misogyny, yet the main character’s tough spirit shines through to guide her toward a vision of justice, tranquility, and hope.

Ordinary Horror, by David Searcy. Viking $24.95

Simply by way of its title, this book promises much to the reader who relishes a good horror story—then, after a few preliminary shivers, delivers very little. Mr. Delabano, a milquetoast widower almost completely devoid of personality, loves his roses. Then one day he notices that some land of subterranean intruder is tunneling around his beloved bushes. Desperate when conventional methods fail, he answers an ad for an unusual potion—which obliterates the creature but, predictably, also unleashes a string of weird phenomena. In more adept hands, this could indeed have been a horror story. Instead, it’s tedious to tag along as Mr. Delabano and his neighbors unravel; the novel fizzles out with a bizarre—but not remotely horrifying— barbecue: far from recoiling, the reader is simply relieved to be finished.

Cold Flat Junction, by Martha Grimes. Viking $24.95

Martha Grimes’ strength as a writer lies in her ability to create a vivid community of characters whose eccentric personalities and day-to-day mishaps are as intriguing as the mystery itself. One of her stock figures, especially in the Richard Jury series, is a precocious, but forlorn, child who waits around hoping for someone to take an interest in him or her. In this second mystery novel featuring young detective Emma Graham, Grimes once again has moved the neglected child to the center of the drama. Emma’s curiosity, as well as her emotional attachment to the case, leads her on a spirited chase to catch the killer before the sheriff even knows that she is investigating it. The mystery itself is often hard to follow, but you quickly become so absorbed in the characters that you forget to notice.

Narrow Beams, by Kate Myers Hanson. Carnegie Mellon $15.95

Kate Myers Hanson’s first collection of short stories contains a wide range of characters with one essential similarity: all their lives revolve around loss. In each story, one character has lost someone they loved and needed. The collection begins with “The Widow”, a very short story about a young widow who was the second wife of an old farmer. Hanson’s character is revealed to us in one sentence: “The widow stood at the edge of his grave, her white satin pumps nailed into a furrow of black dirt, the ones she’d bought for her high school graduation last year, then wore again when she married.” Sometimes the characters’ ages and transitions are not clear in Narrow Beams, and it hinders the story’s progression. But Hanson has such wonderful descriptions and characters that we are willing to decipher what’s going on and understand the longing in each character’s life. Hanson is a patient writer who respects her characters and their situations. She is at her best when she lets her story tell itself, and her worst when she tries to push a story or give it more meaning than it has. Her beginning and endings are oftentimes not as strong as the middles of her story, the quiet part that lures us in with its great descriptions and dynamics between characters.

Border Crossing, by Pat Barker. Farrar, Straus & Giroux $22

Barker’s latest novel returns to territory familiar to her readers—the world of psychiatry. Instead of exploring the effects of war on the human psyche, however, Barker undertakes the mind of a child criminal, now grown up and in therapy with the psychiatrist who helped convict him in the first place. What begins as therapy, though, quickly turns into an engaging cat-and-mouse game in which the patient forces the psychiatrist to question his own notions of criminality and rehabilitation. Barker’s unflinching narrative pace and her unfailing ear for dialogue make this a thrilling novel to read, but it is her keen psychological insight that makes this novel a memorable meditation on crime, punishment, and redemption.

Bad Timing, by Betsy Berne. Villard $23.95

In her debut novel, Betsy Berne introduces her readers to a Jewish, New York artist who makes a modest living free-lancing articles for fashion magazines and showing her work at local galleries. Berne’s interest is in her unnamed narrator’s affair with an uptight and married African-American “jazz club whiz”; the affair is complicated by the fact that the narrator finds herself pregnant after their first night together. This unwanted pregnancy would seem to be the story’s main conflict, as the narrator often seeks support and advice in this matter from her friends and family, who are overly eccentric and pointedly diverse in every way. Our narrator, sarcastic and often emotionally numb, gets an abortion within the first third of the book; however, thus disposing of the only slightly interesting thing at stake in this story. From there on, we watch the narrator and her love— who is often referred to as “the perpetrator”— battle about the state of their affair over the phone and in bars and beds over the course of a sultry New York summer. Berne’s writing is often bland, and even more often vague, as it is impossible to understand a narrator who doesn’t even care to make sense of herself. Berne writes, “Time went by faster than it had in a long while; there was no time to think . . .time stopped.” Berne’s writing is flat and clichéd; and it is only in rare moments that a good passage can be found. The bulk of this novel, which moves excruciatingly slowly, is an endless cycle of bickering, spoiled artist-types and their friends as they battle over whose life is the worst. The story itself is lacking, and when the narrator and the perpetrator finally decide to end it—as their whole relationship has been “bad timing” anyway—readers are sighing with relief, as this whole fiasco is at last coining to a close.

Dark Back of Time, by Javier Marías. New Directions $27.95

Marías (b. 1951) is one of Spain’s most acclaimed novelists, hailed by The Boston Globe as “the most subtle and gifted writer in contemporary Spanish literature.” His work has been translated into 29 languages and has garnered numerous international awards. Dark Back of Time is a follow-up to his controversial roman à clef, All Souls, a riotous romp through the snootiness and pretensions of Oxford, where he spent some time as a lecturer in Spanish literature. Marías fuses “real” life with fiction this “false novel” (his term), and, in the tradition of Don Quixote, who commented on the apocryphral second part of his own story (written by Avellaneda), has characters comment on their supposed real-life incarnations from the first novel It’s more: they claim real status for themselves in their first novel, “identifying” themselves as characters, even though Marías disavowes any such use of “real” people. What it all leads to is a brilliant meditation on identity and time, in which the present fuses with the past, and startling discoveries are to be made in both worlds.

Cause Celeb, by Helen Fielding. Viking $24.95

In the first American printing of this critically acclaimed debut novel (from the author or the best-selling Bridget Jones’s Diary), Helen Fielding presents an hilarious and incisive satire about the cult of celebrity and modern media culture. The heroine is Rosie Richardson, a disaffected London publicist who escapes her woes by heading off to Africa to run a refugee camp. Her spiritual and emotional journey is presented with humor and sympathy in a deftly-handled dual plot that moves between the glamor of London celebrities and the horrors of the African famine crisis. The novel is a richly sympathetic portrayal of the modern workplace amidst the privilege and excess of Western society. At th

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