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Notes on Current Books, Autumn 2002

ISSUE:  Autumn 2002

For more than two millennia, the history of ancient Egypt was known to us through ancient Greeks. Two centuries of study of ancient Egyptian sources has produced a different picture. History and literature are powerfully influenced by point-of-view. Observation, objectivity, and insight are thus colored by prejudice, agenda, misinformation, and misjudgement. Mythmaking is a potent and venerable method of dealing with the compromises, injustices, and unanswerable questions that trouble our sense of identity. It takes advantage of the fact that we more readily accept an oversimplified view of “others” whether favorable or unfavorable to ourselves. In either case, the observer is likely to enjoy the sense of superior understanding. Vasunia, a thoughtful scholar, shows us how ancient Greek institutions, cultural and political struggles, and search for identity distorted their views of Egypt—and why Egypt was something of an obsession during several turbulent centuries. It is a cautionary tale: the roles that impetuous distortion and self-delusion play in the persistent human struggle for personal and societal identity have not changed much in 2500 years. It is the slight-of-hand that permits us to have opinions about so many of the complex, troubling, and unanswered questions of daily life.

Napoleon and Berlin: The Franco-Prussian War in North Germany, 1813, by Michael V. Leggiere. Oklahoma $39.95

Napoleon’s failure in Russia was only one step in his ultimate defeat. In 1813, unable to defend his German and Prussian conquests, Napoleon was driven out of Central Europe altogether. Michael Leggiere explores the reasons for this defeat, fixing on Napoleon’s obsession with retaking Berlin as a prime factor in weakening French strength to the point where it was no match for the armies of the coalition. Perhaps the most interesting and original facet of this book, however, is Leggiere’s careful research in German archives and his insight into the so-called Prussian war of liberation. The Prussian use of Landwehr and militia, hitherto poorly-understood, is highlighted by Leggiere as crucial to the Prussian victory. Leggiere writes well. The maps, a hodgepodge of 19th-century reproductions and modern computer-generated productions, are adequate.

Under Stately Oaks: A Pictorial History of LSU, text by Thomas F. Ruffin. Louisiana State $34.95

This pictorial history documents LSU’s story from the Seminary of Learning in 1860 to the present day. It reveals the university’s close relationship with the people of Louisiana through major historical events. The academic beginnings are shown vividly with military and athletic traditions. As each century came and went, pictures depicting social needs, struggles and challenges are reported with informative text. Reading and looking at this wonderful book, one can feel the events of yesterday unfold and the confidence that LSU is still emerging as the people’s university with a bright future. The book is a special tribute to all alumni, faculty, students, and administrators of LSU who have contributed to the greatness of the research university.

The Antichrist’s Lewd Hat: Protestants, Papists, & Players in Post-Reformation England, by Peter Lake. Yale $45

This sprawling, ambitious work is lots of fun! Focusing as it does on popular literature and especially pamphlets distributed in the streets, the work evokes a rich sense of life in Britain in the 16th and 17th centuries. Of particular interest is the unflattering way in which Roman Catholics were portrayed and the vivid sense that, “At every point, God’s judgement was seen actively intervening in human affairs. . .” No shortage of sex or violence in this one. History crackles and burns in these pages.

A Short History of the World, by Geoffrey Blainey. Ivan R. Dee $27.50

Who would have thought it possible to tell a reasonably comprehensive story of the world’s past within just 414 pages? Former Harvard professor Blainey does a good job of just that, writing throughout in a clear, lively style. Perhaps not surprisingly, religion and greed play prominent roles in this history, which could jazz up any plane trip or lazy day at the beach with information sure to come in handy at some future date. Others have tried this ambitious feat before, and others will again. For today, though, Blainey can take satisfaction in a job well done, a valuable service to non-specialists.

Attack of the Aircobras: Soviet Aces, American P-39s, and the Air War against Germany, by Dimitriy Loza. Kansas $34.95

American and British aviators found the Bell P-39 Aircobra too slow, too hard to control, too slow-firing, and too limited to lower altitudes, so they gave almost 5000 of them to the Russians under the Lend-Lease program. The plane proved perfect for Eastern Front fighting, protecting slow, low-level bombers and troops against the Luftwaffe. Using new sources and interviews, the author, a retired Russian colonel who commanded a tank battalion in World War II, follows the 9th Guards Mariupol-Berlin Fighter Division from its first battles with the Aircobra in the fall of 1942. He shows how the P-39’s reputation as a tank killer results from a mistranslation of “coverage of ground forces” as “ground support,” and ultimately to “close air support.” The author makes no pretensions to objectivity, writing sentences like this: “First one, then another group of German vultures attacked our fighters.” But if you like vigorous and heroic air combat, you’ll love this book.

Europe through the Prism of Japan: Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries, by Jaques Proust. Notre Dame $49.95

This translation, by Elizabeth Bell, of the French original is an analysis of the image that Europe presented to Japan from mid-16th to the end of the 18th century. It is a reconstruction, using an impressive array of documents, of the relations between Europe and Japan during the age of exploration, when Japan was faced with Dutch merchants, Spanish Catholic missionaries, and German and Portuguese Jesuits. In this process, the reader is treated to a detailed picture of developments in the culture and civilization of Japan during a span of three centuries. A wide range of areas, from art history and theology to social history and medicine is discussed, illuminating our understanding of two very different cultures.

German Atrocities, 1914: A History of Denial, by John Home and Alan Kramer. Yale $40

First World War Allied propaganda was effective in its short-term goal of mobilizing the home fronts in support of the war. The long-term results, however, were disastrous. Popular revulsion against lurid wartime propaganda in the wake of the war’s horrible toll in lives led to a collective denial of the reality of German atrocities. Worse, it had a direct impact in the unwillingness of Western governments and the public to place any credence in evidence of German genocide against the Jews during the Second World War. In this book, John Home and Alan Kramer provide a long-overdue reappraisal of World War One German atrocities, revealing that however exaggerated the propaganda may have been, German war crimes nevertheless led to the death in 1914 of about 6500 civilians from France and Belgium. Their research, solidly based in archival sources, is compelling.

Still Fighting the Civil War: The American South and Southern History, by David Goldfield. Louisiana State $34.95

David Goldfield has written an engaging history of the contemporary South by focusing on how people understood and understand the Civil War and its consequences. As a scholar of the antebellum South, Goldfield knows the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction well, but that same precision does not characterize the popular debate over the war and that is what creates the material for Goldfield’s book. In the interpretations of the Civil War offered by men and women and whites and blacks and Northerners and Southerners, Goldfield reveals the ways that memory serves contemporary political purposes. Rather than merely an analysis of the conflicts and tensions between history and memory, Goldfield shows how the past shapes the potential and the direction of the future. In addition to chronicling the rise of the dominant narrative, Goldfield also tracks alternative explanations of the war and its meaning among the women and African-Americans who were excluded from, or denigrated within, the established tradition. For Goldfield, the presence of these competing memories and the different political and social agendas that they inspire form the redemptive aspect of the modern South.

Suspect Relations: Sex, Race, and Resistance in Colonial North Carolina, by Kirsten Fischer. Cornell $45

Using unpublished court records and other contemporary sources, the author meticulously delineates a complex colonial social matrix of interpersonal relationships informed—and indeed often highly charged—by circumstances of race, gender, and status. Every stratum on the continuum from aristrocrat to slave is examined with respect to both power and vulnerability, in the process generating an evolutionary social history which is thoroughly compelling if often painful. Lively as well as erudite, Suspect Relations provides a telling portrait which is both fully examined and sharply rendered. Fischer unerringly illuminates dark recesses of the colonial era, and suggests their relevance to some vexing social issues of today.

Reading Southern History: Essays on Interpreters and Interpretations, edited by Glenn Feldman. Alabama $24.95

This is not a work for the general reader. The essays it includes are for the most part academic and will hold little appeal to those who dwell outside university departments of history. Though this is understandable, it is regrettable. Nonetheless since several are interesting indeed, and the historians whose lives are examined have done much to shape the way we look at the Southern—and, by extension, the American— experience. They are uneven, of course. Those concerned with such huge figures as C. Vann Woodward, W.J. Cash, and W.E.B. Du Bois, to mention but three, are well worth reading as these transcended the fields of academic history. Many of the historians here surveyed, however, have long been either superseded or at least heavily criticized. Some have even been dismissed. Still, as an overview of the historiography on the subject of the never-dead Southern past, it would prove useful to those who are curious about where the field has been and how it got to where it now stands.

Navigating Failure: Bankruptcy and Commercial Society in Antebellum America, by Edward J. Belleisen. North Carolina $49.95

Mark Twain’s father failed five times between 1800 and 1860, each time managing to rescue himself from the depths of bankruptcy to regain respectability. Emily Dickinson pungently observed that the new world of competition found: “Rascality heroic, insolvency sublime.” Balleisen’s purpose is not whimsy but evidence. He has examined the records of the 1841 Bankruptcy Act to analyse the circumstances of failure for a large number of individuals, identifying both sources and consequences. The collective biographies help us to understand not only why bankruptcy was pervasive in the antebellum market, but also how society found ways to accommodate the increased risks that accompanied the spread of dynamic capitalism.

LITERARY STUDIES Sisters of Salome, by Toni Bentley. Yale $27.95

First the frame: this book breaks the Yale mold. No crusty academic tome, this daring, playful work reads like a trade book. The seductive and colorful author’s photograph on the back flap surprises readers expecting a certain kind of product from Yale. Next the substance: this book traces the cultural influence of Oscar Wilde’s play 1893 Salome. The idea that the heroine of a Wilde play could induce free-thinking women at the beginning of the 20th century to risk danger and wing their way through life holds real interest for scholars. Through chapters on Colette, Maud Allan, Mata Hari, and Ida Rubenstein—”crazy” women of the day—the author explores a fresh take on how, little by little, sisters started doing it for themselves. Defiantly throwing caution to the wind, the femme fatale has her way in these engaging vignettes.

From My People, 400 Years of African American Folklore, edited by Daryl Cumber Dance. Norton $35

Here in this anthology, Dance assembles a collection of African-American folklore that is a gift to its reader (implied in the word “From”) and a proud declaration of her relationship to African-American culture—”My”—a boast that is immediately tempered by the humble connotations associated with the “People,” the masses, the folk. Hence, the collection is not simply a reminder of the cultural fare with which African-Americans have supplied America and themselves, but it is also a reminder of how that folk culture has carved out a place for itself within the American geographical, political, and social landscape. From cooking recipes, hairstyles, blues songs, old proverbs to email lore, Dance reminds us of the many contributions that African-Americans of old and of more recent times have offered to our ways of knowing, surviving, and living. For each contribution that she includes in the anthology, Dance provides a brief explanation of its source. In so doing, she demonstrates the very anthropological and serious nature of her endeavor to share the expressive culture of the folk. The anthology is as light in its very humorous moments as it is heavy in its more somber moments and in its weight of substantial and interesting information. Here, at last, is an important and ever-enlightening text that keeps you saying, “Oh, so that’s where that (story, myth, rumor, recipe, etc.) comes from!” It comes from my people.

Dante and the Orient, by Brenda Deen Schildgen. Illinois $34.95

Readers expecting a critique of the orientalism of the Divine Comedy in the manner of Edward Said will be surprised by the eirenic nature of Brenda Deen Schildgen’s argument for a Utopian project in Dante’s adoption of the medieval “matter of the east.” Focusing particularly on Dante’s geography and references to the Crusades in Paradiso, as well as the poet’s encounter with his Crusader ancestor, Dante and the Orient shows how Crusader narrative is reworked as a critique of European rather than Eastern corruption and misuse of power. The poem’s concern with the fate of the virtuous pagan of the Indus is similarly viewed as a challenge to Dante’s own universalist claims. In a triumphant final chapter, Brenda Deen Schildgen argues that the metaphoric nature of Dante’s vision of Paradise reverses any exoticising of the East as a series of marvels by employing oriental jewels and other objects as miracles that reveal the very nature of the Divine life. This is a fresh and important contribution to Dante studies.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred fears of Solitude, edited by Gene H. Bell-Villada. Oxford $15.95

Garcia Marquez’s landmark novel of 1967 is an unquestionable choice for the Casebooks in Criticism series launched by Oxford University Press. In addition to copies sold (more than 20 million), the novel has generated a massive critical industry that is a challenge to any editor who would seek to anthologize it satisfactorily. The present volume collects classic pieces by Higgins, Zavala, Griffin, Woods, et al, along with less familiar essays from the last decade. Given the opportunity to showcase one of the outstanding works of 20th-century Latin American literature, it is a great shame that the volume should be marred by poor editing and printing. The low editorial standard is visible in an introductory essay that seems unclear about what readership it should address, and in a rambling final selection that should have been cut down to size for the sake of relevance and clarity. That final essay also contains no fewer than 15 typos, which, while more numerous than in any preceding selection, betray a generalised lack of care and sad neglect of production values. Garcia Marquez, and Anglophone hispanism, deserve better!

Demon Lovers: Witchcraft, Sex, and the Crisis of Belief, by Walter Stephens. Chicago $35

Walter Stephens’ book follows in the footsteps of Stuart Clark’s Thinking with Demons in trying to get inside the minds of belivers in witchcraft during the 15th and 16th centuries. Stephens carefully examines a number of early and influential treatises on witchcraft (written between 1430 and 1530) with an eye for the hidden problems the writers were really addressing. His contention is that these writers—whom he calls “witchcraft theorists” (along the lines of today’s “conspiracy theorists”)—delved into ideas of witchcraft not because they were credulous, but because they were skeptical. “Witchcraft theory” was a form of intellectual and theological damage control designed to reinforce belief in the reality of the spiritual world. Stephens’ ideas introduce some new perspectives on the perceived motives of witch-hunters, not the least of which is to cast them as “demon-lovers,” persons who did not so much fear demons as hope that demons existed, and who found in accused witches involuntary eye-witnesses. Demon Lovers also helps place witchcraft in a larger historical context, a context which has not ended, but continues in current theories of UFO abduction. Stephens’ book is a valuable addition to the discussion of the theological implications of witchcraft, and to the history of focused interpretation of historical texts. Not for the nondetail-oriented.

Gibbon and the “Watchmen of the Holy City”, by David Womersley. Oxford $99

To appreciate Gibbon the historian, read the magisterial Decline and Fall; to know Gibbon the man behind the history, read the Memoirs and the Letters; to understand Gibbon the author, and the growth of his literary reputation, read this book by Womersley. The odd title refers to the derisive name Gibbon gave to the defenders of religious orthodoxy who criticized the chapters on the development of the Christian faith. He believed that “in an age of light and liberty” his view of the human causes of Christianity, rather then the divine, would be well received. But he was wrong. “I was startled,” he confessed, “at the first discharge of ecclesiastical ordnance,” and thereupon was joined a struggle for historical territory that hitherto had been occupied by the clergy, but whose possession was now challenged by the forces of rationalism, skepticism, and scientific methodology. The intellectual excitement was fueled by the fact that scholarly research, which had long provided the basis for theological argument, was now being used to expose its weaknesses, and the fortress could not withstand the onslaught. Womersley discusses Gibbon’s career in this regard at great length, and in great detail, (but with such a vast array of references that the book will hold the attention of only the most serious reader) by searching out the different voices of the author to show how his critics shaped his historical outlook from the time he first appeared as a formidable scholar until he had achieved a solid European reputation and the literary immortality he had always sought.

Stephen Crane’s Literary Family: A Garland of Writings, edited by Thomas A. Gullason. Syracuse $26.95

What can we learn about Stephen Crane from the literary works of his father, mother, and sister? A great deal, according to noted Crane scholar Thomas A. Gullason, who here collects a “garland” of little-known writings by the Reverend Jonathan Townley Crane, Mary Helen Peck Crane, and Agnes Elizabeth Crane. Once widely scattered, these stories, essays, sketches, and drawings together present a fascinating backdrop against which to consider Stephen as both a writer and man. Readers will welcome the humor and wit of these pages, but they will perhaps be won over most powerfully by the Cranes’ intense interest in the political and social issues of 19th-century America. From Jonathan’s 1865 sermon on the death of Lincoln to the essays Agnes penned at Centenary Collegiate Institute in the late 1870’s, we find ample evidence that Stephen’s immediate family nourished his social consciousness and sense of history. Gullason begins the book with a 20-page “portrait” of the clan, and opens each of its three parts with a brief “dual reading”: father and son; mother and son; sister and brother. Yet the editor remains careful not to trespass upon our own experiences with these authors and writings. To be sure, a great strength of the work is that readers will leave it having drawn wide-ranging conclusions about how Jonathan, Helen, and Agnes contributed to the mind and art of Stephen Crane.

Surviving Poverty in Medieval Paris: Gender, Ideology, and the Daily Lives of the Poor, by Sharon Farmer. Cornell $35

The establishment of large cities and of the celibacy of priests exerted interesting effects on social hierarchy. Opportunity, charity, and judgement of individuals by gender, physical or intellectual capacity, and resources were profoundly influenced by these and other medieval sociopolitical forces, rendering a far more complex patchwork of classes than has heretofore been imagined. Farmer’s remarkably insightful examination of the Miracles of St. Louis and other neglected sources has greatly advanced understanding not only of the “painful side of the Age of Cathedrals” but of persistent short-comings of human nature. What she has discovered in the daily lives of Parisian poor and a continuum of more privileged neighbors can be applied to a better understanding of the ideological blusterings that have so unproductively colored our dealings with class, gender, sexuality, occupation, disability, religion, politics, and economics throughout recorded human history. From tiny fragments of forgotten lives Farmer has derived a disturbing, stimulating, convincing account, one that has great and widely pertinent importance.

Aesthetics in a Multicultural Age, edited by Emory Elliott, Louis Freitas Canton, and Jeffrey Rhine. Oxford $24.95

These essays are organized around the theme of the relationship of art and art criticism to contemporary political and cultural concerns in the United States. The work attempts to bring about a resolution of the conflicting ideas about art works and production in the context of ethnic diversity, multiculturalism and global migration. It grapples with the difficult question of criteria in the assessment of art works in a context where traditional conceptions based on cultural uniformity have proved inadequate to give sufficient weight to questions of ethnicity, gender, race and class.

Dostoyevsky the Thinker, by James P. Scanlan. Cornell $29.95

Here in the land of division of labor, we like our writers to write, our thinkers to think— preferably in opposite corners of the classroom—and the characters in our novels to shut up and get on with the adultery. Dostoyevsky’s characters can’t seem to let an argument drop. Neither could he. James Scanlan’s thorough, insightful study takes Dostoyevsky seriously as an intellectual, revealing both the sophistication and the shortcomings of his arguments on moral, political, and philosophical topics. Scanlan draws on Dostoyevsky’s voluminous non-fictional writing, including his Writer’s Diary, letters, and notebooks, in an attempt to discern the single voice of the writer’s personal beliefs among the chorus of voices in his fiction. Among the successes of Scanlan’s book is the revelation that the intellectual life of this singular novelist did not simply compliment his work as a writer of great fiction; it was damned near the heart of it.

Appropriate[ing] Dress: Women’s Rhetorical Style in Nineteenth-Century America, by Carol Mattingly. Southern Illinois $25

Mattingly’s study focuses on the interstices of the gendered body and the study of rhetoric. Traditionally, the study of rhetoric has focused on the masculine body. Here, Mattingly uncovers the role of dress for women in maintaining and dismantling cultural conventions. Twenty-five illustrations serve to buttress Mattingly’s argument. She asserts that: through dress, women learned the art of constructing a public self that allowed them to have a voice in society, both literally and figuratively. Much emphasis is placed on the women who learned to stake their claims from the podium. Mattingly shows how broadsides, advertisements, magazines and etiquette books were designed and promoted to keep women in their place, i.e., the domestic sphere. Yet, societal changes led women to step out of their proscribed roles to take on the issues of the day. Their public presentation of self relied heavily on a subtle but subversive use of dress in order to get their message heard. Although densely packed, this study is well worth reading to understand the ways in which public performance for women (and men) has evolved.

The Criterion: Cultural Politics and Periodical Networks in Inter-War Britain, by Jason Harding. Oxford $55

This study “provide[s] a thickly textured account of the melieu of British inter-war journalism necessary for measured assessment of the history and significance of the Criterion.” It was the famous journal of literary modernism, classicism and conservative—some would say reactionary—politics edited by T.S. Eliot. Harding’s account, as he suggests, proceeds by way of “thick” analysis of the relations between the Criterion and several other journals and the careers of various writers important in the history of the quarterly. The text has the feel of being gossipy without being catty, gossip as written (or “recorded”) by an archivist—which in part is what makes it so valuable; Harding has scoured the sources and offers a rich picture of the era’s literary history. The chapters on the reciprocal influences interrelating the Criterion and The Calendar of Modern Letters and Scrutiny are especially interesting. The work is not without its flaws; it is not always cleanly written, with mis-used semicolons and sentence fragments, and it also has an annoying psychologizing tendency, imputing motives such as “defensiveness” to various people (especially Eliot) rather promiscuously and without substantiation. This is not to suggest that we have here one more in the increasingly long line of book-length indictments of Eliot; to the contrary, the book’s basic aim is to acquit the Criterion, and perhaps thereby help indirectly to acquit Eliot, of the charges of anti-Semitism and indifference to the rise of fascism in the interwar years. Though Harding scores some palpable hits, perhaps he protests too much; indeed one is tempted to violate the above-enunciated anathema against psychologism, and suggest some defensiveness on Harding’s part. But he ought to be forgiven, for his ardor for his subject has manifest itself in a masterful work of scholarship on Eliot and modernism, which can also be read by those interested in the ecology of cultural influence, the career of “highbrow” journalism in the 20th century, and those who are just interested in the intrinsically fascinating career of one of the most important intellectual forums of all time.

Dickens’s Great Expectations: Misnar’s Pavilion versus Cinderella, by Jerome Meckier. Kentucky $38

“One should read Great Expectations as a protomodern psychological tragicomedy with sensationalist trappings, a novel that is, above all, the requisite fairy tale for its time,” explains Jerome Meckier in his thorough reëvaluation of the ways in which Charles Dickens employed fairy tale plots late in his career. Entering into dialogue with critics such as Harry Stone, who have long established Dickens’s relationship to fairy tales, Meckier persuasively argues that by substituting the pseudo-oriental and more ambiguous tale of Misnar’s Pavilion for a falsely optimistic Cinderella story, Great Expectations subverts the dominant Victorian cultural paradigm. According to Meckier, Dickens’s elaborate references to Misnar’s Pavilion in Great Expectations parody its protagonist’s vision of himself as Cinderella and, by proxy, deflate what Dickens saw as an overblown societal vision of Victorian progress. Through this strategy, Meckier suggests that Dickens not only actively revises the work of other novelists, including Charles Lever, W. M. Thackeray, Wilkie Collins, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, and Mary Shelley, but that he also revises the early versions of the Cinderella myth found in his own Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, and David Copperfield. By arguing for Misnar’s Pavilion as the lynchpin of Great Expectations, Meckier’s book both illuminates an undervalued aspect of Dickens’s late novel and itself undervalues the complexity of the novels to which it compares Great Expectations. Meckier evaluates these works mainly through the lens with which Dickens presumably would have examined them, uncritically offering that author’s judgment of these works without contributing much 21st-century perspective on them.

Invisible Work: Borges and Translation, by Efraín Kristal. Vanderbilt $22.95

Argentinean author Jorge Luis Borges’ reputation is secure. His short prose, works of precise metaphysical speculation, have rightfully earned him a place amongst 20th-century’s greatest writers. Recently, however, we have begun to appreciate other sides of this blind librarian. We have met Borges the poet, Borges the comedian, and now, in Kristal’s new book we meet Borges the translator. It is somewhat surprising that it has taken so long for a book like this to appear. Anyone familiar with Borges’ life will know his fascination with language and the problematics of reference. Borges himself was raised bi-lingual, he translated Oscar Wilde at age 10, taught himself Italian by reading Dante, and later in life turned to the study of Icelandic and Anglo-Saxon. Nor should one forget the impetuous Pierre Menard. It is no surprise then that translation figures large in Borges’ poetics, and Kristal does an extraordinary job of tracing this trope throughout the blind writer’s long career.

LIVES & LETTERS The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race, by John Stauffer. Harvard $29.95

In this self-described “collective biography,” Stauffer illuminates four major 19th-century figures, all allies in the battle against slavery: James McCune Smith, Gerrit Smith, Frederick Douglass and John Brown. Overlooked by most historians, McCune Smith, a prominent African-American intellectual and physician, and Smith, a wealthy white philanthropist and activist, deserve to be reconsidered, Stauffer argues. As for the more famous of his subjects, Douglass and Brown, he wants to complicate what he sees as an incomplete understanding of their politics and personalities: the failure to consider the crucial role religion played in their development and careers—all four men ascribed to a kind of “Bible politics.” Lastly, Stauffer wants to investigate the part violence played in the drive for abolition; the title of the book refers not only to the radical deployment of sympathy in which a white man re-envisions himself as black, but a commitment to violence in order to bring change. His account proceeds mostly chronologically, building the biography of each man in turn, taking time out for chapters which treat the influence of Indians and women. Even if this doesn’t always make for a seamless narrative, his approach is original and provocative, and adds much to our understanding of the abolitionist movement and the key figures within it.

When Montana and I Were Young: A Frontier Childhood, by Margaret Bell, edited by Mary Clearman Blew. Nebraska $24.95

An enormous gulf separates the account of Margaret Bell’s life of extreme hardship from our life. It is not only the lack of heat, plumbing, formal education, the inadequate food and shelter. Nor is it the shocking abuse and neglect she experienced during her childhood. It is also the utter lack of self-pity, recrimination, or surrender to these harsh conditions. Her story is plainly told, an extremely moving account of how despite such disadvantage a strong and self-reliant life as rancher and horsebreaker was forged. She displays humor and balance, readiness at an instant to appreciate the beauty, challenge, and newness of each successive day. This despite or perhaps because of what might be exacted, however unfairly by man and nature. Poor vision, neglected by her abusive stepfather, was memorably corrected for a few precious days by the loan of a pair of glasses. She brings this and a great many tales of her life into rather sharp focus for our age of spoiled, bored, self-indulgence. Small details of humanity and inhumanity play themselves out against the enormous high plains of Montana and Canada. Always there is the palpable presence of a remarkable, spirited, red-blooded woman. There is also the sense that she was far from the only one that her time and place produced. Perhaps we are missing something.

The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series: Volume 12, October-December 1777, edited by Frank E. Grizzard, Jr., and David R. Hoth. Virginia $70

This latest volume in the University of Virginia’s decades-old editorial project documents the actions and movements of the Continental Army under the command of General George Washington at the close of the third year of the War for Independence. Almost 700 letters exchanged between the commander-in-chief and his subordinates and American political leaders, as well as general orders and other military documents, illuminate Washington’s inability to capitalize on the Northern army’s victory at Saratoga and the decision to establish winter quarters at Valley Forge after his troops evacuated Fort Mifflin and other defenses on the Delaware River in November 1777 under heavy British bombardment. Particularly interesting are the deliberations of the American generals on the possibility of executing a winter campaign. Editorial annotations provide necessary context and identifications, and two maps illustrate the Pennsylvania theater of war and the Delaware campaign. Most valuable is a detailed analytical index that makes accessible a vast amount of valuable information.

John Gielgud, by Sheridan Morley. Simon & Schuster $30

Morley is one of the most prolific and, according to his reviewers, profound biographers of British stars of stage and screen. His subjects include his father (Robert Morley) and grandmother (Gladys Cooper) both nominees for Academy Awards, as well as Vivian Leigh and Dirk Bogarde. Gielgud is, of course, a much richer subject than any of these, being one of the dominant figures on the English stage for much of the 20th century and elevated (or perhaps derogated) to international fame by his appearances in a series of rather tawdry Hollywood movies (winning an Oscar for Arthur). Morley’s biography is a fairly standard life, full of anecdote and achievement, even managing to introduce some new twists to the generally known vita. But, as an admirer of Gielgud on stage (I confess to having seen Gielgud and Richardson in Pinter’s No Man’s Land six times in the mid 1970’s, dragging my friends along for the treat), I was looking for something more. It is professionally done and is no hagiography, to be sure, but the entire enterprise comes across as rather flat, as though Morley was unable to retrieve the essence of Gielgud—the elusive blend of being that separated him from his contemporaries and that was immediately recognizable to his critics and admirers. I doubt that anyone who has not seen Gielgud on stage will be quite able to work out what his special talents were from reading this book.

George Romney, 1734—1802, by Alex Kidson. Princton $65

George Romney is possibly the most unappreciated British painter of the 18th century, being long obscured by the better-known works of Gainsborough and Reynolds. Romney was most acclaimed in his time as a portrait painter. As is apparent in the numerous drawings reproduced in this catalogue, however, Romney also hoped to be known as a painter of historical and literary scenes. Kidson highlights these works as early examples of Romantic art. Kidson’s notes are lucid and his scholarship first-rate, and the reproductions are of excellent quality.

After the Fire: A Writer Finch His Place, by Paul Zimmer. Minnesota $21.95

These days when celebrities’ memoirs— usually ghost-written and without heft—are all too common, it is refreshing to read a memoir by someone who isn’t famous, but about whom we learn much and come to care a great deal. Paul Zimmer, an award-winning poet, has a sharp eye, a love for the land and people of southwestern Wisconsin, and considerable talent as a writer. He invites us onto his farm in Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin, and paints a canvas of his life, past and present. We stroll with him as he walks his dog, watches deer, picks berries. We also share in his memories, his first (and last) boxing match at age 11, his passion for jazz, his fear as a young soldier, crouching in a trench in the desert as the Atomic Energy Commission sets off atomic blasts to see what happens. This book is part notebook, part memoir, part philosophy, part therapy as the author works through his pain at being forced into retirement. Even so, it succeeds as one man’s effort to make sense of his life, taking stock of where he is, where he’s been and where he’s going. We wish him well on his journey.

Porcher’s Creek, by John Leland. South Carolina $18.95

Porcher’s Creek, subtitled “Lives Between the Tides,” is author Leland’s elegaic retrospective on his own youth, intimately informed by the natural ecological wealth of the coastal salt marshes just north of Charleston, South Carolina, where he grew to manhood. Twenty-five brief, beautifully evocative autobiographical essays convey and preserve a halycon though not too distant time, and a sense of an Edenic place now largely lost to inexorable development. For neither places nor families are immune to change; even to major upheavals occasioned by a hurricane—or a divorce. This exemplary memoir shares, informs, enlightens, and enchants, leaving one with an enriched appreciation for history, both human and natural, in the liminal zone of a classic Southern locale.

Blood Image: Turner Ashby in the Civil War and the Southern Mind, by Paul Christopher Anderson. Louisiana $34.95

Turner Ashby’s image forms the basis in this very original analysis of the concepts of chivalry and honor current in his lifetime. More information than we have heretofore known about Ashby’s life, exploits, and self-image is combined with new information on the the image Ashby generated in the minds of his contemporaries. The combination reveals a great deal about the evolution of local, regional, and national consciousness of right and wrong and the consequences of choices based upon such images and ideals. It is a remarkably fresh view of the sources and anomalous processes of human judgement and violence and the manner in which social anxieties are codified into imperfect and dangerous codes of behavior. It is a very sober and intelligent look at some of the darker aspects of human nature, but it is also an analysis that is as colorful and engaging as the complex individual upon whose life and career it is based. Anderson’s views should powerfully influence future analysis of the mind and the culture of the South before, during, and after the Civil War, particularly formulations of the causes and course of the War and of the post-war “lost cause” mentality. This study also enlarges our understanding of the horrifying and unexpected shock that war produces upon those who subscribe to the “necessity” of solving social problems with this expedient and the varied ways in which individuals compensate for that shock.

Indira: The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi, by Katherine Frank. Houghton Mifflin $35

Frank, a professional biographer who has written elsewhere of Emily Bronte and Mary Kingsley, has turned her attentions to the enigmatic former leader of the world’s largest democracy. Gandhi, who was assassinated in 1984 by Sikh bodyguards angered at her decision to storm the sacred Golden Temple, was a fascinating but (apparently) tortured figure who led India during a tumultuous period, one made more tumultuous perhaps because of decisions she herself made. The author’s research was extensive at the personal level. Countless interviews were conducted in an effort to get to the Indira that the world outside India seldom if ever got to know. Those who wish to read a biography better grounded in Indian history, however, will have to look elsewhere. Also, though she explores the contradictions of her subject’s life and probes the flaws she concedes were part of this personality, Frank is remarkably reluctant to criticize the role of Indira during the Emergency or her attempts to manipulate internal opponents. Even more surprising is her disinclination to criticize her son Sanjay’s abuses of power. This is a book that provides much entertainment but will leave many readers frustrated.

The Bouchayers of Grenoble and French Industrial Enterprise, 1850—1970, by Robert J. Smith. Johns Hopkins $42.50

It is half a century since the vitriolic exchange between two prominent European economic historians regarding the role of the family firm in French development. David Landes maintained that the family firm, with its inherent conservatism and blinkered vision of the future, was at the root of slow French growth. Alexander Gerschenkron disagreed in no uncertain terms. Recent quantitative work provides little support for Landes’ argument. But case studies such as Smith’s excellent history of the Bouchayer family provide a more nuanced perspective. The inherent problem is known to all students of dynastic capitalism (and readers of Buddenbrooks): regression to the mean. The entrepreneurial dynamism of the founding father all too often becomes dissipated with successive generations. Family firms tend to be inbred, providing few opportunities for the introduction of new blood. It is perhaps characteristically French (at least to readers of Mauriac and his oppressively provincial bourgeois actors) that the family fortune of the Bouchayers was undermined not by conspicuous consumption, but rather by an excess of caution.

The Last American Man, by Elizabeth Gilbert. Viking $24.95

Eustace Conway, the subject of this engaging, but also troubling, profile might too be considered the last mountain man, lone rider, wilderness prophet, and man of destiny—or at least the most intense. Gilbert’s incisive portrait draws on his journals and correspondence, as well as her own observant association, for a bounty of insights not only into a remarkable, and purposefully anachronistic, individual, but also into our culture’s curious ambiguity concerning issues of materialism, masculinity, and self reliance. Conway’s diverse, and sometimes conflicting, roles as woodsman, camp director, lecturer, equestrian, and visionary engender a persona that is truly fascinating, if at times sadly self-defeating. The author brings exemplary New Journalism to enduring concerns, in the process offering a compelling invitation to reexamine our own lives as well as that of her protagonist.

FICTION The Weather in Berlin, by Ward Just. Houghton Mifflin $24.95

First reviews of Just’s 13th novel have rightly underscored its atmospheric richness, its powerful evocation of restless Americans abroad, and its engaging plot, whose complexity can only be suggested here. Dixon Greenwood, a Hollywood director, lionized for a single “cult” film made decades before, recaptures his past (and the Past) as well as his creative élan while wintering in millennial Berlin. After ruminating for weeks in a bi-national think tank, he accepts the opportunity to direct the season closer of an historical romance serial made for German television. This assignment, and events deriving from it, not only expose Greenwood to the labyrinthine history of his host country but reunite him with an unforgettable actress out of sight but never out of mind since the last shooting day of his masterpiece. Her sense of the past, along with that of other secondary characters, occasions Greenwood’s partial but nonetheless impressive regeneration as man and artist. This novel’s undeniable hold on the reader owes as much to Just’s perennially limpid, but layered, nuanced, and resonant prose as to his technical control, which is now at its peak. But there is more: action, method, and style insistently direct the reader to a deeper concern: narrativity itself. The protagonist and almost all the other characters are self-conscious story-tellers more or less artfully shaping, reshaping, presenting and representing a recitative. Their purposes are varied: to move, instruct, entertain, or mislead an actual, virtual, or even non-existent audience, while exploring, creating, deepening, and projecting an identity, authentic or factitious. The endless play of vision and re-vision-signaled by imagery of lenses and multiple mirrors-implicates and problematizes not only The Weather in Berlin, but Just’s decades-long achievement, and by extension, the Novel itself as a medium of art, artistic knowledge, personal expression, and rhetoric in its root sense. Not since The Translator has Just plumbed such abstract issues. That he does so in the rich existential context of personal struggle, post-modern cultural change, and political flux, marks his continuing growth and his assumption of ever greater risks. In this The Weather in Berlin is less reminiscent of James and Wharton (in whose line critics habitually place Just) than it is of a German novelist repeatedly cited in these pages: the genius of Lübeck, Thomas Mann.

The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold. Little Brown $21.95

If someone were to recommend to me a book about a murdered 14-year-old girl who tells her tale from Heaven, I would flee, fearful of drowning in sentiment and cliché. Much to my surprise, and to Sebold’s considerable skills as a novelist, this book—which does indeed adopt the voice of Susie Salmon, a 14-year-old girl who has been brutally raped and murdered by a next-door neighbor—is fresh, exquisitely crafted, original, and deeply moving. Sebold, author of a memoir of her own horrific rape (Lucky), draws us powerfully into Susie’s world as she watches her family—father, mother, younger sister and brother—and friends disintegrate, then reconstitute themselves as the wound of her unsolved death slowly heals over. Full of humor and warmth, The Lovely Bones resonates with hope, family dynamics, and life. Sebold’s eye for detail and the telling moment (a feeling, a look, a subtle gesture) is nearly perfect, and this novel is a joy to read.

Two Novels by Mary Chesnut, edited by Elisabeth Muhlenfeld. Virginia $29.50

It would be easy enough to comment, after reading the incomplete manuscripts of these highly autobiographical novels, that it was a good thing Mary Chesnut had a day job. Little in the way of the engaging pace, wit, and style of her celebrated “diaries” is to be found in the confusing—sometimes completely bewildering— extant narrative and dialogue of these extended sketches. A longer look suggests some of the very good reasons that Muhlenfeld has so meticulously edited them for publication. The jaggedly composed shards of plot and personification are quite richly larded with the subconscious reflections, unexpected juxtapositions, loose ends, failures, confusion, desperation, impersonalization, and abandoned trajectories that compose real life. It is hard to portray the unravelling of the peculiar fragile virtues and moral flaws of a particular phase of human civilization. But it is at just such times of dissolution of customary illusions that the crumbling crust of civil customs reveals the jumbled incompleteness of human grasp of essential issues. Chesnut attempts to tell us of gender, dominance, violence, childhood, self-interest, education, morality, honor, and mutability in her time. Why the observant Chesnut failed to crystalize her shrewd images into a lucid portrayal will always be uncertain. Whether she might with time and capacity have worked this preliminary material into great novels is moot. Muhlenfeld makes the best of what we have from these unique sources, the incompleteness of which reminds us that many aspects of human behavior exceed our capacity for honest, lucid portrayal.

Flotsam & Jetsam, by Aidan Higgins. Dalkey Archive $15.95

Flotsam & Jetsam is both an accurate and misleading title for this wide-ranging short story collection. Selections span more than 30 years and reflect the author’s unique style—an attention to detail, quirky and somewhat disconnected characters, and a well-defined sense of place. In these stories, Higgins, a native of Ireland, captures the feel of his homeland, as well as of Berlin and Spain, where he lived in the 1960’s and 1970’s. From the humorous character study “Catchpole” to “Black September,” a sobering commentary on the tragedy of the 1972 Berlin Olympics, Higgins achieves a Proustian synaesthesia that allows the reader to experience sensually the lives and settings he depicts. For longtime Higgins readers, the book offers few new discoveries, as Flotsam & Jetsam’s selections read like a “greatest hits” of his short prose works. Moreover, readers unfamiliar with Higgins’ unique styling should find this a compelling introduction to a writer who has been praised as a successor to fellow countrymen James Joyce and Samuel Beckett.

First Lady, by Michael Malone. Sourcebooks Landmark $24

It has been too long since we’ve had a novel from Malone, but it has been worth the wait. Leaving his alternate career writing for soap operas behind, Malone returns to Hillston, North Carolina, the scene of two previous novels, Uncivil Seasons and Time’s Witness, and reprises the major characters of those books, Justin Savile and Cuddy Mangum. This time the two friends are fighting a crime wave and each other as they seek to stop a serial killer and save their own careers. While Malone sprinkles wry comments about the Old South-New South tussle throughout the novel, this is really a book about character and story—well-plotted, well-written, and with enough plausible twists to keep the pages turning with pleasure.

In the Bleak Midwinter, by Julia Spencer-Fleming. Thomas Dunne $23.95

This debut mystery is set in the tiny Upstate New York town of Millers Kill and features as protagonists Claire Fergusson, a newly-arrived Episcopal priest, and Russ Van Alystyne, the chief of police. The two are brought together when a newborn baby is left on the church steps. Efforts to trace the child lead to the discovery of real villainy in an otherwise serene, snow-covered landscape and the priest and the policeman each learn something new about human nature. The author knows more than a bit about small town life and her characters ring true. All in all, this is a solid effort and a promising beginning.

To Live and Die: Collected Stories of the Civil War, 1861—1876, edited by Kathleen Diffley. Duke $32.95

In To Live and Die, editor Kathleen Diffley collects 31 stories about the Civil War written for American periodicals between the beginning of hostilities in 1861 and the centennial of American independence in 1876. In the introduction, Diffley offers helpful information about the periodicals from which the stories were drawn as well as brief summaries of the stories themselves. Editorial additions include wartime wood engravings, author sketches, a Civil War glossary, and a bibliographic essay. For each story, Diffley includes a short introduction, providing historical background for the events and perspectives represented. The authors of the 31 stories of To Live and Die range from the famous to the obscure, women and men, soldier and civilian, and Northerner, Westerner, and Southerner. Diffley chose selections from the novelists Louisa May Alcott and Mark Twain, Confederate veteran John D. Imboden and Union veteran Ross Guffin, and New Englander Edward Everett Hale, westerner John Oscar Culver, and southerner Rebecca Harding Davis, along with 27 others, for this volume. Diffley organized the stories chronologically by content rather than by date of publication. Along these lines, Diffley has included a timeline of Civil War events, which marks the position of the stories. The collection opens with a story of “Bloody Kansas” and closes with a story of the legacy of the Civil War. Along the way, the collection intersperses stories on major battles including Gettysburg, Wilderness, Antietam, and Chickamauga as well as stories on the homefront of spies, nurses, and freed slaves. To Live and Die offers an accessible collection of Civil War stories.

The Cyclist, by Viken Berberian. Simon & Schuster $22

Very few authors have attempted a narrative portrayal concerning the relationship of a terrorist to the act of terror he feels compelled to commit. In his first novel, Viken Berberian masterfully tackles this notion, inviting the reader to follow the transnational (his background is purposefully ambiguous) and unnamed narrator as he explores his own passions and inclination toward terrorism. Using food as a metaphor, the idiosyncratic narrator comments upon the cycle of violence that exists today, questioning why certain people are sacrificed and subjected as “food” for others. Over the course of deftly written and intertwined vignettes. Berberian’s narrator slowly begins to question this vicious cycle while lying in a hospital bed after a biking accident (his other passion, aside from food). He relays the events that drove him to join the terrorist organization “The Academy,” as well as the task he has been assigned after his recovery—the delivery of a bomb to a hotel during his participation in in Beruit’s largest bicycle race. Through the narrator’s love of food and his girlfriend, Ghaemi, Berberian offers a disturbing, insightful, and well-written look into the mind of someone asked to sacrifice his own life for the sustenance of others.

Sunstroke: Selected Stories of Ivan Bunin, translated from the Russian with an Introduction by Graham Hettlinger. Ivan R. Dee $25

Ivan Bunin had the misfortune of being a sensualist in a time of revolution. Praised highly in pre-Revolutionary Russia (by Anton Chekhov, among others) before his emigration in 1920, winner of the first Nobel Prize for Literature awarded to a Russian in 1933, much of his finest work was ignored during his lifetime and remains unknown to non-Russian readers today. Bunin wrote exquisite stories of passion and betrayal set in a world that will be familiar to readers of Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Chekhov. Graham Hettlinger’s new translation of 25 of these stories, including six previously unpublished in English, gives us a Bunin startling in his vividness, sensuality, and restraint. A welcome introduction to the works of an author who, though long neglected in the English-speaking world, is acknowledged to be one of the finest stylists in the history of Russian prose.


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