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Notes on Current Books, Spring 1995

ISSUE:  Spring 1995

In this richly textured work, Mr. Keller investigates the public policy response to the emerging problems of early 20th-century America. This was indeed a new world. Progressivism as a structure of thought and motive of attitude, much removed from Victorian sensibilities, shaped both private and public responses to the challenges of a newly industrial, urban nation. New groups became participants in the public sphere; the place of other groups changed. And this was a world distant from us, in its pre-New Deal assumptions about public-private dichotomies, and in its strikingly discordant social and cultural attitudes. But plus ca change, plus la meme chose: the key issues for policy making and regulation included crime, immigration, drugs, education, divorce and family trauma. The solutions were radically different, but the perils of modernity are still visited upon us, and present challenges no less complex and obdurate now as then.

Cleopatra’s Nose, by Daniel J. Boorstin. Random House $34.95

This is the second book in recent years to bear the title Cleopatra’s Nose. It joins such seemingly related, recent works as Stalin’s Nose and Michelangelo’s Nose. But actually this book is not about noses, Cleopatra ‘s or anybody else’s. It’s about surprises in history, about the unexpected. Ranging over a wide variety of topics— from the age of exploration to modern political technology—a preeminent historian has gathered here a miscellany of keynote addresses and previously published essays that will, by turn, delight, challenge, and infuriate renders.

Cultures in Flux: Lower-Class Values, Practices, and Resistance in Late Imperial Russia, edited by Stephen P.Frank and Mark D.Steinberg. Princeton $14.95 paper

By “Old Regime” scholars have long understood the upper classes, but young scholars have in recent years increasingly turned to the masses of people who constituted society rather than merely adorned it. In this fine collection of chapters by ten specialists on old Russia, we gain insights into such phenomena as popular amusements, death rituals, hooliganism, the penny press, and cultural clashes of the concealed kind. Professors Frank and Steinberg have done a fine job of weaving these contributions into a coherent tapestry.

The Virginia Adventure, Roanoke to James Towne: An Archaeological and Historical Odyssey, by Ivor Noël Hume. Knopf $35

This detailed retelling of the sometimes contradictory, often confusing, and always obscure history of the early English attempts to establish a permanent base in the New World is the most important work to date on the subject. Readers will not all agree with the author’s conclusions, but they will agree that he has elevated to new heights the level of discourse surrounding the early history of Virginia. This work will prove to embody Noel Hume’s legacy to archaeology in a way that his previous publications could not, and at the same time his elegant writing style and rigid historical inquiry will enjoy a popular audience in a way rarely achieved by archaeologists. This publication is an event worthy to inaugurate the quatercentennial commemoration of the founding of James-town.

Before Command: An Economic History of Russia from Emancipation to the First Five-Year Plan, by Paul R.Gregory. Princeton $35

There is usually something pretty awful lurking at the intersection between politics and bad economics: in Russia in 1917 it was a fateful turn from what was, or had been before the war, a fairly robust, progressive economy and an emerging constitutional system in favor of 70-odd years of untold agony. Professor Gregory demonstrates in this new and insightful interpretation of the Russian economy in the years 1861—1928 that, once the phony economic theories got a grip on the intelligentia, the execution squads were not far behind.

Stalin and the Bomb, by David Holloway. Yale $30

At a time when charlatans of every stripe are rushing to publish the latest “secrets” from the Russian archives, and the most grotesque fantasies of Stalinist and Khrushchevist flunkeys, David Holloway’s unassailably professional, honest account of how the Soviets got the bomb comes like a gift from on high. With access not only to the Soviet archives but also to many of the most important survivors of the team that built the Soviet weapon, Holloway tells what actually happened, why it happened, and who was involved. His book is a magnificent jewel whose brilliance is all the greater set against the muck of the surroundings.

The Death of Louis XVI: Regicide and the French Political Imagination, by Susan Dunn. Princeton $29.95

In this slim yet densely informative volume, Dunn (professor of French Literature and the History of Ideas at Williams College) explores an act that supposedly marked the beginning of modernity for the French nation: the trial and execution of King Louis XVI.As Dunn shows, however, the French are highly ambivalent about both the moral and political value of such a move 200 years after the fact. Drawing upon various philosophers, political theorists, and writers who have treated the subject, Dunn displays a broad yet thorough knowledge, combined with an elegant writing style. Studying the figure of the king along with other such French icons as Joan of Arc, as well as such cults as arose after the execution (i.e., the literature about the executioner), our author addresses the role of legends onto which the dead king’s image was transmitted, as well as those created by the event itself.

Shenandoah, Daughter of the Stars, photographs by Lucian Niemeyer, text by Julia Davis. Louisiana $39.95

A history of the Valley, from its geological roots to the present, with particular attention to the colonial period and the wars. A handsome coffee-table, book, which would be a nice gift for someone with connections to the area; but the lyricism of the text can get a little tiresome, and the photographs, both of natural phenomena and scenes of life in the valley are pretty but somewhat unimaginative.

Phantoms of Remembrance, by Patrick J.Geary. Princeton $29.95

The author of the much admired Furta Sacra: Thefts of Relics in the Central Middle Ages has presented us with another fascinating, deeply learned, and meticulous study; this one concerns historical memory and oblivion at the end of the first millennium. Of particular interest is the author’s discussion of the images constructed of women and the treatment of women as donors and heirs. This thoughtful book should be of interest to all historians, for it raises important questions pertinent to all periods.

Sephardim Remembered, by Howard M.Sachar. Knopf $30

Sachar reconstructs the world of the Sephardic Jews from the moment of their exile from their Spanish homelands through the whole of the Mediterranean world and beyond. The focus on individual stories, on personalities reconstructed by an historian, offers vibrancy and excitement to this book. But Sachar is hardly anecdotal; he is an historian whose previous works have established him as an authoritative voice on Jewish history and the Middle East. He studies the prime ministers, army commanders, doctors, poets, businessmen who fled the Inquisition and made new lives for themselves in other lands. This is scholarly and readable, frequently moving, and always erudite.

The Republic of Letters, by Dena Goodman. Cornell $35

This cultural history of the French Enlightenment offers the first serious alternative to the now dated work of Peter Gay. For Goodman, the intellectual and political liberty (as well as the civility) of the aristocratic 18th-century salon was a model and matrix for later political discourse and governmental restructuring. But the new paradigm did not pass entirely from the closed circle of constant readers and witty talkers to the crucible of policy. Gender equity— an essential characteristic of the salon ethos—was left untranslated: men, in other words, kept on dominating the public realm while women lingered on the margins, inert and barely visible. If the first part of Goodman’s thesis is nothing less than fresh, crucial, and persuasive, the second merely explains, in obvious and shopworn terms what we have always known and understood.

Early American Technology: Making and Doing Things from the Colonial Era to 1850, edited by Judith McGaw. North Carolina $49.95

This impressive collection of essays in honor of Brook Hindle, a pioneer in the study of early American technology, speaks widely and authoritatively. Hindle’s classic essay on the “exhilaration” of early technology is reprinted, alongside Robert Post’s first-rate discourse on the evolving fate of technology among historians since 1965.The remaining essays examine the technologies of birth control and brewing, food preservation and turnpikes, mining and woodworking in the pre-industrial period. All are informative, and all write to broader questions, of gender and ethnicity, of economy and ecology, and of politics and power. A comprehensive, annotated bibliography is included. Much recommended.

Rereading Frederick Jackson Turner, with commentary by John Mack Faragher. Holt $30

Rereading Turner turns out to be not a critical analysis of Turner’s writings, but a reproduction of his most important essays, from “The Significance of History” in 1891 to “The Significance of the Section in American History” in 1925.Mr. Faragher provides a brief commentary and a longer bibliographic essay, both of which represent useful additions to the abundant literature on the historian who gave us the frontier thesis and who challenged his peers and successors to look West to capture the reality of the American experence.

The Story of Webster’s Third, by Herbert C.Morton. Cambridge $29.95

Should a major dictionary set a standard for correct style, or should it simply reflect current usage? The history of the controversy which erupted over this question in 1961 with regard to the new Webster is told with verve and elegance in this fascinating account. Not only was the dictionary seen by its critics as a threat to good speech and culture, and as a lexicographical scandal, but it drew into public discussion a latent conflict between the structural linguists and the literary scholars, and in a larger context, between conservatives and liberals in a permissive society. It also revealed the anxiety of the new rich to learn the rules; it provoked a debate over trade-mark words; it raised questions about racial epithets; and it brought to light the ways in which fundamental decisions were made on the use of citations, the treatment of definitions, the forms of pronunciation, etymology, and the inclusion of slang. Throughout the whole episode, the key figure for praise or blame was the editor, Philip Grove. This book is as much an appreciation of his difficult role, as it is an important commentary on social change.

LITERARY STUDIES Spanish Poetry in the Twentieth Century: Modernity and Beyond, by Andrew P.Debicki. Kentucky $29.95

No U. S. scholar knows more about contemporary Spanish poetry than Andrew Debicki, who writes here the first complete history in English of that subject. His authorative yet modulated voice places modern Spanish poetry in a European context, from symbolism to postmodernism, and regroups it into unexpected divisions. He treats the major poets and the major periods in new ways, and provides much new information on minor poets and movements, allowing the reader to discern the fluctuations of theme and the overlapping time periods that traditionally have been forced into “generations.” Debicki discusses the circumstances in which the poetry was produced and read and mixes his approach (generational, modal, periodic, ideological) to produce an illuminating and instructive book.

Reading George Steiner, edited by Nathan A.Scott, Jr.and Ronald A.Sharp. Johns Hopkins $45 cloth, $14.95 paper

That George Steiner eludes the conventional categories of academic specialization, and that his published work is of such catholic and prodigal erudition and scope, is often held against him by scholars who (somewhat narrower in their range of accomplishments) guard zealously against any unhealthy miscegenation of ideas. Others, well represented in the pages of this volume, recognize Steiner as one of the few indispensable voices of our time, urging ever deeper explorations into every realm of culture with polymathic restlessness. A vast array of Steiner’s interests— from Heidegger to John Cowper Powys—is addressed in these pages, and Steiner offers his own “Responsion” to the various essays at this altogether admirable book’s conclusion.

The Last of the Race: The Growth of a Myth from Milton to Darwin, by Fiona J. Stafford. Oxford $58

This book is an impressive contribution to cultural history, wide-ranging and comprehensive in its scope, well-researched in its details. Stafford tells the story of the great shadow-myth of modernity; even while the Enlightenment evolved a master-myth of progress, Europe became increasingly haunted by myths of decline, and even of extinction (of races and species; the book appropriately has a picture of a Dodo on its dustjacket). StaflFord brings a wide variety of literary works into her narrative, familiar books such as Milton’s Paradise Lost, as well as less familiar ones such as Mary Shelley’s The Last Man. But StaflFord enriches and enlivens her account by moving beyond the orbit of literature, including scientific works, especially geological studies, as well as works of art. The range of Stafford’s argument leads to illuminating and sometimes even startling moments of juxtaposition, such as the day when the great geologist Baron Cuvier recognized his own vision of the fate of the earth in one of John Martin’s sprawling apocalyptic paintings, The Deluge. Stafford is perhaps too much given to accounting for such visions of universal destruction by referring to painful or despairing moments in the personal lives of the artists she discusses; contemporary critics may find too much of naïve biographical criticism here. But the book is valuable for presenting and tying together a vast amount of cultural material in a coherent account.

The Snowflake on the Belfry, by Anna Balakian. Indiana $39.95

One of our leading scholars of modern French literature, best known for her book, The Symbolist Movement, has here gathered together a group of almost 20 essays that range over a wide variety of subjects in modern literature and criticism. Balakian is justly suspicious of “theory” that is presented at the expense of careful “reading,” and she offers us her own thoughtful philosophy of criticism, which is both reasonable and well argued. This is a book that all scholars of modern literature will find stimulating, if not provocative.

Easterns, Westerns, and Private Eyes: American Matters, 1870—1900, by Marcus Klein. Wisconsin $17.95

Perhaps more accurately described as a gathering of related essays than a book held together by a single argument, Marcus Klein’s Easterns, Westerns, and Private Eyes is nonetheless a perceptive examination of three forms of popular fiction in the late 19th century: the Horatio Alger story, the Western, and the detective novel. Klein sees these formula stories not only as expressions of and commentaries upon the society of the time, but also as tales of continuing relevance in contemporary culture. “These tales,” notes Klein, “are so much attached to the singular and distinct social history of their origin, that they resonate it, much as once did the tales of King Arthur echo and elaborate a so-called “Matter of Britain,” “and therein lies their distinctness as “American Matters.” Despite the generality of this larger argument, Easterns, Westerns, and Private Eyes paints a fine and detailed picture of the sources of each of these fictional forms in the social documents of the age, as well as their enduring skepticism about American pieties.

The Shadow of Ulysses: Figures of a Myth, by Piero Boitani. Oxford $39.95

The literary universe in which Ulysses exists has been expanding exponentially, one might say, ever since he was created. Boitani’s work looks closely at this monumental figure in the context of its Western literary milieu. We are given a clear indication of the current internalizing effects that interpretation of this figure across centuries and cultural boundaries has had on our critical psyches. The result of such introspection reflects not only on the ways in which the Ulysses myth has changed us but on the ways in which our changing perceptions have re-created him.

Literature and Revolution in England, 1640—1660, by Nigel Smith. Yale $40

Smith takes a relatively overlooked period in England’s literary history—1640—60— and reminds us of its vitality and centrality. His theory, which is solid if not profound, asserts a peculiar correspondence between art and society. England, he says, mythologized its religious and social anarchy. The result of this interplay between mind and social matter was the emergence of new genres that took on a life of their own, despite their rootedness in a relatively stable literary tradition. Smith’s work is important simply because of its intense focus on this tumultuous period in literary and social history

The Ruin of Kasch, by Roberto Calasso. Harvard $24.95

Fresh on the enormous international success of The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony—that delightful prodigy of aimless erudition and inventive marketing—Harvard has released another book by Calasso: one equally prodigal in style, generous in insight and anecdote, and protean in form. Neither essay nor treatise, nor certainly fiction, this volume takes the fall of the legendary African Kingdom of Kasch as a symbol for the collapse of modernity, as of the antique order of hieratic sacrifice; it centers upon the periods before and after the French Revolution, and the figure of Tallyrand, with his fatidic awareness of the pathos of modernity, recurs throughout like a Wagnerian leitmotiv. But no summary can do justice to so learned, elliptical, infuriating, and fascinating a text as this.

A History of Russian Women’s Writing 1820—1992, by Catriona Kelly. Oxford $39.95

Kelly discusses both well-known authors like Akhmatova and Tolstaya, and a number of less studied figures such as Olga Shapir, Nadezhda Teffi, and Sofiya Parnok. Kelly writes from a feminist perspective, with attention to the history of women in the period she covers. Particularly welcome to the reader interested in women’s writing or literary history, but not proficient in Russian are the translations she provides for her quotations.

The Trouble With Genius, by Bob Perelman. California $40 cloth, $16 paper

“An aura of illegible authority surrounds the modernist genius, offering a lure for endless study.” Perelman studies Pound, Joyce, Stein, and Zukofsky, giving us thorough and thoughtful analysis of the best and worst in their writings. In doing so, he provides an additional product from the “critical industry” that has sprung up around these and other modernists in attempts to make them legible and of value. His first chapter is a fruitful analysis of “News That Stays News,” referring to the immortality of the writings of genius: “Being difficult to follow is central to genius.” He also explains his choice of these writers to the exclusion of other modernists who, he says, “produced poems rather than life-writing.” It is a sense of infinite, global, and encyclopedic ambition that invested his choice. This book can be added with pleasure and merit to the libraries of the audience attuned to the notorious difficulty of these writers: critics, writers, and graduate students.

Shakespeare and the Geography of Difference, by John Gillies. Cambridge $59.95 cloth, $18.95 paper

The premise of this elegant, nuanced study is that the “poetic geography” that shapes Shakespeare’s characterization of marginalized “exotics”—Othello, Aaron, and Cleopatra among them—draws upon the theory and practice of the map-makers of the Renaissance. The playwright of the “Globe” Theater and the cartographer alike conceived of the world in theatrical terms; the richly pictorial maps of the 16th century were as revelatory of cultural biases as any literary text. Thus the charisma of a figure like Othello is evidence less of the playwright’s tolerance of racial difference than of his tapping into a discourse of the “exotic” that shaped the composition of a map of the world as emphatically as it did the play.

Modernist Quartet, by Frank Lentricchia. Cambridge $54.95

Focusing on four modernist poets— Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, and T.S.Eliot—Lentricchia offers a compelling and rich reading of the historical and ideological roots of American modernism. By carefully examining the cultural and intellectual contexts of these four writers, Lentricchia develops a new understanding and appreciation of the ways these writers both shape and are shaped by their relations to the literary and economic environments they inhabit. One theme is repeated: these are poets who, by launching noncommercial poetic ventures, are responding to a culture largely sustaining commercial art. This book is full of lively readings and engaging historical contextualizations of the four poets in question.

Elizabeth Bishop: Her Poetics of Loss, by Susan McCabe. Penn State $45

This detailed examination of Bishop’s work places her squarely in postmodern feminism and explains the importance of autobiography in her work. It points to her sense of loss as the core of her concerns: loss of father to death and her mother to madness. McCabe is aware that critical works sometimes threaten to become more esoteric and obscure than the work itself, and effectively avoids this pitfall. She squarely confronts Bishop’s gender questions and sexual orientation as they inform her poetics. With many quotes from Bishop’s poetry, embedded in accessible text, this book will please critics and lovers of Elizabeth Bishop alike.

Elegy and Paradox: Testing the Conventions, by W.David Shaw. Johns Hopkins $39.95

This work tracks the generic transformation of elegiac verse through time by comparing historical similarities and differences across literary history. Shaw’s views are important because they uncover, in a highly competent scholarly fashion, some of the mysteries of a mysteriously complex poetic subgenre. Further, and perhaps more importantly, he propagates two ideas that are fundamental tenets of genre theory: with each new work or instance of a genre, the genre itself is transformed; periodizing is essential to writing literary history, but subgenres—like the Victorian and modern elegies, for example—cannot be looked upon as historical classes of literature; rather they are “classifying statement[s] or proposals]” of their respective classes.

LIVES & LETTERS The Last Shot, by Darcy Frey. Houghton Mifflin $19,95

This is a beautifully told, sympathetic story of a group of high school basketball players in Coney Island—the poignant account of their dream of escaping the ghetto by means of a basketball scholarship. The book is much, much more. It is by implication an indictment of a system of abuse of these youths, who are given false hope by deceitful coaches and greedy universities. It is a story in which every basketball fan is implicated, a story easily forgotten admist all the hoopla of the NCAA “Final Four.”

Winchell: Gossip, Power, and the Culture of Celebrity, by Neal Gabler. Knopf $30

The subject of this 681-page biography is forgotten today, except by pre-boomers who spent their childhood tethered to a radio. Nonetheless, Winchell’s “work” remains an element in the history of American popular culture, chiefly as a precursor of The National Enquirer, E!’s Gossip, and Hard Copy. Combining barely criticized factoid, “insinuendo,” and outright lie, Winchell created myths of celebrity victims and profligates (the latter his enemies) while puffing his friends and protégés. More damagingly, he dabbled in politics as a McCarthyite, and terrorized his readers and listeners with twisted portents of impending disaster. Unsurprisingly, the squalor of Winchell in public mirrored the messiness and shambles of his private life. Gabler deals dispassionately, and readably, with both, though in the end, a kind of poetic justice takes hold, and the reader is hard put to separate the significant from the trivial.

Henry R. Luce: A Political Portrait of the Man Who Created the American Century, by Robert E.Herzstein. Scribner’s $30

In this thorough volume, Herzstein, Carolina Research Professor of History at the University of South Carolina, presents the story of Henry Luce, creator of such American journalistic icons as Time and Life, Herzstein delves into Luce’s commitment to several political causes, including those of Chiang Kai-shek and of the Civil Rights movement, a commitment often born of the deep religious and moral convictions of this son of Protestant missionaries. Together with his wife, journalist and later politician Clare Booth Luce, Luce navigated the inner circles of political power and opinion, at times provoking the ire of Franklin D.Roosevelt. While providing ample notes for the reader who wishes to further his or her acquaintance with Luce’s life, Herzstein basically provides a lengthy yet engrossing political and personal biography of a man whose life work influenced a nation.

The Fading Smile, by Peter Davison. Knopf $24

In this combination memoir and literary study, Peter Davison examines the poets and poetry scene in Boston between 1955 and 1960.These years were an auspicious time in that city’s literary history, and Peter Davison knew—intimately, socially, or professionally—a virtual who’s who of important poets. These include Robert Frost, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and W.S.Merwin. Davison’s position as a poet gave him an insider’s view of things, but his job as a book editor at times kept him near the fringes of activity. The other poets seem to view him primarily as an editor, and one of the book’s most interesting episodes involves Sylvia Plath deftly working this connection. Davison augments his own recollections with information from published books, private documents, and interviews with other writers. The interviews, particularly, lead to interesting new perspectives on several writers, most notably Adrienne Rich, who Donald Hall and W.S.Merwin remember quite differently than she portrayed herself in the 1960’s and 70’s. This book will inevitably draw comparisons with Eileen Simpson’s Poets in their Youth, and with good reason. Simply put, both are historically important, insightful documents that are also a pleasure to read.

Autobiography of a Face, by Lucy Grealy. Houghton Mifflin $19.95

In this elegant, unsparing memoir, poet Lucy Grealy quietly discusses the psychological repercussions of her bout with bone cancer. Stricken at the age of nine, Grealy endured years of chemotherapy and the removal of almost half her jaw. The undeniable pressure her condition placed on her family made her feel obscurely responsible for her own illness. Yet upon recovering, she found that coming of age with her face disfigured and further misshapen by the uneven results of reconstructive surgery proved to be perhaps more painful. The taunts of her schoolmates and the haplessness of adults who avoided her gaze prompted Grealy’s increasing sense of isolation. Yet ultimately what is most memorable is not the author’s abjection but her remarkable resilience, expressed in unsentimental, tautly controlled prose.

Under My Skin: Volume One of My Autobiography, by Doris Lessing. HarperCollins $25

Born in Persia, the author lived through most of the first three decades of her life in Southern Rhodesia. Her account of those years displays the literary mastery that has made her one of the most significant contemporary writers, as well as her talent for observation and criticism of herself and of others. Her involvement in Communist politics plays a large part in the story.

Eight American Poets: An Anthology, edited by Joel Conarroe. Random House $25

Conarroe is eminently qualified to edit a collection such as this, being the president of the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation which awards fellowships to artists and scholars and having previously edited Six American Poets, He previously was chairman of the English department and dean at the University of Pennsylvania and executive director of the Modern Language Association. In this volume he moves beyond Whitman, Frost, et include Roethke, Bishop, Lowell, Plath, Sexton and others who have more recently entered the lime-light. It is good to have selections from these writers in a handy volume with brief biographical sketches to introduce each one. For lovers of poetry who want to enter more into the lives and works of modern writers, this volume is welcome.

Now, by Lauren Bacall. Knopf $23

Not everyone can write two autobiographies, but Lauren Bacall has done it! Her first won a National Book Award, and this one may well follow in that path. For juicy bits on marriages and such, read the first one, By Myself; for a more mature view of living alone, coming to terms with mortality, and having grown children who live their own lives, read Now. She leads a full life and tells about it, along with musings of what it means and what she wants to do with it. This is a thoughtful book written by one who has accomplished more than most in her chosen field.

Thirty-five Years of Newspaper Work: A Memoir by H.L.Mencken, edited by Fred Hobson, Vincent Fitzpatrick, and Bradford Jacobs. Johns Hopkins $34.95

The cult of Mencken is getting long in the tooth, and publication of this typically quirky memoir is not going to do anything to rejuvenate it. When Mencken wrote for posterity rather than for a public eager to be at once informed and outraged, he tended to become stuffy and—a pose that came naturally—overbearing. Somehow his wit doesn’t seem as sharp as we’ve been told it was; his weapon all too often the bludgeon and not the stiletto, he could be unspeakably crude. Only diehard Mencken buffs will find much of interest here.

Yankee Women: Gender Battles in the Civil War, by Elizabeth D.Leonard. Norton $23

This book explores the lives of three women active in the Yankee war effort—a community organizer, a pre-war licensed doctor, and a frontline nurse—in an attempt to demonstrate that the crossing of traditional gender lines resulted in the transformation and redefinition of American womanhood but not in the “demise of the gender system’s fundamental structure —its organization around the basic concept of gender boundaries and limits.” While undeniably true, this argument simply states the obvious.

Saint-Exupery, by Stacy Schiff.Knopf $30

The subject of this biography was an impoverished aristocrat who became a French war hero in 1944 when the reconnaissance plane he was flying on a military mission vanished into thin air. This illustrated and well-documented volume will surely become the definitive life-study of the first pilot who wrote lyrical novels about the beauty of flight. Indeed, his Little Prince is the most translated book in the French language. Written with a feeling of gracious elegance, it is difficult to believe that this masterful biography comes from the pen of an author who had not been previously published.

Philip of Macedon, by N. G. L. Hammond. Johns Hopkins $45

While attention to detail is abundant in this carefully researched work about the military and diplomatic exploits of Philip of Macedon, a lack of unifying themes make the book’s 191 pages of text seem longer than that. Nicholas Hammond has been writing about Philip of Macedon for a very long time and clearly is very familiar with the material. Greater attention to military hardware and innovations and social and political changes instituted by Philip would have made this an outstanding work.

Imperium, by Ryszard Kapuscinski. Knopf $24

A distinguished Polish journalist narrates the various encounters he has had with the Soviet Union and its successor state(s). He begins with his childhood in occupied Poland, relates a journey on the Trans Siberian railway in 1958 and one in the Southern Republics in the 60’s, then (in the longest part) his impressions of the breakdown of the system between ‘89 and ‘91, ending with a bleak account of the current, post-Soviet situation. The writing is, as in his previous books, spare and detached, yet powerfully effective.

Remembering Laughter, by Neil Grauer.Nebraska $20

James Thurber was one of the 20th-century ‘s greatest humorists and a brilliant cartoonist as well as author of unforgettable bittersweet stories. Who among his many admirers could not immediately identify with that modern day dreamer Walter Mitty, of Don Quixote fame? Yet, in this revealing biography commemorating the 100th anniversary of Thurber’s birth, we learn tragic facts about his personal life. For example, he was an alcoholic and a misogynist who went blind at the peak of his career which had previously been marred by the failure of his first marriage. Thurber’s many fans will therefore be grateful to the author for so many intimate insights about this authentic American genius.

Gardening in Clay: Reflections on AIDS, by Ronald O.Valdiserri. Cornell $16.95

Gardening in Clay is a memoir, a meditation on AIDS by the deputy director of the AIDS-Sexually Transmitted Diseases Section of the Center for Disease Control, and an act of mourning for a twin-brother dead of AIDS.The battle with AIDS and his own loss of loved ones is, he suggests, like Gardening in Clay. In time careful tending of soil with attention to moisture, composts, and soil composition will create a beautiful and productive garden. Valdiserri carries the same hope as he continues his work against infectious diseases.

“Unspoiled Heart”: The Journal of Charles Mattocks of the 17th Maine, edited by Philip N.Racine. Tennessee $36

This skillfully edited diary of a line officer in the Army of the Potomac presents fresh accounts of the battles of Chancellorsville and Gettysburg as well as the Petersburg-Appomattox campaign. Mattocks commanded the 17th Maine from January 1864 until his capture at the battle of the Wilderness. What sets Mattock’s diary apart is his account of confinement in Confederate prisons in South Carolina and Georgia, and his dramatic story of escape, recapture, and parole. Mattocks was a keen observer and able writer, and recorded insightful comments on slavery and prison conditions during his captivity.

FICTION Mississippi History: Stories, by Steve Yarbrough. Missouri $14.95

Who doesn’t like a good short story? To while away an afternoon, to read in the wee hours after waking at the wrong time, and for Sunday afternoons. These short stories fit the bill. They tell of everyday life with all its grimness, loves, rivalries, and occasionally a true reward. Taking place in Mississippi is only coincidental, but having a place in mind as you read helps to visualize the action. And in each story there is new information, such as about going to a chiropractor, having a Caesarian, climbing a signal pole in an ice storm. The writing is direct, intending to communicate a story full of incident. The stories and the book succeed very well.

Shinju, by Laura Joh Rowland. Random House $21

We have a new major talent; a powerful writer and entertaining storyteller of the first rank. Rowland, born in Michigan of Chinese and Korean parents, has produced in her first novel a yarn of Japan that places the reader right there in the 17th century before the advent of Western influence. You desperately try, with Sano the new young Samurai, to solve a murder after he is told to leave it alone. Everything he does runs counter to cultural norms until he finds himself immersed in assassination plots at the highest level, The book is exciting, like Shogun, and a steller accomplishment for the author.

The Golden Ass, by Apuleius, translated by P.G.Walsh. Oxford $55

This novel is remarkably fresh, even postmodern; its age of more than 1800 years makes it neither stuffy nor out-of-date. Besides providing excellent entertainment, and a zippy, not entirely linear narrative, concerns of love and eroticism, faith and a casual interaction with super-natural beings are included in this tale of metamorphoses and journeys. This eminent scholar’s translation is lively without slipping into anachronism. The mysteries of Isis are handled with appropriate eloquence, while the tales and adventures still make a thumping good read.

The Time: Night, by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. Pantheon $20

This short novel follows a middle-aged Russian poet as she struggles to survive in contemporary Russia amidst economic poverty and the ongoing fracturing of family relationships. The narrative takes the form of a confessional or journal of Anna Andrianovna, interspersed with short extracts from the diary of her estranged daughter, Alyona. Anna is a woman full of paranoia, desperation, love for her family, fear of the world. She clings to her little grandson, Tima, enrages her daughter, and struggles constantly with deprivation: indeed, the dominant tone of the narrative is one of inexorable want. Anna’s emotional life is inescapably linked with who got to eat what for supper, which of her friends she might visit in the hope of a little food, what unacknowledged sacrifices she has made so that Tima or Alonya might have a bit more. This is a sad, difficult book to read, but worth the effort. Translated from the Russian by Sally Laird.

Who Will Run The Frog Hospital?, by Lorrie Moore. Knopf $20

Lorrie Moore is best known for her cuttingly humorous short stories that feature quick witted, sharp tongued female characters. Like those stories, this novel is told by a female whose acerbic asides can make one laugh out loud. But, ultimately, it is the emotional depth of this story that holds one’s attention. Berie Carr is an American visiting Paris with her husband, from whom she feels a growing estrangement. The central story revolves around Berie’s recollection of her intense adolescent relationship with Sils, an attractive friend who played Cinderella in the theme park where they worked. As she tells of their experiences, and her alienation from her own family, Berie opens herself to the reader, and one feels Moore opening up in a similar manner. There is sentiment here, for this is a coming of age story, but Moore avoids becoming sentimental with her acutely observed detail and precise prose, even when dealing with the near-clichéd topic of abortion and the emotional toll it takes.Who Will Run the Frog Hospital is an intimate book that shows Lorrie Moore’s artistic vision deepening.

The Black Book, by Ian Rankin. Otto Penzler $21

John Rebus is Edinburgh’s most suspicious copper. And he has a dead-level right to be. On the day his black-sheep brother turns up looking for a place to stay and when he’s just been booted out of his lover’s place, one of his colleagues is attacked for doing some off-hours investigating into an old hotel fire. The detective’s little black book holds the key to a densely plotted and lively mystery that any hard-nosed reader will enjoy. Sarcasm, word-play, and plenty of villains abound, and, while the book is billed as “modern noir,” it avoids the nihilism of some of its contemporaries.

The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, edited by Tobias Wolff. Vintage $12

While anyone might quibble over the stories excluded from this collection, few could find fault with what remains: a feast of contemporary fiction—course after course of the most delicious short stories published within the last 25 years. Tobias Wolff, himself a master of the form, has gathered 33 short stories by America’s fore-most writers, including well-known works by Richard Ford, Joyce Carol Oates, and Tim O’Brien and new fiction from Susan Power, Chris Offutt, and others. The thread that links all these stories is “realism”—in contrast to the experiments in form that pass as “postmodernism” in some circles— and the stories are proof of an enduring interest in the traditional areas of character, conflict, and culture. As Wolff notes in his introduction, “The pleasure we take in cleverness and technical virtuosity soon exhausts itself in the absence of any recognizable human landscape. We need to feel ourselves acted upon by a story, outraged, exposed, in danger of heartbreak and change.” There’s no absence of these emotions here.

She Walks These Hills, by Sharyn McCrumb. Scribner’s $21

McCrumb’s Appalachian suspense novels only get better. In this, her third, an escaped convict tries to retrace his steps home to the past he was denied. A history graduate student, obsessed with the story of the 18th-century escape of a pioneer woman from the Shawnee, tries to retrace her route home, but without duplicating her tragic end. And a newly hired deputy sheriff begins her own journey of self-discovery as she tries to prove herself equal to the stresses of law enforcement. McCrumb’s evocation of place and character are superb, and she carries the story’s suspense to the last page.

A Son of the Circus, by John Irving. Random House $25

It takes quite a bit of daring to write a 633-page novel set in India and then to confess to your readers in the preface: “I don’t know India. I was there only once, for less than a month.” But daring is something John Irving does not lack, and one leaves this novel feeling that if India is different from his picture of it, then India is missing its vocation. Irving’s talent for drawing edification from the grotesque is not to everyone’s taste; but if it is to yours, read this novel.

False Conception, by Stephen Greenleaf. Otto Penzler $22

John Marshall Tanner, Greenleaf’s San Francisco PI, is back with a vengeance. Marsh’s last outing—in South Carolina— was flat, but this latest mystery in the series is one of his best. The scion of one of the Bay Area’s retail giants wants to arrange a baby by surrogate, and Tanner is brought in to vet the likely candidate. All looks good until the woman disappears, sending Tanner into an investigation that opens a plot so intricate that it would make Ross MacDonald proud. Greenleaf is a throw-back to the days when mystery writers still used simile and metaphor, and his old-fashioned storytelling goes down like a hot toddy on a raw, rainy night.

The President’s Daughter, by Barbara Chase-Riboud. Crown $24

This is the second work of historical fiction in the author’s quest to prove that Thomas Jefferson sired seven illegitimate children with a black slave named Sally Hemings, thereby committing repeated crimes of miscegenation in effect at that time. The plot is not about the alleged mistress but rather her headstrong and beautiful daughter named Harriet who ran away from her home at Monticello to become a femme fatale in Philadelphia. The dust jacket informs us that the author is busily engaged in a third book in the Sally Hemings Chronicles to be entitled Liberty. Since the first novel made the author a millionaire, who can blame her for exploiting this titillating Mother Lode of Jefferson ‘s alleged affair even though serious scholars deny that there is any merit to her contention.

Crack Down, by Val McDermid. Scribner’s $20

Kate Brannigan is a freelance Manchester PI who has had two previous outings. While nearly all female sleuths these days are described as feisty, few allow themselves to banter, either with other characters, or the reader. Brannigan is serious about her work, which is about the difficult matter of springing her writer lover from jail, but she keeps her perspective in life. She’s smart, handy in a crisis, and knows her way about the streets. All in all, a wonderful companion for an evening’s entertainment.

New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best1994, edited by Sharon Ravenel. Algonquin Books $10.95

Sharon Ravenel knows a good story when she reads one, and for the ninth time in as many years, she has collected a batch here that portrays the breadth of published work that can accurately be designated as “Southern writing.” These 16 stories originally appeared in publications ranging from Playboy to The Paris Review; the authors include both new names (like Nancy Krusoe) and old friends (like Richard Bausch). No subject is taboo in these views of the “new South,” with drugs and interracial sex as evident here as in the rest of America. As Ravenel reminds us in her Introduction, a fearless choice of subject is also part of the Southern tradition, where Faulkner, Williams, and Welty earned no fame by discretion and timidity. The common denominator among these stories is a sense of place, which envelopes the reader completely by volume’s end.

Collected Stories, by Louis Auchincloss; Afterlife and Other Stories, by John Updike. Houghton Mifflin $24.95, Knopf $24

Readers of either of the above collections of an author’s short stories can each be divided into one of the following two categories: 1.Those who have enjoyed the anthology of the author they deem to be the most important American writer in the second half of the 20th century. They will relish the re-reading of some of the old favorites and swoon over items they are reading for the first time.2.Those who have never before enjoyed the literary contributions of the author and will be so thrilled by having discovered such a distinguished writer that they will become instant fans. They will run to the nearest library or bookstore in order to become mesmerized by all the previously published works of someone they regard as a star on the present literary American horizon.

The Sinner’s League, by L. L. Enger. Otto Penzler $21

This is the fifth in a mystery series featuring Gun Pedersen, a former baseball player with the means, solitude, and misanthropy to be an ace dark hero. Gun is about as cheery as the harsh northern Minnesota landscape he calls home, and given the brutish underside of life that he feels compelled to investigate, it’s no wonder. How’s a little foray into rape, child prostitution, and torture grab you? Enticing, huh? As an added plus, Gun is a guy who thinks a hundred pushups a day is the answer for everything. It’s possible he needs a little change of gestalt. In fact, this novel is so unrelievedly bleak that, unless whips and chains are your thing, I ‘d give it a miss.

NATIONAL &INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Prisoners of Myth: The Leadership of the Tennessee Valley Authority, 1933—1990, by Erwin C.Hargrove. Princeton $45

The TVA is perhaps the closest thing America has had to an experiment with Socialist production. It was dramatically successful in attaining its original goals of flood control, the production of electric power, and integrated regional development. This very success produced a series of myths and an organizational culture that, on the one hand, led later leaders to attempt to find new projects that would replicate the early heroic successes, but on the other hand, led them to adopt strategies of reform that were incongruent with the organizational and political contexts they faced. Insensitivity to environmental concerns and the complexity, dangers, and high cost of nuclear power resulted in a serious erosion of TVA’s legitimacy and support. While arguably Hargrove’s reading of history is a conservative one, this is a very valuable addition to Philip Selznick’s classic TVA and the Grassroots, the study of organizational leadership, and recent American history.

The Geography of Nationalism in Russia and the USSR, by Robert J.Kaiser. Princeton $65

What was, and is, a Russian? A Ukrainian? Those are not easy questions to answer, not nearly so easy as, say, the question as to what is an Armenian or an Estonian or an Uzbek. In this major contribution to nationality studies in Russia and the old USSR of cursed memory, Professor Kaiser advances a “place-based” theory that argues against the grain of most previous studies. His theory holds that localism, or parochialism held sway until late in the 19th century, and that the idea of a national homeland is a relatively new and quite explosive phenomenon. A fine work by an up-and-coming young geographer.

A Sense of Place, A Sense of Time, by John Brinckerhoff Jackson. Yale $22.50

The dust jacket promises the readers an examination of “the new vernacular landscape of trailers, parking lots, trucks, loading docks, and suburban garages,” all elements of America’s (auto)mobile culture. What we get instead is a series of snapshots and all too brief descriptions and reflections on these vernacular spaces. Jackson has some important insights, for example that mass-produced trailer homes do not necessarily create homogenized cultural spaces, or that we must view roads as “places” too, as part of the human/natural landscape. These insights, however, are too often left to stand on their own, neither explored very fully nor very carefully related one to the other, Jackson’s ideas are interesting, but the book is ultimately unsatisfying.

Eternal Russia: Yeltsin, Gorbachev, and the Mirage of Democracy, by Jonathan Steele. Harvard $27.95

Of all the instant analyses in book form of the demise of the USSR, this volume by the former Moscow bureau chief of The Guardian stands out as the calmest, most intelligent, and certainly the most readable. That is not to say it is a classic. Modern journalists are burdened not with too little but with too much knowledge, too many sources of information, and they have become so accustomed to hob-nobbing with politicians, and to public acclaim, that they sometimes lose sight of who and what a nation is. Steele has some excellent insights into the collapse of the Communist regime, and his word will do until the final one comes.

The Amish Struggle with Modernity, edited by Donald B.Kraybill and Marc A. Olshan. New England $40 cloth, $17.95 paper

This book contains many insightful sociological insights into the habits and culture of the modern Amish in America. However, most of these insights have been noted before (best by Kraybill himself in his The Riddle of the Amish) and the writing, uninspiring at best and insipid at worst, is always boring. Add to that the usual inability of sociologists to take seriously the mental and spiritual life of religious peoples, and you have a recipe for a thoroughly bland book.

Leadership Style and Soviet Foreign Policy: Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Gorbachev, by James M.Goldgeier. Johns Hopkins $35

We tend to lump dictators and authoritarian leaders into one unsavory mold, but they are as different as presidents and prime ministers. In this comparative study of the styles of four Soviet leaders, and the reflection of those styles in foreign policy, Professor Goldgeier of George Washington University makes a good case for some fresh interpretations of several major international crises since 1948.He also paints an impressive portrait of the erosion in Russia of dictatorship itself.

The Idea of a Liberal Theory, by David Johnston. Princeton $29.95

Starting with a conception of liberalism broad enough to incorporate Karl Marx (sometimes), this clear and useful new work moves through a swift yet thorough critique of three leading liberal philosophies to reach a sketch of a new, improved theory. This humanist theory holds that the proper purpose of social and political arrangements is to enable individuals to be effective agents. Rival theories, the rights-based, perfectionist and political theories of Robert Nozick, J.S.Mill and John Rawls respectively, are discussed in the central chapters, before Johnston’s view is filled out


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