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Notes on Current Books, Summer 1991


ISSUE:  Summer 1991

If current academic literary studies seem in danger of giving up the ghost in a morass of ochlocratic nihilism, it is reassuring to know that medieval historical writing, in England at least, is on a solid footing, an assertion borne out by the wealth of sensible and useful monographs produced in recent years. For the period from John to Edward II the older views of the political history, exemplified chiefly by the work of F.M. Powicke, have now been significantly reinterpreted, and it is as a guide to the revisionist historians on such key topics as the relations of the king to the nobility, or of the king to the shire communities, or on the intricate structure of taxation and military recruitment, that this book is especially welcome. The student may find that some aspects of the reign receive less attention than one might expect. Little is said about the politics of the episcopal church, or the papacy, or the towns. But in 150 pages one cannot do it all. What is done is well done, and the fundamental configuration of the century is brought out with admirable clarity and authority.

The Anti-Redeemers: Hill-Country Political Dissenters in the Lower South from Redemption to Populism, by Michael R. Hyman. Louisiana $39.95

Southern politics has often resembled a zoo, full of exotic and ferocious creatures not encountered in everyday life. From the fire-eaters of secession to the wool-hat boys of Populism to Huey Long to Jesse Helms, politics in Dixie has displayed some colorful specimens. Michael Hyman has set out to capture a beast that has been glimpsed but never captured: the dissident voters who dared challenge the Democrats even as Reconstruction limped to an end. The identity and motives of these men have been assumed but not studied in any detail, though it is becoming clear they were important links in the evolution of the region’s politics. Hyman offers a survey of their habitat and some clues about their habits, but there remains much more to be learned about these rebels.

Essays in Ottoman and Turkish History, 1774—1923: The Impact of the West, by Roderic H. Davison. Texas $40

And then there is the story—told by Professor Leften Stavrianos—of the Turkish sultan who forbade the importation of a dynamo after being informed that it performed 2,500 revolutions per minute. It was all he could do to deal with the Kurds. Roderic H. Davison, a brilliant teacher and scholar for many years at George Washington University, has collected a dozen of his essays in this splendid book, all of them dealing with variations on the problem of the dynamo. For the specialist, and the history buff in general, this is a real treat.

The Muslims of Valencia in the Age of Fernando and Isabel: Between Coexistence and Crusade, by Mark D. Meyerson. California $45

Meyerson explodes the myth of a unified, obsessively anti-Semitic Spain under Fernando and Isabel (1469—1504) by studying the coexistence achieved in the kingdom of Valencia. Meyerson finds that Fernando’s self-interested economic policies overshadowed his need for religious orthodoxy. “Fernando had no intention of removing the Islamic presence from his kingdoms and . . .(he) was most concerned to ensure that the Crown received as great a share as was possible of the economic benefits accruing from the Mudejar’s labor and enterprise.” Although some of the important questions remain unresolved, this is a stimulating and important book. With maps and tables.

The Great Adventure. Male Desire and the Coming of World War I, by Michael C.C. Adams. Indiana $22.50

This book purports to uncover “a complex of deeply ingrained attitudes about manhood, sex, power, maturity, boredom and war that defined a culture. . .” and to make “a remarkably contemporary statement about men, women and the culture of war.” If that were not enough to arouse suspicions in the reader, a glance at the chapter headings certainly would, and a reading of the text will confirm that nothing is uncovered that is not well known, and that nothing remarkable is said about sex or culture or war. The volume consists of a cascade of snippets of information of one kind or another, from Peter Pan to Rupert Brooke’s sentimental verses, with passing references, inter alia, to Henry Newbolt’s Chivalry, the reminiscences of Robert Graves, and the Prisoner of Zenda. The writing, moreover, is not only cumbersome and ungrammatical, but it is replete with evidence of muddled thinking (“”It was the best of times, it was the worst of times!” With these famous lines Charles Dickens began A Tale of Two Cities” p. 1), awesome commonplace (“the nineteenth century was a period of chronic change” p. 13), careless reasoning (“For chivalry was as much needed in 1917 as in the Middle Ages” p. 105), and meaningless naïveté (“Life is an adventure and we should all be adventurers, pursuing our unique quests toward more fulfilled existences” p. 140). This is not to say that World War I and the New Chivalry is a dull subject. Quite the contrary, in fact. But for a competent discussion of its significance one must: look elsewhere.

The Lessons of History, by Michael Howard. Yale $27.50

The author, arguably the doyen of contemporary military historians, recently left the Regius Chair of History at Oxford to join the Yale faculty. This book is an excellent collection of essays, indicating the author’s mastery not only of military history proper, but of other-aspects of historiography, especially the history of international relations. Among the most valuable pieces in the volume are “Empires, Nations and Wars,” “Men Against Fire,” “War and Social Change,” and the Oxford Valedictory Lecture on “Structure and Process in History.”

Slavery Attacked: Southern Slaves and Their Allies 1619—1865, by Merton L. Dillon. Louisiana $39.95

The pejorative title of this study could mislead a likely reader to thinking it an abolitionist polemic. Instead, it is in fact a balanced and comprehensive summary of the many threads that constituted the anti-slavery movement from its inception as early as the middle of the 17th century to the final legal ending of enforced servitude two centuries later. A recurring theme of the book is its revelation of the wide and deep undercurrent of unhappiness of the slaves in the condition in which they found themselves. The reader is continually confronted with the perplexity of the best minds in the country, including those of Jefferson and Madison, as to what on earth to do with the inherited institution so at odds with their principles and rationality.

The Reformation, 1520—1559, by G. R. Elton. Cambridge $49.50

This is a valuable replacement of volume two of the 30-year-old New Cambridge Modern History. Besides adding new chapters, the original essays have been reviewed and either rewritten or discarded and replaced. The obsolete Marxist paradigm has happily gone the way of all flesh. Luther is placed in a broader context without sacrificing any of his important intellectual contributions. But the essay on the Anabaptists sects does not seem to have benefited from the explosion in Mennonite studies since 1960 which has vastly improved our understanding of that often maligned group which claims to be neither Catholic nor Protestant. The volume is bound nicely (acid-free paper), but unfortunately the print (except for the title and contents pages) appears to be generated by computer. The font style is plain, overly dark, and at places has the appearance of a laser-jet production utilizing a cheap word-processing program.

The Reign of Edward HI: Crown and Political Society in England, 1327—1377, by W.M. Ormrod. Yale $30

Contemporary writers like Froissart and Minot pictured Edward III as the ideal king largely because of his successful wars in France and Scotland. It was not until the closing years of his reign, when the military problems became acute, that the tone changed. But the chivalric image persisted. Thus Stubbs’s view that “Edward was not a statesman . . .he was a warrior. His obligations as king sat very lightly on him,” was generally the opinion held until historians like McKisack in the late 1950’s began to take another look at the royal administration. While there is no doubt that Edward’s authority was enhanced by his military victories and the reputation they gave him, it is also true, as Ormrod makes clear in this tightly-written, comprehensive interpretation of the reign, that he achieved significant success in managing the crises of domestic politics. Resourceful in dealing with his ministers and adept at handling members of Parliament, Edward apparently was able to maintain the initiative in government for a considerable time and seems rarely to have been inhibited by proposed reforms handed up by the Commons. He was a powerful king because he was a wealthy king, and a large portion of the money was voted to him free of restraints. Whether he was as accomplished a ruler in bringing the magnates, or the important shire gentry, to his side is a question more open to debate. King and country may have been united in war, but it seems less certain that they remained closely allied or mutually supportive the rest of the time. But on the whole this is a persuasive revisionist view of Edward as a successful administrator written with learning and reasonableness.

The Meaning of South Carolina History: Essays in Honor of George C. Rogers, Jr., edited by David R. Chesnutt and Clyde N. Wilson. South Carolina $35

In this elegant and informative collection, a dozen eminent scholars provide original essays on South Carolina history— from colonial times to the recent past—for a symposium in recognition of the distinguished career of Professor Rogers, who, until his retirement in 1986, was the Dial Professor of History at the University of South Carolina. The essayists include Charles Joyner, Eugene Genovese, Robert M. Calhoon, and Carol Bleser, editor of the laudable In Joy and In Sorrow: Women, Family, and Marriage in the Victorian South.

The Spanish Civil War: Revolution and Counterrevolution, by Burnett Bolloten. North Carolina $59.95

If weight counts, this tome wins the award: in 66 information-packed chapters, 189 pages of notes, 75 pages of books listed in the bibliography (newspapers are a separate listing), a dense 47-page index—all in nearly 1100 pages—Bolloten publishes a life’s work of study on the Spanish Civil War. He tracks not just the battles and the power plays, but also the money, the personalities, and the tensions which caused the war to turn so complicated and bitter. His focus is the left—the Republicans, anarchists, Communists, Socialists, and the rest—and the divisions and struggles among the numerous factions which eliminated any possibility of a truly united front against the Fascists. All of the major players, and most of the minor ones, are accounted for in this story of failure, disappointment, dispute, and heroics. Bolloten skillfully displays massive amounts of information and then draws it together into a readable, revealing narrative.

LITERARY STUDIESTowards Reading Freud: Self-Creation in Milton, Wordsworth, Emerson, and Sigmund Freud, by Mark Edmundson. Princeton $24.95

This book takes a distinguished place in the ongoing effort to recontextualize Freud by stressing the literary rather than the scientific roots and character of his theories. Edmundson distinguishes between what he calls the normative and the creative sides of Freud, Freud as a would-be scientist vs. Freud as a kind of Romantic manqué. Edmundson thus reveals the central paradox of Freud’s achievement: he offers a universal theory of the psyche that can account for all human activity, except for Freud’s own achievement in discovering psychoanalysis. As Edmundson argues, the Freud who discovers the rules of human behavior had to break those rules in order to discover them. Edmundson does an excellent job of juxtaposing central passages in Freud with moments in the writings of Milton, Wordsworth, and Emerson, uncanny moments when indeed these authors seem to anticipate Freud and to reveal the mythic underpinnings of his thinking. There are some limitations to Edmundson’s treatment: for example, a more historically-based approach to uncovering the literary side of Freud’s thinking would no doubt have stressed its roots in German Romanticism and made more of Goethe and Nietzsche. Still, this is an ambitious and well-executed book; throughout one senses a genuine mind at work, setting up comparisons, making connections, drawing distinctions, and working out a thesis.

Consequences of Theory, edited by Jonathan Arac and Barbara Johnson. Johns Hopkins $30 cloth, $11.95 paper

If your idea of celebrating the beginning of fall is a Labor Day picnic or Softball game, you may have been missing the meetings of the English Institute all these years. But never fear: Johns Hopkins periodically publishes collections of essays from the Institute’s programs for the benefit of those who cannot make the annual pilgrimage to Cambridge, Massachusetts. A number of these volumes have actually been quite distinguished; unfortunately this is not one of them. Patricia Williams’ lament over the fate of Tawana Brawley (“There is no respect or wonder for her silence”) is undoubtedly the low point of the volume. But Gayatri Spivak comes in a close second, with her usual dose of ungainly, unidiomatic, and unintelligible prose (“These necessarily and actively marginalized margins haunt what we start and get done, as curious guardians”). To be sure, there are some good essays in the volume, most notably Anthony Appiah’s “Tolerable Falsehoods: Agency and the Interests of Theory” (a good reminder that it helps when writing about theory to have some genuine training in philosophy). But on the whole this is an eminently forgettable collection of essays.

The Puritan-Provincial Vision: Scottish and American Literature in the Nineteenth Century, by Susan Manning. Cambridge $42.50

“Calvinism is the natural theology of the disinherited,” said H.L. Mencken; “it never flourished, therefore, anywhere as it did in the barren hills of Scotland and in the wilds of North America.” Manning’s unusual comparative study is a kind of extended gloss on Mencken’s insight, an effort to discern a common Calvinist aesthetic in the Scottish and American literary traditions. At times her single-minded search for Puritan themes leads her astray: surely Thomas Jefferson and Edgar Allan Poe, whom she attempts to corral within her developing thesis, make rather unlikely Calvinist converts. But many of her comparisons are convincing and striking: for instance, her treatment of Jonathan Edwards and David Hume as latter-day Calvinists responding (quite differently) to the new epistemology of John Locke. And her larger theme—the subtle and complex affinity between Puritan thought and the condition of the provincial—offers a useful approach not only to the Scots and Americans treated here but to any culture touched by the legacy of Calvin.

Mark Twain’s “Pudd’nhead Wilson”: Race, Conflict, and Culture, edited by Susan Gillman and Forrest G. Robinson. Duke $35 cloth, $16.95 paper

Most people probably suppose they do not want to read 13 essays on Pudd’nhead Wilson, Mark Twain’s sensational novel of detection revolving around a pair of infants, one slave and one free, switched in the cradle. This collection might make them reconsider. Among other virtues, the volume could serve as a virtual primer in the new historicism. Under the eyes of these critics, the notorious disorder of the novel emerges as a symptom of a self-contradictory culture, a culture whose incoherence was also evident in, for example, the 1896 Supreme Court doctrine of “separate but equal.” Not all the essays are gems, but James M. Cox, perhaps Mark Twain’s most astute critic, illustrates the relevance of this novel with an extraordinary analysis that is both rigorous and personal—even moving. These essays will be indispensable for students of American culture, but they also have much to offer the general reader who wants to explore the genealogy of the color-line, which W.E.B. DuBois singled out as the problem of the 20th century.

Reading Voices: Literature and the Phonotext, by Garrett Stewart. California $48 cloth, $16.95 paper

This difficult, suggestive, and unnecessarily opaque study of the sonic resonances of words in poetic and prose texts makes audible once more the sheer physicality of attentive reading. Stewart ranges punningly and playfully across a wide variety of textual examples, including Shakespeare, Sterne, Dickens, Lawrence, Joyce, Woolf, Romantic poets, and Modernist poets. He convincingly resists recent trends in literary criticism toward socio-historical reductionism. Not merely remarking but interpreting countless phonemic echoes in literature, Stewart has made a valuable contribution to the poetics of the ear.

The Material Word, by Richard Kroll. Johns Hopkins $42.50

In this book, Richard Kroll rewrites a major chapter in the history of English linguistic philosophy before offering a reading of Dryden’s Absolom and Achitophel. His revision facilitates a quite subtle appreciation of both the poem and the period. Working principally from a dichotomy between atomism and rationalism, Kroll ultimately dissects the deconstructionist straw man of the “Enlightenment,” revealing both the political contingency and the philosophical sophistication of late 17th-century thought. This is a powerful, erudite, and engaging book.

Southern Literature and Literary Theory, edited by Jefferson Humphries. Georgia $45

Until recently the study of Southern literature has been something of a bastion of traditional scholarship, seemingly immune to contemporary fashions in critical theory. The present volume presents itself as an assault on this citadel, launched by a cadre of Young Turks raised on DeMan and Foucault, eager to overthrow the Old Guard and rescue Southern literature from stifling provincialism. Grand claims, these, but only a few of the essays gathered here come anywhere close to making good on them. For the most part these critics take the “add and stir” approach to critical theory, in which a fully-formed and thoroughly conventional idea is fortified with a strong dose of theoretical jargon and sent forth—to be admired by the credulous, no doubt, but ignored by those who really know their theory. The irony, of course, is that this approach is itself completely provincial, characterized by the critic’s eagerness to prostrate both himself and the literary work before the unquestioned authority of Continental theory. It is time for things to be shaken up in the Southern Lit. business, but this procedure will require above all a truly independent criticism, not the pale imitation offered by the theorists gathered here.

Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture, by Stephen Greenblatt.. Routledge $25

Stephen Greenblatt is the founder of that literary critical movement that has come to be called New Historicism. Greenblatt’s objective, and that of his many followers, is to open the boundaries between literary text and social event. To Greenblatt, literary works appropriate and rework material from the social world, thus playing a role that is inevitably political. By a series of juxtapositions, Greenblatt demonstrates how literary works feed off what is given by their time. King Lear, for instance, needs to be understood in relation to the controversy over exorcism that was coeval with the play’s writing and first performances. Though some of Greenblatt’s juxtapositions may sound unlikely, they inevitably yield fine critical insights. Greenblatt writes with modest elegance, is a superb scholar and researcher, and deserves his status as the first voice in Renaissance studies today.

Literature in the Modern World, edited by Dennis Walder. Oxford $69

This is a useful collection of critical essays about the study of modern literature in English. The volume holds within its covers a wide variety of approaches to literature, but its emphasis is on post-colonial and post-canonical theory. Hoping to free criticism from assumptions forged in the heyday of the British empire, writers like Marilyn Butler, Edward Said, Terry Eagleton, Sara Suleri, Seamus Heaney, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, and others argue that the traditional English canon should be seen as a reflection of its political context and that new canons should be celebrated in a post-hegemonic world.

The Vanderbilt Tradition: Essays in Honor of Thomas Daniel Young, edited by Mark Royden Winchell. Louisiana $39.95

Having spawned such figures as John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, and Cleanth Brooks (and, more recently, James Dickey and Randall Jarrell), Vanderbilt University can claim a place in American literary history—even though most of its great alumni received nothing but bare toleration, and sometimes not that, from the school itself. Thomas Daniel Young, a graduate and longtime professor at Vanderbilt, has devoted his career to making amends for this maltreatment; nobody has done more to abet the study of Vanderbilt’s literary legacy. This volume—composed and assembled by Young’s students and focusing upon that legacy—is a fit tribute to the master and a fine treatment of its subject. The essays are of a uniformly high quality and—perhaps surprisingly—do not comprise an uncritical celebration of the Vanderbilt tradition: see, for instance, Carol Andrews’ judicious critique of Cleanth Brooks’ influential work on Faulkner. This collection will prove invaluable for students of American—and particularly Southern—literature.

Professions of Taste: Henry James, British Aestheticism, and Commodity Culture, by Jonathan Freedman. Stanford $29.50

This well-written study sheds much new light on the sphere of experience and expertise, the “aesthetic,” that was created in the latter half of the 19th century. Freedman does an excellent job of showing how apparently rarefied aesthetic doctrines were enthusiastically consumed and “incorporated” by a surprisingly wide audience, particularly in America. Through a detailed analysis of James’ complex relations with Pater, Ruskin, and especially Wilde, Freedman explains how the Master could amass a huge store of cultural capital even as—perhaps because—his novels became increasingly unsellable.

LIVES & LETTERSThe Exiled Heart, A Meditative Autobiography, by Kelly Cherry. Louisiana $24.95

One often hears the catalogue of what Soviet Russia has failed to produce, from enough bread and meat and shoes to tractors and watches. It has, however, managed to produce the world’s largest and most inefficiently efficient prison: itself. Or, as Cherry calls it, “without too much irony, rampant solipsism,” a system of oppression at whose roots lies a complete failure of imagination. Cherry and Imant Kalnin, the Latvian composer whom she meets on a trip to Russia in 1965, run smack into this nightmare when they decide to marry. Part love story, part meditation, part international intrigue, their efforts become a 25-year odyssey involving KGB and CIA agents, intercepted letters, and a host of insanely robotic government officials from many countries. There are a number of surprises along the way: the fact that Europeans, as opposed to Americans, strike matches in toward the body; the sad claim that the Helsinki Accords are a cleverly disguised consignment to sell tractors; and finally, and simply, this magnificent book. It is a testament of human will from a remarkable writer. It is both a great triumph and wildly ironic that Cherry and Kalnin find “peace and freedom as a result of international conflict. [Their] countries sowed the ground with bullets like dragons teeth, and up sprang—not soldiers. Lovers.”

Stalin in Power: The Revolution from Above, 1928—1941, by Robert C. Tucker. Norton $29.95

If it were not for Princeton’s Professor Tucker, we would not have a single truly objective, scholarly work on the Soviet dictator. In a painstaking, carefully researched, and engagingly written work that will eventually comprise at least three and maybe four volumes, Tucker chips away at the myths created not only by Stalin’s hagiographers but also by Isaac Deutscher, Adam Ulam, and assorted other Western authors. This latest volume is a splendid account of The Boss during the Five-Year Plans and the purges. Highly recommended.

The Rise of Richelieu, by Joseph Bergin. Yale $30

It is all too easy to forget that history’s great figures went through childhood just like anyone else, grew to maturity, developed personality and skills and shortcomings over time. In this discussion of the young Armand-Jean de Plessis, later Cardinal de Richelieu, Professor Joseph Bergin of Manchester University in England brings to bear a remarkable collection of sources new and old and what is more important a fresh eye. This is a book for the serious student of early modern French history, and it is a challenging, pioneering one.

Harlan Hubbard: Life and Work, by Wendell Berry. Kentucky $23

This book contains, expanded and set to print, The Blazer Lectures of 1989 at the University of Kentucky by Wendell Berry. Harlan Hubbard (1900—1988) and his wife Anna Wonder Eikenhout Hubbard (1902—1986) constructed for themselves at Payne Hollow in Kentucky on the shore of the Ohio River a remarkable life of hard work, self-sufficiency, and happiness, resolutely detached from the electric power grid, the highway system, and space age conveniences. It was a technology of about the mid-19th century, not coincidentally the time of H.D. Thoreau. Through a study of the lives of these two remarkable people, Wendell Berry sets about a characteristically thoughtful exploration of the course that lies before us. How will the next generations live after the oil is gone, after the days of grandiose exploitation are past? The course offered is stern, “a strain of Americanism almost lost,” as Harlan says, and no doubt not to the liking of the vast majority of Americans today. But the book and the Hubbards portray one route by which people and communities of the future may well live at peace with the environment and with much dignity and serenity and fulfillment. Because Anna did not keep a journal as Harlan did, her contribution is under-represented in this volume, and it is sorely missed.

Rasputin: Rascal Master, by Jane Oakley. St. Martin’s $19.95

Nobody produces villains the way the Russians do, or at least not on such a wholesale scale. The first of this century was the notorious defrocked monk, Grigory Rasputin, who hypnotized away the hemophilia of the little heir to the Russian throne and thereby insinuated himself into the good graces of Nicholas and Alexandra. The harm Rasputin did was truly incalculable, the guilt of the royal couple beyond measure. That said, it must be noted that Jane Oakley has done nothing but repeat every wild cliché ever written about Rasputin in this salacious piece of nonsense. Good fun for pleasure-seeking adults, maybe, but not to be taken seriously.

Porch Talk with Ernest Gaines, by Marcia Gaudet and Carl Wooton. Louisiana $19.95

This collection of interviews with the acclaimed author of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman provides much valuable material for in-depth studies of the man and his work. In these conversations Gaines speaks of his craft, themes, the influence of ethnic pluralism in southern Louisiana on his poetics, and the oral tradition as the main source for his fiction. Gaines is very careful in discriminating between the demands of fiction and the raw matter of orality. Scholars of African-American and Southern literature can profit greatly from this appealing book.

The Doctors’ Plot of 1953, by Yakov Rapoport. Harvard $24.95

It has been nearly four decades since Soviet citizens awakened to headlines screaming about “Murderers in White Coats,” but Gorbachev’s recent sinister hints of dark doings among certain circles opposed to his rule indicate that state terror is merely sleeping in the land Stalin built. Yakov Rapoport, now in his tenth decade, was one of the victims of the 1952—53 “Doctors’ Plot,” and in this moving essay— prefaced by a long introduction written by his daughter—he relives that terrible episode. There is little that is new here save his sometimes anecdotal recollections, but anyone who survived Stalin’s wrath must be read.

Author And Agent: Eudora Welty and Diarmuid Russell, by Michael Kreyling. Farrar, Straus & Giroux $22.95

On May 28, 1940 Diarmuid Russell, literary agent, former editor, and, as he announced, son of the distinguished Irish author George William Russell (A.E.), wrote a letter to the young and gifted and not-well-known story writer Eudora Welty, offering his services as her literary agent. She took him up on the offer, and he was her agent until his death in 1973. Ms. Welty is still a client of the selfsame agency— Rusell and Volkening. Russell was old-fashioned and a foreigner; Welty was mostly down in Jackson far from the New York literary scene. Russell acted as more than an agent. He was an advisor, a critic, and a good, close friend. For more than 30 years, then, these close collaborators kept up an extensive correspondence, one which is the basis for this remarkable book. With full access to the letters on both sides and with the encouragement of Ms. Welty, Michael Kreyling has created a fascinating artistic (and career, for Ms. Welty was unquestionably ambitious) biography, set firmly into the context of the times which he evokes deftly and efficiently. Both Welty and Russell were often at odds with those times, giving a skeptical point of view to their observations. Perhaps more important, we learn a great deal about how Eudora Welty works and how hard it was for her to find her now unquestioned place in the literary pantheon. This is a first-rate piece of work of pathfinding value for future studies of contemporary writers. Few, however, can have had such close and contented relationships with their agents or left the letters and documents to prove it.

History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil, by Jean de Léry. California $29.95

Janet Whatley has done English readers not versed in French a major service by providing an annotated translation of Léry’s fascinating text. A member of the 16th-century French Protestant group that sailed to the New World in the hope of finding religious freedom who established a colony near what is now Rio De Janeiro, Léry wrote one of the first French eye-witness reports of the New World. If not so widely read and influential as the far more fantastic France Antarctique of his fellow colonist André Thevet, Léry’s travelogue provides a much more reliable account of South America as it was when Europeans first arrived. In addition, of course, Léry’s text is equally fascinating for the light that it sheds on the reactions of Europeans encountering American natives and their radically different civilizations for the first time. Ms. Whatley’s edition will be welcomed, and enjoyed, by students of Early Modern European history, South American anthropology, and anyone intrigued by one culture’s discovery and reactions to another, very other society.

Berlin Before the Wall: A Foreign Student’s Diary with Sketches, by Hsi-Huey Liang. Routledge $29.95

The author, currently professor of modern history at Vassar, spent about a year in West Berlin in 1953—54, doing research toward a higher degree. This book assembles the notes and stetches making up his diary for the period, and recounting in a lively and occasionally penetrating fashion his experiences chiefly in West, but occasionally in East Berlin. It makes no pretense at historical significance, but it has an endearing quality of immediacy and projects a credible image of a West Berlin very different from the town familiar to many more recent visitors.

Talking with Robert Penn Warren, edited by Floyd C. Watkins, John T. Hiers, and Mary Louise Weaks. Georgia $45 cloth, $19.95 paper

These interviews with the late Robert Penn Warren remind us of the gap he leaves behind him, for no living American literary artist can lay claim to Warren’s breadth of intellectual activity. He was a great poet and a great novelist, an historian who meditated deeply on the South, and a formidable literary critic. He was also a good talker, and this gathering of 24 interviews—including a self-interview—reflects the range of Warren’s life and thought. It is difficult to imagine a similar collection, with any other contemporary artist, that could interest so many people.

Wandering Ghost: The Odyssey of Lafcadio Hearn, by Jonathan Cott. Knopf $24.95

The strange little man with the aristocratic profile and the use of maybe one-quarter of one protruding eye cut quite a swath through Cincinnati, New Orleans, the Caribbean, and finally Japan in the last third of the 19th century. He lamented that he was not a genius, yet he produced some of the finest journalism of the period, and his tales of the underside of riverfront Cincinnati are by any standards classics. Told for the most part in his own words, with a minimum of intrusion from the properly respectful Jonathan Cott, Lafcadio Hearn’s story is now available to a whole new generation. This is a splendid little book.

The Southern Connection, by Robert Bechtold Heilman. Louisiana $29.95

In the fall of 1935 young Robert Heilman, fresh out of Harvard, took up his post as instructor of English at Louisiana State University. Within a few weeks he had witnessed the assasination of Huey Long (Heilman and his wife happened to be touring the capitol on the fateful day) and the birth of the Southern Review, edited by his young colleagues Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren. This odd initiation into the complexity of Southern life— brutality and high culture, side by side— may explain this Pennsylvanian’s lifelong fascination with the region: a fascination witnessed eloquently by the essays gathered here. The Southern Connection begins as a quite engaging memoir of Heilman’s tenure at LSU and broadens out at last into a shrewd meditation on modern Southern literature, most of whose principal actors eventually wandered through Baton Rouge and into the pages of its influential quarterly. Though Heilman long ago left the South for a distinguished career at the University of Washington, we can be grateful that he has elected to visit it again in this valuable and likable book.

FICTIONSomething in Common, Contemporary Louisiana Stories, edited by Ann Dobie. Louisiana $19.95

On a visit to Louisiana in the 1960’s, A. J. Liebling got right to the heart of the matter when he defined the state as an “American Lebanon.” Not much has changed in 30 years. New Orleans, still deeply influenced by its Catholic population, is also home to a flourishing movement of Pentecostal fundamentalists, and in Baton Rouge a former Klan wizard and state senator is quitting the great steel and stone monument to American populism for better digs up north. This, given the current economic condition of the state, makes “exoticism” about the only thing that brings in money, and advertisers have mined it dry. As a consequence, the very thing that defines Louisiana is now distorting its reality. New Orleans is not what it is. Instead it’s “Nawlins” or “New Orleeens” or “The Crescent City” or “The Big Easy.” This collection of stories is an antidote to all that and would be worth it for that alone. But there are many good pieces, most of which have their share of Louisiana peculiarities, used, however, to further the plot rather than make a buck. Who knows, maybe if writers like these keep writing it will one day be possible to recall Robert Penn Warren’s quip about the state without groaning. “After Louisiana,” he said, “nothing has been real.”

Body of Evidence, by Patricia D. Cornwell. Scribner’s $18.95

Richmond Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Kay Scarpetta boldly places herself in harm’s way once again. Kay’s investigation of the vicious murder of Beryl Madison, a successful writer, leads to the discovery of the latter’s twisted relationship with her guardian, a celebrated author, and a missing manuscript. As in her previous book Postmortem, clues are gleaned from the body of the victim by the use of advanced technology, but the solution to the crime depends on the intrepid Dr. Kay. While not as compelling as her debut novel, this story stands heads above the rest.

The Snake Game, by Wayne Johnson. Knopf $18.95

Nominally a first novel, Johnson’s collection of linked tales is a study in moral and cultural dilution. The title is suggestive of the storyline, which is both circuitous and circular, winding through the lives of three generations of whites and Ojibway Indians brought together in isolation at a northern Minnesota fishing lodge. The prose is direct, the emotions understated, though Johnson’s powers of description are at times unworthy of his setting and subject matter.

Big Bad Love, by Larry Brown. Algonquin $17.95

Brown’s Facing the Music was an extraordinary first collection of short stories, marked by the tough, humorous, unusual voices of quite ordinary Southerners. His next book, the novel Dirty Work, proved that he could represent the enduring terror in the lives of Vietnam veterans with great sensitivity. His third book, a collection of ten stories that deal with love, depression, and sex, is less satisfying than his earlier work. His minimalist techniques lead to a superficial treatment of intense emotions, a pandering to prurient interests. The stories do not entertain or enlighten; they disappoint.

The Collected Stories of John William Corrington, edited by Joyce Corrington. Missouri $24.95

Corrington always seemed a bit out of place in contemporary literature: at a time when more and more of our writers have become academic specialists holed up in M.F.A. programs, he was by turns a lawyer, a published scholar in political philosophy, a student of Eastern religions, and the screenwriter who gave us such cultural monuments as General Hospital and Battle for the Planet of the Apes. In an age of Carveresque “minimalism,” he wrote stories full of violent action, flamboyant language, and big ideas—and he wrote well enough to garner many of the major fiction prizes and the admiration of discerning critics. The author’s landscape, usually, is his native northern Louisiana; his characters are often lawyers and judges, quietly pursuing justice and duty in a chaotic world where such antique notions have almost vanished. Corrington died in 1988, in his mid-fifties, and his books are now out of print; thanks are owed the University of Missouri Press for making some of his best work available again. The age needs him, if only for a little variety.

The Search Committee, by Ralph McInerny. Atheneum $18.95

When the chancellor of the University of Ohio’s Fort Elbow campus is arrested on a drunk-driving charge, the winds of ambition set the hearts of administrative wannabees aflutter like so many soaring kites. The competition for the post is intense; even jaded philosophy prof Matthew Rogerson inadvertently becomes a candidate. Nor is it much of a surprise when Fort Elbow’s best and brightest begin to drop dead one by one. This is the final volume of a trilogy featuring Rogerson. McInerny is best known for his Father Dowling mysteries, but for my money, these acerbically witty sketches of the academic landscape are much more fun.

The Best of the Missouri Review Fiction, 1978—1990, edited by Speer Morgan, Greg Michaelson, and Jo Sapp. Missouri $32.50 cloth, $15.95 paper

This collection of 25 stories will undoubtedly offer a little something to just about any fan of the short story. Those who enjoy rooting for the underdog will be pleased to discover that science fiction is not completely disenfranchised when it comes to serious literary magazines. The same may be said for less conventional stories, a number of whose “experimentalism” gives this collection its free-wheeling feel. The perennial champs show up—

Banks, Carver, Shacochis, to name a few— and though their stories are excellent, they also serve as companion pieces to a large number of other stories, tales by younger, lesser-known authors, which proves, over and again, that the smaller quarterlies and reviews are the truly excellent and exciting venues for today’s short fiction.

A Home at the End of the World, by Michael Cunningham. Farrar, Straus & Giroux $18.95

Narrated from the alternating points of view of its four main characters, this novel redefines such traditional concepts as love, sex, and, most importantly, family. Cunningham focuses on the necessity for compromise between the old and the new, making room amidst the social and cultural chaos of the 8O’s for those not-yet-dead domestic values of the 5O’s. Displaying a remarkable gay sensibility, Cunningham follows his characters as they navigate a changed American landscape in their search for a new set of roots. This novel, Cunningham’s first, is an uncommon achievement.

Death Among the Angels, by John Walter Putre. Scribner’s $18.95

When the sister of an ex-lover enlists him in the fight to get his former sweetie out of jail, Doll is of two minds. Or rather he’s out of his mind. Diana doesn’t want his help, nor do her friends or the county sheriff. But Doll, gosh darn it, just can’t let it alone. It eats at him, a-a-and he just couldn’t live with himself if he sat by and saw that darlin’ girl go to prison. Besides, Florida provides such scope for his talents. Though so mild-mannered he is jerked around by anything in a skirt, Doll squashes bad guys like bugs, speaks Spanish like a Latino, and doesn’t take no for an answer. Yet despite the big red S emblazoned on his chest, Doll is tiresome. And that makes the book very tedious indeed.

The Murderer Next Door, by Rafael Yglesias. Crown $19.95

In this read-it-in-a-sitting thriller, Rafael Yglesias turns the conventional “damsel in distress” story upside-down. Molly’s best friend Wendy is murdered, presumably by her repellant husband Ben, but instead of being cast automatically as the next victim, Molly becomes the stalker, pursuing Ben with false sympathy and friendship. For Molly desperately wants to secure custody of Wendy’s seven-year-old daughter Naomi, so she takes on the roles of mother—chaperoning a birthday party, supervising homework, reading bedtime stories—and, more dangerously, of wife, cooking the meals, sharing intimate late-night conversations and more. When, remembering the conventions of the genre, we wonder about Ben’s motives for the murder, Yglesias abruptly refocuses our attention on Molly’s disturbing behavior, especially through her disintegrating narrative skills. The trouble we encounter in following Molly’s thinking mirrors her own failure to control herself through the act of narration. True, this authorial collapse does obscure more than it illuminates the end of the novel. Moreover, the novel too simplistically lays Molly’s peculiarities at the door of Reaganomics and the egocentric yuppie culture (whenever he wants us to see Molly at her worst, the author sends her to her weight room to focus on her body). Nevertheless, Yglesias has produced an entertaining and absorbing challenge to the confectionery of his peers.

This Blessed Plot, by M. R. D. Meek. Scribner’s $17.95

Lennox Kemp is an English lawyer with a dicey past who’s gone respectable and would like to remain so. Yet when he falls into the seductive embrace of the rich and enticing Courtenay twins, he realizes their plans for Courtenay Manor are not on the up-and-up. Moreover, the rest of his practice—including the case of a missing immigrant worker—suffers from neglect, as do his friends of more modest means. Kemp manages to free himself from the bewitching Venetia Courtenay, but only with the greatest difficulty. Once he does, the solution of the mystery is not far behind. Though readers of Ruth Rendell will be on familiar ground, Meeks has a lighter and more amusing touch. Crisp writing and a complex and satisfying plot make this a good evening’s entertainment.

Subtraction, by Mary Robison. Knopf $19.95

Mary Robison, author of three highly regarded and highly praised collections of stories and one novel, Oh! (1981), may or may not be the muses’ darling, but has been, for sure, a greatly admired member-in-good-standing of the contemporary literary establishment. Acetylene bright, hip as any talk show host, greatly gifted, and flaky enough in her writing to be a role model for newer talents like Amy Hempel and Lorrie Moore, she has written some of the finest stories of our time, stories which will stand the test of time. Robison, like Paige Deveaux, splits her time between teaching jobs at Harvard and Houston. Most of this story, the center of it, takes place in Houston where Paige’s husband, Raf, an alcoholic, has washed up after his latest disappearing act. (The sense of place, the evocation of Houston, in detail and in general, is simply superb.) As Paige tries to put their life together again, they become involved with a crew of eccentric characters, chiefly two—Raf s buddy, Raymond, an urban cowhand and former Princetonian, and Pru, a wonderfully acrobatic exotic dancer. Mostly their story is played out in a variety of high- and low-class honky-tonks, where, as Raf (a sharp-tongued fellow) puts it: “Assorted wretchednesses ensue.” The story is overwhelmingly told in dialogue, clever talk if no match for Noel Coward or, for that matter, George Higgins. Many a zinger flies like an arrow in humid Houston air or chilled out air-conditioning. The wrap-up, a sort of happy ending, reconciliation, anyway, takes place against a major snowstorm in New England. At many places it’s very funny writing; at others not funny enough. Maybe you had to be there. Allowing for everything, however, it’s good to have a new book from Mary Robison, written in what her fan Frederick Barthelme defines as “the peculiar squinted view she has.”

NATIONAL & INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRSThe Culture of the Cold War, by Stephen J. Whitfield. Johns Hopkins $35

They say God protects children, fools, and the United States of America. But who protects Americans? During the Cold War era, no one. We went at each other with all the ferocity of the witch hunters of yore, with this difference: we destroyed each other psychologically rather than in the flames. It really was an awful time, and in this splendid book Professor Stephen Whitfield of Brandeis University shows us just how dearly we have paid for that protracted orgy.

The New Russians, by Hedrick Smith. Random House $24.95

Hedrick Smith is the John Gunther of this generation. Like the “Inside . . .” books of an earlier year, The Russians and now The New Russians is a spirited travelogue with an overlay of political chronology. Mr. Smith likes the Russians, has talked to hundreds of them, and his earnest desire to inform is highly commendable. Only cranky specialists would complain about the numerous petty errors and omissions. This book is what Americans like best: an easily digestible commodity handsomely packaged.

Café con leche: Race, Class and National Image in Venezuela, by Winthrop R. Wright. Texas $25

The melting pot is so hot in Venezuela that people there believe in racial democracy. Class and culture, not race, discriminate. As in many other parts of Latin America, whites, Indians, and blacks have intermingled over the centuries to produce a nation of mixed bloods. There’s milk in the coffee. So today Simón Bolívar’s white descendants no longer need to share his fear of pardocracia, black rule, which he voiced time and again shortly after independence early in the 19th century. For whites have “set the norms for cultural advancement.” They’ve painted the inside of the pot white. Most Venezuelans clearly understand what blacks know with particular poignancy: Venezuelans, as Winthrop Wright perceptively concludes, “want only a little café with their leche.” The melting pot is hegemonic.

The New Soviet Man and Woman: Sex-Role Socialization in the USSR, by Lynne Attwood. Indiana $39.95 cloth, $14.95 paper

Twenty years ago an historian was ready for the garbage heap if he or she did not subscribe to “cliometrics.” Then it was “psychohistory.” Now it is gender studies, and woe to anyone who does not crush the lame and the halt in the scramble to climb aboard. Professor Attwood gives a straightforward account of the fate of this new discipline in the Soviet Union and summarizes its findings. There is a great deal of learning on display here, and it may be that gender studies is shifting onto a sounder, more intellectually respectable track in works such as this.

Cuba and the United States: Ties of Singular Intimacy, by Louis A. Pérez, Jr. Georgia $30 cloth, $15 paper

“Did we push him?” We’ve been asking that question for all these 30 years. “Or did he run?” Both. In this masterful treatment of the relationship between the United States and Cuba during the past 200 years, Louis Pérez, Jr. clearly shows that the “ties of singular intimacy” propelled our rejection and isolation of Fidel Castro just as they quickened his stride into the Soviet camp. But history does not end there. Fidel Castro’s wish to free his country from the past wrenched social and economic life on the island even more profoundly than it had been before, if only because the historical ties of yesterday were so singularly intimate that most everything in Cuba had to be started anew. And the future? We can only agree with Professor Pérez that the past “dictates a resumption of relations, on terms satisfactory to both the United States and Cuba.” Rather than some form of renewed intimacy, what we both need is reciprocal respect.

Developments in Soviet Politics, edited by Stephen White, Alex Pravda, and Zvi Gitelman. Duke $19.95 paper

The rapid pace of developments in Eastern Europe, the USSR, the Middle East, and other areas of the globe has made CNN the only viable textbook on politics. What was true about Russia this morning may be wildly off base this evening, and it is risky to commit much of anything to paper. Nevertheless this new book from a handful of first-rate observers has much to offer, in no small measure because the authors eschew dramatic prophesy. It may not have many answers, but it poses some highly provocative questions

The Dark Side of Europe, The Extreme Right Today, by Geoffrey Harris. Barnes & Noble $43.50

The dark side of Europe is the continuing presence of racism and fascism, especially in the forms of discrimination, hostility to immigration, and terrorism. Harris wants his readers to know that these evils “did not die with Hitler and Mussolini.” The author, a senior advisor to the Socialist president of the European Parliament, was inspired to write this book by the election of Jean-Marie Le Pen and other extreme rightists to that prolix body in Strasbourg in 1984, and their creation of the parliamentary Group of the European Right. In response, leftists there conducted a year-long inquiry to expose the “real nature” of these rightists. Harris draws heavily on the inquiry’s findings and concludes that the magnitude of the racist/fascist problem means that European society is “sick.” In the author’s opinion, the best, if not the only, cure for this dark illness is a strong dose of Socialist policies.

Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory, by Lawrence L. Langer. Yale $25

This engrossing new book is a thorough study of Yale’s collection of Holocaust testimonies. Langer argues against the prevailing attempt to impose a narrative of redemption or moral triumph onto the bleak reality of the Holocaust. For Langer, the gaps in memory, the self-interruptions and self-interrogations, and the continuing struggle with guilt suggest that Holocaust victims do not consider themselves to be tokens of humanistic courage and survival but rather the ravaged, tormented, and ruined witnesses of irredeemable loss. Langer makes convincing distinctions between oral and written accounts of the Holocaust. One of the best books ever written on this harrowing subject.

Tweaking the Nose of the Russians: Fifty Years of American-Romanian Relations, 1940—1990, by Joseph H. Harrington and Bruce J. Courtney. Columbia $37.50

As a guide to developments down to about 1964, this book is on the thin side. As a blow-by-blow account of Bucharest’s split from Moscow, Ceauşescu’s cynical trafficking with the equally cynical Nixon and the absurdly naïve Carter, and the politicking on human rights on Capitol Hill, it does a much better job. No Tito, Ceauşescu had to build his reputation the hard way, by inventing it, and the Americans had to show their sophistication by believing what he said. It is a dismal story, but it had to be told, and Messrs. Harrington and Courtney tell it well.

Modernity and Ambivalence, by Zygmunt Bauman. Cornell $43.50

This volume continues the profound and original exploration of the historical significance of modernity previously undertaken by the author (a very scholarly and productive social theorist of Polish origin, long active in England) in Legislators and Interpreters: On Modernity, Post-Modernity, and Intellectuals and in Modernity and the Holocaust. The present volume has a two-fold focus: a conceptual one, constituted b

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