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Notes on Current Books, Summer 1992

ISSUE:  Summer 1992

The words “master historian” recur in almost every reference to Professor Emeritus John Norton Blum of Yale University. His books on Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson are classic works. Years of Discord carries readers half or three-quarters of the way toward understanding the 1960’s, the “amazing Sixties.” We revisit the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the opening to China, Kennedy’s death, Johnson’s retirement, and the fall of Nixon. Blum reminds us of the election outcomes, that Johnson was not Kennedy, of Nixon’s ambiguous strategies, and the decline of national power. Yet Professor Blum’s promise of a work of synthesis and interpretation is but half-realized. Resolved to hold fast to the tenets of good history, including the retelling of the story and rehearsal of the facts, he leaves unanswered why questions such as the counterculture movement suddenly appeared and as suddenly disappeared. Or why American foreign policy took a turn in history from confrontation to negotiation. Blum leaves the task of in-depth interpretation to others.

A Spirited Resistance: The North American Indian Struggle for Unity, 1745—1815, by Gregory Evans Dowd. Johns Hopkins $24.95

With considerable narrative grace, Dowd challenges current notions that Indian failures to unite against Anglo-American aggression stemmed from intertribal animosities. In his view the pan-Indian movement was a “religiously charged struggle” to renew the sacred sources of power that were rooted in an Indian “Great Awakening” during the 1760’s. The revival was based on nativist thinking that Indian loss of power came from contact with whites and that a recommitment to ritual along with isolation from whites would heal the Indian world. Those who believed that to safeguard their lands and culture they must accommodate themselves to Anglo-American norms were opposed. Dowd traces the split between nativists and accommodationists from the 1760’s through the defeat of Tecumseh and the pan-Indian movement in the War of 1812, showing the ultimate failure of both strategies.

The News under Russia’s Old Regime, by Louise McReynolds. Princeton $45

From country to country, the press’s role varies as much or more than the weather, with a profound impact on society and politics. In old Russia, as Professor McReynolds demonstrates in this splendid study, newspapers were sometimes short on facts but never of ideas, and as the educated public grew accustomed to them they slowly began to articulate the problems of a society in profound crisis. Taking her story from the post- Crimean War period to 1917, the author takes us on a fascinating journey through an era as brilliant as it was doomed.

The Establishment of Communist Rule in Poland, 1943—1948, by Krystyna Kersten. California $49.95

This book has been available to those who read Polish since 1984, and it is in recognition of its instantly achieved status as a classic that the American scholars John Micgiel, Michael H. Bernhard, and Jan T. Gross bring it out now in this splendid translation. Suffice it to say that Adam Mickiewicz’s famous description of Poland as the “Christ among nations” seems a bit less preposterous in the light of the tragic story that Krystyna Kersten tells so elegantly in this book. It is one of the best books on Polish history ever published.

The Framers and Fundamental Rights, edited by Robert A. Licht. AEI Press $19.95

Seven distinguished lawyers and political scientists—Benjamin Barber, Judith Best, Robert Goldwin, Lino Graglia, Thomas Pangle, Mark Tushnet, and Michael Zuckert—consider the relationship between rights and constitutional government in this volume, the first in the American Enterprise Institute’s new series on “the rights explosion.” All the contributors are critical of modern rights talk and rights politics. Most profess much higher regard for the world in which the Framers lived—a world in which rights were linked to responsibilities of citizenship, courts kept a low profile, and other institutions (the extended republic, the separation of powers, the federal system, and the capitalist market) provided the key lines of defense for what James Madison called “the great rights of mankind.” Yet only Zuckert, author of “Thomas Jefferson on Nature and Natural Rights,” takes the world of the Framers on its own terms. The Framers and Fundamental Rights is an excellent introduction to the campaign against “the rights explosion” from the right. (The campaign from the left involves a different meta-history and a different vision of democratic society.) But people looking for good accounts of fundamental rights in 18th-century American thought should begin with the standard histories.

Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War, by Robert K. Massie. Random House $35

An old-fashioned kind of blockbuster— don’t drop it on your foot—in the most literal sense, this tale of the estrangement between Britain and Germany is unfailingly entertaining and for the nonspecialist informative. Not bound by the canons of academia, Massie (Nicholas and Alexandra) brings a verve and flair to history that disappeared in the colleges and universities in the 1960’s. His research is meticulous if not exhaustive, his judgments balanced. On the whole this is Massie’s best book.

Le Corbusier and the Mystique of the USSR: Theories and Projects for Moscow, 1928—1936, by Jean-Louis Cohen. Princeton $49.50

As we watch American hustlers and assorted Eurotrash rushing to the states of the former USSR bent on making a quick financial killing, we might do well to recall that in its youth the Soviet regime attracted a different sort of adventurer. Le Corbusier, the most important of the great architects who offered their services in the physical rebuilding of Moscow and other cities, drew up an astonishing number of high-quality projects, none of which the increasingly conservative regime accepted. This book constitutes a splendid review of some of what might have been.

Gentry and Common Folk: Political Culture on a Virginia Frontier, 1740—1789, by Albert H. Tillson, Jr. Kentucky $30

In this work Tillson examines the upper Shenandoah Valley region of Virginia with a view toward determining the relationships between the gentry’s elitist culture and the “more democratic values of the populace.” He concludes that the colonial elite “re-created much of the political culture of eastern Virginia” but that they failed to “fully impose their deferential values on the rest of the population,” and, ultimately, a “more republican political ethos” was created in the upper valley. This is, generally, a good history of upper valley society and the political attitudes and practices of the gentry and common folk but, as is usually the case, there is a great deal more information available on the gentry and, consequently, an over emphasis on that group. Chapter eight, “John Stuart’s History of the Greenbrier Valley,” appears as something of an intrusion. Here, Tillson summarizes Stuart’s history, written before 1823 and published in 1833, presents the reader with a critique of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s structuralism, and proceeds to do a “structuralist” analysis of Stuart’s history. While of some minor interest, this chapter would more appropriately have appeared as a separate published article.

The World Almanac of the American Revolution, edited by L. Edward Purcell and David F. Burg. World Almanac $18.95

This is a handy reference work whose principal feature is a detailed chronology of the Revolutionary War events. It also includes short biographies of some major figures, topical pieces on the militia, the Continental Congress, prisoners of war, and others, and a glossary of 18th-century war terms. Well-written and concise, this volume will be useful for those with more than a general interest in the American Revolution.

The First New South 1865—1920, by Howard N. Rabinowitz. Harlan Davidson $9.95 paper

In this recent addition to The American History Series, edited by John Hope Franklin and Abraham S. Eisenstadt, Rabinowitz deals in a laudably systematic manner with the economy, the politics, and then the social and cultural aspects of the states of the old Confederacy as they lurched along toward, and into, the 20th century. In the process he assays critical evaluations of the interpretations of such established historians of the South as Woodward, Link, Ransom, and Tindell. He posits a triune cornerstone of the Old South’s economy, polity, and society as being a conservative religion, white supremacy, and an agrarian way of life. A specially valuable feature of the book is the author’s critical bibliographical essay at the end.

Women of the Renaissance, by Margaret L. King. Chicago $45 cloth, $16.95 paper

In her portrait of European women during the period from 1350 to 1650, Margaret King responds to the question first posed by Joan Kelly a decade ago: “did women have a Renaissance”? King investigates women of all classes in three different yet related settings—the family, the Church, and in High Culture. Her analysis is penetrating, her language elegant, her findings enlightening regarding the multiple limitations upon female creativity, freedom of action and thought. Yet, despite all, some women were able to triumph in a male-dominated Renaissance which sought to rein in women’s spirit, women’s souls.

The Stalin Phenomenon, by Giuseppe Boffa. Cornell $11.95 paper

Even in the depths of the Gulag, many people wept when they learned of his death. Stalin stands as the greatest mass murderer in history, yet millions went to their doom in the Second World War with his name on their lips, and even today a substantial part of the former Soviet public longs for a return to his kind of rule. Evaluating Stalin’s place in history thus remains an urgent task for historians, and the former Communist Italian Senator Giuseppe Boffa provides one of the better efforts in this fine little book, first published in Italy a decade ago.

Soldiering in the Army of Tennessee: A Portrait of Life in a Confederate Army, by Larry Daniel. North Carolina $22.50

For years, the books of Bell Wiley were the only detailed studies of soldier life in the American Civil War. In recent years, in part because of the increasing availability of manuscript sources relating to enlisted men, professional historians such as James I. Robertson, Joseph Glatthaar, Earl Hess, Randall Jimerson, Reid Mitchell, and several others, have studied the lives and attitudes of Civil War soldiers. Few have scoured as many manuscript sources as Larry J. Daniel, a Memphis minister and experienced amateur historian. His research is impressive, although the sheer volume of it seems to have made it difficult for Daniel to digest and interpret his evidence adequately. Many readers will wish Daniel had written a longer book (Soldiering has only 168 pages of text) and one with more fully developed and argued opinions. This is, however, a fascinating and informative book, virtually the only work to discuss the lives of Confederates in the main Western army. Daniel does offer several intriguing and eye-opening conclusions, especially about supply and morale, and he has provided a healthy corrective to the “Virginia-centrism” common to Civil War historians.

LITERARY STUDIES A Poetics, by Charles Bernstein. Harvard $34.95 cloth, $15.95 paper

Since the 1970’s, Charles Bernstein has been a number of things: prolific autodidact, critical gadfly, and fascinatingly uncompromising poet. Associated with the most innovative insurrection in recent American poetry (called “language poetry”), he has been both a pivotal defender of language’s socially ambivalent powers and a fierce opponent of the supposedly “transparent” poetry of experience. This collection of prose pieces from the last ten years shows Bernstein at his most annoying, most tender, and most exhilarating.

In A Poetics, Bernstein wears a number of hats and speaks in a variety of voices. All this is central to his main claim: that there is no such thing as one model of poetry nor really any such thing as poetry in and of itself. For Bernstein there are a number of poetries, interventions, and experiments, all of which occupy distinct social places and serve equally distinct social purposes. Accordingly, in the longest performance in the book which was originally presented to a group of language writers, he expounds a descriptive poetics in which the most abstract discussion is riven with finely tuned line breaks. More than just a virtuoso bit of play, this essay attempts to balance the claims of formal difficulty and political efficacy. No easy task that (and one that would be aided by paying greater attention to Adorno), but Bernstein does a stimulating job. Similarly, to other audiences, he is able to write bracingly about Pound’s fascism (which he situates in some terrifying contexts) and Stein’s explorations of linguistic surface. Add to that a brilliantly tough-minded piece about video games and you can get a sense of this man’s range.

In the end, A Poetics is more coherent than its form implies. It also provides exemplary models of reading the modernist poetry that so often goes ignored because it eludes traditional definitions. Bernstein wants to heal the breach between Anglo-American poetry and philosophical criticism that has ham-strung both since Matthew Arnold. He does a glorious job.

Ezra Pound and the Monument of Culture: Text, History, and the Malatesta Cantos, by Lawrence S. Rainey. Chicago $27.50

Narrowly focusing his attention on Pound’s writing between 1922 and 1925, Rainey offers a microscopic inspection of the Malatesta Cantos in the context of manuscript and historical documentation. He argues that these Cantos are the turning point in Pound’s career and in the history of modernism. From his scrupulous examination of these works as a cultural matrix, Rainey makes grand claims about 20th-century literature, criticism, and politics, uneasily situating this book between imperious declaration and miniscule detail.

The Writing Trade, by John Jerome. Viking $21

This book on the writing trade, by a writer who has worked diligently for the past 35 years, documents one year in the life of a serious writer who cares about form and substance, but whose name, like that of many good writers, is not widely known. In this journal he makes clear that writing is rewriting, rethinking, reorganizing, often discarding and starting all over. It is trying to make each day the perfect writing day, battling reality and time stolen by chores and interruptions; it is the enthusiasm for an idea that soon fizzles, waiting for a response to a book proposal, for a contract to arrive in the mail, for an advance payment or royalty check, and for the first review of a newly published book. Jerome, a magazine columnist and former editor, has published six books. He and his writing wife enjoy living in the foothills of the Berkshires, but barely manage to make it to the end of the year with a minimum bank balance. While the autobiographical bits and reflections on life and nature may not interest some readers, his is the only book I know that gives a realistic account of the grinding work of each day in a writer’s life. It will comfort professional writers who need a kindred soul. Above all, it should be required reading for ALL creative writing students.

Lord Byron: The Complete Poetical Works, Vol. VI, edited by Jerome J. McGann and Barry Weller. Oxford $130

With this volume, one of the most important scholarly projects of our time continues, the attempt to present accurate texts of all Byron’s poetry. Though Jerome McGann remains as general editor of the project and is responsible for the poems in this volume, his colleague Barry Weller is in charge of Byron’s plays in the series and thus did the bulk of the editing for Volume VI. Besides the important satire, The Vision of Judgment, the volume is largely devoted to plays and indeed contains almost all of Byron’s dramatic output: Sardanapalus, The Two Foscari, Cain, Heaven and Earth, Werner, and The Deformed Transformed (Manfred and Marino Faliero appear in earlier volumes). These works are among Byron’s most fascinating and least understood, and one hopes that these newly edited versions, complete with elaborate critical apparatus, will stimulate new scholarly interest in this aspect of Byron’s achievement as a poet. Weller has supplied a useful appendix on the stage history of all Byron’s plays, which turns out to be surprisingly full. Based on their careful study of Byron’s attitude toward his texts, McGann and Weller conclude that at this stage of his career, he was paying far less attention to how his poetry was being published. Thus given their undogmatic principles of editing, for the works in this volume, they tend to rely more than they did in earlier ones on manuscript readings in determining the text.

Vanishing Points: Dickens, Narrative, and the Subject of Omniscience, by Audrey Jaffe. California $32.50

Jaffe has noticed that omniscience is a structural characteristic of Victorian novels that has traditionally not been assigned a social, historical, or cultural meaning. Earlier critics have reacted to the omniscient voice as “intrusive,” while for modernist and postmodernist critics, “that voice hardly exists at all.” Jaffe wants to compare the omniscient narrator’s voice with the voice of other characters as a cultural and historical construct. “This study,” she writes, “links what I refer to as Dickens’ fantasy of omniscience with an articulation of the narrative strategies employed in his novels and sketches to produce an effect of omniscience.” For Dickens, narration was a business as well as an art, and Jaffe is able to develop interesting readings of The Old Curiousity Shop, Dombey and Son, David Copperfield, Bleak House, and Our Mutual Friend, showing how Dickens’ narrative technique developed in conjunction with, not apart from or over, Victorian society. Perhaps relying too much on the jargon of Roland Barthes, Jaffe has nevertheless created a series of essays useful both as narrative theory and practical criticism.

Gaiety Transfigured, by David Bergman. Wisconsin $24.95

Subtitled “Gay Self-Representations in American Literature,” this book has wider aims. In this study of the identities American gay men have made for themselves, Whitman, Melville, and Matthiessen share space with the noncanonical and non-literary. Bergman’s recovery of Francis Grierson is fascinating, and his chapters on the intersection of gay and black identity for Baldwin, and on the rhetoric of Larry Kramer’s campaign against AIDS, are acute. His eclecticism and pragmatic use of literary theory may bother some, but these are strengths in a book that conveys the lived and living importance for gay people of imagining a self.

More Joy than Rage: Crossing Generations with the New Feminism, by Caryl Rivers. New England $22.95

Caryl Rivers, a journalist, book author, and professor of journalism at Boston University, has made it her task for the past 20 years to chronicle the feminist movements as well as to contribute to feminist issues through fiction and nonfiction writings. In this collection, many of her best essays are presented with the intention to reach a generation of young women today who are not always informed about the struggles of the previous generation of women and who take many of the present “women’s rights” simply for granted. Her essays also serve as a double reminder that there is still a long way to go in “women’s lib” and that many of the won battles are in danger of getting reversed (e.g., the ongoing abortion issue). Rivers’ style is intentionally journalistic— very lively and engaging, full of fine humor and irony—but never losing hope even in almost desperate situations. This is really the beauty of the book: it is full of hope and positively inspiring.

Dwelling in the Text: Houses in American Fiction, by Marilyn R, Chandler. California $29.95

“What is a house?” asked Thoreau. In this engaging study, Chandler begins to answer that question, illuminating the role houses have played not only in our fiction but in our broader culture as well. Beginning with Walden (not fiction, certainly, but important for its “allegorization of the house”), Chandler takes an historical approach in her consideration of houses in the works of such standard authors as Poe, Hawthorne, James, Chopin, Warton, Cather, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner. She also devotes her concluding chapters to post-war suburban fiction, Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. The chronological range is impressive. Even more so are Chandler’s readable prose, critical acumen, and humane sympathies. The tortured syntax and pseudo-profundities of critspeak are given no chance to set up housekeeping here.

Sexual Dissidence, by Jonathan Dollimore. Oxford $35

Dollimore’s study of psychoanalytic, historical, and literary formulations of same-sex desire is ambitious, stimulating, and sometimes exasperating. He opens with Gide and Wilde and closes with Genet and Fanon. In between (and in no particular order) he discusses Augustine’s problematic view of sexual desire, reconsiders Freud’s etiology of homosexuality, and examines Othello, Rubyfruit Jungle, and Sontag’s “Notes on Camp.” The vigorous heterogeneity results in a book as brave as it is uneven. But its greatest strength is the vigor and irreverence with which it details the degree to which same-sex desire is perpetually at the center of cultures that strenuously attempt to push it to the margins.

A History of Russian Literature, by Victor Terras. Yale $45

More than a few observers have called attention to the production in one of the world’s most repressive societies of a literature that has no serious rival in the period roughly 1850—1914. These years constituted both “golden” and “silver” years for Russian writers, and they are at the center of this excellent general history. Victor Terras, who taught at Brown for many years, brings an encyclopedic knowledge and an artist’s sensitivity to bear in this most useful study.

Rimbaud in Abyssinia, by Alain Borer. Morrow $20

When Arthur Rimbaud dropped out of sight in Africa, or rather heading in that direction, in 1881, most of literary France, not to mention his family, concluded that he had decided to emulate Paul Gaugin and go native somewhere. That was not the case. As Alain Borer proves in this engaging literary thriller, the poet went to Ethiopia to make money. Did that involve the slave trade? That and other questions keep the reader engaged in what the publishers rightly call one of modern literature’s greatest mysteries.

Malraux, The Absolute Agnostic; or, Metamorphosis as Universal Law, by Claude Tannery. Chicago $37.50

Only the French could have produced André Malraux, because only in France have ideas had any meaning, not to mention respectability, since 1914. Generations of American undergraduates who have pondered Man’s Fate, Man’s Hope, The Royal Way, and The Metamorphosis of the Gods will find in this new study— superbly translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan—some new readings of those classics, plus a revealing discussion of The Walnut Trees of Altenberg, a rather neglected masterpiece. This is a brilliant essay in intellectual history.

The Collected Works of W. B. Yeats, Volume XII: John Sherman and Dhoya, edited by Richard J. Finneran. Macmillan $30

The latest installment in the 14-volume series of Yeats’ complete works, this short book couples two works of fiction published in 1891. Because Yeats was a visionary poet who often derided literary realism, his one attempt at realist fiction, John Sherman, is a fascinating failure. His brief mythological tale, Dhoya, exemplifies the kind of narrative that Yeats excelled in—a romantic tale that mingles love and loss, the human and the immortal. A useful addition to any research library.

LIVES & LETTERS Shakespeare: The Later Years, by Russell Fraser. Columbia $27.95

Lively is too bland a word for the provocation and the energy and, finally, the subtle refinement of Russell Fraser’s narrative art. Paradox? He contains contradictions. Alive-and-kicking is more like it, and this new book, finishing off the remarkable biographical narrative begun with Young Shakespeare, is a stunning piece of work, sentence by singing-and-dancing sentence, as he follows the mature Shakespeare, in his world and at his vocation, from London in 1594 up to the end in Stratford in 1616. The times and society are accurately, resonantly evoked; and the life is given careful weight in its impact on the art—”But the personal life, though he buries it deep, participates in his art, an energizing presence.” As engaging to read as any novel, solid yet adventurously innovative in its scholarship and critical acumen, original in its bold blending of the imaginative and the factual, Shakespeare: The Later Years is a triumphant achievement, a major contribution to the appreciation of our greatest poet.

Henry Adams Selected Letters, edited by Ernest Samuels. Harvard $29.95

By selecting 240 of Henry Adams’ letters out of nearly 3000, Samuels has extracted the essence of the six-volume edition, of which he was co-editor. The result is a readable, fascinating portrait of Adams, scholar and privileged member of a remarkable family, an astute observer who knew everyone, went everywhere, and obsessively recorded all. He and his wife, Marian “Clover” Hooper were central figures in Washington society, while Adams remained on the fringes of its political center. The letters to a cross-section of Adams’ correspondents are elegantly written, with the self-conscious, detached ironic wit that masked his feelings but failed to conceal his ego and arrogance. After Clover’s death by suicide, Adams traveled and wrote. He had a romantic relationship with the beautiful but married Elizabeth Cameron, 20 years his junior, who kept him dancing round her at a distance but never far enough to discourage him, a chaste romance that doubtless suited them both. Without compromising scholarly standards, Samuels has produced a one-volume edition of the letters as successfully as he compressed into one his two-volume prize-winning biography of Adams.

Invented Truth: Soviet Reality and the Literary Imagination of lurli Trifonov, by Josephine Woll. Duke $27.50

Yuri (to use a more common spelling) Trifonov, who died in 1981, was one of the heroes of modern Russia. Not just of Russian literature but of Russia itself. At a time when so many writers stifled or prostituted their talent, he found a way to tell the truth about the society in which he lived. Shunning the limelight, content to let his works speak for themselves, he saw himself as the chronicler of the evil that was Stalinism. Josephine Woll of Howard University does a superb job of bringing this inspiring life to the attention of what one hopes will be a large audience.

G. H. Lewes: A Life, by Rosemary Ashton. Oxford $45

Who was G. H. Lewes? Certainly not an eminent Victorian, but a Victorian nevertheless. Author of an enduring Life of Goethe, he was scholar, journalist, and a rebel against official Victorian morality. He lived in an open marriage that would probably raise a few eyebrows even today. His unconventional life cost him heavily, but he gladly paid the price, noting that no one could set the value of freedom. Rosemary Ashton has written a lively biography of a minor but fascinating figure.

The World is My Home: A Memoir, by James Michener. Random House $19.95

James Michener is a paradox. An unreconstructed liberal who sells millions of books to conservative Americans. A novelist whose ruminations on how to write a novel were universally condemned by critics. A writer whose talent for the short story was recognized by both the Pulitzer Prize Committee and Oscar Hammerstein, but who has made his fortune with turgid blockbusters. A conventional novelist who has written a most unconventional autobiography—organized around themes not chronology—itself a curious mixture of self-deprecation and heavy-handed self-promotion. The book is long on anecdote and short on wit; but Mr. Michener undoubtedly understands his audience better than most of his critics, and I have no doubt that this book will sell well.

Joseph E. Johnston: A Civil War Biography, by Craig L. Symonds. Norton $24.95

This is by far the best and most scholary biography ever written about one of the greatest military talents in the Confederacy. It is amply illustrated with maps and painstakingly carries the reader through the major campaigns in which Johnston was involved. His analysis of Johnston as a military man and of his post-bellum life is judicious and credible. However the inclusion of small errors makes one question the quality of the editorial work which went into this volume; for example, the Virginian, Philip St. George Cocke, is mentioned with three variants of his last name: beside the correct spelling, Cooke and Cock are given equal authority, and in the index it is presented as Cooke. Poor workmanship like this is bound to affect the overall quality of the work, casting a questionable shadow upon the whole. Yet the biography is interesting and important.

Anna Freud: The Dream of Psychoanalysis, by Robert Coles. Addison Wesley $19.95

Although this volume is presented as a biography in the Radcliffe Biography Series, it is not a conventional biography. Rather it is a series of remembrances, observations, and impressions of Anna Freud, her life and her work—an account of what Anna Freud’s work and character have meant to Dr. Coles. It is a eulogy which thus meanders into Coles’ own autobiography in which Anna Freud figures prominently. As such, it is a reminder that Dr. Coles’ thoughtful, sympathetic books are largely a sprawling, unedited autobiography. Readers who want an introduction to Anna Freud’s work should turn directly to the appendix where Dr. Coles’ essay of 1966, “The Achievement of Anna Freud,” is reprinted.

Unto the Sons, by Gay Talese. Knopf $25

Talese’s latest, and by far his finest work so far, is a huge, generational family history of the Taleses and their kinfolk, which was just about everybody in the ancient mountain village of Maida in far southern Italy. Beginning with the days of World War II in Ocean City, New Jersey (where Gay was born in 1932) and with Gay’s father, Joseph, an immigrant tailor, the story is, for a while, a first-person account of Gay’s youth, but soon turns away to the past, recounting, in a richly digressive narrative (though one and all of the digressions pay off before we are done with this large story) the personal stories in detail of his grandfather, Gaetano, his great-grandfather, Domenico, and his father’s cousin, Antonio, a tailor like Joseph Talese, but one who found his fortune in Paris. History, from the days before it was recorded until the present, has impinged directly on the villagers of Maida and thus on the Talese family and kinfolk. Antonio, who was interviewed and furnished a diary for this book, fought at Verdun. Gay Talese’s oldest uncle was shell-shocked at Caporetto. His youngest uncle fought for Mussolini in Spain. The story of Joseph, the immigrant father would have been almost enough. The whole story is abundant—a kind of masterpiece.

Burnside, by William Marvel. North Carolina $29.95

For almost 140 years, Ambrose E. has been a symbol of military incompetence. An important Union general throughout the American Civil War, Burnside has been best known for ordering disastrous frontal assaults at Fredericksburg and for alleged mishandling of the assault at the Crater during the siege of Petersburg. Historians, especially pro-Southern amateurs, have delighted in describing him as hopelessly, laughably stupid. Maintaining this image of Burnside will be difficult in the face of Marvel’s persuasive revisionist study of Burnside’s Civil War career. Although he is not an academic, Marvel is in complete command of an extensive array of primary sources, which he has mined exhaustively and interpreted soundly to establish Burnside as competent, though not brilliant., surprisingly charismatic, and flawed primarily by naive and generous judgments of subordinates and superiors. To a great extent, the destruction of his reputation can be traced to machinations of his former friend McClellan, whom he succeeded as commander of the Army of the Potomac, and of McClellan loyalists within that army; most of these conspirators suffered for their efforts to unseat Burnside, but their charges against him lived on. One wishes this were a complete biography, but it is hefty and thorough enough as it is. This is one of the few Civil War books of recent years to challenge effectively the conventional wisdom about the war and its leaders.

Appalachian Passage, by Helen B. Hiscoe. Georgia $29.95

Beginning in June 1949, Helen Hiscoe spent a year in Wyoming County, West Virginia, while her husband served as a company doctor for the Red Jacket Mining Company of Coal Mountain. For these transplanted Yankees, West Virginia was an alien and backward place—certainly not like their own Massachusetts and upstate New York. Hiscoe bases her account on a journal she kept at the time, and one is not surprised by the culture shock displayed by a young, middle-class wife and mother; but one is disappointed that the passing of 40 years has not given Hiscoe a more sympathetic and enlightened perspective on her experience. She has the outsider’s ability to see surface differences but no willingness to understand Appalachia and its people on their own terms. After a return visit to Coal Mountain in 1986, she notes approvingly that the cabins have been replaced by “neat mobile homes.” Some progress.

Not in Vain: A Rifleman Remembers World-War II, by Leon C. Standifer. Louisiana $24.95

This is a finely crafted story of one man’s exploration of the meaning of combat. Looking back at his own experience, Standifer carefully re-creates a place, a time, and a character—19-year-old Leon, an intelligent, introspective, and innocent Baptist boy from Clinton, Mississippi. His journey takes him from the familiar world of his home to France and Germany, where he serves with courage as a scout for K company, 94th Infantry Division. Standifer writes a deceptively simple prose, capable of recapturing the exhilaration and the grim realities of warfare. (The chapters describing the battle for Nennig are especially harrowing.) In a masterfully understated tone, Standifer gives us both the energy and strength of youth and the honest wisdom of age. While valuable simply for its detailed record of life on the front line, Not in Vain is ultimately no more bound by World War II than the Iliad is bound by the fall of Troy. Standifer has the rare ability to tell the truth, not just about himself, his company, his army, and his country, but about the human condition. He does so here with dignity, grace, and beauty. This is a major achievement.

FICTION Absent Love: A Chronicle, by Rosa Montero. Nebraska $25 cloth, $9.95 paper

Rosa Montero, named by Madrid’s powerful El Pais newspaper as one of the ten most influential women of the post-Franco “Transition” period, began her career as a journalist. In the late 1970’s she turned to fiction, although she continued to publish columns, interviews, and news features (she won the World Prize for Interviews in 1978 and the National Journalism Prize in 1980). Her first novel (1979), smoothly translated here, recounts with perfect pitch the life of Ana, a journalist locked in an uncomfortable love-hate relationship with her handsome, superficial boss. Not strong enough to break the male stranglehold on power, Ana hovers between freedom and frustration as she searches for authenticity, or at least, recognition. Angry, honest, and funny, the novel captures impressively the pulse of modern feminism in Spain, a fragmented “movement” whose members—all Spanish women—struggle to gain some balance between professional and personal identity. The translators, Cristina de la Torre and Diana Glad, provide a concise, useful introduction to Montero whose other novels include La funcion Delta [1981], Te tratare como a una reina [1983], Amado amo [1988], and Temblor [1990] and the literature of post-Franco Spain.

Homeplaces, edited by Mary Ellis Gibson. South Carolina $29.95

This collection of short stories by Southern women writers is somewhat mistitled, but that’s the only thing about it that’s off the track. The stories are less about homes and more about the people inside them. That’s all to the good, especially when the machinators involved are the considerably talented Mary Hood, Opal Moore, Elizabeth Spencer, Alice Walker, and Molly Best Tinsley. The editor gives us a good two or three stories from each of the eight writers here assembled, showcasing each as a cause to be celebrated.

Booked to die, by John Dunning. Scribner’s $19.95

You have to love the premise of this book. A Denver detective, sick of police work, quits his job and opens a bookstore. Is that great or what? Cliff Janeway is a book collector from way back, so what’s more natural than to begin selling his prize first editions when his job goes sour. More to the point, Janeway’s new bookstore is an island of peace compared to the crime traffic with which he formerly had to deal. That included the unsolved murder of a book scout, a guy who made his living picking up bargains at the Goodwill and peddling them to bookstores. Janeway pursues that mystery in the course of his own book searches, and it turns out to be a good story. But don’t be distracted from the real fun—all that lore about books and the book trade. It’s a bibliophile’s dream.

Life Force, by Fay Weldon. Viking $21

This screwy, fast-paced, dizzying, and very entertaining book centers upon the prodigious, priapian phallus of one Leslie Beck: ten inches—one-seventh his body’s height! Beck’s pecker is the “life force,” the May-pole, around which Marion, Nora, Rosalie, and Susan gyrate in a series of zany, often uproarious episodes that are part of the author’s delicious satire of contemporary mores. The characters are too caricatural to be utterly poignant in their frustrations and disappointments; but when all our laughter subsides, we are left with the aftertaste of futility.

Death of a Warrior Queen, by S. T. Haymon. St. Martin’s $17.95

The inevitable comparisons will be made between Haymon and P.D. James, and not without justice. Haymon invests her characters with depth and narrates her story with language that is powerful and subtle by turns. Benjamin Jurnet, the English detective digging into a seaside murder, investigates more than the case as he exposes the peculiarities of one small town. And in the course of this mystery Haymon demonstrates one thing that James lacks—a taste for the grotesque that gives its close the feel of a Foe short story.

Rising Sun, by Michael Crichton. Knopf$22

This is less a crime thriller than a political polemic. Crichton is excised about The Selling of America to the new Evil Empire, and has constructed a fast-paced story involving a beautiful party girl, a U.S. senator, two detectives, a bitter divorcee, and a barrage of relentless Japanese businessmen intent on taking over this country by economic muscle, unfair trade practices, widespread bribery, and ruthless competition. “Business is war” for the Japanese is a litany repeated over and over. Crichton has locked onto a hot topic, but he panders to the worst fears of America’s nervous middle class. “It’s the fucking Japs” is the first reference to the Japanese uttered in the novel, and similar statements crop up frequently as the death of the girl at the inauguration of the Nakamoto Tower in LA is investigated. The Japanese are portrayed as venal, violent, secretive, and xenophobic racists, who view Americans as slothful and stupid. Crichton delivers several minieconomic lessons and passionate tirades against Reaganomics’ paper profit policies of the 1980’s, policies which left America open to the feared foreign buyout. There is some clever stuff here dealing with video tapes, and it’s a scary read. But maybe for the wrong reasons.

The Sheriff of Nottingham, by Richard Kluger. Viking $23

The Sheriff of Nottingham (Philip Mark) was an actual historical figure, but there is no credible evidence that Robin Hood (the poacher of Sherwood Forrest) existed. With a bit of poetic license, a distinguished scholar turns the tables in this delightful novel so that the Sheriff emerges as the hero and Hood is the villain. Hollywood and TV will have a field day with this caper.

Sheep, Goats and Soap, by John Malcolm. Scribner’s $19.95

Banker Tim Simpson’s past purchases of fine art for the Art Investment Fund of White’s Bank provided readers with an intriguing blend of adventure and art history. This time Simpson is after a pre-Raphaelite painting, and the trail, laid by an old classmate, Derek Sedgwick, leads him to Sussex, the scene of several famous paintings. There he becomes embroiled in a police case involving Derek and three murders, Japanese moneymen, and his old friend Nobby Roberts of the art fraud division. Tim has matured since his last outing, marrying Sue, the Tate curator he lived with in the past; but he is still irritatingly smug, and his relationship with Nobby is positively nauseating. Still readers who like crime capers with some art history on the side will find this palatable.

Scar Lover, by Harry Crews. Poseidon $19

In this, his 17th book, Crews manages a series of improbable plot twists and turns and maneuvers a gaggle of characters in the manner of an expert juggler who keeps all balls smoothly in the air. He keeps them all going—and this is no small feat—until suddenly he changes direction. A shift occurs that has the reader flipping backward to see how it happened. Pete, escaping from family tragedy in South Georgia, finds a job in Jacksonville, Florida, unloading cellophane in a boxcar, and meets up with pretty neighbor Sarah and maddening neighbor Max, along with his comrade in the boxcar, a Rastafarian named George, commonly known as the “Burnt Nigger.” George’s back has been branded by the hot irons of his Obeah woman, Linga, who casts an evil shadow over everyone’s plans. Perhaps it is the evil of Linga that allows Crews to change Pete from a self-confessed “murderous cold heart” to a man aiming to take care of Sarah’s family and raise a baseball team with her. Fans of Crews will again applaud his masterful dark comedy, but the uninitiated, especially woman readers, will be stopped by lines like: “He kissed her. It was the only way, that or hit her.” Lines of dialogue, however, are perfect, and perhaps Pete’s cold heart serves us well in this rollicking comedic tale.

Short Stories of Jack London: Authorized One-Volume Edition, edited by Earle Labor, Robert C. Leitz, III, and I. Milo Shepard. Macmillan $35

This is a fine, single-volume, collection of roughly one quarter of London’s stories, competently introduced, and presented in an attractive format. The stories make fascinating bedside reading, ranging from five to 25 pages each, and surely show London’s genius in a light unknowable through his novels only. A great book for fanatics and cursory readers alike, this edition will set a standard for many years to come.

A Necessary End, by Peter Robinson. Scribner’s $19.95

In his third outing, Chief Inspector Alan Banks’ quiet Yorkshire town of Eastvale is disrupted by a nuclear peace rally that turns violent. In the midst of a riot, a policeman is murdered, and the murder weapon is traced to a nearby commune. The investigation is placed in the hands of a less than scrupulous London superintendent whose cavalier attitude toward proper police procedure threatens to undermine Banks and his men. Fans of English police procedure will enjoy Banks’ predicament, knowing all the while that his good sense and humanity will find the killer and scotch his rival.

Enemy’s Enemy, by Jan Guillou. Knopf $20

A Swedish journalist who was jailed for having revealed the existence of a top-secret intelligence organization has capitalized on his expertise to write a thriller on espionage in the post-cold-war era. We undoubtedly will hear more in the future about Navy Commander Carl Hamilton, known to his adversaries as Coq Rouge. He has been trained in every Black Art as well as advanced computer technology. Indeed, his proclivity in violence and success in seduction may even replace James Bond as our Walter Mitty image of a modern macho male.

The Secret Defector, by Clancy Sigal. Harper Collins $22

The author is well-known both in Britain and in the U.S. as a journalist, critic, and broadcaster; this is his third novel. Written in the first person singular, and presumably largely autobiographical in content, it vividly and entertainingly depicts the political and sexual experiences of an American left-winger, most of whose experiences of both kinds take place in England between the late 50’s and the height of the Thatcher era, though in the second half the locale often shifts to Los Angeles. The changing relations between the sexes, especially within the political and cultural left, are a key theme, intelligently treated.

Fortunate Lives, by Robb Forman Dew. Morrow $20

This novel, a sequel to Dale Loves Sophie to Death, spans a tumultuous summer in the Howells family, a summer in which the family must cope with the lingering repercussions of their younger son’s death six years before. But their surviving son’s imminent departure for Harvard as well as-the intrusion of an unhappy young mother tax the resilience of the family. Dew’s novel is earnest and sometimes affecting, but it is marred by prose more declarative than evocative and dialogue that is by turns both wooden and melodramatic. The characterization of David, the surviving son, supplies much-needed doses of astringent irony.

Elephant Song, by Wilbur Smith. Random House $23

Once again armchair travelers who have never left their native land can enjoy the sights, sounds, smells, and scenery of Africa as described by one of the world’s masterful storytellers. Readers should be warned, however, that the reading of this superb tale of adventure will compel them to get their hands on Smith’s previous 23 novels so that they may vicariously share in all the excitement he always portrays.

NATIONAL & INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS A People’s Charter: The Pursuit of Rights in America, by James MacGregor Burns and Stewart Burns. Knopf $30

For the better part of four decades, Professor Burns has written on presidents and politics with extraordinary clarity and power. More recently he has turned to leadership, democracy, and to a monumental history of liberty. A People’s Charter is a book about human rights in America, perhaps the most comprehensive study of its kind. The rights of infants and women, minorities and workers and students and artists are discussed. Indeed A People’s Charter is the story of the rights of individuals across a wide spectrum. It is a chronicle of the emerging rights for individuals, whatever their gender, color, or creed. One issue that might have been explored concerns the conflicts and contradictions of human rights. We turn to the state to safeguard our rights, but the state may also be a source of oppression. It is in the realm of the competition among rights that more could be said. The two authors seem confident of an easy identification of what is right and good as distinct from what is ambiguous or uncertain. They say little about rights as ideology for those whose aims may not be entirely noble. Notwithstanding we owe both authors a large debt for a discussion that offers historical insights and analysis for a range of human rights continuously in flux but solidly rooted in a Bill of Rights and an enduring Declaration.

Eastern Europe in Revolution, edited by Ivo Banac. Cornell $12.95 paper

It is by no means clear that we fully appreciate the times in which we live. Americans observe the collapse of Communist rule in Eastern Europe and the USSR with great satisfaction, of course, but because we have never been in chains it is difficult for us to grasp that overwhelming sense of release, of light, of hope where there had been none. Ivo Banac of Yale has put together a fine team of experts for this slender volume, which will do much to enlighten the West about the monumental events of the past few years in the East.

Organized Labor in the Twentieth-Century South, edited by Robert H. Zieger. Tennessee $29.95

This collection of essays purports to offer a fresh perspective on the efforts of labor to organize in the American South, particularly among women and minorities. While several essays provide an absorbing inside look at organizing drives in the coal, meat-packing, and steel industries of the South, the book falls short of its goal regarding the treatment of women and minorities. Only one essay is devoted to women in the Southern labor movement, and its analysis is shallow, at best.

The Communists: The Story of Power and Lost Illusions, 1948—1991, by Adam B. Ulam. Scribner’s $27.50

How can it have happened that not a single one of the West’s famed analysts of the USSR saw its demise coming? Why did even the best among them, including Harvard’s Professor Ulam, persist to the end in wild exaggerations of Soviet power? One will not, of course, find any answers to those questions in this book, which does, however, contain a decent chronology of events from Tito’s split with Stalin until the fall of Gorbachev.

Triumph without Victory: The Unreported History of the Persian Gulf War, by the Staff of U.S. News and World Report. Random House $25

A well-documented, effectively written account of the main events leading up to the Gulf War and of its course, which eschews the temptations of much instant history (overly colorful writing, excessive emphasis on “personalities”) and may well come to constitute a basic point of reference in the public discussion of its theme over the next few years. It makes a number of significant new points; in particular, it argues for a considerable reduction in the estimated casualties on the Iraqi side; and suggests that President Bush’s insistence on the United Nations’ mandate was intended to override, if necessary, any opposition from the Congress to his own decision to go to war over the Kuwait occupation.

Down the Volga: A Journey Through Mother Russia in a Time of Troubles, by Marq de Villiers. Viking $22

The last time Russia experienced a “time of troubles” was after the death of Ivan the Terrible in 1584, when the whole state collapsed, the Poles invaded, and rivals for the throne slaughtered each other. Today’s uncertainty seems at least slightly less dramatic; at least the Poles are calm. De Villiers is not a specialist on Russia, but he has a keen eye and a sympathetic ear. His book is suggestive rather than really informative, but it constitutes a good general survey of the public mood.

House Rules, by Robert Cwiklik. Villard Books $20

The author, a Washington-based journalist, has undertaken to give his readers an idea of what life is like on Capitol Hill by attaching himself to a newly elected Congressman, Nebraska Democrat Peter Hoagland, and describing his initiation into the “backslapping, backpedaling, and back-stabbing” ways of Congress. His account of these experiences is revealing, particularly because it avoids overconcentrating on the fine grain of the elected representatives’ existence and focuses at least as much on the content of the issues they deal with— chiefly, in this case, with the S&L scandal, since Peter Hoagland was a member of the House Banking Committee.

The Soviets, Germany and the New Europe, by Robbin Laird. Westview $24.95

Why did Moscow accept the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the unification of Germany after striving for over four decades to preserve this division? In this book Laird details the remarkable evolution in Soviet attitudes from labeling the FRG inherently revisionist to urging Bonn to play a more substantial, constructive role in Europe. As support, he offers a wealth of specialist writings and corroborating official statements focusing in particular on the Gorbachev period. Sadly the author never explicitly lays out the actual impact these specialists had on policy making, despite his heavy reliance on Soviet press accounts and academic writings. Nevertheless this readable book represents a valuable treatment of Moscow’s fundamental reconceptualization of West Germany and its role in Europe.


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