Skip to main content

Notes on Current Books, Summer 1997


ISSUE:  Summer 1997

Bravo! This is how history should be told and presented to readers. An extremely well-crafted story, action moves swiftly and is truly exciting much of the time. Footnotes are brief, only a line or so, not miniature essays, and placed at the bottom of each page where they should be. Hearn starts with John Brown’s raid in 1859 and describes how, in the turmoil that ensued, a bewildered community changed hands 14 times. Key players in this tale are inept Union commanders, townspeople with confused loyalties (if any), and rebel guerrillas wearing both civilian garb and federal blue.

A History of Ukraine, by Paul Robert Magocsi. Washington $35

Long limited to immigrants and more especially to their children and grandchildren, the study of Ukrainian history now stands poised to make a crossover into the mainstream of academic studies in North America. This outstanding study from Professor Magocsi, who teaches at Toronto University, reveals the sweep and complexity and majesty of Ukraine, the seat of East Slavic culture and civilization. Handsomely produced and reasonably priced, this book should be on the shelves of all students—of whatever age—of European history.

Colt: The Making of an American Legend, by William Hosley. Massachusetts $29.95

Samuel Colt’s firearms manufactory stood at the center of early industrial America. It symbolized the “American system of manufactures,” with its perfection of pioneer technology— uniformity of parts using sophisticated machinery— so celebrated at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851.Indeed, Colt’s represented the vanguard in America’s first tentative steps towards global capitalism. In this handsome volume, replete with illustrations of the family, their factories, their products, Horsley traces the development of the Colt firm from its beginnings under Sam, and under the mature leadership of his wife Elizabeth after his death. A useful and, at times, insightful book.

Theatre in the Colonies and United States, Volume I: 1750—1915, edited by Barry B. Witham. Cambridge $89.95

The first of a two-volume set on the evolution of American theater. Witham’s picture of dramatic activities is drawn from an impressive wealth of documents: newspaper reports, proposals, minutes, script excerpts, reviews, business files, and so on. In this far-reaching and objective view, we come to see the importance of women and minorities in the theater as well as the significance of the existence of regional productions throughout the country. The most important examination in the work is the one that illustrates the inherent and ongoing “tension” between and the negotiation of commercialism and artistry in early American drama.

Homeland to Hinterland: The Changing Worlds of the Red River Metis in the Nineteenth Century, by Gerhard J. Ens.Toronto $55 cloth, $18.95 paper

Unlike past studies of the Metis, which focused on their place within the fur trade or within Canadian political history, Homeland to Hinterland looks at the socio-economic aspects of Metis identity during the 19th century. The study draws on economic, demographic, and ethnographic evidence from two Metis parishes along the Red River. Ens attempts to show how the Metis experience influenced the emergence of an industrial capitalist system in western Canada. Ens argues that the Metis were neither passive victims nor “primitives” unable to adjust to a changing society. Heavy involvement in the buffalo-robe trade by the Metis drew many families out of the Red River area during the mid-1800’s as a response to the new economic opportunities further west; forced migration was not the case. Likewise, the dispersal of the Red River Metis after 1870 was based on economic, social, and family considerations. Understanding that “homeland” for the Metis was not a fixed locale, rather a place where social and economic needs could be met, permits a different interpretation of the Metis dispersal, where the Metis are viewed as active participants in their own history.

Belonging to the Army: Camp Followers and Community During the American Revolution, by Holly A. Mayer. South Carolina $39.95

Those familiar with military organizations know that behind every fighting unit is a complex of support groups that provide ordnance and supply, and construction, police and medical services, among others. In this well-researched monograph, Mayer examines the “Continental Community”—the camp followers, sutlers, servants, volunteers, slaves, and service support personnel—which supported the combat troops of the Continental Army during the American Revolution and without which the army could not have functioned. Relying heavily on orderly books, general orders, and personal papers, Mayer fashions a lively portrait of a neglected area of military life and contributes substantially to our understanding of the Continental army and the Revolution.

Illuminated Manuscripts of Medieval Spain, by Mireille Mentré. Thames and Hudson $75

More than 140 of Spain’s most beautiful Mozarabic paintings—that is, Christian paintings produced in the Iberian peninsula under Islamic rule—from the period 900—1100 A.D.are reproduced here in rich color (with an additional 100 black and white illustrations). Many of them are achingly beautiful (for example, the Paris Beatus “Vision of the Throne of God,” number 145 here). The paintings comprised diagrams, illustrations, tables, and decorative elements for religious manuscripts, and have been preserved in dozens of Spanish and European collections. Mentre’s scholarly study of the motifs, values, history, function and development of this distinctive style provides a solid and readable account of the paintings. She also includes several excellent appendices, notes, index, and bibliography.

Medieval Britain: The Age of Chivalry, by Lloyd and Jennifer Laing. St. Martin’s $40

This book must have been the work of an idle moment. While its “aim is to introduce the lay person to the fascinations of the medieval period,” it fails even to be a reliable guide for the general reader. Although divided by topics, the chapters lack any consistent organization or development. There are too many assertions of dubious accuracy, and important subjects are given no more than a passing nod. The prose is hurried, the overall treatment superficial, and the bibliography whimsical. In spite of some interesting photographs, there are better introductory accounts on the market for less money.

Europe: A History, by Norman Davies. Oxford $40

It takes a good deal of skill to accomplish the task Davies sets for himself, to write a general yet useful history of Europe in a single, readable volume. Davies masterfully guides us through the centuries on the continent, taking us from the Stone Age to the Atomic Age. His insight manifests itself in numerous areas, from the impact of scientific discovery on day-to-day life to the persistent, often overwhelming influence of the Roman Catholic Church. That chapter I covers the first five million years and chapters XI and XII (of a total twelve) span only the 20th century suggests that Europe has become a more complicated, if not more interesting, place. In range and erudition, originality of structure and eloquence, it represents a signal contribution to that body of scholarship which is both highly academic and highly accessible.Europe: A History is particularly timely and relevant as an increasingly diverse America contemplates Europe’s future and its own.

State of Rebellion: Reconstruction in South Carolina, by Richard Zuczek. South Carolina $29.95

This is an engagingly written, thoroughly documented account of political turmoil in South Carolina, 1865—1877.But, if anything, documentation is too thorough. Nearly 800 footnotes and a 15-page bibliography—they compose one-third of the book—are a bit overwhelming. Ironically, young Belton O’Neall Townsend perhaps did the job best back in 1877—1878 when he published four unusually perceptive articles in The Atlantic Monthly, an on-the-spot analysis of South Carolina politics, morals, and society. Those following in his footsteps have merely added an undergrowth of detail before coming to the same conclusions he articulated so well a dozen decades ago.

Passage to Union: How the Railroads Transformed American Life, by Sarah Gordon. Ivan R. Dee $30

The ground-breaking ceremony for the B&O railroad, the first in the U.S., was heavy in symbolism. It took place on July 4, 1828, featured Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the last surviving signatory of the Declaration of Independence, and was lauded locally as the very embodiment of the spirit of the union. And so, Ms. Gordon argues, it proved. By integrating regions economically and politically, by sponsoring new initiatives in law and business, the railroad transformed America. A useful volume, engaging and nicely written, with a definite and sustained point of view.

Venice and Antiquity, by Patricia Fortine Brown. Yale $60

This absolutely splendid book is the first fullscale study of the classical revival in Venice and as such it throws a great deal of fresh light on its subject. Ranging over a vast array of material, historical, literary, archaeological, and art historical, the author gives us a fresh view of the classical revival in the Renaissance that is independent from the conventional Florentine perspective. The book is divided into general chapters that are subdivided into easily manageable sections, and the illustrations, more than 300, are abundant and beautifully presented. There is something to think about on every page of this richly synthetic work.

Pistols and Politics: The Dilemma of Democracy in Louisiana’s Florida Parishes, 1810—1899, by Samuel C. Hyde, Jr. Louisiana $34.95

Hyde’s book examines the social and political relationships between the planter and yeoman classes in southeast Louisiana during the 19th century. Before the advent of the cotton economy in the 1820’s, this piney-woods region was fraught with turmoil characteristic of a highly independent yeoman society. The planter elite gained control, bringing stability and prosperity, but they also sowed the seeds of post-bellum conflict by practicing a politics of divisiveness. The planter elite exploited issues of slavery, sectionalism, and ethnicity to retain power. In doing so, they nurtured the yeoman’s contempt for authority, distorting his perception of individual rights. As a result, the Jacksonian democracy of the 1840’s that rang so true with the yeoman class became perverted into a vigilantism after the fall of the planter elite, creating a pattern of violence that persisted to the end of the century. Hyde’s work is especially instructive for students of modern American politics.

Slave Laws in Virginia, by Philip J. Schwarz. Georgia $40

In this collection of five essays, the author explores the evolving relationship between the Virginia slave society and the laws that governed it. Topics include the penal transportation and capital punishment of slaves, the African judicial background of American slaves, and Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with the laws of slavery. Well-written, concise, and provocative, this work is sure to be used by legal scholars and historians for years to come.

Edmund Burke and India: Political Morality and Empire, by Frederick Whelan. Pittsburgh $49.95

After almost two centuries of commentary on Burke, Whelan has done the nigh impossible— finding a new approach. And what a valuable approach to Burke it is. The condition of India had all the makings of a Burkean crusade— power to be analyzed, corruption to be reformed, despotism to be avoided. Whelan shows how vital Burke’s thinking on India was to the development of his political philosophy and how vital Burke’s perspective was on the emerging perception of British rule on the sub-continent. A significant work.

LITERARY STUDIESLiterature and the Marketplace: Romantic Writers and Their Audiences in Great Britain and the United States, by William G. Rowland, Jr. Nebraska $40

This provocative book explores the complex relation of Romantic writers to their audiences, dealing in particular with the central paradox of Romanticism: Romantic authors generally wished to champion democracy and the common man, and yet they created the myth of the artist as a lonely, isolated genius, cut off from society and often scorning the public as incapable of appreciating true art. This book has many virtues. It is clearly written, eschewing the jargon and dense prose that often infects treatments of this kind of topic. Moreover, Rowland takes a balanced view of his subject, avoiding the extremes of either buying into Romantic ideology or rejecting it out-of-hand as elitist and reactionary. Above all, this book is one of the few that attempts to bridge the gap between British and American studies. It treats Romanticism as a transatlantic phenomenon, drawing illuminating parallels between the problems encountered by writers like Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley in England and those confronting writers like Hawthorne, Poe, Emerson, and Melville in the United States.

Spanish Comedy and Historical Contexts in the 1620’s, by William R. Blue. Penn State $42.50

Blue has the courage to position himself as aggressively anti-deconstructionist in this refreshing study of popular entertainments during the 1620’s in Spain. He looks to government policies, economic realities, the law, demographics, and national and international situations to enhance his interpretations of plays by Lope de Vega, Tirso de Molina, Calderón de la Barca, and other geniuses of the Spanish Golden Age. Yet his readings do not skirt the texts, rather they focus closely on what is going on in them, who is doing what to whom, and why. This latter issue— the “why”—dominates the book’s five major chapters: “Comedy and Love,” “Comedy and Madrid,” “Comedy and Economy,” “Comedy and Legal Matters,” and “Comedy and the Self.” He brings out the complex relations between the plays and their historical contexts, a necessary corrective to the often obscurantist cant that at times has dominated critical discourse. Students and scholars will profit from reading this book.

La Gloire: The Roman Empire of Corneille and Racine, by Louis Auchincloss. South Carolina $19.95

This is a small book in more ways than one: its 90 pages of 12-point type (with very generous leading) contain 14 essays, each addressing political aspects of heroism in a tragedy by one of the two great French classical playwrights. (Auchincloss does not and— given the material —cannot strive for balance: Corneille dominates Racine 7:1.) At least a third to a half of each essay consists of quotations (and plain prose rendering) of key extracts. The rest is plot summary, “common-sense” character analysis, and rapid thematic interpretation. Inaccuracies turn up now and again in the résumés and portraits, while the “readings” are seldom more than shallow, narrow-gauge commentary dismayingly similar to that of French high school textbooks or cramming manuals for the baccalauré at examination. In short, a performance unworthy of such a shrewd story-teller and critic.

Reading in Tudor England, by Eugene R. Kintgen. Pittsburgh $44.95

This work, which tackles the difficult task of exploring the models of reading that existed 400 years ago, points to the problematic encounter of text and author that plagues the disciplines of history and literature today. Kintgen captures the oft-missed reality that reading in early modern Europe was much more active and potentially dangerous than in our own times. He argues that the educational reforms of Erasmus fundamentally and permanently changed the way readers approached a text and that the classical reading models of elites were quite different than the more utilitarian models used to teach Scriptural reading. This work draws useful conclusions about an exceedingly difficult topic from an admittedly small source base. Kintgen’s clearly written and carefully constructed text should prove useful to anyone who wishes to explore the mental world of Elizabethan Englishmen.

Victorian Love Stories: An Oxford Anthology, edited by Kate Flint. Oxford $29.95

Victorian love stories might by themselves fill a large library; to create a 500-page anthology of them is a daunting task. Unfortunately, the reader of an anthology must inevitably be subject to the editor’s conception of what is or is not representative or relevant for the period and genre. Kate Flint, unsurprisingly given the priorities of most modern literary criticism, disdains the representative for the “relevant.” Mainstream Victorian conceptions of love find little representation here. Instead we find short stories largely representative of the “New Woman’s” critique of a stereotype of mainstream social standards. Editorial selectivity in this case acts in conjunction with the concept that the important thing is not to learn what the Victorians thought, but to find Victorians who think as we do and congratulate them for it. That their audacity in speaking out for feminism was rarely combined with any exceptional literary skill appears from the editor’s view to be beside the point.

Cultural Studies and the Study of Popular Culture: Theories and Methods, by John Storey. Georgia $15.95

John Storey, senior lecturer in cultural studies at the University of Sunderland (UK), has provided students with yet another introductory-level tome on pop culture and the analysis of it. Published only three years after Storey’s An Introductory Guide to Cultural Theory and Popular Culture, this volume uses specific examples in television, print press, pop music, and film to show how cultural models are conveyed. While the writing is generally clear and the examples appropriate, the text is somewhat marred by Storey’s ideological bias. This is evident in some glaringly irrelevant, and often naive, political statements, as well as in annoying editorial tics such as placing “[sic]” after usage of the masculine pronoun in quoted passages, regardless of context.

Madrid 1900: The Capital as Cradle of Literature and Culture, by Michael Ugarte. Penn State $32.50

Ugarte studies the convergence of some of the best-known writers and cultural leaders of Spain’s fin de siècle, and their “writing” of the space known as Madrid. From various perspectives— and beginning with the great 19th-century interpreters of Madrid (Larra, Mesonero Romanos, Galdós)—Ugarte analyzes how writers at the beginning of the 20th-century viewed the capital and how they translated that vision into literature. For Pío Baroja, Madrid was a place of science; for Carmen de Burgos, a place of feminist liberation. Ramón Gómez de la Serna read Madrid as a flea market of mediocrity; for Ramón Maria del Valle-Inclàn, it was a deformed parody of its own past (an esperento).And for Azorín, the capital evoked nostalgic remembrance of times past. This review’s oversimplification belies the complexity of Ugarte’s arguments and the frequently original interpretations he puts forth. He detects patterns in their representation of urban space, and offers new ways at looking at some of the literature created in and around “Madrid 1900.”

Romances of the Republic: Women, the Family, and Violence in the Literature of the Early American Nation, by Shirley Samuels. Oxford $39.95

In Romances of the Republic, Shirley Samuels explores the ways in which images of women and the family represent the identity of the nation in literary and historical texts from the American Revolution to the Civil War. Primarily examining early novels, but also discussing poems, pamphlets, sermons, and political cartoons, Samuels considers the place of gender in the works of such writers as Charles Brockden Brown, Catherine Sedgwick, James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Lydia Maria Child. “In the early national period, romances of the republic present women and the family paradoxically as at once embodiments and abstractions of national values,” Samuels argues, suggesting that the often violent rhetoric of revolution, frontier expansion, and slavery almost always insisted on the involvement of domestic concerns.

Portrait of My Body, by Phillip Lopate. Anchor $31.95

The accomplished essayist, author of the highly diverting collections, Bachelorhood and Against Joie de Vivre, has assembled here another body of mostly first-rate pieces. The author is at his best in the wry, somewhat self-detached and self-mocking mode, as when he writes on old girl friends, going to the movies, on his body. A long piece on the Holocaust, though thoughtful, does not make a comfortable fit. Nor does another longing essay on his father in which the author loses the equilibrium of his usual irony. And the profile of an aspiring artist is uncharacteristically mean spirited. But Lopate can write! This is both a stimulating and entertaining book.

Plotting the Past: Metamorphoses of Historical Narrative in Modern Italian Fiction, by Cristina Delia Coletta. Purdue $40

Through an examination of 19th- and 20th-century theoretical works and novels, Delia Coletta recasts the notion of the historical novel with her insightful and original readings of seminal Italian texts. Starting with Alessandro Manzoni’s classic essay “On the Historical Novel,” she examines the aesthetic and philosophical questions surrounding the genre of historical fiction. She demonstrates how Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampsedusa’s The Leopard, Elsa Morante’s History: A Novel, and Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose responded to Manzoni, reshaped the genre, and contributed to a conceptual discussion of the point of literary representations of past events. Delia Coletta’s mastery of modern Italian literature and its theoretical underpinnings is everywhere in evidence. She is equally at ease in the fields of historical analysis and literary theory. This is a critical inquiry worth holding on to.

Russian Religious Thought, edited by Judith Deutsch Kornblatt and Richard F. Gustafson. Wisconsin $53 cloth, $21.95 paper

This collection of writings fills an important gap in the study of Russian Orthodox thought. The four thinkers investigated in the book, Soloviev, Florensky, Bulgakov and Frank, were suppressed or exiled by the Soviets and largely ignored in Western academies. In Russia’s post-Soviet return to religion, Russians are revisiting the influential religious thinkers of the modern period. This well-written and well-organized book is an attempt by Western scholars to do the same.

The Hunter Gracchus and Other Papers on Literature and Art, by Guy Davenport. Counterpoint $25

At his best Guy Davenport is a superb stylist, whose prose one reads not only for its insights but for the sheer pleasure of its style. His essays on reading and on Calvino are specimens of his perfect pitch. The author is often, however, too self-indulgently long-winded, as in the seemingly unending, diffuse ruminations on the 1940’s, too precious, as in his often obscure journal entries. Nevertheless, his erudition and passion for art and literature are immense and will be attractive to many readers, who will find pieces throughout this collection to be savored.

Post-Totalitarian Spanish Fiction, by Robert C. Spires.

Spires, one of the profession’s most conscientious commentators of the modern Spanish novel, takes a look at Spanish fiction published since the death of Franco in 1975.His list is hardly canonical (the canon has not yet been formed on recent fiction), but he chooses works which he sees as emblematic and then studies them within their culturally-bound frameworks. Between 1975 and 1989 (the end of European totalitarianism), many significant Spanish novels captured and reflected their institutional, cultural, social, political, and even philosophical contexts, and Spires’s stated intent is to study their epistemes, that is, their common connecting tissues. Works by Martin Santos (the one pre-1975 inclusion), Juan and Luis Goytisolo, Martín Gaite, Millás, Fernández Cubas, Guelbenzu, Montero, Ortiz, Mendoza, Martinez de Pison, Tusquets, Riera, Muñoz Molina, and Marias make a nearly-complete panorama of modern Spanish fiction (one misses Llamazares or Vázquez Montalbán).Missouri $39.95

LIVES AND LETTERSLeaving Pipe Shop, by Deborah E. McDowell. Scribner $23

This graceful volume of memoirs, subtitled “memories of kin,” describes the black working class neighborhood of Bessemer, Alabama in which the author was raised in the 1950’s and 60’s. McDowell renders this world in a myriad of vignettes. With a few exceptions (most notably, the slaying of the local minister, a prominent Civil Rights activist), the incidents narrated are not in themselves dramatic. The drama is created by the tension that exists between the author’s vivid childhood memories and her mature knowledge of loss. For all its humor and irony, this book is profoundly elegiac. The epigram for part six, from Rilke, might serve for the volume as a whole: “We live our lives, forever taking leave.”

Earl Browder: The Failure of American Communism, by James G. Ryan. Alabama $34.95

With adepts—if that is the word—like Earl Browder in the leadership, it is small wonder that American communism had such an ignoble history and came to such a sordid end. A Kansas lad who fancied himself a great thinker and revolutionary but who would have done well to tend his corn and water his mules, Browder had few qualifications other than blind stubbornness and faith in Lenin and Stalin. Ryan has written a commendable biography of this pathetic man who would be a 20th-century Thomas Jefferson.

A Very Violent Rebel: The Civil War Diary of Ellen Renshaw House, edited by Daniel E. Sutherland. Tennessee $34

These pages describe the day-to-day life of a young lady who, for 16 months (January 1863-April 1864) worked to ease the plight of rebel POWs held in Knoxville. Although her father took an oath to the Union, she was banished because of overt expressions of Confederate sympathy, living first in Virginia, then Georgia. Her words, ably edited and well annotated, tremble with patriotic ardor, that is, when not relating aimless gossip, social trivia, false rumor, and details of days spent calling on neighbors, playing cards or chess, and dancing.

Lorenzo Lotto, by Peter Humfrey.Yale $45

Lorenzo Lotto was a North Italian painter of the late Renaissance, who has been overshadowed by Titian. Nevertheless, he was an artist whose works are marked by great inventiveness, psychological complexity, and an astonishing richness of color. The painter is well served here by the publisher, who includes many dazzling color illustrations of the artist’s work. The text is useful in that it gives a simple, straightforward, factual account of the artist’s development, but the author makes little effort to probe the depths of his fascinatingly strange and troubled subject.

The Gentle Giant’s Lady and Her Friend: Selected Letters of Veronica Boulter Toynbee (1964—1980), edited by Lois Wiegardt Whitaker. Kendall/Hunt $21

Lois Whitaker met Veronica in 1964 when the great historian Arnold Toynbee delivered a series of lectures at the University of Colorado. Lois, recently widowed and the mother of three young children, struck up a friendship with Toynbee’s second wife which lasted until Veronica’s death in 1980.These letters reproduce moments in their personal history, moments which parallel and interweave with the major events of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Toynbee maintained an active travel, writing, and lecture schedule, which Lois and Veronica comment on as the years pass, but a heart attack in 1969 forced him to “recognize that you can’t go on forever behaving as if you were about 50 years younger than your actual age.” He was 80 years old.A Study of History, Toynbee’s masterful twelve-volume look at the rise and fall of civilizations, was well behind him (1934—1961), but new projects continued to engage him until his death in 1975.These 50 unpublished letters reveal a touching friendship shared by two women who lived on the margins of greatness.

A World Turned Upside Down: The Palmers of South Santee, 1818—1881, edited by Louis P. Towles. South Carolina $39.95

Although this remarkable story spans six decades of a South Carolina planter family, it mostly concentrates on the latter half of the period, chronicling the family’s decline from prominence to poverty before, during, and following the American Civil War. The papers are especially rich in details about the material problems faced by the participants during the war—shortages, inflated Confederate currency, labor and crop decisions—as well as the emotional impact the war and its subsequent collapse of their way of life exerted on the family members. The alphabetical “Cast of Characters” in the rear of the book is extremely helpful, and the annotation adequate, but the ill-defined editorial apparatus—silent standardization and correction of misspellings—makes the transcriptions suspect. Nevertheless, this collection of documents compliments the well-known Children of Prideand will rightfully assume a prominent place in Southern letters.

The Age of Justinian: The Circumstances of Imperial Power, by J.A.S. Evans. Routledge $55

The Emperor Justinian is one of the most interesting figures of a fascinating period of history. J.A.S.Evans’s new study of the man and his times is straightforward in its prose and interpretive approach, though not unoriginal. At times the prose is almost too workmanlike, and the narrative as a whole lacks color; but the subject itself holds enough natural attraction to keep the reader absorbed. The work is properly approached as a textbook for students (not necessarily specialists) of the period, and in this respect it is a solid piece of scholarship.

Troublemaker: One Man’s Crusade Against China’s Cruelty, by Harry Wu with George Vecsey. Times Books $25

After 19 years in the Chinese gulag, chronicled in his previous book, Bitter Winds, Harry Wu could not forget the laogai, as the Chinese reform-through-labor system is known. He snuck repeatedly into China over the next few years, uncovering proof that Deng’s economic reforms have turned laogai camps into factories, many of the goods from which are sold on world markets. After his investigations resulted in reports on 60 Minutes, NBC News, and the BBC, Wu was captured crossing the Chinese border in 1995.Troublemaker recounts Wu’s exploits and subsequent incarceration and trial in detail. Wu attempts candor about what unsympathetic observers have called his “martyr complex,” but he doesn’t dig deeply enough into the gray area of his own bravado. Perhaps this is a linguistic fault, which lies with George Vecsey, but Wu’s tone is somewhat blustering, as if he were still dealing with Chinese officials. Caught between his native country’s cruelty and the media lights of the West, Wu has fashioned a compelling mixture of adventure story and polemic, but his courageous, divided soul remains in the dark.

El Camino: Walking to Santiago de Compostela,by Lee Hoinacki. Perm State $29.95

This is not a tourist book but rather a memoir of a spiritual journey. From place to place along the 500-mile route which reaches from the French Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela in the northwest corner of Spain, the author documents the history, architecture, and art, and interweaves those observations with comments on the natural beauty, people, food, animals, and traditions he encounters along the way.”I exist. . . to the extent that I participate in the innumerable practices that collectively establish the living tradition that is my heritage, which my parents and the pilgrims have given me. All the “inner” experiences of these four weeks only occurred insofar as they had real links with the experiences of the dead who accompanied me.”

Searching for Saleem: An Afghan Woman’s Odyssey, by Farooka Gauhari. Nebraska $35

Searching for Saleem is an account of how Farooka Gauhari—an educated, middle-class teacher at the University of Kabul—dealt with the sudden and undocumented disappearance of her husband during the Communist coup of April 27, 1978, as well as how Gauhari came to the decision to leave her country with her three children and seek a life of exile in India and in the United States. Not only is this book a first-hand account of the coup d’état and the relentless attempt to discover the truth, but it is also a testimony told from a woman’s perspective. Though the book is emotionally driven, Gauhari’s story documents the historical events as they were lived by the people, especially the women, of Afghanistan during a time of extreme political upheaval.

His Promised Land, edited by Stuart Seely Sprague. Norton $20

John Parker’s powerful story of his travails— from a childhood of enslavement to an adulthood of self-purchased freedom—is a narrative of extraordinary value to the scholar of African-American history.His Promised Land follows this path with touching insight, including much-needed details about the workings of the Underground Railroad—an institution in which Parker played a key role. Compassionately written, this narrative offers much to our understanding of the fears and unknowns which often made the attainment of freedom a terrifying prospect. Through Parker’s words, we see and hear the fears of slaves and in-transit African-Americans as they struggled with the decision of leaving conditions they knew, however untenable, for those they could not predict. This moving book is difficult to put down and should be required reading for all those interested in the creation of the modern African-American identity.

Holmes and Frankfurter, edited by Robert Mennel and Christine L. Compston. New England $45

Felix Frankfurter was a Viennese Jew by birth, speaking an English learned from New York public library newspapers only as a second language. At age 30 he met Oliver Wendell Holmes, by then in his 70’s, publicly renowned as the “Yankee from Olympus” and eminence grise of the U.S.Supreme Court. For the next 20 years these two forged an improbable friendship that is preserved in the more than 400 letters collected in this volume. In 1939, several years after Holmes died, Frankfurter too was elevated to the high court. Despite the differences in their backgrounds and political predilections— Frankfurter was a founding member of the ACLU and an early champion of the NAACP— Holmes and Frankfurter shared strikingly similar views of judicial restraint and the limitations of judicial power. This collection, comprised primarily of letters published here for the first time, overflows with more evidence of just how much these two giants of American jurisprudence agreed in their understanding of the role of law in American life.

D. H. Lawrence: Triumph to Exile, 1912—1922, by Mark Kinkead-Weekes. Cambridge $40

This is a superb biography, a work of impeccable scholarship that includes an impressive component of notes, appendices, chronological tables, and family trees, as well as complete lists of Lawrence’s prose and verse writing in the relevant period. Of particular interest is the skillful way in which Kinkead-Weekes sets out the historic meeting of Lawrence and Bertrand Russell and the reasons—cultural, political, literary— for its disappointing course. Also note-worthy is the discussion of Lawrence’s slippery sexual identity and its manifestation in his various works. A wonderful achievement.

Women and Art in Early Modern Europe, edited by Cynthia Lawrence. Perm State $42.50

This is a gathering of essays on women as patrons, collectors, and connoisseurs. Its subjects range from Jeanne d’Evreux as a founder of chapels and Margaret of Austria’s tomb to the stories of Anna Maria Luisa de’Medici and Mary Edwards, patron of William Hogarth. Although these essays are largely uninspired, they do broaden our knowledge of patronage, enriching the bibliography in this burgeoning field, and for this we should be grateful.

The Papers of Jefferson Davis, Volume 9, edited by Lynda Lasswell Crist. Louisiana $65

More than 2,000 documents, many never before published, are included in volume nine. Eighty-one are printed with annotation, 242 more in full text, and about 1,750 others are calendared in summary form. Through these letters we see Davis fighting to maintain morale and military cohesion during one of the Confederacy’s most difficult periods (January-September 1863). The editors have very carefully laid out a number of helpful footnotes, which enable the reader better to put into context various remarks and references that enrich appreciation of these letters.

FICTIONHints of His Mortality, by David Borofka. Iowa $22.95

Hints of His Mortality, winner of the 1996 Iowa Award for Short Fiction, chosen by Oscar Hijuelos, deals, in almost every story, with two major themes: the struggles, miscommunications, and petty cruelties between male and female (people ostensibly in love, at least at some point prior to the action of the story); and the endless, often futile, but nonetheless important search for spiritual redemption in a world utterly lacking in this. Each story in the collection previously appeared in a reputable literary quarterly—Missouri Review, Carolina Quarterly. The Southern Review, to name only a few—and one gets the sense that Borofka has been around, publishing for quite some time. The best stories—”The Children’s Crusade,” “Tabloid News,” “The Summer of My Sex,” and “Mid-Clair”—are stunning in terms of craft, precision of language, and, most importantly, the almost unfashionably large dose of heart they possess. These stories are stunning and real and funny and ultimately heartbreaking. The weakness of the collection, however, stems from—or is perhaps a direct result of—this strength. When spiritual crises and petty cruelties and their aftermath are not felt, Borofka seems to force the issue, insisting on a character’s suffering regardless of how contrived it may ultimately seem. But the wonder and strengths of this book clearly outweigh the occasional weakness. And Borofka, without question, is a new writer to watch.

The Bear Went Over the Mountain, by William Kotzwinkle. Doubleday $22.50

Kotzwinkle’s hilarious satire of the New York publishing world keeps the reader laughing from the beginning to the end. He is clear-eyed and merciless in his recounting of the tale of Maine author Arthur Bramhall, a bright but bumbling backwoods novelist, whose new manuscript— written for bestsellerdom—is stolen by a bear who thinks it is something to eat. As Bramhall frantically attempts to recover the manuscript, the bear becomes the toast of the New York literary world, interviewed by puzzled journalists, seduced by voracious literary agents, signed by unscrupulous publishers, and celebrated at the White House. The bear becomes more human; at the same time, poor Arthur becomes more animal-like, all of which leads to a bitter-sweet ending. Kotzwinkle wrote E.T.: The Extrat-errestrial and The Fan Man.

Psychic Warrior, by David Morehouse. St. Martin’s $23.95

A highly decorated combat American military officer is recruited by Stargate, a top secret government espionage program backed by the CIA that is designed to transcend time and space. In what purports to be a true chronicle, the author soon discovers that Stargate may eventually become an instrument of war, so he “blows the whistle” on the entire operation. He is court-martialed and forced to resign under duress. Thereafter, he, his wife, and children go through Hell in their private life in their crusade to ensure peace. This is a gripping and plausible tale that may even be enjoyed by those who are not avid addicts of Star Trek and sci-fi fiction.

The Conversations at Curlow Creek, by David Malouf. Pantheon $23

David Malouf is one of the most interesting writers to come out of Australia. He might be described as the “poor man’s J.M.Coetzee.” Like the novels of the South African, Malouf’s tend to be brief (in the 200-page range), written in crystalline prose, usually dealing with colonial and postcolonial subjects, often with a postmodern twist. But Maloufs work tends to lack the profoundly enigmatic character of Coetzee’s, and thus is ultimately not as thought-provoking. The Conversations at Curlow Creek is a case in point. It takes up a potentially fascinating subject, the complex relations among the Irish in 19th-century Australia. But the plot develops in predictably unpredictable ways and the themes are presented in a heavy-handed manner. Too often the characters seem to be speaking for the author rather than for themselves. At times the message of the novel thus seems to border on the commonplace, as in these remarks by the main character: “in a world where there is no justice the thing we must cling to above all else is pity if we are to retain some semblance of what makes us men.” Malouf can be more subtle than this; if you wish to sample his work, try instead an earlier novel like An Imaginary Life, his fanciful recreation of Ovid’s life in exile.

Dewey Defeats Truman, by Thomas Mallon. Pantheon $24

A superb mix of romance, nostalgia, and sound research, this novel describes what mighthave happened in Tom Dewey’s hometown of Owosso, Michigan in the fall of 1948.The result is a multi-layered collection of plots and subplots, all rooted in small-town life and contending for reader attention. This struggle, often tinged with humor, is indeed the work of a deft craftsman.

A Story of Scorpions, by Gabriel Everett. Crown $22

Reverend Alson Pierce’s life and faith were destroyed in one terrible night when Alex Leonard slaughtered his wife and three-year-old son before his eyes. Prison authorities and the public were shocked, therefore, when Pierce claimed to want to serve his tormentor by obeying the biblical injunction to “love thine enemy.” What could be behind this truly Christian but perverse notion? Eventually Pierce is allowed to visit Leonard in prison, along with a documentary filmmaker who wants to catch this extraordinary exchange for all time. As the encounters threaten to become a media circus, the author seems to lose control of the action. The novel is written as an interior monologue in which a dying soul struggles to come to grips with unimaginable loss. While the book’s ending remains unpersuasive, the portrait of Pierce is compelling.

Because They Wanted To: Stories, by Mary Gaitskill. Simon & Schuster $22

In her second volume of short stories, Gaitskill continues to exploit an odd juxtapositioning of adjectives to describe the extreme emotional situations of young urban people who mistake debasement for passion, manipulation for affection, cruelty for intensity. One feels the oddity of Gaitskill’s verbal pairings matches the oddity of her characters coupling or trying to. She tries repeatedly to squeeze effect out of incongruity and outlandishness. What results is a shabby soap opera straining to be hip. It’s best described by the author: “there was a vacuous delicacy. . . .,” “a benevolent functional daze.” The volume becomes a “house of squalor, comfort, and mundane beauty.” Her first volume of stories, Bad Behavior, was fresher and more convincing.

Death Is Now My Neighbor, by Colin Dexter. Crown $24

Inspector Morse of Oxford—and now of television— fame returns to investigate the case of a young woman who was murdered for no apparent reason. Motiveless crimes are the most difficult to solve and for a time it looks like Morse and his faithful and long-suffering sidekick Sergeant Lewis will be stumped. In the meantime, another land of contest is going on to determine who will become the new master of Lonsdale College. The competition between two distinguished academics brings out the worst characteristics in both, but pales in comparison to the ambitious strivings of their wives. This book is a feast of wit, brilliant characterization, and good storytelling. Fans of the irascible Morse take note.

The Measured Man, by Howard Owen. HarperCollins $23

Walker Fann is a white, upper-middle-class North Carolinian whose family has published a newspaper in his hometown for more than a hundred years. The promise of taking control of it from his father is both carrot and stick for the middle-aged Walker—tied to his family responsibilities and his father’s notion of race relations, he can’t take the paper in directions he’d like to see it go. Though discontented, Walker is content enough to glide through life raising the least amount of dust until events force him to a crossroads in which he must acknowledge that his life and his ideas of justice and human dignity don’t jive. This novel proves the old adage that life is in the details, and Owen gets the details of smalltown life just right. It is also an honest and compelling story that, without being preachy, says a good deal about the nearly intractable problem of race.

Vampires, Wine & Roses, edited by John Richard Stephens. California $14

If a good late-night read is one that haunts you in your dreams, can there be a better book to keep on the night stand than an anthology of vampire tales? In this stylistically diverse yet strangely titled collection (the reference to wine and roses remains a mystery to the end), Stephens serves up a delicious dose of mostly Anglo-French poems and short stories, all of which explore the allure of the vampire. On the Anglo side there is, of course, a passage from Stoker’s Dracula, but also some charming ditties from Arthur Conan Doyle, Edith Warton, William Shakespeare, and Woody Allen. The French team includes Voltaire, Baudelaire, Maupassant, Alexandre Dumas, and Jules Verne, among others. Sometimes spooky, sometimes silly, Stephens’s volume is a wonderfully entertaining bat’s-eye view of our culture’s continuing fascination with graveyards and bedrooms and the creatures who inhabit them both.

Yo!, by Julia Alvarez. Algonquin $18.95

The author of two highly publicized novels (How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents and In the Time of the Butterflies) reworks some of her early Garcia sister material. Yo! is a sequence of gossipy clamorous vignettes narrated by Garcia relatives and friends of writer Yolanda Garcia, who in this story has written yet another book in which she reveals Garcia family secrets. Finally, the exposed parties attempt to portray Yolanda, warts and all. The light-hearted hubbub of their project, however, quickly desolves into an excess of literal minutiae. The diction and style of this book’s myriad speakers are all too often pedestrian, mimicking, sadly, the idiom of current sitcoms. Reading the book is like being escorted through a distant friend’s very big, very detailed album of polaroid snapshots.

Cul-de-Sac, by David Martin. Villard $23

This book is a sick and twisted bit of trash trying to pass itself off as a novel of suspense. A paroled con who was framed for a murder and served seven years in prison decides to take revenge on all those who lied to put him away. This premise provides the opportunity for descriptions of serial mayhem and horror without any redeeming social or entertainment value. In fact, the book is so grotesque, it has Hollywood blockbuster written all over it.

Arkansas: Three Novellas, by David Leavitt. Houghton Mifflin $23

Esquire pulled the first of three novellas collected here from its April 1977 issue suddenly and without explanation. That controversial piece by itself reflects the remarkable talent of a plainly first-rate writer. The premise for the story is non-fictional: a gifted and accomplished young writer named David Leavitt, fresh from the humiliation of plagiarism charges levelled against his recent work While England Sleeps,visits his father in Los Angeles and begins to write term papers for attractive male undergraduates at UCLA in exchange for sex. The storyline invites richly insightful observations on aging, youth, modernity, authorship, creativity, and artistic inspiration. As always, Leavitt is scrupulously attentive to the enormity and the complexity of sexual drives.”The Wooden Anniversary” and “Saturn Street” are also to be praised. The pleasure of reading his work renews itself again and again.

A Spanish Lover, by Joanna Trollope. Random House $23

Frances and Lizzie are twin sisters, Frances solid and solitary, Lizzie more frayed but most decidedly married and settled. Out of character for once, Frances decides not to spend Christmas with Lizzie and her family as she has always done, but rather take a working holiday to Seville, where she falls in love with a handsome young Spaniard: Lizzie does not handle the news well. Trollope’s novels tend to rely on simple, even “borrowed” plots (there is more than a little of Where Angels Fear to Tread here) which afford her the space to exercise her particular strength: a clear, honest, gentle eye for detail in both setting and, especially, character. We can be fairly confident about what will happen next, and enjoy the perfect and meticulous way Trollope’s portraits develop and deepen.

NATIONAL AND INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRSAdvocacy in the Classroom: Problems and Possibilities, edited by Patricia Meyer Spacks. St. Martin’s $26.95

The result of a 1995 scholarly conference sponsored by 16 scholarly organizations from a wide range of academic disciplines, Advocacy in the Classroom asks the increasingly important question: “Should a teacher advocate a personal or political position in the classroom?” Featuring essays by such prominent liberal and conservative teachers as Miles Brand, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Louis Menand, Michael Bérubé, Carolyn Heilbrun, Gerald Graff, and Andrea Lunsford, this collection demonstrates that “advocacy as an issue implicates broad questions of academic freedom as well as academic responsibility,” as editor Patricia Meyer Spacks notes in her introduction. Chapters address three broad areas of inquiry: the history of advocacy and attitudes toward it, the principles used to distinguish appropriate and inappropriate advocacy, and the practice of advocacy in specific classroom contexts. More than anything, the vast array of perspectives these writers bring to their topic suggests the difficulty of defining “advocacy” in any general sense and the need for a more subtle understanding of the ways in which personal and political power are present in every classroom, whether acknowledged or not.

Russia and China on the Eve of a New Millennium, by Carl Linden and Jan S. Prybyla. Transaction $44.95

The pace of technological and social and political change at the end of the 20th century defies comprehension. We do not know whether we are racing toward a kind of world Singapore, Chinese-style communism, Bedlam, or something else. In this book of essays edited by Linden and Prybyla, a group of scholars including Marie-Luuise Näth, Lawrence D.Orton, and Yuan-li Wu make some highly educated and incisive comments on the state of the world today and perhaps tomorrow, particularly the Eurasian world dominated by Russia and China.

The Federal Courts, by Richard A. Posner. Harvard $37.50

The author of this seminal study is a leading federal appellate judge who would be on anyone’s list of the top three living American intellectual jurists today. In the best of his two dozen published books, he presents a detailed analysis of the history and current operation of the federal judiciary with sound recommendations for improvement in their fair and expeditious administration of justice. The importance of the volume is evidenced by the fact that only in the U.S.can its highest court declare acts of the executive and legislative agencies of government void and therefore unenforceable on the grounds of unconstitutionality. Obviously the dean of every law school in the nation should recommend to a colleague that the volume should be used as the text in a course for senior students to understand the federal courts thoroughly before they enter the legal profession.

Words That Make America Great, by Jerome Angel. Random House $30

The nearly 200 documents that comprise this anthology break the mold for American document anthologies. The classics—the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech”—are all here, but so are Baseball’s Original Rules from 1845, Oliver North’s testimony in the Iran-Contra hearings, and George Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words.” The selections included in this book are often surprising, frequently challenging, and all very American. T

0 Comments

CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading