Linehan recounts the history of the Dominican convent of Santa María on the banks of the Duero River in the cathedral city of Zamora, Spain, in the second half of the 13th century, a history of scandal, money, power, and persecution told with brio and suspense. The bishop’s harsh treatment of the local friars was protested by the resident nuns, but their protests brought them imprisonment, excommunication, and starvation. Complaints were raised to the Pope, and the friars asked the Archbishop of Toledo to intervene. The tale opens out to reveal tensions between orders, local laws concerning the founding and regulating of male and female orders, and disputes over finances and the exercise of power. Friars often usurped rights and privileges previously reserved for bishops (the right to preach, bury the dead, accept bequests, take tithes, etc.), so conflict was inevitable. Linehan’s page-turning narrative engages and informs the reader.
Challenging Chicago: Coping with Everyday Life, 1837—1920, by Perry R. Duis. Illinois $29.95
Duis takes the riskiness of everyday living as his theme in this detailed exploration of the social history of Chicago in its era of most rapid growth. Risk at home, risk at work, risk in finances, risk in health—each called for strategies of negotiation by Chicago’s residents. It is a useful organizing framework and makes for an interesting perspective on the novelties of urban life. Duis, moreover, recognizes that risk was not static—people learned and modified behavior accordingly. But we should be careful not to exaggerate the negative, but should also recognize that with risk comes opportunity, and that for many Chicago was a means to improvement.
In Irons: Britain’s Naval Supremacy and the American Revolutionary Economy, by Richard Buel, Jr. Yale $35
This is an imaginative and well-argued analysis of the revolutionary economy and the effect of seapower and the decline of international trade upon it. Using scattered and fragmentary evidence—port entry lists, merchant account books—as well as underutilized printed primary sources such as The Papers of Robert Morris, Buel fashions a coherent and compelling explanation for shortages in army supply, inflation, and why trade with the French was never able to replace trade with Great Britain in the revolutionary economy. Filled with naval lore and insights gained from practical seamanship, this is an important and valuable addition to our understanding of the American Revolution.
Virginia’s Private War: Feeding Body and Soul in the Confederacy, 1861—1865, by William Blair. Oxford $32.50
Although not a community study, this work by William Blair uses communities to tell a broader study. Blair is interested in national identity and how “interests and self-image merge.” He selected Virginia because it was the most important Confederate state in terms of population, industrial resources, and proximity to the national capital. In order to understand how national, state, and local policies intersected Blair has focused on the communities of Albemarle, Augusta, and Campbell counties. They all contained a range of plantation agriculture and grain farming. Albemarle, located between both areas, with its diverse mix of crops, no large town, and many slaveholders also had an ideological center in the University of Virginia, home to key proslavery idealogues of the antebellum South. Augusta County, in the Shenandoah Valley, had fewer slaveholders and more workers than farmers and as such provided another side of the story. Campbell County provided a glimpse into the tobacco belt of the southern Piedmont, an area that had remained faithful to plantation agriculture.
Evidence of growing discontent in letters from citizens to their state or Confederate leaders almost dictates a chronological narrative. The first three chapters establish the grounds for Virginia unity and then show how discontent built to a crescendo in 1863. Chapter four marks the turning point toward a rich man’s fight; chapter five indicates how the Union army cut deeper into the state and disrupted the home front. These chapters highlight the material components that affected morale on the Virginia home front. The final chapter examines how Virginians forged an ideological bond with the Confederacy. Although Virginia’s experience does not speak for the Confederacy as a whole, Virginia’s position on the frontier and its attachment to the Confederate government through Richmond presented unique factors that reinforced identification with the national cause.
Western Medical Thought from Antiquity to the Middle Ages, edited by Mirko D. Grmek. Harvard $49.95
This book comprises 12 essays of varying quality translated from the original Storia del pensiero medico occidentale, that provide a welcome escape from the familiar Whiggish history of medicine written by physicians without historical training which usually exaggerates the course of scientific progress and clinical innovation. Here we have a number of lively and interesting discussions, based on sound methodology, ranging from the time of Hippocrates to the Black Death, dealing with the important subjects of disease, drugs, surgery, and hygiene, the whole accompanied by an extensive bibliography of primary and secondary sources.
Sex and Citizenship in Antebellum America, by Nancy Isenberg. North Carolina $45 cloth, $16.95 paper
In this pathbreaking book, Isenberg contends that historians of feminism in the U.S. have drawn too sharp a distinction between the public, political (male) sphere and the private, domestic (female) sphere, thereby focusing too narrowly on feminists’ quest for suffrage. Isenberg’s work explodes that dichotomy by widening her scope to include the array of legal and cultural rights women pursued in the realms of marriage, sex, religion, property, and manifest destiny, where political and domestic spheres remained entangled. Isenberg argues “unabashedly” and convincingly that feminist activists, especially through the 15 Women’s Rights Conventions held between 1848 and 1860, elaborated a coherent, broad-ranging, and constructive critique of American culture, law, and politics. With the coinage of “co-equality,” they redefined citizenship: women need not give up distinctiveness in order to participate fully in American democracy. One gripe: despite the inclusiveness of her title, she ignores women’s political activity in the South and the West.
Museums and American Intellectual Life, 1876-1926, by Steven Conn. Chicago $32.50
In this interesting history of American museums at the turn of the century, Steven Conn follows the changing role that museums play: from institutes of scientific research and presentation of that research to the more current emphasis on entertaining-while-teaching. Behind this transition was a struggle between museums and emerging universities as to where the advancement of science was to be conducted, and a change in the way Americans viewed the object-based learning that was the 19th-century museums’ fundamental approach for disseminating knowledge. The strength of this book lies in Conn’s witty and engaging portrayal of many of the personalities that participated in the struggles that shaped the American museum.
In the Service of the Emperor: Essays on the Imperial Japanese Army, by Edward J. Drea. Nebraska $45
Drea draws from his previously delivered lectures and published articles to present here a methodical dissection of the Japanese Army establishment between 1937 and 1945. This collection of highly individualistic and militarily specific essays (all assiduously researched from Japanese, Australian, and U.S. archives), however, manages to succeed as a coherent and linear analysis of the Japanese Army’s management of the war in Asia and the Pacific. Stressing Japanese tactical doctrine and strategic concerns, Drea points out the obstacles and deficiencies within the IJA which ultimately undermined the survival of Imperial Japan.
With Ballot and Bayonet: The Political Socialization of American Civil War Soldiers, by Joseph Frank. Georgia $40
What motivated men to enlist and fight in the bloodiest conflict in U.S. history? Reflecting on the letters and diaries of what he terms the more “politically motivated citizen-soldiers” from both the North and South, Frank argues that political conviction was at the heart of the fighting man’s motivation for continued service in the war. Political considerations were not only uppermost in determining reenlistment in a bloody war which dragged on past initial service terms, but, says Frank, it was primarily this highly political core of men that sustained morale, determination, and unit cohesion in their respective armies past 1863. Frank’s well-researched and unique work presents a theoretical framework for understanding the ideological composition of “citizen-armies,” while providing a fascinating assessment of the political awareness of the individual soldiers charged with prosecuting the war in the field.
Sex, Love, Race: Crossing Boundaries in North American History, edited by Martha Hodes. New York $24.95
Hodes has compiled a thoughtful collection of essays which explore the implications of interracial sexual activity from the colonial period to the late 20th century. The book seeks to probe why such liaisons are so controversial and threatening to many Americans. A number of the essays have appeared previously, many are new. Together, they offer the reader a variety of scholarly method, from biography to literary analysis to case histories. The volume ultimately raises more questions than it answers, as it explores the variety of ways in which communities have tolerated, defined, persecuted, understood, and adjusted to issues of interracial sexuality across time and space. It suggests many avenues for future scholarship, and is a valuable addition to any scholarly collection.
Designs Against Charleston: The Trial Record of the Denmark Vesey Slave Conspiracy of 1822, edited and with an introduction by Edward A. Pearson. North Carolina $49.95
Pearson makes available, for the first time, the original records from the trial that convicted Denmark Vesey and 67 co-conspirators for plotting to overthrow the city of Charleston and kill its white inhabitants. In the introduction, Pearson uses the transcripts and other primary documents, as well as previous secondary accounts, to present a fuller description of the life that African Americans in Charleston, free and slave, led at the time of the proposed rebellion. Pearson does a remarkably thorough job of setting up the context in which Vesey and his fellow conspirators devised their plans for the revolt. The transcript itself provides a rare glimpse into the mindset of the rebels, revealing, among other things, the violent hatred that they harbored toward slaveholders and the highly developed ideology that they drew from diverse sources. Pearson’s exciting new study brings the world of slavery in 1820’s Charleston vividly to life and sheds new light on one of the most significant slave plots in American history.
The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars, by Joel Glenn Brenner. Random House $25.95
In this delicious history of chocolate manufacturing in the United States, Brenner treats us to an assortment of tasty tidbits from cocoa plant facts to how chocolate is made to where Halloween trick-or-treating originated. But this is mostly a fascinating history of the two biggest American candy producers. Brenner takes us from the early symbiotic relationship that existed between Hershey and Mars through the fast-paced, highly competitive relationship they share today while introducing us to the main players in the battle for chocolate bar domination. While the book gives equal time to telling us about Milton Hershey’s eccentricities and philanthropy, the chapters relating to the Mars family, their unique lifestyle, and their obsession for manufacturing efficiency add a bitter bite to this scrumdidilyumptious book.
History of Suicide: Voluntary Death in Western Culture, by Georges Minois. Johns Hopkins $35.95
This global study traces the ethical, political, literary, and judicial controversies surrounding the problem of suicide from antiquity to the end of the Enlightenment. Minois tells a story of Western culture’s complex and discontinuous attitudes toward self-murder. One continuity, however, that Minois uncovers is the inverse relationship between state power and the political opposition to suicide. Whenever power waned, the propaganda against suicide peaked. The lesson here is that death denies power; it is a simple form of resistance. This is a complete history, and one that will surely fascinate as much as it edifies.
Pompeii: Public and Private Life, by Paul Zanker. Harvard $49.95
The original German title of this book, Pompeii. Stadtbild und Wohnqeschmack (1955), gives a better idea than the translation of what the author is about. Based on the assumption that the layout and use of space in a town reflect important changes in the esthetic values and social status of the inhabitants, this study is not simply another description of the individual buildings, but a survey of the architectural history and urban plans from the time of the old Oscan-Hellenistic foundation down to the damaging earthquake in 62 A.D. and the final destruction in 79. From this point of view, Zanker, who directs the German Archeological Institute in Rome, has written a compact and useful illustrated guide to current research on the domestic arts and buildings of this famous town.
LITERARY STUDIES Memory and Narrative: The Weave of Life-Writing, by James Olney. Chicago $35
No author has written so influentially during the recent period about autobiographical writing as the author in his Metaphors of Self. Although he feels compelled to use rather clumsy academic jargon to speak of “life-writing,” the breadth of his latest book is impressive. He moves from Augustine to Rousseau to Bechrett, but the range of references to Ovid, Kafka, Vico, Giacometti provides a rich context. This book is a paradigm of close reading of a kind that has become rare in our recent phase of theoretical posturing. Deeply stimulating, Memory and Narrative will cause many readers to consider or reconsider the autobiographical impulse in works with which they are already familiar. A meditation on memory, this is far more than a work of literary criticism.
Modernismo, Modernity and the Development of Spanish American Literature, by Cathy L. Jrade. Texas $30 doth, $15.95 paper
Modernismo and modernista mean different things in Spanish America than they do in the U.S. or Europe. Jrade traces the growing politicization of the concepts in Spanish American literature, along with their inevitable epistemological shifts. She discusses the influence of modernismo from its roots in turn-of-the-century poetry to its “lasting impact” on the artistic and cultural trends of Spanish America in the 20th century. Jrade is one of the leading authorities on the subject (perhaps the authority today) and this new book lays out her case with elegance and conviction. She concludes that modernismo “represents Spanish America’s first full-fledged intellectual response and challenge to modernity.”
The Future of Aesthetics, by Francis Sparshott. Toronto $35.00
With the approaching fin-de-siecle, we must ask ourselves not only what role beauty will play in our lives, but also what form beauty’s necessary product, art, will take. This collection of four lectures by one of Canada’s foremost authorities on philosophical aesthetics, Francis Sparshott, spins forth his loquacious, witty, and immensely readable ruminations on art, beauty, philosophy, the imaginative faculty, the university, and civilization. For Sparshott, the future of aesthetics is intimately linked to developments in philosophy, which are themselves tied to the state of the university, which itself will be shaped in turn by the vision of future civilizations. The Future of Aesthetics, a product of the author’s aesthetic sense as much as an academic inquiry, acts as a map to this not-so-distant world, and Sparshott’s extensive learning and familiar style lend both authority and insight to this dim landscape.
Engaging with Shakespeare: Responses of George Eliot and Other Women Novelists, by Marianne L. Novy. Iowa $17.95
Novy’s primary figure is George Eliot, whom she uses, along with other largely 19th-century feminist women writers, to show how Shakespeare and his works were appropriated and redefined critically and culturally. Interestingly, Novy is able to show the reciprocative influence of writer and subject. On the one hand, she reveals how feminist Shakespearean commentary shows the bard in a decidedly different light; on the other, she illuminates the ways in which the use of Shakespearean references in women’s writing is transformative due to placement in a foreign context. Her ultimate aim is to uncover a “paradoxical authority” of these women writers, one which is achieved by “maneuvering cultural terms largely restrictive to them.”
The Allure of Empire: Art in the Service Of French Imperialism, 1798—1836, by Todd Porterfield. Princeton $39.50
Ever since the publication of Edward Said’s influential book Orientalism in 1978, literary critics have been analyzing the representation of the world of the East in Western literature, and especially charting the ways in which images of the Orient have served the cause of European imperialism. Todd Porterfield has now shown how effectively the concept of orientalism can be used in the realm of art history. Though the results of his investigations may seem somewhat predictable and even old hat to those familiar with literary criticism in this area, the wealth of detail in his argument and the acuteness of his insights into individual paintings make this book valuable to students of French art and of European culture in general. Porterfield has chosen his subjects well to develop his thesis, concentrating on the erection of the Egyptian obelisk in the Place de la Concorde in Paris, the paintings inspired by Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign, the development of the science of Egyptology by Champollion and its relation to the Louvre Museum, and Delacroix’s orientalist masterpiece, The Women of Algiers. Eschewing the jargon-ridden prose that often mars accounts of orientalism, Porterfield gives a clear and engaging account of the complex interaction between art and imperial politics in post-revolutionary France.
What the Twilight Says, by Derek Walcott. Farrar, Straus & Giroux $23
Walcott’s first compilation of essays (and a short story) originally published between 1970 and 1997 gathers together close readings of his favorite writers such as Lowell, Larkin, and Brodsky, and a miscellany of insights into Caribbean culture, including his 1992 Nobel address. Walcott’s influence in American letters and world literature is an exceptional blessing and the language in the essays is as lush and energetic as the lyrics in his poems and plays. All to say, how nice it is to have another “collection” of Mr. Walcott’s writing.
Post-traumatic Culture: Injury and Interpretation in the Nineties, by Kirby Farrell. Johns Hopkins $49 cloth, $17.95 paper
By linking Victorian England and late 20th- century America in this study of “trauma,” Farrell provides a provocative new perspective on “the modern.” “Post-traumatic culture” is characterized, according to Farrell, by dread and anxiety in the face of profound change, and by a sense of great “disturbance in the ground of common experience: a shock” to collective values and to a shared sense of purpose and command. Farrell imaginatively bridges science-fiction literature, popular film, apocalyptic political movements, and conservative social criticism, in order to establish the essential paradox of traumatic injury: long defined as “embedded in the neurophysiology of pain and fear” and thus resistant to expression, trauma now functions as one of the most commanding explanations for social and political dislocation, and one of the most seductive ways to repair a self-image enlarged to the point of shattering by technologies of “human freedom and power.”
The Distinction of Fiction, by Dorrit Cohn. Johns Hopkins $42
The Distinction of Fiction is an example of literary criticism’s own grotesque redundancy. I had come to this book in the hope of finding a revitalized approach to narrative structure, and found instead a return to prestructuralist thought. There seem to be two essential problems with Cohn’s book. First, The Distinction of Fiction shouldn’t be a book; eight of its ten chapters have been previously published. There is little new substance here, and certainly nothing that could not be gleaned or intuited from these pieces as they originally appeared. The two new chapters—an introduction which surveys, “the semantic multiplicity of the term fiction,” and a conclusion which justifies her project—are interesting but unessential, and the book as a whole adds little to the critical dialogue. Second, Cohn’s narratological perspective, which fails to adequately synthesize theoretical advances (now somewhat dated but still valid) posited by post-structuralism, occupies only two isolated chapters, while six chapters apply her approach to specific texts—at times interesting and evocative though often verging on critical corpulence. Several smaller though no less intrusive problems abound; the author and editor miss several grammatical errors in the first chapter alone. At times insightful, Cohn has lofty and admirable aims. Unfortunately, The Distinction of Fiction fails to rise to the generic challenge thrown down by post-structuralist thought.
John Dos Passos, by Lisa Nanney. Twayne $32
In a useful addition to Twayne’s Authors Series, Nanney presents a comprehensive introduction to the career and contributions of one of America’s leading modernist writers of the 20th century. Supplanting an earlier volume in the same series written during Dos Passos’ own lifetime, the current work includes discussions of Dos Passos as a visual artist. She shows how his “second talent” was revealed in Dos Passos’ style in his novels and poetry and was recognized in public exhibitions of his paintings during and after his lifetime. In this compact volume the author also skillfully demonstrates how Dos Passos’ approach to writing was strongly influenced by his international origins and upbringing, his experiences in World War I, his postwar “exile” in Europe with the generation of Hemingway, Stein, and others, and his subsequent travels. The shifts in his political ideology shown across his writing career are traced from Dos Passos’ radical 30’s and 40’s, when he wrote the earlier novels, Three Soldiers, Manhattan Transfer, and the U.S.A. trilogy, to his later works that reflect his conservatism, following his disillusionment with Communist intransigence during the Spanish Civil War. A selected bibliography as well as notes and references make this work indispensable for serious students of Dos Passos.
The Emily Dickinson Handbook, edited by Gudrum Grabber, Roland Hagenbüchle, and Cristanne Miller. Massachusetts $34.95
Though modestly titled, this book presents perhaps the most exhaustive and useful summary of Emily Dickinson scholarship in the 20th century—a series of short but amazingly comprehensive essays on almost every aspect of Dickinson studies, written especially for this volume by Dickinson’s most formidable contemporary critics. Invaluable to the expert and novice alike, every page of this book is sheer pleasure, in a way comparable to few scholarly texts. Here we have essays on Dickinson’s manuscripts, letters, and fascicles (among a multitude of other subjects) generally framed in a language which leaves us breathless and often heartbroken, considering the vicissitudes Dickinson’s works have undergone since her death. Especially strong are the chapters on Dickinson’s “Literary Background” and “Critical Reception,” which enumerate a wonderful array of starting points for any critical consideration of Dickinson. In short, an essay on “Shakespeare and Dickinson” may be just about the only thing missing from this wonderful book. Essential for everyone.
Dante’s Divine Comedy: Paradise, Journey to Joy, Part Three, retold with notes by Kathryn Lindskoog. Mercer $24.95
This book offers a faithful sentence-by-sentence restatement of Dante’s Paradise in “today’s clear English prose.” It offers a lucid, viable alternative to John Sinclair’s earlier 1939 prose translation, one which will appeal to many admirers of Dante today for its readability. The book is further enhanced by the inclusion of Gustave Dore’s beautiful engravings to the poem, a jaunty Introduction, and helpful subtitles to each canto. Lindskoog also provides informative notes on which to not only address allusions to historical, scientific, mythological, theological, and philosophical matters but also succinct explications of the meaning of numerous passages. The author’s engaging subtitles for each canto serve to elucidate further the subject matter of each canto. Prose translations appeal particularly to readers looking for a translation which renders the poem more like a narrative. Lindskoog’s “reinstatement” of Dante’s does the job nicely.
Interpreting the Self, by Diane Bjorklund. Chicago $25
Avoiding the ideological pitfalls of “identity politics” that ensnare similar analyses by all-too-often uninformed literary critics, Diane Bjorklund’s Interpreting the Self provides a refreshingly welcome approach to this intriguing topic. This is a story about stories, the stories Americans tell about themselves. Tracing the development of autobiographical writing over the last two centuries, Bjorklund formulates a theory of Americans’ protean conception of self. Her approach to this material is clear and critically informed and the results are well articulated. As might be expected, Bjorklund shifts the source of production from a single entity—the purported subject of the narrative—to the larger social and cultural structures that determine identity, articulating the central difference between the narrative subject and the authorial self. Nevertheless, her extensive and systematic approach to her source material is impressive and enriches our understanding of this essential subject.
The Literacy and Cultural Spaces of Restoration London, by Cynthia Wall. Cambridge $59.95
How does space define a culture? Such a question has become by now commonplace as critics across disciplines read encoded patterns of culture in the topographical features of a particular city or space. But how does a culture define space? In The Literacy and Cultural Spaces of Restoration London, Cynthia Wall sets out to answer this very question, locating literary texts within the larger discourse that rebuilt and reinvested a London, emptied literally and figuratively by the Great Fire of 1666, as a meaningful space. Wall approaches her subject with a clear purpose and she writes with a bewitchingly lucid prose. Her argument is penetrating, well-articulated, and immensely convincing. Examining the topical specificity of literary texts (poems, plays, and novels) and non-literary texts (political manifestos, journalistic reportage, and cartographic surveys), Wall cogently illuminates an extensive cultural reorganization of city-space. The Literacy and Cultural Spaces of London marks a significant contribution to both scholarship and methodology, redefining the very cultural space of contemporary criticism.
English Epicures and Stoics: Ancient Legacies in Early Stuart Culture, by Reid Barbour. Massachusetts $45
This is an excellent study of the complicated and ambivalent reception and reconstruction of Stoicism and Epicureanism in the reigns of James I and Charles I. Barbour provides a well documented and discerning account of the influence these philosophies and early Stuart discussions of the nature of sovereignty, the nature of virtue, the role of pleasure in religious ceremonies, and the relation of God and His providence to the world. Barbour draws on a wide range of primary sources (including masques, tragic plays, essays, pamphlets, sermons, and translations) and pays particular attention to Ford, Bacon, Burton, Casaubon, and Milton.
LIVES & LETTERS The Collected Letters of W. B. Yeats, Volume II, 1896—1900, edited by Warwick Gould, John Kelly, and Deirdre Toomey. Oxford $39.95
We should all thank Warwick Gould, John Kelly, and Deirdre Toomey for having diligently assembled this massive tome of significant scholarship. This, the second volume of Yeats’s collected letters (many of which have never been published), spans the formative years of his literary apprenticeship. We see in these letters his initial moments of independence— departure from Bedford Park and the beginning of some of his most important life-long friendships. But perhaps more interestingly, they illuminate the inner turmoils that motivated the young Yeats and drove him towards his visionary perspective, a uniquely Celtic mysticism and political activism. Extremely detailed and eminently readable annotations unravel the numerous relationships between the intriguing characters mentioned and allow any reader entry into Yeats’s private world. This volume, a welcome addition to any bookshelf, provides an intimate portrait of the poetic genius of William Butler Yeats, last of the grand myth-makers.
Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made, by David Halberstam. Random House $24.95
Michael Jordan is well named. Although he was not baptized in the river Jordan, he has been seen as “Jesus in Mikes,” as “God’s child.” His first name is also suggestive, since he has even been compared to Michelangelo, his athleticism likened to an “art form.” This is not all. For Jordan has even been compared to Gandhi and Einstein. The author falls into such idolatry when he speaks of Jordan playing the game with “spiritual” determination. Halberstam writes well, his book is deeply absorbing. It is implicitly about far more than the world Jordan made. It paints the picture of a world ready to embrace a great athlete as a demi-god, the world we have made.
The Musick of the Mocking Birds, the Roar of the Cannon: The Civil War Diary and Letters of William Winters, edited by Steven E. Woodworth. Nebraska $32.50
It is sometimes forgotten that the life of a soldier in wartime is generally made up of protracted periods of tedium punctuated by relatively brief moments of actual combat. The most accurate military memoirs or diaries reflect this fact, but for the same reason they do not necessarily make for interesting reading. This superbly edited volume of the writings of sergeant William Winters of the 67th Indiana is an exception to this rule, being both representative and a pleasure to read. Winters served from 1862—64 in the campaigns conducted in the Texas-Louisiana-Mississippi region, including the Vicksburg and Red River campaigns. His diary entries and letters have relatively little to say about the fighting, but provide a wealth of observations on Southern landscapes and lifestyles, the politics of war from an enlisted man’s point of view, and the suffering engendered by being away from home. This book is a small gem, always interesting and sometimes touching.
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West: An American Legend, by R.L. Wilson with Greg Martin. Random House $60
America’s Wild West bred bold legends and colorful characters, perhaps none more famous than Buffalo Bill. R.L. Wilson tells Buffalo Bill’s biography, as well as the story of other prominent Western celebrities and entertainers, with focus on the shooters. The book is especially strong on the career of Annie Oakley. In paying tribute to Buffalo Bill—who for a time was more better known throughout the world than any other American—this volume boasts more than 400 color plates, photographs, and black and white illustrations of Wild West scenes, broadsides, posters, and costume and firearms. The result is a lavish, expensive production, worthy of display, but full of enough anecdotes and history to hold the interest of those who actually want to read it.
A Rage to Live, A Biography of Richard & Isabel Burton, by Mary S. Lovell. Norton $39.95
This is the 910-page story of the great English explorer, not the movie star, and his indomitably devoted wife. Incredible that one could master some 35 languages and dialects, but after reading this, one is ready to believe it. The middle part of the book is the meat. Ms. Lovell is quite thorough, if a little protective of her subjects, although she does not skip the faults and foibles. In India, the Middle East, Africa, and South America, Burton approached life with an insatiable cultural curiosity that is the envy of every journalist. It was a quality that eclipsed even his exploring bent. He had his famous, long controversy about discovering a source of the Nile with his one-time partner Speke. And he once published four books, all on serious subjects, in two years. No wonder that not a few observers called him the most interesting man of the 19th century.
“I Cease Not to Yowl”: Ezra Pound’s Letters to Olivia Rossetti Agresti, edited by Demetres P.. Tryphonopoulos and Leon Surette. Illinois $34.95
Collections of Ezra Pound’s letters are many. In the past they have illuminated relationships with other artists (Williams, Joyce, Zukofksy) and magazine editors (from The Dial, The Little Review), and have shown early friendships (Ezra Pound and Margaret Cravens) and later epistolary explanations (Pound/Theobald). The Pound-Agresti correspondence’s claim to uniqueness is that it is set squarely in the years of Pound’s incarceration at St. Elizabeths and is with someone who shares his pro-Fascist, pro-Axis, anti-Allies sentiments. These letters, with their knowing, elliptical, hysterical style, show Pound at his ugliest. Read alongside his World War II radio speeches and in the context of ongoing debates about his place in literary and cultural histories, this collection makes interesting reading.
America Day by Day, by Simone de Beauvoir. California $27.50
In January 1947, Simone de Beauvoir landed at New York’s La Guardia Airport, thus initiating the young existentialist’s four month journey across the vast and unfamiliar American landscape. Beginning from a bewildered sense of mythic detachment, Beauvoir drops into New York a celestial cipher and progresses through several stages of self-realization as she works her way westward, experiencing both the glamour and the ugliness of America’s most conspicuous cities, Chicago, Hollywood, New Orleans, and Las Vegas, spiritually mirroring the national expansion and domination of the native landscape. Published in a new translation that captures all the energy, verve, and poetry of Beauvoir’s lucid prose, America Day by Day is a voyage of self-discovery as readable and pertinent today as it was 50 years ago.
Marriage in the Early Republic: Elizabeth and William Wirt and The Companionate Ideal, by Anya Jabour. Johns Hopkins $42
William Wirt and Elizabeth Wirt should have been an ideal couple. They were attractive and comfortably situated; and when they married in 1802, they were inspired to do so, in part at least, by the sentimental vision of domestic happiness that defined the newly popular ideal of companionate marriage in the early 19th century. The marriage, however, was an unhappy one, characterized by growing resentment and disillusionment, much of which was occasioned by William’s absences from home in pursuit of his legal career. Jabour adduces the difficulties of the marriage as proof that the promise of companionate marriage was betrayed by the persisting strength of patriarchy and inequality of gender relations in the early republic (or, in other words, it was all his fault). The author makes her case clearly enough, but one might wonder whether any single marriage can bear all the interpretive weight that Jabour wishes to place upon it. And the possibility that the Wirts, all their hopes notwithstanding, were simply emotionally and temperamentally incompatible, never seems to occur to her.
Sade: A Biographical Essay, by Laurence L. Bongie. Chicago $29
Bongie launches a crusade of sorts against the Marquis de Sade’s reputation as a philosophe and as a martyr to freedom of conscience and individual rights. By investigating archival information relating to the Marquis’s relation with his mother and his record with the French police, Bongie throws into question the notion that it was for his ideas that Sade was punished. What the relation between Sade’s life and the work he actually produced really is remains an open question, one best addressed by models of critical thought (in literary criticism, in cultural studies) that appear well beyond the author’s expertise. The impact of this book on the critical response to Sade and his work will likely be very small. Damning the writer or thinker has become all too fashionable these days. Just as Freud will survive Crews, Sade will brush aside Bongie.
Shadows of Treblinka, by Miriam Kuperhand and Saul Kuperhand. Illinois $21.95
This volume combines the memoirs of two Polish Jews from the same town a short distance east of Warsaw, who survived the Holocaust individually and then met and married each other in 1945. Miriam Kuperhand lived in hiding from the Nazis from 1942 to 1944, eking out an existence in a series of underground hideaways. Her future husband was shipped to the notorious Treblinka death camp where he lost his entire family before escaping. Their memories are understandably bitter, and despite the heroism of some individual Poles, the Kuperhands conclude that the majority of the Polish people actively colluded with the Nazis in their program to exterminate the Jews. Perhaps most unsettling is their assertion that the Poles continued to persecute the Jews even in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet conquest of Poland in 1944-45. These memoirs are not especially graphic but are nevertheless difficult to read because of the immensity of the suffering they reveal.
Jorge Luis Borges: Conversations, edited by Richard Burgin. Mississippi $17
Borges (1899—1986), one of the most enigmatic and complex writers of the 20th century, spoke “on the record” a number of times between 1966 and 1985. Always playful, always mysterious, and always provocative, he resisted narrow readings of his stories but enjoyed discussing literature and philosophy with his numerous admirers. Burgin collects 16 of the best interviews which reveal much about Borges the man and Borges the myth. When Norman di Giovanni asks Borges about “character” in his work, the master responds: “This is a hard nut to crack, because I’m afraid there are no characters in my work. I’m afraid I’m the only character . . . .” Maybe so; but what a character.
The Grand Strategy of Philip II, by Geoffrey Parker. Yale $50
The 400th anniversary of the death of Spain’s Philip II (1527—1598) brought forth two major biographies of this enigmatic and frequently misunderstood figure (Henry Kamen’s Philip of Spain was released in 1997). To various historians, he was a religious fanatic who holed up in the imposing Escorial, a buffoon who lost his Armada to the British in 1588, a rabid persecutor of the Protestants, or the able ruler of the greatest empire on earth. Parker focuses on the political strategies which Philip used to build and maintain his empire, drawing on documents dealing with military hardware, diplomatic maneuvers, international politics, the domestic economy, and world geography. The authoritarian Philip had a Grand Strategy for his country, but it was, like him, deeply flawed and doomed to failure.
A Rose for Mrs. Miniver: The Life of Greer Garson, by Michael Troyan. Kentucky $25
In spite of Greer Garson’s popularity in the 1940’s, film critics have never taken her work seriously. “With her false eyelashes and her richly condescending manner, Greer Garson can turn any line of dialogue into incomparable cant,” wrote Pauline Kael. Author Troyan ignores such film critics and concentrates on the accolades Garson received all her life including those paid her at her death in 1996 at the age of 92. His biography is in the manner of one long press release MGM might have turned out itself for one of its brightest stars who drew the public like a magnet with such films as Mrs. Miniver, Blossoms in the Dust, Madame Curie, and Random Harvest. Relying heavily on archival material, Troyan never interviewed Garson, and although he contacted many who did know her, he never gets beyond the public image of the gracious lady who played gracious ladies on the screen.
André Gide: A Life in the Present, by Alan Sheridan. Harvard $35
This is the first full literary biography to date of the extraordinary life of the French modernist author Gide (1869—1951). Sheridan does a particularly fine job of chronicling his notoriety in matters both sexual and political. Gide’s leftist politics and his open homosexuality are shown to be deeply interwoven with his literary creations. The book provides an intimate look at a figure who was, at best, a reluctantly public individual. This will be of great interest to anyone interested in French letters and literary modernity.
The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition, by Caroline Alexander. Knopf $29.95
On the last day of April 1915, with his ship beset in pack ice and with growing doubts about his crew’s survival, the polar explorer Ernest Shackleton asked Frank Worsley to dance. “He is one of the greatest optimists living,” one crew member wrote of Shackleton as he watched him dancing a “stately waltz” on the pack ice. In Caroline Alexander’s remarkable contribution to the growing body of Shackleton lore, she identifies Shackleton’s indomitable optimism as his key leadership trait. At times Shackleton’s optimism bordered on insanity, as when he and five men attempted to sail a 22-foot open boat 850 miles through tempestuous seas to South Georgia island. In Shackleton’s own time his heroism was overshadowed by World War I, but today, thanks to scholars like Alexander, Shackleton’s achievements are getting their due acclaim. As if the tale itself were not enough to hold a reader’s interest, Alexander’s book contains 140 stunning black and white photographs taken by the ship’s photographer Frank Hurley. These polar images—some domestic, many otherworldly—are a fitting tribute to the men and their adventure.
FICTION Wingtips, by Avery Chenoweth. Johns Hopkins $22.50
Chenoweth’s “novel-in-nine-stories” paints an often touching, always humorous picture of the Goodpasture family, as they move, one by one, from the Tennessee mountains to the invisible social underbelly of Martha’s Vineyard to the revolving doors of Washington, D.C. Stuart Goodpasture, who first appears dressed as a super hero in “Powerman” and later pretends to be his own double at a college reunion, wants to fall in love. In the title story, his brother, Jay, seeks maturity in a pair of shoes. Sister Moriah wants her father to go to hell and the family patriarch, divorced and deluded, wants to use his children’s inheritance so Jesus can help him find oil in Oklahoma. These are the Goodpastures Avery Chenoweth has created. Wingtips is ingenious in its form, graceful in its telling and its author is deserving of the highest praise.
Kafka’s Curse, by Achmat Danger. Pantheon $22
At first glance this novel has the marks of top-quality literature: an endorsement from Nadine Gordimer and a prize already secured in South Africa, the author’s home country and the novel’s setting. With lyrical prose and touches of magical realism, it will combine the historical and political landscape of that country with an Arabic legend. And the legend is an interesting one. A gardener and a princess fall in love, but the princess’ father, the caliph, won’t allow his daughter to marry a gardener and locks her away. The gardener, for transgressing the position of his birth, is transformed into a tree while he waits for his love. The story that parallels this legend is just one of several plot threads in the novel. Oscar, the gardener’s counterpart, gives way as protagonist to his wife, to his brother, to his therapist, each in turn, the story ending with a barrage of minor characters who take over the narration for a couple of pages each. In such a short novel, 220 slight pages, it is difficult to form a full picture of any one of these characters as their lives cross over each other’s again and again with an attempt at Kundera-esque cleverness. But therein lies the problem. Such a project as sketched above requires more grace and more of the sublimely intelligent control a novelist like Kundera serves with his coincidences. The prose is too digressive and often clumsy, its “lyricism” serving as a distraction from a half-told story, already unwieldy from its ornate design.
Armadillo, by William Boyd. Knopf $24
A social satirist of the highest order, Boyd employs the character of Lorimer Black, a star insurance claims adjuster, to plumb the depths not only of Western business society, but also to work his continual theme of the nature of Western identity. Lorimer is a charming chameleon able to vary his dress and appearance to the situation. He deftly uncovers conspiracies and manages to bring clients to their knees in negotiation. But life begins to unravel for Lorimer when he stumbles upon the suicide of a client that he was closing in on, and further unravels when he becomes the target of a client he is investigating. Filled with red herrings and wonderful twists, Boyd tells a dark, humorous, and timely tale.
Right Here, Right Now, by Trey Ellis. Simon & Schuster $23
This book is billed as a satire of American’s thirst for “self help” and is either so satirical as not to be funny anymore, or very much misrepresented by its cover-flaps. We follow the protagonist as he, as a result of a vision brought on by out of date cough syrup, moves from self-help infomercial star to guru of a cult based on meditation and sex. Although it sounds promising as a premise, the book is ultimately a disappointment. The protagonist is not very likeable, and toward the end of the book you just want to get it over with. The author’s conceit that the book is a transcript of audiotapes this man makes as his diary is necessary for the plot, but doesn’t always hold up; sometimes he speaks as one would to a recorder, sometimes the prose lapses into internal monologue which is just not believable from a tape recorder. Reminiscent of Stranger in a Strange Land, with more explicit sex scenes, and not quite as interesting otherwise.
Easy Money, by Jenny Siler. Henry Holt $24
As a thriller alone, Easy Money is perhaps only a little above the crowd: the pages keep turning, but the plot is nothing special. What are special are the feelings of being inside the protagonist’s head that Siler generates, and the enjoyable uniqueness of that same protagonist. As we’re told the story of a young courier unrepentantly on the wrong side of the law, the glimpses into a way of life we may never know come across as very authentic, and the courier’s thoughts and actions very real. To be honest, the clankiness of the plot sometimes even intrudes a little on the writing; Siler may do better writing more subtly than demanded by blood-and-guts seekers. Highly enjoyable, very different, an outstanding debut piece.
The Travelling Horn Player, by Barbara Trapido. Viking $24.95
The Travelling Horn Player is a rare combination of a good, fun read with more serious literature. The same series of events is portrayed through the eyes of several characters who, at first, seem quite unrelated. However, as the novel unfolds, it becomes readily apparent how they are tightly bound together in a beautiful web linked by something between fate and chance. It is a tribute to Ms. Trapido’s skill that the story is never repetitious or dull. The characters are never flat, and each has a wonderful, unique personality that captivates the reader. Furthermore, the story is well told, and well ended, leaving the reader satisfied and sometimes laughing out loud. On a more serious note, the novel also addresses the theme “what is life about?” Through the death of one character, the others discover what is important to each one of them. The motives, appropriate for a modern audience, include family, career, and what it means to be successful. Through reading this book, you learn not only about what drives the characters within, but you are bound to discover something about yourself as well.
Misery Loves Maggody, by Joan Hess. Simon & Schuster $22
Joan Hess makes me laugh. The exploits of the Maggody bunch, including police chief Arly Hanks (and her mother, Rubella), mayor Jim Bob (and his wife, Barbara Buchanon), and local evangelist Brother Verber, verge on the hysterical (in the clinical sense of the word). The mystery is secondary to the crude, often hilarious caricatures of Arkansas rural folk and mores. This episode in the Maggody series involves a low-rent coach trip to Graceland, the murder of a local “entertainer,” and the arrest of Jim Bob the mayor. Needless to say, Arly Hanks saves the day, proving that at least one person in Maggody has more brains than Marjorie, Raz Buchanon’s life partner (and prize sow).
The Healer, by Greg Hollingshead. Harper Flamingo $24
Despite an outstanding literary reputation, Greg Hollingshead’s latest accomplishment, The Healer, is somewhat of a disappointment. Tim Wakelin, a journalist and recent widower from Toronto, has a mission: to meet and write a story about Caroline Troyer, a young, reputed healer in a small northern Ontario town. What Wakelin is unprepared for is the mystery surrounding Caroline and how this mystery affects the remnants of his broken life. Wakelin is the only “touchable,” credible character in the novel. His pain, emotions, and actions are understandable and demand a reciprocating sympathy from readers. The other characters, even Caroline, are missing something crucial to their believeability. One other redeeming feature is the description of the majestic Canadian landscape; the land, perhaps, allows us to see more of Wakelin’s character than does Caroline.
Maurice, or the Fisher’s Cot, by Mary Shelly. Knopf $20
Found in 1997, Maurice was written by Mary Shelly for the child of a close friend. Scholars, aware of its existence, had long since lost hope of ever finding it. The seaside story is a charming one whose melancholic overtones are unmistakable. And Claire Tornalin’s introduction is an invaluable guide to its autobiographical and psychological intimations. She also traces clearly the ties between Shelly and the Dazzi family, which owned and handed down the work. Also included here is a documentary version containing Mary Shelly’s original lineation, corrections, spelling, and punctuation.
The Law of Similars, by Chris Bohjalian. Harmony $23
In this novel, Bohjalian returns to a familiar, and previously successful, formula. A practitioner of alternative medicine, in this case homeopathy, is implicated in the death of one of her patients. A loved one, here her new lover, an assistant district attorney, falsifies evidence to protect her from possible legal responsibility for her actions. Unfortunately, avoiding legal peril does not save this homeopath from feeling personal responsibility, thus imperiling her relationships with those around her. This time around, however, Bohjalian’s formula rings less true. The characters are less well developed, and the plot suffers from overly heavy foreshadowing. I found myself irritated with, more than sympathetic to, the main character. The author needs to move away from his tired explorations of the relationship, if any, between personal and legal responsibility, and move on to other matters.
Falling Slowly, by Anita Brookner. Random House $24
In this her 18th novel, the estimable Anita Brookner tells the story of two sisters, Beatrice, a pianist, and Miriam, a translator of French books, and of the characters who cast their shadows in such quiet lives. It is a milieu in which “silence was a commonplace, and absence a foregone conclusion.” With characteristically exquisite prose and, at times, biting wit, the author casts her spell, luring the reader into the poignant world of vacancy to which the characters are condemned.
Heavy Water, by Martin Amis. Harmony Books $21
You either love him or hate him. The nine stories presented here are as meticulously crafted as anything Amis has written, but they are also as mean-spirited in that oh-so-clever British way of his. He seems to delight in generating intense interest in his characters, then patronizing them—and, it seems, readers who identify with them. “Let Me Count the Times,” for instance, offers a portrait of a married man who becomes obsessed with masturbation. Other stories show Amis playing one of his favorite tricks, creating a world in which everything runs counter to our expectations. In “Straight Fiction,” homosexuality is the norm and straight people form an oppressed minority. In “Career Move,” poets are flown first-class to Hollywood to make million-dollar deals, while screenwriters struggle in near-oblivion for publication in obscure journals. Amis fans will love it, but the rest of us aren’t likely to be converted.
The Daiquiri Girls, by Toni Graham. Massachusetts $24.95
This 1997 AWP Award winner has been described as showing us “the different possibilities of our own lives”—a depres