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Notes on Current Books, Winter 1988

ISSUE:  Winter 1988

The late Anglo-Irish writer Elizabeth Bowen produced so many novels, short stories, and collections of nonfiction in a half-century career—21 volumes—one supposes that even longtime Bowen admirers have not read everything. For us—and curious new readers—this compilation of essays, reviews, letters, broadcast scripts, and autobiographical pieces is particularly handy and welcome. Ms. Lee, an English critic and teacher, provides an informative preface and illuminating introductions to each section that fix these pieces in the context of Bowen’s life and work. Perhaps most immediately rewarding are the final autobiographical fragments written shortly before the author’s death in 1973, and the dozen straight essays—impressions of literary London in the 20’s and 30’s, London under bombardment in 1940, and on a variety of persons, places, and concerns, especially her art. The last are particularly valuable. The principles and methods of a writer who could create such flawless books as A House in Paris and Death of the Heart and many of whose 80 published short stories are as fine as any in the English language merit the attention of anyone interested in the craft of fiction.

The Burial-Places of Memory: Epic Underworlds in Vergil, Dante, and Milton, by Ronald R. Macdonald. Massachusetts $20

Perhaps we do not need another book on Vergil, nor another book on Dante, and surely not another study of Milton, yet a book on all three poets that shows their shared relationship to the epic tradition is new. Macdonald reads his chosen texts closely (perhaps a little too closely, considering his unwillingness to associate his subject with other major epic monuments); his use of existing scholarship, which could have been overwhelming, is selective, leaving lots of room for his own considered judgments and insights into the development of epic structures and thematic innovations.

Classical Presences in Seventeenth-Century English Poetry, by George Lord. Yale $23.50

Nothing other than a reissuing of several essays that Lord had previously published in various books, journals, and collections, this work hardly offers the integrated outlook, the unified scheme of argument, that one would expect or desire. Lord deals specifically with Chapman (and his Homer), Milton, Marvell, Dryden, and Pope, major partakers of the Renaissance epic or anti-epic; yet he fails to include as primary a reclassicist as Jonson, offering the inexplicable, if not erroneous, “explanation” that “Jonson’s neo-Latin epigrams and elegies did not establish a strong English tradition and have been brilliantly analyzed in some recent studies.” Likewise, he admits that Herrick “adapted minor Latin modes,” but he fails to explain why Herrick, too, has been exiled from his survey.

Alive and Writing: Interviews with American Authors of the 1980s, by Larry McCaffery and Sinda Gregory. Illinois $22.50

Thirteen lively and informative interviews in the Paris Review mode: Walter Abish, Max Apple, Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver, Samuel Delany, Barry Hannah, Russell Hoban, William Kennedy, Ursula Le Guin, Thomas McGuane, Tom Robbins, Ron Silliman, and Edmund White. McCaffery and Gregory do an excellent job of getting their subjects to discuss their work in substantive terms. Each reveals his or her own sense of what it is to be a contemporary American writer during a period of diversity and discovery.

Reading Pound Reading: Moderism after Nietzsche, by Kathryne V. Lindberg. Oxford $29.95

Lindberg Offers a “reading of Ezra Pound’s reading procedure,” focusing on his “neglected polemical and pedagogical writings.” She sees Pound as an incipient deconstructionist, in contrast to T.S. Eliot, the self-appointed redeemer of an organic tradition. Where Eliot found individual talent incorporated into the tradition, Pound saw creators who disrupted culture, translating and interpolating fragments—of texts, of cultures—to create new texts and cultures to be fragmented, translated, and so on. Lindberg takes Pound’s cultural self-consciousness to be characteristically American, seeking originality both in European high culture and in the rejection of Europe. Unfortunately, her penchant for deconstructionist word play and elliptical interpretations render this suggestive work inaccessible for the uninitiated.

The Poe Log, compiled by Dwight Thomas and David K. Jackson. G. K. Hall $75

The publication of The Poe Log is an important event in American literary studies. Like The Melville Log (on which it is explicitly modeled) and Blake Records, The Poe Log is an exhaustive compendium of the known contemporary references to Poe’s life, work, and reputation. Like Melville and Blake, Poe is a figure whose biography has from the beginning been inseparable from romantic legends and romantic conceptions of tortured and neglected genius. The real stories of all of these lives are less melodramatic than the legends, but they are perhaps more interesting and certainly more worthy of admiration. What strikes one about Poe is the sheer amount of labor he accomplished as editor, reviewer, poet, and writer. Whatever critics may make of his struggles with alcoholism or his irascible personality, the evidence is now available to consider Poe as he was: a supremely gifted and hardworking professional man of letters whose career should have been longer. Though the price of this volume will keep it off most private shelves, Thomas and Jackson’s work will be welcomed by Poe scholars and Americanists when it appears in libraries.

The Renewal of Literature: Emersonian Reflections, by Richard Poirier. Random House $19.95

This collection of essays demonstrates what readers of the journal Raritan have known for some time, that Richard Poirier is writing some of the most vital, sophisticated, and brilliant criticism in America now. The essays share concerns with Emerson; they treat subjects like the nature of genius, the status of “the self,” the place of literature and art within culture, the relations between politics and the literary imagination. But the writing here is authentically Emersonian not by virtue of shared concerns but because it is, in the fashion of the Concord Sage, lively, iconoclastic, and wise. Brief though it is, the volume is a major achievement.

Domestic Privacies: Samuel Johnson and the Art of Biography, edited by David Wheeler. Kentucky $18

Samuel Johnson’s biographical writings may be treated as data of general literary history, as evidence of Johnson’s opinions about life and art, or (in their own right) as masterpieces of prose writing. Domestic Privacies, a timely, useful, but rather miscellaneous collection of essays, contains something in each of these modes and, in addition, has essays on pedagogy and recent critical directions. The pedagogical essay is particularly welcome: a call to reintroduce our students to Johnson, not as an historical oddity, but as a man with emulable habits of mind. While the final essay discusses several recent books and articles, the more complete listing in its attached bibliography regrettably lacks annotation.

History and the Prism of Art, by Mary Ellis Gibson. Ohio State $25

This is a highly intelligent and discriminating study—one that not only examines how history functions in Browning’s art but also explores the different meanings which that term held for him. Indeed, it is the special care with which Gibson employs such terms as “history,” “myth,” or “belief” that is the distinguishing feature of her study. Her most valuable contribution is the way that she carries her examination of the effect of poetic form on historical writing into problems of how our critical assumptions, and our assumptions about history, inform our interpretations of Browning’s work. While not for general readers, this is certainly a study which readers familiar with Browning’s work should find most exciting.

Virginia Woolf and Bloomsbury: A Centenary Celebration, edited by Jane Marcus. Indiana $24.95

Here are 15 articles collected to celebrate Virginia Woolf’s centenary. The first few are by such established authors as Nigel Nicolson, Noel Annan, and Michael Holroyd; the rest are by assorted writers with a distinctly feminist slant. The whole book has been put together by Jane Marcus, whose own slant is clearly shown in her “Introduction: Umbrellas and Bluebonnets.” Some of these essays are more interesting than others, but not one is of any great importance.

Criticism in Society, by Imre Salusinszky. Methuen $18.95

This book presents interviews with Derrida, Frye, Bloom, Hartman, Kermode, Said, Johnson, Lentricchia, and Miller. Like most books of interviews, it is a mixed bag. The conversations are remarkable for their weird combinations of self-importance and self-criticism, an inflated sense of the critical mission and a sense of criticism’s limits, and conscious or unconscious insularity combined with the need to claim that criticism has some important social function. There is a chummy, show-biz quality to the interviews, as befits a star system. Salusinszky evidently prides himself on being a smart-aléck, and whenever anyone mentions “my good friend X” you can be sure X is about to be attacked. Johnny Carson goes to Yale. Salusinszky had the interesting idea of asking each critic except Derrida to interpret a poem by Stevens, “Not Ideas about the Thing But the Thing Itself.” These interpretations are uniformly, shockingly lame, which will probably reinforce many people’s suspicion that literary theory is a way to avoid commenting on particular literary texts without foregoing the pleasure of reading and teaching them. Still, these are intelligent and colorful people. Barbara Johnson’s apology for deconstruction is particularly cogent.

Victorian Bloomsbury: The Early Literary History of the Bloomsbury Group, Volume One, by S.P. Rosenbaum. St. Martin’s $24.95

This earnest volume concentrates on Bloomsbury beginnings: on Leslie Stephen, “the father of Bloomsbury,” and on Cambridge, the nursery of so many of its talents. The Cambridge chapters are devoted to Literary Education and Philosophical Education and are followed by Cambridge Writings: Memoirs, Apostle Papers, Poems, Plays, Parodies. “Any history of Bloomsbury,” Rosenbaum writes, “must realise the centrality of writing in their achievements, just as any literary history must refer, implicitly at least, to the temporal order of its texts.” This he does skillfully and at length. This book will be followed by a second, Edwardian Bloomsbury, which will comment on the literary beginnings of Bloomsbury in the years after Cambridge and before the First World War.

Against the American Grain, Myth and History in William Carlos Williams, Jay Wright, and Nicolás Guillen, by Vera M. Kutzinski. Johns Hopkins $29.50

Kutzinski’s is a torrid polemic against the literary canon, as traditionally conceived, for it excludes Afro-American and Hispanic literature, or else segregates it into canons of its own. Her point is reasonable; her rhetoric, unfortunately, is not. The good guys in her book are writers such as Williams, who dress in deconstructive garb and perform what she calls “allegories of unreading”; the bad guys are academics and other stodgy defenders of the status quo, who live within the confines of the library, where we may assume that they simple-mindedly “read.” Her broad range and obvious learning testify to much time spent in such places; one only wishes that she had devoted more time and space to reading and less to fitting her New World writers into a fight between Old World ideologies, including Derrida’s.

Selected Prose of Alexander Pope, edited by Paul Hammond. Cambridge $39.50

Looking at the title of this volume, Matthew Arnold might have expected it to include An Essay on Man or The Dunciad, but this is a scholarly edition, and not one based on the arch premise that what we usually think of as Pope’s poetry is no more than versified prose. Hammond includes all the important texts one might expect to find in such a volume. It is particularly welcome to have available a complete and well-edited version of Pope’s marvelous bit of satiric literary criticism, Peri Bathous, or, The Art of Sinking in Poetry. The volume also includes several works central to the understanding of Pope’s own poetry, such as A Discourse on Pastoral Poetry and his peculiar effort to forestall political criticism of The Rape of the Lock, an essay called A Key to the Lock. Hammond also includes Pope’s preface to his edition of Shakespeare, which, although not as important a critical document as Samuel Johnson’s preface to his edition, still is worth reading today, if only as a way of studying 18th-century attitudes toward Shakespeare. In addition to other essays, the volume includes a generous selection from Pope’s correspondence.

HISTORYNew York Intellect, by Thomas Bender. Knopf $25

Bender’s study of the intellectual history of New York City from the 1750’s to the 1940’s is one of the rare scholarly books that will fascinate and entertain the general reader. Not that Bender’s book is unserious—in fact, he concludes with an important and moving plea for the rejeuvenation of our intellectual life by reuniting academicism with the civic ideal embodied by many of the major figures he discusses. The book’s appeal is much like that of the city itself. Bender has taken from New York life the passion for ideas and the sense of their importance and also satisfied the reader’s natural curiosity about the glamorous, tough-minded, and creative celebrities, intellectual and artistic, that New York has attracted and fostered throughout its history. New York Intellect presents an historical narrative and an ideal; it both chronicles and calls for the union of energetic creativity, rigorous intellectuality, a pragmatic yet idealistic democratic politics, and the civic pride that has characterized New York’s most interesting periods. Anyone who has ever been intrigued by America’s most important city will enjoy this handsome and readable book.

Class and Tennessee’s Confederate Generation, by Fred Arthur Bailey. North Carolina $21

We have yet to answer the most basic questions about the South. Did slavery create a real democracy for white men or a highly class-conscious social order? Did poor Southern soldiers believe they were fighting a rich man’s fight? Was the New South really very new? Fred Bailey’s book addresses these problems from an interesting new viewpoint: an analysis of 1,250 questionnaires sent to Civil War veterans between 1915 and 1923 by Tennessee’s state library. Although the authors of the questions believed the Old South more democratic than otherwise, Bailey finds a different message. Everywhere he looks he discovers class difference and conflict. Such a perennial topic of debate cannot be settled by such a sample, of course, but the fresh perspective is fascinating even if the conclusions remain unpersuasive.

The History of Statistics: The Measurement of Uncertainty before 1900, by Stephen M. Stigler. Harvard $25

Many people know about the influence of astronomy on terrestrial concerns via Kepler, Galileo, and Newton and their successors—a kind of successful astrology. But how many are aware of its influence on psychology and the social sciences? Beginning in 1897, George Yule applied a relation between regression and least squares to pauperism and out-relief—in more modern terms, he asked if a change in poverty could be ascribed to a change in proportion of welfare. To answer this, he used algorithms which astronomers and geodesists had developed early in the 19th century in dealing with observational errors. The social scientists took the better part of a century to see how they could make use of the astronomers’ work, whereas psychologists like Fechner and Ebbinghaus saw its value more quickly. This was apparently because the psychologists had control over their experiments in a way the social scientists did not. This is only one among many of Mr. Stigler’s illuminations of what some take to be a dull subject. Those interested in statistics or the social sciences, or more generally in the paths of discovery, will find his stories and analyses lively and enlightening.

Anvil of Victory: The Communist Revolution in Manchuria, 1945—1948, by Steven I. Levine. Columbia $35

When China fell, it did so not in one ponderous crash but slowly, province by province, and Manchuria was among the first and most important to go. Lia Piao’s Northeast People’s Liberation Army seized China’s most highly industrialized province after some bitter fighting, only to find that Stalin’s troops had looted the place. Nevertheless, possession of Manchuria gave the Communists a critical base, and the fall of the whole country came a few months later. Levine tells as complete a story as we are likely to get of this important conquest, at least until more Chinese sources are forthcoming.

The Embarrassment of Riches, by Simon Schama. Knopf$39.95

From the peculiar and cruel drowning cell to the sexual iconography of Jan Steen, from numismatic emblems to child’s play, Schama’s book abounds in fascinating, alluring portraits of Dutch life during the Golden Age. His book constitutes a cornucopia of Netherlandish culture—”shameless eclecticism has been my only methodological guide,” he admits—beautifully illustrated and well-written throughout. Yet Schama’s eclecticism can too rigidly pass from one subject to another without due regard for a shaping theme or structure. His work seems, at times, like a series of brief monographs, interesting and entertaining, yet haphazard, exposing what is, perhaps, Schama’s greatest weakness: an inability to effect large generalizations. Those generalizations which he does offer can appear too forced. Still, Schama provides a feast of a history, profuse in its example, anecdote, and intelligent inquiry.

From Slave South to New South: Public Policy in Nineteenth-Century Georgia, by Peter Wallenstein. North Carolina $27.50

Of the two great constants in life, death has received by far the greater amount of scholarly attention. Taxation and spending are not the sort of topics to appeal at first, though everyone recognizes their importance. Peter Wallenstein has broken considerable new ground in his impressive study of these somewhat unpromising areas in 19th-century Georgia, and the result is a refreshing redrawing of the map of Southern history. It turns out that, contrary to every stereotype, Georgia was always ready to spend, so long as it did not have to tax its citizens heavily to do so. The profligacy of Reconstruction also turns out to be a myth, as does the stringency of the Redeemers. Such knowledge allows us to reconceive of a host of other topics in new ways, and that is what exciting scholarship is about.

A Book of Days in American History, by Larry Shapiro. Scribner’s $13.95

This fascinating book is a collection of significant or interesting events from American history, arranged by day of the month. So, for example, on May 5 you will find the first train robbery (1865, North Bend, Ohio); the Scopes trial (1925); the killing of an Oregon woman and five children by bombs dropped from Japanese balloons (1945); Kruschev’s announcement that the U-2 spy plane had been shot down (1960); and the first American astronaut in space (1961, Alan Shepherd). Not every day was this dramatic, but Shapiro’s research has uncovered enough facts, both familiar and unusual, to reward repeated browsings. The book is beautifully illustrated; paintings, old photographs, political cartoons, eyewitness drawings of events, all give the facts listed the immediacy and accessibility of the best history writing. Handsomely designed and very reasonably priced, particularly given the number and quality of the illustrations, it is an excellent gift for anyone interested in American history.

Gibbon’s Solitude: The Inward World of the Historian, by W.B. Camochan. Stanford $29.50

W. B. Camochan is always learned and interesting (even at those few points where he is not completely convincing) as he brings biography, Freud, philosophy, and literary history to bear on the study of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall and Autobiographies. Camochan discusses the historian’s mental “solitude,” his quest for authority through an Olympian (or perhaps Capitoline) point of view, his “Antonine” irony (as distinguished from the “Augustan” irony of Swift and Pope), his problems with depicting “character,” and his attempts at judicious self-revelation.

The Cambridge History of China, Volume XIV, The People’s Republic, Part 1: The Emergence of Revolutionary China 1949—1965, edited by Roderick MacFarquhar and John K. Fairbank. Cambridge $89.50

The appearance of this volume suggests that, after three decades as the preserve of social scientists, the People’s Republic has now entered the realm of history. That eight of 13 chapters are by political scientists and two by economists neither demonstrates that history has coopted the social sciences nor the reverse—only that historians are late-comers to the study of the recent past. Perhaps, as Fairbank claims, we are witnessing the emergence of a hyphenated hybrid—”the social scientist-historian.” Fairbank’s introduction shows that historical perspective is by no means wasted in the interpretation of contemporary events, and the roster of contributors proves that he and his co-editor have excelled in the foremost task of Sinitic administrators: “choosing men (and women) of talent.” Frederick C. Teiwes and Kenneth Liberthal on domestic politics, Mineo Nakajima and Allen S. Whiting on foreign relations, Roderick MacFarquhar (epilogue), and Michel Oksenberg (bibliographical essay) may be the most impressive cluster of luminati since the Tongzhi Restoration. The decision to give two chapters each to economics (Nicholas R. Lardy), education (Suzanne Pepper), and the Party and the intellectuals (Merle Goldman) manifests imperial breadth of vision seldom attained since the reign of Qian Long.

The New History and the Old: Critical Essays and Reappraisals, by Gertrude Himmelfarb. Harvard $20

This is the sort of book that gives Reason and Truth bad names. Himmelfarb’s criticism of the new history (i.e. psychoanalytic or statistical approaches to history) amounts to little more than curmudgeonly complaints, empty assertions, and a lot of huffing and puffing about the importance of keeping traditional history alive. What does Himmelfarb offer in place of the fancy new methods? “[The historian] is content to try to understand the past as best—and as imperfectly—as it can be known.” As if how to understand the past were not the very issue under debate. Except for a strong essay on British Marxist historians, the pieces collected here are full of tired pieties, delivered with an imperiousness (“this too shall pass”) that is all the more irritating because Himmelfarb’s defense of the “old history” is so flabby.

The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West, by Patricia Nelson Limerick. Norton $17.95

This important contribution to the new history of the American West challenges the popular media’s romanticization of the West and the dominant academic view of Western history fostered by Frederick Jackson Turner’s “Frontier Thesis” of 1893. Limerick argues that the “frontier” never closed and that the process of conquest—over native peoples and natural resources—continues in a pattern that has never changed: “Conquest forms the historical bedrock of the whole nation, and the American West is a preeminent case study in conquest and its consequences. . . The West has been. . .the prime example of the boom/bust instability of capitalism.”

LIVES & LETTERSLast Letters: Prisons and Prisoners of the French Revolution, by Olivier Blanc. Farrar, Straus & Giroux $22.50

While going through the public prosecutor’s files in the Archives Nationales, Olivier Blanc happily chanced upon an extraordinary cache of final letters written by men and women condemned to death by the Paris Revolutionary Tribunal. Destined for families, lovers, or friends, these letters were intercepted by the courts and, like their imprisoned authors, thrown haphazardly together. The social backgrounds of the unfortunate writers range from simple soldiers and artisans to aristocrats and the former queen, Marie-Antoinette. Yet, despite such great social and political disparities, certain commonalities exist: the desire to settle debts, the imperative of explaining and defending oneself, and, most movingly, the overriding need to be remembered by one’s family and loved ones. By his discovery and careful editing of these letters—providing, when possible, biographical information on their authors— Blanc has rendered a great service to both their memories and to history.

The Twilight Struggle: Tales of the Cold War, by William Attwood. Harper & Row $20

A working journalist who eventually became an American ambassador to two countries and who rose to become publisher of Newsday, Attwood witnessed some of the critical events of the Cold War, and here he tells us as much as he remembers, and sometimes a little more. He can be forgiven for the occasional embellishment and the odd foray into waters far from the ones he swims most comfortably in, however, because he knows how to tell a story, and he has known many world leaders who provided him with material. Highly enjoyable.

The Neo-Pagans: Rupert Brooke and the Ordeal of Youth, by Paul Delany. Macmillan $24.95

A literary genius is seldom well-served by his biography: the rampant ordinariness, the detailed triviality of his life will swamp the perfection of his work, and the reader will end up wondering how Art grew from such plain soil. I held high hopes for this biography of Rupert Brooke simply because his was more literary promise than literary genius and he was, in his day, as renowned for his beauty, his youthfulness, his promise, and his tragic death as for his poetry. Unfortunately, what emerges from this detailed biography is one more exemplum of how youth is wasted on the young: Brooke’s life consisted, it seems, of egotistical passions—a few consumated homosexual ones, a few mostly uneonsumated heterosexual ones; of flirtations with socialism and snobbery; of breakdowns and escapes—to the country, to the continent, to the South Seas, to war. Never, however, does he emerge as anything but self-indulgent and ordinary. Delany’s research appears thorough. He writes with an obvious determination to make Brooke’s passions seem significant— he fails. He gives short shrift to Brooke’s final two years—the years of his best poetry, of his most exotic travel—because, I assume, the Neo-Pagans, Brooke’s peer group, had by then broken up amid marriages and quarrels. If the lure of the Rupert Brooke legend still draws you, read this book—you’ll be cured.

A Design for Living: Vienna in the Twenties, by Lillian Langseth-Christensen. Viking $18.95

Vienna in the 1920’s was an enormous head on a tiny body. The peace settlement at Versailles had destroyed the Hapsburg Empire, leaving the great capital all dressed up in increasingly shabby clothes that no one wanted to see any more. No one, that is, but artistic types who knew that the life of the mind was flourishing now that politics was out of the way. Lillian Langseth-Christensen was such an individual, and she persuaded her parents, rich New Yorkers, to let her go to Vienna to study with Josef Hoffmann. Out of that three-year stay comes this elegant, graceful little memoir. Highly recommended.

The Spy Wore Red: My Adventures as an Undercover Agent in World War II, by Aline, Countess of Romanones. Random House $18.95

How Aline Griffith of Pearl River, New York, got to be a countess is less a mystery than how she got to be a published author. These insipid memoirs would make Nancy Drew blush in embarrassment and the Bobbsey Twins turn in their union cards. This is not to say that Aline Griffith did not do her bit for the cause; it is just that her bit could be told in five minutes, with time left over for a rerun. “Beware,” one of her characters warns. “Under Lisbon’s frivolity lurks a city of deadly intrigue.” Enough said.

Harry Hopkins: Ally of the Poor and Defender of Democracy, by George Mcjimsey. Harvard $25

Because successful careers in administration are characterized by strings of bureaucratic triumphs and managerial innovations which frankly make for tedious reading, biographies of professional administrators tend to appeal only to an acquired taste. George Mcjimsey’s account of the life of Harry Hopkins fits this mold. Although much of Hopkins’ life was devoted to making exciting things happen for Franklin Roosevelt—Oliver North would stand in awe of Hopkins’ ability to find “a way”—the bulk of his career passed in improvising and fine tuning the governmental apparatus driving the New Deal and the Allied effort in World War II. Thus the author’s concentration on the latter is a faithful representation of the career of a man whom Winston Churchill once dubbed “Lord Root of the Matter.” But Mcjimsey’s preference for clinical over artistic expression partially obscures the intangible contributions to America’s survival of a man of immense compassion and intense personal suffering. A life as rich as Hopkins’ merits more a portrait and less a photograph than is offered here.

Letters from Side Lake: A Chronicle of Life in the North Woods, by Peter M. Leschak. Harper & Row $15.95

Just as there are those who are driven to the south, to the sun and lush tropical vegetation and abundant animal life, so there are people whose instincts drive them north, to the latitudes of the peculiar sun, the alternating whites and greens, the vast emptiness. The writer Peter Leschak is such a northerner by nature, and this is an account of his and his wife’s attempts to come to grips with the northern Minnesotan wilderness. Leschak does not have the gifts of a Barry López, but he tells a story well and he comes close to capturing the haunting mysteries of the great North.

Love is Colder Than Death: The Life and Times of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, by Robert Katz. Random House $19.95

Perhaps no contemporary filmmaker has evoked as much admiration and loathing as the late German director Rainer Fassbinder, and Robert Katz shows why. Using extensive interviews with Fassbinder’s co-workers and friends, and having been himself briefly associated with the director, Katz deftly recounts the bizarre story of Fassbinder’s career, one filled with no-holds-barred psychological manipulation, brief moments of calm, and staggering addictions to sex, drugs, and food. At times Katz careens toward the melodrama of tabloid newsprint, but generally he records Fassbinder’s life with a balance of responses: fascination, admiration, repulsion, and incredulity. For students of Fassbinder, this is an indispensable and intriguing profile of the relation between his psychology and his work.

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself, by Harriet A. Jacobs, edited by Jean Fagan Yellin. Harvard $37.50 cloth, $9.95 paper

Harriet Jacobs was born a slave in North Carolina in 1813 and died a free woman (bought for $300 in 1852) in 1897. She wrote this account of her life some time after she escaped to the North. Her life as a fugitive slave was no more secure than her life in the house and neighborhood of her master. Harriet Jacobs calls herself Linda Brent in her story and also changes the names of her North Carolina family and master as well as the names of her Northern friends and employers. Jean Fagan Yellin has identified them all, and this adds a great deal to this moving document. Harriet Jacobs had a gift for narrative and, naturally, strong feelings about her life and fate and that of those around her. The story would make an interesting TV mini-series.

The Bondage of Love, by Molly Lefebure. Norton $17.95

This life of Mrs. Samuel Taylor Coleridge attempts, with some success, to change the picture of Coleridge’s wife, Sara Fricker, presented in the past by some of his devoted friends, Wordsworth and others, and various biographers over the years. The first chapter begins with an account of her spirited way of speaking, her “Lingo Grande,” set down in a letter written by her brother-in-law, Robert Southey, in 1821 to one of his friends. The whole troubled course of the marriage is chronicled in this book, with most of the sympathy given to Sara, though Coleridge is viewed with pity and dispassion. Coleridge’s relations with his children are viewed with far less sympathy. Throughout the book, the perils of opium and the tragic effect of addiction on the victim and all around him are graphically portrayed.

Letters of Carl Van Vechten, by Bruce Kellner. Yale $25

This collection of letters is a testimony both to the extent of Van Vechten’s social, literary, and artistic network and to his brilliance as a letter writer. Each letter is like a small performance. Van Vechten’s epistolary energy never flags as he portrays in no uncertain terms not only the spirit of his friends, his acquaintances, himself, but also the spirit of the times as he knew and experienced it. The letters are informative and entertaining.

Out of Step, by Sidney Hook. Harper & Row $29.95

This intellectual memoir makes fascinating reading for those interested in the history of political ideas and political movements in 20th-century America. As a key theme, it explores, from a personal perspective, the curious relationship of left and liberal intellectuals in America and the West with Soviet communism and the totalitarian temptation. It also provides a series of brief and engaging portraits of some of the leading figures of social and political thought in the past fifty years, including Bertrand Russell, John Dewey, Albert Einstein, and Bertolt Brecht. Of perhaps greatest significance, however, this book elucidates the author’s philosophy of ethical naturalism by examining how Hook applied it in his own personal political and moral development. Believing that questions of right and wrong can be settled through an investigation of empirical fact and experience, Hook, on the basis of accumulated evidence, revised over the course of his life his fundamental positions on such issues as Soviet communism, the existence of Israel, and the role of the United States in world affairs, as well as his views of the relationship of the values of intelligence and moral courage. In one thing Hook has always been consistent, however, and that is his dedication to the ideals of human liberty and freedom.

FICTIONThe Complete Short Stories of Thomas Wolfe, edited by Francis E. Skipp. Scribner’s $24.95

Francis Skipp has collected all 58 of Thomas Wolfe’s short stories and, using surviving documents, meticulously edited them so that they correspond as closely as possible to Wolfe’s intentions. He presents the stories in the order in which they appeared; the last, “The Spanish Letter,” is published here for the first time. Wolfe didn’t intend to write short fiction; most stories had been salvaged from his novels when an editor, sifting through his massive manuscripts, extracted irrelevant material. “My life . . .has been spent in solitude and wandering,” Wolfe wrote, and underlying these stories is the despair of a lonely, tormented man who “transformed the story of his life into fiction.” Even “April, Late. April,” the exuberant, erotic celebration of his love for his mistress, has a frenzied, cannibalistic intensity. Wolfe died in his 38th year, leaving behind a “chest high” stack of typescripts from which Harper editor Edward Aswell, taking broad liberties, drew two posthumous novels and 21 short stories. There are weak pieces in this collection along with Wolfe’s best. In his valuable preface, Skipp describes his editorial method, discussing cuts he has restored. While Wolfe’s verbosity can be tiresome, and his self-absorbed despair may seem trivial, he stands as one of our finest writers. In undertaking this monumental task, Skipp has done a service for Wolfe, for his admirers, and for students of American literary history.

The Boys of Winter, by Wilfrid Sheed. Knopf $16.95

No one is better qualified than Sheed to tell this in-joke about writers and those necessary wet nurse-adversaries who hawk bound copies of words to the public. Born into a publishing family, he’s the author of nine stylish, witty novels and five works of nonfiction. He regularly reviews the works of others. His latest contribution to letters should find a receptive audience among those who have ever had anything to do with the literary life, particularly in such writers’ colonies as Charlottesville, Key West, and “Nether Hampton,” Sheed’s fictional composite of the Long Island Hamptons and Sag Harbor. Just plain readers should find it almost as funny. The plot as such, involving softball, sex, and the perpetual war between writers, publishers, and each other, is deft enough but less important than the satirical observations of editor-narrator (and secret writer) Jonathan Oglethorpe, whose wit is biting, though not too savage, and unflagging throughout even when things turn gruesome. It’s not that he’s insensitive to tragedy; he just can’t resist drollery as an antidote. By portraying him thus, Sheed may be saying that any comic novel, at bottom, is really just one long whistle in the dark.

A Woman Named Drown, by Padgett Powell. Farrar, Straus & Giroux $14.95

The author of the highly acclaimed Edisto (1984) lets a few jokes, including the title, get away from him in his new novel, but on the whole Padgett Powell does not disappoint. Jilted by his faraway girlfriend, the antihero of A Woman Named Drown chances on an older woman who suggests a good, pointless trip down south. And why not? It’s as good a place as any to run away from love and a better place than most to find a believable assortment of oddball citizens, some of whom take on unexpected, powerful dimensions in this second novel by an unusually gifted young American writer.

Conversations with Lord Byron on Perversions, 163 Years After His Lordship’s Death, by Amanda Prantera. Atheneum $16.95

One part Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, one part Nabokov’s Sebastian Knight, and one part Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot, this wacky and coy novella is a Byron amateur’s delight! A beautiful young researcher, expert in Byron, asks a computer (fed all the known information about the poet) questions that Byron’s admiring readers desperately want answers to. And what do you think happens?

Works of Genius, by Richard Marek. Atheneum $16.95

In Works of Genius, Richard Marek juxtaposes a classic drama—the “selling” of one’s soul to an evil-doer to achieve secular aspirations—with the glamorous, contemporary New York publishing world. Eric Meredith was the author who fulfilled literary agent Tony Silver’s professional dreams as Meredith’s novels catapulted onto the best-seller lists, sold for literary rights in the seven-digits, and were made into movies. Silver, however, refuses to recognize how Meredith has destroyed his own family and eventually Silver himself. Richard Marek draws extensively upon his knowledge of the publishing industry in this first novel, and although the various descriptions of publishing often seem too didactic and stilted, they nevertheless add a touch of reality and interest to a tale that often wanders unskillfully into macabre scenes.

The Rat, by Günter Grass. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich $17.95

In his most successful work since The Tin Drum, Germany’s best-known modern author treads some familiar leftist ground, attacking the arms race, industrialism, the collapse of morals (as he sees it), indifference to suffering, and more. The difference here is that, unlike The Flounder and Dog Years, the new novel makes effective use of Mr. Grass’s considerable comic talent. Our old friend Oskar Matzerath is back, planning a trip to his Kashubian homeland, and the Flounder himself occasionally peeks above the waves. The rat of the title is a brown one, representative of the most successful mammal in history, and it is she who ties this whole epic farce together.

A Dirty Distant War, by R. M. Nathanson. Viking Penguin $19.95

If you enjoyed the author’s action-packed adventures of Captain John Reisman of the OSS in the European theatre of WW-II (The Dirty Dozen), you’ll be pleased with this successful sequel that takes place in Southeast Asia and probably will likewise be filmed in Hollywood.

The Mind and Body Shop, by Frank Parkin Atheneneum $13.95

The British social speciality of conveying preposterous imagery in matter-of-fact language is well represented in this mordantly whimsical account of the imminent collapse of the universities. The near future of a department of philosophy subjected to criteria of performance borrowed from the market-place leads logically to an innovative merchandising scheme administered by an ex-convict. But prospects for franchising the product become dependent upon an excruciatingly plausible student enthusiasm. The novel energetically balances an imaginative vision of the prolonged collapse of British culture with an all-too-true array of the incompetents harbored within academic institutions.

Ghostly Populations, by Jack Matthews. John Hopkins $14.95

In these 17 stories, Jack Matthews explores the power of the past—history, dream, memory—to influence and become part of our daily lives. At their best, the stories show how easily the boundary between past and present is eroded. When they occasionally fail, it is because they lapse into eerie, trick endings one would expect to see on The Twilight Zone. Though each of the stories is skillfully written, the collection is not memorable. The heavy emphasis on ghosts (real and symbolic) leaches power from the real characters until they, and the stories, fade like apparitions: seemingly in the mind when read, then dissolving into nothingness on reflection.

Gabriel’s Lament, by Paul Bailey. Viking $17.95

The search for the missing mother, that Freudian “magic other,” is a common one in modern literature, but rarely has an author dealt with it so masterfully as Paul Bailey does in this new work. The mother, Amy, disappears at the novel’s beginning, and young Gabriel is left to lament her while enduring the godawfulest father in modern British fiction. Old Oswald means well enough, of course; that’s why he berates the 21-year-old Gabriel for having wet the bed as an infant. Chock full of black humor and enormous psychological insight, this is a splendid story told by an accomplished craftsman.

The Bread Loaf Anthology of Contemporary American Short Stories, by Robert Pack and Jay Parini, editors. New England $25 cloth, $12.95 paper

This superior collection of 23 superb short stories written in the past five years by the best modern American writers demonstrates conclusively that the United States still remains supreme in this literary genre.

A Southern Family, by Gail Godwin. Morrow $18.95

Gail Godwin’s ambitious seventh novel at once shares a similar theme to that of her earlier novel, A Mother and Two Daughters, and the writings of William Faulkner with her psychological penetration into the response of a Southern family living in a relatively-small Southern town to a sudden loss. Told from a variety of perspectives and by different voices, A Southern Family examines how each of the following members of the Quick family reacts to the suicide of Theo Quick: Claire, the successful New York novelist who cannot renounce her Mountain City origins; Lily, the fearsome, strong-willed matriarch; Ralph, who has achieved his life’s goals but remains vaguely unsatisfied; and Rafe, the Quicks’ college-aged son. Snow, Theo’s estranged wife, and Julia, Claire’s girlhood friend, provide outside views on the clannish, wealthy Quick family. Godwin’s 540-page novel manages a rare feat in fiction with its ability to win critic’s commendations and to entertain a mass-market readership.

Resurrectionists, by Russell Working. Iowa $14.95

Working, the youngest winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award, has written an accomplished collection of short stories which introduces him as a writer of unusual promise. The settings of his stories range from the West Indies to the streets of Los Angeles to the American Midwest, and his characters are equally diverse, including a photojournalist introduced to the Haitian islanders’ belief in zombiism, an ex-policeman working in a paper mill following his shooting injury, and a hospital patient on New Year’s Day. The theme which unites his stories is a restless longing for freedom and transcendence—resurrection—against backgrounds and circumstances which are harsh and often violent. Recommended.

Three Continents, by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Morrow $18.95

One sometimes wonders whether all the money the MacArthur Foundation has been pouring into the cause of genius ever bears any fruit, but here at last is a concrete result of one of their grants. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala dedicates her latest novel to the Foundation “for their most liberal—and liberating—support.” In choosing the subject of Three Continents, Jhabvala knows what she is writing about. Born in Germany and educated in England, she moved to India in 1951 after marrying an Indian architect, and now she lives in both Delhi and New York. She also divides her time between novels and screenplays, having authored, for example, the Academy Award winning script for the movie of E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View. With Three Continents, Jhabvala has come up with a novel which will perhaps eventually be made into a movie. The subject is certainly something Hollywood will be interested in. The novel chronicles the adventures of a pair of naive and wealthy American twins, who wander into a bewildering world of spirituality, here taking the form of a movement called Transcendental Internationalism (sound familiar?). Their spiritual odyssey takes them to England and then to India, where they uncover the corruption behind the spirituality. The subject of Three Continents is timely and compelling, and the novel unfolds with a kind of cinematic sweep.

Singing from the Well, by Reinaldo Arenas. Viking $16.95

Arenas is a Cuban, now living in New York. Singing from the Well, newly translated, was his first novel, originally published in 1967. To any reader familiar with modern Latin American literature, this work will establish Arenas on the radical fringes of magical realism: precious little realism peeks through the rampant fantasy. One can call this work a novel only insofar as that term has come to encompass all longer prose fictions. It would be truer and more meaningful to call it a fantasia, an extended dream work, of childhood rage. Like a dream, Singing from the Well has complete irreverence for any shared reality and to read it demands that one try to make sense of a child’s nightmare of fiendish parents and grandparents, of a world of totally realizable possibilities, most of them cruel. I doubt that many readers will find such effort worthwhile: dreams, especially ones that run for over 200 pages, usually interest only the dreamer and his hired analyst. This one is no exception.

The Rules of Attraction, by Bret Easton Ellis. Simon & Schuster $17.95

Bret Ellis—one of the 80’s chroniclers of the young, rich, and decadent—focuses on an exclusive, East-coast, liberal arts college, in his second novel. We follow three characters’ love affairs through a blur of sex, drugs, and expensive brand names. Like his first book, Less than Zero, this novel is ultimately unsatisfying: there are no characters whom one can care about or who make any insights from the endless debauchery. As a result, the story flattens into little more than reportage. On finishing this novel, one may comment of both author and characters: so much talent, yet so little done with it.

NATIONAL & INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRSCultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, by E.D. Hirsch, Jr. Houghton Mifflin $16.95

Hirsch’s book consists of about 150 pages of text that present both historical and theoretical explanations for the explosion of illiteracy in America, and it ends with a 65-page sample list of the cultural coinage—words, phrases, titles—that “every American should know.” It was a mistake to print “The List” with the initial presentation of the author’s ideas about cultural literacy: it is an easy target that leaves Hirsch’s flank exposed, inviting attacks that will depict his proposals as overly reductive and even simple-minded. The proposals are neither. In any case, Hirsch’s book should accomplish its stated aim of opening a heated and, hopefully, productive debate about the causes of illiteracy and whether or not major curriculum changes are part of the cure. The ultimate challenges to Hirsch’s own approach to the problem are much less educational than political. (In the end, the telling arguments against Hirsh will not be those that claim the project is reductive and too simple, but those that tag the whole as reactionary.) Hirsch recognizes this, of course, and argues fervently that the mastery of “traditional materials” among social “outsiders” is “politically progressive” because it moves the outsider into the mainstream culture, eradicating “class distinctions and barriers to opportunity.” If he can sell this point to liberals, Hirsch may carry the day by uniting opponents from both sides of the political (and educational) aisle.

Channels of Discourse, by Robert C. Allen. North Carolina $25

Television has not been with us very long, and to the extent that intellectuals consider television, there is a tradition of dismissing it as a less than serious, simpleton’s medium that trivializes the issues it addresses. Yet the truth is there is no medium or institution that has ever exerted such a commanding hold over the nation and our consciousness. Like it or not, we live in a society geared toward television. This book focuses on our relationship with television. Since television presents a particular world view, we should not ask whether television gives us the objective truth but rather attempt to find out how television represents the world. Critics of television work from a wide variety of theoretical frameworks or biases, and this book offers examples of the most influential approaches to evaluating television. While each essay asks the question, “How are meanings and pleasures produced in our engagement with television?”, each is designed to provoke further thought. In this it succeeds, and scholars will find the short bibliography of other works using a particular critical approach at the end of each chapter quite helpful.

Time Wars, by Jeremy Rifkin. Holt $18.95

It is easy to sympathize with Jeremy Rifkin’s concern that capitalist industrial culture will destroy the biological environment by producing and consuming goods at a pace that far outstrips the ability of natural resources to renew themselves. But it is not clear why he believes that Western concepts of time are the source of such disasters. A consumer culture can destroy the biosphere just as rapidly whether it measures the destruction in gentle, natural lunar months or in evil, computer-generated nanoseconds. Rifkin ruins a humane and sensible critique of current socio-economic arrangements by mounting a silly, sentimental polemic in which primitive and Third World time concepts are celebrated as being more in tune with the rhythms of nature than those of efficiency-obsessed Westerners, who grind themselves and their world to bits because they consult timepieces instead of the stars. Sentimentalizing the practices of every culture but one’s own is the most debilitating of liberal rhetorical strategies, but in Rifkin’s book it also hides an obvious truth: clocks don’t turn those peaceful forest dwellers into greedy despots; capitalist exports like lawyers, guns, and money do. Time Wars contains much interesting information on new research into the sociology and psychobiology of time, but the book’s thesis is weak and beside the point, and Rifkin’s presentation is repetitive.

Presidents and Foreign Policy Making: From FDR to Reagan, by Cecil V. Crabb, Jr. and Kevin V. Mulcahy. Louisiana $37.50 cloth, $15.95 paper

“Presidential direction is a crucial element in sound foreign policy making.” Thus the authors, writing before revelations of the Iran-Contra scandal, issue a prescient indictment of the foreign affairs management characterizing the administration of Ronald Reagan. This work tours the landscape of presidencies from FDR to the present in search of an institutional arrangement which would guarantee cohesion and competence in American foreign policy. Not surprisingly, no magic solutions appear. Nevertheless, the authors’ comprehensive historical treatment of how each president has re-created and then worked within the confines of his own foreign policy apparatus is enlightening. The moral is that, for the most part, each president eventually gets the kind of policy from his State Department and National Security Council he deserves—perhaps a lesson Reagan might more vividly take from Mary Shelley.


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