Skip to main content

Notes on Current Books, Winter 1992


ISSUE:  Winter 1992

This is an important and compelling book. Platt demonstrates how the shape of Chicago was transformed by the arrival of electricity. Electricity became handmaiden, harbinger, and symbol of progress, the means by which society refashioned itself through new machines for living and working. The deeper importance of Mr. Platt’s work lies in its depiction of the complex and halting nature of the emergence of the electric city. It took entrepreneurship in conjunction with technology, politics in tandem with economics and science, to achieve the peculiar network of power that at one stroke centralized control over the provision of electricity and created the basis for the suburbanization and homogenization of American culture.

The Battle of the Books: History and Literature in the Augustan Age, by Joseph M. Levine. Cornell $29.95

In this valuable contribution to the cultural history of the Augustan Age, Levine analyzes those events which dominated English intellectual life between 1690 and 1740: the “battle of the books,” in Swift’s phrase. Levine views the “battle” as that moment in intellectual history when modern scholarship—especially philology and archaeology—began to undermine the very classics which had motivated further learning about the ancient world in the first place. In the first section, Levine traces the debate over the use of classical models in modern literature. In the second section, Levine focuses on the debate over how to write—and generally use—history. Levine illuminates an important epoch in intellectual history, in engaging prose.

The Founders of the Western World. A History of Greece and Rome, by Michael Grant. Scribner’s $27.50

In his Essay on Rime (1945), Karl Shapiro faulted certain modernists for pastiching translation style in their original lyrics. Judging by this book, the vice is not peculiar to poets. An abridgment of four earlier works—including The Classical Greeks and The History of Rome—Founders reads exactly like the English trot of a very old Loeb Classical Library edition. Grant’s writing might be forgiven if offset by new information or fresh readings of old facts. But the sometime President and Vice-Chancellor of Khartoum University is content to repeat shopworn evidence and stale theses. Worse, he tirelessly (and pompously) exhorts the reader to revere the Western heritage, without showing why. A model of self-defeating procedure, Founders is grist for the cultural radicals’ mill. National Association of Scholars, please take note.

The Chronicle of San Juan de la Peña: A Fourteenth-Century Official History of the Crown of Aragón, translated with notes by Lynn H. Nelson. Pennsylvania $25.95 cloth, $11.95 paper

This chronicle is the first relatively complete history of the Kingdon of Aragón, the richest and most powerful of the early Iberian kingdoms. Organized by King Pedro IV in approximately 1372, it provides a fascinating, if frequently unreliable, account of the rise of Aragon and its consolidation of power in the 14th century. Its inaccuracies, repetitions, and silences tell us much about its use as a political document. As Nelson reminds us, “Like many medieval works (this chronicle) may be read profitably on a number of levels.” Much of the awkward prose of the medieval text has been smoothed out by the translator’s modern English. Useful notes fill in gaps, clarify doubts, or correct errors in the original. Readers interested in medieval history will find here a rich source of information and thought.

By the Law of Nature: Form and Value in Nineteenth-Century America, by Howard Horwitz. Oxford $39.95

With this volume Howard Horwitz proves that the new historicism, which used to be fun, can be just as stodgy and academic as the old. Sometimes, as in his treatment of Norris, he amasses impressive amounts of evidence to support and refine the claims of such predecessors as Walter Benn Michaels. At other times he strikes out on his own, most notably in a chapter delineating the homology between transcendentalism and protectionism. Throughout, however, the reader must wade through dutifully invoked sound bites of the usual suspects: Foucault, Marx, Lacan, Baudrillard, and so on. To those who are willing to get past this gratuitous scholarship, Horwitz offers many striking local insights.

Water From The Rock: Black Resistance in a Revolutionary Age, by Sylvia R. Frey. Princeton $29.95

To say, as Sylvia Frey does, that the American Revolutionary War in the South was a war about slavery is to say something new and important. In previous explanations of the Southern conflict, blacks had been marginalized—their roles reduced to guides, refugees, and sweating navvies. While Frey amply describes their physical place in the war, painting on a broad canvas the sheer ugliness and chaos of civil war, it is her patient analysis of the slaves’ place in British and American strategic thinking that will change the way historians approach the war in the South. Because what the British attempted to do in the Southern states, and how the Americans attempted to counter it, was inextricably tied to their thinking about slavery and the uses to which blacks could be put to win the conflict.

A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939—40, by William R. Trotter. Algonquin Books $22.95

Stalin shot the majority of his senior officers in 1937, packed more than half the survivors off to the Gulag, and then scratched his head in perplexity when tiny Finland stood up to what was left of the Red Army in 1939—40 and for a few weeks at least fought it on even terms. The Soviets eventually prevailed in this nearly forgotten little war, but Finland won the admiration and enduring respect of the world. Although the author of this book has nothing new to say on the war, he tells an old story reasonably well.

Spoilt Children of Empire: Westerners in Shanghai and the Chinese Revolution of the 1920s, by Nicholas R. Clifford. New England $40

There never was a sign reading “No dogs or Chinese” in that Shanghai park, but there might as well have been. The arrogant foreigners treated the natives like beasts of burden and worse, then professed shock when waves of xenophobia periodically crashed against the shore. In this splendid book Professor Clifford of Middlebury College sketches a portrait of a semicolonial system on its last legs.

The Facts of Reconstruction: Essays in Honor of John Hope Franklin, edited by Eric Anderson and Alfred A. Moss, Jr. Louisiana $29.95

This tribute could not be more fitting. Throughout his long career, John Hope Franklin has served as a model scholar. A pioneering black historian of the South, Franklin has combined empathy and moral conviction in equal proportions. The essays in this book, all of them written by an authority on a facet of Reconstruction, convey Franklin’s balance, common sense, and deep learning. Each essay offers an overview of the debate that has surrounded one controversial topic or another, crystalizes current opinion, then suggests avenues for further exploration. Anyone who wants to know the state of the art of Reconstruction studies would do well to start with this fine book.

The Bolshevik Party in Conflict: The Left Communist Opposition of 1918, by Ronald I. Kowalski Pittsburgh $34.95

Any political movement will sooner or later develop factions, and that is exactly what happened to the Bolsheviks in the early stages of their revolution. Railing against Lenin and the compromisers and appeasers, people like Bukharin and Radek and others insisted on a “pure” line in politics and a maximalist one in revolution. Castigated at the time and physically liquidated in the 1930s’, these people have now been “rehabilitated,” and Professor Kowalski rescues their 1918 activities from the obscurity that Stalin decreed.

Great Battles of the British Army, edited by David G. Chandler. North Carolina $34.95

Upon first glance, one might be tempted to dismiss this book, but that would deny one the pleasure of concise, accurate military history, which is written with flair. Each battle chosen for discussion in this work represents a company at Sandhurst, the Royal Military Academy. The articles are handled by respected military historians whose work entertains and educates the general reader and the professional scholar. The entire work is enhanced by fabulous color pictures, excellent maps, and detailed layouts of troop movements. Great Battles of the British Army is a delightful and useful addition to any library.

Love Customs in Eighteenth-Century Spain, by Carmen Martin Gaite. California $34.95

This fascinating study by Spain’s “First Lady of Letters” chronicles the cortejo, an odd and ambiguous 18th-century European custom brought into Spain via Italy and France by the Bourbon kings. Highborn married women often had men who paid them court, gave them little gifts, entertained them in public, and attended to their toilette (and other more intimate matters, according to some critics) in private, all with their husbands’ full consent. (Today we call a similar phenomenon “walkers.”) We learn a great deal about courting customs and marriage patterns as Martin Gaite draws on literary and historical documents to conclude that the very institution of marriage was weakened, rather than strengthened, during Spain’s Age of Enlightenment. The book is already a classic in its original version. It has been adequately translated (with a few minor infelicities) by Maria G. Tomsich.

History, The White House and the Kremlin: Statesmen as Historians, edited by Michael Fry. Pinter $45

It used to be that what went up had to come down, but that’s no longer true, and another old saw that has gone by the boards is that the only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history. Statesmen have made better use of the past since nuclear weapons upped the cost of mistakes rather dramatically. In this collection of essays on the ways policy-makers use history as a guide, a number of scholars ponder this interesting intellectual and political exercise.

Russia’s Women: Accommodation, Resistance, Transformation, edited by Barbara E. Clements, Barbara A. Engel, and Christine D. Worobec. California $45

Until the Mongol invasion in the 13th century, East Slav society was characterized by a progressive social organization in which women had secondary but not really inferior status. Genghis Khan and his troops changed all that, and in many respects women remained vassals until after World War II. In this splendid collection of essays by 15 major scholars, the evolution of womankind’s position in Russia receives the kind of sympathetic, intelligent study the subject deserves.

LITERARY STUDIESWhy Mona Lisa Smiles and Other Tales By Vasari, by Paul Barolsky. Penn State $22.50

In this work Barolsky continues the project he inaugurated in his last book, Michelangelo’s Nose, and it has the same virtues. Writing a graceful and lively prose, Barolsky manages to be learned without being pedantic. He again demonstrates the advantages of stepping outside the narrow boundaries of conventional academic disciplines. Focusing on Vasari’s Lives, Barolsky combines literary analysis with art history to open up new perspectives on Renaissance culture. He argues persuasively for Vasari’s importance as the origin of the idea of the artist as hero, a concept usually attributed to Romanticism in most cultural histories. Barolsky also advances the claim that Vasari should be treated as a skillful literary artist, on a par with the great masters of Renaissance prose narrative. In the process, Barolsky reveals how inventive Vasari was as a chronicler of Renaissance art history, thus complicating our understanding of the whole period. Like his earlier volume, Barolsky’s latest work constitutes an important contribution to Renaissance studies and cultural history in general. As to why Mona Lisa smiles, you will have to read the volume to find the most plausible solution to the mystery since Lawrence Durrell’s.

Lacan, by Malcolm Bowie. Harvard $19.95

Well-written, well-argued, cogent, enjoyable to read—these are hardly the words that spring to mind when one thinks of a book about one of the most obscure and self-absorbed thinkers influencing literary and cultural analysis today; yet they describe this remarkably accessible and intelligent new study of the French psychoanalyst. Refusing either dogged paraphrase or hieratic pronouncements, Bowie cuts to the essential issues of Lacan’s thought and intellectual development. For those put off by Lacan’s pomposities and those engaged by his brilliance, Bowie’s introduction is an indispensable new resource.

Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism, by Stanley Cavell. Chicago $8.95

Few philosophers would dare write a book which discussed Heidegger, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Kripke, and Rawls. Cavell, one of the most original and daring of contemporary American intellectuals, manages to say very useful things about all these people, as well as about Emerson. This book is one of a series which Cavell has been publishing lately; taken together they add up to a new version not only of American intellectual history, but of the history of world philosophy. Cavell is often obscure, but he is very much worth reading. There is gold between the lines.

Hindsight and Insight: Focalization in Four Eighteenth-Century French Novels, by William Edmiston. Penn State $29.95

No reductive application of Genette’s terms and distinctions to novels unmentioned in Figures 3, this volume refines and expands the concept of focalization to encompass all the possibilities of first-person narrative and then tests the framework on Manon Lescaut and Diderot’s La Religieuse, as well a lesser known works by Crébillon and Marivaux. These, it turns out, evince distinctly modern strategies of story-telling unnoticed by less sophisticated critics. An important contribution to narratology and to the historiography of the continental novel.

Writing War: Fiction, Gender, and Memory, by Lynne Hanley. Massachusetts $24.95 cloth, $12.95 paper

In six stories and five essays, Hanley argues with refreshing moral earnestness that the way we define war literature solely as that which describes the experience of men in combat has helped perpetuate war. Unfortunately, the notion of war literature Hanley argues against in the essays is something of a straw man, and much of the argument depends so heavily upon “politically correct” premises that only the already p.c. will be wholly convinced by it. Moreover, while mixing stories and essays is a nice idea, placing the stories between didactic essays merely highlights the didacticism of the stories themselves, weakening their effect. One wishes this book had been written with greater critical discrimination, for it proceeds from admirable motives.

Ovid’s Heroines, translated by Daryl Hine. Yale $11

Along with Peter Green’s version of Ars Amatoria, Remedia Amoris, and Amores, (Penguin), this rendering of the Heroines provides the late 20th-century reader with easy entree into works which—along with the lyrics of Sappho, Catullus, the troubadors, and Petrarch—set the styles and strategies of mainstream erotic poetry in the West. An able classicist and a poet in his own right, Hine captures the very quality that other translators (and more importantly, Ovid’s Renaissance imitators) too often missed: a witty fusion of agony and irony. Hine also has an excellent ear for the Latin poet’s metrics, rhythms, and cadences. With many readable and accurate versions of the Metamorphoses in print, and others on the way, nothing now remains but a worthy account of Ovid’s poetry written in exile.

T. S. Eliot: The Modernist in History, edited by Ronald Bush. Cambridge $29.95

“History” has become the new god-term in literary criticism, and the able critics writing in this volume affirm that even T.S. Eliot, the poet-critic whose work helped to spawn the ahistorical excesses of the New Criticism, should be made to pay homage at this altar. Examining Eliot’s relations with women and representations of them, his early political views, his cultural reception, his relations with publishers, and other issues, these essays persuasively argue that Eliot should be read in the social, political, and cultural contexts of his age.

Notes to Literature, Vol. 1, by Theodor W. Adorno. Columbia $35

Twenty-two years after Adorno’s death, we finally have a translation of excerpts of the influential German Noten zur Literatur, Vols.1—3. Adorno’s former student, Sherry Weber Nicholson, has provided a faithful and courageous translation of Adorno’s rather bizarre German. Adorno, who together with Marcuse and Horkheimer, was one of the leading theorists of the Frankfurter Schule, and its critical theory is mainly known in America for his political, sociological, and philosophical writings. The wealth of his contribution to literary theory and interpretation has been largely overlooked so far. The present translation brings together essays on Beckett, Mann, Goethe, Hume, Ernst Bloch, Lukaes, as well as reflections on the form of the essay and even punctuation marks. This fine collection deserves a wide reception and hopefully will inspire further Adorno research and increase the appreciation for his versatile scholarship and original thought.

Leningrad: American Writers in the Soviet Union, by Michael Davidson, Lyn Hejiniań, Ron Silliman, and Barret Watten. Mercury House $9.95

Someday soon, one hopes, we’ll have a term for a non-book book. That’s what this is. Some engagingly naïve Americans who call themselves writers go to the Soviet Union, drink and talk and share some sort of deeply Dostoevskian emotional experiences with some Soviets, and come home to write about it. There’s no harm in this, of course, if we ignore the costs of production, but the reader’s expectations—for some new insight, if nothing else—go unfulfilled.

Conrad’s Existentialism, by Otto Bohlmann. St. Martin’s $39.95

Although we are often told that literary texts are about signifiers or economic conditions or nothing at all, Bohlmann revitalizes the philosophical method of reading texts as manifestations of our existential and essential humanity. Offering a sweeping and convincing overview of Conrad’s novels, he interprets them as important precursors of 20th-century existentialism. A stylistic bog for many writers, existentialism becomes clearer than ever in Bohlmann’s succinct and unpretentious prose, which wisely steers us through Conrad’s preoccupations with the absurdity of the world, the social nature of existence, the potential authenticity and the necessary freedom of the self.

First Love: The Affections of Modern Fiction, by Maria DiBattista. Chicago $24.95

Arguing against the current literary trend of deriding the concept of origins and demystifying the affections of the human heart, DiBattista unabashedly celebrates both. Her thesis is that, underlying the ironies and evasions of modern fiction, “First Love” remains a potent mythology, particularly in the novels of Hardy, Lawrence, Joyce, and Beckett. DiBattista helps to unmake the once prevalent myth of the modern—that its works belonged to an aesthetic of irony and disbelief. For her, romantic individualism and nostalgia animate the best works of modern fiction. A book of sensitive readings and subtle responsiveness.

The Critical Mythology of Irony, by Joseph A. Dane. Georgia $35

Irony exists only in the eye of the ironologist, argues the author of this sweeping, deconstructive survey. That is, far from being textual, the reconstruendum that has fascinated philosophers, authors, and critics from Socrates down, is nothing but the product of critical invention, which is generally self-serving into the bargain. While Dane is certainly right that the strategies for identifying and dealing with “what cannot be taken at face value” have varied from age to age and school to school, his thesis about the ultimate fictiveness of irony—as internal anomaly, ungrammaticality, or sign of the hidden—is undermined by a powerful consensus, transcending time and places, among critics who might agree on nothing else.

Refiguring the Hero: From Peasant to Noble in Lope and Calderón, by Dian Fox. Penn State $29.95

Fox challenges the modern belief that Lope and Calderon present “heroic” peasants and democratic ideals in several of their best-known plays. She sees instead, and argues persuasively to defend her views, that plays such as Fuenteovejuna, The Alcalde of Zalamea, Peribáñez, Life is a Dream, The Villano in His Corner, and other Spanish Golden Age classics neither exalt the peasant nor should be interpreted as defending democracy avant la lettre. She points out that such plays are the exception rather than the rule (Lope claimed to have written more than 1500 plays), making it dangerous to draw broad ideological or political conclusions from their study, “True heroism is reserved for nobles.” The final chapter speculates on why and how interpretations have changed since the 17th century.

Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare’s England: A Cultural Poetics, by Bruce R. Smith. Chicago $29.95

As the subtitle suggests, this study of homoerotic literature is very much in the New Historicist mode. The benefit of such an approach is that Smith is able to illuminate a society very different from our own, one in which transvestite boy actors, a cult of male friendship, and homoerotic literature could coexist with legal and religious castigation of homosexual love. The close readings of such texts as Sidney’s Arcadia and Marlowe’s Edward II are not uniformly satisfying, but the care with which Smith explores their larger contexts will no doubt make reappraisal of those texts both more urgent and more rewarding than ever before.

LIVES AND LETTERSJohn Dewey and American Democracy, by Robert B. Westbrook. Cornell $29.95

This book is indeed a milestone in American intellectual history. Westbrook spent 15 years of careful research to reconstruct the 93 years of John Dewey’s life. The result is an impressive 559-page account of the personality of Dewey and of his lifelong contributions to education, politics, and philosophy. Together with William James, Dewey is often considered the leading pragmatist thinker. Westbrook, however, shows convincingly that, while Dewey certainly was a pragmatic thinker, he wasn’t a Rorty-ian pragmatist. Westbrook demonstrates skillfully the multifacetedness of Dewey’s work, which cannot simply be summarized by the label “Pragmatist.” The 14 chapters in chronological sequence: (I) “A Social Gospel (1882—1904),” (II) “Progressive Democracy (1904—1918),” (III) “Toward the Great Community (1918—1929),” (IV) “Democrat Emeritus (1929—1952).” Westbrook has researched Dewey’s life carefully, and his love for his subject cannot be hidden—it makes for pleasurable reading as the fascination with Dewey’s thought catches on. Fortunately the author does not fall prey to idealizing Dewey, and he criticizes him at several points. In all, this book is a very valuable biography. The ten-page index is helpful, if a little short for the size of the book. Fully recommended.

Michel Foucault, by Didier Erebon. Harvard $27.95

This is the first biography of the remarkable French thinker who died in 1984. Many legends have grown up around Foucault, and Erebon confirms a few and debunks others. We learn that Foucault was immensely unhappy and immensely arrogant in youth, but that his final 20 years were happy thanks to his lover, Daniel Defert, and to the sudden fame which overtook him with the publication of Les Mots et les Chases. This book leaves a lot of questions unanswered, but it is an admirable first pass at a difficult subject, and anyone who has learned from Foucault’s books will want to read it.

Portraits of American Women: From Settlement to the Present, edited by G.J. Barker-Benfield and Catherine Clinton. St. Martin’s $35

This collection of essays on American women from Pocahontas and Anne Hutchinson to Georgia O’Keeffe and Betty Friedan is a useful reference book for students of American history, literature, politics, and art. Taken together, however, the essays, written by prominent scholars in the field of women’s studies (Philip Young, Kathryn Kish Sklar, Paula Giddings, to name only a few), form a fascinating narrative of the history of women in America. Though each essay focuses on an individual, repeated references are made within each narrative to the lives of contemporaries, giving the reader a rich sense of the texture of women’s lives in America from the 17th century to the present.

The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan, by Robert Kanigel. Scribner’s $27.95

On Jan. 16, 1913, Srinivasa Ramanujan, a 25-year-old Indian clerk, wrote a letter to G.H. Hardy, then widely acknowledged as the premier English mathematician of his time. The letter, ten pages of “wild theorems . . .such as [Hardy] had never seen before, nor imagined,” as C.P. Snow remarked, initiated one of the strangest and most productive collaborations in the history of science. The Man Who Knew Infinity is a fascinating account of how an impoverished, self-taught mathematical prodigy from Madras came to be embraced by the mathematical community at Cambridge. Kanigel does an exceptional job of making Ramanujan’s work accessible to the general reader, and he is mindful throughout of the cultural clashes—between the worlds of South India and Cambridge, between Western and Eastern approaches to the mind—that make Ramanujan’s story so improbable and inspiring.

Thanks to God and the Revolution: The Oral History of a Nicaraguan Family, by Dianne Walta Hart. Wisconsin $25

Had the author, who is a Spanish professor at Oregon State University, gone to Nicaragua in 1983 in search of subjects to bring back with her, she would have written nothing quite as memorable as this book. Quite by accident, she came across a family, and slowly she began to learn about Nicaragua through them. They opened up to her, for she was warm and unassuming. These pages are the result of conversations, not the product of an interviewer and her respondents. Here is embattled Nicaragua in the flesh.

The Civil War Memoirs of Captain William J. Seymour: Reminiscences of a Louisiana Tiger, edited by Terry L. Jones. Louisiana $19.95

This is a superbly edited account which provides a detailed description of the famous First Louisiana Brigade in the Army of Northern Virginia. Seymour’s reminiscences are especially valuable not only because he brought his talents as a newspaper editor into his writing but also because his are the only Confederate versions of several key events of the the Civil War. Of the making of Civil War books there is no end, but one out of a thousand is comparable to this.

The Architect of Genocide: Himmler and the Final Solution, by Richard L. Breitman. Knopf $23

As Hannah Arendt demonstrated in her brilliant book on Adolf Eichmann, the most terrifying aspect of evil is its banality. No matter how unspeakable the task, there is always someone ready to cany it out efficiently. This was of course the case with Heinrich Himmler, who did what Hitler ordered without emotion. He set in motion teams not only of killers but also of engineers, transportation specialists, quartermasters, and so on—even archivists. It is shattering to realize that he was one of us, and Mr. Breitman’s excellent book only increases our sense of despair.

Dangerous Thoughts: Memoirs of a Russian Life, by Yuri Orlov. Morrow $21

He was the quiet one—never raised his voice, never lost his gentle manner, never deliberately set sparks. Yet Yuri Orlov kept alive the hope and faith of two generations of Russian and other Soviet democrats, and eventually he, too, benefited from the revolution unleashed by Gorbachev. In this touching, insightful memoir, he recounts a life that has indeed all the marks of classic heroism.

The Book of Disquiet, by Fernaado Pessoa. Pantheon $25

Born in the 1880’s (when Stravinsky, Picasso, and Joyce were also born), the Portuguese writer Pessoa is one of the major poets of our century, well known for The Surprise of Being. His highly self-conscious diary from the last two decades of his life (1914—1934) is itself a work of poetry in prose. As an exquisite and mournful meditation on the poet’s self and his various personae, Pessoa’s diary is linked both to 19th-century Symbolism and to the mask-making of such modern poets as Rilke and Yeats. Written in a variety of styles, Pessoa’s haunting book is as beautiful as it is disturbing.

A Quest for Glory: Major General Robert Howe and the American Revolution, by Charles E. Bennett and Donald R. Lennon. North Carolina $24.95

North Carolina’s foremost Revolutionary War general, Robert Howe, has been much neglected, and the authors of this short biography argue that the time has come to give him the place of honor among the great patriotic heroes that eluded him during his lifetime. Although their effort is well intentioned, they do not dig deeply enough into the man’s character. Beneath Howe’s veneer of social charm and political skill lay major character faults: compulsive gambling, vicious womanizing, greed, and a particularly nasty streak of vindictiveness. In addition, there are serious questions about Howe’s loyalty to the American cause both before and during the Revolutionary War, which the authors either failed to uncover or chose to ignore. Howe was not an insignificant figure. As one of the Continental Army’s 29 major generals, he held important commands in the South and at West Point. Howe’s military abilities were mediocre at best, however. His failed quest for glory was a result more of ill behavior than ill luck.

The Starched Blue Sky of Spain, by Josephine Herbst. HarperCollins $19.95

The journalist and novelist Josephine Herbst wrote moving, and frequently overlooked, memoirs of her many adventures as a political radical in the 1920’s, 1930’s and 1940’s. The four essays collected here detail in her precise prose significant moments in her journey toward political maturity. Acquaintance of Williams, Pound, Hemingway, and numerous other writer / correspondents, Herbst casts a penetrating eye on the foibles and struggles of her life, her need to understand life’s meaning, her desire to be everywhere and to read everything. The essay on her days in Spain (Madrid, 1937) brings as close as anyone can the large deprivations and small joys of life in a war zone. An introduction by Diane Johnson helps to situate Herbst in her time and ours.

Reform and Revolution: The Life and Times of Raymond Robins, by Neil V. Salzman. Kent State $35

Until Mr. Salzman’s book our knowledge of Raymond Robins was limited to the tantalizing passages in William Appleman Williams’ classic study of American-Soviet relations. The story that now emerges, based on Mr. Salzman’s extensive archival research, is of a complex, far-sighted individual who had a knack for improvisation in a variety of fields in which he had little expertise but boundless enthusiasm. As America’s unofficial diplomat in Russia in 1917, he knew everyone worth knowing, cut through the fog of bureaucracy and confusion to glimpse the future, and ended by being disowned. A splendid book.

The Hole in the Flag: A Romanian Exile’s Story of Return and Revolution, by Andrei Codrescu. Morrow $21

You may have heard the man with the excellent if accented English on NPR offering commentary usually described as “wry” on a variety of slightly off-center topics. He’s Andrei Codrescu, he’s a Romanian, and just before Christmas 1989 he went home to be at the revolution. With the poet’s sharp eye and finely tuned sensitivity, he has produced a little classic, a book that sums up the agony and exhilaration of a nation emerging from prison.

Guilty of Making Peace: A Biography of Nicholas P. Trist, by Robert W. Drexler. University Press of America $37.50

This work is essentially an essay of Trist’s mission to Mexico at the urging of President Polk in the 1840’s, with a little background information leading up to why Trist was chosen for the job. As such it stands. But as a biography? Can the last 25 years of a man’s life be squeezed into three pages? Drexler thinks so. And the University Press of America thinks this is worth $37.50! Ha!

FICTIONThe Translator, by Ward Just. Houghton Mifflin $21.95

Robert Frost once defined poetry as that which gets lost in translation: the essence, like certain fragile wines, simply does not travel. Intentionally or not, Ward Just has composed a powerful set of psychological and cultural variations on Frost’s theme. His subject is the predicament—ultimately the tragedy—of Sydney Van Damm, a literary translator suspended in the intermonde of Paris expatriation. Symbiotically involved with an outlaw ex-CIA agent and unable to befriend his author, Van Damm is married to a Yankee so alienated from Europe and America that she cannot assimilate or return. This mild, articulate couple have a violently autistic son, and cannot implement their wish to quit the babel and bedlam of their cosmopolitan apartment house—a fortress become prison. Sydney Van Damm’s flaw is an inability to achieve perfect translation, or to “mov[e] a thing from one condition to another”—be it a literary text into his exceptional but finally non-native English, or his superior genes into a viable new life, or his relationships from unwanted dependency or distance to their more comfortable opposites. Above all, he cannot translate himself from German to French, from past imperfect to present progressive, from the contemplative to the active mode. Politics—Just’s usual focus—is obviously subordinated in The Translator to more Pascalian concerns: the nothingness of his characters’ lives, their ridiculous sad diversions, their entrapment between absolutes and infinities. Fittingly, Just’s technique is less linear and predictable than ever, exploring to excellent effect the labyrinths of association and varied repetition. Ironic, allusive, and hyperalert to the realistic yet tenaciously resonant detail, Just’s style in The Translator surpasses the high-water mark of Jack Gance and The American Ambassador. In sum, this is a superb novel, marking an important new phase of Ward Just’s career.

Brief Lives, by Anita Brookner. Random House $20

Brookner is a stunning writer. In this, her tenth novel, she is once again obsessed by the tension between a self-effacing woman and an imperious, controlling one. Julia, a glamorous former cabaret singer, is shallow, self-serving, and vain. Fay is a meek, compliant woman who, in her youth, sang popular ballads on the radio. Neither woman is likable, and one wonders when Brookner, a perceptive observer who writes with style, will move on to another theme. Despite her self-denigration, Fay, whose memoir this is, manages to marry a handsome, vigorous, successful man, and after his death, to take on no other than Julia’s husband as her lover. At age 45, she begins to worry about old age; in her lonely advancing years, she acquires another man, more tormenter than lover. There is endless exploration of Fay’s emotions, concerns with her looks, with aging, reflections on everything. She wastes her days on introspection, fixing cups of tea or coffee, or doing Julia’s bidding. With no dramatic action, the story stays in dead center. Page after page of dense prose about two unsympathetic women is wearying. Besides, the copy-editor of this elegantly designed book must have been asleep.

The Kitchen God’s Wife, by Amy Tan. Putnam $22.95

This second novel by author of the Joy Luck Club is likely to be even more successful than the previous one, both with critics and with the reading public. It has a somewhat more conventional narrative structure, but it shares with the earlier book the virtue of excellent characterization; it depicts in a lively, credible manner situations and events concerning two generations of Chinese-Americans; above all it deals thoughtfully and skillfully with the universally significant question of under what circumstances close relatives may not tell each other the truth about their own past and their present.

A Very Proper Death, by Alex Juniper. Scribner’s $18.95

Marni Verstak is a successful Boston real estate executive with a small secret—a five-year-old son. Divorced from a Beacon Hill socialite, she fears that, should her mother-in-law know about the boy, her own life would be submerged in a whirl of private schools, social teas, and good works. Marni has plans of her own, like the rehabilitation of her old neighborhood using the skills and labor of the homeless. All that is threatened when she gets a frightening middle-of-the-night telephone call, proving someone knows about her son. Fearing for his life, she sets out to protect him, only to find herself caught in a spiral of terrible events that she eventully makes sense of with the help of a Boston detective named Jake Murphy. This is a story that is intriguing in its details and characterizations, but lacks the spark of true suspense. And the reader may wonder how a bright professional like Marni could be such a consistently bad judge of character.

How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, by Julia Alvarez. Algonquin $16.95

This is a series of short stories about the same characters in related situations but contains no clearly delineated thread or plot. Alvarez handles the style well, but, because the vignettes work backward in time, there is no return to the story lines that are set up and, because the writing is so effective, some frustration results for the reader. Narration switches between four very different sisters, all born in the Dominican Republic but who come of age in New York, which is also mildly jarring. Some of these stories were published separately and stand on their own without the novel framework. One can’t help feeling that Alvarez couldn’t decide which way to go with this book. Narration, for example, is very odd stylistically. New voices are introduced very late for a “novel.” There are many interesting narrative effects, however, including chapters in the first person where the speaker is a union of the voices of the four sisters. The writing here is strong and the situations and characters engaging enough to warrant a more indepth treatment. Any of the “stories” could have been developed into fuller plot lines. They are, however, very enjoyable, even if they haven’t been woven into a standard novel.

The Dark Sister, by Rebecca Goldstein. Viking $19.95

This book will disappoint the many admirers of the author’s Mind-body Problem. It is structurally too contrived (being a novel with a novel within it) and too much of it constitutes a not particularly felicitous pastiche written more-or-less in the style of Henry James and dealing largely with a fictional episode in the life of his brother William. On the whole, an excessively self-conscious and only occasionally insightful and entertaining book.

The Love That Kills, by Ronald Levitsky. Scribners $18.95

Mysteries these days have to do more than entertain; they must instruct. Or so it seems when reading this politically correct tale about a civil rights lawyer, Nat Rosen, who is sent south to Musket Shoals, Virginia, to defend Edison Basehart (get the picture?), the leader of a right-wing paramilitary group. Basehart is charged with murdering a Vietnamese woman, but Rosen believes otherwise. When Assistant D.A. Jimmy Wilkes, a man with very little criminal court experience, is named prosecutor, Rosen knows there is more to this case than race hate. But proving it will be tough. Musket Shoals may pride itself on being a part of the the New South, but it is riven by the chafing and bitterness between its white, black, and Asian townspeople. And everywhere Rosen steps, he stirs up more trouble. Levitsky writes well; his descriptions are sensitive and lyrical at their best. But the dialogue is often wooden, motivation fuzzy, and characterization a bit thin. And while many American mysteries are morality tales, this one wears its heart on its sleeve.

When All the World Was Young, by Ferrol Sams. Longstreet Press $21.95

The final volume of the trilogy begun with Run with the Horsemen and The Whisper of the River follows the protagonist—Porter Osborne Jr—from the claustrophobic rigors of medical school to the spacious fields of France, where World War II is heading toward its bloody conclusion. While some of the novel’s phrasing is a bit archaic, Sams—a practicing physician, who lives in Fayetteville, Georgia—has written a roomy and entertaining tale.

The Alchymist’s Journal, by Evan S. Connell. North Point $19.95

The alchemist of Council’s novel is Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombast von Hohnheim (1493—1541)—a.k.a. Paracelsus—a discontented radical who forswore the current medical orthodoxy whose chief methods were bleeding, purging, and emetics, in favor of a more experimental medicine. Connell’s fictional journal is in a way a tour de force of ventriloquism; he captures with seeming effortlessness the alchemist’s arrogance, peevishness, and eccentricity. But one may still ask to what purpose. There is beneath the obscure ranting a subtle humanist message, yet there is little suspense or drama to compel the reader to sift it out. The prose (which requires an extensive glossary) is at first engaging, even tantalizing, but the pleasure of its unremitting murkiness can pall even the most ardent reader. The game seems hardly worth the candle.

The Russian Singer, by Leif Davidsen. Random House $19

A Danish diplomat in Moscow named Jack Andersen is called in the middle of the night to the apartment of one of his staff, a salacious redhead named Sonia. He finds there the aftermath of a sexcapade gone awry—on the bed, the nude body of a strangled woman and, in the bath, Sonia, an apparent suicide. The other woman is Vera, a Soviet prostitute. To make matters worse, there is a small mountain of pornographic videos in the apartment, an offense in pre-Gorbachev Russia that carries a heavy penalty. Jack notes several incongruities in the police case, which is, however, quickly closed as a murder-suicide. Concerned that there might have been a miscarriage of justice, he decides to pursue it unofficially on his own. This mystery was a Danish best-seller, but it has suffered in translation. The dialogue is stilted, and the narrative never rises above the merely adequate. Individual vignettes of Moscow are nicely drawn, but the plotting and characters are sketchy. There is a big, enthralling book to be written about the changes taking place in Russia. Unfortunately, this is not it.

Mating, by Norman Rush. Knopf $23

This is the first novel by a writer who previously received much critical acclaim for a collection of short stories, Whites. It is written in the first-person mode, and the narrator/protagonist is a (nameless) young woman anthropologist who is conducting field research in Botswana. (The author himself has spent a few years in Africa.) At the center of the story is her emotional and intellectual entanglement with a specialist in rural development who is seeking to establish in the Kalahari a self-sustaining community. The context of their encounter and of the ensuing relationship plays a significant role in their experience, and is forcefully depicted in the sophisticated, thought-provoking novel.

Brooklyn Three, by Thomas Boyle. Viking $18.95

The concluding volume of Boyle’s trilogy freaturing Detective Inspector Francis DeSales takes its story from yesterday’s headlines. When the spokesman for New York’s first black mayoral candidate is assassinated during a Brooklyn rally, DeSales returns to his boyhood borough to track the perp. What he finds is a Brooklyn on the edge of explosion and a mixed bag of characters that will provide the fuse, including a bodybuilder hopped up on steroids and a 60’s trip, DeSales’ girlfriend Megan, a TV reporter who mainlines ambition, and the unwitting key to the puzzle, Benjamin Asterisky, a 60’s refugee whose whole life has become the study of the rise and fall of American culture. Boyle is by turns witty, brutal, and wickedly observant, and if it is true, as he says, that only the dead know Brooklyn, Boyle comes as close as the living can.

Far-Flung, by Peter Cameron. HarperCollins $19.95

Isaac Bashevis Singer once said, “only in a short story can a writer reach perfection— more than in a novel.” While Singer’s tales deal faultlessly with exiled Jews, Cameron’s stories impeccably examine a more wide-ranging lot: Jews and Wasps, heterosexuals and homosexuals, and young people and old people. Like his first collection (One Way or Another), this present title is a handsome gathering of quietly resonant works. The book is organized into three parts, the last of which consists of a trio of interrelated stories about four generations of an odd (but touching) Indiana family.

NATIONAL AND INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRSThe Revenge of History, by Alex Callinicos. Pennsylvania State $28.50 cloth, $13.95 paper

According to Alex Callinicos, the news of Marxism’s death has been greatly exaggerated. The democratic revolutions in Eastern Europe, he argues, spell not the end of Marxism but Stalinism, the authoritarian cooptation of Marxism that held sway in the Communist world for some 60 years. For Callinicos, the 1989 revolutions provide the opportunity for a return to the more humane, democratic, and truly revolutionary ideals of such Marxist thinkers as Trotsky, Luxemburg, and Gramsci. It is in this direction, he says, that Marxists and leftists should now go. The Revenge of History provides a useful balance to the simplistic dismissals of socialism that dominate mainstream political debate in the West. And in the face of an Eastern Europe growing more and more rife with nationalism, consumerism, and glaring economic imbalances, Callinicos’s argument is a compelling one.

The Crisis of Leninism and the Decline of the Left: The Revolutions of 1989, edited by Daniel Chirot. Washington $30

If there are any true believers in Leninism left outside China, North Korea, Cuba, and the mountains of Peru, where Shining Path guerrillas remain out of touch with reality in more ways than one, they are lying low. In this collection of essays on the dramatic events around the world in 1989, scholars and political observers seek to understand the fate of an ideology which was doomed from the day it took shape in Lenin’s brain—but which tragically took millions of human beings to their own doom before finally being discredited universally.

Strangers to Ourselves, by Julia Kristeva. Columbia $29

In Strangers to Ourselves, Julia Kristeva explores the complex and uneasy relationship between two significant developments of the late 20th century: the simultaneous emergence of globalism (the “New World Order”), and resurgence of nationalism. For Kristeva, these powerful, seemingly contradictory trends have brought about a state in which virtually everyone is now in some way a foreigner, an alien, and “other”—in this confusing cultural flux of old and new identities we have all become strangers. Kristeva’s study is erudite and far-reaching, examining the evolution of the idea of the foreigner from the Old Testament and Greek tragedy, through legal and philosophical writings of the Renaissance and Enlightenment. She ends her discussion by turning to Freud, and his idea of the “uncanny,” that foreignness within ourselves with which we are so uneasy. It is this internal strangeness that Kristeva says we must know and accept if ever we are to make sense of (and live peacefully in) this strange new world.

Gorbachev’s Struggle for Economic Reform, by Anders Aslund. Cornell $14.95

No one has a better grasp on the rapidly changing economic situation in the Soviet Union than the former Swedish diplomat Anders Aslund. One can track his publications over the past five or six years and never catch him reversing ground or having to explain or apologize—something our Harvard economists are sadly adept at. The “dismal science” of economics doesn’t become glamorous at Åslund’s hands, but he does give the unvarnished truth, and he does avoid pontificating. A splendid work.

Shattered Hope: The Guatemalan Revolution and the United States, 1944—1945, by Piero Gleijeses. Princeton $29.95

Here at last the U. S. sponsored overthrow of the elected government of Jacobo Arbenz in 1954 has encountered an historian with a passion for the facts, and for the role of individuals in history. Piero Gleijeses offers us a blow-by-blow narrative of the events in both Guatemala and Washington. Now we have the human faces of the Guatemalan revolution and the American reaction, and we can understand both, for the author spent almost 20 years tracking down the key historical actors. From the words of Jacobo Arbenz’s widow, and from other Guatemalan leaders, we learn that Arbenz was indeed what Washington had always suspected: a Marxist. So that Guatemala might one day be able to turn to socialism, Arbenz was committed to producing a constitutional democracy with a diversified economy fueled by widespread property holdings. In a word, he wanted to build a nation, all that which Guatemala has not become since 1954. Gleijeses ends with the personal tragedy of Arbenz’ long, lonely years in exile. His tragedy is Guatemala’s, and never before have we come to face it as fully as we do in these pages.

Autocracy, Modernization, and Revolution in Russia and Iran, by Tim McDaniel. Princeton $29.95

What happens when autocracy meets machine? Professor McDaniel asks this central question in this engaging sociological study of two essentially Asiatic states that have never come to terms with the 18th century, let alone the 20th. Although he evidently does not read Farsi, he has excellent sources in Russian and other languages, and his astute, measured conclusions offer insights into the phenomenon of modernization around the world.

Children of Glasnost: Growing up Soviet, by Landon Pearson. Washington$16.95

Wife of a former Canadian ambassador to the Soviet Union, Landon Pearson is an authority on child education who set out to assess the impact of the ongoing Soviet revolution on the children who will inherit whatever emerges. The result is a warm, sympathetic account chock-full of common sense and good old Canadian middle-class values—a most admirable combination. This book will perhaps not delight academic specialists, who will find it too subjective, but it tells the story truthfully and without prejudice, and as such it performs an extremely valuable service. Highly recommended.

The Debate over Vietnam, by David W. Levy. Johns Hopkins $38.95 cloth, $11.95 paper

For those who question the value of another book on Vietnam, [this reviewer responds:] read The Debate over Vietnam. Levy offers a well-documented assessment of the elements that explains our involvement and disenchantment with Vietnam: the background of postwar thinking on foreign policy encapsulated in the Munich syndrome, the mission as our leaders saw it, our arguments and contentions, conflicts at home, and the nature of the debate in our universities, churches, and the public arena. Levy asks if Vietnam was unique or similar to wars that have gone before and whether it offers us lessons about American wars. With increasing distance and perspective we are learning that wars require that citizens can be persuaded; that democratic wars bring special problems, arid in this Vietnam may eventually be seen as resembling the Mexican War and the War of 1812; and that our great national debates are less disputes over facts and more differences over what is moral and honorable. Levy puts Vietnam in context.

Soldiers and the Soviet State: Civil-Military Relations from Brezhnev to Gorbachev, edited by Timothy J. Colton and Thane Gustafson. Princeton $55 cloth, $16.95 paper

Voltaire o

0 Comments

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

Recommended Reading