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Notes on Current Books, Winter 1996


ISSUE:  Winter 1996

So little has been written about mid-19th-century Florida that Taylor’s book makes a contribution on that count alone, but Rebel Storehouse also adds significantly to the growing literature on Civil War supply and economics. Taylor demonstrates the importance of Florida in aiding the Confederate cause, especially in the production of beef cattle, but he also argues that Southern leaders placed excessive demands upon the state because they adhered to prewar images of Florida as an agricultural wonderland. In common with too many academic books these days, Rebel Storehouse is entirely too short at 159 pages. Taylor should have made this book a general history of Civil War Florida. As it is, the book fills a narrower niche but fills it ably.

The Fury of the Northmen, by John Marsden. St. Martin’s $24.95

This new book by John Marsden presents a lively, intriguing, and highly readable, yet scholarly, account of the descent of the Scandanavian war-bands upon the religious communities of late 8th and 9th-century Northumberland, Scotland, and Ireland. Marsden not only manages to trace the successively brutal waves of Viking assault against the Celtic Church, but he also offers, through an adept use of contemporary sources, a thought-provoking analysis of the cumulative effect of nearly 100 years of relatively disorganized raid, plunder, and slaughter upon some of the most dynamic and powerful religious establishments of the age, only suggesting a very real ecclesiastical power-shift from north to south, i.e. away from the ravaged and weakened Celtic Church of the Scots and Irish toward the increasingly stable Roman Church under the aegis of the Kingdom of Wessex (soon to be known as England). Both evocative and provocative, this book is accessable not only to the professional historian, but to anyone with an interest in Scottish, Irish, or English history. Such a vivid portrayal of the first century of Viking raiding makes clear the dramatic consequences of Scandinavian expansion upon the internal dynamic of the north-Atlantic archipelago.

London at War, by Philip Ziegler. Knopf $30

The Battle of London ranks right up there with that of Stalingrad and Berlin in the mythology of the Second World War, and justly so. Fewer people perished in it, and less damage was done, but nevertheless the ability of the world’s greatest city to take the most destructive aerial attack in history up to that time and go on about its business ranks as nothing short of a miracle. It was indeed their finest hour, and Philip Ziegler, author of biographies of Edward VIII and Lord Mountbatten, helps us relive those awful yet glorious days, when America listened to Edward R. Murrow’s voice saying, “This . . .is London.” It was unforgettable to us, life and death to them.

The Russian Revolutions, by Max Weber. Cornell $39.95

It is a measure of our ignorance of Russia that the republication of Max Weber’s analyses of the Revolutions of 1905 and 1917 is not merely welcome but a cause for rejoicing. Not fettered by Cold War thinking and rigorously trained in sociology and economics as well as in the law, Weber—who died in 1920—understood the Russian past, had no illusions about the ability of the revolutionaries to overcome that past, and worked out some of the most enduring calculations of political stress factors ever to come to light. This is an excellent book, a superb introduction to modern Russia.

The Crescent Obscured: The United States & the Muslim World, 1776—1815, by Robert J. Allison. Oxford $35

This book is an interesting and scholarly addition to a literature that is plagued by romantic and popular interpretations. Allison’s book is valuable for its careful delineation of American perceptions of North African culture and in its seeming contrast with American values. Particularly interesting are his chapters on women and slavery in Muslim culture, and American consuls in North Africa. Also of note is the author’s imaginative use of contemporary novels, plays, poems, and captivity narratives to highlight American attitudes. Although Allison gives the reader a somewhat spotty historical overview of U.S.-Barbary relations, this is not meant to be narrative history. Students of the period and readers interested in American relations with the Muslim world will appreciate the care and thought with which this book was written.

Italy: From Revolution to Republic, by Spencer M. DiScala. Westview $21.95

Both professors and students of Italian history will welcome Spencer DiScala’s stimulating new history of Italy. Ranging over the course of Italian history from the Enlightenment to the present republic, DiScala offers a history more positive in its assessment of Italian achievements than many of its predecessors. The tremendous strides made by Italy in economic development despite its dearth of natural resources and poverty-stricken population receive their proper accounting. Particularly welcome are both the account of the recent tumultuous events in Italy since the end of the Cold War and the sweeping and well-organized bibliography of Italian history, which will provide vital assistance to both historians and students of Italian affairs.

Farewell Revolution: The Historians’ Feud, France, 1789/1989, by Steven Laurence Kaplan. Cornell $29.95

This is a book about the relations between history and politics. It explores the controversies among French historians, particularly Frangois Furet, Pierre Chaunu, and Michel Vovell, as to the proper way to commemorate the bicentennial of the Revolution in 1989. Through an analysis of this debate, which quickly expanded to intellectuals and the general public and received large media coverage, Kaplan vividly illuminates the shifting grounds between professional history and national identity. The book is well-written and intelligently-argued and should be of interest to all historians.

HMS Beagle, by Keith S. Thomson. Norton $25

Here is the story of the little 10-gun square-rigged brig, actually converted to a bark with a mizzenmast flying a fore-and-aft sail, that carried naturalist Charles Darwin on the two voyages he made aboard her, the first to the South Atlantic and South America and the second to Australia, between 1831 and 1841, both leading to his monumental study, The Origin of Species. This account bridges the seagoing transportation gap between the era of the square-rigger which included the vessels of Columbus 400 years earlier, and the advent of steam in the second quarter of the 19th century. Because of its significance in the development of natural history, the biography of this little “coffin brig,” as its class was dubbed for its overall history of wrecking, is a substantial contribution to the story of man’s conquest of the sea.

In Public Houses: Drink & the Revolution of Authority in Colonial Massachusetts, by David W. Conroy. North Carolina $39.95

This book can be divided into two parts. The first deals with the “culture of drink” in colonial Massachusetts, examining its importance to hospitality, business, and friendship, as well as who kept taverns or retailed liquor. Part of Conroy’s analysis also deals with Puritan attempts to delimit drinking and its effects through restricted licensing and community pressure. The second part deals with the role taverns played in the American Revolution as meetinghouse and nexus of information, and as John Adams put it, “the nurseries of our legislators.” Beautifully produced, with tables and illustrations, this book imaginatively recreates a critical aspect of colonial life that, until now, has been largely ignored or treated as colorful but relatively unimportant.

The Long War: The Intellectual People’s Front and Anti-Stalinism, 1930—1940, by Judy Kutulas. Duke $39.95 cloth, $17.95 paper

Perhaps too much ink has already been spilled, by historians and especially by participants, on the political course of left wing intellectuals in 1930s America, but The Long War is clearly one of the best books yet on this much-discussed subject. Seeking to get beyond the self-justifications and personal recriminations in so many memoirs from this period, Kutulas uses a broad range of letters and other contemporary sources to clarify the factional and ideological divisions among left-liberal intellectuals, the spectrum and the intensity of which will likely surprise those who assume that anyone who joined a Front organization was a Communist or a guileless supporter of the party. In fact, Kutulas shows, even enthusiastic supporters of anti-fascist Front politics were often suspicious of the Communist Party from the beginning, and many joined disillusioned Communists in the liberal anti-Communist movement of the forties and fifties. Kutulas handles her almost month-by-month narrative with impressive subtlety and detail, although some readers might wish that she had delved more deeply into what these writers actually wrote.

The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France and The Corpus of Clandestine Literature in France (1769—1789), both by Robert Darnton. Norton $27.50 and $32.50

These companion volumes demonstrate that the impact of “forbidden” literature in 18th-century France was enormous. Darnton discusses books judged dangerous by the powerbrokers—works by the philosophers, pornographic novels, seditious political tracts, obscene anti-clerical parodies—and traces their existence in pre-Revolutionary France. “Illegal literature was a world of its own, a special sector of the book trade, marked off by well-established practices and organized around a working notion of the “philosophical”.” The public was hungry for such works and the commercial dealers were eager to give it to them. “Eighteenth-century readers understood that such books were meant to be read, as Rousseau put it, “with one hand”. . . .” Forbidden Best-Sellers even includes translated sections from three of the century’s most scandalous works (Therese Philosophe, L’An deux mille quatre cent quarante, and Anecdotes sur Mme la comtesse du Barry); Corpus contains a description of 720 forbidden books plus tables and charts concerning sales, statistics, and genres. Such books helped move France into the modern world.

Mountains Touched With Fire: Chattanooga Beseiged, 1863, by Wiley Sword. St. Martin’s $27.50

Another find for military history devotees. The author draws from papers offering clinical details of such matters as the messages back and forth, particularly between Federal generals, whose bickering, backbiting, and sniping makes us wonder how they ever won the Civil War. Sword mentions Arthur MacArthur, Jr. at Missionary Ridge, but not that he was the father of Douglas or that he won the Congressional Medal of Honor in the climactic charge up the ridge. Chatanooga broke the back of the Confederacy and as such is worthy of anyone’s study.

Slavery in North Carolina, 1748—1774, by Marvin L. Michael Kay and Lorin Lee Gary. North Carolina $45

As this volume meticulously chronicles, the quick agrarian growth of North Carolina in the 18th century obliged the plantation owners of the state to import large numbers of slaves directly from Africa, even when much of the rest of the South no longer needed to. As a result, contend the authors, there lingered on among the slaves of the state certain practices, styles of naming, religious tendencies, and patterns of resistance that were distinctively and demonstrably African in origin; and this in turn contributed to the peculiar character of the state’s African-American culture in succeeding generations. The volume also—and quite disturbingly— describes the draconian legal and proprietary practices that North Carolina employed to keep this potentially disruptive element (“those with memories of Africa”) in check. As a patient and scrupulous account of one very particular chapter—one precise site—in the history of American slavery, this volume has few rivals; and as a work of critical acumen and moral probity, it could scarcely be more admirable.

LITERARY STUDIESThe Novel and the Globalization of Culture, by Michael Valdez Moses. Oxford $35 cloth, $17.95 paper

This book provides original and thought-provoking readings of two classics of English literature, The Mayor of Casterbridge and Lord Jim, as well as of some of the new classics that have emerged in the study of postcolonial literature, such as Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Vargas Llosa’s The War of the End of the World. But as fascinating as the individual chapters are, in this case the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts. By conjoining European literature with African and Latin American, Moses breaks out of the narrow categories that have tended to polarize literary study in recent years and documents the growth of a truly world literature in the 20th century. He shows that authors as diverse as Hardy and Achebe, or Conrad and Vargas Llosa, deal with similar problems in their fiction, portraying the tragic encounter of traditional ways of life with the rational modes of economic and political organization characteristic of modernity. Thus at the deepest level, this book transcends the limits of literary criticsm, and makes a substantial contribution to contemporary debates over the end of history and the global spread of modern Western culture. This is without question one of the most interesting and important books to grow out of the contemporary movement to expand the literary canon and to view European culture within a larger global context.

Mazes, by Hugh Kenner. Georgia $17.95

Fifty essays (mostly quite short) constitute the text of Kenner’s latest collection, covering topics as varied as Nixon and Georgia O’Keefe, Joyce and Einstein, Ireland and King Kong, Roland Barthes and R. Buckminster Fuller (and so on). The variety is too great to summarize, but suffice it to say that Kenner is, as always, amusing, learned, acute, acerbic, and gifted with a mercurial curiosity that bounds effortlessly from one topic to another, regardless of the distances in between. If some of his literary enthusiasms are occasionally unfortunate, his style never is.

The Mass Ornament, by Siegfried Kracauer. Harvard $49.95 cloth, $24.95 paper

Siegfried Kracauer, who died in 1966, is best known for his two magnificent books on the cinema, Theory of Film and From Caligari to Hitler. The Mass Ornament is a collection of essays from Kracauer’s Weimar years, written before he was forced to flee Germany and the Nazis. The essays prove that Kracauer could not only write bracingly on photography and film, but also that his erudition extended to a great number of cultural subjects, from religion and science to hotel lobbies, city geography, and the phenomenon of the bestseller. In a lively and interesting introduction, Thomas Y. Levin, the book’s translator and editor, discusses Kracauer’s life and works, and demonstrates why more attention should be paid to this fascinating, neglected member of the Frankfort School.

Majestic Indolence: English Romantic Poetry and the Work of Art, by Willard Speigelman. Oxford $45

Spiegelman’s perceptive study of the trope of indolence in English Romantic poetry is a nice mix of old and new literary techniques. His focus on theme, he admits, seems old-fashioned, and yet he also examines the historical and cultural origins of indolence by employing quite modern historicist methods. Spiegleman is quick to point out, however, that he has no political or ideological aim in mind; but rather he examines extraliterary discourses of the period in order to better illuminate how the poems “work” on an aesthetic level. Whether or not one can examine “only” aesthetics is arguable, of course, and Speigleman does acknowledge this and provide a persuasive argument for his own views on the matter. The book concludes with an excellent chapter examining two American heirs of English Romanticism, Walt Whitman and Robert Frost.

Thinking about “Beowulf”, by James W. Earl. Stanford $35

Earl is a courteous guide to Beowulf, which he teaches; to critical ideas, which for him include Augustine and Freud as major sources; and to his own change of perspective. Three axioms inform the change: that no date for the poem can be determined; that epic is not necessarily a traditional oral genre; that the poem is at least as original as traditional. These possibilities become themes: Earl discusses Beowulf as late, literate, and original indeed. Although he explains himself as a nominalist, general concepts do take over. In particular, a major argument about the epic and the birth of civilization is flawed by a generalization about myth contradicted by Native American cultures. Nonetheless there is much insight and pleasure to be gained.

The Cambridge History of American Literature, Volume 2: Prose Writing 1820—1865, edited by Sacvan Bercovitch. Cambridge $69.95

This volume advertises itself as a “comprehensive new account of the American Renaissance,” but in fact it consists of nothing more than four monographs that, together, do not constitute a history of anything. Barbara Packer contributes a useful 270-page essay on the transcendentalists, firmly grounded in intellectual history, but the other contributions—an essay on the development of the literary vocation by Michael Bell, on “the literature of expansion and race” by Eric Sundquist, and on narrative forms by Jonathan Arac—are interpretive monographs entirely out of place in what might have been, and what most readers will expect to be, a general reference work. The editor celebrates the inclusiveness and “fundamentally pluralist” nature of the enterprise, referring to the broad range of “critical communities” from which the contributors were recruited rather than a genuinely inclusive or pluralist conception of prose writing. The essays by Bell and Sundquist oifer the inevitable treatments of women, Indians, and blacks, but the volume fails to treat political and theological writing, autobiography, and other genres in a systematic way.

Nineteenth-Century Women Learn to Write, edited by Catherine Hobbs. Virginia $47.50

This is a path-breaking collection of essays that every student of 19th-century American literature and culture will want to consult. It seems as if it has taken literary studies a long time to get around to simple questions, such as who could read and write, and who were 19th-century authors writing for, that would seem to be absolutely essential, but have been until recently dismissed as the province of sociology or educational history. These essays are sophisticated enough and cover a wide enough range of subjects, from famous authors like Stowe to unknown diarists and college students, to interest a wide variety of scholars. Many may be suspicious of the book’s ideological overtones, which it is completely upfront about, announcing that “Contemporary feminist analyses. . .see women caught in the prison house of the master’s language.” I really doubt that Margaret Fuller or Fanny Fern were anything but empowered by their use of “the master’s language,” but the studies included here are more subtle than the ideological position advanced.

Marianne Moore and the Visual Arts, by Linda Leavell. Louisiana $30

Though Moore scholars have been placing increasing importance on her relationship to the visual arts, this is the first book-length study to explore the development of her poetic sensibility and technique in this context. Drawing on unpublished archives, photographs, and painting reproductions, Leavell offers fresh interpretations of and insights into Moore’s poetry. This book is not simply following the recent trends, of interartistic study, but goes to the heart of Moore’s work, as Moore went beyond responding to the visual arts to responding to the aesthetic problems and challenges posed by the artists. Leavell alludes to Patricia Willis’ catalogue to the 1987 exhibit “Marianne Moore: Vision into Verse” but does not pay full due to this useful and lucid earlier work on the same subject.

The Nature of the Place: A Study of Great Plains Fiction, by Diane Quantic. Nebraska $25

Taking her title from a remark by Wright Morris that in the Great Plains “Many things would come to pass, but the nature of the place would remain a matter of opinion,” Diane Quantic in The Nature of the Place explores the novels and short stories whose opinionated authors have done much to shape the collective identity of Middle America. Looking at the writings of such authors as Willa Gather, Wright Morris, Mari Sandoz, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Frederick Manfred, Wallace Stegner, and Bess Streeter Aldrich, Quantic maps a regional literary history that stretches from such early works as James Fenimore Cooper’s The Prairie (1827) to the contemporary stories of Ron Hansen’s Nebraska (1989). Her title has a dual meaning, however, as Quantic is concerned not only with the social and cultural history of the Great Plains but also with the physical nature of the place. “In Great Plains fiction,” she notes, “the common elements that inform symbols and images, language, attitudes, and values arise from the land itself and from the emotional significance that people assign to place.” Thus the real value of this book is really the story it tells of myths made and remade, of the imaginative construction and reconstruction of a place no one has yet been able to grasp in its entirety, broad in miles as well as meaning.

Keats and History, edited by Nicholas Roe. Cambridge $59.95

The essays in this volume are all indebted to the pioneering new-historicist work of Jerome McGann in his essay “Keats and the Historical Method in Literary Criticism,” and the edition of the poems edited by Miriam Allott, which McGann championed against other supposedly “definitive” editions. Keats is a very interesting poet to study in relation to class, politics, economics, and gender, all the more so because on the first encounters with Keats conditioned by New Critical instructional methods he seemed so distanced from all of these things. But a close reading of the letters should have warned earlier readers of Keats that here was a poet in touch with his time and culture, and we should be grateful to the various contributors to this volume, and to Nicholas Roe, who has orchestrated rather than assembled a collection, for bringing this point home so strongly and in relation to so many different contexts, backgrounds, and fore-grounds.

Somatic Fictions: Imagining Illness in Victorian Culture, by Athena Vretton. Stanford $39.50

Vretton’s study of medical and literary narratives of illness in the second half of the 19th century is an ambitious work, taking in such diverse themes as hysteria, gender, and imperialism. Her main theme is that constructing narratives about illness, Victorians were exploring the various strands of relationship between the physical bodies of individuals and the corporate body of society. In the introduction, Vretton acknowledges the influence of Foucault, and her work shares both the virtues and the defects characteristic of work in the “new historicist” tradition: it brings together a fascinating variety of new materials, and generates many provocative insights, but does so in a style that can be dishearteningly, and unnecessarily dense. But the interest of the subject, and Vretton’s skill in untangling her text and constructing new connections is worth the effort the book demands.

On the Laws of the Poetic Art, by Anthony Hecht. Princeton $24.95

Most revealing are the lines in the Preface in which the author tells of his misgivings at trying to fill the shoes of previous speakers in the Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts given in the auditorium of the East Wing of the National Gallery. Rarely does a distinguished scholar confess to “butterflies” but here we find that the idea of following Kenneth Clark, E.H. Gombrich, and Jacques Maritain was almost more than he could bear. He obviously overcame such initial forboding for this series, in which he relates poetry to painting, to music, and enters the minefield of “Art and Morality” is a tour de force which places him as a direct successor to the poet-critics of previous generations, such as John Crowe Ransom and W.H. Auden. The lectures are erudite but conversational in tone, filled with incidental bits of arcana. For instance, did you know that Edward de Vere, earl of Oxford, who was promoted as the author of Shakespeare’s plays, was first promoted by a man named J. Thomas Looney? And that he won the approval of Sigmund Freud, the “master of the dreamworld”? The last chapter, which takes on Senator Helms and the fulminations of Patrick Buchanan, are themselves worth reading, and worth the price of the book.

LIVES & LETTERSMemories of Resistance: Women’s Voices From the Spanish Civil War, by Shirley Mangini. Yale $25

This original and frequently eloquent history of the struggles of Spanish women in the periods before, during, and after the Spanish Civil War (1936—39) is the first time many of these stories have been told in full. Magnini collects memoirs, histories, and interviews of dozens of women who fought for their place in a society dominated by the forces of conservatism, women like the socialist Margarita Nelken, Dolores (La Pasionaria) Ibarruri, the dramatist Maria Lejarraga, Victoria Kent, and others who have poignant and horrifying tales to tell. The author weaves them into a powerful and coherent narrative which fills the reader with admiration, shame, and disgust. Women contributed powerfully to the social advances of 20th century Spain. With photos.

Paula, by Isabel Allende. HarperCollins $24

Allende’s deeply moving account of the illness and ultimate death of her daughter manages to be uplifting and informative all at once. She avoids being melodramatic or maudlin as she sweeps the reader into a tale of love and passion and loss. Frequently very funny, the book also recounts in alternate chapters Paula’s “history” to her, that is, her mother’s history, which is the history of Chile in the second half of the 20th century. As Paula lay in a coma in a hospital in Madrid, Allende struggled to write words for her that one day would make sense to her. “Listen, Paula, I am going to tell you a stoty, so that when you wake up you will not feel so lost.”

John Gay: A Profession of Friendship, by David Nokes. Oxford $39.95

This is an ample and capable biography of Gay (1685—1732), best known now for having penned the most subversive piece of theatre to grace the stage of his day (The Beggar’s Opera), but a man of considerably more accomplishments than merely that. The book suffers from an occasional overabundance of detail, but all in all it admirably remedies a curious deficiency in the realm of literary biography.

If Men Were Angels: James Madison & the Heartless Empire of Reason, by Richard K. Matthews. Kansas $25

Matthews has written a provocative study of James Madison’s political philosophy which, however wrongheaded at times, bears reading for its close scrutiny of the Virginian’s writings. Matthew’s portrait of Madison is an unattractive one. A cold, controlled, Malthusian pessimist who valued political stability and property rights over democracy and individual rights, this Madison is compared to an idealistic and optimistic Jefferson, with his great faith in the people, democracy, and personal freedoms. Surely this is overdrawn, but Matthews has begun the process of delineating the differences between these two great friends—and written a thought-provoking and valuable book in the bargain.

Closest Companion: The Unknown Story of the Intimate Friendship between Franklin Roosevelt and Margaret Suckley, edited and annotated by Geoffrey C. Ward. Houghton Mifflin $24.95

Geoffrey Ward is the author of one of the best books on Franklin Roosevelt, Before the Trumpet: Young Franklin Roosevelt 1882—1905. In Closest Companion he allows the letters of FDR to his cousin Daisy (Margaret Suckley) found under her bed at her frayed estate in the Hudson Valley shortly after her death in 1991 and her letters to him to carry the narrative. Whatever may be suggested about their love for one another, the letters reveal FDR, starved for companionship, finding it over the last ten years of his life in the little “grey wren.” Whoever is to blame, by 1917 Eleanor Roosevelt had ceased being FDR’s close companion after the Lucy Mercer affair. Daisy filled the void. If observers doubt the full extent of their discretion and their trust in one another, they need only consider that the story of FDR and Daisy became known only 45 years after his death. Not for the first time, the most powerful leader in the world found that power alone could not drive out loneliness. The editing of the story by Ward is exquisite.

Shakespeare: A Life in Drama, by Stanley Wells. Norton $28.50

Those who know Shakespeare’s oeuvre well will not find much that is new in Wells’ overview of the bard’s career, but they will be charmed by the engaging way in which Wells presents familiar material. The book seems aimed at a general audience, particularly at those of us who somehow got through college and perhaps even grad school without attaining sufficient knowledge of Shakespeare and his plays. For otherwise literate people grown accustomed to hiding their ignorance of Othello or King Lear, Wells offers a far more respectable path to Shakespeare literacy than Cliffs Notes. One of Wells’s stated goals is to explore why Shakespeare has remained universally important (in the Western world) throughout history. In this, he succeeds admirably.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, by Rod Lurie. Pantheon $25

There is something compulsively fascinating about this book; it possesses no literary merits to speak of, it tells no stories worth hearing, and it is concerned exclusively with the dreariest of human souls; and yet it works its charm. It concerns the “margins” of Hollywood, so to speak: the hordes of second-rate producers, backers, writers, and actors who long for a place in the bright glare of movie fame; it concerns con men, millionaires, and murderers. In particular, it tells the tragic (if oddly burlesque) tale of John Emr, an ambitious and unscrupulous nonentity whose larcenous schemes brought him finally to that place where no light—especially limelight—can penetrate. The stories are all true, incidentally, which is perhaps what accounts for their macabre appeal.

Henry A. Wallace: His Search for a New World Order, by Graham White and John Maze. North Carolina $34.95

Arguably the most enigmatic figure in 20th-century American politics, Wallace is shown as one whose spiritual grounding was both broad and deep, yet whose scientific and practical achievements in the field of agriculture had more than a little impact on the quantity and quality of the world’s food supply. His interest in Theosophy and other mystical religions played a significant part in his being bypassed as F.D. Roosevelt’s vice president for FDR’s fourth term, thus removing the possibility that Wallace would have become president in April of 1945, as well as in the Progressive Party’s debacle in 1948. The authors portray Wallace as a man of uncompromisingly high ethical standards, who, had he been a better politican, might have averted the worst aspects of the 45-year-long Cold War.

Walter Pater: Lover of Strange Souls, by Denis Donoghue. Knopf $27.50

Walter Pater is best known as the author of the slogan, “art for art’s sake.” His flamboyant disciple, Oscar Wilde, explored the limits of this theory in such works as Dorian Gray. With the possible exception of Studies in the Renaissance, Pater’s own works of exceedingly purple prose have been forgotten. In this brief biography, Donoghue makes a strong case for Pater’s place as a father of the modernist movement. He asks us to consider this self-proclaimed dillitante a genius of style if not of ideas. Because Pater lived most fully in the stylized world his prose conjures up, Donoghue focuses his biography on this world. Yet he also includes fascinating details and commentary about his external life, which was tragic in its relative emptiness. Donoghue recounts the poignant story that Pater once said that he would have traded years of his life for a handsome face. If Donoghue’s persuasive assessment of Pater’s contribution to modernism is correct, we must conclude that Pater’s meditations about beauty were a good substitute for the thing itself.

Walker Evans: A Biography, by Belinda Rathbone. Houghton Mifflin $27.50

An avid collector of picture post cards, of discarded public bricabrac, he was a “connoisseur of commonplace,” and an admirer of the “plain, relentless snapshot.” A reminder to himself: “DO—. . . Canal st. kiosk Lex. line NE corner morning sun.” From a bathtub in the kitchen, Walker Evans defined a photographic documentary aesthetic that in turn defined how a generation of Americans remembered their visual selves of the late 1920’s and 1930’s, in the city as in the small towns across the country. Belinda Rathbone gives us Evans’ first biography. It is full, frank, and ultimately warm and loving. A fine read.

Last House: Reflections, Dreams, and Observations 1943—1991, by M.F.K. Fisher. Pantheon $23

The subtitle of this volume adequately describes its contents. The pieces gathered here were assembled by Fisher in her last days, and the pain and weariness of her failing health pervade many of the later entries. Though the earliest selection comes from 1943, most of them date from her later years and offer deepening insights into her work and character. Of course, many of these pages are celebratory—of wine and food, naturally, but also of dwellings, cities, persons, and various other “delectations”—but many are elegiac, or at least profoundly restrained. In all, it is quite an attractive collection, indispensable to those who admire Fisher’s easy fluency, distinctive personality, and refined appetites.

Secret Life, by Michael Ryan. Pantheon $25

In Secret Life, poet Michael Ryan tells a disturbing story in a fascinating way. Ryan’s “secret life” is his own personal life that involved a childhood sexual assault, teenage discord with his alcoholic father, and a period of sexual addiction as an adult. In Ryan’s skilled telling one sees how these experiences shaped his life and led to his inability to sustain a lasting personal or professional relationship. While he generally does not name names, Ryan does not shy away from grounding his story in the specific details of his life. The pain, confusion, and nearly complete sense of despair he has felt comes through his prose so strongly the reader not only identifies with it but feels it himself. The ultimate triumph of the book, though, is not how easily Ryan shows us his previous bad behavior, but the way he appears to have used his experience to grow as a person. Secret Life is an excellent book.

Claude Monet: Life and Art, by Paul Hayes Tucker. Yale $40

This coffee-table sized book features 254 illustrations (more than 140 in color with four dozen of the painter’s works) and offers fresh insights into the life of one of history’s most talented and complicated artists. The elegant and useful book is supplemented by a worthwhile bibliography of the writings about Monet.

On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of a Chinese-American Family, by Lisa See. St. Martin’s $24.95

Somewhat in the style of Roots, Lisa See has written a chronicle of her family more or less in the form of a novel. Principally it concerns the author’s great-grandfather, the remarkable Fong See, who immigrated to the “Gold Mountain” (the Chinese name for America) in 1871, built up a fortune, sired an immense family, weathered the storms of bigotry and misfortune, and lived to become the one-hundred-year-old patriarch of Los Angeles’ Chinatown. It is sufficient to say that the book is always engaging, frequently fascinating, and very handsomely produced.

The General Correspondence of James Boswell 1766—1769, Vol. 1, edited by Richard C. Cole et al. Yale $75

This (to be precise) is the first volume of the fifth volume of the Yale “Research Edition” of the Private Papers of James Boswell. The interest of these letters—intrinsic, as well as in regard to the history and culture of the age they reflect, and in regard to the light they cast on Boswell himself—scarcely need be stated. As with all the volumes in this series, the critical apparatus are exemplary; all letters are reproduced in the original languages (translated when in Italian), the notes are copious and precise, and the editors have been scrupulous in preparing the volume for scholarly use.

FICTIONThe Manuscript Found in Saragassa, by Jan Potocki, translated by Ian Maclean. Viking $27.95

This is the first complete English version of a masterpiece that not only recalls The Thousand and One Nights, The Decameron, Don Quixote, and Tristram Shandy, but anticipates Borges’s Ficciones and even Musil’s Man without Qualities. Framed as a travel diary sealed in a casket and discovered 40 years later, the cycle of stories (and stories within stories) is told by a startling variety of marginal narrators. The range of modes is also wide: from Ovidian metamorphosis and Gothic horror to the erotic and the picaresque. In addition to a clear and lively rendering, lan Maclean furnishes an introduction focusing on leitmotivs and recurrent tableaux (some derived from the Tarot pack), which assure the work’s coherence, if not its linear unity.

In The Loyal Mountains, by Rick Bass. Houghton Mifflin $21.95

Rick Bass writes myths. He takes the events of ordinary human lives and amplifies them. In “The Legend of Pig-Eye” a boxer trains by picking fights in 100 backwoods Mississippi bars and winning every one. “Swamp Boy” tells of children who wear wolf masks to chase a young boy home from school. A man wins custody of his best friend’s son in a game of liar’s poker in “Wejumpka.” All of these he sets against a fantastic natural backdrop that doesn’t need magnification. It is as if Bass lets nature speak for itself, at once delicate and strong, mountain big and firefly small. In “Days of Heaven,” about the caretaker’s attempts to prevent two homosexual developers from spoiling his retreat, Bass writes, “The woods still felt the same when I went for my walks each time the two old boys departed. Yellow tanagers still flitted through the trees, flashing blazes of gold. Ravens quorked at my passage through the dark woods, as if to reassure me that they were still on my side, that I was still with nature, rather than without.” It is an old theme, man and his relationship to his environment, but Rick Bass shines new light on it. These stories are both knowing and innocent, the way a child can seem suddenly wise.

Candyman, by Simone Poirier-Bures. Oberon $12.95

Chronicling the lives of an Acadian family in Halifax, Nova Scotia in mid-century, the novel opens as the father loses his job; his subsequent life as a self-employed candyman to local merchants, his financial failures, and his death frame the coming-of-age stories of other family members. These include the mother’s loss of her romantic image of marriage, her work to create financial stability, and her final affirmation of selfhood. The children come of age, too, especially Nicole; years after her father’s death, she puts her family’s conflicts and victories in perspective, discovering a connection between parent and child that joins them “beyond words, beyond will or reason.” A major theme is the family’s loss of their Acadian culture, especially the French language, as the years pass in the English-speaking city.

The Virgin Knows, by Christine Palamidessi Moore. St. Martin $22.95

In this delightful first novel, Moore tells the fantastical tale of two Italian twins, Alicia and Carlo. Alicia possesses a sixth sense and can read her brother’s thoughts even after he leaves the family to make his fortune in America. Poor Alicia has little else exciting to do, as Carlo has left to her the responsibility of caring for their aging parents. Moore slips a serious feminist message into her light hearted, action-packed story. As a man, Carlo has access to types of power denied to Alicia, and this inequity fuels Alicia’s anger, which in turn sets the plot in motion. Gradually, Alicia learns to use her own powers to obtain her long thwarted dreams. The magical world Moore conjures up has the enchanting quality of a fairy tale.

Rainbow’s End, by Martha Grimes. Knopf $23

In this latest of the Richard Jury series, the Scotland Yard superintendent reluctantly faces the possibility that the deaths of three women, who seemingly died of natural causes in three different unlikely spots are all related and resulted from foul play. While half the novel takes place in the familiar scenes of New and Old England, the track of the murderer takes Jury to the decidedly un-British landscape of New Mexico. Grimes nonetheless proceeds with her usual complications and misdirection to provide a satisfying and literate read. Particularly good is her reprise of the Cripps family, in all their squalling and vigorous, if petty, criminality.

Athena, by John Banville. Knopf $22

Danville’s latest novel carries you along by virtue of its narrator’s obsessed voice speaking through and in dense, elegant, and wonderful prose. The tale is somewhat sordid and even pornographic in one or two spots, but the atmosphere is lushly rendered and often beautiful. Banville has an amazing knack for describing sky, weather, streets, interiors, and the world he composes is as concrete and visceral as in any novel I have ever read. The characters, too, come starkly and scarily to life, although we are throughout the novel reminded that the narrator may be misremembering, hedging, or lying. But you don’t care. The story is as gripping as it is reflexive, composed as it is of sex at the center, violence at the margins, art both as subject for the tale and creation for the teller. To adapt one phrase of the narrator’s, Banville seems to have imagined a character and imagined himself imagining a character, and in a spooky way speaking through all these mirrors about what the reader is experiencing as he reads.

Sabbath’s Theatre, by Philip Roth. Houghton Miffin $25

With probing, purple, phallic prose, the author of Portnoy’s Complaint pens a paean to an old man’s waning sexual prowess. Mating the verbal eroticism of James Joyce with the lusty lucubrations of Nabokov’s Lolita, Roth wanders down memory lane, reviewing in characteristically graphic terms, Mickey Sabbath’s entire erotic history. For Roth’s admirers this book will be a rollicking Rabelaisian romp, whereas readers not up to the author’s erotic exuberance will be spent before the tale is half over.

Of Love and Other Demons, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Knopf $21

When gravediggers discover the 66-foot shank of living hair in the recently-opened crypt of the only child of the Marquis de Casalduero, Garcia Marquez’s plot takes off to places he has taken us before. Once again, the Nobel Prize winning author is up to his old and wonderous tricks, coaxing out of the reader responses of delight, horror, and amusement, yet there is nothing old-fashioned or repetitive about this tale of religious passion, culture clash, eroticism and death. The prose remains supple and sure, and the author maintains his place as one of the world’s preeminent writers. Skillfully translated by Edith Grossman.

Looking Through Glass, by Mukul Kesavan. Farrar, Straus, & Giroux $25

In his first novel, Mukul Kesavan paints a shimmering portrait of India in the volatile 1940’s. The events of that decade form the historical backdrop for an exciting plot involving romance, betrayal, and adventure. Readers may find themselves a little lost in the middle of the novel, precisely because there are so many interwoven threads in this novel. The narrator’s convoluted, tumultuous life is meant to be fantastical, for Kesavan clearly admires and emulates such so-called “magic realists” as Salman Rushdie and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Kesavan’s tendency to “borrow” from these writers notwithstanding, the book testifies to his original, lively literary imagination.

The Riders, by Tim Winton. Scribner’s $23

This psychological suspense thriller is the introduction of Americans to a bestselling and prolific young Australian who has won every major literary award in his native country. It is a tender and heart-warming love story of a man and his young daughter searching through Europe for the pregnant woman who has inexplicably deserted them. Readers will soon be dashing off to locate some of his previous publications.

Polite Society, by Melanie Sumner. Houghton Mifflin $21.95

This debut novel follows Darren, a self-centered 25-year-old woman who runs away to teach for the Peace Corps in Senegal after being a willful and drifting failure at home in the U.S. When Darren brings this same solipsistic act to Africa, it is a certain recipe for a tragi-comedy. As Darren bungles her way through initial disorientation, interracial affairs, and heavy bouts of drinking Sumner effectively milks the surface irony from the miscues of cultural ambiguity. However, while the writing strives toward originality, Darren’s storyline is not only tragicomedy but also tragically common in countries like Senegal. And just as Darren is not mature enough for her assignment, Sumner is not up to a novel that goes to the heart of these confrontations. Rather than an illumination of the forces that drive and determine what is at stake in these encounters we get a brat’s eye view of Senegal and under the rapidly aging skin of another Generation-Xer.

Miami Purity, by Vicki Hendricks. Pantheon $20

This first novel is easily dismissed—cliched, uneven, and improbable. The frequent couplings will not elicit charges of pornography because their descriptions are so mechanical. Yet, one senses that Ms. Hendricks writes from familiarity, that she could tell an engaging and amusing story, that she could impart some depth to her characters. Hopefully next time.

Carry Me Like Water, by Benjamin Alire Sáenz. Hyperion $22.95

Alire Sáenz, an American poet and former priest, has elected to write a novel in the Latin American tradition of “Magical Realism”; it has all the elements one might expect from a book so conceived: a nurse who acquires the ability to travel apart from her body, death by lingering disease, metaphysical irony, spiritual yearning— everything needful, indeed, save interest. This is, unfortunately, a thoroughly derivative work, beneath whose gaudy surface lurks little more than a tedious melodrama, dripping with fashionable social pieties, and written in a style that hovers uncomfortably somewhere between the bluntly prosaic and the embarassingly “poetic.” Imitation may be a form of flattery, but rarely does it profit by comparison to what it mimics.

The Magnates, by Susan Crosland. Random House $21

The author is a career journalist and widow of a British foreign secretary. Her father was a Pulitzer Prize winning newspaperman. She has used her professional experience and parental writing genes to pen successful steamy novels. This one deals with the dual aphrodesiac of political power and intrigue in a stimulating story that ranges from lust to love all the way from presidential Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington to Fleet Street in London.

Nervous Dancer, by Carol Lee Lorenzo. Georgia $22.95

A child is sent to dancing lessons as a cure for her nervousness—or so she is told. She is an only child, born of a woman who would rather not have given birth, set against children as she feels her mother is set against her. She is the “nervous dancer” of the title piece of this work, and she reappears several times in the nine stories that make up this collection. Her appearances share certain similarities: she is female, uncertain of her place and her relationships, uncertain most of all about the ways women relate to the men in their lives—petulant boyfriends, absentminded husbands, simply absent fathers. The stories are of even quality; meeting a standard that apparently impressed the jury that awards the Flannery O’Connor prize for short fiction. The group is, ait best, unsatisfying—too safe, too predictable, devoid of the eye-opening occasions that one expects from good short stories.

Edge of the City, by Dan Mahoney. St. Martin’s $22.95

This retired New York City police captain’s second novel is short on characters and dialogue, but very long and convincing on story. Brien McKenna, a police detective forced into retirement for self-protection, is brought back into service to combat Shining Path terrorists holding New York City hostage. The conundrum the city finds itself in is ingeniously crafted and as an action story the book is quite successful. But the most shocking aspect of the novel is the demonstration of the relative ease with which terrorists can act in a free society—which makes this story more than a cautionary tale.

NATIONAL AND INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRSFrench Secret Services, by Douglas Porch. Farrar, Straus &Giroux $32.50

The first English-language “history of French intelligence from the Dreyfus Affair to the Gulf War,” Porch’s analysis happily resists the Keystone Kops approach. True, deuxième bureau and supposedly allied agencies have fumbled— repeatedly, spectacularly, and often tragically. But the spies and counterspies who contributed so much to the Fall of France and the Green-peace Affair were not all crooks and royalists fecklessly pursuing their own (or their external sponsors’) agendas. Instead, their work became (and disquietingly remains) the focus of ministerial obsession, a major if unacknowledged influence on policy, foreign as well as domestic. Of particular interest is Porch’s debunking of Philippe Thyraud de Vosjoli, the Peter Wright / James Jesus Angleton of the SDECE, whose career Leon Uris “novelized” and Alfred Hitchcock filmed under the title, Topaz.

A Year In the Life of the Supreme Court, edited by Rodney A. Smolla. Duke $39.95 cloth, $14.95 paper

Ten distinguished university professors and experienced journalists who are experts on the Supreme Court of the U.S. have written critical essays relating to the 1992—93 term of the Court. They give us an intimate glimpse into how the nine justices differ, one from another, into their approach to the law and a resolution into the complex issues they have to resolve. Their daily work is the process of the perpetual interplay between politics and principle. In its decisions, the Court is engaged in drama deeper than that portrayed by Hollywood in an impact on the life of each one of us. As a serious study, the book does not compete with the kiss-and-tell best-seller The Brethren which purported to give the reader the “inside story” of the “secret life” of the Supreme Court. But it will give you an insight as an accurate and mature “eyes and ears” understanding of the highest Court in the land.

The New Ecological Order, by Luc Ferry. Chicago $34.95 cloth, $14.95 paper

Throughout the ideological upheaval of recent years, perhaps no other political movement has gained strength as consistently as has environmentalism. It has its adherents on both the left and the right, and the high-profile organizations that promote it have achieved both political and financial success. In contrast to the general good feelings surrounding environmentalism, however, Ferry has written a brilliant and challenging critique of some of the more extreme positions propounded by some members of the movement. In particular, he attacks deep ecologists and animal rights theorists for their anti-democratic, anti-humanist, and almost totalitarian positions. Ferry recognizes that the thinkers he engages have developed serious answers to important questions, and his counter-arguments, while spirited, are rarely flip. Many will be agitated by this book, and some of them will no doubt complain about the sketchy state in which Ferry leaves his outline of an alternative, democratic ecology. But even if it does threaten to spoil the party-atmosphere that surrounds environmentalism, this is a profound book that everyone interested or involved in the movement should read.

Germany United and Europe Transformed: A Study in Statecraft, by Philip Zelikow and Condoleezza Rice. Harvard $30

Rice and Zelikow have written a remarkably complete history of the reunification of East and West Germany. They sifted through American, Soviet, and East and West German documents in order to “tell the German story and the Soviet story and the American story, and then study how they interacted to produce the results all could see.” The resulting book shows how internal political dynamics, the ghosts of history, and the desire of the East German citizens to leave that country behind them led to a result which seemed impossible for m

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