Books October 2002

New & Noteworthy

The best bets in a crowded autumn field

Fall is the most important season in the book business: From the Monday after Labor Day until close to Thanksgiving, the biggest books by the biggest writers and the most promising debut novels of the year relentlessly spew forth. Almost all will fade; each year sees fewer than a dozen extraordinary critical and popular successes. And every author knows that he or she is engaged in a zero-sum game: readers have limited time, and most of them have limited book-buying budgets, so if they are spending hours and money on one writer's book, they are almost certainly ignoring another's. The competition this year is especially severe, owing to the anniversary of 9/11. Publishers knew the somber commemorations would leave no room on the Today show for author interviews and would divert attention from book reviews—so the fall season starts late, the week of September 17. Most galling for writers is that to a large extent the game has been decided long before their books are in the stores. Publishers, of course, don't distribute advertising and marketing budgets evenly among their titles—they bet on the surest things and the sexiest subjects; at sales conferences in the spring they decide which books have the best chance of breaking out in the fall. The rest are pretty much left to die—no ads in major newspapers, no national author tours. During the summer, sales reps report which fall titles have won over booksellers across the country, further refining the list of titles the publishers will push. By late summer the trade journals—Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, and Library Journal—have nominated the upcoming season's winners and losers, which greatly influences which books, and how many of them, bookstores and libraries will order. By summer's end the cognoscenti in New York have already decided which fall titles to anoint with elaborate author profiles in The New York Times (the only paper that matters in the publishing world) and other publications. This seemingly idiosyncratic sanctification alone can explain the reams of flattering attention devoted to the Yale law professor Stephen Carter, which helped to propel his stilted, swollen, and predictable novel, The Emperor of Ocean Park, onto best-seller lists. We don't want to tell you which books will be the hot books. Rather, we want to tell you which to read—and which to ignore.

History

Charles Darwin: The Power of Place
by Janet Browne
Knopf, 627 pages, $37.50

The second and concluding volume of Browne's life of Darwin covers the publication and reception of On the Origin of Species, Darwin's subsequent fame, and the gestation and writing of The Descent of Man. It is a masterpiece. At once wide-ranging and tightly woven, The Power of Place is as profound an intellectual history of Victorian Britain as has ever been written; an incisive consideration of Darwin's mind, personality, marriage, and tragic family life; and an elegant exegesis of his ideas, influence, and literary style and technique. Browne took on an enormously ambitious project, and only an astonishingly skillful writer and a masterly historian could have pulled it off. She has.

The Man Who Deciphered Linear B
by Andrew Robinson
Thames & Hudson, 168 pages, $19.95

The decipherment of the Mycenaean script known as Linear B, inscribed on clay tablets discovered at Knossos and Pylos, was probably the most significant development in twentieth-century classical archaeology. Robinson reconstructs that elaborate code-breaking process with precision—or, rather, with as much precision as possible, given that he stresses the role intuition played. What makes this book so intriguing, though, is its depiction of the code breaker. Michael Ventris, the epitome of the gentleman scholar (he was an architect by training and profession), was a sweet, sad genius, and Robinson touchingly chronicles his life-long obsession with those mysterious clay tablets.

Napoleon and Wellington
by Andrew Roberts
Simon & Schuster, 384 pages, $27.00

Books about Napoleon should, as Orwell said of saints, be judged guilty until proved innocent; the world needs many things, but not another pass at the Little Corporal—to whom more ink has been devoted than to probably any other historical figure except Jesus Christ. But Roberts, one of Britain's most talented and stylish young historians (his sparkling biography of Lord Salisbury still, alas, lacks a U.S. publisher), has written a brilliant work—an astute examination of Napoleon and Wellington's military rivalry in the Peninsular War and at Waterloo, a subtle and revealing character study of the two commanders, and a penetrating look at their evolving historical reputations and complex relationship (they shared, among other things, two mistresses).

Paris 1919
by Margaret MacMillan
Random House, 560 pages, $35.00

This study of the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, written for the general reader, will—you'll see—get a lot of favorable critical attention. But bland and bloated (with a foreword by the appropriately superficial and self-important Richard Holbrooke), it falls between two stools. It's neither as entertaining and revealing as Harold Nicolson's irreverent and elegant (if somewhat dated) popular history Peacemaking 1919 nor as intellectually sparkling as Arno J. Mayer's commanding and controversial scholarly books Politics and Diplomacy of Peacemaking and Political Origins of the New Diplomacy. Better to read Nicolson for entertainment or Mayer (or such specialized studies as Lorna Jaffe's The Decision to Disarm Germany and Piotr Wandycz's France and Her Eastern Allies) for discerning scholarship.

Night in the Middle Ages
by Jean Verdon
University of Notre Dame Press, $25.00

"What was it like in the Middle Ages when darkness was nearly unbroken from the setting to the rising of the sun?" To answer this question Verdon mines his sources with dexterous imagination as he elucidates an extraordinarily wide swath of medieval life, from crime to sexuality to architecture to religion.

Presented by

Benjamin Schwarz is the former literary and national editor for The Atlantic. He is writing a book about Winston Churchill for Random House. More

His first piece for the magazine, "The Diversity Myth," was a cover story in 1995. Since then he's written articles and reviews on a startling array of subjects from fashion to the American South, from current fiction to the Victorian family, and from international economics to Chinese restaurants. Schwarz oversees and writes a monthly column for "Books and Critics," the magazine's cultural department, which under his editorship has expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. He also regularly writes the "leader" for the magazine. Before joining the Atlantic's staff, Schwarz was the executive editor of World Policy Journal, where his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs. For several years he was a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine. Schwarz was also staff member of the Brookings Institution. Born in 1963, he holds a B.A. and an M.A. in history from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Nation. He has lectured at a range of institutions, from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School to the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in book criticism.

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