By Melinda RothSt. Martin's Press, 240 pages, $23.95
By David WiseRandom House, 256 pages, $24.95
By Susan J. MattUniversity of Pennsylvania Press, 232 pages, $35.00
By Eric HombergerYale University Press, 336 pages, $29.95
By Mary Beth NortonKnopf, 432 pages, $30.00
By Thomas E. Buckley, S.J.University of North Carolina Press, 352 pages, $49.95
By M. I. FinleyNew York Review Books, 224 pages, $42.95
By Orlando FigesMetropolitan Books, 544 pages, $35.00
By Peter SchrijversNew York University Press, 256 pages, $45.00
By N. John HallYale University Press, 224 pages, $24.95
By Philip DavisOxford University Press, 560 pages, $45.00
By George Orwell, edited by John CareyEveryman, 1408 pages, $35.00
By David ThomsonKnopf, 960 pages, $35.00
A reference book of extraordinary literary merit, this eccentric, audacious, sparkling work returns—revised, updated, and bulging with 300 new entries (including Rin Tin Tin and Graham Greene), which helps to account for its nearly 1,000 closely printed double-column pages. Probably the greatest living film critic and historian, Thomson, an Englishman who lives in San Francisco, writes the most fun and enthralling prose about the movies since Pauline Kael. His judgments in these pungent mini- and not-so-mini-essays can be exasperatingly wrong: He characterizes Mike Nichols's vacuous and pretentious wife Diane Sawyer as "lovely and smart"; how can he express any reservations about Children of Paradise? And although he's hardly an auteurist, his book focuses on directors at the expense of writers and producers.
But regarding the important issues Thomson is almost always dead-on: He champions the supreme genius of Howard Hawks, who captured better than any other filmmaker both "masculine romanticism" (in Red River) and "the dazzling battles of word, innuendo, glance, and gesture" between men and women (in Twentieth Century, Bringing Up Baby, Only Angels Have Wings, and, of course, His Girl Friday). He astutely observes that Agnes Moorehead figures in "the two most indelibly humane moments in the work of Orson Welles"—the scene in Citizen Kane in which Kane's mother opens the window "to call in her son from the snow so that he may advance on his destiny" and the scene in The Magnificent Ambersons in which "Aunt Fanny watches Georgie devouring her strawberry shortcake, pleased to be useful ... but knowing that he does not need her, deeply aware that her vibrant romantic hopes are growing shrill with neglect." He appreciates the often neglected Jean Arthur, prizing her "rare, querulous charm" and the "earnest, furious thought" she brought to comedy and romance. He knows that Cary Grant "was the best and most important actor in the history of the cinema"—and he even has the perspicacity to recognize as Grantlike the "wit, narrative speed, and good-natured ease" of the great TV show The Rockford Files. The book is a marvel.
by George Orwell, edited by John Carey
Everyman, 1408 pages, $35.00Buy this book. Unless, that is, you already have the four-volume The Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters—available now only in paperback—or the twenty-volume Complete Works. (I own both, but I'm keeping this one for my desk.) Orwell's are the most important essays of the twentieth century, and reading them—along with his nonfiction books The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia—will make you a clearer thinker, a cleaner writer, and a more thoughtful human being. This handsome, 1,372-page hardcover volume contains his complete essays (even his unfinished piece on Evelyn Waugh, which is missing from the four-volume edition) and selected reviews and journalism. It also includes an incisive introduction by the brilliant John Carey, but lacks an index—a grievous fault, but its only one.
The Victorians: The Oxford English Literary History, Vol. 8, 1830-1880
by Philip Davis
Oxford University Press, 560 pages, $45.00 Though its title suggests a dry and earnest tome full of summary lists ("Kingsley's other novels include Hypatia, Westward Ho! ..."), this is an imaginative, penetrating, often idiosyncratic history, written with brio. Davis takes an expansive view of literature (in addition to examining the poetry, fiction, and drama of the period, he writes about books and essays on theology, science, biography, travel, criticism, history, and psychology); he addresses the relationship between literature and broad political and cultural trends; and he pays particular attention to what he calls the "conditions of literary production," such as the growth of the reading public and changes in the book trade. But by probing his abundant subject in what amount to selective and detailed critical essays (for instance, devoting the bulk of one of his three chapters on fiction to comparing the high realism of Trollope and George Eliot—who emerges from this account as the greatest literary genius of the age—to support his contention that "the novel offered the most subtle, diversified and complicated network of shifting interrelationships available to human thinking"), Davis has written a book of breathtaking depth as well as breadth.
Published and Perished
edited by Steven Gilbar and Dean Stewart
David R. Godine, 220 pages, $26.95 This wittily selected and atrociously titled anthology of remembrances of American writers by American writers reveals as much about the eulogists as about their subjects. In his treacherous commemorative pen portrait of F. Scott Fitzgerald, for example, John O'Hara couldn't transcend his propensity for envy and schadenfreude. Then again, Fitzgerald's memorial to the enormously kind but cynical Ring Lardner managed to be at once generous (Fitzgerald noted that as a writer Lardner "heard and recorded the voice of a continent," and that as a man "he always did every single thing he said he would do") and superciliously dismissive, if not wholly inaccurate, in its appraisal of Lardner's artistic merit. Of course, writers are a notoriously insecure and backbiting breed, so it's a delight to come across Willa Cather's sweet and sad recollection of the doomed young Stephen Crane; Booth Tarkington's brave encomium to the already out-of-fashion William Dean Howells; Saul Bellow's trenchant appreciation of the enormous differences between him and John Cheever, which endeared them to each other; and H. L. Mencken's rollicking and loving account of his first meeting with James Gibbons Huneker—a pilsner-marinated lunch at which Huneker delivered a five-hour monologue on subjects ranging from "the defects in the structure of Sister Carrie" to "what George Moore said about German bathrooms" to the causes of Tchaikovsky's suicide (the talk "was chaos made to gleam and coruscate with every device of the seven arts").
by N. John Hall
Yale University Press, 224 pages, $24.95 Hall's book has many strengths and some annoying—because they are so avoidable—defects. Too many literary biographers exhaustively chronicle their subject's every journey and meal while failing to probe the relationship between the writer's life and his work. In contrast, this short, highly intelligent literary portrait incisively appraises Beerbohm's personality, writings, and relationships with, among others, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Oscar Wilde, Henry James, and Virginia Woolf. But it's marred by a self-conscious style that Hall describes as "quirky" (must he refer to his long-dead subject as "Max"?).
The GI War Against Japan
by Peter Schrijvers
New York University Press, 256 pages, $45.00 This terrifying, remarkable work examines the attitudes, perceptions, and behavior of U.S. fighting men in the Pacific theater during World War II. Imaginatively drawing on letters, diaries, memoirs, military reports, and contemporary psychological assessments, Schrijvers reveals the social, historical, and emotional roots of the peculiarly frenzied and merciless war that Americans fought in what they regarded as an exotic and impenetrable paradise—a conflict that escalated into a campaign of extermination, and a war against the land and nature itself. Schrijvers's sober account of Americans' wartime rage, which manifested itself in wholesale rape and the indiscriminate killing of civilians, is far from a work of crude revisionism—he reminds us of the abysmal conduct of the Japanese, and he refreshingly and correctly views the dropping of the atomic bomb as a continuation of the methods used by all the combatants. Nevertheless, this temperate study of murderous fury is among the most unsettling books I've read in years.