Books May 2003

New & Noteworthy

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Nelson: Love & Fame
by Edgar Vincent
Yale

Nelson and Churchill are their country's greatest heroes. These men, in their turn, bore the pre-eminent responsibility for successfully thwarting the two greatest threats of invasion Britain has faced since the Spanish Armada. Both combined supreme self-confidence with a remarkable—if often winsome—emotional immaturity. Both had stalwart courage and a flair for the theatrical. Both were masters of self-promotion, yet while they frantically pursued fame, both scrupulously ensured that others received the credit they deserved. Both coined gallant phrases that will forever define their nation's best self (Nelson's "England expects that every man will do his duty" is by far the most famous maritime signal in history). But only Nelson—who lost an arm, his vision in one eye, and ultimately his life in combat—was an audacious and brilliant leader of men in epic battles. Only Nelson could sway and inspire—and dominate— others with his charm. And only Nelson maintained a lasting and intense love affair with perhaps the greatest beauty of his age, Emma Hamilton. Vincent's extraordinary work does justice to this extraordinary man. He writes in his introduction that a biographer must approach his subject "with empathy and a forensic attitude," and the author's sharp, skeptical intelligence sets this book apart. Alas, nearly all other giant historical biographies (this one is more than 600 pages) merely assemble lists and facts, chronicling their subjects' lives in great detail but with little insight. Vincent, whose book is based almost entirely on primary sources, has researched prodigiously, but he doesn't let events, letters, or diary entries speak for themselves; rather, he interprets, shapes, and dissects the historical material, which renders his biography consistently—and again, alas, almost uniquely—engaging. Whether probing Nelson's conduct of the Battles of Saint Vincent, the Nile, Copenhagen, and Trafalgar; or showing how his astonishingly successful leadership was based on his recognition of the need among all his men "for self-respect, for fairness, and for justice" (Vincent's is the most astute study I've read of the various aspects of military leadership—strategic and operational as well as managerial); or revealing Nelson's character and attitude toward the Navy in an analysis of the contrast between him and the equally dashing, humane, and daring Lord Cochrane (who was a far less effective organization man); or assessing Nelson's insecurities as revealed in his letters to Hamilton; or illuminating how Nelson's account of Copenhagen displayed both his courage and his "singular capacity for making sure that what he had done was not overlooked," Vincent writes with fluency and deploys his evidence with keen analytical ability and storytelling skill. He has written a great biography and a poignant love story; his last sentence will break your heart.

Architecture

Raphael Soriano
by Wolfgang Wagener
Phaidon

Wagener's detailed, clearly written, and exquisitely illustrated study of the work of the mid-twentieth-century architect Raphael Soriano is a paean to the vanished middle-class, egalitarian Los Angeles. On the eve of the Second World War no other city in America was so democratic (it could be argued), because in no other city was the freestanding, single-family house so predominant. And in no other city was the middle-class housing stock so architecturally distinguished; the California bungalow, which two architectural historians have called "the closest thing to a democratic art that has ever been produced," flourished there. By the mid-1940s a number of the city's most distinguished architects—including Soriano, Richard Neutra, Charles and Ray Eames, Eero Saarinen, and Soriano's protégés Pierre Koenig and Craig Ellwood—recognized that the techniques and materials of the war industries, especially the aeronautical industry, could be used to design and build a new type of affordable and beautiful house for southern California's swelling population. They were enlisted in the Case Study House program (1945-1966), which aimed to build avant-garde Modernist family homes on a bourgeois budget. Marked by a fluidity of indoor and outdoor space (the Case Study architects, Soriano in particular, were adept at interweaving rooms and patios), and built largely of glass framed in lightweight steel, these clean-lined houses also managed (unlike Philip Johnson's and Mies van der Rohe's soulless domestic glass boxes back east) to be jaunty, relaxed, and remarkably livable. Soriano's work was the apotheosis of the Case Study House ideals. Like his mentors Rudolf Schindler and Neutra, Soriano molded the understated, pure Modernist aesthetic to the climate and good life of southern California. But he was equally attentive to cost and to the need for easy and fast construction, and was hence imaginative and innovative in his frequent use of prefabricated, industrial, and off-the-shelf materials. This book places Soriano's designs in the cultural, political, and economic context of postwar southern California, and it keenly assesses both his breezy, family-friendly houses and his contribution to the Case Study movement (his pioneering use of steel module frames eliminated the need for interior, load-bearing walls and resulted in the open floor plans that became a distinguishing feature of the program's houses). But Wagener's most impressive feat is his revealing use of photographs, notably those by the great architectural photographer Julius Shulman. (Shulman's beguiling nighttime photograph of two women in cocktail dresses sitting in Case Study House #22, which seems to hover above the lights of the San Fernando Valley, is an iconic image of modern architecture.) Shulman has always seemed especially sensitive to Soriano's vision, perhaps because he has now lived for more than half a century in a house designed by the architect.

Literary Studies

As of This Writing
by Clive James
Norton

James is among the very small number of great critics writing today—a group that includes Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, John Updike, Gore Vidal, and Christopher Hitchens. All write with verve and recklessness, which they combine with extraordinary erudition. All are imbued with what James calls "the spirit of Grub Street"—all, that is, write in "the tradition of supplying a supplement and a corrective to ... the dust contractors of the universities." The authors and subjects he examines in this collection of "essays"—really review essays—range from Nabokov to Judith Krantz, from Richard Nixon's memoirs to the Final Solution; from Stevie Smith to Peter Bogdanovich, from Philip Larkin to Marilyn Monroe. (Among and within his pieces James artfully juxtaposes the high and the low—a tendency he shares with Ackroyd. Both men have been regular television critics.) He is penetrating on all these (especially Larkin), but I find him most astute and heartfelt in his assessments of his fellow literary journalists. His celebrated 1972 essay on Edmund Wilson remains the most trenchant appreciation of both the critic's writing ("Wilson's style adopted the Mencken-Nathan toughness but eschewed the belligerence—throwing no punches, it simply put its points and waited for intelligent men to agree") and his peculiar point of view as a "patrician individualist," revolted by the fact that "the Republic he loved began to be overwhelmed by the Democracy he had never been sure about." He hits the mark in his evaluation of Vidal, whom he rightly regards as Wilson's "natural heir," who "just knows a lot, possesses an unusual amount of common sense and writes scrupulously lucid prose"—but whose critical honesty is hobbled by his "thirst for glamour." And James is equally incisive on Susan Sontag, who, he writes, "conspicuously lacks the one quality every critic must have and an excellent critic must have in abundance: the capacity not to be carried away by a big idea." His piece on Orwell, however (who not only made political writing an art but, James correctly avers, "is the first person to read on Swift, on Dickens, and on Gissing"), is the best here, and among the best considerations of that author ever written. Sure, James praises Orwell's style and its "irresistible force of assertion," but far more valuably, he takes apart Orwell's sentences to show us how he created conversational prose like a windowpane. And James succinctly tells us why to read Orwell, why to be wary of him, and why to revere him: "Not even Orwell could resist a resonant statement that fudged the facts—a clarity that is really an opacity. Yes, Orwell did write like an angel, and that's the very reason we have to watch him like a hawk. Luckily for us, he was pretty good at watching himself. He was blessed with a way of putting things that made everything he said seem so, but that was only a gift. His intellectual honesty was a virtue."

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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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