Power, Faith, and Fantasy
by Michael B. Oren (Norton)
In this survey of U.S.–Middle Eastern engagement, a leading Israeli historian argues that our relationship with the Middle East has always been inseparable from our sense of ourselves. “On balance,” he concludes, “Americans historically brought far more beneficence than avarice to the Middle East and caused significantly less harm than good.”
Dancing in the Streets
by Barbara Ehrenreich (Metropolitan)
The author of Nickel and Dimed probes the curious history of “collective joy,” portraying the advance of Western civilization as a determined campaign to purge ecstasy and fellow feeling from daily life. Although Ehrenreich’s scope is vast, and the more visceral type of communitarianism she calls for is appealing, her book lacks the passionate urgency of its ostensible subject and remains somewhat inert.
The Averaged American
by Sarah E. Igo (Harvard)
In what could be a companion volume of sorts to Ehrenreich’s book, a scholar meditates on the rise of public-opinion polling in the U.S. and the peculiar brand of self-knowledge-at-a-distance for which we have Gallup and Kinsey to thank. Igo notes that although such surveys have become more scientific, they remain inescapably reductive, so that Americans have learned “what their metaphorical, but not their actual, neighbors were thinking and doing.”
Where We Lived
by Jack Larkin (Taunton)
A fascinating and beautifully photographed survey of American homes built between 1775 and 1840 reveals an astonishing variety of dwellings as well as certain common bonds: cramped spaces, persistent smells, no privacy to speak of.
by John Patrick Diggins (Norton)
The author, a prominent conservative historian, concedes that Reagan was a relativistic enabler of Big Government and had little use for organized religion, but nevertheless regards him as a truer conservative than many who claim the mantle today. Diggins’s ability to glimpse Reagan’s contradictions clearly (and explain why those contradictions made Reagan, in a way, all the more himself) leaves his subject at once more legible and more mysterious.
Freud: Inventor of the Modern Mind
by Peter D. Kramer (HarperCollins)
A brief, compelling reassessment of Freud by the author of Listening to Prozac. Although the great analyst was “more devious and less original than he made himself out to be,” Kramer generously concludes that “the gradual revelation of a less straightforward, less competent, less lovable Freud contains an affirmation of Freudian precepts”—particularly that “what is hidden in people may not be admirable.”
by Victoria Glendinning (Free Press)
The husband of Virginia Woolf provided so much information in his brilliant autobiography that perhaps there has seemed no need till now for a full, well-researched biography. But Glendinning—one of Britain’s most celebrated biographers—presents us with a perceptive, understated account, especially for the years after Virginia’s death. She describes, in ways Woolf himself could not, the trials of a semi-outsider in the Bloomsbury world—a Jew; a poor man; a practical, persistent intelligence amid genius. Civil servant in the Empire (with the conscience and prescience of Orwell), novelist, distinguished publisher, historian, political analyst and adviser, journalist, and editor, Leonard Woolf famously summed up his career as so many hours of “perfectly useless work.” Glendinning doesn’t buy it, and offers a more apt and cheerful assessment.
by Claire Tomalin (Penguin)
Tomalin’s book appears only a few months after the revised edition of Michael Millgate’s magisterial biography of Thomas Hardy, and the author acknowledges her debt to Millgate. But readers of her earlier biographies, especially Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self (2002), will know that Tomalin has something special to offer. In a style both scholarly and entertaining—often in short, fast-paced sentences—Tomalin examines the emotional paradoxes of her notoriously opaque subject. She turns fresh attention to Hardy’s first marriage: the book opens with Emma’s death—the moment, Tomalin writes, “when Thomas Hardy became a great poet.” Sympathetic and often wry, Tomalin is most innovative when exploring the biographical ironies of Hardy’s poems.
by Howard Pollack (California)
At nearly 900 pages, Pollack’s study intends to be definitive—as did its shorter predecessor, William Hyland’s George Gershwin (2003). Pollack devotes fewer than 200 pages to straight biography, but in the rest he discerningly surveys Gershwin’s compositions (including recently discovered ones) in historical and musical detail. The book, in fact, is a remarkable compendium of detail. This alone will probably make it definitive, though Hyland writes more subtly about Gershwin’s personality. Still, one is grateful for Pollack’s wealth of anecdotes, like Kitty Carlisle’s dismissal of Gershwin’s love letters as “hardly of a tone to inspire serious feelings.”
Four Days to Glory
by Mark Kreidler (HarperCollins)
In a sort of Friday Night Mats for the Iowa high-school wrestling circuit, an ESPN contributor follows two of the state’s most promising wrestlers through their senior seasons. Although Kreidler’s book lacks the strong sense of place of H. G. Bissinger’s Texas football classic, it’s an inspiring chronicle of individual effort—and its portraits of stifling gyms and miserly training diets ably evoke an elemental loneliness unique to the sport.
Wallowing in Sex
by Elana Levine (Duke)
A media-studies scholar documents how the sexual revolution made its way into the mainstream via 1970s American television. Leaving aside Levine’s unintentionally amusing academic dutifulness—”I have been able to view this episode of the Match Game, along with many others, in syndicated repeats on the Game Show Network”—the book does map genuine cultural change and find meaning in an ephemeral medium that, despite its pervasiveness, is too often regarded as unfit for serious study.
The Proper Care and Feeding of Marriage
by Dr. Laura Schlessinger (HarperCollins)
Eschewing, as always, wishy-washy understatement (sex-averse women should “get over yourselves and under your men,” for example), Dr. Laura, in this follow-up to The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands, traces the cause of much marital unhappiness to our “almost total lack of understanding, appreciation, and respect for what is feminine and what is masculine—and therefore what it means to be the counterpoint to the other.”
The Real Toy Story
by Eric Clark (Free Press)
A fascinating exposé of the $20 billion- a-year toy industry, in which ads increasingly tout sex and violence, executives jockey for market share with alarming bloodthirstiness, and the terrifying prospect of KGOY—”kids getting older younger,” and therefore becoming immune to the charms of the toy chest—haunts all.
House of Meetings
by Martin Amis (Knopf)
Amis’s short eleventh novel works intermittently as a grimly comic assault on the peculiar monstrousness of Russia. The remainder—a ponderously suspenseful drama about two Russian brothers, gulag survivors fixated on the same woman—is, uncharacteristically for this gifted writer, a tinny, hyperbolic, static affair.
Returning to Earth
by Jim Harrison (Grove/Atlantic)
With his roots in the hunting and fishing ethos of the upper Midwest, his straightforward style, his appreciation of the natural world and of life’s sensual pleasures, his focus on grand themes, Harrison might almost be a parody of the quintessential American male writer, were he not the real thing. In the first section of this empathetic novel about love, death, and redemption, a man dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease gives his wife a digressive account of his family’s hard-knocks history. The remaining three sections explore how his death affects those who loved him.
by Michael Redhill (Little, Brown)
Lou Gehrig’s disease again! In this case, a local historian, suffering from the malady, posits, to public ridicule, that a trove of photographs of early Toronto lies beneath a landfill. Redhill, author of the affecting short-story collection Fidelity, shifts between the present-day account of the widow’s efforts to vindicate her husband and the story of the photographer in mid-nineteenth-century Toronto. Puzzlingly, the modern bits are stilted, at times almost amateurish, while the historical parts sing.
by Vikram Chandra (HarperCollins)
This well-written entertainment, with a plot of Victorian complexity and a page count to match, centers on the cat-and-mouse between a Bombay police inspector and a crime boss.