Books March 2007

Cover to Cover

A guide to additional releases
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HISTORY

Murder City
by Michael Lesy (Norton)

The author of Wisconsin Death Trip—an American Gothic classic documenting creepy fin-de-siécle goings-on in a small midwestern town—turns to the Chicago clip morgue, reconstructing a series of particularly sordid Windy City murders from their descriptions in 1920s newspapers. The accompanying photos of formally attired but apparently savage Jazz Age Chicagoans are as chilling as the deadpan tones in which Lesy renders their tales, lending his book the archaic strangeness of myth.

The California Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War
by Leonard L. Richards (Knopf)

An engrossing chronicle of the political intrigues that engulfed California in the 1850s, when pro-Southern legislators there angled to turn the state’s newfound wealth to the benefit of the slave economy.

Shameful Flight
by Stanley Wolpert (Oxford)

Even the most die-hard defender of British rule of the subcontinent can’t claim that the imperial power’s final act was its finest hour. Churchill called it “shameful flight,” and this disturbing book makes clear just what a hash Britons made of quitting India and of their concomitant partition of Punjab and Bengal, which resulted in the mutual slaughter of at least a million Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus. While rightly assigning most of the blame to the last viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, Wolpert identifies many culprits before him, in Whitehall and the Raj, who contributed to the disaster.

Three New Deals
by Wolfgang Schivelbusch (Metropolitan)

A German scholar draws dispassionate parallels between Nazism, Italian Fascism, and New Deal liberalism in tracking varied responses to the social and economic trials of the 1930s. Schivelbusch is scrupulous about comparing without equating, and he has an interesting answer to the question of why, faced with similar hardships and possessed of an apparently similar hunger for public-works projects and demagoguery, the United States did not join Italy and Germany in succumbing to the fascist temptation: Since a creed of classlessness—a necessary precondition for fascism—had long been a cornerstone of American identity, the U.S. was inoculated against the larger threat.

BIOGRAPHY

The Gentle Subversive
by Mark Hamilton Lytle (Oxford)

A brief biography by an environmental historian, focusing on Rachel Carson’s development as a writer and the many battles she fought (against breast cancer and a skeptical scientific establishment) to see Silent Spring into print. In defending Carson against critics past and present, Lytle demonstrates the quiet radicalism of her work.

Mae West: “It Ain’t No Sin”
by Simon Louvish (St. Martin’s)

Onscreen, Mae West was the ultimate sex goddess, all slink, allure, and come-hither. Offscreen, she was a tough, smart old bird who worked her whole life to create and preserve that sexy image. Louvish’s painstakingly researched and shrewd biography tells all about Mae—body, libido, and, perhaps most surprisingly and fascinatingly, mind.

Phiz
by Valerie Browne Lester (Pimlico)

A sparkling portrait of Charles Dickens’s longtime illustrator, Hablot Knight “Phiz” Browne, whose creations are nearly as responsible as his collaborator’s for our enduring impressions of Victorian life.

William Empson: Against the Christians
by John Haffenden (Oxford)

The first installment of this monumental work has been hailed as one of the best literary biographies ever written in English. This second volume, at once exhaustive and exquisite, picks up where its predecessor left off, tracking the eccentric and heretical critic and poet from his stint as a BBC propagandist during World War II through the publication of Milton’s God (his most controversial work) and up to his death.

SOCIETY and CULTURE

Stacked
by Susan Seligson (Bloomsbury)

An amply endowed journalist explores society’s complicated relationship with the female breast. Bearing a suitably overstuffed quiver of mammary synonyms (Seligson deserves some sort of lifetime-achievement award for elegant variation), her book is an entertaining, if not especially groundbreaking, tour of plastic-surgery clinics, exotic-dancing trade shows, and the national bedroom. It also offers some interesting factoids along the way: Seventy percent of women wear the wrong bra size, for example, and topfree—rather than topless—is the preferred term among advocates for women’s right to appear bare-breasted in public.

Unhooked
by Laura Sessions Stepp (Riverhead)

A Washington Post reporter follows three groups of high-school and college girls through the wilds of “hooking up”; the by-now-familiar term, with its ambiguous mechanical overtones, neatly encapsulates the current young-adult sexual landscape. Stepp’s account of her subjects’ repeated disappointments is numbing and sad; her wide-ranging list of contributing factors—text messaging, prolonged adolescence, Title IX, the complex legacy of feminism, colleges’ increasing reluctance to act in loco parentis, etc.—is on-target and thought-provoking; and her proposed solutions—valuing oneself, seeking romance, privileging the erotic over the pornographic—are basically sensible.

Oklahoma!: The Making of an American Musical
by Tim Carter (Yale)

With due respect to the genius of Lorenz Hart’s lyrics, something enormous happened to Richard Rodgers—and to American musical theater—when he teamed up with Oscar Hammerstein to produce the first of their many shows. Carter, a professor of music, conducts a detailed examination of Oklahoma’s origins; he separates myth from fact and convincingly establishes the play’s artistic and historical importance.

Bambi vs. Godzilla
by David Mamet (Pantheon)

The famed director and screenwriter puts forth a self-consciously searing account of Hollywood’s current decadent horrors. Mamet offers the occasional winning aside: Preston Sturges’s work is “irrefutable proof of an afterlife, for it is impossible to make films that sweet and not go to heaven.” But many of his observations manage to be simultaneously banal and obscure: “Storytelling is like sex. We all do it naturally. Some of us are better at it than others.” If this counts as heresy, then the movie business may be just as shallow and insular as advertised.

Made for Each Other
by Bronwyn Cosgrave (Bloomsbury)

A former editor at British Vogue exhaustively reviews the fashions worn by nominated actresses at the first seventy-three Academy Awards presentations. Cosgrave’s book is thoroughly illustrated and appealingly knowing, and it leaves no doubt that the annual spectacle is as painstakingly stage-managed as it seems to be.

Beyond 9 to 5
by Sarah Norgate (Columbia)

A British psychologist takes a comparative look at people’s experiences of time throughout history and around the world. Norgate’s conclusions about time are largely familiar (there never seems to be enough of it), and her book is meandering and unfocused, although it does give readers an opportunity to learn why it’s difficult to retain memories from before the age of three, why 11 percent of Canadians are awake at 3 a.m., and why the migration of more and more workers onto the graveyard shift may portend significant biological and political challenges.

FICTION and LITERATURE

The Other Side of You
by Salley Vickers (FSG)

Vickers’s training as a psychologist mostly serves her well as a novelist: She can decipher her characters’ internal motivations with intense clarity and she has a high tolerance for contradictory emotions and unreasonable, though believable, behavior. In previous books, passages in which she wears her therapist hat can be jarring, but in this tightly structured novel about how self-doubt frustrates happiness, she turns that tendency to her advantage by making her protagonist a psychiatrist and analyst. As in her best-selling debut, Miss Garnet’s Angel, here she uses art—in this case Caravaggio’s paintings—to intensify and elevate her themes.

Ten Days in the Hills
by Jane Smiley (Knopf)

Contemporary Hollywood in the hands of Jane Smiley: What could be more promising? Yet this richly cast novel—in which a director, his how-to-book-writer lover, and various satellite figures hang around a mansion overlooking the Getty and talk, talk, talk—suffers from its form. The trouble is that the talk—bemoaning the war in Iraq, for instance, and reviewing the plots of fictitious movies and the events of past lives—is not nearly as fascinating as the characters, and obviously Smiley, think it is.

The Notebooks of Robert Frost
edited by Robert Faggen (Harvard)

A reprinting of Frost’s extant notebooks, spanning more than sixty years, this volume offers the voyeuristic thrill of peering into a master craftsman’s workshop to glimpse the discarded drafts, private musings, and scattered fragments that can in time become art.

books, history, society, culture, march 2007
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