Books April 2007

Cover to Cover

A guide to additional releases
CURRENT AFFAIRS

Poor People
by William T. Vollmann (Ecco)

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men meets The Rough Guide, as the astonishingly prolific Vollmann (whose recent works include a 3,300-page treatise on the nature of human violence, and a National Book Award–winning novel) here meditates on poverty, asking poor people on six continents the direct and often complicated question, “Why are you poor?” Vollmann relates numerous haunting vignettes but no silver linings, and creates a remarkably detailed picture of the banality of human suffering, as well as of the limits of writerly observation in altering or ennobling it: “In appropriate contradiction of this book’s hopes and pretenses, poor people’s answers are frequently as impoverished as their lives.”

Planet India
by Mira Kamdar (Scribner)

America’s obsessive focus on China tends sometimes to obscure how amazingly fast India is transforming itself into an economic superpower. This briskly written, vivid account shows how that subcontinental country’s films, technology, and service industries have made India an ever-growing presence on the American scene. Time to recognize yet another awakening giant snapping at our heels.

HISTORY

Household Gods
by Deborah Cohen (Yale)

What is it about the British and their home fixtures and furnishings? Perhaps classical education made the Roman household gods—lares and penates— a byword among Britain’s upper crust. In any case, all that stuff crowded into Victorian rooms, along with that overstuffed furniture, speaks volumes about the stuffiness of 19th-century British society. This diverting, tellingly illustrated book takes us through the dim heart of Victorian clutter and into the fresh air of the modern design that swept it away.

Hitler’s Beneficiaries
by Götz Aly (Metropolitan Books)

The Wages of Destruction
by Adam Tooze (Viking)

Hitler’s Beneficiaries crisply shows how the Nazi regime starved and depleted its subject nations, thereby raising Germans’ standard of living and— disturbingly—gaining their often- enthusiastic support. The Wages of Destruction is a vast tome of economic history, a category seldom recommended to the general reader. But this exhaustively researched study cogently argues that the Nazis’ scheme for world domination was at least as grounded in economics as in military might, and it locates, at the very heart of his ambitions, Hitler’s determination that Germany displace the United States as the world’s dominant economic power.

Saltwater Slavery
by Stephanie E. Smallwood (Harvard)

This deeply researched, tightly focused, and skillfully evocative look at the Atlantic slave trade, 1675–1725, details the experience of crossing the ocean— an ordeal fatal to many of the slaves who were forced to undertake it.

Blitz: The Story of December 29, 1940
by Margaret Gaskin (Harcourt)

The Luftwaffe launched bigger air raids during the Blitz, but none captured the public imagination, then and afterward, like the incendiary attack of the Sunday night after Christmas 1940—an event memorialized in the iconic image of St. Paul’s Cathedral silhouetted against the burning city. Gaskin, a London journalist, deftly evokes the desperation as water pumps run dry, and the horror as millions of books burn on Paternoster Row while one beautiful Wren church after another is destroyed.

BIOGRAPHY

Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature
by Linda Lear (St. Martins)

With Renée Zellweger playing Beatrix Potter in a biopic, it seems safe to say that the children’s book author and illustrator is, for now at least, more famous than Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Peter. Of course, there wouldn’t be a movie if Potter hadn’t invented and immortalized those enchanting rabbits, but there might still have been this book, since she was also an important British conservationist and naturalist (mycologists later confirmed her findings on fungi and lichens). This comprehensive biography presents the multifarious facets of Potter’s life, from her quietly rebellious girlhood in a conventional family, through her literary and artistic work, to her role as the formidable Mrs. Heelis, chatelaine of virtually all she beheld and preserved in England’s picturesque Lake District.

John Betjeman: A Life
by A. N. Wilson (FSG)

John Osborne: The Many Lives of the Angry Young Man
by John Heilpern (Knopf)

Two biographies of 20th-century British men of letters bring us England’s teddy bear, John Betjeman, and its teddy boy, John Osborne. Wilson’s biography of Betjeman—minor poet, savior of England’s Victorian architecture—became infamous before it reached these shores, because it includes, embarrassingly, a rival biographer’s hoax. This hiccup shouldn’t eclipse the fact that the book is that rare thing: a first-rate biography of a second-rate figure. Osborne, for his part, was always tormented and tormenting, the scourge of the Establishment and also of those around him. The angry young man never stopped looking back in anger—he titled his last book, after all, with his catchphrase, Damn You, England—and Heilpern, in this comprehensive biography, tells us where all that rage came from. He also puts under a very necessary microscope Osborne’s two wonderfully compelling but not always reliable memoirs.

SOCIETY and CULTURE

The Gospel of Food
by Barry Glassner (Ecco)

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