Books May 2007

Cover to Cover

A guide to additional releases: the history of the car bomb; Ralph Ellison; the annals of impotence; and more

HISTORY

Buda’s Wagon
by Mike Davis (Verso)

Arguing that “no other weapon in the history of warfare has proven to be such a promiscuous equalizer of combat between elephants and fleas,” Davis, a prolific leftist historian, traces the evolution of the car bomb from the explosives-laden horse wagon that the anarchist Mario Buda detonated on Wall Street in 1920 to the “improvised explosive devices” of today’s Iraq. Despite characteristically overheated prose, Davis creates a fascinating genealogy that raises chilling questions about the future of terrorism.

West from Appomattox
by Heather Cox Richardson (Yale)

This well-written and perceptive history considers Reconstruction as a national—rather than strictly Southern—phenomenon that united the North, South, and West, and created the creed of middle-class individualism that would define the 20th century. Richardson skillfully details some glaring contradictions—that the Wild West was settled only with significant government intervention, for example, and that the era’s new egalitarianism excluded large groups of people deemed insufficiently white, male, or “hardworking”—and shows the sway this doctrine still holds today.

BIOGRAPHY and Memoir

Ralph Ellison
by Arnold Rampersad (Knopf)

You don’t often find a biography as beautifully written as this one. Ellison, who wrote the Great American Novel but then allowed its achievement to prevent him from ever completing another, will always be something of an enigma. But if anyone can finally provide more answers than questions about this most complex of men, it is Rampersad in this vivid, graceful, and exceptionally intelligent work.

Edith Wharton
by Hermione Lee (Knopf)

Lee, the author of a magisterial biography of Virginia Woolf, uses her prodigious knowledge and uncommon perspicacity to bolster her claims for Wharton as a pioneering modern woman as well as a great writer, but not everyone will warm to the formidable figure presented in her book. It’s all very well to acclaim Wharton’s boldness and toughness, but when you read her vicious assessment of Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance, along with some anti-Semitic and other very nasty racist remarks, you realize that modernism allowed the embrace of some dark gods.

Spymistress
by William Stevenson (Arcade)

Vera Atkins was a Romanian Jew who became more British in her manner than most natives, but whose intimate knowledge of Continental Europe enabled her to run a very successful undercover operation in Nazi-occupied territory. Her story, with its many successes bought at a terrible price by some of the female operatives, is far more intricate and exciting than the world of James Bond.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh: First Lady of the Air
by Kathleen C. Winters (Palgrave Macmillan)

While giving some attention to Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s poetry and best-selling prose, as well as the trauma of her son’s kidnapping and murder, this brief biography focuses on her crucial role as Charles Lindbergh’s co-pilot and navigator. Anne accompanied her husband in tiny two-passenger aircraft as they helped lay the groundwork for Pan Am’s transatlantic, transpacific, and intercontinental passenger routes. It would seem that after Amelia Earhart and her British counterpart, Amy Johnson, Anne Morrow Lindbergh was the most consequential woman pilot of her time—and unlike them, she didn’t die in the course of her exploits.

Notebooks
by Tennessee Williams, edited by Margaret Bradham Thornton (Yale)

This tome provides an acute glimpse into the mind, art, and life of the preeminent mid-century American playwright. Williams’s world as recounted here is as messy and as haunted and as sad as might be expected, but the writer springs from these pages a humane, scrupulous, honest, and very likable man.

Europe’s Physician
by Hugh Trevor-Roper (Yale)

Best known for his sterling The Last Days of Hitler, Trevor-Roper was also a noted scholar of the Reformation and its era. For three decades before his death, in 2003, he worked on this absorbing study of Theodore de Mayerne, a once-famous but now-forgotten 17th-century royal physician and occasional diplomat/spy. The biographer, a lifelong student of diplomacy and the son and brother of doctors, brings his intriguing subject to life.

The Mistress’s Daughter
by A. M. Homes (Viking)

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