Books May 2008

Cover to Cover

A guide to additional releases
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History

Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire
by Judith Herrin (Princeton)

“Endless books are written on Byzantine history,” writes Herrin, “too many to count and most too long to read.” Hers, though, takes an innovative approach—28 short chapters, roughly chronological, that produce a linear mosaic of some 1,100 years, from the reign of Constantine to the triumph of the Ottomans in 1461. The topics range from general background—“Greek Orthodoxy,” “Roman Law”—to more-sensational stuff like “Eunuchs,” “Icon Veneration,” and the 12th-century scholar-princess Anna Komnene. The scope is broad—religion, politics, art, war, gender—and the style lively and personal, though some of the brief chapters could be briefer still. Herrin’s earlier books, The Formation of Christendom (1987) and Women in Purple: Rulers of Medieval By­zan­tium (2004), also are formidable, and neither is too long to read.

Revolution in Mind: The Creation of Psychoanalysis
by George Makari (HarperCollins)

No other behavioral science is as distinctly linked with the 20th century as psychology; no other branch of psychology is as basic to clinical and popular understanding as psychoanalysis; and no other figure looms as large in psychoanalysis (or much else) as Sigmund Freud. Makari, a psychiatrist and historian at Cornell, uses this hard-to-disprove (if hidebound) premise as his jumping-off point. Happily, he doesn’t stop there. Instead, he concocts a chronological tripartite ordering— Freud’s synthesis of existing strains of science, medicine, and philosophy; the spread of Freudianism and its schismatic discontents (think Jung, Adler, Bleuler, et al.); the post–World War I re-formation and reconstitution of this pluralistic community—as he conducts a “historical examination of the core questions at the heart of the most influential theory of human inner life.”

The Fire Spreads: Holiness and Pentecostalism in the American South
by Randall J. Stephens (Harvard)

When the holiness and pentecostal revival moved to the South in the early 1900s, the movement was explosively iconoclastic. Believers—overwhelmingly the poor and disenfranchised—exalted women as inspired preachers and obliterated social distinctions between blacks and whites. The revivals converted millions by offering a millennial message of personal sinlessness and divine illumination. Stephens’s masterful account of how the South nurtured and altered a once-marginalized religious movement—and how that religion influenced the region—is the most fluent and authoritative synthesis of a complex and controversial subject.

Society and Culture

Spiral Jetta: A Road Trip Through the Land Art of the American West
by Erin Hogan (Chicago)

The title’s overly coy allusion to Robert Smithson’s masterpiece doesn’t detract from a smart and winning book. Hogan, the public-affairs director at the Art Institute of Chicago, does her best to arrange an unhappy marriage—a land-art tour “through the states of Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas” and “through the states of anxiety, drunkenness, disorientation, and heat exhaustion”—but the reader emerges enlightened and even delighted. After all, making critical theory fun is quite a feat. Casually scrutinizing the artistic works Sun Tunnels, Double Negative, Roden Crater, and Lightning Field while gamely playing up her fish-out-of-water status, Hogan delivers an ingenuously engaging travelogue-cum-art history.

Lucian Freud
by William Feaver (Rizzoli)

Lucian Freud—grandson of Sigmund— may well be, as the critic Robert Hughes pronounced him, “the greatest living realist painter.” He’s certainly Britain’s most celebrated (German-born, Freud fled as a child to England in 1933). But his work has always been easier to esteem than to love: his startling portraits of nudes reclining in his dilapidated studio on less-than-freshly-made mattresses present sexuality and the human body in the most unvarnished manner (as a Le Monde reviewer nicely put it, Freud’s depictions of flesh resemble poorly carved ham). Feaver’s usually intelligent but occasionally gaseous book examines the artist’s oeuvre, which spans 70 years. Much of it is in private collections, so this volume, which displays more than 400 works (many reproduced for the first time), is by far the most important study of Freud to date.

Cop in the Hood: My Year Policing Baltimore’s Eastern District
by Peter Moskos (Princeton)

Those prone to facile comparisons will liken this riveting book to The Wire, the acclaimed and popular cable-television series that inhabits the same mean streets. Those who take a longer view, however, will see this for what it is: an unsparing boys-in-blue procedural that succeeds on its own plentiful—and wonderfully sympathetic—merits. Moskos, now an assistant professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, deftly intermingles cops-and-robbers veri­similitude and progressive social science, yet keeps his reportage clear-eyed, his conclusions pathos-free. What results is a thoughtful, measured critique—of the failed drug war, its discontents, and the self-defeating criminal-justice system looming just beyond.

Why We’re Liberals
by Eric Alterman (Viking)

Alterman spends a lot of time clearing away the falsehoods spread by both right-wing and mainstream media figures, but the core of the book is a vigorous defense of liberalism as a credo—a credo, Alterman argues persuasively, that most Americans actually subscribe to in its constituent parts. Acknowledging that liberalism is notoriously difficult to define, he nonetheless provides an extensive and nuanced analysis of its substance.

Biography and Memoir

David and Winston
by Robert Lloyd George (Overlook)

Churchill’s Bodyguard
by Tom Hickman (Headline)

From Churchill’s War Rooms: Letters of a Secretary 1943–45
by Joanna Moody (Tempus)

The two men who led the British to victory in successive world wars—David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill—were only 11 years apart and were partners in government for most of the first quarter of the 20th century. David and Winston reminds us that Churchill— generally seen through the prism of his later years as an arch-reactionary Tory—was, with his senior colleague, an important figure in the radical Liberal government that laid the foundation for Britain’s social-security system. Robert Lloyd George’s argument that his great-grandfather enduringly influenced Churchill becomes a little thin in the 1930s and 1940s, when the two men clashed over the policy toward Nazi Germany and a host of domestic issues. Nonetheless, his book illuminates the lasting personal relationship between them. It also shows an attractive and generous side of Churchill’s character and conduct—as do these two other books about people who, unlike Lloyd George, worked for Churchill, not with him. The Great Man seems to have been the exception to the rule that no man is a hero to his valet. Although he was a demanding and sometimes ill-tempered boss, he apparently inspired endless loyalty and affection in those who labored to serve and protect him under often trying circumstances.

Fiction

The Rain Before It Falls
by Jonathan Coe (Knopf)

Acclaimed for his satires of life in Birmingham, England, Coe explores in this poignant novel, set in the same region, the maddening and tragic generational repercussions that result when those who have children aren’t the ones who want them. Especially touching is the depiction of its first-person narrator: an elderly woman who, evacuated in childhood during the war, formed an attachment to her manipulative older cousin that will become the source of both the happiest and most sorrowful moments of her life (a neat and realistic paradox that is ultimately Coe’s theme and that might describe the very essence of parenthood). Coe’s style here, well-suited to his protagonist, is dignified and sure, often almost dry in its directness. The fault of this skillfully layered and plotted novel is its structure: Coe introduces each narrative segment by describing a photograph—a jerky and distancing device, as tedious as watching vacation slides.

The Soul Thief
by Charles Baxter (Pantheon)

Baxter’s vivid characters and their particular milieus—barefoot graduate students in early-’70s Buffalo, for instance, or the desk clerk in a familiar Sunset Strip hotel, or the suburban father of two teenage boys—exemplify the most rewarding form of realism. His scenes are so acutely observed and so fluidly presented that to read them is to live them, but with far more sensitivity and insight than anyone can bring to real life. He depicts larger events—a rape and a mental breakdown—less compellingly, and ultimately this naggingly sinister book works better as a set of scenes about an intellectual’s life derailed and recovered than as a novel. Like Baxter’s previous novel, The Feast of Love, this one has a metaphysical dimension, but here the idea overbalances the story, and the effect is unsatisfying rather than enhancing.

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