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Books June 2008

Cover to Cover

A guide to additional releases: the real Jack London; Britain's favorite blood sport; Bolshevism at its birth; and more

Biography and Memoir

Oakland, Jack London, and Me
by Eric Miles Williamson (Texas Review Press)

It’s not just because both writers are from the slums of Oakland, California, that Williamson is such a passionate advocate for London. His white-hot scorn for literary fashion and indeed for most conventional criticism lights up nearly every sentence here. London managed to be both a socialist and a fascist, both a fervent champion of the oppressed and a militant racist, and Williamson revels in his hero’s contradictions. More than that, he identifies with London to a sometimes alarming extent, making this one of the least politically correct texts of our time. It’s also one of the best routes to understanding how London came by his extreme views (he was a writer who knew about injustice and exposed it even as he sometimes typified it), perhaps because Williamson doesn’t shy away from confronting their rebarbativeness.

Frank Lloyd Wright in New York
by Jane King Hession and Debra Pickrel (Gibbs Smith)

The Frank Lloyd Wright who emerges as the bon vivant starchitect of this Manhattan tale retains the pluck of the upstart Prairie School designer, only with a more obsessive bent. The authors cast the Guggenheim as Wright’s foil: the museum-as-ramp that became both the aesthetic driving force of his life and a symbol of his relationship with the city, something welcoming and discomfiting all at once. In near-breathless depictions, Wright’s live-in suite at the Plaza Hotel takes form as a veritable Algonquin Round Table in the sky, a whirligig of visiting celebrities, lawyers, scholars, and architects that mirrored the excitement of the museum being erected on the ground below.

Sigmund Romberg
by William A. Everett (Yale)

Born in Hungary in 1887, Romberg served his musical apprenticeship in Vienna, where Johann Strauss Jr. and Franz Lehár had perfected the operetta. In 1924 he scored a huge hit on Broadway with The Student Prince, and he later collaborated with Oscar Hammerstein on such classics as The Desert Song, which modernized operetta. Although Romberg lived on into the great age of American musical comedy—which his music, especially that written with Hammerstein’s lyrics, had helped create—he remained too wedded to operetta to make the transition himself. Still, his music continued to be immensely popular onstage and on the radio even after his death, in 1951. Everett, a musicologist and music historian, is an authoritative guide to this pivotal figure in American musical theater.

Marie-Thérèse, Child of Terror: The Fate of Marie Antoinette’s Daughter
by Susan Nagel (Bloomsbury)

Unlike her mother, the subject of so much historical attention, Marie-Thérèse, the sole survivor of her nuclear family (Robes­pierre intervened to forestall her execution), has been neglected by posterity. If she’s remembered at all, it’s as a figure typical of the restored Bourbons, who had famously forgotten nothing and learned nothing. In this biography, the account of what she endured is harrowing, still more so that of her witnessing the abuse and slow torture-murder of her brother, the hapless dauphin. Contrary to received wisdom, the woman in these pages emerges, after much evidence cited, as a veritable prototype of saintly Catholic forgiveness.

Fiction

The Silver Swan
by Benjamin Black (Holt)

Who would have thought that the noir crime novel of 1940s Los Angeles would transplant so organically to 1950s Dublin? It’s not just the tough-but-tender protagonist, the brutal milieu, and the hard-boiled dames—there’s something about the murky atmosphere of that damp, decaying city that lets it all flourish. The Irish writer and critic John Banville, who won the Booker Prize for his novel The Sea, has chosen to write the thrillers featuring his aptly named investigative pathologist, Quirke, under a pseudonym that itself pays homage to the genre. This is a book to savor for its innumerable stylistic grace notes and literary echoes of Joyce’s Dublin, all of which make it as unmistakably Irish as those 1940s classics are indelibly American.

History

Blood Sport: Hunting in Britain Since 1066
by Emma Griffin (Yale)

In 2004, when Tony Blair’s government finally succeeded in making good on its 1997 campaign promise to ban foxhunting, people outside the U.K. had a hard time understanding the passions that had been stirred up during those seven years. This penetrating study of just how integral blood sports have been in the national consciousness helps make sense of that tumult. Understandably, Griffin focuses on foxhunting through the ages, and she ends with an account of how “the view that there might be something wrong in making sport out of killing animals steadily drifted from the fringes to the mainstream throughout the twentieth century.” That is, most Britons came to share Oscar Wilde’s dismissive view of the sport as “the pursuit of the inedible by the unspeakable.”

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