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
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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.”

The World on Fire: 1919 and the Battle With Bolshevism
by Anthony Read (Norton)

This is an exhaustive and dramatic account of what Churchill memorably lamented as “the failure to strangle Bolshevism at its birth.” It was not for want of trying. Still reeling from the First World War, the Allied leaders devoted a surprising amount of energy—at Versailles and elsewhere—to trying to snuff out this new threat. The book’s chief virtue is to show the global nature of the sudden Bolshevik eruption. Well-known incidents such as the bombing of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer’s house in Washington and assassinations in Berlin take their place alongside less-publicized revolutionary activities in Belfast, Johannesburg, New South Wales(!), and Estonia. Given the ferocity and hydra-headedness of the phenomenon Read describes, its ascendency in so few places suggests that all those anti-Red efforts were not quite for naught.

The Road to Serfdom: Text and Documents—The Definitive Edition, Collected Works of F. A. Hayek
by F. A. Hayek, edited by Bruce Caldwell (Chicago)

First published in 1944, a year in which a planned economy was the norm in democracies as well as in collectivist states, Hayek’s denunciation of state control over the means of production was breathtakingly audacious. Yet his book (reissued here in its original U.S. edition, with various forewords to later editions) turned out to be perhaps the most important intellectual salvo in the battle that not only brought about the end of Communism but also eviscerated the elements of socialism that had transformed nominally capitalist economies into mixed ones. Through such influence and its ripple effects, this seminal text may well be said to have helped foster today’s triumphant global capitalism.

Prague in Danger: The Years of German Occupation, 1939–45
by Peter Demetz (FSG)

Who remembers that for six terrible years, from 1939 to 1945, Prague became one of the crown jewels of the German Reich—not just another occupied European city? Demetz, a longtime Yale professor of German and comparative literature, was actually there as a young man, and here he blends memory with meticulous scholarship to produce a portrait of this strange episode in the history of one of Europe’s most vibrant and beautiful places. A new look into a neglected corner of life in the Third Reich, this book—which elucidates the extraordinary hubbub of activity in theaters, film studios, and other artistic realms—reminds us that even in the darkest periods of history, there are unexpected shafts of light.

Society and Culture

Boxing: A Cultural History
by Kasia Boddy (Reaktion/University of Chicago)

The public has soured of late on the sweet science, and with ample reason: profit has pummeled pride, power-punches have given way to pitter-patters, and the whole bloody spectacle has been transformed—broodingly, boringly—from theatrical ritual to theater of the absurd. But before its recent devolution, boxing was the ultimate reductive contest (“utterly Manichean,” in the words of Camus), a pure, bruising tradition dating from ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia and fairly dripping with oppositional symbolism. Boddy, a British academic, knows this better than most and intelligently takes up—via art, literature, film, and the media—the many issues that have historically veined the sport: “nationality, class, race, ethnicity, religion, politics, and different versions of masculinity,” plus dialectics like “brawn versus brains, boastfulness versus modesty, youth versus experience.” Her reach is considerable, but so is her grasp. The result is a sweeping critical history and a perfect power-to-weight ratio.

The Temptation of the Impossible: Victor Hugo and Les Misérables
by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated by John King (Princeton)

Who would have associated Vargas Llosa, that champion of free-market capitalism and fan of Thatcherite politics, with one of the formative literary texts of the permanent left? Yet this passionately argued book makes clear that the Peruvian writer is a utopian at heart. He extols Les Misérables as “one of the works that has been most influential in making so many men and women of all languages and cultures desire a more just, rational, and beautiful world than the one they live in.”

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