Cover to Cover

A guide to additional releases: How the Reds won Russia; food in the Depression; Nigeria's oil curse; and more
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Biography and Memoir

Charles Eliot Norton
by Linda Dowling (New Hampshire)

From his friendships with Emerson and Carlyle to his influence on the Pre-Raphaelite and Ruskinian movements, the American man of letters Charles Eliot Norton played an important role in the cultural cross-pollination that so enriched Britain and the United States in the 19th century. Drawing on unpublished portions of his journals, Dowling shows a man bereft of religious faith struggling to develop a principled ethic of civic liberalism in contrast to the predominant values of the Gilded Age. He was censured during his lifetime for his opposition to the Spanish-American War, but more than a century later he stands out as a lodestar of opposition to the excesses and coarseness characteristic of his age—and, unfortunately, of our own.

Up for Renewal
by Cathy Alter (Atria)

This book is the latest in the Year-in-the-Life-of-Me genre (made enormous by Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love). Alter’s year, however, is wrapped in the ironic device of women’s magazines. To tackle the mess she’s made of her life, the author turns to several women’s glossies each month for a fix. It would have been simple to skewer the easily-made-fun-of medium, as well as her own life, but Alter writes with an adroit combination of reverence and irreverence. Her sharp tongue can be a little too piercing when turned on people who are clearly important in her life, but it’s most effectively applied when demolishing herself. Most chapters are polished; a few feel inelegant and gawky; others voyeuristic. But ultimately the book is revealing, not just about the author’s behavior and the very private thoughts in an insecure woman’s brain that usually go unheard (it feels like public therapy), but also about why women’s magazines are such a monumental part of women’s culture in 21st-century America.

The Wagner Clan
by Jonathan Carr (Grove/Atlantic)

Carr illuminates both the artistic and ideological aspects of some singular and often forbidding folk. Memorable portraits of Nietzsche and Liszt stand out, but there’s no doubt who dominates. Quite properly, it’s the revolutionary figure of Richard Wagner, who had such influence inside the opera house but whose effect on the wider world was also momentous. The book takes us into Hitler’s Reich and even into the odd world of today’s Bayreuth, where the Wagner family still holds sway.

Ghost Train to the Eastern Star
by Paul Theroux (Houghton Mifflin)

Ernest Bevin famously asserted his desire to be free to go to Victoria station and buy a ticket to “anywhere I damn please.” By that measure, Theroux—sometime expatriate and perennial traveler—must be living one of the freest of lives. In this latest work, he revisits the book that began it all for him, The Great Railway Bazaar. Once again crisscrossing Asia (now so changed more than 30 years on), Theroux uses the many vastly different trains as his magic carpet. Whether talking with Orhan Pamuk in Turkey or passing through Birobidjan, Stalin’s failed experiment in Zionism, Soviet style, Theroux is a master at spotlighting the central and the arcane. Who else could so aptly liken the Trans-Siberian Express, surprisingly seedy amid the excesses of capitalist Russia, to “a ship, not any old ship, and not a cruise liner, but an old iron freighter plowing through a frozen sea, complete with grumpy deckhands, bad food, and an invisible captain”? Constantly reflecting and refracting his surroundings, Theroux is the ultimate globetrotter, finding something of value wherever he roams.

Fiction

Cost
by Roxana Robinson (FSG)

Set mostly in a Maine summerhouse more charming than functional, this is a strikingly realistic, psychologically astute study of family relations in modern America’s educated class. As in a family itself, competing perceptions of events past and present crowd the pages. Self-involved preoccupations overwhelm many touching moments of understanding; defensive postures become hurtful habits nearly impossible to shift. But when compared with the single-minded obsession of the younger son, whose heroin addiction organizes the plot, the degree to which the rest of the characters value and care for one another, despite their normal measure of self-interest, is arresting. Robinson gracefully launches and bolsters her psychological insights with the concrete details of her settings. As always, she writes with impressive polish at both the sentence and structural levels.

The House on Fortune Street
by Margot Livesey (HarperCollins)

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