Books October 2008

Cover to Cover

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Biography

Cecil B. DeMille: A Life in Art
by Simon Louvish (St. Martin’s)

From the days when motion pictures actually flickered, in the 20th century’s teens, to the glories of 1950s Technicolor epics, DeMille’s role in the industry’s evolution was decisive. Louvish intelligently assesses this aspect of his subject, but he also roams further afield into such topics as the fabled director’s right-wing politics, his Jewish ancestry, and his surprising family connection to the radical economic thinker Henry George. A half century after his death, DeMille is ready for another close-up, and this is as good a one as we’re likely to get for some time.

Prince Rupert: The Last Cavalier
by Charles Spencer (Trafalgar Square)

The hundreds of millions of people around the world who heard Charles Spencer’s eulogy at his sister Princess Diana’s funeral know that he has a way with words. This talent is evident throughout his biography of the Stuart prince who fought so flamboyantly but with mixed success in the Thirty Years’ War and on behalf of his uncle, the doomed Charles I, in the English Civil War. Spencer is adept at evoking the brutal realities of 17th-century warfare but is also skilled at portraiture, not only of Rupert but also of the host of other characters, major and minor, swirling through his maelstrom of a life.

Hidden in the Shadow of the Master: The Model-Wives of Cézanne, Monet, & Rodin
by Ruth Butler (Yale)

This judicious, exhaustively researched, and gracefully written study examines the three women who played essential, although hitherto overlooked, roles in the evolution of three great artists. Grounding her subjects’ stories in their cultural and sociological climate, Butler nicely demonstrates how feminist historiography can illuminate the life and work of male figures as well.

Mandela: Struggle and Triumph
by David Turnley (Abrams)

The subtitle is indeed accurate, for this book essentially concludes with Mandela’s election as South Africa’s president, in 1994. It focuses on how he got there, neglecting what he did—and did not—achieve in office. The author, an American photojournalist, expresses warm thanks to Mandela’s largely discredited ex-wife, Winnie, who is oddly prominent in these pages. Dogged and admirable as Mandela’s fight for justice was, his legacy is inseparable from how he united, governed, and led his country, so this portrait seems both out of date and partial, despite its evocative photographs and trenchant (though sparse) commentary.

Society and Culture

Are We There Yet? The Golden Age of American Family Vacations
by Susan Sessions Rugh (Kansas)

A singularly middle-class American phenomenon, the family road trip enjoyed a roughly three-decade boom, from the 1940s, when rationing ended and the economy mended, to the 1970s, when the gasoline crisis did irreparable damage to the summer ritual. Rugh, a history professor at Brigham Young (whose style blessedly stints on academese), treats this period of post–World War II innocence—or Cold War escapism, depending on one’s point of view—with a healthy revisionism minus any smudge of sepia sentimentality. Instead, she erects a sturdy factual lattice that undergirds her social theorizing on domestic tourism (paid vacation leave, increased car ownership, and the nascent interstate highway system conspired to make the bourgeois practice all but inevitable); changing social norms (the Boomer factor, the work/play dialectic); and the environmental, religious, and racial realities of the time (including the roadside inequalities that may have jump-started the civil-rights movement). Smart and sensitive, well researched and no-nonsense, Rugh’s ride is well worth taking.

Punctuated Equilibrium
by Stephen Jay Gould (Harvard Belknap) The untimely death of Stephen Jay Gould deprived the world of a superb writer and popularizer of important events and processes in biology. But Gould was also a genuinely original thinker, capable of challenging even basic tenets of Darwinian notions of evolution. This latest posthumous volume, which was the central chapter of his magnum opus, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, argues that Darwin’s theory of a steady continuum of evolutionary progress was incorrect. Rather, Gould posits, most species have originated during punctuated geologic moments, and persisted through the periods of stasis that followed. Just as, more than a century ago, quantum theory proved that in physics, things sometimes moved forward in spurts, Gould intuited that this was also true for aspects of evolutionary biology.

The Edible Series
(Chicago)

Hamburger: A Global History
by Andrew F. Smith

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