Books March 2009

Cover to Cover

A guide to additional releases
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Rachel Ann Lindsay

Fallen Giants: A History of Himalayan Mountaineering From the Age of Empire to the Age of Extremes
Maurice Isserman and Stewart Weaver
Yale

Because It’s STILL There might well have been the working title of this comprehensive account, a vacuum-filling history (the first of its kind in five-plus decades) and an enormously engaging addition to the climbing-lit canon. Charting the triumphant rises and disastrous falls of mountaineers well known (Hillary, Mallory, Conway) and otherwise, from 1892 to the present, Isserman and Weaver—history professors and climbing enthusiasts both—simultaneously describe a parabolic parallel. Taking a long view of the pursuit and its memes, they argue that in the Himalayas, the “expeditionary culture of the age of empire … fostered colonial arrogance and quasi-military hubris,” yet it also “nurtured some genuinely admirable qualities, including a strong sense of fellowship and responsibility to others in the pursuit of common goals in the face of danger.” Today, they contend, those qualities have been eclipsed “by the hypertrophied commercial individualism of the age of extremes”—as high-altitude adventure has become high-tech, it has become compromised, disputatious, even nihilistic. The “brotherhood of the rope” has frayed, perhaps irreparably. Filled to bursting with lively accounts, prodigious research, and a welcome dash of dry humor, this essential volume makes clear that the saga of mountaineering is, as the authors say, “more than the record of ‘one damn peak after another.’”

Northern Arts: The Breakthrough of Scandinavian Literature and Art, From Ibsen to Bergman
Arnold Weinstein
Princeton

This weighty, detailed, and authoritative but lively tome elucidates the revolution Scandinavia wrought in the world of arts and letters beginning in the 19th century. From the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who was such an influence on 20th-century existentialism, to the groundbreaking dramatists, the Swede August Strindberg and the Norwegian Henrik Ibsen, and the latter’s compatriot, painter Edvard Munch, these Scandinavians broke boundaries and overturned conventional standards and values. In the 20th century, Ingmar Bergman’s films and Astrid Lindgren’s children’s literature continued the tradition of the region’s exceptionalism and iconoclasm. Weinstein’s is a brilliantly told story of how an underpopulated region developed from repressive backwater to cutting-edge artistic fulcrum.

Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master
Michael Sragow
Pantheon

A larger-than-life golden-era Hollywood figure largely ignored or forgotten by modern critics, historians, and filmgoers, Fleming—best known today as the (replacement) director of The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind—here receives his long-overdue hagiography. Among the industry’s truly protean figures, he ably filmed every type of genre picture imaginable; weathered several epochal shifts in moviemaking technique (example: with the talkie ascendant, he effortlessly transformed from zealous location realist into sound-stage artifice reveler); and helped shape the screen personas of Gable, Cooper, Tracy, and Fairbanks (and swell the bosoms of Shearer, Bow, Bergman, and Velez). Add to this an Alger-cum-Hemingway arc of virile self-possession—hardscrabble origins, early apprenticeships to Allan Dwan and D. W. Griffith, “friend to explorers, naturalists, race-car drivers, aviators, inventors, and hunters,” onscreen personification via characters’ “brusque authority, technical savvy, rough-edged humor, and lodestone sexuality”—and one might be excused for wondering how such a figure has escaped canonical notice. A fair question, and one that Sragow, a highly astute film critic of the Kael school, rightly asks but only partly answers (“He left no paper trail of letters or diaries, and he died [in 1949] before directors had become national celebrities and objects of idolatry”), concluding that Fleming’s chameleonic artistry was most responsible for his lasting auteuristic anonymity. No matter: accomplishing prodigious research and writing with an elegant vim befitting his “Old-Time Wild Man” subject, Sragow exhumes an obscured life and explicates an enduring oeuvre.

Sounds of Change: A History of FM Broadcasting in America
Christopher H. Sterling and Michael C. Keith
North Carolina

A crucial step in broadcasting’s fitful march toward tomorrow, FM radio gets its historical due in this thoroughly researched, reasonably readable account. Media professors and prolific authors Sterling and Keith trace the technology’s slow but steady rise—beginning with Edwin Armstrong’s momentous wideband invention—to respect, profit, and ubiquity. Though FM’s initial decades were marked by subservience and perceived inferiority to AM, an eventual admixture of adventurous programming, superior signal strength, and paradigmatic FCC regulations conspired to bring FM technology to the radio forefront. Although the historical erudition here is ample and evident, the just-plain-curious reader might fairly howl over the mere handful of pages allotted to FM’s putative (counter)cultural influence. Rock and other sounds welling up from the ’60s underground merit cursory mention; few colorful on-air personalities emerge; when a note of genuine eclecticism sounds, it’s soon muffled by measured factual recitals. (Also assessed too sparingly: the role of public-radio news and programming in the decades-long drama.) Sterling and Keith are more effective in the book’s latter chapters, where they intelligently consider FM’s present and future. Here they identify problems both internal (a paucity of variety, an excess of advertising) and external (digital radio’s imperious, likely inevitable encroachment), allowing FM’s story to date—a distinctly American tale of art, science, business, and ingenuity—to conclude satisfyingly, loud and clear.

Emily Post: Daughter of the Gilded Age, Mistress of American Manners
Laura Claridge
Random House

“What would Emily say?” was the question asked by generations of Americans who grew up looking to Emily Post for answers in matters of manners and morals. It would be easy to stereotype Post—she did focus on details, such as how to fold a napkin, that, when facing a world war, seem trivial. Instead, Claridge’s biography explains the complications of being Emily Post—a woman many considered the most influential of the first half of the 20th century, after Eleanor Roosevelt. The book spans Post’s 88 years, but opens more as an absorbing biography of the Gilded Age than of the main character. Emily’s family worked its way into the upper crust, and she married into blue blood. But in high society, manners were not always good and morals were often enough despicable. Post experienced this unlovely combination during an embarrassingly public divorce from her philandering husband. At 34, when she became a single mother of two, she was in charge of her own life for the first time. Driven, Claridge posits, by a fierce need to be emotionally (and to a degree fiscally) self-sustaining, Post began her career as a writer. This is where the book turns into a careful and personal biography—as personal as possible with a main character who rarely revealed an emotional side. As life delivered its tragedies—divorce; the loss of her father to cancer; her mother’s death in a gruesome accident; the death of her adult son—Post seemed to retreat more and more into writing (she oversaw 10 revised editions of her authoritative tome, Etiquette, updating the book and her own attitude to the changing times), and her advice-giving radio shows. Although somewhat repetitious, this book is a sympathetic portrait of a woman who transcended the parochialism of her class—a woman who grew to believe that the Best People weren’t born, they were made.

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