Books May 2012

Cover to Cover

More
Roger Wood/Corbis

Collected Ghost Stories
M. R. James
Oxford

James, born in 1862, was a noted medieval­ist who specialized in the minutiae of biblical Apocrypha and ecclesiastical history. He spent all but his youngest years as a student, teacher, or administrator at Eton and at King’s College, Cambridge, and many of the spooky stories collected for the first time in this edition involve some donnish fellow whose safe world is upset by the discovery of a glimpse of the super­natural. James wrote them for his own enter­tainment and that of his friends, and they are indeed entertaining. Although ghosts do play a large role in each climax, the stories’ effectiveness doesn’t rely on this so much as on the suspense created by the exquisitely deployed conventions of pacing and on the atmosphere, for which James often draws on the bleak East Anglia landscape of his childhood: “The light was obscure, conveying the impression of gathering storm, late winter evening, and slight cold rain.” Most striking and admirable is the witty narrative voice in which the stories are told, so that a refreshing current of humor and irony sharpens the swell of horror. Editor Darryl Jones provides a scholarly and highly readable introduction that places these stories in the context of James’s character and his times.

Sir Walter Raleigh
Mark Nicholls and Penry Williams
Continuum

“The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s, eye, tongue, sword, / Th’ expectancy and rose of the fair state, / The glass of fashion and the mould of form, / Th’ observ’d of all observers”—among all his contemporaries, Shakespeare’s words applied best to Sir Walter Raleigh. A man of middling birth, boundless enter­prise, prodigious talent, sparkling charisma, and overweening ambition, Raleigh studied at Oxford and the Middle Temple; fought in France and Ireland and on the Spanish Main; captured Cádiz; privateered in the Atlantic; served in Elizabeth’s court (where, until he married for love, he was for a time the Queen’s favorite) and as lord lieutenant of Cornwall; founded the ill-fated Roanoke colony; and searched for El Dorado. He was also a great writer in an age that saw the flowering of the English language: he wrote prose in a vigorous style (including The History of the World, the nearly million-­word work that Cromwell, Milton, Locke, and Gibbon would admire) and poetry for the ages (including the dedicatory sonnet for his friend Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene and an epitaph on another friend, Sir Philip Sidney). But he was also an inveterate intriguer, a chronic liar, and a convicted traitor. A man of terrible judgment whose life ended in failure, he redeemed himself with a famously, piercingly eloquent speech on the scaffold and a surpassingly brave, mocking death. Attractive if not necessarily admirable, lovable if not necessarily likable, Raleigh is a great subject for a great biography. Here it is. Stylishly written, judicious in its verdicts, based on archival research and the latest scholarship, this book probes the infighting at court, grand affairs of state, religious and cultural developments, and Raleigh’s literary achievement with equal rigor and acuity. To their expected sobriety, Nicholls, a Cambridge historian, and Williams, a historian at Oxford, marry brio—­fitting enough, given their subject, who urged his son, “Awaken thyself to industrye and rowse upp thy spiritts for the world,” and about whom the great 17th-century biographer John Aubrey remarked, “He was no Slug.”

Memphis Under the Ptolemies
Dorothy J. Thompson
Princeton

This thoroughly revised edition of a masterpiece of historical writing examines with precision and verve the ancient Egyptian city of Memphis in the period between Alexander and Augustus. Thompson, a classicist at Cambridge, mines Greek and Egyptian sources, as well as evidence from archaeological finds, inscriptions, and papyri, to illuminate the economic, religious, artistic, and social life of a multicultural city. She is especially sensitive to the syncretic, sometimes cacophonous, metropolitan life produced by a population drawn from throughout the Mediterranean basin, and by the confrontation of classical civilization—itself on the verge of cultural upheaval, as Roman power gradually eclipsed Greek prestige and influence—with a civilization that reached back millennia. The result is a meticulous, vivid portrait of a profoundly foreign world.

The Uninvited Guests
Sadie Jones
Harper

Set in a charming Edwardian country house and thickly populated with vivacious characters with names like Emerald, Clovis, and Smudge, this is a cream cake of a novel, garnished with gorgeous descriptions of home decoration, women’s fashions, and elaborate meals. Jones, whose sparely written, too-serious first novel, The Outcast, won the Costa First Novel Award and was a finalist for the Orange Prize, has a light touch here. Her clever prose and bright tone heighten her characters and setting so that the whole takes on a slightly unreal but definitely amusing sheen. She whirls her people through a chaotic day of preparations for a birthday dinner, revealing personalities and potentially complicating histories along the way. Partly inspired by J. B. Priestley’s classic play, the socially aware drawing-room mystery An Inspector Calls, she leavens the plot with a sinister twist that ultimately leads to dark revelations. The shameful secrets themselves are not particularly compelling, but Jones adroitly draws the layers of character that are exposed as those secrets come to light.

The Ocean Park Series
Richard Diebenkorn
OCMA/DelMonico/Prestel

Richard Diebenkorn, West Coast born and bred, moved in 1966 from Berkeley to Santa Monica, to teach at UCLA. Soft-spoken and thoughtful, cultivating an anti-bohemian image in his corduroy slacks and button-down shirts, Diebenkorn was an artist out of step with the prevailing trends. Quietly but firmly abjuring the New York art scene, he had switched in the mid-1950s from the fashionable abstract expressionism to figuration. Now, just as pop art was making figuration tout la rage, Diebenkorn returned to abstraction. The abstract paintings, prints, drawings, and collages that he would create from 1967 to 1988—the so-called Ocean Park Series (named for the Santa Monica neighborhood where his studio was located)—made up one of the most riveting and seminal bodies of work in 20th-century art. Marked by a fine balance and precise execution, these hundreds of lyrical abstract landscapes evoke the stable, buoyant light of Santa Monica and that city’s views of a benign and shimmering Pacific. This handsome book is the catalog of the current traveling exhibition of the Ocean Park Series. The show, which has brought together works in the series from museums and private collections—many of them rarely seen by the public—is the most comprehensive to date, and this catalog, which boasts 143 color reproductions and three essays, in­cluding a particularly penetrating one by the art historian Susan Landauer, will almost certainly be the most significant study of the series available for a long time.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Video

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In