Cover to Cover

A guide to additional releases: the Dante club; reconsidering Lincoln-Douglas; the myth of the Delta blues


Brass Diva: The Life and Legends of Ethel Merman
by Caryl Flinn (California)
Ethel Merman
by Brian Kellow (Viking)
Both books capture the phenomenon that was Ethel Merman, the tough broad with the megaphone voice who could hurl every word of a lyric by Cole Porter or Stephen Sondheim to the back rows of even the largest theater. What you saw onstage was the essence of Merman: a consummate professional, a trouper, simple, earthy. But these books also delve into her family background, her marriages, her difficult relationships with her children, even her staunch Republican politics, reputed homophobia, and touchiness about mistakenly being thought Jewish. Kellow’s book is the lighter of the two, but its portrait is still detailed and perceptive. Flinn’s background in women’s and media studies informs her lengthy and astute discussion of Merman’s iconic status in lesbian and gay circles, along with her well-deserved place in the canon of American musical theater.

From the archives:

Flashbacks: "Who Was Kipling?"
A sampling of writings from the nineteenth century to the present offers a range of views on the many contradictions of Rudyard Kipling.

Rudyard Kipling: The Books I Leave Behind
by David Alan Richards (Yale)
Published to mark the centenary of Kipling’s Nobel Prize, this handsomely illustrated volume reminds us just how varied was the writer’s output. You can see here all manner of Kiplingia—including such unexpected treasures as a song he wrote during the Boer War and his handwritten eulogy to Cecil Rhodes. Although the book is a companion to the recent Kipling exhibition at Yale, its discriminating choice of reproductions and intelligent, stylish commentary make it a fine reader’s guide to a writer who—after a mid-century eclipse when the academy foolishly ignored him as a middlebrow reactionary—is now as much in favor with critics, if not as popular with readers, as he was a hundred years ago.

From the archives:

Flashbacks: "The Great Debates"
Two early twentieth-century articles recall one of America's most momentous electoral showdowns of all time—the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates That Defined America
by Allen C. Guelzo (Simon & Schuster)
If you find the current presidential campaign depressing, this examination of the Lincoln-Douglas debates offers solace: it wasn’t much better back then. The candidates talked past each other, dodged each other’s questions, quoted each other out of context, directly insulted each other, cynically played the race card, and allowed surrogates to do their dirty work. But while Guelzo holds Lincoln and Douglas to strict account, he also delivers what may well be the deepest, most instructive study yet of how on-the-ground politics actually worked just before the Civil War and how ordinary people involved themselves with the nation’s most fateful political question, the future of slavery.

The Enlightenment and the Book by Richard B. Sher (Chicago)
The marriage of commerce and culture is always fraught with difficulties, but when it works, its issue can indeed be remarkable. Nowhere was this truer than in Scotland during the late 18th century, when such writers as David Hume, Adam Smith, Hugh Blair, William Robertson, Adam Ferguson, James Boswell, and Robert Burns worked in creative cooperation with their equally enlightened publishers, disseminating their revolutionary works throughout Britain, Europe, and, most tellingly, the Americas. Discerningly illustrated, at once scholarly and accessible, this is an essential addition not only to 18th-century studies but also to the history of the book—a poignant subject in our post-book age.

Nuns: A History of Convent Life, 1450–1700
by Silvia Evangelisti (Oxford)
The success of this engrossing narrative rests primarily on its narrow focus on western Europe and its colonies in the years after the Reformation and before the secular challenges of the Enlightenment. Although the author is sympathetic to the security and the spiritual and intellectual opportunities that cloistered life held for women during this era, she doesn’t ignore the costs of withdrawal and isolation. Evangelisti is particularly astute in describing the many and varied contributions the members of religious orders made to the fine arts (including literature and music)—endeavors that often connected the women with their wider communities.

Society and Culture

Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?
by Leszek Kołakowski (Basic)
The title of this improbable vade mecum—a sternly selective, mostly chronological survey of some two dozen canonical philosophers and their core precepts—is a fair question (even if bathetically asked). And from the bracing opening salvo (“I do not intend to ‘summarize’ Plato, Descartes or Husserl; that would be an absurd ambition. I would like, rather, to [concentrate] on one idea in the thought of each”) to the deeply engaging last page, Kołakowski—the venerable Polish historian of ideas and author of the seminal and magisterial Main Currents of Marxism—offers an answer that is anything but glib. Instead, he offers a discrete, dialectical wonder, a highbrow, low-key little volume that’s strangely synchronous: backward-looking, forward-thinking, and—best of all—wholly free of both condescension and commonplaceness.

In Search of the Blues
by Marybeth Hamilton (Basic)
Unrepentantly revisionist and fiercely declarative, this account is less concerned with appreciation than with authentication. Hamilton offers here what amounts to myth-busting: Delta blues didn’t exist, she contends. The putative musical genre wasn’t an organic evolution of regional idioms so much as a manufactured one, willed into being—and into mid-to-late-20th-century popularity—by “a group of obsessive white men and women.” In spite of her near-heretical thesis (or perhaps because of it), Hamilton writes with restraint and sensitivity. This is a graceful work that tempers and revises such classic chronicles as LeRoi Jones’s Blues People and Robert Palmer’s Deep Blues.

Fiction and poetry
Also see:

Interviews: Jhumpa Lahiri
The author of Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake talks about her affinity for "plainness," why she avoids book reviews, and her new collection of short stories.

Unaccustomed Earth
by Jhumpa Lahiri (Knopf)
In this collection of stories, the Pulitzer Prize–winning Lahiri limits her palette to first-generation Bengalis in America—grown children who speak little Bengali, marry Westerners, but are nevertheless tied by familial threads to their parents’ culture. This allows her to explore with her modulated prose a full range of relationships among her subjects. So thoroughly and judiciously does she use detail that she easily presents entire lives with each short story. These are tales of careful observation and adjustment: a daughter whose mother has recently died discovers that her father has begun a new relationship; a sister realizes she can’t rescue her brother from alcoholism; a husband is surprised by the enduring vibrancy of the marriage he feared had dulled. Most moving is the final trio of intertwined stories about loss and connection.

by Dante Alighieri a verse translation by Robert Hollander and Jean Hollander (Doubleday)
Translating Dante’s Commedia, that 14th-century epic later christened “divine,” has been something of a cottage industry among poets in the United States ever since Longfellow and his Cambridge friends formed a Dante Club in the 1860s. In recent years, Robert Pinsky, John Ciardi, Mark Musa, Charles Singleton, Allen Mandelbaum, and Anthony Esolen have all provided distinguished versions of the work, in both prose and verse, but this now-completed translation by the Hollanders (their Inferno was published in 2000, Purgatorio in 2003), with Dante’s Italian on the facing pages, will very likely be the most enduring, both as a literary achievement and for its commentaries essential for 21st-century readers.

by A. L. Kennedy (Knopf)
The action of this dark novel is filtered largely through the perceptions of its main character, a former Royal Air Force POW struggling to maintain his sanity. Curiously, it’s his sense of being adrift in Britain’s drab postwar world, rather than the memories of his wartime experiences, that drag him down. Seeking to find anew the camaraderie he has known only in the military, he volunteers to go to Germany as an extra in a movie about a POW camp. Kennedy skillfully evokes the atmosphere of an edgy defeated Germany and that of a victorious Britain awash in disappointment and disillusion, but she is at her best when conveying the turmoil inside her protagonist’s mind.

Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories
by Tobias Wolff (Knopf)
These tightly focused stories, about a third of them previously unpublished, drive unrelentingly toward their bleak conclusions. Faced with injustice, Wolff’s characters—self-centered and easily self-deluded—generally make things worse. In one story, one man eats pancakes and another contemplates adultery while the third in their party bleeds from a gunshot wound in the back of their frozen pickup truck. In another, a man convinces himself that his helpless wife and young son don’t need him, so he may as well abandon them. Disturbingly, the selfishness Wolff portrays is believable, even at its most extreme.