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 Drawing on unpublished portions of his journals, Dowling shows a man bereft of religious faith struggling to develop a principled ethic of civic liberalism in contrast to the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.
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)
In this engrossing novel of unhappy love, the author traces the betrayals that surround a suicide through four discrete but interconnected narratives: those of the despairing woman, her father, her best friend, and her best friend’s boyfriend. None of these characters is evil, none commits the transgression that precipitates the suicide, but all are driven, understandably yet horrifyingly, to behave in devious ways that wound others badly. Enriched with literary allusion and with locales that span the whole of Great Britain, Livesey’s compelling stories, reaching back into her characters’ childhoods, together with her understated tone and steady, almost reportorial style, show how commonplace, how nearly inevitable, duplicity is.
Lili Marlene: The Soldiers’ Song of World War II
by Liel Leibovitz and Matthew Miller (Norton)
Not even the most iconic of songs necessarily deserves its very own biography, but in the case of that Second World War classic, “Lili Marlene,” dear to soldiers and civilians on both sides, there really is a fascinating story to tell. Forged in the crucible of 20th-century German history, a First World War poem, picked up by Berlin’s cabaret scene, became a song with music by one of Hitler’s favorite composers, recorded by an ambitious, anti-Nazi singer. Lively and well-informed, this book tells it all, with lots of attention to the travails of those involved. Nazi music had some rousing tunes, but generally the lyrics were rebarbative. Here the sentiments are unobjectionable and universal, just made for a time when the shadow of the barracks gate was bound to heighten romance under lamplight for a world at war.
The Russian Civil War
by Evan Mawdsley (Pegasus)
Just how inevitable was the Red victory in the ferocious civil conflict that followed the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917? Mawdsley, an admirably levelheaded British historian, shows that despite the fractured nature and inherent weakness of the White forces, the odds were heavily stacked against the Reds. They faced foreign military intervention and a vast battleground that favored their foes. Mawdsley skillfully boils down complex situations without oversimplifying them, and his vivid, readable account of this savage war is now the most authoritative in English.
by Pat Willard (Bloomsbury)
Fortunate is the nation in peril that pulls together, rather than becoming fratricidal. The United States managed to do so during the Great Depression, providing a lovely example of American exceptionalism at a time when so many other societies sought after false ideological gods and dictators. One unifying New Deal program, more or less forgotten until this book, was the WPA/Federal Writers’ Project survey of how America was managing to eat socially in that thin time. Writers who would later become famous—such as Saul Bellow, Eudora Welty, and Nelson Algren—enlisted in the enterprise, but most of the entries in these posthumous snapshots are by local writers describing everything from church socials to county fairs to wakes. The recipes are nothing to write home about, but the spirit of camaraderie, and the determination to not let penury rob everyday existence of the companionable joys of food, are moving and instructive 70 years on.
Curse of the Black Gold: 50 Years of Oil in the Niger Delta
edited by Michael Watts; photographs by Ed Kashi (PowerHouse)
The world’s sixth-largest oil producer, Nigeria has for five decades paid a calamitous cost for the poor administration of its vast resource wealth. Somehow, though, its singular case has been little considered on a human scale. No more. With text by noted activists (including the Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka) and indelible images from the award-winning photojournalist Kashi, this graphic work trains an engaged lens on the paradoxical plights of the Niger Delta. (That abject poverty exists there amid riparian plenty is merely one; that the region is a renowned biodiversity center contending with epic environmental degradation is another.) Exploitation, we see, takes many forms, with even the most overt upshots—economic crises, community collapse—often hidden in plain view, among everyday faces (villagers, children, militants). More than an unflinching look at how one country’s promise of prosperity was fouled by oil’s crude stain, this is a nuanced consideration of “the resource curse” with few clear antecedents (Daniel Yergin’s The Prize and Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Shah of Shahs come to mind, but little else). The design, meantime, makes this a volume both glossily compelling and hard-wearing—a handsome coffee-table tome that will present nicely at your next humanitarian klatsch.