Cover to Cover

Architecture of the Sun
Thomas S. Hines

Hines—professor emeritus of history and architecture at UCLA and the author of influential, elegant books on the architects Daniel Burnham, Richard Neutra, and Irving Gill—has produced a summa of his life’s work. This gorgeous, hulking volume examines the interplay of regionalism and modernism in Los Angeles architecture from 1900 to 1970. Although Hines doesn’t ignore the public buildings that in most places would constitute an architect’s claim to greatness (see A. C. Martin’s crisp, shimmering Department of Water and Power building), he perforce focuses on domestic architecture: indisputably, the region has the greatest collection of modernist houses in the country, marked by a permeability of outdoor and indoor space. Here we read and see—this is the most discerningly curated collection of SoCal modernist architectural photography ever published—how the region’s great architects molded the understated, clean International Style to the climate and good life of Los Angeles. The result was a kicky, often family-oriented glamour—almost a contradiction in terms; this inherent tension is ultimately what makes these houses so beguiling. The book lacks the analytical focus and intellectual verve of such classics as Peter Reyner Banham’s Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, Esther McCoy’s Five California Architects, Robert Winter’s The California Bungalow, and Hines’s own books on Neutra and Gill, but it is the most comprehensive and seasoned—and beautiful—work on Los Angeles modernism yet produced.

A Life Like Other People’s
Alan Bennett

Plucked from Untold Stories (published in 2005, a huge collection of Bennett’s critical and autobiographical writings), this loving but strictly unsentimental memoir centers on the British playwright’s modest parents. Bennett, of course, has an ear for telling (and humorous) dialogue: “Your Dad and me are going to start to mix. We’ve got some sherry in and we’ve got some peanuts too,” he writes, quoting from one of his mother’s letters to reveal a couple for whom the social ease implied by cocktail parties was unattainable. Walter and Lilian Bennett—he with his dreams of a “smallholding” on which he could raise chickens and plant potatoes, she with her genteel, slightly cracked collection of Staffordshire—emerge as vibrant, nuanced personalities, all the more distinct when set against the negative background of Lilian’s recurring bouts of depression, which mar the retirement the couple had long looked forward to. As in any good memoir, the context here is as vivid as the characters; this is as much a picture of a pocket of British life in a specific era—the failing shopkeepers and the matronly shop assistants (the “career girls”) of a post-mill and postwar northern city—as it is of a devoted husband and wife, who rub along as best they can.

Do Fish Feel Pain?
Victoria Braithwaite

The answer to the question this book’s title poses is yes. The remarkable thing is that it took this long: no scientific analysis of fish pain, Braithwaite tells us, was conducted until the turn of this century. The relevant experiments were more complicated than a layman might have expected. The fact that a trout recoils from a pinprick or electric shock proves only that it possesses sensory receptors that detect injury. The researcher must also prove that the trout is sentient enough to suffer from the attendant pain. But prove it Braithwaite and her colleagues did (unaware that a Russian group was doing similar experiments on carp, trout, and cod). Interesting reading? Yes. Unpleasant? That too. Toward the end of the book, the complex cooperation of groupers and eels in the wild is instanced as a clinching argument for sentience, which makes one wonder why researchers had to go about “carefully damaging” so many captive animals in the first place. Should not the burden of proof have rested on the bizarre assumption that a sentient vertebrate does not feel pain? The book’s back cover talks of “far reaching and often surprising implications for our dealings with fish.” A reader can think of one: the animal may end up being used even more often in biomedical and chemical testing than it already is. A living thing that feels pain like a human, yet does so silently, with a face too immobile to elicit sympathy—perfect! Braithwaite’s confident talk about scientists being too well trained to abuse their finny charges suggests that she knows more about trout than about her own species. A doctor of zoology, she seems equally naive when voicing the hope that fishermen will now review their cruel practices: dragging fish on hooks for hours, leaving them on decks to die a slow death by suffocation, and so on. The food industry takes animal welfare seriously only when doing so reduces costs or improves taste: neither effect seems likely to follow from an access of conscience on this particular front. Nor can one expect consumers to consider a boycott when Braithwaite herself writes, “I have no axe to grind—I choose to eat fish.” What is an untroubled admission like that, coming in a book like this, if not axe-grinding for the status quo?

Holocaust: The Nazi Persecution and Murder of the Jews
Peter Longerich

Hailed as the definitive single-volume history of the development and implementation of the Final Solution when published in Germany in 1998, this book is finally available in English. But this is far more than a translation; Longerich—a historian at the University of London, who writes in both English and German—has revised the text throughout. He has reconstructed and imposed as much narrative order as possible on a tangle of political, military, and administrative processes. As possible is a key qualification, for Longerich and his fellow scholars confront gap after gap in the historical record: the perpetrators largely succeeded in destroying the most important documents relating to the Final Solution, and in any event few of the crucial decisions were committed to paper. The records that do survive are widely scattered and were written in a manner intended to obscure the processes and policies they document. This fragmentary if abundant evidence means that much of the story Longerich tells is a matter of informed speculation. Nevertheless, with rigor (if too much Teutonic density) he places events and decisions in precise historical context, heeding strict chronology as well as such considerations as the Reich’s shifting military fortunes and swings in the German public’s and Nazi hierarchy’s outlook. In this largely bureaucratic history, Longerich convincingly establishes that the Nazi regime’s policy of systematically murdering all the Jews within Germany’s grasp evolved erratically but in an ever more radical direction—and the very contingent, decentralized, adaptive nature of that policy made it all the more horribly effective.

Leaving Rock Harbor
Rebecca Chace

This graceful novel, set in a coastal Massachusetts mill town in the early decades of the 20th century, traces upheaval from several vantage points. Enmeshed in an enduring love triangle that represents the old guard and those who will topple it, the novel’s protagonist navigates both her own maturation and the shift in local economic and political power, as the mills boom and bust. Chace’s story is dramatic; her characters, well defined by class and personality, are vivid and true; but most evocative are her details of this particular time and place, from the smell of the mill’s dye room to the feel of a corset.