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Russia Under Western Eyes: From the Bronze Horseman to the Lenin Mausoleum
Russia has always figured large in the Western imagination, not only for its bi-continental span but for the cultural questions it poses. Lying on the fringe of the European land, Russia also occupies, we tend to believe, an ideological periphery. But what that periphery is, and how it fits our Western sensibilities, is never settled. In Russia Under Western Eyes, Martin Malia takes on the complexities of the Russia-West relationship, making a sensible home for Russia within the continuum of Europe. At the heart of his argument lies, appropriately, a recognition of the relationship's innate subjectivity. Malia points out that Western thought on Russia is typically more a reflection of the thinkers than of their subject, that the West has created its images of Russia–images which may or may not reflect the enigmatic land bridging West and East. Western opinion has reliably glorified or vilified Russia; thus we have alternatively considered it an enthusiastic prodigy (during Peter's recasting of Russia toward a European model of secular enlightenment or in the lurching democratic reforms of the last decade) or a menacing Other (as a megalomaniacal Oriental despotism under Nicholas or, familiarly, as the haunting Red Spectre). In creating different Russias for different times, the West has overlooked the likely truth: that Russia, as Malia puts it, is simply "a poor power trying to modernize in the real world." He argues that Russia is staggering toward a convergence with Europe; whether this is actually so could be discussed at length. In any case, the book is a fascinating study for all students of the Russian riddle.
Arcade: Or How to Write a Novel
Four Walls Eight Windows, $22
Life is a grapple bucket in an arcade. You bring your penny and rarely leave with a prize. But don't you get something? The thrill of "the old college try"? The hope and anticipation that precedes the letdown? Or is it simply a loss, deep and enduring? Whatever it is, that's life-and Gordon Lish's point of entrance. A map of how to write a novel, Arcade has a poem for jacket copy, forty blank pages as a form of "moderation," the bulk of the novel in one paragraph, no traditional plot line, and much humor. He writes, "Believe me, if I made the rules, it would be a different story from start to finish." In early childhood the narrator, "I Gordon," went with his extended family to Laurel in the Pines each summer. As an "old" man, memories of those visits intermingle with adult ones: camellias at a summer cottage, a woman who "rolled out the welcome mat" for him, the filth in a kitchen ceiling grate, an injured foot, his cousin telling him not to fall. With writing reminiscent of Stein or Beckett, Lish reminds his readers that the actual past and the remembered past are different, and he fleshes out every possible perspective. Lish's recurrent and vague approach to detail can be frustrating, but its collective significance is like chaos to its theory. These details-haunting, funny, ordinary, pitiable-are the real stuff of life.
The Secular Mind
In The Secular Mind, child psychologist, Harvard professor, and Pulitzer-winning author Robert Coles is tough-mindedly open to inspiration wherever it may be found. He begins by addressing the secular mind's relationship with its opposite–the sacred–and finishes with a turn toward self-exploration. Throughout, Coles is admirably alert to the costs of both worldviews: as novelist Walker Percy puts it in one of the book's compelling interviews, "there ain't no free lunch." While the terms "sacred" and "secular" are potentially elusive, Coles handles them in a consistent but nuanced way. On the one hand, he reminds us that distinctions are difficult to make: Abraham's readiness to sacrifice his son may be sacred, while churchgoing is frequently an expression of secularism. At the same time, Coles insists that the distinction is great: a life of obedience to sacred call departs radically from a life meeting the demands of success, of the self and its extensions (family, friends), of the here and now. Driven by self-concern, the secular intellect can lead us away from "a moral or spiritual kind of awareness," and thereby shortchange the complexity of the lived experience. Coles' own mind seems to avoid this pitfall: it refuses to dismiss the claims of Other-whether the God of whom he suggests most of us are "unsure" or the various writers and interviewees (Kierkegaard, George Eliot, a factory worker) whose struggles to face both the big questions and everyday life he manages to recover with all due urgency.
Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism
T. J. Clark
In the introduction to this book, T. J. Clark makes it clear that his series of books, which began in the 1980s with The Absolute Bourgeois and continued through The Painting of Modern Life (both dwelling on the nineteenth century), is now concluded. This is his say on modernism. Clark is, notoriously, a Marxist, and struggled in those earlier books to find a theory and a method encompassing enough to merge radicalism with interpretation, sounding a historicist note that alarmed critics on the right (like Hilton Kramer) and left (like Pierre Bourdieu). But his present book is less concerned with mounting cases based on historical minutiae than on defining modernism–in his reading the epoch bracketed by David's painting of Marat in the Year 2 of the French Revolution and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1991–as that framework within which capitalism could be contested on the level of immediate effect (the aesthetically difficult, the dissonant, the ironic obstacles to commodification, the use of the ephemeral). For the left, the struggle with capitalism led to something Clark, following Hegel, terms "unhappy consciousness." The unhappy consciousness is simultaneously aware of freedom and aware that the conditions of that freedom are buttressed by a capitalist necessity that exploits the cultic value of nature to veil its business of accumulation and exploitation. The book is not exclusively theoretical jawbreakers: Clark never presses too dogmatically on the Marxist terminology, and he is also a marvelous looker at paintings. (The best moments in the book are on artists with which he is politically akin, such as David and Pissarro.) But if he is right on the theory, we have to view the expectations of modernist work as either coopted or collapsed in the intellectual pallor of the late 1990s, and not as unworthy.
Random House, $22
In this collection of short stories, Gish Jen's characters explore what it means to be Chinese, American, Chinese-American, and, in one case, Irish. The title story opens up the identity question in the matter-of-fact voice of a Chinese immigrant who lives with her daughter, her Irish son-in-law, and their undisciplined daughter, Sophie. Designated the baby-sitter, she remarks, "In China, daughter take care of mother. Here it is other way around. Mother help daughter, mother ask, Anything else I can do? … I tell daughter, we do not have this word in Chinese, supportive." Jen uses the gulf between Chinese immigrant parents and their American-born children to document the contradictory set of values emerging within the Chinese-American community. When the narrator of the title story gets dubbed "honorary Irish," Jen shows how difficult it is to ultimately define any of these terms: immigrant parents lament as the Confucist emphasis on family gives way to self expression, but they adopt material success standards over scholarship endeavors. Duncan Hsu's family celebrates his brother's import-export business and BMW, and deplore Duncan's fascination with his Chinese heritage, "the China of scholar officials, the China of ineffable nobility and restraint." Jen approaches there cultural dilemmas with succinct and lively prose; her writing moves fluidly through humorous and serious episodes alike. With empathy for her characters and a flair for the comic, her writing captivates.
If I Should Die: A Death Row Correspondence
Edited by Jane Officer
Bob Paul Publishers Consortium, $10.95
Hidden away in the Louisiana woods is an important chapter of American history. "The Classification Officer just brought me the Death Warrant," writes Andrew Lee Jones to his British "penfriend" Jane Officer, who has edited this volume of Jones's letters and journals. On July 22, 1991, Jones became the last man to be executed in Louisiana's electric chair. He had written to Officer about seeing the graphic photos of Robert Williams's burned, electrocuted body published by The Angolite, the newsmagazine of the Angola penitentiary. These may have helped push the legislature toward changing the method of killing. Jones's letters are also filled with references to Robert Sawyer, who, in March 1993, became the first man in Louisiana to die by lethal injection. But Jones's principal worry about his own body seems to be where it will be buried: "So if there is a after life, I won't wake up looking at these bars." The writings collected here bring us within hours of Jones's death. They are also filled with the unsensationalized day-to-day realities of life on death row, raising issues that are ignored in the policy debates. When Jones is locked up in "the Hole," he makes socks out of a cut-up shirt to keep his feet warm. He is so estranged from his family that he finds out from TV about his sister's murder. Meanwhile he tries not to make friends with other inmates "because it's no telling when [they] might get executed." If I Should Die begins with Officer's informative introduction and ends with a powerful afterword by an attorney who watched Angola guards literally wash their hands of Jones's body after his execution. "The way it seem," Jones writes, "they are just going to take us completely off the map." This book can help keep "them" on it.
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