We’re over twenty books into the series about Richard Sharpe, a British soldier in the Napoleonic Wars. Four books into the adventures of Nathaniel Starbuck, fighting for the South in the American Civil War—along with three books of Warlord Chronicles, set in the years after Rome’s retreat from the British Isles, and four books about a belated Grail Quest, set during the Hundred Years’ War.
Add in five modern sea thrillers, five stand-alone historical novels, a non-fiction account of Waterloo—together with Warriors of the Storm, this winter’s entry in the nine-volume series of Saxon Stories, set during the tenth-century Danish invasions of England—and Bernard Cornwell has been about as busy as it is possible for a writer to be, penning over fifty books since 1981.
For sheer entertainment, there is no better postwar English novelist than John le Carré. When Adam Sisman tells us in his intriguing biography that the brilliant Karla trilogy of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Honorable Schoolboy; and Smiley’s People was planned as a loose, extended novel cycle after the manner of Balzac’s Comédie humaine, the tease is almost too mean, especially for those of us who think that le Carré’s work has suffered since the end of the Cold War and would like nothing better than to know what poor shabby Toby Esterhase did with himself in the “Cool Britannia” ’90s.
“The approach of this book is episodic rather than exhaustive,” writes Stephen Prothero, author of Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections). This is a generous description. For readers interested in analysis more than the pursuit of an agenda, it is also a warning.
Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University, undertook this investigation after puzzling over the conservative resistance to the construction of an Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero following the 9/11 attacks. American respect for religious liberty and private property weighed in favor of letting the project proceed, he writes, so “why all the fuss?”
Walk along the Neva River in St. Petersburg and eventually you will come upon a willowy bronze depiction of 20th century Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. She is caught mid-motion, her head half turned toward Kresty prison across the river, where hundreds of Stalin’s victims were murdered—including her husband, poet Nikolai Gumilyov. Memorials like this preserve history and the truth, despite efforts at erasure, but statues can be knocked down. Poetry, on the other hand, is more resilient.
Historian Robert Kirchubel’s Atlas of the Eastern Front 1941-1945 begins with a map key of unit identity distinctions. The key is critical to the atlas, its immense detail hinting at the kind of book it helps to decipher. After all, the legend involves various identifiers for units ranging from an army group formation with tens of thousands of men to a company of perhaps one hundred men. It also points out the different specializations of each unit. We are thus warned at the outset: this is a book only for professionals and passionate amateur historians.
Sarah Weinman, a scholar of detective fiction, has assembled a fine collection of mystery novels written by women in the 1940s and 1950s. As always with books from the Library of America, Women Crime Writers is beautifully made, and the collection has not gone unnoticed. A mention in the New Yorker followed an interview in the Paris Review, which followed notices in newspapers from the New York Times to the Washington Post. In fact, Women Crime Writers has received so much attention—all of it good, much of it deserved—that only one thing remains to be said. Which is: What a screwy, half-baked, and self-contradictory project this collection proves to be.
Adam Kirsch is one of our best critics and a gifted poet, but something’s not quite right in his formally accomplished third volume of poems, Emblems of the Passing World. It consists of 46 poems on 46 photographs from August Sander’s People of the Twentieth Century, a collection of 1,800 portraits mostly (but not entirely) from the Weimar Republic. Sander conceived of the project in 1922, and published an initial 60 images in Face of Our Time in 1929, but he ran afoul of the Nazis in 1936, who took exception to his photographs of gypsies, the handicapped, and the unemployed, among others. Between 25,000 and 30,000 negatives were later destroyed by a fire, and the project remained unfinished at Sander’s death in 1964. The volume was eventually published in seven volumes according to the seven categories Sander had planned for the collection in 2002 with the help of Sander’s grandson.
In his cute, brief poem, The Persian Version, written between 1938 and 1945, Robert Graves speculatively lampooned how he imagined Achaemenid elites must have rationalized their defeat at the hands of some quarrelsome, backwards Greeks located at the very western extreme of their magnificent empire. You can get the sense from the first two lines: “Truth-loving Persians do not dwell upon / The trivial skirmish fought near Marathon…”
The 21st century has not been kind to public institutions of higher education—or to their graduates. While the number of total American undergraduates increased by 34 percent from 2000 to 2013, many of them going to state-run schools, public universities saw their funding cut by 26 percent in the five years following the Great Recession. As enrollment increased and funding was slashed, the job market, which graduates meet upon leaving the nest of the university, significantly diminished due to 2008 financial crisis and its tedious aftermath. More students may be going to college but it’s not clear that they are better prepared for life afterward as a result.
Clyde Prestowitz’s rousing Japan Restored documents the contemporary phenomenon of students, businesspeople, and indeed entire nations “passing over” Japan in favor of supposedly more dynamic and vibrant societies elsewhere in Asia. Like many Japan watchers, Prestowitz finds this to be a curious habit. The thought of passing over a country with a population the size of Britain and France combined, the most technologically advanced military in East Asia, and one of the world’s largest economies seems nothing short of bizarre.