The week in books

August 14, 2008

Samuel Johnson: A Biography by Peter Martin, professor of English, Principia College in Illinois. Weidenfeld and Nicholson, £25.00 ISBN 9780297607199.

"Peter Martin is best known for a skilfully assembled life of Boswell. But even hardline Johnsonians might forgive him for that when faced with his energetic PR work. Not content with pointing out that 18th-century Toryism had little in common with today's variety, Martin portrays his subject as 'one of the most advanced liberals of his time': a harsh critic of imperialism, a lifelong defender of the poor, a protofeminist and a scourge of aristocratic effrontery."

Christopher Taylor, The Guardian

Twenty Thousand Roads by David N. Meyer, lecturer in cinema studies, New School for General Studies, New York. Bloomsbury, £25.00, ISBN 9780747565772

"While the aphorism has it that 'art is long, life is short', in this case, although the art may have endured, the Life, as told by David N. Meyer, is far too long. Whenever the opportunity presents itself, Meyer digresses, telling us much more than we need to know about this musician or that distant relative. As a cast of hundreds and a blur of factoids pass across its 500-odd pages, this is a book that brings out the urge to shout: 'Too much information!'"

David Cheal, The Daily Telegraph

The Red Prince: The Fall of a Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Europe by Timothy Snyder, professor of history, Yale University. Bodley Head, £20.00, ISBN 9780224081528

"It seems rash for an amateur in the field to say that neither as a history nor as biography does the book really work. There are several reasons for this, the most obvious being Snyder's failure to make Wilhelm himself, ostensibly the central character of the story, carry the weight of either the public history or the private pathos that he seeks to attach to him... A far bigger problem is that we are given remarkably little access to Wilhelm's mind. From these pages it would seem that he never put pen to paper... Snyder makes the worst of a bad job by littering his text with passages of supposition, in which words like 'perhaps' and 'probable' and 'likely' recur like a cracked bell."

Dan Jacobson, The London Review of Books

Anthropology Goes to the Fair: The 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition by Nancy J. Parezo, professor of American Indian studies and anthropology, University of Arizona, and Don D. Fowler, emeritus professor of anthropology, University of Nevada, Reno. University of Nebraska Press, £30.00 ISBN 9780803237599

"Parezo and Fowler do not seem to appreciate the parodic edge that the 'savages' may have had on their American audience. They are cautious researchers who depend on the literal fact rather than the imaginative construct. One only wishes that they had described the whole Fair and the business interests that informed it in greater details. Their story, however, has its allure. It calls attention to the presumption of an age so confident of its future that it had no difficulty appraising its encounters with the other - the exotic, the savage, the primitive - in a self-affirming fashion."

Vincent Crapanzano, The Times Literary Supplement.

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