This week: Umberto Eco tells you how to write a thesis.
Itself by Rae Armantrout (Wesleyan Univ.) - The powers of brevity, observation, and sarcastic wit that took Armantrout (Just Saying) from 1970s avant-gardist to widely imitated—and Pulitzer Prize–winning (for 2010’s Versed)—authority are back, and as sharp as ever. The UC San Diego professor of poetry alludes to the flora and climate of her native California, as well as to her own age and sense of mortality: “We inquire about heaven/ as we might/ about a nursing home.” At the same time, the hypocrisies, little absurdities, and symptoms of false consciousness that her sharp lines diagnose can be found in the language most Americans use. “What do I have to say/ to myself?” asks a poem called “End User”; “My username/ is invalid.” Like a prolific musician, Armantrout produces many outwardly similar works, but none of them sound much like anyone else. Her recent books reflect her continued interest in social critique, as well as her new attention to the natural sciences; in this one—which is perhaps among her best—computer science and math take the lead, allowing her to ask in what sense we are functions, rule-governed beings, or kinds of programs: “For us to consist/ of infinitesimal points// of want/ and not// makes a lot of sense.”
Into the Savage Country by Shannon Burke (Pantheon) - Burke’s first venture into western fiction (after two novels set in the present, Safelight and Black Flies) is a masterpiece of historical accuracy and exciting storytelling. Set in the 1820s, this bawdy tale of unwashed mountain men and foul-smelling fur trappers follows a 22-year-old tenderfoot named William Wyeth, who is seeking his fortune as a trapper with such real-life notables as Jim Bridger, Jedediah Smith, and Hugh Glass. Wyeth is an idealistic young man, eager to prove his worth to his doubting father, and just as eager to win the affection of Alene Chevalier, the destitute widow of a friend. Then a rival for Chevalier’s attention shows up: the unscrupulous Henry Layton, an old enemy of Wyeth’s. Layton plans to start his own fur company and invites Wyeth (who needs money) to join, which is too tempting for Wyeth to refuse. Their Market Street Fur Company must compete with other American, British, and French trapping outfits, as well as the Crow and Blackfeet Indians, in western Wyoming’s inhospitable Wind River Mountains. Wyeth and his party contend with bear attacks, betrayal, and murder—and not all of them keep their hair.
How to Write a Thesis by Umberto Eco, trans. from the Italian by Caterina Mongiat Farina and Geoff Farina (MIT) - Although first published in Italian in 1977, before Eco (The Name of the Rose) became an internationally renowned novelist, this guide to writing a thesis—originally aimed at Italian humanities undergraduates—brims with practical advice useful for writing research papers. Stating up front that “the topic is secondary to the research method and the actual experience of writing a thesis,” Eco walks the reader through the process of starting and completing a thesis, including selecting a topic, conducting research from primary and secondary sources, compiling a reference bibliography, and drafting and revising the final paper. He doles out his dollops of advice in chapters whose numbered sections and subsections themselves approximate the structure of a thesis, and he often enlivens his potentially dry subject matter with impish humor—for example, Eco describes photocopies that students make but fail to read as “a neocapitalism of information.”
Shame and the Captives by Thomas Keneally (Atria) - The author of Schindler’s List again novelizes a small yet revealing event from World War II. Based on the 1944 Cowra breakout in New South Wales, Australia, the novel interweaves perspectives of people in and around the fictional Gawell prisoner-of-war camp, where Japanese captives suffer less from conditions than from living with the shame of having been captured while more amiable Italian prisoners work on local farms, sing, or share news. The novel opens during the spring of 1943, after Italy has joined the Allies. Keneally explores the lives and innermost thoughts of, among others, Abercare, the English camp commandant trying to avoid conflict with his wife, his prisoners and his subordinates; Suttor, the radio writer in charge of Compound C, more in touch with his surly unpredictable prisoners than his commanding officer; Emily, Abercare’s unhappy wife; Nevski, the intelligent Russian-born translator. Keneally depicts the tragic reach of the war on a number of different lives, including the horror of a war crime and the neatness of the cover-up.
I Am Radar by Reif Larsen (Penguin Press) - The gripping story of Radar Radmanovic, born in Elizabeth, N.J., in 1975, begins with his coal-black skin—which came as a total surprise to his white parents. The troubled couple take young Radar to northern Norway for an experimental electric-shock procedure that will alter his skin color. There, they meet a tight-knit group of secretive physicists/puppeteers who call themselves Kirkenesferda. They stage elaborate avant-garde puppet performances in the middle of war zones and recruit Radar’s father—an expert radio and TV engineer. With masterly prose, Larsen tells the tragic history of how the puppeteers managed to create art while others around them suffered and died, everywhere from New Jersey to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The novel takes a Borgesian turn near the end, when Radar finds himself in Africa, helping Kirkenesferda produce its most ambitious performance yet. Larsen’s many vivid imaginings include a spellbinding narrative of a family torn apart by the Bosnian war (complete with photos and drawings), the history of a Cambodian rubber plantation, and a treacherous journey across the Atlantic in a container ship.
Hush Hush by Laura Lippman (Morrow) - In bestseller Lippman’s searing 12th installment in her series featuring Baltimore PI Tess Monaghan (last seen in the 2011 novella “The Girl in the Green Raincoat”), Tess, now the mother of a three-year-old girl with longtime boyfriend Crow, reluctantly takes a security job from attorney Tyner Gray, a family friend. Tyner represents Melisandre Harris Dawes, who, 12 years earlier, intentionally left her infant daughter in a hot car to die. Melisandre, a former lawyer, successfully argued that she suffered from postpartum psychosis, and was found not guilty by reason of insanity. She left Baltimore—and her two young daughters—behind, and moved abroad. Now Melisandre is back, with a documentary filmmaker in tow, to reunite with her daughters, 17-year-old Alanna and 15-year-old Ruby, who live with their father, Stephen, his new wife, and their baby. Tess, along with her new partner, ex-cop Sandy Sanchez, must assess Melisandre’s security risks. Lippman expertly delves into what it means to be mad—and more importantly, what comes next.
A Higher Form of Killing: Six Weeks in World War I That Forever Changed the Nature of Warfare by Diana Preston (Bloomsbury) - Historian Preston places the creation of poison gas, the torpedo, and the zeppelin into the context of warfare and the human toll exacted in a well-detailed, shattering survey timed to mark the 100th anniversary of the weapons' use in WWI. She explains the scorched-earth policy of Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm II, which mandated a complete triumph for the Fatherland at all cost during the infamous six-week period in 1915 where this trio of deadly weapons was introduced to untold suffering for soldiers and civilians alike. Conventional war, as Preston writes, entered a new phase of killing when poison gas was dropped on unsuspecting French and Canadian soldiers in the trenches at Ypres, Belgium, on April 22; when a German submarine torpedoed the Lusitania on May 20; and when a German zeppelin bombed London on May 31. Confidential talks, last-minute compromises, and bogus assurances comprise the dark heart of this dramatic account as the merchants of conflict seek to heighten mass panic, terror, and death regardless of traditional military rules.
Unlikely Warrior: A Jewish Soldier in Hitler's Army by Georg Rauch, trans. from the German by Phyllis Rauch (FSG) - The privileged "offspring of doctors and architects," Rauch was not just a reluctant draftee into Hitler's Wehrmacht: he was part Jewish, a fact he was unaware of until German troops took over his native Vienna in 1938. Drafted into Hitler's army at age 19, Rauch was headed for officer training until he confessed his heritage. Demoted to the infantry, he was sent to the Russian front, where he endured combat rations of raw horsemeat, subzero temperatures, and lice infestations. A teenage fascination with radios and Morse code likely saved his life. A few months into the campaign he notes that of his initial battalion of 250, only eight remain--seven telecommunication specialists, including himself, and one soldier. Translated by his wife, Phyllis, and first self-published before Rauch's death in 2006, this is a remarkable primary-source document with broad appeal to history teachers, students, and scholars alike.
Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery that Baffled All of France by Mara Rockliff, illus. by Iacopo Bruno (Candlewick) - Rockliff (Me and Momma and Big John) sashays into the scientific and political world of the late 18th century with a playful narrative that explains the origin of the word “mesmerized” as it details Benjamin Franklin’s role in debunking a miracle cure of the day. Dr. Franz Mesmer’s secretive “medicine” is taking Paris by storm: “When he stared into his patients’ eyes and waved [his iron] wand, things happened. Women swooned. Men sobbed. Children fell down in fits.” In a gesture of indebtedness to King Louis XVI, Franklin demystifies Mesmer’s techniques using the scientific method, revealing that the man’s “cures” reside in the patients’ heads. Bruno’s realistic, digitally colored illustrations contrast Franklin’s unadorned American sensibilities with the fancier stylings of pre-French Revolution Paris (embellishments include curlicues, bold and flowery typefaces, and optical illusions on the endpapers). A lengthier retelling of the story is included, along with descriptions (printed on old-fashioned medicine bottles) of the placebo effect and how a “blind” scientific study works.
Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan (Scholastic) - The fairy tale that opens this elegant trio of interconnected stories from Ryan (The Dreamer) sets the tone for the rest of the book, in which a mystical harmonica brings together three children growing up before and during WWII. Friedrich, an aspiring conductor whose birthmark makes him an undesirable in Nazi Germany, must try to rescue his father after his Jewish sympathies land him in a prison camp. In Pennsylvania, piano prodigy Mike and his brother, Frankie, get a chance to escape the orphanage for good, but only if they can connect with the eccentric woman who has adopted them. In California, Ivy Maria struggles with her school’s segregation as well as the accusations leveled against Japanese landowners who might finally offer her family a home of their own. Each individual story is engaging, but together they harmonize to create a thrilling whole.
Shame: How America's Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country by Shelby Steele (Basic) - Steele (White Guilt), a leading intellectual and senior scholar at the Hoover Institution, inquires into white guilt and liberal dogma, challenging ideas that he finds pervasive on the left. A fixation on the “struggle for white redemption,” Steele argues, warps clear thinking. Moreover, he finds that too many white liberals perceive deferential shame as the antidote to historical evils, as though shame is morally necessary to absolve the nation’s racial sins. Dissociating the nation from its history has thus become a preeminent institutional mission—a mistaken one, in Steele’s opinion. He vividly recounts his encounter with an unyielding white “commitment to black victimization” while participating in a panel discussion at the Aspen Institute. He also remembers the surprise he felt as a young African-American man, watching William F. Buckley debate James Baldwin on Firing Line, to discover he agreed more with Buckley than Baldwin. Yet Steele also finds that many white people fail to appreciate the effect of four centuries of oppression on African-Americans. Steele concludes that economic success for African-Americans must be rooted in self-help and freedom from self-pity, though he unfortunately minimizes the continued economic inequalities standing in the way. Nonetheless, this timely critique warrants attention from anyone troubled by the persistence of racial discord in American life, from Selma to Ferguson.
The American Lover by Rose Tremain (Norton) - In the title story, which kicks off this collection from Tremain (Man Booker Prize shortlisted for Restoration), Beth, a British author nearing 30, has recently been in a car accident that broke both her legs. Recuperating at her parents’ apartment, Beth takes to waiting for Rosalita, the housekeeper, who comes by every afternoon and listens to the story of Beth’s life, while dusting and sharing some stories of her own. In Paris at age 19, Beth was seduced by an older, aloof American who left her bereft after his sudden departure. Beth then depicted their relationship in what became a global sensation of a novel, which made her rich but no less forlorn. “The Housekeeper” features a former servant in a grand English estate recounting the betrayal of a lover. In “Extra Geography,” two high school girls, both field hockey players, set their sights on a young female teacher. The breadth of subjects and settings is matched by Tremain’s exquisite prose. Readers might just want to take a break between stories, to savor the language and the images.