Books: November-December 2004

November 30, 2004

Ballots and Bibles: Ethnic Politics and the Catholic Church in Providence
By Evelyn Savidge Stern Ph.D. '94. Cornell University Press, 2003. 304 pages. $34.95.

Ballots and Bibles: Ethnic Politics and the Catholic Church in ProvidenceToo often, writes Stern, "religion remains on the margins of modern American history." Stern, an assistant professor of history at the University of Rhode Island, seeks to change that. In Ballots and Bibles, her first book, she argues that the Catholic Church, not the labor unions and machine politics--the two institutions usually credited with enabling ethnic activism--empowered its constituency to participate in the political process. The church--far and away the largest and most inclusive of nineteenth-century organizations in the U.S.--gave Irish, Italians, and French Canadians, men and women, rich and poor, a voice available to them nowhere else. Religion was paramount in mobilizing the disenfranchised in the country's first city (Providence, Rhode Island) to gain a Catholic majority. It was in the parishes of Providence, Stern writes, that "Catholics learned to be speakers and leaders ... eventually claiming full membership in the nation."


The Herbaceous Layer in Forests of Eastern North America
Edited by Frank S. Gilliam M.F. '78, Ph.D. '83 and Mark R. Roberts Ph.D. '83.
Oxford University Press, 2003.
408 pages. $85.

The Herbaceous Layer in Forests of Eastern North America

As graduate students at Duke's forestry school (now the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences) in the early Eighties, Gilliam and Roberts took a summer dendrology course taught by a professor who, as he walked through Duke Forest, referred dismissively to plants of the herbaceous layer as "step-overs." This slight, say the editors, was indicative of a troubling trend, a general under-appreciation among foresters of the true ecological significance of ground flora. "Our image of forests often comes from the broad brush of a landscape perspective," they write. "We see only the grandeur of the predominant vegetation--the trees." They have chosen to buck the norm, focusing instead on a spatially and temporally dynamic world of vascular species--a forest few could see, until now, for the trees.


The Virtues of War: A Novel of Alexander the Great
By Steven Pressfield '65. Doubleday, 2004.
368 pages. $24.95.

The Virtues of War: A Novel of Alexander the Great

The best-selling author of Gates of Fire, Tides of War, and Last of the Amazons, Pressfield explores history, this time, through the eyes of Alexander the Great. Avenger of his father's death, fearless warrior, and, in Pressfield's version, intrepid narrator, Alexander tells the tale as only the conqueror of the known world could. Ascending to the throne of Macedonia at the age of nineteen, he had conquered the Persian Empire by twenty-five. He died at thirty-three, a driven leader, famed for his brilliance in battle, undefeated to the end. But it's the complex character within that makes for a richly textured read. "License has been taken," Pressfield writes in the introduction. The result is a provocatively imagined Alexander of opposites and excesses and probing introspection.


 

Will: A Novel
By Grace Tiffany '80. 
Berkley Publishing Group, 2004.
416 pages. $21.95.

Will: A NovelAfter a first novel written from the point of view of William Shakespeare's youngest daughter, My Father Had a Daughter, Tiffany returns to the Elizabethan age. She tells in rich detail the story of the rise of young Will himself from mischievous Stratford schoolboy--the son of a drunkard and a Catholic--to fame and adoration as England's master playwright. Along the way, she imaginatively reinvents sixteenth-century London and the path of her poet protagonist. As Shakespeare finds success on the stage, he also draws the ire of a rival, the baby-faced Christopher Marlowe, and the stage is set for a duel.


Ivy and Industry: Business and the Making of the American University, 1880-1980
By Christopher Newfield. 
Duke University Press, 2003. 290 pages. $32.95.

Ivy and Industry: Business and the Making of the American University, 1880-1980

A careful dissection of the ties between higher education and corporate America reveals that the research university has long played "a double role," writes Newfield, both "sustaining and evading the remarkable rise of large organizations." In charting their respective histories, Newfield, an English professor at what he terms "the original 'multiversity,' " the University of California, with its "ties to industry as elaborate as any in the United States," presents an institution inherently at odds with itself--at once dependent upon corporate financial support and governing models and yet "supporting free inquiry and the pursuit of truth independently of what the market will buy." His chief interest, though, is not the complexities of the research university, but rather its most important creation: an educated American middle class. Can they, he asks, "really be the agents of history rather than the servants of it--of the top executives and moguls and major decision makers?"


The Manly Masquerade: Masculinity, Paternity, and Castration in the Italian Renaissance
By Valeria Finucci
Duke University Press, 2003. 
316 pages. $24.95, paper.

The Manly Masquerade: Masculinity, Paternity, and Castration in the Italian Renaissance

"I want to retrofit the past," writes Finucci, professor of Romance studies at Duke, "and bring it to bear on the issues of sex and generation." To a centuries-old framework, she affixes the present-day theories of gender, a "construct aligned with historical contingencies and prevalent socio-cultural values through a process of constant retooling and watchfulness." In light of current ideas about masculinity and femininity and the boundaries between them, Finucci examines spontaneous generation, cuckoldry, androgyny, and the manufacture of castrati that so fascinated Renaissance Italians--and continues to fascinate us. Plays, poems, novellas, treatises and travel journals, anecdotes and myths--she revisits them all, mining the literature, which "has always displayed an interest in the organization of gendered identities," for clues to the values that shaped our own. Among her findings: A man's man in the Renaissance wasn't a warrior; he was a dad.