The Harper's Index Book, Lewis H. Lap-ham, Michael Pollan, Eric Etheridge (Holt: $6.95). As Harper's magazine editor Lewis Lapham writes in his introduction: "Numbers can be made to tell as many stories as a crooked lawyer or an old comedian." This slim volume sets forth a collection of data that has appeared in Harper's magazine's Index page. Items range from the whimsical ("Percentage of women who believe in love at first sight: 57. Of men: 66") to the telling ("Percentage of Americans in 1985 who didn't recognize Mr. Clean: 7. Who didn't recognize George Bush: 44") to the more sobering ("Number of Americans who freeze to death each year: 500").
Although this accumulation of facts and statistics may seem random at first, in their aggregate they tell us a surprising amount about our society's priorities and incongruities. For example, the reader learns that the budget per episode of "Miami Vice" is $1.5 million, while the annual budget of the actual Miami vice squad is $1.1 million. Another comparison finds that 263 pounds of butter can be bought (at $2.12 a pound) for the cost of an M16 rifle. A discouraging fact for book lovers is that 45% of Americans say they never read books, although in Chicago, 7,500 copies of "Catcher in the Rye" have been checked out of public libraries and never returned. In the category of Anomalies, the "Cosby Show" ran1802707046Halloween: Richard Nixon.
Portrait in Brownstone: A Novel, Louis Auchincloss (McGraw-Hill: $4.95). Like Edith Wharton, Louis Auchincloss portrays the customs of the New York well-to-do, focusing in "Portrait in Brownstone" on the Denisons of 53rd Street. The novel opens in 1950, when an alcoholic suicidal cousin, Geraldine, finally carries through with her threats and jumps to her death from an eighth-story window. The book's heroine, Ida, who had always lived in the shadow of this once "golden, breath-taking, erupting beauty," in her grief pieces together the dead woman's effects and in so doing discovers an incriminating letter evincing that her husband, Derrick, had seduced Geraldine with a lie (the promise of his own divorce and subsequent marriage to her) and that in fact she had sought legal action to attempt to force Derrick to leave Ida. As she struggles to come to terms with this double betrayal, Ida is finally able to see the limitations of those in her extended clan whom she had once deified, and ultimately to recognize her own worth as she finds release from the strangling network of family.
But this tryst and betrayal form only one detail in the broader tapestry of the Denison family, who are the novel's heart. Auchincloss is a graceful, elegant writer, and in "Portrait in Brownstone" he weaves a captivating synthesis of old New York and new money.
Edmund Wilson, David Castronovo (Frederick Ungar: $9.95). Edmund Wilson was perhaps the American intellectual of the century. Essayist, journalist, novelist, editor at the New Yorker, the New Republic and Vanity Fair, his career spanned five decades; his output was prodigious, and his writing was clear, straightforward and pleasing to read. As David Castronovo writes in this excellent introduction to Wilson's life and work, Wilson "stands as one of the twentieth century's least forbidding major critics, one who established his authority, not by theories, complex analyses or exhaustive considerations . . . but by his intense curiosity about creative artists and his candid judgments of them. His essays have the swift, direct quality of journalism and the deeply reflective character of judgmental criticism."
The range of Wilson's work is outstanding: He wrote about the Soviet Union ("To the Finland Station"), the American Civil War ("Patriotic Gore"), the origins of Christianity (based on the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which, Castronovo tells us, controversially "suggested that the teachings of Jesus were part of an older Jewish tradition"), and also, brilliantly, about American culture and literature ("T1751457879somewhat less successful in these creative enterprises (although with "Memoirs of Hecate County," 1946, Castronovo suggests that Wilson may have created an American art form: the suburban sex shocker). Castronovo's book provides a fine precis and chronicle to this great American writer's intellectual development, which will inspire further exploration of Wilson's work.