Xpress Reviews: Nonfiction | First Look at New Books, January 11, 2013

Week ending January 11, 2013

Brown, Hamish. The Oldest Post Office in the World: And Other Scottish Oddities. Sandstone, dist. by Dufour. 2012. 192p. photogs. maps. ISBN 9781905207954. $21.95. TRAV
Scottish travel writer Brown (Hamish’s Mountain Walk: The First Traverse of All the Scottish Munros in One Journey) has produced one of the more peculiar travel guides currently available. It’s a handsome volume, fully illustrated with color photographs, featuring detailed driving instructions for locating the 94 “oddest locations” in Scotland, with maps and even Ordnance Survey Land Ranger reference numbers. Brown’s concept of an oddity is occasionally at odds with the average reader’s concept of the truly strange: how out of the ordinary is a portrait painted on glass at the Clan Macpherson Museum in Newtonmore, or a statue of the Virgin Mary in the Hebrides? On the other hand, Kelburn castle near Glasgow with its exterior decorated with graffiti certainly qualifies as an unusual sight, as does furniture made from coal at the Kirkcaldy Museum and Art Gallery.
Verdict Considered a popular veteran outdoor and travel writer in Scotland, Brown has a chatty style and charming sense of humor, which make his book an enjoyable armchair read. However, it will have limited appeal owing to its narrow focus.—Janet N. Ross, formerly with Washoe Cty. Lib. Syst., Sparks, NV

Burt, John. Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism: Lincoln, Douglas, and Moral Conflict. Belknap: Harvard Univ. Jan. 2013. 810p. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780674050181. $$39.95; ebk. ISBN 9780674067332. HIST
Burt (English, Brandeis Univ.) wants us to consider the moral compasses of Abraham Lincoln, Stephen A. Douglas, and democracy itself, as revealed especially in the speeches of Lincoln and Douglas during the 1850s, when the slavery issue tore apart the old party system and led to secession and civil war. Burt reads the speeches as closely as anyone ever has and extracts from them some surprising conclusions, most important that Lincoln imagined black citizenship and equality even before he comprehended it; that the nature of democracy itself made compromise over slavery impossible—and thus some major division inevitable and war inescapable; and that Lincoln knew that moral maturity required reasonableness as much as rationality. As Burt confesses, his book is not history per se so much as it is an inquiry into political philosophy, rhetoric, and literary criticism, but it is well worth working through the sometimes abstruse prose to obtain Burt’s many insights.
Verdict Difficult and demanding but penetrating, Burt’s book speaks brilliantly not only to the troubles of Lincoln’s day but to the problems in respecting differences in American democracy even now.—Randall M. Miller, St. Joseph’s Univ., Philadelphia

Davis, Thomas J. Plessy v. Ferguson. Greenwood. (Landmarks of the American Mosaic). 2012. 238p. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780313391873. $58. LAW
This book on a landmark court case goes beyond legal discussion and examines the larger questions of race, social status, and class status. Davis (history, Arizona State Univ.), who is also an attorney, has done an excellent job of explaining how the complex history of New Orleans and its attitudes on race influenced the case of Homer Plessy, a Creole of color living in New Orleans who was arrested on a streetcar in 1892 after he refused to move to another seat. His Supreme Court case (1896) supported racial segregation under the concept of “separate but equal,” not successfully challenged until Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. The first chapters of this book tell the story of Plessy’s family and his mixed-race heritage. Succeeding chapters discuss the complicated laws and customs influencing race, particularly Louisiana’s Code Noir, which distinguished between blacks of African descent and others of mixed race and background. Davis also details the effects of the Civil War and Reconstruction on the civil rights efforts of people of color in Louisiana and beyond. The final chapter is about the court case and the civil rights groups that supported Plessy’s legal effort.
Verdict This is an excellent introduction not merely to the case itself but to the many issues surrounding it. Designed as a high school teaching tool, with glossary, time line, and biographies of principal players, it is highly recommended not only to its intended readers but any reader wanting a sound introduction to the world that created and responded to Plessy. School libraries and public libraries should add this to their collections. [The author is a longtime reviewer of books in history and African American studies for LJ.—Ed.]—Becky Kennedy, Atlanta-Fulton P.L.

Ezrahi, Christina. Swans of the Kremlin: Ballet and Power in Soviet Russia. Univ. of Pittsburgh. 2012. 368p. photogs. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780822962144. $27.95. DANCE
Detailed and nuanced, this history looks at the complex and often conflicted relationship between the evolving, postrevolution Soviet regime (1917–68) and ballet, an art form associated with the aristocratic court culture. With a close reading of archival sources available only in Russian, historian Ezrahi chronicles the push and pull between the state, which wanted to dictate the content of ballet for the purpose of indoctrination and education, and committed dancers and choreographers, whose needs had to be met to develop their art form. The author’s research focuses on Russia’s two most significant dance troupes, the Marinsky (later Kirov) and the Bolshoi. Faced with the regime’s ideologically motivated directives for ballets with propagandistic themes that favored pantomime and folk dances and condemned abstraction and classical ballet as mere decorative ornament, dancers and choreographers were able to work subtly within the restrictions, incorporate innovations, and reclaim some artistic authority. This study builds upon research in social history and ethnography by Stephen Kotkin, Alena Ledeneva, and Sheila Fitzpatrick but breaks new ground in the specific area of ballet history.
Verdict Serious balletomanes, as well as scholars in dance history and Russian studies, will find that Ezrahi’s research and insights offer new perspectives on the balance of art and power in Soviet Russia.—Joan Stahl, Univ. of Maryland Lib., College Park

Kirshner, Jonathan. Hollywood’s Last Golden Age: Politics, Society, and the Seventies Film in America. Cornell Univ. 2012. 280p. ISBN 9780801451348. $69.95; pap. ISBN 9780801478161. $22.95. FILM
Kirshner (government, Cornell Univ.; Appeasing Bankers: Financial Caution on the Road to War) takes an engaging look at films made from 1967 to 1976 that reflected and questioned society, tackling issues such as the violence around them (the Vietnam War, the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, etc.), sex and sexuality, as well as morality. These movies rarely found happy endings or even closure, but their filmmakers did create unique, creative, and challenging movies like Bonnie and Clyde, Chinatown, The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, and M*A*S*H, to name a few. Kirshner successfully intertwines politics (such as issues of morality and betrayal arisen from Nixon’s reign) and other events of the era to give crucial context. Then, in 1977—when Rocky won the Best Picture Academy Award over All the President’s Men, Bound for Glory, Network, and Taxi Driver—it was all over. The appendix lists 100 films from the 1970s and choses 20 for a definitive canon.
Verdict Not a book of movie reviews but an analysis of politics and society of the era and the films that questioned, engaged in, and challenged them. Highly recommended for anyone interested in movies or this time period.—Lani Smith, Ohone Coll. Lib., Fremont, CA

Somoroff, Michael. A Moment: Master Photographers; Portraits. Damiani. 2012. 130p. photogs. ISBN 9788862082112. $50. PHOTOG
Commercial director Somoroff’s previously unpublished portraits of photography’s masters (including André Kertész, Arnold Newman, Horst P. Horst, Harold Eisenstadt, and Dawn Doisneau) from the late 1970s and early 1980s are collected here. Aptly titled, the book not only references the creation of exposures but also the historically brief time when Somoroff knew (through his father, Ben, a commercial photographer) and shot portraits of these legendary men. The Somoroff family was surrounded by famous artists, giving Michael access to them. But after shooting these images, Somoroff moved away from photography in the 1980s and into directing TV commercials. His negatives of these important portraits have been in storage for more than 30 years. Nevertheless, these black-and-white works are as powerful as ever. The book includes several images from each sitting, suggesting a narrative between the subject and the photographer. The book’s large format features exceptionally high-quality reproductions. Included are fascinating original essays by the artist, photography dealer Julian Sander (great-grandson of August Sander), and curator and author William Ewing, who recalls the world of fine art photography in the late 1970s.
Verdict Recommended for all art and photography collections and for those interested in portrait photography.—Shauna Frischkorn, Millersville Univ., PA

Bette-Lee Fox About Bette-Lee Fox

Bette-Lee Fox (blfox@mediasourceinc.com) is Managing Editor, Library Journal.

Now in her 46th year with Library Journal, Bette-Lee also edits LJ's Video Reviews column, six times a year Romance column, and e-original Romance reviews, which post weekly as LJ Xpress Reviews. She received the Romance Writers of America (RWA) Vivian Stephens Industry Award in 2013 for having "contributed to the genre or to RWA in a significant and/or continuing manner"