Xpress Reviews: Nonfiction | First Look at New Books, January 10, 2014

Week ending January 10, 2014

Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri. Vol. 3: Paradiso. Oxford Univ. 2013. 873p. ed. & tr. from Italian by Robert M. Durling. ISBN 9780195087468. pap. $24.95; ebk. ISBN 9780199752690. LIT
Durling (English & Italian literature, emeritus, Univ. of California, Santa Cruz) completes his Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri verse translation with this volume (after Inferno, 1996, and Purgatorio, 2003), which joins the modern editions of John Ciardi, Allen Mandelbaum, Mark Musa, Jean and Robert Hollander, Burton Raffel, and C.H. Sisson, as well the idiosyncratic rendition by Clive James. Paradiso is the most challenging of the canticles, both because it contains some of Dante’s most sublime poetry and embodies his most abstract theology, the heavenly cosmology lacking the visceral physicality of Inferno and Purgatorio. The Italian appears on the volume’s facing page, and there are contextual illustrations by Robert Turner, with an informative introduction by Durling and extended notes by Comedy collaborator Ronald L. Martinez (Italian studies; Brown Univ.).
Verdict Durling’s rendering is serviceable, capturing Dante’s rhythm and vigor but not his rhyme scheme and structure. Overall, it does not live up to the poetic power of the versions by Ciardi, Musa, and Hollander; Durling’s lines are at times oddly literal, missing the idiomatic. Still, this accessible version of Paradiso might appeal to the serious general reader.—Thomas L. Cooksey, Armstrong Atlantic State Univ., Savannah

starred review starBerger, Bruce. The End of the Sherry. Aequitas: Pleasure Boat. Jan. 2014. 320p. ISBN 9781929355952. $29.95; pap. ISBN 9781929355990. $19.95. LIT
bruceberger011014In 1965, a young Berger (Almost an Island) accepted an offer to travel through Europe with a friend and live the adolescence he’d never allowed himself. They end up in the shabby Spanish port town of Puerto Real. The friend departs, and Berger is left behind with a dog named Og and a disreputable Citroen Deux Chevaux car nicknamed Lung. He makes friends everywhere, especially at the Bar Central, where everyone drinks sherry, except for Og. (Beer is his tipple.) Berger plays in a rock band named Starfis (Starfish without the “h” at the end) and acquires a lover named Ramon. Franco’s Spain is his home for three years; the Guardia Civil is menacing, and the police are human enough when you get to know them. Warts and all, Berger’s life is idyllic. Eighteen years later, the author returns to southern Spain and notes the changes. Innocence seems lost, but Berger and his friends are older, and they feel their age. No one drinks sherry anymore. A friend tells him, “Sherry is poison.”
Verdict This gem of a memoir by master storyteller Berger will appeal to anyone who likes travel books.—David Keymer, Modesto, CA

Berlin, Isaiah. Building: Letters 1960–1975. Chatto & Windus. 2013. 864p. ed. by Henry Hardy & Mark Pottle. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780701185763. $59.95; ebk. ISBN 9781448191345. PHIL
The third volume in the series (after Enlightening: Letters 1946–1960) collecting the confidential letters of Berlin (1909–97) this time covers 1960–75. Early during this period, Berlin served as the Oxford Professor of Social and Political Theory at All Souls College but eventually resigned after failing to introduce graduate studies to the institution. Instead, he assumed the helm of a new graduate school, Iffley/Wolfson College, until he relinquished the post in 1975. The epistles cover topics very much in the news at that time—from the trial of Adolf Eichmann to the presidency and assassination of John F. Kennedy to Richard Nixon’s presidency and Watergate, the Vietnam War, and more. The letters are standardized and use a common set of abbreviations. However, they are edited for content. As a whole, this volume paints a vivid picture of many of the social, political, and ethical concerns raised by the incidents that transpired during the 15 years addressed here.
Verdict As a rule, collections of correspondence can provide an intimate, firsthand analysis of historical events. Assembled with care by editors Hardy and Pottle, this book is no exception. However, the audience for such works is small and the subject matter vast.—William Simkulet, Andover, KS

starred review starBok, Derek. Higher Education in America. Princeton Univ. 2013. 488p. notes. index. ISBN 9780691159140. $35; ebk. ISBN 9781400848300. ED
Bok (300th Anniversary University Research Professor, Harvard Univ.; The Shape of the River) has produced an excellent, comprehensive, and well-balanced analysis of the current strengths and weaknesses of higher education, combining a broad examination of undergraduate programs and the major professional schools of medicine, law, and business. While he acknowledges and evaluates the frequent criticisms of high costs, excessive research, and uncertain quality, he contradicts facile attacks from politicians and the press with extensive data and recent studies to support his argument. He shows where and how reforms can be made, not from simplistic critiques but through evidence-based efforts shaped by academic values. Bok argues that thoughtful leadership is necessary but is hampered by pressures on university presidents to concentrate on finding sufficient resources. Twice president of Harvard (1997–91 and 2006–07), Bok understands the whole sector, community colleges as well as research institutions. He concludes by asserting the continuing strength of higher education and the potential for significant improvement, particularly in the key areas of increasing graduation rates and raising education quality.
Verdict Highly recommended for education professionals, policy advocates, and the broad public as a thorough and thoughtful examination that assesses strengths and weaknesses and suggests paths to academic improvement.—Elizabeth Hayford, formerly with Associated Coll. of the Midwest, Chicago

Cooper, Donal & Janet Robson. The Making of Assisi: The Pope, the Franciscans, and the Painting of the Basilica. Yale Univ. 2013. 296p. illus. maps. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780300195712. $75. ARCH
The magnificent frescoes in Italy’s Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, and in particular the St. Francis cycle in the Upper Church, have long been the focus of scholarly attention because of their artistic and iconographic importance. Setting aside the question of whether Giotto is responsible for the St. Francis cycle, an issue that has long preoccupied many of the scholars who study the works, Cooper (history of art, Univ. of Warwick) and independent scholar Robson focus on the patronage, context, and meaning of the frescoes. Their detailed study combines new information about precisely when the frescoes were likely completed, elements from the work of other scholars, and the authors’ own research and observations to develop new ideas. For example, they convincingly describe the community of educated friars on-site as the likely directors of the artistic program, which was visually and thematically sophisticated and well organized despite being the contributions of different artists and workshops.
Verdict This book adds much to our understanding of the context of the St. Francis cycle.—Amy Trendler, Ball State Univ. Libs., Muncie, IN

starred review starHornby, Nick. Ten Years in the Tub: A Decade Soaking in Great Books. Believer: McSweeney’s. 2013. 488p. ISBN 9781938073731. $28. LIT
nickhornby011014In this collection, Hornby (High Fidelity; About a Boy) assembles the first ten years of his monthly Believer column “Stuff I’ve Been Reading,” from 2003 to 2013, into a single, irresistible tale about the reader’s life. Each column begins with a list of “Books Bought” and “Books Read,” a number that does not always correspond: “I certainly intend to read all of them, more or less,” he offers in defense. Hornby writes about the material he pursues and what he abandons, about how sometimes he prefers a breezy biography about a soccer star to Wilkie Collins. In keeping with The Believer’s philosophy of “acid-free literary criticism,” Hornby avoids acerbic or intellectually tedious (boring) critiques. He focuses more on reading books than on the texts themselves, and any biting remarks are directed inward, in the form of charming, self-deprecating humor. Although compilations often run the risk of monotony, Ten Years in the Tub is actually served by the form. Reading these columns one after another adds depth and complexity. Not since Somerset Maugham’s Books and You (1940) has there been a more eloquent and richly presented meditation on the value of books and reading.
Verdict A must for bibliophiles.—Meagan Lacy, Indiana Univ.–Purdue Univ. Indianapolis Libs.