Saturday, March 31, 2018

Conceptions of God, Freedom, and Ethics in African American and Jewish Theology (Black Religion/Womanist Thought/Social Justice) Hardcover by K. Buhring (Palgrave MacMillan)

This book does an outstanding job reconciling the seemingly irreconcilable and explaining the seemingly inexplicable in the context of the Holocaust and slavery. Buhring attributes the responsibility for suffering to humans and places the onus on us to challenge and overcome such atrocities. Essentially, constraints on divine intervention are what enable free will. This book is a call to action - instead of holding God accountable for suffering and relying on God to end it, Buhring explains that suffering is man-made and that we should use our God-given free will and conscience to combat it. Although academic in nature, this is a powerful read on a fascinating subject that has universal and real life impact on all of us.

Lost Lives, Lost Art: Jewish Collectors, Nazi Art Theft, and the Quest for Justice Hardcover – by Melissa Müller (Author),‎ Monika Tatzkow (Author),‎ Ronald S. Lauder (Foreword) (VEndome Press)

This is a wonderful book covering 15 separate stories involving people and places connected with Nazi-looted art. The authors, Melissa Mueller and Dr. Monica Tatzkow, are from Germany, and the first version of the book was published in Germany. This is a recent English version from Vendome Press, and it couldn't be more interesting, or the photos more beautiful, even haunting.

On the cover, the "Golden Adele" purchased for $135 million dollars by Ronald Lauder for his Neue Gallery in NYC of German and Austrian art. (Worth a stop when you're in New York!) At the time, the most paid for a single painting ever. This was part of a series of Gustav Klimt paintings recovered from Austria for the late Maria Altmann in Los Angeles, who was the heir to these treasures, stolen by the Nazis in WWII. Maria's attorney, Randolph Schoenberg of Los Angeles, in recovering her art from Austria, set an important precedent at the U.S. Supreme Court with this case. Interestingly, Mr. Schoenberg is the grandson or great-grandson of Arnold Schoenberg, renowned music composer, and visual artist. The several Klimts recovered by Mr. Schoenberg for Mrs. Altmann brought over $300 million at auction when they were sold after their recovery. In the world of fine art and Holocaust Era claims, the Altmann case set a major precedent, allowing a U.S. citizen to bring an action against a foreign sovereign gov't., as an exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA), here in the U.S. federal courts, for hording Nazi-looted art.

Also covered, the high profile Cassirer v. Kingdom of Spain case, where a family in California is trying to recover a priceless Impressionist masterpiece by Camille Pissarro, currently hanging at the Thyssen Museum in Madrid, Spain. (You can easily Google these cases, and read more about them -- fascinating.) The Cassirer's Pissarro was stolen by the Nazis from the Cassirer family in Germany in 1939, just before war broke out in Europe. Wonderful story, wonderful pictures. The Supreme Court in Washington recently ruled in favor of the Cassirer claim by denying review of a recent 9-2 "en banc" ruling at the Ninth Cir. Ct. of Appeals, allowing the case to finally proceed to trial at the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles. Trial is currently scheduled for July 3, 2012. The Seattle-based law firm Davis Wright Tremaine represents the Cassirers in that case.

This is an unusually beautiful and well-written book, an oversized hardback with stunning cover art on the sleeve, and filled with wonderful photos of people, places and Nazi-looted art, something you could easily have as a conversation starter on your coffee table. Highly recommend.

Jewish Justices of the Supreme Court: From Brandeis to Kagan (Brandeis Series in American Jewish History, Culture, and Life) Hardcover – April 4, 2017 by David G. Dalin (Brandeis )

Jewish Justices of the Supreme Court examines the lives, legal careers, and legacies of the eight Jews who have served or who currently serve as justices of the U.S. Supreme Court: Louis D. Brandeis, Benjamin Cardozo, Felix Frankfurter, Arthur Goldberg, Abe Fortas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, and Elena Kagan.

David Dalin discusses the relationship that these Jewish justices have had with the presidents who appointed them, and given the judges’ Jewish background, investigates the antisemitism some of the justices encountered in their ascent within the legal profession before their appointment, as well as the role that antisemitism played in the attendant political debates and Senate confirmation battles.

Other topics and themes include the changing role of Jews within the American legal profession and the views and judicial opinions of each of the justices on freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the death penalty, the right to privacy, gender equality, and the rights of criminal defendants, among other issues.

Jewish Justice: The Contested Limits of Nature, Law, and Covenant Hardcover – March 3, 2017 by David Novak (Baylor University Press)

In Jewish Justice David Novak explores the continuing role of Judaism for crafting ethics, politics, and theology. Drawing on sources as diverse as the Bible, the Talmud, and ancient, medieval, and modern philosophy, Novak asserts Judaism's integral place in communal discourse of the public square.

According to Novak, biblical revelation has universal implications―that it is ultimately God's law to humanity because humans made in God's image are capable of making intelligent moral choices. The universality of this claim, however, stands in tension with the particularities of Jewish monotheism (one God, one people, one law). Novak's challenge is for Judaism to capitalize on the way God's law transcends particularity without destroying difference. Thus it is as Jews that Jews are called to join communities across the faithful denominations, as well as secular ones, to engage in debates about the common good.

Jewish Justice follows a logical progression from grounded ethical quandaries to larger philosophical debates. Novak begins by considering the practical issues of capital punishment, mutilation and torture, corporate crime, the landed status of communities and nations, civil marriage, and religious marriage. He next moves to a consideration of theoretical concerns: God's universal justice, the universal aim of particular Jewish ethics, human rights and the image of God, the relation of post-Enlightenment social contract theory to the recently enfranchised Jewish community, and the voices of Jewish citizens in secular politics and the public sphere. Novak also explores the intersection of universality and particularity by examining the practice of interfaith dialogue among Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

Hungarian Jews ....How They Lived: The Everyday Lives of Hungarian Jews 1867-1940 by Andras Koerner (2015-11-01)1766 by Andras Koerner Paperback,How They Lived: The Everyday Lives of Hungarian Jews 1867-1940Nov 1, 2015 by Andras Koerner Paperback (Central European University Press )

These  books document the physical aspects of the lives of Hungarian Jews in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: the way they looked, the kind of neighborhoods and apartments they lived in, and the places where they worked. The many historical photographs-there is at least one picture per page-and related text offers a virtual cross section of Hungarian society, a diverse group of the poor, the middle-class, and the wealthy. Regardless of whether they lived integrated within the majority society or in separate communities, whether they were assimilated Jews or Hasidim, they were an important and integral part of the nation. We have surprisingly few detailed accounts of their lifestyles-the world knows more about the circumstances of their deaths than about the way they lived. Much like piecing together an ancient sculpture from tiny shards found in an excavation, Koerner tries to reconstruct the many diverse lifestyles using fragmentary information and surviving photos.

Although there have been numerous books about Hungarian Jewish history, this exceptionally beautiful, heavily illustrated work is not a chronological presentation of important events and personalities, but something more novel: a through investigation of the different lifestyles of the many kinds of Jews (or people of Jewish origin) who lived in Hungary: the Orthodox, the Hassidim, the assimilated, the secularized, and even those who decided to convert to other religions. It also presents how these lifestyles differed in various parts of Hungary and how all this changed between 1867 and 1940. The author focuses mainly on the lives of average people, and mentions a few famous personalities not so much for their accomplishments, but as examples of certain lifestyles. He investigates the physical circumstances of daily life: the way people looked, the places where they lived, and how they earned a living. He also examines how such choices – for example the way people dressed or the way they furnished their apartments – reflected the mentalities of the different Jewish groups and their role in the accelerating modernization of the country.

This book is the first comprehensive presentation of the diversity of Hungarian Jewish everyday life in the decades before the Holocaust. But what is equally important, it succeeds in bringing this world to life through nearly 250 fascinating historical photos and highly readable, engaging interpretive text. I can recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the fabric of everyday life and in the ways different Hungarian Jews once lived.

Twelve-Cent Archie: New edition with full color illustrations (Comics Culture) Paperback – May 31, 2017 by Bart Beaty (Rutgers University Press)

In "Twelve-Cent Archie", Bart Beaty examines a limited run of the "Archie" comics from the 1960s in order to counter the trend in comics studies that favors auteurism. Further, rather than order his book into regular chapters, he uses a multitude of short, 1-3 page chapter breaks in order to replicate the story length of the "Archie" comics. In this way, he challenges notions of what defines a monograph. These sections examine everything from character development, location, continuity (or lack thereof), race, gender, and the medium of comics itself. This level of close analysis offers a great opportunity for limited theoretical examination based on a handful of examples within the limited time frame of the twelve cent run. Though Beaty occasionally references events beyond the comics, either in the industry or other artifacts of popular culture in the 1960s, these are used primarily for context only when necessary. In rejecting auteurism in comics scholarship, Beaty counters the trend both from comics readers and scholars to dismiss Archie as unworthy of analysis or serious consideration. He also acknowledges gaps in the archive, as many of these comics have not been reprinted nor included in public collections and are only available through comics dealers for private purchase. In challenging notions of what deserves study and what comprises an archive, Beaty has advanced the rapidly expanding field of comics scholarship. This edition includes full-color reproductions of many of the panels and pages that Beaty analyzes, which aid his discussion as he need not spend undo time describing what can so easily be shown.

Selling Women's History: Packaging Feminism in Twentieth-Century American Popular Culture Paperback – December 12, 2016 by Emily Westkaemper (Rutgers University Press)

Only in recent decades has the American academic profession taken women’s history seriously. But the very concept of women’s history has a much longer past, one that’s intimately entwined with the development of American advertising and consumer culture. 
Selling Women’s History reveals how, from the 1900s to the 1970s, popular culture helped teach Americans about the accomplishments of their foremothers, promoting an awareness of women’s wide-ranging capabilities. On one hand, Emily Westkaemper examines how this was a marketing ploy, as Madison Avenue co-opted women’s history to sell everything from Betsy Ross Red lipstick to Virginia Slims cigarettes. But she also shows how pioneering adwomen and female historians used consumer culture to publicize histories that were ignored elsewhere. Their feminist work challenged sexist assumptions about women’s subordinate roles. 
Assessing a dazzling array of media, including soap operas, advertisements, films, magazines, calendars, and greeting cards, Selling Women’s History offers a new perspective on how early- and mid-twentieth-century women saw themselves. Rather than presuming a drought of female agency between the first and second waves of American feminism, it reveals the subtle messages about women’s empowerment that flooded the marketplace. 

Kenneth Clark: Life, Art and “Civilisation” by James Stourton Knopf/Vintage, 478 pp., $35.00; $22.00 (paper)

Clark Family Archives
Kenneth Clark filming In the Beginning, his documentary about early Egyptian civilization, November 1974

Once the most celebrated art historian in the world, Kenneth Clark’s star began to fade in the 1980s when a new generation of scholars rejected the object-based scholarship he epitomized and began to study works of art using Marxist, feminist, and psychoanalytical theory. When Clark placed a painting or a building in its historical setting it was to understand more fully how and why it was made, and what it meant to those who first saw it.

Theory-based art history takes the opposite approach: broadly speaking, the scholar is interested in the work of art not as an end in itself but for what its making might tell us about the society that created it, particularly its attitudes toward subjects like race, gender, and social inequality. This kind of art history is taught in most universities on both sides of the Atlantic today. The scholarship Clark represented survives mainly in some museums and exhibition catalogs. Whereas his books were once required reading in undergraduate courses, many are now out of print. Civilization, the television show that introduced millions of people around the world to art history and lit the spark that led to the mass popularity museums and galleries enjoy today, is largely forgotten.

A few years ago, it looked as though Clark’s achievement was well on its way to being lost. Then, in 2014, a delightful exhibition at Tate Britain sparked new interest in him by telling the story of his life through hundreds of works of art selected from the thousands he compulsively collected and commissioned, either for his private collection or for public institutions. With paintings, works on paper, sculpture, and ceramics ranging from Bosch to Bloomsbury, Cézanne, Rodin, and Henry Moore, the exhibition was further enlivened by the inclusion of quite a few of the fakes, duds, copies, and misattributions Clark acquired. The result was an unexpected hit with the public at a time when dreary, incoherent exhibitions curated by theory-based art historians were attracting critical opprobrium and public indifference.

James Stourton’s magnificent biography tells the story of Clark’s life in all its complexity and contradiction. It also reminds us that in his time Clark himself developed an innovative method for studying works of art—one that struck a balance between the then-prevailing disciplines of connoisseurship on the one hand and iconography on the other. And just as the Tate Britain exhibition showed the misses as well as the hits, the story Stourton tells makes it clear that Clark’s apparently gilded career was marked by almost as many failures as successes. The time has come to look at the achievements of a man whose vision influenced the art-viewing habits of generations.

Born in 1903 in London, the only child of a colossally rich heir to a textile fortune in Paisley, Scotland, Kenneth Clark was not a member of the upper classes. His parents were, in Stourton’s phrase, “in the mezzanine floor of English society—no longer trade, landed but not gentry.” They spent their time moving from one large ugly house to another in Scotland, Suffolk, and the South of France, and in each residence settled down to do absolutely nothing except kill birds and small animals. “My parents belonged to a section of society known as ‘the idle rich,’” Clark tells us on the first page of his autobiography, “and although, in that golden age, many people were richer, there can have been few who were idler.”

When he was not drinking or gambling, his father shot, sailed, and fished—and expected his son to do the same. But Kenneth was a born aesthete, much happier rearranging pictures of highland cattle by Rosa Bonheur in his father’s collection than blasting pheasants or standing for hours knee-deep in a trout stream. Clark Senior indulged his son’s interests in music and art and even approved of his early ambition to become an artist.

To have philistine parents providing plenty of money but neither culture nor direction must be the ideal background for an aesthete. Like his father, Clark grew up to become a sybarite and bon vivant—but with one important difference: from an early age, he was addicted to analytical work of a sort more usual in the realms of business administration than of art patronage.

Art history was not then taught in British universities. At Oxford Clark therefore read history, but learned about art and architecture by attaching himself to a series of older mentors. One of the first was the keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, Charles Bell, who offered his protégé unrestricted access to its drawings collection, with its incomparable holdings of sheets by Michelangelo and Raphael. In 1925, when Clark was in his final year at Oxford, Bell escorted him to Italy and there introduced him to his next and most important mentor, Bernard Berenson, the most famous connoisseur of Italian Renaissance art in the world.

In the early years of the twentieth century, art history was still in its infancy in Britain. Since relatively little was known about even major painters of the Renaissance, the foundation of art historical knowledge was connoisseurship and specifically a method of attribution developed in the mid-nineteenth century by an Italian historian, Giovanni Morelli. By looking at thousands of works of art and concentrating on minute details (an earlobe, a big toe, fingernails) the connoisseur trains the memory to recognize an artist’s “hand”—and in doing so builds up a coherent picture of his or her artistic personality.

At their first meeting, Berenson offered the untrained student the opportunity of a lifetime—the job of assisting in the preparation of a new and updated edition of his Drawings of the Florentine Painters, first published in 1903. The volume for which Clark was responsible consisted of alphabetical lists of artists followed by the drawings Berenson attributed to them—but no explanation of the reasoning behind the attributions.

His task was to review the original attributions in light of published and unpublished material that had emerged in the two decades since the first edition. Berenson had of course seen firsthand the works of art he’d attributed. But he had also revolutionized the use of photography for art historical study. This meant that Clark worked mostly in the photo library at Berenson’s villa, I Tatti, near Florence. Though he learned a lot from Berenson, the tedium of his research disillusioned him with the formal analysis of works of art.

Although their collaboration on the Florentine drawings ended in May 1929, the friendship between the two men lasted until Berenson’s death in 1959, largely maintained by letter. Robert Cumming’s impeccable edition of their correspondence amounts to more than just the chronicle of a friendship.1 The thoroughness of his annotations, year-by-year chronologies, and detailed biographical sketches even of the minor characters who flit through this correspondence transform the otherwise disappointing content of the letters into an invaluable work of reference.

In the same year he parted from Berenson, Clark believed he’d found an alternative to the drudgery of connoisseurship when he attended one of the last lectures by the German scholar Aby Warburg. Warburg, after whom the institute in London is named, focused not on the authorship of works of art but on their content. He pioneered the study of the origins and meaning of symbols and how they were used by medieval and Renaissance artists to transmit ideas. Clark was bowled over. “Thenceforward,” he wrote, “my interest in ‘connoisseurship’ became no more than a kind of habit.”2 But soon he came to realize that for Warburg’s followers, a picture’s aesthetic quality was of only passing interest. They were as concerned with crudely drawn, cheaply printed broadsheets as they were with paintings that hung in the Louvre. For them, as for the art theorists in our time, a work of art was not something to be understood or enjoyed for its beauty or because it moves or enlightens us, but because it opens a window onto the preoccupations of its time—for example, the study of alchemy in the late Middle Ages or the study of religions in the ancient world. Years later, after spending a day at the Warburg Institute, Clark complained that

all those dim wraith-like figures in corners of the book stores silently turning the pages of books on iconography seem like ghosts in a Hades of futility. I can see no life-principle in their labours, and I cannot even use their conclusions, because if they ever do publish anything they have forgotten what they are looking for.

Clark’s Damascene moment occurred in front of a work of art on his first visit to Giotto’s frescoes in the Arena Chapel in Padua, when he found himself responding not to the artist’s ability to create the illusion of three dimensions on a flat surface (what Berenson termed “tactile values”), or to the paintings’ symbolic content, but to Giotto’s “life-enhancing representations.” By this Clark meant the artist’s genius for building dramatic narrative and expressing emotional nuance through gesture, pose, and facial expression.3

In most of his articles, books, lectures, and broadcasts from the late 1920s onward Clark synthesized formalist and iconographical approaches to the study of art with historical understanding to create a method of inquiry that is uniquely his. He first asks who, what, when, and where the work was made, then questions why and under what circumstances the artist made it—and, crucially, how it was understood by those who first saw it. Clark always relates an artwork to its historical precedents and assesses the degree to which it conforms to or departs from earlier representations of the same subject.

Here he is in chapter six of his best book, The Nude (1956), discussing representations of the dead Christ in late medieval and Renaissance art. After looking at a French fifteenth-century altarpiece in which Christ’s stiffening corpse is shown stretched horizontally across his mother’s lap, he turns to the Italian tradition as exemplified in works by Donatello and Giovanni Bellini. Both show Christ’s dead body in half length, supported in an upright position by weeping angels. Christ’s face and upper torso are shown frontally as in an icon or like a variation on the theme of the Ecce Homo, “behold the man,” Pilate’s words when displaying the bound Christ to the crowd calling for his crucifixion. Then Clark turns to Michelangelo’s Pietà in St. Peter’s:

[Michelangelo] has accepted the touching northern iconography of the subject, the Christ stretched out on His mother’s knees, and yet has given to Our Lord’s body such an extreme refinement of physical beauty that it makes us hold our breath, as though to suspend the action of time. Michelangelo has adapted antique perfection to its northern setting by giving the body a rhythmic structure the reverse of that in the Gothic Pietà. Instead of rising in a series of angular gables, it sags like a garland.

In three sentences Clark combines art history, art criticism, and precise observation to convey the intensity of his emotional response to the statue. Notice his use of the term “Our Lord” to invite the reader to look at the Pietà in the same way those who first knelt in prayer before it did. What distinguishes Clark from Berenson, Warburg, and most of his art historical contemporaries is his respect for the spirituality of Michelangelo’s conception, coupled with his wholly secular delight in the way the sensuous nude carved in marble “sags like a garland.” Clark brought to the discipline of art history not just an encyclopedic knowledge of artists and their works but something less quantifiable—the ability to enter into an artist’s imaginative world.

Early in 1929 Clark returned to London with no idea of what he might do for the rest of his life. Almost at once—and by sheer chance—a career path opened when he was asked to install the ambitious loan exhibition of Italian Renaissance paintings that Mussolini sent to London as a gesture of good will. Clark had the unprecedented experience of hanging on the walls of the Royal Academy Masaccio’s Crucifixion, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, Giorgione’s Tempesta, and Piero della Francesca’s Duke and Duchess of Urbino.

The success he made of the exhibition kicked off a fifteen-year career as a museum professional for which he had no obvious professional qualifications. In 1931 he succeeded Charles Bell as keeper at the Ashmolean. Three years later came his appointment as director of the National Gallery, aged thirty. And in 1935 he was commissioned to catalog more than six hundred drawings by Leonardo da Vinci in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle.

The first thing he did at the National Gallery was to install electric lights—forty years after Bond Street picture dealers began the transition from gas to electricity. Visitors could at last see the collection on fog-bound London days, and the building now stayed open three evenings a week. Clark also rehung the entire collection, taking immense care to select sympathetic wall colors, arrange the pictures by school, and declutter galleries that hadn’t changed much since before the Great War.

Until his thirteen-part television series Civilization aired in 1969, Clark was probably best known in Britain as the wartime director of the National Gallery who removed its holdings to a cave in North Wales and then, during the Blitz, invited Dame Myra Hess and other musicians to perform in the empty galleries before daily audiences of a thousand or more.4 In the long term, though, Clark’s most important innovation was his effort to make the National Gallery’s collection more accessible to visitors by extending its hours and publishing inexpensive guidebooks aimed at nonspecialist visitors.5

Like a modern museum director, he built personal relationships with collectors and dealers with the aim of persuading them to give or bequeath their treasures to the gallery. In the case of the Armenian wheeler-dealer Calouste Gulbenkian, Clark came within a whisker of bagging not only the most important private collection of fine and decorative art in Europe, but also gaining an extension to the building in which to show it, together with an endowment that would have made the National Gallery the richest institution of its kind in the world.

But negotiations were suspended during the war, and in 1945 Clark resigned as director. Incredibly, his successor, Philip Hendy, refused even to meet Gulbenkian. Whatever the reason—and snobbish distaste for a foreigner with oil interests in the Middle East is the most likely explanation—a great prize was lost. The Gulbenkian Foundation is today housed in Lisbon.6 It is hard to read anecdotes like this without sympathizing with Clark’s antipathy for most of his curators at the National Gallery and also a fair number of his fellow art historians.

They in turn dismissed him, in Berenson’s words, as “un grand vulgarisateur.” His studies on Leonardo, the nude, landscape painting, and Piero were not based on original research, nor was he interested in the nuts and bolts of cataloguing: measurements, dating, chronology, provenance, and exhibition history. Apart from the respect accorded to his impeccable catalog of the Leonardo drawings at Windsor (1935), curators considered him a slapdash popularizer. When Clark said that his colleagues “loathed the sight of me,” he was certainly right.7

Despite his public image as a man of great learning, influential art historians like Anthony Blunt, John Pope-Hennessy, and Michael Levey dismissed his scholarship as lightweight. Though these mandarins were careful not to say to his face what they thought, their contemptuous views of his work trickled down to university classrooms. I learned about them when I first studied art history in the 1960s.

Clark was rich, handsome, and conspicuously clever—not qualities that endeared him to scholars, many of whom lived constricted lives on the margins of society. As a social figure, he reveled in what he later dubbed “the Great Clark Boom” of the 1930s—when as Sir Kenneth and Lady Clark he and his glamorous wife Jane crested the heights of British society and together formed intense friendships with Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland, John Piper, Ben Nicholson, Edith Sitwell, William Walton, and Vivien Leigh—to list only a few of the artists, composers, musicians, poets, dancers, and actors who were guests at their palatial residence in Portland Place near Regent’s Park.

After resigning both from the National Gallery and from the Royal Collection in 1945, Clark never worked in a museum or gallery again. In the decades to come he lectured and wrote about art while serving as chairman of the fledgling Arts Council and of the Independent Television Authority (ITV), the commercial channel set up in 1954 to challenge the monopoly of the BBC. In neither post did he find either success or fulfillment. By nature, Clark was impatient with bureaucracy, accustomed as he was to things done over lunch with a friend or a telephone call to the right person.

Stourton concludes that Clark’s leadership of the Arts Council is “unlikely” to have “made much of a difference” and after three years at ITV his contract was not renewed. But the contacts he made during his time as a TV executive led directly to what is generally seen as his most enduring achievement, the thirteen-part BBC series Civilization. That, as well as starry appointments such as founding trustee of both the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet culminated in his ennoblement, as Lord Clark of Civilization in 1969, and the sort of celebrity usually accorded to pop stars. When he died in 1983 his had long been a household name.

Because he was a follower of Berenson and then a museum director, Clark was usually labeled an art historian, although one who wrote popular books for nonspecialists. But his purpose when writing about art was to evoke in words his personal insights and responses to buildings and paintings that brought a lump to his throat. The term for this is not “art historian” but the one he gave as his occupation at the time of his marriage in 1927: “art critic.” Most of his books are best described as critical essays, and Civilization is subtitled “A Personal View.” Try to imagine those words attached to the title of Blunt’s magisterial study of Poussin or Pope-Hennessy’s of Donatello, and you see the difference between a historian and a critic. A fundamental misapprehension has grown up around Clark. If only he’d been recognized as an art critic—or better still as a journalist—I think he’d have been seen differently and let off more lightly.

Stourton reminds us again and again that the chief literary inspiration behind Clark’s work was John Ruskin. Clark’s favorite among his own books was an anthology of Ruskin’s writings entitled Ruskin Today, and the very first words he says in the first episode of Civilization are Ruskin’s:

Great nations write their autobiography in three manuscripts: the book of their deeds, the book of their words and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others, but of the three the only trustworthy one is the last.

In the episodes that follow he makes no claim to objectivity. The historical information he provides is vitally important, of course, to his understanding, but his poetic descriptions, critical insights, and audacious, sweeping, generalizations are what held his audiences spellbound. Thus the sculptured figures of kings and queens on the central doorway of the west portal at Chartres show “a new stage in the ascent of Western man” because the “refinement, the look of selfless detachment and the spirituality of these heads is something entirely new in art. Beside them the gods and heroes of ancient Greece look arrogant, soulless and even slightly brutal.” A few episodes later he calls the Reformation an “unmitigated disaster” from the point of view of those who “love what they see” and adds that its effects were “not only bad for art, but bad for life.”

This March the BBC and PBS started a “follow-up” to Clark’s classic series. Entitled Civilizations, it will cover in nine programs the whole of human history from the dawn of time to the present day—and include Asia, Africa, and the Americas as well as Europe. Clark stood in front of the camera to argue that the visual arts over a time span roughly corresponding to the chronological parameters of London’s National Gallery represent a pinnacle of human endeavor. The limitations he placed upon himself were one of the strengths of his series because it was the depth as well as the breadth of his knowledge that held us all spellbound.

In the forthcoming series none of the three presenters (Mary Beard, Simon Schama, and David Olusoga) is an art historian, let alone a recognized authority on a branch of the visual arts. The contributions of these seasoned television presenters may well be informative and entertaining, but I’ll be pleasantly surprised if the series is anything like as influential as the original.

Clark adored women—and in much the way he was besotted with art. His attraction to both was as impulsive as it was insatiable, and sometimes as unwise. The pages Stourton devotes to what he terms Clark’s “vigorous private life” sometimes read like Leporello’s “Catalog Aria.” Among his conquests, attachments, and lasting love affairs Stourton mentions Jane’s personal secretary, the family’s parlor maid, the sisters and wives of friends, at least one artist, a famous actress, a best-selling author, a distinguished American collector, and a married lady he met on board a ship to Australia—and who to his horror sought to continue their affair after disembarkation.

Clark had the insouciant attitude toward infidelity prevalent among the British upper classes in his time. Though Jane too had lovers, her husband’s affairs caused her distress and may have contributed to her alcoholism and dependence on drugs. Stourton suggests that she was unstable, as evidenced by tantrums directed not only at her husband but also at her children. Yet there was no question of divorce, and Clark nursed his wife tenderly in the years before her death in 1976.


My Dear BB: The Letters of Bernard Berenson and Kenneth Clark, 1925–1959, edited and annotated by Robert Cumming (Yale University Press, 2015).

Clark never developed a reliable “eye,” a deficiency that would almost cut his career short when he acquired misattributed pictures for the National Gallery with public money.

A review of this length can’t do justice to Clark’s intense interest in contemporary British art. Though he became friendly with the Bloomsbury critics Clive Bell and Roger Fry, he could not subscribe to their idea (like Berenson’s) that anything useful can be learned about a work of art through formal theories. Such a theory failed to take account of the poetic, emotional, and literary dimensions in art that spoke to him so powerfully.

With the building almost empty (each month a single picture was brought back for display) Clark chaired the War Artist’s Advisory Committee, formed to commission contemporary artists like Henry Moore and Paul Nash to record in paintings and works on paper the country’s lost and threatened architectural heritage as well as the contribution to the war effort of miners, foundry workers, and those in military service.

In tandem with his time at the National Gallery in 1937 Clark would at the personal request of George V become Surveyor of the King’s Pictures.

Clark came to feel that Lisbon was the right place for the collection. To have shown furniture and decorative arts would have fundamentally changed the character of the National Gallery.

There were of course defenders, among them Ernst Gombrich.

Cuba on the Verge: Twelve Writers on Continuity and Change in Havana and Across the Country edited by Leila Guerriero Ecco, 285 pages, $26.99

It was late afternoon on March 22, 2016, when the sun came out in Havana. This was back when it was hard not to feel, in Cuba as in the United States, that history was progressing in a hopeful direction. It was the last day of Barack Obama’s historic visit to Havana. He had come to further the remarkable thaw in US–Cuba relations that he and Raúl Castro had announced more than a year before. That morning, Obama proclaimed to his Cuban hosts that he was in Havana “to bury the last remnant of the cold war in the Americas.” And then the outgoing US president, reveling in this impressive foreign policy achievement, doffed his suit jacket to take in a few innings of baseball before continuing on to José Martí International Airport. Just as the gray weather lifted, he flew off into the sunset.
The soft light filling the city matched the hopeful feeling along the jangling street in central Havana down which I walked to San Cristóbal, the restaurant where the Obamas had dined their first night in town. It occupied what was once the family home of its proprietor, a cheerful, round-faced Afro-Cuban chef named Carlos Cristóbal Márquez. Cristóbal had first opened his place, he told me, as a paladar—one of the small private eateries that Fidel Castro allowed enterprising Cubans to open in the late 1990s to provide for themselves some of what his state could not after the Soviet bloc’s collapse.
In 2011, Fidel’s brother and successor legalized still more forms of private enterprise. Raúl Castro did away with the old rule that limited seating to twelve, allowing San Cristóbal to grow into a full-fledged restaurant, with a parrot squawking at customers from one corner and walls filled with Catholic bric-a-brac and old photos of boxers and singers. Though not the fanciest or most famous of Havana’s new nightspots, its homey vibe recommended it, Cristóbal said, and the Obamas’ friends Jay-Z and Beyoncé had hung out there during their visit to Havana.
Perhaps as important to Obama’s travel planners and the Cuban security services with whom they coordinated his moves was the fact that Cristóbal was known and liked by the state officials who came and told him, a few days beforehand, that he should be ready for a VIP. “It was only that night when the carload of Secret Service agents came,” he told me, “that I knew whom I was cooking for. A few minutes later, up pulled la bestia.” The arrival in Havana of the presidential limousine, nicknamed the “beast,” had prompted much excitement in this car-mad country. Cristóbal showed me a photo of his staff posing with the car, and one of himself with the Obamas. He insisted that I stay for dinner and eat with an old friend of his, also visiting from abroad.
Cristóbal’s friend was a short, mustachioed man in his sixties who introduced himself as Umberto. He was unmistakably Cuban, but his new collared shirt and the confidence with which he ordered red wine suggested that he hadn’t lived here for years. The business card he handed me confirmed that he split his time between Madrid and Miami. He had been able to obtain an EU passport because his grandfather had been Spanish, but now he devoted most of his time to the new travel agency he’d opened in Florida to help Americans tour Cuba with the aid of old contacts like Cristóbal.
Umberto showed me a grainy photo on his phone, which he said had been taken around 1986. It showed two men dressed in olive drab, surrounded by several more men in similar attire. One of the men was Umberto. The other was Raúl Castro. “That’s when I was in charge of a boxboard factory in Villa Clara,” he said. He’d done a long stint as an officer in the Revolutionary Armed Forces in the 1970s and 1980s before becoming head of the factory, a position in the state economy then typical of men with military experience. “Nowadays,” he told me, “Raúl inspects factories sometimes. But none of these guys are still making cardboard.” Many of them, he explained, now work for one of the tourism companies owned by Cuba’s military, with names like Gaviota and Habaguanex, whose buses ferried his clients to hotels also owned by the army.
When I stopped by Cristóbal’s place in November 2017, I thought of Umberto. The previous year had been marked by Fidel Castro’s death and Donald Trump’s election. Cristóbal’s precious photo of the Obamas now hung near his boxers and singers. But few Americans were among the tourists sipping mojitos nearby: the number of visitors from la yuma (the US) the previous two winters had decreased drastically, thanks to Trump’s reescalation of US–Cuba tensions and a travel warning from the State Department accompanied by new restrictions on Americans traveling to the island. Cristóbal’s business, now trading on its reputation as the Obamas’ spot in Havana, was doing fine. The general mood here, though, wasn’t good, with the US again estranged and Raúl Castro, who had announced his intention to retire from the presidency in early 2018, cutting back on economic and other reforms. I asked after my dining companion from that weekend when much seemed possible. Cristóbal said he hadn’t seen Umberto since.


“On the verge.” It’s a phrase that has been applied to Cuba at many moments during its recent history: in the mid-twentieth century when the island seemed always on the verge of revolution; in October 1962, when the United States’ discovery of Soviet missiles here put the world on the brink of nuclear war; in the late 1990s, when the Soviet Union collapsed; in the early 2000s, when Fidel Castro stepped down; and in the current moment, after Castro’s death changed little but when dramatic shifts in Cuba’s external relations and halting if significant internal reforms make everything seem in flux.
The phrase appears in the title of an excellent new anthology of essays on Cuba’s current state, compiled by the Argentine journalist and editor Leila Guerriero, who well understands that feeling “on the verge” here isn’t new. As Iván de la Nuez—one of six Cuban writers among the twelve in the anthology—puts it, “For a long time now, the only political reality in Cuba has been a state of transition.” What convinced an American publisher that now was the right time for such a volume are the same developments—détente, Obama’s visit, Fidel’s death—that have prompted more than a million Americans to visit the island over the two years since Obama ended the US’s failed policy of “isolation.”
But like the cool stars of The Fast and the Furious, whose last sequel was filmed in Havana’s streets, Cubans have by and large kept their calm during these dramatic moments. In December 2014, in the days after Obama and Castro announced their normalization of ties, a legion of foreign press landed in Havana looking for festive street scenes and asking questions about what the future held. They found people more interested in finding their day’s tomatoes. Nuez provides an explanation for this attitude. “This transitional situation has become enormously comfortable,” he writes. “It manages an endless limbo without a future.”
Anyone who has spent time in Cuba knows Nuez doesn’t mean material comfort—goods are scarce. It’s anyone’s guess when eggs will next appear in the neighborhood commissary, and buying a chicken for dinner still means breaking the law. But much has also changed since the lean and tenuous 1990s, when Fidel Castro enforced a policy of arresting any Cuban caught with foreign currency. Today every Cuban, in or out of government, knows that getting by requires some hustle por la izquierda (to the left) of the official economy. Many Cuban families include not only a few members who live in Miami but also some who travel to Ecuador or Spain and return with bags of socks or toasters to sell. Their hustles are abetted by the country’s social safety net, however threadbare, and by the truth that Cubans still don’t pay rent. Their capital, moreover, alone among major cities in the Caribbean basin, has safe streets not run by gangsters. In Havana today it’s more common than you might think to meet a Cuban who worked for a couple of winters as a custodian in Newark, say, but chose to return to the island, where housing is free and the weather is better.
Guerriero’s contributors, eschewing political prognostication, instead describe daily life’s contradictions and wants. Leonardo Padura, Cuba’s foremost living novelist, frets over what it may mean for Cuba that young people here now seem to be foreswearing baseball, the game that he and his father’s generation made an icon of national pride, for the deeply un-Cuban sport of soccer. Abraham Jiménez Enoa, who helped found the intriguing new web magazine El Estornudo (“The Sneeze”) in Havana, describes the concerns of a young jinetero, or gigolo (literally “jockey”). Having left his rural childhood home to make a living sleeping with women tourists from Canada and France, the jinetero observes, “What little I’ve got in this world, I owe it to my cock.”
Enoa’s Estornudo colleague Carlos Manuel Álvarez recounts a visit to his father in Miami. The essay begins with his finding his dad living in a miserable one-room apartment in Hialeah, eking out rent by fixing air conditioners. It ends with them collecting coconuts from yards across South Florida to sell for seventy cents apiece to a Cuban wholesaler. Everything in the wholesaler’s plastic warehouse “smelled like Cuba…. Memories, people, slang, the spiritual exhaustion dotted with ingenious jokes, and the solidarity of contraband.”
If understanding Cuba requires following Cubans abroad, sympathetic and engaged outsiders also have their place. Patricio Fernández, a leading journalist in Chile, finds a curious new elite in Havana. Although similar in many ways to elite groups across South America—its tiny size, its members’ light skin—Havana’s elite is composed not of lawyers or plutocrats but of artists. Their critical spirit is well represented in the collection by Wendy Guerra, a novelist and poet who has published mostly in Madrid and who writes these days for The Miami Herald. Her contribution here, particularly welcome for its treatment of a subject whose makers and chroniclers in Cuba have been overwhelmingly male, is titled “Glamour and Revolution.”
The essay’s contents would perhaps be more fairly reflected by a title whose first word wasn’t “Glamour” but “Gender.” But this fact in itself suggests much about gender roles and femininity in what’s surely the sole nation with exclusively female airport security officers, who invariably wear fishnet stockings and high heels with their uniforms. Guerra reflects on how Havana went from one of the world’s most stylish cities in the 1950s to a place where, as a result of the cult of the bearded guerrilla in the 1960s, it was “impossible to find the time or space for contemplating or attending to the self.” She describes how people discovered ways, in ensuing decades, to live as they wanted—using shoe polish as mascara, sewing new dresses from the lining of old suits, passing around a single pair of lacy blúmers. As an art student living in a coed dorm, Guerra absorbed the ethic of sexual freedom that, despite the revolution’s outward puritanism, seems to have helped people brave its privations (“our promiscuity became essential: a vital ingredient in our collective memory”).
The “macho Leninism” of Fidel’s revolution has made it impossible to imagine a woman in any position of real power. But Guerra also sees much to appreciate in a society where girls have, for five decades now, had equal access to education; where women can get divorced or take up with a new lover or partner; where getting a free abortion from the national health service is easier than going to the dentist (this helps explain the extremely low birthrate). Near the end of her essay, Guerra writes:
The body as the sole space of freedom, our sexuality, our complex relationship with our own customs, surveillance, witchcraft, scarcity, the informer culture, our detachment, our complicated relationship with power, the decisive control of politics over our entire lives, censorship, music, rum consumed as an everyday drug to help us bear the impossibility of taking our own existence by the reins, our ownership by the state, and the interpersonal relationships forged over years of resistance—these are challenging things to narrate.
But the fact that Guerra can narrate them from Havana, where she still lives with her jazz pianist husband, suggests much about how Cuba has changed since the heavy days of Before Night Falls, Reinaldo Arenas’s account of being jailed for his writings and his homosexuality in the 1970s.
Twenty years ago, when I began visiting Cuba, the vigilance of Havana’s neighborhood CDRs—Committees for the Defense of the Revolution—meant that anyone criticizing Fidel behind closed doors signaled that they were talking about him by stroking an imaginary beard. By the time he died, people were telling jokes about el Viejo in the street and cursing Raúl as they wished. The state publishing industry, though it did in 2016 decide to publish George Orwell’s 1984, remains far from expending any of its precious paper on writers as overtly critical as Arenas or Guerra. But you can glean a lot about the state’s approach to free expression from the large photograph that, until recently, greeted visitors to the Fábrica de Arte Cubano, Havana’s most popular space for outré art. It depicted a propaganda billboard that bore a familiar message—“We have and will have SOCIALISMO”—but that was crumpling and had fallen over.


Crumpling and fallen over is how Fidel Castro’s foes in Miami and elsewhere long loved to picture him; his demise was imagined as the moment when Communist Party rule would crumple, too. When Fidel died, on November 25, 2016, the party was firmly in control. The nation that had long served as his nemesis had just elected a con-man-turned-TV-star to be its president. Eulogists noted that Castro had always promised that he’d only expire once the US began to fall apart. Against expectations, his passing didn’t prompt rioters to seize Cuba’s streets or a flotilla of exiles to speed south in cigarette boats to reclaim their due. It prompted a solemn nine-day period of mourning during which the Comandante’s cremated remains were driven the length of the island in a little green jeep.
All along the five-hundred-mile route from Havana to Santiago, the eastern city where Castro came of age and now lies interred under a single huge boulder inscribed with the word FIDEL, people greeted one another not with the customary Buenos dias but with condolencias. Some who lined the roadway dabbed at tears—though many were students or workers whose presence was compulsory. Whether their abiding feeling toward the old man was hateful or fond, most of the Cubans I encountered during the cortege’s last days seemed to recognize the gravity of the circumstances. The mourning period ended with Raúl Castro taking the stage in Santiago’s Revolutionary Square to send off his brother. In his hoarse voice, the eighty-five-year-old recounted, for what felt like the last time, the mythic tale of how he and Fidel had crash-landed a boat from Mexico onto a nearby beach and then, with their driven band of apostles, repaired to the mountains of the Sierra Maestra to make a revolution.
Raúl has barely appeared in public since. This hasn’t slowed rumors that he too is unwell. Whether or not that’s so, he has said repeatedly that at the end of his second five-year term as president, he will hand off power to a successor picked by the Politburo and ceremoniously voted on by Cuba’s National Assembly. The succession had long been scheduled for February 24, but in December it was postponed until April 19, due to major damage caused by Hurricane Irma and resultant delays to the local party elections by which the members of the National Assembly are appointed. Barring further changes, April 19 remains the date on which Rául Castro, though he will still be first secretary of Cuba’s Communist Party, will stand down from leading Cuba’s civilian government.
Ernesto Mastrascusa/Getty Images
President Obama at a wreath-laying ceremony at the José Martí Memorial, Revolution Square, Havana, March 2016
Predictions about his replacement have varied over recent years. Some once-likely picks have grown too old, while several others—notably Felipe Pérez Roque, the charismatic former foreign secretary, and Carlos Lage, the talented economic czar—have been purged from the government in ways that recall the old joke that the best way to keep from getting your head chopped off is to keep it down. Since the Seventh Congress of Cuba’s Communist Party in 2016, the most commonly mentioned successor has been Miguel Díaz-Canel, a party secretary from the provincial city of Santa Clara who was named first vice-president of the Councils of State and Ministers in 2013. Little is known about Díaz-Canel beyond the facts that he spent years riding his bicycle to work in his hometown before he climbed the party ranks and that he’s fond of quoting Che Guevara in his speeches at party meetings.
The mere fact that Díaz-Canel was born in 1960, after the Revolution, has informed speculations about what kind of leader he’d be. So has his rumored fondness for rock music and the Internet. Cuba’s new leader, as Iván de la Nuez observes in Cuba on the Verge, will in any case have a life story very much like those of his compatriots. He will be a man who answered the call to volunteer when he was young, and who fought imperialism in one of the cold war’s hot zones (in Nicaragua, in Díaz-Canel’s case). He will have a family that’s split between Cuba and the diaspora. He will have sworn allegiance to socialism but also be familiar with “latrines, promiscuity, solidarity, and the cruelty of massification.”
Some have described his task as bridging the dogma of elders with the desires of their grandkids for el Feisbu (Facebook) and flashy, reggaeton-style fashion. But Cuba’s next president will serve at the pleasure of a party under Raúl Castro’s control, and of a military whose officer corps remains thick with loyal Raulistas. Castro’s people aren’t going anywhere. Nor, one suspects, is a ruling party that’s given its armed forces the biggest stake in Cuba’s new economy. Since Obama’s visit, further market reforms have not been forthcoming, although many Cubans hunger for them. The party is plainly determined not to give up too much control too quickly, but it also has chosen not to crack down unduly on weird art and growing Internet access. As Cuba’s old nemesis contends in Washington with the stormy tenure of its own new president, the island will continue to be run by a party devoted to Leninism in name and to its own preservation in practice.


Seen from Cuba, the ascendance of Trump at first invited bemusement. He seemed to represent a throwback to the 1950s, when Havana was run by New York mobsters who lined the city’s oceanfront with shiny casino-hotels. Everyone in Havana knew that Trump had made repeated attempts in the early 2000s, before it was legal, to pick up where Meyer Lansky (who built his Riviera Hotel not long before Fidel seized Havana) left off. “This is a time for doing business, and Trump is a businessman,” became a kind of mantra in Havana. Many Cubans thought Trump could be good for US–Cuba relations. What this hopeful stance didn’t account for, as they soon learned, was that mounting a campaign for the US presidency as a Republican still requires appeasing hard-right Cuban-Americans in Miami. Even more important was Trump’s sheer will, once in office, to undo as many of Obama’s achievements as possible.
On June 16, 2016, keeping a promise to the Cuban American National Foundation and to his former Republican rival Marco Rubio, Trump gave a speech in Miami announcing his intent to “cancel” Obama’s deal with Cuba. He said he would roll back the permissions granted US firms to do business in Cuba, and once again ban Americans from traveling there unless they went with a licensed group.
As with much verbiage that’s issued from his White House, the full implications of these proposed changes—which notably didn’t include preventing US airlines from flying to Cuba, and actually left many of Obama’s policies in place—weren’t entirely coherent or clear. In November 2017, the administration formalized the new regulations, whose imprecision still frustrated many (including Rubio), but did see Trump’s Treasury and Commerce Departments issue a list of several dozen hotels, stores, and travel agencies owned by the Cuban military where vacationing Americans are now officially banned from spending money.
In the intervening months, however, a strange drama in Havana has had more of an impact on American–Cuban relations than these hazy tweaks to rules governing how curious Yanks may visit the island. The first reports of a mysterious “sonic attack” on US diplomats in Havana emerged last August. The State Department confirmed that twenty-one members of the embassy’s staff had been sent home with a range of ailments, from confusion and dizziness to hearing loss. Some of them had reported hearing mysterious high-pitched sounds before taking ill.
The Trump administration leapt to condemn Cuba not merely for failing to maintain its diplomats’ safety but for perpetrating the “attack” that sickened them. Raúl Castro protested that he was just as mystified about what had happened as the Americans, and even invited the FBI to Havana to investigate—an unthinkable step a few years ago. Many informed observers believed him. In 2017, there were plenty of parties with an interest in driving the US and Cuba apart—the Chinese, the Russians, Castro-haters in Miami—but Cuba’s cash-strapped government certainly wasn’t one of them. Moreover, the Americans’ initial explanation for what had happened was extremely fishy.
Scientists and acousticians agreed that the notion of a “sonic weapon” causing the symptoms described, whether by directing audible sounds or microwave (low-frequency) or infrasound (high-frequency) signals at human targets, was pure science fiction. Some clinicians opined that the mysterious illness was consistent with a viral infection. Others blamed a mystery toxin or poison (this was where the story began to smell a bit like Vladimir Putin). Many observers, pointing to “psychogenic” factors, argued that the embassy workers’ condition seemed at least partly to be born from group hysteria—from them growing convinced, as their colleagues took ill from unrelated causes, that their ailments had an evil sonic source.
In January, the FBI ruled out those victims’ theory, stating that its investigation had found no evidence that sound waves could have harmed them. Last month, a team of specialists who examined them at the University of Pennsylvania agreed; MRIs of victims’ brains showed no damage to their white matter. The Penn doctors’ report, however, also stated that several victims did exhibit “concussion-like” symptoms without having had concussions—and were thus suffering from a new syndrome caused by agents unknown. This hypothesis was quickly embraced by Trump’s State Department, but met with widespread skepticism from doctors, including in an editorial published alongside the report in the Journal of the American Medical Association, emphasizing that further study is needed to determine what really befell these Americans in Havana.
Not that any of this, one suspects, much matters to Trump. The “sonic attack,” whether manufactured in Havana or elsewhere, was an ideal cause both for issuing a stern warning against Americans visiting Cuba and for recalling all but a skeleton crew of US embassy staff from their posts. Last September 29, the US expelled fifteen Cuban diplomats from Washington and all but ended the US embassy’s consular functions in Havana.
Since Trump took office, only one of the several “working groups” set up by the Obama administration and its Cuban counterpart to confront issues ranging from cybersecurity to human trafficking has met even once. The new era of US–Cuba cooperation was already ailing before Trump’s actions killed it. In reinforcing its trade relationships with Russia and China, the Cuban government has shown that it would just as soon get its foreign investment elsewhere.
But geostrategy aside, those who’ve suffered most from the US embassy’s closure are Cubans. This building is where 200,000 of them have come each year, per an accord in place since 1994, to get the papers they need to reunite with their families by plane rather than a leaky raft. More recently, thousands have come to the embassy to apply for a coveted five-year visa that allows them to visit the US as tourists and to build lives traveling back and forth. Everyone in Havana had a story about some sibling or friend who’d spent months saving $160 to book a visa appointment but who, now that the embassy is no longer taking such appointments, was simply out of luck and cash. On my last visit to Havana, in November 2017, the JetBlue flight I boarded from JFK was nearly empty.
That month the humble neighborhood around the embassy, usually a hive of Cubans lining up to enter, was empty except for some old men playing dominoes. The embassy’s locked gates looked like they were rusted shut. More rusty still was the permanent steel proscenium on the square opposite it, built on Fidel’s orders in 2006 to host mass demonstrations against el imperio, but which hasn’t been used for that purpose in years. On the seawall across the road, young lovers cuddled in the dusk, their legs intertwined or overhanging the waves. On the verge, as ever. Of what, it wasn’t clear.

Marlon Bundo's Day in the Life of the Vice President Hardcover – March 19, 2018 by Charlotte Pence (Author),‎ Karen Pence (Illustrator) (Regnery Kids)

Last week, Second Lady Karen Pence and her daughter Charlotte, 24, released a children’s book called Marlon Bundo’s Day in the Life of the Vice President. Written by mom and illustrated by daughter, the story follows the family’s real-life pet rabbit, Instagram influencer Marlon Bundo, for a day in the Capitol with “Grampa.”

By now you know that John Oliver beat the Pences to Amazon, announcing that Last Week Tonight would be publishing its own children’s book, A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo. Within a few days, Oliver’s tale, written by comedy writer Jill Twiss, seized the top slot on Amazon, bumping James Comey’s memoir.

Charlotte Pence didn’t seem to mind the unauthorized doppelgänger.

“We have two books that are giving to charities that are about bunnies, so I’m all for it really,” she told Fox Business. A portion of the Pence’s proceeds will go to A21, an anti-human-trafficking organization, and to the Riley Hospital for Children; a portion of Oliver’s funds will go to the Trevor Project and AIDS United.

Looking at the actual texts, the Pence book merits little fanfare. One pass exposes flimsy attempts at iambic pentameter and anapestic trimeter. You emerge knowing Grampa is very “important”—thumbs up!—and he prays at night.

Now, don’t make the mistake of trivializing the Oliver-Twiss tale as just clever satire that trolls the Pences. The Oliver version is a joy. Ignore the grumbling about Oliver turning the bunny America deserves into a metaphor for partisan politics, because the book is a 40-page triumph. The details are poignant, and its verses go far beyond the contrived mediocrity of the Pence’s.

And you shouldn’t just read this tale of acceptance and love. You should listen to it, because hearing it is at once nostalgic, familiar, and hilarious. The audio version (which you can get for $1.95) is stacked with the playful banter of Jim Parsons (Big Bang Theory), Jesse Tyler Ferguson (Modern Family), Ellie Kemper (Kimmy Schmidt), RuPaul (duh), John Lithgow (literally everywhere), and others. Lithgow voices the stink bug character, who seems to closely mirror the actual vice president.

Parsons is the voice behind Marlon Bundo. He tells us early on that his “grandpa is the Vice-President… But this story isn’t going to be about him because he isn’t very fun.”

In the story, Marlon starts out sad, eating breakfast and watching the news alone. Then, Marlon sees him: a big, fluffy bunny named Wesley (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), with the floppiest floppy ears. Their love blossoms, and at this point Oliver and Twiss include their subtextual adult moment by having Marlon and Wesley do their hopping.

“We hopped up and down the creaky stairs and made beautiful, creaky stair-music together. We hopped through the kitchen, and maybe left a few bunny prints… It was the best hop.”

Both Marlon and Wesley say, “We will get married and we will both hop together.” Their friends, an assortment of bugs, a badger, a turtle, a dog, and a hedgehog, yell, “Hooray!” Because, importantly, “that is what friends say.”

But then: “Boy bunnies don’t marry boy bunnies,” says the stink-bug in Lithgow’s dusty voice. Together with their friends, Marlon and Wesley vote out the very stinky stink-bug in a not-so-subtle charge, and they wed.

It’s gay love between two rabbits, an innocuous animal and perhaps the most indelible symbol of innocence and sex (thanks, Pence family, for choosing a bunny), presented as both charming and desirable. “Different is not bad. Different is special.”

As Parsons exhales in relief and Marlon and Wesley prepare for their bunny-moon, you can’t help but square the audiences (and social causes) of a Marlon Bundo and a Mike Pence: one makes good fodder for a children’s books and the other contributes to the degradation of the public sphere. I like to think the Marlon Bundo that’s into Wesley's “bushiest bushy tail” is the real Marlon Bundo, the bunny that kids need in 2018.

In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History Hardcover – March 20, 2018 by Mitch Landrieu (Viking)

An extraordinarily powerful journey that is both political and personal...An important book for everyone in America to read.

The New Orleans mayor who removed the Confederate statues confronts the racism that shapes us and argues for white America to reckon with its past. A passionate, personal, urgent book from the man who sparked a national debate.

"There is a difference between remembrance of history and reverence for it." When Mitch Landrieu addressed the people of New Orleans in May 2017 about his decision to take down four Confederate monuments, including the statue of Robert E. Lee, he struck a nerve nationally, and his speech has now been heard or seen by millions across the country. In his first book, Mayor Landrieu discusses his personal journey on race as well as the path he took to making the decision to remove the monuments, tackles the broader history of slavery, race and institutional inequities that still bedevil America, and traces his personal relationship to this history. His father, as state legislator and mayor, was a huge force in the integration of New Orleans in the 1960s and 19070s. Landrieu grew up with a progressive education in one of the nation's most racially divided cities, but even he had to relearn Southern history as it really happened. 

Equal parts unblinking memoir, history, and prescription for finally confronting America's most painful legacy, In the Shadow of Statues will contribute strongly to the national conversation about race in the age of Donald Trump, at a time when racism is resurgent with seemingly tacit approval from the highest levels of government and when too many Americans have a misplaced nostalgia for a time and place that never existed.

Sharp Hardcover – April 10, 2018 by Michelle Dean (Grove Press)

The ten brilliant women who are the focus of Sharp came from different backgrounds and had vastly divergent political and artistic opinions. But they all made a significant contribution to the cultural and intellectual history of America and ultimately changed the course of the twentieth century, in spite of the men who often undervalued or dismissed their work.
These ten women―Dorothy Parker, Rebecca West, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael, Joan Didion, Nora Ephron, Renata Adler, and Janet Malcolm―are united by what Dean calls “sharpness,” the ability to cut to the quick with precision of thought and wit. Sharp is a vibrant depiction of the intellectual beau monde of twentieth-century New York, where gossip-filled parties at night gave out to literary slugging-matches in the pages of the Partisan Review or the New York Review of Books. It is also a passionate portrayal of how these women asserted themselves through their writing in a climate where women were treated with extreme condescension by the male-dominated cultural establishment.
Mixing biography, literary criticism, and cultural history, Sharp is a celebration of this group of extraordinary women, an engaging introduction to their works, and a testament to how anyone who feels powerless can claim the mantle of writer, and, perhaps, change the world.

A Child's First Book of Trump Hardcover – July 5, 2016 by Michael Ian Black (Author),‎ Marc Rosenthal (Illustrator) (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers) (IBRChildrensBooks)

What do you do when you spot a wild Trump in the election season? New York Times bestselling author and comedian Michael Ian Black has some sage advice for children (and all the rest of us who are scratching our heads in disbelief) in this perfectly timely parody picture book intended for adults that would be hysterical if it wasn’t so true.

The beasty is called an American Trump.
Its skin is bright orange, its figure is plump.
Its fur so complex you might get enveloped.
Its hands though are, sadly, underdeveloped. 

The Trump is a curious creature, very often spotted in the wild, but confounding to our youngest citizens. A business mogul, reality TV host, and now…political candidate? Kids (and let’s be honest many adults) might have difficulty discerning just what this thing that’s been dominating news coverage this election cycle is. Could he actually be real? Are those…words coming out of his mouth? Why are his hands so tiny? And perhaps most importantly, what on earth do you dowhen you encounter an American Trump?

With his signature wit and a classic picture book style, comedian Michael Ian Black introduces those unfamiliar with the Americus Trumpus to his distinguishing features and his mystifying campaign for world domination…sorry…President of the United States.

SOPHIE'S BIG NOISY DAY BOOK! by DK Publishing ; illustrated by DK Publishing Age Range: 1 - 3 (DK) IBRChildrensBooks)

                            SOPHIE'S BIG NOISY DAY BOOK! by DK Publishing

Sophie la girafe’s day gets off to a quiet start—but it definitely doesn’t stay that way.

Showing signs of its French origins in the croissant on Sophie’s breakfast table and views of the Eiffel Tower in the distance, the episode takes the stuffed giraffe and her plush, toy animal friends on a picnic outing that is punctuated by sudden noises. Each of the five tinny sonic kerfuffles—which range from a chugging train and a chorus of quacky ducks to a snatch of Euro-pop dance music from a portable radio—is set off by lifting a flap and runs without interruption (or the ability to turn it off) for several seconds. In keeping with the thoroughly bland cartoon illustrations, Sophie’s reaction to the noise is not irritation but a smile: “Today wasn’t quiet and peaceful after all,” she concludes. “It was noisy and fun!” Whether or not readers have the same reaction, the flaps’ hinges loosen with use, so that after several readings, just opening each spread causes the sounds to erupt. Moreover, the electronics are housed in a rear cover/box that is thicker than the entire story’s five spreads, and they require no fewer than three batteries to function. Replacing the latter is possible, though will likely never be necessary.

Maisy fans are unlikely to give a hoot for this sugary and clumsily designed alternative. (Novelty board book. 1-3)

MY BEST POP-UP CONSTRUCTION SITE BOOK by DK Publishing ; illustrated by DK Publishing Age Range: 2 - 4 (DK)

With an electronic rattle and roar, heavy machines dig and dump, haul and lift as an apartment building goes up.

Depicted in photographic images digitally buffed to a plastic sheen, a massive excavator, dump and cement trucks, heavy-duty forklifts, and other bright-yellow behemoths dominate each sturdy double-page spread. In peculiar contrast, the workers, who are of both sexes and show slight but perceptible differences in skin tone, are tiny, stylized toylike figures. Along with identifying their roles in the project, these workers bustle about the site making comments (“Look out everyone! This is a really big hole”)—and announcing that they’re off for coffee or lunch breaks. Readers accustomed to the conventions of comic strips will be puzzled to see that all of this dialogue appears to be internal, as it’s expressed in thought bubbles rather than speech balloons. Scene-expanding flaps and one gatefold add visual variety to each stage of the construction, and a chip embedded in the rear cover provides a few seconds of atmospheric engine noise with each push of a button.

Despite the sound effect, an unexceptionable addition to the fleets of like fare for diapered diggers. (Pop-up informational book. 2-4)

Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser (Metropolitan, 625 pp., $35.00)

Herbert Hoover Presidential Library
Laura and Almanzo Wilder near Westville, Florida, circa 1891–­1892

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books remain for many a formative literary experience of our childhoods: we retain, as if they were our own memories, vivid fragments of little Laura’s adventures with her older sister Mary, her younger sisters Carrie and Grace, and their parents Caroline and Charles, the former calmly capable, the latter bringing joy with his fiddle and songs. Part of the books’ appeal lies in Laura’s perspective: the plainer, naughtier sister, with a temper and selfish impulses—a child with whom any reader can identify. Then, too, Wilder records her experiences with attractive Chekhovian simplicity, patiently explaining the material details of pioneers’ daily lives, including how Pa oiled bear traps, how the women prepared for a dance, how to build a log cabin and make a latched door with no nails, hinges, or lock, and how to protect the house from a prairie fire.

As Caroline Fraser wrote in these pages in 1994, reviewing William Holtz’s The Ghost in the Little House: A Life of Rose Wilder Lane,

Each task, as it is carried out by Pa or Ma, is lovingly, calmly described…the attention to detail is also an emotional refuge, and it captures a child’s ability to ease anxiety by losing herself in the contemplation of the orderly and ordinary.

She deems this “sense of safety” a counterbalance to the “family tensions and…terrifying natural disasters” that the Ingalls and Wilder families repeatedly face over the course of eight volumes.*

Not only children but adult readers worldwide have taken inspiration from these narratives: after World War II, General Douglas MacArthur had the books translated into Japanese to bolster the struggling populace. They proved very popular. According to Fraser, Wilder’s books have sold “over sixty million copies in forty-five languages and were reincarnated in the 1970s and 1980s as one of the longest-running, most popular shows in television history, still in syndication.”

But perhaps few of us know to what degree the books have been part of the culture wars. As Fraser wrote some years ago in the Los Angeles Review of Books, responding to Meghan Clyne’s essay “Lessons in Liberty from Laura Ingalls Wilder” in the conservative journal National Affairs, “Wilder’s life and work have long been appropriated by the improving and pious, eager to seize on her faith or patriotism to promote their own agendas.” The byzantine and unlikely story of how this came about is at the heart of Fraser’s Prairie Fires.

Although her academic background is in American literature, Fraser has published books on Christian Science (God’s Perfect Child: Living and Dying in the Christian Science Church) and on animal conservation (Rewilding the World: Dispatches from the Conservation Revolution). Prairie Fires might at first appear to be a departure. Yet the confluence of themes raised by Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life enables Fraser to explore not only the “profound act of American myth-making and self-transformation” that the novels’ creation entailed but also the environmental, social, and political forces that shaped both the myths and the realities behind them. Her biography may have been sparked by her review of The Ghost in the Little House, which demonstrated her love for Wilder’s books, even as she called for more nuanced and less politically motivated appreciation of them:

Writing through the eyes of a child freed Wilder to express the anarchic delight and fear such a landscape could inspire, without resorting to moralizing or the rhetoric of alienation.

In the intervening years, Fraser edited the Library of America edition of Wilder’s work and wrote additional articles that take issue not only with Holtz and Clyne but also with Judith Thurman’s pieces on Wilder in The New Yorker, which she believed accepted wholesale Holtz’s misrepresentations. Prairie Fires, the first full treatment of Wilder’s life since John E. Miller’s Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Woman Behind the Legend (1998), endeavors to see Wilder’s upbringing and her books in the broader setting of the social and political movements of the time, and undertakes the task of illuminating the intertwined lives of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, a successful journalist, author, and early libertarian who served as literary mentor, editor, and sometime nemesis to her mother. This new appreciation—treading as it does a delicate path between the conservative desire (chiefly of libertarians and devout Christians) to claim Wilder’s books as ideological propaganda and the contention that the politics of the literary work emanated chiefly from Wilder’s daughter Rose—seeks to acknowledge the assumptions underlying Wilder’s worldview and the emotional factors that shaped the books, including nostalgia and a desire to remember primarily the joys of an early life permeated by loss, hardship, and disappointment.

Wilder did not publish the first volume of her series, Little House in the Big Woods,until 1932, when she was sixty-five. The eighth and final volume, These Happy Golden Years, appeared just eleven years later, in 1943. Before publishing her novels, Wilder had a lengthy stint as a columnist for the Missouri Ruralist—a journalistic career begunin 1911 after the magazine’s editor admired her paper “The Small Farm Home,” delivered on her behalf at the Missouri Home Makers’ Conference. But for much of her life, though she kept a diary, Wilder was a schoolteacher or a farmer, the child of humble pioneers whose lives left few traces. Her modest origins pose challenges for a biographer: there are few letters or recorded literary encounters, no intimation of literary fertilization or influence. Fraser acknowledges the difficulty—“That is always a problem, in writing about poor people…. Looking for their ancestry is like looking through a glass darkly, images flickering in obscurity”—and surmounts it in somewhat unconventional ways.

The first two hundred pages of Prairie Fires offer as much a history of American westward expansion as of the Ingalls family. The book opens with a detailed account of the government’s usurping the territories of the Dakota tribes, in particular of the effects of the Homestead Act of 1862. The battle of New Ulm, Minnesota, and the subsequent prolonged uprising “marked the largest number of whites killed in a war with Indians…and the largest number of refugees, in the tens of thousands.” This battle took place five years before Wilder’s birth, but tensions between Native Americans and white settlers are fundamental to understanding the Ingalls family outlook (out of it came the phrase “the only good Indian is a dead Indian”).

Fraser notes the rapid rate of settlement expansion in the last third of the nineteenth century, the circumstances in which Charles Ingalls was adamant about pushing ever westward: “In 1860, around a thousand people lived in what is now South Dakota…. In 1890, nearly 329,000 people poured in, with more than three hundred towns springing up across the prairies virtually overnight.” De Smet, the town in which Laura Ingalls came of age and married Almanzo Wilder, was one such place; but the Ingalls family had traveled many miles before settling there.

Charles Ingalls and Caroline Quiner, then living in Wisconsin, were married in 1860, and Mary Amelia, their eldest, was born in 1865, followed by Laura Elizabeth on February 7, 1867. A year later, Charles “jumped on a Reconstruction bargain” in Missouri, and journeyed there by covered wagon with his young family. Their new property “lay well within the Osage Diminished Reserve,” which, as described in Little House on the Prairie, made it untenable. The family returned to Wisconsin in the spring of 1871. “In a brief and concentrated span of time,” Fraser notes, “the Ingallses had experienced virtually everything that would come to be seen as quintessentially Western: encounters with wolves and Indians, angry disputes over open range, prairie fires, neighbors coming to their aid.” These events “shaped [Laura’s] temperament and outlook for the rest of her life. That year made her who she was.”

After a brief stretch outside Pepin, Wisconsin, where Charles had managed to retrieve his family’s property, they sold again in 1873 and headed to Walnut Grove, Minnesota. Charles, though perhaps sensitive and cultured, was drastically lacking in prudence. The biblical disasters in store included severe drought, illness, and plagues of locusts: of the swarm of June 1875, Fraser reports that it “appeared to be 110 miles wide, 1,800 miles long, and a quarter to a half a mile in depth…. The cloud consisted of some 3.5 trillion insects.” Having failed in Walnut Grove, the Ingallses moved in 1876 to “dark and dirty” Burr Oak, Iowa, to run a hotel; but the venture was disastrous (so much so that Ingalls did not include it in her novels), and they ultimately fled in the dead of night back to Walnut Grove, where they initially survived on charity and occasional work.

In the spring of 1879, when Laura was twelve, her older sister Mary was stricken by illness, followed by a stroke, and left blind: “Laura would take on the responsibility for being her sister’s eyes.” Charles, meanwhile, felt compelled to follow the “Dakota Boom” into new territory—in spite of scientific evidence available at the time that “less than 3 percent of the arid west was suitable for farming.” Briefly resident in a railroad camp, they became founding members of De Smet, in what is now South Dakota. In the winter of 1880–1881, which Wilder would recount in The Long Winter, the entire town was close to starvation. Blizzards began early, and by early January, they were snowed in, unreachable by train:

The quality of the housing was abysmal…. Coal was quickly depleted…. Kerosene ran out…. There was no meat, no butter, no fruit, no coffee or tea. Sugar ran out, and the cow went dry.

Famously, of course, Almanzo Wilder, or Manly, as Laura called him, helped to save the day.

Their courtship began a couple of years later, when Laura, aged sixteen, was teaching at the Bouchie school, six miles from town, and Almanzo drove her home to De Smet on Fridays. They were married in August 1885, and settled on Almanzo’s farm: this is the moment at which Wilder’s Little House series ends, with These Happy Golden Years, in a sort of fairy-tale glow.

But ill fortune dogged the young couple as it had the Ingalls family: although they celebrated the arrival of their daughter Rose in December 1886, they subsequently suffered crop failure and were deep in debt when both adults were felled by diphtheria. While recovering, Almanzo suffered a stroke; he remained somewhat impaired for the rest of his life. The spring of 1889 brought a dust storm that again destroyed their crops; and in the summer, their unnamed infant son died within a month of his birth. Two weeks later, their house burned down:

“Something in her seemed to break,” Wilder wrote of that moment, years later…. It was a blow from which no true recovery was possible.

Wilder did not include these crises in her Little House series: like the ill-fated sojourn in Oak Burr in her childhood, it was too painful a period (she did, however, chronicle darker recollections in her posthumously published narratives).

The next few years involved further peregrinations: to Almanzo’s parents’ home in Spring Valley, Minnesota; to Florida, which proved “an ordeal”; and in 1892, back to De Smet, where “Almanzo picked up odd jobs” and Laura “sewed for a dressmaker six days a week…making buttonholes for a dollar a day.” Fraser explains that the Wilders were mere transients in De Smet, not residents; they were too poor to escape.
NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images
The cast of the television series Little House on the Prairie, 1970s

Finally, in 1894, they headed for the Missouri Ozarks: this was the first step in their long road to prosperity. Rose was seven and Laura twenty-seven when the family settled in Mansfield, Missouri, building a farm they named Rocky Ridge. By then, Wilder had endured a life’s worth of hardship. In her adoptive hometown, she became, by her fifties, a pillar of the community:

Clubwoman, farm activist, member of a Masonic organization, secretary-treasurer for the Mansfield branch of the federal Farm Loan Association, and columnist for the Ruralist.

Of the difficult early years, Rose later recalled that her parents seemed “sublimely content with their lot”: “The truth is they didn’t expect much in this world, and they just shed thankfulness around them for what they had.”

This could not be said of Rose, whose imposing and rather exhausting character swells to consume much of the biography’s latter half. If in researching Laura’s youth Fraser faced the difficulty of having little documentation or human color beyond Wilder’s own texts, her narrative challenge with Wilder’s maturity is its stability, even stolidity, set against the charismatic, eventful, and highly unstable trajectory of her daughter’s life. Fraser’s subject becomes less Laura (stoical and highly functional, she remains a cipher to the last) than Rose, and the tangled relationship between mother and daughter. Significantly, Almanzo Wilder, Laura’s lifelong companion, is all but invisible throughout: of his nature, and of the specific texture of their bond, we glean little.

Rose, however, flamboyant and articulate, a writer, a traveler, and later a libertarian ideologue, led a rackety life replete with fantastic stories. Discontented with her lot as a child and ashamed of her parents’ poverty, she skipped town as early as she could, first to finish high school while living with her father’s sister Eliza Jane in Louisiana, and then to Kansas City in 1904 to work as a telegrapher. By 1908 she was in San Francisco, where she briefly married a man named Claire Gillette Lane (“The marriage would be unhappy almost from the start”) and suffered a stillbirth. She had no other children of her own.

She made her name as a sensationalist journalist whose work, in Fraser’s words, “straddled a line between fact and fiction, bearing no resemblance to contemporary journalism in terms of accuracy and identification of sources,” and went on to write biographies of celebrities like Charlie Chaplin (who threatened legal action), Jack London, and Herbert Hoover. According to Fraser, Rose Lane had little conscience or moral sense, and cared nothing for others’ feelings.

It was Lane who encouraged her mother to write, and in 1917, she placed a piece by Wilder in McCall’s. From this moment onward, she served as her mother’s rigorous, even invasive, editor, making substantial changes to Wilder’s work. The exact nature of Lane’s editorial assistance has long been a subject of discussion; William Holtz contends that Lane was the primary author of the Little House books. Fraser adamantly refutes this:

Wilder’s drafts demonstrate that nothing could be farther from the truth. The manuscripts exhibit not only her powers of recollection, but her unique ability to transform the raw material of her past into a work of art.

That said, Fraser calls their literary relationship a “collaboration,” and reminds us that it involved a tension between opposing approaches—Wilder’s plain, unornamented empirical descriptions and Lane’s slick, dramatic, and crowd-pleasing sensationalism. Ultimately, says Fraser, “Wilder saw writing as a cottage industry: books were the work of many hands, like quilts at a sewing bee.”

Even as she became increasingly involved in her mother’s writing career, Lane was chiefly preoccupied with her own worldly life. Acquainted with Sherwood Anderson and other contemporary luminaries, she traveled to Europe in 1920, where she fell in love with Albania, and unofficially adopted a teenaged Albanian, Rexh Meta, setting a pattern to be repeated in later years. In 1921, she quixotically committed to giving her parents $500 per year, a decision that proved complicated all around. She returned to Rocky Ridge in 1923 and again in 1925, struggling with severe depression; then in 1926 reembarked for Europe, on a spending spree that ended only when the stock market crashed in 1929. Fraser’s account of Lane’s mad extravagance is highly entertaining; considerably less so are her newly formed “anti-Semitic and racist views.”

Lane returned yet again to Rocky Ridge in 1928, determined to build her parents a new house they didn’t want. Rock House was completed late that year, vastly over budget, and it apparently brought neither parents nor child the joy Lane would have wished. Broke, with no home of her own, she fell again into profound depression: “Having something like [a] nervous breakdown,” she wrote.

At this moment, Wilder, who had relinquished her Ruralist column several years previously, decided to write a memoir. Her beloved father had died in 1902, her mother in 1924, and her sister Mary in 1928. The family—including Lane—needed money. Wilder’s initial manuscript, “Pioneer Girl,” was deemed unsellable by Lane’s agent, so Wilder revised it and turned it into a children’s book. Marion Fiery at Knopf asked for further revisions, and when she was uncertain that she could publish it due to Depression cutbacks, passed the book to Virginia Kirkus of Harper and Brothers, who gave the book its final title: Little House in the Big Woods. It was published in 1932.

While Wilder struggled with her second volume, Farmer Boy (about Almanzo’s childhood), Lane secretly plundered her mother’s recollections to write a novel entitled Let the Hurricane Roar. She did not even change the characters’ names. It sold extremely well and was reprinted four times within six weeks. Wilder was profoundly upset by her daughter’s theft, and by the book. (Lane wrote a similarly appropriative narrative entitled “Free Land” a few years later, compounding the insult.) The unspoken rift was surely a factor in Lane’s ultimate departure from Rocky Ridge in 1935. She settled in Connecticut, and “in future years…would refuse to visit”; although her father lived fifteen more years, he never saw her again.

During the Depression, with the election of Franklin Roosevelt, and in the years leading up to the war, Lane’s politics became ever more strident, her letters “hectic and unhinged.” (Fraser notes that Wilder’s own political views, meanwhile, “were more casual, of a piece with rural, conservative, small-town life.”) Lane behaved as if government interference in her life posed an existential threat. She eventually wrote a quasi-philosophical book, The Discovery of Freedom, which was derivative and poorly reviewed. She also found a fourth and final adoptive son upon whom to dote: Roger MacBride, the child of a senior editor at Reader’s Digest.

In the story of the appropriation of Wilder’s Little House books by the American right, MacBride is a major figure. A willing sponge for Lane’s political opinions, he quickly became a prominent libertarian agitator. In 1962, he won a seat in the Vermont House of Representatives on that platform, and campaigned unsuccessfully for governor in 1964. He ultimately became a libertarian presidential candidate in 1976, backed by the billionaire conservative funder Charles Koch.

Through sleight of hand, MacBride came to control the rights to Wilder’s work: Lane inherited those rights from her mother upon her death in 1957, three days after her ninetieth birthday. As Lane was childless, the rights should have passed after her death in 1968 “to the Mansfield branch library, which bore Wilder’s name”; but MacBride, acting as executor, transferred the copyrights to himself. By 1974, “he had registered in his own name the copyrights to her posthumously published work as well. His literary takeover of the Wilder estate was complete.”

MacBride then decided to license the Little House series for television, and entered into an agreement with Ed Friendly, whose family company still retains the film, television, and theme park rights. Friendly in turn negotiated a deal with Michael Landon, a star of Bonanza, and ultimately most famous for his role as Pa Ingalls. The series, “ahistorical” and “not so much an adaptation as a hyperbolic fantasy spin-off,” was wildly successful—Ronald Reagan cited it as a favorite—and ran from 1974 to 1983. Friendly joked that the series should be renamed “How Affluent Is My Prairie?” Fraser contends that the show was political, whether or not Landon conceded the fact, not least in creating an untruthfully sunny portrait of small-scale farming, but also in that it served, in the eyes of Native American scholars and activists, as “little more than a justification for American colonialism.”

The Friendly franchise remains active: in 2014, it embarked on what Publishers Weeklycalled “a new Little House on the Prairie lifestyle brand,” and its most recent film, The Legacy of Laura Ingalls Wilder, hosted by Dean Butler (who played Almanzo on the television show), was released in 2015. Relentless in its boosterism of cheerful self-reliance, it endorses a treacly myth of American pioneer life that Rose Wilder Lane would heartily support, but that Laura Ingalls Wilder might have trouble recognizing. Between stretches of sentimental music, we learn that “In Laura’s eyes Charles [her father] was a quintessential American individualist, a self-reliant pioneer who loved open space and the backbreaking challenge of coaxing a living off the stubborn land,” and that her “legacy of a simple time when hard work was a virtue to be celebrated, when hope and optimism triumphed over despair still lives in our hearts today.”

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books have been eagerly deployed in simplified American mythmaking since their first publication. The reality was, of course, much more complex. Fraser’s meticulous biography has particular urgency today, as she unknots the threads of fact and fiction, of reality and myth, of mother and daughter. She takes on, very occasionally, a moralizing tone that surprises. But these rare lapses (often pertaining to environmental destruction or racist or colonialist attitudes toward Native Americans) have a logic in the broader culture wars of which this book may be seen—at least by avid partisans in the fight for Wilder’s legacy—to be part.

Prairie Fires is not only a work of rigorous scholarship, but it also portrays Wilder, and her daughter Rose, in ways that illuminate our society’s current crises and rifts. It’s unlike any other biography I know, in that after reading it, I feel no closer to Laura’s private spirit. But as Fraser is at pains to point out, that spirit lives on most vibrantly in the novels themselves. In this sense all Laura’s readers know her:

Her voice speaks…not about policy or politics but about her parents, her sisters, her husband, and her love for them. It speaks of her delight in nature, those glorious moments on untouched open prairies, watching the geese fly overhead.