Light fare as cultural histories go, but a pleasant stroll through the Romantic imagination.

THE LADY AND HER MONSTERS

A TALE OF DISSECTIONS, REAL-LIFE DR. FRANKENSTEINS, AND THE CREATION OF MARY SHELLEY'S MASTERPIECE

A cultural biography that explores how Mary Shelley came to write her gothic classic.

Montillo (Literature/Emerson Coll.; Halloween and Commemorations of the Dead, 2009) discusses how Shelley’s world, as well as her life, informed the creation of Frankenstein. The basic story of how the novel came to be written—during an informal ghost-story competition among Mary, husband Percy, Lord Byron and assorted friends—is the stuff of legend. Perhaps less known is how the idea of bringing the dead back to life was already common currency. Well before Shelley’s birth, Italian scientist Luigi Galvani (source of the word galvanized) was hooking up electrical charges to dead frogs. His nephew, Giovanni Aldini, took matters further by conducting experiments on a dead felon. Percy Shelley, whose poetry had long been absorbed with immortality, was fascinated by this trend in science, which he would pass on to Mary. Entwined with the history of the idea is the history of the couple, which was tumultuous from the day married Percy met William Godwin’s brilliant young daughter; their lives would be rocked by infidelities, jealousies and the early death of a child. “Dream[t] that my little baby came to life again,” Mary wrote in a journal, an idea that may have helped inspire her future novel. Resurrection was in the air, both among doctors and artists. Montillo occasionally loses focus, getting a little overly involved in peripheral scandals and sensational tales, but the book is never dull. Mary Shelley lived in dramatic times, when life was too short to be boring.

Light fare as cultural histories go, but a pleasant stroll through the Romantic imagination.

Pub Date: Feb. 5, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-06-202581-4

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Jan. 21, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2013

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The value of this book is the context it provides, in a style aimed at a concerned citizenry rather than fellow academics,...

HOW DEMOCRACIES DIE

A provocative analysis of the parallels between Donald Trump’s ascent and the fall of other democracies.

Following the last presidential election, Levitsky (Transforming Labor-Based Parties in Latin America, 2003, etc.) and Ziblatt (Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy, 2017, etc.), both professors of government at Harvard, wrote an op-ed column titled, “Is Donald Trump a Threat to Democracy?” The answer here is a resounding yes, though, as in that column, the authors underscore their belief that the crisis extends well beyond the power won by an outsider whom they consider a demagogue and a liar. “Donald Trump may have accelerated the process, but he didn’t cause it,” they write of the politics-as-warfare mentality. “The weakening of our democratic norms is rooted in extreme partisan polarization—one that extends beyond policy differences into an existential conflict over race and culture.” The authors fault the Republican establishment for failing to stand up to Trump, even if that meant electing his opponent, and they seem almost wistfully nostalgic for the days when power brokers in smoke-filled rooms kept candidacies restricted to a club whose members knew how to play by the rules. Those supporting the candidacy of Bernie Sanders might take as much issue with their prescriptions as Trump followers will. However, the comparisons they draw to how democratic populism paved the way toward tyranny in Peru, Venezuela, Chile, and elsewhere are chilling. Among the warning signs they highlight are the Republican Senate’s refusal to consider Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee as well as Trump’s demonization of political opponents, minorities, and the media. As disturbing as they find the dismantling of Democratic safeguards, Levitsky and Ziblatt suggest that “a broad opposition coalition would have important benefits,” though such a coalition would strike some as a move to the center, a return to politics as usual, and even a pragmatic betrayal of principles.

The value of this book is the context it provides, in a style aimed at a concerned citizenry rather than fellow academics, rather than in the consensus it is not likely to build.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5247-6293-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 13, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2017

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A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES

For Howard Zinn, long-time civil rights and anti-war activist, history and ideology have a lot in common. Since he thinks that everything is in someone's interest, the historian—Zinn posits—has to figure out whose interests he or she is defining/defending/reconstructing (hence one of his previous books, The Politics of History). Zinn has no doubts about where he stands in this "people's history": "it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance." So what we get here, instead of the usual survey of wars, presidents, and institutions, is a survey of the usual rebellions, strikes, and protest movements. Zinn starts out by depicting the arrival of Columbus in North America from the standpoint of the Indians (which amounts to their standpoint as constructed from the observations of the Europeans); and, after easily establishing the cultural disharmony that ensued, he goes on to the importation of slaves into the colonies. Add the laborers and indentured servants that followed, plus women and later immigrants, and you have Zinn's amorphous constituency. To hear Zinn tell it, all anyone did in America at any time was to oppress or be oppressed; and so he obscures as much as his hated mainstream historical foes do—only in Zinn's case there is that absurd presumption that virtually everything that came to pass was the work of ruling-class planning: this amounts to one great indictment for conspiracy. Despite surface similarities, this is not a social history, since we get no sense of the fabric of life. Instead of negating the one-sided histories he detests, Zinn has merely reversed the image; the distortion remains.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1979

ISBN: 0061965588

Page Count: 772

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1979

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