Category: To London, with Love

To London, with Love: A Little History of Literature

Ivan Lett—

What is the action a book nerd uses to signal his kin? Once it might have been a casual nod over horned-rim glasses; or, perhaps a deliberate and pretentious turn of the jacket, even the kindness to let a curious stranger read harmlessly over your shoulder. But in the digital age, when so many book recommendations are passed online, when both access to and displays of literature are transforming like never before in our history, sometimes you have to spew, to froth, to twitch, to seed the World Wide Web with your opinion, again and again, many times over to make a splash. I prefer to think of it as genuine honesty—a straightforward expression and timely devotion to a cause you believe in. And for the record, the book under discussion contains parts far more risqué than my own pale attempt at innuendo here.

The newest addition to the Yale University Press London-originated series of Little Histories, based on E.H. Gombrich’s classic A Little History of the World, is John Sutherland’s A Little History of Literature. Last year, Yale University Press published the North American edition of Sutherland’s Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives, based on Samuel Johnson’s 18th-century work Lives of the Poets. Now, one of our most popular series includes the literary excitement, playfulness, and irreplaceable guidance that Sutherland brings to the books he writes. In forty short chapters, he explores the history of Western literature from ancient Greece to publishing and copyright in the post-Gutenberg era; from how to read with Dr Johnson to the birth of children’s literature; censorship and racism and anti-Semitism in literature; and everywhere in between with iconic writers and thinkers like Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, Kafka, Proust, Wilde, Freud, Larkin, Sartre, Morrison, Rushdie, &c. &c.




Working with the London office to publish the book globally, the collaborative reach of the campaign is much better suited to the “boundary-less” tools of web publishing. (More on this next Friday for University Press Week, November 10-16, on the Yale Press Log and many other social university presses in our blog sidebar.) In the coming weeks, we will be releasing several excerpts from A Little History of Literature here and on the Yale Books London blog, so that you may continue to follow our collective posting, tweeting, (spewing, frothing, twitching, seeding) and let everyone know about this wonderful book.

My column bias, as always, is for the Modernist literature of the early 20th-century, and I have selected a part of the chapter titled, “The Year that Changed Everything: 1922 and the Modernists”. (The next chapter, “A Literature of her Own”, begins with Virginia Woolf’s 1910 declaration of the change in human character, but I’ve rambled enough on that before.) I might even go so far as to compare the themes of exile and belonging to contemporary experiences of Internet identities and personalities, across geographic boundaries, where being “American” or “British” like T.S. Eliot in the example below, or any other categorical label, has more nuanced and complicated implications than their own face-values. But surely literature is not relevant to every facet of everyday life, is it?

As if I would concede anything less. Or as Sutherland puts it in the chapter “Off the Page: Literature on Film, TV, and the Stage”:

‘Literature’ as you will know, literally means something that comes to us in the form of letters. That is, something written or printed and taken in through the eye to be interpreted by the brain. But often enough, particularly nowadays, literature comes to us ‘mediated’, in different forms and through different channels and different sense organs.

John Sutherland

I want all erudite and philistine readers alike to go read this book; then, read it to your kids and teach them how to connect imagination with the real world and experiences of others: with literature. That’s how we learn and grow ourselves from one age to the next.


So John Sutherland writes on 1922:

Of all wonderful years in literature, 1922 qualifies as the most wonderful. It produced a bumper crop of books. But the reason for the year’s wonderfulness is not the quantity or variety of what was produced but the fact that what was published in that year (and the years on either side) changed the reading public’s sense of what literature could be. The ‘climate’, as the poet W.H. Auden later put it, was altered. A new and dominant ‘style’ came into play – ‘modernism’.

Historically one can trace modernism’s roots back to the 1890s and the ‘end of century’ (fin de siècle) decade covered in Chapter 21. Writers in that period, worldwide, seemed to have all bought into a kind of creative nonconformity, a breaking of ranks. Think of writers like Henrik Ibsen, Walt Whitman, George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde. Writers, to put it at its simplest, came to see that their principal obligation was to literature itself – even if, like Wilde, it meant ending up in prison or, like Thomas Hardy, having their latest work burned by a bishop. Authority never had an easy time with modernism. It wasn’t listening. It was, as we say, doing its own thing.

If it began in the 1890s and swelled in the Edwardian (pre-war) period, it was in 1922 that this new literary wave crested. One can identify a number of forces and factors that were instrumental. The traumatic effect of the First World War had broken, forever, old ways of looking at the world. Nothing in 1918 seemed the same as it had in 1914. The war could be seen as a gigantic smash-up which left the field barren, but clear for new things to come along. It was what in Latin is called a tabula rasa: a blank slate.

What, then, were the works that can be said to have spearheaded the innovations of this great year, 1922? James Joyce’s novel Ulysses and T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land, both published that year, are the first that come to mind. One could also add to these Virginia Woolf ’s Mrs Dalloway (the author’s most virtuosic exercise in the ‘stream of consciousness’ technique, more of which in Chapter 29). Woolf ’s novel was published in 1925, but conceived and set in 1922. Wilfred Owen’s wartime poems, published posthumously in 1920, and W.B. Yeats’s work, rewarded with the Nobel Prize in 1923, were accompaniments to the great year’s achievements. By general agreement the greatest Irish poet, Yeats developed strikingly during his long career, from a rhapsodiser about the so- called ‘Celtic Twilight’ (Ireland’s mythic past) to a modernist poet engaged with the present – not least the post-1916 civil disorder which was tearing his country apart. Some of his greatest work can be found in the collection Later Poems, published in 1922.

Exile and a sense of not belonging anywhere played its part. A large quantity of what we see as groundbreaking modernist literature was published by what the American writer Gertrude Stein (herself a notable modernist) called the ‘lost generation’ – writers without roots in any ‘home’ market. But modernism is something other than an ‘international’ literary movement. It is, more properly, what we could call ‘supranational’ – above and beyond any national origin. T.S. Eliot (1888–1965) was born, brought up and educated (at Harvard) as American as the Stars and Stripes itself. The manuscripts of The Waste Land reveal that early unpublished sections of the poem were set in Boston (near Harvard). Eliot was, in 1922, resident in Britain (he would later become a British citizen) although important parts of the poem were composed in Switzerland where he was recovering from a nervous breakdown. Is it a poem by an American, a Briton, or an American in Britain?



Ivan Lett is Online Marketing Manager for Yale University Press. 

Book excerpt from “The Year that Changed Everything: 1922 and the Modernists” in A Little History of Literature, by John Sutherland. Copyright © 2013 by John Sutherland. All rights reserved.



To London, with Love: This is a Woman’s World

Ivan Lett—

The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination - See more at: I reserve this space for books acquired through our London office, but my subject here is largely still about England, all the same. In fact, much of the literature discussed in The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, focuses on English writers: Mary Shelley, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot; and I’ll admit a certain bias for favorites like Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, Mrs. Gaskell. I first read the book as a junior in college, and it was one of those course-of-study- and perspective-changing texts. At a time when feminist, racial, queer, and a myriad of other multicultural studies and politics were rapidly populating scholarly discourse, this 1979 study combined several conversations into one, with a clarity that is continually referenced.

Gilbert and Gubar inspect literature and literary voice in a manner that ties together a long history of criticism and how women writers of the nineteenth century and afterwards have participated in the creation of an important and preceding feminist culture: “If a brief backward glance at the early stages of feminist criticism establishes its vital origins in the Victorian period…the nineteenth century continues to provide a lively field of activity for feminist thinking that has undergone a series of dramatic methodological transformations,” Gubar writes.In an age where “the humanities in general…have lately been increasingly feminized, both literally and figuratively” writes Gilbert in 2000:

Literally: the membership of the Modern Language Association is now about 50 percent women, and graudate students in many departments are overwhelmingly female. Figuratively: if the sciences are hard and we are soft, that’s at least in part because we do the genteel, wifely job of acculturation and socialization on campus, while the guys in astrophysics shoot for Mars. No wonder, then, that in a world where the richly rewarded scientists speak a host of hard-to-acquire, difficult, private language,s we humble, formerly plain-speaking humanists have yearned for sole access to a similarly difficult private discourse–a jargon, as it were, of our own, which would offer acolytes in our field the same kind of linguistic mastery that bespeaks professionalism in, say, microbiologists and geologists.

Previously I’ve admitted that I’m a lapsed geneticist, so I’d definitely recommend this book for anyone switching sides. And given the female dominance of nearly all levels of higher education today, please do give the idea some thought. You know a book is of the “groundbreaking” sort when another one with [Title] after __ Years (Gilbert and Gubar’s  ’The Madwoman in the Attic’ after Thirty Years, University of Missouri Press) comes out, and with the still-changing picture of women, literature, politics, and self-expression within patriarchal culture, it’s easily conceivable that another in the same vein would appear in the years ahead.

As one of those pristine book owners, I never write on the pages, always keeping my notes elsewhere; or, promising myself that I will remember, which inevitably leads to re-reading. I went to graduate school thinking that an e-reader would be an indispensable tool for keeping notes, passages of interest, not to mention clearing up the scores of printed articles and presentation handouts being carried from one place to the next. With the newly available eBook edition of The MadwomanI get to have my shelf copy and a new one to digitally dirty up with thoughts of books I’ve read since, all the new Austen film jokes to be made.

Tomorrow at the annual National Book Critics Circle awards ceremony, Gilbert and Gubar will be awarded the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award. As the publisher of not only The Madwomanbut Gilbert and Gubar‘s sequel volumes of No Man’s Land, Yale University Press admirably extends its congratulations to these two women who have contributed vastly to their field.

Ivan Lett is Online Marketing Manager for Yale University Press. 

To London, with Love: For Every Man of Words

Ivan Lett—

Rare is the book campaign that immensely satisfies both personally and professionally. As work began for The Richard Burton Diaries, edited by Chris Williams, there was a typical shape to the assumptions for such a book coming from Yale University Press:

“Oh great, the diaries of the Victorian explorer?”

“No, the Hollywood actor.”

“What does that have to do with Yale?”

The Richard Burton DiariesNow it’s not that Sir Richard Francis Burton was connected to Yale, but historically his reputation as an explorer, writer, diplomat, and linguist might seem more aligned with the biographies and memoirs we have previously published. Regardless of books like Frankly, My Dear or The Hollywood Sign in our Icons of America series, the disbelief of our publishing Richard Burton, the Welsh actor, was prevalent. Why should a university press publish this material? What could Richard Burton have to contribute to public and scholarly discourse?

You don’t know Richard Burton.

Covering the actor’s diaries from age fourteen in 1939 until he ceased writing in them in 1983, the year before his untimely death, The Richard Burton Diaries include everything from boyhood notes on Shakespeare’s Richard II to observances of famous colleagues and celebrities. No matter the page, his diaries are excitingly filled with thoughtful, passionate, incisive, scandalous, allusive, and even drunken ruminations. Certainly well-known for his film career and marriages to Elizabeth Taylor, Burton reveals himself on paper to be much more: a consummate man of letters. Williams, who was former director of the Richard Burton Centre in Wales, writes that “it is possible to suggest that a more varied Burton emerges from his own writings than the one currently circulation in the public domain. We find here Richard Burton the acclaimed actor, the international film star and the jet-set celebrity, but we also find Richard Burton the family man, father and husband….[A] Richard Burton who reads, who thinks, who longs to write.”

Like all titles in my column, this book was acquired through our London office; Burton’s papers are now housed at Swansea University in Wales after a gift from his widow Sally. Given his death at a young age, it seems fair to speculate that members of my generation are less familiar with Burton than Liz Taylor, especially stateside. Lindsay Lohan and Grant Bowler’s portrayal of the couple in this fall’s Liz & Dick on Lifetime was only a taste of the many sides and experiences in Richard Burton’s life.  I knew about him from watching The Taming of the Shrew and Cleopatra, (embarrassingly admitting that I’ve not yet seen the film adaptation of Equus), but reading Burton has been a different kind of experience, one that connects the actor with his audience with various personas more provocative and arresting than what any stage or costume change could do. No man-on-screen, he thinks, acts, and desires as deeply, even more profoundly, than his performances explicitly convey. These are Burton’s words:

‘Only our concept of time makes it possible for us to speak of the Day of Judgement by that name; in reality it is a summary court in perpetual session.’ That is from a letter of Kafka’s. It haunts me. The supreme judge at that severe searching of the soul is oneself. It is I who act, I who do the deed or have the thought and it is I only who can judge the action or the thought. I am prosecutor and defender, Satan and Saint. I am totally responsible for all my sins and goodnesses. And I am alone. That great storehouse of knowledge and memory, ignorance and idiocy, brilliance and banality, good and evil is in my own brain and only my own brain can call itself to the bar for the agony of self examination. An endless, life-long viva voce. I wish I had more time to think. I wish I didn’t have the nightly performance hovering over me day after day. Last night the audience was a phantom, now with you, now gone, a chimera of wrong responses. I felt angry with them and I’m afraid allowed it to show a few times. Afterwards we went to the John McClures’ flat for supper. We talked until 3.15am. Mostly about Lenny Bernstein. How much we all loved him and how we loathed some of the things he does to himself and to other people. For Bernstein is indeed a fascinating creature, genius and dolt, a man and a woman. A boy and a girl. There is no personal hell quite like the hell Lenny lives through. All the time, all the time night and day there is the battle between his super ego and his utter self loathing – a Mahatma Miserable. I think that master means to die shortly unless the will to live re-asserts itself. […] I’ve written and thought myself into a state of depression. Ah! How I’d love the panacea of a drink now. A double ice cold vodka martini, the glass fogged with condensation, straight up and then straight down and the warm flood the pain-killer hitting the stomach and then the brain and an hour of sweetly melancholy euphoria. I shall have a Tab instead. Disgusting.

Watching the book’s publicity unfold across numerous outlets like the Today Show, the New York Times, NPR, not to mention the rally of support from countrymen in Wales, has buzzed around both YUP New Haven and London offices for weeks. As a book comes to life, it underscores the importance of the dedicated research and hard work poured into it from numerous parties—Williams, the editor, Burton’s family, Swanesa University, among numerous others in media and publishing—and certainly the subject of Richard Burton is a trove of discovery for theatrical aficionados and literary buffs alike, with so much new material brought to public attention.

I have been and will always be dedicated to the power and scope of the written word. If that passion seems remotely familiar, read The Richard Burton Diaries to discover far more than a kindred spirit. He was a man that everyone could appreciate through his expressions of the humanity that we know is accessible to each of us in words.


Ivan Lett is Online Marketing Manager for Yale University Press. 


To London, with Love: Nights Out in SoHo

Ivan Lett—

Judith Walkowitz is my kind of historian. She’s interested in the same kinds of topics as I am: cultural history, social history, women’s history, and applies them to my favorite time and place: early twentieth-century London.

Walkowitz’s new book, Nights Out: Life in Cosmopolitan London, published this week, covers the rapid, and even chaotic, transformation of urban life that we summarize into one word: modern. Now there’s a word we’ve all heard before, but instead of generalizing the idea, Walkowitz shows how the SoHo district, once foreign and industrial, became London’s “cosmopolis” with implicative changes for both city and national culture and politics.   So let’s really get at what people want here: dance, food, fashion, music, and sex; she covers them all, using new research to explain the manipulation of these cultural commodities into the political and economic consciousness that reformed not only the neighborhood, but the very center of the world’s premiere empire.

Having only just left our London office, traveling from one city to another as I am wont to do nearly every day of my life, I was so pleased to find a piece by the author on the Huffington Post, detailing the history of the Windmill Theatre—known for its “girls and gags”—and how its role as a neighborhood icon withstood scrutiny and terror alike during the depression and Second World War.

This is hardly the place to talk about my 2010s nights in London, but Walkowitz’s piece is a great opener to her book-length exploration of city life. (The Windmill Theatre has a chapter all to itself.) Plus, how could I possibly resist a book that opens with “Virginia Woolf loved SoHo”? I’m currently too far away for anyone to admonish me otherwise, so I’ll say this as I wish:

Brits Rule.

(But please let them stamp my passport for re-entry when I come back…)


Ivan Lett is Online Marketing Coordinator for Yale University Press.

To London, with Love: Springing for Politics

Ivan Lett—

I’m no political junkie, just a book publishing historian who comes away from the glory of Britannia every so now and then to find the ever-changing world around me to be…well, ever-changing. When news of the revolution in Egypt broke last winter, I was  still in a holiday reading regimen: gifts that I wanted, gifts that others wanted, fluffy news, and disastrous pictures. No sooner had copies of Tarek Osman’s Egypt on the Brink arrived than Tahrir Square became a household reference. Prescience is a true and rare gift in book publishing.

Even so, I was late, playing catch-up and finding as much to read on recent history as the reporting from the ground. Tunisia’s revolution had started a week before Christmas, and like a domino effect, I was reading about regimes in Algeria, Syria, Libya, and Yemen, to start. With 2011 behind us in some ways and ever with us in others, Lin Noueihed and Alex Warren, a London Reuters editor and director of the African and Middle East consultancy firm Frontier, respectively, have written The Battle for the Arab Spring: Revolution, Counter-Revolution and the Making of a New Era, covering the revolutionary zeal that swept the Arab nations and an assessment of what the uprisings have achieved to date.

One of the strongest resonances of reporting from the region was the emphasis and engagement of social media to spread news of the uprisings as they happened. Months before the Occupy Wall Street movements, some doubt remained as to how the younger generation—i.e. my generation—was going to engage with political protest: what form that would take and what would the issues be, since we are, after all, “apathetic” and don’t remember the spirit of the counter-culture and post-colonial 1960s. Noueihed and Warren strike a particularly strong chord about what is at stake culturally from social media use:

Yet to assess whether the internet and social media were used successfully or unsuccessfully to organize specific protests and disseminate specific information in the Arab Spring is to miss the point. Whatever its role in the mechanics of the revolts, the rapid rise in internet use, blogs and social media over the preceding five years had already had a democratizing effect on Arab society that authoritarian governments could not roll back.

Hear that? I’m not endorsing any specific outlets, but something about the personal nature of real-time, global news-sharing is here to stay. That’s the easy conclusion. Here is the lesson to be learned:

Under authoritarian regimes that try to instill a cult of personality…. the state looks strong, invincible even, until the day that a mass of people realize that dissent is widespread.

The little guys matter, whether in support of or in opposition to established authority. Much of what makes the difference for us today is the access and connectivity—change for many young Arabs and Americans is, as the authors write, “not inevitable” for us to conceive and bring about, but “already happening,” in that it is inherently stimulating our day-to-day lives. I’m doubtful that anyone could so forcefully make the claim that this phenomenon has historically mattered more than in our present moment.

Further to the cause of new and innovative technologies, advance copies of The Battle for the Arab Spring are available from Yale University Press on These are my spring years; I intend to make the most of them first and foremost by reading…“hitting the streets” is another conversation.


Ivan Lett is Online Marketing Coordinator for Yale University Press.

To London, with Love: Dazzled and Deceived by Nature

Ivan Lett—

Before I was seduced by the glitz and glam of book publishing, a little-known fact was that I wanted to be a geneticist. Call me crazy, but to this day if someone starts talking polymorphisms and alleles, I start foaming at the geeky mouth. Misanthrope that I am known to be more often than not, the most fascinating aspects I found were human genomics and evolutionary biology. Still, I let all my Darwin talk become social Darwin talk, which meant digging into Victorian history and literature, leaving me with a head permanently stuck in nineteenth-century patterns of thought.

Peter Forbes has done an infinitely more admirable job of mixing his various interests within arts and sciences. As a popular UK-based science writer, he focuses on the relationship between art and science, and invoking art historian E.H. Gombrich (no doubt you’ve heard him mentioned around here) in his Warwick Prize-winning book, Dazzled and Deceived: Mimicry and Camouflage, Forbes quotes:

The evolution of convincing images was indeed anticipated by nature long before human minds could conceive this trick…the art historian and the critic could do worse than ponder these miracles. They will make him pause before he pronounces too glibly on the relativity of standards that make for likeness and recognition.

A very lovely way to say: nature is awesome; moreover, it’s within us and circumscribes our perspective of beauty in both the natural and artificial worlds. We are captivated and dazzled by nature’s beauty—the signals of colors and body types, the mimetic closeness of one trait to another, and the patterns that emerge. We base intelligence on an ability to distinguish; why not revel in distinguishing pursuits?

Forbes writes himself: “Deception has always played a large role in human affairs…Ambiguity and disguise exert a powerful hold on the human imagination. Mistaken identity, whether intentional or accidental, has permeated myths, legends and literature.” These are the avenues in the natural world that he explores in Dazzled in Deceived, from Joseph Brodsky and coral snakes to Cubism and butterly-pattern masterplans of war. And of course, camouflage has always been an important tactic in war, but observing animals and camouflage in nature—whether as spectacle, or danger, or inspiration, has occupied many hours of collecting, hunting, and copying into our own lives.

These traits are ones that we may equally impose on and draw from nature’s canvas, but as part of that canvas, we must always be mindful of the human affinities to dazzle and deceive. That is one pattern I will certainly aim to duplicate.

Ivan Lett is Online Marketing Coordinator for Yale University Press.

To London, with Love: All the Downton Rage

Ivan Lett—

Finally, I win. I win every time the newest craze comes in from across the pond, but the Guinness World Book of Record-holding Downton Abbey has taken things to a new level. Following the American premiere of the second season this past Sunday, the New York Times released a list of publishers’ books, writing that: “Publishers are convinced that viewers who obsessively tune in to follow the war-torn travails of an aristocratic family and its meddling but loyal servants are also literary types, likely to devour books on subjects the series touches.”

Fine, I’ll bite; I do work here, after all, and I’ve been successfully “typed” once again.  But fortunately, there will be no spoilers in this post: I’m two episodes behind and I have closed communications on the subject with not just UK friends, but everyone—not to mention I rely on online streaming and watching at my own leisure… (I love you PBS!)

Yale’s list boasts a large number of titles on British homes and architecture, many from the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art and the Yale Center for British Art, not to mention the entire Pevsner Architectural Guides. Closest to Downton Abbey is The Edwardian Sense, edited by Morna O’Neill and Michael Hatt, which looks at the performance of art and design in relation to the public and private settings of the period, and Michael Girouard’s studies of country houses and architecture include reflections on the upper-class lifestyle of Highclere Castle, where the series takes place.

Others who are more interested in the characters—like Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess—will enjoy David Waller’s The Magnificent Mrs. Tennant, a radiant and powerfully influential woman who was hostess of a glittering salon. At her hub of social, literary, and intellectual life were Prime Ministers Gladstone and Disraeli, Oscar Wilde, Henry James, Robert Browning, and Mark Twain—and like the Countesses Grantham, she certainly knew how to play with the boys despite the Victorian-Edwardian odds against her sex. And history buffs like me follow Amanda Vickery for her study Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England and the accompanying BBC series “At Home with the Georgians,” looking at men and women’s economic and social survival in the tempestuous and demanding settings of domestic life, and easily one of my all-time YUP favorites.

So, here’s the real question: when do I get to make a guest appearance as the visiting American soldier-poet fighting in World War I? Postwar shock therapy not required.

Ivan Lett is Online Marketing Coordinator for Yale University Press.

To London, with Love: For the Fighter, Not Your Lover

Ivan Lett—

Despite recent posts, I am not inclined to change the title of this column to “War!”, as one e-mail suggestion read…. If I seem stuck on the topic of recent books on World War II, it is primarily because:

  1. Other WWII books I’ve read never consider a Germanic or Japanese perspective; everything is focused on the British, American, and sometimes Soviet and French experiences of war.
  2. I never had a full picture of the war in Asia and its consequences.

I noted last week that by December 1941, the Japanese were the runaway military power in a region of the world where Britain’s ability to protect its vast colonial empire was quickly disappearing. That strain opens Frank McLynn’s The Burma Campaign: Disaster into Triumph, 1942-1945, the second of McLynn’s books published this year by Yale University Press, now available in the US. (I couldn’t help but notice that he doesn’t make it past page two in his writing without an allusion to Captain Cook.)

Part of the Yale Library of Military History, The Burma Campaign—and McLynn—was fondly referred to by one Yale-UK colleague as “one for the boys”, because his narrative spares no detail of action and leaves the disturbing conditions of theBurma campaign to speak for themselves:

Chungking, battered by years of Japanese bombing, overpopulated, crowded with refugees, insanitary and ill-provisioned, was certainly no Shangri-La, with humid heat in summer and rain and mud the rest of the year. Every night an army of rats appeared, and everywhere was filthy, feculent, noisome and stinking; it was said there were enough bad smells in the city to last anyone a lifetime.

And that was just China. McLynn raises the question of what everyone—the British and Commonwealth allies, the Chinese, the Americans—were doing fighting the Japaense in Burma. Leaving aside how we may take war for granted, please let’s not forget the importance of where a war is taking place. European perspectives on the war and its fighting have left out the physical and economic conditions that made this one of the most astonishing—yet largely forgotten—campaigns in the Second World War, and the longest single campaign fought by the British. McLynn’s story is effectively a biography: through portraits of four main Allied commanders—William Slim, Louis Mountbatten, Orde Wingate, and Joseph Stilwell—he recreates the hectic organizations, difficult relationships, and horrors of warfare that transformed the fighting in the Asian war. Add to this the blocked roads and railways, treacherous serpents of the region, mysteriously disappearing soldiers,  even Operation DRACULA, and you’ve got one remarkable adventure tale.


Ivan Lett is Online Marketing Coordinator for Yale University Press.

To London, with Love: An Island Changes the World

Ivan Lett—

Continuing my reading on World War II, it’s almost a needless point to make that December 7 was arguably the turning point of conflict. The morning of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor has been recreated and dramatized many times over as one of the most identifiable moments of the American twentieth century, not to mention the conspiracy theories, the alternative “what if” speculations, and racial and ethnic animosities that spring to mind with any mention.

But no, it is not needless, as P.M.H. Bell shows in Twelve Turning Points of the Second World War, and its impact was far wider than the shock it produced in the United States, or even the facile observation that it precipitated the entrance of the US into armed combat and official declarations of war. Bell, a British historian formerly at the University of Liverpool, writes that “Pearl Harbor marked a decisive turning point, transforming what had been essentially a European war into a world war,” but he goes on to conclude that it “also brought home a change in the nature of naval warfare and sea power.” In targeting the main naval base, the Japanese hoped to cripple and remove American strength from the Pacific theater. All eight battleships in the harbor were sunk, grounded, or badly damaged, and scores of other ships and aircraft were destroyed.

It’s a sore spot, to put it minimally. Receiving a note from the Japanese ambassador after the attack had already begun, Secretary of State Cordell Hull remarked, “In all my fifty years of public service I have never seen a document that was more crowded with infamous falsehoods and distortions…on a scale so huge that I never imagined until today that any Government on this planet was capable of uttering them.” Yet modern warfare was already transitioning itself from the battleship to the aircraft carrier. The Japanese had used 360 modern aircraft to execute the attack, but this successful and consequential proof of the pudding would only portend the shape of the war to come, both in the Pacific and for in its escalating international scope, with devastating results for Allied and Axis powers and affiliates alike.

Moreover, the event would have irreversible implications for the structure and existence of European empires in Asia. As the Japanese rose throughout the early years of the war to become the dominant and almost uncontested power of the Pacific, European authority quickly began to recede. Occupied Vichy France had relinquished control toJapanwithin their Indo-China colonies, while Britain had more than a bit of trouble defending their territories in Singapore, Burma, and even as far to the west as India; Australia and New Zealand had to rely on the United States for protection. Global decolonization in the succeeding decades proved that the former reach of empires was untenable in a new world order. And like the rise of the British Empire throughout the preceding century, it all started on an island.


Ivan Lett is Online Marketing Coordinator for Yale University Press.

To London, with Love: For the Fashionably Late

Ivan Lett—

It has been observed many times, many ways, how late the United States entered World War II, much to the chagrin of its European friends fighting the Axis Powers. My favorite recap comes from Eddie Izzard’s Dress to Kill, where he imitates the arrival of a US cavalryman, remarking “I love the smell of Europe in the morning.” His British counterparts are less than amused: “…hell, where’ve you been!?”

Although textbooks date the start of the war with the Nazi invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, by December 16, 1941, en route to talks in Washington, Winston Churchill proclaimed “This is a new war.” With Britain confined to its island, the lines of Soviet Russia backed up to Moscow, the rest of Europe in the hands of Nazi Germany and its supporters, and Japan’s official decision to go to war with the United States and Britain as its forces dominated the Pacific Rim, the tides of war began to turn. This is the opening of Evan Mawdsley’s December 1941: Twelve Days that Began a World War.

What I appreciate most about Mawdsley’s narrative is that the action and—I daresay excitement—has less to do with the events themselves and more with his writing. Unlike some focused studies of World War II that have become even more difficult to enjoy as the books multiply and room for interesting observation shrinks, December 1941 covers a brief but critical period of the war, seamlessly showing that the start of this “new war” is responsible for the new world that followed. (I should add that this brilliant structure is similarly employed in P.M.H. Bell’s Twelve Turning Points of World War II; more on this to come next week.) Mawdsley’s writing is fast and animated, packed with detail—the good kind. But as this reader noticed along the way, he blends military and political history so well that it borders on a cultural history, a living culture of international war, specific to these days alone.Through his retelling, the tensions and stakes felt by all sides, and a precise positioning of politicians and soldiers alike during this micro-moment, create a world easy for us to imagine, difficult to conceive in scope of importance without this book.

But why am I going on about this when you can read Mawdsley’s countdown articles on the London office’s Yale Books Blog? Fashionably late, or simply long-worded, as always.

Ivan Lett is Online Marketing Coordinator for Yale University Press.