The Lives of the Mitford Sisters
By Laura Thompson
St. Martin's, 388 pp., illustrated, $29.99
Once they were as famous, or notorious, as any of today's reality television stars. Born from 1904 to 1920 into England's landed gentry, blessed with health, wealth, beauty, and a ravishingly eccentric childhood, the six girls grew to up blaze wildly divergent paths. "One can chant the careers of the Mitford sisters in the manner of Henry VIII's wives," notes author Laura Thompson: "Writer; Countrywoman; Fascist; Nazi; Community; Duchess." She's hardly the first to chronicle the sisters; books about the Mitfords became a cottage industry even while most were still living ("I do wish people would stop writing books," Deborah, the youngest, remarked upon the publication of a scathing biography of sister Unity.)
Lively, gossipy, and at times quite moving, Thompson's is fine addition. She pays special attention to Nancy, the eldest sister, a novelist ("Love in a Cold Climate") whose snappy wit masked a passionate, often lonely soul; and to Diana, the third sister, whose marriage to Fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley landed her in prison and left her a pariah — a pair of magnetic poles the other sisters gravitated toward or away from. "The Six" is at its strongest when mapping the complicated family dynamics; where Thompson occasionally falters is in making sense of some in the family's repugnant politics. They were hardly alone among British aristocracy in flirting with Nazism. Still, it's difficult (perhaps impossible) to suspend one's disgust at Diana's friendship with Hitler, let alone her sister Unity's hero worship of him. All six, Thompson points out, "came of age when the world went mad," and it's fair to say that some of them went (glamorously, fascinatingly, gruesomely) mad along with it.
THE SELFISHNESS OF OTHERS:
An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism
By Kristin Dombek
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 160 pp., paperback, $13
"We know the new selfishness when we see it," writes Kristin Dombek. Narcissists are everywhere these days: Just ask the Internet, where website after website offers support for those hoping to identify and protect themselves from those monsters of self-absorption. "So I will try to take up the topic of the narcissism epidemic objectively," Dombek promises. "If using the word I turns out to be a symptom of narcissism, you won't hear it from me again."
Cultural journalist Dombek follows the history of how we think and talk about narcissism — from Ovid and Plato, to Freud and Kant, to MTV and the DSM. It turns out, she argues, that the very term is always shifting, never well-defined. Freud saw narcissists in gay men, Tom Wolfe described it in the Me Generation of the 1970s, and after 1979, when two social psychologists developed the Narcissistic Personality Index, we began to see it everywhere. "Long before Freud's narcissists," Dombek writes, "Ovid told us a story that was only partly about the dangers of vanity. It was also about the dangers of locking yourself in lament, gazing on one who is turning away, thinking she or he is so different from you. . ." Perhaps, Dombek suggests in this brilliant little bomb of a book, we should look in a different direction.
HOW EVERYTHING BECAME WAR AND THE MILITARY BECAME EVERYTHING:
Tales From the Pentagon
By Rosa Brooks
Simon and Schuster, 448 pp., $29.95
Centuries ago, Old Norse warriors draped themselves in animal furs to ready themselves for battle; Navajo men at war spoke a specific dialect they called "twisted language," which they dropped once returning home. Holy books are full of instructions that armed combatants must wash after warfare, literally and ritually cleansing themselves from the violence and death on the battlefield before rejoining peaceful society. "The idea of war as toxic to ordinary civil life is common," Rosa Brooks notes, part of a world view in which war and peace are seen as entirely distinct, separate spheres.
Such a division no longer exists, Brooks argues; for decades now, but with increased urgency after Sept. 11, 2001, changes in technology, combatants, and both international and domestic politics have "erode[d] the lines between the world of war and the world of peace." More and more, American armed forces perform what were not previously considered military tasks, from gathering intelligence to responding to disasters to yes, the various activities described as nation-building. In this clear-eyed account of her time at the Pentagon, Brooks, a human-rights lawyer by training, makes an eloquent case for just what is at risk: "[W]hen war becomes the norm, rather than the exception, both morality and law begin to lose their guiding force."
Kate Tuttle can be reached at email@example.com.