boston.com Arts and Entertainment your connection to The Boston Globe

Short Takes

Siegfried Sassoon: A Life
By Max Egremont
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 639 pp., illustrated, $35

Siegfried Sassoon, who lived until 1967, will always be known as the poet of World War I, the shattered innocent who wrote ''The Old Huntsman" and ''Counter-Attack." As an officer at the front lines of the Western Front, he witnessed and wrote of the horrors of the trenches. Returning home in 1917, wounded for the second time, he accused the British of prolonging the war for political ends. Lucky to avoid a court-martial, he was luckier still to find himself sent to Craiglockhart, in Scotland, and put under the sensitive care of Dr. W. H. R. Rivers. Rivers, treating him for a nervous breakdown and shell shock, saved his sanity and his life.

This part of Sassoon's life is well known. Less familiar is his background (wealthy Jewish father, privileged English mother); his self-tormenting homosexuality; his at first blissful, then wretched marriage; his adored and rebellious son; his final conversion to Roman Catholicism. Even as a young man, he led an oddly divided life -- a poet, a frustrated homosexual, a sporting country gentleman, a guest at the grandest English houses, and a Jew. Later, actively pursuing a homosexual affair with the histrionic aesthete Stephen Tennant, he maintained his position as a war hero and country squire.

Egremont, who had access to private letters and papers not seen before, seems to have made use of all of them, providing an almost too exquisitely detailed account of Sassoon's life. But the poet who wrote of ''the unreturning army that was youth; / The legions who have suffered and are dust" seems worthy of the excess.

The Men in Your Life: Timeless Advice and Wisdom on Managing the Opposite Sex
By Genevieve Antoine Dariaux
Morrow, 288 pp., $14.95

Whatever made a major publisher decide to republish this nearly 40-year-old self-help book is a mystery to me. Perhaps the success of ''French Women Don't Get Fat" encouraged them to try to convince us that French women know something we don't. They refrain from mentioning that the book was published in the United Kingdom in 1968, making the ''timeless wisdom" seem weirdly out of time and often truly offensive.

In the world of this book, men work (only at very high-paying jobs) and women stay home, planning tasty dinners, inventing charming conversation, caring for their looks. A gloomy face, slovenly appearance, and critical words are major sins. What I imagine was a perplexed young editor made one change to the text, substituting Brad Pitt for, I suspect, Cary Grant. This one change only makes the book more bewildering. If Brad Pitt exists in this world, can the following truism exist along with him? ''The education of young girls has always centered around the art of 'how to catch a husband,' and the education of boys has centred around the necessity of 'how to avoid feminine traps.' "

Golden Boy: Memories of a Hong Kong Childhood
By Martin Booth
St. Martin's, 342 pp., $25.95

Martin Booth was a curious and solitary 7-year-old when he arrived with his parents in Hong Kong in 1953. His father, a minor British functionary with major pretensions, was posted there along with his adventurous wife for three years. Booth recalled this period in vivid detail for the benefit of his own children after learning in 2002 that he had a fatal brain tumor. He died in 2004.

Booth, a blond gweilo (a white Western child), was allowed to wander the streets of Kowloon and later the slopes of the Peak alone, befriending shopkeepers, beggars, opium addicts, and more. With few school friends, he made his own fun or accompanied his mother on her frequent forays into local Chinese culture. His father referred to these trips as ''going native" and had as little to do with them as possible. Prissy and critical, Booth's father ''became a lonely, disenchanted and bitter man," while his mother, a lively, beautiful woman, became spiteful and dissatisfied. Booth needed little encouragement to share his mother's contempt for his father, but she provided more than was necessary. He continued to idealize his mother, demonize his father, and long for China, where he returned many times in person and in thoughtful prose.

Barbara Fisher is a freelance critic who lives in New York.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES
 
Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives