Book Digest: December 11, 2006

William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism; New Glass Architecture; Fashion Show: Paris Style; Original Zinn; Bookworm; The Crimson Portrait; In Katrina’s Wake; Ginsberg's Collected Poems, 1947-1997; Travel and Photography: Off the Charts; Spy: The Funny Years; Not Enough Indians; Steel Drivin’ Man

If you are a book store habitué or are shopping for people who like books, you have noticed that booksellers are loaded up with books that used to be called “coffee-table books.” (Whatever is a coffee table?) My sharp-eyed editor noticed this week’s rendition of Book Digest had unconsciously included a number of books with a particularly visual bent. There are, of course, oodles of such that I should point out as worthy acquisitions. (And if you wait until January, they will probably hit the remainder tables at substantially lower prices.)

In the spirit of the season (buy, buy, buy!) and as my rare bow to consumer service, I feel obliged to provide a short list. Have a look at The Photobook: A History, Volume II by Martin Parr and Gerry Badger, My America by Christopher Morris, Stone: A Substantial Witness by David Scheinbaum, Wasted Youth by Tim Nobel and Sue Webster, Elephant by Steve Bloom, and Approaching Nowhere by Jeffrey Brouws. There are many more picture books, but this is a good starting point.

And in the area of me (a favorite subject)—I am happy to trumpet the publication of Conversations With Thomas McGuane, edited by hyper-literate Nebraskan Beef Torrey, in which my 2002 conversation with McGuane is included. Also, there is a wonderful new story by McGuane in the recent New Yorker: “Tango.”

Happy reading, happy holidays, and happy trails to you.

William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism by Robert D. Richardson
I have always wished that Warren Zevon had written about the more worthy James Brothers, Henry and William, instead of the bloodthirsty criminal brothers who have been mythologized as heroes. Anyway, while I am mostly in favor of the current wave of short biographical essays, such is William James’s crucial place in American intellectual development (mentor to W.E.B. Dubois and Gertrude Stein, among others), that new books on him must be noted. Robert D. Richardson, who wrote a well-regarded biography of Thoreau, spent 10 years digging through unpublished materials and sources to fashion another so-called “definitive” biography of the great American philosopher/psychologist and author of the seminal The Varieties of Religious Experience. So if you weren’t sated by Louis Menand’s great work The Metaphysical Club, then by all means help yourself to this hefty portion of Jamesiana.

» Read an excerpt from William James

New Glass Architecture by Brent Richards with photographs by Dennis Gilbert
Not being particularly knowledgeable or attuned to architecture, I found this book also serves as a primer in the history (from Chartres Cathedral to the Crystal Palace) of the use of glass as a building material, while also focusing on the changes in methodology and aesthetics in glass architecture since the ‘90s. Additionally, it features 25 case studies (with more than 200 photographs by excellent architectural photographer Dennis Gilbert) of recent glass constructions from around the world, including the Chapel of St. Ignatius in Seattle, the Condé Nast Café in New York, the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia, the Laban Dance Centre in London, and Torre Agbar in Barcelona. It’s pretty cool stuff—which is the extent of my critical vocabulary in architecture.

Fashion Show: Paris Style by Didier Grumbach
Happily (for me, but that’s another story), I am not responsible for assessing what the Fashion Show exhibition has to do with the mission of the Museum of Fine Arts. Ever since the groundbreaking Herb Ritts exhibition of the mid-1990s, the Boston MFA has occasionally taken upon itself the promulgation of such landmarks as “Speed, Style, and Beauty: Cars from the Ralph Lauren Collection”—no doubt causing head shaking and even sneering in some quarters of the serious art world. Anyway, as a book, it documents 10 of the 2006 Paris haute couture collections—and argues for the continued centrality of Paris as the world fashion capital. If fashion on a high level is your cup, this brew’s for you.

» See a preview of Fashion Show

Original Zinn: Conversations on History and Politics by Howard Zinn with David Barsamian
Historian Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States, is a mentor and a friend, and I am pleased to report that his writings and speeches have, almost without fail, provided me with a useful attitude and prism through which to view past and current history. This slim volume presents Howard in eight dialogues with David Barsamian, founder and director of Alternative Radio.

Arundhati Roy accurately opines in the book’s foreword:
Zinn’s work exemplifies an approach to history that is radical, regardless of its subject or geographical location. He tells us the untold story, the story of the world’s poor, the world’s workers, the world’s homeless, the world’s oppressed, the people who don’t really qualify as real people in official histories. Howard Zinn painstakingly unearths the details that the powerful airbrush away. He brings official secrets and forgotten histories into the light and, in so doing, changes the official narrative that the powerful have constructed for us. He strips the grinning mask off the myth of the benign U.S. Empire. Not to read Howard Zinn is to do a disservice to yourself.
That sounds right to me.

Bookworm by Rosamond Purcell
A few years ago, photographer Abelardo Morrell published an impressive black-and-white tome, A Book of Books, which reoriented (as great art does) the way one might look at these commonplace artifacts, books, that seem to have receded into a kind of cultural no-man’s land. Now comes photographer and collage artist Rosamond Purcell (well known for her collaboration with zoologist/historian Stephen Jay Gould), whose lifelong exploration of this subject matter presents a retrospective of 125 color reproductions that mine the same vein as Morrell’s—albeit in a strikingly different and original mode. Sven Birkerts, who provides the book’s introduction, claims: “To look at a number of Purcell’s works in sequence is to be drawn away into a stream of associations and recognitions that could threaten to leave the visual behind altogether were the original colors and textures of the thing itself not so brilliantly immediate.”

» See a preview of Bookworm

The Crimson Portrait by Jody Shields
This book is one of those happy reading accidents that happen more and more as I stray from the usual venues of information and recommendation in order to find satisfying reading. I picked this off my towering pile of incoming mail with no foreknowledge of Jody Shields or her first novel, The Fig Eater. In this story set in 1915, a newly widowed, upper-class British woman barely has time to mourn her fallen British officer husband, when his wish to turn his large country estate into a military hospital is rapidly realized—as a retreat for the war’s most gravely and irreparably wounded. The widow takes up with a wounded soldier whose bandaged face she cannot see. As fate would have it, an ambitious surgeon, with the help of an American artist, present her with the eerie opportunity to remake her wounded lover into the image of her husband. (The story, apparently, is inspired by Shields’s discovery of a hitherto barely acknowledged collaboration between artists and surgeons during the Great War.) Promising plot aside, the prose is assured and accurate.

» Read an excerpt from The Crimson Portrait

In Katrina’s Wake: Portraits of Loss From an Unnatural Disaster, photographs by Chris Jordan with essays by Bill McKibben, Elizabeth Royte, and Susan Zakin
Remember Katrina? If you are not disaster-fatigued, have a look-see at photographer Chris Jordan’s work. He took it upon himself to visually document the tragedy of what followed the so-called “greatest natural disaster in the history of the United States.” In 50 sparse, full-color photographs that run the gamut of ruination and beauty, the unremitting allure of the Crescent City is uncannily exhibited.

Collected Poems 1947-1997 by Allen Ginsberg
While attending Columbia College in the 1940s, Allen Ginsberg began a close friendship with crazies William Burroughs, Neal Cassady, and Jack Kerouac. He later became associated with the San Francisco Renaissance in the 1950s and, of course, the Beat movement. After jobs as a laborer, sailor, and market researcher—the kind of modus operandi poets are famous for—in 1956 Ginsberg published his first volume of poetry, the groundbreaking Howl and Other Poems. While I was much impressed by the powerful, anthemic Howl, it wasn’t until I heard it read aloud by Ginsberg that I grasped its full emotional impact, as it moves from normal voice to being shouted, almost screamed, at the end:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats
floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,
who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs
who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the
scholars of war,
who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull,
And so it is with great relish that I revisit the collected (for the first time) poetic oeuvre of this modern-day Walt Whitman. Ginsberg’s work, which arguably altered American poetry, is usefully arranged in order of its composition, and included here are all the poems from the earlier volume, Collected Poems 1947-1980, and from Ginsberg’s subsequent and final three books of new poetry: White Shroud, Cosmopolitan Greetings, and Death & Fame. Also found in this tome are extra goodies: illustrations by Ginsberg’s artist friends; illuminating notes to the poems prepared by the Ginsberg himself; and extensive indexes, prefaces, and various other materials that accompanied the original publications. At over a thousand pages there is more than enough material here for even the most ardent Ginsberg devotee.

Travel and Photography: Off the Charts by Lou Jones
Lou Jones is one of Boston’s most multifaceted, multitalented photographers, and his work is both literally and figuratively all over the map. He has been a successful commercial shooter with an impressive (if you are impressed by such things) array of top-flight corporate clients, and he has done ground-breaking editorial work, such as his chronicling of death row inmates in Final Exposure, Portraits from Death Row. Jones also, on his own initiative, has photographed the last five or six Olympic Games, as well as numerous other far-flung projects. I suspect that Jones is of an endangered species—which makes both his work and persona so compelling. This opus does go some distance to prove that point.

Spy: The Funny Years by Kurt Andersen, Graydon Carter, and George Kalogerakis
Christopher Buckley’s fatuous New York Times review of this book is just the kind of thing Spy magazine would have skewered for log-rolling in the first degree. The review begins with the faux-Churchillian pronouncement that every decade gets the magazine it deserves, and eventually descends to lionizing Carter and Kurt Andersen (everyone seems to forget George Kalogerakis). That aside, it must be said that Spy magazine was a wonderful adjunct to the ‘80s—personally, I have been forever indebted for the invaluable phrase “short-fingered vulgarians”—introducing Separated at Birth, Logrolling in Our Time, the Liz Smith Tote Board, Blurb-o-Mat, Party Poop, Reviews of Reviewers, and countless other original and smart features. Not to mention the unleashing of talented young writers on societal excesses and silliness. And also there were the funny and exciting graphics that this coffee-table book does quite well in presenting. Andersen and Carter have gone on to become the cultural poo-bahs on which they no doubt would have heaped much well-deserved scorn, and Kalogerakis has slipped into respectability as a New York Times op-ed editor. So it goes.

Not Enough Indians by Harry Shearer
Harry Shearer, whose CV includes stints at Saturday Night Live, membership in the incomparable This Is Spinal Tap and appearances as a cast member in various of the Christopher Guest ensemble pieces, as well as a long-running syndicated radio show, Le Show, has published his first novel, which, depending on your level of skepticism, has received accolades from heavy hitters Carl Hiaasen, Steve Martin, and Andrei Codrescu or some heavy-duty log-rolling by his cronies. Not Enough Indians is set in a bust-out, small upstate New York town whose city fathers get the brilliant idea to apply for Indian tribal status and open a casino—a plot that promises much narrative havoc and a vehicle for Shearer’s wicked satire. As Codrescu suggests: “This is a brilliant and crisp page turner and answers the question that every novel must answer anew in every age: How is the road to hell paved with good intentions?”

» Read an excerpt from Not Enough Indians

Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend by Scott Reynolds Nelson
At more than 200 recorded versions, “John Henry“ is claimed to be one of the most recorded folk songs in the American songbook—Peter Seeger’s may be the most well-known. Historian Scott Reynolds’s deft detection and research finds the person behind the icon: prisoner #497, a 5'1" convict from Elizabeth, N.J., incarcerated in the infamous penitentiary in Richmond, Va. And Henry did in fact challenge a steam drill in the construction of the C&O Railroad’s mile-long Lewis Tunnel—and indeed drilled faster. The New York Times-man William Grimes succinctly concludes: “What Mr. Nelson proves is the undying power of the John Henry myth, which reduces almost to a pinpoint the historical figure he resurrects from the archives. Whether or not John William Henry is the man seems almost irrelevant. He is a fascinating guide to the world of Southern railroads and the grim landscape of Reconstruction.” As both the history of a song and a person, this monograph tells a compelling story usually left out of history books. Nelson offers this sage observation: “Even today as those songs and stories are pushes down fiber-optic pathways, they still travel along the path laid by the nations’ railroads, along channels bored by John Henry and hundreds of men like him. If John Henry’s bones—first in the penitentiary, now at the Smithsonian—could speak to us today, he might have two words to share with us. Slow down.”

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