There are those for whom winter means pulling on several waterproof layers and tackling powdery mountains, snow drifts and icy streets. And then there are the rest of us, for whom a good book by a warm fire is the only way to while away the hours until normal amounts of daylight return. Fortunately, this literary season offers many thick volumes of goodness. Read on!
Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West
by Hampton Sides ($26.95)
***image1***We do not simply praise author Hampton Sides because he lives in our town and we fear running into him at Whole Foods. We praise him because his combination of historical storytelling, literary prowess and journalistic ambition leaves us awestruck. His latest, Blood and Thunder, tackles the conquest of our own playground: the American West. Few can live here without the constant realization of the tempestuous, quite bloody, events that led to the American usurpation of New Mexico. But Sides brings to life one of this region's most notable characters, Kit Carson, creating both a hero and villain whose ambition and complexities are a crucial part of the narrative of the West itself. While histories of this area are plentiful, Sides' latest creates a new sense of suspense and wonder over events from the far-distant past, bringing them to life again.
The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina
by Frank Rich ($25.95)
***image5***Is there anything more pleasurable than a Sunday morning, coffee cup in hand, the New York Times spread open to the op-ed section, waiting to find out what Frank Rich has to say? The op-ed columnist/culture critic's frankness (Frank's frankness?) is a rarity among opinion writers because it usually accompanies observations from a writer who can see the forest, the trees and lots of secret bushes in between. The chapter "Reporting for Duty," which recounts the Swift Boat Veterans' portion of John Kerry's losing presidential bid in 2004, is a fine example of Rich's style of weaving sharp political observations into the broader fabric of American life: "When the White House media trust had the president dress up as the circa 1986 Tom Cruise of Top Gun to dance a victory jig, it didn't reckon that he might later face an opponent who could be typecast more persuasively in his own, weightier, Tom Cruise role. Kerry was in real life a comrade of Ron Kovic, whom Cruise played in the 1989 film Born on the Fourth of July." Although the events that comprise Rich's reportage are so recent as to feel as though they are still happening (and indeed they will be, at least until the November 2008 elections), his cool and studied observations place them already into history.
Tête-à-Tête: The Tumultous Lives and Loves of Simone de Beauvoir & Jean-Paul Sartre
by Hazel Rowley ($15.95)
***image7***On the face of it, Jean-Paul Sartre might not seem like the top candidate for a passionate love affair. He was, after all, the existential philosopher who had one of his characters say, "So this is hell. I'd never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the 'burning marl.' Old wives' tales! There's no need for red-hot pokers. Hell is-other people."
Although both Sartre and de Beauvoir proclaimed a belief that individuals were irrelevant, this did not stop them from conducting one of history's most famously specific love affairs, amid a time of extraordinary intellectualism and disturbing world events. Rowley's narrative is engaging, and the book is quite difficult to put down. Let's put it this way: If you enjoyed A Literary Passion, which epistolarily documents Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin's love affair, Tête-à-Tête is a must-read.
The Fellowship: The Untold Story of Frank Lloyd Wright & the Taliesin Fellowship
by Roger Friedland and Harold Zellman ($34.95)
***image8***Several years ago, while attending a conference in Madison, Wis., I had the opportunity to take a guided tour of Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin property. I knew very little about Wright at the time (other than a vague notion that the annoying paragon of an architect in Ayn Rand's Fountainhead had, perhaps, been based on him) and am not, generally speaking, fascinated by architecture as a topic, but by the end of the tour, I was enthralled (and covered, head to toe, in mosquito bites). It was unclear to me if I had been bitten by the Wright bug or was simply under the spell of the guide himself, a member of a fellowship of people who, from what I could tell, had devoted their lives to preserving the place and mythos of the Taliesen property. Even as the tour ended, the details of the talk were becoming somewhat muddled: There had been a fire where? Exactly how many people had been murdered and why? An affair between whom? Was it in the living room that Wright had built all the sight lines to look out upon the field where he had walked home from school as a child? Or in his mother's bedroom? I longed, afterward, for a tome that would explain to me the cultlike atmosphere of the entire experience and that would reiterate the captivating stories I'd heard that day. Apparently, I was not the only one with such a longing; The Fellowship took 10 years to write, and its 600-plus pages delve with exhausting (in a good way) detail into all these tidbits and many, many more, including the influence of Georgi Gurdjieff, who was a spiritual master to Wright's wife.
Through the Children's Gate: A Home in New York
by Adam Gopnik ($25)
***image3***New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik seems to have struck upon a winning formula for his books: location, location, location. In Paris to the Moon, Gopnik displayed his skill at creating a sense of place through exquisite detail and deep observations. One might imagine a return to more familiar terrain would cause the writer to lose such heightened awareness of his surroundings, but this is not the case. Of course, returning to New York to then experience 9.11 might contribute to this sense of newness, since that city changed so abruptly in the aftermath of the attacks. But Gopnik's appeal as a writer is that while his time and place is Circa Right Now, his zeitgeist is timeless and the connections he draws, whether they are humorous or poignant, provide a sense of epiphany and deep satiation.
Special Topics in Calamity Physics
by Marisha Pessl ($25.95)
***image2***My guess is that most readers will love Marisha Pessl's debut novel, but there's a slight chance that some will hate it. It's a wonderful read: sort of breathless and funny and weird and smart. Pessl's main character, Blue van Meer, is beyond precocious; she's walking/talk-talk-talking erudition. But in her final year of high school, Blue will become entangled in a mystery that puts book learning to its test. The book begs for comparisons to Donna Tartt's Secret History, JD Salinger's Catcher in the Rye and basically any story in which a character on the verge of leaving adolescence has a big vocabulary. Pessl's novel is as dark as Tartt's, but more textured and funnier, and Blue is a more ferocious character than Holden (living, after all, in a different time). And, overall, though one might feel slightly worn out and a little manipulated by all the literary name-dropping (each chapter is actually named after a famous work of literature), there's no escaping that this is a great read that may (hopefully) signal the end of vapid chick lit forever.
The Lay of the Land
by Richard Ford ($26.95)
***image6***Perhaps it was shortsighted, but the prospect of a third installment in the saga of Frank Bascombe never occurred to me after I read, 10 years ago, the final, satisfying lines of Independence Day: "And I am in the crowd just as the drums are passing-always the last in line-their boom-boom-booming in my ears and all around. I see the sun above the street, breathe in the day's rich, warm smell. Someone calls out, 'Clear a path, make room, make room, please!' The trumpets go again. My heartbeat quickens. I feel the push, pull, the weave and sway of others."
The end, right? After all, how could Richard Ford hope to improve upon a novel that won both the Pultizer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award? He hasn't here, and yet, and yet, and yet…Ford's writing continues to stun, with his precision of language, and his now iconic main character remains captivating. But The Lay of the Land simply does not compare to its predecessors. No one who loved Independence Day and The Sportswriter will be able to keep from reading Ford's latest, nor should they-even though it's not as good, it's still much better than most novels. But it's slower and less compelling, and the prospect of Bascombe now middle-aged and just as befuddled somehow undoes the sense of rightness with which Independence Day ended.
by Patricia Bosworth ($16.95)
***image4***The sticker on the reissue of Bosworth's 1984 biography of photographer Diane Arbus reads: "The book that inspired the major motion picture starring Nicole Kidman and Robert Downey Jr." If that come-on sounds slightly evasive, it's because the story behind the relationship of this book to the film Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, which opens this month, is likely worth a book of its own (well, at least a six- or seven-page story in Vanity Fair, which is what it got last August). Long story short: Though optioned several times since its publication, Bosworth's biography has only a tenuous connection to the movie. But perhaps the film will whet the public's appetite for more information about Arbus and, if so, Bosworth's very readable work should be the first place they turn (the second should be Janet Malcolm's Diana & Nikon, which is not entirely about Arbus but about photography in general). The biggest shortcoming of Bosworth's book is its lack of reproduction of Arbus' work (the author could not garner permission from the estate), but its compensation is the intimate way in which Bosworth draws the reader into Arbus' life. The photographer, of course, ultimately committed suicide in the 1970s, and her work, considered freakish by many and at least odd by most, went on to be seen as seminal to photography in the last century. Bosworth doesn't analyze Arbus' work or provide academic context but, rather, personalizes and provides cultural context. If her style of biographing strikes a reader's fancy, Bosworth's Anything Your Little Heart Desires about her own father, Bartley Cavanaugh Crum, one of the lawyers who worked against the Hollywood blacklist and committed suicide, is well worth putting on your next to-read list.