1) Alain de Botton, Status Anxiety (Pantheon)
De Botton ó the author of How Proust Can Change Your Life, The Consolations of Philosophy, and The Art of Travel ó finds in Status Anxiety another angle from which he can criss-cross the history of Western civilization. Making the case that "Our Ďegoí or self-conception could be pictured as a leaking balloon, forever requiring the helium of external love to remain inflated, and ever vulnerable to the smallest pinpricks of neglect," he takes in Marxism, the lives of the saints, modern advertising, and such unexpected juxtapositions as a convention of Heinz ketchup salesmen in Chicago in 1902 and Herodotosís account of Xerxesís invasion of Greece in 480 BC. More attractive than his not very surprising conclusions is how he gets there.
2) Rachel Cohen, A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists 1854Ė1967 (Random House).
Rachel Cohenís book of "chance meetings" (the phrase comes from an essay by Willa Cather) among writers and artists spanning a century goes down so smoothly, you could easily dismiss it as a mere collection of anecdotes. But beginning with a visit by Henry James Sr. and Henry James Jr. (age 11) to the New York City studio of photographer Mathew Brady and ending with Norman Mailer and Robert Lowell preparing to march on the Pentagon, Cohen evinces a scholarís rigor and a fanís devotion. And her book gains heft, becoming a beguiling daisy chain of anecdote and insight, a unique cultural history.
3) Bob Dylan, Chronicles: Volume One (Simon & Schuster)
This is not a book to set the record straight. Rather, itís a disembodied account (there are few dates) leaping backward and forward in time, from days in Hibbing to first days in folk-obsessed 1960 Greenwich Village to the recording of his 1989-released Oh Mercy in New Orleans. What you do get is great storytelling ó whether Dylan is talking about meeting his hero Dave Van Ronk or poet Archibald MacLeish or describing the junk-strewn apartments of friends with whom he crashed. We see all this through his eyes, as if for the first time, wide open with a sense of discovery.
4) Nick Flynn, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City (Norton)
Scituate native Flynn is a 27-year-old living in a decrepit loft in Chinatown, nursing a growing alcohol and drug problem, and working at the Pine Street Inn when he discovers his long-absent father ó a resident at Nickís place of employment. Another Bullshit Night is about how Nick lets his father slowly, cautiously back into his life, researching the older manís wild tales and history and also relating the life and suicide of his mother. Flynn, a poet, created a sensation when an edited version of his tale ran in the New Yorker last summer; the full-length treatment does not disappoint.
5) Thomas Frank, Whatís the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (Metropolitan)
Who knew when he published this book back in June that Thomas Frank ó editor of the indie lit-cultural mag the Baffler ó would emerge as the post-election pundit? This Kansan posed the key question raised by the political life of his native state: why do so many of Americaís working poor vote persistently against their own economic interests, allowing the wealthy Republican beneficiaries of their loyalty to blight their neighborhoods and siphon off their wealth? A sympathetic observer, Frank looks at how Republicans have co-opted the very idea of agrarian populism and made it their own.
6) Steven Greenblatt, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (Norton)
For nearly 400 years, William Shakespeareís life has seemed so bland, so banal, so boring, some have concluded it must have been lived by a more interesting fellow, like Christopher Marlowe or the Earl of Oxford. Over the past decade, however, scholars have put the Bard back into his biography via improved research and some intelligent speculation. Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt, the general editor of The Norton Shakespeare and the author of Hamlet in Purgatory, digs even deeper in the dust with this latest effort, and though he forbears to move the Bardís bones, he does shift them into a more coherent arrangement. Itís the bleakest portrait of Shakespeare thatís been painted so far, and almost certainly the truest.
7) Seth Mnookin, Hard News: The Scandals at the New York Times and Their Meaning for American Media (Random House)
Mnookin relates the story of Jayson Blair, of course, but also the much more important story of Howell Raines, the Pulitzer PrizeĖwinning journalist who as executive editor tried to remake the Gray Lady and almost destroyed it. Writing in the Phoenix, Dan Kennedy saw Mnookinís book as a cautionary tale not only for journalists but for any large corporation or organization: "Rainesís management style ó top-down, egomaniacal, and intimidating to the point where no one dared bring him bad news ó not only had created an environment that could let someone like Jayson Blair thrive but also had undermined the teamwork thatís necessary at a collective enterprise such as a metropolitan daily newspaper."
8) Art Spiegelman, In the Shadow of No Towers (Pantheon)
Spiegelmanís first full-length comic book since the second installment of his Pulitzer-winning Maus in 1992, In the Shadow of No Towers is only 38 pages long ó not a novelistic treatment like his last book but a diary designed in the form of the old broadsheet Sunday comics from which Spiegelman first drew inspiration. Living with his family in SoHo, he witnesses the September 11 attacks at close range. Onto 10x14-1/2 cardboard-backed high-gloss pages, with references to everything from the Katzenjammer Kids to Krazy Kat, he pours all he knows about American history and American comics, giving a unity of design and purpose to his free-floating anxiety and outrage.
9) Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, de Kooning: An American Master (Alfred A. Knopf)
Jackson Pollock has been the subject of several full-length biographies, but this is the first devoted to Willem de Kooning, who when he died in 1997, at the age of 92, was acknowledged as one of the greatest American painters. Although long-winded, it will serve as a cornerstone for any further study of the artist, and it provides an invaluable chronicle of his life and his creative process, as well as astute analysis of his work and of the cultural climate of his times.
10) Dubravka Ugresic, Thank You for Not Reading (Dalkey Archive)
Mostly ignored when it was published late last year, Ugresicís brilliant and biting book of essays, with its spot-on skewering of the publishing industry, deserves another push. Not concerned primarily with reading or even literature, Ugresic instead focuses on the marketing of authors and their product. In her argument, itís not just that we live in a world where Joan Collins opens an international book fair and authors spend as much time pitching their proposals as writing their books, itís that the supreme subservience to commercial pressure has oversimplified a market in which all worth is weighed on the same scale, whether the topic is desperate housewives or Confucius.
Issue Date: December 24 - 30, 2004
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