New York Society Library Writing Life Poets
In Case You Missed It Part 8: Selected Acquisitions
The Acquisitions Department is back again with another installment of noteworthy recent arrivals—a highly subjective, small selection of books that caught our eye. The books here were culled from our August, September, and October new book lists. There is no substitute for slowly scanning the monthly lists in their entirety, available on the website and in the Library. Each contains 200 – 250 titles, and hopefully something for every reader in our membership. The current list is here.
Barren Lives | Graciliano Ramos
Graciliano Ramos (1892-1953) is considered a giant in Brazilian literature, whose influence is still felt today. Vidas Secas (Barren Lives) was first published in Brazil in 1938, shortly after his release from prison for political activity. Although barely 100 pages, it is considered a major work in the canon of the country’s literature. The book follows a family of four peasants (and their dog, a major character in the book) searching for work in the drought-ravaged regions of Brazil’s Northeast. Ramos employs an unusual structure: 15 short pieces that can be read out of sequence, but that effectively illustrate the grinding, cyclical nature of poverty and drought. Although Ramos remains little known in the United States—I think the only other book by him in print in English translation is Sao Bernando, published by New York Review Books—Vidas Secas has over 10,000 ratings on Goodreads. According to The Paris Review, it has gone into more than 100 printings in Brazil. Read more about Ramos and Vidas Secas in this article by Brazilian novelist Paolo Scott.
Our Riches | Kaouther Adimi (translated by Chris Andrews)
Published in France in 2017, Our Riches was shortlisted for the Goncourt and won the Prix Renaudot and other awards. The title of the novel comes from Les Vraies Richesses, Algiers' famous bookstore, library and publishing house, founded in the mid-1930s by 20-year-old Algerian Frenchman named Edmond Charlot. His life story, told in diary form, is alternated with a narrated account of Algeria's resistance to colonial rule, the fate of the bookstore after independence, and another twenty-year-old character, Ryad, who arrives in 2017 to empty the old shop and repaint it before a developer turns it into a beignet shop. NPR called it “a loving book. Charlot's love of literature illuminates his sections and glows through the present-day ones.” Library Journal praises it as both “a gorgeous paean to literature and historically astute observation; highly recommended for book lovers everywhere.”
Mojo Hand | J.J. Phillips
Phillips was 22 when her only novel was published in 1966. It tells the story of a young black woman from San Francisco who, enchanted by the music of a blues singer named Blacksnake Brown (based on Lightnin’ Hopkins), leaves the comforts of middle-class life to seek the musician out in North Carolina. A messy romantic entanglement follows. Phillips herself described the novel as "a story of one person's journey from a non-racialized state to the racialized real world.“ Over the years, the book has been reissued once, praised as “ahead of its time,” and slowly accrued a devoted following of admirers among the cult of neglected books. Read Lucy Scholes’s enthusiastic appreciation of the novel posted in spring 2020 on the Paris Review website.
Other Moons: Vietnamese Short Stories of the American War and its Aftermath (Quan Manh Ha & Joseph Babcock, eds.)
This anthology of twenty stories by Vietnamese writers describe their experience of what they call the American War, and provides Anglophone audiences an unparalleled opportunity to experience how the Vietnamese think and write about the conflict that consumed their country from 1954 to 1975—a perspective still largely missing from American narratives. The stories are wide-ranging in style, from social realism to tales of the fantastic, and although they are among the most widely anthologized and popular pieces of short fiction about the war in Vietnam, they appear here for the first time in English.
English Monsters | James Scudamore
James Scudamore begins his new novel in well-trod territory, a dreary British public school. Max has just turned ten and is sent from his grandfather’s farm to boarding school. There, he finds a wonderful group of friends and a less wonderful group of adults. Similarities to other British boarding school novels ends here. Scudamore jumps the action from the friends' adolescence to their middle age, where a long-held secret surfaces with devastating results. The Guardian says “The suspense builds in the beautifully paced closing section, as the embers of past trauma glow and crackle into life. English Monsters is one of the most well-observed novels I’ve read on the way that childhood abuse lingers into adulthood.” For fans of Edward St. Aubyn and Donna Tartt.
Telephone | Percival Everett
“God bless Percival Everett, whose dozens of idiosyncratic books demonstrate a majestic indifference to literary trends, the market or his critics” declared The Wall Street Journal on the publication of Everett's twenty-first novel. Known early in his career for formal experimentation, Everett has written more traditional novels of late, though they remain challenging and idiosyncratic. This most recent novel is ostensibly about a middle-age couple dealing with the onset of their daughter's serious illness. But there also a campus sublot and a thrilling resolution involving border politics. Somehow, all of this coheres into a taut and melancholy wonder. From The Los Angeles TImes: “Like watching a skilled juggler execute a six-ball fountain, the experience of reading Telephone is astonishing.”
When Edith Wharton died in 1937, her library of more than five thousand volumes was dispersed and sold. Decades later, it was reassembled and returned to The Mount, her historic Massachusetts estate. In What a Library Means to a Woman, Sheila Liming examines the contents of Wharton’s library and explores the connection between personal libraries and self-making in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American culture, and how readers and collectors like Wharton come to “view their library collections not only as extensions of their selves but as ambulatory homes or vessels for the housing of the self.” Her analysis makes lively use of Wharton scholarship, and studies of book history, material and print culture, and the histories (and pathologies) of collecting. This review in the Los Angeles Review of Books is recommended.
Johnny Jenkins was an internationally known rare book dealer and president of the Antiquarian Booksellers of America—he also worked undercover for the FBI recovering rare books stolen by mafia figures and was a champion poker player. At the time of this death in 1989, Jenkins was about to be indicted for the arson of his rare books, warehouse, and offices, while another investigation implicated him in forgeries of historical documents. Rumors of million-dollar gambling debts swirled around him, along with the threats of irate mafia figures he’d fingered and Texas collectors he’d swindled. When his body was found in the Colorado River, was it suicide or murder that brought him there? Vinson, a rare book dealer himself, tells the whole sordid story. And you thought rare book dealers were a tweedy, quiet lot who spent most of their time discussing the esoteric details of fine bindings.
The Writer's Library: The Authors You Love on the Books that Changed Their Lives (edited by Nancy Pearl and Jeff Schwager)
Librarian/critic Nancy Pearl ("Book Lust" series) and writer, editor, producer, and playwright Jeff Schwager interviewed 22 authors about what books are most meaningful to them and how these books have influenced their own work. The list of authors interviewed includes Richard Ford, Jennifer Egan, Siri Hustvedt, Donna Tartt, and Maaza Mengiste.
It’s been a good season for books on books. Other recent arrivals include Shaun Bythell’s Confessions of a Bookseller; David Pryce-Jones, Signatures: Literary Encounters of a Lifetime; Oxford Illustrated History of the Book (James Raven, ed.); Anthony Grafton’s Inky Fingers: The Making of Books in Early Modern Europe.
Lives of Houses (edited by Kate Kennedy and Hermione Lee)
What can a house tell us about the person who lives there? Do we shape the buildings we live in, or are we formed by the places we call home? And why are we especially fascinated by the houses of the famous and often long-dead? In this wide-ranging collection, writers such as Simon Armitage, Julian Barnes, David Cannadine, Roy Foster, Margaret MacMillan, and Jenny Uglow contribute essays on the houses of great writers, artists, composers, and politicians of the past. Subjects include W.H. Auden, William and Dorothy Wordsworth, Yeats, H.G. Wells, Benjamin Disraeli, Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen, and many more. Herminone Lee is the widely acclaimed biographer of Edith Wharton, Penelope Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf, and most recently, Tom Stoppard.
Blaisdell, a CUNY professor of English, combines a rigorous close reading of Anna Karenina with a detailed study of Tolstoy’s life during the four years he was writing his best-loved novel, using letters, memoirs, and more, including the writings of Sofia Tolstoya. Blaisdell’s project was not taken lightly: he admits to being possessed by Anna Karenina, having read it 20 times in various translations before learning Russian so that he might read it in the original. “While this is a scholarly book, Blaisdell never slips into overly complex academic language. Instead, the pace and the novelistic approach to Tolstoy’s life during this period make it an easy, absorbing read essential for Anna enthusiasts and of interest to those intrigued by seeing a book made and remade until it is perfect” (Booklist). “A revelatory portrait of a towering writer” (Kirkus). The Los Angeles Review of Books recently published this thoughtful review by Janet Fitch.
The Library owns a number of volumes in Melville House’s “Last Interview” series, including this entry published over the summer. One of the “other conversations” included is Morrison’s first published interview from December 1973 in Publisher’s Weekly. For more, see Morrison’s entry in University Press of Mississippi’s “Literary Conversations” series. Read about the Library’s collections of author (and other) interviews, in this article from our website.
Dostoyevsky Reads Hegel in Siberia and Bursts into Tears | László F. Földényi
These 13 essays look at many subjects: Dostoyevsky, Rilke, Goethe, Artaud, William Blake, Mary Shelley, Goya, Caspar David Friedrich, secularism, melancholy, sleep, memory, and fear and anxiety. But the primary topic at hand is what the author views as the spiritual and metaphysical consequences of the Enlightenment. Földényi laments the loss of mystery in contemporary life, "the feeling that there is something incomparably greater than my own self." This, he argues, was suppressed during the Enlightenment, which promoted the idea that "only time and intellectual preparation were required in order to cast light upon all things with no dark corners remaining anywhere unilluminated by the light of reason." James Wood in The New Yorker: “fierce, provoking... few books have as utterly engrossed and powerfully alienated me as this one has.”
On Lighthouses | Jazmina Barrera
Home for Mexican-born writer Jazmina Barrera is currently a dimly-lit NYC apartment. To escape, she “collects” lighthouses—visiting them, describing them. Her book is a collection of essays, each organized around a specific lighthouse; cumulatively, it offers an idiosyncratic history and personal mediation on these structures and their appearances in literature and art—from Robert Louis Stevenson, whose father and grandfather engineered them, to Virginia Woolf, Ray Bradbury, Ingmar Bergman and Edward Hopper. The book is also part memoir and personal investigation into the meaning of collecting.
Landscapes: The Selected Writings of J.B. Jackson | J.B. Jackson
John Brinckerhoff (J.B.) Jackson (1909-1996) wrote extensively about “the vernacular landscape,” mostly in the United States. His essays are compulsively readable, and his pioneering views on “human geography” and “cultural landscape” are unorthodox, counterintuitive, often contrarian and controversial, but passionately and clearly argued. The sensibility on display in his work has been influential, from architectural criticism to (in this writer’s opinion, anyway) the work of photographers like Stephen Shore, William Eggleston, and Joel Sternfeld. As his biographer put it, he “enabled Americans to see everyday America through its places and spaces as they evolved over time.” “Everyday America” means gas stations, suburban lawns, street corners, off-highway commercial districts, car culture, disposable roadside America, where the imprint of man is unmistakable. Landscape, to Jackson, is “a complex and moving work of art, the transcript of a significant collective experience.” The historical essays compiled here are especially appealing. This work collects essays from the magazine he founded in the early 1950s, Landscapes.
A Schoolmaster's War: Harry Rée, British Agent in the French Resistance (edited by Jonathan Rée)
A school teacher at the start of the war, Harry Rée renounced his pacifist stance with the fall of France in 1940. He was deployed into a secret branch of the British army and parachuted into central France in April 1943. A Schoolmaster’s War is woven together from unpublished memoirs, essays and letters found by his son Jonathan after his death in 1991. I recently told a member about this book, a vigorous reader with an interest in espionage, and he wrote back enthusiastically that it “is a marvelous book, and it’s the real thing — a first-hand account that portrays both the heroism of the agents and the terrible costs paid by the S.O.E. members and — especially — the French civilians who worked with them.”
Transformation of the African American Intelligentsia, 1880-2012 | Martin Kilson (Foreword by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.)
A 2014 installment in Harvard’s W.E.B. Dubois Lecture Series. Kilson, former Professor of Government at Harvard, explores how a modern African American intelligentsia developed through the 19th and 20th centuries in the face of institutionalized racism. Kilson died in 2019 at age 88, and was the first tenured African-American professor at Harvard. He was an influential mentor to scholars in the field of African American history, known to take controversial stances on important issues.
British Summer Time Begins: The School Summer Holidays 1930-1980 | Ysenda Maxtone Graham
A “delightful” “joyously addictive” and “wonderfully evocative and unashamedly nostalgic” (The Guardian) oral history of summer in England during the mid-20th century. In the TLS, Laura Thompson praises the book’s “remarkable job of awakening the reader’s deepest and most tender memories: with a deceptively light touch it took me by the hand, and led me across sunlit lawns towards my own childhood” adding that its “finest achievement is its ability to convey a significant nothingness. Graham evokes the muted magic of empty hours and near- silences, the invisible ‘building of imaginative capital’, the state of mind that exists at the edge of definability.” Why the 1980 cut-off? That is “the year before IBM introduced its first Personal Computer.”
While African Americans were denied the legal rights, privileges, and duties of citizenship during the early history of the United States, black writers were simultaneously articulating a theory of citizenship—not simply as a response to white supremacy but as a matter of course in the shaping of their own communities. Analyzing a varied print culture made up of pamphlets, poems, orations, convention proceedings, letters, petitions, and much more, Derrick R. Spires reveals the parallel development of early black print culture and understandings of U.S. citizenship. As Spires writes in his introduction: “What happens to our thinking about citizenship if, instead of reading black writers as reacting to a largely white-defined discourse, we base our working definitions of citizenship on black writers' proactive attempts to describe their own political work? What happens when we base our working definition of citizenship on black writers' texts written explicitly to and for black communities?” Practice of Citizenship won the St. Louis Mercantile Library Prize from the Bibliographical Society of America and was a finalist for the 2020 First Book Award, granted by The Library Company of Philadelphia.
The House of Augustus: A Historical Detective Story | T. P. Wiseman
Caesar Augustus (63 BC–AD 14), who is usually thought of as the first Roman emperor, lived on the Palatine Hill, the place from which the word “palace” originates and which remains an archaeological tourist attraction to this day. Interpretation of Palatine Hill's remains have usually suggested that this “House of Augustus” had originally been connected by a ramp to Augustus’ new Temple of Apollo, signifying that the emperor shared his house with a god. As Mary Beard notes in the TLS: “T. P. Wiseman’s new book shows that up as a fantasy....offering a learned, exciting and convincing demolition of the standard modern view of the ancient Palatine, and of the living arrangements of Rome’s first emperor. A lot hangs on that.” Exploring the Palatine from its first occupation to the present, T. P. Wiseman proposes a larger reexamination of the “Augustan Age.” In Minerva, Diana Bentley calls Wiseman’s book "A highly engaging journey through the history of Rome and the Palatine, and particularly the spectacular career of Augustus . . . . Few historical detective stories could be as enjoyably informative and absorbing as this one."
Our People: Discovering Lithuania's Hidden Holocaust | Rūta Vanagaitė & Efraim Zuroff
In Lithuania, Rūta Vanagaitė had just released a celebratory book about women past middle-age that won her much acclaim. Her publisher wanted to follow her success with a similar book about men, but she was haunted by something an historian friend told her – that the killing of thousands of Jews in Lithuania in WWII was carried out not by Germans, but by Lithuanians sympathetic to the cause. In her early research, she discovers her family’s complicity in these crimes. Not to be deterred, she looks for research help and eventually teams up with Efraim Zuroff, the head of Jerusalem’s Simon Wiesenthal Center, whose grandparents were killed in Lithuania during WWII. This unusual pair released Our People to much scandal in 2016. Lithuanians were not eager to hear what Vanagaitė and Zuroff had uncovered. This book has essentially ended Vanagaitė’s career in Lithuania, but she stands by her decision to publish it. The English translation first became available this year.
Mike Davis is the best and most renowned historian of Los Angeles. In books like City of Quartz and Ecology of Fear, he has exploded the myths of a city obsessed with its own myth-making. He’s at it again with Setting the Night on Fire, the story of the city’s activists at the time his activism began. Together with fellow activist John Wiener, Davis dispels the image of white college kids leading the charge for social change. “In LA, by contrast, the major battles occurred in high schools and even junior high schools in the city’s ghettoised black and Mexican neighbourhoods. The flower children who dominate mythic perceptions of the 60s show up here only peripherally, as minor roles in a larger drama, worthy of notice only when they throw their shoulders into the fight,” writes The Guardian. Though Davis is more concerned with the activists, The New Yorker notes that Set the Night on Fire “is as close to memoir as Davis will ever write.”
Sons of the Waves: The Common Seaman in the Heroic Age of Sail | Stephen Taylor
This groundbreaking work goes beyond the masters and commanders like Horatio Nelson and Thomas Cochrane to show what life was like for the common seaman in England from the mid-18th to the mid-19th century. Taylor uses published and unpublished memoirs, correspondence, naval records, court martials and more to give voice to Jack Tar, the 'illiterate' sailors who played a crucial role in naval and commercial sailing. The Wall Street Journal: "No other book resurrects the wooden world of Jack Tar in such captivating and voluminous detail ... Save for the odd cliché, Mr. Taylor excels in recounting the hardships endured by the typical seaman: unrelenting disease, punishing labor, natural catastrophes and fatal accidents, not to mention the hazards of battle." Your humble NYSL staff member has recently began reading this and it is excellent thus far.
If you are wondering why the name Harry Dodge is familiar to you, you likely met him in Maggie Nelson’s memoir The Argonauts. Dodge is Nelson’s partner and The Argonauts is an examination of their relationship. My Meteorite is fascinating when viewed beside Nelson’s work. Dodge is primarily a visual artist, so this book lacks the formal concerns that Nelson’s did, but works for this memoir where Dodge investigates the role of coincidence and interconnectedness in his life. The TLS writes, “It is an ambitious attempt to meld together the disparate elements of his past in a way that will illuminate the immense patterning of coincidences he believes life to be built of. The resulting book is messy and exhilarating, darting between various times and locations.”
At the Center of All Beauty | Fenton Johnson
At the Center of All Beauty is poet Fenton Johnson’s cri de couer for artist’s everywhere. HIs argument is a sort of spiritual successor to Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. In Johnson’s mind, solitude is a dignified calling that allows the artist to follow her or his muse. The New York Times says, “In this lyrical yet finely argued book, Johnson sets out to show that being alone — so different from loneliness, its direct opposite, in fact — is absolutely essential to the creative life. Taking a dozen or so historical examples, from Emily Dickinson in Amherst to Bill Cunningham in New York via Paul Cézanne in Provence, Johnson reveals how artists have always removed themselves from the noise and clutter of enforced sociability in order to live closer to the sources of their inspiration.“
Vincent's Books: Van Gogh and the Writers Who Inspired Him | Mariella Guzzoni
Vincent Van Gogh once wrote to his brother, Theo: "I have a more or less irresistible passion for books." Van Gogh read, reread, and copied out books in Dutch, English, and French, memorizing favorite passages from Dickens, Zola, Shakespeare, and Maupassant, among many others. (His letters reference hundreds of books.) In Vincent's Books, Mariella Guzzoni explores the artist’s life as a devoted, voracious reader, noting what he read, what he wrote about, and how his love of reading influenced his art. Guzzoni wrote in Lit Hub that “in his passion for books lies part of the energy and creative tension that flows through his art. Faithful friends, sources of inspiration and consolation, safe harbors in rough seas—for Vincent books were all this and more.”
Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist | Gilbert Vicario/Phoenix Art Museum
This catalog accompanies a travelling exhibition (recently at the Whitney in NYC) and is the first survey of Pelton’s (1881-1961) work in more than twenty years. Using an abstract vocabulary and influenced by the meditative stillness of her desert surroundings, Pelton’s work is an attempt to portray a singular vision—metaphysical landscapes, a world beyond reality, a higher consciousness. Her work has been compared to spiritual modernist abstractionists like Hilma af Klimt and Wassily Kandinsky, and the catalog examines her work in relation to the movements of abstraction, surrealism, and art of the occult.
Goya: A Portrait of the Artist | Janis Tomlinson
Goya: A Portait of the Artist was widely (and favorably) reviewed in a few high-profile publications, but is still worth highlighting here. Amazingly, it is hyped by the publisher as the first major English language biography of Goya (1746-1828). Janis Tomlinson, who has written extensively on Goya, draws on a wide range of documents—including letters, court papers, and a sketchbook used by Goya in the early years of his career—to provide a nuanced portrait, challenging conventional, long-held assumptions about his life. “The writing is insightful, with Tomlinson’s pensive, philosophical tone mirroring her deep expertise and knack for critical thinking. This inspired, thoughtful work sheds new light on Goya and will enthrall any lover of fine art” (Publisher’s Weekly).
Art Wars examines popular engagement with New York's art institutions, and illuminates how three public battles linked institutions and disputes about taste to major social and political struggles and transformed the cultural role of art exhibitions over the course of the nineteenth century.
The "Black Art" Renaissance examines twentieth-century engagements with canonical African sculpture by European, African American, and sub-Saharan African artists and theorists, revealing how much modern art has owed to African art. Cohen analyzes appropriations of African sculpture, beginning with the “discovery” of African art by Picasso and his circle of modernists, and follows with an examination of the rise of Black artists from the 1920s to the 1970s whose work developed a framework for asserting control over the appropriative practices begun by Europeans.
Behind the Society Library’s genteel exterior lies a fascinating collection of true crime books on stack 3 (364). We also have an excellent collection of books on film on stack 12 (791.4). Harold Schechter’s new collection of essays makes a riveting contribution to both. In Ripped from the Headlines, Schechter reveals the sordid tales behind movies like "Looking for Mr. Goodbar," "Double Indemnity," "Psycho," "Dirty Harry," and many more. Seeing how talented screenwriters, directors, and actors have been able to transform this ugly source material into art makes for fascinating reading, and as the reviewer in Booklist points out, “in many cases, the true stories eclipse the movies in terms of how bizarre, scandalous, and in some ways unbelievable they were.” The reviewer goes on to praise the book as “fascinating, intriguing, and difficult to put down...a must for movie buffs and true-crime fans alike.”
Ornette Coleman: The Territory and the Adventure | Maria Golia
Few musicians have done more to transform the sound of jazz than Ornette Coleman. A series of his records in the late 1950s and early 1960s broke down elements of harmony, melody, and composition and helped transform the music into something new—more spontaneous and more improvisatory than it had ever been. Golia tracks Coleman from his native Fort Worth, Texas, where he grew up on rich blues and gospel traditions, through his journey to avant-garde jazz giant. Coleman’s interests were wide-ranging, and Golia explores the various elements and places that informed and influenced his restless quest.
Film professor Christina Lane calls Joan Harrison “one of the last great untold stories of the classical Hollywood era.” Harrison collaborated with Alfred Hitchcock on several films, credited as screenwriter on "Jamaica Inn," "Rebecca," and "Suspicion," was nominated for two Academy Awards for best screenplay, and produced a couple of film noir classics in "Phantom Lady" and "Ride the Pink Horse" (based on a novel by another unsung hero of noir, Dorothy Hughes). Lane chronicles Harrison's journey from secretary to screenwriter to producer, and takes readers behind the scenes of several films, revealing fascinating details about the making of Hitchcock’s work. Harrison was also married to novelist Eric Ambler. Library Journal calls it “a superbly written, absorbing biography of a woman succeeding on her own terms.” The Society Library has acquired a few recent books highlighting the achievements of women in filmmaking, and this is a valuable addition.
The Golden Flea: A Story of Obsession and Collecting | Michael Rips
The Chelsea Flea Market was established in 1976 and what remained of it closed in 2019. Browsing the tables was a weekly lesson in mass/pop/material culture history, bargains were always a possibility, and the level of people-watching was unsurpassed. At its peak, it occupied three or four parking lots along 6th Avenue and 25th - 26th Streets, dwindling to a shadow of its former glory by the end. Its demise was largely due to real estate: many of the former flea lots are now occupied by bland high-rises. For regular attendees, its downfall was a significant blow and indicative of where NYC was heading in the late 20th-early 21st century. Author Michael Rips was a regular, if not obsessive, market-goer, and in The Golden Flea, he provides a fascinating account of the business of buying and selling antiques in this thriving subculture along 6th Avenue. Along the way, he introduces us to the flea's eccentric cast of vendors, pickers, and collectors, and recounts his own immersion in the world of the flea market. As Luc Sante writes in Bookforum, “Rips is no mere browser haunting the garage, but a holistic consumer for whom the objects, the personalities, the rituals, and the backstories are inseparable.”
Though Samuel Delany first achieved acclaim as a science fiction writer, his output is varied and voluminous. An early entry in his nonfiction writing is The Motion of Light in Water, a memoir describing his young adulthood in the East Village. Like his other writing it’s notable for his frankness about his sex life. In between escapades, he manages to write and socialize with inhuman energy, describing encounters with such luminaries as Albert Einstein, James Baldwin, Bob Dylan, and W.H. Auden. In her book Race Men, Hazel Carby calls it one or two contemporary autobiographies that are "absolutely central to any consideration of black manhood" (the other being Miles, the Autobiography by Miles Davis). The Library also recently acquired another memoir by Delany, Heavenly Breakfast, about the winter of 1967-68, when he lived in a commune with a rock and roll band in the East Village.
On May 8, 1970, four days after Kent State, construction workers chased Vietnam War protesters through downtown Manhattan, beating scores of them bloody. Journalist David Paul Kuhn sees the “hardhat riot” as more than just an isolated altercation, viewing this ugly day as marking when the white working class first truly turned against liberalism and the Democratic party and strolled into the waiting arms of Republican politicians. In Kuhn’s analysis, the event and the motivations of the various actors, as well as and the reactions of politicians on the right and left, helps to explain the divisive politics of today.
The Book of Uncomformities | Hugh Raffles
Following the death of both of his sisters in a short span, anthropologist Hugh Raffles looked to something solid to moor his grieving mind. One sister lived in the Outer Hebrides. Raffles travels there and finds himself confronted and comforted by the standing stones of Callanish. Thus begins a preoccupation with rock and what geologists call unconformities—divides between sedimentary strata that signify breaks in geological time. His investigation of timelessness and solidity will take him all over the world and lead him to the realization that stone is subject to time’s capricious nature too. From Harper’s: “The result is a spellbinding time travelogue. Raffles winds his way from New York to the Arctic Circle, and from the breakup of Laurasia to the World War II internment of his grandmother, who sliced mica for Nazi warplanes at a factory in Theresienstadt. Each chapter begins with a stone and carves out the history of a place...Raffles’s dense, associative, essayistic style mirrors geological transformation, compressing and folding chronologies like strata in metamorphic rock”
Gladys Deacon was born rich, intelligent, and beautiful. Her ambitious American mother took her to Europe and together they climbed the social ladder. Her beauty and brains dazzled Belle Epoque Paris. Proust declared “I never saw a girl with such beauty, such magnificent intelligence, such goodness and charm." Though she took many lovers, her sights were set on the Duke of Marlborough, never mind that he was already married to another American, Consuelo Vanderbilt. She’d eventually dispatch Vanderbilt and win her place beside the Duke. You’d hardly expect a story that begins so glamorously to end in an asylum, but that’s just where Vickers would find the now reclusive duchess many years later. “A continuously astonishing and ultimately moving account of a unique figure, the stuff of great literature,” writes Simon Callow in The Sunday Times.
Thinking Again | Jan Morris
At age 94, Jan Morris has had a long writing career, and most recently she has published two acclaimed volumes of diaries. In My Mind’s Eye (2018) was very popular at The Society Library, and its recently published follow-up, Thinking Again, is sure to find many appreciative readers. The Guardian calls it “a beguilingly supple narrative, able to absorb all the contradictions and revisions that mark a long, well-remembered life” and the Financial Times review praises it as “a book full of improbable but touching frictions: mortality and marmalade are considered on the same page, and memories of cold war Moscow elide with respectful appreciations of Tiger Woods.”
Occupation Journal | Jean Giono
From the excellent Archipelago Books, comes this translation of diary entries by acclaimed French novelist Jean Giono (1895-1979), first published in France in 1995. The journals cover roughly 19 months, beginning in September 1943. A renowned writer still read today, and a committed pacifist throughout the 1930s—a conviction that resulted in his imprisonment before and after the Occupation—Giono spent the war in the village of Contadour in Provence. This journal records his musings on art and literature, his observations of life, and his interactions with the machinery of the collaborationist Vichy regime. Caroline Moorehead in the TLS: “the journal gives a vivid sense of the French countryside during the war years, the physical beauty of Provence moving through the seasons, contrasted with the fears and unease of occupation. Giono ...comes across as courageous and decent.”
If you are an avid birder, David Sibley’s name is likely familiar to you from The Sibley Guide to Birds, one of the many guides he’s written and illustrated about the natural world. This large-format book aims to expand the audience for his knowledge and skills. Featuring his detailed illustrations of birds—many of which are life sized—and accompanied by the most current scientific information, this is the kind of book that is as beautiful as it informative. The Wall Street Journal says, “Delicate pencil drawings augment and enliven crystal-clear explanatory text. Expect to be surprised at the mental and physical capabilities of birds, to learn that starlings can distinguish each other by smell, how a pelican’s pouch really works, that chickadees seek out taurine-rich spiders as 'brain food' for developing chicks."
Faces: Profiles of Dogs | Vita Sackville-West
VIta Sackville-West led a fabulous life. Though married to Harold Nicholson, she romanced both men and women, most famously Virginia Woolf. She wrote novels and memoirs but was perhaps most famous for restoring the gardens at Sissinghurst. In addition to the beautiful gardens and brilliant company, Sackville-West’s estate was populated by large numbers of dogs of varying breeds. This book, originally published in 1961, is a collection of profiles of her canine companions. Her descriptions of them are as unconventional as she was. About schnauzers she says, “'It must be a nuisance to go through life with a Father Christmas moustache like that,” and about her Afghan Hound, “like somebody's elderly Aunt Lavinia, who nourishes a secret passion for the Vicar.” This book is for any lover of eccentrics, dogs, or eccentric dogs.
Reviewing Eager, The Washington Post declares it, “a most unexpected gift: a marvelously humor-laced page-turner about the science of semi-aquatic rodents." But a funny book about beavers barely scratches the surface of what Goldfarb achieves here. Our vision of the natural environment has been distorted by the fur trade's decimation of natural beaver populations. They are being reintroduced to environments to fight drought, flooding, wildfire, extinction, and the ravages of climate change. The Washington Post continues, “Goldfarb has built a masterpiece of a treatise on the natural world, how that world stands now and how it could be in the future if we protect beaver populations. He gives us abundant reasons to respect environment-restoring beavers and their behaviors, for their own good and for ours.”
The Pink Line: Journeys Across the World's Queer Frontiers | Mark Gevisser
There has been a revolution of acceptance for gay and transgender people in the Western World in the past 20 years. While same-sex marriage and gender transition are celebrated here, some parts of the world are tightening their laws to restrict queer citizens. Mark Gevisser investigates the line drawn between a country and its LGBTQ+ people. Gevisser’s aim, as he puts it, is to tell the stories of people across the world who find themselves on what he calls the Pink Line: a frontier that divides the world. The Literary Review praises him, saying he “takes up the challenge...to rethink the circumstances facing a set of communities (certainly not one ‘community’ at all, ever) around the world. He approaches this task with bravura, care and deliberation, leaving their diversity and individualism fully intact.”
American Conservatism: Reclaiming an Intellectual Tradition (Andrew J. Bacevich, editor)
As libertarians, neoconservatives, Never Trumpers, and others battle over the label, this sweeping collection offers an essential survey of conservative thought in the United States since 1900, and a healthy reminder of how conservatism is “more akin to an ethos or a disposition than a fixed ideology,” in the words of the editor. Mainstays and heroes of the tradition sit alongside some unexpected influencers like Joan Didion and Reinhold Niebuhr. The book is presented according to the Library of America's usual fine standards.
Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism | Anne Case & Angus Deaton
This book received great reviews, but had the misfortune of being published on March 17th as the world shut down, and escaped many readers’ attention. Deaton and Case, two Princeton University professors of Economics at Princeton, have written an acclaimed, groundbreaking, deeply-researched, and rigorously analytical account of how the flaws in capitalism can be fatal for America's working class. Life expectancy has fallen in the United States for three consecutive years, a trend not seen since 1918 or in any other wealthy nation in modern times, while what the authors call “deaths of despair”—suicide, drug overdose, and alcoholism—have risen dramatically. The authors shine a light on the social and economic forces that contribute to these alarming trends, such as the weakening position of labor, the growing power of corporations, and, above all, a health-care sector that redistributes working-class wages into the pockets of the wealthy. The numbers quoted throughout the book are grim and sometimes shocking. Kirkus writes: “An alarm every bit as urgent as The Jungle and a book that demands immediate attention.” An interesting review in The Washington Post by Carlos Lozada is available here, and an interview with co-author in The Boston Review can be read here.
Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones, and the New Protest #Journalism | Allissa V. Richardson
This is a timely, much-needed book, sure to be cited for a long time. Author Allissa Richardson is a Professor of Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, and an activist. In Bearing Witness While Black she reveals how smartphones and social media have emerged as powerful tools, empowering recent Black activists to continue a centuries-long, African American tradition of using the news to challenge racism. As African Americans (acting as "citizen journalists") document and share footage of police encounters, using just the device in their pockets, these dispatches from the ground inspire necessary lively debates on the policing of minorities and can inspire activism and widespread protest. Richardson places these recent developments in historical context, too, identifying overlapping eras of domestic terror against African American people—slavery, lynching, and police brutality—and showing how storytellers during each period documented its atrocities. What emerges is a compelling, evolving, genealogy—slave narratives inspiring the Abolitionist movement; black newspapers galvanizing the anti-lynching and Civil Rights movements; smartphones and social media powering the anti-police brutality movement. Richardson interviews many activists and draws on her own experience to tell the story.
Kelton provides an accessible introduction to modern monetary theory (MMT) and how its application could spur needed changes in public policy addressing poverty and inequality, unemployment, health care, and climate change. In MMT advocates’ view, myths about deficits are hobbling us as a country. Long held assumptions—the federal government should budget like a household, that deficits will harm the next generation and undermine long-term growth, and that entitlements will launch us toward grave fiscal crisis—are questioned and often dismissed. Proponents advocate for radical new ways of understanding money, taxes, and the critical role of deficit spending, Needless to say, this economic theory is controversial. Publishers’ Weekly writes that “Kelton writes clearly and directly, and does well to keep the lay reader in mind throughout. This comprehensive, lucid explanation of a much-buzzed about economic theory will resonate with progressives.” This review in the Wall Street Journal tussles with Kelton more critically, and is an interesting read.