Sunday, January 10, 2010

Book Notes 4

Continuing the “book notes” tradition begun during my tenure as books editor of terra nova, this review essay appeared in The Metro Herald of Alexandria, Virginia, on January 23, 2004. (There was no “Part II” published subsequent to this article.)


Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

The close of 2003 left us at The Metro Herald with a backlog of books that had landed on our review desk during the year. Although far too many books came our way for us to commission full-fledged reviews of each, we decided to clear the decks for 2004 by offering a number of capsule reviews, just enough to offer our readers a taste of what’s out there and available for purchase at their favorite bookshops or to borrow from their local libraries.


In City: Urbanism and Its End (Yale University Press, $30.00), Yale professor Douglas W. Rae expands upon the tradition of Jane Jacobs’ classic work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, draws from more recent research like Robert Putnam’s much-cited Bowling Alone. Using New Haven, Connecticut, as his main exhibit, Rae comprehensively examines the shortcomings of “urban renewal” programs, which have more often than not had a counterproductive (and counterintuitive) effect on the cities where they have been imposed. This book belongs on the shelf next to Jacobs’ books and Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist’s The Wealth of Cities (a personal favorite).

There is a hidden gem in Africa, a city-size museum in the unlikeliest place: the capital of Eritrea. In Asmara: Africa’s Secret Modernist City (Merrell Publishers, $65.00), authors Edward Denison, Guang Ya Ren, and Naigzy Gebremedhin have produced a coffee table book that is far more than a collection of pretty pictures. Long an Italian colony before being occupied by neighboring Ethiopia after World War II, Eritrea became independent in 1991. During the colonial era, Italian architects used Asmara as a sort of blank canvas to practice modernism that was somewhat frowned upon under Mussolini’s fascist regime back home. (Socialists of all stripes prefer muscular, pragmatic, and traditional forms, particularly in public buildings.) As a result, Asmara is dotted with well-preserved modernist buildings that, had they been constructed in prewar Europe, might well have been destroyed in the calamity that was the Second World War. Instead, they were saved simply by their existence in a remote, dry, little-visited, seldom-remarked-upon outpost in the Horn of Africa. If the publication of this book does not double Eritrea’s tourism within a year or two, nothing can.

Across the Atlantic, near the mouth of the mighty Mississippi, another city, New Orleans, has preserved its own unique architecture. Architect Lloyd Vogt both wrote the text and created more than 150 line drawings in Historic Buildings of the French Quarter (Pelican Publishing, $23.95). Looking at the various streams of art and style that influenced New Orleans through settlers (and rulers) from France, Spain, the United States, and the Caribbean, Vogt finds the amazing architecture to be a parallel to Creole cuisine—a mixture that is greater, and more delectable, than the sum of its parts.

In any college community, there is some intersection of ‘town and gown.” In Charlottesville, that link with the University of Virginia is literally called “the Corner,” and author Coy Barefoot has, through keen research and affectionate dedication, given us a book of that name, The Corner: A History of Student Life at the University of Virginia (Howell Press, $39.95). While the potential readership for such a book might seem limited—UVA students, alumni, faculty, and Charlottesvillians— anyone interested in urban growth and “local” history (in the broadest sense) will appreciate Barefoot’s work. Surely there are equivalents to “the Corner” in East Lansing, Amherst, Tuscaloosa, and dozens of other college towns—a comparative analysis of their development and their effect on urban life could be fascinating and informative, perhaps a topic for some bright historian’s doctoral dissertation.

Renowned photojournalist Bob Willoughby has produced a handsome coffee table book aimed at the film buff—The Star Makers: On Set with Hollywood’s Greatest Directors (Merrell Publishers, $49.95). With a bare minimum of text but overflowing with both color and black-and-white photographs, this book is also a quick-reference guide to the careers of such filmmakers as Orson Welles, George Cukor, and John Frankenheimer. Willoughby’s presence on location and in studio soundstages gives the whole enterprise a “You Are There” feeling. As Oscar®-winner Sydney Pollack notes in his foreword, Willoughby’s “understanding of the material he was photographing, coupled with his extraordinary technical skill and his instinct for sensing the right moments, has made his photographs extremely specific and powerful. As you look through them, there is an immediacy and an evocative power that is very, very specific to each of the films he is documenting.”

There is something oddly untimely about publishing a new book about Richard Rodgers in 2003. Depending on how you look at it, it’s either a year late—the centenary of Rodgers’ birth (1902) was celebrated in 2002—or a year early—we commemorate the 25th anniversary of Rodgers’ death (in 1979) this year. Still, Geoffrey Block’s Richard Rodgers (Yale University Press, $32.50) is a welcome addition to the new raft of books exploring Broadway composers’ careers and works, rather than engaging in retrospective psychoanalysis of their lives. (In this, Block’s book on Rodgers has more in common with Stephen Banfield’s Sondheim’s Broadway Musicals than with, say, Meryle Secrest’s Stephen Sondheim: A Life.) That’s not to say that the book is bereft of personal information. Tidbits of that sort, including newly uncovered ones, are there— but only if they shed light on Rodgers’ life as an artist. There is no gossip for gossip’s sake.

Last fall, the Boston Red Sox came within inches of winning the pennant and, had they won the World Series, of repudiating the “Curse of the Bambino.” (The Yankees, of course, gave that Curse life for one more season.) Recently Pete Rose has admitted his gambling in hopes that he will be elected, as he deserves to be based on his performance on the diamond, to baseball’s Hall of Fame. Back in 1975, the Red Sox met Rose’s Cincinnati Reds in an unforgettable, seven-game World Series. In The Boys of October (Contemporary Books, $24.95), Doug Hornig explores (as his subtitle says) “how the 1975 Boston Red Sox embodied baseball’s ideals—and restored our spirits.” Hornig, a novelist as well as a writer of short- and book-length nonfiction, spent months tracing alumni of the ’75 Red Sox, interviewing them about that magical season and inquiring about their careers—and private lives—since then.

An amateur ballet company in Loudoun County, Virginia, is one of the foci of Jennifer Fisher’s Nutcracker Nation (Yale University Press, $27.00 ), which, as its subtitle explains, looks at How an Old World Ballet Became a Christmas Tradition in the New World. Fisher, a dance historian and ethnologist, treats us to morsels of information about the history of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, beloved in America but largely snubbed in its native Russia. The Nutcracker is seen by more people in more audiences, it seems, than all other ballets performed in the United States in any given year. In fact, annual Nutcracker performances often are the cash cows for dance companies that lose money throughout the rest of the year; the Nutcracker underwrites their repertoires. Richly outfitted with a wide array of photographs, Nutcracker Nation also reminds us that this particular ballet has served as an introduction to dance for children and teenagers; as a result, it has featured such disparate and unexpected performers as Macaulay Culkin and Chelsea Clinton.

Kathleen E.R. Smith takes a colorful topic—the songs created to raise morale during World War II—and renders it mundane in God Bless America: Tin Pan Alley Goes to War (University Press of Kentucky, $45.00). While the book is uneven, it still adds useful information (and an occasional insight) about wartime propaganda and in terms of social history, helping to answer the broad question, “What was it like on the home front during the War?,” within a specific sphere. Moreover, Smith indirectly provides a contrast to today’s music industry, in which a typical hit song is attached to a single artist, while in the 1940s, hits were recorded by several artists— singers, Big Bands, a cappella groups—and released simultaneously on different labels, often riding the charts side by side. One thing that could have enhanced this book immeasurably: an accompanying CD with recordings both of the well-known songs of the Second World War era (those that make us nostalgic) and of snippets from some of the more obscure songs, especially the early attempts at writing the anthem that would win the war (those that make us ask, “What were they thinking?”).

There is more to come as we review books on current affairs, history and biography, and miscellaneous topics.

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