Books for the Holidays 2018

What are the holidays without books– to give or get?  Our selections this year include several must-read art books, two compelling stories of 20th century photographers, written treats for foodies, and books that reinterpret the meaning of “building.”

Art and Photography

The Unfinished Palazzo book cover

The Unfinished Palazzo book cover

Three exceptional women—from Milan, London and New York—are featured in this true account of how they were (serially) tethered to “an unfinished palazzo” on Venice’s Grand Canal in the 20th century. These were women of intellectual curiosity, passion and mettle.  Of the three, the tale of heiress Peggy Guggenheim  is best known, for collecting brilliant artists as lovers and investing in their work—which later resulted in the palazzo becoming the famed Guggenheim Museum in Venice. Here for the first time you can read how all three– Luisa Casati, Doris Castlerosse and Peggy Guggenheim – inhabited thecultural and social worlds of Venice with grit and gusto. The Unfinished Palazzo: Life, Love and Art in Venice: The Stories of Luisa Casati, Doris Castlerosse and Peggy Guggenheim, by Judith Mackrell. (Thames & Hudson) $34.95. Read the review.

Ninth Street Women

Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art, by Mary Gabriel
Illustrated. 927 pages. Little, Brown and Company. $35. You’ll never find another group history of mid-20thcentury artists like this edgy group of women  who broke onto the art scene in the 1950’s, several known as Mrs. Jackson Pollock, Mrs. Willem De Kooning, and Mrs. Robert Motherwell.  They refused to be identified as women artists, much less as the “Mrs.,” even though they put up with very eccentric husbands.  “Each of these characters represented an important chapter in the development of Abstract Expressionism,” says Gabriel, who follows their hard-won efforts to be accepted and lauded in the burgeoning New York art scene. A page turner with plenty of dishy stories from the art world!

Walter Hopps (in glasses) with freidns at the Ferus Gallery. Photo by Brittin

Walter Hopps (far right, with glasses) with friends at the Ferus Gallery. Photo by Brittin

The Dream Colony

The Dream Colony: A Life in Art  Native Californian Walter Hopps occupied a unique place in 20th century American art as a genius in identifying and cultivating the talents of a new generation of artists, through his friendships and curatorial acumen.  This book speaks from beyond the grave – Hopps died in 2005 but left behind a trove of personal recordings that serve as the basis for this 2017 memoir edited by Deborah Treisman.   He played a pivotal role in promoting West Coast artists in the 1950’s and ‘60’s, and started his own gallery (Ferus)  in Pasadena, Calif., with friend and artist Ed Kienholtz.  Although not well-suited to the coat-and-tie world of art museums, in his roles at the Pasadena Museum of Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, and the Smithsonian’s National Art Museum, he scored big by presenting the works of Roy Lichtenstein, Philip Pearlstein, Ed Ruscha, Alex Katz, Wayne Thiebaud and others. He mounted an important (early) retrospective of Robert Rauschenberg – and even one of Marcel Duchamp, the surrealist artist.  Walter was a kind of midwife to the “birth” of modern American art.  He was a freewheeling genius – and the stories, from his lips, will keep you laughing and marveling the whole way through this book.

Vienna 1900 Complete:  Turn-of-the-century in Vienna was a magical place, bursting with intellectual and artistic vitality. Imagine the convening in one city of Freud, Mahler, Klimt and Schiele, among many. Café life was an integral part of the intellectual and artistic ferment. You’ll need a nice-sized library table to handle the intellectual heft of this sizable, amazing compendium,  documenting Vienna in art, music and intellectual endeavors. Vienna 1900 Complete  is a visual reference of the period, featuring 1,000 color illustrations that take in the Secession (1897–1905), the modern movement led by Gustav Klimt, Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser that aimed to bring different arts together in a ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’; of Jugendstil and of the Wiener Werkstätte.

Intro spread of Vienna Complete

Here you’ll find painting, photography, decorative arts, from ceramics to glass, silverwork, furniture and jewelry; and graphic arts, from book design to posters and postcards. There are also many less familiar works in the field of fashion and photography, and a particular focus is given to the role of women practitioners of the time. Three leading scholars of the period collaborated on this Thames & Hudson volume: Christian Brandstätter  (Author), Daniela Gregori (Author), Rainer Metzger (Author)

Palais Stoclet from Vienna Complete

Street Life with Two Photographers

This year yielded  books on two remarkable street photographers– Weegee the Magnificent and Garry Winogrand whose work spanned decades and remarkably different styles.  Both were New Yorkers and of immigrant stock. Weegee was born Arthur Fellig ,in 1899, in Zolochev, Galicia. His family came through Ellis Island when he was 10, and lived in a Lower East side tenement. He got his start as a teen-ager, and became notable for a style exemplified by flash photography. Bronx-born Garry Winnogrand (1928-84), son of working class Jewish immigrants, first took to the streets of New York City in the 1950’s, capturing public and secret lives in plain view, then proliferating in the 60’s with 35 mm wide-angle frames taking in all of the energy and craziness of that decade.

(untitled) Garry Winogrand

In Walking the Streets with Garry Winogrand , author Geoff Dyer selects 100 photographs from some one million images Winogrand captured in his short lifetime, in a rough chronology by decade,  ‘50’s through ‘70s.  Each image is accompanied by a short text (no more than 750 words per image) that’s well informed but informal. (A book format used by MOMA photography curator John Szarkowski  for many years, in several of his books.) After his prolific work in New York, Winogrand  went to California where his work did not have the richness or success of his beloved New York work.  Winogrand got interested in photography while in the military (as a weather forecaster!)  After studying painting at City College and Columbia University, he studied with Alexey Brodovitch in 1961. Winogrand’s photographs were exhibited widely during his lifetime, in Edward Steichen’s The Family of Man at the Museum of Modern Art, Towards a Social Landscape at the George Eastman House, and New Documents at the Museum of Modern Art. See the article.

Women slipping off her shoe at a museum. Garry Winogrand.

Cover of Flash Weegee the Famous

“Weegee the Famous” was a night stalker with a camera, capturing the streets of New York in the 1930s and 40s, with crime-scene displays of dead gangsters, car wrecks and the tumult of city life.  He carried around an enormous Speed Graphic camera and, in an era before the flash, made his own flash by adding a spark to magnesium metal on a rag (also dangerous!). This full-on biography —Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous by Christopher Bonanos (Henry Holt & Company. 379 pp illus $32) –offers both the facts and the apocryphal stories  (for example, alternate origin tales on his “Weegee” name). Weegee  spent a lot of time at crime scenes, a Johnny on the spot: “He was always, always there,” Bonanos writes. “He put himself on call, all the time.”  His first solo exhibition was titled,  Murder Is My Business. In his 1961 autobiography he declared, “I have no inhibitions, and neither has my camera.”

Strangely, Winogrand and Weegee both left the city they loved for California where things didn’t pan out for them: Weegee to Los Angeles to act in movies;  and Winogrand in the ‘80s where his work and his life ended. See the New York Times review of Weegee

Builders: Just how widely you can interpret the “art” of building

Mazes are elaborate landscape puzzles to be solved –on foot.  The idea’s been around for 4,000 years, so says Kendra Wilson, coauthor  with Angus Hyland of The Maze: A Labyrinthine Compendium (Laurence King Publishing $29.95) Learn more

Before you set your feet to walking, check out this guide to 60 real and imagined mazes around the world, fashioned from box, cypress and other living materials. Some of the best known in this alphabetically arranged guide include Chatsworth (England), Chenonceau (France’s Loire chateau region) and Chartres (the Cathedral town).  Fabulous illustrations by Thibaud Hérem give you a bird’s eye view of each maze. You’ll find a description, map, location and a history for each one, whether for an armchair journey – or planning your itinerary.

The maze at Wakefield

Termites and beavers are two species that logically should not rate a book apiece. But they occupy critical space – literally — in the world of biodiversity.

Beaver dam Courtesy of

In EAGER: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter by environmental journalist Ben Gold (Chelsea Green, $24.95 286 pp) you’ll see that, in feats of ecological engineering, beavers may be unsurpassed.  They are considered a nuisance for building dams and elaborate lodges in streams and rivers;  and nearly became extinct during three centuries of active fur trade.  “The disappearance of beavers,” Goldfarb writes, “dried up wetlands and meadows, hastened erosion, altered the course of countless streams, and imperiled water-loving fish, fowl, and amphibians.”

Beaver mother Courtesy of Nature Network

Goldfarb offers multiple examples of the ecological benefits of beavers, including their role at Yellowstone National Park where the reintroduction of wolves got “the credit” for reducing the elk population that had decimated aspens and willows along creeks; in fact beavers also had a role, as dam builders, in the regrowth of willows, helping to keep their roots wet.

The book is full of stories, but offers the warning that some western states , recreational trappers – and killing by the federal government –is jeopardizing  beavers and their ecological  benefits. Goldfarb calls them, “the ultimate keystone species,”  as “the animal that doubles as an ecosystem.” Book review

Listen to the NPR story 

Underbug cover

There are some 200 million termite mounds in a remote area of northeast Brazil, according to a recent New York Times science story. The Syntermes dirus (the largest termite species) has built “insect skyscrapers” that range in age from 690 to over 3,800 years old! They’re up to 10 feet tall and 30 feet in width!  You may not find this tale in Lisa Margonelli’s new, cutting-edge book UNDERBUG: An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Technology (Scientific American/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27) but  there’s plenty to appreciate.  “Margonelli turns cutting-edge science into rich narrative by plunging deep into the termite’s world,” …. Lucy Cooke writes for The New York Times.

Termite mound in Australia

“Margonelli’s masterly book is a timely, thought-provoking exploration of what it means to be human, as much as what it means to be termite, and a penetrating look at the moral challenges of our ongoing technological revolution.” Read the New York Times article.

Lego Microcities book

Lego Micro Cities is a step-by-step guide by Lego geek Jeff Friesen to design microcities from Legos that incorporate bridges and skyscrapers. There are over 50 builds for 8 different microcities.  If your kids – or you – want inspiration on metropolises of the future and utopias, this is your guide! Filled with photographs and instructions. Read more



Dragon crossing from the Friesen book

Dragon crossing from the Friesen book

Author Susan Orlean (who wrote the Orchid Thief and Rin Tin Tin),  regales us in her new book, The Library Book, with the tale of Harry Peak, the would-be/never-was movie star, whose celebrity derived from setting the Los Angeles Central Library Fire in 1987, destroying nearly 500,000 books and damaging some 700,000 others. (The worst library fire in US history) Orlean goes deep in the library’s past – some  bizarre moments – and fast forwards to issues that all libraries face today. Washington Post reviewer Ron Charles notes, “Orlean explores the ongoing challenge that homelessness poses for all libraries, and she profiles inspiring librarians determined to help the most desperate and disenfranchised people in America. ‘Because the boundary between society and the library porous, she writes, ‘nothing good is kept out of the library, and nothing bad. ” Washington Post review 

Read or listen to an excerpt

A paean to food

Milk (the cover)

MILK: A 10,000-Year Food Fracas: Author of the single-subject, single-word books, SaltCod, and Paper, Mark Kurlansky, is back with Milk. It’s a bodily fluid that ranges from human to bovine, but don’t leave out yak, goat, camel, pig and horse.  As usual, Kurlansky has all the bases covered.  In the issue of “breast versus bottle,” you’ll find out that it makes a difference in your intelligence if you were nourished by your mother’s milk, and why some indigenous women have nursed piglets and puppies. Kurlansky’s command of arcana is astounding. Here are just two examples. “French orphanages once distributed goats and donkeys for direct feeding.” Kurlansky mentions an 1816 German book called The Goat as the Best and Most Agreeable Wet-Nurse.‘”This is a page turner. (Illustrated. 384 pp. Bloomsbury) Read the review

Listen to the NPR story

Fishing could be the perfect bookend to MILK in how it sustained civilizations, armies, traders, travelers.  Archeologist and best-selling author Brian Fagan reviews how fish over millennia sustained  cities, nations and empires . Fishing: Humanity’s last major source of food from the wild, and how it enabled and shaped the growth of civilization is a “…[h]istory of the long interaction of humans and seafood…[and covers] archaeological sites worldwide to show readers how fishing fed human settlement, rising social complexity, the development of cities, and ultimately the modern world.” (Yale University Press, 368 pp illus) Read more

Ten Restaurants (cover)

Ten Restaurants That Changed America is a social history that actually reflects the history of the U.S.  Think of how Schrafft’s restaurants made it possible for New York women to buy moderate-priced lunch away from home in a congenial setting and Howard Johnson’s restaurants (with motor lodges) helped shape long-distance travel and tourism on our highways in the 1960’s.

Schrafft’s Courtesy West Side Rag

Chez Panisse founder Alice Waters


At Chez Panisse, chef-owner Alice Waters inspired a new generation to respect organically grown food and buy directly from the growers (today that’s hardly a novelty).  The list is a cornucopia of our acquired food tastes:  African American cuisine, New Orleans creole cooking, high-end French and more! “ [F]ood historian Paul Freedman uses each restaurant to tell a wider story of race and class, immigration and assimilation.”  Paul Freedman, with an introduction by Danny Meyer

Finally, Have Heart…

If you remember Siddhartha Mukherjee’s brilliant books  (Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies and Gene), you’ll want to add Sandeep Jauhar’s newest  tome Heart: A History to your library. Facts abound (the heart beats an average of 3 billion beats in a lifetime), there’s plenty of drama (the first transplant, the first artificial heart),  the pathos of mortality (“when the heart stops beating, death is instantaneous “) and the metaphor of the heart as the place where love, courage, bravery, pain and sorrow abide. The word “courage” derives from the Latin “cor,” which means “heart.”

Heart The History

Heart The History

Jauhar – a cardiologist and author of previous books Doctored and Intern–“embraces the notion of the heart as a vessel imbued with meaning,” says the Washington Post reviewer.  ”And over the ensuing pages, he is our trusty guide through a compelling story about what makes each and every one of us tick.”  (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 269 pp $27) Read the Washington Post review


Look back for dozens more great books that we’ve recommended: Art, history, science, biography and more

Book world 2017

Baker’s dozen for the holidays 2016

Gift books 2015