The Spring 2019 books we are recommending ask us — what is real, what is imagined, what is knowable?
- Is our own experience shared by others, or does it only exist for us?
- Are there places where time is “longer” and shorter?
- What’s the reality of places that once existed – and now are gone ?
- If we cannot “see it” – does anything really exist ?
- Can we address the future if the past is destroying it ?
What’s real, what’s not? These books –and their illustrations, maps and photos– help us understand the illusory and real, in our time and all time.
A Walk through Paris: A Radical Exploration Eric Hazan (translated by David Fernbach. (Verso, 208 pp, $22.95)
There are flâneurs—famed strollers like John Baxter and Edmund White– who explored Paris with rich stories– and then there’s Eric Hazan, who follows up his earlier, very dense work, the Invention of Paris(2002 and 2010) with what he calls “a radical exploration” of where he has spent his entire life, as student, surgeon, writer, radical.
Hazan begins and ends in bookstores at two ends of the suburbs (banlieue) at Ivry (in the southeast of Paris) to Saint Denis, by way of many familiar quarters and landmarks such as the Pompidou, Luxembourg Gardens, Gare du Nord, the Latin Quarter, La Chappelle, working class and more diverse neighborhoods, through tiny byways, on to Saint Denis. Some things have been lost (think of gentrification!) but he sees much in the continuity of urban life. Review in the Guardian
THE CAESAR OF PARIS: Napoleon Bonaparte, Rome, and the Artistic Obsession that Shaped an Empire, Susan Jaques (Pegasus Books, 574 pp)
“ Napoleon’s studied appropriation of Roman imperial ritual, style, and trappings,” according to the Kirkus Review, is covered exhaustively in The Caesar of Paris: how Napoleon modeled his would-be dynasty after the successful Roman campaigns that ravaged conquered lands with booty for Rome. Bonaparte appropriated the idea with looted treasure from Egypt, Venice and elsewhere. Then he piled on “Greek and Roman motifs in furniture, medallions, and jewelry; short hairstyles; and modest gowns in expensive French textiles.”
Add to that palaces such as Malmaison and Saint-Cloud, plus changes in the Grand Trianon (at Versailles), the grandeur of Empire Style, full of ostentation. Surely a book for those who want to see the minute detail of how Napoleon’s reign yielded changes that even wiley urban planner Barron Haussmann couldn’t erase.
(The Arc de Triomphe, commissioned by Napoleon after his victory at Austerlitz). Kirkus Review
Three Travel Sketchbooks: Venice, India, Senegal , Françoise Gilot. (Taschen.)
“Art doesn’t come from what is around you, but from what is inside of you,” says the French painter and author Françoise Gilot.
Artist, writer, muse, Françoise Gilot met her destiny in 1943, at age 21, at Le Catalan Restaurant in Paris, when she was introduced to Pablo Picasso, 40 years her senior. She was already a graduate of the Sorbonne and started, then abandoned, a law degree. After a decade with Picasso as his muse and lover – she bore him two children – she’d had enough of his tempestuous life and trail of jilted women, and left to pursue her own legacy. If Picasso set “le tout Paris” (the art world) against her, it mattered not. Gilot had plenty of her own talent and perspicacity. She is still alive and kicking at 96 in New York!
The facsimile sketchbooks of her travels to Venice, India and Senegal in the (1970s-80s) just reissued by Taschen are basically unaffordable ($5,000 for the limited edition set!), but a testament to her long-lived talent, of which Jill McGaughey, her New Orleans gallery, says, “She has such great control and economy of lines. Everything has a purpose.” New York Times article (2019) Story in Artnet
IF YOU LOVE PARIS the way we do, check out the books recommended in Green News Update
The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands, (Huw Lewis-Jones, editor) University of Chicago Press (256 pp), 220 color plates $45
Travel to imaginary worlds – and inside the creative minds of writers and illustrators — in a beautiful, full-color book that explains the how and why of the maps inspired by some of our best-loved books: Treasure Island, Harry Potter series, and the Hobbit Film trilogy. Some writers have been inspired by earlier, actual maps to spur their writing; some draw their own (Tolkien, for example). This compendium includes medieval maps, sci-fi, adventure, fantasy works, nursery rhymes and more. You’ll find in your imagination sparked by the beauty of this atlas and the inspired words shared by storytellers and artists. Goodreads recommends
Night Moves, Jessica Hopper, University of Texas, 184 pages, $15.95
Chicago is a living city – and Hopper, who’s spent 20 years there, with an equally fascinating history — makes it her own, mapping out an area she recalls in this diary/memoir – “ the patch of Chicago geography that she makes her object of recollection: North Avenue to the north, Lake Street to the south, Western Avenue to the west, and Ashland Avenue to the east.” (Chicago Tribune )
Hopper walks, bikes, strolls, night crawls, and remembers – using some 30 non-chronological vignettes to share her vision, and obsession, with the city. She comes at it from a unique vantage point: two decades spent building a career as music rapporteur and cultural critic , including stints at MTV News and as editor of the American Music Series at UT Austin. You’ll feel the places she loves – and misses, because many no longer exist (and are duly noted). If you love this city and what she calls “Chicago’s deep manic powers,” this book is for you!
Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster, Adam Higginbotham (Simon & Schuster. $29.95. 565 pp illus)
Chernobyl is a place that time – and human history – will not soon forget. Some places, like this one, remain notable for the horror they represent. In the immediate aftermath of the 1986 catastrophic Chernobyl reactor explosion (former Soviet Union) , reporters could only guess at what had occurred, what was covered up by Soviet officials, and estimate the long-term effects on cleanup workers, former residents, and wildlife. Some 350,000 people were evacuated from the area during the meltdown of Reactor #4; another 550,000 recovery workers risked their lives in the so-called “cleanup” effort. Thousands died, quickly from radiation poisoning, or years later from cancer.
Now, 30+ years on, journalist Adam Higginbotham offers what is called “a chilling analysis” of what precipitated the disaster, the government’s official secrecy, the botched efforts at cleanup, and international loss of public confidence in nuclear power as a safe and reliable source of energy (Germany established a policy of shutting down its nuclear power plants.)
Curiously, wildlife flourishes in the “exclusion zone” of 1,000 square miles of uninhabitable land – proved by science-based episodes on PBS Nature and other documentaries on the wolf population and other species. Some older people have returned to reclaim their property.
Chernobyl is now entombed within a giant steel-clad arch as its lethal radiation continues to spew. This book, in the fullness of time, is being applauded for filling in the gaps with rich reporting. Read the New York Times review
The Order of Time, Carlo Rovelli (Riverhead Books)
What do we know about time ? A lot, and not so much, according to physicist Carlo Rovelli, who wrote the very popular Seven Brief Lessons in Physics in 2016.
Does time actually exist ? Is it a scientific fact? Something “invented” during the Industrial Revolution? Is “clock time” actual time? Is time intensely personal ? The Guardian reviewer reminds us: “ Time is a commodity: ours to buy, spend, save, keep, mark or waste. Time has volition: it flies, drags, stands still. The verbs alone suggest that we have always understood time as subjective, something experienced according to individual circumstance.” But does it truly belong to us?
The question of time has perplexed philosophers for centuries. Aristotle and St. Augustine both wrestled with the issue of time. For neuroscientists and physicists, it’s another matter. “The difference between past and future,” says Rovelli, “ between cause and effect, between memory and hope, between regret and intention … in the elementary laws that describe the mechanism of the world, there is no such difference.”
“One after another,” he says “the characteristic features of time have proved to be approximations, mistakes determined by our perspective, just like the flatness of the Earth or the revolving of the sun.”
If you’re prepared for a deep read, you will learn a lot. Review in the Guardian
Listen and be inspired: Carlo Rovelli gives a one hour talk at Shakespeare & Company, Paris.
For another perspective: The late Stephen Hawking tackled the question of time on a high scientific plane in A Brief History of Time ( 1988) looking at gravity, black holes, the Big Bang, the nature of time and the search for a grand unifying theory.
The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, David Wallace-Wells (Tim Duggan Books, 310 pp, $27)
Have we grown weary of the facts of climate change? Wildfires, floods, famines are part of every night’s newscast. Is a Biblical reckoning on the way? Wallace-Wells gives us plenty of details on how it is occurring right now. But his real intention “…is about what warming means to the way we live on this planet.”
Wallace-Wells, a deputy editor of New York magazine, has already written a cogent piece on what’s happening and the costs of doing nothing. In Unihabitable he shares what we’ve already lost, and then poses the question, “How much will we do to stall disaster, and how quickly?”
How much time, to think of Rovelli’s ponderings (see above) do we actually have ? Will we make time to change what our waking life will become within mere years?
“There is no single way to best tell the story of climate change, no single rhetorical approach likely to work on a given audience, and none too dangerous to try,” Wallace-Wells writes. “Any story that sticks is a good one.” New York Times review
Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, Alan Lightman (Pantheon, 226 pp $24.95)
One summer night science writer Alan Lightman took off in his boat, cut the engine, and stretched out on the deck – floating into the night near his Pole Island, Maine, summer home. His spiritual experience – and he doesn’t believe in a nonmaterial soul or in God — led him to write Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine. It was transcendence he’d never experienced. Lightman was perplexed, he sought out writings from Aristotle, Einstein, Augustine and Galileo, among others. Somehow he found a path – using 20 vignettes on big ideas (stars, truth, centeredness) –in a style that is synthetic but not judgmental. Washington Post review
Here’s his take, “For me, as both a scientist and a humanist, the transcendent experience is the most powerful evidence we have for a spiritual world. By this I mean the immediate and vital personal experience of being connected to something larger than ourselves, to feeling some unseen order or truth in the world.” Guardian review
Take this with you into the woods, or to the beach, and look at the stars.