One of the first artists featured in Sarah Thornton’s fascinating 33 Artists in 3 Acts is American Jeff Koons, who tells her that he never wants people to feel small when they view his art. Clearly Thornton ascribes to a similar principle. In this witty, smart follow-up to her 2008 bestseller, Seven Days in the Art World, Thornton generously cracks the sometimes perplexing code of modern art.
In our media-saturated Age of Celebrity, it can be hard to fathom that there was once a time when people were not famous merely for being famous. While today we think of Oscar Wilde as an eminent playwright and novelist, he was one of the first self-made public figures, who crafted his persona and gained widespread renown long before he had done anything of much note. An early impetus behind his fame was a lecture tour he made to the United States in 1882, when he was only 27 years old and the author of one tepidly reviewed, self-published volume of verse.
“So, really, what’s a nice girl like me doing working at a ghastly ol’ crematory like Westwind?” Caitlin Doughty asks near the beginning of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory, her by turns shockingly gruesome, mordantly funny and, ultimately, richly thought-provoking memoir about working in an Oakland, California, mortuary and crematorium.
Ah, we humans, what have we wrought? Essayist and naturalist Diane Ackerman (author of A Natural History of the Senses, The Zookeeper’s Wife and many other books) tackles this musing—and not merely rhetorical—question in The Human Age: The World Shaped by Us, examining what geologists are calling our current epoch, the Anthropocene, or Human Age.
The voice behind the popular web series “Ask a Mortician” exposes the grisly, hilarious details of working in a crematorium—and argues that everyone needs to be more closely connected to the realities of death.
As a new school year begins, four new titles reveal that teachers can but do change lives in classrooms every day. Chronicling how teachers adapt to change, improve their methods and even learn from their own students, these books will appeal to all those interested in the impact of education.
The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas tells the interlocking stories of these two men whose lives collided in September 2001. Like the very best creative nonfiction, this suspenseful true crime book uses the techniques of literature to develop its characters, themes and plot. Bhuiyan is our appealing protagonist, a man who never gives up trying to better himself, and who treats all humans with respect—including the man who tried to kill him. Antagonist Stroman is downwardly mobile, a lower-middle-class kid who never caught a break, and who is filled with rage toward anyone who isn’t white (and male).
On the heels of her death in February comes an intriguing new book examining the legacy of Shirley Temple. Author John F. Kasson confines his study to the child star’s impact on popular culture at a time when escapist entertainment was both luxury and dire necessity. The Little Girl Who Fought the Great Depression may sound like hyperbole, but Temple’s impact on the nation’s self-image proves unimpeachable.
Blake Bailey has written notable biographies of authors John Cheever and Richard Yates, both difficult and brilliant men. While he was sifting through their lives, he was also reflecting on his own. The Splendid Things We Planned is the resulting portrait, a story of mental illness and addiction and the difficult orbits they force upon the healthy. It’s also a tribute to one family’s best efforts and inevitable failings.
African Americans have been struggling for independence, equality and respect from the moment they were brought to the New World in chains. As that struggle continues today, it’s instructive to look back on our turbulent history to learn from the past and hopefully improve on the future. The five books featured here can help us to do just that, examining historical themes that serve as milestones on the journey of progress.