Unexpected gems whether rediscovered works or reissued classics are welcome surprises, and John Steinbeck's The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights is just such a treasure. Christopher Paolini, wunderkind author of the bestsellers Eragon and Eldest, has written a foreword for this little-known Steinbeck work, and included in this edition are letters from the author to both his literary agent and the book's original editor.
Steinbeck, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, began writing The Acts of King Arthur in 1958, but as Paolini writes, he stopped working... sometime in late 1959, just as he seemed to hit his stride. Nine years later, he died. It would be his last work. The book's genesis began in Steinbeck's childhood, that time of life when influence is key for many artists. Parents with less than eager readers should take heart: In his introduction, Steinbeck writes that as a child, "words written or printed were devils, and books because they gave me pain, were my enemies." When an aunt gave him a copy of Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur, "fatuously ignor[ing] my resentment toward reading," antagonism changed to fascination. He was drawn in, hooked by the language and the storytelling. Translating the legend's magic to future generations of children became his intent, but for numerous reasons, completing the task proved a challenge. What he did accomplish, however, is enchanting all the same. Its handsome dust jacket, its shadowy and vintage-esque illustrations, Steinbeck's prose: King Arthur and his noble knights are as dramatic and marvelous as ever here.
THE TOLSTOY HOUSEHOLD
Song Without Words: The Photographs and Diaries of Countess Sophia Tolstoy by Leah Bendavid-Val is one of the more beautiful books published in time for the holidays. In September of 1862, Sophia Behrs married Count Leo Tolstoy in Moscow. The ceremony was opulent, Bendavid-Val writes, the countess shy and a little afraid. During the course of her 48-year marriage, the Countess Tolstoy bore 13 children (seeing only eight live to adulthood), ran a lively household, managed the day-to-day business affairs on their estate, Yasnaya Polyana, 60 miles outside Moscow, meticulously hand-copied her husband's prodigious literary output and still found time to write daily entries in her diary and take more than a thousand photographs, most of these during the 25-year span from 1885-1910.
Divided into chapters with simple categorization The Family, Servants and Peasants, Artists, Illness and Marriage the book is a fascinating glimpse into not only Russia during the 19th century, but also life as an aristocrat during that time. The photographs are stunningly elegant: landscapes of the verdant pond and bathhouse at Yasnaya Polyana, informal self-portraits of the countess with her family or alone by a window, tending to her plants in the soft light of a winter day. Her marriage was a demanding and passionate one, but she viewed her husband as a genius and took countless photographs of the iconic writer.
Her style is forthright and unsentimental, never heavy-handed. She worked with an accomplished eye, one imbued with a tender love for its subjects. In addition to the publication of this book, a traveling exhibition of her work is planned for 2008. The countess was a woman devoted to her family and her role within it, but she was also a highly creative and fierce individual. As her great-grandson writes in the foreword, "you were a worthy Lioness."
SHORT AND SWEET
Packaging, presentation and of course, highly crafted fiction, are the obvious draws inherent in McSweeney's intriguing One Hundred and Forty-Five Stories in a Small Box. That which comes in miniature often goes hand-in-hand with cute, but this boxed set of short fiction leans less toward precious and more toward captivating. Comprised of three small books, it comes in a slipcase with cover art designed by Jacob Magraw-Mickelson. His black-and-white illustrations are highlighted with the occasional fleck of shimmery gold, and as they wrap and curve around the corners of the case in endless detail, they tell a story all their own. The books inside, though, are as clever as their covers are beautiful. Each is a collection of short fiction by a different author Hard to Admit and Harder to Escape by Sarah Manguso, Minor Robberies by Deb Olin Unferth and How the Water Feels to the Fishes by McSweeney's founder Dave Eggers and no one story runs longer than 500 words. Also referred to as snap fiction or flash fiction, short-shorts are poetry magnified. There's no room for error. A reader's attention can't stray. The writer must capture immediacy and intimacy in a matter of words. The art of the short story is made purer if not more finely wrought when distilled down to the essence of its form. The folks at McSweeney's get this, hence, One Hundred and Forty-Five Stories in a Small Box. Stories to slide in your back pocket, slip in your purse, carry with you throughout the day. Perfect as a gift for those who love quirky, new-style fiction, this collection will also appeal to readers with short attention spans.
THE POWER OF POETRY
Poetry Speaks Expanded is the newest edition of the 2001 bestseller Poetry Speaks. Like its predecessor, it takes a traditional form (poetry) and adds a 21st-century twist (audio). Poetry is meant to be heard and not just read. Poetry Speaks Expanded takes 47 poets and, across the span of three audio CDs, features them reading selections from their work. There are 107 poems total, each presented in written form alongside a short, biographical sketch of the author. Critical essays by well-known writers add to the anthology's comprehensive scope. In more ways than one, it's a hefty collection.
Nineteenth-century poets like Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Walt Whitman are represented, as are 20th-century greats like Elizabeth Bishop, T.S. Eliot, Langston Hughes and Wallace Stevens. Anne Sexton's here, as is Ezra Pound and e.e. cummings. New additions to the anthology include Jack Kerouac and, in the biggest coup of all, James Joyce. Previous difficulties with securing the rights to his work prevented his inclusion in 2001, but now readers can listen in awe as he reads from Anna Livia Plurabelle in Finnegans Wake. Poetry is the oldest of art forms. It's fitting, then, that here its voice rings louder and ever more true.