If we choose, we can avoid most forms of art. Architecture is not one of them. It is all around us. In his wide-ranging and stimulating new book, Bricks and Mortals: Ten Great Buildings and the People They Made, Tom Wilkinson explores many of the aspects—morality, power, economics, psychology, politics and sex are some—that help us better understand how architecture “shapes people’s lives and vice versa,” from ancient times to the present. His diverse selection of buildings includes Nero’s Golden House in Rome and the Festival Theatre in Beyreuth, as well as the Finsbury Health Centre in London and the Footbridge in Rio de Janeiro. Ten buildings are covered in detail, serving as springboards to discussions of related subjects.
At the age of 12, when his father was imprisoned for not paying his debts, Charles Dickens was sent to work in a factory. He walked to his job, to his meager lodgings, to find his dinner in a market stall and to visit Marshalsea prison, where the rest of his family was living. Dickens never lost this habit of walking. And as Judith Flanders reveals in her stunning new book, The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London, the sights, sounds and smells of the city that infuse his novels were not simply the work of a brilliant imagination but “the reportage of a great observer.”
French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi is best characterized by the following passage: “He was an egoist in human affairs; a humble man in the scale of the cosmos.” This elegant writing comes from Elizabeth Mitchell in Liberty’s Torch, the tale of how Bartholdi proposed the creation of the Statue of Liberty and spent much of his life making it happen. He knew that the statue’s completion would bring him fame. But he also knew that it would become a lasting symbol of what America represents: freedom and opportunity.
Who fired the first shot on Lexington Green on the morning of April 19, 1775, remains in dispute. Both the British regulars and the American rebels vehemently denied that it came from their side. What is agreed on is that after that first shot was heard, there was immediately sporadic and then volley fire from the British regulars. In June, there was the catastrophic Battle of Bunker Hill. While the result was indecisive, it was a self-proclaimed British victory at a staggering cost.
Like the Vietnam War a generation or so later, the Spanish Civil War was a localized conflict that took on global resonance. Major Western powers adopted an official hands-off policy toward the Iberian struggle between socialists and fascists, afraid to upset the fragile diplomatic balance in the uneasy Europe of the 1930s. Still, the bloody hostilities gained the wider public’s attention and sympathies, in no small part due to a coterie of impassioned journalists and intellectuals who took up the cause of Spain. In her meticulously researched and beautifully told new book, Hotel Florida, Amanda Vaill refracts the turbulent events that took place between July 1936 and March 1939 through a prism of six such determined believers.
It is far easier to be morally outraged by a situation than morally engaged in confronting it. We look back at the horrors of slavery or the Holocaust and exclaim, “How could they have let this happen,” even as we effectively ignore the current waves of human miseries washing around our feet. Gil and Eleanor Kraus were no such antiseptic moralists.
Contemporary views of the Mormon Church have been shaped by influences as disparate as the Broadway hit The Book of Mormon, the HBO series “Big Love” and the presidential campaign of Mitt Romney. Suffice it to say that most Americans have a shallow understanding of Mormonism. Some view Mormons as squeaky-clean apostles doing door-to-door missionary work. Others label Mormons as hedonistic polygamists, even though multiple marriages have been prohibited for more than a century by the official Mormon Church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
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.
Pedestrianism is the biggest American sport craze you’ve never heard of. Imagine thousands of rowdy fans, drinking and smoking, packed into Madison Square Garden for days on end. What is this event they are watching and betting on, that’s making headlines in all the newspapers? Men in tights are walking around a track. For six days.
Fifty years after the landmark passage of the Civil Rights Act, two new books capture the history of those tumultuous times. The story of the law’s passage is not just about the legislative process, though its approval by Congress was anything but a foregone conclusion. It’s a story about grassroots activism, unexpected allies, the clash of personalities and political posturing. It’s about finally putting an end to institutional racism and beginning the slow process towards justice and reconciliation.