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Modernism: The Lure of Heresy
Modernism: The Lure of Heresy
by Peter Gay
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $22.15
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4.0 out of 5 stars Although it may not fulfill its critical objective, the book is a very informative cultural history, July 31, 2015
In the "Acknowledgements" at the end of MODERNISM, Peter Gay writes that the "book is not my fault", in the sense that writing a study of Modernism was not his idea but rather that of his editor, Bob Weil. In his very first sentence of text (after the Preface), Gay writes "Modernism is far easier to exemplify than to define." And the following 510 pages bear that out. Hence, the chief shortcoming of MODERNISM -- its failure to satisfactorily define its subject -- can perhaps be attributed more to Bob Weil than Peter Gay.

In the book Gay nonetheless comes up with two attributes or "essential elements" of Modernism: 1) "the lure of heresy", or the impulse to confront (or offend) conventional sensibilities; and 2) "the cultivation of subjectivity", or as Gay alternately expresses it, "a commitment to a principled self-scrutiny". But, ultimately, those two criteria are neither necessary nor sufficient. Not all "modernists" satisfy both clearly and squarely, and some artists or writers who do are not commonly thought of as "modernists". Also troublesome are the rampant inconsistencies between and among various "modernists". (As Gay concedes, "Modernists marched under many banners, with ideals that were at times incompatible with one another.")

Even it fails to pin down and define Modernism, the book is well worth reading as a cultural history. Gay is (or rather, "was"; he died last May) knowledgeable, and he writes smoothly and well, though the book is slightly over-written in the sense that too often Gay gives rein to stylistic niceties. He takes the reader through the various "arts" -- painting, sculpture, fiction, poetry, music, ballet and dance, architecture and design, drama and film -- and within each he discusses, intelligently, a number of the principal practitioners. For example, with regard to fiction he highlights Henry James, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, and Franz Kafka (although he admits that Kafka was, at most, an unintentional modernist). There are about seventy-five black-and-white illustrations and another two dozen in color. I picked up the book already knowing a fair amount of the cultural history Gay writes about (I was more interested in learning what "Modernism" supposedly is); still, I gained much additional knowledge of cultural history.

MODERNISM is strongest in its discussions of the visual arts (painting and sculpture) and literature (fiction, poetry, and drama). The discussion of the other arts seems to be for the sake of completeness. In any event, the book loses some of its focus and steam over its last third.

One of the interesting things about the book is that, albeit with a little hedging, Gay declares Modernism dead. (According to Gay, Modernism "dates roughly from the early 1840s to the early 1960s, from Baudelaire and Flaubert to Beckett and beyond to Pop Art and other dangerous blessings.") What was the cause of its death? Gay doesn't answer that question satisfactorily, to my thinking. In that regard, two points are worth mentioning. First, insofar as Modernism emphasized "subjectivity", it contained within itself a fatal cancer. Second, Modernism depended upon -- arguably presupposed -- a cultural elitism that has virtually evaporated over the past half century. (The two points are manifestations of the increasingly pervasive and pernicious relativism of western -- increasingly global -- civilization.)

Three very small nits: The book is too Freudian for my taste (not all that surprising, given that Gay previously wrote at least five books about Freud and culture). Gay's exaltation of Gabriel García Márquez seems to me a little misplaced. The word "avarious" on page 484 ("avaricious", I think, was intended).


Highway 12
Highway 12
by Christian Probasco
Edition: Paperback
Price: $17.06
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A good overview and guide to an extraordinary region, July 28, 2015
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This review is from: Highway 12 (Paperback)
Utah Highway 12 extends from Bryce National Park to Capitol Reef National Park, and it skirts the northern edge of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. In the words of author Chris Probasco, the land to the south of Highway 12 "is the most broken-up, inaccessible, intractable, inhospitable country on the face of the earth, and it is unlike anything else on the earth."

HIGHWAY 12 is based on various expeditions Probasco made in his Jeep along Highway 12 and back-country (and back-back-country) roads that branch off of it -- and sometimes, when the road ran out, along dry streambeds and the like -- and many times, when driving was no longer possible, by foot, or maybe on all fours, or maybe sliding down a precipitous sandstone slope on his backside. In addition, Probasco incorporates into the book relevant material from a fair amount of reading he did about the region. The result is a blend of outdoor adventure, history, and geology, combined with commentary on local issues -- as of 2002 and 2003, when Probasco undertook his expeditions.

Most of those local issues involve in one form or other the conflict between environmentalists and the mostly native Utahans who want to continue to use the land much as it has been used since Mormon settlers first arrived in the area in the 1870's. Probasco talked with people on both sides of the controversy, and he paints a fairly discouraging picture of recalcitrance on both sides. One instructive quote is from a BLM manager: "[The BLM has] been hunkered down the last ten years. They keep getting sued by the tails of the curve of normal distribution. When I came in as area manager about 1991, every single decision we made was appealed by one side or the other * * * and we were frozen. * * * One side says we want to lock it up for just a few and the other says we want to open all the land up to industry. So the range is being managed to satisfy these two extremes, which means that true range management isn't happening." With regard to these local issues, Probasco's account is no longer current as to details, but the overall stalemate still prevails -- which, as Probasco points out, is tantamount to victory-by-default for the environmentalists.

On that and other issues, Probasco himself is basically "middle-of-the-road". In that regard, I like what he has to say about the "Leave No Trace" creed of many environmentalists. If you take that seriously, you should stay out of the wilderness altogether. "Are you going to scratch your tracks out as you go? Reset the twigs you snapped as you struggled through the brush? Carry the rocks you dislodged coming down a switchback to their former position?" Probasco's motto, instead, is "Don't make too much of a mess."

In writing about some of the most alien land on the planet, Probasco ran smack dab into the limits of language. About one place, behind Dance Hall Rock, Probasco writes that "the schizophrenic slickrock [was] molded into shapes beyond the normal vocabulary of landscapes." "What do you call a massive mound of solid serpiginous rock risen out of some basal mental recess? You could call it a bornhardt or inselberg, but those don't communicate the deep emotional resonance of such places, or the logic bent ninety degrees, or the rock octopus tentacles I witnessed at its edges, slinking back into the sagebrush plain. Where are the names for such things?" Sisyphean task though it may be, Probasco nonetheless tries mightily to communicate the otherworldliness of southern Utah above Lake Powell. And, surely, he comes closer to succeeding than most, although, in the quest he resorts to numerous words unfamiliar to me, some unknown even to the "American Heritage Dictionary" I keep by my usual reading chair (for examples, see the comment).

To help bridge that gap, the book also includes over one hundred photographs, but as printed in black-and-white they are not wholly satisfactory. (One of Probesco's anecdotes concerns a book on the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument printed in Hong King for which the Chinese initially had de-saturated the colors of the photographs because, to the Chinese, they seemed too intense and didn't look real.) Also unsatisfactory is the absence of a useful map of the area Probasco writes about. Nonetheless, HIGHWAY 12 is an engaging book, and for those who aim to thoroughly explore the area it is a nigh-essential book.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 28, 2015 4:46 AM PDT


A Companion for Owls: Being the Commonplace Book of D. Boone, Long Hunter, Back Woodsman, & c.
A Companion for Owls: Being the Commonplace Book of D. Boone, Long Hunter, Back Woodsman, & c.
by Maurice Manning
Edition: Hardcover
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Daniel Boone -- "a Noble Savage" -- and model for William Wordsworth?, July 25, 2015
This is one of the more unusual books that I have come across. It is a charming blend of biographical profile, poetry, and literary theory.

The biographical profile is that of Daniel Boone. A COMPANION FOR OWLS consists primarily of an imaginary "commonplace book" of Boone's, with about sixty entries. They are denominated "Meditations", "Fancies", and "Apologies". They span Boone's adult life -- from Pennsylvania, to Kentucky, to Missouri -- and refer, sometimes obliquely, to some of the people and incidents in his life. Their common theme is Boone's drive to strip himself of artificial wants, fears, and desires, and to be at one with nature.

The commonplace entries are in the form of poems. They employ free verse and a modicum of structure. I regard them as prose poems. Most are a page or less; none extend to three pages. They are accessible and most are enjoyable. There are passages, however, that to me are "faux profound".

At the end of the volume, Manning furnishes a "note" for each of the poems or pieces. Some of these notes contain an historical gloss; some define abstruse words or frontier slang; some are humorous, others are semi-philosophical, and a few are silly. As a whole, they are a quirky bonus to the volume.

Last, there is a seventeen-page essay, in which Manning explores a possible connection between Daniel Boone and English Romanticism, as exemplified in particular by William Wordsworth. The hypothesized bridge is Gilbert Imlay, who employed Boone to survey land in Kentucky and later went to England where he, among other things, fathered an illegitimate child with Mary Wollstonecraft and published a book, "A Topographical Description of the Western Territory of North America", that found a wide readership among the English intelligentsia.

Manning writes that it is "almost certain" that Imlay and Wordsworth "knew each other, and, especially given Imlay's initial popularity as an American writer who had lived in the American backwoods, it is likely that Wordsworth would have read Imlay carefully, gleaning a feeling for Kentucky's wilderness landscape and a sense of the flesh and blood of Daniel Boone. It is certain that Wordsworth came to value the hand-on experience of Man-in-Nature over political parlor talk. Boone was a living example of the synthesis of mental and physical experience, which is both natural and humane, and which became Wordsworth's primary aesthetic."


The Story of Writing: Alphabets, Hieroglyphs & Pictograms
The Story of Writing: Alphabets, Hieroglyphs & Pictograms
by Andrew Robinson
Edition: Paperback
Price: $15.97
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A fine and magnificently illustrated introduction for the generalist, July 23, 2015
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While Andrew Robinson's THE STORY OF WRITING may be beneath scholars and serious students of scripts and writing systems, for the rest of us it is a fine introduction.

Following an excellent introductory overview of writing in general, there are thirteen chapters. Representative ones are "Reading the Rosetta Stone"; "Sound, Symbol and Script"; "Cuneiform"; "Mayan Glyphs"; and "Chinese Writing". Each chapter, in turn, consists of a half dozen or so topics, each of which receives one or two pages. For example, the chapter on "Undeciphered Scripts" has brief discussions of the following subjects: the difficulties of decipherment; Indus script; Cretan Linear A (still undeciphered, though Linear B is the earliest European script that we can understand); the Phaistos Disc; proto-Elamite script; Etruscan; and Rongorongo, from Easter Island.

The book is copiously, and beautifully, illustrated, with photographs of ancient scripts and inscribed artifacts, as well as charts and maps. The illustrations and text are well integrated. The writing itself is ideal for a book of this sort -- neither simplistic nor overly academic. In addition, the book is carefully and intricately formatted, so much so that it is doubtful that the book could be satisfactorily rendered in digital form (just as Japanese kanji characters defy satisfactory electronic data processing).

One theme of the book is that "the way we write at the start of the 3rd millennium AD is not different from the way that the ancient Egyptians wrote". Another is that phonography is essential to fully developed writing systems: "full writing cannot be divorced from speech; words, and the scripts that employ words, involve both sounds and signs".

THE STORY OF WRITING would be a good addition to any general library.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 24, 2015 2:28 PM PDT


Wanting: A Novel
Wanting: A Novel
by Richard Flanagan
Edition: Hardcover
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Genocide of Aborigines juxtaposed with Victorian love affairs, July 21, 2015
This review is from: Wanting: A Novel (Hardcover)
In WANTING, Richard Flanagan tells two stories of frustrated desire, each featuring historical characters, with an attenuated connection between them.

One story takes place in Van Diemen's Land, now known as Tasmania, between the years 1839 and 1849. It centers on a young Aborigine girl, Mathinna, who, as one of the few survivors of the British genocide, was shipped away and quarantined on Flinders Island. The Aborigines keep dying off, but Mathinna is a rare spark of mischievous energy and joy. She captivates Lady Jane Franklin, who is the wife of the governor of Van Diemen's Land, Sir John Franklin (the famous Arctic explorer); they decide to adopt Mathinna and in a noble experiment attempt to turn her into an Englishwoman. The arc of Mathinna's remaining life is one of increasing wretchedness: among other things, Sir John rapes her, she is sent to an appalling orphanage when the Franklins are recalled, and she finally takes to drinking and whoring. All the while, she remembers with intense longing the freedom of her former aboriginal life.

Lady Jane Franklin serves as the connection to the second story, which takes place in the 1850's in England. Sir John Franklin had gone off on another Arctic expedition, this time to find the Northwest Passage; he and his crew disappeared, never to return. Lady Jane, upset by stories of cannibalism among Franklin's crew, appeals to Charles Dickens to refute the scurrilous stories. Dickens is at the peak of his powers and his fame, but in his personal life he is miserable, saddled with a wife he doesn't love and a chaotic household of ten children. The newspaper piece he writes for Lady Jane leads him to collaborate with Wilkie Collins on a play, "The Frozen Deep", in which Dickens himself plays a leading role. In performing the play, Dickens meets a young actress, Ellen Terney, and, against his personal precepts, he falls for her. He, "a man who had spent a life believing that giving in to desire was the mark of a savage, realised he could no longer deny wanting."

The novel's chapters alternate between Van Diemen's Land and England, between Mathinna and Dickens. Flanagan handles the cross-cutting skillfully. On the whole, the narrative is a treat to read, though Flanagan displays a few mannerisms. There are some wonderful crisp observations and turns of phrase. Especially powerful is Flanagan's portrayal of the early years of Tasmanian settlement and the despicable treatment of the Aborigines. It is, in short, a novel well worth reading.

I do, however, have two reservations. First, for me the pairing of the two tales is not really satisfactory. The Charles Dickens story pales in comparison to that of Mathinna; the "tragedy" of Dickens's "wanting" is almost laughable when juxtaposed with Mathinna's. Second, the imaginative fictionalization of historical figures once again makes me a tad uneasy, especially when extended to having Sir John Franklin rape a passed-out ten-year-old Aborigine girl. In a concluding Author's Note, Flanagan writes that "only the barest details of Mathinna's life are known" and that "what Sir John's feelings were towards Mathinna" are unknown and unknowable. Sir John is long gone and a long-standing legal principle is that the dead cannot be libelled (although there are hints that this principle may be weakening); still, the fictional slur bothers me.


Henry VI, Part III: The Oxford Shakespeare (Oxford World's Classics)
Henry VI, Part III: The Oxford Shakespeare (Oxford World's Classics)
by William Shakespeare
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.95
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The War of the Roses continues, July 16, 2015
In HENRY VI, PART 3 Shakespeare continues his dramatization of the War of the Roses. The time is 1455 to 1471. Indecisive Henry VI still holds on to the crown at the beginning of the play, but it is wrested from him by Richard, Duke of York. Henry's supporters, led by his queen, Margaret, who is much more a warrior than he, re-capture it and kill Richard, Duke of York. But Richard's sons fight on, and by the end of the play his eldest son Edward has become King of England, and Henry has been murdered by another of Richard's sons, a hunchback (also named Richard), who secretly craves the crown for himself and lurks in the wings waiting for his opportunity.

Like most (all?) of Shakespeare's English histories, historical accuracy takes a back seat to dramatic effect. For my taste, in HENRY VI, PART 3 that dramatic effect is superior to "Part 1" or "Part 2". PART 3 is tighter, more focused. There is no buffoonery or farcical touches. True, there still are deaths (six characters die on stage) and severed heads (three of them), but the gore and mayhem seem more a natural development of the story than gratuitous theatricality.

The play features three memorable characters. One is the feckless Henry VI. He is a decent man, a sensitive humanist even, but that does not a good king make. Another is his wife, Margaret, to whom Richard, Duke of York says, "Women are soft, mild, pitiful, and flexible-- / Thou stern, obdurate, flinty, rough, remorseless". But Margaret also is the ultimate realist; while Henry dithers with fear and trepidation, Margaret faces the storm, saying "Why, courage then--what cannot be avoided / 'Twere childish weakness to lament or fear." But the star of the play is Richard the Crookback, that "foul misshapen stigmatic" (in the words of Margaret). He delivers two lengthy, spellbinding soliloquies in which he declares himself to be a murderous Machiavellian. He recognizes that his mind is warped, but that seems to be self-willed compensation for his physical deformity: "Since the heavens have shaped my body so, / let hell make crooked my mind to answer it." Love and brotherhood are not for him; his defiant motto is "I am myself alone".

There also are several great scenes: the opening one, in which the Houses of York and Lancaster argue their competing claims to the throne; one where Queen Margaret and her henchmen mock Richard, Duke of York, giving him a napkin soaked in his youngest son's blood and then placing a paper crown on his head, which Margaret knocks off saying "Off with the crown, and with the crown his head"; the one where the newly crowned King Edward meets Lady Gray and lustfully falls for her, sparking some scintillating repartee as Lady Gray keeps fending Edward off until he ups the ante to an offer of marriage. But the most affecting scene, perhaps, is the one in which King Henry observes two soldiers come off the battlefield, each carrying in his arms the body, still enarmored, of a man he had just killed. The first soldier removes the dead man's helmet and discovers, to his horror and sorrow, that it is his father; the second discovers that the warrior he killed is (of course) his son. Henry bemoans the nature of civil war and reflects that it would have been better for one of the two contending House of Roses to "wither" and "let the other flourish", than the actual situation where the two Houses "contend [and] a thousand lives must wither."

Which raises the question: what might Shakespeare have done with the American Civil War? Or the Serbian/Bosnian/Croatian strife? Or Israel vs. Palestine? Ad nauseum.


The Americans
The Americans
by Robert Frank
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $24.14
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A jaundiced view of America in the 1950s, July 14, 2015
This review is from: The Americans (Hardcover)
Recently "The New York Times Magazine" ran an article on Robert Frank and THE AMERICANS, his seminal book of photographs of the United States. Sixty years ago, Frank drove 10,000 miles around the country in a secondhand Ford, taking pictures. He returned to New York with more than 27,000 photographs. He selected eighty-three of them for publication in a book and got Jack Kerouac to write the introduction. THE AMERICANS has become a classic.

I acquired my copy around 1980 (it is the 1978 Aperture edition). I vaguely recall being a little disappointed when I paged through it way back then. It went on the shelves with other photography books and I never looked at it again until "The New York Times" article prompted me to unshelve it and page through it carefully . . . probably more carefully than I did back in 1980.

According to the Times article (by Nicholas Dawidoff), "Frank hoped to express the emotional rhythms of the United States, to portray underlying realities and misgivings -- how it felt to be wealthy, to be poor, to be in love, to be alone, to be young or old, to be black or white, to live along a country road or to walk a crowded sidewalk, to be overworked or sleeping in parks, to be a swaggering Southern couple or to be young and gay in New York, to be politicking or at prayer."

The book no doubt reflects the United States that Robert Frank saw, filtered through his particular dour sensibilities. But I don't think the book is a fair portrayal of the United States of the mid-1950s as a whole. Frank's America is a land of unmitigated vulgarity, meanness, and gloom. For the most part, everyone, if they don't have utterly blank expressions, is squinting, scowling, leering, or sneering. In only three photos do the subjects display anything close to a smile: the plastered smiles of society dames at a cocktail party, the wholly artificial grin of a young woman on camera at a television studio, and the ribald smirks of a couple who have just been married at City Hall in Reno. That couple, by the way, are the only people in the book who seemingly are enjoying themselves. Much of America in the 1950s may have been vapid and vacuous, but it definitely was not as depressed, ugly, and Angst-ridden as Robert Frank's America. (I immediately think of albums of family photographs, many unposed, produced in the 1950s, both by my family and those of a couple close friends; many other collections of 1950s photographs surely would also serve as counterexamples.)

Many of the photographs are indeed arresting. For 1950s America, some were unsettling and others probably were shocking. I echo what Jack Kerouac wrote in his introduction: "To Robert Frank I now give this message: You got eyes." The problem arises in the choice of what to photograph and, probably, in the culling of 27,000 photographs.

Any student of photography (at least American student) should be familiar with THE AMERICANS. But it is one man's somewhat jaundiced view of America, and I quarrel with the notion that, as stated in the Times article, it represents "the truth of the United States in the 1950s".
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 24, 2015 11:37 AM PDT


A History of the Ancient Southwest
A History of the Ancient Southwest
by Stephen H. Lekson
Edition: Paperback
Price: $39.95
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A tremendous and highly readable account of the history and archaeology of the ancient Southwest, July 12, 2015
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Like many American gringos, I am fascinated by the Native Americans of the Southwest -- both those living there today and those who lived there in pre-Colombian times and left thousands of ruins (including an impressive one less than two miles from my house). But I have long had a vague uneasiness about two things. First, I sensed that my perception of Indians of the Southwest might be romanticized or "reverentially idealized". Second, I was somewhat bewildered by the profusion of "ancients" of the Southwest, scattered over the landscape like so many potsherds.

Stephen Lekson's A HISTORY OF THE ANCIENT SOUTHWEST addresses those two personal concerns and much, much more. Lekson has spent his professional career as an archaeologist in the Southwest, and A HISTORY is a summation or synthesis of what he learned. He is intelligent and an independent thinker; he challenges orthodoxies ("Orthodoxies are comfortable, but they are not necessarily correct"); he is chary of faddish academic theories; he has a predisposition towards doing "history", using the plenitude of archaeological data (and working around the numerous gaps) to hypothesize what actually happened; and he tackles big picture issues rather than the quotidian minutia that is the staple of so many archaeology books. Moreover, he writes extremely well, with panache and nada academic pretentiousness, a generous measure of humor, and a refreshing dose of self-deprecation.

A HISTORY covers a lot of ground -- far too much to communicate adequately in the space of an Amazon review. Lekson begins his survey in "Time Immemorial" and carries it through about 1600 and the Spanish conquest of the Southwest. He concentrates on the three major regions of prehistoric peoples -- Anasazi, Hohokam, and Mimbres -- and, surprise!, he discusses their interconnections and reciprocal relationships. He covers major settlements -- "capitals" even -- such as Chaco, the Phoenix Basin, and Casas Grande (or Paquimé). Believing that the Anasazi, Hohokam, and Mimbres were not hermetically isolated in the Southwest, Lekson even explores the influences of Mesoamerica and the Mississippi Valley (especially, Cahokia, which was coeval with Chaco). Parallel to his history of the Southwest, Lekson also writes about the history of archaeology of the Southwest -- the evolution of academic theories . . . and biases. He also covers major "external" drivers of the way archaeology has been practiced in the Southwest, such as CRM (cultural resource management) and NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act).

One of his themes is that the Indians of the ancient Southwest were not anything like current Native residents, such as the modern Puebloans, Navajo, Hopi, and O'odham. (How could they be the same, Lekson asks, after everything Europeans did to them?) He has a predisposition to examine matters "political" (how the Indians must have organized themselves) and an aversion to matters of ritual and religion.

On the issue of religion, here is an excerpt that also serves as an example of Lekson's style: "Please don't ask me about the content of Hohokam religion. It's remarkably difficult to get a handle on the core doctrines of major modern religions, even with popes and ayatollahs laying down the law. Attempting to determine the principles of an ancient religion--gone for almost a thousand years--is probably a waste of time. We might ferret out hints and details, but think how easy it would be to misunderstand major modern religions from only hints and details."

If you are wedded to a reverential, touchy-feely, New Age conception of the Indians of the Southwest, Lekson's book is not for you. If you have been trained as an archaeologist specializing in the Southwest, or if otherwise you are a serious student of Southwestern matters, Lekson's book will run counter to much that you have learned and possibly hold dear. But for an interested, intelligent (and, dare I say, "open-minded") layperson, A HISTORY OF THE ANCIENT SOUTHWEST is immensely informative and an exhilarating treat to read. It merits my highest recommendation.

P.S.: Don't ignore the endnotes. There are nearly 100 pages of them (as opposed to 250 pages of text), and many of the textual endnotes are as interesting and informative as the principal text -- and even more witty or provocative. The book also contains about seventy illustrations, a lengthy bibliography, and an index.


Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Early Work
Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Early Work
by Henri Cartier-Bresson
Edition: Paperback
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very fine photographs from a master -- and an even better introductory essay, July 8, 2015
Inasmuch as Henri Cartier-Bresson was one of the greatest photographers of the twentieth century -- given how long photography has been around, that essentially means "of all time" -- any book of HCB photographs is bound to be worthwhile. Especially when the photographs are reproduced and printed with the care of this MOMA book. But even more especially, when they are presented via an essay such as the one in this book by Robert Galassi. Galassi's forty-page piece on HCB and his early work is the very best essay introducing a book dedicated to the work of an individual photographer or artist that I have ever had the pleasure of reading.

As Galassi explains, the common perception of HCB has been heavily influenced by the works of "photojournalism" for which he became famous later in his career, after World War II. This book contains eighty-seven photographs that HCB took between 1929 and 1934. Galassi writes that these "early photographs have virtually nothing to do with photojournalism; indeed they insistently and quite inventively subvert the narrative expectations upon which photojournalism depends. Stylistically, too, the early work is different from the work after the war: blunter, less lyrical, and much more severely focused on a narrow range of subjects."

Galassi shows how HCB, in his early work, was influenced by the precepts and attitudes of both Surrealism and Cubism. (Forty-two useful illustrations, or figures, accompany Galassi's essay.) Galassi's discussion of Surrealism, by the way, is by far the most cogent and helpful that I have ever come across. Galassi traces the evolution of HCB as an artist and as a man, and he also indicates where HCB fits in the evolution of photography as an art. Throughout, his writing is intelligent without being didactic, and there never is a whiff of bombast or pretentiousness.

HENRI CARTIER-BRESSON: THE EARLY WORK contains some of HCB's best-known photographs. Among them: the bicyclist speeding by on a cobble-stoned street below juxtaposed beside the descending spiral staircase; the plump man jumping over as much as he can of a huge puddle of water; a dozen boys playing in the rubble of a street in Seville, photographed through a jagged hole in a wall; and two garishly made-up Mexican prostitutes at the windows of their adjoining stalls. There are many other photographs, equally striking, with which I was not previously familiar. For example: two rough looking workers in Berlin from 1931, who in retrospect seem to personify the roots of National Socialism; two dogs copulating on a Paris street, while two other mutts look on (enviously?); and numerous photographs of poverty and squalor in Mexico, circa 1934, especially one of a naked, mud-covered boy on the ground holding a naked younger girl (his sister?), flanked by two other naked mud-plastered boys, one looking directly at the camera. A few of the photographs are bizarre, and some are too consciously "artsy" for my taste, but all in all the collection is top shelf and worthy of the time and attention of anyone who appreciates fine photography.


Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness
Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness
by Edward Abbey
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Despite his central message of conservation, it is difficult to embrace Abbey, July 6, 2015
A recent visit to Arches National Park spurred me to buy and to read Edward Abbey's DESERT SOLITAIRE, which is based on three seasons he spent there as a seasonal park ranger. The book is now nearly a half century old, and it has become a bible of sorts to many. I am far too old to be taking up any new personal bibles, but it was interesting to read and reflect upon what has inspired so many others.

On one level, DESERT SOLITAIRE is about the canyon country of southeast Utah, of which Arches National Park (which was still a National Monument when Abbey worked there) is one small part. There is plenty of natural history, as well as stories about such things as uranium mining, livestock ranching, the Glen Canyon Dam, a trip down the Colorado River, and the Ancient Puebloans or Anasazi who once lived there and their rock art.

But what attracts and inspires so many readers is Abbey's iconoclastic stance vis-a-vis mainstream America or what once was rather derisively dubbed "the Establishment". I sympathize with some of Abbey's causes or impulses, but he is not a rigorous thinker and on some matters he spirals off into lunacy. Some of the outlandish things he writes may be deliberately over-the-top, designed for shock-value effect, but I don't think they all can be explained away on that ground.

Here is just one of many examples. Abbey emphasizes one of the central tenets of the conservation movement: "We need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it. * * * We need the possibility of escape as surely as we need hope * * *." But he then goes on to say: "We may need [wilderness] someday not only as a refuge from excessive industrialism but also as a refuge from authoritarian government, from political oppression. Grand Canyon, Big Bend, Yellowstone and the High Sierras may be required to function as bases for guerilla warfare against tyranny." Whoa there, big fellah!

I suspect that reflects the true Edward Abbey. I sense that he is (or was) anti-social, and that he simply didn't want average Americans (whom he disdained) polluting, by their mere presence, the wilderness that he selfishly treasured for his own solitaire.


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