Joan Acocella's recently published collection of essays, Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints, reads a bit like an erudite version of People magazine. Acocella profiles an eclectic group of 30 high achievers and finds a way to make their work, their lives, and their accomplishments relevant to all of us.
Thus we read a vivid description of dancer Suzanne Farrell's gifts as a ballerina, but we also see her walking her dog, Tex, down Broadway in New York. At the same time, novelist Saul Bellow is transformed into a metaphor for his home town of Chicago through the pages of his masterpiece, "The Adventures of Augie March," as Acocella pores over his accounts of his early years in the city, musings occasioned by the Library of America's publication of his early novels.
These 31 essays by Acocella, formerly published in either The New York Review of Books or The New Yorker (where Acocella is resident dance critic and a book reviewer), also include an excursion into the subject of writer's block.
But Acocella's true value as a critic lies in her perceptive – and mostly loving – portraits of her subjects.
The artists include nine 20th-century dance personalities – a list of the greats from Vaslav Nijinsky to Mikhail Baryshnikov, with several detours from ballet into those uniquely American art forms: modern dance as exemplified by Martha Graham and Twyla Tharp, and Bob Fosse's version of jazz dance.
The group of writers is equally diverse: the Austrian, Stefan Zweig and the French feminist, Simone de Beauvoir; the little-known 19th- century Italian lexiconographer of gesture, Andrea de Jorio; and our own cultural commentator, Susan Sontag.
These artists have much in common, for all the ranging through time and space. Given the upheavals of the 20th century, not to mention the financial challenges of a life in the arts, her subjects are praised for surmounting "just the normal career difficulties: late starts, writing blocks, rejection slips."
In the case of the women, who make up half of the book, Acocella figures "family duties" to be as compelling a responsibility as professional commitments.
The two saints, Mary Magdalene and Joan of Arc, are freshly depicted in their continued relevance to modern times, but they are no less appreciated for their human characteristics than for their super-human perseverance in the face of extreme adversity.
Acocella's roundup is not only a literate take on some significant performers, but also a compelling read about ordinary people endowed with the determination to mine their extraordinary talents.
– Iris Fanger
If you're looking for a crisp and vibrant take on modern India and its potential for world leadership, this is the book for you. Edward Luce, former South Asia bureau chief for the Financial Times pours insight and firsthand knowledge into In Spite of the Gods: The Rise of Modern India and serves up a searching but ultimately sympathetic portrait of the country he has come to know both professionally and personally. (His wife is Indian.) Luce's book is full of evocative detail and – short of a trip to India – may be the best available route to quick familiarity with this emerging powerhouse.
It's one of the seven wonders of the world – built to serve as a memorial to undying love and representing the pinnacle of an empire's glory. Taj Mahal: Passion and Genius at the Heart of the Moghul Empire by British historians Diana and Michael Preston works as both a finely detailed portrait of an architectural treasure and an absorbing account of one of the more remarkable family sagas in Indian history.
The Taj Mahal was built at a moment of glory, but The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty is instead a tale of decline. Historian and travel writer William Dalrymple tells the riveting story of Bahadur Shah II, the aging king who, in 1857, led a doomed rebellion against British domination of India. Dalrymple relies on original research to portray not just a man and an empire but also a city (Delhi) in stunning detail.
– Marjorie Kehe
President Jimmy Carter is addressesing the elephant in the the living room. His book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid should be openly discussed. This book is a must read.
– Mike Flanagan, Thomaston, Maine
Although the novel The Officers' Ward by Marc Dugain is about a man senselessly disfigured in World War I, it had a feeling of wholeness and strong optimism that carried me through a trying time.
– Kathy Piselli, Atlanta
Night by Elie Wiesel. Everyone should read it.
– Barbara Nelson
What are you reading? Write and tell us at Marjorie Kehe.