Book bits

This week: Beauty found in buildings, three books about royalty, and a young, prizewinning novelist.

The Architecture of Happiness, By Alain de Botton

Frank Zappa reportedly once said, "Writing about art is like dancing about architecture." If only the musician had lived long enough to read Alain de Botton.

In The Architecture of Happiness, Mr. de Botton, a polymath renaissance man of sorts, and a self-styled "Everyman's philosopher," effortlessly untangles a knotty question: "What constitutes beauty in art?" And, by extension, "What is a beautiful building?"

On the face of it, the subject might sound dull, arcane, and, frankly, impenetrable. It certainly did to this reader, whose interest in buildings ended at age 10 with the permanent shelving of his LEGO set.

Yet de Botton renders this finest of arts (albeit one constructed with the coarsest of materials) compelling by explaining how buildings affect us on an emotional level – even when those feelings are subconscious and difficult to articulate.

Step by step, and with intuitive logic, the author reveals how we each assign different values to different materials, shapes, and colors. Thus buildings evoke associations with qualities that range from playful to austere, from kind to foreboding. He observes that architecture we now deem "dated" reflects how the culture has embraced a new set of values.

De Botton's writing style isn't academic. But it is scholarly, thoughtful, and infused with literary prose – each sentence a perfect chor- eography of words – that makes one forget that he's using a pen and paper rather than a paintbrush and canvas. (Almost every page is handsomely illustrated with photos, too.)

The result isn't just a primer on architecture, but a work that will profoundly change the way you see your everyday environment. When was the last time you could say that about a book?

Stephen Humphries

3 Books about Royals

From his mother, Anne of Austria, to his wife, Marie-Therese, to the governess with whom he betrayed his mistress, popular historian Antonia Fraser examines the women in the life of France's Sun King in Love and Louis XIV. This detailed account paints a compelling portrait of a powerful man, one more thoughtful than is often imagined. It may not reveal much that wasn't already on record, but Dianaphiles won't want to miss Sarah Bradford's Diana. Bradford is an experienced royal biographer (previous subjects include Queen Elizabeth II, Princess Grace of Monaco) and she understands the world in which Diana lived well enough to provide a compassionate, balanced look at the stylish royal's short, troubled and overwhelmingly public life.

Was her fashion sense really an assertive form of self-expression? That's the premise Barnard College French professor Caroline Weber works from in Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution, a fascinating examination of Marie Antoinette's wardrobe and what it meant. Weber (who also wrote "Terror and Its Discontents" about post-revolutionary France) combines an academic's authority with appealing and readable prose while offering fresh insight on the much maligned queen.



When Kiran Desai became the youngest woman ever to win the Man Booker Prize for Fiction last month, she made many people happy: her mother, novelist Anita Desai, who three times was shortlisted for the prestigious British award but had never won; her American publisher, Grove/Atlantic, which had just put out a paperback edition of The Inheritance of Loss; and her British publisher, Hamish Hamilton, which took a chance on the 35-year-old Desai's novel after it had been rejected by a discouraging number of publishing houses in Britain.

Desai, who was born in India and now moves between New York and New Delhi, arrived in the US 20 years ago thinking she wanted to be a scientist. A writing class at Bennington College changed her mind. She published her first novel, "Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard," in 1998.

The Washington Post

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