It’s a pleasure to see you again
NOT long ago, I visited the Andre Kertesz retrospective at LACMA, which spans six decades in the photographer’s life. What’s remarkable about Kertesz is not just his longevity, but the way that, throughout his career, his aesthetics continued to develop and change. There’s an enormous difference between his early work -- images of Hungary in the 1920s -- and his final photos, taken in New York in the 1980s. As to how enormous, just have a look at “Andre Kertesz: The Early Years,” a collection of 90 prints due out in October that captures the artist at the outset of his long creative arc.
In many ways, Kertesz seems to symbolize this fall’s authors, many of whom have, well, been around. There’s E.L. Doctorow, who returns with his third book in the last year and a half, a novel called “The March,” which reimagines Gen. William T. Sherman’s march through Georgia in starkly existential terms. Joan Didion releases her brief, piercing memoir, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” recounting the death of her husband and the near-fatal illness of her daughter, which happened almost simultaneously in late 2003 and early 2004. (Tragically, events have overtaken the book; her daughter died late last month. Didion has said she will not update the memoir.)
In “Slow Man,” his first novel since his Nobel Prize win in 2003, J.M. Coetzee explores the life of a photographer who loses a leg in an accident and must wrestle with the questions raised by such sudden, catastrophic change. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Memories of My Melancholy Whores” is a short novel that touches on the author’s fundamental themes -- love lost, love regained, the pleasures of erotic impulse -- while Salman Rushdie’s “Shalimar the Clown” begins with what looks like a political assassination in Los Angeles, then seeks out the personal underpinnings of the act.
Barbara Ehrenreich takes a nonfictional approach to this relationship between the political and the personal with “Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream,” which picks up where her revelatory “Nickel and Dimed” left off, as the author goes undercover again, this time as an unemployed white-collar worker, to expose the insecure netherworld of the downsized, victim’s of corporate culture’s bottom line.
What makes Ehrenreich’s work important is that it addresses the world we live in, the concerns that affect our lives. The same is true of Niles Eldredge’s “Darwin: Discovering the Tree of Life,” an intellectual biography that traces the arc of Charles Darwin’s thinking through the filter of his experience. Eldredge’s book appears in conjunction with “From So Simple a Beginning: Darwin’s Four Great Books,” which gathers “Voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle,” “The Origin of Species,” “The Descent of Man” and “The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals,” offering a comprehensive overview of Darwin’s work.
These texts should be required reading for anyone who dismisses evolution by conflating science with superstition. Talk about intelligent design.
When it comes to intelligent writing about science, Simon Winchester’s “A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906" presents a geologic and cultural history of the quake that changed the face of California, giving rise to many of the myths by which we define ourselves. A similar perspective drives Sharman Apt Russell’s “Hunger: An Unnatural History,” which examines the physical and metaphysical aspects of its subject, conflating biology and spirituality, starvation and fasting, in an illuminating way.
Myth too motivates John Berendt’s “The City of Falling Angels” -- which does for Venice what his “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” did for Savannah, Ga. -- as well as “A Short History of Myth,” in which biblical scholar Karen Armstrong traces the lineage of mythmaking in human culture, arguing for its reintegration into contemporary life.
Then there’s rock ‘n’ roll, the mythologies of which are reexamined in Peter Guralnick’s “Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke,” an in-depth look at the 1950s-'60s R&B; singer, and Chris Salewicz’s “Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer,” a portrait of the Clash’s legendary frontman, who took the anarchy of punk and gave it a soul. Margaret Cho channels a punk-like intensity into her stand-up; her “I Have Chosen to Stay and Fight” takes on feminism, race and imperialism.
Finally, the late Hunter S. Thompson returns for one more salvo with “The Mutineer: Rants, Ravings and Missives From the Mountaintop, 1977-2005,” the third and closing volume of his letters, which may be as close as we’ll get to his autobiography. Thompson’s writing is often so outrageous it literally reinvents the world. So too with the fiction writer George Saunders, whose first book-length work, “The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil,” tells of a country so tiny that only one person can occupy it at a time.
In “Fallen,” David Maine reimagines the Adam and Eve story as a dysfunctional family saga, while Gideon Defoe’s “The Pirates! In an Adventure With Ahab” sends up adventure fiction, bodice rippers, even “Moby-Dick.” Chris Ware follows his groundbreaking graphic novel “Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth” with “The ACME Novelty Library,” a collection of single-page, tabloid-size comics and graphic stories. T.C. Boyle’s “Tooth and Claw” gathers 14 stories from Southern California’s master of the idiosyncratic, showcasing his depth and range.
Close to home
SPEAKING of local writers, Percival Everett’s 17th novel, “Wounded” -- inspired loosely by the Matthew Shepard story -- may finally get him the attention he deserves. “Wounded’s” exploration of social issues is echoed by Zadie Smith’s “On Beauty,” a family saga set against the backdrop of America’s culture wars. In “Cinnamon Kiss,” meanwhile, Walter Mosley evokes a different culture war, setting detective Easy Rawlins adrift through the hippie underground of the 1960s as he searches for a missing lawyer.
Of course, the culture wars have always been with us, and most likely always will be. For proof, we need only look at this fall’s reprints, such as Philip Roth’s “Novels and Stories 1959-1962" and “Novels 1967-1972" -- including “Goodbye, Columbus” and the insurrectionary “Portnoy’s Complaint” -- and Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita,” a novel so radical it couldn’t be published in the U.S. for nearly a decade after it appeared in Europe but now merits a 50th-anniversary commemoration.
The Library of America will issue a two-volume set of James Agee’s novels and film writings, with a restored version of “A Death in the Family”; in November, Norton offers the last volume of Leslie S. Klinger’s “New Annotated Sherlock Holmes.” Most impressive, however, are two elaborate retrospectives, each of which, in its own way, breaks new ground. “The Complete New Yorker: Eighty Years of the Nation’s Greatest Magazine” features, on eight DVDs, every issue of the magazine yet published -- in its entirety.
“Semina Culture: Wallace Berman & His Circle” showcases Los Angeles Beat artist Wallace Berman through the filter of his assembly magazine “Semina.” As the Beat era gets further behind us, Berman continues to emerge as the most important (if underappreciated) figure from that epoch, an artist who blended bohemia and the family, who believed that culture could take root in the most intimate spaces, that it only took a spark to change the world. This is the message of art, of literature, and it continues to bear paying attention to, even (or especially) after all these years.
Ulin will become editor of The Times Book Review in October.