She is probably the most famous woman in American painting after Whistler's Mother. She is the usherette in Edward Hopper's 1939 painting "New York Movie," a lovely "Hopper Blonde" bathed in loving and minimal light from a wall fixture as she stands there lost in thought on the right side of the painting. Next to her is a narrow staircase (leading to the side boxes?). On the left side of the painting is the audience, which is notably sparse and presumably as lost in the black and white movie as she is in her lonely separate reverie.
The 12 months of 1939, remember, were, by some lights, the greatest movie year America ever had -- "Gone With the Wind," "Stagecoach," "Ninotchka," "The Wizard of Oz," etc. And Edward Hopper loved movies. We are also reminded in Walter Wells' beautiful "Silent Theater: The Art of Edward Hopper" (Phaidon, 264 pages, $69.95) that Hopper "found fascination" in theater from the time he was a boy. "For years he saved the ticket stubs from every play he attended" and was drawn, from the beginning, to silent movies. His wife was an actress who liked to meet with friends to discuss Euripides.
All of which may help to explain why Hopper's images of urban and small town loneliness and quietude have become visual archetypes of the American imagination, a key part of our national movie of ourselves. Books of Hopper's art have always been plentiful but here, for this season, is one that, in both text and visual display, stands apart from most others.
In a season where books for giving always arrive in such profusion, here in a special editor's choice, are quite a few more which are truly uncommon and therefore giftable, arranged by convenient (we hope) categories.
>Literature in flight
In some ways, one of the most important and unheralded books of the season is "Flying to America" (Shoemaker and Hoard, 331 pages, $26) which collects the final 45 uncollected stories by Donald Barthelme ,12l,7p that weren't previously included in either "60 Stories" or "40 Stories." Among the undoubted bits of literary ill luck caused by decline and death is the difficulty of being published anymore combined with the sheer impossibility of going out and doing book publicity, whether a "Today Show" interview or a campus or bookstore reading.
Since Barthelme's death in 1989, his extraordinary influence and brilliance, both, have been increasingly obscured. What can now be seen in this collection -- which instantly takes its place as one of the best extant -- is that in his own previous collections of his best work, Barthelme was notably hard on his earliest and most experimental self. If pieces of these stories showed up in later stories, he tended to leave them by the wayside to fend for themselves -- which they did ineffectually until now when editor Kim Herzinger rang the literary alarm by putting them together where they belong in one of the most persuasive literary memorials of the year. He remains one of the great American writers of the half century and one, without whom, the landscape of current literature would look entirely different.
Among the books that might never exist if there hadn't been Barthelme's collages and collections from "Come Back, Dr. Caligari" on, is Maria Kalman's "The Principles of Uncertainty" (Penguin Press, 336 pages, $29.95) in which the illustrator, through her paintings and drawings, ruminates on life, identity, the Dodo Bird, Nabokov, Cecil Beaton's photos, Vita-Sackville West, hats and her daughter Lulu, whom she calls Milton for some reason -- that's just in the first 19 pages. You can only do this between covers in 2007 because Barthelme began paving the way 45 years ago and somehow, miraculously, enlisted the New Yorker in the conspiracy, thereby helping to enforce the postmodern idea of what a story or book could be.
>As seen on TV
Among the great stories in the annals of TV news was surely the Cleopatra arrival of Katie Couric to CBS anchorhood and the subsequent crash and burn of her ratings. Almost shockingly overlooked, so far, in the year end publishing cornucopia has been Howard Kurtz' "Reality Show: Inside the Last Great Television News War" (Free Press, 464 pages, $26). Don't let Kurtz's fast-talking blandness on his Sunday morning CNN show "Reliable Sources" fool you, he is a whole different animal as a reporter of what went on behind the scenes of network ,11l,7p news wars, from the dumping of Elizabeth Vargas for Charlie Gibson to the in-house CBS undermining of Couric (where Kurtz -- oddly -- accepts Bob Schieffer's self-exculpation virtually unchallenged). It may be Kurtz's best book as well as the best on the subject in many years.
Going from the solid to the not-as-ridiculous-as-you-think, there is James Lipton's "Inside Inside" (Dutton, 496 pages, $27.95), in which acting's Archbishop of Archness on the Bravo Network's "Inside the Actor's Studio" explains how he got that way and gushes for hundreds of pages of anecdotes about it all, many of them fascinating however often embellished they may be with, say, Melanie Griffith, fresh from rehab, described as "visibly fragile -- and as valiant as Joan of Arc." It's, nevertheless, usually easier to read Lipton than burn him at the stake. (It requires too much wood.)
"Reading CSI: Crime TV Under the Microscope" (I. B. Tauris/Palgrave Macmillan, 274 pages, $16.95 paper) is part of the weird and giddy new upsurge in Academic Cliff note-style books about TV shows, so that no one ever has to be uninformed about such matters as the higher meaning of Horatio Caine's sunglasses and "The Pornographic Aesthetic and the Search for Truth In CSI" (wherein death on TV goes hardcore.) For those who like their TV books just as arcane but more reader-massaging and trivial, there is the "TV Guide Book of Lists" (Running Press, 296 pages, $14.95 paper). Sample: "The 10 Most Romantic Couples in TV History According to TV Guide's Editors." No. 1 is Diane Russell and Bobby Simone on "NYPD Blue." No. 10 is Ralph and Alice Kramden on "The Honeymooners." No, Fran Allyson and Oliver J. Dragon on "Kukla, Fran and Ollie" didn't make it.
Robert Hass' "Time and Materials: Poems 1997-2005" (Ecco, 88 pages, $22.95) just won the National Book Award for the poet who was, like Barthelme, briefly a UB faculty member and fondly remembered presence.
That's all well and good but you couldn't define poetry more disparately than you can in three other great books of poetry published this season -- "The Complete Poetry and Essential Prose of John Milton" (Modern Library, 1386 pages, $55), "The Best of Ogden Nash" (Ivan R. Dee, 465 pages, $28.95) and "The Lyrics of Tom Waits: The Early Years" (Ecco, 177 pages, $26.95). Whether, in some way station of eternity, the author of "Paradise Lost" and the free press tract "Areopagitica" could possibly have anything to say to the singer of "Heart Attack and Vine," and "Pasties and a G-String" is, I think even less of a question than either one of them being chatted up by Ogden Nash, "America's Laureate of Light Verse" and the man who wrote "Celery, raw/Develops the jaw/But celery, stewed/Is more quietly chewed." Clearly, then, it's poetry itself that's a miracle of civilization.
>The big idea
"The American Idea" Robert Vare's collection of "The Best of Atlantic Monthly: 150 Years of Writers and Thinkers Who Shaped Our History" (Doubleday, 649 pages, $44) is obviously as imposing as any anthology would be bulging with Twain, Emerson, both James brothers, William Dean Howells, Ernest Hemingway, Helen Keller, Vladimir Nabokov, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, E.B. White etc.
Whether or not Modernism is as big an idea as America, there's no question that there isn't likely to be a history of it as readable and thorough at the same time as Peter Gay's "Modernism: The Lure of Heresy" (Norton, 610 pages, $35) in which the great contemporary historian is particularly brilliant on the subject of the "anti-modern modernists" from Ives to Eliot to Knut Hamsun, "Hitler's fond obituarist." Its subjects are as distant from us as Alfred Lichtwark, friend and patron of the Impressionists, and as contemporaneous as Gabriel Garcia Marquez researching the sex life of his septuagenarian parents as he wrote "Love in the Time of Cholera," the dismal and roundly roasted film which just opened at your local megaplex. One-hundred-twenty years of modernism, says Gay, was "a good long run."