December is the time to get impossibly optimistic about your reading list.
The idea of cozying up under a blanket with a hot mug of something and getting lost in the pages of some hefty or lushly illustrated tome takes on a special allure at this time of year. So what if you overbuy? And so what if your busy routine returns a little to soon after the holiday lull to prevent you from reading as much as you wish you could?
This collection of recommended books, most of them on art and theater, have no expiration date.
Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh By John Lahr Norton 784 pages, $39.95
Though technically a late-2014 release, this in-depth and thoroughly addictive look into one of the quintessential American playwrights by New Yorker critic John Lahr is as engrossing and as erudite as a theater-savvy reader could hope. It takes us through the whole of Williams’ professional life, his rocky romantic escapades and his final and brutal descent, a la Blanche DuBois, into a spiral of drug-addled depression that finally claimed him in 1983.
What brings this book head and shoulders above most biographies is its deft weaving of keen storytelling and expert analysis. After paging through it, you come away with a better understanding not only of the playwright, but of the country and the society that produced him and his enduring work.
Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story By David Maraniss Simon & Schuster 464 pages, $32.50
With an investigative journalist’s work ethic and a novelist’s eye and ear for detail, Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post editor David Maraniss takes us into the thumping heart of Detroit at the apex of its power and the beginning of its long and painful fall. From the beats of Motown to the clanging metal of the auto assembly plants that had fueled the city’s epic growth, Maraniss puts the reader directly on the streets of a city in crisis.
Through Maraniss’ characteristically sensitive and exhaustive reporting, we soak up almost without realizing it a three-dimensional sense of the city’s complex racial politics, its proud industrial architecture its waning economic prowess. The backstory, so beautifully rendered, makes looking at Detroit’s shrunken grandeur all the more heartbreaking today.
The Impressionist Revolution and the Advent of Abstract Art By Janne Sirén Albright-Knox Art Gallery 192 pages, $30 or $27 for Albright-Knox Members
This forthcoming book, which Albright-Knox Art Gallery director Janne Sirén wrote largely while on vacation with his family – much to their chagrin, he said – is a companion to the gallery’s excellent exhibition “Monet and the Impressionist Revolution.” Based on a preview of Sirén’s introduction, a cogent and convincing argument for the importance of art as a counterpoint to society’s techologically driven thirst for instant gratification, the book itself promises to be a thrilling and important read. This seems likely to be true for art lovers and newcomers alike.
Razzle Dazzle: The Battle for Broadway By Michael Riedel Simon & Schuster 464 pages, $27
The acid-tongued New York Post theater columnist Michael Riedel may be known in some circles as the bane of Broadway, but he’s put his snark (largely) on suspension in this recent history of the Great White Way and its rise to new heights of cultural and economic prominence in the late-20th century. The book touches on the shows as well as the personalities who turned Broadway and its products into an advertisement and selling point for New York City, and remade much of Manhattan in the process.
Musicals: The Definitive Illustrated Story Foreword by Elaine Paige DK Publishing 360 pages, $40
This lavishly illustrated coffee table book, as hefty as it is accessible, is a great reference for theater-lovers who want to know more about their favorite shows, or discover hidden gems without delving into chapter after chapter of minutiae. Arranged in chronological order, the book takes readers through the essential info and back-story for Broadway’s greatest hits, from “Oklahoma” and “West Side Story” to “Evita” and far beyond, inserting helpful graphic timelines, personal profiles and tidbits of trivia along the way.
Picasso Sculpture By Luise Mahler, Virginie Perdrisot, et al Museum of Modern Art 320 pages, $85
This is hard to imagine, but there had not been a retrospective exhibition of Pablo Picasso’s vast and impressive body of sculpture in the United States since 1967 until the Museum of Modern Art’s current exhibition “Picasso Sculpture.” This companion volume, complete with new large-scale photographs, gives a three-dimensional view of Picasso’s vast and impressive but still underappreciated work as a sculptor, a medium in which Picasso, according to New York Times critic Roberta Smith, “was more completely himself.”
Theatre of the Unimpressed: In Search of Vital Drama By Jordan Tannahill Coach House Books 160 pages, $13.95
All it takes is one bad play to discourage a potential theatergoer from returning to the art form for life. That’s long been my contention as a theater critic, so I was delighted to read the synopsis for Canadian playwright Jordan Tannahill’s much-discussed new book, which argues for the avant-garde as a potential savior for the dull-edged mainstream theater that has lately proliferated across North America.
It is an argument for the continued vitality of theater in an age of screens and digital communication, a love letter to an art that “forces us to confront humanity” and acts as a machine for understanding across lines of racial, social, sexual or physical difference.
But it also acknowledges the challenges of the avant-garde, which in some ways can be just as limiting as the dullness of more mainstream offerings.
Shark Girl and Belly Button By Casey Riordan Millard Blue Manatee Press 40 pages, $17.99
Available in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery gift shop
So, you’ve already done your duty and taken the young reader in your life to snap a photo with “Shark Girl,” Casey Riordan Millard’s whimsical sculpture at Canalside who remains a popular draw. The obvious next step is to snag a copy of Millard’s companion children’s book, in which her trademark character goes on a series of adventures with a walking belly-button. Together, as the synopsis promises, the anxiety-riddled Shark Girl and happy-go-lucky Belly Button “find they have more in common than they first thought.”
A Field Guide to American Houses, 2nd edition By Virginia Savage McAlester Knopf 880 pages, $29.95
This updated paperback version of Virginia Savage McAlester’s 1984 classic is a must-own for serious aficionados of American architecture, urban or otherwise.
What’s the difference between an embellished truss and a false gable?
What’s the name of that weird outcropping on my neighbor’s roof? Especially in Buffalo, with its centuries-spanning melange of architectural styles, from the grand Victorian mansions and cute cottages of the Elmwood Village to the Darwin D. Martin House Complex in the Parkside neighborhood, this guide gives you everything you need to know about the built environment of the city.
Cindy Sherman By Karsten Löckemann, Ingvild Goetz, et al Hatje Cantz 184 pages, $45
Though perhaps a rather obscure entry into the large and impressive canon of work about the Buffalo-educated photographer Cindy Sherman, this comparatively slim volume seems likely to be a welcome addition to the collection of any avid Sherman fan. It is designed to introduce readers to Sherman’s diverse and adventurous career, spanning from her career-making series “Untitled Film Stills” to her more recent forays into large-format self-portraits, each of which serves as a critique of some essential aspect of contemporary culture.