Mark Doyle

David Sedaris’ previous book, a collection of fictional animal stories called Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, may have worried some of his longtime fans. Had the lovable curmudgeon, famous for his sidesplitting essays about his family’s dysfunction and his misspent youth, abandoned memoir for imaginary stories (however funny and bizarre) about talking animals? After he’d hit the big time—best-selling books, sold-out live performances, homes in England and France—had his own life become too comfortable to be funny?

This latest collection of (mostly) autobiographical essays should put any such worries to rest. Although his life is certainly much happier now than when he was hooked on drugs or working as a department store elf, Sedaris still finds plenty of absurdity in the airports, hotels, book tours and vacation-home renovations that now fill his days. Sedaris is the sort of writer who can make standing in line at a coffee shop an occasion for gleeful, vicarious outrage (and in less time than it takes to steam a cappuccino).

As in his previous book, there are plenty of animals here, though none of them talk. Stuffed owls, mangled roosters, melting sea turtles, skewered mice and a graceful kookaburra populate these pages like the inmates of a psychopath’s barnyard. There are other kinds of beasts here as well. There is his father storming, capricious and pantless, through Sedaris’ childhood. There are the despicable, heartless fanatics whom Sedaris imagines and inhabits in the book’s few fictional pieces. And there is Sedaris himself, so candid about his own moral failings that you almost want to hug him and tell him he’s really not so terrible, even if he did once consider displaying a stuffed Pygmy in his living room.

All this is vintage Sedaris: sharp, strange, moving and funny—proof, if any were needed, that success is no barrier to absurdity and that humans are the strangest talking animals of all.

David Sedaris’ previous book, a collection of fictional animal stories called Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, may have worried some of his longtime fans. Had the lovable curmudgeon, famous for his sidesplitting essays about his family’s dysfunction and his misspent youth, abandoned memoir for imaginary stories (however funny and bizarre) about talking animals? After he’d hit the […]

In March of 1992 Aleksandar Hemon came to Chicago on what was supposed to be a month-long cultural exchange. During that month his native Sarajevo came under siege, and the war that he and his city had been wishing away came thundering home. Hemon, then 27, decided not to return. He stayed in Chicago, worked odd jobs and began writing stories in English, a language of which he had only an imperfect grasp. Eight years later he published his first collection of short stories, and eight years after that he published a novel, The Lazarus Project, that had the critics swooning and made him a finalist for the National Book Award. Along the way, Hemon published a number of autobiographical essays, many of them in The New Yorker, and it’s those pieces that are collected in The Book of My Lives.

As with his fiction, the essays here—though originally written as freestanding pieces—work together as a set of interlocking stories. In his careful, occasionally idiosyncratic prose, Hemon works his familiar theme of displacement, as experienced by those whom the forces of history (or, in the tragic final story, of biology) have yanked out of their old lives. The stories are set mostly in Sarajevo and Chicago, and they focus mostly on individual components of his lives in one or both of those cities: rambling walks, soccer matches, chess games, pet dogs, borscht. They give a vivid sense both of the texture of the two cities and of the pain, and eventual joy, Hemon felt in abandoning one for the other.

By turns sardonic and forlorn, Hemon’s tales illustrate the absurdity of war (the story of a beloved professor who became a genocidal nationalist is especially chilling), the enigma of arrival and the tragedy of finding your most cherished plans crushed by an onslaught of inhuman forces.

In March of 1992 Aleksandar Hemon came to Chicago on what was supposed to be a month-long cultural exchange. During that month his native Sarajevo came under siege, and the war that he and his city had been wishing away came thundering home. Hemon, then 27, decided not to return. He stayed in Chicago, worked […]

Two ambitious new books recreate the full museum experience between two covers, making the world's artistic masterpieces accessible to all.

THE TREASURES OF EUROPE
Anyone who has ever battled the camera-wielding scrum in front of the Mona Lisa knows that a visit to the Louvre Museum in Paris can be exhausting. Now a handsome new book containing color images of every single Louvre painting on permanent display, The Louvre: All the Paintings, offers a chance to explore the world’s most-visited art museum at a gentler pace.

The Louvre’s permanent collection—3,022 pieces in all—covers European paintings from the Middle Ages to the 19th century. The book is divided into the Italian, Northern, French and Spanish Schools, and each of these is arranged by artist in a rough chronological fashion, allowing the reader to observe as, for example, the brilliant blues and reds of the Italian Renaissance slowly give way to the duskier hues of the Low Countries. Many pages only display numerous small images clustered together, showing the common characteristics of the work of a single artist or period, such as the smooth, O’Keeffe-like spareness of Pierre Henri de Valenciennes’ 18th-century townscapes. Four hundred select masterpieces are given larger images and descriptive paragraphs, and these are the real strengths of the book: The images are rich and sharp, the descriptions thoughtful and clear. An accompanying DVD allows readers to browse all the paintings by school or artist and to see the book’s tinier paintings at a slightly larger size. Altogether, this is a fascinating overview for anyone looking to learn more about the grand old European masters.

ART THROUGH THE AGES
The Art Museum
offers a museum experience of an entirely different order. It is an astonishing book, not just because it displays the entire history of world art from the earliest cave paintings to the latest nominees for the Turner Prize, but also because it takes so much space to do it. Weighing nearly 18 pounds and measuring 13 by 17 inches, this is not a book that will fit on most coffee tables, but despite its unwieldy size, it is an exciting, nearly perfect collection of the greatest visual art in human history.

The Art Museum is divided into 25 “galleries” (representing different regions and eras) and 450 smaller “rooms” (representing specific schools, artists or genres), along with special “exhibitions” devoted to specific works or themes. It displays more than 2,500 works of art: paintings, sculptures, tapestries, the interiors and exteriors of buildings, pottery, furniture, photographs and much more. The most impressive “rooms” are the two-page spreads displaying actual rooms or other locations, such as the stunning wide-angle photograph of the ruins of Persepolis. Most rooms contain a handful of representative examples on a theme; every image is perfectly legible and has a substantial, lucid description. While some of the topics are conventional—Netherlandish Portraits, Maya Sculpture, Surrealism—many are more innovative. For example, Room 426, on “Systematic Documentation,” introduces us to artists who obsessively photographed the same objects—cinemas, water towers, Memphis streetscapes—over and over. The scope of the book encourages readers to make unexpected connections, as when rooms devoted to African masks and carvings usher us into a section on the Cubists, hinting at the affinities between the two. Indeed, given the scale of its ambition and achievement, perhaps we should be grateful that The Art Museum is as compact and user-friendly as it is.

Two ambitious new books recreate the full museum experience between two covers, making the world's artistic masterpieces accessible to all. THE TREASURES OF EUROPEAnyone who has ever battled the camera-wielding scrum in front of the Mona Lisa knows that a visit to the Louvre Museum in Paris can be exhausting. Now a handsome new book […]

Don’t be misled by the silly title: Love and Capital is a serious and tremendously well-researched biography of a remarkable family who worked together to change the world. Karl and Jenny Marx were unlikely sweethearts—he a scruffy, volatile Jewish scholar and she the lustrous daughter of one of Prussia’s oldest and noblest families—but from their marriage in 1843 until the end of their lives they sweated and starved and suffered together for the sake of the dispossessed.

Their marriage was passionate but not always happy. Apart from their persistent poverty, brought on by Karl’s chronic inability to meet a deadline and the utter indifference with which his books were received once finally published, the Marxes endured constant illnesses, the deaths of several children and even a few moments of shocking infidelity on Karl’s part. Indeed, Karl Marx comes across as a bit of a cad in this story, the sort of tortured artist around whom everybody else must orbit. Jenny, however, is the real revelation here: an intelligent, sophisticated woman who remained devoted both to her husband and to his cause, despite the considerable sacrifices demanded by both.

Mary Gabriel tells their story with great empathy and verve, using the copious letters that passed between Karl, Jenny, their children and close friends like Friedrich Engels (Karl’s frequent collaborator and sugar daddy to the entire Marx clan) to illuminate what Karl called his “microscopic world” of home and family. Gabriel also provides plenty of excursions into the “macroscopic world” of 19th-century revolutionary politics, as well as some lucid explanations of Karl’s earthshaking ideas. In the 20th century those ideas would be appropriated more often than they were understood, but this fascinating immersion into the Marxes and their era might inspire some readers to give Karl’s own books a closer look.

Don’t be misled by the silly title: Love and Capital is a serious and tremendously well-researched biography of a remarkable family who worked together to change the world. Karl and Jenny Marx were unlikely sweethearts—he a scruffy, volatile Jewish scholar and she the lustrous daughter of one of Prussia’s oldest and noblest families—but from their […]

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