December 2011

Smart picks for sophisticated readers

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December 2011

Smart picks for sophisticated readers

Feature by
December 2011

Smart picks for sophisticated readers

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Books—especially great ones—beget other books. If you don’t believe it, check out the selections that follow. Providing new perspectives on past works, these critical studies, appreciations and fresh editions prove that classic pieces of literature are inexhaustible. Just right for the writer or devoted reader on your holiday gift list, the books below will make any bibliophile smile.

Few figures inspire more speculation than William Shakespeare. Richard Paul Roe, an accomplished scholar and lawyer, tackles one of the most intriguing Shakespearean what-ifs in his compelling new book The Shakespeare Guide to Italy: Retracing the Bard’s Unknown Travels. Addressing a controversial question—whether Shakespeare visited the country that provided the backdrop for many of his finest works—Roe tracked the dramatist’s 10 Italian plays back to their geographical roots. The author, who died in 2010, invested 20 years in the project.

Guided by the text of the Italian plays, which include Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest and Othello, Roe pinned down settings scene by scene only to discover that—after four centuries—the Bard’s descriptions of Verona, Venice and Padua are uncannily accurate. His conclusion: The playwright almost certainly visited Italy, a verdict that contradicts the accepted view that Shakespeare never traveled outside of England. This controversial conclusion is bound to cause tremors in the academic world, but Roe’s book is more than an inspired piece of literary detection. Beautifully illustrated with paintings, photos and maps, the volume offers an engaging look at life in 16th-century Italy. Roe is a delightful travel guide, and his search for “the secret Italy that lies hidden in the plays of Shakespeare” is fascinating from start to finish.

Answering a question that has crossed the mind of many a reader, Nathaniel Philbrick offers an earnest argument on behalf of a classic in Why Read Moby-Dick?. In his compact critique, Philbrick casts himself as Herman Melville’s champion and sets out to prove that the novel is more than a quaint antique.

Philbrick, whose National Book Award-winning In the Heart of the Sea examined the historical events that inspired Moby-Dick, highlights themes, characters and symbols from the novel that take on new significance as the decades go by. In addition to an in-depth look at the crazed captain Ahab, this brisk volume has chapters on Nantucket, nautical matters and the influence of Nathaniel Hawthorne on Melville’s work. Facet by facet, Philbrick reveals what this vibrant novel has to tell us about the contemporary world. In an era when brevity sells books, Melville’s epic style can easily intimidate, but wise readers will heed Philbrick’s advice regarding the tale of the whale: Dive right in.

John Updike’s Higher Gossip: Essays and Criticism shows a player at the top of his game. The book was in the works when Updike died in 2009, at the age of 76, and serves as a superb retrospective of his genius.

Drawing on a remarkably broad assortment of sources—from Golf Digest to National Geographic—the pieces in Higher Gossip are a testament to Updike’s astonishing range. He writes with equal expertise about art and sports, analyzing Max Ernst and Vincent van Gogh with the same authority that he brings to discussions of Tiger Woods and Fuzzy Zoeller. In addition to his essays, the volume includes poems, forewords, introductions, letters and book reviews. Best of all, it features Updike’s insights into his own work, with pieces on the novels Gertrude and Claudius, Licks of Love and The Poorhouse Fair. “Gossip of a higher sort” is how Updike once defined a well-written review. As demonstrated in this final collection, he was a pro when it came to sharing inside information, writing in a way that was accessible yet always stylish.

It’s a rare breed, indeed: Maus, Art Spiegelman’s graphic classic from 1986, simply can’t be cornered. A hybrid of historical narrative and illustrated storytelling, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book is based on the experiences of Spiegelman’s father, a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust to settle in New York City. In an ingenious twist, Spiegelman animalized his characters, casting Nazis as cats and Jews as mice in the maze that was Europe during World War II.

To celebrate the book’s 25th anniversary, Spiegelman has produced MetaMaus: A Look Inside a Modern Classic, Maus, a scrapbook of sorts that explains how the masterpiece came to be. A family-album chapter contains pictures of the main characters (in human form), while an interview with Spiegelman’s father Vladek provides dramatic background. And the author himself answers all the pressing questions—why he took the Holocaust as his topic and the comic book as his medium. Meta­Maus comes with a terrific bonus DVD that features interviews, historical materials and the complete Maus.

In the family tree of Western literature, it’s one of the roots: The Iliad, Homer’s epic poem, is the source of countless symbols, themes and narrative conventions that have stood the test of time. Award-winning author Stephen Mitchell interprets the story for modern readers in his elegant new edition of the epic. Based on scholar Martin L. West’s work in assembling a definitive version of the Greek text, Mitchell’s The Iliad powerfully communicates the spirit and the spectacle of the classic story through a subtle poetic style that reflects the essence of the original.

Mitchell, who produced much-praised translations of The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke and Gilgamesh, brings fresh life to the tale of Achilles, Agamemnon and the Greeks’ sack of Troy, the bloody siege that lasted a decade. Whether you’re reacquainting yourself with the work or coming to it for the first time, you’ll find Mitchell’s interpretation of The Iliad intensely rewarding. Reader, enjoy the spoils.

It’s hard to believe that the story of Peter Pan has been lightening the hearts of readers for a century. Celebrating the birthday of J.M. Barrie’s magical tale in high style, The Annotated Peter Pan: The Centennial Edition contains the complete text of Peter and Wendy, along with informative notes and essays. Assembled by Maria Tatar, chair of Harvard’s folklore program, this volume is a must for those who believe in the power of pixie dust.

Barrie’s mischievous imp made his first appearance in print in The Boy Castaways of Black Lake Island, written in 1901 for the Llewelyn Davies family, whose puckish children served as sources for Peter’s personality. Only two copies of the book were made. Barrie gave one to the Davies clan, while the other made its way to the Beinecke Library at Yale University, where Tatar discovered it. The Annotated Peter Pan makes it available to readers for the first time, along with other rare Barrie treasures, including his screenplay for a silent movie. Critical commentary regarding the various treatments of Peter on stage and screen provide fresh perspectives on his character, while classic, full-color illustrations bring the text to life.

The Library of America’s gorgeous new boxed set, Harlem Renaissance Novels, pays tribute to a group of writers who left an imprint on the face of a nation through their fearless radicalism, taste for innovation and infectious energy. During the 1920s and ’30s, the writers of the Harlem Renaissance produced some of the country’s most significant literature. In two beautifully designed volumes—Five Novels of the 1920s and Four Novels of the 1930s—the collection brings together narratives from a range of writers whose works merit fresh examination.

Five Novels of the 1920s includes Jean Toomer’s classic Cane, a unique blend of poetry and prose that explores the author’s years as a teacher in Georgia, and Claude McKay’s spirited Jazz Age story, Home to Harlem. Four Novels of the 1930s examines different storytelling modes, from Langston Hughes’ beautifully crafted bildungsroman, Not Without Laughter, to George S. Schuyler’s sci-fi spoof, Black No More. Compiled by African-American studies expert Rafia Zafar, the classics get the lavish treatment they deserve in this impressive collection.


Editor's Note: The review of Steven Mitchell's translation of The Iliad has been updated to reflect the following corrections: Martin L. West's edition of The Iliad, published in 2000, was a restored Greek edition of the text, not a translation. Stephen Mitchell's translation is not the first published in the U.S. in the last 20 years; it was preceded by Stanley Lombardo's 1997 edition of The Iliad, published by Hackett Publishing Co.

The Shakespeare Guide to Italy: Retracing the Bard’s Unknown Travels
Harper Perennial

ISBN 9780062074263

MetaMaus: A Look Inside a Modern Classic, Maus
By Art Spiegelman

ISBN 9780375423949

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