Saturday, October 11, 2014

Ten Fall 2014 Favorites from Harvard/MIT/Yale

There were 526 new titles on the Fall 2014 Harvard University Press, MIT Press and Yale University Press lists.  I pitched them all, and there was a lot to love here.  But inevitably, I end up with favorites.

With apologies to editors who may wonder “what about my books,” and to sales managers who may wonder “what about the big important books we pay you to be excited about,” I offer here my personal best culled from our Fall offerings.

My standard is simple: these are the titles I’d be most likely to buy if I stumbled across them in a bookshop, and would be most likely to give and recommend to friends.  It’s a completely impulsive roster, with an arbitrary cut-off of ten titles.  Dozens more were bubbling under, so I’d recommend checking out the complete Harvard, MIT and Yale catalogs.

John Summers, Chris Lehmann, Thomas Frank
MIT Press 27.95

The Baffler is without question one of the most interesting journals of social, cultural and political criticism going today.  This anthology of recent gems includes salvos- the perfect word- from Barbara Ehrenreich, Tom Frank, and other accomplished sacred cow smashers.   Susan Faludi’s takedown of Sheryl Sandberg’s  “lean in feminism” and Ann Friedman’s demolition of LinkedIn are alone worth the price of admission.   Crucially, The Baffler- so rare in Left journalism- has a keen sense of humor.

Henri Lefebvre
MIT/Semiotext(e) 13.95 paper

A strangely compelling genre-bending book that might be called “list literature.”  It’s a compendium of “what has been lost or never existed,” encompassing books, films, sculptures, paintings and other cultural artifacts across time.   Sentences flow in a relentless but oddly suggestive way, even though there is no narrative.  For example: “Murder, the Hope of Women, a twenty-five minute opera composed in 1919 by Paul Hindemuth; The novel Theodor by Robert Walser; The letters of Milena Jesenska to Franz Kafka; The contents of a telephone conversation between Stalin and Pasternak after the arrest of Osip Mandelstam; The final seven meters of Kerouac’s On the Road (eaten by a dog.)”  And so on for 80 more pages .  I’m not sure why but it really gets under your skin after awhile, and becomes haunting when recited.  Read alternating sentences aloud with a friend!

William Kentridge
Harvard 24.95

The beloved South African artist, at the peak of his career, takes a surprisingly small and intimate look at how meaning is made in the studio.  It’s not really a “how to draw” book as much as a meditation on the different ways of thinking involved in creative production.  He’s clearly a complete bibliophile, and was involved in every aspect of the book’s production.  Hence, it looks and feels like an artist’s book.

Jane L. Aspinwall, Keith F. Davis
Yale 60.00

Three of my favorite Yale books this season are photography books.  I don’t know what that means except that Yale does superb photography books.  And none more superb than everything that comes from the Nelson Atkins Museum in Kansas City.  I’m tempted to buy just about any book they do for the book arts quality alone.  In this case, they’re exploring the transformation of the American West through Gardner’s photographs.  I’d seen some of his Civil War work, but this focuses on the railroads, with lots of attention to the (often Native American) communities that were impacted by the laying of track.  Gorgeous.

Roxanne Warren
MIT 35.00

Talking of railroads, this is one of those deep, back of the catalog books that deserves to have a brighter spotlight shone on it.  Perhaps because I spent  time on some amazing German trains this summer, and perhaps because I live in a state where the current regime has demonized rail, I’m drawn to an argument that auto dependency and suburban sprawl can be addressed by light rail, moving people efficiently within and between cities.   She’s very light on academic jargon, and the writing is fluid and engaging.  Perhaps I should send one to our governor?

Marius Hentea
MIT 34.95

As an Old Left leftist, I’ve always been a little skeptical about Dada, surrealism, and other 20th century avant-garde movements.  There's a dilletante-ish, unserious flavor.  But the personalities are so much more interesting than the Stalinists!  Tzara has never had a full biography in any language, and it’s hard to see why.  There should be feature films about him.  This zany man roves across Europe, stepping foot and sometimes tripping on some of the key art and political hotspots of the day.  I won’t say reading this is like being there, or knowing him, but it’s a fantastic introduction to a fascinating movement and one of its key players.

David Albahari
Yale/Margellos 15.00 paper

An existential post-modern noir thriller that asks the question “what does it mean to be a Serb in Canada?”  If that doesn’t grab you, how about this: it’s written in a single long paragraph, a la Thomas Bernhard.  Don’t be deterred.  Fantastic stylist, vivid imagination, compelling theme (identity.)  You can almost never go wrong with one of the Margellos World Republic of Letters literature in translation titles.  They are predictably interesting, surprising and collectible in the same way New York Review, Europa Books, or- my worst weakness, Persephone Press are.  (Next up: Nobel Fiction winner Patrick Modiano’s three novella omnibus, Suspended Sentences.)

Zephyr Teachout
Harvard 29.95

This is possibly the most important book on any of the three lists this fall, IMHO.  The whole definition of corruption in politics has been so narrowly etched by contemporary courts as to be almost impossible to prove.  Teachout here shows how far this “quid pro quo only” definition has strayed from what the Framers had in mind.  The constitution itself was designed to fight corruption and the appearance of corruption- hence the subtitle, referring to a small gift from the French government to Franklin, which he had to refuse lest it even hint at compromised integrity.  How far we’ve come.  Yes, you might recognize Teachout- she ran for Governor of New York against Cuomo is the September primary, and did amazingly well. 

Nancy Marie Mithlo
Yale 49.95
Horace Poolaw, a Kiowa, was a 20th century Native American photographer who documented the transition of his people from their traditional life to immersion in mainstream Oklahoma society.  The 150 rare images were assembled for a National Museum of the American Indian exhibition, but they are so surprising and beautiful they stand up well as a book.  That period of the twenties through the fifties saw so much vivid documentary photography (think Dorothea Lange), but this is a really unique perspective.  Lovely book.

Emily Bronte
Harvard 35.00

I love the book, but why another edition?  The annotations are superb, and really help to give context; like the others in this series, the production values, with such lavish illustrations and creamy paper, make the book itself a physical work of art (take that e-books!); and the story, well, it bears re-reading every now and again.  And give Kate Bush a listen while you’re at it.