Under wraps: tricks and treats
It seems fitting in a book season that greets the coming decade with A Choice of Catastrophes: The Disasters That Threaten Our World, Isaac Asimov’s encyclopedia of present dangers, that there are so few big gentle gift books, the kind that suit everyone from a little sister to an octogenarian aunt. Herewith a few that come close—and many that present what’s special about special interests:
Speaking of the ’80s—never has a simple change of digit seemed so ominous—two books will assuage the fearful. A bit tumultuous itself in its wild swings from the tasteless to the wildly satiric, The ’80s: A Look Back at the Tumultuous Decade 1980-1989 (Thomas Allen, $8.95) holds out the hope that everything will go wrong but at least it will be funny. Solar-powered electric chairs will allow the condemned to eat a hearty meal while waiting to be fried. Disney, Inc. will buy Great Britain, turning it into the world’s largest amusement park, the United Magic Kingdom. Kermit the Frog (“Take, eat, for these are my legs”) will turn out to be the second coming. Life magazine will change its name to Half-Life, celebrating nuclear power, not to mention
the nuclear family. And China will compress 30 years of Western consumerism into a four-year crash course featuring a Chinese Woodstock. Such is the stuff of madness.
Canada 1984: The Year in Review
(Lester & Orpen Dennys, $9.95) means to be just as funny but ends up simply inevitable. Murray Soupcoff s brand of future shock could be picked out of today’s paper: the RCMP taps every Canadian phone; offenders are jailed for perversions of metric laws; blue-eyed John Turner admires his reflection in a prime-ministerial mirror. Caricatures by Isaac Bickerstaff don’t add bite, just relief from the frail inanity of the jokes. Sample, Jan. 31, 1984: “Princess Margaret and her new husband René Simard ended their visit to the Maritimes and headed back to London where he was scheduled to have the braces removed from his teeth.” Poor old country. Poor old Orwell.
If you want to inflict silly helpless laughter on someone for Christmas, the best bet is Animals, Animals, Animals: A Collection of Great Animal Cartoons (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, $15.95), edited with the touch of two of the best contemporary cartoonists, George Booth and Gahan Wilson. It’s the poetic justice of it all that’s so funny—humans on
leashes, humans in turtle tanks—as well as misplacing human shoes on fins and paws. And though for some reason there’s an overabundance of taxidermy and pointer-dog jokes, there is also Booth’s rough-edged, toothy, berserk bull terrier, David Sipress’ literal interpretation of “Cat got your tongue?” and everything by James Thurber.
The dark side of the moon of cartooning (or, rather, cartooning close to mooning) is explored in Terry Mosher’s and Peter Desbarats’ The Hecklers: A History of Canadian Political Cartooning and a Cartoonists’ History of Canada (McClelland and Stewart, $19.95). Considering the art is described by Toronto Star’s Duncan Macpherson as “the shout of the people” and the iconoclastic nature of cartoonists, the book radiates an incredible harmony. It’s partly the symmetry of themes: the issues exploited for laughs and firepower by Canada’s early political cartoonist John Bengough (1851-1923)—FrenchEnglish tensions, Canada-U.S. relations, East-West divides, big guys stomping little guys—are exactly the same issues feeding the present generation. But mostly it’s the cartoonists themselves: what they are and what they do come together in a particularly outrageous and encouraging way. B.C.’s Bob Bierman, who regularly draws politicians’ noses in the shape of erect penises; ’50s cartoonist George Feyer, who made up a little rubber stamp spelling HORSESHIT to plant his disapproval on the faces of the powerful; Macpherson, described by a colleague as a “combination of Mary Poppins, Mark Twain and Attila the Hun”—all successfully stick the little guy’s thumb to his nose. The story of how cartoonists won respect and independence from their rather indifferent editorial bosses, and just in the past 15 years, is proof that sometimes that thumb works.
With its turquoise binding embossed with little crowns and its art deco illustrations in silk orange and china blues, Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm (Penguin Books Canada, $16.95) is the kind of children’s book adults love. First published with Danish artist Kay Nielsen’s watercolors in 1925,12 classic stories take on an oriental flavor alarmingly compatible with the grimness of the Grimms. Dragons breathe angular fire, heads are lopped off and rejoined back-to-front, phoenix-like birds rise out of juniper trees to mete out revenge—and revenge is sweet. In the flat planes of art deco, fairy tales become kung fu fables.
From dragons to mushrooms. Henry Jackson, unlike his younger brother A. Y., spent the better part of his life suffering a job at a commercial art firm, living for the two days out of seven when he was free to tramp in the
Quebec woods and hunt out the mushrooms he loved to paint. Mr. Jackson’s Mushrooms (National Gallery of Canada, $35) is a celebration of that leisure, a tender testament of pleasure that turned to passion. For most, the precise plates will be overshadowed by Jackson’s notes. Funny, gentle and rarely dull, these reveal in slow sepia tones an intensely private man, one who confesses that retirement was “the great turning point” of his life and one who, for art’s sake, sneaks his wife’s meat grinder to break up sheep manure to fertilize his private collection. This is a brilliant detail of both botanical and human life.
A solid catalogue of art collecting in Canada over the past 50 years, G. Blair Laing’s Memoirs of an Art Dealer
(McClelland and Stewart, $24.95) is a valuable barometer of taste and tradition. Unfortunately, this is where the value of this handsome book ends: but for fine passages on Lawren Harris and Edward Seago, Laing has a brighter memory for his buyers, a disappointing preference. More often than it should
this reads like Zena Cherry with footnotes.
A fine biography, J. Russell Harper’s Krieghoff (University of Toronto Press, $29.95) has the lusty richness of vintage burgundy. Harper fits the jigsaw pieces of the artist’s sketchy life with the deftness of five years’ research, fleshing it out with a firm feeling for the period and seasoning it with strong wit and affection. In his best form as a Hercule Poirot, Harper sniffs and scrapes at the great bulk of work that Kreighoff didn't do, the fakes. This is the complete Kreighoff, made to be savored.
Fight the stentorian moral tone (the sea giveth and it taketh away) of passages from Melville, Thoreau, Kipling; ignore the sand and sea motif that almost ruins the look of the book. Concentrate instead on the sole reason for The Inner Ocean (John Wiley and Sons, $27.95), the wish-fulfilling paintings of landlocked Toronto artist Ron Bolt, who makes the ocean glisten, threaten and roll on without reference to humankind, exactly as it does.
Journeys to the Far West (James Lorimer, $24.95), an anthology of archival photographs and explorers’ journals,
offers unromantic but very vivid impressions of the old Canadian West. The writers that editor Edward Cavell has excerpted, including William Francis Butler and John Keast Lord, are keen, often wry observers be the subject high adventure, low comedy or the vicious Manitoba mosquito. The Royal Engineers’ photographs are primitive but professionals Baltzly, Horetzky and Dossetter make this book an outstanding sampler of early Canadian photography as well as a good Western reader.
Possibly this decade has already been too over-analysed to either excuse or make necessary further comment. However, this current crop of photography books, coming as it does at the end of the ’70s, bears remarkable connections to its times. What Becomes a Legend Most? (Musson, $16.95) documents a continuing interest in stars and gossip thereof. Although it might be modern to boast of an interest in either Richard Avedon’s or Bill King’s photography, the appeal of this collected ad campaign, featuring such sisters under the mink as Bette Davis, Leontyne Price and Barbra Streisand, is of a lowlier order than art. But shots of Barbara Stanwyck, Faye Dunaway and Lillian Heilman do confirm that a good picture can do more than words.
Another curiosity item. The significance of Craig Russell and His Ladies (Gage, $10.95) is not so much cultural as pathological, and not for the most obvious reasons. Not even the forced humor of Canada’s homegrown female impersonator or the mediocrity of David Street’s photographs can disguise completely the force of the character on display. It takes little skill to capture such desperation.
There is too much earnestness attached to Recollections: Ten Women of Photography (Penguin Books Canada, $29.95), but at least the women are identified as such, not as legends or ladies. Samples of work known (Berenice Abbott, Lotte Jacobi, Barbara Morgan) and less-known (Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Toni Frissell, Ruth Bernhard) whet an appetite for all and more. The expressed viewpoint of editor Margaretta K. Mitchell is effusively sexist but can’t detract from the brief interviews with the artists also included.
The candid style and subjects—Halston, Bianca, Studio 54—are already so familiar from his Interview magazine (the Photoplay of the ’70s) that the photographs in Andy Warhol’s Exposures (Grosset & Dunlap, $31.95) are far less arresting than the text by Warhol and his associate Bob Colacello, in which night life is named the social disease of our time and in which irony, brevity and
a calculatedly childish vision are incisively combined.
It’s perhaps not coincidental that in the era of the brand name Polaroid, photography became artistically respectable. One of a Kind: Recent Polaroid Color Photography (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, $32.50) demonstrates that some modern inventions are capable of magic, at least in the hands of first-rate photographers Marie Cosindas, Lucas Samaras, William Eggleston and Don Rodan, among others. In many cases, the depth, sharpness and shades of Polaroid color make snapshots mythic and piercing.
Now, in praise of ferocious women. Scandalous, outspoken and promiscuous, Cissy Patterson is ideal fodder for a contemporary biography (the trick of a best-selling biography being to soothe the consciencesof its more adventurous readers and increase the selfrighteousness of the remainder). And Cissy, the subject of Cissy: The Extraordinary Life of Eleanor Medill Patterson (Musson, $19.95), born with beauty, money, brains and ink in her veins, structured her life with the inevitability of a commercial novel. She married a Polish count, left him, scoured the best of Washington circles for a man “that she didn’t have tolieonherbacktolookup to,” and still found time to work, becoming the first woman editor of a major American newspaper, the Washington Times-Herald. Ralph Martin writes in his usual untaxing, candid and gossipy style, tame when compared with the sensationalist journalism of Cissy herself.
Clementine Churchill (General, $18.95), on the other hand, is definitely for the virtuous. After plowing through this exhaustive, fastidious and reverent account of Clementine (by her daughter Mary Soames), it is tempting to agree with former prime minister Asquith, who wrote, “Clemmie, of whom I am quite fond, is au fond, a bore.” The task of cataloguing the concerns -«ío CWL¡> of Clemmie’s life—a lot tf/£B££V of carpeting color deci-
sions, state dinners and unparalleled devotion to Winston—is an unenviable one, and Soames resigns herself to it with a miniaturist’s gusto. The emerging portrait is of a dutiful but courageous woman who suffered from her own perfectionism and the demands of public life. Clemmie once said that “it took all my time and strength to keep up with [Winston], I never had anything left over.” Like all miniaturists Soames gets her effects through accumulation of detail, and the result can be moving and illuminating: Clemmie’s life eventually raises the question of a correlation between the decline of great statesmen and the decline of dutiful wives.
Peggy Guggenheim’s memoir, Out of This Century: Confessions of an Art Addict (Book Center Inc., $21.95) is purely for dilettantes. To the opening of her New York gallery in 1942, this patron of the arts wore one earring by Tanguy and another by Alexander Calder. Her intentions were to show “impartiality between surrealist and abstract art.” The unkind fact of this gussied-up new
account of her life, an amalgam of two old books, is that everything sounds sillier than even Guggenheim wants it to seem. Even allowing for the self-consciousness that is to be expected from one whose only ambition for years was to shock, Guggenheim emerges as a glamorous yarn-bag whose forays into taste were either accidental or greatly aided by those who knew better than she. While there’s an amusing charm to someone who can toss off the names of some of the century’s most important artists—James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Max Ernst—as if they were hairdressers, Guggenheim was the kind of fashionable woman who wore her heart on her sleeve and her mind on her earlobes.
Music lovers can take their pick of lives of two formidable composers. The first the Soviets have called a forgery; Shostakovich, whatever realm his shade inhabits, must be smiling knowingly. For in Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich (Fitzhenry & Whiteside $19.50), a loose pastiche of reminiscences, the greatest of Soviet composers settles—bluntly—a number of old scores. The gossip about musical politics is beguiling, the scorn for Stalin, his lackeys and tyranny of any stripe is luminous. An unexpectedly absorbing book, not least because of its informal glimpse into a people who survive statesanctioned lunacy through earthbound sense, vodka and a feisty sense of humor.
Drudgingly researched, decently written, Chopin: A Biography (Collins, $23.95) falls by default into tabloid bio. Adam Zamoyski devotes many chapters to one of the least likely love stories of the 19th century: squat, sallow, cigar-chomping George Sand and overbred, recessive, consumptive Chopin, who, in an age of athletic piano playoffs, bloomed only after midnight, playing his subtle, exacting, otherworldly études in private salons lit by a single candle. In Paris, the deracinated Pole rubbed shoulders with a musical establishment whose eminence stuns: Liszt, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Bellini, Meyerbeer—even that most neglected of utterly great composers, Cherubini. Zamoyski gives us lots about domestic arrangements, little about Chopin’s place in the musical ferment of the Romantic age.
Oh, and Sigmund Freud is back. Yes, he has only been passé now for a few years, but he has popped up again like a recurrent dream. The season’s three new books on Freud are a reminder that his ideas always reward the prodigal reader.
The least first; Freud for Beginners (Random House, $3.75) is a comic-book
documentary, a kind of Coles Notes covering the main points of Freud’s life and ideas. However, the art is unpleasantly turgid (repressed, in fact) and the format is cramped. Sigmund Freud (Random House, $22.50) on the other hand, is a wonderfully id-riddled, nonacademic, visual synthesis of Freud’s ideas. Ralph Steadman has written and illustrated a biography based on Freud’s book Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. In drawings that reward long and aimless scrutiny, Steadman puts his slightly cross-eyed, snakyfingered Freud into schizoid scenes of Vienna, with the “rippling vulgarity of its art” corseted by rigid architecture. There is a nice obsessive attention to accurate detail and a wonderful Freudian index of letters swollen into nonspecific organs.
Frank Sulloway’s mammoth, scholarly work, Freud: Biologist of the Mind,
(Fitzhenry & Whiteside, $25.95), may single-handedly “modernize” Freud for the next decade or two. In the course of his comprehensive intellectual biography, Sulloway redefines Freud as a product of his time and of a certain scientific tradition, not (as legend would have it) the isolated hero whose theories sprang full-blown out of painful self-analysis. Sulloway argues that Freud’s ideas drew their inspiration from his training in biology and the physical sciences, that Freud worked in a tradition that extends back to Darwin and forward to the sociobiologists.Then with a backhanded grace that lifts the book above the merely thorough, Sulloway decides that although Freud was not the solitary figure legend makes him out to be, he is a hero nevertheless—because history craves heroes. His analysis of how myth rules history is fascinating, and worth the long trek through featureless prose.
Reviews by Anne Collins, Carole Corbeil. Marni Jackson. Ann Johnston. David Livingstone, Bill MaeVicar and Bart Testa.