New Art City: Manhattan at Mid-Century by Jed Perl (Alfred A. Knopf)
No critic loves the New York art world of yore quite like Jed Perl. So you might reasonably expect his gargantuan history of Manhattan's mid-century art scene to drift dangerously close to a hagiography. Surprisingly, though, it doesn't, because Perl takes the artists of the last century and dramatizes their search for a unified theory of artistic creation. That he doesn't entirely succeed should not be held against him -- or them. Perl recognizes he's writing of a period when ideas about art were popular; today's audience largely has set aside such theoretical scaffolding. As a result, he keeps moving from big figures -- like Jackson Pollock or Donald Judd -- to smaller ones, the forgotten ones, people like teacher Hans Hoffmann or painter Leland Bell.
This instinct saves the book from becoming yet another discussion of "the dialectic" and reveals its underlying optimism. Despite the presence of towering ideologies, Perl notes, art doesn't always move in one direction. And even after representation has been taken apart and replaced with hollow mercantilism, there is space yet for people who run against the grain. -- John Freeman
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A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906 by Simon Winchester (HarperCollins)
When the Big One occurs, San Franciscans won't be able to say they didn't expect it. After all, California's City by the Bay already has had its dress rehearsal, and it was thorough.
At 5:12 a.m. on April 18, 1906, the San Andreas Fault, which runs 800 miles down the California coast, ruptured in Northern California. The resulting earthquake was felt as far north as Oregon and as far south as Los Angeles.
An estimated 7.8 on the Richter scale, the quake indeed was the Hurricane Katrina of its day, destroying property, setting off fires that claimed somewhere between a few hundred and a few thousand lives, and radically restructuring the city's economy. In his latest book, Simon Winchester describes in detail -- with maps, charts and descriptions of his own journeys crisscrossing North America -- what the quake taught us about geology.
According to Winchester, it did more than displace 200,000 Californians. It also kick-started an intense examination of Earth itself, leading in the early 1960s to plate tectonics, the study of how parts of Earth's outer crusts grind up against each other to create mountains, volcanoes and, of course, earthquakes.
Readers who devoured John McPhee's 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning Annals of the Former World might find this book too heavy on Geology 101, but it's still hard to resist. Like McPhee, Winchester is a fine prose stylist, and his language ripples like the hills of Northern California. It's also a testament to his skill as an explanatory journalist. By the time we reach the quake itself, buried some 250 pages into the book, the event appears not as some act of God -- as it did to people then -- but as a foregone conclusion for a planet destined for constant and often devastating upheaval.
-- John Freeman
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Rehabilitating Mr. Wiggles: Vol. 1 by Neil Swaab (NBM)
How can something so wrong be so right? The comic book duo of balding Neil and his cutsie-wootsie teddy bear Mr. Wiggles delivers a severe gut-pummeling, proving perfect with its hilariously sick, "Oh, that is so messed up" delivery. While being rosy- cheeked and fuzzy, Mr. Wiggles, as it turns out, also has a penchant for drinking, porn and pretty much any form of depravity. But making gross jokes only carries longstanding weight with fourth-graders and drunken frat boys, so it's lucky that Swaab also includes smart commentary in his strip (albeit amid jokes about bestiality and selling babies). "Mr. Wiggles" can be read monthly in The Toilet Paper, but Swaab's book is well worth the price for a twisted fix.
-- Kara Luger
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Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle (Drawn & Quarterly)
In 2001, Canadian cartoonist Delisle was permitted to work for a French animation company located in Pyongyang, North Korea. Delisle was accompanied everywhere by a guide and a translator. He saw the sights North Korea wanted him to see -- nearly every one a testament to its "Great Leader," Kim Il-Sung, who, despite having died in 1994, still is the country's president. Suffering from the stifling and propaganda- plagued atmosphere (and reading, appropriately, Orwell's 1984), Delisle begins to make his own way, exploring the small space given to him and enjoying his normally inane freedoms. His cartoonish drawing style, which makes sense given his past work on animated films, gives the mind-boggling conditions of Pyongyang a bit of levity. A fascinating look at a country that rarely allows Westerners a glimpse. -- Kara Luger