Page-Turners for Holiday Giving
Shopping in your local bookstore for holiday gifts is a calm and civilized contrast to mall madness. This year’s selections are varied and sure to please recipients.
Classic movie-lovers will be thrilled by Kendra Dean’s lavishly illustrated and sympathetic biography, "Vivien Leigh" (Running Press, $30). One of the great beauties of her era, Leigh (1913-67) was a brilliant film actress and ultimately acknowledged by skeptical critics for her superb and far-ranging stage performances, often opposite long-time husband Sir Laurence Olivier. Dean chronicles her troubled life (she was bi-polar when the disease was little understood) and her refusal to be dismissed because of her striking loveliness. Photos range from her childhood to the Oliviers’ triumphant Antony and Cleopatra and Caesar and Cleopatra (alternating the plays on Broadway), to socializing with friends like Noel Coward, Joan Crawford and John Gielgud.
Intelligence and keen observation are the hallmarks of "The Richard Burton Diaries" (Yale University Press, $22, edited by Chris Williams). The celebrated actor, whom many felt failed to reach his potential, claimed he would have been happier as a writer, and he clearly had a gift for words. He chronicles the scandal that erupted when he left his wife to marry Elizabeth Taylor, their extraordinary passion, his infidelities, his guilt and joy over his great success -- feelings the son of a poor Welsh coal miner from a large family could not reconcile. His remarks about the famous people he knew, including the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Prince Rainier and Princess Grace, Luchino Visconti (then having an affair with Alain Delon), Vivien Leigh, Sofia Loren, John Gielgud and others, are fascinating.
Beijing’s emergence as a major economic power may seem to have happened suddenly, but as June Chang demonstrates, the ground was prepared by the remarkable "Dowager Empress Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China" (Knopf, $30). One of many imperial mistresses, she survived court intrigue to see her son become that vast nation’s Emperor in 1861. She, however, was the country’s unofficial ruler from that date until her 1908 death. She was determined, successful, feared, and, because of her gender, subjected to scurrilous gossip, including a rumor that she used her exceptionally large clitoris to anally penetrate male lovers. Chang’s lively, erudite biography brings this amazing woman to life.
The oldest non-biblical reference to Jesus is a brief mention in the histories of the Roman Josephus, written a century after Christ’s death. In "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus" (Random House, $27), Reza Aslan puts him into the political context of the period. The historical Jesus seems to have been a political activist. Much about his life will never be known, and the Western world has created a different Jesus to suit specific eras and cultures. Aslan’s prose is highly readable without losing its scholarly value. His bibliographical essay is exceptional.
R.B. Parkinson’s "A Little Gay History: Desire and Diversity Across the World" (Columbia University Press, $19.95) is an entertaining and comprehensive look at primarily male/male sexual behavior in many cultures. Examples range from ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, including real-life relationships, i.e., the Emperor Hadrian and the beautiful Antinous, to Samurai Japan, and E.M. Forster’s Maurice.
Escapist fiction is often welcome, and Rhys Bowen’s latest Royal Spyness mystery, "Heirs and Graces" (Berkeley Crime, $24.95), finds lady Georgiana, 35th in line to succeed King George V to the throne, broke but willing to tackle an assignment from Queen Mary. This one involves teaching the hitherto unknown son of a Duke, raised in Australia, how to behave at court and among other nobles. Who would have thought those lessons would be so dangerous? Bowen knows the foibles of the upper classes, and her prose is consistently engaging. Georgie is a funny, sympathetic heroine, and her longtime suitor, the handsome, dashing, penniless and secretive Irish peer Darcy O’Mara, is once again on hand to arouse and frustrate her.
"The Jewels of Paradise" (Grove Press, $14) is Donna Leon’s first non-Inspector Guido Brunetti novel. Catarina Pelligrini, Ph.D., a specialist in baroque opera, is hired by a handsome and intelligent attorney to assess the content of two trunks, over which a pair of greedy cousins are battling for ownership. Each claims the contents, which may be valuable. As always, Leon captures the allure and challenges of modern-day Venice. The middle-aged, never-married Catarina is a witty, intelligent protagonist with a remarkable family and a vast social network, which in the insular, corrupt society of La Serenissima, is essential.
The City of Light in 1938 is the setting for Alan Furst’s atmospheric "Mission to Paris" (Random House, $16), which features Viennese-born Hollywood leading man Frederic Stahl being sent to France to make a film. Stahl, horrified by the Nazis, decides to work against them. To his dismay, many prominent Parisians are sympathetic to Hitler. Others will do anything to prevent another world war. Stahl is an appealing hero, and Furst deftly blends the world of movies and the politics of the era -- and he knows Paris very well.