One-Minute Book Reviews

November 4, 2008

Jessica Todd Harper – A Photographer of Manners Observes Her Patrician Family’s Christmas, Easter, Wedding and Other Customs

[If you can’t see the cover of this book, please click here www.jessicatoddharper.com.]

Interior Exposure. By Jessica Todd Harper. Foreword by Larry Fink. Damiani, 112 pp., $45.

By Janice Harayda

Jessica Todd Harper’s photographs of her family are what Ralph Lauren ads might be like if they were real. This is a compliment. Unlike Polo ads, Harper’s pictures of her patrician family are warm, engaging and at times witty. They tell — or at least suggest — rich and multilayered stories.

Interior Exposure is the photographic equivalent of a good novel of manners, an art form that shows a well-defined social group at a particular time and place. Its pictures would provide wonderful visual data for anthropologists studying Eastern upper-class kinship rituals in the early 21st century. Harper’s relatives sport clownish paper hats, just extracted from poppers, at a Christmas Eve dinner. Her sister Becky wears an ill-fitting wedding dress in the Victorian dining room of their parents’ house, where the furnishings might have stayed the same for a century. In an amusing self-portrait with her future in-laws, Harper stands at attention as though trying to pass a military inspection.

Part of the charm of Interior Exposure is that it shows how a gifted photographer can bring fresh life to many elements of the high classical tradition in painting. Harper draws on techniques of the Dutch Golden Age: the artful use of natural light, subjects framed by doors and windows, paintings-within-paintings (represented by ancestral portraits within photographs) and domestic objects are that are at once ordinary and freighted with symbolic meaning. But like all good artists, she brings her own sensibility to tradition. Some of her pictures are almost an updated index to the symbols used in vanitas, those treatises-in-oil that comment on the transience of time and earthly life: clocks, flickering candles, half-empty wine goblets. At times you sense that Harper would have loved to include a skull or two, and you wonder what her work will look like when her children are old enough to go trick-or-treating.

But the pictures in Interior Exposure don’t moralize as vanitas do. They raise questions: Is Becky the diva she appears to be in Harper’s photos, or does she upstage other people by force of her beauty, not her personality? What is Harper saying by giving her such a prominent role? You could return to Interior Exposure again and again and keep seeing new things in it, just as you can with a great novel.

Best picture: No. 1: “Becky in the Dining Room, 2005.” Harper’s sister wears an ill-fitting wedding gown — possibly their mother’s — and stands next to an ancestral portrait in the Victorian dining room of their parents’ home in Allentown, Pennsylvania. If you saw this photo out of context, you might mistake it for a movie still from an elegant new film version of a Henry James novel. The picture would show the moment just before the doomed American heiress weds the callow European who, though she doesn’t know it yet, is marrying her only for her money. Everything in the Harpers’ dining room might have existed a century ago except for — a wonderful touch — a plastic bag on the table. Looking at the photo, you wonder how the idea that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny ever got so discredited, because this picture seems to illustrate perfectly a Brahmin version of it. No. 2: “Self Portrait With Christopher and my Future In-Laws, 2001.”

Worst picture: “Self Portrait with Christopher (Rochester), 2000.” In this photo Christopher lies on a four-poster bed and gazes at his naked wife, whom we see from behind. Harper positioned the camera in a spot that allows a wood poster to rise majestically from her husband’s crotch. Christopher is going to take some ribbing about this one.

Consider reading also: Patrick De Rynck’s How to Read a Painting (Abrams, 2004), a good introduction to the use of symbols in Old Masters, including those of the Dutch Golden Age.

If you like this book, you might also like … Bonnettstown: A House in Ireland (Abrams, 1989).

Published: March 2008 www.jessicatoddharper.com and www.damianieditore.com.

Furthermore: This book includes an interview with the author by Sarah Anne McNear in English and an Italian translation. Harper teaches at Swarthmore College and has won many awards for her work.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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June 20, 2008

A ‘Casualty Notification Officer’ Brings News No One Wants to Hear

Great photos by the Pulitzer Prize–winning Todd Heisler and others enhance a poignant story of how Americans learn that their relatives have died in Iraq

“The Commandant of the Marine Corps has entrusted me to express his deep regret that your (relationship), John, (died/was killed in action) in (place of incident) (city/state or country) on (date). (State the circumstances.) The Commandant extends his deepest sympathy to you and your family in your loss.”
The Marine Corps’s suggested script for casualty notification officers, which they may modify, as quoted in Final Salute

Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives. By Jim Sheeler. Penguin, 280 pp., $25.95.

By Janice Harayda

It seems heartless today that the military once announced combat deaths in telegrams or brief sympathy letters that left relatives alone in their sorrow. Near the end of the Vietnam War, the government changed its policy and began sending two-person teams of uniformed officers to deliver the news instead. And Jim Sheeler shows how harrowing that job can be in this wonderful book about one such officer, Major Steve Beck of the Marine Corps, that grew out of a Pulitzer Prize–winning series with the same title for the Rocky Mountain News.

Sheeler doesn’t say so, but newspapers have reported that the notification policy changed partly because as Western Union offices became fewer, the military started asking taxi drivers to deliver the telegrams. Many of those cabbies — quite understandably — refused the work.

In Final Salute, Sheeler shows why anyone might decline the job now done by servicemen and -women known as “casualty assistance calls officers” or “casualty notification officers.” The military sends teams not just for emotional support but for the protection of the messengers: At the beginning of the war in Iraq, a furious mother slapped a Marine from Beck’s unit.

But the emotional hazards of casualty notification clearly outweigh the physical dangers. Officers do not generally call ahead to announce their visits. But families know instantly why they have arrived. “You can almost see the blood run out of their body and their heart hit the floor,” Beck said.

Sheeler couldn’t go with Beck when he knocked or rang doorbells. But he got as close as any reporter may ever have and followed up with the families. He also interviewed a former Marine who painted the names of the fallen on gravestones and went to a wake on an Indian reservation for the first Oglala Lakota Sioux tribe member killed in Iraq. Some of his most poignant stories involve a fatherless preteen son, who told him, “I get mad when kids tell me the wrong things like, ‘Your daddy died for no reason.’”

Writing in a calm tone and plain language somewhat reminiscent of that of All Quiet on the Western Front, Sheeler never overdramatizes or sentimentalizes his material. He also breaks up long stories into well-crafted shorter segments. This helps to keep his book from becoming almost too painful to read, but at times works against the narrative flow. Sheeler tells us on page 23 that a mother who had two sons at war screamed, “Which one was it?” when she realized that one had died. When he continues her story on page 114, he says she screamed, “Which one is it?” You don’t know if he gives two versions of the question because he had conflicting sources, because he massaged one of the quotes, or because the woman said first one thing, then another.

The story told in this book is so memorable that – with one exception – its lapses hardly matter. Final Salute benefits greatly from the photographs of Todd Heisler, who won his own Pulitzer, for feature photography, for the pictures in the “Final Salute” series in the Rocky Mountain News. Sheeler thanks Heisler in his acknowledgments. But neither he nor the jacket-copy writer mentions Heisler’s Pulitzer. How Sheeler and his publisher could have treated so much of their material so sensitively – and this aspect of it so insensitively – is a mystery.

Best line: Beck’s comment: “You can almost see the blood run out of their body and their heart hit the floor.”

Worst Line: The failure of Sheeler and his publisher to note that Heisler en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Todd_Heisler won a Pulitzer for his photos for the “Final Salute” series www.pulitzer.org/year/2006/feature-photography/works/, some of which appear in this book, including the elegant image on the cover. This is a disservice to Heisler, to readers and to others, including booksellers, who could have used the information in hand-selling the book. Sheeler is a great writer, but the importance of photographers to a story like the one told in the Rocky Mountain News series — without which this book would not exist — cannot be overstated. It is not simply that photographers can raise a story to a higher power artistically or help to persuade reluctant sources to cooperate. Outstanding pictures, such as those Heisler and others took, can help to “sell” editors on a story — to persuade them give it the play it deserves — and to persuade readers to read it. Just below the headline of this review appears a line that shows how easily Penguin could have mentioned Heisler’s Pulitzer, without doing an injustice to the other photographers, in one sentence on the dust jacket. Heisler was also part of a team that won the 2003 Pulitzer for breaking news photography. He is now a staff photographer for the New York Times.

Published: May 2008 www.jimsheeler.com and us.penguingroup.com/nf/Book/BookDisplay/0,,9781594201653,00.html.

Furthermore: Sheeler is now a a scholar-in-residence at the University of Colorado.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org. Please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed to avoid missing her reviews.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

April 25, 2008

Shot-From-Behind Book Covers — Jodi Picoult and Beyond

Filed under: Book Covers,Uncategorized — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:38 pm
Tags: , , , , , , ,

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve seen a dust jacket unusual enough to review in the series on this site that rates book covers. But if you’re interested in the topic, you may to look at a post on GalleyCat, the publishing-industry news site, that deals with the boomlet in shot-from-behind covers such as that of Jodi Picoult’s Change of Heart www.jodipicoult.com. The GalleyCat post deals with the trend as it applies to mainstream women’s fiction. But once you’ve noticed the pattern, you’ll see evidence of it on other kinds of books, including The Blue Star, Tony Earley’s just-published sequel to Jim the Boy. One reason for the popularity of back-view covers: They allow publishers to avoid showing a face that may conflict with a description in the book. Here’s the link to the GalleyCat post: www.mediabistro.com/galleycat/book_jackets/the_new_trend_in_womens_fiction_covers_80993.asp

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

June 25, 2007

Rudolf Nureyev (and Others) Slept Here: Derry Moore’s ‘Rooms’

The 12th Earl of Drogheda visits the homes of aristocrats and others in Paris, London, Madrid, Vienna and elsewhere

Rooms. Photographs by Derry Moore. Text by Carl Skoggard. Editor: Joseph Holtzman. Rizzoli/Nest Books, 263 pp., $60.

By Janice Harayda

Books about interior design typically show rooms with character. Derry Moore’s Rooms shows rooms with characters.

Rudolf Nurevey, Lady Diana Cooper, the Rev. Peter Gomes, the Duchesses of Devonshire and de Mouchy — all are among the aristocrats of birth or achievement whom the 12th Earl of Drogheda has photographed over three decades. Moore aims to capture, not romanticize, his subjects. So he looks beyond Nureyev’s deep cooper bathtub and the Sargent portrait of the granddaughters of an earlier Duchess of Devonshire that hangs in the Blue Drawing Room at Chatsworth. He offers glimpses of faded paint, threadbare silk, buckled wallpaper, tilted lampshades and a roll of toilet paper.

In that sense his book has something of the twilight-of-the-gods air of Andrew Bush’s great Bonnettstown. Rooms also has a bracing and opinionated text by Carl Skoggard, who situates good design – as Jane Austen did – in the context of morality. “Here, you will find no effort to intimidate by means of a display of grandeur (or false grandeur),” Skoggard writes of the château Le Fresne, near Tours. “Nothing overawes through its size.” You could say that “Le Fresne and its unforced elegance express the unfeigned goodness of dispositions naturally moral.” This may be a reach. But Skoggard’s writing has much more life than the sycophantic prose of most design magazines. Like Moore’s haunting photographs, his text usually is, as the introduction notes, “impractical in the best sense of that much maligned word.”

Best line: Prince Tassilo von Fürstenberg’s former hunting bristles with so much taxidermy that Skoggard wonders if an Austro-Hungarian decorator tricked it up “with suitable remains”: “Recall Vladimir Putin’s astonishment when he suggested to his friend George Bush that the two of them saddle up for a ride around the ranch, only to be told that his host could not ride a horse at all.” This is one example of Skoggard’s refreshing willingness to confront a truth rarely acknowledged in books about interior design: Décor is always, in part, a commentary on politics.

Worst line (tie); The chapter on the gardens of Powis Castle in Wales is written, preciously, from the point of view of its yew trees. And Skoggard’s usual good taste fails him in his justification of opulence of Indian rajas and maharajas: “Where poverty is widely shared and there is no shame in being poor, ostentation on part of the well-off few becomes public entertainment, a benefaction shared by all, legitimation of things as they happen to be.” Exactly how did the poor “share” in the opulence when, as the Wall Street Journal said in its June 23–24 edition, the “untouchables” (now known Dalits) “were barred from temples used by upper-caste Hindus and from upper-caste homes”? Did they “share” it the way the homeless in Manhattan share Donald Trump’s wealth by gazing at Trump Tower?

Recommendation? This book could be a great gift for an architect, interior designer or traveler who loves visiting stately homes like Chatsworth.

Consider reading also: Andrew Bush’s Bonnettstown: A House in Ireland (Abrams, 1989), a remarkable portrait of three elderly aristocrats during their final days in their decaying 18th century Georgian manor house in Ireland.

Published: November 2006 www.derrymoore.com.

Furthermore: The New York Times ran a good article on Moore, “Insider’s View of Society’s Vanishing Rooms,” on Nov. 23, 2006. [I can't get a direct link to work, but you can find it easily by Googling "new york times" and "derry moore."]

 

 

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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