Self-Portrait as the Apostle Paul, 1661, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Mariet Westermann, Rembrandt (Phaidon, 2000).
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was born in 1606 in Leiden, where he started his career, but in 1631 he moved to Amsterdam, where he lived and worked for the rest of his life.  In 1639, he moved into a fine house on the Jodenbreestraat, now a museum, and after his 1656 bankruptcy he moved to the Jordaan. Westermann has written an excellent survey of Rembrandt’s career for a general reader, with a concise analysis of many individual works, some explanation of what is known about Rembrandt, and a bit of context about 17th-century Amsterdam. The book is wonderfully illustrated.  The chapter on Rembrandt’s engravings and etchings, for which he was better known than for his painting until photographs of the latter became available, feels like too much was compressed into too few pages, but surely it was a challenge to reduce his oeuvre to a work of this size, and for the most part Westermann and Phaidon carry it off.

Here is Westermann’s bio at NYU. She’s off to Abu Dhabi. Meanwhile, I can’t any ungated reviews of this book. Is this a problem for general-interest art books?  Here is the website for the Rembrandthuis, and here is the Rijksmuseum’s site.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

Image by *Leanda used under a Creative Commons license.

Geert Mak, Amsterdam (Harvill Press, 2001).
A readable and lively general interest history of Amsterdam, from its origins as a medieval fishing village to recent confrontations between squatters and police. Non-natives may have trouble following some of the place names, but there are useful maps, which complement Mak’s telling of how the city has grown through the centuries.  Mak is perhaps too close to some of the turmoil since the 1960s to depict the trees as a forest, and so the last chapter can be a little to follow, but the rest of his account sets a high bar.  If I could read only one book before a trip to Amsterdam, this would be it.

Mak’s website has all sorts of interesting stuff on it. Here is Wikipedia’s page on Mak. Sarah became infuriated with the English translation (not a reaction I had) and then enjoyed it in Dutch. Andrew R.L. Cayton compares Amsterdam and Paris. National Geographic calls it lively and often surprising.

Buy Amsterdam at Amazon.com.

Van Gogh Cafe at night
Photo of Arles by Greg_e used under a Creative Commons license.

Martin Gayford, The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Provence (Little, Brown, 2006).
In early 1888, Vincent Van Gogh moved from Paris to Arles, in southern France, where he hoped to find a new world to paint.  Van Gogh fixed up a yellow house and dreamed of starting a commune of artists, and to that end he implored Paul Gauguin to join him.  In October, Gauguin arrived, and the two artists together enjoyed an incredibly productive collaboration of sorts until December, when they fell out and Gauguin took the train north.  The two never saw each other again: Van Gogh died in mid-1890, and Gauguin wound up in Tahiti. Gayford takes full advantage of rich sources, including Van Gogh’s letters.  The only disappointment is that the many pictures of the paintings of Van Gogh and Gaugin are black and white, a terrible decision by the publisher, especially given the importance of color to both artists.  If you can, read it with a better source of Van Gogh’s art at hand — Judy Sund’s Van Gogh will do the trick nicely.

If you don’t recognize the scene, compare the photo above to this. Google Books lets you take a look at the book. Peter Schjeldahl (The New Yorker) calls it a skillfully ordered collection of informative and entertaining nuggets of intellectual and personal biography. Adam Jusko says the drama of the story makes it worth reading even for those who are only passingly familiar with the work of Van Gogh and Gauguin. Sue Gaisford (The Independent) calls it drily witty, original and profoundly absorbing. Robert Freedman, M.D. (American Journal of Psychiatry) says it is ideal for psychiatrists because Gayford lets Van Gogh and Gauguin speak for themselves. Richard Cork (The Guardian) appreciates the focus on the nine weeks in the two artists were together. Sue Bond says it gives a robust feeling for the way the two of them painted, and the different approaches they took. Jennifer Reese (Entertainment Weekly) gives it an A. Aditi Raychoudhury calls it an intricate, delicate, heart felt, and intensely human account that sheds light on what drove Van Gogh and Gauguin. Michele Heather Pollock applauds masterful storytelling. Deborah Hern says Gayford fashions a dramatic narrative. Peter Conrad (The Observer) calls it a book about colour. Sebastian Smee (The Spectator) says the story of those two months is tragic, pathetic, unfathomable, and so strange it simply has to be real. Clive Wilmer (The New Statesman) says its merit is in Gayford’s judgment of the issues. Michael Prodger (The Telegraph) thinks it’s wonderfully perceptive. Zane Ewton says Gayford turns legenday art figures into people. Gayford wrote this article in Apollo shortly before the book was released. More recently, Gayford took on a more recent theory about Van Gogh’s ear, and found more to say about Van Gogh. And here’s a Van Gogh walking tour of Arles.

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Leiden, The Netherlands
Photo of Leiden by ironmanixs used under a Creative Commons license.

Simon Schama, The Embarrassment Of Riches (Knopf, 1987).
A tour de force, a cultural history of the Netherlands during the 17th century, the height of Dutch riches and power.  While a reader will pick up something of the time’s diplomatic and military history, Schama touches on those events mostly as context for a rich and sweeping parade of examples of how the Dutch saw themselves and their world.  Out of such disparate strands as whale strandings and  a midwife’s diary, and better known episodes and artifacts like tulip speculation and portraiture, Schama keeps drawing compelling insights.  It is not a light book, though it is stuffed with illustrations.

Here is Wikipedia’s page on Schama. Here is his bio at Columbia University. Google Books lets you take a look. Harold Beaver (The New York Times) calls it an erudite and engrossing study that offers a fascinating panorama. For what it’s worth, historians J.C.H. Blom and E. Lamberts call it provocative but superficial, in A History of Low Countries 483 (Berghahn Books, 1999). It’s on National Geographic’s list of Amsterdam resources. Here is a 1995 profile of Schama in New York. Schama wrote the book in Lexington, Mass.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

mosaic detail
Photo by chrisjohnbeckett used under a Creative Commons license.

Mary Beard, The Fires of Vesuvius (Belknap Press, 2008).
Beard, a Cambridge professor, summarizes what historians and archeologists have learned about the Roman town of Pompeii, famously destroyed when Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79. Beard has the background to describe academic work authoritatively, but she also has the gifts to explain it lucidly to a wider audience — and to point out where conclusions have been drawn with little or no basis.  One myth debunked is that the eruption gave us a city frozen in time; it appears rather than most of the residents escaped, and that they took many of their possessions.  Also complicating interpretation are Roman salvage efforts, the crude archeology of earlier centuries, and Allied bombing during World War II.  Still, there is a wealth of material for Beard to relate. There are quite a few plates and illustrations, though still more would be nice. If you were to read one book about Pompeii, it is hard to imagine that this shouldn’t be the one.  (Note that it was published in England under the apter title, Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town.)

Here is Wikipedia’s page about Beard, and here is her bio at Newnham College. Steve Coates (The New York Times) says it’s a wonderful book for the impressive depth of information and easygoing erudition. Marjorie Kehe (The Christian Science Monitor) says Beard restores Pompeii in all its bustling everydayness. David Walton (The Plain Dealer) calls it an excellent account of what the ruins can and cannot tell us. Judith Harris (California Literary Review) owns 130 books on Pompeii and would read this first. NS Gill’s quibbles. Jarrett A. Lobell (Archeology) says Beard conveys detailed information about life in the city. Beard takes the Page 99 Test. Herodotus calls it engagingly mischievous. Laure Paquette calls it an easy read. Amy particularly appreciated Beard’s skepticism. You can listen to Beard and Sasha Weiss talk about Roman humor in a NYRB podcast. Or watch her discuss her the book here and here. Beard blogs for the Times Online. Her fans are on Facebook.  update: The book won a Wolfson History Prize for 2008.

Buy it at Amazon.

Route 66
Photo by Swiv used under a Creative Commons license.

Dan Morgan, Rising in the West (Knopf, 1992).
Subtitled “The True History of an ‘Okie’ Family from the Great Depression Through the Reagan Years,” this is a history of the family of Oca Tatham and his family, who fled Oklahoma in August, 1934, in search of a better future in California.   The Tathams are Pentecostal Christians, a faith that ties together the Oklahoma of the 193os and the California of the Reagan Revolution.

Morgan was a reporter for the Washington Post for four decades or so. Here’s a page at washingtonpost.com that will link to recent work there by Morgan; it also has a brief bio. Here’s another short bio. R. Stephen Warner (Christian Century) says it’s rich in social and religious history. This piece by William M. Hagen for the Oklahoma Historical Society recommends the book. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz doesn’t like Morgan’s style, but appreciates his departure from some of the myths about Okies. Tom Snyder recommends it to travelers on Route 66. The book introduced Jane M. Smith to homeschooling.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

Photo of the Great Dismal Swamp by heymarchetti used under a Creative Commons license.

Charles Royster, The Fabulous History of the Dismal Swamp Company: A Story of George Washington’s Times (Vintage, 2000).
On both sides of the Virginia-North Carolina border, but mostly on the north side of the border in Virginia, not far from the ocean, lies the Great Dismal Swamp.  In 1763, a group of investors, among them the war hero George Washington and other notables, founded the Dismal Swamp Company to drain, develop and profit from this land. This history of the company is a window into the finances and dealings of Virginia’s eighteenth-century elite, who made their fortunes speculating on land and growing tobacco and usually owed staggering debts in London.

Here is Royster’s bio at Louisiana State University, where he teaches.  Nate Oman says the narrative works nicely.  Mangum calls it a fine book but thinks it falls a bit short of its potential.  Dennis Berman (Business Week) says it requires uncommon endurance.  T.S. says Royster synthesizes political and business history.  Bibb Edwards read it on the swamp.  Elizabeth H. Smith collects writings on the Great Dismal Swamp. John Tidwell wrote about the swamp for American Heritage. Here is the site for the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge — 250 years later, still wild.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

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