Photo by NatalieTracy used under a Creative Commons license.

Jan Morris, Sydney (Random House, 1992).
If you were to want to read one book to get an overview of the history, character and culture of Sydney, you could do worse than to turn to this one. There is only a smattering of her own experiences here; instead, the greater part of it is her synthesis of other people’s histories.  As one reviewer below says, it is as if Morris rented an apartment with a view of Sydney Harbor, visited the local library and read up on the city, and then dutifully compiled that work into a book. The result is solid enough, if not particularly sweet or filling.

Here is Wikipedia on Jan Morris. Don George profiled her for Salon in 1999. More recently, she remarried. Carolyn See (Los Angeles Times) calls the book a competent, chronological, amusing, mannerly, dutiful account of one of the most beautiful and enchanting cities in the world. Brett is truly and madly in love with the book. Morris says she detested Sydney when she first went there in the early 1960s. In an interview with Leo Lerman in The Paris Review in 1997, Morris talked about why she wrote the book. In an interesting exchange, she also suggests that she didn’t quite get to the bottom of the city. Another essay about Sydney appears in her 2005 collection, The World. Footless Crow interviewed Morris a few months ago.

Buy it at Half.com.


Photo of a painting by Colleen Wallace and posted by Ben Lawson used under a Creative Commons license.

Howard Morphy, Aboriginal Art (Phaidon, 1998).
A lovely and comprehensive survey of Australian aboriginal art, replete with many and terrific color plates.  From ancient rock art to post-modern art (including a reworking of Van Gogh’s room in Arles), Morphy, whose own focus has been on the people and art of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territories, explains the significance and context of different tradition, old and new, from around the continent. An excellent introduction to the subject.

Here is Morphy’s page at the Australian National University. David Cossey says the books is thoroughly researched, authoritative, and written with elegance, an essential reference work for scholars and lay readers alike. David Betz calls it the best read on the ideas behind Aboriginal art practice (and has other interesting links). This site calls it the best single book on the topic of Aboriginal art and culture. Answers.com calls it an authoritative survey. It was one of Alex Dally MacFarlane’s favorite books of 2010. Will Owen saw the painting Karrku Jukurrpa this summer at the Australian Embassy in Washington, D.C.; he has a picture and quotes Morphy’s explanation, and more. This essay echoes some of the book (but is not representative of it). Here is Morphy on the Yolngu art of Charlie Matjuwi Burarrwanga and Peter Datjin Burarrwanga. Felicia R. Lee (The New York Times) writes about a discovery Morphy made in Hamilton, New York. Not enough time to read Morphy’s book? Try this introduction to the subject by Mick Steele.

Buy it a Half.com (I did).


Photo of the Tate Gallery by Rob Brink used under a Creative Commons license.

John Lanchester, Mr. Phillips (Penguin, 2001).
After a respectably long and undistinguished career in accountancy, Mr. Phillips is told that he has been made redundant; his services are no longer needed.  Unable to quite come to grips with what has happened to him, he leaves his home as if on his way to the office but instead spends the day meandering through London, from Battersea Park to Trafalgar Square and on.  Early in that Monday, neither Mr. Phillips nor Mr. Phillips were working for me, either, but things turned around through the afternoon and the evening brought some measure of redemption.

Here is Wikipedia’s page on Lanchester. Here is Chapter One. Merrick posted a favorite excerpt. Gabrielle Annan (NYRB) says Mr. Phillips drifts through a London so vividly and wittily evoked that it would make an engaging guide book to the places on his route. Tom Shone (Salon) says it is virtually plotless. Roz Shea calls it often funny and sometimes touching. Alex Good says it evokes cultural malaise. Jennifer Schuessler (The New York Times) calls it witty but disappointing. Nicholas Lezard (The Guardian) did not find it as hilarious as other critics. To rjk, it describes a progress through London that arguably resembles Mrs Dalloway’s. Shannon was enthralled. Philip Hensher (The Guardian) calls it always engaging and interesting. More Coffee Please doesn’t hate meetings. Daisy thought it was quite cool. Christina Patterson interviewed Lanchester for The Independent. Lanchester wrote in the Guardian about his inspiration for the book.

Buy it at Half.com.


Photo of Chester County by Lobberich used under a Creative Commons license.

Witold Rybczynski, Last Harvest (Scribner, 2007).
The author, an architecture critic who teaches at Penn, tells the story of the creation of New Daleville, a residential subdivision in an exurb of Philadelphia, from the purchase of land through design and building to the arrival of the first residents. Rybczynski was given terrific access, and he has used it to tell an engrossing story about how farmland gets transmogrified into homes. New Daleville was designed in a new, “neotraditional” style, so this account will appeal to fans of the new urbanism. New Daleville is located in Cochranville, Chester County, about 45 miles west of Philadelphia and half that distance northwest of Wilmington, Delaware. This is at once a story of what happened to a very specific place, and an explanation of what happens all over the country.

For more on Rybczynski, here are Wikipedia, his own site, his blog, and his bio at Penn. He was given the Vincent J. Scully Prize by the National Building Museum. Take a look at the book on Google Books. On Slate, Rybczynski offered this slideshow of New Daleville’s evolution. Penelope Green (The New York Times) gives a good sense of how the book unfolds. Brendan Crain (Where) says it’s enlightening if you want to understand why today’s suburban developments look the way they do. Crain interviewed Rynczynski as well. Rob Goodspeed sees omissions, but calls it complex, compelling and accessible. Patrick D. Hazard (Broad Street Review) appreciated the explanation of the tasks of preparing land for builders to use (or here). John Cruz says it gives a good view of why these kinds of developments are built. Pratik Mhatre calls it easy, refreshing, and non-polemical. Peter Holland says it’s an easy read that integrates the complexities of the development process (.pdf). Dorn Townsend calls it a masterly story of entrepreneurship. Chris Bradford sees relevance to Austin. Henry Petroski (The New York Sun) calls it a primer on the aesthetic, economic, historical, physical, political, psychological, and structural aspects of the business of real estate. Andrew Ferguson (The Wall Street Journal) lauds Rybczynski’s storytelling. Mike says it’s a fun read. One nameless but conservation-minded blogger says it’s as much about the characters as it is about the place. It softened Brasilliant’s strong opinions against “neotraditional” planning. Joshua Kim gives it an A. Tom Lindmark calls it a wonderful little book. Listen or read this interview with NPR’s Debbie Elliott. Watch Rybczynski talk to BusinessWeek’s Diane Brady. Listen to his appearance on WNYC’s The Leonard Lopate Show. Here’s the builder’s page. Tim Halbur says the development is failing. Decide for yourself: To find real estate listings in the development, go to Zillow and search for “415 Wrigley Blvd, Cochranville, PA,” which is in the middle of what Zillow calls Daleville.

Buy it at Half.com.


Photo of Heathrow by Sheree Zielke used under a Creative Commons license.

Alain de Botton, A Week at the Airport (Vintage, 2010).
The owners of the new Terminal 5  at Heathrow invited de Botton to spend a week at the airport as Writer-In-Residence. The result was this delightful little book — more of an essay, really, with lovely pictures by Richard Baker.  An ideal time to start reading it is about two hours before landing on a flight into Heathrow, or you wait another hour you might be able to finish it while standing in the passport control line, like I did.

The author’s site offers three excerpts. Here is his CV. Here’s his Wikipedia entry. Dan Milmo (The Guardian) reported on de Botton’s assignment. Check it out on Google Books, or here’s an excerpt in The Sunday Times. Boyd Tonkin (The Independent) says banality and sublimity circle in a perpetual holding pattern. Dan Hill enjoyed it hugely in a holding pattern above Sydney. Kerri Shadid says it has a magical touch of questioning human behavior and a poetic use of words. Donna Marchetti calls it a clever, quirky book. Geoff Nicholson says a few hours with de Botton is time well spent. Dwight Garner says it’s as intense as a volume of poems. Kirk LaPointe says it teems with beauty. Rob Verger (Boston Globe) says it isn’t always gripping. Karen calls it delightful, reflective and thought-provoking. Helen Gallagher says it explores the airport as a “non-place.” Jessica Holland (The Guardian) says it’s as perky as a stewardess. Frank Bures interviewed de Botton. Daniel Trilling interviewed him for the New Statesman. Watch this clip of him talking to The Daily Mail. Listen to him on NPR’s On Point. If Caleb Crain reviewed it, I haven’t seen any sign of the review.

Buy it at Half.com.


Photo of Frank Chu and Prince Charles by Thomas Hawk used under a Creative Commons license.

Jen Wang, Koko Be Good (First Second, 2010).
A graphic novel and a sort of three-legged bildungsroman about young San Franciscans Koko, Jon, and Faron. When Jon meets Koko, he is planning to move to Peru to do charity work, a plan that seems like a good idea, but her outlook on life causes him to question himself. Koko, on the other hand, could use a little more structure and long-term planning, but instead she has Jon and Faron, who driftlessly works in his family’s restaurant. Wang’s characters are more complicated than they first appear; nonetheless, the dialogue sometimes evokes overly earnest late-night dormroom conversations. Even so, the terrific artwork more than makes up for it.

Here is the author’s site. Wang has posted a shorter, earlier (2004) work by the same name; here is the backstory. Here’s a quick and effective preview. Take a longer look on Google Books. Or take a look at the excerpt offered by the distributor. Cory Doctorow calls it a complex story engagingly told with ingenious layouts and lovely art. Eric Adelstein came away with a craving for more. Greg McElhatton says it defies easy categorization. Comicsgirl says Wang’s San Francisco is a place where people actually live and work. Xaviar Xerexes calls it a thought-provoking story with lively characters and a tone that mixes seriousness with fun. Sterg Botzakis calls it beautifully illustrated. Kristin Fletcher-Spear calls the artwork wonderfully unique and the characters truly realized. Erin Jameson says the combination of text and art is sublime. Cathlin Goulding likes the illustration of San Francisco neighborhoods. Zack Davisson loved the artwork, but not the characters or story. Holly agrees with Davisson. So does Ray Garraty. Johnny Bacardi gives it mixed praise. Jonathan says the characters are by turns funny and serious, but always real. DeBT appreciates Wang’s departures from conventions. Ralph Mathieu calls it delightful twice. Andrew Wheeler says the characters are realistically verbose and pompous. Wang talked to the Wall Street Journal about her inspirations. Kris Bather interviewed her. Here is another interview with Shaun Manning of CBR. Here’s one with John Hogan of GraphicNovelReporter. Here’s one with J. Caleb Mozzocco of Newsarama.com. And here’s one with Alex Dueben at Suicide Girls. MTV Geek! toured her studio. See more of Wang’s art here.

Buy it at Half.com.


Photo of the New Territories by countries in colors used under a Creative Commons license.

Austin Coates, Myself A Mandarin (Oxford University Press China, 1988).
As a young man, soon after World War II, Coates went to Hong Kong to work in the civil service. Three years later, he became a magistrate in the New Territories, deciding civil disputes in rural villages which had been bypassed by the twentieth century. Another person in his circumstances might have insisted on applying British common law, but Coates was fortunate enough not to know any of it, and instead had to use his wits to find the just resolution which would be accepted by all sides to a dispute. Many chapters are devoted to memorable cases; none disappoint. (This book can be found in bookstores in Hong Kong, but good luck tracking down a copy elsewhere.)

Here is Wikipedia’s entry about Coates, who spent much of the rest of his life in Hong Kong. Here’s an excerpt. Kay Danielson appreciated the author’s bafflement at deciphering indirect communication and managing the cultural minefields of face, ceremony and duty. James Garriss calls it delightful. Rory Boland considers it a classic book about the city. Coates’ cows went feral, apparently. Nell Freudenberger picked it as her favorite obscure book.