The range of autobiographies and autobiographers in this collection is nothing short of startling. These texts from ex-slaves, women, immigrants, former child laborers and radical activists are, so many years later, so fresh, so alive with the wonders of self-expression and self-invention, that they frame the canonical texts of American autobiography in new ways. Jay Parini's editorial sense opens up radically new ways of considering the autobiographical form. His selections make an unimpeachable case for autobiography as this country's one true democratic form of writing and for the almost unbearable richness of that democratic impulse. His collection is also a reminder that democratic America was never the same as American democracy; for much of what can be experienced in this large volume is a history of the journeys, struggles and spirit of the disenfranchised who refused to let their lives be dismissed. This collection, inconceivable not long ago, gives diversity a good name. There is no better evidence of how enriched we've been. Special thanks must be offered to Parini--and to Norton--for allowing this singing of the American body eclectic.
THE ARCANUM; The Extraordinary True Story; By Janet Gleeson; Warner: 326 pp., $23
A delicately wrought teacup, a dinner plate, a porcelain figurine: common household objects that most of us take for granted, however much we may value them. But until the beginning of the 18th century, no one in Europe knew exactly how--or of what--the exquisite porcelain from China and Japan was actually made. Europeans knew how to fashion a heavier, more porous earthenware from clay, to glaze and paint it, but this was a far cry from the brilliantly white, translucent, graceful china from the Far East that European royalty and other connoisseurs were eagerly collecting. Although travelers from the time of Marco Polo tried to find out how the Chinese made these beautiful objects, the formula and the process were closely guarded secrets. In her highly informative and immensely readable "The Arcanum," Janet Gleeson tells the fascinating story of how a young German alchemist named Johann Bottger discovered the secret of making porcelain. Gleeson, a London-based writer who has worked for Sotheby's auction house, has fashioned a riveting narrative, richly detailed and vividly descriptive. Although her book is an exemplary piece of storytelling, it is not a novel but a work of popular history. No invented dialogue has been put into the mouths of the characters; there are notes to each chapter and an index at the end. But thanks to Gleeson's skillful, lucid narration, the story she tells in "The Arcanum" is as enthralling as any historical fiction.
FAREWELL, PROMISED LAND; Waking from the California Dream; Text by Gray Brechin Photographs by Robert Dawson; University of California Press: 254 pp., $60 hardcover, $35 paper
"Farewell, Promised Land," a collaboration between photographer Robert Dawson and geographer Gray Brechin, impressively adds to the recent books (among them, Greg Hise's "Magnetic Los Angeles," Norman Klein's "The History of Forgetting" and William Fulton's "The Reluctant Metropolis: The Politics of Urban Growth in Los Angeles") that reconsider the condition of our lives in California 150 years after American conquest and statehood. By mingling history, environmental reporting, photojournalism and a tragic poetry of place, Dawson and Brechin expose California as the epicenter of all ruined paradises and, as a consequence, now fully our home. The book began as a 1995 tour the writer and photographer took through the landscape of their regret, mostly in Northern California and the Central Valley. It's not so much a waking from any sort of dream they found but a sobering up after a century and a half of California intoxication.
'TIS; By Frank McCourt; Scribner: 368 pp., $26
"Angela's Ashes" ends with 19-year-old Frank McCourt, born in the United States but raised in Ireland, coming back to his future on a ship from Cork. As he stands on the deck looking at the lights of America twinkling in the darkness, the ship's wireless officer comes up to him and says, "Isn't this a great country altogether?" And McCourt concludes that wondrous book with a chapter containing one word: " 'Tis."