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'Whole Green Catalog,' 'Water' from Alphabet City, and 'Irises: Vincent van Gogh in the Garden' by Jennifer Helvey

October 11, 2009|Susan Salter Reynolds

Whole Green Catalog

1,000 Best Things for You and the Earth

Edited Michael W. Robbins

Foreword by Bill McKibben

Introduction by Renee Loux

Rodale: 390 pp., $29.99

It's about time. Modeled on the "Whole Earth Catalog," this compendium of products, easy on the Earth, ranges from kitchenware to cars to pet food.

Lush and stylish, the book lists everything you need to make you want to go off-grid: sustainable skateboards, products to help you recycle, appliances, biofuel and cashmere.

What's missing (and this is just a tiny kvetch) is the sense of alternative lifestyle that drifted in waves from the pages of the "Whole Earth Catalog," which was more of a how-to manual for sustainable change. It was something you read on long winter nights in the city, while dreaming of building an A-frame house in the forest.

True to the times, the "Whole Green Catalog" is more consumer catalog than manual. Nonetheless, it fills an increasingly important niche -- functioning as a clearinghouse of sorts for products that will only get less expensive as technology improves and quality increases. "What pleasure to imagine the future," Bill McKibben writes in his foreword, "for ourselves and our society -- that's what this catalog allows. But what pleasure, too, to shape that future, in time to actually matter."



Alphabet City 14

Edited by John Knechtel

MIT Press: 320 pp., $15.95

We keep forgetting water is a precious resource. This collection of art, words and information -- the latest issue of the politics and culture journal Alphabet City -- does what the movie "Powers of Ten" did for our perception of life on planet Earth.

From molecule to global resource, water is examined from every angle. There's a consideration of the music in the shower scene in Hitchcock's "Psycho," facsimile reprints from the pages of a water-damaged ledger from the 1905 Yukon Gold Rush, schematics of agricultural and hydrocultural typologies. "Water" offers a flood of images that leaves a nostalgic residue for a resource we so often take for granted.

There's also the haunting effect of the book itself -- something archival that makes us feel we hold a precious remnant in our hands.



Vincent van Gogh in the Garden

Jennifer Helvey

J. Paul Getty Museum: 194 pp., $23.95

What a rich vein Vincent van Gogh left scholars, critics and contemplators everywhere! A constant reminder that beauty comes at a price, with his paintings of irises, in so many ways, his lowest common denominator, his alphabet, his scale. When he shot himself in a wheat field in 1890 in France, Jennifer Helvey writes in this gorgeous, colorful volume, he was "exhausted by urban life."

"Irises" and "Starry Night" were painted in that final year, when he was in Arles. Irises were in bloom in the walled garden on the grounds of the asylum at Saint-Remy, where Van Gogh committed himself in 1889.

Helvey examines "Irises," the vitality and clarity it exudes despite his state of mind, and the circumstances under which it was painted. She looks at influences: Japanese prints, Christian imagery, botanical prints and European paintings. She resists the temptation to focus on Van Gogh's tormented genius, offering instead a view of the artists' consciousness that feels spacious, rich -- full of inspiration and enthusiasm.

"There were many flowers in the garden from which to choose," Helvey writes, "and Vincent chose irises."


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