December books

Letters from the Earth: Uncensored Writings by Mark Twain, edited by Bernard DeVoto. “The brilliant parts are compressed and savage — and we are beginning to understand at long last that Mark Twain was, or could be, a savage man. The brilliance arises from the fact that they were written when he had become master of clear, flexible prose and was no longer the journalist or the platform lecturer. The bitterness is a function of his indignation against man and God for the cruelties and injustices they practice. The attitude is that of Swift, the intellectual contempt is that of Voltaire, and the imagination is that of one of the great masters of American writing. … Bible Christians will necessarily find the book utterly blasphemous … . Better informed readers will wonder at the imaginative power of the greater passages in this volume, and ponder a view of man’s capacity to be cruel that, after the horrors of Buchenwald and Hiroshima, has more relevance to the modern ethical problem than ever Twain anticipated.” — Howard Mumford Jones, The New York Times, September 23, 1962

The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb. “It’s a cartoonist’s equivalent of the Sistine Chapel, and it’s awesome. Crumb has done a real artist’s turn here — he’s challenged himself and defied all expectation. … You expect it to be sardonic, but it is not. You may expect it to be psychedelically spiritual — it’s not that, either. Rather, it’s humanizing. Crumb takes the sacred and makes it more accessible, more down-to-earth, less idealized. And this may be a blessing, or it may be subversion itself.” — Susan Jane Gilman, All Things Considered (NPR), October 16, 2009

Mark Twain: God’s Fool by Hamlin Hill. “One of the best and most scholarly writers on the subject of that puzzling and paradoxical genius Samuel Clemens is Hamlin Hill. His book … is certainly one of the most reliable and readable books in the whole huge library of Twain biographical studies. … Hill makes sense of a confusing and often contradictory set of data. This is a notable, graceful, convincing book.” — The New Republic

American Humor: A Study of the National Character by Constance Rourke. “The most original piece of investigation and interpretation that has appeared in American cultural history. It is in every way a brilliant book.” — Lewis Mumford

The Country Blues by Samuel Charters. “In [The Country Blues], Charters recreates the special world of the country bluesman — that lone black performer accompanying himself on the acoustic guitar, his music a rich reflection of his own emotional life. Virtually rewriting the history of the blues, Charters reconstructs its evolution and dissemination, from the first tentative soundings on the Mississippi Delta through the emergence, with Elvis Presley, of rock and roll. His carefully-researched biographies of near-legendary performers like Lonnie Johnson, Blind Boy Fuller, and Tampa Red — coupled with his perceptive discussions of their recordings — pay tribute to a kind of artistry that will never be seen or heard again.” — From the book jacket

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