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August 30, 2012 1:26 PM

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The Passionate Reader: August 30, 2012

Where did the Revolutionary War take place, and what traces of it still remain in those spots? That's a question Robert Sullivan elected to answer in "My American Revolution: Crossing the Delaware and I-78" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)....

Where did the Revolutionary War take place, and what traces of it still remain in those spots? That's a question Robert Sullivan elected to answer in "My American Revolution: Crossing the Delaware and I-78" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

book-cover001.jpegHe traveled all over New York and New Jersey in search of the places where important battles happened, pointing out that Massachusetts is better at commemorating its Revolutionary War sites, since many of them mark the location of victories, whereas most of the spots in New York are those of losses or retreats. Nevertheless, it's great to go with Sullivan to these battlefields, and the book is amusing, absorbing and light. Along the way, you pick up some fun facts, such as that, plagued by mud, General George Washington was delighted when there was a big freeze -- because it meant that the roads would suddenly be much more negotiable.

book-cover004.jpegAnother series of interesting journeys is taken by English humorist Craig Brown in "Hello Goodbye Hello: A Circle of 101 Remarkable Meetings" (Simon & Schuster), which features a series of first encounters between prominent men and women. Each entry is preceded by and succeeded by that in which one of the two meets someone else (hence "a circle"). There are many fascinating moments in the book, such as when Alec Guinness warned James Dean, whom he met at the Villa Capri restaurant in Hollywood, and who had just purchased a Porsche Spyder, that if he drove that car (which could go 150 mph), he would be dead within a week. Dean, of course, did and was.

While staying at the Garden of Allah in Los Angeles, Harpo Marx hoped to practice his harp, so he was annoyed that his neighbor Sergei Rachmaninoff was loudly playing the piano. Marx decided to drown him out by playing the composer's "Prelude in C-Sharp Minor" repeatedly at a high volume. Rachmaninoff hated this early piece, since it was his most popular and he was always asked to perform it; he responded by asking to move to a different part of the hotel. And artist Walter Sickert gave Winston Churchill advice about painting. Rather than insisting on working en plein air, which Sickert himself long ago abandoned, he should work from photographs. Churchill took his advice, saying, "He is really giving me a new lease of life as a painter." But that didn't mean that either he or his wife Clementine liked the portrait Sickert did of the statesman; in fact, Clementine disliked it so much she contrived to put her foot through the study he gave them for it.

book-cover003.jpegPaul Auster takes a somewhat more serious approach to his "Winter Journal" (Henry Holt). This is the meditation of a man in his sixties who is looking at the probable arrival of old age. For a reader, Auster is usually mesmerizing, and this book is no exception. You'll have what he's having, regardless of what it is; he even made a list of all the places he's ever lived seem fascinating. (There are 21.) He writes about his mother and her marriages; his first wife; his current wife, her beauty, her family and her insistence upon getting a Ph.D.; his early struggles; things that happened to him as a boy, and it all coalesces into an enchanting whole. This may seem quotidian, and it is, but it's nevertheless compelling. You want the book to go on forever.

book-cover005.jpegOne of the many new books about Marilyn Monroe on the 50th anniversary of her death this August is "Dressing Marilyn: How a Hollywood Icon Was Styled by William Travilla"(Applause) by Andrew Hansford with Karen Homer. Travilla was a principal designer for Monroe both on and off-screen throughout most of her career. Among many other looks, he created the iconic pleated white dress that blew up from the air from the gust from the grating in "The Seven Year Itch," the famous red, pink and gold dresses in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," the fuchsia satin dress from "How to Marry a Millionaire" and the slightly-the-worse-for-wear Merry Widow that Monroe wore as Cherie in "Bus Stop." Travilla also dressed her in a fur-collared suit for her wedding to Joe DiMaggio. The pictures throughout are terrific.

book-cover006.jpegAnother appealing picture book is "Doris Duke's Shangri La: A House in Paradise: Architecture, Landscape, and Islamic Art"(Skira Rizzoli Publications), edited by Thomas Mellins and Donald Albrecht with a forward by Deborah Pope and essays by Linda Komaroff, Keelan Overton, Sharon Littlefield Tomlinson, and Thomas Mellins and Donald Albrecht, photographed by Tim Street-Porter. The book will accompany an exhibition about Shangri La, now a museum, at MAD, the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, due to open on Sept. 7. Shangri La is Duke's house in Honolulu, built between 1936 and 1938 and decorated and furnished with a wealth of Moorish, Persian, Indian and Spanish elements, with Marion Sims Wyeth the principal architect. The show celebrates the centenary of the heiress' birth. Duke, one of the richest women in the world at the time, and her husband, James Cromwell, studied and commissioned work for the house from artisans in Morocco, India and elsewhere and collected numerous antiques. Elements they chose include a Turkish tile panel from 1650, a 13th-century Spanish fireplace, a 17th-18th-century table inlaid with mother-of-pearl and ivory, Bukhara Suzanis from the 19th century and a 19th-century tent panel from Cairo.

book-cover002.jpegThen there's "The New Jewelers" (Thames & Hudson) by Olivier Dupon, which surveys exactly that. Some of the pieces in the book are breathtakingly beautiful; others, at least to this reader, are scary or awful. But you'll leave this book knowing much more about the contemporary jewelry scene, and that, at least, is part of the point. Heaven Tanudiredja's necklaces, Manya & Roumen rings, Cathy Waterman's intricate pieces, Gonzague Zurstrassen's unexpected mixes of colored stones, Luna Scamuzzi and Paolo Mandelli's decadent, slightly menacing pieces for Lucifer Vir Honestus and Percossi Papi's jewelry, which brings to mind the work of Benvenuto Cellini, were among my favorite things here.

Also of note: In rereading Edith Wharton's brilliant memoir, "A Backward Glance," I came upon an anecdote about a society hostess in London renowned for the breadth of her acquaintance that was apparently making the rounds at the time. It seems that a cannibal chieftan was about to put an explorer in the pot, when suddenly he said, "But I think I've met you at Lady St. Helier's!" -- and the explorer was saved.
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