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Books That Help You Survive Christmas

Dust of Snow

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree
Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

-- Robert Frost (1874--1963)

On Christmas Day some among us sooner would read than rip at ribbons. We would prefer the voice of Jane Austen to that of shrill Aunt Tillie. Some among us, on 25 December, long only to laze in the old overstuffed armchair and chew on a cold turkey wing. We prefer to fly into a netherworld of printed pages. Below, you will find six titles that might help take you far beyond the cedar tree and its sparkle.

The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll: The Search for Dare Wright by Jean Nathan; Henry Holt, 2004; $25.

FROM THE DUST JACKET: In 1957, a children's book called The Lonely Doll was published. With its pink-and-white-checked cover and photographs featuring a wide-eyed doll, it captured the imaginations of young girls and made the author, Dare Wright, a household name.

Close to 40 years after its publication, the book was out of print but not forgotten. When the cover image inexplicably came to journalist Jean Nathan one afternoon, she went in search of the book -- and ultimately its author. Nathan found Dare Wright living out her last days in a decrepit public hospital in Queens, New York.

Over the next five years, Nathan pieced together a glamorous life. Blond, beautiful Wright had begun her career as an actress and model and then turned to fashion photography before stumbling upon her role as bestselling author. But there was a dark side to the story: a brother lost in childhood; ill-fated marriage plans; a complicated, controlling mother. Edith Stevenson Wright, herself a successful portrait painter, played such a dominant role in her daughter's life that Dare was never able to find her way into the adult world. Only through her work could she speak for herself: in her books she created the happy family she'd always yearned for, while her self-portraits betrayed an unresolved tension between sexuality and innocence, a desire to belong and painful isolation.

Illustrated with stunning photographs, The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll tells the unforgettable story of a woman who, imprisoned by her childhood, sought to set herself free through art.

Zappa: A Biography by Barry Miles. Grove Press, 2004; $25.00

FROM THE DUST JACKET: Ten years after his death, Frank Zappa continues to influence popular culture. With almost one hundred recordings still in print, Zappa remains a classic American icon. Scores of bands have been influenced by Zappa's music, and a talented roster of musicians passed through Zappa's bands. Now comes the definitive biography of Zappa by best-selling author Barry Miles, who knew Zappa personally and was present at the recording of some of his most important albums. Miles follows Zappa from his sickly Italian-American childhood in the 1940s to his youthful pursuit of what was a lifelong dream: becoming a classical composer. Miles brings the many different personalities of this music legend together for the first time: the self-taught musician and composer who gained fame with the "rock" band the Mothers of Invention; the political antagonist who mocked presidents while being invited to represent Czechoslovakia's cultural interests in the United States, and Zappa the family man who was married to the same woman for over 30 years. Rebel, performer, and a true musical visionary, Zappa is a brilliant and sweeping portrait of an American legend, written by one of rock music's most respected biographers.

Just the Thing: Selected Letters of James Schuyler 1951-1991. Edited by William Corbett. Turtle Point Press, 2004; $25

FROM THE DUST JACKET: James Schuyler, recipient of the 1981 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, belongs with John Ashbery, Barbara Guest, Kenneth Koch, and Frank O'Hara to the first generation of New York School poets. Just the Thing makes him the first of that remarkable constellation of poets to have his letters published. Schuyler is the perfect letter writer, one who seeks to amuse and inform, who has a great sense of humor, lively and original opinions, an ear for gossip and the tart tongue to properly serve it, and who is a memorable phrase maker. At a memorial service after Schuyler's death, his friends Kenneth Koch and the painter Jane Freilicher paid tribute to Schuyler by reading aloud from his letters to them. The audience heard the man there in full in each of his sentences.

Editor William Corbett's selection includes roughly a third of the Schuyler letters currently available. There are numerous notes to his great correspondents Ashbery and the painter/writer Joe Brainard, and to Fairfield Porter, Frank O'Hara, John Button, Barbara Guest, Harry Mathews, Ron Padgett, Kenward Elmslie, Anne Dunn, Darragh Park, and a who's who of poets and artists central to the downtown New York art scene from the early 1950s until Schuyler's death in 1991. An extraordinarily rich and compelling book, a wonder, James Schuyler's letters provide the perfect companion to his brilliant and memorable poems -- hilarious, self-deprecating, insightful, and moving, ever so moving.

Paul Bowles: A Lifeby Virginia Spencer Carr. Scribner, 2004; $35.

FROM THE DUST JACKET: Paul Bowles -- novelist, composer, expatriate, rebel, and bisexual -- is one of the most compelling and mythologized figures in twentieth-century American culture. Born in 1910, Bowles grew up in Jamaica, New York, a precocious child who could read by the age of three and was writing stories within the year. At 18, he embarked on an artistic journey that led him all over the world. Remarkably gifted, Bowles entered the vibrant art and literary world of the late 1920s and early '30s as a poet and composer. He studied music with composer Aaron Copland and was a friend of Gertrude Stein, W.H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, Ned Rorem, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Stephen Spender, and Christopher Isherwood (who named his character Sally Bowles after him). Over the course of his career he composed scores for films and innumerable plays, including many works by Tennessee Williams and Orson Welles. It wasn't until after he married Jane Auer that he began writing fiction: The Delicate Prey, The Spider's House, Let It Come Down, and The Sheltering Sky, which he wrote after moving to Tangier in 1947, and which was immediately hailed as a classic.

It is Bowles's flamboyant life that most fascinates people -- his friendships, his appetites, his controversial marriage, his leftist politics, his voluntary exile to Morocco, and his stature as a countercultural and gay icon. Through ten years of research, 13 trips to Bowles's home in Tangier, extensive interviews with some 200 of Bowles's acquaintances, and her own intimate relationship with Bowles, who died in 1999, Virginia Spencer Carr has gathered a wealth of information about Bowles and has written a masterful, riveting, and definitive account of an extraordinary life.

One Matchless Time: A Life of William Faulkner by Jay Parini. HarperCollins, 2004; $29.95.

FROM THE DUST JACKET:One Matchless Time is a sympathetic evocation of William Faulkner's life and work. From his birth in 1897 in Mississippi to his death 65 years later, Faulkner spent almost his entire life on this one small patch of land, the "significant soil" from which all his fiction grew. Jay Parini paints an intimate picture of Faulkner's Mississippi world and shows how the artist transformed this raw material into Yoknapatawpha County, a place of pure imagination.

Between 1928 and 1942, during what Faulkner called his "one matchless time," a period of wild inspiration when characters and stories came to him mysteriously and in abundance, he published more than half a dozen masterpieces, including the novels The Sound and the Fury; As I Lay Dying; Sanctuary; Light in August; Absalom, Absalom!; The Wild Palms; Go Down, Moses; and The Hamlet. This is an astonishing achievement without equal in American literature.

Parini, who has taught Faulkner's work to students for nearly 30 years, vividly brings to life this writer's complex fictional world in the context of his life, using the one to illuminate the other. He uses letters and memoirs unavailable to earlier biographers as well as interviews he had with Faulkner's daughter and several of his lovers. His William Faulkner is an immensely gifted, obsessive artist plagued by alcoholism and a bad marriage, but someone who rose above his limitations to become a figure of major importance on the stage of world literature.

Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show by Rachel Shteir. Oxford University Press, 2004; $28.

FROM THE DUST JACKET: The fascinating, untold story of the history of undressing: over 50 years of taking it off. Striptease combined sexual display and parody, cool eros and wisecracking Bacchanalian humor. Striptease could be savage, patriotic, irreverent, vulgar, sophisticated, sentimental, and subversive -- sometimes, all at once. In this vital cultural history, Rachel Shteir traces the ribald art from its 19th-century vaudeville roots, through its long and controversial career, to its decline during the liberated 1960s. The book argues that striptease is an American form of popular entertainment -- maybe the most American form of popular entertainment. Based on exhaustive research and filled with rare photographs and period illustrations, Striptease re-creates the combustible mixture of license, independence, and sexual curiosity that allowed strippers to thrive for nearly a century. Shteir brings to life striptease's Golden Age, the years between the Jazz Age and the Sexual Revolution, when strippers performed around the country, in burlesque theatres, nightclubs, vaudeville houses, carnivals, fairs, and even in glorious palaces on the Great White Way. Taking us behind the scenes, Rachel Shteir introduces us to a diverse cast of characters that collided on the burlesque stage, from tight-laced political reformers and flamboyant impresarios, to drag queens, shimmy girls, cootch dancers, tit serenaders, and even girls next door, lured into the profession by big-city aspirations. Throughout the book, readers will find essential profiles of famed performers, including Gypsy Rose Lee, "The Literary Stripper"; Lili St. Cyr, the 1950s mistress of exotic striptease; and Blaze Starr, the "human heat wave," who literally set the stage on fire. Striptease is an insightful and entertaining portrait of an art form at once reviled and embraced by the American public. Blending careful research and vivid narration, Rachel Shteir captures striptease's combination of sham and seduction while illuminating its surprisingly persistent hold on the American imagination.

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