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11.28.07

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Do the Right Thing

Give a book that matters this season

By Michael S. Gant


SOME DAY, books as we know them—printed, bound, shaped conveniently like bricks—will no longer be available as gifts, except to cranky bibliophiles dedicated to keeping the old ways alive, like the rebel reciters in Fahrenheit 451. Instead, we will gather round the designated winter-solstice symbol and hand out URLs, so that loved ones and friends can download the latest mysteries, fantasy epics and celebrity tell-alls to their glow-in-the-dark wireless E-book readers.

The process is already under way, thanks to Google Book Search. Not that everyone thinks that's necessarily a good idea. For one thing, the process lacks transparency, a point that French national librarian Jean-NoŽl Jeanneney makes forcefully in Google and the Myth of Universal Knowledge: A View From Europe (University of Chicago Press; $11 paper)—at 92 pages, it's just the right size for a bibliophile's stocking.

Europeans, Jeanneney argues, worry that Google's exclusivity deal sets a dangerous precedent by "conferring a public property to a private organization." But that's Europeans for you—they just won't get with the marketplace regimen. First, it's socialized medicine, then it's socialized book-scanning. Only Rudy Giuliani can stop them.


Eco-Chamber

Meanwhile, Google or no Google, there is still no better gift than a book. At this time of year, the title alone recommends Bill Clinton's Giving (Knopf; $24.95 cloth), in which the presumptive First Guy offers salutary lessons in how anybody (not just Bill Gates and Warren Buffett) can make a difference with networked charity, like microloans, that can reach people in need directly.

Speaking of Bill, someone else in his administration just won the Nobel Peace Prize, which suggests some excellent new books about the environment as presents.

Earth Under Fire: How Global Warming Is Changing the World (UC Press; $34.95 cloth) chronicles the journey of photojournalist Gary Braasch as he captures images of a planet on the brink of environmental catastrophe. From Denali National Park in Alaska to Queropalca, Peru, Braasch's photographs show the retreat of glaciers and the advance of deserts.

I know it is anthropomorphism, but the lone hungry polar bear in a melting northern landscape looks mightily annoyed at what we've done to his eco-niche. Earth Under Fire also features Braasch's sobering text, based on his visits with climate-change scientists supplemented with essays by researchers in a variety of disciplines. All in all, it is a good corrective to Bjorn Lomborg's pernicious Cool It, the new bible of the right-wing flat Earthers.

Trees of the California Landscape (UC Press; $60 cloth) by Charles R. Hatch is an exceptional reference book that discusses in detail all of California's native and ornamental trees with photos of species in full foliage and close-ups of bark and leaves. In addition to serving as an identification guide, the book also dispenses invaluable advice for cultivating trees in the urban and backyard landscape—and enhances our appreciation for the importance of nurturing the natural world while we can.

More practically, busy activist-author Bill McKibben (who wrote the afterword to Earth Under Fire) supplies useful information for raising awareness about climate change in Fight Global Warming Now: The Handbook for Taking Action in Your Community (Henry Holt and Company; $13 paper). Written committee-style with the Step It Up Team (see Stepitup2007.org), the book tells how to convince individuals and the powers that be to cut carbon admissions. McKibben's tips ranges from hyperlocal quick fixes (put in compact fluorescent bulbs at home) to public protests—refreshingly, the book counsels creativity and a sense of humor.


Into the Gap

Last year saw a surge in the number of books dissecting our misadventure in Iraq. This year, left-leaning pundits have taken aim at the home-front economic and governing failures of the Bush administration. The results aren't pretty reading (you'll wake up screaming if you get any sleep at all), but sometimes duty calls, even at the holidays.

In The Conscience of a Liberal (Norton; $25.95 cloth), New York Times columnist Paul Krugman explains why the ultrarich enjoy a new Gilded Age, while the rest of us subsist on stagnating real wages. The right people probably won't read this, but if you have a choir to preach to, Krugman delivers the progressive message with conviction and concision.

In Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy (Little, Brown; $25.99 cloth), Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter Charlie Savage tells the hair-raising tale of how the Republicans have managed to turn the three equal branches of government into one 900-pound presidential gorilla who has packed the Supreme Court and expects Congress to buy the dubious legal notion of the unitary executive. The sordid process includes disregard for treaties, massive secrecy and signing statements that allow the president to ignore laws he doesn't like.

For someone with a long memory, try Broken Government: How Republican Rule Destroyed the Legislative, Executive and Judicial Branches (Viking; $25.95 cloth) by John W. Dean, who seconds the opinion of many that "Bush and Cheney represent the worst example ever of the American presidency." Since Dean was the White House legal counsel to Tricky Dick Nixon himself, he ought to know. Sadly, for us, way back when, Dick Cheney learned all the wrong lessons from the Watergate scandal.

Art for Art's Sake

Buying large, heavily illustrated, slick-paper art books seems decadent at any other time of the year, but the holidays allow for some indulgences. Consider them good for the soul.

Two new books prove that movies can look as good on the page as they sometimes do on the big screen. Now Playing: Hand-Painted Poster Art from the 1910s Through the 1950s by Anthony Slide, with Jane Burman Powell and Lori Goldman Berthelsen (Angel City Press; $50 cloth), reveals a seemingly lost world. For decades, many theaters commissioned one-of-a-kind artist posters. Only now, through some diligent research, have these rare treasures been brought back to light.

Some artists enhanced studio publicity shots with a painterly style; others detoured into bold graphic realms, emphasizing what the individual theaters thought would sell, rather than what the distributors told them was important. Hence Batiste Madalena's poster for 1927's Hotel Imperial concentrates on a stunning art deco portrait of Pola Negri, eliminating the names of her co-stars and directors, and even the name of the studio. Another poster by Madalena (who needs to be folded into the pantheon of 20th-century graphic greats), for 1924's Yolanda, goes the other direction by planting a tiny costumed figure against a black background with Marion Davies' name in dominating type.

The images are reproduced at a generous size and evoke a bygone era of glamour. Who wouldn't want a time machine in order to see The Woman God Changed, a 1921 barn-burner; in Ike Checketts' poster, star Seena Owen looks like she stepped out of a Klimt painting.

Sadly, much of silent-film history is simply lost, since so many prints were neglected, discarded and destroyed (or disintegrated on their own, thanks to nitrate stock). Silent Movies: The Birth of Film and the Triumph of Movie Culture by Peter Kobel (Little, Brown and Company; $45 cloth) gives a wondrous glimpse at what we've been missing all these years since sound.

Drawing on the holdings of the Library of Congress, the book charts the silent era, from the early technical developments like the Electrotachyscope to the first studios, stars and directors. Kobel provides a solid overview of the period, but the pictures really tell the story. A pensive photo portrait of a half-clad Louise Brooks in her trademark flapper bob captures some of her still-fresh sensuality. A still from Cecil B. DeMille's The King of Kings is so full of perfectly posed costumed extras that it looks like one of Jeff Wall's elaborately staged panorama photographs.

Proving that Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton aren't the first stars to get into trouble, a poster touts a forgotten feature called The Speed Girl, based on star Bebe Daniels many run-ins with traffic cops. Most intriguing of all is an image of a girl prisoner adjusting her stockings from DeMille's juvie epic The Godless Girl, in which "a high school riot between Christians and atheists lands the leaders of the two groups in a state reformatory." At last, a movie that even Christopher Hitchens could love.

(And in silents news: On Dec. 1 at the Silent Film Festival at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, Anthony Slide will sign copies of Now Playing, and Christel Schmidt, one of the editors of Silent Movies will appear. See page 75 for details.)


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