Page-turners: books for holiday giving

  • by Tavo Amador
  • Wednesday December 20, 2017
Share this Post:

Unsure what to get readers on your holiday gift lists? Following are suggestions that may help you find the right tome.

The blockbuster biography of the season is "Avedon: Something Personal" by Norma Stevens and Steven M.L. Aronson (Spiegel & G. Rau, $40). Richard Avedon (1923-2004) was the foremost fashion photographer of the second half of the 20th century. He earned record sums working for Vogue, but yearned to be taken seriously as an artist. He was so adept at making his subjects look superb that critics often felt he was dishonest. He wanted to be seen as a peer of Diane Arbus. That wasn't his only anxiety. Married twice to women and the father of a son, he was also attracted to men and admitted to close associate Stevens that he was gay. He claimed his reason for being closeted was that he didn't want to be known as "the gay photographer," but it's evident that he was deeply troubled by his sexuality. He told Stevens that he had an affair with director Mike Nichols. Nichols had spoken with Stevens, saying that people always asked him if Avedon was gay, but saying nothing about their affair. Avedon wanted Stevens to tell the truth about his life, and she has done so. This is a thoroughly researched and well-illustrated look at a gifted man and an era.

"God never made anything more beautiful than Ava Gardner," insisted Elizabeth Taylor. Kendra Bean and Anthony Uzarowski's "Ava: A Life in Movies" (Running Press, $30) makes a strong case for Taylor's assertion. Like Taylor, Gardner (1922-90) was a product of MGM. Gardner's break came in 1946's "The Killers," co-starring Burt Lancaster, a loose adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's story directed by Robert Siodmark. Within a few years she was being called "the world's most beautiful animal." In the right part she was effective, but as this lavishly illustrated volume shows, it was her green-eyed, dark-haired beauty that audiences noticed, and that kept her in front of the cameras for over 40 years. It's a must for fans of classic Hollywood.

In "A Place for Us: West Side Story and New York" (University of Chicago Press, $30), Julia L. Foulkes tells the story of the landmark 1957 Broadway and 1961 Hollywood musical, and ties it to Manhattan's intense urbanism at a time when the city was experiencing massive changes. The show was the creation of gay men: music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Arthur Laurents, direction and choreography by Jerome Robbins, and starring as the original Tony, Larry Kert. Bernstein, Sondheim, Laurents, and Robbins were also Jewish. Foulkes argues that their being Jews and homosexuals contributed to the show's depiction of Puerto Rican and white gang members as "outsiders." The title, a tune from the production, became the unofficial anthem for a generation of gay men.

"The Mistress of Paris" (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press, $27.99) is Catherine Hewitt's riveting biography of Comtesse Valtesse de la Bigne, the inspiration for Emile Zola's once-shocking novel "Nana," the rumored lover of Napoleon III and Edward VII, and the subject of a portrait by Edouard Manet. It turns out, however, that this society beauty was self-invented. She was born (1820) Emilie Delabigne, a peasant girl from Normandy. By the time of her death in 1910, she had succeeded in convincing the haute monde of her aristocratic heritage. Hewitt vividly recreates a life that seems almost fictional.

Paris is also the setting for Mark Pryor's "The Sorbonne Affair" (Seventh Street Books, $15.95), the newest Hugo Marston mystery. American author and teacher Helen Hancock is in the City of Light to conduct research and to teach a class at the famous university. When she discovers that her hotel room has been bugged, she contacts the U.S. Embassy. Former FBI profiler Marston is sent to investigate. Almost immediately, the hotel staffer who may have planted the bug is murdered. Then a video of Helen and one of her male students having unbridled sex explodes on the Internet. More corpses turn up as Marston and his pal, Lt. Camille Levens, work frantically to solve the case. Marston is an engaging and sympathetic hero. Pryor effectively captures Paris' glorious and dangerous ambiance.

The art world was recently stunned by the staggering amount an anonymous collector paid for a heavily restored Leonardo DaVinci portrait whose authenticity had been questioned by at least one expert. Irina Reyn's novel "The Imperial Wife" (Picador $16) reveals the reality behind the seemingly glamorous world of auction houses selling rarified objects to the super-rich. Her protagonist Tanya Kagan specializes in Russian art. Her parents, Russian Jews, emigrated to America when Tanya was still a child. She married Carl Vandermotter, a writer and teacher with a passion for all things Russian. He's a member of an old-line WASP family. A priceless medal given to Catherine the Great by the Empress Elisabeth, who arranged for the obscure German princess to marry her nephew and heir to the throne, is going to be auctioned. Tanya must use her connections with members of the Russian nouveau riche to make sure it sells for a record sum. But is it authentic? And if it's not? Meanwhile, Carl is writing a novel about the young Catherine. Reyn seamlessly weaves both stories together, conveying how an immigrant, no matter how assimilated, is often an outsider. She captures the feel of modern-day Manhattan, suburban New Jersey, where Tanya grew up, Monte Carlo, where the unimaginably rich Russians have their lavish villas, and the primitive world of 18th-century Saint Petersburg. It's a dazzling achievement.