As per family tradition the youngest generation gave out their gifts today, on Christmas Eve. Since I work at a book store, it’s hard not to give everyone books. So, once again, that’s what they got. My grandmother is a prodigious reader, and I owe much of my literary affinity to her. She instilled in me her depression-era view of books as the perfect escape into other worlds, and she divides the world into two categories: readers and non-readers, and she quite simply does not understand the latter group. I decided it would be fitting to introduce her to the latest Nobel Laureate, J.M. Coetzee. She was aware of him but had not read any of his books, so I gave her what is by most accounts his greatest book: Waiting for the Barbarians. My mother is an art teacher with a vast library of art books that I enjoy adding volumes to. One of her favorite museums is the Hirshhorn Gallery, which is located on the mall in downtown Washington, DC, and when I was doing my shopping, I found a really good-looking book about the museum and its solid modern collection called Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden: 150 Works of Art. My father, a big fan of presidential politics, received The White House Tapes, a nine cd set of illuminating recordings of our presidents over the last fifty years. It also includes commentary and a radio documentary that ties the whole thing together. I gave my 24-year-old sister a novel called Dirt Music by an Australian writer named Tim Winton. I read it when it first came out and really liked it, and I know my sister loves well-crafted plot-driven novels, so it seemed like a good fit. I gave my 21-year-old brother Jarhead, Anthony Swofford’s irreverent and enlightening memoir of the First Gulf War, which I guess is now that war’s official title. (aside: it’s interesting that wars first must receive temporary names, and then years or decades later when history has fully played itself out, a war receives its “official” name for the history books, and yet when a war is going on, there is no suggestion that it will one day be viewed in a larger historical context, perhaps spanning decades.) I gave my 20-year-old sister, who has lately become very interested in the latest and hottest contemporary fiction, White Teeth by Zadie Smith, which has fast become an “essential” member of this genre. My 20 and 16-year-old brothers both received Schott’s Original Miscellany. At first, they seemed perplexed by the stark little white tome, but before long they were unable to pull themselves away from such tidbits as “The Deaths of Some Burmese Kings” and “Some Shakespearean Insults.” I was pleased to receive some excellent items as well, including John Keegan’s The First World War, and the unbelievable new Looney Tunes – The Golden Collection, from which I have already derived much enjoyment. I hope everyone is enjoying the holiday.Brief Programming NoteYou have probably noticed the modest redesign of the site. This was done mostly because I was bored, but I sincerely hope you will let me know if it is taking away from your enjoyment of The Millions. You have probably also noticed the Amazon category links to the left. This is so you can cut through the noise of Amazon’s main page and get to a book you might be looking for more quickly. I have also added the Reading Queue so that everyone will have a good idea of what is on my plate should you feel like reading along at home.
Several years ago, before I even thought of moving to Los Angeles, my mother, on a whim, bought an Ed Ruscha book for me. I grew up in an art friendly house with frequent trips to galleries and museums, and in college I took a modern art history class and spent a day going to art galleries whenever I went to New York, yet I had barely ever heard of Ruscha. Nonetheless, I found his paintings intriguing. They have always seemed like disembodied signs coming from some void. Then I moved to Los Angeles and saw how this town is like a graveyard for signs and billboards and advertising and words. In certain neighborhoods, there are decaying signs everywhere you look. Some are still in use; others sit forlornly atop buildings advertising some long lost place. I think there is enough room in Los Angeles to not have to go the trouble of taking these signs down and replacing them. In this vast and flat landscape you can just put up a new sign and leave the old one up for decoration. Ruscha (pronounced roo-SHAY) celebrates and pays homage to this living graveyard of a city, and from what I understand, his reputation has blossomed of late as he has shed the limiting mantle of West Coast Artist. A new book, the first ever monograph of his work, has come out recently. It is a beautiful book and it represents an elevation of the stature of this deserving artist. Here are 13 pages of art by Ed Ruscha.I love reading about the behind the scenes machinations of politics and government. There are so many events of global significance that are swayed or even caused by the actions and words of the two or three most powerful men in the world at any time. The idea that most of our recent Presidents have taped their behind-closed-doors conversations is almost too good to be true for anyone interested in the inner workings of American power politics, and a collection of these tapes has come out. The White House Tapes: Eavesdropping on the President is a nine CD and book set that includes the taped conversations of every president from FDR to Reagan (excluding Carter). It chronicles some of he country’s worst moments (Nixon’s “Smoking Gun” tapes) and some of our best (Truman hashing out the Marshall Plan). The ninth CD is a companion documentary produced by American Radio Works. There are many amazing and readable books about history out there, but it’s not every day that you come across such compelling and significant source material.