Books too smart to leave on the coffee table
THE ANCIENT CITY: LIFE IN CLASSICAL ATHENS & ROME
By Peter Connolly,
with Hazel Dodge
Oxford University Press
256 pp., $29.95
THE PUBLIC AND PRIVATE WORLDS OF ELIZABETH I
By Susan Watkins
Photographs by Mark Fiennes
Thames & Hudson
208 pp., $40
WILD SOUTH AFRICA
By Alan Mountain
Photographs by Lex Hes
The MIT Press
208 pp., $40
THE STORY OF OPERA
By Richard Somerset-Ward
304 pp., $49.50
MAXFIELD PARRISH VIGNETTES
By Michael J. Goldberg
Four volumes, $39.95
Queen Elizabeth came from a dysfunctional family, to say the least. Her wily, wildly unpredictable father ordered her mother to be executed. The motherless girl grew up in perilous times, in a court rife with intrigue. As a young woman, she herself was a prisoner in the Tower. But she went on to become one of the most illustrious, powerful, brilliant, and beloved of England's monarchs.
The story of Elizabeth Tudor's girlhood and ascension to the throne is as dramatic a subject as any novelist might invent. As queen, her acute intelligence and political acumen demonstrated she was more than the equal of any king. As if this were not enough, she also had a superb sense of how to present herself, to establish her image in the public eye, whether as the stalwart warrior who defeated the Spanish Armada, the bountiful and splendid "Gloriana," or the spotless "Virgin Queen."
It is, in particular, this self-presentation of the monarch nicknamed "Good Queen Bess" that is the main focus of Susan Watkins's The Public and Private Worlds of Elizabeth I. This is not to say that Watkins neglects to recount the personal and political aspects of Elizabeth's colorful and impressive life. Lavishly illustrated with portraits of Elizabeth and color photographs of some of her personal belongings, and of the palaces, castles, country houses, and gardens dating from the age that bears her name, this book shows the importance of public display and iconography in the queen's successful reign. The narrative may be a bit breathless and gushing for some tastes, but the story she tells is an enthralling one.
From the sands of the Kalahari Desert to the folded mountains of the southwestern Cape, to Kruger National Park, to the Wild Coast of cliffs and sandy beaches on the Indian Ocean, South Africa is home to a remarkable range of geological splendors. Wild South Africa includes all this and an extraordinary variety of plant and animal species: not only elephants, lions, hippos, and baboons, but ostriches, flamingos, seals, springbok, and countless birds, turtles, lizards, shellfish, insects, and many unusual and exquisite species of flowers, shrubs, and trees.
The book not only features hundreds of gorgeous photographs by Lex Hes, but also an insightful and well-organized survey of its subject by Alan Mountain. The first part looks at geography, climate, people, plants, animals, and insect life, and the challenge facing conservationists. This informative survey is followed by five focus sections, each providing a closer look at a particular region, with special attention to the national parks and wildlife preserves. It is a beautiful book for anyone who loves wildlife, and a thoughtful gift for someone planning to visit South Africa.
How did the ancient Athenians manage to build their impressive temples? What kinds of conveniences did Roman housewives enjoy in their kitchens? Peter Connolly's The Ancient City offers a fascinating, close-up picture of what daily life was like for the inhabitants of the two most celebrated cities of the Western Classical Age.
Private houses, public spaces, city streets, shops, restaurants, Greek temples, Roman baths, clothing, hairdos, utensils, customs, beliefs, manners, and mores are among the many areas that Connolly covers. Not only do we learn about striking architectural and technological achievements, such as the magnificent Parthenon of Athens and the famous Roman aqueducts, but Connolly also discusses aspects of Athenian democracy, the concept of citizenship, the evolution of legal codes, courts, and juries. The text is lucid, succinct, easy-to-follow, and the hundreds of illustrations - photographs, maps, drawings, and diagrams - are attractive and very much to the point.
The slip-cased set of Maxfield Parrish
Vignettes, by Michael J. Goldberg, is compact enough (4-1/2 by 6 inches) to fit into a Christmas stocking, but large enough to provide an attractive and colorful selection of the work of one of America's most famous commercial artists and illustrators.
Like Norman Rockwell, who came after him, Parrish achieved immense success doing everything from calendars to magazine covers. But while Rockwell specialized in realistic, if nostalgic, depictions of ordinary folks engaged in ordinary daily activities, like sweeping a front porch or sitting down to dinner, Parrish's pictures evoked a gorgeous fantasy world, where beautiful maidens gazed up at starry skies or cavorted in magical-looking woodlands, fields, and gardens. In the early decades of this century, popular magazines like Collier's, Life, and The Ladies' Home Journal often featured covers by Parrish. His pictures adorned the advertisements of the age; the lids of candy-boxes featured his dreamy landscapes. He was also in demand as an illustrator of books, particularly those containing legends, fairy-tales, or verse. And he was famous for his prints - at the time, a newly developed form that enabled the person to buy inexpensively reproduced pictures. This charming little set, described by the publisher as a limited edition of 7,500, contains four volumes, each with 30 full-color plates: "The Art Prints," "The Book Illustrations," "The Magazine Covers," "The Advertisements."
Despite its highbrow image, not to mention its more serious drawback, the high price of admission tickets, opera is a form of entertainment that should appeal to a wide range of people. Intensely dramatic or engagingly comic, its exciting blend of words and music, enhanced by costume and set design, offers audiences a total-immersion theatrical experience. Most of all, it's the music and the dazzling sound of the human voice expressing emotion in song that ensures its enduring popularity.
Richard Somerset-Ward's colorful, informative, and sumptuous guide, The Story of Opera, presents the 400-year history of this evolving art form in a lively, knowledgeable fashion that should appeal to aficionados and neophytes alike.
Somerset-Ward fills us in on opera in all its multifarious manifestations, from its origins in the last years of the Italian Renaissance to some of its most recent manifestations in the current decade, including Spanish zarzuela, the comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan, the popular operas of Brecht and Weill, or the creations of the American musical theater, such as "Show Boat" and "West Side Story." The illustrations are nicely balanced, featuring dramatic photographs of current singers and productions as well as intriguing photographs and pictures drawn from the archives of opera's rich history.
* Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.