"American Bloomsbury" by Susan Cheever (Harvest Books, $26)
Cheever painstakingly paints a portrait of 1850s Concord, Mass., and the literati who put New England on the map as the birthplace of American literature and the transcendentalist movement. Full of interesting and often tragic anecdotes and insights, Cheever's research uncovers much from letters and other biographical accounts.
At the center of it all is Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose inherited fortune allowed him to create a place of intellectual companionship in an idyllic landscape. The writers literally depended on Emerson he paid Bronson Alcott's rent, supported Henry David Thoreau and invited Nathaniel Hawthorne to be part of the Concord community. Thoreau was not simply a noble Walden Pond-dwelling environmentalist; he was self-righteous, reclusive and extremely dependent on Emerson.
Hawthorne was self-centered and calculating, dependent on the generosity of others, be it President Franklin Pierce or Herman Melville. Louisa May Alcott's success with "Little Women" was bittersweet, her adulthood spent carrying her family's financial burden, while her father lived only for his intellectual principles. Also of interest is Cheever's focus on the dynamic Margaret Fuller, an editor and foreign correspondent who shared an "intense friendship" with Hawthorne and Emerson she was Hawthorne's inspiration for "The Scarlet Letter."
Ultimately, this idealistic utopia implodes, the writers still bound by social conventions and their own character flaws, despite the spirit of their leftist philosophies. In attempting to chronologically detail all of the intertwining events, Cheever bites off more than she can chew. Important connections are made between people and places, but the narrative gallops too quickly from one subject to another, never gaining a coherent momentum. Cheever provides interesting sketches of social and literary life in Concord in the mid-1800s, but not much more. Shannon O'Neill
"GV6 The Odyssey" (DVD) by Bob Bryan (Graffiti Verité, $24.50)
Filmmaker Bob Bryan has put together a collection of interviews, recitations, idiotic graphics and "wise words of encouragement" from 31 obscure poets on a DVD entitled "GV6 The Odyssey." Like horrifying Christian zealots and "American Idol" contestants, poets of this ilk are convinced that they need to proselytize the benefits of having the gift, the jingle, the passion or whatever one might call it, and they are compelled to bring that message to the masses much the same way Prometheus brought fire to the world.
The problem is, no one really needs it. Being a contemporary American poet is much like being a baseball fan in England. I couldn't think of a single audience who might find this film helpful, though it does have mockumentary potential. In fact, there were times when I wasn't sure if it was meant to be taken seriously. For instance, poet Askew used the phrase "fortress of solitude." Another, Aleida Rodriguez, cried when reading her rather plain work. And Johnny Masuda, with pro-wrestler bravado, looked into the camera and said he was going to kick my "f ing ass." (Yes, they bleeped out most expletives, making an ironic argument for censorship.)
The objective of the film is to show "the complex face of poetry," and in that it succeeds. There are a few interesting readers Jennifer Tseng and especially Kamau Daaood but it is obvious that these people do all their talking on the page. On the whole, "GV6 The Odyssey" should not rival the works of Shel Silverstein for this year's American schoolhouse poetry shootout. And it's too bad, because I despise Shel Silverstein. Darren Morris
"Reflections of a Purple Zebra: Essays of a Different Stripe" by Nancy Wright Beasley (Tandem, $19.95)
In her new book, Richmond writer Nancy Wright Beasley ponders the ups and downs of life in a collection of 60 essays from the monthly columns that she's contributed to Richmond Magazine since 1988. While Beasley sometimes writes about world events such as 9/11, issues such as domestic violence, and profiles of local people she encounters, her main topic is her own life. She returns many times to her grief over her husband's death, the challenges of caring for seriously ill parents, her experiences as a parent and her struggles to survive and succeed as a freelance writer.
Some of Beasley's essays shine. She tells of an encounter with an injured eagle on the side of the highway in unvarnished language that lets the power of the experience and its impact on her grief over the loss of her husband stun the reader. However, in most of the essays, Beasley favors a cute, folksy tone that wears thin. She also tends to become bogged down in the minutiae of her own comings and goings, which adds nothing of interest to her writing and distracts the reader from the topics at hand.
When Beasley sticks to plain language and compelling subjects, her essays hit the high standard she set in her 2005 book, "Izzy's Fire: Finding Humanity in the Holocaust," which earned her a People's Choice nomination by the James River Writers. Unfortunately, those essays are in the minority here. Mary Mullins
"The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World" by Kati Marton (Simon & Schuster, $27)
"The Great Escape" analyzes the achievements of nine men who helped shape the modern world. All were geniuses; all were Hungarian Jews born during a brief golden age in Budapest; all were tortured by the isolation and loneliness of their subsequent exile and disillusionment; and all rose to the highest levels in their respective fields.
One was dubbed the world's greatest war photographer, marshalling anti-fascist sentiment; one created "the most popular romantic film of all time," "Casablanca," based on Budapest's flamboyant golden age; four were mathematicians and physicists who helped develop the atomic and hydrogen bombs; and one was the brilliant author of "Darkness at Noon."
An exiled Hungarian Jew of the next generation, Marton has a unique perspective on the forces shaping and motivating these brilliant men as she deftly ushers the reader into their worlds. Claiming from her insider's vantage that it is the very pain they endured as secular Jews and exiled Hungarians that largely accounts for their monumental achievements, she quotes from the movie "The Third Man":
"In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed. They produced Michelangelo, Leonardo, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy, and they produced the cuckoo clock."
With 15 pages of notes, a 10-page bibliography, a 13-page index, and more than 10 pages of photos, and written in the author's second language, this volume is itself an extraordinary achievement. Jennifer Yane S
BookmarkVCU Comics on collectica.com
Not everyone knows that VCU boasts one of the most thorough collections of comic art and memorabilia in the United States, with more than 100,000 categorized items in its archives. Started in the 1970's thanks to a large donation of comics by editorial cartoonists Fred Seibel and Bill Sykes, the collection has been greatly augmented by VCU professor Tom Dehaven, author of "It's Superman!" Now anyone interested in learning more about VCU's collection can do so in virtual time, just by following the library link on collectica.com. The first of its kind, the site was launched by graduate students from the business school at the University of Chicago in September. Expressly designed by collectors for collectors, it also sells coins, stamps, memorabilia, dolls, antiques, vinyl and automobiles. Jay Leno is featured with some of his infamous 200 cars, alongside a group of female video players called the Frag Dolls, men's vintage clothing and rare Indian coins from 400 A.D. The VCU comics collection is impressive and fun, but just look, don't touch; it's not for sale. Valley Haggard