Fiction and nonfiction releases from Tayari Jones, David McCullough, Roy Blount, Bill James and Diana Henriques.
You may have noticed, over the last couple of weeks, that NPR's book pages have gotten a face-lift.
It's more than a face-lift, actually. It's pretty much a full Six Million Dollar Man makeover. The bones of those pages are titanium now. The technological muscles and sinews connecting them are stronger too.
So now our story pages can carry more information about the books and authors we cover — and they're interlinked more tightly. Our hope is that for you, that'll mean a much richer books-discovery experience here at NPR.org.
Ferinstance, check out Glen Weldon's Monkey See post about Supergods from earlier this week. Before this project, that handsome book cover would've just been ... well, a handsome book cover. Now it's a pointer to a new kind of page at NPR.org — a kind of "landing page" devoted entirely to a single book. It's designed to collect all our coverage of that book, past and present and future, and to do it more or less automatically.
Click on the book jacket at left for another example: the page for David McCullough's The Greater Journey. After you click through, scroll down a bit, and you'll see a couple of story headlines: Critic Maureen Corrigan recommended it to Fresh Air audiences as a great summer read, and on Weekend Edition Sunday, NPR's Susan Stamberg talked to McCullough about a painting that figures in the book — a gigantic canvas painted by telegraph inventor Samuel Morse.
That's two very different looks, from two very different NPR shows, at one book — now in one place for your perusal.
While you're looking at that landing page, check out the genre tags — the little blue squibs marked "nonfiction" and "history & society." They're clickable. Here's hoping you'll like what you find behind them. Those genre pages — all 25 of them, from "romance" to "literary fiction" to "comics & graphic novels" — represent a brand-new way of organizing NPR Books coverage.
And that's just the start. Our new book landing pages are connected to author pages, which collect NPR's reviews, interviews and features in a slightly different way. Plus we've redesigned the hubs for some of our signature books-recommendation series. We wanted to make it clearer which books are discussed in each essay. (Have a look at Three Books and My Guilty Pleasure and You Must Read This to see what I mean.)
We overhauled our Bestseller Lists, too. Nice, right? We hope they're easier to navigate — and that they'll help you find the NPR stories that'll help you find your next favorite read.
Last but definitely not least, there's a new NPR Books home page — and a new navigation scheme (see that black bar at the top?) to tie it all together.
It's all the result of 18 weeks of hard work on the part of NPR designers, coders, editors and librarians (wooooo, librarians!) — and many more months of planning and research. (If you're interested in a look backstage, I'll have a more detailed post about at that process soon on the Inside NPR blog.)
Some of you, in fact, may have participated in the audience research that helped us shape the new NPR Books. Whether you did or didn't, we hope you'll take some time now to explore the newly relaunched section. Click around, get a sense of how it's all connected, let us know what you like.
And tell us what else you'd like to see — because you know we're not going to stop here, right?
Beginning on Sunday, June 3, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., will exhibit Samuel Morse's painting Gallery of the Louvre. The American better known for inventing the telegraph and the communication code that bears his name, painted the large work — it's 6 feet tall and 9 feet wide — starting in 1831, while living in Paris.
David McCullough writes about Morse and his painting in his new book, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris. McCullough says Morse created the painting in order to show Europe's great works of art to Americans.
"There were no museums here, as yet, in the 1830s, and no color representations of paintings," McCullough tells NPR's Susan Stamberg. "So he was going to bring the culture of Europe — mainly the Renaissance Italian masterpieces in the Louvre collection — back to the United States for the benefit of his countrymen."
In Gallery of the Louvre, Morse shows a large red-colored room, its walls hung with more than three dozen works of art. McCullough says the works themselves were all on view at the Louvre, but not in the same room.
"He had to go through the entire collection of the Louvre, which was enormous, but well over a thousand paintings, and pick out those masterpieces which he thought merited the attention of his countrymen back home. So it's his pick of the Louvre masterpieces, and it includes most of the major Italian Renaissance painters. Titian and Leonardo da Vinci and Rembrandt to be sure, and others. He had to not only reduce them down to miniature size in the painting, but he had to capture the essence of their style and their genius."
At the very bottom of his painted textbook, Morse faithfully copies da Vinci's Mona Lisa.
"It was an extremely ambitious undertaking because many of the paintings that he was copying were hung very high up. And so he had to build a movable platform, or scaffold, that he wheeled about the galleries of the Louvre to reach his subjects. And he and the movable scaffold became a tourist attraction themselves," McCullough says with a laugh. "His ambition was very great and he felt strongly that this painting would make the mark, would make him known everywhere. And in a way, it did. It's certainly his masterpiece."
Today, in Paris and elsewhere, artists are still found in museum galleries, copying famous works. McCullough says the tradition of reproducing works stated in the 17th century and was often done for wealthy people who had very valuable private collections.
Morse was the first American to do such copying, but the painting itself shows just how common the practice was in Europe: Figures in his composite gallery paint reproductions of the work on the walls, just as Morse himself was doing.
"One of the things that impressed Americans — Winslow Homer did an illustration, a magazine illustration — [was] how many of the students were women, and that art was not closed off to women in France," McCullough says. "And that was considered to be quite a radical and welcome change. And of course Morse is showing that very clearly in his painting."
What he's not showing is also notable. McCullough says Morse didn't include the French Romantics of the time. No Delecroix or Gericault, he only shows classics from the Italian Renaissance.
The selection process alone must have taken weeks, McCullough says. And Morse was dedicated to the task.
"He came every day the museum was open. As soon as it opened he was in there at work, and he stayed as long as they would allow him. He was a determined man. And he had hoped this painting was going to make his career, but also get him out of debt," McCullough says. "He was going to put it on exhibit and charge admission fees. Well, it didn't work. The crowds did not come. And then he sold it for much, much less than he ever anticipated. But years later, in the 1980s, that painting sold for over $3 million, which was the largest sum ever paid — until then — the largest sum ever paid for an American work of art."
The painting was not the only contribution to culture that Morse brought to America. While he was working on Gallery of the Louvre, he was also contemplating another idea.
"He came back home from Paris [carrying] in effect two treasures. One was the painting. And the other was an idea he'd had because of something he'd seen while in France, and the idea was for the telegraph," McCullough says. "And when he got home he perfected the telegraph, and then he went back some years later to try and secure a French patent for the telegraph. And while he was there met [Louis] Daguerre who'd invented photography, or the daguerreotype as it was then known, and with Daguerre's permission, brought photography back to the United States. So he came home from Paris with three major contributions: the painting, the telegraph and the photography."
The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris
By David McCullough
Hardcover, 576 pages
Simon & Schuster
List Price: $37.50
Summer, when I was a kid, meant weekend road-trips in our family Rambler to sites of historical interest. We'd pack up deviled-ham sandwiches and Cokes and make pilgrimages from our apartment in Queens to Teddy Roosevelt's house on Long Island or Washington Irving's house in Westchester. Sometimes there were longer expeditions to Valley Forge and, once, Williamsburg. I'm not sure how much history I absorbed; I mostly remember a lot of candle-making demonstrations. But, forever after, summer, to me, has been the season for traveling back in time, either by hitting the road or, happily, hitting the books.
The Greater Journey: Americans In Paris
By David McCullough, hardcover, 576 pages, Simon & Schuster, list price: $37.50
David McCullough is about as dependable as they come if you're in the mood for a narrative history that sweeps you, through luscious detail and anecdote, into a bygone age. His beguiling new book is called The Greater Journey and it departs from works like 1776 and John Adams in that it digs deep, not into a historical event or personage, but, rather, into a cultural trend. Between 1830 and 1900, scores of young Americans with ambitions to be painters, architects, doctors and scientists sailed to the Old World to soak up the education the New World couldn't offer.
Or, as McCullough puts it: "Not all pioneers went west." Specifically they traveled to Paris. Some, like Mary Cassatt and Oliver Wendell Holmes, are familiar names; others, like the educator Emma Willard and Mary Putnam — the first American woman to graduate from a French medical school — are revelations. McCullough evokes a vision of early 19th-century Paris crowded with restaurants and gambling houses, but his greatest achievement is the realization he gives readers of how new America still was back then, sans medical schools and serious art academies. He writes of American travelers in the 1830s seeing their first glimpse of the medieval cathedral at Rouen. The Americans were agog, McCullough notes, because:
The largest building in the United States at the time was the Capitol in Washington. ... Even the most venerable houses and churches at home ... dated back only to the mid-17th century. So historic a landmark as Philadelphia's Independence Hall was not yet a hundred years old.
The Final Storm: A Novel Of The War In The Pacific
By Jeff Shaara, paperback, 480 pages, Ballantine Books, list price: $28
McCullough's book is essentially about building civilization; Jeff Shaara's novel, The Final Storm, is about destruction on an almost unfathomable scale. The Final Storm chronicles the Pacific campaign during World War II; it's the fourth in Shaara's series about the war and works both as a standalone novel and as the conclusion to that series. There are no post-modern literary tricks here; instead, Shaara is a master — in the Herman Wouk, Kenneth Roberts mode — of the kind of character-driven, plot-heavy page-turner that most of us think of when we think "historical novel."
In his introduction, Shaara reminds us of some of the staggering numbers of the Pacific Campaign: the two-week assault on Saipan resulted in 14,000 American deaths; Iwo Jima, 26,000 American casualties and only 300 Japanese prisoners taken alive out of the 20,000 defending the island. The Final Storm is a vivid literary addition to films like Letters from Iwo Jima and Flags of Our Fathers — all of which underscore the peculiar brutalities and sometimes under-recognized sacrifices of the War in the Pacific.
Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education Of Two Society Girls In The West
By Dorothy Wickenden, hardcover, 304 pages, Simon & Schuster Adult, list price: $26, pub. date: June 21
My last recommendation is a potentially annoying one because readers will have to sit tight for a couple of weeks before they get their hands on Dorothy Wickenden's "alternative Western" called Nothing Daunted. But, I promise you, it's worth the wait. Wickenden, who is the executive editor of The New Yorker magazine, has written a superb biography that charts the adventures of her grandmother and her grandmother's best friend — society girls and Smith College graduates — who, in the summer of 1916, set out to become schoolteachers in the isolated settlement of Elkhead, Colo. Relying on photographs and letters that the women sent back to their anxious parents in Auburn, N.Y., Wickenden summons up the last moments of frontier life, where books were a luxury and, when blizzards hit, homesteader's children would ski miles to school on curved barrel staves. David McCullough may tell us that "Not all pioneers went west," but some unlikely ones sure did, and Nothing Daunted also reminds us that different strains of courage can be found, not just on the battlefield, but on the home front, too.