Welcome to our weekly Books Digest where we round-up the new books you should, and shouldn’t, be reading. This week features To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara, The Oracle of Night: The History and the Science of Dreams by Sidarta Ribeiro and Georgia O’Keefe, Photographer by Lisa Volpe.
For more books take a look through our Books Digest Archive.
To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara (Pan Macmillan), £14.49.
Anyone who has read A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara’s last novel, will have found it a hard book to forget. The characters are subjected to unrelenting psychological and physical distress unlike anything else I have ever read. Enjoying A Little Life felt like sadism, and yet it was hard not to enjoy it (though I could never bear to read it again). Her latest novel, To Paradise, is thankfully less tortuous, though ultimately just as depressing. Made up of three stories, set in 1893, 1993 and 2093, the book explores three versions of America, questioning the meaning of paradise.
The first story, “Washington Square”, follows the life of an upper-class young man in an alternative New York where homosexuality is accepted, but the choice to love whomever one pleases is more complex than it seems. In the second (and dullest) story, “Lipo-Wao-Nahele”, a young Hawaiian man running away from his heritage and estranged father lives through the AIDS crisis with his much older and richer partner. And in the final utopian story, “Zone Eight”, the world is plagued by infectious diseases and controlled by a totalitarian state as a grandfather tries to protect his granddaughter from the dangerous world he helped to create.
At 701 pages, the book is unnecessarily heavy-going both in terms of length and storyline. A Little Life may have been distressing but To Paradise is disappointing, dull and confusing.
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Georgia O’Keefe, Photographer by Lisa Volpe (Yale University Press), £35.35.
A common misconception is that revered artist Georgia O’Keefe spent more time facing the camera than behind one. Renowned for her floral close-ups – such as Black Iris and Oriental Poppies – and landscape paintings – like Rust Red Hills and Pedernal Mountain – O’Keefe was famed for capturing America’s nature, an achievement that earned her the title of “Mother of American Modernism”. But up until now, her photography has gone largely unappreciated.
Georgia O’Keefe Photographer is the first major retrospective of O’Keefe’s photography, and it traces the artist’s thirty-year exploration of the medium, alongside a complete catalogue of her photographic work with essays from leading scholars. The book unravels the story of how the artist first trained alongside the photographer Todd Webb, before gaining the confidence to swap the canvas for the camera and revisit subjects she had immortalised in paintings years before. This unmissable exhibition and the accompanying catalogue are the commendable work of Lisa Volpe, Associate Curator of Photography at the Museum of the Fine Arts in Houston. Volpe sifted through hundreds of prints for the display and catalogue – mainly sourced from the Todd Webb Archive – and established dates and locations for more than four hundred images inventoried in the book.
Expect black, white and slickly silver photographs of O’Keefe’s of her Abiquiú studio and courtyard in New Mexico, natural stone arches in Hawaii, theatrical shots of the Chama River, and close-ups of bulging flowers. In all of these expressive photographs, O’Keefe uses contrasting patterns of light and shadow to explore the formal relationships between all the environmental elements. She valued line, shape, and texture rather than subject matter to be the fundamental pillars of composition and ones that helped her assess the elements of the world around her and explore their creative potential. Together, the essays and photographs make for an enrapturing snapshot into the portfolio of one of the most epoch-making artists of the twentieth century.
The Oracle of Night: The History and the Science of Dreams by Sidarta Ribeiro (Transworld Publishers Ltd), £15.45.
What are dreams? Why do we have them? And do they really mean anything? These questions form the basis of Sidarta Ribeiro’s investigation of dreams in his groundbreaking new book The Oracle of Night.
Whether it’s appearing naked in front of a room of classmates, running in circles from a dark and mysterious figure or flying sky-high, every one of us has tales to tell from the bizarre, unpredictable and powerful world of dreams. Ribeiro shines a light on this human experience of dreaming and charts its history. From ancient accounts of dreams drawn on cave walls to modern-day scientific analysis, Ribeiro not only explores the role that dreams play on an individual level and how they provide an insight into the human psyche, but he also analyses their influence on the wider world.
Ribeiro weaves together branches of neuroscience, biochemistry and psychology along with literature, religion and anthropology to create a map of our inner world. He suggests that dreams are not only a reflection of an individual’s “desires and fears”, but they can also be integral to understanding human evolution and existence. Captivating and informative, The Oracle of Night is a must-read for anyone curious about the phantasmagorial world of dreams.