Arts & Culture

Output: July/August 2024

H Is for Hope: Climate Change from A to Z
Elizabeth Kolbert ’83; Wesley Allsbrook, illustrator.
(Ten Speed Press, $24.99)
In the keystone of this collection of alphabetically arranged mini-essays, Kolbert invokes Roman naturalist and philosopher Pliny the Elder, who—some 2,000 years ago—is credited with saying, “Hope is the pillar that holds up the world.” Kolbert’s 26 articles, which are accompanied by stunning illustrations, work their way through the high and low points of our understanding of climate change. She begins with late-nineteenth-century Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius, who worked out the connection between carbon dioxide concentrations and climate shifts, and moves through to the Hoover Dam: “ground zero” for the sobering reality that “whatever we might want to believe about our future, there are limits, and we are up against them.”  

The Great Wave: The Era of Radical Disruption and the Rise of the Outsider Michiko Kakutani ’76
(Crown Publishing, $30)
We’ve all seen the iconic image of a huge wave that was created by the nineteenth-century Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai. Kakutani describes it as “looming over three small fishing boats like a huge, pouncing tiger.” But she’s not discussing art. The image, she says, is a visual metaphor for “the great wave of change breaking over today’s world [and] sweeping away old certainties and assumptions and creating an inflection point of both opportunity and danger.” In a short but brilliant book, she describes the way many humans have disrupted the global status quo for good and for ill, and how, in time, properly managed “hinge moments” could lead to “a healthier and more resilient democracy.”

Whisper Darkly: The Electro-Swing Musical
Andrew Gerle ’94

(TBIC Music Group, available on the major music streaming services)
Electro-swing, a music production style that’s been around since the 1990s, mixes early-twentieth-century jazz styles with late-twentieth-century dance rhythms and hip-hop ideas. Whisper Darkly bills itself as the first electro-swing musical, and takes the blend a step further by setting the story in a Depression-era New York nightclub. The show’s music and lyrics are by Gerle. Whisper Darkly’s plot (scripted by DJ Salisbury) concerns flappers, bootleggers, hoofers, jazz cats, and a few clueless rubes and bumpkins. This concept album, featuring bonafide Broadway talents such as Aléna Watters and Kayla Davion, is a fine advertisment for an eventual full “immersive” version of the musical, which has not yet had a live staging. Given all the peppy music styles that motivate it, Whisper Darkly has no excuse not to be relentlessly jaunty. It keeps you hopping and bopping right through the Depression. “Don’t worry if sinning don’t come easy,” we’re told. “Practice makes perfect.”

The Whole Staggering Mystery: A Story of Fathers Lost and Found
Sylvia Brownrigg ’86
(Counterpoint, $28)
Novelist Brownrigg’s biological dad Nick was a blue-jeaned, back-to-the-land northern Californian “who spoke like a would-be Beat writer and once got drunk with Kerouac and Cassady.” But in 2012 the author received a box marked “printed matter,” and found among its musty contents “a parcel wrapped in thick old ash-gray paper, with a hand-inked label that read, Sir Nicholas G. Brownrigg, Baronet.” The discovery that this “sixties holdover” merited a listing in Debrett’s Peerage prompted a lot of questions about the relationship between Nick and his father Gawen, who died young by suicide in Kenya. Brownrigg follows the leads toward an understanding of “the mysterious arc of my dad’s life.”  

Table for Two: Fictions
Amor Towles ’87
(Viking/Penguin Random House, $32)
Though he’s found success as a best-selling novelist, Towles’s talent as a short-story writer is on scintillating display in this collection of seven briefer narratives. Most are set in New York around 2000, but one is a deliciously noir novella that takes place in Los Angeles in the late 1930s—and revolves around imagined events which might have derailed the release of Gone with the Wind by tarnishing one of its stars, Olivia de Havilland. Fortunately, Evelyn Ross, the plucky heroine of Towles’s 2011 novel Rules of Civility, surfaces in Hollywood and works to prevent cinematic disaster.  

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