Bruce Barnbaum’s ‘Tone Poems’ – Beautiful photographs, with music – #bookreview

Bruce Barnbaum is a superb black-and-white photographer, and Rocky Nook, Inc., recently has brought forth new editions of two of his beautifully crafted image collections.

Styled as part of a four-volume series, these two coffee-table books should appeal to almost anyone who loves good visual images and good music and appreciates opportunities to enjoy them together.

The two books, originally published by Photographic Arts Editions, are:

Tone Poems – Book 1, Opuses 1, 2 & 3
Bruce Barnbaum
(Rocky Nook, hardback)

Tone Poems – Book 2, Opuses 4, 5 & 6
Bruce Barnbaum
(Rocky Nook, hardback)

“It was the land, specifically the magnificent landscape of the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, that initially drew me into photography,” Barnbaum writes, in a Tone Poems chapter titled “Opus 3, Lyricism of the Land.” Almost 40 years later, he is “still drawn to that landscape, but filled with ideas about photography—and about the land—that I never dreamed of having back in my younger days.” Barnbaum also is drawn to the landscapes of many other parts of the world and is keenly aware of their frailties, as well as the increasing threats that human activity and commercial development pose to their natural beauty.

Why two photography books that also have commentary about the compositions and CDs of music intended to be played as accompaniment to the stunning images?

“Sometimes, even the combination of words and pictures are insufficient to adequately convey my feelings,” Barnbaum notes. “Music, added to the mix, helps convey it much more strongly.”

The CDs included with these books feature selections of classical music played by noted pianist Judith Cohen, artistic director of the Governor’s Chamber Music Series in the state of Washington.

“The music and the images are meant to celebrate the life, the light and the poetic lyricism of the land,” Barnbaum emphasizes.

The two books succeed in reaching these lofty goals.

— Si Dunn

The Silver Lotus – fine historical fiction by Thomas Steinbeck – #bookreview

The Silver Lotus
By Thomas Steinbeck
(Counterpoint, hardback, list price $25.00; Kindle, $9.99)

Written in the style and language of a 19th-century novel, The Silver Lotus is a grand, sweeping, absorbing tale of Pacific seafaring, romance, family, and business and cultural interactions that ultimately help spur the growth and development of the Northern California coast.

This elegant work of historical fiction has surprisingly little dialogue. Its author, Thomas Steinbeck, son of the great novelist John Steinbeck, relies, instead, on heavy doses of exposition. Yet The Silver Lotus remains an engrossing, well-written story throughout. And it is a refreshing change from books full of fast and furious action and characters who engage in taut exchanges of clever words, while revealing little about their feelings, emotions or sense of place.

Thomas Steinbeck’s novel begins in Canton, China, the late 1890s, in the home of Master Chu-Woo Yee, a man of “high moral principles.” He also is a successful grain merchant with profitable experience in “a great many [other] varieties of exported and imported goods.”

Master Yee allows very few foreigners into his home. But one of them fascinates and intrigues him: Captain Jeremiah Macy Hammond, “one of the last of a long line of the great Nantucket seamen.”

Steamships now have begun to dominate cross-ocean trade. Yet Captain Hammond continues to transport his cargoes under sail, for a very practical reason: profit. He has amassed a small fleet of schooners that can carry large cargoes while sailing inexpensively with only a few crewmen.

When political turmoil suddenly erupts in China, Captain Hammond uses two of his ships to help to move Master Yee, his family, and the Yee fortune to safety in Singapore. Soon, Captain Hammond and Master Yee’s beloved daughter, Silver Lotus, are in love, and Master Yee is in no position to refuse their marriage.

Lady Yee, as Silver Lotus is known, is a remarkable woman with many talents and interests, as well as uncommon beauty. Before their marriage, she informs Captain Hammond that if he chooses to go back to sea, she will “sail with him, and make her life and home by his side.”

In her honor, Captain Hammond repaints his newest ship his wife’s favorite colors, emerald green with yellow trim outlined in black, and rechristens it “The Silver Lotus.” And Lady Yee proves very adept at living at sea beside her husband. She takes “total interest in everything to do with her namesake, her crew, and her cargo.”

Despite its calm narrative and languid pace, Steinbeck’s book has plenty of action and tensions. There are encounters with pirates, sea storms, illnesses, racism, drug abuse, great wealth, and death. There also are dangerous rescues and glimpses into the intricacies and risks of seafaring commerce, as well as clashes over medical and immigration practices in early 20th-century California.

At one level, The Silver Lotus is simply old-fashioned, entertaining historical fiction, enjoyable to read. On another level, however, Thomas Steinbeck’s second novel is a modern, intelligent reflection on how the melding of cultures, talents, dreams and resources has been a driving force behind the growth and prosperity of Northern California, as well as the rest of the United States.

Si Dunn

The Book of Books: The Radical Impact of the King James Bible, 1611-2011 – #bookreview

The Book of Books: The Radical Impact of the King James Bible, 1611-2011
By Melvyn Bragg
(Counterpoint Press, $28.00 hardback; $20.00 Kindle)

As a child, I liked and respected the King James Bible. But I hated religion. I had been born into a “Christian” demonination that tried incessantly to pound hellfire, damnation and, sadly, white supremacy, into my young head. And it used the King James Version as its grim hammer.

Some of my less-educated relatives, in fact, believed not only that the King James Version was the literal Word of God but that it had come directly from God, Abraham, Moses and Jesus, as well as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — in English.

Once I turned 18 and moved away, I abandoned that denomination quickly. But I took a King James Bible with me. And, 50 years later, I still keep one close by and sometimes refer to it — not always as a writer’s reference.

Melvyn Bragg’s The Book of Books is a magnificent work of religious and historical scholarship, adroitly timed to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible’s first publication in 1611. His book is eye-opening, entertaining reading and full of surprises as he pulls together startling examples of the King James Bible’s powerful and pervasive reach within English and American culture. 

 “You may be a Christian. You may  be anti-Christian, or of any other religion, nor none. You may be an athiest fundamentalist and think the Bible is monstrous, a book to be dismissed or derided,” Bragg writes. “But whoever you are in the English-speaking world, I hope to persuade you to consider that the King James Bible has driven the making of that world over the last 400 years, often in the most unanticipated ways.”

His 370-page book smoothly covers an amazing amount of religious, historical, political and cultural ground, both in England and the United States. And he makes the compelling case that America owes much of its language, government, literature and national values to the King James Bibles that accompanied the early colonists and settlers to the New World. 

“There has never been a book to match it,” Bragg states. “It has a fair claim to be the most pivotal book ever written, a claim made by poets and statesmen and supported by tens of millions of readers and congregations.” In his view, “everyone. even athiests, has benefited from many of its unexpected consequences.”

Not all of its consequences have been good, of course. “It was the consolidating voice of two world empires [Great Britain and the United States]. It unleashed and motivated philanthropic movements of a size and effectiveness which bettered the lives of ordinary people throughout the English-speaking world.” But it likewise encouraged a “ferocious sense of mission” that “transformed and sometimes destroyed native cultures.”

Also: “For centuries the King James Bible fed some of the finest thinkers and artists and men of science and politics; others it persecuted.”

For me, one intriguing aspect of Bragg’s book is its examination of the King James Bible’s strong influence on American literature all the way into the 20th century and beyond. Writers such as William Faulkner, D.H. Lawrence, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Golding,, John Steinbeck and many others composed novels and short stories with strong echoes of Bible stories no doubt heard and learned in childhood from the King James Bible.

Bragg also examines how America’s Civil War was “a war of the Bible,” for both sides. “The King James Version provided the intellectual and emotional structure for the politics” of that devastating conflict. He notes: “It would be overly simplistic to conclude that the Bible alone ’caused’ the Civil War. But: “The Bible was the gate through which the thoughts and passions of the majority were marshalled.” 

Bragg’s well-honed skills as a novelist and nonfiction author help enrich The Book of Books as a reading and learning experience. He keeps his focus carefully centered on demonstrating the impact of the King James Bible and does not wander off  into wider examinations of Christianity and its myriad controversies.

Si Dunn

Where the West Begins: Debating Texas Identity – #bookreview

Where the West Begins: Debating Texas Identity
By Glen Sample Ely
(Texas Tech University Press, $34.95, hardback)

Many eyes are on Texas once again now that Gov. Rick Perry is running for President.

Of course, he’s now being slammed even by members of  his own party (including former officials in the George W. Bush Administration) for trying to be too much of a simplistic shoot-first, ask-questions-later Texas “cowboy” on the election trail.

So what is it about Texas and its Wild West reputation that stirs up so many arguments, passions, conceptions, misconceptions and occasional hatreds?

In Where the West Begins, Fort Worth, Texas, writer Glen Sample Ely valiantly grabs and wrestles with the electrified third rail of Texas identity: Is Texas a Southern state, or is it a Western state?

He starts with his own city, Fort Worth, which often bills itself as “Where the West Begins.” He calls Cowtown “representative of Texas as a whole,” and uses it to launch into the bigger topic of how the state’s various and varied geographical regions have contributed to its long-ongoing identity conflicts.

“Texans,” Ely cautions, “may want to consider carefully before augmenting their Lone Star lineage with either a southern or western identity, because both of these regions, like Texas, have confusing and conflicted legacies and plenty of historical baggage.”

For example, cotton, not cattle, used to be king in Texas, and one of the last battles of the Civil War was fought in Texas weeks after that conflict was officially over. Indeed, some parts of  Texas tended to be closely allied with the Confederacy and had sent cavalry units and soldiers to fight Union forces in other states. Yet other areas of the state had Union supporters mixed in — often violently — with supporters of the South. And West Texas had an “astonishingly high” level of disloyalty to the Confederacy, Ely reports, because it had long been heavily dependent on federal funds and U.S. Army forts and outposts for economic survival.

Today, many residents of West Texas identify themselves as living in the West or Southwest, not in the American South, he says. Yet many in East Texas still ally themselves with the Deep South.

Ely’s book is nicely researched and well-written, and it has a thick bibliography and notes collection.

It may possibly help you understand the enigma that is Texas a bit better. And it may possibly give you a few insights into the roots of Rick Perry’s “cowboy” mindset as his campaign gets underway and he tries to find traction with voters in 49 other states — many of whom remain openly suspicious of Texas after Lyndon Baines Johnson, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush.

Si Dunn