Infamous day: First, and perhaps most prominent in our minds, the books about September 11. One of the most expansive and well-conceived is Afterwords: Stories and Reports From 9/11 and Beyond (Washington Square, $14 paper), compiled by the editors of Salon. It includes first-person accounts by the late Boston Phoenix columnist Caroline Knapp, Middlesex author Jeffrey Eugenides, and novelist-memoirist-poet-whiz-kid Rick Moody, among others. Also leading the pack of 9/11 anthologies is 110 Stories: New York Writes After September 11 (New York University, $22.95), edited by Ulrich Baer, which features moving essays by Philip Lopate and literary bad girl A.M. Homes.
Another notable work among the wealth of September 11 titles published this fall is the photo collection Above Hallowed Ground: A Photographic Record of September 11, 2001 (Viking Studio, $29.95), by photographers of the New York City Police Department, which gives the enormity of the tragedy its proper context through haunting, eerily peaceful images of a devastated Winter Garden, or the gaping hole in the earth that was Ground Zero.
Writing the self: Is a great critic made, or born whole, like Athena hatched from the skull of Zeus? Superman of Letters Sven Birkerts explains his development as one of our leading literary lights in his heartbreaking memoir, My Sky Blue Trades: Growing Up Counter in a Contrary Time (Viking, $24.95). Here, Birkerts turns his attention inward, detailing his childhood in 1960s Detroit and his subsequent path from bookseller and hippie pothead to contributor to esteemed publications like Harperís, Agni (where he recently became editor), and the New York Review of Books. With the subtle grace that has marked all his lamentations (as in The Gutenberg Elegies, which mourned our devaluation of the printed word) and inquisitive meditations (such as his collection Readings, a rumination on American nostalgia and the nonfiction novel, among other subjects), Birkerts incisively describes his transformation from wayward intellectual to literary star. Along the way, he looks to his Latvian ancestorsí lives in the faraway city of Riga for parallels and confluences.
Invoking 9/11 in the foreword to his essay collection How to Be Alone: Essays (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $24), National Book Award winner Jonathan Franzen writes that it was " a time when it seemed that the voices of self and commerce ought to fall silent. " But even Franzen, author of the highly acclaimed 2001 novel The Corrections, acknowledges (sadly) that for him these same forces of self and commerce quickly returned to normal. Titled like a self-help book, How to Be Alone is really an investigation of the ways a person is formed and even undone. Topics range from Alzheimerís disease to the great American novel to the workings of a supermax prison. In these hybrids of memoir and journalism ( " My Fatherís Brain, " the account of his fatherís deterioration from Alzheimerís, is a stand-out), Franzen, like Montaigne, explicates his subjects with anecdotes and musings from what he knows best ó his own life.
Sex, work, and love: Museum books donít get flashier than this. NYC Sex: How New York Transformed Sex in America (Scala Publishers, $25) is the inaugural record of the much-talked-about Museum of Sex in New York City and a companion to the homonymous exhibit. Among its contributors are the ever-articulate Luc Sante, renowned Maus author/illustrator Art Spiegelman (discussing New Yorkís underground sex culture), the notorious diarist Tracy Quan (on whores), and, of course, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, whose graphic imagery helped catalyze the culture wars of the 1990s. The introduction to NYC Sex, by Museum of Sex curator Grady T. Turner, provides a prewar history of sex in the city, discussing everything from birth-control pioneer Margaret Sanger to other, lesser-known women of influence, like Gladys Bentley ó a 300-pound cross-dressing lesbian blues singer who wowed audiences in Harlem.
Odd Jobs: Portraits of Unusual Occupations (Ten Speed Press, $16.95), by Nancy Rica Schiff, is the perfect coffee-table book, with snapshots and brief commentaries on 65 of the most idiosyncratic, dangerous, and downright-stupefying jobs out there. Schiffís commentaries on the ins and outs of these horse anesthetists and egg testers donít match the quality of the photographs, but the photographs will have party guests gabbing. From a middle-aged condom tester in New Jersey to Barbieís chief dress designer in El Segundo, California, these portraits, taken as a whole, create an eccentric picture of the most creative of Americaís working class.
Love in a Dark Time: And Other Explorations of Gay Lives and Literature (Scribner, $24), by Irish writer Colm Tóibín, explores his secret passion: the ways in which gay artists edify and enthrall their audiences. Tóibín, the author of critically acclaimed novels The Blackwater Lightship (Scribner, 2000) and The Story of the Night (Henry Holt, 1997) brings his characteristic intelligence and insight to these essays on the lives of artists through history, ranging from the flamboyant dramatist Oscar Wilde to the outrageous Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar. In between, he pauses to meditate on the intoxicating enthusiasms of poets Elizabeth Bishop, Mark Doty, and Thom Gunn. Tóibínís prose will make you run to snatch up all the work by these artists you can find.
Ricco Villanueva Siasoco can be reached at Rsiasoco@aol.com