A James Brown Biography and Other Must-Read Books

This vivid new book charts the dazzling contradictions in the life of the Godfather of Soul

The One: The Life and Music of James Brown by RJ Smith records, corrects and carves out historical significance of James Brown's life. (Mark Ulriksen)
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This sneakily sweeping history tells the story of early 20th-century America through the “greatest love story never told.” Edith Minturn and Newton Stokes—a Staten Island beauty and a wealthy young scion, both of them refined and worldly, progressive and philanthropic—might have been characters from a Gilded Age novel. Early in their marriage, in 1897, John Singer Sargent painted their portrait; Edith stands with her hand on her hip, flushed with health and vigor, her husband behind her, a shadowy but solid presence. The painting hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Newton’s greatest achievement was the late-in-life project that came to consume his time, energy and, ultimately, fortune—a six-volume, 3,254-page tome titled The Iconography of Manhattan Island that gathered thousands of pictures, drawings and maps. “None of the classic or contemporary histories of New York could have been written without the Iconography as a source,” Zimmerman writes in this dual biography that also documents a monumental effort to capture New York’s sparkle.

Rethinking a Lot
Eran Ben-Joseph
MIT Press

Is there an urban environment more maligned than the parking lot? Antagonist of Joni Mitchell and frustrated shoppers; an eyesore when empty, useless when full; an environmental disaster and an aesthetic blight—it is, at best, a necessary evil, persistently reminding us that convenience has consequences. In some cities, parking lots gobble up a third of the area. Therein lies the opportunity, says the urban designer and MIT professor Eran Ben-Joseph in this strange and intriguing book—part manifesto, part history, part argument that the “parking lot is a landscape ripe for transformation.” Take, for instance, the Bluewater complex in Kent—the second-largest shopping mall in Britain—where 4,700 trees and a web of walkways create a “parking landscape.” Outside G’bessi Airport in Guinea, where only one-fifth of the population has access to electricity, a parking lot is an informal study hall, with students reading through the night under the dim parking lot lights. “Parking lots may not be thought of as public open spaces,” writes Ben-Joseph, but “they should be.” That hope seems quixotic—a lot is, in the end, a flat, paved empty space—but in pointing out its unheralded poetry, Ben-Joseph offers perhaps the first sustained explication of this urban blight’s unexpected potential.

Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay: Reflections on Art, Family & Survival
Christopher Benfey
The Penguin Press

Nearing 50 in a retrospective, melancholic mood, the literary critic Christopher Benfey began to daydream about placid Richmond, Indiana, a tiny town near the Ohio border where he grew up. It was near a range of ancient Indian burial mounds, where, in a field “redolent of sweat and feed corn,” 14-year-old Benfey played archaeologist, helping a crew of college students. The mounds were “minimalist earthworks etched directly into the landscape by visionary artists who made the world their canvas.” Benfey moves on, to his grandfather, a North Carolina brick-maker, and his great-aunt and uncle, Anni and Josef Albers, the famous Bauhaus artist couple who became leaders of the avant-garde arts-oriented Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Benfey’s contribution to his lineage is this elegant, literary examination of the natural and historic forces that have shaped artisanal and folk-art American aesthetics. An odd but pleasing book—not unlike the curios it celebrates.

About Chloe Schama
Chloe Schama

Chloe Schama is deputy editor of the New Republic and writes regularly about books for Smithsonian magazine. She recently published Wild Romance, a critically acclaimed nonfiction account of a Victorian-era marriage scandal.

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