The city of Boston has long been artist Joel Babb’s passion. He has captured the play of light on the turrets lining Commonwealth Avenue and the reflections on the John Hancock tower. He once painted a picture of novelist Anita Shreve’s home in the Back Bay, but not KNOWING IT WAS HERS.
Years ago he hired a helicopter to fly over the city and had the door taken off so he could lean out and take pictures. Back in his studio, he referred to the photographs as he painted, among other works, “Copley Plunge,” inviting viewers to look straight down on the buildings, which appear to pop out of the canvas.
As I wandered through “Nature & Culture: The Art of Joel Babb” (University Press of New England) by Carl Little, I kept asking myself: Why didn’t I already know about this guy? The “Nature” in the book’s title refers largely to scenes in Maine, where Babb now lives full time, but it’s his vision of Boston that grabbed me. Ironically, his first show at Newbury Street’s Vose Galleries in 2006 was so successful that he was able to add on to his house in Maine and build a studio there.
But let’s get back to Shreve, who contributed an essay to “Nature & Culture” about the experience of looking at Babb’s “Beacon and Clarendon, Afternoon Light,” (above) and realizing that the brick townhouse bathed in light was the building in which she and her husband owned a condo.
Little, who lives in Maine and has made a career of writing about artists, does a masterful job in “Nature & Culture” of chronicling Babb’s development as an artist, but he may not appreciate Babb’s Boston paintings in the way that a resident of the city might. It’s Shreve who spells out the allure, describing Babb’s work as “not quite photo-realistic cityscapes” that offer a view of “not just the city as it precisely is, but rather the work of art that is Boston.”
Scott Haas is a clinical psychologist and food writer who brings these two worlds to bear in his new book, “Back of the House: The Secret Life of a Restaurant” (Berkley). Over the course of 18 months, Haas regularly hung out in the front and back of Craigie on Main in Cambridge. His narrative is as much about how chef-owner Tony Maws behaves under pressure as it is about the food that has won a bushel of awards.
Maws never seems to hold back if one of his employees disappoints him but once in a while he shows his soft side. When the hockey coach who cut him from the team at Belmont Hill School 27 years earlier sends him a handwritten letter after eating at the restaurant, Maws is touched. He amps up his response with an expletive before “awesome,” adding “No one gets this kind of letter!”
■ “The Virtues of Poetry” by James Longenbach (Graywolf)
■ “Contagious: Why Things Catch On” by Jonah Berger (Simon & Schuster)
■ “Young Titan: The Making of Winston Churchill” by Michael Shelden (Simon & Schuster)
Caitlin Caulfield of Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley recommends “How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia” by Mohsin Hamid (Riverhead): “In this beautifully crafted fast-paced novel, a young man’s fortunes rise and fall through circumstances both in and out of his control. The characters and places remain nameless, which allows them to represent ‘Anywhere, Asia,’ and yet we come to know them deeply and believe in their specific reality.”Jan Gardner can be reached at JanLGardner@
yahoo.com. Follow her on Twitter @JanLGardner.