Arts

In brief

IT ENDED BADLY:

Thirteen of the Worst Breakups in History

By Jennifer Wright

Holt, 256 pp., $21

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It begins with a pair of epigraphs: one by the Buddha, the other by Taylor Swift. Once set, the tone — intimate, whimsical, smart, and silly at once — continues through two millennia of stories of love lost and found. It’s a subject near and dear to author Jennifer Wright, a sex and dating columnist — “[t]he most embarrassing moments of my life have all been spurred by breakups,” she admits. But she’s got nothing on Viennese painter Oskar Kokoschka, who had a life-size doll made to replace the lover who broke his heart, nor Caroline Lamb, the 19th-century English aristocrat who sent Lord Byron an envelope containing a sad letter and “a bloodstained hunk of pubic hair.” In other words, Wright adds, “[i]f your breakup makes you behave like a tormented, crazed shell of your former self, you are not alone.”

Some of the nastiest splits in human history took place in royal families. Henry VIII figured in more than one, although Wright points out that, given his propensity for having his wives killed, he likely felt more closure than the rest of us. Writers and artists are also known for horrible breakups, or at least for writing eloquently about them. Wright dishes dirt on all of them — Oscar Wilde, John Ruskin, Edith Wharton, Norman Mailer — with the gleeful irreverence of your wittiest friend recapping a particularly juicy episode of reality television. At times, Wright’s authorial voice veers into downright giddiness — this won’t be to every reader’s taste — her point is humane, even wise. “I don’t like all the people in this book, but at least they tried to love,” she writes.

BREAD, WINE, CHOCOLATE:

The Slow Loss of Foods We Love

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By Simran Sethi

Harper One, 352 pp., $26

“Cheap, processed food has changed the world,” Simran Sethi writes, from the seeds farmers plant to the way our meals are prepared, local diversity has given way to standardization. One of Sethi’s concerns in “Bread, Wine, Chocolate” is the resulting lack of biodiversity. It is a danger both to our food supply (because limited species increases vulnerability to pests and diseases) and to our cultural and historical connection to what we eat. Another is what we have already lost, and stand to lose further, when we stop paying attention to the diversity of flavor — taste, in Sethi’s words, “is the gateway through which we will transform food. . . . It is the first stop in reclaiming what we love.”

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A journalist whose previous work mostly focused on environmentalism, Sethi talks with hundreds of scientists, farmers, beer brewers, vintners, bakers, chocolatiers, and cooks, from Ethiopia (for coffee) to Ecuador (for cacao). Winding through her field work is a deeply personal story of Sethi’s relationship to food, family, love, and loss. Unlike many other recent books that cover some of the same territory, what sets Sethi’s work apart is her joyous, generous attitude toward the human appetite. Yes, she argues for the importance of the local, organic, and artisanal, but there’s nothing pretentious, lofty, or hectoring in her tone. “Eat and drink with reverence and gusto, whether it’s a Big Mac or a mountain of kale,” Sethi writes, an invitation to “the slow savor” that bonds eaters to food and earth.

LETTERS TO VÉRA

By Vladimir Nabokov

Edited and translated, from the Russian, by Olga Voronina and Brian Boyd

Knopf, 794 pp., illustrated, $40

“My delightful, my love, my life,” begins one of Vladimir Nabokov’s 1924 letters to the woman who would become his wife. What’s most stunning about this vibrant volume of his letters over their 52-year marriage is how adoring they remained until the end; a salutation from 1970 reads “My gold-voiced angel.” The Nabokovs’ marriage was marked by frequent separations; letters had to bridge the distance.

In his letters to Véra, Vladimir describes places and people, his own health, the children and small animals he befriends. They are chatty and domestic, but also wildly inventive and tender — often augmented with sketches and riddles, puzzles and poems. Véra’s letters to him she mostly destroyed (he died about 14 years before she did), and given his frequent pleas (“you’re silent; please, write”) it seems she wrote less often than he did. Still, even this one-sided correspondence is a richer trove than we’re likely to see again, in this era of e-mails, texts, and video calling.

PICTURING FREDERICK DOUGLASS:

An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American

By John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd, and Celeste-Marie Bernier

Liveright, 320 pp., illustrated, $49.95

Known mostly for his work as an abolitionist, Frederick Douglass was also a photography enthusiast — he delivered four lectures on the art — and a frequent subject of portraits. As an African-American born into slavery, Douglass saw photography as a tool for freedom, the authors argue, as well as a powerful truth teller that “bore witness to African Americans’ essential humanity, while also countering the racist caricatures that proliferated throughout the North.” Perhaps that’s one reason Douglass looks, in all his photographic portraits, elegant, manly, and, as a contemporary pointed out, full of “majestic wrath.”

This gorgeous book gathers all 160 known photographs of Douglass — as the authors point out, more than the 126 of Lincoln, 127 of Whitman, and 128 of Red Cloud. Sixty are represented in exquisitely rendered plates, from an 1841 portrait in which the abolitionist, youthful and black-haired, stares down the camera, to an 1895 deathbed image. Douglass’s lectures on photography, images of artwork inspired by Douglass’s portraits, and a fascinating afterword by Henry Louis Gates Jr., add context and depth.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.
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