Arts

In brief

DRAWING BLOOD

By Molly Crabapple

Harper, 352 pp., $29.99

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“I hated being a child,” recalls the artist Molly Crabapple in her vividly written and richly illustrated memoir. “I would happily have doused my childhood in gasoline and lit a match.” It wasn’t that her childhood was bad, simply that the state of being a child — powerless, unfree — was infuriating to “the angry girl I was.” Like many young rebels, she was considered a problem, branded combative, and ultimately only thrived once she was able to figure out how to live life on her own terms.

Crabapple, a name she picked up during one of her stints living at Shakespeare and Company in Paris, writes beautifully of traveling alone through Europe and Morocco during college, sketching everything and everyone. Back in New York, she found herself drawn to a demimonde that reminded her of fin de siècle Paris — nude modeling (online and off), performance from burlesque to drag, and the swirling decadent nightclubs that brought together pre-recession Wall Street and starving, hustling artists (“the queer, broke, and brilliant” like herself. Along the way, Crabapple increasingly noticed the tension between money and creativity in her worlds; after the world’s economic crash and rising protest, she threw herself into illustrating and advocating for Occupy Wall Street, among other movements. Among the book’s delights are the frequent examples of her work, from jittery sketches to lush, colorful paintings — both words and images are the product of a keen eye and devastating pen.

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DIETRICH & RIEFENSTAHL:

Hollywood, Berlin, and a Century in Two Lives

By Karin Wieland

Translated from the German by Shelley Frisch

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Liveright, 624 pp., $35

Born within a year of one another at the beginning of the 20th century, Marlene Dietrich and Leni Riefenstahl were Berliners who grew up as that city reeled from the losses of World War I, through the liberation dislocation of the 1920s, to the rise of Nazism. Both women yearned to break free from convention, both sought expression in dance and acting, and both left their mark as aesthetic icons. Today, while we remember Dietrich for her languid, often transgressive glamor (including the monocle she wore, a hand-me-down from her late aristocratic stepfather), Riefenstahl’s legacy as the filmmaker responsible for Hitler’s cinematic brand is ugly.

In this lively, deliciously gossipy dual biography, Karin Wieland treats both with great sympathy but also clear-eyed assessment. An actress “[w]ell aware of the limitations of her talent,” she writes, Dietrich made herself successful with hard work and focus: “as a child of the war who had been raised in the Prussian spirit, she had learned above all how to get by.” Riefenstahl handled challenges differently; she tended to move forward and then rewrite the past. But she, too, had a formidable work ethic. Upon seeing her as she completed “Triumph of the Will,” Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels wrote in his diary, “She simply has to take a vacation.”

LINGO:

Around Europe in Sixty Languages

by Gaston Dorren

Atlantic Monthly, 320 pp., $25

A Dutch linguist, Dorren speaks six languages and reads another nine. This deep and broad expertise allows him to take a familiar, mostly bemused approach to the linguistic patchwork of Europe. It’s a landscape in which national boundaries matter less than local habits, where long histories of conquest or being conquered leave behind little grace notes in the form of vestigial words, pronunciations, or verb tenses. Take Danish, a language once “spoken on four continents in an area twelve times the size of Great Britain,” Dorren notes, adding, “[r]ead on for a chronicle of ruin.”

From shriveling empires to burgeoning dialects, Dorren is fascinated by the way people shape and are shaped by their native tongues. Consider Iceland, where the modern language is so close to its medieval form that contemporary citizens can read the 12th-century sagas as easily as we read Dickens; is it any wonder that the tiny country “produces more new books per capita than any other nation”? Or the multilingual quilt that is the former Yugoslavia, whose languages are so closely related that speakers ought to be able to communicate more clearly, but, as Dorren points out, “if your family was massacred by your neighbour’s army, goodwill is hard to find.” Arranged in 60 short chapters, Dorren’s romp is as enlightening as it is entertaining.

MASTERS OF EMPIRE:

Great Lakes Indians and the Making of America

By Michael A. McDonnell

Hill and Wang, 416 pp., $35

Most Americans — especially in New England — think of the American Revolution as a series of events centered in locales like Concord, Lexington, and Charlestown. But what if some of the most crucial political and economic action took place a thousand miles to the west, centered, for some time, at a Great Lakes fort called Michilimackinac? In “Masters of Empire,” historian Michael McDonnell describes a long-running history of contact, conflict, and collaboration among native peoples, English settlers, and French traders that took place in the region controlled by native peoples known collectively as the Anishinaabeg.

“For too long now,” McDonnell writes, “the history of the Anishinaabeg of the Great Lakes has been largely hidden behind Euro-American stories.” Here, he focuses on the ways the local people “profoundly shaped European imperialism in North America,” from the judicious use of treaties and trade agreements to strategic intermarriage with French traders. McDonnell lacks access to the level of personal detail found in the types of history that quote European missionaries, which may leave readers adrift; one wishes there were more examples of individual voices. Yet the research and analysis are stirring on their own. Instead of chronicling a simple Revolutionary War story that culminated a unified new nation, McDonnell’s book attempts, as have others recently, to complicate the way we understand both our country’s birth and its forebears (and, not coincidentally, its current inhabitants). We can only hope that someday our children’s children will learn about Fort Michilimackinac alongside the Old North Church.

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