Brief reviews of recent releases: "This Land That I Love," by John Shaw, and "The Fountain of St. James' Court," by Sena Jeter Naslund.
THIS LAND THAT I LOVE: IRVING BERLIN, WOODY GUTHRIE AND THE STORY OF TWO AMERICAN ANTHEMS
By John Shaw. (PublicAffairs, 274 pages, $26.99.)
Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” debuted in 1938, just as war rumblings were being heard in Europe. Kate Smith’s triumphant rendition was a big hit, but folk singer Woody Guthrie thought the song fatuous. He resolved to write a response to “God Bless America” — less a prayer than a statement staking the people’s claim to their country. The result was “This Land Is Your Land,” Guthrie’s best-known song and one that’s proven just as durable as Berlin’s paean.
Shaw’s book tells the story of the two songwriters and their compositions, providing an engaging primer on American popular music and a recap of the handful of songs raised to the status of national anthems in the United States.
He doesn’t take sides between the popular Berlin, whose productive years spanned several decades, and Guthrie, who died relatively young, penniless and forgotten. Instead, he points out their similarities: Both grew up in poor families, both were progressive for their time on racial issues, both nurtured a distinctive affection for the land — Berlin with the unabashed gratitude of the immigrant, Guthrie with the yearning of a train-hopper still waiting for the promise to be fulfilled.
If you’re looking for a book about the intersection of America and song, this is it.
Kevin Duchschere, metro reporter
THE FOUNTAIN of ST. JAMES COURT, or, PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS AN OLD WOMAN
By Sena Jeter Naslund. (William Morrow, $26.99, 431 pages.)
This ambitious, accomplished novel by the author of “Ahab’s Wife” and “Four Spirits” is really two novels: one the story of a single day in the life of Kathryn Callaghan, a respected writer who has retired in a lovely, seemingly tranquil neighborhood in Louisville, Ky., and the second the book she has just written, the fictional autobiography of Elisabeth Vigee-Le Brun, a real-life French portrait painter who was forced to flee the French Revolution after painting sympathetic portraits of Marie Antoinette. Each story would work well on its own, but Naslund’s alternate presentation of the women’s linked lives makes for intriguing and sometimes suspenseful reading.
Each woman is aging and looking back on her life — its disappointments, joys, lessons learned. Each spends a good deal of time pondering whether a life devoted to art has been worth the dangers and losses suffered. Both conclude that it was, and we, the readers, are also convinced, and persuaded to examine what is valuable and enduring in our own lives.
Pamela Miller, west metro team leader