Staff Pick

Starting with his mesmerizing recreation of the 1906 earthquake that destroyed hundreds of Watkins’s glass plate negatives, Green’s phenomenal rags-to-riches-to-rags life of Carleton Watkins (1829-1916), once the nation’s most famous photographer, is full of stunning set pieces on topics as varied as the economics of the 19th-century butter business in Otsego County, the processes for quartz- and hydraulic-mining during the Gold Rush, and the fights over the Transcontinental Railroad. Green’s enthusiasm and authority make all of it fascinating. What little we know about Watkins himself comes from his thousand-plus photographs and from the records of famous friends such as Jesse Frémont, Frederick Law Olmstead, John Muir, and the many industrialists he worked for. Watkins left Central New York for San Francisco at age nineteen. There’s little information about how, why, where, or under whom he learned photography, but suddenly the photographs are there. From the late 1850s, when he was hired to take pictures as evidence in a mining dispute, through his truly pioneering picture-taking expeditions to Yosemite, Mendocino, and Mt. Shasta, to his last pictures of Phoebe Hearst’s estate in the 1890s when he was almost blind, Watkins was essential to how the rest of the country saw the West. Tyler is an excellent close reader of Watkins’s images, mining every detail for what it conveys about Watkins’s artistic vision as well as pointing out the physical challenges of these shots, which often required steep climbs, long hikes, and precarious cliff-edge perching—all while schlepping hundreds of pounds of fragile equipment. Green puts the work in several larger contexts as well, showing how Watkins’s focus on landscape for its own sake echoed Emerson’s thinking about nature and fostered evolving notions of conservation and national parks. Watkins also helped inform scientists about the botany and geology of the west, contributing information vital to the understanding of glaciers. Finally, Tyler makes Watkins key to the nation’s idea of itself; showing Easterners the West, he shaped popular ideas of what “America” was, wasn’t, and could be. To Watkins, all this was beside the point. He was first and foremost an artist, presenting his pictures framed, like paintings, something unheard of at the time.

Carleton Watkins: Making the West American Cover Image
ISBN: 9780520287983
Availability: In Stock—Click for Locations
Published: University of California Press - October 16th, 2018

Staff Pick

Favored by many to win this year’s Man Booker, Washington Black (Knopf, $26.95), the third novel by Canadian writer Esi Edugyan, will be sure to please the person on your gift list who loves magical realism and historical fiction. The novel opens by bluntly posing the question of what it means to be free, a question ingeniously and powerfully explored through the life of the eponymous Washington Black. Washington is an eleven-year-old slave on a Barbados sugar plantation when he’s selected by the plantation master’s brother to assist with perfecting his new invention, the “Cloud-cutter.” A flying machine, the cutter allows Washington to drift off to several different countries. The plot keeps pace with the adventures, and Edugyan’s tale deftly interweaves themes of friendship and betrayal while brilliantly evoking the world of the early nineteenth century.

Washington Black: A novel Cover Image
ISBN: 9780525521426
Availability: In Stock—Click for Locations
Published: Knopf - September 18th, 2018

Staff Pick

Eliza Griswold’s riveting look at the effects of fracking, Amity and Prosperity (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27), is by turns a social history of mineral extraction, a close profile of a handful of citizens, myriad medical mysteries, and a legal thriller. The focus is a Pennsylvania town called Amity. Economically depressed, it saw natural gas as its salvation—much as the neighboring town, the ghostly Prosperity, once looked to coal. And though fracking did bring in money, like coal it also brought a host of problems, including illness, animal deaths, water contamination, and damaged infrastructure due to the dramatic increase in truck traffic. For Stacey Haney, a nurse and single mother of two who owned a farm near a major waste-water containment site, it was impossible to look away. Though she’d thought it was her “patriotic duty” to lease her land to a gas company, when her son became chronically ill , she spoke up, eventually filing suit against Range Resources. While a courageous pair of local lawyers devoted years to building the case—and foregoing payment—Griswold talked to a wide range of Amity citizens. She presents their views on government and corporate power, tells us their dreams and how fracking furthered or broke them, and shows how arguments about the greater good of the nation can ride roughshod over the basic rights of citizens, especially citizens who lack the means to fight back.

Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America Cover Image
ISBN: 9780374103118
Availability: In Stock—Click for Locations
Published: Farrar, Straus and Giroux - June 12th, 2018