Got a gift card? Go get these books

December 25, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

There's no escaping the glut of holiday books. They're handsome, they're expensive, they're all too easy to sell at a secondhand bookstore or repackage as a birthday present a few months from now.

But here are two suggestions for books that you will want to keep (or buy with that nice gift certificate). They are books that sharpen the mind and stir the heart.

The first is The Solitude of Self: Thinking About Elizabeth Cady Stanton by Vivian Gornick, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Stanton belonged to that astonishing band of 19th-century American radicals who changed the way we live - among them Frederick Douglass, Wendell Phillips, William Lloyd Garrison, Susan B. Anthony and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.

Abolitionism taught the women to fight for justice; feminism challenged the men to expand their vision of what justice means.

Gornick treats thinking as a dynamic process, here and in all her books. Imagine a photographer of the psyche. She studies her subject from all angles. Whether in close-up or on a landscape crowded with political and religious movements, she explores the public and private selves.

Another book worth making a place for on your shelf is No Applause - Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, by Trav S.D. (Faber & Faber).

This delicious cultural history tracks America's sturdiest entertainment form back to Roman clowns and medieval Feasts of Fools, then forward to snake-oil salesmen and blackface minstrels; magicians and ventriloquists; trained mules and seals; stars like Mae West, Bert Williams, the Marx Brothers, Fanny Brice, W.C. Fields, Fred Astaire and the Nicholas Brothers; the comics who ruled 1950s television and those who rule each new season of Saturday Night Live; the avant-garde of Beckett and Ionesco, and "new vaudevillians" like Penn and Teller, Bill Irwin and the Bindlestiff Family Circus.

The author was formerly known as D. Travis Stewart; Trav S.D. is his vaudevillesque pen name. With its aesthetic of surprise and constant stimulus, he writes, the variety show is perfect for our "post-MTV, post-postmodern, attention-deficit-ridden age of electronic-induced schizophrenia."

The writing is as snappy as these troupers and headliners deserve. And the scholarship is high-class. Nothing reveals a people more clearly than what entertains them and how they define it.

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