Kathleen Kennedy Townsend
Failing America's Faithful (Warner)
After a few pages—even a few sentences—of this book, I almost put it down. Here's how it opens: "Now, more than ever before, we Americans are finding faith. We are improving our lives—learning through faith to be kind to ourselves, to our spouses and children, to our neighbors." The former lieutenant governor then goes on to note the popularity of The Passion of the Christ and the fact that 22 percent of Americans claimed "moral values" as the most important issue in the 2004 presidential election. These passages feel as if they were crafted by a focus group, instead of an author with unique insight into religious life in the U.S. At this point, it's tempting to recall Townsend's similarly flat gubernatorial campaign and dismiss her book altogether. But those who stick with it will be rewarded with a candid, often compelling read, as Townsend examines how the concept of religious faith has evolved and been manipulated for political gain over the past few decades. By book's end, she's questioning, "Why has the language of justice lost its power? Why have we let it be displaced by partisan rhetoric? Jesus didn't use talking points." If Townsend had abandoned her talking points and asked such questions in 2002, she may have won an election instead of a book contract.
The Colorful Apocalypse (University of Chicago)
This slim volume documents Bottoms's pilgrimage to meet with three visionary artists (William Thomas Thompson, Myrtice West, and Norbert Kox) and discuss the importance of religion in their work. Bottoms's travels bring him to Baltimore, where he meets with Thompson at AVAM. He points out the thornier aspects of Thompson's religious fanaticism, as it relates to his work and worldview. While Bottoms empathizes with a troubled artist struggling to make sense of the world, he also questions why galleries such as AVAM sometimes give such artists a pass when it comes to intolerance.
Such questions give the book something of an edge, but overall, it drifts. In fact, some stretches are maddening, as Bottoms simply hovers around his subjects. At AVAM, for instance, he tours an exhibit with Thompson and notes: "I linger over [a piece of artwork] until he says something I miss. We move on." Throughout the book, Bottoms constantly reminds the reader that he's "just talking, recording, making notes, trying to understand." And when he claims to be "feeling a bit lost inside his own project," it's easy to believe him.
James Tigner Jr.
Yesterday on the Chesapeake Bay (Schiffer)
This gorgeous book documents life on the Chesapeake Bay during the postcard era (roughly the first half of the 20th century). These hand-tinted and black-and-white postcard images offer a sublimely nostalgic view of the Bay's beaches, workboats, sporting activities, steamships, wharfs, and industries. With a nod to collectors, the book also gives an approximate value for each of the postcards.