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AUGUST 23, 1999: 

Artful Players: Artistic Life in Early San Francisco by Brigitta Hjalmarson (Balcony Press, hardcover, $34.95)

Focusing on a brief period -- from the boom years of the Gold Rush to the 1906 earthquake -- Hjalmarson's breezy, anecdotal history illustrates, among other things, that art squabbles don't change much. The threats and insults hurled over too many drinks at the Bohemian Club, circa 1890, sound an awful lot like those tossed around the Paris cafes of the 1920s or SoHo in the 1980s. But the artistic matters generating so much heat seem, after almost a century of Modernism, amazingly remote. Especially in the early years, when painters were inescapably bound to strict realism, it might be a matter of sizing up one vast Yosemite canvas against another: William Keith's is faithful enough to bear "the search of the microscope," while Albert Bierstadt's is too "fanciful" to be a useful document.

What made art good was a good likeness, and landscape was American art's calling; highbrow portraiture, mythological subjects and (horrors!) the nude were better off left to Europeans. Landscape brought artists out West, and California's relative prosperity kept them there. Because San Francisco evolved in such a short time from a negligible Mission village to the biggest city in the West, its early art history is also compact. Railroad magnates commissioned big pictures for their new mansions; art academies appeared, quarreled, separated and folded; galleries sprang up and fought over art stars like Keith, Jules Tavernier, or Thomas Hill; and painting gradually expanded its territory to take in still life, domestic scenes and even the occasional Impressionist "splashes of paint ... dash[ed] upon canvas in a single stroke."

Hjalmarson's account is well researched and entertainingly told. At moments she leans a little too far in the direction of making her scholarship reader-friendly, filling in atmosphere or laying out someone's "thoughts" in passages more suited to novel writing than to history. But it's a flaw on the side of generosity. It's to her credit that she has made Artful Players both a valuable study -- the first book-length survey of its particular subject -- and a pleasant read. The color plates are fine, and the appendices include thumbnail biographies of more than 60 artists. -- Jeffrey Lee

Thirteen Tangos for Stravinsky by Alvaro Cardona-Hine (Sherman Asher, paper, $15)

This memoir excels so exquisitely in its use of language that the actual storytelling is almost secondary. For example, the writer describes growing up like this: "One by one the childhood candles go out, with only the wax dripping down to basement cores of recollection." Alvaro Cardona-Hine and his family emigrated from Costa Rica to Los Angeles shortly before World War II. His story covers the years from the time he was 13 to, roughly, his high school graduation. His father, an educated man who did all the cooking, was an honorary consul and is depicted rather vaguely. His mother, with her genteel and dignified ways, had a job in the garment industry with which she supported the family. Not much is said about his sister, Ana, but one senses her supportive presence.

The immigrant's sense of alienation and loneliness are poignantly described. Cardona-Hine writes of that sense in a wistful and melancholy tone. While growing up in L.A. he has few friends, is small for his age, and learns to endure taunting from classmates with a mature stoicism. A few kind teachers befriend him. But regardless, American high school, for him, becomes a relentless march of boredom.

Love occasionally beckons in the form of intense but distant infatuations. They are all deadly serious and so can be slightly humorous. Inevitable loss arrives, but there are no regrets. Love is beauty for the writer, and always worth experiencing -- no matter how ephemeral.

Burdens faced in the strange new world of California pit the parents against each other, and they fight like cats and dogs, to the anguish of Alvaro and Ana. This ability to penetrate into the frightened world of children who feel hopeless as they listen to their parents' pained exchanges is a gem of artistic precision.

This memoir is for those with a poetic bent who want to read prose. Akin to being immersed in the prism world of dazzling, shifting light, this book captures moments, sensations, images and colors precisely and movingly. -- Ann Peterpaul

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