The Secret Lives of Color

Kassia St. Clair. Penguin Books, $20 (320p) ISBN 978-0-14-313114-4
London-based writer St. Clair delivers a mix of science, humor, and art history in this collection of bite-size essays on the cultural and social lore of colors based on her column in British Elle Decoration. The author arranges her color commentary in blocks: color entries start with white and end with black; in between, St. Clair tells the stories of colors unglamorous (umber) and obscure (gamboge) with those that kill (orpiment pigment is around 60% arsenic) or change (verdigris is the green patina that results when copper is exposed to air). She explores etymologies (buff from buffalo) and sprinkles wit (taupe, French for mole, is “browner than a mole had a right to be”) throughout the collection. Her sentences guarantee sustained reading: “Balthasar Gérard was the Lee Harvey Oswald of his day”; the word heliotrope fills “the mouth like a rich, buttery sauce.” St. Clair’s rhetoric beautifies the form of the brief essay. (Oct.)
Reviewed on: 06/19/2017
Release date: 10/24/2017
Genre: Nonfiction
Audio book sample courtesy of Penguin Random House Audio
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