Displaying articles for: January 2008

Beyond the Zonules of Zinn

Isaac Asimov's nonfiction writing on science was famously marked by a seemingly effortless clarity amid complex ideas, a personal passion and experience, and a general infectious glee in the marvels of the cosmos. The same qualities shine through in David Bainbridge's Beyond the Zonules of Zinn. Vibrantly communicating his own sense of wonder at the intricacies of the human brain, the author handily escorts the reader through an anatomical and evolutionary labyrinth that would otherwise be daunting even in a classroom setting. Bainbridge's motto is that a knowledge of structure always has and always must precede an understanding of function. Neuroanatomy from its outset tried to identify the structures of the brain and establish their physical interrelations, without attempting to pinpoint such "higher-order" functions as memory and consciousness. Although today's researchers are making -- pardon the inevitable pun -- headway in such assignments of functionality to structure, Bainbridge focuses mainly on the astonishing "geography" of the human brain. The reader is borne through the varied anterooms, chambers, bridges, and canals of the brain and its outliers as if on an Asimovian "fantastic voyage." The chapters on vision are typical of Bainbridge's ability to parse the intricate machinery of nerves and neurons, lenses and retinas, but perhaps his most endearing trait is the juvenile delight he takes in the various gruesome abnormalities and diseases of the mind. After reading about such aberrations as Ondine's Curse and fetus in fetu, you will bless every minute of normal mental operation you enjoy.-

Trail of Crumbs: Hunger, Love, and the Search for Home

You've doubtless heard the expression "Food is love" -- but it's rarely so literally expressed as in Kim Sun‚e's memoir. Abandoned by her mother in a Korean marketplace at age three, Sun‚e was adopted, along with another Korean baby girl, by an American couple and raised in New Orleans. She came closest to finding a sense of belonging when she worked in the kitchen alongside her adopted grandfather, Poppy. "Suzy and I are the only Oriental girls, as we are called, in our school," she writes, "so the comfort of Poppy's kitchen after school every day, the promise of his home-cooked meals, are a refuge?solid food to remind us that we exist, that we live in a new world where we have not been forgotten." Readers track Sun‚e's journey through her misfit childhood, her exotic European travels, her absorption into the world of a rich, attentive, yet controlling lover -- their relationship is so food-focused that what may be the most erotic passage is about eating "fresh fat figs dripping with their own milk" -- and, ultimately, her struggle to find her own voice, purpose, and place. Along the way, Sun‚e drops favorite recipes -- from Poppy's Crawfish Bisque to La Daube Proven‡ale to Kimchi Soup -- like breadcrumbs along her path, leading the reader to the sumptuous heart of her tale. -

The Age of Shiva

Perhaps one day I will tell you about the yearning from which you were born. You will deliver me, will you not, from this life I find myself in? This is the question Meera poses to her infant son, Ashvin, the only male who promises redemption from the choices she's made. As in his debut, The Death of Vishnu, Manil Suri's second novel places Hindu mythology, familial strife, and contemporary political and religious conflicts in deft and revealing juxtapositions. Meera's urgent soliloquy -- which begins from her misguided desire to marry Dev, a singer she believed would transform her ordinary existence into a Bollywood romance -- is a lyrically sensual reflection, peppered with pragmatic justifications, agonized what-ifs, and haunting regret. As her son grows to manhood, Meera retreats further into the corridors of her mind to soothe the rebellious fury caused by her manipulative father and restore the energy sapped by her needy, alcoholic husband and his lecherous brother. Like Meera, readers must navigate the complexity of this family's emotional terrain, often as unsettled as that of the newly independent India. But Suri's pitch-perfect language drives a narrative that ultimately reveals while a mother's motives might not be entirely pure, they are utterly human -- a fact that is at once exhilarating and all too humbling. -

Postwar Kurosawa

Experts consider Akira Kurosawa Japan?s most American director, the one most likely to use Hollywood techniques, Western source material, music, and dress -- and occasional indulge in quasi-Disney sentimentality. The films represented by Eclipse?s oddly skewed Postwar Kurosawa box seem determined to brand him a Western suck-up, as it includes ambitious failures like his 1951 adaptation of Dostoevsky?s The Idiot and the almost Capra-like tale of a young, middle-class couple trying to enjoy a day off in a city ravaged by war, One Wonderful Sunday. This cloying oddity does its best to look on the bright side of military occupation and nuclear annihilation (indirectly, of course), and at one point the heroine breaks the fourth wall to beg sympathy for the hero. The rather dated and lugubrious Scandal, the story of an incriminating photograph of a young singer and a handsome painter that seems mild by today?s standards, takes aim at the paparazzi and ends up hitting the painter?s sleazy lawyer, almost accidentally. Curiously absent from this cinematic quintet is the more successful (and more Japanese) classic Rashomon. Fortunately, the set includes 1946?s dazzling No Regrets for Our Youth, an epic that tracks the political awakening of a bourgeois wife, and the nuclear family drama I Live in Fear: both provide solid evidence of Kurosawa?s exalted place in world cinema. -

The Remembrance of Things Past, Part Three: Swann in Love

This slim book is the third volume published to date in St‚phane Heuet's witty and surprising graphic novel treatment of Proust's masterpiece. Covering the first sections of Swann in Love, it details Swann's meeting with Odette, their extended flirtation amid the glittering social gatherings hosted by the Verdurins at their home in the Faubourg Saint-Germain, and the first inking of Odette's distraction and Swann's jealously. As in the earlier installments in Heuet's ambitious comics treatment of the novel, one is at first gladdened by the insouciance of the attempt, then charmed by it cleverness. But, as one charts the clauses of Proustian etiquette through the graphic ordering of Heuet's narrative, one recognizes that there is more than mere cleverness at work. Indeed, the surprise comes from the powerful impressions left by Proust's delineations of class, character, and desire even when they are stripped of the embrace of his enfolding sentences. Still, there is nothing quite like the words of the master himself, and Heuet's rendering of the tale they tell is never more welcome than when it sends us back to Proust's pages with an almost giddy eagerness, as in the panels devoted to Swann's infatuation with a musical phrase. -

Jukebox

Chan Marshall, who records as Cat Power, followed her 2006 album, The Greatest, with a prompt breakdown, canceling tour dates and costing her record label, Matador, a boatload of cash. But the album was a triumph, and by the end of the year, a newly sober Marshall played the best shows of her career. Technically, there are only two original songs on Jukebox, but Marshall again proves -- as she did on The Covers Record -- that anything she touches becomes wholly her own. Backed by the Dirty Delta Blues Band, Marshall dips into the catalog that made possible her own Memphis soul. Radical reconstructions are everywhere: Sinatra's "New York, New York" becomes a slinky, down-tempo paean to restlessness, more cautionary tale than celebration, and a Hank Williams classic becomes "Ramblin' (Wo)man." Dylan is reworked, too (and not for the first time), with "I Believe in You," from his Christian phase. And the sole new song on the album, "Song for Bobby," addresses the man directly, as Marshall writes about discovering his music as a young teenager, and later, catching his ear with her own work. Recalling the view of her icon from her perspective as an audience member, she asks, "Oh my god, can you tell me who you were singing to?" One answer is certainly Chan Marshall, who returns the favor in song. -

Do You Believe?

Teacher and filmmaker Antonio Monda interviewed eighteen prestigious figures from the arts for this book, although the word "interviewed" overstates it a touch: "polled" might be better, given that his questions focus, like those of a telemarketer, on a single issue. Monda wants to know from these eminences whether they believe in God, and if so, what form their belief takes. Some of them seem rather nettled by his presumption. "I'm afraid of banality," says Saul Bellow. Others, meanwhile, seem not to be afraid of banality at all: "It's said that God is in the details," muses Richard Ford. "Or maybe it's the Devil who's in the details. I always get those two confused." But I may be doing Ford an injustice here: Do You Believe? was first published in Italy in 2006 as Tu Credi? and then translated for this edition by Ann Goldstein, which means that the original comments have been rendered into Italian and then back out of it -- not a process likely to preserve much of their native zest. So Spike Lee, in these pages, sounds exactly like Jane Fonda, whose diction in turn strongly resembles that of David Lynch. Or could it be that talking about God reduces all but the simplest or most brilliant to the same state of windy abstraction? Certainly, there'd be a hint of divine justice in that. -

Helvetica

A film about a typeface? Yes. And not just for typophiles. Gary Hustwit's witty, provocative, and unexpectedly entertaining documentary about Helvetica, the clean, smooth, durable set of letters which sprang from Switzerland's Haas Type Foundry 50 years ago and rapidly conquered the world of public words, is a fascinating exploration of graphic design and visual culture. As the film's footage of the signs and advertisements that crowd any city street reveals, Helvetica is so ubiquitous we barely notice it. From American Airlines to the Gap, it is a preferred partner in corporate identities; from the signage in New York's subway system to marquees and guideposts across the globe, its easy-to-read, neutral presence orients people with calm authority. Long before personal computers made the phrase known to everyone, Helvetica was an international, all-purpose "default font," inspiring both admiration and disdain among designers (in the film, Lars M�ller calls it "the perfume of the city," while Paula Sher reports that she first regarded it as part of "some conspiracy of my mother's to make me keep the house clean"). Interviewing a stellar cast of designers and typographers, including Erik Spiekermann, Wim Crouwel, Hermann Zapf, David Carson, Tobias Frere-Jones, and Matthew Carter (who offers a swift, intriguing description of the initial steps in designing a typeface), Hustwit composes a vivid tapestry of ideas that is stimulating, surprising, and absolutely delightful. If you've ever been tantalized by the range of fonts your computer puts at your fingertips, you'll be captivated by this splendid film. -

The Geography of Bliss

As a foreign correspondent for National Public Radio, Eric Weiner has spent much of his career traveling to some of the world's least happy places -- Iraq and Afghanistan among them. With his first book, The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World, he decided it was time for a change of approach. "What if, I wondered, I spent a year traveling the globe, seeking out not the world's well-trodden trouble spots but, rather, its unheralded happy places?" he writes. "Places that possess, in spades, one or more of the ingredients that we consider essential to the hearty stew of happiness: money, pleasure, spirituality, family, and chocolate, among others..." So he set about seeking a variety of Shangri-Las: testing tolerance and Moroccan hashish in the Netherlands; learning to accept loss and relinquish regret in Bhutan; marveling at the darkness, drunkenness and remarkable creativity in Iceland; eschewing introspection and embracing fun in Thailand; looking for contrast in miserable Moldova, "the world's least happy country." Along the way, Weiner gathers insights from many wise and well-traveled people, relates the latest findings in the field of happiness research, and turns enough pleasing phrases to keep even the surliest reader ? happy. -

Comrade J

Sergei Tretyakov, the Comrade J of this fascinating book's title, was Russia's top spy in America from 1995 to 2000. During his more than 120 hours speaking with author Peter Earley, the New York-based Tretyakov describes exactly how Russian intelligence (the SVR) successfully recruited intelligence sources inside the UN and the US, and used this intelligence to undermine American interests. Tretyakov, for example, tells Earley exactly how the SVR infiltrated the UN's Oil-for-Food program, created to help the Iraqi people, and stole half a billion dollars from it, money that went directly to Russia's ruling oligarchy. Tretyakov also recruited UN diplomats from Germany, Turkey, and Sweden to garner secret intelligence that helped damage American interests. Tretyakov ultimately grew disillusioned serving Russia's corrupt, money-grubbing leadership. He felt his work no longer served the Russian people, but only undemocratic strongmen like Presidents Yeltsin and Putin: "it became immoral to serve them, and I didn't want to be associated with them." In 2000, Tretyakov defected to the US, offering thousands of secret Russian documents and the identities of hundreds of previously-unknown Russian intelligence sources. Comrade J's primary message is that Russia is not America's friend, and "is doing everything it can today to undermine and embarrass the US." Earley's gripping narrative may be the most absorbing, detailed account ever written about foreign intelligence activities within the US; Comrade J also offers a stunning indictment of the present "thuggish" Russian regime under President Vladimir Putin. -

The Perfect Scent

Perfume -- love it or hate it, you probably don't know much about how it's made or the people who make it. Chandler Burr, the New York Times perfume critic (yes, you heard me right), would like to change that. Burr's revealing new book aims to bring consumers "behind the curtain" of the perfume industry, despite that industry's best efforts to keep its art and science out of public view. To that end, he interweaves the stories of two perfumes -- the high-end HermŠs scent Un Jardin sur le Nil, created by veteran perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena, and Coty's Sarah Jessica Parker Lovely, which the Sex and the City star guided to an unusual degree -- from conception to launch. And though Burr insists he's not a "visceral perfume obsessive" but rather a professional journalist covering a beat, he does show a contagious passion for his subject and a nifty knack for evoking aromas with words. In his hands, a bouquet of chamomile becomes "gorgeous scents of fresh cold and green." Burr has little patience for artifice and obfuscation, what he calls the perfume business's "parade of emperor's new clothes," and painstakingly explains the chemistry behind the olfactory illusion. "Explaining a jet engine or the wing of a 787 doesn't destroy the awesome beauty of flight," he contends. "It doesn't break the dream. It does the opposite. The more you understand of science, the more you marvel at the magic of reality." And marvel we do. -

Around the World: The Grand Tour in Photo Albums

While it's hard to picture from our tech-saturated perspective, there was a time when refrigerators were so newfangled that they came with a manual that was also a cookbook for use with this unheard-of device. Reading Around the World: The Grand Tour in Photo Albums is much like paging through one of these guides, as it reveals many aspects of voyaging it's hard to believe ever were novel. And travel from 1890 to 1930 -- the era represented here -- presented considerable challenges. Only those of means could consider the time and expense entailed by a long journey when even getting to the main attraction -- the Tour Eiffel, the Sphinx, the Venetian canals -- could take days or weeks by ?motorcar,? rail, steamer, paddleboat, or ocean liner. As the authors point out, people often wanted to do what they already seen in other photographs, and so we see many posing atop mountain peaks or feeding the pigeons in the Piazza San Marco. But what distinguishes one album from another are captions (?Before Kit got seasick!?) and ephemera such as pasted-in news clippings (?Governor Seized in a Raid?) and menus (lamb's head broth). Some travelers sought out edgier experiences, such as a public execution in Bangkok -- the attendee attaching photos within a discrete envelope. Page by page, this book provides pause-worthy marvels, best viewed across the lap of two close family members, ideally beside a glowing hearth, right at home. -

My Mistress's Sparrow Is Dead: Great Love Stories from Chekhov to Munro

The sparrow in the title of this anthology was one prong of an inconvenient love triangle described by the Latin poet Gaius Catullus in 84 B.C. The pet bird belonged to a girl who was loved by the poet and, unfortunately, her own husband. The sparrow takes the brunt of the lover's displaced jealousy, until it dies, taking his girl's happiness along with it. According to author Jeffrey Eugenides, all love stories since have followed the same template: "there is either a sparrow or the sparrow is dead." Frequently in these 26 stories, that sparrow takes the form of an inconvenient spouse, though it becomes apparent that the sparrow's presence is what makes the song so sweet. William Trevor provides a glimpse of the ordinary happiness that eludes a pair of lovers who take the unorthodox path of making a workaday love out of an illicit one, while Lorrie Moore gives a welcome take from the perspective of the mistress herself ("When you were six you thought mistress meant to put your shoes on the wrong feet. Now you are older and know it can mean many things but essentially it means to put your shoes on the wrong feet"). The selection is well packed with classics -- stories from Faulkner, Chekhov, Joyce, Nabokov, and Carver among them -- which speaks for Eugenides' comprehensive scope but may feel remedial to some. Contemporary tales by Deborah Eisenberg, Denis Johnson, Miranda July, and others pack more surprise. Though all the entries illuminate the amatory state, none are much of an advertisement for its wholesome pleasures. Warns Eugenides: "Read these love stories in the safety of your own twin bed. Let everyone else suffer." -

The Pleasures of the Damned

black sparrow press was sold in 2002, renamed
black sparrow books, founder john martin retiring
and
the name of charles bukowski stripped from its catalogue.
bukowski who made martin and sparrow famous, or
was it the other way around,
or maybe
even
a two-way street?

but like their website says, "times change, tastes change, and bukowski thrives on the inside now,"
the inside being ecco press, an imprint of harpercollins,
and they
god bless them
keep over three dozen of hank chinaski's books in print,
including the two new ones we'll look at
here.

the pleasures of the damned: poems, 1951-1993 does a
helluva good job
of conveying buk's range, from surreal ("the veryest") to
to haiku-like ("Mongolian coasts shining in light") to
of course
his dominant mode, the grittily, unprettily autobiographical.

and despite the legend of his drunkenly bashing out his stuff
(which maybe alright he did, but he also remorselessly
cut and trashed the worst midnight effusions)
these lines reveal no flab, no excess wordage,
but only a striving for taut liveliness and interest and connection,
the transcription of reality as filtered through one man's life
and consciousness-
or in other words,
poetry's essence.

oh sure, some repetition intrudes in a lifetime's bunched work:
men who mow lawns are always dullards;
society and duty are always a charging bull;
life is always a horse race.
but there is more variety than sameness here,
and editor john martin's grouping of similarly themed poems
(on a dead wife, john fante, cats, and buk's own mortality)
makes for concentrated bursts of power.

martin also assembled the people look like flowers at last
the fifth posthumous collection, some of the poems in which
also appear in pleasures.

here we get bukowski ranging
still in vigorous form
over the whole territory of his life:
childhood, the peripatetic drunken era, the post office years,
the high tide of his
"success."
some longer narrative poems such as
"Rimbaud be damned"
approach the narrative texture of his stories.

the sum effect of 800 pages of buk's poetry
is surprisingly life-affirming in the face of his rep
as a cranky misanthrope.

cats, his daughter, mountains, certain writers,
beer, cigars, a lobster dinner-
these things and others shine out as beacons
amidst the desolate terrain
populated by
humans worse than beasts,
where only dodging, weaving, and feinting
through a web of words
keep a proud man sane, alive and
less lonely than otherwise.
-

A Reef in Time

Marine biologist J.E.N. Vernon calls his research subject "Nature's pinnacle of achievement in the ocean realm," and The Reef in Time: The Great Barrier Reef from Beginning to End makes an outstanding case for the truth of that simple statement. But Vernon has set himself a much more audacious task than merely convincing his readers of the beauty, complexity, and uniqueness of "the largest construction of living organisms anywhere on Earth." His aim is to let us in, as far as possible, on his intimate knowledge of the reef's astounding life story (one which, Vernon argues, can be understood as beginning 25 million years ago), its role in the ocean today, and its probable future. That last is not a pretty picture, as one might surmise -- and although Vernon is cautious in his predictions about what global warming will and won't do to marine life, he presents a bleakly convincing picture of what human-caused increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide will mean for the oceans in general, and the Great Barrier Reef in specific. Happily, this is not merely a call to environmental action, but an attempt by a man who is as much an enraptured diver as a committed scholar to share his love for this magnificent aspect of our planet's life. The text is gorgeously enhanced by color photographs which will make many readers think about taking scuba lessons and making arrangements to witness the GBR's majesty up close -- while the reef still has time. -

Watchman

Ian Rankin's early novel, "Watchman," followed the first of his books starring Inspector John Rebus, the whiskey-tinctured, smoke-cured misanthrope of Auld Reekie. Sunny only by comparison with Rebus, Miles Flint, another Scot, is an MI5 agent who lives in the London of the mid-1980s, the heyday of IRA bombings. Shortly after we meet him, dyspeptic with midday drink and loath to go home to his jittery marriage, he botches a job and a man is assassinated. The next thing you know, Flint's investigation into what went amiss begins to turn up inconvenient details and he is shunted off to Northern Ireland on a caper that gets fishier and fishier. Treachery is everywhere. We are in a fallen world-though one with electric suspense and a good deal of action. Rankin's righteous pleasure in scenes of urban sordidness, institutional self-preservation, and the suave hypocrisy of life's winners is gratifyingly evident in this youthful, fleet-footed offering. -

Blade Runner

Let us stipulate from the outset that you are not the kind of person in the market for the "Five-Disc Ultimate Collector's Edition of Blade Runner," which comes in a miniature briefcase and contains more versions of this 1982 classic of science fiction cinema than a whole squadron of tasked replicants could watch without their android eyes glazing over. You might, nonetheless, have fond enough memories of this noirish tale of rogue humanoids and the loner who hunts them to invest, at a considerably lower price, in the two-disc 25th-anniversary set that includes "The Final Cut" version of Ridley Scott's avowed chef d'oeuvre, as well as a 3 «-hour documentary on the making of the film. You get a seminal and influential bit of futurism, with its tight allegorical treatment of human identity, in a visually and aurally pristine version, "tweaked" by Scott himself and layered with three different sets of commentary. It's claimed that new scenes and SFX have been interpolated, but the impact, so far as I could tell, is minimal. The real hot juice lies in the documentary on disc two. Exhaustive, intimate, obsessive, sampling all the main historical creators and many commentators, unsparing of flaw or foible, this exegesis begins to resemble the tortured visionary notebooks of Philip K. Dick himself, as if the author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the ultimate fount of Blade Runner, had reached out from beyond the grave to imprint his personality on all the participants, effecting a final revenge for any liberties taken with his novel. -

O Lucky Man!

Malcolm MacDowell first appeared on screen as Mick Travis in If?, Lindsay Anderson's 1968 film about rebellion in an English private school. Five years later, Anderson and MacDowell brought Travis back in O Lucky Man!, a film exhilarating contradictions: intricately structured yet with a improvisatory feel, it tells an allegorical tale of the evils of capitalism with a sardonic mind and a light heart. Imagine Voltaire's Candide restaged by Bertolt Brecht, then redeemed by performers (Rachel Roberts, Ralph Richardson, a very young Helen Mirren) who seem to be having the time of their lives. As the fable unfolds, the ambitious Travis embarks on a career as a coffee salesman only to find himself falling into a bottomless pot of hot water, scalded by seduction, duplicity, greed, betrayal, and corruption. Throughout, the musician Alan Price (a founding member of The Animals) comments on the action in on-screen renditions of the superb suite of songs he composed for the film. For all its black humor, watching the film is a joyful experience, in no small part because of Price's presence. -

The Pleasures of the Damned

black sparrow press was sold in 2002, renamed
black sparrow books, founder john martin retiring
and
the name of charles bukowski stripped from its catalogue.
bukowski who made martin and sparrow famous, or
was it the other way around,
or maybe
even
a two-way street?

but like their website says, "times change, tastes change, and bukowski thrives on the inside now,"
the inside being ecco press, an imprint of harpercollins,
and they
god bless them
keep over three dozen of hank chinaski's books in print,
including the two new ones we'll look at
here.

the pleasures of the damned: poems, 1951-1993 does a
helluva good job
of conveying buk's range, from surreal ("the veryest") to
to haiku-like ("Mongolian coasts shining in light") to
of course
his dominant mode, the grittily, unprettily autobiographical.

and despite the legend of his drunkenly bashing out his stuff
(which maybe alright he did, but he also remorselessly
cut and trashed the worst midnight effusions)
these lines reveal no flab, no excess wordage,
but only a striving for taut liveliness and interest and connection,
the transcription of reality as filtered through one man's life
and consciousness-
or in other words,
poetry's essence.

oh sure, some repetition intrudes in a lifetime's bunched work:
men who mow lawns are always dullards;
society and duty are always a charging bull;
life is always a horse race.
but there is more variety than sameness here,
and editor john martin's grouping of similarly themed poems
(on a dead wife, john fante, cats, and buk's own mortality)
makes for concentrated bursts of power.

martin also assembled the people look like flowers at last
the fifth posthumous collection, some of the poems in which
also appear in pleasures.

here we get bukowski ranging
still in vigorous form
over the whole territory of his life:
childhood, the peripatetic drunken era, the post office years,
the high tide of his
"success."
some longer narrative poems such as
"Rimbaud be damned"
approach the narrative texture of his stories.

the sum effect of 800 pages of buk's poetry
is surprisingly life-affirming in the face of his rep
as a cranky misanthrope.

cats, his daughter, mountains, certain writers,
beer, cigars, a lobster dinner-
these things and others shine out as beacons
amidst the desolate terrain
populated by
humans worse than beasts,
where only dodging, weaving, and feinting
through a web of words
keep a proud man sane, alive and
less lonely than otherwise.
-

Do You Believe?

Teacher and filmmaker Antonio Monda interviewed eighteen prestigious figures from the arts for this book, although the word "interviewed" overstates it a touch: "polled" might be better, given that his questions focus, like those of a telemarketer, on a single issue. Monda wants to know from these eminences whether they believe in God, and if so, what form their belief takes. Some of them seem rather nettled by his presumption. "I'm afraid of banality," says Saul Bellow. Others, meanwhile, seem not to be afraid of banality at all: "It's said that God is in the details," muses Richard Ford. "Or maybe it's the Devil who's in the details. I always get those two confused." But I may be doing Ford an injustice here: Do You Believe? was first published in Italy in 2006 as Tu Credi? and then translated for this edition by Ann Goldstein, which means that the original comments have been rendered into Italian and then back out of it -- not a process likely to preserve much of their native zest. So Spike Lee, in these pages, sounds exactly like Jane Fonda, whose diction in turn strongly resembles that of David Lynch. Or could it be that talking about God reduces all but the simplest or most brilliant to the same state of windy abstraction? Certainly, there'd be a hint of divine justice in that. -

The Geography of Bliss

As a foreign correspondent for National Public Radio, Eric Weiner has spent much of his career traveling to some of the world's least happy places -- Iraq and Afghanistan among them. With his first book, The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World, he decided it was time for a change of approach. "What if, I wondered, I spent a year traveling the globe, seeking out not the world's well-trodden trouble spots but, rather, its unheralded happy places?" he writes. "Places that possess, in spades, one or more of the ingredients that we consider essential to the hearty stew of happiness: money, pleasure, spirituality, family, and chocolate, among others..." So he set about seeking a variety of Shangri-Las: testing tolerance and Moroccan hashish in the Netherlands; learning to accept loss and relinquish regret in Bhutan; marveling at the darkness, drunkenness and remarkable creativity in Iceland; eschewing introspection and embracing fun in Thailand; looking for contrast in miserable Moldova, "the world's least happy country." Along the way, Weiner gathers insights from many wise and well-traveled people, relates the latest findings in the field of happiness research, and turns enough pleasing phrases to keep even the surliest reader ? happy. -

Watchman

Ian Rankin's early novel, "Watchman," followed the first of his books starring Inspector John Rebus, the whiskey-tinctured, smoke-cured misanthrope of Auld Reekie. Sunny only by comparison with Rebus, Miles Flint, another Scot, is an MI5 agent who lives in the London of the mid-1980s, the heyday of IRA bombings. Shortly after we meet him, dyspeptic with midday drink and loath to go home to his jittery marriage, he botches a job and a man is assassinated. The next thing you know, Flint's investigation into what went amiss begins to turn up inconvenient details and he is shunted off to Northern Ireland on a caper that gets fishier and fishier. Treachery is everywhere. We are in a fallen world-though one with electric suspense and a good deal of action. Rankin's righteous pleasure in scenes of urban sordidness, institutional self-preservation, and the suave hypocrisy of life's winners is gratifyingly evident in this youthful, fleet-footed offering. -

O Lucky Man!

Malcolm MacDowell first appeared on screen as Mick Travis in If?, Lindsay Anderson's 1968 film about rebellion in an English private school. Five years later, Anderson and MacDowell brought Travis back in O Lucky Man!, a film exhilarating contradictions: intricately structured yet with a improvisatory feel, it tells an allegorical tale of the evils of capitalism with a sardonic mind and a light heart. Imagine Voltaire's Candide restaged by Bertolt Brecht, then redeemed by performers (Rachel Roberts, Ralph Richardson, a very young Helen Mirren) who seem to be having the time of their lives. As the fable unfolds, the ambitious Travis embarks on a career as a coffee salesman only to find himself falling into a bottomless pot of hot water, scalded by seduction, duplicity, greed, betrayal, and corruption. Throughout, the musician Alan Price (a founding member of The Animals) comments on the action in on-screen renditions of the superb suite of songs he composed for the film. For all its black humor, watching the film is a joyful experience, in no small part because of Price's presence. -

Eiji Tsurubaya: Master of Monsters

In August Ragone's charming, colorful and comprehensive biography, Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters, there are numerous photos of Ragone's auteur subject, the Japanese SFX genius and "father" of Godzilla, Ultraman, Mothra, and scores of other well-loved cinematic and televisual creations, bestriding his insanely detailed miniature sets like a deity, as large as the various rubber-suited antiheroes clustered around him. With his trademark fedora and dapper suits, cigarette perpetually alight, Tsuburaya is the epitome of artistic cool, looking more like a member of the Rat Pack or a Miles Davis compatriot than any salaryman. Exhibiting keen instincts for outrageous visuals, a sense of mythology worthy of Joseph Campbell, a direct line to the zeitgeist, and the inextinguishable playfulness and fecund ingenuity of the ten-year-old who, upon seeing his first film in 1911, immediately constructed his own toy projector, Tsuburaya (1901-70) had a hand in over 150 films during his long career, engendering fond memories of monster marathons in several generations. Ragone's text delves minimally into the psychodynamics and day-to-day family life of Tsuburaya, instead focusing on his professional accomplishments; it sings the litany of one lovingly handcrafted monster after another, created first for Toho studios, and then for Tsuburaya's own production company. One suspects that this particular spotlight on the workaholic Tsuburaya is the most accurate and flattering, and it certainly makes for an engrossing narrative. Several sidebars by experts and comrades of the man cover everything from the feedback loop of American-Japanese-American cultural borrowings to the raft of collectibles spawned by Tsuburaya's dreams-made-latex. The enigmatic smile on Ultraman, we learn, derives in part from the smile of Kannon, a Japanese Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion. I suspect some of Tsuburaya's own glee is blended in as well. -

Oscar Peterson, 1925-2007

Oscar Peterson may not only have been the most famous jazz pianist to have ever lived, he may also have been the most recorded. As featured artist, co-leader, and valued sideman, the Canadian keyboardist can be found on literally hundreds of albums. These often astonishing recordings also drew audiences to Peterson?s live performances over the decades: his speed, agility, and precision would have to be seen to be believed. But Peterson was more than a technical marvel. When the stars were aligned, Peterson offered a beautiful piano sound that, when matched with his relentless swing, prodigious harmonic knowledge, and lexicon of sturdy jazz melodies, could profoundly please as well as astound. There isn?t just one Peterson recording that captures the essence of this remarkable musician -- how could there be? -- but Night Train (pictured here) will do just fine. With his phenomenal technique, Peterson could have easily operated as a one-man show, but he was also a surprisingly gifted bandleader, and this 1962 gem features two of his most sympathetic bandmates: bassist extraordinaire Ray Brown and the vastly underrated drummer Ed Thigpen. Together they give a master class in small-group swing, with the leader, relaxed yet fully in charge, displaying an admirable spareness. Jazz lost its share of giants in 2007, but for a great many, Peterson?s exit is the deepest cut. -

The Book of Other People

There is a peculiar pleasure in looking into an artist's notebook. Deciphering the many layers of moving parts that make a masterpiece can be somewhat mysterious, but in sketch one sees the bones. Thus, there is a pleasantly didactic quality in the 23 literary sketches presented in this anthology edited by Zadie Smith, who merely instructed other writers to "make someone up," then ordered the results alphabetically, by characters' first names. (Given that the funds generated are going to 826 New York, one of six children's writing centers originally founded by Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, and now seemingly supported by every major writer in many major cities, the instructional value goes two ways.) The Book of Other People is about character (sometimes, as Smith points out in her introduction, writers chose to "deny the possibility of character.") In many cases -- among them, A. L. Kennedy's piece on a scorned husband and Z. Z. Packer's about a romance between a Pita Delicious employee and a grad student -- the stories are as rich as any in the authors' work. Others are a smart exercise in minimalism. Nick Hornby and Posy Simmonds, for example, manage to encapsulate a man's literary career in a story told entirely in faux book jacket bios and author photos. Daniel Clowes and Chris Ware provide a full-color strip each. Personality types are as specific as Hari Kunzru's portrait of the neighborhood crazy lady in her lime-green thong and as archetypal as Aleksandar Hemon's brief treatment of a man who closely resembles a certain biblical savior. Not everyone felt it necessary to equate "character" with "human": Toby Litt gives us a monster; George Saunders, a puppy. Taken together, the entire anthology provides an excellent master class in the raw materials from which fiction is made. -

Fugitive Denim

Most garments carry labels with a single country but handprints from a multitude of nations, writes Rachel Louise Snyder. For her first book, the journalist traveled to a bunch of these nations to unravel the convoluted forces at work behind the production of a pair of jeans. Fugitive Denim -- which carries the arch but accurate subtitle A Moving Story of People and Pants in the Borderless World of Global Trade -- introduces readers to a cotton inspector in Azerbaijan, the struggling former Soviet republic that grows the crop but must send it elsewhere to be spun into thread; a denim designer in Italy, who worries about the relocation of his country?s manufacturing sector to Asia; a factory auditor in China, employed by the Gap to monitor overseas working conditions; and, most movingly, two female garment workers in Cambodia, a country that was offered a bigger piece of the U.S. textile market in exchange for working to eradicate sweatshops. Snyder is an amiable tour guide, elucidating the often dizzying contradictions of globalization with wry humor and compassion. And she manages to strike a hopeful tone (the book includes an admiring profile of Edun, the high-end and socially conscious fashion line backed by Bono), almost in spite of her stark portrayal of the environmental and human losses behind each pair of jeans. -

The Deportees and Other Stories

Dubliner Roddy Doyle's first short story collection describes the "new Ireland" that emerged in the 1990s, a land of booming economic opportunity and burgeoning immigration. "I went to bed in one country and woke up in a different one," writes Doyle. Each one involves someone new to Ireland interacting with a native, with much cross-cultural confusion and dark humor ensuing -- along with Doyle's furious and consistent compassion for the underdog. But true understanding often results. The first story centers on Larry, a "hip" Irish father whose daughter Stephanie brings home a Nigerian suitor. Larry's level of discomfort, his terror at saying the wrong thing, creates hilarity and exquisite tension, but Doyle never falls back upon stereotypical encounters. The title story is a sequel to Doyle's The Commitments. Lovable Johnny Rabbitte is back, assembling a band of misfits: a Romanian, a Russian, and an African singer named King Robert. The best here is, "New Boy," in which a nine-year-old African immigrant fights off bullies and struggles to adapt to a new school. There isn't a bad story in the bunch, and each introduces vivid characters struggling with self-identity in a newly multicultural Ireland. Roddy Doyle has long been a treasure, and this collection wonderfully reflects his richly comic humanity. -

Marx's Das Kapital

Karl Marx's most recent biographer here proposes a radical idea: that we should consider Marx's massive Das Kapital as a great work of modernist literature. Not, in other words, as a piece of revolutionary agitprop, which, after all, well describes the short Communist Manifesto, a polemic that no longer haunts much of the world. Marx's masterpiece instead reads like a grand parody of the classic economic and political thinkers. And his style reflects the wealth of literary influences he absorbed in his studies at the British Museum: gothic novels, Victorian melodrama, black farce, Greek tragedy, and satirical utopias. Marx the polymath relies on a wealth of quotation and the writers he knew by heart: Shakespeare, Goethe, Dante, and Balzac. His historical and economic research also combine to produce a work that Wheen rightly considers sui generis, a literary collage in the modernist grain, to be sure, but a work of social consequence as well. Its very length, though, has contributed much to its misreading -- the prominent recent French Marxist Louis Althusser admitted that he never got beyond a few chapters! Wheen, for his part, expertly defines the key concepts: the labor theory of value, the nature of commodities, and dialectical materialism. And he defends Marx against the nonsense and horror perpetrated in his name. It's a tall order in the post?Cold War world, but Wheen makes his case with clarity and wit. In Wheen's view, Marx's testament to the dynamism and resilience of bourgeois capitalism is more meaningful now than ever in the current global economy. This is the perfect introduction -- an exhortation, really -- to a work we ignore at our peril. -

July 28: Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin eloped on this day in 1814.

Crime fiction legends Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly discuss the new book that unites their beloved sleuths Patrick Kenzie and Harry Bosch.

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Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
Paradise and Elsewhere

Canadian short story marvel Kathy Page emerges as the Alice Munro of the supernatural from these heartfelt tales of shapeshifting swimmers, mild-mannered cannibals, and personality-shifting viruses transmitted through kisses.

Pastoral

When a persuasive pastor arrives in a sleepy farm town, his sage influence has otherworldly results (talking sheep, a mayor who walks on water). But can he pull off the miracle of finding kindly local Liz Denny the love of her life?  Small wonder looms large in this charmer from Andre Alexis.

The Hundred-Year House

When a poetry scholar goes digging through the decrepit estate of his wife's family to uncover a bygone arts colony's strange mysteries, he awakens a tenacious monster: his mother-in-law. A wickedly funny take on aging aristocracies from author Rebecca Makkai (The Borrower).