Displaying articles for: January 2009

Lark and Termite

Jayne Anne Phillips astonished readers with her prodigious first book of short stories, Black Tickets (1979), and her masterful Vietnam-era novel, Machine Dreams. She returns full blast with her sixth work of fiction, a novel that explores how casualties of the Korean War reverberate through a patched-together West Virginia family. Lark and Termite carries clear Faulknerian lineage: Like The Sound and the Fury, its story is told, in language laced with idiosyncrasies, by a quartet of distinctive voices, one of whom, like Faulkner's Benjy, is mentally limited but gifted with a special interior vision. But it's Phillips's fluid and original prose and her imaginative virtuosity that put her in the same league with her southern forebear. The four storytelling voices in Lark and Termite are exquisitely balanced. Corporal Robert Leavitt's tale of war focuses on several days in July 1950, when, mortally wounded by his own forces, he is pinned down with a group of Korean refugees in a railroad tunnel at No Gun Ri. The other narratives are set in July 1959, as a big storm bears down on Winfield, West Virginia. Leavitt's son Termite, born while his father is fighting in Korea, has hydrocephaly and cannot speak or walk. His perceptions are conveyed in intense flashes of poetic brilliance. Termite's stepsister Lark, his major caretaker, is feisty and capable, with a palpable sensuality. Their aunt Nonie, who carries the family's secrets, adds a note of adult realism to the precarious situation in which the orphans find themselves, with Social Services aiming to separate them. As the novel unfolds, and the monstrous storm floods the town, the central figure of mystery becomes Lola, Nonie's rebellious sister, the seductive wife Robert Leavitt yearns for as he lies dying, the mother Lark and Termite can only conjure from hand-me-downs and shards of memory. Lola's story, and theirs, converge in this emotionally complex and deeply rewarding novel.

The Uncrowned King

Canadian journalist Kenneth Whyte wants you to forget everything you think you know about William Randolph Hearst. In this lively revisionist biography of the newspaper icon, which covers the three years after his 1895 purchase of the New York Journal, Whyte argues that Hearst's terrible reputation, solidified by Orson Welles's thinly disguised portrait in the "scurrilous" Citizen Kane, is undeserved. True, Hearst's Journal engaged in a cutthroat circulation war with Joseph Pulitzer's New York World, pursued its share of lurid and sensationalistic stories (the phrase "yellow journalism" was coined in relation to the two men's rivalry). But Whyte ably demonstrates that Hearst, barely into his 30s when he took over the Journal, just as often published substantive coverage of political and social issues. The book focuses on two key events in the paper's maturation, the dramatic 1896 presidential election between William Jennings Bryan and William McKinley and the 1898 Spanish-American War. W. A. Swanberg's influential -- and unflattering -- 1961 biography, Citizen Hearst, called Hearst's coverage of the run-up to the war "the most disgraceful example of journalistic falsehood ever seen." Whyte, however, denies that Hearst attempted to instigate a war to drive up circulation, casting doubt on what he calls the publisher's "most famous utterance," a telegram to a Journal artist who'd asked permission to leave Cuba because "there will be no war": "You furnish the pictures, and I'll furnish the war." After the American victory, Hearst called a truce with Pulitzer, and both men toned down their papers' excesses, bringing a close to a fierce and fascinating episode in the history of American journalism.

The Films of Budd Boetticher

Stars generate the box office while directors garner the scrutiny of serious film devotees, but the truth is that movies are, in the vast majority, collaborative efforts. The Films of Budd Boetticher affirms the satisfying results when a team of creative artists unites behind a collective vision. Not that the five superb westerns gathered in the collection fail to salute the prodigious talents of the director whose name adorns the title. Boetticher was a true Hollywood maverick whose fascinating career -- recounted in the bonus documentary A Man Can Do That -- is testament to his unyielding personal vision: he made the films he wanted to make the way he wanted to make them. But he had considerable support. From 1957 to 1960, Boetticher directed a consecutive series of taut westerns including The Tall T, Decision at Sundown, Buchanan Rides Alone, Ride Lonesome, and Comanche Station (the indispensible Seven Men from Now can be found separately), each produced by Harry Joe Brown and starring Randolph Scott. This fertile troika pays off by way of the unmistakable unity of these brisk yet deeply affecting films. Such no-nonsense masterpieces as The Tall T and Ride Lonesome are so stripped of unnecessary rhetoric and self-conscious visual ornament that they can make even the monumental westerns of, say, Ford or Hawks seem overblown. With his sinewy build, ramrod posture, and lived-in visage that suggests the intensity of the West itself, Scott, who could say multitudes with few words, embodies the edgy one-man-against-the-odds theme that Boetticher keeps brewing throughout the series. If Scott's collective character rides alone, Boetticher was lucky to find his greatest strengths in the company of others.

Poe: A Life Cut Short

In this commemorative season, when memories of Martin Luther King chime amid bicentennial celebrations of Lincoln and Darwin, the lugubrious remembrance of Edgar Allan Poe strikes a discordant note. Born on January 19, 1809, as the soon-to-be orphaned son of failing itinerant thespians, Poe was the child of sundered fortune. Haughty, insubordinate, and alcoholic, he suffered meaner troubles than the maddened, suffocating fates he told of in his tales; yet the whiff of some infernal magic about his life is unmistakable. His mother, a fragile, stagestruck creature, succumbed to tuberculosis when he was an infant, and the loss wove into him an aesthetic composed of delicacy and estrangement. "I could not love except where Death / Was mingling his with Beauty's breath," he wrote in youthful verse, revealing the compound of lurid intimacy and poetic inevitability that marks his legacy in letters. Poe: A Life Cut Short is an installment in Peter Ackroyd's Brief Lives series, and the prolific novelist deftly captures the frustrated menace of the man and the ragged world of rented rooms and dirt-floor saloons in which he served his cheap and angry exile. Lurching through this grimy purgatory of the 19th century, Poe blazed a path for literature in America. With a fierce critical intellect and a glowering imagination, his brief life blazes forth amid all its dusty shadows.

Big Box Reuse

The American suburban landscape is fairly strewn with the empty hulks of defunct shopping centers, residue of Kmarts and Wal-Marts and Sam's Clubs bygone. "Thousands of empty big boxes can be found right now all across the country," writes Julia Christensen, and in her first book, Big Box Reuse, a few of these aluminum orphans get a second -- or third, or fourth -- shot at life. Ten communities from Nebraska to Florida find ten creative solutions to their big box dilemmas: In Missouri and North Carolina, Kmarts become a library and a charter school; former Wal-Marts in Wisconsin and Texas turn into a senior center and an indoor go-kart track. One abandoned mega-shed, the bane of Austin, Minnesota, even gets made over as the Spam Museum ("YES, WE DO ANSWER THE INGREDIENTS QUESTION"). Christensen, Luce Visiting Professor of the Emerging Arts at Oberlin College, is an artist by trade, and in presenting photographic evidence of an investigation into adaptive reuse, her book is an exercise in conceptual art. But she also has the architect's eye and something of the architect's mind for the nuances of building typologies and urban form: as big box stores become big box churches and big box courthouses, the cultural perception of the big box type will change, as will the nature of the American city. Which is swell for designers and social scientists, but what about environmentalists? Christensen makes a good case for reuse as architectural recycling, but these big boxes are still car-fed, truck-fed, and interstate-bound.

Free Market Madness: Why Human Nature Is at Odds with Economics -- And Why It Matters

It's time a writerly physician weighed in on how free markets encourage obesity, and that's just what Peter Ubel does. Adding to the spate of popular books on human irrationality, Ubel makes a case for restraining markets that have gained more territory than they deserve. His argument is nuanced: far from shunning capitalism, he describes how better policies could help people get back on track. When it comes to deflating obesity, Udel calls for snack taxes, farm bill phaseouts, and weekly instead of monthly food stamp payments. These, he believes, could encourage people to make healthier decisions. After all, it just doesn't seem fair that advertisers have unfettered access to our hearts and minds while government attempts to counteract corporate power put "no nanny state" libertarians into fits and encourage powerful lobbies to bankroll political naysayers. In the same way books like The Paradox of Choice and Predictably Irrational present numerous studies to underscore how humans make poor decisions, Ubel's book chronicles various experiments showing that we can't quite keep our hands out of the (proverbial and actual) cookie jar, unless we get some help from Uncle Sam or some other agent who values our well-being over company profits. Ubel discusses how American irrationality also makes for a bloated health care system, long commutes, and other downers someone's got to fix. Though the book's message -- that the free market puts us in a position to harm ourselves -- is sobering, the prose is peppered with tasty recipes for improvement. Ubel will help you think twice about your own decisions, making you realize how little control you actually have.

John Milton: Life, Work, and Thought

John Milton is one of the enigmas of English letters; his imprint is deep, and yet its outlines are indistinct. Philip Pullman has done much to renew popular interest in Milton, even as he contests the poet's account of Good and Evil. Like Lyra's Oxford, the parallel universe that is the chief setting of Pullman's His Dark Materials series, Milton's world was topsy-turvy by present-day standards. In his strife-torn England, it was humanists who stood in the camp of monarchy, tradition, and authoritarianism, while religious conservatives were champions of science, representative government, and freedom of speech. John Milton: Life, Work, and Thought finds its force not only as a scholarly study of Milton's life and works but as a wide-ranging introduction to an age that, for all its strangeness, set the stage for modernity. Authors Gordon Campbell and Thomas N. Corns assemble the materials of Milton in all their knotty particulars, tracing the tender complexities of Milton's personal life, comprehending the rigors and rituals of the academic and clerical spheres in which he moved, and cataloging the difficulties (not to mention the mortal dangers) of living as a public intellectual in the time of Cromwell and King Charles. Milton navigated these turbid streams with a combination of flexibility and stubborness, and Campbell and Corns are scrupulousy attentive to the twists and turns of a career that combined profound theology and political engagement with poetic invention at its highest pitch. The lengthy job of work they set for their readers is repaid in rich fare for the historical imagination. "For books are not absolutely dead things," as Milton wrote, "but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are."

Penguin Story

Antoinette Portis's first picture book, Not a Box, was a stunning exploration of the imaginative world of early childhood. With a deft hand for sophisticated simplicity, Portis does it again with a graphic examination of the way color is central to our lives. The main character is Edna, a penguin. Edna, a torpedo-shaped form, bisected in black and white, placidly observes the colors that surround her. " 'White,' thinks Edna." As we join her gazing across an expanse of snow that reaches to the horizon a narrow band just inches from the top of the page. Short brushstrokes of white are tapped across the surface, indicating falling snow. The snowflakes subtly change shades, white on the gray sky transforming to a light gray and drifting to join the snow on the ground. Edna yearns for more colors as she observes the black of the night, then the blue of the sea and sky. She ventures forth on her quest for a hue that is not white, not black, and not blue. After a long expedition, she literally falls into a hill of safety orange. Edna embraces the glaring color and runs home as fast as she can to share her discovery. The community of penguins, following her lead, immediately begin the arduous journey over the frozen landscape. They finally arrive at the vivid arc of color that is the orange-clad Antarctic scientists' tent. Portis combines clean line with a limited palette, a very few words, and a deadpan sense of humor to create a surprisingly affecting tale of the quest for a world beyond our everyday experience.

The Complete Lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II

Maybe he didn't have the razor-edge irony of Stephen Sondheim or the bitchy wit of Lorenz Hart, but Oscar Hammerstein II was a colossus in the history of the American musical theater. A beautiful morning turned into an even more beautiful day as I whizzed through my favorites in this volume -- from the badly underrated Carmen Jones of 1943 to the "Pore Jud Is Daid" requiem in Oklahoma! I knew that Hammerstein slaved over his lyrics for weeks and was always a bit jealous that Dick Rodgers could sit down and bang out the perfect music in seconds. That care is evident in Oscar's amazing job on Carmen Jones, fitting Bizet's rousing music into an African-American idiom: ("Beat out dat rhythm on a drum, / Dere's one big heart for all de worl' ") "Pore Jud," proved another challenge: as Hammerstein said, it was tough to elegize this "sulky farmhand, a 'bullet-colored, growly man,' a collector of dirty pictures." But the lyrics find a way: "He's all laid out to rest / With his hands acrost his chest. / His fingernails have never b'en so clean." I could go on for pages -- there are 850 songs, about a quarter never before published in book form, including many cut and unused songs worth including in some dream show. A final anecdote to illustrate where credit is due: Mrs. Jerome Kern and Mrs. Oscar Hammerstein II were supposedly at a dinner at which a third companion told Mrs. Kern how wonderful it was that her husband had written "Ol' Man River." As Mrs. Kern was thanking her for the compliment, Mrs. H. chimed in, "My husband wrote 'Ol' Man River.' Her husband wrote, 'Da de da dum.' " Exactly.

Stones World

In 1999, when Tim Ries made his first tour playing saxophone and keyboards for the Rolling Stones, it was just becoming commonplace for hard-core jazz folk to deploy "new standards" -- industry parlance for the popular music that formed the soundtrack of the baby boom and subsequent generations in place of the iconic contents of the Great American Songbook, filled with II-V-I chord progressions and jazz-like harmonies -- as raw materials for improvising and interpretation. Ries made his own contribution to this movement in 2005, with the Rolling Stones Project (Concord), achieved in five separate recording sessions. Drawing upon the immersive experience of rehearsing, playing, observing, and reflecting upon hundreds of Stones songs, Ries reimagined ten of them, using as personnel three of the Stones, pop stars Sheryl Crowe and Norah Jones, Stones backup singers Bernard Fowler and Lisa Fischer, and jazz guitar heroes Bill Frisell and John Scofield. On the follow-up, Stones World (Sunnyside), recorded at various waystations on the Stones' 2005-7 "Bigger Bang" world tour, Ries ups the ante, tailoring the arrangements to reflect the grooves, meters, harmonies, and phrasing of the ethnic and national styles encountered, while remaining true to the melodic essence of each piece. Spanish dancer Sara Baras treats "Jumping Jack Flash" as a flamenco; Eddie Palmieri and sonero Hector Oliveros salsify "Under My Thumb"; the Tuareg group Tidawt Afro-funks the formerly reggae-ish "Hey Negrita," which sports an ebullient harmonica solo from Mick Jagger and lap steel guitar from Ron Wood; singer Ana Moura transforms "Brown Sugar" and "No Expectations" into vehicles for fado; French rapper Fe joins Fatima El Shibli, Magos Herrera, and Lisa Fischer to bring a one-world attitude to "Salt of the Earth"; and Fowler imparts a soulman sensibility to "Miss You." Lest you forget who the leader is, Ries himself blows a succession of informed tenor and soprano saxophone solos, propelled throughout by Charlie Watts's endlessly crisp, buoyant, jazzy beats.

Murderers in Mausoleums

In this corner, Bill Bryson and Peter Mayle, travelers on the bright side of the road. In the opposite corner, Ryszard Kapuscinski and Jeffrey Tayler, worthy wayfarers, too, but skinned to the journey's dark linings. Tayler is known to write fine, grim dispatches, from Russia and Africa, as a correspondent for Atlantic Monthly. In Murderers in Mausoleums, he takes a crescent-shaped swing from Red Square to Tiananmen Square via Central Asia, some 7,200 miles through inimical lands that have known a millennium's worth of pillage, plunder, and ugly governing since the good old days of Genghis Khan -- just Tayler's bailiwick, a pretty slice of anomie. He seeks to measure the emotional temperature of village and rust-belt town dwellers, see how they are faring under the latest Great Game: Russia, the United States, and China wooing the new steppe-and-desert republics to control, through ratty geopolitical one-upmanship (or simple thuggery), their strategic footing and vast energy deposits. Tayler leavens the trip with some transporting landscapes -- Kyrgyzstan's red-orange massifs, say, topped by snowy peaks -- and those everyday, indelible chance encounters: sharing a melon, a pie, or a cigarette with locals, perhaps a gold-toothed woman in Gypsy scarves and floral skirts. But Tayler focuses on the hard-bitten life of the vox populi, scraping by on wits and wiles amidst the corruption and mayhem (in Dagestan -- forget Chechnya, please -- Tayler is told, "We all get along really well here, despite our ethnic backgrounds ? I mean, aside from the bomb blasts and shootings"), while the Bush era's embarrassingly opportunistic support of regional "democratic" figures, such as Kazakhstan's odious Nursultan Nazarbayev, helps quash any populist impulse. Survival is the bottom line: people want stability and jobs, not bombast; if the "Great Game that began with the collapse of the Soviet Union has ended ?victory has gone to the home teams. The West is out." Tayler's is a sad song of autocratic ascendancy.

Baked: A New Frontier in Baking

Baked: A New Frontier in Baking by the owners of Brooklyn's eponymous caf‚ Baked, Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito, is, in a word, luscious. The Baked philosophy and flavor are clear in the introduction, "We would reduce sugar where possible and increase the amounts of chocolate where possible." The results are award-winning -- the Baked Brownie was declared the best by those ultra-selective testers, America's Test Kitchen. This dessert boasts 11 ounces of dark chocolate with cocoa powder and instant espresso for depth. The recipe calls for two sticks of butter and five eggs. Five eggs. The brownie is magnificent. It's dense and chocolaty and comes out of the oven just as beautiful as the picture. Most of Baked's recipes are updates of old favorites, like the Oatmeal Cherry Nut Cookies that give raisins the boot in favor of dried cherries, ground cardamom, and toasted walnuts. The Brewer's Blondies add malted-milk balls to the mix, and the Root Beer Bundt cake seems like a dessert best tried once for family and then, if successful, added to the bake sale menu. The book's design is carefully trendy, with endpapers featuring a pattern of stylized orange deer silhouettes complemented by small blue birds. Photos are bright and clean, often staged with vintage place settings completing the hip yet down-home feel. Baked is unapologetic in its quest for a delicious, decadent dessert. From the Sour Cream Coffee Cake: "Though some similar recipes suggest you substitute low-fat sour cream or yogurt to reduce calories this is not one of those recipes." The focus on quality ingredients and simple, clear recipes make this book an excellent addition to any baker's bookshelf.

Behind the Bedroom Door: Getting It, Giving It, Loving It, Missing It

The roster of contributors to Paula Derrow's collection of tales about sex, relationships, and the many things in between is impressive for its intellect and sass. Here you will find women who say what you and yours have only thought, who use writerly metaphors to depict the tangles of being female, being a mother, being a lesbian, being young, being old, and, in all cases, being boldly vulnerable. Susan Cheever, Hope Edelman, and Lauren Slater are among the willing -- those who reveal their tastes and shortcomings through punchy stories. Cheever writes in praise of one-night stands, Edelman reflects on her teenage love affair with a bad boy turned groveling cheater, and Slater justifies sexless marriage. Reminiscent of the 2003 Bitch in the House anthology, Behind the Bedroom Door is every bit as scintillating, if not deliberately more sex-obsessed. What?s most impressive is the candor that these women muster -- here are respected teachers, authors, and parents who tell their secrets as though their kids will never lay eyes on their tell-alls, who unabashedly relate the quirks of their husbands and lovers. But then again, what appears foolhardy may be just another act of modern living. Their kids and lovers will find out, or be shown again, that the women they love crave more, have qualms, and revel in their mistakes as much as their independence. This is a fun, helpful read for "ladies" of all ages, and for men who seek to understand.

The Exchange Artist: A Tale of High-Flying Speculation and America's First Banking Collapse

Brandeis historian Kamensky has written an insightful, engaging, and timely account of America's first financial collapse, a crisis caused by risky speculation in real estate. Although Kamensky's story takes place during the presidency of Thomas Jefferson, it will sound eerily familiar to anyone conversant with today's tottering financial system. Boston entrepeneur Andrew Dexter had big dreams. Tying his ambition to the fledgling American banking system, he constructed the biggest building in Boston, a commercial center he named the Boston Exchange Coffee House. Dexter financed this $500,000 project, completed in 1809, with banknotes printed by a series of rural banks that he controlled. To describe these banks as undercapitalized would be an understatement. Dexter's banknotes were backed by only a few hundred dollars in gold deposits, yet he ordered his clerks to sign and issue hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of (worthless) banknotes, which were then used to pay his suppliers and workers. Kamensky meticulously details how Dexter took control of these rural banks and manipulated them to finance his activities. Dexter also used the press to promote his building scheme and to maintain public confidence in his worthless banknotes. In the end, Dexter's hyper-leveraged plans collapsed as the public discovered his fraud. Confronted with the forced closure of his banks and a government investigation of his crimes, Dexter fled to Canada. Kamensky does a stellar job explaining the fragility of the early American banking system and showing how Dexter took advantage of this fragility. The echoes with today abound.

Mosaic: A Celebration of Blue Note Records

Improvising -- spontaneous musical invention atop an underlying form -- is granted such obvious importance in jazz that the role of composition itself is often overlooked. Yet as satisfying as a freshly imagined solo will always remain, a freshly imagined solo following an ingeniously constructed and supremely musical tune can pack a far greater charge. Mosaic, attributed to the Blue Note 7, an ad hoc septet of top jazzmen assembled to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Blue Note Records, pays tribute to the joys of jazz melody as much as it glories in the legacy of a legendary record label or the vibrant talent of present-day players. The group, which includes pianist Bill Charlap, saxophonists Steve Wilson and Ravi Coltrane, guitarist Pete Bernstein, and trumpeter Nicholas Payton, treats the themes of such iconic pieces as Herbie Hancock?s "Dolphin Dance," Monk?s "Criss Cross," and McCoy Tyner?s ?Search for Peace? (all originally recorded for Blue Note) with straightforward, non-deconstructionist respect, imparting their admiration for the gemlike qualities of the works. A thoroughly mainstream recording, Mosaic is not colored by the experimental flavor that Blue Note in its prime often exemplified. But if none of these performances ruffle any feathers or leave the originals moldering even a bit in the dust, they all assert the quality of our most assured in-the-tradition players. The key soloists turn in exceptionally poised work -- supported in high style by the bassist Peter Washington and drummer Lewis Nash -- but that?s no surprise to anyone who has kept abreast of the jazz scene over the past decade. What Mosaic does point out, unfortunately, is the paucity of durable contemporary jazz composition -- particularly in comparison to the jewels on display in this fine recording.

Lincoln Shot: A President?s Life Remembered

Lincoln Shot: A President?s Life Remembered is the one title that stands out from the score of Lincoln children?s book biographies published to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the 16th president?s birth. Oversized at 12" x 18" and reproducing the format of an 1860s newspaper, it is best read sprawled out on the carpet, belly down, with copious time to pore over the antique type. Creative director Rich Dias and a production team of 12 have fashioned a newsprint facsimile complete with archival photos, historic advertisements, and Christopher Bing?s replica pen-and-ink drawings to create a special edition of a newspaper commemorating Lincoln?s life. The yellowed, foxed, and brittle pages lend an aura of authenticity as we are entranced by Barry Denenberg?s well-researched, matter-of-fact text. This simulated memorial edition opens with the reporting of Lincoln?s assassination, then follows the arrest and capture of the conspirators. Denenberg then provides information on Lincoln?s boyhood and his struggles with poverty, interspersing the text with Lincoln?s own words. Separating fact from legend, he presents a real yet flawed human being. Many young readers will not be aware of Lincoln?s early failures in business and politics, nor of his cobbled-together career as a postman-surveyor. Denenberg deftly renders the political climate in the years just preceding the Civil War, as well as the terrible weight of responsibility borne by Lincoln as the war unfolded. This handsome tribute somberly concludes with Whitman?s "O Captain! My Captain!"

The Fire Gospel

We demand of a satiric fiction so many things as to render success almost impossible. Wit, sardonicism, and laughter must blend into something that rises above mere spite. Jabs must draw blood without appearing cruel; the issues must be both timely and eternal. Add the daunting burden of every novel: to tell a captivating tale featuring real humans. Given these paradoxical criteria, it's no wonder that the number of great satires is so small. But The Fire Gospel increases that total by one, leaping gleefully over the genre's oxymoronic hurdles. From his truly creepy SF/horror excursion Under the Skinthrough the faux-Victorian romance The Crimson Petal and the White and a handful of superior short fictions, the stylistically mutable Michel Faber has seemed disinclined to repeat himself. This new book is both a delightful departure and a showcase for the author's established virtues. The story of young and ambitious antiquarian Theo Grippin and his discovery of a hidden testament from one of Jesus' lesser disciples is written with a wry, contemporary voice somewhat unusual for Faber, but the "transcriptions" of the ancient text recall his expert Victorian pastiches, and the climactic violence and captivity tropes summon up imagery from Under the Skin. These past modes recombine into an organic new whole that focuses on the insanity of religion, modern publishing, and the culture of celebrity. Theo's personal Stations of the Cross take him from a sexy publicist to gun-toting maniacs, from an avaricious publisher to vapid talk-show hosts, from a disdainful ex-girlfriend to New Age worshippers, in a comedic race across the postmodern landscape of ignorance and despair. Along with Christopher Moore's Lamb, Paul Park's The Gospel of Corax, and Gore Vidal's Live from Golgotha, this book will form part of every laughter-loving freethinker's cathechism.

Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews in World War II

Each crinkle in the well-lined faces that stare out from the crisp black-and-white photos in Norman H. Gershman's Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews in World War II seems to tell a story. The Albanian Muslims standing proud before Gershman's lens have endured much: Nazi occupation, Communist rule. But look into their eyes and you see heart-melting kindness, righteous determination, joy. Gershman, a fine-arts photographer, traveled to Albania and Kosovo to photograph Muslims who rescued Jews during World War II and to hear and share their stories. These Albanian Muslims -- some devout, some secular -- risked their lives to save not only Jews who lived in their country but also those escaping persecution elsewhere. They took them into their homes, lived with them as family, protected them at their own great peril. Though some now have been honored by Israel's Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations, none have sought reward or glory for their heroism. Each acted according to Besa, a code of honor integral to Albanian Muslim culture, requiring a person to help anyone in need. "God granted us the privilege of saving Jews," says Hamdi Mece, whose family sheltered 12 Jews. "To save a life is God's gift." Beqir Qoqja, 91, who hid a Jewish friend, insists he did "nothing special": "All Jews are our brothers." In these tumultuous times, where rifts and rivalries, intolerance and war, explode around us, these stories of compassion and commonality feel like a vital step toward healing the world.

The Vertigo Years

It is not uncommon to date the 19th century -- the "long century" -- from 1789 to 1914, so deep were the fissures of those two years. While the French Revolution has long been another country, we still live in the shadow of 1914. We have what Jacques Barzun termed a "laggard state of mind": "largely due to the blurring and dislocating effect of the First World War, we still hunt for solutions already found, we stumble over mental hurdles already removed, we rediscover naively and painfully." The mighty cultural, social, political, and technological ferment of Europe in 1900-14 is the subject of Philipp Blom's new book. He wants us to look at these years as more than foreshadowing, to look back as if we knew nothing of "the Sarajevo assassination, the Somme, the Great Crash, the Reichskristallnacht, Stalingrad, Auschwitz, Hiroshima, the Gulags, or the Berlin Wall." Blom gives over a chapter to each year and seems to have every conceivable subject comfortably to hand. The essay for 1906 flows from the Wilhelm II's miserable childhood and envy of his uncle, Edward VII of England, to the naval arms race between England and Germany, to Europe's militarism and extensive honor culture, to the trial for homosexuality of Wilhelm's close confidante, Philipp zu Eulenberg (and that of Oscar Wilde), to the celebrity of the bodybuilder Sandow the Great, to British popular novelists' Germanophobia, to Zionism (and ideas of Jewish virility), to the general worry over threats to the masculine identity. Each of Blom's chapters flows as sweetly and over topics as diverse. The Vertigo Years is a dazzling journey through a world changing rapidly.

American Buffalo

Instead of Coke, hot dogs, or apple pie, Steven Rinella contends that the authentic all-American food is buffalo. In his investigation of our continent?s largest land animal, he explores its contradictory representation of ?freedom and captivity, extinction and salvation.? He both tracks the 40,000-year history of American bison and offers an extraordinary firsthand account. In 2005, Rinella was granted one of 24 Alaskan hunting permits for the Copper River buffalo herd. Author of The Scavenger?s Guide to Haute Cuisine, he has written extensively about his experiences as a gamesman, but the magnitude of this hunt leads him on a quest far greater than his half-ton prey. His enthusiasm and conversational tone bring to life a subject that has largely fallen off the radar of popular imagination. Ted Turner owns more buffalo than live in the wild, and much of the romance of pursuing them disappeared with the advent of ?hunting? buffalo in captivity. By interweaving his tale with the animal?s history, Rinella has crafted an astonishing and intelligent narrative. Though his exhaustive research (and pursuit) may strike some as exhausting, it succeeds in framing one man?s hunt in a broader, relevant context. There?s no doubt that Rinella can be funny -- and sometimes crass -- but after he finally kills a buffalo, it?s his musings on guilt as ?the curse of the human predator? that leave a permanent trace.

Going to See the Elephant

Though set in the present day, Rodes Fishburne's Going to See the Elephant is cast from that sepia-toned San Francisco touched by the fantastic favored by many of today?s novelists. The protagonist, Slater Brown, is a young writer come to the big city to make his living. He finds work at a withering newspaper staffed by quintessential, hardened newspapermen straight out of a Marvel comic strip. Brown becomes a wildly successful muckracker overnight when his landlady gives him a transistor radio that (echoing John Cheever?s story ?The Enormous Radio?) picks up the city?s phone conversations while Brown rides the bus. The failing paper is saved; the corrupt mayor, whose schemes Brown has been exposing weekly, vows to demolish him -- but, as in all good novels of this ilk, an ill-fated love affair destroys the reporter quite nicely. Meanwhile, a famed inventor creates a computer that can make weather, which is unleashed all over San Francisco, and Brown?s reporting skills are needed one final time. Going to See the Elephant is threaded with a sly, engaging humor. When a beautiful socialite planted by the mayor to uncover Brown?s secret scoop-grabbing skills puts the moves on the intrepid protagonist, the narrator observes, ?For young women like Brooke van der Snoot the world was divided not into black and white or even rich and poor, but rather into cute and not cute.? And there is Fishburne?s San Francisco -- a magical dream city on a bay so placid a young, wildly successful reporter can paddle a beautiful, mysterious chess star in a rowboat from Fisherman?s Wharf to a cove on Alcatraz Island for a picnic lunch, and the worst that happens is the tide flees before they can return. It?s a place San Franciscans won?t recognize but readers will love.

Isadora Duncan: A Graphic Biography

Sensational, glamorous, revolutionary: for nearly a century, the superlatives used to describe Isadora Duncan have wrapped the woman behind the legend in tantalizing mystery, much the way her classically draped dance attire covered (or revealed) her body. Though a plethora of books (including her own audacious autobiography) and photographs documented Duncan's leap from ballet's rigid discipline to the development of her own modern style, this slim volume is the first graphic biography whose exuberant pen-and-ink drawings perfectly capture the fervid life of this dance icon. Chapter by chapter (festooned with such descriptive titles as "Snowdrop in the Dunes" and "Revolt of the Isadorables"), Sabrina Jones's curving lines and graceful letters chronicle a story that feels as fresh and immediate as if it were happening today. Beginning with Isadora's childhood in California, where she was raised in the chaotic but loving charge of her single mother, the pictures prance across the page and the world, to Paris, Berlin, Budapest, and Vienna. In Greece, Duncan seeks the roots of her expression among the temples of antiquity; in Russia, she embraces Communism and founds a state school. Lovers are seduced. Riches and recognition come and go in waves.Duncan bears two children, Deirdre and Patrick, who are later tragically killed when their car rolls into the Seine. And though we well know that Isadora met her own end in a bizarre car accident, the vitality that delivers this dramatic story to old admirers and "a generation in flip-flops" alike resonates like the hum of an audience, so electrified by the performance that they are still crackling with energy long after the curtain falls.

Loot: The Battle over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World

In the late 1960s, New York?s Metropolitan Museum of Art quietly acquired the Lydian Hoard, several hundred treasures dating to the reign of King Croesus in the sixth century B.C. The collection, discovered by tomb raiders, had been smuggled out of Turkey before the Met, following the informal "don?t ask, don?t tell" policy then governing the purchase of unprovenanced antiquities, paid $1.5 million for it. A dogged Turkish reporter tracked down the collection, setting in motion a legal battle between Turkey and the museum that resulted in the 1993 return of the artifacts. The Turkish victory was followed by two disturbing revelations: 1) in five years, only 769 people visited the Usak museum that now houses the collection, and 2) the masterpiece of the Hoard, a golden brooch, was stolen from Usak and replaced with a fake. This complex episode is one of many described in Sharon Waxman?s endlessly fascinating book about a raging cultural conflict. Should the antiquities displayed in Western museums stay where they are, carefully preserved and seen by millions, even if they were acquired unethically or illegally? Or should they be returned to the countries demanding restitution, even if those countries? museums are underfunded and disorganized? Waxman focuses on the claims of Turkey, Egypt, Greece, and Italy against the Met, the Louvre, the British Museum, and the Getty Museum, whose former curator, Marion True, tried on criminal charges in Italy, has become the scapegoat of the museum world. With lucid historical context and topnotch reporting -- the issue seems to draw intelligent, passionate, and outsize personalities -- the author finds no easy answers. But she recommends a sensible starting point, arguing that museums, which have resisted transparency, must acknowledge their role in a "history of plunder and appropriation... for the public to understand the true origins of these great works of antiquity."

The Liberal Imagination

It?s hard to imagine an era when liberals could be called complacent, or even ascendant. But Lionel Trilling?s landmark collection of essays, first published in 1950, argued not only that conservative thought in America was bankrupt but that liberalism -- what we would call the progressive left -- had settled into a self-satisfied ideology. With the tide so turned today, what makes these essays, many first published in The Nation and the Partisan Review, worth reprinting? Simply put: Trilling?s distaste for all ideologies, especially as they shape critical opinion. Substitute identity politics for liberalism, and you begin to see Trilling?s relevance. What links these somewhat disparate pieces is Trilling?s firm belief in the moral imagination and his acceptance of an ambivalence that transcends easy categories. His beef with now-forgotten critics like V. L. Parrington resonates in our current cultural climate, with its confused notion of literary realism. For Trilling, the touchstone is Henry James, and his essay on James?s novel The Princess Casamassima is something of a critical masterpiece, teasing out the political intelligence and the "moral realism" of that difficult book. Numerous articles about the state of the novel, and his brilliant dissection of the Kinsey Report, prove Trilling alive to "a culture?s hum and buzz of implication." His ongoing engagement with Freud easily withstands the test of time, highlighting both the limits and uses of psychology in understanding the human mind. Trilling writes with the great tradition at his fingertips -- Cervantes, Proust, Flaubert, Dostoevsky, Shakespeare and Keats all inhabit his thinking. And his essays on writers as different as Wordsworth, Kipling, Tacitus, and Fitzgerald demonstrate his expansive sense of the critical imagination. Considered one of the fathers of neoconservatism for his critique of liberalism, Trilling displays a subtlety and elegance so often lacking in his ham-fisted epigones.

The Vertigo Years: Europe 1900-1914

It is not uncommon to date the 19th century -- the "long century" -- from 1789 to 1914, so deep were the fissures of those benchmark years. While the French Revolution has long been another country, we still live in the shadow of 1914. We have what Jacques Barzun termed a "laggard state of mind": "argely due to the blurring and dislocating effect of the First World War, we still hunt for solutions already found, we stumble over mental hurdles already removed, we rediscover na‹vely and painfully." The mighty cultural, social, political, and technological ferment of Europe in 1900–14 is the subject of Philipp Blom?s new book. He wants us to look at these years as more than foreshadowing, to look back as if we knew nothing of ?the Sarajevo assassination, the Somme, the Great Crash, the Reichskristallnacht, Stalingrad, Auschwitz, Hiroshima, the Gulags, or the Berlin Wall.? Blom gives over a chapter to each year and seems to have every conceivable subject comfortably to hand. The essay for 1906 flows from Wilhelm II?s miserable childhood and envy of his uncle Edward VII of England, to the naval arms race between England and Germany, to Europe?s militarism and extensive honor culture, to the trial for homosexuality of Wilhelm?s close confidant, Philipp zu Eulenberg (and that of Oscar Wilde), to the celebrity of the bodybuilder Sandow the Great, to British popular novelists? Germanophobia, to Zionism (and ideas of Jewish virility), to the general worry over threats to the masculine identity. Each of Blom?s chapters flows as sweetly, and over topics equally diverse. The Vertigo Years is a dazzling journey through a world changing rapidly.

July 24: On this day in 1725 John Newton, the slave trader-preacher who wrote the hymn "Amazing Grace," was born.

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

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.


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).