Displaying articles for: October 2007

Breathless

Long before Quentin Tarantino and his imitators brought postmodernism to the cineplex, Jean-Luc Godard introduced movie audiences to the features we now associate with independent film: quirky plots, oddball characters, and unconventional technique. And there's no better place to witness the beginnings of hip postwar cinema than here: the Criterion Collection's digital remastering of Godard's first feature, A Bout de Souffle (Breathless, 1960), his simple tale of a bored, thrill-seeking American beauty (played by Jean Seberg) and her French lover, a car thief and cop killer played with amazing insouciance by Jean-Paul Belmondo. Along with Truffaut, Chabrol, and Resnais -- all former critics and future members of the New Wave -- Godard paid homage to the great American genre films and rejected the stolid style of mainstream, big-budget French movies. In Breathless he follows his young lovers with a hand-held camera through the streets of Paris and elsewhere crams us into a hotel room with them as they flirt, argue, and make faces. Godard's blend of high and low cultural references -- Belmondo mimics Bogart while Seberg quotes Faulkner -- would come to define postmodernism, and his moral ambiguities anticipate so much of the easy-riding, raging-bull generation of directors. The DVD extras include rare interview footage from the '60s and one of Godard's early shorts; the accompanying booklet collects key texts from his career as a critic. All of which testifies to, among other things, his genius for spontaneity. Godard's kinetic, jazzy style, with its legendary jump cuts within scenes, derived more from the exigencies of his shoestring budget than from planned technical subversion. The result is liberating -- indeed, breathtaking. -

The Last Cavalier

It isn't every publishing season that one gets to welcome a new book by the author of The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo, and The Man in the Iron Mask. Or, consequently, to lose oneself afresh -- for hundreds of headlong pages -- in a state that one can only characterize as narrative bliss, borne along on a stream of daring adventures that courses from dishonor to glory, with all sorts of diverting hurdles and obstacles along the way. So let's just state directly that it is a joy to plunge into this massive volume, a novel that, until the late 1980s, suffered a fate not unlike that of its hero, languishing in prison at the outset of his tale. Indeed, The Last Cavalier was lost for 125 years in the archives of the National Library in Paris until Dumas scholar Claude Schopp stumbled upon it in serial form in an 1869 newspaper. He recognized its sweeping chronicle of the life of Hector, Count de Sainte-Hermine, as filling a gap in the fictional panorama of French history Dumas had constructed in his other novels; that the gap covers the Age of Napoleon only enhances the interest of Hector's exploits in restoring his family's honor through death-defying battles with bandits, boa constrictors, and the British at Trafalgar. Not quite complete, but with enough plot and passion for a dozen novels, The Last Cavalier is sheer delight. Translated by Lauren Yoder. -

Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War

The German rocket engineer who became a celebrity of the "space race" has long been a divided figure in the eye of the American public. On the one hand, his role as a compelling pitchman for the U.S. space program in the 1950s, and his leadership of the Saturn rocket program in the astronaut-maddened 1960s put Wernher von Braun at the center of the efforts to land men on the moon. On the other, his legacy as the developer of the infamous Nazi V-2 rockets tarnishes his burnished reputation as a symbol of scientific progress: the musical satirist Tom Lehrer famously imagined him shrugging: "'Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?'" Michael J. Neufeld's penetrating new biography tries to capture this complex, undoubtedly gifed man as a whole. Neufeld takes as his book's touchstone Goethe's Faust, and this emphasis brings to the fore the vital question: how much are von Braun's accomplishments the fruit of a truly Faustian bargain? The answer, we learn here, seems to be "a great deal." The great engineer's childhood dreams of spaceflight ruled his entire career, and their allure may have enabled von Braun to ignore the manifest evil of the regime which helped him realize them. Neufeld gives an unsparing account of the slave labor camp that produced the V-2, and these appalling passages land on the reader with devastating effect. Ironically, Von Braun's eagerness to re-invent himself seems particularly American. He was aided in the transformation by his temperament, which allowed him in later years to turn away from the nightmares of the past: Neufeld convincingly suggests that "looking to the future was a reflex that came naturally to him." But our eyes are drawn to an atrocity so massive as to exert an inescapable gravity over the rocketeer's vision of a purely scientific ascent. -

The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century

Just as living air-conditioned lives has led us to be simultaneously both less aware and more sensitive to the constant invention of the weather, so has our by now complete immersion in a world of recorded sound altered our perception of the power of music. Certainly when it comes to classical composition, our listening is, generally speaking, less rapt and more impatient; the commodifying of opera, symphony, string quartet, and even the most innovative compositional forms into so many CDs has stripped them of their sense of larger destiny as cultural and historical meaning distilled into fleeting moments of experience in the life of the listener. In this rich, stimulating, and thoroughly satisfying book, New Yorker music critic Alex Ross restores that sense of destiny by "listening to the twentieth century," leading us from a 1906 performance of Strauss' Salome (conducted by the composer and attended by Puccini, Mahler, and Schoenberg) to Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians. Attuned to the way musical meaning, though "vague, mutable, and, in the end, deeply personal," can underscore and even echo the movements of history, Ross puts his agile intelligence, eclectic ear, and superb critical skills to use in enriching our experience of -- or, better yet, introducing us to -- the works of composers as varied as Stravinsky and Sibelius, Britten and Xenakis. Combining his enviable erudition with a gift for fashioning compelling narrative paths through thorny but exhilarating aesthetic and intellectual terrain, peopled with maverick minds and compelling personalities, Ross has written a fascinating, even exciting book, one that will inform a lifetime's listening. -

1080 Recipes

Spanish cuisine, once the neglected stepchild of European culinary exports, has come into its own in the United States, thanks to a recent resurgence in tapas bars and specialty restaurants devoted to its preparation. Now comes serious help for those who don't merely want to eat glorious dishes from Spain's many regions, but who want the secrets to preparing them. When Phaidon Press brought The Silver Spoon out in its first English edition, they brought to American cooks their first look at the bible of the modern Italian kitchen. With this indispensible volume, they offer up a similarly overdue translation of 1080 Recipes -- Spain's Joy of Cooking, a bestseller in that country since its publication in 1972. This magnificent edition is at once a thorough guide to every aspect of Spanish cooking and a beautiful work of art. Nearly every page is embellished with full-color pastel drawings newly commissioned for this edition by Spanish artist and graphic designer Javier Mariscal. In his hands, eggplants and artichokes pop off the page, dogs nestle next to fully loaded tables of food, and red wine adds a deep burgundy splash to any meal. Then, there are the recipes, all 1080 of them. The Ortegas provide instructions on how to cure fresh olives at home, more than fifty pages of the tartlets, appetizers and cold plate dishes that make up a good tapas selection, over a half dozen recipes for paella, and desserts like melon and fig aspic. Most ingredients should be easily obtained at any American grocery store (they provide suggestions on how to find more exotic ones) and the recipes are tailored for daily home cooking. This is the kind of cookbook that is so lovely you want to set it on a coffee table for perusing. But it's most definitely meant to be used. -

Transit Maps of the World

What if the planet could one day be circumnavigated by mass transit? Reimagine that familiar flattened map, no longer with continents separated by oceans but rather connected by a network of color-coded lines that would enable a globe-trotter to shuttle from Vancouver to Newark, tunnel under the Atlantic to Rotterdam, check out Tashkent, and then be only a few connections away from Tokyo? This provocative image opens Mark Ovenden's unconventional transit map atlas, and in flipping these pages one sees serious thinking behind its utopian whimsy. A subway not only represents a literal mass movement of commuters but, at some point, involves moving the masses to agreement. Exorbitant enterprises in any era, these transit systems could never have been built without citizens first having grappled with their collective historical, economic, and political bedrock. Many of the earliest systems started in places like New York, where private companies were eager to gamble large fortunes to lay down tracks. Athens and Rome negotiate thousands of years of archaeology, while in Berlin, maps of the divided decades are poignant reminders of the Cold War. Given our polyglot planet, it's amazing to note the near-universal adoption of a graphic Esperanto for these maps, the improbably surreal formula of rainbow spaghetti topped with station names like so many methodically placed olives. Even more astounding: that monolingual tourists around the world manage to use them successfully. While Ovenden's page one vision is clearly an impossibility any time soon, it is thrilling to think that perhaps humankind's primordial wanderlust may ultimately link the world together in ways that neither the United Nations not even the most ambitious telecom networks ever could. -

Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu

Marco Polo came of age in a city of night edging toward dawn; it was opaque, secretive and rife with transgressions and superstitions. This description of Polo's native Venice, from Laurence Bergreen's vivid biography of the famous 13th-century traveler, is as romantic as any inspired by that fabled city. And it's in keeping with the book's emphasis on the exhilarating spectacle of Marco Polo's breakthrough travels. Not that there's any lack of detail about the restless career of the man himself, which truly began when his ambitious father took him thousands of miles to offer young Marco up as human tribute to the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan. But the heart of the book is in the profusion of magnificent episodes: the dangers of the Silk Road, the battle scenes (elephants vs. mounted archers), and the legendary grandeur of Kublai's palace. Indeed, "legendary" is a key concept here: as Bergreen notes, the further into Asia Polo traveled, the more his reports on his destination verged on the fabulous. Luckily, for readers of this entertaining and richly detailed portrait, the pleasure is all in the journey itself. -

30,000 Years of Art

Phaidon Press had great success with The Art Book, an illustrated, pocket-size survey of the history of art from antiquity to the present. 30,000 Years of Art outdoes even that, with 1,062 pages and 1,000 illustrated plates, all in a massive coffee-table book that weighs in at 13.2 pounds (the latter according to my creaky bathroom scale). Beginning with the Lion Man of Hohlenstein-Stadel (Germany, 2800 B.C.) and the Venus of Willendorf (Austria, 2500 B.C.) and ending with James Turrell's as-yet-unfinished project to transform the Roden Crater, an extinct volcano located in Arizona's Painted Desert, into an observatory, the book offers an exhaustive comparative history of world art. (The first examples of art A.D. -- a vase from Thailand and an Italian fresco -- don't even show up until page 310). The appendix offers a timeline showing developments throughout each part of the world. This is the kind of book that offers, say, the paintings of Monet and Manet juxtaposed against a Malaysian headboard and a Monaggan mask in the section on late-19th-century art. The contrasts throughout are fascinating and instructive. As a reference for scholars, a tutorial for students of any age, or simply tabletop entertainment to flip through at will, this book is, pound for pound, the most thorough and comprehensive art course one is likely to find between two covers. -

The Florist's Daughter

I come from people who have always been polite enough to feel that nothing has ever happened to them. So wrote Patricia Hampl in her first memoir, A Romantic Education; that 1981 book is a telling exploration of family and inheritance, detailing her journey from her native Minnesota to pre-Velvet Revolution Prague in quest of her father's Czech heritage. Meditative, lyrical, generous, it remains of the most memorable coming-of-age tales published in the past quarter-century.

Her new book, which begins at her mother's deathbed and circles back through the author's St. Paul childhood, focuses with similarly fulfilling attention on the two people she comes from most directly, a dapper florist and a fierce, savvy Irishwoman. "These apparently ordinary people in our ordinary town, living faultlessly ordinary lives, ... why do I persist in thinking -- knowing -- they weren't ordinary at all?" Her answer to that question -- delivered in a voice by turns poetic, reflective, narrative, and incisive -- is an aptly dutiful, extraordinarily beautiful testament. -

Good Germs, Bad Germs

Twin horror stories lead off this slender but vastly informative examination of bacteria and their intimate, complex role in our lives. One is an account of a high school football star stricken by a drug-resistant infection; the second describes a child whose food allergies threaten his life. Jessica Snyder Sachs tells their tales movingly but swiftly leaves them behind for her real subject: how our modern "war on germs" may have given rise to both their conditions. What follows is a Fantastic Voyage through the human body and the world of its millions of microbial denizens. It's a journey that sheds light on why, for all the scientific advances in hygiene and antibiotics, developed countries continue to face new and more daunting challenges in the form of "superbugs" and out-of-control allergies. Sachs isn't afraid of a little lab-speak, and Good Germs, Bad Germs will often make you wish you'd paid more attention in Bio 101. But the author has a knack for giving dramatic form to the many organisms that take the stage here. As she demonstrates how microbes swap genes, send out radar-like detection molecules, and brilliantly adapt to the strategies we use against them, we watch their astonishing feats as if in a brilliantly animated film. The result is an important -- and eye-opening -- inquiry into human-microbe coevolution. -

100 Days, 100 Nights

The title of Ashford and Simpson?s "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing" remains the yardstick of R&B. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings?s 100 Days 100 Nights, featuring a veteran singer who sounds like old school soul circa 1972 is part of her very DNA, revels in feel, a quality that just can?t be faked. Jones, who after a promising start in the 1970s, dropped out of the music business -- eventually becoming a Rikers Island corrections officer before her return in the 90s -- has the kind of mighty vocal assurance that announces itself from the first note on. Yet what best confirms her as the genuine article is the ability to hold back a voluminous voice to best effect; a classic quality that separates her from the mellisma -- obsessed showoffs that clog today?s airwaves. 100 Days is Jones?s third collaboration with the Dap-Kings, and the palpable comfort between singer and band is one of the album?s greatest joys. The Daps had a recent sprinkling of second-hand glory when producer Mark Ronson turned to them while crafting Brit-pop sensation Amy Winehouse?s Back to Black to achieve a sound that no modern technology could conjure up. The Dap- Kings may be for hire, but playing with Jones must feel like coming home for them. --

The Indian Clerk

The standards used to assess a new work of fiction's success -- pacing, immediacy of characterization, shapeliness of plot -- often avoid the deeper character of the novel at hand, to say nothing of the pleasures peculiar to the novel form: chief among them is the immersion in a world of apprehensions, personalities, and shifting realities as the reader wanders, acquiring intelligence -- or merely things to ponder -- along the way. A novel doesn't always have to compel attention to reward it; that's one of the differences between literature and the movies. David Leavitt's eighth novel offers such distinctive novelistic rewards. The stage for its exploration of ideas, sexual identity, and class distinctions is set in January 1913, when mathematician and Cambridge don G. H. Hardy receives a curious letter from one S. Ramanujan, an obscure Indian clerk who will turn out to be one of the great mathematical thinkers of the era (in outline, the core of Leavitt's tale is true). As famous figures (Bertrand Russell, D. H. Lawrence), momentous events (World War I), and deftly described mathematical ideas are woven into the melancholy tale of Ramanujan's astonishing Cambridge sojourn and Hardy's perplexed emotional life, the reader is transported -- courtesy of Leavitt's evocative prose -- to a plane of perception suffused with slowly unfolding satisfactions. -

Murakami<SUP>?</SUP>

It's old news to say that Takashi Murakami is big in Japan. As he continues a long, lucrative run as the global artworld's Big Bad Boy, a retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles occasions this mega-monograph. For the uninitiated, the cover captures much of Murakami's mix-mastery of the Pop Petri dish. A particularly horrifying rendition of one of his signature nonsensically-named characters, DOB, with multiple eyes and fangs, comes at the viewer on a wave -- a tsunami? -- moving from left to right (the West to the East!). DOB is Mickey Mouse's mutant spawn, the Disney DNA warped from the nuclear fallout of American influence -- both geopolitical and cultural. Similarly nightmarish visions abound within -- irresistibly seductive, slick, silly and sick all at once. Two of his most emblematic sensations are "Lonesome Cowboy" and ?Hiropon? -- an uninhibited Adam and Eve duo who haven't yet gotten the memo from the Serpent and are shown hedonistically frolicking with their own bodily discharges. This five-pound-plus doozy could have covered the material in half the volume -- minimal copy is drawn out with enormous margins and fonts large enough for the visually impaired. But one cannot even flip to the end without feeling fascination and (grudging) respect for this impresario. (Traveling with the book, I was mobbed by people eager to ogle it.) So don't be surprised if you find yourself addicted to buying whatever he comes up with next. The ultimate question remains: will the Murakami tsunami ultimately drown us or him? -

Cleopatra's Nose: 39 Varieties of Desire

Men and women suffer from grandiosity in different ways. Men tend toward fantasies of omnipotence, women of uniqueness, Judith Thurman posited in a 2002 essay on Catherine Millet. This latter claim -- that womanhood is somehow allied with the pursuit of singularity -- lies at the center of Thurman's new essay collection, Cleopatra's Nose: 39 Varieties of Desire, an insightful composite of two decades worth of her writings for the New Yorker. Impressive in their range yet grounded in a common sensibility, the essays of Cleopatra's Nose, taken together, represent a cultural history of extravagance at the turn of the millennium, from its fashion icons (Balenciaga, Armani) to its fads (artisanal tofu, exercise bulimia). The collection occasionally loses sight of its overarching conceit, proving stronger when it remains in the world of couture than when it ventures into literary criticism, but these conceptual detours rarely detract from Thurman's authority as an arbiter of culture. She has a knack for describing textures -- those of both fabrics and lives --in a way that captures the longing, and indeed the variousness, of our collective desires.-

The Battleship Potemkin

Every student of world cinema knows that Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925) belongs among the handful of silent-film masterpieces. But it's unlikely that even devoted cinephiles have seen this great Russian movie in the form Eisenstein intended -- censorship, neglect, and deliberate distortion by both Soviet and Western hands have created some odd hybrids, including a print with music by the Pet Shop Boys. Now Kino International issues on DVD a restored version closest to the Russian master's original plan, or so claim the film historians in the accompanying 40-odd-minute documentary, Tracing the Battleship Potemkin, directed by Artem Demenok. In any case, this internationallly sponsored, frame-by-frame restoration should create a whole new audience for Eisenstein's brilliant piece of Communist propaganda -- his artful re-creation of an actual sailors' rebellion in 1905 against the cruel autocracy of the tsar, complete with heroic proles and moustache-twisting oppressors. Freshly translated inter-title cards and a new recording of Edmund Meisel's original soundtrack add to our sense of Eisenstein's long-acknowledged genius at editing -- the music meets the action in a way Shostakovich's lugubrious score from the '50s never could. And what action: Long before the age of CGI, Eisenstein mananged crowds to breathtaking effect and created movement and terror with his economic composition of shots. Little wonder that this film -- with its iconic massacre scene on the Odessa steps -- has inspired directors as different as Hitchcock, Godard, Woody Allen, and the Zucker brothers. -

The Toothpick: Technology and Culture

How many pages can you fit on the point of a toothpick? Surprisingly enough, about 350 -- but only if you're the ingenious Henry Petroski, author of such entertaining and enlightening volumes as To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design and The Evolution of Useful Things. His new book employs the same deft and delightful attention to a simple object that he used with such success in The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance. This time, he whittles down his focus to a smaller and even humbler wooden implement, one that is "among the simplest of manufactured things." Its story, however -- in Petroski's learned and witty hands, at least -- is anything but simple. The author entertainingly traces the use, design, materials, manufacture, and cultural connotations of the handy utensil from the Rome of Nero to 16th-century Portugal (where industrious nuns created a local cottage industry), from 19th-century Cambridge, Massachusetts (where toothpick tycoon Charles Forster put Harvard men to work creating demand) to more recent years (when, in keeping with the industry's enduring penchant for secrecy, Japanese visitors were denied entry to a Maine toothpick factory in order to protect "tricks of the trade"). "Because common things so easily transcend limits of time and place, their story is not readily confined to a single period or to a single culture," Petroski writes. Crossing chronological, disciplinary, and geographical boundaries, Petroski's engaging tale moves from anthropology to etiquette, from prehistoric Africa to the 1900 American presidential election, with remarkable aplomb. -

Schulz and Peanuts

And you thought Charlie Brown had issues. The beleaguered cartoon character apparently had nothing on his creator, Charles Schulz, presented in David Michaelis?s thorough and revealing doorstop of a biography as bitter, anxious, petty, and depressed. While initially supportive family members have denounced Michaelis?s portrayal of the legendary Peanuts cartoonist, the author builds a compelling case that Schulz, a Minnesota native and barber?s son, suffered from profound feelings of inadequacy. Even after achieving staggering success, he still vividly rehashed ancient slights like his defeat in a drawing contest in junior high school. Michaelis finds evidence of Schulz?s turmoil in the work itself, weaving 240 Peanuts strips into the text. Schulz amassed almost unimaginable wealth licensing his characters for feel-good products like stuffed animals and greeting cards, but the excerpted comics are reminders of how dark and emotionally brutal Peanuts could be. If you didn?t need to be reminded of that, then you?ll likely appreciate this exhaustive look at the man behind what Schulz himself called ?the cruelest strip going.? But if Peanuts conjures childhood memories of clutching a Snoopy doll and reading Happiness Is a Warm Puppy, then Michaelis may have uncovered more than you care to know. -

Cease to Begin

Band of Horses' debut album, Everything All the Time, released in 2006, was a surprisingly assured collection of guitar rock from a guy who, so the myth goes, had never before shown interest in singing or songwriting. Ben Bridwell had spent a decade in bands, mostly behind the drum kit for the well-loved, little-known Seattle-based band Carissa's Wierd. When the band broke up in 2003, Bridwell started tooling around with his own songs. He later brought in Mat Brooke, former front man of Carissa's and the two formed the core of Band of Horses -- with Bridwell as lead singer and songwriter. That didn't last. Brooke left the band to work on his own projects (Grand Archives, soon to be released on Sub Pop) and Bridwell, along with three remaining band members, moved from Seattle to South Carolina. Band of Horses' second record, Cease to Begin, is loaded with lyrical references to severed relationships and small-town life, set to music that invokes both the reverb-drenched Northwest indie sound and southern twang. The album opener, "Is There a Ghost in My House?," begins as a whisper before exploding into chugging guitars (as did "The Funeral," perhaps the most ubiquitous song from the band's last album); "The General Specific" is good-old-boy honky-tonk, complete with old dogs and a general store. "No one is gonna love you more than I do," sings Bridwell on the lush ballad of the same name. But given that the song begins with the image of a severed limb, followed by a chorus about "things splitting at the seams," the line seems more curse than benediction. Although Bridwell's influences -- among them Built to Spill and Neil Young -- can still be heard, his own sound is becoming solid enough to inspire its own band of imitators. -

Foreskin's Lament

I told Dr. Hirsch that I had been thinking about suicide. -- Not about committing it, I said. -- Just about its theological implications. This passage from near the close of Shalom Auslander's grimly funny Foreskin's Lament captures the attitude and obsession that define this unusual memoir. It's less a coming-of-age story than the account of one man's struggle with an elusive, powerful adversary -- who just happens to be the One True God. The product of a strictly observant Orthodox Jewish upbringing, Auslander chronicles a childhood marked by the dread of a deity straight out of Thomas Hardy -- capricious, enigmatic, and amused by the human struggle to make sense of Him. As a boy the author discovers that his best defense against this adversary is to mine a layer of black humor deep enough to hide from even an all-seeing presence. ("Good one, God," is a refrain.)

But it's not Auslander's strategy to hide; rather, this often self-lacerating book holds nearly nothing back. The unvarnished mess of the author's family life -- from his mother's commitment to local respectability, to his rebellious brother's archetypal battle with a drink-tormented father, to his own growing obsessions with shoplifting and transgressive sex -- is brought forward in mesmerizing focus. Even more vivid are the scenes with the irascible characters responsible for the author's religious education -- which he unforgettably characterizes as "theological abuse." Infused with a unyielding rage (and sometimes nearly capsized by it) the story of how Auslander abandons their world for a loving one of his own choosing is also the tale of how he's never quite left it behind. --

The Art of Simple Food

The success of the food revolution started by Alice Waters can be measured in the fact that, more than three decades later, its tenets feel downright remedial. Eat locally and sustainably! Shop at farmer's markets! Plant a garden! Waters has become the Shakespeare of modern food writers, her truth so assimilated into gospel that it's easy to forget the voice others imitate. Here, she's brilliantly back to basics: discussing essential cooking supplies (buy a mortar and pestle), defining terms in a glossary , and distilling her principles into artful, often everyday recipes. Many of these are as simple as plunking down a plate of fresh veggies with some aioli or vinaigrette. Others, like a classic boiled dinner, would require days of uninterrupted devotion to prepare. None would do without access to the freshest and most pristine ingredients -- still not a given for many. But Waters has done more than anyone else to ensure that access for the largest number of eaters, regardless of age, income, or geographic location; she's earned the right to proselytize and be heard. --

Goin' Home: A Tribute to Fats Domino

The great R&B singer Irma Thomas summed it up nicely when she stated that Fats Domino?s seminal rock 'n' roll hits of the 1950s put New Orleans on the modern musical map of America. Domino was an unlikely pop star: corpulent, rooted behind a piano rather than a microphone or guitar, exuding charm rather than sex appeal, ?Fats? nonetheless captured the world?s ears with such easy rolling classics as ?Blueberry Hill,? ?I?m Walking,? ?Blue Monday,? and ?Let the Four Winds Blow.?

At 79, Domino has become a musical symbol of both his beleaguered hometown?s dogged survival instinct and its lasting cultural significance. With the all-star Goin? Home, he gets the props he deserves. The thoroughly eclectic crowd includes Neil Young, Norah Jones, Tom Petty, Elton John, Lucinda Williams, and Robert Plant, sharing space with, among others, Dr. John, B. B. King, Herbie Hancock, Willie Nelson, Randy Newman, and Irma Thomas herself, all offering personalized takes on Domino-related material. The big man?s unique ability to blend the drawl of the blues with the ?big beat? is the lasting influence that ties these sincere and often inspired performances together. That the album opens with John Lennon?s ?Ain?t That a Shame,? seems fitting -- even a Beatle felt compelled to tip his hats to Fats, a true rock 'n' roll pioneer. --

The Steep Approach to Garbadale

It's almost impossible to quickly catalog the delights of this novel from the mischievous imagination that produced The Wasp Factor and The Crow Road. There's the large and eccentric clan of the Wopulds, the decaying stewards of a British board-game dynasty that culminated in the classic Empire! There's Alban, sensitive and alienated young scion of the aforementioned tribe, living the life of a couch-surfing slacker to avoid the family ghosts that haunt him; and Alban's smart and cynical foil Fielding, now in charge of much of the family business. There's the complex, equally cynical merger deal with a big-bucks American firm (the occasion for a delicious comic deconstruction of a PowerPoint presentation). And there are a host of wonderful secondary characters: Alban's voluble and profane roommate Tango, the fading but still powerful Wopuld matriarch, Grandma Win, and the American schemers Feaguing and Fromax, just to name a few. It's ultimately Alban's story that emerges from this noisy hurlyburly, as a surprisingly warm and engaging melody. When he reenters his family's world, he inadvertently opens doors to the past through which a new vista can been seen, casting all of this novel's pleasurable distractions into a different light. As Banks leads the reader to the final revelation of his rich tale, laughter and grief equally enter the glorious view. --

The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam: An Illustrated Memoir

In the late '90s, filmmaker Ann Marie Fleming discovered a 16 mm film in her grandmother's basement that included footage of her great-grandfather's name in lights on marquees throughout the world. Why had Long Tack Sam, a famed vaudevillian and friend of luminaries from Orson Welles to Charlie Chaplin, been forgotten both in the West and in his native China? Her pursuit of the answer culminated in a documentary film; the fascinating story continues in this memoir of the same title, written and illustrated by Fleming, with additional drawings by Julian Lawrence in a suitably retrospective style, and archival photographs and playbills from the era.

Fleming chronicles not only Sam's Western career but his work in China, where he learned acrobatics and opened four theaters; and the life of his family, including Fleming's grandmother, once a world-famous beauty. The result is an old-fashioned mystery, a poignant meditation on the ephemeral nature of fame, and an instructive history, tracing four generations of a polyglot, truly multicultural family, surviving and sometimes thriving as artists and citizens through a century's excitements. --

The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman

She was 19, married for the second or third time but pregnant for the first, when she left Greenland for a new world across an ocean of imagination and desire. Twenty years later, a grandmother, she would journey from Iceland across the sea to Norway then overland to Rome.

That was 1,000 years ago, at a time when such travels were dangerous, daring, and uncertain in every way --and nearly unheard of for a woman. Nevertheless, Gudrid Thorbjarnardottir ventured forth intrepidly and was celebrated for her rare courage, as readers of the medieval Icelandic sagas of the Greenlanders and Eric the Red already know.

Like Heinrich Schliemann unearthing the truth of Homer's Troy in the 19th century, Nancy Marie Brown -- with the help of scientists, archaeologists, and 21st-century technology -- uncovers the real historical world of Gudrid and her unlikely voyages, and writes about them with erudition and grace in this fascinating, thoroughly enjoyable book. --

Krazy & Ignatz: The Kat Who Walked in Beauty

Even ardent experts in the cartoon science of Herrimanology will find revelations to amaze and astonish in The Kat Who Walked in Beauty. Did you know, for instance, that Krazy's daily beaning was karmic repayment for the wanton slaughter waged by feline ancestors? Under the intelligent aegis of editor Derya Ataker, this luxe volume collects for the first time the "panoramic" Krazy Kat strips from 1920 and 1921. Bookending these gems are, up front, the earliest 1911 appearances of Krazy and his/her brick-tossing nemesis, Ignatz; and, at rear, the program book from the 1922 jazz ballet inspired by K&I.

Herriman's nimble and surreal vaudeville show plays as brightly today as it did a century ago, influencing such artists as Patrick McDonnell, Tony Millionaire, Bill Watterson, Robert Crumb, and Jim Woodring. To quote Krazy: "I could look on thou forever in reptcha."
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A Geography of Oysters

Rowan Jacobsen begins his guide to the peculiarly adult pleasure in eating briny, live sea creatures by pointing out the obvious: "Oysters taste like the sea." This, he writes, gives each delicious mollusk a "somewhereness" -- or, if you prefer to borrow a fancy French vintner's term for describing how climate and geography influence flavor, "terroir" (given that oysters' "terra isn't very firma," he points out, the nonexistent word meroir might be more correct in describing the oyster's ocean home but would get you laughed out of any restaurant). He lays out the basic flavors that one can expect from each region (cucumber, citrus, melon, copper, smoke), runs through the most obvious complaints made by the uninitiated, and provides a history of the good old, bad old days, from Native Americans who harvested wild oysters to the early '80s, when restaurateurs, coddled by years of reliance on the shucked meat market, were stunned to discover that oysters could be served in their own shells. An appendix provides lists of oyster festivals, restaurants, and growers who will ship overnight to anywhere in the world. Though most of those who pick up this book will likely be previous converts, Jacobsen, a staff writer for the The Art of Eating, the food magazine with a deservedly cultish following, provides lively, lucid prose that should suck in even the most squeamish eaters.
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The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia

How could human feelings and emotions retain any force in the moral vacuum of the Stalinist regime? That's the question with which Orlando Figes begins The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia. The answer is revealed in spellbinding, often harrowing tales of endurance, love, idealism, betrayal, and grief. Eschewing published memoirs in favor of personal testimony, the author of A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924 draws from countless letters, journals, documents, and interviews with ordinary Russians to capture life under the evolving Soviet regime from the period just after the revolution through the tumult of the "Five Year Plan," the living nightmare of the Great Terror, the Second World War, and the cycles of reform and repression which characterized Soviet life in the postwar period.

These stories don't merely record the horror of purges, denunciations, and mass arrests; Figes also portrays the idealistic fervor of the revolutionary generation, and the tragic beauty of simple family life under the shadow of an implacable power. His painstaking and inclusive method yields a majestic -- at times overwhelming -- profusion of narrative truth.
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Martha Graham: Dance on Film

Movements came just stark out of the body, as though it had never happened before, says choreographer Agnes de Mille of the dance inspirations of Martha Graham. There's probably been no better evocation of Graham's genius for creating dances that are primal and sophisticated, abstract and powerfully physical at the same time. De Mille's comments on her colleague are caught in the 1994 PBS American Masters documentary Martha Graham: The Dancer Revealed, one of the several films collected in this compelling two-DVD set just issued by the Criterion Collection.

The signature Graham works Appalachian Spring (filmed in 1958) and Night Journey (1961) are riveting viewing, and will reward both the newcomer to Graham's oeuvre and the longtime admirer. Also revelatory are the 1957 television portrait A Dancer Revealed and the many interviews and extras also included. And for those who have followed modern dance from the 20th century into the 21st -- watch for a young Merce Cunningham in rare archival footage of an early performance of Appalachian Spring.
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The Braindead Megaphone

George Saunders' award-winning fiction uses the absurd to get at the real, and makes the real absurd. He creates imaginative landscapes informed by an underlying sense of how political and social circumstances shape individual lives. Luckily for readers, an editor at GQ realized that Saunders' fierce critical intelligence and deep compassion would make him an excellent international correspondent as well. Saunders' first book of nonfiction essays collects pieces of international reportage from Nepal, the U.S./Mexico border, and Dubai (where he sees the chance for world peace in the passing of a cigarette between Arab teens, German tourists, and U.S. Navy sailors all enjoying the "Wild Wadi" waterpark). Other essays pay tribute to favorite writers (including Esther Forbes, Kurt Vonnegut, Mark Twain, Donald Barthelme); these are nicely supplemented by humor pieces written for The New Yorker and McSweeney's. The title essay, partly informed by Saunders' work as a reporter, reflects on how faux information becomes news and news becomes sound bites. The writer's willingness to consider multiple sides, ability to find humor in pathos, and concern with the politics of language are reminiscent of the nonfiction writing of George Orwell. But Saunders' distinctive voice remains wholly his own.
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River: The Joni Letters

On his lovely and loving tribute to singer- songwriter extraordinaire Joni Mitchell, the iconic jazz pianist Herbie Hancock aims to enter Mitchell?s richly suggestive world rather than remake her via his own preoccupations -- anyone expecting this to be a blunt "Herbie Jazzes Joni" project will no doubt be disappointed. An introspective yet thoroughly compelling quality that also extends to the choice instrumental performances pervades the album, a seductive quality akin to Mitchell?s own best work.

In keeping with Hancock?s open embrace, ?River? has its share of A-list collaborators. Guest vocalists including Norah Jones, Tina Turner, Corinne Bailey Rae, Leonard Cohen, and, on ?Tea Leaf Prophecy,? the muse herself, bring new life to such Mitchell anthems as ?River,? ?Court and Spark? and ?Amelia.? But attentive ears will also hear some gorgeous playing from Wayne Shorter, the brilliant saxophonist who has collaborated with Hancock since their mid-Sixties stint with Miles Davis. In a nod to Joni?s shared admiration for the saxophone stylist, Hancock even redirects the spotlight for a nimble reworking of Shorter?s own ?Nefertiti.? This curious blend of source materials -- which also finds room for Duke Ellington ?s ?Solitude? ? somehow coheres beautifully. As Mitchell throws her arms around the world in her own music, so Hancock honors her vision with this inclusive masterpiece.
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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.

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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).