Displaying articles for: November 2007

American Chestnut

You could fill a library with paeans to the American elm, but far less has been written about the American chestnut, which dominated forests from Georgia to Maine until a virulent fungus brought it to near-extinction in the early 20th century. Few humans bore witness to the decimation of the chestnut: now this absorbing book gives the majestic tree its due, combining science, history, and environmental polemic to explain both the tree's demise and the surprisingly touching efforts of a devoted band of scientists to bring it back to life. The blight gained entry on chestnuts imported from Asia, wiping out billions of trees in a single generation. The disappearance of the chestnut was a blow to animals and people alike: its nuts sustained an abundance of wildlife, and its timber and bark formed the backbone of the Appalachian economy. Devotees of the tree employ various methods to battle the blight, including controversial bioengineering technology, with little success to date; still, they slog on. "I am continually moved by the patience and undying optimism of the chestnut scientists I've met," author Susan Freinkel writes. "In their own way, they are as resolute as the tree itself." -

The Mitfords: <BR>Letters Between Six Sisters

For much of the 20th century the six beautiful and variously gifted daughters of David Mitford, Lord Redesdale, appear again and again on the stage of world events. Two made their names with their pens: the eldest, Nancy, became the prolific and famed novelist and biographer; her younger sister Jessica, an ardent Communist, emigrated to the U.S. and rose to prominence as a journalist with her indelible The American Way of Death. The youngest, Deborah, married into the peerage, but for two of the sisters, ties to fascism would define their lives: Diana left her first husband for the charismatic British fascist Oswald Mosley and took her teenage sister, Unity, with her on a 1933 trip to Germany. Already a passionate follower of Mosley, Unity embarked on a personal quest to become acquainted with Hitler (she did). When war came, the devastated girl attempted suicide; meanwhile, Diana and her husband were imprisoned and effectively exiled from English society for the rest of their lives. This rich collection of the the sisters' correspondence (nicely choreographed by Diana's daughter-in-law Charlotte Mosley) brings to light their peculiar, passionate, often contradictory relationships -- frequently divided by their politics, the six nevertheless pined for letters from one another, and their betrayals and rivalries are chronicled here in their odd, cryptic private nursery language. Letters between Diana and Unity during the 1930s carry a particularly compelling, nightmarish edge. But the impact is in the whole, sprawling over decades, houses, politics, children, literary awards, and rude houseguests: a beguiling tangle of lives and personas, shot through with the brillance that made the Mitfords what they were. -

Into Great Silence

You'll be nearly 20 minutes into this film before you hear any human voices. Those that break the silence then are raised in chant, emerging from a dark space referenced visually by a lone candle. It's five more minutes before we hear speech: "What do you ask for?" an abbot inquires of two supplicants prostrate before him in an austere chapel. "Grace," they answer, and are bid to rise. There's not much more to hear in the subsequent two hours of Philip Gr”nings contemplative, serene, and unique film -- except of course for the aural richness of "silence" itself: footfalls, door-creaks, the antics of the wind, the whisperings of spring rain and the heavy beat of drips from melting icicles. This abstemious "soundtrack"?without voice-overs, interviews, or musical scoring?complements the visual allure of the imagery, alternately routine and breathtaking, which details the slow unfolding of the works and days of the Carthusian monks of the Grand Chartreuse monastery, which has existed in the same spot in a desolate Alpine valley for nearly 1,000 years. Charting their ascetic lives for six months, Gr”ning composes a rare and respectful portrait of their pious efforts to create a quiet quotidian labor that blends into the hush of eternity. --

The Gates of Paradise

Whether the marvel is a magic trick or an artwork, people always want to know, ?How did they do it?!? The Gates of Paradise: Lorenzo Ghiberti's Renaissance Masterpiece, edited by Professor Gary M. Radke, details the history of both the Florentine sculptor's greatest work and its most recent restoration. Ghiberti was precocious in every aspect of his career. Born in 1378, he was only 23 when he won the prize commission to design the door panels for the Baptistery of the Cathedral in Florence. In order to realize this enormous project -- which entailed the completeion of three sets of doors over 50 years -- he created a workshop that trained artists who later earned recognition in their own right, such as Donatello and Uccello. Aware of his own talents, he also wrote the first known autobiography of an artist. At the time the doors were produced, realistic perspective and psychological expressiveness were avant-garde ideas. An early proponent of humanism, Ghiberti wished to achieve plausibility while also imparting an idealized grace and sublimity to the biblical mortals he depicted. Often, each panel was a composition including many episodes of a story, and he would deftly use architectural framing devices and tricks of perspective, such as varying the level of relief of the figures to distinguish the various elements: thus, the anguish of Adam and Eve is palpable when they are exiled from Eden. The doors have since inspired centuries of artists, including Michelangelo, who dubbed them ?the Gates of Paradise.? The final portion of the book covers the various processes and experiments (including chemical baths and laser polishing) that conservation scientists used to restore the doors to their original glory without removing the evidence of the hands that originally created them. In explaining how the effects were achieved, the catalog doesn't detract from the marvel but rather engenders even more respect for this stupendous feat of ingenuity. -

I'm Not There: Original Soundtrack

The soundtrack to Todd Haynes's not-quite biopic of Bob Dylan, easily among the most influential musicians of his generation, could double as a study guide to this generation of indie rock all-stars. Unsurprisingly, the same director who chose six actors to portray Dylan's multiple personas would turn the soundtrack into an experimental playground for literally dozens of musicians. Given that indie music is itself a crazy quilt of genres, united by an affinity for original songwriting, with an uneasy relationship with mainstream success, it makes a certain amount of sense. Two "house bands" provide the backup: Tucson-based Calexico play most of the folky numbers, while the electric songs are covered by the Million Dollar Bashers, who were assembled from members of Sonic Youth, Television, Wilco, and Dylan bassist Tony Garnier. Standouts include Stephen Malkmus handling "Ballad of a Thin Man," Charlotte Gainesbourg's breathy "Just Like a Woman," and Sufjan Stevens' "Ring Them Bells." Dylan himself shows up on "I'm Not There," an oft-bootlegged outtake from The Basement Tapes available here for the first time. But Thurston Moore's vocals on the same song are pretty arresting, too. Purists will note that many of the covers sound nothing like the man himself -- say, Karen O "oooh-ooh -ing" through "Highway 61 Revisited" -- though in this case, the play is the thing. -

Men of Letters & People of Substance

In this ingenious gallery of graphic invention, Roberto de Vicq de Cumptich puts his design genius to work assembling discrete typographic elements -- letters, linecuts, and ornaments (known in the trade as "dingbats") -- into delightful portraits of literary figures, as well as facial patterns suggesting emotions, qualities, and states of mind. De Vicq, who has worked as creative director for Random House and HarperCollins and now manages his own studio, is a master of typefaces in more ways than you can imagine. He gives us James Joyce rendered entirely in Baskerville, John Steinbeck in Bodoni Old Face, Marcel Proust in Auriol, Virginia Woolf in Didot. His array of common linecuts and ornaments into representations of "Creepy," "Philanderer," "Social Butterfly," "Raw," "Cooked," and other ideas and attributes are blissfully fanciful examples of imagination composed upon a page. This elegant, beautifully produced paperback is a marvelous book in every way. -

The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken

As any Italian-American worth his or her ravioli recipe knows: food and family go together like . . . life itself. Laura Schenone, a James Beard Award-winning food writer, here explores the vital intersection of pasta and parenthood in her search for her great-grandmother's recipe for ethereal ravioli, a dreamy combination of delicious stuffing with gossamer-like dough. A deracinated suburban mom, Schenone is no ethnic cheerleader; she's a clear-eyed student of the culinary arts who discovers in her past a legacy of family turmoil along with lots of good eats. She traces the elusive recipe through a few generations of her rambunctious Italian ancestors, most of whom lived in Hoboken, New Jersey. But she encounters a few snags along the way: for example, her great aunt's recipe includes oddities such as cream cheese. Luckily, Schenone's travels take her to the family's point of departure in Italy: Genoa, the home of magnificent ravioli-making and, unsurprisingly, the best place to learn the ins and outs of Ligurian cuisine. What she discovers is that there is no single standard for great Genoese cooking, and her great-grandmother's odd recipe may in fact reflect the changes that came with migration. Always inviting, Schenone's prose is as light as the dough she keeps trying to perfect. And the appended recipes will help satisfy appetites stimulated by her toothsome narrative.
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Rogue Male

Geoffrey Household's Rogue Male is one of the great, heart-imperiling suspense stories of all time, and yet --does it bump off all its admirers? -- it seems to be forever going out of print. Now this truly literate thriller, whose fine writing amplifies the sense of excruciating predicament, is back again to fry the nerves of another generation of readers. First published in 1939 (and later made into the 1941 film Man Hunt), the book begins in a Europe infested with dictators, one of whom our hero, an Englishman skilled at hunting, attempts to assassinate. After being caught and tortured, he is thrown off a cliff to his apparent death. But lo! he survives, battered but tenacious, and the hunt for the hunter is on. His pursuers -- a rum lot ranging from a dull brute to an insidious would-be gentleman of malign foreign make -- chase him across the English Channel, into Dorset, and to ground in a hollowed-out bank verging an ancient, hawthorn-hedged lane. There, prey to "carrion thought" though he may be, he rouses himself to further prodigies of resourcefulness and a stab at revenge. What we have here is an existential meditation on the animal within and the nature of freedom, as well as -- don't look so glum -- an absolutely blood-curdling tale of foul duplicity and vicious expedient, an enthralling portrayal of endurance and ingenuity, and a moving celebration of nature and the English countryside. -

Into Great Silence

You'll be nearly 20 minutes into this film before you hear any human voices. Those that break the silence then are raised in chant, emerging from a dark space referenced visually by a lone candle. It's five more minutes before we hear speech: "What do you ask for?" an abbot inquires of two supplicants prostrate before him in an austere chapel. "Grace," they answer, and are bid to rise. There's not much more to hear in the subsequent two hours of Philip Gr”nings contemplative, serene, and unique film -- except of course for the aural richness of "silence" itself: footfalls, door-creaks, the antics of the wind, the whisperings of spring rain and the heavy beat of drips from melting icicles. This abstemious "soundtrack"?without voice-overs, interviews, or musical scoring?complements the visual allure of the imagery, alternately routine and breathtaking, which details the slow unfolding of the works and days of the Carthusian monks of the Grand Chartreuse monastery, which has existed in the same spot in a desolate Alpine valley for nearly 1,000 years. Charting their ascetic lives for six months, Gr”ning composes a rare and respectful portrait of their pious efforts to create a quiet quotidian labor that blends into the hush of eternity. --

Beethoven: Complete Works

What a deal: the complete works of Beethoven on 85 CDs, for a list price of $140. That's $1.65 per disc, or about a quarter an opus, all contained in a sturdy cardboard carton the size of a shoebox. Lift the lid and scan the list of contents, like a Whitman's sampler. Reach in and dig out your favorites (the "Eroica," the "Appassionata," the "Archduke") and save the nutty ones ("Wellington's Victory," the "Choral Fantasy") for later. The Dutch label Brilliant Classics has made a specialty of such bargain-priced compendia in recent years, turning out similar packages devoted to Mozart and Bach, with Haydn to come.

It would be easy enough to lose any critical perspective before the magnitude of the bargain this set represents, but how do the performances measure up? Happily, there's plenty to please the savvy listener here. The symphonies under Kurt Masur are equal parts elegance and muscle, just as they ought to be, and you'd be hard pressed to find a finer string quartet cycle than the Guarneri's. If Clara Haskil's and Arthur Grumiaux's violin sonatas suffer from 50-year-old sound, the playing is first class, and overall the collection strikes a good balance between quality, fidelity, and economy.

The bottom line: When a day's pay buys a lifetime of listening, something's right with the world. -

Classics for Pleasure

Washington Post book critic and Pultizer Prize winner states his intention plainly: he wants to introduce readers to great works of literature that will give them pleasure. And in his aptly titled new book he does so with great gusto and aplomb. That alone separates him from most academic writers, while his sense of "classic" is also a far cry from what you might expect, since Dirda displays a genuine love of so-called genre fiction -- the everyday magic of Frances Hodgson Burnett, the cracked visions of Philip K. Dick, and the creepy forebodings of M. R. James. A self-confessed "passionate reader," as he's demonstrated in a number of previous books as well, Dirda once again surveys an amazing range of literary works: from poets (Pope, Pound, Ovid) to philosophers (Heraclitus, Spinoza, Kierkegaard), with a few playwrights (Marlowe and Webster) thrown in for good measure. Dirda's breadth of vision will humble even the most voracious readers, who are certain to meet some unfamiliar faces in this crowd, which includes Abolqasem Ferdowsi, Marie-Madeleine de La Fayette, and Girolamo Cardano, to name just a few. Better yet, Dirda reminds us of why we treasure the authors we do -- he celebrates the "civilized amusements" of Max Beerbohm, the "heartbreakingly pure voice" of Sappho, and the "grave and august power" of the Beowulf poet. Dirda's generous aesthetic spans writers as different as the genial Erasmus and the misanthropic Louis-Ferdinand C‚line: he admires both the complex prose of Cicero and the clean narratives of Dashiell Hammett. In short, Dirda's a critic of Whitmanic proportions: he contains multitudes. -Thomas DePietro

A Guinea Pig's History of Biology

The incredible intellectual journey from Charles Darwin's first experiments with orchids and passionflowers -- starting in 1854 as he sought to unriddle the elements of heredity -- to the patenting of the world first transgenic animal, OncoMouse, in 1988, is an intense and exciting voyage of discovery whose fascinating zigzags, cul-de-sacs, and milestones have seldom been charted in a more entertaining fashion than in Jim Endersby's A Guinea Pig's History of Biology. Endersby's unique narrative hook is to organize his chapters around some previously unsung "heroes": the various humble plants, animals and microbes that have been the focus of innumerable scientific investigations into the secrets of genetics, and which have generously, although sometimes grudgingly, yielded their secrets to a small army of master, journeyman, and apprentice researchers, all of whom emerge as vivid personalities through his lucid prose. This authorial conceit provides a sturdy armature on which to affix everything from biography to cultural analysis to literary exegesis to sociopolitical musings, but Endersby never allows his hook to interfere with a good anecdote or a brilliant schematic of the way science and biology really work. Combining the same taste for eccentrics and oddities associated with historian of magic Ricky Jay with the rationalist, layman-favoring clarity of biologist Stephen Jay Gould, Endersby does honor to the quagga, the zebrafish, the mouse-ear cress, the fruit fly, and a handful of other species. Like James Burke in his show Connections, Endersby startles with his account of historical serendipity that ultimately proves almost magically inevitable. -

The Science of Leonardo

Much as Harold Bloom discerned the roots of our modern sensibilities in the figure of a single phenomenal writer in his study Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1998), so too does Fritjof Capra, author of the classic The Tao of Physics (1975), trace the genesis of the scientific method -- as well as prescient foreshadowings of contemporary fields such as complexity theory and deep ecology -- to a lone pioneering genius, in The Science of Leonardo. In Capra's thesis, da Vinci's unique blend of art, science, and design -- rationalism, empiricism, and empathetic imagination united in a holistic matrix -- earns the Renaissance polymath the designation of the "true founder of modern science." Drawing on recent scholarship that has, finally, arrayed in chronological order and definitively annotated the entire 6,000 surviving pages of Leonardo's notes (out of a reputed 13,000!) in accessible facsimile editions, Capra presents an enthralling portrait of both "Leonardo, the Man" and "Leonardo, the Scientist." Historical context is rendered crystal clear, as are the scientific principles of Leonardo's researches and his painterly techniques. No mystical flights of fancy obtain -- Illuminati need not apply -- since the simple truth of the man's far-flung accomplishments are nearly unbelievable. Capra notes that each era reinvents its own version of Leonardo, and this volume gives us a Gaia-loving, SFX-creating �ber-geek Leonardo, who would fit right into some Google R&D facility, where he could zestily blue-sky the utopian future we all long to inhabit. -

The Great Funk: <BR>Falling Apart and Coming Together <BR>(on a Shag Rug) in the Seventies

In his 1986 book of the same name, cultural critic Thomas Hine invented the word "populuxe," -- now widely used by others -- to describe the aesthetic the '50s. Twenty years later, he gives the same treatment to the '70s, an era that, as he acknowledges, "has replaced the thirties as the decade people most want to forget." Neither decade was "normal," he says, and in fact the two canceled each other out: "The seventies undid the fifties, and to a great extent, the fifties deserved to be undone." Like Populuxe, Hine's new book combines lavish period photographs and advertisements -- shampoo ads, geodesic domes, mind-boggling bedroom suites combining flowers and stripes and plaid, all in virulently clashing color schemes -- with his own deeply insightful and often hilarious commentary on what it all meant. The Great Funk of the title evokes panic, depression, bad smells, and a kind of sexy, hard-won authenticity. This was a decade of actual gasoline lines and accidental toilet paper shortages (the latter caused by a joke made by Johnny Carson that his twitchy audience took literally). Women protested the fashion industry's attempts to lower hemlines, gay men became musclebound "clones," baseball players wore rainbow polyester, and snappy tailored suits were left to the pimps and gangsters. Hines is a marvel at wringing out meaningful connections between big ideas and their expression in everyday culture. He sees the dreaded leisure suit as a poignant expression of men attempting to take "a half step into the revolution" by combining traditional styling with loud colors previously worn by women. At a time when more adults lived alone than ever before, they became convinced they could talk to their house plants and actually paid money for Pet Rocks. In the search for a more authentic past, people shopped at flea markets, kicked off urban gentrification by moving into lofts, and bought the Kleenex Americana line of tissue boxes. While Hines identifies plenty of problems rooted in the decade that have dogged us to this day -- among them stagnating income and longer working hours -- he also finds lessons there. Tying the much-lamented '70s distrust of authority to post-9/11 America, he reflects that the country may have been too quick to trust in leaders. "The experimentation of the seventies in retrospect," he writes, "seems to be a mark of resiliency, not decadence." -

People Take Warning!<BR>Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs 1913-1938

American roots music -- the odd, mostly Southern sounds that flourished in the 1920s and 30s -- isn't for everyone. Newcomers may be more baffled than entertained by this latest compilation, some 70 plain-speaking songs arranged topically around disasters and murders, hardly the warmest introduction to the strange music that prefigures the great genres of American pop: jazz, blues, cowboy swing, R&B, and of course rock and roll. Aficionados, on the other hand, will take pleasure in finding over 30 songs never before reissued on vinyl or CD: twangy chronicles of airplane crashes, gut-bucket accounts of train wrecks, and howling ditties recording the floods and fires of the day. The murder tales take you from their downhome settings right back to their early templates -- the classic ballads imported from the British Isles. An introduction by Tom Waits celebrates these "graveside testimonials." But in the slender booklet, the producers might have done those just getting their feet wet a service by mentioning the gold standard for this type of collection: the legendary Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, the ur-compilation first issued in 1952, and still a constant revelation. As welcome as much of People Take Warning is, fans of Smith will notice not only a handful of songs repeated from Anthology -- including one of the too- many pieces about the sinking of the Titanic -- but also many of the same standout performers: Furry Lewis ("Kassie Jones") Charlie Patton ("Mississippi Boweavil") and Ernest Stoneman ("The Story of the Mighty Mississippi") to name a few. Nevertheless, there's plenty here to satisfy the true lovers of that old, weird America.-

Help!

The Beatles' first movie, the black and white masterpiece A Hard Day's Night (1964), captured the young rockers at their playfully anarchic best. And they quickly followed it up with another carefree romp, Help! (1965), this time in full-blast pop art hues, here now restored on DVD to its intended palette of bright primary colors. The American-born Richard Lester helmed both films, but the second was an even greater challenge since it pretended to have a plot, and the Beatles, for their part, pretended to act. The inspired silliness of the film (much fueled by copious pot-smoking, we learn in the DVD extras) follows the boys across continents as Ringo is pursued for his unusual sacrificial ring, a monstrous bauble he can't get off his finger. The supporting cast includes the bulbous-faced Leo McKern (best known for his subsequent long-running role as "Rumpole of the Bailey") as the high priest of some cockamamie Eastern religion; Eleanor Bron as his sultry and duplicitous assistant; and Victor Spinetti as a deranged and underfunded scientist, hoping to rule the world. But the Fabulous Four remain constant in the foreground, goofing off in their ultra-hip pad, sliding all over the Swiss Alps, and soaking up rays in the Bahamas. Seven great songs punctuate this absurdist drama, and each one seems to have presented Lester with a new challenge, as he discovers different styles of matching sounds and images that anticipate everything familiar to us now on MTV. It's no wonder that the channel recognized Lester as its true father, nor that he in turn demanded a paternity test. -

Sean Scully: Walls of Aran

Many Americans familiar with ?Aran? sweaters are unaware that these abstract cableknit designs originated from an archipelago of the same name off the West Coast of Ireland. Their staggering landscapes of perilous cliffs, cobbled shores and vast sky famously renders visitors awestruck -- particularly the painters and writers who have sought inspiration there since the 1800s. Sean Scully, the contemporary Irish painter, is one of the artistic pilgrims who became entranced by the indigenous stonemasonry. His new photo-essay collaboration, Walls of Aran intrigues both for the inherent beauty of his well-composed images, and because these vistas further illuminate his own experiments with abstract patterns. Aran walls exude a Gaelic personality and aesthetic distinct from those anywhere else: On these islands, the karst limestone rocks will proceed horizontally and then--inexplicably, irreverently, exuberantly--vertically, as if a barmy librarian started shelving books at unhinged whim. A wall from Inis Me in exhibits the most extravagantly lacey, jazzy and jumbled logic. With daylight visible through the mortarless chinks, it appears to be a feat of mythic engineering. Though unknowns built these walls over the centuries, their creations dazzle with as much sophistication as any Andy Goldsworthy land art. Through Scully's viewfinder, the armchair tourist can vicariously experience the eye-opening magic that Scully sees in the ?walls that walk everywhere. Strolling into squares of oddness and rectangles that lurch in song with the lay of the land.? -

Two Histories of England

Henry the 4th ascended the throne of England much to his own satisfaction in the year 1399, after having prevailed upon his cousin & predecessor Richard the 2nd to resign it to him, & to retire for the rest of his life to Pomfret Castle, where he happened to be murdered. That sentence opens Jane Austen's youthful send-up of high-minded history. She was just 16 when she wrote it, but her trademark wit and impatience with lazy romanticism are already prominent in this brief, sometimes hilarious parody. Her dunce of a narrator performs feats of sublime illogic, as in this time-tangled summary of a duke's execution: ?He was beheaded, of which he might with reason have been proud, had he known that such was the death of Mary Queen of Scotland; but as it was impossible that he should be conscious of what had never happened, it does not appear that he felt particularly delighted with the manner of it.? If Austen's private parody highlights her genteel sarcasm, Charles Dickens's long-popular A Child's History of England is an equally potent distillation of the author's writerly character. Sentimental, moralizing, and careless with facts, A Child's History (offered here in abridged form) is also a display of Dickens's unequaled mastery of telling detail: the little dog that faithfully lay down beside the decapitated Mary, Queen of Scots; ?His Sowship,? James I, fecklessly knighting supporters on his way to his English coronation; and the doomed Charles I, ?who had always been a quick walker,? on his tragic route to the block. Both writers make the most of the many executions, finding pathos and sardonic humor in what winds up as a bloody history indeed. -

The Principles of Uncertainty

Maira Kalman's genius for divining the delicious Dadaism in everydayness has made her a successful author of magically absurd children's books (behold this emblematic title: Swami on Rye). Her latest publication, The Principles of Uncertainty, may be her first solo book for adults, but gratefully, she hasn't sobered up. Rather, she seems to have appropriated the Surrealist parlor game, Exquisite Corpse, as an organizational device, and the result is an unpredictable, puzzling, engrossing, courageously imperfect tour of the soup of her artistic id. Or, as her book flap asks, "What is this book?" and replies, "Who am I? Who are you? STOP IT FORGET IT This is a year in my life profusely illustrated, abounding with anguish, confusion, bits of wisdom, musings, meanderings, buckets of joie de vivre and restful sojourns." Yes, dear readers, this is self-deprecating hype you can trust.

Whereas her late husband and collaborator, Tibor Kalman, used the graphic arts for in-your-face and very graphic social commentary, Maira Kalman's manner of self-expression is ruminative and playful. She is at her thought-provoking best when juxtaposing various views literally and figuratively -- as evidenced by her stupendous illustrations for Strunk and White's Elements of Style or her collaborations with National Lampoon cartoonist Rick Meyerowitz on "New Yorkistan" and the New Yorker Sub Culinary Map (all 468 stations were renamed for local food specialties). A fan of walking and wandering, she takes snapshots of people everywhere -- on the street, or in the Hermitage Museum -- and then will paint Fauvist primitives from her photographs. She gravitates to marginalia that puts new spins on the familiar: rarely acknowledged, executed Bolsheviks, Nannerl Mozart (Wolfgang's sister), Marie-Antoinette's best friend, international candy wrappers, the "things that fall out of books," and even a found collection of "the mosses of Long Island." Over the year, she chronicles her visits to her aunt in Tel Aviv and Paris parks, and, back in New York City, such distinguished 90-something figures as singer-philanthropist Kitty Carlisle Hart, French artist Louise Bourgeois, and photographer Helen Levitt.

Because this is a sketchbook (a complete compilation of her monthly blog, previously posted online with The New York Times over the 12 months between May 2006 and April 2007), you will not find such polished work as what has appeared in The New Yorker. Here she gives herself permission to mull over random, poignant observations -- that her husband is buried nearby to Ira and George Gershwin; that the ice cream man still sells lemon ices on the beach in Tel Aviv; that pinky-pink Parisian pat‚ is an excellent cure for bad-dream malaise. With Kalman, her watch on the zeitgeist is always set on "Askew," which is lucky for all of us who can't tell you who we are, either. -

Shakespeare: The World as Stage

What a match: Bill Bryson, expat American with a well-known love of the English language (see The Mother Tongue, 1990), takes on the life of Will Shakespeare (1564-1616), with his exceedingly well known ability to shape that language into works of genius. The result is a triumph of patience and insight over the obstacle of few facts. We know so little about the great poet and playwright that Bryson manages to indulge some of the wackier speculations, if only for sport. But his touch is, as usual, light and genial. Sifting through the slim evidence of Shakespeare's life, Bryson avoids "the urge to switch from conjunctive to indicative" that characterizes so many of the previous biographers. Using the best scholars and critics to amplify his own amateur research, he takes us to both the National Archives in London -- where he describes the mess that is 16th-century orthography -- and the basement of the Folger Library's collection of First Folios. This visit occasions Bryson's smart excursus on early bookmaking and allows him to celebrate the real heroes of Shakespeare's afterlife: the friends who preserved most of his plays in that first collected edition, itself the Holy Grail of Shakespeare scholarship. The final chapter, a survey of the silly debunkers of Shakespeare's authorship, is a real hoot, with Bryson at his wittiest. Not since Marchette Chute's somewhat prudish Shakespeare of London (1949) have we had such a succinct, reliable, and enjoyable Shakespeare bio for general readers. Bryson penetrates the mystery that was the life -- for the majesty that is the work. -

Queens of Havana

The 1920s and '30s were the heyday of Cuban jazz and son, and Havana's clubs were overflowing. But the music was all made by men, until, during the hard years after a crash in the sugar market, the daughters of a half-Chinese greengrocer began playing around Havana to raise money. Loaded with verve, talent, and plenty of moxie, the Castro sisters named their septet after a native princess who resisted the Spanish, and became Cuba's first all-girl band. After shocking and delighting Havana, they took the world by storm. Now in her 80s, Alicia Castro, the band's saxophonist, recounts the band's adventures, chronicling voyages from Puerto Rico to Paris to Broadway to Rio, and travels among some of her generation's jazz greats. In doing so she uncovers wellsprings of Cuban music, in sugar plantations, African Orichas, Chinese operas, and beyond -- ultimately, a history of Cuba itself. As the jazz years give way to the Fidel years and the more troubled present, the book offers an intimate portrait of an era, told with the charm and flair of a practiced performer, and the loving humor of a beloved aunt. This is a story to savor. -

Amazing Rare Things: The Art of Natural History in the Age of Discovery

In its elegant, quiet way, this may be the most visually compelling book I've come across this season. Displaying artistic treasures housed in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle, it presents natural history drawings and watercolors by Leonardo da Vinci, Alexander Marshall (1620-82), Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717), and Mark Catesby (1683-1749), as well as illustrations from the encyclopedic "Paper Museum" created by Cassiano dal Pozzo (1588-1657), a remarkable figure in the closing decades of the Italian Renaissance.

The 160 color illustrations depict with exquisite artistry an array of exotic plants and animals brought to Europe's attention as a result of 15th- and 16th-century voyages of exploration. Renowned naturalist David Attenborough and expert colleagues contribute a series of engaging essays that illuminate the history of our urge to depict the natural world and the particular perspectives and achievements of the artists mentioned above. -

The Black Lizard<BR>Big Book of Pulps

Pulp, points out Otto Penzler, owner of the Mysterious Bookshop in New York City and a prolific editor of American crime fiction, is a term "frequently misused to indicate hack work of inferior literary quality." But it was originally derived from "pulpwood," an indicator of the cheapness of the paper used to print popular magazines in the early part of the 20th century, not the prose contained therein. The fast-paced narratives and rat-a-tat prose forged by the masters of the golden age of pulp fiction -- the '20s, '30s, and '40s -- have made their work American literary classics, exerting influence on everyone from their contemporaries (including Ernest Hemingway, who, Penzler argues, borrowed much of his style from Dashiell Hammett) to our own (including Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, and Quentin Tarantino). Not that anyone needs a high literary pretext to enjoy the massive new collection of vintage crime fiction assembled by Penzler, which, at nearly 1,500 pages, is thick enough to stun the most dastardly criminal. With more than 50 stories, including two full novels (by Frederick Nebel and Carroll John Daly) and an never-before-published story from Hammett, this volume collects and preserves the titans of the genre side by side with their all-too-mortal fellow practitioners. The indisputably great Raymond Chandler is here, as is Erle Stanley Gardner, creator of Perry Mason; Cornell Woolrich (who writes in "The Dilemma of the Dead Lady," about the novel technique of strangling a woman to death with a lasso of pearls); and James M. Cain, whose "Pastorale," featuring a frozen head and the burdensome nature of guilt, was first published in a very un-pulpy intellectual journal. Then there are writers whose lives were as shadowy as those of their characters. "The Jane from Hell's Kitchen" is a wildly inventive tale, involving a hanging-by-parachute, an electrocution-by-doorbell, and a gun moll named Dizzy Malone, whose room is painted entirely in shades of purple. Of the author, Perry Paul, Penzler could only discover that he was a former crime reporter. Speaking for many other forgotten authors he writes: "They vanished as quickly as they appeared, and they are largely unremembered today." Thankfully, some of them are remembered here. -

My So-Called Life: The Complete Series

My So-Called Life nailed so many iconic moments of teenage girlhood that some viewers must have wondered how series creator Winnie Holzman got access to their diaries. Obsessive crush on the brooding bad boy? Check. Teary confrontation with the former best friend? Check. Barely concealed contempt for the parents who just don?t get you? Of course. No other television show has so perfectly captured the rapturous joys and crushing agonies of adolescence. But to its credit, MSCL, which aired during the 1994-95 season, also recognized the frequent lack of drama of those years -- the interminable school days, the parties where nothing really happened. The show was often introspective and slow, and this refusal to exploit may explain its poor ratings, which resulted in one of the cruelest and most premature cancellations in television history.

MSCL starred a radiant Claire Danes in her first feature role, as Angela Chase. Danes?s preternaturally insightful performance anchored the show, but the subplots concerning the supporting characters -- particularly Wilson Cruz?s ahead-of-its-time portrayal of gay teen Rickie Vasquez -- were never mere filler. This new six-disc collection presents the 19 episodes along with some worthwhile extras, including a documentary on the show?s creation, commentary on six episodes, and remembrances from the cast, all of whom are appropriately grateful for having been there. -

July 25: On this day in 1834 Samuel Taylor Coleridge died of heart disease at the age of sixty-one.

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).