Displaying articles for: November 2008

Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth

To quote a friend, "I thought about dressing up as a credit default swap for Halloween, but it just got too complicated." Most of us are struggling to wrap our minds around the peculiar debt products that helped usher in the current economic crisis. In her new book, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, Margaret Atwood steps back -- how did we come up with the notion of debt in the first place? The book is the text of the 2008 Massey Lecture, an annual Canadian event in which a noted thinker holds forth on a topic. (Past lecturers have included Martin Luther King Jr., John Kenneth Galbraith, and Doris Lessing.) Atwood spends a large portion of her inquiry in literature but draws in contemporary examples, sociology, and political science. The book is full of delightful rabbit holes; in the chapter on debt as plot, for example, we're given a short disquisition on the role of mills in literature. Of trickle-down economics, Atwood -- ever the novelist -- writes, "Notice that the metaphor is not that of a gushing waterfall but of a leaking tap: even the most optimistic endorsers of this concept do not picture very much real flow, as their language reveals." In the final chapter Atwood reimagines Dickens's Scrooge considering the wrecks of modern capitalism. It's the collection's weak point: one wishes she'd either have taken the full plunge into fiction or kept to her arch academic tone. But as a whole, the book is a useful tour of the meaning of debt in modern society.

The Lost Art of Walking

Geoff Nicholson doesn't walk to stay fit. And he doesn't walk to lessen his carbon footprint. "he real reason I walk is because I have to. I walk because it keeps me sane," he writes in The Lost Art of Walking: The History, Science, Philosophy, and Literature of Pedestrianism, a charming 273-page ode to the wonders and dangers of traversing the earth (and even the moon) on two feet. Nicholson, a native of England, lives in Los Angeles, but he's intimately familiar with the byways of New York City and London as well, and he once spent the day walking the length of Oxford Street. "I knew that I must be one of the very few who had ever walked twenty miles back and forth on Oxford Street in a single day. The perversity of this pleased me no end." No doubt this seems eccentric. But nowadays, Nicholson notes, isn't all walking considered suspect? "Looked at a certain way, walking is the most ordinary, natural, ubiquitous activity. What could be more commonplace or lacking in eccentricity than the act of walking? And yet we live in a world where plenty of people find the idea of walking for pleasure, much less for philosophical, aesthetic, or deeply personal reasons, to be not just odd but downright incomprehensible." But to those who like to stroll, saunter, straggle, what have you, walking is a comprehensible passion, and Nicholson cites some of history's champion perambulators, including Charles Dickens, Thomas De Quincey, and Iain Sinclair, who's currently "a sort of guru for London's hipper literary walkers." Sinclair says of walking: "s well as hoovering up information, it's a way of actually shifting a state of consciousness, and yo...

Scrapbooks: An American History

In Scrapbooks: An American History, Jessica Helfand offers several frameworks through which to interpret the hundreds of scrapbook pages included in her lavishly illustrated book. She cites their value as artifacts of social history; she suggests that they serve the same expressive function as the dream state as theorized by Freud. Linking them to today?s mash-up aesthetic, she calls scrapbooks ?the original open-source technology, a unique form of self-expression that celebrated visual sampling, culture mixing, and the appropriation and redistribution of existing media.? True enough. But the book?s real pleasure -- nostalgic, voyeuristic -- comes from poring over the beautiful reproductions throughout its pages. Some of the scrapbookers are public figures, and knowing that poet Anne Sexton will commit suicide at 45 makes it all the more heartbreaking to see the happy mementos (snapshot, motel key) of her elopement at age 19 that she carefully pasted into a book. The fragments from the lives of ordinary men and women are equally riveting, from the young music student who meticulously preserved her ticket stubs and candy wrappers in the 1920s to the medals and dogtags of a World War II G.I. It is not surprising when Helfand herself, despite her keenly analytical perspective, confesses that "to spend any time at all with these scrapbooks is to fall a little bit in love with the people who created them."

Pass It On

Pass It On is Dave Holland?s first document of his latest band, in which, for the first time, the 61-year-old master bassist -- whose recordings with the Dave Holland Quintet since 1997 have deployed vibraphonist Steve Nelson?s airy chords for harmonic context -- incorporates into his compositions the tonal density of the keyboard, here performed by Mulgrew Miller, the state-of-the-art pianist of his generation. It denotes the latest transition in Holland?s distinguished career, one marked by inspired musicianship across a 360-degree spectrum of styles and improvisational strategies: engaging in early-career form busting with Miles Davis, Sam Rivers, and Anthony Braxton; developing an original solo language for bass and cello; rigorously dissecting world (Indian and North African) and funk beats with the Gateway Trio and elaborating upon that process in his 1985-91 ensemble with M-BASE rhythmetricians Steve Coleman, Marvin ?Smitty? Smith, and Robin Eubanks; referencing and extending the role of the bass in mainstream jazz on gigs with Stan Getz, Betty Carter, Thelonious Monk, Hank Jones, and Herbie Hancock. All these flavors permeate the nine-piece program, replete with the episodic themes, memorable melodies, elegant harmonic progressions, loads of polyphony, call-and-response, background riffs, and global array of interlocking rhythmic cycles that Holland characteristically deploys to create, as he once put it, "closed-form music with an open-form sound." Blending old hands (trombonist Eubanks from the quintet; trumpeter Alex Sipiagin and alto saxophonist Antonio Hart, the latter two from Holland?s as-yet-to-be-recorded octet) with new faces (Miller and interactive drummer Eric Harland), Holland propels the flow with relentless grooves and singing sound, spurring an attitude of openness and interplay, offering a meaningful signpost of what contemporary jazz can be.

Kenya: A Country in the Making, 1880-1940

In 1883, the Scottish explorer Joseph Thomson mapped a route through East Africa from Mombasa to Lake Victoria. These were lands long dominated by the Masai, but cattle blight and severe drought had killed off 90 percent of their herds and perhaps half the tribal population. Into this void came the British, who in just five decades built a thriving, modern country, a story that Nigel Pavitt vividly documents in his new book. Its 720 photographs and judicious captions capture the birth of Kenya far better than any history I know. The first great undertaking of the British East Africa project was the Kenya-Uganda Railway. Building the ?lunatic line? required not just fortitude but ingenuity in the face of near-impassable obstacles. But the railway enabled inland settlement and established a community at the barren ?seasonal swamp? of Nairobi. Following the rapid development of new Nairobi and old Mombasa is one of the charms of the book. Pavit?s arrangements allow the reader to continually compare and contrast the changing country, and many of his images have an aesthetic value equal to their historical. This is especially true in the early photos of the pioneers -- a panorama of settlers crossing the Njoro plains, for example, seems right of the Hudson River School of painting -- and the long section depicting the hardships of the East African campaigns during World War I. Throughout, the beauty of the land shines through, as does the relative harmony in which the settlers and imperial interests lived among the traditional peoples like the Masai, the Kikuyu, and the Wakamba. The 1985 movie made many fans for Karen Blixen?s memoir Out of Africa. Pavitt?s book is a fine accompaniment to her beautiful writing. Here is the land and the people she so adored. This gorgeous volume should be under the tree of everyone who has every read Blixen?s perfect memoir (or packaged with it for anyone who hasn?t).

Verses and Versions: Three Centuries of Russian Poetry

In addition to writing Ada and Pale Fire and Lolita, thus bringing us some of the last century?s most rewarding novels in English, the fascinating and fabled Vladimir Nabokov was also a prolific (though characteristically contentious) translator from his native Russian. His translations of Pushkin -- which embodied what his editors call a philosophy of "absolute literalism" -- put him at the center of 1960s debates about translation, which included, as a counter to Nabokov?s attempted literalisms, Robert Lowell's "adaptations." Indeed, Nabokov had a very distinct philosophy of the translator as both an absolute servant and counter-genius to the work at hand, and of all things he seems to have prized rendering both jauntiness and rhyme across languages -- perhaps with less regard to spoken rhythm or flowing syntax. At over 400 pages, the book offers a chance to revisit a wide array of Nabokov?s translations in the text, gathering his English renditions of poetry from Pushkin to Mandelstam and beyond. Russophiles will be happy to see the actual Russian of each lyric on a facing page, and may understand the role of each Russian poet better than those who are more drawn to Nabokov because of his English novels. Interspersed throughout are little snippets of Nabokov's recognizably resounding bombast. The perfect translator, Nabokov writes, "should have genius, style and wit?.should be absolutely honest, should not bypass difficulties?should be of the same sex as his author. He should be paid princely sums for his work. Blunders should be punishable by heavy fines; trimmings and omissions by the stocks."

How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken

When Daniel Mendelsohn was 13 years old, he read two Mary Renault novels about Alexander the Great, Fire from Heaven and The Persian Boy, and with that became enthralled with the ancient world. "I became a classicist because of Alexander the Great?the romantic blend of the youthful hero, that Odyssean yearning, strange rites, and panoramic moments -- all spiced with a dash of polymorphous perversity which all the characters seemed to take in stride -- were too alluring to resist. From that moment on all I wanted was to know more about the Greeks," he recounts in "Alexander, the Movie!," one of 30 essays in his new collection, How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken. Mendelsohn, whose critical essays appear frequently in the New York Review of Books, describes this book as "a collection of judgments," since critics, by definition, judge everything they review. " word that you might not have suspected is even remotely related to 'critic' -- crisis, which in Gr...

Amarcord: Marcella Remembers

We all start somewhere. Marcella Hazan?s first dish was a pulp of mulberry leaves boiled with polenta to feed a piglet during wartime (the better to eat the beast later). But cooking would come to her, like words come to a child, without formal training, by osmosis from her family and from the peckish urgings of her husband. Her cookbooks on classic Italian food would become, rightly, as revered as Ferraris and Sophia Loren. That, however, is down the road in Amarcord, so first things first. We learn in the early, cradle-song pages of this memoir that Hazan was born on Italy?s northern Adriatic coast, in a port town of convivial pandemonium. Lovingly, immaculately drawn, it was a "sweet, simple village," and Hazan?s life was a sweet, little chestnut (despite a broken arm that turned gangrenous, with crippling results), carefree and not a moment toiling in the kitchen. Then came war. Food, by default, became a preoccupation. Hazan paid attention at the stove as her elders worked their wizardry with scant means. She learned to appreciate salt, beans, and a dark humor. With peacetime, Victor came into her life: a bohemian with a growling stomach and a knack, as her collaborator, for turning her Italian into splendid English. It is a pleasure to read a memoir in which life is a blessing (lots of fighting, too, but an elemental affection) complete with fractious in-laws, a bundle of joy --"It was he now, instead of Victor, who interrupted my sleep" -- the circumstantial birth of her cooking classes, and, oh boy, the food. As a teacher, she is a tough-as-nails taskmaster; as an associate, she is disarmingly frank: here, both Alan Davidson and Judith Jones get a sleeve across the windpipe. If the latter part of the book trails a bit -- a few too many celebrity shoulders rubbed at meals to die for -- think of it as her just desserts.

Between Here and April

This first novel by the author of the bestselling memoir Shutterbabe flirts with fiction and its opposite in such a way that one may be compelled, upon completion, to find out what is "true." Though the nature of reality is open to interpretation, we have the internet, and in this case, it has partial answers. Elizabeth Burns, the protagonist, and Deborah Copaken Kogan, her creator, share some biographical details: Both returned from war zones to take up marriage and motherhood in Manhattan (Kogan's career as a photojournalist was the subject of her first book); both worked in television; and, most strikingly, both of them had a best friend in first grade who was murdered by her suicidal mother (so claims Kogan on her web site). This last fact comes back to the adult Elizabeth during a performance of Medea and seems quite rightly to be the spectacular basis for a story. She talks her producer into letting her dig up whatever facts she can find and put them together into a documentary. Adele, the mother of Elizabeth's best friend April, gassed herself and two daughters to death in the family car one night in 1972. Thirty years later, Elizabeth tracks down Adele's shell-shocked former husband, her women's studies professor sister, and, somewhat improbably, the transcripts of conversations between Adele and her therapist, which naturally make the reader privy to the long-dead woman's deepest thoughts in her own voice. Elizabeth, meanwhile, becomes alarmed at the emotional parallels between her own ambivalence about marriage and motherhood and those of a suicidal murderess. Though parts of her novel resemble many recent titles on the difficulties of balancing career and motherhood for affluent urban women, Kogan's material -- including rape, war, suicide, and homicide -- certainly ratchets up the consequences and thus the conversation beyond the usual playground chatter.

Doctor Olaf Van Schuler?s Brain

In the opening sentence of Kirsten Menger-Anderson's collection of linked short stories, we're told the titular doctor arrives in New Amsterdam in 1664 "with his lunatic mother, two bags of medical implements, and a carefully guarded book of his own medicines." He is the first in a long line of physicians who treat maladies with a mixture of experiments, fringe science and spiritualism. Doctor Van Schuler?s obsession is dissecting brains which contain "the seat of man's soul," but his descendants specialize in phrenology, spontaneous combustion, hysteria, neurasthenia, electric shock therapy, lobotomies and a radium curative called a Revigator. If some of those terms are lost in today's lexicon, the tales in this book remind us how they were once hotly debated medical practices. On her web site, Menger-Anderson writes: "We are all limited by the sophistication of our tools and the generally accepted theories of our times." Yesterday's animal magnetism was once today?s silicone breast implants (the subject of a story in the latter pages of the collection). As Sheila Talbot's leaking implants show, the medical field may have advanced but human misery and suffering remain the same. Menger-Anderson has not only done her research -- deftly documenting three centuries of medical quackery -- but she also knows how to weave a tale. She holds the reader spellbound from the first slice into a corpse's brain to the final probe of genetic research.

The Hidden Treasures of Timbuktu

From Here to Timbuktu goes the phrase, as though the nearly millennial city at the bend of the Niger River was the middle of nowhere. Seven hundred years ago it was certainly somewhere. Timbuktu was the center of the West African gold trade -- at a time when the region produced two-thirds of the world?s supply. The city reached its height during the reign of Mansa Musa, the tenth emperor of Mali, whose pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324 did so much to spread the rumors of Timbuktu?s fabulous wealth. Western explorers came searching for gold, but the real treasures were literary -- hundreds of thousands of Arabic manuscripts -- for Timbuktu had long been the intellectual center of Islam in Africa. When Mali fell to French colonialism, the private libraries went underground -- often literally, being buried under the sand -- and only began reappearing in the 1960s with independence. The story of these manuscripts and their preservation is at the heart of this beautiful new photography book. The manuscripts and the city?s historical buildings are lovingly depicted and the story of their almost miraculous survival told. But the book?s unexpected treasure is the group of sitting portraits of Timbuktu?s people. Nomad, Tuareg, Fulani; man, and woman; young and old: all stare directly into the camera. Their faces are riveting and remind us that Timbuktu, despite impoverishment, remains a vibrant cultural crossroads. As the West African proverb has it: "Salt comes from the north, gold from the south, but the word of God and the treasures of wisdom come from Timbuktu."

Jetpack Dreams: One Man?s Up and Down (But Mostly Down) Search for the Greatest Invention That Never Was

For those of us still nursing disappointment that The Future made room for the earthbound Segway but not the rocket-powered jetpack, Mac Montandon?s tragicomic Jetpack Dreams provides a tantalizing view of an invention that remains just out of reach. The author includes everything from a fanciful analysis of why we fantasize about flying to careful documentation of how the term ?jetpack? became popular (see: Philip Francis Nowlan?s ?Armageddon 2419 A.D., Amazing Stories, 1928). Both the failures and successes that attempted to transform science fiction into science fact emphasize the dangers. The hapless "somewhat asinine young fellow" in 1930s Germany who "set off a few rockets while strapped to roller skates" reaches across time to join hands with 1960s Bell Aerospace engineer Wendell Moore, who actually built a functioning jetpack. Which is to say nothing of such hapless characters as Houston-based entrepreneur Bradley Wayne Barker, a partner in the absurd-sounding American Rocketbelt Corporation. His jetpack obsession ended in murder and kidnapping. At times sounding almost gleefully steampunkish, or steampuckish, Montandon also investigates such ungainly titled flops as the Springtail Exoskeleton Flying Vehicle. Despite a sometimes overly gee-whiz tone, the book does provide an undeniably entertaining look at the crackpots and experts who have pursued the dream of personalized flight. Always upbeat, Montandon still holds out hope that we may all someday enter the hallowed realm currently reserved for such famous fictional "jetpackers" as Star War?s Boba Fett and James Bond.

An Autumn Afternoon

One needn't give a hoot about astrology to be visited by an extrasensory tingling when reflecting on the fact that Yasujiro Ozu (1903-63) -- a paragon of cinematic equipoise -- died on his birthday. The films for which the director is most known, like Tokyo Story and Good Morning, exhibit a formal harmony that emerges from Ozu's use of static shots that encase even the most comic and tragic components of his movies in silken understatement. In his final work, An Autumn Afternoon, Ozu tells a simple but deeply nuanced story about a widower's warmhearted efforts to marry off his daughter. Shuhei Hirayama (played by Chishu Ryu) is prodded by his former schoolmate, Koichi (Keiji Sada), to introduce his daughter to a suitor whom Koichi has picked out. Hirayama believes his daughter to be unready for such a step and dismisses the idea -- but an episode that follows gives him second thoughts. After a night out with their former classmates and teacher (Eijiro Tono), whom the chums affectionately still refer to as "the Gourd," Hirayama and Koichi drop the inebriated teacher at home. There, Hirayama witnesses the sad fate that has befallen the Gourd's middle-aged, unmarried daughter as she tends to her dipsomaniac father. Against the backdrop of this deceptively mundane plotline, Ozu slips in grander themes: the ambivalence shouldered by Japanese men who are mindful of the steady Westernization of their country, and the growing enfranchisement of women who are anything but passive. This gem of a movie makes the work of innumerable other talented directors seem hysterical by comparison.

Envy the Night

You can't always tell a book by its cover blurbs, but the ones decorating Michael Koryta's Envy the Night have the crystal ring of truth and admiration. Michael Connelly and George Pelicanos are not often generous to a fault, but Koryta's first stand-alone thriller -- after three books in his excellent series about Indiana private eye Lincoln Perry -- might make you rush out to obtain it and lock yourself in your room until you finish it. Koryta's Lincoln Perry books were wonderful slices of midwestern noir (A Welcome Grave was an Edgar finalist). But Envy the Night is that rarest of literary creatures: a stand-alone thriller that we want to be a series. Could it happen? Could Frank Temple III, the 24-year-old son of a hired killer, and Nora Stafford, at 30 the unwilling proprietor of her comatose father's auto body shop, survive all the dangers they face in the bucolic Wisconsin lakefront town known as Willow Flowage, just down the road from Tomahawk? We live in hope. "Frank had endured a lot of pity over the years, some genuine, some false," Koryta tells us. "Sometimes it would be expressed directly to him; other times it just showed in their eyes. Poor kid. Imagine having such a monster for a father. The problem, though, the one that Frank saw and nobody else ever could, was that he'd been a good father..." Nora is another beautifully drawn character, a basically sad young woman forced home by family devotion and now as lonely and displaced as Frank. They bond to stay alive, although even that part of their relationship is frequently tested. Other characters -- an auto body worker from hell who turns out to be some kind of hero, an enigmatic FBI agent who keeps an eye on Frank for guilty reasons of his own, and a motley crew of inept and very ept villains -- are also brought to life with lots of art but very few words.

The Mad Farmer Poems

Wendell Berry's Mad Farmer debuted in 1967 and still carries with him a distinctive whiff of that era -- a revolutionary naturalist, an agrarian anarchist, proud to skillfully till both soil and his woman (and to apply the same verb to both acts). Religion, rooted in rural life, responsible stewardship of the land, and family bonds remain the lifelong preoccupations of Berry. The Mad Farmer poems, written over many years and brought together in this oversize edition along with distinctive engravings by Abigail Rorer, articulate these concerns in a character who is both prophet and political leader: This guy has a "Revolution," "Prayers and Sayings," a "Love Song," two "Manifestos" (including a "Liberation Front" and a "First Amendment"), and finally "Secedes from the Union." The character of the Mad Farmer, though, is not mere stand-in for Berry, writes his friend Ed McClanahan, who also spent decades in Port Royal, Kentucky, the inspiration for Berry's fictional town of Port William. He is the classic "Holy Fool;" the "joke" of the poems, writes the author, "is that in a society gone insane with industrial greed and insecurity, a man exuberantly sane will appear 'mad.'" Gathering the like-minded "in their own nation small enough for a story/or song to travel across in an hour," he promises liberation "from the wage-slavery of the helplessly well-employed." His final line concludes: "though for realization we may wait / a thousand or a million years."

Scorchy Smith and the Art of Noel Sickles

The sumptuous, Brobdingnagian feast that is Scorchy Smith and the Art of Noel Sickles is nothing less than the first-ever complete reprint of this seminal newspaper adventure strip during the period when it flourished under Sickles' hand, from 1934 to 1936. Alone, that offering of some 900 daily strips would impress. But the reprinted strips -- three years' worth of continuity -- represents only two-thirds of the total pages. The other third consists of a stimulating and informative biography of Sickles and an overview of his career by Bruce Canwell, fleshed out with roughly 200 pieces of artwork. As lovingly and gracefully recounted by Canwell, Sickles' life and professional accomplishments during the golden age of newspaper adventure comics and magazine illustrations read like some combination of Horatio Alger and Thomas Wolfe. When he got his first big break -- taking over the aviation adventure strip Scorchy Smith from its deceased creator, John Terry, after laboring as Terry's apprentice -- he slyly and gradually morphed the style and tone of the strip from Terry's crude renderings to an unheard-of level of sophistication that would influence every graphic artist from his lifelong pal Milton Caniff on down. But his three compact years on that strip were just the beginning of a flourishing career that came to include everything from advertising imagery to government work to magazine illustrations. As for Scorchy Smith itself, the groundbreaking strip remains very readable, without quite attaining to the level of genius. Sickles believed in cursory, spontaneous plotting, and his characters lack the depth and animation of those of Alex Raymond or Caniff. Modeled originally on Charles Lindbergh, Scorchy is something of a Boy Scout, an American Tintin despite his supposed maturity, more Dick Powell than Humphrey Bogart. But Sickles' dramatic compositions and "chiaroscuro" effects seduce the reader's eye and more than compensate for the standard melodrama.

Child of All Nations

You don't expect a novel about a family tramping around pre–World War II Europe to hold you in its grip so tight that you read the entire book in one sitting. But that's exactly what Irmgard Keun's Child of All Nations does, thanks to the shrewd voice of its narrator, a ten-year-old girl named Kully who coolly endures being dragged from country to country by her neurotic mother and ne'er-do-well writer father, who's turned his back on Nazi Germany. Keun, whose books were banned by the Nazis, is bound to be resurrected from obscurity by this 1938 novel, now getting its first English translation by Michael Hofmann. Written before the full onslaught of the Holocaust, the book treats war as dark background scenery and focuses instead on the family's plight -- a struggle that keeps them barely one step ahead of poverty, creditors, and starvation. Kully's insights into her world are simple but profound: "My throat felt like an endless tube full of hunger." Or consider her perspective on international politics: "The world has grown dark, because of rain and war?. War is something that comes and makes everything dead. Then there'll be nowhere left for me to play, and bombs will keep falling on my head." Kully is a captivating character, and even in the face of misery, she's often very funny: "I'm not sure whether I don't understand grown-ups, or if they're just too stupid for words." This, however, is a novel that's smart beyond its years.

Shadows at Dawn: A Borderland Massacre and the Violence of History

At dawn on April 30, 1871, armed vigilantes quietly invaded a camp of sleeping Apache Indians near Fort Grant in Arizona: "They succeeded...in killing perhaps as many as a hundred and forty-four , almost all of them sleeping women and children," writes Brown University historian Jacoby in this in-depth and multi-dimensional examination of the largely forgotten Fort Grant Massacre. Jacoby skillfully explores the deadly events from the point of view of all involved, including the whites, Mexicans, and Pima Indians who did the killing as well as the Apaches who were the victims of the terrorism. Instead of placing the massacre into a triumphalist narrative or using it merely as evidence of Anglo genocide against American Indians, Jacoby works from the bottom up, meticulously examining the backgrounds and motivations of all involved. The Mexicans, for example, joined in the massacre because of Apache raids on their cattle; Pima and whites used similar justifications of self-defense in a climate of scarce resources. Yet Mexican and American expansionism seriously threatened the Apaches' nomadic way of life. Federal policy wanted to place Indians on reservations, but many Arizona whites (and Mexicans) followed a de facto policy of extermination. The breadth and depth of Jacoby's historical recounting casts new light on this dark episode, yet he cautions, "A multitude of narratives flow into and out of the events of April 30, 1871," and no single "meaning" emerges as definitive.

The King and the Cowboy: Theodore Roosevelt and Edward the Seventh, Secret Partners

Historian Fromkin's focus isn't so much on the personal history between President Teddy Roosevelt and King Edward VII of Britain (indeed, the two men never actually meet in Fromkin's narrative), as it is about the shifting national alliances in the Atlantic world before World War I. Fromkin skillfully describes how Edward, after the 1901 death of his mother, Queen Victoria, moved his country toward an alliance with France and in opposition to Germany, ruled by his nephew Kaiser William II. President Roosevelt and the king both favored this crucial diplomatic shift, which would later lead to the two world wars of the 20th century. As Fromkin shows, much of the European diplomacy of this era was personal. The Great Powers were mainly monarchies with family interconnections. Fromkin analyzes the kaiser's "passionate dislike of his uncle," King Edward, and traces that animosity to William's strict military upbringing, compared with Edward's playboy lifestyle. Kaiser "William's whole view of Great Power foreign policy over the course of two decades," Fromkin explains, "was colored by his undying hatred" of his royal British uncle. Fromkin also explores how Roosevelt helped Edward reach his goals: Roosevelt, writes the author, "was Anglophile" and believed the English-speaking peoples were destined to rule the world. When the kaiser attempted to destroy Britain's new diplomatic arrangement with France, Roosevelt sided with Edward. Germany "charged it was being encircled by its enemies," concludes Fromkin, and would unsuccessfully fight two wars to shift this established strategic alliance.

Everything but the Squeal: Eating the Whole Hog in Northern Spain

When one lives with a vegetarian wife and an infant son, an irresistible enthusiasm for feasting on pork may not be the most communal of hobbies. But it's no surprise that writer John Barlow discovered said urge soon after moving to Galicia, a region in northwest Spain particularly known for its thorough consumption of hog (and where the locals find the eating preferences of his wife, a native Galician, so incomprehensible that they continually urge her to "just try" morsels of flesh). After a full 12 months of strenuous gastronomic research, Barlow can tell you the flavor of just about any pig part, from hoof to jowl. He competes for platefuls of chorizo served family-style at an open-air market decorated with dried pigs' heads in festive soccer scarves and mustaches ("Galicians are not cruel to animals, but neither are they sentimental"). On the recommendation of his podiatrist, he goes on a pork quest to the hometown of Cervantes, and along the way has an unfortunate encounter with what seems to be "smashed up vertebrae" steamed in a stomach bladder. A pressed pig head, his guide claims, has "twenty-four tastes," and indeed Barlow savors "a chorus of chattering pork voices" in what seems to be "an amazing pig cocktail." Pepe Solla's elegant plate of sous-vide ribs are so fine, he says, "they make you cry when you taste them." Finally, he attends an old-fashioned slaughter, involving a nine-inch knife and a tractor, followed by a repast of "a bacon sandwich, a glass of wine and a spot by the fire." Yes, yes, this is a book that makes one yearn for smoky porcine deliciousness. But Barlow's uncommonly fresh wit and charm (he is also the author of a novel and short story collection) make him the kind of guide one would follow just about anywhere.

The Complete Fables of La Fontaine: A New Translation in Verse

Thanks to Craig Hill, French-less readers of La Fontaine's classic fables now have a version worthy of the original. Hill matches wits with the Frenchman's clever rhymes and recreates his varied meters in verses that sound crisp and contemporary, yet lose none of their historical context. La Fontaine's moral tales of gods, men, and beasts go beyond their origins in Aesop and Phaedrus. For one thing, he gives his animals voices, and the result is certainly no peaceable kingdom but a world of sneaky foxes, clever ants, lying frogs, and proud lions. His humans fare no better: the drunks and charlatans, the scoundrels and flatterers all get their comeuppance. La Fontaine (1621-95) spares no one in his satiric view. Affairs of state figure prominently in fables on the delusions of empire; the limits of party loyalties; the need to know your enemies; and the obligations of royalty -- after all, "a crown fits very few," as an antic monkey learns. Readers will recognize some of Aesop's chestnuts: the tortoise and the hare, the hen that laid golden eggs, and the sun and the north wind. But even here La Fontaine adds his sneaky comments on contemporary France in the age of Louis XIV. A fable, the poet tells us, contains "hidden truths," not "naked morals," and while La Fontaine's cynical verses affirm the timeless virtues -- thrift, honesty, hard work -- his tales thrive on the foibles of the lazy, the lying, and the spendthrift. Hill's slangy verses add some contemporary notes of their own -- a "Social Register" here, a "Bronx cheer" there. But he follows with La Fontaine the Horatian poetic ideal -- to instruct and delight. And along the way, Hill gives us in this translation of all 12 books, a Fables for our time.


If there was an award for "Poet Laureate of Appalachia," Ron Rash would certainly win it. In his fourth novel, Serena, Rash revisits the setting of his other books, this time to imbue the hills and hollers, as well as the hardscrabble inhabitants of the Depression-era North Carolina mountains with a lyric elegance that belies the violence of the plot. Plunging in straightaway (pun intended), the story begins with a deadly knife duel as George Pemberton steps off the train and into a tussle with the father of his former mistress, now pregnant with his child. Pemberton's new bride, Serena, is eager to establish herself as her husband's right hand, both in the business of overseeing a vast lumber empire, as well as dealing with the mother of a potentially pesky bastard. She steps in, coolly removes the knife from the chest of the dead man, and hands it to his daughter with advice to sell it. "It's all you'll ever get from my husband and me." This astonishing juxtaposition of Serena's cold, calculating beauty coupled with Pemberton's sanguine earthiness is just one example of how deftly Rash has entwined his narrative's poetic tenor with horrific accidents and the foretelling of chilling murders: "McDowell was in the room's one cell pulling a dingy mattress off its spring base. As the sheriff did so, dust motes floated upward, suspended in the cell window's barred light as if in a web." As the Pembertons push their workers (often in harsh conditions) to decimate the snake-infested forest in the name of wealth and power, the result is this sometimes gothic, sometimes elegiac, altogether frightening tale that lays bare the consequence of ruthless ambition, while asking simply, "So what happens when there ain't nothing left alive at all?"

Things I Learned from Knitting ... Whether I Wanted to or Not

Are you among the growing legions of knitters? Has your best friend been known to cancel plans when there is a yarn sale, or your mother and mother-in-law to stash away yarn for blankets for grandchildren yet to come? Perhaps even your husband has caught the bug and is working on some lovely cables as we speak. If so, buy this book now; because Stephanie Pearl-McPhee gets us. She gets the perseverance of knitters who find themselves unable to knit a swatch even though that is the "right" thing to do. But fair warning: if you don't know what a swatch is, this book isn't for you. Structured in a self-help format, Pearl-McPhee's brief musings will touch a chord (and a cord) with the yarn-obsessed. Her people are the ones comfortably knitting socks at the airport to the endless drone of canceled flight announcements. Pearl-McPhee observes that knitting doesn't teach patience; it helps the impatient not go insane while waiting. The author also writes the popular Canadian blog, the Yarn Harlot, where knitters who are (gasp) not at the moment knitting enjoy her dry, self-deprecating humor. Reading her blog is like checking in with a close friend. How are those unbelievably complicated socks with the tiny grape leaves coming along? We feel her pain and obsession as she rips back hours of work. Happily this book stands alone and doesn't have the "I cut and pasted this from my blog" feeling. And it contains both copious laughs and vital truths. Perhaps the biggest: babies grow. "I feel terrible pointing out this simple truth that knitting has taught me, but I've seen so many knitters burned by this that I can hardly not."


Take Robert Downey Jr. out of the equation, and Chaplin remains a handsomely produced old school biopic. Focus on its star, and the 1998 film achieves a gravitas that lends greatness to it. A sweeping overview of Charlie Chaplin?s momentous and scandal-ridden life would present any filmmaker with daunting challenges. Director Richard Attenborough does his workmanlike best, hitting all the major spots in a rags-to-riches-to-exile-to vindication story as fantastic as any movie made in the land that Chaplin himself put on the map. Inclusion has its price -- exposition clogs the screen; dialogue often acts more like a biographical road map than human conversation. No matter. What Attenborough has in his favor saves the day: an obvious affection for his subject, albeit one that?s clear-eyed enough to recognize the near-Shakespearian flaws of this titan of the screen, as well as the extraordinary performance he extracts from his lead actor. While he nails Chaplin?s inimitable comic persona and physical routines down cold, Downey?s remarkable emphatic talents truly reveal themselves when portraying Chaplin out of cinematic character. Downey embodies the torment of the neurotic man behind the comedic mask, burdened by familial guilt, passion for underage females, and gnawing perfectionism. As lithe as he is demonstrating the famed pratfalls, Downey comes most alive as Chaplin ages, capturing the blend of pride and evasiveness that the elderly exile used as emotional armor in his later life. To grant both figures -- past and present -- their due, Downey?s is a performance that his revered subject deserves.

Martial's Epigrams

Even to those who know Roman poetry, Martial is more often known than read. This may be attributed, as you like, to the lightness of his over 1,500 epigrams, their sheerly daunting number, their honest filthiness, or the dependence for their effect on knowledge of the minute details of Roman culture. Trying to cut through this, Garry Wills presents Martial as the master formalist, honing the attack of his chosen genre the way a fencer perfects his pris de fer. The focus of Wills's selection is the poetic sport of using a few short lines to set up and then knock down an opponent: "Men flock to Thais / From North to South, / Yet she's a virgin -- / All but her mouth." Martial makes frequent statements, too, about his own art, whether he is addressing his poems (literally, like children going out into the world) or sneering at his poetic rivals as bad imitators and worse plagiarists. Epigram is a sport, and Wills gets into the game by not taking it too seriously, indulging in rhyme at the risk of sounding old fashioned because linguistic cleverness is as important to its wit as its economy. In the right setting, the most worthless thing becomes artful. Martial often turns to the image of amber:" A drop of amber hit an ant / While crawling past a tree / A brief and trifling thing preserved / For all eternity." Some readers may be put off by the rather arbitrary translation of Roman names into English ones like "Tom" and "Janet," but in Martial the details shouldn't distract you from the slap-down. The pleasure is in the immediacy of the effect: "You make your readers grope and tarry -- / Your reader's not a dictionary /But commentators I make merry/ Who read me with no commentary."

Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies

About actors, Alfred Hitchcock famously brokered no compliments. In his third book about the director, Donald Spoto explores the "strange amalgam of adoration and contempt" Hitchcock felt for performers, whom he termed "cattle" and "stupid children." The result is a breathless catalogue of behavior over more than fifty years of moviemaking that ranged from merely cold to downright cruel. "Svengali Hitch," as he called himself, enjoyed putting women, beautiful blondes especially, through degrading, dangerous agonies in order to remake them as stars. He segregated them from cast and crew, told dirty jokes, exposed himself, and played pranks, such as leaving skulls on Janet Leigh's chair during the making of Psycho."But he saved the real horrors for Tippi Hedren, with whom he was obsessively but unrequitedly in love. While shooting The Birds, Hedren almost died from physical exhaustion after Hitchcock kept her chained to real birds for five days of filming. Spoto tries to counterbalance the adulation that has ossified since the director's death in 1980 but also strives to demonstrate the humanity behind Hitch's pathology. Hitchcock partly believed that his actions would translate into better reactions on screen and partly resented the actors' high salaries and active social lives. Isolated by his obesity, repressed, and just plain mean, Hitch animated his pictures with his neuroses. We in turn watch his characters in emotional extremis, our enjoyment sanctioned by the fact that their suffering is mere fiction; how complicated our pleasure becomes when we begin to see the extent to which life mirrored art.

And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks

Years before Burroughs and Kerouac catapulted to respective literary fame with Naked Lunch and On the Road, the two men collaborated on a fictional retelling of a real-life case of murder that is only now seeing the light of day. In 1944, a drunken brawl spurred their friend (and future influential Beatnik) Lucien Carr to kill David Kemmerer, whose ongoing advances he had spurned, and the resulting fracas -- in which both Kerouac and Burroughs were arrested as accessories to the crime because neither reported it to the police -- resulted in this hard-boiled tale of Manhattan's grimy, sexually teeming underbelly. Alternating chapters, the two young writers fashioned a novel with prose so spare, atmosphere so thick, and language so bone dry it would have been right at home with the Gold Medal or Ace Double paperback-original houses, had they existed at the time. There's some eerie foreshadowing as Burroughs's stand-in, "Will Dennison," rejects complex emotional entanglements with the female sex by wondering "why can't we do away with women altogether," while some characters mock the half-French ancestry of "Mike Ryko," shared with his alter ego. Hippos, summarily rejected by publishers upon the manuscript's completion more than 60 years ago and more or less dismissed by both writers thereafter, should be considered more an entertaining (if somewhat melancholic) curiosity than a standout achievement on either writer's part. Diehard Kerouac and Burroughs fans, however, should seek this volume out for its insight into what these brash young talents would later become.

Hello, Everybody! The Dawn of American Radio

The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value, declared a not particularly prescient executive of the newly formed RCA in 1920. "Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?" As Anthony Rudel explains, the fact that radio waves scattered about was considered a disadvantage to early developers; they hoped to use the technology to send signals directly from one point to another. Rudel's lively history of the dawn of the radio age covers a parade of innovators and hucksters (see Dr. John Brinkley, the broadcasting pioneer who advertised his surgical technique, transplanting goat testicles into men to cure impotence, over the air) who grasped that the ability to reach many people at once was in fact radio's greatest strength. During the 1920s, radio's popularity exploded as sports events, variety shows, and religious sermons became programming staples -- the latter made national celebrities out of controversial evangelists Aimee Semple McPherson and Father Charles Coughlin. On-the-spot coverage of the Scopes trial and the Lindbergh kidnapping revolutionized the way Americans received their news (thus alarming the newspaper industry, one of several fascinating parallels to the dawn of the Internet age), while weather updates and market reports changed the way farmers did business. One of the figures credited with guiding the growth of radio was Herbert Hoover, who, as commerce secretary under Presidents Harding and Coolidge, helped determine how active the government should be in regulating the airwaves. Ironically, radio contributed to his resounding defeat in the 1932 presidential election at the hands of an opponent, FDR, who was a master of the medium.

Let's See

For years now, New Yorker readers have had the chance to read Peter Schjeldahl?s writings on exhibits of the well-known art greats -- Alexander Calder, Dan Flavin, Paul Gaugin -- as well as pondering his introductions to a shrewdly picked and eclectic array of contemporary artists like Vija Celimins, John Currin, and Mona Hatoum. In each of his pieces Schjeldahl has poked, prodded, situated, and editorialized, all in the service of struggling to articulate visceral responses to beauty. His profiles are compact, muscular, jaunty, knowledgeable. He?s a master of helping us see the nuance in canvases or sculptures or performance art, and his writing about artists is both personal and astute. ?Gaugin,? he notes darkly ?was not nice.? Now he?s produced a gallery full of his own thinking: a display of Schjedahls, even, and it?s a wonderful whirlwind tour, not only through worlds of art and artistic eras but also through the mind of a man who has spent his lifetime in search of access to the beautiful. Schjedahl writes first and foremost ?in praise of contradictory effects that baffle our rational minds.? He wants art to startle and hijack us out of daily life and into receptive, awe-filled submission. Because of this, his book is full of delicious one-liners that tickle the reader?s mind into synasethetic delight: Of the moody artist David Caspar Friedrich, Shjeldahl writes ?One doesn?t so much look at a Friedrich, as inhale it, like nicotine.? Inhale away. Tour Scheldahl?s personal gallery -- and emerge expanded, enlightened, caressed, and renewed.

Defeat: Napoleon?s Russian Campaign

The Wars of the French Revolution were the first to prove a boon for the publishing industry. Quite a few of the survivors of the quarter-century of warfare set down their thoughts in the decades that followed the final bell at Waterloo. From the simplicity of Rifleman Harris to the braggadocio of the Baron Marbot, these works have an incalculable historical value. Only a few can lay claim to literary merit, and high on that list is Philippe-Paul de Ségur?s History of the Expedition to Russia, Undertaken by the Emperor Napoleon in the Year 1812. Philippe-Paul, comte de Ségur, was from a long line of French officers. At 19, he heard the young Bonaparte haranguing his troops during the coup of the 18th Brumaire and promptly joined up. He served with distinction, rising to general, and took part in the disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812. Twelve years later he recollected this catastrophe in tranquility. His bestselling history was critical enough of the emperor that S‚gur was called upon to fight a duel. He survived, and so does his memoir. He shaped his story with a novelist?s eye, and if there are things that a historian will tell you are exaggerated, they guarantee a narrative that never flags. (Tolstoy drew on it when writing War and Peace.) In the 1890s, Ségur?s grandson made an abridgement that cut back on the details of military logistics. Translated into English in the 1950s, it is available again from the wonderful reprint series New York Review Classics. Defeat remains the finest portrait of how an army dies.

Don't Look Now

Ahem, Poe: You might NOT want to check over your shoulder. Just in time for Halloween -- Daphne Du Maurier, the British writer who penned such classics as "Escort," "Don't Look Now," and "The Birds" re-appears in a new collection of the odd, eerie and macabre. Du Maurier's output was classic stuff of the fifties and sixties: Hitchcock used her stories for several films, for instance. She was extraordinarily prolific, but a great deal of her work has been largely out of print for decades. This collection showcases her cult and not so cult classics in all their chilling, uneasy glory. Du Maurier is a master of the peaceful beginning gone wrong -- her stories often launch with would-be landscape paintings of sea or scenery, behind which some awful pressure builds, threatening, like birds' beaks, to puncture. Other times the tales begin with the too-tidy house or the too-foggy night. Yet all her beginnings are full of delicious forebodings: In "Split Second," Mrs. Ellis, the too-finical housewife, can't serve her jam to guests without feeling "a little stab of disappointment: it would mean a gap upon the store cupboard." Larger confusions and chaos are in store for her as the world she believes she lives in upends and becomes nightmarish: No amount of domestic order can keep that chaos at bay. Again and again, du Maurier's characters are helpless against the sudden and relentless power of another, more sinister dimension, one that enters through peripheral vision and then encroaches. Best not to look now, or really, ever: Like the evil that rears at the end of the titular Don't Look Now it is always too late when seen head on.

July 23: Jessica Mitford died on this day in 1996.

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
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).

Watching Them Be

What makes a film actor into a larger-than-life movie star? James Harvey's passionate, freewheeling essays explain why there are some faces (from Greta Garbo's to Samuel L. Jackson's) from which we cannot look away.


What if you called up the spouse on the verge of leaving you -- and instead found yourself magically talking to his younger self, the one you first fell for?  Rainbow Rowell, author of the YA smash Eleanor & Park, delivers a sly, enchanting take on 21st-century love.