Displaying articles for: December 2007

33 1/3: Greatest Hits, Volume Two

33 1/3 Greatest Hits, Volume 2 is a sampler of highs and lows from the long-running book series, where music critics riff on their favorite albums. In true rock 'n' roll fashion, the 33 1/3 books diverge wildly in terms of quality and style; some are masterful and definitive (Michaelangelo Matos on Prince, Douglas Wolk on James Brown, Erik Davis on Led Zeppelin), while others just spew maudlin college poetry all over Pink Floyd or Joy Division. The most absurd installment might be the one on Neutral Milk Hotel, a tortuously solemn study of an indie-pop concept album about the Holocaust. ("If Anne were alive today, what would be her favorite band?" -- yeesh.) Naturally, it?s the bestselling book in the series. This anthology excerpts the Neutral Milk Hotel volume, along with 19 others ranging from straightforward making-of documentaries to fan fiction to memoir. The high-water marks are Franklin Bruno on Elvis Costello?s Armed Forces and Hugo Wilcken on David Bowie?s Low -- these may be two of the most written-about rock stars of all time, yet Bruno and Wilcken offer fresh insights. The R.E.M. chapter reveals which microphones they used ("the more proletarian Electro-Voice 635A" instead of "the sportier AKG C 414"), while the Beastie Boys chapter reveals which drugs they were on (pot, ?shrooms). Some writers chronicle the recording sessions, as in Gillian G. Gaar?s remarkably detailed Nirvana chapter; others go for witty personal reflections on the music, like Sean Nelson on Joni Mitchell or Alex Green on the Stone Roses. And for goofball pomposity, there?s the Sonic Youth chapter, which informs the reader, ?The pregnant void waits.?

Smile When You're Lying

It's no shock to hear that writing for travel magazines involves a lot of airbrushing to make things prettier. After all, the industry that publishes them, fueled by advertising, wants readers to fall for every last word and then start buying the miles. What's most noticeable about seasoned travel writer Chuck Thompson's Smile When You're Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Traveler is the venom with which he makes his point. "Call it my revenge," he says in the introduction to this energetic book of gritty dispatches from around the world. Thai prostitutes, debauched businessmen, stoned backpackers, miserable hospitality workers -- this is not the stuff of Travel & Leisure. One highlight has Thompson challenging a journalist friend who specializes in covering the Caribbean to convince him that the whole region doesn't just totally suck. Along the way he also offers helpful tips such as "No white man should ever wear a sarong, not even in private." The downside here is how often Thompson resorts to an acerbic view. Take this line: "The new age of travel is about more than waiting in line so that a sixty-year-old TSA biddy can wave a security wand in front of your crotch." When Thompson isn't just aimlessly snarking around, this book is a smart and amusing diversion. -

Hotel: An American History

After his inauguration, George Washington embarked on a tour of the United States to bolster support for its fledgling government; sadly, the poor guy could barely find a decent place to rest his head. ?The only Inn short of Hallifax having...no Rooms or beds which appeared tolerable, & everything else having a dirty appearance, I was compelled to keep on,? the father of our country wrote wearily of his visit to North Carolina. In this erudite, engaging, and beautifully illustrated history, Sandoval-Strausz examines how the inns of Washington?s day -- places where a drunken stranger might join you in bed at any point during the night -- came to be replaced by the hotel, which, he argues, is a uniquely American invention. The author links the proliferation of hotels to the rise of capitalism. In Colonial times, strangers were viewed with suspicion and often run out of town, but in the 19th century, with revolutions in steam and rail transportation facilitating the movement of goods, the people moving the goods needed dependable places to stay along their routes. By the early 20th century, the emergence of mass tourism and the popularization of the automobile meant that more and more Americans were hitting the road. Thus, the creation of the ?institutional model of hospitality,? which is something of a fancy term for the Kids Eat Free special at the Holiday Inn.

Hearts of Darkness

This re-release of Hearts of Darkness (1991), a documentary on the making of Francis Coppola's legendary Apocalypse Now (released in 1979), affords us unprecedented entry into the filmmaking experience. The boisterous Coppola and his charmingly mild wife, Eleanor, provide (for this new DVD) voice-over commentary on a movie (mostly shot by her) that itself comments on the production of another movie. And don't forget the two books in the story: Conrad's masterpiece lurking in the background and Eleanor's own Notes, a superb and understated narrative about the wild 238-day shoot of Apocalypse Now in the Philippines. The project suffered numerous setbacks -- a crucial last-second casting change; replacement Martin Sheen's subsequent heart attack; and endless financing woes. Coppola plowed on, doubt-filled but determined, hampered as well by an ill-prepared Marlin Brando and a spaced-out Dennis Hopper. The documentary captures it wonderfully, with Eleanor's meek voice imposing a calmness on all the chaos. Also included is Eleanor's new documentary on her husband's's latest film, Youth Without Youth, which sheds further light on Coppola's tumultuous career. The pampered auteur of the '70s now exhibits the certainty and resignation of a seasoned pro who still risks pretentiousness. If it all seems ridiculously postmodern and meta-level, don't worry: it's riveting and revelatory in every respect.

The Redbreast

Harry Hole, newly promoted inspector for the Oslo-based national Security Service, is a surly, wounded sort, an emotional wreck. Hole lives alone, drinks too much, and is congenitally unable to relate to his fellow officers, save for his dependable partner, Ellen Gjelten. But he is good at doggedly and bravely solving crimes, and here he confronts a half dozen separate murders and felonies that initially seem unrelated. Of course, in prime Ross McDonald fashion, all interlock after a lot of globe-hopping footwork. Events both ultra-contemporary and lost in the mists of World War II usher in the headline-ready themes of Norwegian author Jo Nesb?'s novel, in the manner of recent revelations concerning, say, G�nter Grass's service in the Waffen SS. Nesb?'s prose -- in a taut translation by Don Bartlett -- is delivered in compact, cohesive chapters that tantalize the reader without giving the game away. Redbreast defies categories like noir or police procedural, with more leisurely pacing and character unfolding than is common in domestic U.S. productions. And yet, this whole mode owes its very existence to American pioneers, and Nesb?'s transnational stylings pay homage to this lineage, in everything from the faintly ribald name of his protagonist to an exegesis delivered by one character on the roots of Norway's America-philia. And could it be possible that the name of Harry Hole's boss, Bjarne M?ller, is meant to echo -- Barney Miller?


Combining Asian, African, and Indian influences with European preparations, creole is the classic fusion cuisine. Babette de RoziŠres, who learned to cook from her grandmother while growing up in Guadeloupe, completes a culinary circle of sorts, bringing the signature food style of the West Indies back to Paris, where she is the owner of La Table de Babette. Between cheerful plaid covers, RoziŠres provides an encyclopedic tour of Caribbean food, from appetizers to desserts, lavishly photgraphed. Spices are complex, but not necessarily fiery hot. Many use West Indian Columbo powder or graines de roussir, a blend of fenugreek, cumin, and mustard seed. RoziŠres' gleeful mix of traditions is often evident in a single recipe, such as crab profiteroles in a saffron seafood cream, conch ravioli with a crab and lemongrass sauce, or lamb in a tumeric and wasabi white sauce with pistachios. Fruits -- such as star fruit jam or guava jelly -- often lend sweetness to the main dish. The seafood section is especially exotic, with recipes for tropical delicacies including shark, mahi mahi, conch, and sea urchin. As an aid to the novice, RoziŠres provides a glossary, an online shopping guide, and substitutions for hard-to-find items. Her clear, easy instructions make this a usable guide to fresh, bright, beautiful food that one can actually make.

The City in Crimson Cloak

The City in Crimson Cloak is at once the title of an unfinished autobiographical novel following a protagonist named O and the title of Asli Erdogan's novel about the (fictional) author, a Turkish woman named Ozgur. Ozgur, on the cusp of 30, has spent two years in Rio de Janeiro, trying to write the city around her into a shape that might be understood by her imagined reader: "a sophisticated, educated someone who had never experienced hunger, and who would be sitting down in a comfortable chair and doing the least risky occupation in the world -- reading..." As it happens, the novel begins on what will be the day of Ozgur's death, though she, of course, does not know that. Two years on, Ozgur, in her ragged jeans and worn-down shoes, looks like a woman without a dime to her name, subsisting on warm tea and cheap cigarettes, yet still appears to her neighbors as a gringa, voluntarily shrugging off privilege that they were never offered. In alternating sections, we are introduced to a former painter who once lived in London and is now considered the village madman, quoting passages of Keats and Macbeth; Ozgur's onetime friend, Eli a gay actor; and scenes describing harrowing conditions of violence and poverty. The novel might have been richer had Erdogan taken advantage of the structure to interrogate Ozgur's motives and perceptions more fully than Ozgur herself can. But it does succeed as a sort of reverse postcard -- the hazards of the tropics seen in the eyes of a woman from winter climes. -

Lady Chatterley

A credible adaptation of D. H. Lawrence?s groundbreaking novel Lady Chatterley?s Lover -- or in this case, his earlier draft version of the same story, titled John Thomas and Lady Jane -- is inconceivable without graphic carnality. In her 2006 rendering of the work, director Pascale Ferran certainly doesn?t shy away from the flesh and all of its hungers. Yet Ferran?s vision remains as tasteful as it is steeped in Lawrence?s cult of the natural world. The physical passion that the upper-class Lady Constance develops for the earthy gamekeeper Parkin is specifically and continually linked to the environment through evocative shots that capture the surrounding countryside and the changing seasons. Despite the beauty in constant view, this is no well-appointed indulgence in eye candy … la Merchant-Ivory: Ferran keeps the romanticism and overt drama reined in for greater effectiveness. The straightforward performances she elicits from Marina Hands and Jean-Louis Coullo'ch mirror the slowly building force of the entire film. Although set in Lawrence?s England, Lady Chatterley is in French, and it suffers not a wit from the disjunction. -

Around the World on Two Wheels

By the late 19th century, much of the world had been newly linked by the ever-expanding web of steamships, railroads, and telegraphs. The ordinary Western tourist could, with luck and determination, go places that only a few decades before had been the exclusive province of heroic explorers. With tales like Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days firing the public imagination, feats of travel became a source of popular entertainment. Author Peter Zheutlin follows the celebrated ride of his great-grandaunt Annie Kopchovsky, as the immigrant mother of three from Boston set out on a highly publicized journey around the world on a bicycle. Along the way she wore practical riding clothes -- shocking some and delighting others -- and spoke out against those who disapproved of women taking to the roads. But her main talent was in creating a spectacle that suited her own purposes: taking a sponsor's brand as a quondam surname ("Londonderry" spring water), Annie always kept her eye as much on the newspapers as on the road. In fact, Zheutlin finds that Annie was almost completely disingenuous about her journey, freely inventing stories for the press about her trips to war zones and attacks by ruffians. Moreover, she traveled far more by steam power than pedal power (her actual riding outside of the U.S. was mostly a single leg in France -- the rest of the haul was done by steamship). Her greatest feat was a typically American one: to have reinvented herself as necessary, the facts be what they may. -

The Genetic Strand

In his 1998 National Book Award winner Slaves in the Family, Edward Ball examined the legacy of his southern clan?s slaveowning past. The Genetic Strand is also an exploration of Ball?s ancestry, this time employing cutting-edge biology. After acquiring an antique desk that has been in his family for generations, Ball discovers nine labeled locks of hair in a secret compartment. He submits the hair, which dates back to the early 19th century, to extensive DNA testing in the hope of learning more about his forebears. Race is at the heart of this hybrid of memoir and science seminar: ?We know that we?re thoroughly white,? Ball says of his family, adding that even if it?s no longer acceptable to talk openly about racial purity, it still matters in the South, behind closed doors. Thus, the myth-busting author is tantalized by initial results suggesting Native American and African genetic markers. But when further testing yields ambiguous results, Ball finds his faith in almighty DNA shaken. The outcome is anticlimactic, but Ball salvages the project with his final chapter, a forceful analysis of the fallibility of science. -

The Bible: A Biography

For many, the Bible is the Word of God, written by Him, discovered by Man as if left in the drawer of some ancient hotel bedside table. Karen Armstrong's The Bible: A Biography, the latest installment in Grove's Books that Changed the World, traces the evolution of this mysterious and malleable text, showing it to be --no less than any other living thing -- a product of natural selection, written and winnowed over many centuries in response to changing political climates, and only in danger of extinction when stripped of its divine mutability. From the beginning, priests were reluctant to record sacred oral traditions for fear that writing them down would encourage stridency and inflexibility. Revelation must be an ongoing process, and only those texts that best lent themselves to reinterpretation made the cut. Times of greatest societal stress spurred the greatest creativity: Jewish exile following the destruction of the First Temple gave us Torah's Law and the Prophets; the destruction of the Second Temple spawned the books of the New Testament. As a form of consolation after trauma, men wrestled with the the Bible's more obscure passages, glossing and allegorizing in a feisty dialogue with their sometimes incomprehensible creator. The Enlightenment, however, came to demand a new scientific certainty, which, ironically, gave birth to both Darwinism and the backlash of modern fundamentalism. Now, Armstrong postulates, our war-torn, genocidal era reads literal, prophetic meaning into the Book of Revelations, originally written as an anguished revenge fantasy against Roman persecution. The great first-century rabbi Meir wrote that any interpretation spreading hatred or disdain was illegitimate, and Armstrong ends with a plea for a return by members of all faiths to more charitable exegesis, lest the Bible, that most historically supple of books, calcify and become the dangerous weapon our forefathers feared. -

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A New Verse Translation

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, an Arthurian fable penned by an anonymous bard in the early 1400s, remained hidden for most of English history; the sole remaining copy of the manuscript wasn't discovered until Victorian times. Since then, it's become something of a Christmas classic: Written in a distinctive alliterative style that harkens to the earliest forms of English poetry, it meanders through dangerous castles and visits enchanted creatures on quests of honor. The story goes like this: In the middle of Christmas revelry, as everyone's about to eat the roast, an enormous green giant party-crashes Arthur's court. He challenges startled onlookers to a game: Let someone deal a blow to the Green Knight's bare neck, then offer his own bare neck in return, a year hence. Not surprisingly, this invitation gets few takers -- until Arthur's cousin, Gawain, noted for honor, rises. Unfortunately, when he lops off the giant's head, the green beast picks it up and rides out the door, all the while instructing Gawain to come find him next New Year's. Fast-forward: In the waxen light of the following Christmas, Gawain sets out to complete his mission -- and perhaps to meet his doom. In the meantime, he's waylaid by a tempting queen, offered protection by a mysterious lord, and led to his final showdown. It's an unforgettable story, and now it's been lit again with the lamp of keen language. The rich tapestry of sporting, courting, hunting and wooing -- of verbal sparring and physical spearing -- is available anew in an energetic verse translation by noted British poet Simon Armitage. Among the joys of rediscovering Gawain is one this edition offers: the chance to look across the page and feel the violent strife and courtly play roiling beneath the old English. It's hard not to be moved by lines like these, where Gawain takes a swing at the beast's green head: "Let hit doun lightly on the naked, / That the scharp of the schalk schyndered on the bones, / And schrank thrugh the schiyire grece, and scade hit in twynne, / That the bit of the broun stel bot on the ground." Once we've reveled in the rich sounds, we can see that Armitage has parsed them as "(he) sings (the axe) swiftly towards the bare skin. / The cleanness of the strike cleaved the spinal cord / and parted the fat and the flesh so far / that the bright steel blade took a bite from the floor." It's not all so gory as this, but what delicious-sounding gore it is. Equally rich are capturings of deer skinning, winter feasting, and fair ladies. The story that kilters along could be alternative to any Christmas movie -- and it's a tribute to this translation that it seems to demand a wintry day or fireside evening to read the words aloud to family or friends. The tale, with all its verbal jousting, gathers us in. -

A Year with the Queen

It is, apparently, a small world after all. Leafing through the glossy pages of Robert Hardman's chronicle of queenhood, I found myself -- as an expatriate Brit -- unexpectedly in sympathy with that hardy caricature, the booming and childlike American who imagines that everyone in little old Europe knows everybody else. On its peculiar global mission of diplomacy, trade, dress-up, and brand consolidation, the British monarchy is really an extraordinarily democratic institution: it is estimated that half a million persons, from every possible walk of life, will bump up against one of the Royals in the course of an average year. Surely somewhere in this wry and perceptive book (companion to the BBC-TV series), with all of its photographs and on-the-spot descriptions, I will encounter someone I know? From town to town and nation to nation goes Elizabeth II, her voice trapped forever -- like a princess in a tower -- at the upper end of its range, speaking to all the peoples of the world with her special gift for the inconsequential. Hardman is a fine writer, particularly adept at capturing the complex mixture of ceremony and domesticity that defines the Royals' interactions with their own subjects. "Been shot at?" enquires the Duke of Edinburgh of some British servicemen, on a visit to Basra, Iraq. "We were engaged last week in an urban area," replies Major Jamie Howard. "Thankfully, one of the sentries returned fire and killed the insurgent." "Oh good," says the Duke. -

The Ghost Mountain Boys

It wasn't the enemy Japanese that caused most of the American casualties during the horrific battle for New Guinea in late 1942, but the nightmarish conditions on the South Pacific island. New Guinea was largely unmapped, hellishly hot, filled with swamps, thick jungle, crocodiles, mountains, and unpredictable natives. As Campbell shows in this eye-opening account, New Guinea "was the perfect incubator for a host of debilitating tropical diseases," including malaria and dysentery. As one Michigan soldier bluntly said, "If I owned New Guinea and I owned hell, I would live in hell and rent out New Guinea." Campbell's narrative follows the brutal experiences of the U.S. Army's 32nd Division, as it marches across this unforgiving landscape and then assaults the Japanese army at the Battle of Buna. Using countless interviews with American troops, as well as diaries and letters, Campbell vividly paints a portrait of suffering, fear, endurance, and ultimate victory. Many of the casualties, Campbell explains, could have been avoided if U.S. commanders like General Douglas MacArthur had properly prepared and equipped the 32nd. U.S. troops suffered a stunning casualty rate of over 90%. The vast majority of these casualties were from tropical diseases, and Campbell criticizes Army brass for not providing the 32nd with jungle warfare training and (incredibly) not even supplying them with insect repellent to deter malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Yet these embattled men achieved the first great U.S. victory of the Pacific War, shattering the "myth of Japanese invincibility" and saving Australia. Campbell's narrative skillfully reveals how right General Sherman was: "War is hell." -

Portraits and Observations: The Essays of Truman Capote

In addition to his other notorious addictions, for much of his life Truman Capote was a raging and exacting workaholic, which explains the tremendous output in varying forms included in Portraits and Observations: The Essays of Truman Capote. One of the few American writers to tackle short and long fiction, nonfiction, plays, film scripts, and reportage, Capote in this volume shows himself to be a hungry and yet tastefully selective observer of human triumphs and foibles. Included here are early impressions of places like New York and Hollywood and a fond but unsentimental reminiscence of his hometown of New Orleans ("no more charming than any other Southern city?. The main portion ?is made up of spiritual bottomland"); portraits of some of the most famous actors of his time, such as Brando, Bogart, and Elizabeth Taylor, even though "the trouble with most actors?is that they are dumb"; and intermittent self-observations, as in the mock interview with himself in which he remarks that if he hadn't been a writer he "wouldn't have minded being kept, but no one has ever wanted to keep me -- not more than a week or so." For such a flamboyant figure, Capote's touch as a writer was light and often subtle, and despite his sad chemical decline, he proves himself here to have had moments of great clarity nearly to the end. -

Palestine: The Special Edition

In the winter of 1991-92, Joe Sacco, a young writer and cartoonist born in Malta and raised in the United States, stopped off in the Palestinian territories after a trip he had taken to cover the first Gulf War. What he created there has since become a landmark of art. This winter, Fantagraphics books republished the complete graphic novel, Palestine, for the first time in hardcover, in what they are calling their Criterion edition (in a nod to the film series of the same name). It contains a long interview with Sacco, photographs and preliminary sketches from his notebooks, and the original essay by the late Edward Said that accompanied the 2001 paperback edition. The new materials should be fascinating both to new readers and to those familiar with the original novel. But more than anything, they point out how completely Sacco used the tools of the journalist to create a classic work of art that captures something beyond the scope of the camera and the well-argued polemics. Fifteen years after Sacco's initial visit, the political narrative of the Middle East continues to unfold with no particular end in sight. There are no solutions here, either. Instead, one can see him discussing politics over late-night drinks and endless cups of sweetened tea; the way his pen captures the erotic power of the "beefcake" Israeli soldier and his hot female counterparts, or the 11-year-old girl in a hospital bed who confesses she threw some stones at some soldiers (who returned fire with their M-16s). In retrospect, it seems nearly quaint that six years ago, Said, writing about Sacco, could only compare him to the Marvel cartoonists of his youth. There is enough here to act as a template for a new generation all its own. -

A Christmas Carol, The Chimes, and The Cricket on the Hearth

That old chestnut? Yeah, I read it as kid...or saw the play, same thing. I'll bet I could practically recite it word for word in my sleep. Why, just the other night it was on television...you remember, the one with Bill Murray? If this is your attitude when someone brings up Charles Dickens's devastating story of spiritual decay and desperate renewal, it's probably time to find yourself a copy of the original, just so you can truly recall what all the fuss was about in the first place. The famous plot is what we know perhaps too well, but take a moment to savor Dickens as a wizard of description and comparison, as much here as in Bleak House or Great Expectations. Here, as in The Chimes and The Cricket on the Hearth, the body and its needs are often the source of inspiration: a caroler's nose is "gnawed and mumbled by the hungry cold as bones are gnawed by dogs," a fiddler tunes his instrument "like fifty stomach-aches," and Scrooge visits his future grave in a churchyard "choked up with too much burying; fat with repleted appetite." Of course, Dickens earned his reputation as a sentimentalist but backed up his tear-jerking craftsmanship with an implacable emotional appeal. Scrooge is no stage cariacature of a miser but a reflection of the human heart, just as important (and as worth saving from misery) as Tiny Tim. Darker and wiser than they're given credit for being, these tales are true gifts to readers, from an imagination that was nothing if not generous to a fault. -

Built by Animals

It is to the general discredit and shame of humanity that most of us know far more about the eating disorders of pop stars than we know about the complicated suite of manipulations employed by mountain gorillas in preparing a favorite type of thorny vegetation for consumption: "?a total of 256 recognizable handling techniques?" The resulting "bundles of thistles," opines naturalist Mike Hansell in his new book, Built by Animals, is much more complicated than, say, a paper airplane, but more easily overlooked. "If gorillas made paper aeroplanes rather than food bundles, then every museum would have one and every schoolchild would know about them." In Hansell's enthralling survey -- and exploration into the evolution -- of the various structures created by the non-human inhabitants of our planet (and their tool usage as well), this kind of lively, fanciful, vivid talk alternates quite frequently with sturdy, lucid, astonishing blueprints of animal, insect, and even amoeboid behavior. (Behavior plus materials equal structure, is Hansell's formula.) Hansell's tour de force might be his nearly 15-page disquisition on the construction and physics of a spider's orb web. Often directly addressing the reader, and encouraging amateur scientists to conduct their own investigations, Hansell remains rigorously rational and empirical, while not neglecting higher-level speculative questions regarding non-human consciousness -- all without falling into anthropomorphism or the mindless gosh-wowery of certain nature documentaries. It is to the eternal credit and pride of humanity that scientists like Mike Hansell strive with insight and ingenuity to catalogue the wonders of the natural world and to convey their findings in such enthusiastic fashion to the rest of us blinkered anthropocentrics. -

The Arrival

Stories can be presented in the form of words, but they can also be presented in the form of pictures.... Whatever stories are made of, words aren't fundamental to it. Something else is. And what I think is fundamental to the narrative process is events -- stories are made of events. So said Philip Pullman to me in his recent Barnes & Noble Review interview. As if to illustrate Pullman's point, Shaun Tan's The Arrival came across my desk a few days after our conversation. Tan's stunning volume chronicles -- in a wordless, wondrous pictorial narrative -- an immigrant's parting from his family and journey toward the future in a new land that is simultaneously ominous and hopeful. Told in drawings of varying sizes -- sometimes there are 12 panels to a page, sometimes four; there are many full-page images -- Tan's tale juxtaposes the realistic with the phantasmagoric, giving shape to both the mundane material needs and the psychologically charged emotions of immigrant experience. Isolation, fear, want, sympathy, amity, joy: all are rendered palpable by the author's fecund visual invention. He has composed an imaginative landscape in which the uncertain bravery of an immigrant's journey is seen in its true grandeur; best of all, Tan has created a mesmerizing and mysterious "bookscape" in which readers young and old can wander again and again, poring over details, elaborating events, fashioning narrative destinies, discovering new worlds. Ages 12 and up. -

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Ashley Gilbertson's photographs of the Iraq war have the power to freeze the blood in your heart. Turning the pages of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, it's impossible to merely skim through the images of oppressed Kurds, stunned Baghdad residents, weary U.S. Marines, and dead insurgents sprawled in the growing pond of their own blood. "It was never my intention to become a war photographer," Gilbertson writes at the beginning of the book. "If people wanted to kill each other, so be it, not my problem." Famous last words. In 2003, he was in northern Iraq among the Kurds, working as a freelance photographer, when the U.S. began its invasion from the south. Eventually, he signed a contract with The New York Times and was criss-crossing the country, following the action to Baghdad, Samarra, Tikrit, and Falluja, his lens capturing the many ways people kill each other. The best of those photos have been gathered into Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (the military's phonetic acronym, politely translated, amounts to "What the frick?"). That spirit of surprise and confusion hangs over the book, both in the pictures and in the textual interludes that dramatize Gilbertson's experiences. He rarely misses an opportunity to illustrate the irony and heartbreak of the events unfolding around him. Here, for instance, is one photo's caption: "A doctor at the morgue in Ramadi stands reflected in a pool of blood while waiting for more victims from a car bombing." As good as the photos are, the stories behind them are even more riveting. His account of moving under fire with Marines as they assault Falluja will leave you dry mouthed and looking at the distant conflict in a new light. Like legendary combat photographers Robert Capa and David Douglas Duncan, Gilbertson knows it only takes a shutter click to bring the war home.

Berlin Alexanderplatz

What's 15 or so hours in front of the television screen when the director is the late bad boy of German cinema, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945-82), and the series is based on Alfred D”blin's great novel, Berlin Alexanderplatz (1928)? The short answer is easy: it's some of the best time you will ever spend watching television in your life. Those familiar with D”blin's masterpiece know that his innovative novel, published between the two world wars, relies on an unusual narrative technique, combining alternate voices, multiple perspectives, and lots of found material. Street sounds, advertisements, radio headlines, popular songs: much like John Dos Passos' newsreel style in the U.S.A. trilogy, D”blin's montage mixes proletarian realism with Joycean modernism. No wonder D”blin's portrait of a working-class neighborhood in Weimar Berlin was a lifelong passion for Fassbinder, himself a cinematic poet of the underclass. It's amazing that producers were found for Fassbinder's ambitious project -- 13 episodes and an epilogue tracing the life of Franz Biberkopf (G�nter Lamprecht), a former transport worker and pimp who leaves prison (four years for killing his girlfriend in a crime of passion). Determined to go straight, the big lunk Biberkopf is overwhelmed by the street life and unemployment in a depressed city, the sights and sounds of which Fassbinder recreates with astonishing detail. And the faces! Using some of his regular troupe (Hanna Schygulla, Gottfried John, Brigitte Mira ), Fassbinder fills the cast of thieves, whores, and hustlers with a motley array straight from the sketchbooks of George Grosz. By the epilogue, a surreal descent into Franz's madness, we know that Fassbinder has made this work all his own -- the soundtrack includes (anachronistically) Elvis, Leonard Cohen, and Lou Reed -- and the director himself pops up in an intriguing cameo. Not just a brilliant re-creation of a time and place and a novel, Fassbinder's epic brings together all his magnificent obsessions: with love and betrayal, sex and violence, politics and the individual. Here is German New Wave cinema at its raw and vertiginous best.

Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall

The first words Rufus Wainwright said to the audience gathered to hear him reprise Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall last spring are, no joke, "We're not in Kansas anymore." Nor are they in 1961 anymore, when Garland, at age 39, two years after doctors said she would never sing again, appeared for a sold-out concert that some consider one of the best live shows of the 20th century. The resulting double record won five Grammys. It was an act of the highest artistic and political audacity when the openly gay Wainwright decided to take on the woman who was an icon for a previous generation of gay men but has been largely snubbed by his own. Like Garland, the 34-year-old Wainwright has been in show business since he was a child (the son of folk-singing royalty, he started touring with his mother, Kate McGarrigle, at age 13) and has successfully battled drug addiction. Of course, Wainwright sounds nothing like Garland, and he changed the key of all but one of the 25 songs to suit his voice. He follows Garland's set list precisely, matching her patter with his own (revealing that his mother used to rouse him from bed at three a.m. to serenade her drunken guests with "Over the Rainbow"). His family (mother Kate and sister Martha) and Garland's (daughter Lorna Luft) all lend splendid support to the endeavor, contributing vocals towards the end of the set. Wainwright occasionally stumbles with a lyric or the tempo; after one such incident, he apologizes to his audience, saying, "I'm a songwriter." Indeed, he is, and one of such exceptional quality that covering another's work was never a necessary step in his career. But he has grafted his own signature style onto Garland's with such love and ingenuity that he has made an art form of its own. Judy, we think, would be proud. -


In his new novel, Them, Nathan McCall, best known as a memoirist, has tried his hand at fiction with a timely tale of gentrification and its attendant misunderstandings. Set in Atlanta's Old Fourth Ward, Them traces the gradual yuppification of a historically black neighborhood and the explosive racial tensions that follow suit. At its center is the tentative relationship -- never quite the friendship the novel would have you believe -- that develops between resident paranoiac Barlowe Reed and the white armchair liberal who moves in next door.

McCall, to his credit, gives voice to a whole slew of viewpoints, whether the characters are nostalgic '60s civil rights activists struggling to adapt their tactics to a new plight or eager gentrifiers who are blind to why their gestures of civic pride fall short. Though the foundations are in place for a story full of messy realizations and even messier politics, the characters never quite manage to be as complex as the story line in which they are confined. Too often, McCall falls prey to the temptation of exposition: jabs that cross racial lines come with italics ("You never could be too sure with them," Barlowe warily sums up the newcomer Sandy Gilmore) and the dialogue has a way of lining up difficult questions a little too neatly. Still, Them meets its subject matter head on and gives a nervy glimpse of a community under siege. -

The Discovery of France

Graham Robb wants you to see France -- not the country you think you know, the one with the Louvre, the existentialism, the sublime cuisine, and the fashion sense. Nor the picturesque version of laid-back life in Provence made famous by Peter Mayle et al. The author of award-winning biographies of Balzac and Rimbaud explores a truly unknown country in The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War. On bicycle (enabling a horse-bound traveler's perspective), the author meanders through the French landscape spatially, while his deeply researched book dives backward in time, recovering with a sense of wonder France's assemblage of wildly diverse "tribes." He gives us a nation of competing languages, of wild wastes and prehistoric rituals, where wolves were still a danger to village people in Dordogne at the turn of the 20th century. Most winningly, Robb's France is a mosaic of indelible images and still-resonant tales: stilt-walking shepherds in the Landes; a rock-ledge hamlet in the Pyrenees where the dead were lowered by ropes to the valley below; and the strange, moving saga of the cagots, a persecuted "caste" whose ethnic identity remains a historical mystery. Connecting the plight of the cagots to the later effects of anti-Semitism (and modern French controversies over Islamic "assimilation"), Robb proves that his tour of the vast countryside of the past inevitably winds up returning us -- wiser or not -- directly to the present. -

The Best of Quartet West

The acclaimed bassist Charlie Haden may have made his mark as a key member of Ornette Coleman?s iconoclastic free-jazz ensembles, but Haden?s heart lies with the beauty of song. With his own Quartet West, Haden has released a series of thematic albums that call upon standards, bebop tunes, original material, film themes, and even interpolated classic recordings from other artists that form one of the more compelling and uniquely atmospheric oeuvres in contemporary jazz. If a ?best of? selection necessarily loses the thematic connections that distinguish the original albums, it does serve as a fine introduction to Haden?s uncommon musical universe, and the excellence of his band. In the soulful saxophonist Ernie Watts, the lyrically minded pianist Alan Broadbent, and veteran drummer Larance Marable, Haden has like-minded cohorts who find their own individuality as interpreters and inventive improvisers within the leader?s inclusive vision. Stirring performances of the obscure film theme ?The Left Hand of God,? singer Shirley Horn?s guest spot on "Lonely Town," or Haden?s own haunting ?Song for Ruth? satisfy yet also produce a hunger for the brilliant source albums of this one-of-a-kind aggregate. -

To Cork or Not to Cork

Never heard of trichloroanisole? If you've ever opened a bottle of wine only to discover that it's been ruined by a terrible wet-cardboard aroma, then you've run into the nasty little compound responsible for untold grief within the wine industry. This "cork taint" has plagued both the ancient chƒteaux of France and the upstart wineries of Australia and California, and can contaminate the cork at many steps along its journey from the bark of a tree to the neck of the bottle. It's so odoriferous that a single teaspoon "is enough to taint the entire annual American wine production." In the 1970s and 1980s, thousands of wineries found themselves in perilous straits due to problems with corks, and so a venerable tradition found itself under seige from new technologies, with space-age plastic corks and screw-tops hailed by some as the next wave in bottling. George Taber's The Judgment of Paris chronicles the famous challenge to French wine supremacy by emerging California vineyards; this book draws on the author's exhaustive knowledge of the industry, from the Portuguese cork barons to the chemists and engineers who continue the search for the "perfect closure." The level of detail herein may chiefly interest only the most besotted of oenophiles. But even the casual tippler will find this look into the science and business of wine making an invaluable education. You'll never look at that little cork quite the the same way again. -

The Dirt on Clean

In the summer of 1979, I was riding in a crowded, sweltering second-class train car through Spain, and watched as a jovial woman in a sleeveless dress took a spraycan of deodorant and blasted each of her hairy armpits to counter the rigors of travel. This occurrence is of a piece with many episodes recounted in Katherine Ashenburg's illuminating and ripely sensual study of humanity's ever-evolving attitudes about bodily hygiene, The Dirt on Clean. Planting herself knowledgably at the tangled nexus of science, technology, feminism, sex, medicine, class, business, warfare, advertising, architecture, nationalism, religion, fads and politics, Ashenburg surveys the prevailing beliefs about how and when the body should be maintained, from the ancient Greeks to the hypersensitive present. Not truly global in its remit -- Asian nations are lightly examined, and Africa is terra incognita -- this study nonetheless enthrallingly portrays our variously stinky and sweetly scented ancestors and coevals. At times, a Monty Python sensibility reigns (Napoleon cogitated best in his bath, sometimes receiving reports from the battlefield amid the soap bubbles). But overall Ashenburg exhibits a catholic respect for the dramatically divergent mores of different cultures and periods. Was there ever a book more suited to be read while lolling in the tub? -

Sympathy for the Devil: Art and Rock 'n' Roll Since 1967

You won't find a lot of flyers or album art in this massive, lavishly illustrated volume. Rather, these critical essays are matched with full color reproductions of artworks to show how avante-garde artists and rock bands have mutually inspired one another through the past forty years. It begins -- as it must -- with Andy Warhol's two-year collaboration with the Velvet Underground and surveys the phenomenon on both sides of the Atlantic. The fascinating juxtapositions that follow include Richard Hell's poignant analysis of the graffiti at CBGB and Dominic Molon's look at the effects of Peter Blake and Richard Hamilton on the thoroughly "mainstream" -- yet still highly art-conscious -- Beatles. Simon Reynolds matches Yoko Ono's "conscious regression" with Brian Eno's early devotion to the primacy of the artist over the medium. Both Ono and Eno injected vital experimentalism into a rock scene dominated by the cult of virtuosity and musicianship -- and arguably prepared the ground for the DIY punk culture of the '70s and '80s. Most of the art accompanying these thought-provoking pieces stands well on its own, though some of the plates of video installations are hard to fully appreciate on the printed page. On the whole, however, this is a gorgeous work that makes manifest the creative vitality that visual artists and musicians share. -

A Land So Strange

In the 16th century, Catholic Spain -- the sponsor of Christopher Columbus and colonizer of Cuba, Mexico, and much of the future United States -- explored and exploited the New World more than any other nation, under the banner of "Christianization." Historian Res‚ndez's splendid account shows that pious Spain's true desire was gold, exemplified in Hern n Cort‚s's devastating conquest of the Aztecs, after which breathtaking riches were shipped back. In the same vein, ambitious explorer/conqueror P nfilo de Narv ez mounted a massive expedition to Florida in 1528, which included Royal Treasurer Cabeza de Vaca. A Caribbean hurricane drove the flotilla 900 miles off course, and after landing, the Spaniards began an ill-fated overland search for gold. Only 4 out of 300 would survive the journey, including Cabeza de Vaca. His epic, nightmarish journey in the New World included a crossing the Gulf of Mexico by raft, fighting with hostile Indians, resorting to cannibalism, being taken as a slave, becoming a "medicine man," and walking from Texas to Mexico. Res‚ndez's tirelessly researched and picaresque narrative describes every step of this dramatic survivalist adventure, while providing insightful background on topics like 16th-century navigation and Indian cultures. A Land So Strange will make you appreciate the comforts of home.

Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and <BR>Lyric Form

In his famous 1926 sequence, The Tower, W. B. Yeats wrote, "I?send imagination forth / Under the day's declining beam, and call / Images and memories / From ruin or from ancient trees, / For I would ask a question of them all." In her new study of Yeats, esteemed critic and Harvard professor Helen Vendler sends imagination forth to ask question of all of Yeats's work: Why did he use the forms that he did? This, of course, leads to other questions: How did Yeats arrive at his forms, and in what ways did he vary and develop some, like the ballad, over his 50-year career? Why, in a sequence like The Tower, did he vary forms within a single sequence, and what is the effect -- and possible meaning -- of his mosaic? When Yeats revisits a place or theme, as he did with poems about Byzantium or the Delphic Oracle, how does he rewrite what he has written before? These questions are as wise as they are difficult. It helps to have one's Collected Yeats nearby; to know or be willing to learn about rimes riche and royale; and to have already spent a fair amount of time thinking about possible meanings of the linguistic (and golden) mosaics in "Sailing to Byzantium." With certain amounts of dense academic prose, the book -- intended to correct an absence in the Yeatsian inquiry Vendler found on library shelves -- is not for the faint of heart. (Whether or not it is a country for old men is a different question.) That said, Vendler can be as charming a tour guide through Yeats as she is a learned one. And her frame of examining Yeats's external and internal lyric structures offers a new, insightful, and often revelatory map of Yeatsian terrain. -

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

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

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

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


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

The Hundred-Year House

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