Displaying articles for: December 2008

Ringolevio: A Life Played for Keeps

From street-smart New York punk to West Coast hippie prankster: that?s how Emmett Grogan, who died in 1978, would like readers of his self-aggrandizing autobiography to remember him. But in the age of James Frey, we?re more likely to wonder how much of this wild tale is actually true. The first half of Grogan?s fantastic account -- the childhood tale of Kenny Wisdom -- beggars belief. Born in postwar Brooklyn in a tough neighborhood, he becomes a heroin addict at age 11, a Park Avenue burglar at 13, a runaway to Europe at 14, a murderer at 15, and, to cap it off, an IRA terrorist at 16. Women everywhere fall for his freckle-faced good looks, and jail time simply strengthens his will to get over. A scholarship to an elite Manhattan school helps him sharpen his wits, hone his basketball skills, and once again prove what a tough customer he can be. Along the way, Kenny picks up a stack of hip paperbacks and evolves into the legendary Emmett Grogan, best known among cultural historians as a co-founder of the Diggers, a quasi-anarchistic group who tried to undermine the System by giving stuff away for free-food, clothing, and lots of drugs. They accompanied this with disruptive of street theater, and often to the live soundtrack of the emerging San Francisco sound: the Dead, Janis, and Jefferson Airplane. This half of Grogan?s romp includes appearances by a full cast of '60s characters, some celebrated (Dylan, Brautigan, leftover Beats), others mocked (Abbie Hoffman, Leary and Ram Dass, Jerry Rubin). In true post-Salinger fashion, Grogan reserves his harshest criticism for ?the phonies,? all those who exploit the scene for commercial gain. Whatever you feel about Grogan or the '60s, his semi-apocryphal account is an unforgettable portrait of a strange time, an essential document of a tumultuous era.

Couch

Once upon a time, Donald Barthelme, Jonathan Lethem, and Umberto Eco attended a film festival together. The featured flicks were Kiss Me Deadly, Fitzcarraldo, and Repo Man. Inspired by this odd bill of fare, the trio set out to collaborate on a novel. The result was Benjamin Parzybok?s debut, Couch . Not the way it happened? Well, it?s a genesis story competely in keeping with this gonzo odyssey. Three young men in Portland, Oregon, are brought together by chance as roommates: Thom, a hapless computer hacker; Tree, an accidental wistful mystic; and Erik, an egregious con man and brawler. Their shabby digs are graced by an enigmatic piece of furniture: a large, handmade orange couch. When a domestic accident forces their eviction, they decide to salvage the couch. Once out on the street, they begin to carry the couch...and carry it...and carry it.... For the couch is possessed -- or intelligent, or alien, or supernaturally graced with celestial mana. Modern artifact or ancient grail, it makes no matter. Our trio of lovable losers has been cosmically nominated to function as the couch?s bearers to an unforseeable destiny. Fighting and bickering every step of the way, they undergo a series of trials: comic and pratfall-laden on the surface, but surprisingly affecting and mythic underneath. Parzybok?s easy voice is guileless and contemporary, fluid and colorful as that of Tom Robbins, yet concealing considerable craft. His intermittent switching among the consciousnesses of his trio -- and even including other secondary viewpoints -- is not a classical strategy, but it works pretty well. Privileging Thom?s perspective, Parzybok delivers a funny yet deep novel that?s all about the quest to pass from a stultifying, aimless, safe stasis to a dangerous yet fulfilling uncertainty -- via one humble piece of furniture.

The Man in the Picture

In 1924, M. R. James wrote: ?Two ingredients most valuable in the concocting of a ghost story are, to me, the atmosphere and the nicely-managed crescendo.? In her new novel, The Man in the Picture, Susan Hill mixes those ingredients with other elements of classic gothic fiction to deliver a story that will have readers nervously avoiding art galleries. This ghost story, easily read in one nerve-jangling sitting, begins as a man named Oliver visits his old Cambridge professor and learns the deadly secret behind an oil painting of a Venetian carnival scene. As literary tradition dictates, the tale is spun beside a fire ?one bitterly cold January night? as the wind ?howled round and occasionally a burst of hail rattled against the glass.? Like Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, Sheridan Le Fanu, and the two Jameses (M. R. and Henry), Hill knows how to carefully dole out the tension. The horror here creeps up slowly and reaches a ?nicely-managed crescendo? in its final pages. Hill never condescends to parody-her frights are in earnest. The smallest detail like ?the faintest smell of fresh oil paint? will prickle the hairs of the reader?s scalp. Poe would be proud.

State by State

Where are you from? Well, if you're not of the "born and raised in?" variety, you know the question is complicated and emotional. Is it where you live presently, the place you were born, or perhaps where you spent the most time? I suspect that the answer lies deep in the soil of the place that one feels most "at home," where folks are not only familiar but share a common view. Sean Wilsey and Matt Weiland, the editors of State by State, inspired by the WPA Guides written during the Great Depression, have taken the notion one step further: to answer that question in a compilation of personal essays that distill the essence of each state, defining home through quirks, curiosities, and, of course, people. Venturing beyond the WPA Guides' sometimes stuffy summaries, Weiland explains that he asked each writer (an illustrious bunch of naturalized citizens and native sons and daughters, such as Jhumpa Lahiri, Anthony Bourdain, Jonathan Franzen, and Dave Eggers) to mine their personal archive of memory and produce a view of their home state that is "more personal, more eccentric and more partial." Opening with a tale describing Wilsey's own road trip foibles, the resulting patchwork of memoirs unfolds like the countryside before a windshield, at times shadowy and strange, at others comforting and familiar. Taken together, they act as a road map for a magical armchair journey winding through every state and spanning several decades. It's a memorable sojourn in one great big movable feast of a book filled with laughter and tears, nostalgia and hope, and a strong sense of place.

Things the Grandchildren Should Know

Mark Oliver Everett is the kind of talented musician who has garnered plenty of critical acclaim but managed to steer his indie rock band, the Eels, clear of becoming the next big thing for decades. He's fine with that. In fact, it comes as such a surprise to him that he's made it in the music business (and through 44 years of living) that he's written it down for posterity, even though he doesn't have kids yet. Detailing his trudge through teen angst, Everett serves up musings on creativity and musical inspiration with generous helpings of personal tragedy including his father's untimely death and his sister's multiple suicide attempts. What keeps the drama meter from tilting too far over (as cancer, accidents, and overdoses claim the lives of parents, friends, and fellow musicians, and crazy girlfriends cause more heartbreak) is the telling. Whether he's composing lyrics or describing his life, Everett's words are consistently intelligent and unembellished. He doesn't indulge in self-pity. Take this bit about his beloved sister, "I came home after the show and checked my phone messages. There was a message from my mom? 'Liz took a bottle of pills and she went into a coma. Um?call?me.'" Through bad recording deals and other misfortunes Everett retains the forward-thinking optimism he had driving across the country to seek his fortune in California, pockets stuffed with nothing more than demo tapes. "All these deaths made me notice that I was still alive." And if he ever does find the right girl, here's what he wants his grandchildren to know, "I've been through a lot but I'm OK. And if I want to be I'm better than OK. I mean -- I survived. And I survived just by being me. How lucky and amazing is that?"

Mizoguchi's Fallen Women

In keeping with Criterion?s Eclipse series, this box set collects four lesser works by an acknowledged master, here the Japanese filmmaker Kenji Mizoguchi (1898–1956). Best known for the classic period dramas Life of Oharu (1952), Ugetsu ('53), and Sansho the Bailiff ('54), Mizoguchi spent most of his prolific career -- he has almost 100 films to his credit -- directing contemporary social realist movies. And this selection brings together four on a theme: the sexual exploitation of women. Spanning 20 years in midcentury Japan, these compelling melodramas survey the lives of working girls, from prewar geishas to postwar streetwalkers, all suffering in a world controlled by hypocritical men -- especially wealthy married men, who consider it a privilege of their class to keep a young mistress. The women, we?re led to believe, all enter the life for honest financial reasons: an innocent switchboard operator needs to pay her father?s debt stemming from an embezzlement (Osaka Elegy, '36); a war widow has nowhere to turn but the streets in Women of the Night ('48); and in the best of the four, Street of Shame ('55), the women inhabiting a brothel end up devastated by murder, madness, and suicide. Women of the Night ('48), the grittiest film here, derives its harsh view from the bombed-out streets and the toughest of corner whores, given to drugs and VD. All in all, Mizoguchi prefers quiet desperation, supported by slow camera movements and evocative sets, to flashy social protest. Didactic to be sure, but it?s still worth sampling these minor films by Mizoguchi, who, along with Ozu and Kurosawa, pretty much defines 20th-century Japanese cinema.

Bottle Rocket

Wes Anderson's first feature film, Bottle Rocket, was the little movie that could. It was shot on a shoestring, scorned by preview audiences, and -- the biggest slap in the face for the young indie filmmakers -- rejected by the Sundance Film Festival. Still, the quirky crime-caper comedy about three friends (Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson, and Robert Musgrave) planning small-time stickups earned a few dedicated fans and snuck onto the year-end ten-best lists of some critics. Not bad for a film in which one of the biggest laughs comes when the Wilson brothers, about to knock over a bookstore, attempt to disguise their faces with a strip of tape on the bridge of their noses. Now, 12 years after its initial release, Criterion has lovingly packaged Bottle Rocket in a two-disc set that includes deleted scenes, storyboards, a making-of featurette, the original black-and-white short made as a student project, and a commentary by Anderson and Owen Wilson. For longtime cheerleaders of the film, it's a joy to rediscover the pleasures of Bottle Rocket in this sharp, vibrant transfer: Dignan's stealthy signal ("ca-CAW! ca-CAW!"), the naive glee of planning the first robbery ("key ingredients: dynamite, pole vaulting, laughing gas, choppers"), the notebook filled with the 75-year-plan ("Step 1. Remain flexible. Step 2. Don't be too derogatory."), and the climax, which features one of the most earnestly bungled heists in movie history. What shines through most, however, is the way this movie lays the bedrock for Anderson's career path (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic, The Darjeeling Limited), reminding us how the frames of his films are held together by the bonds of family, friendship, and sincerity.

What Should I Read Next

What a great idea: ask some 70 colleagues at your university -- in this case the University of Virginia -- to provide a short essay with a list of five books on a subject in their fields. The result here is even better than the premise, since each prof responds in his or her own way, some recommending tried-and-true canonical works, others listing books in their areas that reach out to general readers, and others simply suggesting five ways of sampling a masterpiece. The contributions span the university curriculum and include suggestions on historical and political topics (the Founding Fathers, poverty in modern America, 19th-century Chicago); on science and mathematics (the evolution of visual perception, symmetry and group theory, the history of logic); and on literature and the arts (the poetry of mourning, 100 years of jazz, the 19th-century Spanish novel). Other essays explore religious ideas, child development, and issues in illness and mental health. In short, it's a real educational smorgasbord, much like an annotated course guide. Some authors find their way onto more than one list, but not always for the reason you might expect. Shakespeare shows up in readings for a study of ethical values as well on a more conventional list for the English "word hoard." Among contemporary writers and scholars, Jared Diamond, Michael Klarman, E. O. Wilson, Julia Alvarez, and Michael Pollan all make multiple appearances for their recent work in a wide range of disciplines. The delights here are many, and the intellectually curious will consult this clever collection time and again. Let's hope other universities follow the format -- a first-class education at your fingertips.

Seven Days in the Art World

Sarah Thornton is the type of adventurous, earnestly inquisitive British pop sociologist that Monty Python were given to dropping down manholes. Canadian by birth, Thornton has written on art for The Guardian and The Telegraph; having lived in London for some years, she trained her keen eye on that city's underground music scene in her first sally, 2003's Club Cultures: Music, Media, and Subcultural Capital. Now, in Seven Days in the Art World, she gives us an unvarnished account of the burgeoning international art scene, red in tooth and claw, as only she can give it -- in the first person. Each of the book's seven chapters follows the author over a single day spent in one of the art world's constituent provinces: a Christie's auction; a CalArts group crit; Art Basel; the Tate Museum's presentation of the Turner Prize; the offices of ArtForum; a studio visit with artist rex Takashi Murakami; and the Venice Biennale. In each, we are introduced to the principal players, regaled with anecdotes, offered canap‚s, and treated the while to what Thornton plainly regards as intriguing details (a gallery director is "comfortably gay"; magazine page proofs are called "galleys"). Thornton's self-conscious objectivity can get very wearing, but it is the price that must be paid for what turns out to be a commendably thorough retrospective of the now-defunct big-money art market. For better and for worse, Seven Days in the Art World is a book that tells you everything you ever wanted to know about the '00s art boom but were afraid to ask Sarah Thornton.

Switch Craft

Switch Craft by Alison Lewis with Fang-Yu Lin is positively delightful, and not just because many patterns use battery power to illuminate clothing. The projects in Switch Craft range from a pillow with a sewn-in mobile headset for comfortable late-night chats to a laptop bag that lights up in the presence of Wi-Fi. The patterns are geared toward all skill levels and the fashion is trendy, reflecting the planned obsolescence of the gadgets they utilize. A newsboy cap with a felt flower that hides the controls to an iPod Shuffle is cute on its own, but add technology and it's a perfect addition to a proper metro-riding, urban fashionista's wardrobe. Catch Me If You Can foils thieves with a foil-lined passport pouch that disrupts new passports' radio chips, which transmit personal information. The authors touch on the implications of the tracking technology, explaining that these same radio-frequency identification tags are used in Prada's SoHo store to match accessories to shoppers' outfits. The Gadget Gloves pattern links our biology to current technology and solves the conundrum of personal media and cold days. "The human body, including the fingers, is actually conductive and stores electrons. This electron-storing ability is called capacitance. Most touchpads and touch screens used in the latest gadgets work by creating a capacitance field on their surface. The field gets distorted whenever your finger touches it?this is not possible when you have thick gloves on. The conductive thread that we added to the Gadget Gloves eliminates the problem." Reflecting our wired world with hip DIY style and patterns, Switch Craft shines a light on the latest crop of crafting books.

The Bagel

Journalist Maria Balinska is so smitten with her topic that she's as heartfelt describing the 1980s "holey war" between Lender's and Sara Lee for dominance of the American frozen-bagel market as she is recounting the tragic fate of Jewish bakers in Nazi-occupied Poland. While she traces the bagel's possible Chinese and Italian roots, her quirky cultural history really begins in Poland, where the bread product had prestige in the 17th century but was a symbol of destitution in the 20th, when impoverished bagel peddlers were a common sight on street corners until the Holocaust devastated the country's Jewish population. Many of the Jews who escaped Europe before the war ended up on New York City's Lower East Side, bringing the bagel with them. Balinska argues that while Jewish bakers are not as celebrated in American labor history as their counterparts in the garment industry, they played a significant role in promoting workers' rights. In the decades following WWII, the well-paid, skilled hand rollers lost their clout as bagel making, inevitably, became mechanized. By the time the savvy Lender brothers introduced their mass-produced product -- which many aficionados don't consider a bagel at all -- the stage was set for the bagel, like many Jews themselves, to "shed its ethnicity" and "become all-American." Balinska's captivating story concludes, ironically enough, back in Poland, where the bagel has recently returned "not as a Jewish favorite but as the embodiment of an envied American way of life."

Little Mouse's Big Book of Fears

Emily Gravitt's Little Mouse's Big Book of Fears is a compendium of phobias, among them Ablutophobia (fear of bathing), Dystychiphobia (fear of accidents) and Rupopphobia (fear of dirt). The conceit is the format: a blank journal with writing prompts -- "Teratophobia (Fear of Monsters). Use the space below to record your fears." Little Mouse fills the pages with black-and-white pencil drawings, mocked-up newspaper articles, and photographs creating a layered lift-the-flap, textured scrapbook. As Little Mouse writes, "I get edgy near sharp knives," the double-page spread is a detailed tribute to "Three Blind Mice." From the clues in the pictures we discover a trio of visually impaired rodent acrobats in a publicity poster. On the facing page a newspaper reports that an insane farmer's wife attacked them with a carving knife. The humor is subtle and sophisticated, more "aha" than guffaw. Common childhood fears are expressed, like the fear of being sucked down the bathtub drain and the fears of being lost or alone in the dark. Each page presents a brilliant representation of terror. The most stunning is the fold-out Visitors' Map of the Isle of Fright, shaped like the outline of a mouse pinpointing the physical location of the symptoms of dread -- from the Mount of Apprehension in the ears down to Loose Bottom. Although our protagonist is afraid of almost everything, in the end, he finds that some are afraid of him: Musophobia (fear of mice).

Fred Astaire

The only thing odder than pairing the lanky Fred Astaire with the chunky Betty Hutton as a dance partner -- see the disastrous result, Let's Dance (1950) -- is asking a wisecracking kibbitzer like Joseph Epstein to describe the essence of Astaire's elegant artistry. But despite lots of overworked prose and jokey asides, Epstein manages the job quite well. His slim volume -- an essay, really -- on the great hoofer captures the full dimension of Astaire's talents, which for Epstein rightly extend beyond the best of his films and include his unforgettable recordings with Oscar Peterson et al. in the early '50s, a session that reprised all of the songs Astaire helped make famous in his films, only this time made to seem tossed off, in a way only a true perfectionist could accomplish. Astaire's own fame, though, rests mainly on his partnership with Ginger Rogers in ten films, especially the early ones, which include The Gay Divorcee, Top Hat, and Swing Time. In these Jazz Age–inspired movies, the graceful Astaire fills the screen with movement, and in perfect syncopation with his partner. His polished dress compensates for his peculiar looks -- his big head and ears and hands, and his long face and chin, not to mention his toupee. But Astaire's all about charm, not pretty-boy looks. And his body in motion is elegant from top to bottom. As Epstein points out, Astaire surely benefitted from the great composers who wrote for him, Irving Berlin most of all. Epstein also admires Astaire's offscreen persona -- laconic, modest, always a pro. This supports his main idea, which he hammers home again and again, in an un-Astaire-like manner, that this Nebraska-bred performer was that ultimate democratic ideal -- "an aristocrat of talent."

With the Kama Sutra Under My Arm: My Madcap Misadventures Across India

Australian men have forgotten how to flirt, says children's book author Trisha Bernard in her debut travel memoir. Distracting herself from a broken heart, she tours India, where she believes her resemblance to the ample goddess Lakshmi will inspire ardor in the opposite sex. Although she carries a copy of the Kama Sutra as inspiration, an apt title for her book would be Drink, Joke, Fantasize. She also travels with her British friend Sally, who is burdened with an oversized suitcase and ethnocentric attitude; Sally's cultural gaffes are the source of the titular misadventures. Even going solo, Bernard's clumsy leering at younger men would have fallen flat. And when suitable men flirt with her, she runs away. Opportunities are rare and rather innocent (a shopkeeper feeds her candy), but she prefers to swoon in colonial fantasies, drugged by a Victorian dream of India conflated with Arabian Nights. Decent descriptions and mildly entertaining anecdotes await in the last 80 pages, although the story runs on gin fumes to get there. As a travelogue, the book is light on reporting. During their beaten-path tour of Rajasthan, the author quotes long, dusty chunks from a guidebook and dumps paraphrased bits into unnatural dialogue. Prone to factual errors, pedestrian observations, purple prose, and vile ethnic stereotypes, Bernard's company chafes. It's Sally who displays sandpapery wit when countering Trisha's sigh: "The Kama Sutra is full of romance." "No it isn't. It's full of positions."

Le Deuxième Souffle

Brash and arrogant, French director Jean-Pierre Melville (1917–73) earned his reputation as the Father of New Wave cinema by directing films such as this sharp thriller, Le Deuxième Souffle (Second Wind) in 1966. Along with such classics as Bob le Flambeur (1956) and Le Doulos (1962), it's a visually dense gangster movie that simultaneously looks back to classic American film noir -- with its hard-boiled heroes and dangerous dames -- and forward to the lonely, existential crime films of the later '60s and '70s. Never part of the French film industry, Melville carved out an independent career based on genres disparaged by the mainstream, and this newly remastered film, here given Criterion's usual first-class treatment, is the perfect place to enjoy Melville at his best. Seasoned criminal Gu Minda, played by the stone-faced Lino Ventura, breaks out of a prison where he was serving a life sentence. Hoping to leave the country, he needs one more big score to pay his way and relies on his old gang: Alban, his Neanderthal driver, and Manouche, his blonde moll -- Melville's answer to Gloria Grahame. The drama is incidental to the pure style: dark, interior, with much said by few words. And the casting is superb, including the cynical inspector played by the dapper Paul Meurisse and the sleazy nightclub owner played by Marcel Bozzufi, best known to American viewers for his role in The French Connection. There's nothing superfluous here, with plenty of gunplay, sexy showgirls, and cool jazz. Despite a silly disclaimer, Melville affirms the gangster's code of loyalty and friendship. Fans of his later World War II masterpiece, L'Armee des Ombres (Army of Shadows), will marvel at the parallels between his amoral criminals and the virtuous Resistance fighters (gangsters with a cause?) In any case, this gripping narrative stands on its own: taut, angular, and shrewd.

New York Nocturne: The City after Dark in Literature, Painting, and Photography, 1850-1950

The blackout of 2003 offered New Yorkers their most recent opportunity to experience something exceedingly rare: the city enveloped in darkness. William Chapman Sharpe begins New York Nocturne at a time when nighttime darkness was the norm and light -- first in the form of gas, then of electricity -- was radically disorienting, eventually transforming patterns of commerce and leisure. In this gorgeous, erudite book, the Barnard College professor examines the myriad ways that writers, painters, and photographers have represented New York nightlife, beginning in the mid-19th century, when works by Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, and Edgar Allan Poe dramatized the moral perils of the artificially lit city. Sharpe's journey takes him to the middle of the 20th century, by which time artists like Edward Hopper and Weegee exploit the nighttime's theatrical, voyeuristic potential. In between he covers James McNeill Whistler, Stephen Crane, John Sloan, Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O'Keeffe, Joseph Stella, and many others, with close readings of the literature and black-and-white and color reproductions of the art. Sharpe, whose own affection for the city is charmingly apparent here, insists throughout that artists and writers haven't simply reacted to the changes in urban existence; rather, they have "helped turn the unscouted terrain of the urban night into a legible part of contemporary life."

Travels of a Thermodynamicist

Literature has presented us with many scientists who are elegant and powerful stylists: Loren Eisley, Richard Selzer, Freeman Dyson, Richard Feynman, Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins. These science-trained authors are able to convey gracefully their most subtle observations about the natural universe in sentences worthy of Flaubert. And then, on the other hand, we have Rick Fleeter. Reading Fleeter's new book, Travels of a Thermodynamicist, is like watching Dave Barry channel Lester Bangs at his stream-of-consciousness peak, like navigating through the Unabomber manifesto after it's been redacted by Dustin Hoffman in his Rain Man mode. If The Triplets of Belleville were journalism, Rick Fleeter would win a Pulitzer. Thus, the experience of reading Fleeter is not altogether enjoyable or easy. And yet -- somehow there emerges a portrait of the author and his life that is, to a certain degree, both charming and illuminating. We get to inhabit fully the perspective of a geeky outsider with something funny and clever to tell us. A university professor and aerospace entrepreneur, Fleeter is also an avid bicyclist and triathalon participant. The majority of the essays here concern his long-distance bike rides, during which he records physics-flavored observations both na‹vely acute and acutely na‹ve, concerning the people and places he passes. In essence, this book is a blog: evidently self-published and unfiltered, with minimal attention to formatting or design. If you lived next door to Fleeter, you'd share these rambling reminiscences over your common fence with a beer in hand on a summer night, and then go home pleasantly bemused at your quirky, likable neighbor.

Guitars

McCoy Tyner exudes magisterial authority, as though his musical declamations were etched in stone. Tyner's home-grown vocabulary is crucial to the sound of the 21st century jazz narrative---his system of navigating harmony with fourth intervals has influenced countless pianists since the '60s, and he continues his pioneering investigations into the rhythms and scales of Africa, Cuba, Brazil, and India as improvisational fodder, while not neglecting the chordal structures of the American Songbook. Then there's his sound, resonant, drumlike, each note articulated with the soulful cadences of midcentury African-American church and blues culture. That said, when Tyner performs in middling company, as he has done on more than a few recordings, he can sound predictable, stylized, and tedious. But environments that include tonal personalities who inspire Tyner to sculpt in notes and tones with, as he once described it, "a controlled sense of experimentation" have produced some of his most inspired outings. One such is Guitars, on which the 70-year-old maestro and all-world bass-drum team Ron Carter and Jack DeJohnette encounter guitar heroes Bill Frisell, John Scofield, Derek Trucks, and Marc Ribot, as well as banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck. The 14 pieces, primarily Tyner chestnuts, offer a study in contrasts -- Scofield uncorks inflamed post-Coltrane lines; Trucks wails blues connotations; Frisell tells griotic stories with evocative timbre and patient beats; Fleck spins his with African-inflected percussive thrust; Ribot navigates the chords with astringent, gnarly cadences and persuades the leader to record, for the first time, two atonal duos. Tyner is completely engaged throughout, prodding his partners -- an interactive DVD provides the back-story of each meeting -- and responding to their postulations with implacable grace.

The Silver Bear

How does a young writer get his first thriller published with a bang these days? First, you coauthor a sharp remake of a classic western movie, 3:10 to Yuma, the 2007 version starring Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. Next, you come up with a concept so high that it might give publishers and readers a nosebleed: An ace hit man hired (no spoiler here: it's in the book jacket copy) to kill his own father. Then you do such a good job of bringing this high concept to life that early readers compare it favorably to Graham Greene, Lawrence Block, Richard Condon's The Manchurian Candidate, and Frederick Forsyth's The Day of the Jackal. The Silver Bear -- which is what the Russians call a world-class hit man -- is almost as good as they say it is. Sure, there are five or ten too many flashbacks to old cases or to childhood mistreatment and retribution, but some of them (like the time the killer, known as Columbus, murders a federal judge with Saran Wrap) have great power. And a lot of Columbus's inner dialogue, though beautifully crafted, is also frequently pretentious. "I spin with a whirl part tornado and part grace, and before an inhale can become an exhale, I have a pistol up and raised in my hand..." Haas, who seems to have a Columbus series in mind, has another job to finish first -- the screenplay of The Materese Circle, by another suspense explorer and pioneer named Robert Ludlum.

Mr. Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream

Two-thirds of the way into Steven Watts's new biography of Hugh Hefner, the infamous publisher summarizes his brainchild's mission. "What the book is first and foremost: a lifestyle magazine devoted to how one spends one's leisure time." Thankfully for Hefner, Watts, and readers of this biography, there's so much more to the story of Playboy and what was for a time its vast commercial empire and cultural reach. Watts, a University of Missouri history professor, entertainingly explains the influence of Hefner over the last six decades, when he and Playboy both shaped and reflected American society. The story, Watts insists, goes beyond sex and consumerism. "The question of how and why the publisher of a risqué men's magazine was able to garner such influence, and even prestige, has perplexed many observers." Watts' answer: "ver the last half century Hefner has played a key role in changing American values, ideas, and attitudes. From the beginning, his enterprise was about more than dirty pictures?. It comprised a historical force of significant proportions." Launched in 1953 (and featuring among its enticements nude photos of Marilyn Monroe), and the publication quickly became popular and influential. Hefner adopts the mantle of a revolutionary fighting the Establishment: "We dared to suggest that there were other ways of living your life." From the beginning, Watts writes, "The magazine became a kind of cultural litmus test for judging the positive or negative direction of modern American culture." Needless to say, not everybody appreciated the publication or the Hef-embodied Playboy lifestyle. Conservatives, religious groups, and feminists said he represented the decline of Western civilization. As Watts says, "Few Americans have aroused greater controversy in ascending to fame and fortune."

Nobody's Home

In Nobody's Home (her fourth work of nonfiction to be published in this country) Dubravka Ugrešić writes, "I have been on the road ever since , changing countries like shoes."With hardly a touch of jetlag, Ugrešić's essays latch onto matters of ethnic, national, and transnational identity. In surveying topics such as her former countrymen's wont to line their conversations with curse words, or the condescension she has met with as a Croatian woman, Ugrešić lays into an assortment of au courant stereotypes (e.g., "?I put up with it when people explain to me how to use an iron, or when waiters in restaurants deliberately avoid setting my place with a knife?. I usually write 'cleaning lady' in the box under OCCUPATION; it's what is expected of me. Because my cosmopolitan countrywomen are known far and wide as excellent housekeepers in EU apartments, houses and public lavatories.") Abreast with this endeavor, she also looks into how globalization has affected what the stalwarts of the Frankfurt School termed the culture industry. For instance, in the essay "Transition: Morphs & Sliders & Polymorphs," she notes, "Only in times ruled by firm, frozen values -- political, religious, moral aesthetic, has the writer enjoyed?a special status?. Today, in?market-oriented cultural zones -- an intellectual is simply a 'player'?a performer, a circus performer, an entertainer, a vendor of 'cultural' souvenirs." Following this idea to its logical endpoint, one wonders, does the author factor herself into her own indictment? She does. While tallying the ills of civilization, Ugrešić avoids coming across as remote or above the fray. Indeed, alongside engaging in forceful cultural readings, she discourses on things like gardening and the pleasure of having one's nails done. In sum, her provocative bent is not cheapened by her unmitigated desire to please.

Gilded Mansions

For those readers with a penchant for the decorative arts and architecture, it will be hard to resist peeking beyond the glossy cover of Wayne Craven's Gilded Mansions. For those not so sure, each chapter of this book is prefaced by a quote so tantalizing, you can't help but be pulled in. Take this little opinion, dressed up with fact: "New York ranks fourth in size among the cities of the earth. Architecturally it ranks nowhere. Fifth Avenue consists for the most part of innumerable brownstone platitudes, all depressingly alike. The incredible monotony is the only character this great street can boast," published by LIFE in 1892. But the Gilded Age (1865-1918) changed all that. Craven, Winterthur Professor of Art History, Emeritus, shows and tells us how Whitneys, Vanderbilts, and Astors alike strove to change the landscape by outdoing each other, one marvelous French château and Italian palazzo at a time. The well-researched text provides thorough historical context for a fascinating tale that begins when keeping up with the Joneses literally meant following Mary Mason Jones (aunt of Edith Wharton), who boldly moved "way uptown" to 55th Street's Marble Row (constructed entirely from Ohio limestone, with nary a brown brick in sight). Copiously illustrated with 250 photographs, as well as delicious asides such as how the Vanderbilt children were viewed as "social climbing arrivistes" by the dowager Mrs. Astor, it documents how utterly America's first millionaires rejected utilitarianism and all things bourgeois by snubbing each other and stuffing their lofty rooms with carved cabinetry, silk screens, and commissioned portraits. It's a rich volume indeed, "its splendor akin to the gorgeous dreams of Oriental fantasy."

A Wild Ride Through the Night

A Wild Ride Through the Night by popular German author Walter Moers (The 13-1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear) could also be called a fantastic voyage through the author's imagination as he delivers a fairy tale starring 12-year-old Gustave Doré, who would grow up to become arguably the greatest illustrator of all time. The novel opens with Gustave at sea, steering his ship Aventure through a storm involving the dreaded "Siamese Twin Tornado." Minutes later, Death shows up on deck and gives the boy six Herculean tasks in order to save his soul. The allegorical odyssey finds the boy pulling a tooth from the Most Monstrous of All Monsters, slaying a dragon, and flying to Death's house on the moon. Reading this fable is like being immersed in one of Doré's illustrations full of writhing serpents, beaked gnomes, hunchbacked frogs, and other misshapen creatures. In fact, the book is peppered with 21 of Doré's woodcuts, which amplify the aura of dread and wonder. Gustave is leaving his childhood behind, and so his journey is dark and fantastic, full of dragons, talking jellyfish, and naked damsels in distress. As a forest witch tells him, "The dream-world is an unpredictable place?. A jungle composed of time, space and providence, of hindsight and foresight, of fears and desires, all jumbled up together." In other words, adulthood. Like the equally lovely and absurd Alice in Wonderland, A Wild Ride Through the Night captures that rough, scary transition we all go through on the downhill slide toward death by way of puberty.

Europa/Zentropa

Of the select number of serious contemporary directors whose work is scrutinized in the international press, Lars von Trier (b. 1956) is one of the most polarizing. While even his detractors will concede that he possesses a virtuoso's command of cinematic technique, it's hard to make a case for his subtlety. Von Trier is given to creating emotionally blistering movies that pirouette around an idealist who is obliterated by a hostile environment. Such is the premise on which his 1991 cinematic nocturne, Europa, rests. Purposefully intended to be one of the Danish director's most accessible movies, Europa tells the story of Leopold Kessler (Jean-Marc Barr), a young American of Germanic heritage who, in October 1945, travels to Germany to take up a position as a sleeping-car conductor on a train. Proud of the fact that he refused to take sides during the war, he represents himself as a conciliatory figure who wishes to further the restoration of German-American relations. Unlike von Trier's more harrowing movies, like Breaking the Waves, Europa contains a generous amount of levity, which helps because the film's symbols do come on strong, particularly in one scene that juxtaposes sex and death. Nonetheless, von Trier's use of the sleeping-car as a metaphor for Europe's desire to whitewash its recent past remains piquant. So is the film's use of meticulously paired foreground and background shots to produce collages as mesmerizing as nearly anything captured on celluloid.

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).

July 22: On this day in 1941, on his twelfth wedding anniversary, Eugene O'Neill presented the just-finished manuscript of Long Day's Journey into Night to his wife, Carlotta.

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

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