Displaying articles for: February 2009

Voluntary Madness

Norah Vincent first achieved fame for dressing and living as a man for 18-odd months and writing about her exploits in Self-Made Man. The writing of that book, and the double life that preceded it, were so taxing they drove Vincent to depression. Her first trip to a mental institution gave Vincent, being who she is, the idea for another book that would chronicle the state of mental health institutions in America. So began Vincent's voluntary confinement to three different mental hospitals: Meriwether, a jaw-droppingly depressing facility in New York City; St. Luke's, a make-do private asylum in the Midwest; and Mobius, a five-star retreat in the South. Vincent's account flits from the journalistic to the deeply personal (at Mobius, she finally came to terms with her abuse as a child). Narrating heartbreaking stories of her fellow inmates, Vincent allows herself to become their fairy godmother, walking the fine line between meeting their demands and retaining her own fragile mental equilibrium. She is expectedly damning with regard to the assembly-line nature of mental hospitals in which doctors are keen to categorize patients into neat subheads so as to depersonalize the line of treatment. Equally, the big pharmaceutical companies, which spend millions of dollars on bettering habit-forming drugs such as Prozac, come in her line of fire. This is a serious subject; however, Vincent's smart-alecky writing style, which perfectly suited her fun drag king experiment, precipitously verges on the disingenuous. Vincent's dedication to her subject shows more clearly in the chronicle of what she was willing to do to get the story than in how she unfolds it.

The Men in My Life

Criticism, wrote Oscar Wilde, is "a mode of autobiography.... It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors." Vivian Gornick might well have taken this as an epigraph for The Men in My Life, a collection of eight short essays on (male) writers whose work has won the critic's passionate attention. The act of reflecting on works of literature turns into a kind of introspection-by-proxy. Not that the essays turn into narratives about herself. Gornick has published memoirs, but not here. She looks at the novels of George Gissing, or H. G. Wells's Experiment in Autobiography, or Randall Jarrell's role as poetry critic, and finds them elaborating themes that resonate with her concerns with "the intimate relation between literature, emotional damage, and social history." The odd phrase in that sequence being, of course, "emotional damage" -- which in the fabric of her preoccupations is woven in very tightly with the matter of how men and women treat one another. She admires the verbal brio of Saul Bellow and Philip Roth but cannot escape the problem of their misogyny; it raises the question of how much of their brilliance is driven by the need to protect themselves from the dangers to the ego involved in seeing women as human beings. Gornick belongs to the generation of American feminists that was willing to pose things in terms just so stark as that. All of the essays are short. They strike the bedrock of insight (in the best cases, anyway; a couple never really do) then call it a day. But there soon emerges a pattern, a critical mosaic, that proves rich and complex enough to reward a second reading.

The Gospel According to Al Green

Robert Mugge's Gospel According to Al Green, recently issued by Acorn Media in a 25th anniversary edition, is an understated epic that does justice to the genius of its flamboyant subject, now 62, most recently in the public eye for the double Grammy-winner, Lay it Down (Blue Note), and a ferocious performance on this month?s Grammy telecast on which he emphatically demonstrated that he can still hit all the notes. Positioned between such keen portraits of sui generis musical eccentrics?Sun Ra (A Joyful Noise, 1980), Gil Scott-Heron (Black Wax, 1982), Ruben Blades (The Return of Ruben Blades, 1985), and Sonny Rollins (Saxophone Colossus, 1986) -- that comprised the bulk of Mugge?s work at the time, Gospel foreshadows Mugge?s exhaustive, still ongoing exploration of the various food groups of American roots music, specifically the Mississippi blues and Louisiana vernaculars, in a series of films since the pathbreaking 1991 documentary, Deep Blues. Granted an extraordinary candid interview by Green, only a few years removed from his well-publicized transition from secular soul superstar to ordained minister who would perform only sacred music, Mugge wisely makes him the primary voice within the narrative. He relates his life story in vivid language and punctuates it with an equally extroverted gestural vocabulary, describing the origins of his musical aesthetic and trademark sound, retelling in detail the events that transformed him from a Saturday Night Function sensualist to a master of the Sunday Sermon. Commentary from Willie Mitchell, Green?s early producer, contextualizes the Reverend?s recollections, but Mugge also provides copious performance footage, climaxing the 94-minute film with a spellbinding marathon sermon in which Green, celebrating the seventh anniversary of the Memphis church he purchased in 1976, delivers the homily, simmers through songs of praise, and ascends to tongue-speak, as Mugge puts it in the Directors' Remarks section, "with fire coming out of his mouth."

It Itches

Franklin Habit is a photographer, knitter, blogger, and -- not least -- humorist. Would anyone who is not a knitter get the jokes in It Itches? Probably not, but who cares? (It's not like I would think that a book of golf cartoons was funny. So if you or someone you know has a stash -- skeins and skeins of yarn set aside for a someday project -- or has a strong opinion of acrylic versus natural fiber, this book of cartoons and light essays is just the ticket. Habit's pencil drawings of sheep, yarn, and knitters, underscored with witty, one-line captions, would be at home in The New Yorker. A boy is knitting in the schoolyard with a girl bully towering over him. Caption: "If it bothers you that much, Caitlin, then I suggest you and your teddy and your mid-Victorian ideas about gender get the hell back to the other side of the playground." Meanwhile, the selection of his prose pieces varies in style. I was charmed by his impassioned plea to take back the word "craft" from the psychiatric wards, nursing homes, and summer camps and proudly label knitting as a craft -- "Craft (n) 1. An occupation, trade or activity requiring manual dexterity or artistic skill (v) 2. To make or produce with care, skill of ingenuity." He begs us to stop equating a beautifully knit cabled sock with a tissue box made of popsicle sticks. "Craft", he states, "is too ancient, beautiful and noble a word to leave to the hacks of less-inspired housekeeping magazines. My knitting is my craft; therefore I am a craftsman. It is a badge I wear with pride. I made it myself."

Confessions of an Alien Hunter

Arthur C. Clarke famously encapsulated a quandary about the question of life on other planets: "Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying." After reading Seth Shostak's wide-ranging and comprehensive survey of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence -- SETI, to those in the know -- I'd be willing to bet that Shostak would respectfully disagree. This optimistically persevering scientist firmly believes that we are not alone -- "In short, you'll be reading about the discovery of an alien signal in the next two dozen years" -- and that this finding will be a joyous boon to mankind. As senior astronomer at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, he's dedicated his life to the quest for an indisputably artificial signal from space -- be it radio waves, light pulses, or less plausible and more exotic media such as gravity waves or neutrino streams. Shostak concisely charts the timeline and milestones of this relatively young field, which extends back only to the early 1960s. He charmingly portrays the characters of the researchers involved, including himself. What the SETI folks believe might be out there, and how they go about looking for life, as well as the germane hardware, physics and cosmology are all conveyed in a breezy yet scrupulously scientific manner. (Likewise, occult, saucerian, and new age beliefs are demolished.) Provoking and fascinating, this book skates deftly over its central, retroactively apparent lacuna -- which is identical, ironically enough, to that behind UFO studies. For all of the field's logical speculations, stringent methodologies, thrilling near-misses and computer-parsed data accumulation, it has no actual successes to point to. At the core of SETI is something as numinous as the Grail, which only faith has yet made conceivable.

Jack London in Paradise

Paul Malmont's Jack London in Paradise is a perfect combination of biography and literary fiction, with a dash of armchair travel. Focusing on the final year of London's life, Malmont weaves London's troubled history with Hawaii in its first years of annexation by the United States. The novel begins as filmmaker Hobart Bosworth is searching for London, in the hopes that the writer will give him an exclusive screenplay to film, which would save his debt-riddled movie studio. Bosworth finds London in Hawaii, distracted from writing and struggling with his past. London is studying mythology to sort through the anguish of his memories, from the childhood curse supposedly placed on him by a spirit (according to his his mother) to the recent arson at his utopian Beauty Ranch in California. The writer finds solace in Hawaii, where native Hawaiians hold tight to their now illegal customs and to a queen still sitting on her powerless throne. Mainlanders are coming ashore in droves to pillage the land they find so exotic. Both London and the islanders seem dazed in response. Through all of this, Malmont shies away from dramatic moments -- when a sugar plantation field hand is severely burned, his final fate is later alluded to in cagey dialogue. But Malmont is at his best in the quiet moments between characters. The accounts of London's "wave sliding" with Duke Kahanamoku, a legend in his own right, simply sing. Malmont does an excellent job of capturing America's fascination with both London and Hawaii and the eventual exhaustion that so much attention brings. Moreover, he treats Hawaii with care and love -- the moist, warm Hawaiian air is nearly tangible, and the native Hawaiians posses a mystery both Malmont and his hero seem to take pleasure in unraveling.

Equal: Women Reshape American Law

Lest we take for granted the rights that today's women expect, Fred Strebeigh creates a compelling tale of how hard -- and how recently -- women worked to get us here. More behind-the-scenes and personal than straight legal narrative, Equal: Women Reshape American Law combines the author's interviews and exclusive archival access to create a revealing account of the groundbreaking cases involving women's rights. Flexing his journalistic storytelling muscle, the author portrays plaintiffs, lawyers, and judges as complex characters with financial woes, competing agendas, and setbacks. The unfolding legal battles become dramatic as the reader develops an emotional attachment to the people who made change happen. Strebeigh's standout section is about sexual harassment. Here he chronicles the ways that judges ruled against women, because not only did the problem "have no law," it "also had no recognition, no politics, no movement, and no awareness to the nation. Perhaps most remarkably, it had no name." It took until 1986 for the Supreme Court to rule in favor of one woman who was consistently harassed and coerced by her boss. Without the efforts of women law students and professors to imagine creative new interpretations of the law, beginning in 1976, such a victory would have been unlikely. Strebeigh tackles the political motivations behind decisions, including a skeptical Chief Justice Rehnquist's surprising majority opinion on sexual harassment, one that made him appear pro–civil rights just before his nomination for chief justice. Guiding readers to understand how laws against racism paved the way for monumental decisions involving gender, the author zooms in on some stars, like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Catharine MacKinnon, and a host of perseverant plaintiffs. The book begins with a widowed father's quest to get the Social Security benefits a single mother would, then moves to discuss pregnancy, barriers facing women lawyers, harassment, and violence. This dynamic account of legal wranglings is accessible to anyone interested in how greater equality between the sexes came to our fair country, not too long ago.

How to Live: A Search for Wisdom from Old People (While They Are Still on This Earth)

Though the work of a reviewer is certainly not to judge the book by its cover, in the case of How to Live: A Search for Wisdom from Old People (While They Are Still on This Earth), it is easy to get hung up on the adorable image of a wrinkly Sharpei, a dog that only exhibits such rolls of flesh in puppyhood. Perhaps an indication of the contradictory nature of such a quest? Henry Alford, who penned two previous investigations rife with wry humor -- Big Kiss: One Actor's Desperate Attempt to Claw His Way to the Top and Municipal Bondage: One Man's Anxiety-Producing Adventures in the Big City -- injects his own brand of levity into the larger philosophical challenge of defining wisdom by delving into the experiences of elders. What he discovers is indeed contradictory at times but unexpected and life-altering, too. Like any journey of a thousand miles, he begins with the first step: compiling a list of aging icons to interview. While traveling between such disparate locales as Granny D's humble abode in New Hampshire and the Hawaiian paradise of Ram Dass, Alford has plenty of time to contemplate another elder situation, the end of his mother's 36-year marriage. Delving into Ecclesiastes and the words of Confucius, Buddha, and Socrates, and combing deathbed confessionals and famous quotations, Alford is guided through his own conflicting emotions about aging. Along the way his narrative, replete with laser-like observations and witty banter, is so thoroughly captivating that the answer to the title question becomes less important than the quest. It's a profound revelation that comes through each person's life story -- which, we come to understand, is exactly the point.

Fifty Miles from Tomorrow: A Memoir of Alaska and the Real People

When someone says "Alaska," can you picture Sarah Palin's smile more readily than the faces of Eskimos? If so, you may have helped former Alaska state legislator William Hensley make a recurring point in his memoir Fifty Miles from Tomorrow: Alaska's Native Americans have faded from the national consciousness -- and receded from their own cultural roots -- after generations of government and missionary control. Hensley, the son of an Inupiat mother and a Lithuanian father, grew up during the 1940s in northwestern Alaska, where temperatures could hit -40° F and survival was the chief goal. At 15, he left his hometown of Kotzebue -- and the embrace of his great-uncle's family -- to be educated in the Lower 48. A sojourn at a Baptist academy in Tennessee led him both to graduate school and the civil rights movement, laying the foundation for what would become a lifelong mission to champion native Alaskan territorial rights. As a state legislator Hensley lobbied tirelessly to keep his people from being "homeless in our homeland" and helped fuel a landmark act that, in 1971, allocated nearly $1 billion and 44 million acres to indigenous peoples. What makes Hensley's tale compelling, however, is that it isn't just about regaining lands but about regaining voice. Despite a tendency toward repetition, the closing chapters are among the most enlightening of the lot, as Hensley moves past blame and calls for a deeper kind of homecoming -- the reinstatement of once-dismissed Inupiat values and culture. Does this frank memoir paint a sobering but hopeful portrait of Alaska's original identity? You betcha.

Beyond Recall

When Stephen King anointed Robert Goddard as his favorite literary discovery of 2008, his reasoning was that Goddard's novels offer "surprises that really surprise." The British author's backlist is in the midst of being reissued in full, and after reading Beyond Recall, nominated for the Best Novel Edgar Award when first published in 1997, I must concur with Mr. King's assertion. Goddard sets out his tales with the precision of a Swiss watch, mixing together a flawed hero with a dark past, long-buried secrets bubbling up thanks to historical documents and methodical detection, and steadily building tension that culminates in a satisfying but startling climax. Beyond Recall's variation on this theme centers begins when Christian Napier is accosted at a party by an old friend who insists that his father's death is Christian's fault. Then the friend hangs himself; spurred by guilt and a need for truth, Napier begins to piece together a tangled web of long-lost children, disputed inheritances, and unsolved murders -- a quest that naturally imperils his own life. There's a refreshing retro feel at work in Beyond Recall, reminding the reader that oldest of motives -- sex, money, and power -- still wield narrative force.

Down at the Docks

Rory Nugent?s earlier, gloriously entertaining travel books, Search for the Pink-Headed Duck and Drums Along the Congo, took him to India and West Africa, respectively. Now Down at the Docks finds Nugent back where countless sea journeys have begun, in the port city of New Bedford, Massachusetts. Nugent lived in New Bedford for 17 years, long enough to be accepted, and this is his zany elegy for a tough town and a vanished America. As one old-timer (age 46) tells him, "Fishermen are on the wrong side of tomorrow, same as mill workers used to be.? Soon corporate fleets will swamp the remaining independent boats. Nugent laments this fact without romanticizing New Bedford. Thankfully, he is too observant and too jumpy a writer to sustain a solemn or strictly historical narrative. Each chapter here is an individual story -- of Sword, Snake, Mako, Mr. Jinx, and other human flotsam -- that encapsulates an era. The dapper elderly gentleman fishing from the pier, for example, once worked for the Mob and the CIA. Pink, a foul-mouthed lesbian electrician (who also worked for the Mob), offers to sell Nugent an exquisite 18th-century scrimshaw dildo, and the item prompts his reflections on Nantucket?s distinctive whaling -- and sexual -- history. Crime (organized, disorganized, and corporate), drugs (you name it), smuggling, superstition, and the sea, always the sea: Nugent riffs on all of these, conveying the restless rhythms and nervy dialect of the place. Finally, he does what any writer worth his salt should do; he makes us think about this rusty old town -- about all the rusty old towns -- that we speed past on the highway.

The Taking of Power of Louis XIV

One of the most influential directors in the history of cinema, Roberto Rossellini (1906-1977) had a curious career. Its first, most famous phase begin in 1945 with Open City, and continued with Paisan and Germany Year Zero; employing a documentary-like visual directness, these postwar films were the seminal works of Italian Neorealism. Rosellini?s second, more notorious phase includes a trio of films (Voyage in Italy among them) starring Ingrid Bergman. Once regarded as footnotes to the director?s love affair with their star, they had a profound effect on the sensibility of the French New Wave auteurs. A third phase, devoted to an examination of history through television, is little known, but filled with visual and intellectual riches. A set of three of Rossellini's History Films -- The Age of the Medici, Blaise Pascal, and Cartesius -- has just been released by Criterion and is well worth viewing. But The Taking of Power by Louis XIV , available separately, best illustrates Rossellini?s command of historical reconstruction. The film portrays the young Louis XIV?s cunning stratagem of confining the court intrigue that threatened him to the palatial playground of Versailles, where the rules of the game could be controlled by the Sun King. Although the bewigged, sumptuously arrayed nobility at times seems about to stumble into a Monty Python skit, the steady seriousness of Rossellini?s apprehension wins the viewer over with its careful attention to the details -- and wonder -- of the past.

Don't Stop Believin': How Karaoke Conquered the World and Changed My Life

Ah, my karaoke glory days. From old-man bars to private booths to a Blackfeet reservation in Montana -- where my soaring rendition of Charlene's "I've Never Been to Me," including the spoken monologue, was received utterly without irony -- I spent years chasing the exuberant high of the "empty orchestra" from Japan. I kept song lists in my Palm, Sundays free for recovery from sunrise duets of "Paradise by the Dashboard Light." Ain't no doubt about it: I was obsessed. So when I saw that someone else had written a -- the -- memoir-slash-pop-cultural chronicle of karaoke's Stateside success, my inner K-J cued up the Gin Blossoms' "Hey, Jealousy." But karaoke's goofy joy allows no room for enmity -- nor does Brian Raftery's endearing, entertaining Don't Stop Believin': How Karaoke Conquered the World and Changed My Life. "I love karaoke. I love it without qualifiers, apologies, or actual singing talent," Raftery writes. "When people talk about the adrenaline rush that comes with playing competitive sports or putting angel dust on their eyelids, I think, 'Yes, fine, but have you ever performed "Bennie and the Jets" in a hot tub?' " Raftery weaves together his own karaoke adventures (earning, on a good night, "slippery high fives") with nerd-tastic analysis (including a spot-on taxonomy of karaoke-friendly tunes); an interesting -- and surprisingly elaborate -- anatomy of background tracks; and colorful reporting on the origin, evolution, and entrenchment of the off-key phenom. He argues convincingly that, while karaoke caught on here at a particular moment ("It's hard to imagine a time when Americans didn't want to make public spectacles of themselves"), it also captures something profoundly, gleefully universal. "Underneath all the social barriers like headphones and iPods," he writes, "we're just a world of singin' fools." Yep. As Charlene would say, "That's truth. That's love."

Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl

There are certain albums that should come with a warning sticker: "This music may haunt you indefinitely." Originally released in late 1968, Van Morrison?s song cycle Astral Weeks is at once obscure yet immediate, dense yet translucent, poetic yet visceral. Once heard it's not forgotten -- for many it's a touchstone of popular music. Morrison has revisited moments from this transcendent work throughout his career; "Cypress Avenue," with its impassioned cry of "It's too late to stop now," has served as a highlight of his live performances for decades. But Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl consciously reexamines the earlier masterpiece, song by song. A risky business to say the least, no matter the artistic caliber of a revered figure like Morrison. Who wants a new Moby-Dick ? Yet the live recording works. No, it doesn?t carry the expressive charge of the original, but who could expect that? Astral Weeks was a personal testament, an outpouring of memory and emotion, a bittersweet, conflicted meditation on Morrison?s Irish roots brought to life by a cadre of superb supporting musicians including the jazz greats, bassist Richard Davis and drummer Connie Kay. The live album has a different purpose; it serves to remind us that Morrison remains one of the great vocalists of our time. Given beautifully wrought songs -- and few come as beautiful as these -- Morrison is able to sink his teeth in and deliver some of his richest, least mannered singing of his mid-period career. Although he messes with the order of the songs and adds occasional codas, the instrumental arrangements, replete with swirling violin, string bass, and occasional harpsichord, hew closely to the 1968 takes. Looking back inspires the Gaelic folk-rocker. Listen to the way his tender vocal subtly recasts the melody of "Besides You," rendering it new, yet linked in grace to the adored original. A more satisfying visit to the past can't be asked for.

The Exterminating Angel

Not discounting the hunger, the double suicide, and the reek of trapped human flesh, Luis Buñuel 's The Exterminating Angel (1962) is a chirpy film, informed by an impish existentialism. This surrealist appropriation of the comedy of manners starts as an upstairs-downstairs farce where the servants of a landed couple forsake their duties just as their employers' dinner party guests begin to arrive. Their unexpected leave-taking does little to dampen the decadent evening that follows in which, among other incidents, a server carrying a food-laden ice sculpture purposefully trips himself up (a detail Buñuel struck upon after learning that such a ruse had been used to entertain the guests at a gala in New York). At length, the revelers stir as if to leave; but instead of collecting their overcoats, they tuck into whatever space is available in a salon, where they'd previously been entertained by the performance of a sonata, and go to sleep. Upon waking, a fiasco sets in when it's discovered that, for no apparent reason, they're unable to leave the room. As vital resources diminish, the trappings of civilization crumble until the threat of murder hangs in the air. When asked about the obvious parallels between his film and Sartre's play No Exit -- both trade on the idea that when relations with others become warped, the isolation of the self is reinforced and a personal hell is birthed -- Buñuel said, "I think there is more mystery in The Exterminating Angel or if you like, simply more irrationality." While not in the same league as some of the director's other films, like Diary of a Chambermaid and The Phantom of Liberty, Buñuel 's parable about the spirit of barbarism waiting in the wings of even the most genteel society is, unfortunately, as relevant now as it was nearly half a century ago.

Edward Carpenter

After Edward Carpenter died in 1929, E. M. Forster speculated that the British essayist, poet, and philosopher "won't survive...in his books, but in the testimonies of his friends. He was so much more important in himself than in his printed words." Indeed, Carpenter isn't read much today, perhaps confirming Forster's suggestion that his friend's influence stemmed primarily from the force of his personality. Fortunately, Sheila Rowbotham's fine biography captures that personality so vividly that it is sure to renew interest in this remarkable man. Carpenter was born into a respectable Victorian family in 1844, but he became a socialist whose adopted causes -- gay liberation, free love, nudism, vegetarianism, recycling -- anticipated movements that wouldn't coalesce for decades or more. He wrote and lectured tirelessly, but more than expressing his ideals, he lived them. Although he had a considerable inheritance, he engaged in cooperative farming, declaring that "we will show in ourselves that the simplest life is as good as any?and we will so adorn it that the rich and idle shall enviously leave their sofas and gilded saloons and come and join hands with us in it." Not long after Oscar Wilde was sentenced to hard labor for committing sodomy, Carpenter began living openly with his male partner. Rowbotham's exhaustive research has produced a riveting portrait of a man who had an uncommon ability to draw people to him and infect them with his utopian beliefs. In doing so, she writes, he "helped to prod the modern world into being."

The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America's Favorite Planet

When New York's American Museum of Natural History rebuilt its Rose Center for Earth and Space, its staff of astrophysicists, after much discussion, decided to exclude Pluto from the area displaying models of the planets, grouping it instead with the growing number of icy objects being discovered beyond Neptune. The reclassification remained largely unnoticed until a year after the 2000 opening, when The New York Times published a front-page story headlined "Pluto's Not a Planet? Only in New York." Author Neil deGrasse Tyson, the center's director, writes that the ensuing media frenzy made him "public enemy of Pluto lovers the world over." In this irreverent, entertaining, yet substantive book, Tyson traces the short history of Planet Pluto, from its 1930 discovery by an Illinois farm boy and amateur astronomer to the 2006 vote by the International Astronomical Union to demote it to "dwarf planet" status. As Tyson suggests, the debate was not just scientific but also cultural: adults clung to the planetary sequence they had memorized in their youth, while schoolchildren reliably claimed Pluto as their favorite planet, perhaps because it shares a name with a beloved Disney character (the heavily illustrated book includes reproductions of outraged letters Tyson received from kids). In the end, vindicated by the IAU, Tyson makes a compelling case for freeing ourselves from Pluto nostalgia, arguing that "the rote exercise of planet counting rings hollow and impedes the inquiry of a vastly richer landscape of science drawn from all that populates our cosmic environment."

Murder on the Eiffel Tower

On a sweltering summer day during the 1889 World Exposition, a woman collapses and dies while visiting the newly opened Eiffel Tower. The police believe it?s the deadly result of a bee sting, but bookseller Victor Legris -- also on the Tower that day -- has his doubts, especially when other victims of the ?killer bees? start dropping dead in the City of Light. This first in a series of mysteries by Claude Izner (a pseudonym for two sisters who are Parisian booksellers) follows the often clueless Victor through the bustling Exposition as his list of suspects grows with each new body. While the mystery has its share of problems -- among them: thinly drawn characters and wooden dialogue -- it?s also full of period details that provide a vibrant backdrop for readers who like murder encased in history.

The Snows of Yesteryear

An ember among the cinders of a bygone empire, Gregor von Rezzori's The Snows of Yesteryear is a memoir that doesn't lack for the emotional and observational reticulations proper to a classic novel. In the telling of his story, the renowned author of Memoirs of an Anti-Semite leans less on the blunt scythe of chronology than on the "fine-webbed ramifications" suited to an impressionistic imagination. Born close to the outset of the First World War in Czernowitz, Bukovina (now Chernovtsy, Ukraine), a region that in his lifetime (1914-98) passed from the ownership of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to Romania to the Soviet Union, Rezzori came to manhood in an unsettled household. He lived amid eccentric personalities like his mother, who forbade her children to sit on the ground lest "vapors emanating from the soil" induce "infant paralysis," and his wet-nurse, an illiterate woman who conversed in a hodgepodge of languages, whose linguistic idiosyncrasies sprouted "newly minted with every sentence." Like weathervanes of history, the erratic fortunes of his family mark the currents that blew throughout Europe during the first half of the 20th century. The life-giving kernel of this book is summed up in Rezzori's observation that "where unrest leads to grief and grief gives rise to lament, poetry blossoms."

My Two Polish Grandfathers: And Other Essays on the Imaginative Life

Architect and critic Witold Rybczynski is not the most introspective of souls. His newest book, My Two Polish Grandfathers: And Other Essays on the Imaginative Life, nonetheless attempts a step inward, tracing his family's history through the destruction of Poland in WWII and along the immigrant's itinerant path. The title notwithstanding, the book is less an essay collection and more a stop-and-go autobiography about how, exactly, a creative life comes to be lived. Rybczynski is no prose stylist, and his sentences can run flat, but he writes with a genuine sense of wonder -- with an astonishment that out of the wreckages of history, he was able to land in a different world and stumble upon his talent for architecture. On buildings, in particular, he comes alive, and the best sections are those in which he works through the puzzles of his trade on the page. Even when Rybczynski fails to get inside the sources of his own originality -- a "budding architect needs first to discover that he has a taste for architecture," he muses at one point -- he displays an instinctive sense for the interplay between buildings and their environment, like a tennis player whose reflexes simply fire on the serve. As for any artist, the central struggle is one of finding a voice, and in moving beyond his Corbusian influences to become a pioneer of sustainable design, Rybczynski does. He may not be the deepest writer, but he makes us believe he's a masterly architect.

Nerve: The First Ten Years

From a certain distance, the pink plastic die-cut cover of this book gleams neon light around the edges of its title, perfectly invoking a marquee in an old-school red-light district. And like the literature often found in such a place, its pages are bound together with plastic caution tape to bar its contents from being seen by the casual or careless bystander. To read it then, you must own it (or befriend someone who does) and for anyone who appreciates the work Nerve.com has done over the past decade, it is certainly worthwhile to do so. This is a beautiful object, and a worthy format to showcase the fine-art erotic photographs that were first published on their web site. Nerve's founders, Rufus Griscom and Genevieve Field, took as their mission to provide "literate smut" and save readers from the tedium of terrible writing on sex. As they put it: "to be more graphic, forthright and topical than 'erotica,' but less blockheadedly masculine than 'pornography.'" Also, their essays and fiction (on "gender, bodies and cranky libidos") are frequently hilarious. Chuck Palahniuk proposes a new religion; Jonathan Lethem writes on Donald Sutherland's buttocks; Jocelyn Elders writes on masturbation; Sarah Hepola fantasizes about Ira Glass; Mary Gaitskill is interviewed; and Jonathan Ames writes about the time he seduced his interviewer. Regular contributors include sex columnists Em & Lo, Lisa Carver, and Steve Almond (who dispenses advice on how to write a sex scene). "Though some would prefer to dispose of taboos entirely, we prefer to gnaw on them like squeaky dog toys," write the cofounders. Here's to another ten years of doing the same.

The Angel Maker

Dr. Frankenstein meets Dolly the Sheep in Stefan Brijs's neo-gothic horror story. Already a bestseller in Brijs's native Belgium, The Angel Maker makes its way to American shores cloaked in a narrative of eerie dread. As the novel opens, Dr. Victor Hoppe arrives at his old family home in the small village of Wolfheim. In the backseat of the car are three crying babies -- deformed children that the renowned geneticist is at first loath to let the villagers see. Rumors about the triplet infants begin to spread. Are they freaks and monsters? Or is the oddly reticent doctor just trying to maintain his privacy? The answer, when it eventually comes to light, is as much a shock to the residents of Wolfheim as it is to the reader. For the first 100 pages, Brijs builds the suspense with such old-school atmosphere that you expect to hear haunting organ music while lightning streaks across the sky. The novel slows down in a middle section that painstakingly documents the evolution of a mad scientist alternately obsessed with cloning and wrestling with a Christ complex. The closing pages of The Angel Maker, however, are the stuff of nightmares and offer up some very unsettling ethical questions about man making man in his own image.

Furore: Handel Opera Arias

The past few years have been a boom time for fans of Handel?s glorious vocal music. The energetic Handel revival continues this year (the 250th anniversary of the composer?s death) with Furore, a new release on Virgin Classics by the superb mezzo soprano Joyce DiDonato. She is accompanied on her tumultuous journey through the travails of vengeful Handelian heroes and heroines by Les Talens Lyriques -- an excellent baroque orchestra conducted by Christophe Rousset -- whose fiery, impeccable playing compliments DiDonato?s rich, voluptuous voice, rapid-fire coloratura and expressive use of messa di voce. DiDonato?s anguish in these arias of heartbreak and betrayal is so palpable that you might wonder if she needed a therapist after such an outpouring of grief. The fourteen selections include a passionate rendition of "Ira, sdegni, et furore?O stringeró nel sen," Medea?s jealous lament from Teseo. DiDonato also illuminates Alceste?s bitter envy in "Gelosia, spietata Aletto" from Admeto. Her voice -- with its bright and powerful high notes and dark lower range -- cascades effortlessly through runs of coloratura flourishes. Other selections include "Hence, Iris hence away" and "Scherza infida" from Ariodante. DiDonato poignantly expresses a muted grief in Dejanira?s "There in myrtle shades reclined," one of several arias from Hercules on the disc. The shelves of Handel lovers might already be crammed with recent discs by Vivica Genaux, Danielle de Niese, and the remarkable mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson but DiDonato?s contribution deserves a place of honor.


Peepholes -- that's what tapestries were good for. You hung them with the broken threads just on top of certain holes in the oak panelling of the wall underneath. Within the wall itself, there was a space just wide enough for a watcher to walk through. John Mowbray, an Elizabethan "spider" (a spy in modern parlance) gives us this bit of tradecraft as he snoops on his employers at Hampton Court Palace early in Margaret Lawrence's astonishingly good new historical novel about the fate of the Roanoke Colony in the New World. Mowbray is the book's narrator, but it is his remarkable colleague Gabriel North who holds center stage. We first meet North as he saves Elizabeth's from assassination in 1585. His dubious reward: orders to set sail for the New World in a foolhardy convoy. Commanded by inexperienced and unworthy officers, the Roanoke Colony became one of history's most baffling mysteries, its occupants disappearing into the shadows of time. Lawrence wonderfully layers on top of this enigma a queen to rival Elizabeth. North is sent to Virginia to seduce a fictional Native American woman called Na'ia: "Na'iya -- so the Secota tribesmen spoke her name, with a slight stop of the throat, as though she took their breath away..." She and North begin a tangled relationship, he first winning the hearts of the widow's two young children and then earning their mother's love and loyalty. But when North is called back to England by Elizabeth, Na'ia appears to go on with her life as before. Only a brief, heartbreaking final scene on a Breton beach lets us know the truth.

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

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

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).