Displaying articles for: March 2008

Opera and the Morbidity of Music

Alas, the title Opera and the Morbidity of Music is a dirty gyp. The cover photo of a bloodied and demented Joan Sutherland hides a book of sane intelligence. The ostensible catalyst for most of Joseph Kerman?s collected essays is the book review, but he ranges both widely and deeply, from William Byrd?s Catholicism and music inspired by labyrinths to a note on the program note and a somewhat more than half-hearted defense of Rach 3. Some topics rate only a few pages, but Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi, and Wagner each generate substantial groups of essays. Unlike many critics, Kerman is at his best -- ­specific, passionate, attuned -- when he praises. His description of Charles Rosen?s work gives a sense of what he values: "his is criticism building on what we actually hear in music, even on what we feel about what we hear (though to my taste there is too little here about that)." This admirable attitude serves him well but perhaps makes him strangely sympathetic to political readings of nonverbal music, such as feminist interpretations of Beethoven?s Ninth Symphony as "horrifyingly violent" and a "sexual message." He writes, "What is so very awful about these interpretations? They draw attention­ -- violently, to be sure, and so what? -- ­to a cardinal feature of the first movement?s recapitulatory passage...." Kerman himself eschews trendy language and extreme judgments; his work over the past 30 years paves a critical via media through turbulent times. -

Lee Friedlander Photographs Frederick Law Olmsted Landscapes

What artist so noble, wrote the great landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted in what could surely serve as his own epitaph, "as he, who, with far-reaching conception of beauty and designing-power, sketches the outlines, writes the colors, and directs the shadows, of a picture so great that Nature shall be employed upon it for generations, before the work he has arranged for her shall realize his attentions." Olmsted's majestic orchestration of "distant effects" -- in New York City's Central, Riverside, and Prospect Parks, in Jackson Park in Chicago and Boston's Arnold Arboretum, in Oakland's Mountain View Cemetery and at the Biltmore Estate, at Yale and Stanford Universities -- so artfully shaped a natural music from trees, landforms, and time that his noble creations hardly seem man-made. This sumptuously printed book, published to coincide with a recent Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition, compiles 89 photographs made by Lee Friedlander in Olmsted's public parks and private estates. The rich tritone pictures -- many taken in winter, when the limbs of trees provide a lacework lens through which to view the landscape -- illustrate Friedlander's distinctive style at the same time as they document, in his own words, "one photographer's pleasurable and wandering glances at places that bear the great vision of Mr. Olmsted." -

The Soiling of Old Glory

Stanley Forman's Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a black man being attacked by a white teen wielding an American flag hits like a punch to the gut. Louis Masur's fascinating book examines the picture - taken at a Boston anti-busing rally in 1976 -- from multiple angles. After a court order mandated busing to desegregate Boston's public schools, the city simmered with tension. Masur covers the events that culminated in the unprovoked assault on attorney Ted Landsmark and the photograph's effect on the anti-busing movement, which had identified itself with patriotic resistance to tyranny, denying any roots in racism. Masur's close reading of the image references everything from representations of the Crucifixion to the artwork of Jasper Johns to the iconic image of the flag raising on Iwo Jima. He reveals the photograph's telling distortions -- the assailant was swinging the flag, not aiming it at Landsmark, and the man who appears to be restraining Landsmark was in fact helping him to his feet -- while contending that the nationally-circulated image ultimately brought about "progress and healing." Landsmark himself captures that spirit of forgiveness -- attacked amid cries of "Get the nigger" -- he subsequently devoted years to public service in Boston. "I always identified with the young men who attacked me," he says of the working-class Irish Catholics who dominated the anti-busing movement. "I've never forgotten that I grew up in projects." -

Compulsive Acts: A Psychiatrist's Tales of Ritual and Obsession

A man who can't let anything, including his wife, get within three feet of his nose; a woman who pulls out her hair strand by strand; two kleptomaniacs from different economic backgrounds; a compulsive gambler; and man who loses his fianc‚e because he prefers an online avatar -- these are the fictionalized patients Dr. Elias Aboujadude, director of the Impulse Control Disorders Clinic at Stanford University, uses to illustrate the many faces of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Each chapter is a little mini-lesson on the disease's history and current theories of its attendant brain chemistry. Along the way, "Dr. A." examines his own personal flirtation with OCD and his annoyingly capable receptionist's reliance on Catholic ritual. Of the six patients presented here, "Dr. A" loses two: one to suicide and another to a more liberated and spiritual virtual world. But the rest are cured relatively painlessly with some clever behavior modification and a handful of pills. A bit too factual to make good fiction and too breezily fictive to keep Oliver Sacks' company, if nothing else Compulsive Acts will get you to recognize that flipping the light switch ten times before you leave the house each morning might be more than a charming little quirk. -

The Love Boat: Season One, Volume One

Every Saturday night, my younger sister and I eagerly climbed aboard Aaron Spelling's Love Boat -- which first set to sea 30 years ago, graduating from its bawdy processor, Love, American Style - and its shipload of angry spouses reigniting their love; forlorn souls nursing aching hearts with rebound affairs and too many pi¤a coladas; and hopeless and hopeful romantics on the make. Admittedly, most of the sexual innuendo and antics flew over our heads: we tuned in for the guest-star roster. Everyone from our favorite TV shows -- The Brady Bunch, Charlie's Angels, Happy Days, and Good Times -- was casting a line for "love, exciting and new." Screening the newly released Love Boat DVD, a stingy collection offering only the first half of the premiere season, I was able to catch the details I missed the first time around: The lewd, double-entendre jokes, the intricate dramas among the lovelorn passengers, and the lascivious and predatory nature of "Doc" (Bernie Kopell) and Captain Stubing (Gavin McLeod), the latter of whom is indelibly cast in my mind as The Mary Tyler Moore Show's mild-mannered, placating, asexual Murray Slaughter. In the first half season alone, the dizzying amount of '70s luminaries is enough to get a girl seasick on the Lido Deck: Robert Reed; Kristy McNichol; Jimmie Walker; Bill Bixby; Jaclyn Smith; Milton Berle; Scott Baio; and a shimmying, voluptuous, albeit pre-cuchi-cuchi Charo. But it's the enduring talents who will right the course, like Tovah Feldshuh, John Ritter in his comic prime, and Saturday Night Live's Jane Curtin. The DVD lacks extras, save for the montage of highlights in the episode previews, but the infectious if insipid Love Boat continues to "set a course for adventure, your mind on a new romance."-

Detective Story

Imre Kertesz, the Hungarian-born novelist who won the Nobel Prize in 2002, offers a slim, dark, and haunting novella about crime and punishment in a totalitarian state. At 112 pages, it's light enough to be consumed in a sitting. Its aftermath may linger a lot longer. The setup is this: Detective Story is actually the story of a detective who finds himself in jail for his participation in the execution of two prominent citizens. The corrupt government for which he has executed them has been overthrown and a new one installed. Now it's the detective's turn to be condemned. While he waits in jail, he writes out the story of events leading up to the killing, delving into the murdered boy's diary, which he has kept. We get glimpses of the machinations of the system around him, but there is a great deal left deliberately vague: the detective describes and explores the boy's fascinating, troubled spirit, but leaves much of the state of terror encompassing them both to our inference. The whole novella nominally takes place in an unnamed Central or South American country, and the surnames are vaguely Spanish. But the blurred setting -- we might be in any troubled country undergoing upheaval -- lends the story considerable darkness and makes its meditations on moral ambiguity seem universally applicable. There's an old adage: Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. But what about mere embeddedness? What is the power -- or the responsibility -- of the cog in the wheel? The detective doesn't plead his innocence. But as he waits for his own execution, the questions of justice that hang in the balance are the ones that beg to be unraveled. -

Metamorphosis and Other Stories

Who among us, upon awaking from troubled dreams and dreading another soul-sucking day at the office, hasn't felt a bit like a cockroach? So it goes with Gregor Samsa in Franz Kafka's nightmare allegory "Metamorphosis." In the 1915 tale of the dutiful son and exhausted traveling salesman who is unaccountably transformed into a giant insect, Kafka tapped into our fear that we're little more than vermin under the hard-soled shoes of society. We dread a life where we'll end up like Gregor, whose "whole left side was one long, unpleasantly stretched scab, and he was positively limping on his two rows of legs." Only a handful of Kafka's stories were published before his death in 1924; he left his friend Max Brod with instructions to destroy all remaining manuscripts. Fortunately, Brod disobeyed, and today not only has "Kafkaesque" entered the lexicon, but thousands of grad students have labored to dissect the symbolism in Kafka's unfinished novels: The Trial (1925), The Castle (1926), and Amerika (1927). "Kafka's writing is a remarkable instance of something coming out of nowhere and, in the space of a human generation, attaining in its reception the condition of inexhaustible intractability he was so often drawn to describing within it," Michael Hofmann writes in the introduction to his translation of Metamorphosis and Other Stories. To Hofmann, a typical Kafka story is "a perfect work of literary art, as approachable as it is strange, and as strange as it is approachable." Take, for instance, "In the Penal Colony," where he describes how prisoners are strapped beneath a machine whose needles inscribe their crimes on their skin, over and over until nothing but bloody meat remains. Nearly every story in this collection is a classic example of what happens when realism and allegory press against each other and make us writhe in the nightmares of a writer at the peak of his art. -

We Are the Ship:The Story of Negro League Baseball

When Rube Foster founded the Negro National League in 1920, he told his colleagues, "We are the ship; all else the sea." You'll want to jump on that boat if Kadir Nelson is at the helm. He has illustrated award winners such as Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led the People to Freedom and Ellington Was Not a Street, but this is his first time out as both the illustrator and writer, and he proves to be a serious double threat. He tells the story of the rise and fall of baseball's Negro Leagues through the eyes of an everyday ballplayer who just happens to be witnessing history. The text has a casual naturalness that makes you feel like you're sharing a bag of peanuts with a former player while he spills his old stories. Nelson breaks the book into nine innings, each covering a topic relevant to the Negro Leagues, such as the owners, the barnstorming games against top-flight white teams, and the process that culminated with Jackie Robinson becoming the first black man to play in the majors in the modern era. Each section is packed with personalities and endless facts: Satchel Paige's pitching habits; sleeping arrangements on the road; the methods of paying the players; the heat coming up through the soles of the players' shoes in Latin America. Each painting is gorgeous and detailed: the center field ads pop, the action feels alive. Supposedly a book for kids, We Are the Ship is a must-read for all baseball fans. It is, by turns, heartbreaking, inspiring, comforting, unifying, and, ultimately, extremely satisfying. -


Readers could be forgiven for approaching Paul Chambers' Jumbo: This Being the True Story of the Greatest Elephant in the World with a degree of caution. A whole book about a circus elephant who died in 1885? Could be seriously sentimental. Could be a kitchy freak show. Could be as flat as yesterday's cotton candy. In fact, it is none of the above. Clear-eyed, carefully researched, and crisply written, Chambers' book explores the surprisingly compelling life story of the African elephant whose name would become synonymous with "extra-extra-large" and whose saga would inspire a classic Disney movie about a flying pachyderm. From Jumbo's brutal capture in Sudan (his mother is killed trying to protect him) to his arduous journey to England (via France), where he become a crowd-pleaser at London Zoo, to his controversial purchase by Phineas T. Barnum and all-too-brief turn as the star of the showman's three-ring extravaganza, the elephant's biography provides a window into the culture and times in which he found fame. There's heartbreak. There's drama. And there's also the sad tale of Jumbo's keeper, Matthew Scott, a man so devoted that he eschewed human company in order to spend nearly all his time beside his 11-foot-tall, 6-ton best friend, offering comfort and guidance -- and even sharing the occasional bottle of booze. During his lifetime Jumbo delighted the masses. And even now, more than 100 years after his death, you'd need a pretty thick skin to resist his charms. -

Here Is What Is

The majority of significant music producers have been behind-the-scenes craftsmen, content to express themselves by way of the featured artists they collaborate with. Daniel Lanois doesn?t fit that mold. A world-class studio wizard, he?s helped guide to fruition such iconic albums as Peter Gabriel?s So and Bob Dylan?s Time Out of Mind, as well as The Joshua Tree by U2, a band he?s continued to work with 20 years on. But Lanois is also his own man: an exceptionally talented multi-instrumentalist, composer, and recording artist. His new Here Is What Is arrives as both an album and a filmed documentary (both separately available). Lanois?s songs, as suggestively poetic as they might be, seem inseparable from his signature studio craft. Constructing a sonic environment that's equally rootsy and ethereal, Lanois conjures up spooky music that?s hard to shake off. His guitar playing -- particularly his exquisite work on the pedal steel guitar -- speaks more eloquently and effectively than his somewhat limited vocalizing. Interspersed spoken comments (drawn from the film) from frequent Lanois cohort Brian Eno act mainly as come-ons to the worthy documentary. Here Is What Is, the film, traces Lanois?s international wanderings as he constructs the album and squires projects with U2 and Sin‚ad O?Connor. Refreshingly free of self-aggrandizement, the documentary may be most intriguing for its focus on Lanois?s trusted collaborators, particularly the accomplished drummer Brian Blade and Eno, in his role as roving philosopher. And each time the camera settles on the studio savant and his pedal steel, cinematic and musical joy are guaranteed. -


Back in the '60s, postwar Italian cinema flooded American art houses with masterpieces by the greats: Rosselini, Visconti, De Sica, Fellini, and Antonioni. Meanwhile, in Italy, moviegoers favored less heady fare, such as the popular comedies by mainstream directors: Mario Monicelli's Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958), Pietro Germi's Divorce, Italian Style (1961), Alberto Lattuada's Mafioso (1962), newly restored here for DVD release. Lattuada, like the others, was no auteur; he helmed workmanlike films over a long career with no consistent style or theme, much to the chagrin of trendy critics of the time, who venerated personal visions. But that didn't prevent Lattuada from creating a number of excellent films, most especially this early and unusual view of the Sicilian Mafia. Italy's well-known funnyman Alberto Sordi plays a vain and self-satisfied technocrat in Milan's industrial North. Eight years away from his roots in rural Sicily, he's acquired a beautiful blonde wife and two adorable daughters, all of whom are about to meet his family back home for the first time. Bathed in nostalgia, the trip to Sicily shifts smartly from the opening factory montage, seducing viewers with the languid camera work. But things soon turn strange and violent, as the proud and successful company man, a comic figure throughout most of the film, is obliged to repay a long-ago favor to the local don. And Lattuada's lens discovers yet another landscape, a bright urban scene that covers some very dark doings. This brilliantly paced piece, with its visual surprises and perfect performances, proves that even a crowd-pleasing director can make a genuine work of art. -

Group Theory in the Bedroom

Brian Hayes -- who, as a young science writer, had the unenviable task of penning a column to be titled "Computer Recreations" despite having, by his own admission, "never laid hands" on a computer -- is now nobody's idea of a novice. Among other achievements, he has garnered a National Magazine Award for his 1999 essay "Clock of Ages." That meditation on long-term engineering leads off the diverting and mind-expanding pieces collected in Group Theory in the Bedroom. The subjects range from the statistical distribution of money in the economy to the methodology for identifying the Continental Divide to the best algorithm for rotating your mattress to avoid wear and tear (the mock-salacious title thus explained). While he sometimes ventures into the stratosphere of number theory, Hayes is never remiss about the real-world implications of his forays, and in fact a piece such as "Statistics of Deadly Quarrels" tackles the nature of war and peace more boldly than any political commentary. Hayes's prose is admirably transparent and inveigling. His description of one early attempt to decipher the mechanics of genetic transcription as "the prettiest wrong idea in all of twentieth-century science" is unforgettable. In "On the Teeth of Wheels," he comes very close to crafting a quintessential steampunk narrative, cousin to Gibson and Sterling's The Difference Engine. In this essay, Hayes "cannot help wondering which of my own labors will appear equally quaint and pathetic to some future reader." Be that as it may, he provides very stimulating and valuable thought games today. -

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

To say that the 1968 cinematic adaptation of Carson McCullers's 1940 debut novel betrays and misinterprets this seedy, existentially troubled and troubling southern gothic is merely to reconfirm Hollywood's standard modus operandi, levied against one classic novel after another. McCullers's novel lies in direct line of descent from Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio and Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel -- a coeval of Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County tales, it points toward the work of Flannery O'Connor and Ray Bradbury. Mick Kelly, a young girl with dreams of becoming a composer, and John Singer, a deaf-mute engraver, represent two strains of innocence forced to contend with cruel circumstance. One collapses, and one is strengthened, in a tale that recognizes nobility but never cringes from sordidness or despair. Thomas C. Ryan's script sacrifices much of the rich interiority accompanying their trials -- Sondra Locke's Mick has been reduced in this conception to a more sensitive Gidget -- along with the substance of several key supporting characters. While a quarter-century shift in the era of the story makes a hash of plot points, the most problematic decision was to privilege the role of Singer (Alan Arkin). Elevated from a slender if thematically important role in McCullers's original, Singer is onscreen almost continually as a whimsical free spirit who liberates all whom he touches -- and who suffers a fate that seems baffling in its new context. But, judged on its own merits, Ellis's film has much to recommend it. At age 20, Locke still radiates a teenager's exuberance and gawky physicality, especially in the party scenes. Arkin meets the great challenge of his wordless role with a bold confidence; he is so convincing that when he bursts into wild grunts at a moment of crisis, shock ensues in both the characters and audience. Deft direction and slick camerawork reward the eye, leaving us with a film that deserves to be seen, if only to drive viewers back to McCullers's masterpiece. -

What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love, and Marriage

Amy Sutherland's What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love, and Marriage is a literary agent's dream: high concept, self help-y, and including the name of a cute performing whale in the title. What started as a New York Times "Modern Love" column (and one of the Times' most-emailed articles) got snapped up and has stretched into this thin, lighthearted book on applying the techniques of exotic animal trainers to human relationships. Sutherland's experience observing professionals in the field was so profound that, she claims in her introduction, "I have a peace of mind that comes from the world making so much more sense to me." (The money from a movie deal probably didn't hurt.) Along the way, she imparts some useful lessons, distilled from training philosophies. The mantra "It's never the animal's fault," for example, tells us that behavior is just behavior and that we shouldn't take it so personally. Another lesson gleaned is that nagging won't get you what you want. To illustrate this point, Sutherland mentions a few too many times her husband's habit of leaving his smelly bike clothes on the floor. Overall, her book offers a calming, less paranoid, and more detached view of romance and marriage than many relationship guides. So next time you find your mate's underwear on the kitchen table, just remember it's never the animal's fault. -

The View from the Seventh Layer

In his 2006 novel, The Brief History of the Dead, Kevin Brockmeier gave readers a dazzling vision of an afterlife where residents of a city are kept "alive" only as long as someone back on earth remembered them. In his new collection of short stories, The View from the Seventh Layer, Brockmeier again proves to have a boundless imagination when writing about matters of the spirit. He takes readers on a series of magical mystery tours through worlds that only resemble ours on the surface; scratch deeper, and you'll find a place that's a delirious mix of science fiction and religion. It's no accident that some of these stories are labeled "fables." One begins, "Once there was a man who happened to buy God's overcoat" (in the pockets, he discovers a never-ending supply of prayers printed on slips of paper). In another tale, a city experiences intermittent pools of silence; then, finding themselves spiritually clarified by the quiet, residents take measures to deaden all sound in the metropolis, with mixed results. Brockmeier always leaves readers with a lot to ponder, but the book is kept aloft with brisk, lucid writing of the highest caliber. To quote one of Brockmeier's own characters (speaking about an Italo Calvino novel): "You feel as if you have been immersed in life -- both your own life and the particular lives of the book's characters -- and that life, for all its misfortunes, is a pretty good place to be." -

Old Heart

Wallace Stevens taught us that "Death is the mother of beauty." Mortality hovers over Stanley Plumly's tenth and newest book, lending it a veiled and subtle beauty. Butterflies slip "through more molting lives / than saints --"; elsewhere "spirit birds" fly through "The spirit world the negative of this one; / soft outlines of soft whites against soft darks"; the narrator's own mother lies

becalmed on hard white sheets,
the narrative of legs, arms,
animal centers stilled,
some starlight in the mind glittering off
and on, couldn't tell me

whether or not to leave her

The keystone sequence, "Elevens" -- comprising eleven poems, of eleven lines each -- takes us straight into the heart of mortality's dilemma. The poet's own "old heart" reveals itself, "lit up on the screen, / the arteries, veins and ventricles." Plumly centers his poetry inside the embodied world -- air, snow, mountains, trees, grass, animals, insects. His lines have a sinuous and subtle beauty, like smoke. Yet they light up again and again in pure radiance. Poets speak to one another across time and space in their poetry. In Old Heart, Plumley converses with Pound, Stevens, Eliot, and Keats, and with his contemporaries: Donald Justice, Michael Collier, Henri Cole. As the list suggests, this is a curiously masculine book, like Melville's Ishmael adrift on the sea. It is also wide-rangingly philosophical, understated, modest, and, ultimately, hauntingly exquisite. -

The Greatest Game: The Yankees, the Red Sox, and the Playoff of '78

A shifting wind; the slow creep of shadows at an afternoon ballgame; a July 4th rainout; an inexplicable catch in the deepest corner of the Fenway Park outfield; the failing eyesight of an aging big-game hitter; the replacement of an alcoholic, vindictive manager; a freak home run from a shortstop not known for his power -- all play a part in one single baseball game, one season, one historic rivalry, one immortal moment in baseball history. With The Greatest Game, Richard Bradley plunks the reader right on the bench for a monumental contest: the one-game 1978 playoff between the Yankees and Red Sox, to decide which team would go on to battle for a World Series berth. Thirty years after, Bradley seems to have lived with many of the players: he gets Bucky Dent, Dennis Eckersley, Goose Gossage, Graig Nettles, Carl Yastrzemski and others to discuss the deepest details of the game, the season, and their lives. A Red Sox pitcher claims the Yanks used a corked bat; that light-hitting shortstop finds his birth father after a 25-year search; a tight-knit group of renegade Boston players slowly get broken apart by an old-school manager. As they recall these magic hours, nostalgia may urge readers to call out for Cracker Jacks, but this tale unwinds with an intensity that commands attention until the last out -- even if you already know the final score. -

The Teapot Dome Scandal

Americans have one vote apiece, but that equality doesn't extend to economics. Those with the most money have often paid for political access and influence -- as true in the 1920s as it is today. Financial journalist McCartney meticulously describes the systematic corruption of Warren Harding's White House in The Teapot Dome Scandal. Harding himself, McCartney notes, had won the 1920 presidential race by accepting millions of dollars in secret campaign contributions from oil companies. The author lays out a compelling case that Republican Harding had been truly "bought" by Big Oil -- and that he paid them back when elected. The poker-loving, skirt-chasing president proceeded to nominate his poker buddy Albert Fall for secretary of the interior: Fall's top priority was to "privatize" government land for commercial development. Fall would grant leases to Harding's biggest campaign contributors, allowing them to drill for oil on federally controlled lands. The richest prize was the now-infamous Teapot Dome in Wyoming, which Fall leased to oil baron Ed Doheny. Of course, Fall took his cut, receiving large bribes from oilmen like Doheny and Harry Sinclair, and McCartney doggedly follows the money trail. His thorough account of this massive scandal makes gripping reading -- and reminds us of the perpetually corrosive effects that money has on the political system.

The Adventures of Herg‚

The Adventures of Herg‚ is a follow-up volume to Michael Farr's Tintin: The Complete Companion (2001). The revelatory first book laid bare the genesis of a globally beloved comic-book hero, the boy reporter called Tintin, created by the Belgian artist known as Herg‚ (born Georges Remi); the current project seeks to unwrap the artist himself. But success is more problematical for Farr's second trip to the Herg‚ well, for a number of reasons. First, anyone expecting a complete, linear biography of Herg‚ is doomed to disappointment. Instead, these are isolated essays based on "seven key aspects" of Herg‚'s life, such as "A Passion for Art" and "Be Prepared: A Lifelong Boy Scout." This scattershot approach results in a diffuse repetitiveness (we hear more than once that Tintin's moon landing preceded Neil Armstrong's) and occasional confusion of well-known facts and recondite references. But the main hurdles to a truly deep and satisfying portrait of Herg‚ are the subject's own reclusiveness and his work-bound, largely unadventurous life. Farr -- granted access to many papers and Herg‚ acquaintances -- does his best to penetrate the barriers the artist erected. Herg‚ had only two real "adventures" in his life: the fallout surrounding his seeming collaboration with the Nazis during WWII and his interrupted friendship with a Chinese artist named Chang Chong-chen. Farr covers both of these issues in good depth, and the latter becomes the emotional high point of Herg‚'s life story. But aside from these two "crises," the artist, like so many creators, lived an outwardly bland life defined by his dreams. And it's hard to turn those interior moments into a rousing chronicle. Nonetheless, with its slew of intriguing photos and raw artwork, this book still offers at least a teasing glimpse into the life of one of the 20th century's most talented comics creators.

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!

?Feast of All Souls, I ran from my tutor-- / Latin and grammar -- no wonder! / I ran to the woods, where I saw his tracks -- This big -- and the mud he scratched Bottom side the trees. / Followed his friants straight to his bed And found it warm. / There was a boar in the forest.?

So begins this Newbery Medal?winning volume of 17 monologues and two dialogues with Hugo, the lord?s nephew who faced down a charging wild boar. The author, a school librarian, sought to rectify the shortage of performance material for her students who were studying the Middle Ages. She does so magnificently in this fictional village, populated with archetypical children living in or near an English manor in the year 1255. Among the denizens: the aforementioned Hugo; the blacksmith's daughter (awkward socially but skilled at the forge); Alice the shepherdess (who sings to her sheep); and Otho, the miller's son, caught between the nobility and peasantry. Unusual words ("fraints" are boar droppings) and diverse topics such as religious pilgrimages, the Crusades, crop rotation, and falconry are glossed in welcome, often humorous asides and notes, while Byrd?s watercolor-and-ink illustrations gloriously illuminate a microcosm of medieval life. -

Live at Newport '58

Before there was R&B funk as we know it, say, from James Brown and his soulful progeny on, there was funky jazz. And no one mated earthy blues tonality and copasetic rhythms with the harmonic and formal sophistication of modern jazz with more grace than Horace Silver. During his mid-1950s to late-'60s peak, this unique pianist and composer led airtight bands that offered the intricacies of hard-bop improvisation alongside a relentless groove. Each of his classic albums is a considered gem filled with memorable original tunes and superb ensemble interplay, brought to life by handpicked players. Thrown-together product just wasn?t part of Silver?s aesthetic. Which is why Live at Newport '58 is such a find. Not only does it catch Silver?s quintet in peak form, tearing through a program of exceptional material (including the signature ?Senor Blues?); it also preserves a version of the band that never had a chance to formally record. The ringer was Louis Smith, a blistering and now, unfortunately, obscure trumpeter who left the band not long after the Newport show. Silver?s percussive piano work stokes Smith and saxophonist Jr. Cook while establishing a, well, funky foundation with the solid rhythm team of bassist Gene Taylor and drummer Louis Hayes. While tremendously popular in his time, Silver isn?t always immediately mentioned on the modern jazz A-list alongside Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, and other giants. Newport '58 provides yet more reasons to right that wrong. -

My Revolutions

Hari Kunzru's third novel, My Revolutions, opens with a man on the run. Mike Frame, a devoted husband and father living in a London suburb, is about to celebrate his 50th birthday, but he's got a real midlife crisis on his hands: his past as an underground terrorist in the 1970s has caught up with him. When an old acquaintance threatens to reveal his true identity as radical revolutionary Chris Carver, Mike/Chris flees his comfortable life and goes in search of a former lover, a notorious female bomber who may or may not still be alive. As he runs, Mike/Chris floats in and out of his memories as a disaffected youth, war protester, social crusader, hippie drug addict, and cleaned-up suburban family man. My Revolutions blends two themes found in Kunzru's previous novels -- identity transformation (The Impressionist) and social anarchy (Transmission) -- into a story that never quite takes off like it should. Structurally, the novel is superb as Kunzru moves seamlessly between the present and the past; and we travel through memory as if we're riding a M”bius strip. But My Revolutions lacks the spark to finally lift it off the page. Though we're told about our antihero's emotional dilemma and his slogan-heavy past ("We thought it had been given to us to kick-start the new world"), we never quite feel it. Kunzru presents us with a man held at arm's length and clinically examined, as if by a bomb expert carefully cutting the red wire. There is no explosion. -

A Slip of the Knife

Denise Mina has gathered accolades both for her Garnethill mysteries -- set in the surprisingly affecting atmosphere of a shabby Glasgow suburb -- and her more recent series centered around Paddy Meehan, a tough and chunky crime journalist who can't stop eating anything fattening in sight or getting involved in the cases she covers. Her fourth in the string, A Slip of the Knife, is possibly her best effort to date, establishing the author on the top rung of the suspense ladder, alongside Ruth Rendell, Minette Walters and P. D. James. A large part of the novel's power comes from the way Mina handles Paddy's (and her own) hometown. Describing the Glasgow City Mortuary, she says, "Built in red brick, it had windows on either side of a deep doorway like a punched-in nose." Paddy has been called to the mortuary to identify the body of her former boyfriend, reporter Terry Hewitt, found hooded and shot through the head -- the classic marks of an IRA killing, although they deny any involvement. Then, to Meehan's surprise, she discovers that Hewitt has left her his house in the country and all his notes. Things have been going well for Paddy: the single mother has finally moved out of her family home and has traded the daily crime game for a weekly column. But Terry's death makes her put her own life and that of her five-year-old son in serious danger as she digs deeper into its murky implications. Though there are those long-running mystery icons in danger of wearing out their welcome, readers will find Mina going from strength to strength. -

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).