Displaying articles for: March 2009

Out of My Skin

As the title of his first book of short stories -- I am Not Jackson Pollock -- implies, John Haskell uses fiction to explore identity crises. Even as his characters deny the self and smother the id, they are looking for their rightful place in the world. Nowhere is that more evident than in his latest novel, Out of My Skin, in which the narrator (a freelance writer also named Haskell) roams L.A. looking for love and stability while impersonating none other than wild and crazy guy Steve Martin. As the novel opens, the narrator is trying to create "a sense of who I was." Easier said than done when living in Hollywood, the epicenter of illusion and instability. Inspired by the subject of one of his articles -- a celebrity look-alike -- the narrator decides to slip into the would-be life of Steve Martin even as he yearns for meaningful human contact. At first, impersonating the comedian -- dyeing his hair silver and perfecting the walk ("a cross between dancing and staggering") -- is a harmless enterprise: "He seemed to come up from somewhere inside me. And partly because he didn't seem to be hurting anything, I let him come." But then the darker side of impersonation bubbles to the surface, and the narrator grows increasingly dissatisfied with being "a nonstop Steve." Throughout the novel, Haskell (the narrator and the author) is also obsessed with Joni Mitchell, beef-tongue tacos, and film culture (especially Sunset Boulevard, in which screenwriter William Holden's identity is consumed by has-been movie queen Gloria Swanson). The narrator's agonies and ecstasies reach a critical point as he struggles within the "skin" of Steve Martin. As with most of Haskell's fiction, the sentences in Out of My Skin are delivered in a direct, taut style of reportage -- a sharp but effective contrast to his protagonist's deepening confusion. Eventually, language and character come to that spot where truth, identity, and purpose intersect.

For All I Care

Six years and seven releases into a collective journey devoted to the notion of cultivating a stylistic room of their own, pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson, and drummer David King, who comprise The Bad Plus, offer several firsts on For All I Care . For one thing, TBP completely eschews original music, instead presenting Iverson's idea-packed arrangements of Euro-canon music by Igor Stravinsky, Gyorgy Ligeti, and Milton Babbitt, and eight atonal, polymetric deconstructions of post-'70s pop tunes, their trademark since TBP's eponymous 2001 debut for Barcelona-based indie Fresh Sound, thereby doubling their "cover" output. Also for the first time, TBP joins forces with Minneapolis-based alt-rocker Wendy Lewis, who functions as a co-equal fourth musician on songs like Nirvana's "Lithium," the Bee Gees' "How Deep Is Your Love," and Heart's "Barracuda." Rather than inhibit TBP's collective energy, Lewis enhances it -- she knows how to project an emotional point of view while dealing with the cerebral, push-the-envelope heat of TBP's highly curated highbrow language. She articulates the lyrics clearly and understatedly, phrasing them in a rubato bob-and-weave over King's meters and timbral combinations, Anderson's vamps and interpolations, and Iverson's contrapuntal lines, eliminating any archness or camp that a listener might attach to TBP's purely instrumental treatments. Further energizing the flow are the signature compression and distortion techniques of TBP's producer Tchad Blake, back in the fold after recusing himself from 2007's Prog, a date that purported to evoke the band's in-person sound.

Vilnius Poker

While reading Ricardas Gavelis's Vilnius Poker, a line from Joyce's Ulysses surfaced in my memory, "Stephen bent forward and peered at the mirror held out to him, cleft by a crooked crack, hair on end." On at least six occasions, Gavelis (1950-2002) name-checks the Irish Zeus who commemorated the capital of his homeland by besieging it with the distorting optics of his prose. What Joyce did for Dublin, Gavelis has in mind to do for the capital of Lithuania: chide it, gossip about it, and bore it into the memory of those who may never visit it. His point man in this mission is Vytautas Vargalys, an unhinged library archivist. A survivor of a labor camp, Vargalys is convinced that a demonic They, " metaphysical tribe that broke off from the human family in times past," are the ghosts in the machi...

Let the Right One In

Tomas Alfredson's film adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist's 2004 vampire novel, Let the Right One In, uses the vampire legend in much the same way as Hollywood did in its prudish days of yore: as a device to smuggle in the exploration of erotic themes. At the core of the picture is the relationship between Oskar (Kare Hedebrant), a 12-year-old boy who is the target of bullying at his school, and Eli (Lina Leandersson), a vampire who, by outward appearances, is the same age as he. At the beginning of the film, we see Oskar standing by his bedroom window in his tighty-whities, rehearsing a violent fantasy in which he revenges himself upon his attackers. Meanwhile, beneath him, two new arrivals to his apartment complex, Eli and her caretaker, move in. A loner in school, Oskar welcomes his friendship with Eli, which he cements by lending her his Rubik's Cube. (The film is set in 1982.) She returns the favor by encouraging him to fight. Oskar is not a guileless paragon; he nurtures a disturbing habit of cutting out morbid stories from newspapers, and the film's ending suggests a violent future may lie in wait for him. Soon after Eli loses her caretaker, her friendship with Oskar acquires a romantic hue, which is tactfully conveyed by Alfredson, whose directorial approach is pleasingly unadorned. The manner in which Alfredson conjoins the innocence of the children as they plumb their relationship with their disconcerting adaptability to a world in which cruelty is unexceptional, is a triumph of sentiment over the sentimental. That is to say, Let the Right One In is successful in its evocation of childhood as anything but a fragile utopia.

Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution

Books about the men who crafted the Constitution over the hot Philadelphia summer of 1787 tend to be either overly reverential or hypercritical. Constitutional historian Richard Beeman's account is, happily, neither. While he lauds the Founders for their achievement in establishing a workable framework for a strong, centralized American government, he also raises some necessary criticisms, such as the Founders' "collective indifference" to the immorality of slavery and their very real anxieties about direct democracy. As Beeman describes the daily debates in Philadelphia, from how to elect members of Congress to the powers of the president to the role of the judiciary, it becomes clear that passionate, ideological disagreements were commonplace. Beeman details the major divide between the interests of big states, which wanted Congressional representation by population, and small states, which wanted representation to be apportioned equally by state. He also describes the deep fissures between slave states and non-slave states. Because the Convention's deliberations were secret, Beeman is forced to focus on the one man who took copious notes, James Madison. Beeman shows how Madison's deeply held ideas about good government set the agenda in Philadelphia and fueled discussions among the Founders. Beeman does an especially fine job exploring "the most emotionally charged debate of the summer": the paradoxical status of slavery in a nation extolling liberty. Beeman's exhaustively researched and accessibly written account will appeal to anyone looking to understand the passionate intellectual conflicts that led to our Constitution.

I Heard God Talking to Me: William Edmondson and His Stone Carvings

William Edmondson, born in Tennessee to former slaves in 1874, experienced religious visions throughout his life, and sometime when he was in his late 50s, he said that God had instructed him to carve stone. He started with tombstones but eventually began sculpting human and animal figures, usually working with scavenged pieces of limestone. Elizabeth Spires' lovely book pairs photographs of Edmondson and his minimal, squat, yet elegant work with poems she has written, some assuming Edmondson's voice, others the voices of his creations. Accompanying the photograph of "Seated Girl" is the poem "Girl Thinking," in which the sculpture describes being a hunk of stone waiting for Edmondson to shape her. "Make me a girl, I wished. / A girl with a space of quiet around her, / a girl with time to dream her dreams. / And he did. He did!" Several of the poems are composed entirely of Edmondson's own words, which effectively convey his inspiration: "I'se just doing the Lord's work. / It ain't got much style. / God don't want much style, / but He gives you wisdom / and speeds you along." In 1937 Edmondson became the first black artist to have a solo show at New York's Museum of Modern Art; several of his hand-carved tombstones still dot the hills of a small cemetery outside of Nashville.

Vivaldi: Violin Concertos

If you like your Vivaldi fast and furious, the violinist Daniel Hope offers plenty of fireworks on his exhilarating new Deutsche Grammophon disc, dedicated to the Baroque composer?s music. The first movement to the Concerto in D Major (RV 234), "L?Inquietudine," opens with explosive fervor -- an energy level also displayed in the Concerto in E-flat, "La Tempesta di Mare," whose difficulty Hope compares to some of Paganini?s music. But the disc is certainly more than just virtuosic dazzle: Hope plays with soulful introspection and quiet dignity in the melancholic slow movements, such as the haunting Largo from the Concerto in E Minor (RV 273). He is accompanied by the excellent Chamber Orchestra of Europe and a continuo group that includes the prominent harpsichordist Kristian Bezuidenhout and performers of the Baroque guitar and harp, theorbo and lirone (a bowed instrument). Hope uses a modern instrument but observes period practice traditions regarding phrasing and ornamentation and the use of minimal vibrato. The result is fresh, invigorating, and deeply expressive. The mezzo-soprano Anne-Sofie von Otter is the soloist in the one vocal excerpt: the gentle aria "Sovvente il sole" from Andromeda Liberata. Her heartfelt, richly hued singing is aptly complimented by Hope?s sweet-toned solos. The disc, which also features an elegant rendition of the Sonata in D Minor Op. 1 no. 12, "La Follia," finishes on a dynamic note with a spirited performance of the Concerto in D Minor Op. 3, no. 11, which Hope often played as a teenager with his mentor, Yehudi Menuhin.

Match Day

Author Brian Eule is no disinterested observer of the process whereby medical students become new doctors. His wife, Stephanie, is among the three female doctors he follows from Match Day, the March event that matches medical students to their first jobs as doctors, through their difficult first year as residents. Eule?s primary concern, and a very personal one, is the struggle these doctors go through in balancing the grueling, almost around-the-clock demands of being first-year residents with their desire to have a family life outside the hospital. Eule?s detailed look at Match Day describes how would-be doctors choose their medical specialties (some, like dermatology, are more lifestyle friendly) and how they select the hospitals where they?d like to work. Eule, for example, shows how Rakhi and her husband, Scott, clash over whether Rakhi should pursue her medical residency in the same city where Scott would be studying economics. Eule also shows readers two romantically entangled doctors, Michele and Ted, as they separate because of the pressures of balancing medicine against the need for more togetherness. In the book?s best moments, Eule shows how these residents cope with the brutal hours, the relatively low pay, and the everyday reality of death. "Residents needed to learn how to give bad news to patients," writes Eule, "They needed to know how to tell a family when a loved one had died." What Eule effectively communicates is that being a young doctor places tremendous stress on the doctor, as well as the people who love them.

Go Down Together

Mention "Bonnie and Clyde," and the first image that springs to mind for most people is the "bullet-ballet" death climax of Arthur Penn?s 1967 film. Fair or not, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway have been burned into our cultural consciousness when discussing the infamous bank-robbing duo who met their demise in an ambush near Gibsland, Louisiana, in 1934. The real story of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, however, bears little resemblance to the Hollywood fabrication, argues Jeff Guinn in Go Down Together, his riveting dissection of the life and times of the romantic robbers. Though Bonnie and Clyde were never criminal masterminds on the order of John Dillinger or Pretty Boy Floyd -- Guinn writes that "their two-year crime spree was as much a reign of error as terror" -- to the law-abiding public downtrodden by the Depression, they were "the epitome of scandalous glamour." The short, scrawny Clyde loved fast cars and was devoted to his family; Bonnie, "a borderline alcoholic," wrote poetry and yearned for an exciting catalyst to pull her out of the slums of West Dallas, Texas. Guinn?s inside look at their "brief era of roaming banditry" is at times sympathetic to the doomed pair -- neither of whom would live to see their 25 birthday. "Their fatalism was tempered by their youth," he writes. Subtitled The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde, the book relies heavily on a pair of unpublished memoirs from Clyde?s mother and sister. Impeccably researched and drawing on interviews with surviving family members and those who came in contact with Bonnie and Clyde, Go Down Together chips through the layers of legend and outright fabrications (both from the prevaricating Clyde and self-aggrandizing lawmen) to get as close to the truth as anyone can. The result is a book pulsing with a narrative rhythm that has all the shock and excitement of a tommy gun?s rat-a-tat-tat.

God's Architect: Pugin and the Building of Romantic Britain

Witnessed by vast crowds, the Houses of Parliament burned to the ground in London in 1834. Coming shortly after the passage of Catholic emancipation and the Great Reform Bill, the fire seemed to symbolize the passing of England?s old order. Yet the government looked back as it planned a new seat, calling for designs in ?Gothic or Elizabethan style.? The commission turned Gothic Revival from a dilettantish taste into the Victorian age?s major style -- the neoclassical had associations of revolution and republicanism. This strange turn of events is best understood through the short, eccentric life of Augustus Welby Pugin (1812–52). Son of an émigré French draughtsman, Pugin designed his first church at 9 and received his first royal commission at 16. Converted to Catholicism in his 20s, he found an idealized aesthetic world in medieval Christianity. He also found a lot of work, designing in short order 2 cathedrals, 3 convents, 2 monasteries, 18 churches, and a clutch of houses and schools. He talked major manufacturers into reviving medieval techniques for tiles, ironwork, carpentry, and textiles. He was a ?50 horsepower of creation,? in the words of Charles Barry, who won the commission for the new Houses of Parliament thanks to Pugin?s drawings. The long frenzy of work, and a case of syphilis, drove Pugin mad shortly after he finished the designs for Big Ben. Pugin was nearly forgotten for a century, and Rosemary Hill?s new book completes the long job of restoring his reputation. I can?t imagine a more successful biography of an architect or a more enjoyable appraisal of the aesthetics and theology of the early Victorian era.

Under the Radar: Cancer and the Cold War

The ghost of Irma Natanson is felt throughout Under the Radar, Ellen Leopold?s unsettling investigation into the effects of Cold War ideology on cancer care. Natanson was a 34-year-old housewife and mother in Kansas when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1955; after a radical mastectomy, she became perhaps the first patient ever to undergo cobalt radiation therapy. The radiation left her severely burned and disabled for the remainder of her life, and she successfully sued her doctor for failing to warn her of the treatment?s risks. Leopold argues that patients like Natanson were unwitting guinea pigs in government-supported experiments to establish the limits of human tolerance for radiation, a pressing concern as nuclear weapons were being developed. The author delves deeply into radiation?s dual position as both cause of and cure for cancer, examining everything from radioactive fallout to the alliance between government and industry to encourage the development of medical technologies with a "close affinity to weapons programs." She even sees the Cold War connection reflected in the militaristic language still used to describe "battles" with cancer (and, on the flip side, the common ?50s formulation referring to the "cancer of communism," which didn?t just spread but "metastasized"). "What alternative...approaches have fallen by the wayside, lacking the kind of heavy-duty institutional backing granted to radiotherapies?" Leopold asks, forcing some uncomfortable questions about all of the roads not taken in cancer prevention and treatment.

Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: Over Thirty Years of Conversations with Robert Irwin

The first incarnation of this book was published a quarter century ago, its happily engrossing pages detailing conversations between the artist Robert Irwin and the tireless cultural sleuth Lawrence Weschler. Tracking the evolution of Irwin?s artistic inspirations along a desultory path -- through high school memories of southwest Los Angeles (replete with cars and drive-ins and dance contests), early work as an abstract expressionist, the careful stripping down of his art to lines, dots, discs, and light, and a chapter on Irwin?s income-sustaining trips to the racetrack -- Weschler opens all kinds of doors in the reader?s understanding of not only creativity but also of the fundamental elements of perception. This richly expanded edition of the original book (it?s half again as long, with two dozen color plates) adds subsequent conversations between author and artist, treating Irwin?s work in conceiving and constructing the Central Garden of the Getty Musuem and in the shaping of the Hudson Valley site of Dia?s Beacon campus, among other projects. In sum, it presents 30 years of an ongoing dialogue that never loses its easygoing edges of intellect and wonder. A companion volume, True to Life: Twenty-Five Years of Conversations with David Hockney, collects Weschler?s equally enlightening pieces on artistic investigations of a very different stripe. Each book is filled with the seductive magic of watching private curiosity taking palpable shape before our eyes.

The Rowing Lesson

On the surface, The Rowing Lesson tells the life story of Harold Klein, a Jewish physician who made his life and living in a Boer community in rural South Africa, now lying comatose on his deathbed. Beneath -- as the metaphorical oars of his daughter Betsy's thoughts dip in and stir the waters of his experience -- is something much more complex. Over the course of several days' vigil by his silent side, Betsy's mind races across vignettes of family events that she's reconstructed from his stories, her memory, and her imagination, gliding ever closer to understanding this irascible man she has come to adore. What results is a disarming and urgent soliloquy in second person that puts a fleshy intimacy on memory as it slips from excursions on the Touw River, where Harold's sexual awakening began, to the ripples of such pivotal, historical events as Hitler's rise to power and Kristallnacht, felt even by the Jews across the ocean. Feverishly strung together, all these scenes pull the reader across a river into the swirls of Betsy's rage and eddies of Harold's cold rationality by illuminating tender moments -- "I beg you to teach me how to row. Your movements are slow and steady and I try as hard as I can to follow them. All the time your hand stays clamped on mine. Finally you let go of my hand and I start rowing by myself, just with the left oar. You have the right one?.The boat slips through the water sweetly and easily" -- ultimately laying bare a bond that churns with life, even in the face of its demise. "I'm soaking your pillow and you're spraying my face, my hair, my breasts. Death is fierce after all."


A Hollywood-produced art film rarely had its ducks all in a row quite like 1987's Ironweed. You had the screen?s two reigning actors, Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep; a hot director, Hector Babenco, coming off a recent succès d?estime; and a Pulitzer Prize–winning literary property by William Kennedy. Throw in Kennedy as screenwriter, as well as the best set direction that money could buy, and expectations grew high -- too high. The resulting work -- purposely meandering, resolutely unsentimental, relentlessly downbeat, and missing the mythic Joycean resonances of Kennedy?s breakthrough novel -- just refused to find its way deep enough under anyone?s skin. Critics praised the flawless acting (and those sets) but the word "masterpiece" never settled near enough this film. It still hasn?t, but time -- and unfortunate present circumstances -- has altered its impact. Ironweed is set in Depression-era 1938, and Babenco, unapologetically, does everything he can to evoke it. The palpable sense of urban stagnation and decay -- which Babenco brought over from his earlier Pixote -- is never diminished by the Hollywood star power. Death surrounds a story drenched in blighted dreams and populated by dead-end existences. Lyrical and poignant moments punctuate the grim goings-on -- the brief reunion between Nicholson?s character and his estranged family finds an honest balance between tenderness and bitterness, while Streep?s barroom rendition of "He?s My Man" rightfully looms large in her legend -- but the sense of lives desperately out of whack due to economic straits never leaves us. Ironweed carries a prescient tinge of fear: As bad as things are now, may they never get as bad as they were then.

A Pint of Plain: How the Irish Pub Lost Its Magic but Conquered the World

When Bill Barich lived in London 25 years ago, he went looking for a pub. Not just any pub, but the real article: a neutral ground of casual friendship, inclusive, restorative, democratic, and possessing a bonhomie emanating from devotion to the spoken word, the comfort of a "low babble of voices in discourse." He wrote up his quest in a sweet, lapidary piece for The New Yorker, "The Fountain." Barich gratifyingly expands upon the topic here; now living in Dublin, Ireland, he's questing again for a local pub, informed in part by the romantic ideal captured in John Ford's The Quiet Man. Ireland, however, is not immune to change, and many of its old pubs have become trophy establishments, cashing in on their literary and sentimental associations, or simply turned into bad caricatures -- you can buy a patented-notion-of-Irish-public-house kit direct from Guinness (500 in 45 countries, and counting). Barich visits the countryside, too, where pubs are dying at a rate of one a day, lost to the real estate market, police checks, and younger family unwilling to serve; this, God help us, in a land where a well-known saint turned a leper's bathwater into a bucket of ale. Barich will settle for nothing less than the elemental, elusive quality known as craic: that pleasing atmosphere created by a "collectively produced performance?conversation becomes intense, the noise level soars." A worn floor, a turf fire, a genial but hard-nosed publican -- captain of the ship, yet capable of squeezing "an ounce of mirth from a broken leg" -- and some live music would be nice, improvisatory magic "rich in unexpected twists and discoveries, with the players bouncing off one another." Happily, Barich -- his own euphonious voice as soothing as a peat fire and a pint of the black -- finds a worthy handful of pubs and draws them with such clarity and character that they erase the ordinary cares of even the most distant reader.

Free-Range Knitter

The readers of Stephanie Pearl-Mcphee's blog, The Yarn Harlot, know that she's not just writing about fiber; she is speaking universal truth. Regular readers appreciate McPhee's self-deprecating humor and her honesty and willingness to share the intimate details of being a knitter, wife, and mom. Her dry tone sneaks up on the reader. Hers is the casual voice of an old friend pulling up a chair to the kitchen table, thanking you for that cup of coffee and relating the day's events. She writes, "I definitely think more about knitting and knitters than most people, which I guess isn't that hard, since I have recently confirmed an ugly truth that explains a great deal: Most people aren't thinking about knitting or knitters at all." She is our voice. The chapter "Glory Days" begins with a meditation on the joys of autumn -- when the knitter's art is displayed in full bloom in sweaters and scarves before jackets smother their beauty. The serenity of the beginning slowly rises into the crescendo of the furnace wars in Pearl-McPhee's family, who have a delusion that it is possible to delay the long Canadian winter by not turning on the furnace. Just as she begins to waver, she observes, "As I watch my sixteen-year-old cross the living room in leg warmers, two sweaters, a scarf, a hat and mittens, all the product of my needles, I know the truth. I am not turning the furnace until ? somebody has to break the ice in the toilet. Put on a sweater."


Joshua Redman's new release, Compass, reminds us that any artist in any media who focuses on creativity and personal growth in the spotlight of career success is one to be admired. Highly visible since 1993, when he signed a lucrative contract with Warner Bros., toured the world with a band comprising super-sidemen Pat Metheny, Charlie Haden, and Billy Higgins, followed by a peer-grouper unit with nascent titans Brad Mehldau, Christian McBride, and Brian Blade; Redman never enjoyed the luxury of space in which to beta-test ideas out of public view. The son of the innovative tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman, an absentee dad in his formative years, Redman is a pragmatist, who knew from firsthand observation of his father's material struggles how difficult the jazz life is. Yet he's never been a play-it-safe musician, as is evident on his albums of the '90s, which, if not formally venturesome, showed Redman digesting vocabulary from various key saxophone food groups -- thematic improvisation from Sonny Rollins, high structure from Joe Henderson, harmonic poetry from Wayne Shorter, inflamed soul-spirit catching from John Coltrane, swinging harmonic logic from Dexter Gordon, telling a story with one note from Gene Ammons -- and gradually molding them into a unitary voice of his own. All of those '90s dates showcased Redman's impeccable musicianship, unerring time, centered tone, and meticulous articulation, his enviable knack for creating elegant melodies within complex structures and infusing them with emotional content. These virtues come through on Compass, a sort of successor album to Back East from 2007, Redman's first documented exploration of the saxophone-bass-drums trio format. Here the virtuoso expands his canvas, deploying bassists Larry Grenadier and Reuben Rogers and drummers Blade and Greg Hutchinson in trio, quartet and quintet configurations on charts infused with the off-the-map attitude that Redman also revealed on Momentum, a 2005 date with Elastic Trio, a plugged-in, groove-and-timbre oriented unit including Blade and keyboardist Sam Yahel. Within the uncluttered sonic space, Redman, who turns 40 this year, uncorks a string of well-wrought soliloquies, his mood reflective, dialogic, occasionally dark, and always musical.

All-Night Lingo Tango

I don't know about you, but when I read this title, visions of soul-stirring linguistic acrobatics started dancing in my head -- along with those leggy girls gracing the cover. I wasn't too far off the mark. Partly because Barbara Hamby is an accomplished poet and author of three previous collections, including The Alphabet of Desire (a personal favorite), which was designated one of the 25 Best Books of the Year by the New York Public Library. But mostly because her verses have a way of wiggling, twisting, and rising up off the page and directly into your mind, where they take up residence (resonance?), lolling in a cozy crevice of grey matter, playing back at you at odd times. From "Mambo Cadillac":

?the world in two, make a hoodoo soup with chicken necks,
A gumbo with plutonium roux, a little snack
Before the dirt and jalapeno stew that will shuck
The skin right off your slinky hips, Mr. I'm-not-stuck?

I challenge you not to remember this as you eat your next meal. The book is organized in three sections: mambos (from the Bantu "conversations with the gods"), "abecedarian" sonnets, and odes. Hamby says she particularly explored the constructs of odes to create poems that "incorporated Pindar's wild associations and Horace's intimacy yet still had the syntax and diction of the 21st century mind." But really, all her work could be described thusly. Swiveling, strumming, and slicing through air like an Alvin Ailey ensemble, Hamby exhales a world the shape of associated conditions and intimate emotions out of her carefully chosen words. The poems are individually stunning. Collected together, they dance.

Corner Shop

The title refers to the shop run by Zaki Khalil in London -- a place that embodies both the dreams and disappointments of a man who left his native country in his youth, but now, staring old age squarely in the face, finds himself doing the same things and being the same person he tried to run away from. It is this sense of a missed life that draws Zaki to an illicit affair -- with his bored, midlife crisis-battling daughter-in-law Delphine. Set in the heart of multiracial London, a territory made immensely recognizable by such writers as Salman Rushdie, Hanif Kureishi and Zadie Smith, Corner Shop tackles familiar themes of exile and the grip of the past in a new and invigorating fashion. Each of the characters in the Khalil household -- Lucky, the football-loving grandson; Jinan, the hardworking lawyer and Zaki's son who does not know that his trophy French wife hides a terrible secret; and Zaki and Delphine themselves -- is etched with remarkable wit and humanity. This is a more nuanced work than Bitter Sweets, Farooki's debut, which also tackles continent-hopping souls. While the happy ending of Bitter Sweets comes across as hastily contrived, Farooki desists from falling for too much neatness in Corner Shop. Instead, she takes us into the future towards the end, and presents a stark portrait of lives lived under the full force of a merciless destiny. Corner Shop is an important signpost heralding a rapidly advancing talent

Born to Be Hurt

I hope I'll always retain a fan's enthusiasm, Sam Staggs declares at the beginning of Born to Be Hurt, his love letter to director Douglas Sirk's 1959 classic Imitation of Life. "Look what happens to those who don't: Their writings convince you that movies are punishment." Staggs, author of All About All About Eve, is nothing if not enthusiastic. Every page of his book is brimming with passionate devotion to the film that gave top billing to Lana Turner -- who serves up a campy performance as actress Lora Meredith -- but is remembered for the plot surrounding Lora's African-American nanny, Annie, and her light-skinned daughter, Sarah Jane, who rejects her mother and passes for white. Staggs' breathless interviews with Juanita Moore, who played Annie, and Susan Kohner, who played Sarah Jane, greatly enrich the book, but the author doesn't stop there, turning up information on seemingly every other member of cast and crew. He also recounts the turbulence behind the scenes: The film was Turner's first following the murder of her gangster boyfriend, Johnny Stompanato, at the hands of her teenage daughter (a shaken Turner apparently became so hysterical filming Annie's funeral that her on-set hairdresser slapped her and then hugged her, a scene that itself sounds straight out of a sudsy melodrama). In dissecting the cult favorite, which was reviled by reviewers upon its release but has since been reappraised, Staggs manages to bring in Thoreau, Nietzsche, and Shakespeare, making this infectious book as over-the-top as, well, a Douglas Sirk film.

Satchmo: The Wonderful World and Art of Louis Armstrong

For the fortunate few, personal creativity can act like an overflowing river come the thaws of spring. The urge to construct something out of nothing will take whatever forms it must, spilling from one medium to another. An actor might also paint, a photographer make music, an author sculpt. Contacting an additional muse might not reap the same aesthetic benefits as the primary art -- looking forward to Russell Crowe?s next album, are you? -- but at times the extracurricular impulse for self-expression reaps surprising rewards. Louis Armstrong was music incarnate. His revolutionary trumpet playing and vocalizing effectively remade American music, jump-starting jazz improvisation and the interpretation of popular song thereafter. But like those gifted others with fecund imaginations, Armstrong? s extraordinary talents for sonic invention couldn?t entirely satisfy his artistic urges. A gifted and prolific writer of letters and a colorful memorist, Armstrong also began creating -- purely for himself and friends -- collages on the covers of the many reel-to-reel tapes that made up his voluminous collection of recorded music and conversation. A beautiful book in both presentation and spirit, Satchmo brings together dozens of these imaginative and delightful creations. Interpolating personal and newspaper photos, illustrations, and clipped-out text, Armstrong constructs artless art objects that burst forth with the same joy and humor as his best music making. With a natural eye for adroit composition and playful juxtaposition, he devised what we can now perceive as miniature memoriams to himself and his wife Lucille, his showbiz pals, his friends and fans. The timeworn condition of the box cover art adds an extraordinary poignancy; like everything he did in his grand life, Armstrong drew this art straight from a larger-than-life heart maxed out with love.

Dark Was the Night

The Red Hot organization has been putting out charity compilations each year for the past 20, back when such things were more often referred to as "mix tapes." They've had some good scores, including Red Hot + Blue, a collection of Cole Porter tunes covered by '80s bands, and No Alternative, a virtual yearbook of the best bands of 1994 -- Nirvana, Pavement, Soundgarden, Sonic Youth. This year's contribution, Dark Was the Night, equals and may even surpass both of those; it's a virtual primer to the best indie rock bands working today. This is hardly accidental. The compilation (available as two CDs, digital download, or a splendid triple-vinyl edition) was produced by brothers Bryce and Aaron Dressner, better known as the rhythm section of the National. Spoon, the Decemberists, Bon Iver, and Yo la Tengo all contributed originals as good as anything on their own records. But the fun in compilations is watching artists at play, and at times the collection recalls those childhood games that let you swap, say, the head of a firefighter with the boots of a dragon: Antony Hegarty's quavering soprano is accompanied by Bryce Dressner's acoustic guitar (which usually backs Matt Berninger's baritone) on a Dylan cover; Feist pairs up with Grizzly Bear (who contributes a separate song) and also covers a Vashti Bunyan song with Deathcab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard; Blonde Redhead (an American band consisting of a Japanese-born vocalist and a pair of Italian-born twin brothers) teams up with Australia's Devastations. The covers on the record have a certain wit: Dave Sitek of TV on the Radio does a bang-up job with the Troggs' "With a Girl Like You" and the New Pornographers cover "Hey, Snow White" by Destroyer, the name used by band member Dan Bejar when he isn't letting anyone else mess with his music.

Maimonides: The Life and World of One of Civilization's Greatest Minds

From Moses to Moses, runs a Jewish saying, "there was none like Moses." It's a wry evasion of the relative eminence between the ancient prophet and Moses Maimonides, the 12th-century sage. Doctor, lawyer, scientist, and rabbi, he was a voluminous author but is now remembered chiefly for his Guide for the Perplexed, one of the great efforts to harmonize biblical narrative with secular philosophy. In Maimonides, Joel Kraemer labors to rescue the rest of the great man's legacy from the shadow cast by this masterpiece -- with particular emphasis on his authoritative writings on Talmudic law. Kraemer reconstructs the life and difficult times of a polymath who worked in Spain, Morocco, and Egypt at the height of Islamic cultural and political power. (The author maintains that claims for Islamic toleration of the other monotheistic faiths during this period are sometimes overstated. Even so, Maimonides' situation was clearly far preferable to that of Jews in Europe at the time.) Kraemer's diligence is never in question, but his devotion never quite turns into inspiration. The book plods. One often has the impression of note cards being typed up. The narrative is strictly chronological; the possibility that later writings might illuminate the significance of earlier ones is ruled out. The biography ends in 1204, with Maimonides' death. The last paragraph is about the possible location of his grave. This is peculiar, given what has been shown about Maimonides' own engagement with tradition -- for we know that a sage's words echo down through generations of commentary.

The American Future: A History

Acclaimed British historian Simon Schama is not a natural TV presence: His prose is a few notches more stylish than usual PBS fare, his presentation is restless and twitchy, and his bearing is just a touch more effete than the ponderous "manliness" of most news documentary presenters. And yet as unfamiliar and difficult to classify as his new four-part BBC series, The American Future: A History, may be, it somehow works. Each of the four one-hour episodes revolves around a theme, a running debate in American history -- economic progress vs. ecological limitations, American republic vs. American empire, religious fervor vs. secular civics, nation of immigrants vs. unified national identity. The style is, like Schama himself, quirky, thoughtful and poetic: a hybrid of video journalism and Ken Burns–style PBS historical documentary. The visual aesthetic is crystalline, almost precious: framed shots of blue skies, dams, tractors, and cityscapes. Ranging over the country (sometimes in five or six different locations in the span of a few minutes) is Schama, who weaves together a historical narrative built around a battle of ideas, dotted with interviews of people facing the same challenges today: Mexican immigrants, West Point cadets, Las Vegas water regulators. Schama is an astute and gifted storyteller, and the series works largely because of his uncanny ability to weave together a variety of somewhat disparate strands into a taught thread. The overall effect is one of eternal recurrence: the 19th-century battle between Colorado river surveyor John Wesley Powell -- who favored small-scale, sustainable irrigation projects in the mountain West, and journalist William Ellsworth Smythe, who envisioned a West booming with industry and agriculture irrigated by massive dams, is recapitulated in the debate between conservationist Jimmy Carter and prophet of limitlessness Ronald Reagan. The aim is to be timely and timeless all at once. If it has a major flaw, it's that the election-year setting sometimes awkwardly places the production somewhere that is not quiet either. But more often than not it leaves the viewer feeling a profound connection between the past, present, and future. Which is, after all, history at its best.


If a book could supply electricity, Michael Herr's Dispatches would sustain the grid of an international city by itself; no wonder it's now been reissued in the prestigious Everyman's Library series. In November 1967, Herr arrived in Vietnam as a correspondent for Esquire magazine. As a freelancer, he was liberated from having to meet panicky deadlines; seemingly, this leeway allowed him to evade the fog of officialdom that hexed a lot of reporters. Herr was infinitely less preoccupied with sussing out dubious statistics, in comparison to diagnosing the hydra-shaped personality of the conflict to peer into the war's "secret history." His sentences read like the work of a hopped-up metaphysician who's consumed by the aesthetics and ontology of a vicious slaughter he volunteered to experience (his willingness to take on the task was a head-snapping fact for many of the draftees he met). This evocation of the geography of a region illustrates the hazards to which the author exposed himself in pursuit of his fever dream: "You were there in a place where you didn't belong, where things were glimpsed for which you would have to pay, and where things went unglimpsed for which you would also have to pay, a place where they didn't play with the mystery but killed you straight off for trespassing." That Herr made it out alive and bequeathed us these restless pages ranks high on the index of the most stupendous benedictions visited upon literature in the English language.

When March Went Mad: The Game That Transformed Basketball

What seems most remarkable about the 1979 NCAA finals, a match-up between Magic Johnson's Michigan State and Larry Bird's Indiana State, is how little sports fans at the time knew about these legendary players and their teams. In the years after that March 26, 1979 Bird-versus-Magic final, cable TV would revolutionize college hoops, writes on-air analyst Seth Davis of CBS Sports. Behemoth ESPN, purveyor of 24/7 sports coverage, wouldn't launch until September 1979, so (when local TV ruled) only the local fans from Michigan and Indiana had consistently seen their hoop superstars. Davis does a fine job describing the 1979 regular season for MSU and ISU, and the NCAA games that led up to the final. He also adeptly describes the widely differing personalities of Magic and Bird. Painfully shy, Bird once flunked a high school English class rather than give a speech. Magic, on the other hand, sometimes had to be dragged away from the press by his coach. But both men were also absurdly competitive. Right before the historic final game, Magic approached Bird to say hello, writes Davis: "As Johnson walked toward him, Bird took one look at him and kept right on walking. Magic was stunned -- and really, really pissed." In the final game, the most-watched basketball game in television history, Bird had an off night and Magic's MSU team won. The game would fuel a personal rivalry in the NBA, as well as the growth of college and pro basketball for the next decade.

Hobson's Choice

Moviegoers cherish the work of director David Lean (1908-91) mainly for its international scope and epic sweep, from The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia to Doctor Zhivago and A Passage to India. For the first half of Lean's storied career, though, his films seldom ventured beyond his native England and included adaptations of Noël Coward plays and Dickens novels, and this, Hobson's Choice, his 1954 version of a play by Harold Brighouse. Like the others, it's British through and through. Set in late-Victorian Lancashire, with a Dickensian cast of characters, this engaging comedy features the bloated Charles Laughton boozing his way through a role well suited to his overacting: his opening belch introduces the self-satisfied owner of a boot shop who relies on his three lovely daughters (and a few basement-bound boot makers) to run his business. The girls have other things on their minds than attending to their widowed father's every command, marriage foremost among them. But the least "bumptious" and chatty daughter delivers the greatest surprise -- she determines to marry Willy, the most talented of boot hands and a wide-eyed innocent, expertly played by John Mills. That's just one of her clever manipulations, all of which end with everyone happily settled, including the now chastened and sober old man. As much as we revel in Hobson's comeuppance, there lurks a more serious theme in Lean's visually stunning black-and-white film -- a comedy of society and manners that looks back to Dickens. When one character mentions that there's always "room at the top," this deft little drama looks forward to the novel of that name and its much angrier view of class relations. Lean balances charm and bite in this smart social satire.

The End of My Addiction

In recent decades, genetic research has supplied ample evidence to support the notion that alcoholism is not a moral failing but a disease of the brain -- a point of view that has had champions since at least the 18th century. But the general public -- and, surprisingly, many doctors -- largely persist in seeing addiction as a fundamental failure of willpower. As the French cardiologist Olivier Ameisen details in The End of My Addiction, moral judgments often interfere with doctors' ability to effectively treat addiction. "Treat" is the operative word, as conventional therapies offer support for the daily struggle to maintain abstinence rather than provide a cure. A habitué of AA meetings and rehab facilities, Ameisen often complained to his physicians that if they could treat his chronic anxiety disorder, his alcoholism would be cured. After years of frustration with conventional treatment, Ameisen began experimenting on himself with the muscle relaxant baclofen, which has successfully suppressed addiction to alcoholism, cocaine, and nicotine in laboratory rats. Ameisen was able to successfully treat his alcoholism -- as well as the underlying anxiety that led to his addiction -- and published a case study in a prominent medical journal. He was largely met with resistance from the entrenched medical community (though his work was later supported by the findings of other researchers), and in response he wrote this hybrid of a book. The result is part memoir, part critique of the medical establishment and drug industry. Most important, it's an argument for wider use of baclofen, made straight to the potential patient. This book will of course interest those who have suffered from addiction -- but it will also appeal to anyone curious about the science behind addiction's life-destroying power.

The Lottery Wars: Long Odds, Fast Money, and the Battle Over an American Institution

Champions of lottery have never shied from invoking the absurd in its favor, "If lotteries are all great evils, then it is better that they should exist as monopolies than the right to conduct them should be general," wrote a defender of the privately owned 19th-century Louisiana State Lottery Company. In his book, The Lottery Wars, Matthew Sweeney sets out to chart the battles over this American institution. The Virginia Company used London lotteries to raise funds for the Jamestown settlement; the freshly emancipated Colonies used lotteries as a means to avoid the troublesome question of taxes. At the start of the 20th century the legal tide turned, and lotteries spent decades underground -- only to re-emerge legally in the 1960s, as governments became desperate to access lottery's lucrative revenue streams. The most provocative insight in Sweeney's book comes in his map of the relationship of early lotteries to modern American financial markets. In Colonial days, raising large sums was difficult -- overseas investors viewed the U.S. as an untested investment. Early private lotteries "provided a valuable service to municipalities and state in need of finance. They pooled and assigned value to the various confusing notes on the market. The business overlapped with securities brokerage, bond sales, and other forms of debt marketing." Given recent stock market news, it's perhaps not so shocking to find that several lottery operators ended up as lions in the "legitimate" financial world. This book is a welcome investigation of this often mysterious engine of commerce and dreams.

The Seance

John Harwood may have won the International Horror Guild Award for his debut novel, The Ghost Writer, but his sophomore effort, The Seance, sets a scene so resolutely gothic, so completely Victorian, it practically envelopes the reader in thick tendrils of an eerie London fog with each turn of the page. Harwood's protagonist, Constance Langton, is literally shrouded -- in a haze of social mores and tragedy. As a middle-class teenager in 1880s England, she cannot expect much else but marriage to relieve her current situation, which is rather desperate. Her mother is wracked with grief over the death of her first child, and her father is distant and cold. With the best intentions to restore her mother's happiness, Constance seeks out a medium to connect with the spirit of her sibling. But navigating the fine line between the real and the spirit world is fraught with peril. It triggers her mother's suicide and the abrupt departure, then death, of her father. Constance narrowly escapes the fate of an impoverished orphan by inheriting a country estate complete with crumbling walls and surrounded by ink-dark woods. Her solicitor instructs her, "Sell the hall unseen, burn it to the ground and plow the earth with salt," but Constance persists in exploring the mysterious manse and the sinister rumors that have circulated around it for generations. At this point, The Seance becomes much more than the sum of its melodramatic parts. For with (or in spite of) a smooth-talking, wax-mustachioed villain, an honorable heroine, and a host of ghost whisperers, Harwood's pitch-perfect dialogue, potent pacing, and skillfully intertwined narratives make for a good, old-fashioned, spine-tingling read. Just be sure to indulge during the light of day.

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

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

Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
The Hundred-Year House

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

Watching Them Be

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


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