Displaying articles for: April 2009

Vincente Minnelli: Hollywood's Dark Dreamer

Revered by European cineastes, Vincente Minnelli has never received full critical approbation in the U.S., something Emanuel Levy aims to correct in Vincente Minnelli: Hollywood's Dark Dreamer, the first full-scale biography of Minnelli ever published. Levy sketches in the sensibility that informed Minnelli's work, one which sprang out of his "long-held belief that commitment to art ? should be carried out to the exclusion of all other matters." Indeed, during personal crises, Minnelli retreated into the dreamlike world of his work, a disengagement that was frustrating to his first three wives, but never impinged upon his most enduring attachment, that to daughter Liza. Beginning in 1943, Minnelli rattled off emotional films filled with his trademark swooning camera moves and an obsessive attention to decor. His first masterpiece, Meet Me in St. Louis, led to a difficult marriage to Judy Garland and the full flowering of his passive-aggressive personality. Married four times, but homosexual by inclination, Minnelli was often inarticulate and shy but held an iron will in pursuit of his vision. At his peak in the mid-1950s, Minnelli scored with films like the biographical Lust for Life and the Oscar-winning musical An American in Paris, and the author adroitly explains how Minnelli's own painfully felt status as outsider led to his finest achievements unfolding in the "feminine" genres of musicals and melodramas. Despite some lapses -- Levy overanalyzes the negligible Tea and Sympathy, and the concluding analysis of Minnelli's legacy merely restates earlier material -- Levy successfully captures Minnelli's status as "Hollywood's Dark Dreamer," allowing readers to readily understand Liza's statement: "I got my drive from my mother -- and my dreams from my father."

Birth Day

Pediatrician Mark Sloan has attended nearly 3,000 births, giving him a wealth of experience to draw on for this exploration of childbirth and newborn life. But Sloan brings more than experience to his first book: He is an intelligent, warm, and funny writer, and nearly every page of Birth Day informs, fascinates, and delights. Shifting between history, science, and memoir, Sloan covers everything from the rise of cesarean sections and epidurals to the functioning of the five senses at birth to the debate over circumcision. He includes self-deprecating anecdotes from his days as a medical student on his obstetrics rotation ("You know, if you can't tell a baby's head from its ass, maybe you're in the wrong business," his resident remarks after bailing him out during a breech birth), vivid recollections of his own children's arrivals, and stories of memorable patients. One of the most entertaining of these is the aggressive new father who tries to get Sloan to change his son's Apgar score -- which measures things like a newborn's heart rate and coloring -- from a nine to a ten, which Sloan likens to "arguing over the baby's birth weight." But the good doctor even treats the bully he dubs "Apgar Guy" with compassion, noting that "being rational about your own baby isn't part of most new parents' emotional toolboxes." Since he's called to the delivery room when the fetus's health is in question, one can only assume Sloan has witnessed his share of unhappy outcomes. But he keeps the focus positive here, making this an edifying, reassuring read for parents-to-be.

How It Ended: New and Collected Stories

Jay McInerney seems stubbornly determined to write about cocaine, infidelity, and cigarette smoking for the rest of his career; if, that is, he's not writing about money, models, and wanton fame seekers. If these plot elements seem overdone and '80s-like, however, the author of Bright Lights, Big City can still salvage diamonds from the overworked mine. In How It Ended: New and Collected Stories, the arc of his short-story career is laid out, from beginning to present: The story he wrote as an undergraduate at Syracuse, "In the North-West Frontier Province," attracting the attention of George Plimpton at the The Paris Review, up to and including his most recent tale, "The Last Bachelor," written in 2008, which features so many of those aforementioned plot points, here reassembled to demonstrate the sad, pathetic actions of a lascivious, drug-addled playboy on the night before his marriage, when he calls an old girlfriend at 1:45 a.m. and drops by her summer house in the Hamptons. "Though it had been years since she'd done blow herself, it seemed perfectly normal to watch him chopping lines, since that's what they'd always done. Being transported back a decade wasn't such a bad thing for a girl. Plus, she was morbidly fascinated with his recklessness on the eve of his wedding. She couldn't help wondering just how far he would push it." As you'd expect with McInerney's characters, "The Last Bachelor" pushes it further than you or I probably would, which makes for exhilarating and repulsive reading.

Waiting for the Apocalypse: A Memoir of Faith and Family

In 1962, when Vatican II was corrupting the Catholic Church by trying to make it "a warm and fuzzy place," writes Veronica Chater, her father became convinced that the movement would incite an apocalypse. He uprooted his wife and eight children from San Jose, California, to a village near Fatima, Portugal. There, he was shocked to find that colloquial prayers had replaced the Latin Mass. A year later, defeated and broke, the family returned to California to join an underground counterrevolutionary movement. Written in the present tense, Chater's memoir possesses the raw energy of a kid; it's like watching the action unfold from beneath a dining room table. Chater grew increasingly skeptical about her parents' devotion to traditionalism, which inspired them to set up temporary churches in a string of department stores and truck garages. Left to figure out her own path, Chater had never been taught how to behave beyond just not sinning, and she stumbled. After dropping out of high school to work at McDonald's, she spent all of her money buying a parrot, which escaped, whereupon she tried to rescue the bird from a treetop. Falling fifty feet through the air, she was overcome with the knowledge that "God was good," as close as she comes to illuminating her own faith. The story of how she untangled herself to land on her feet ends abruptly, although the conclusion is beside the point; as with all wild coming-of-age journeys, getting there is all the fun.

False Economy: A Surprising Economic History of the World

It may make you feel better to read Financial Times journalist Alan Beattie describing how nothing in economic history is inevitable or permanent. Though he spends little time dwelling on our current economic woes, Beattie chronicles where successful economies diverged, how politics meddled in free markets, and when observers have drawn false conclusions. In a history peppered with witty British asides, Beattie succinctly illustrates the curse Steinbeck probed in The Pearl -- namely, that coveted natural resources are often more trouble than they're worth. Cases in point: Dutch tulip exporters were among the legions of workers who could no longer compete in the global economy once the discovery of oil reserves made their country's currency strong enough to price Dutch products out of the market; prostitution and drug addiction ensnare mining communities from Africa to Latin America; and to top it all off, corrupt leaders mismanage prized resources for their own immediate gain, rendering those resources a scourge to some previously diversified economies. After debunking the notion that Islam is anathema to wealth creation (as some pundits claimed after September 11, 2001, attempting to explain the appeal of terrorism), Beattie takes you to the local supermarket to unravel how anti-drug policies got us dependent on Peruvian asparagus. Peru benefited from a 1991 trade deal intended to incentivize farmers to grow crops other than coca for cocaine. Lower tariffs and financial assistance, rooted in a social reform agenda, are what made Peru into Asparagus Central, much to the dismay of U.S. farmers, who have found it hard to compete. In the end, you're left with the assertion that no superpower is destined to stay that way forever, unless of course, superlative decisions prevail. In other words: Godspeed, developed world.

Your Call Is (Not That) Important to Us

In 1910, when the need for an operator meant that every phone call involved an encounter with customer service, Herbert Casson wrote, "No matter how many millions of dollars are spent on cables and switchboards, the quality of telephone service depends upon the girl at the exchange end of the wire." If corporations had only listened to Casson for the last hundred years, there wouldn't be so many problems for Emily Yellin to take on in this book, in which she valiantly sets out to make some sense of the world we consumers helplessly navigate. She ends up indicting the corporate strategy of skimping on consumer relations in the quest for profit. And she will convince you, in the unlikely event that you haven't already been convinced by a toll-free call that left you mentally wringing someone's neck. (Hey Verizon, can you hear me now?) The principal problem is that customer service reps generally don't know what the hell they're talking about, but Yellin patiently investigates where the blame actually lies and shows how thinly and widely it is spread. You might find your sympathies coming to rest on unexpected people, like the one on the other end of your next call. Unfortunately, Yellin's analysis rarely goes deeper than repeating that companies ought to view customer service more as a chance to score points than as a sinkhole for cash. But she unearths some nice factual nuggets and gathers insight from sources far and wide, like the actress behind the voice of "Amtrak Julie" and the young guy in Buenos Aires who gave her a refund when Office Depot bungled her order.

The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger

My purpose, Pete Seeger explained last year, chopping wood at his New York cabin, "is in trying to get people to realize that there may be no human race by the end of the century unless we find ways to talk to people we deeply disagree with." The folk musician, who turns 90 this May, has long embodied the courage not only to sing about, but also to act on, his convictions, and author and New Yorker writer Wilkinson has crafted a slim biography that tunes in to Seeger's life with a clear, unhurried frequency. The Protest Singer offers a straightforward and accessible record of Seeger's idiosyncratic choices and patriotism. He toyed briefly with Communism, though, Wilkinson reveals, "here is no conceit that he has more emphatically embraced than that all human beings are created equal and have equal rights." After six years in the army, he reunited with his wife and children in 1948 and began performing folk songs with three friends who called themselves the Weavers. Within a year, they'd sold four million albums. Summoned to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955, Seeger was indicted for contempt and sentenced to a year in jail, and this book includes the entire transcript as an appendix. The judgment was thrown out, but only after being blacklisted did Seeger find himself unshackled from the commercial world, happily free to return to singing for kids in schools. Wilkinson's portrait comes out as unfussy as its subject, and Seeger's example of peaceful living, as intelligible as his songs.


Studying the cave paintings at Lascaux, one might very well detect the incipient concepts and traditions that millennia later would result in a Picasso. Just so do the primitive funnybooks rescued from obscurity by Greg Sadowski in Supermen! The First Wave of Comic Book Heroes 1936-1941 contain within their awesomely naïve and rudimentarily brilliant pages all the seeds of the postmodern graphic novel. These inchoate rumblings would eventually birth works like the celebrated Watchmen. But to impose a teleological template upon these comics would be a shortsighted as viewing Neolithic drawings only as precursors to modernity. Compounded equally from pulp fiction, movies, newspaper strips, and sheer desperate commercial-deadline-brainstorm lunacy, these early superhero tales created their own fresh synthetic mythology and compositional tools on the fly. Whether the artist was a Dargeresque figure like Basil Wolverton, or a consummate pro like Jack Kirby, the reader gets the sense that the next panel might unveil an artistic breakthrough -- or fall flat on its face. Most of these vignettes are stoked with violence: Suborned by bad guys, the Comet kills a dozen or so policemen, while Skyman drops a gunman out a window to his death. And these were the heroes! Sex was less textually explicit, though the artwork more than made up for that, with scores of beautiful women in skimpy or skintight outfits, breasts thrust out either in welcome or defiance. These comics may have masqueraded as juvenile power fantasies. But just as the avenging monster, the Face, was in reality suave radio personality Tony Trent, so too, beneath their outré surfaces, were these four-color tales a coded commentary on the turbulent, scary, yet strangely hopeful Depression-era world at large.

Levittown: Two Families, One Tycoon, and the Fight for the Civil Rights in America's Legendary Subburb

The Levitts didn't invent suburbia and they didn't invent mass production, but they joined the two with impeccable timing, easing the critical postwar housing shortage by building modern, affordable communities with lightning speed. The events in David Kushner's riveting book occurred in Levittown, Pennsylvania, the second Levitt development, which, like its Long Island predecessor, had a whites-only policy. During the summer of 1957, a left-wing Jewish couple, the Wechslers, quietly arranged for an African-American family to buy the house next door. What followed was a months-long campaign by a group of hostile residents to drive Daisy and Bill Myers and their young children from their home, complete with burning crosses, smashed windows, and round-the-clock harassment. The local police did little to protect the family, while William Levitt, the flashy chairman of Levitt & Sons and a national hero, ignored the controversy altogether. (Levitt, who claimed that 90 to 95 percent of whites would refuse to buy into an integrated Levittown, had once said, "We can solve the housing problem or we can solve the racial problem, but we cannot combine the two.") Kushner's fast-paced account deftly re-creates the drama, which, though largely forgotten today, received nationwide coverage as it unfolded. It is the author's good fortune that the Wechslers and Daisy Myers are still alive and kept meticulous records of their ordeal; the result is a page-turner that's rich in detail and that also illuminates Cold War politics, suburbanization, and civil rights.

Vegan Soul Kitchen: Fresh, Healthy, and Creative African-American Cuisine

Bryant Terry's collard greens are lightly braised and tossed with raisins and citrus; his okra lightly crisped and served with a lime-thyme vinaigrette; his sweet tea is sweetened with fresh-squeezed orange juice and agave nectar (the latter also sweetens a strawberry pop, herb infused limeades and a ginger-hibiscus cocktail inspired by his favorite Senegalese restaurant in Brooklyn). He offers three versions of Hoppin' John and, for the record, I'm still making the Black-Eyed Pea and Peanut fritters from his first book, Grub. "Think Alice Waters meets Melvin Van Peeples," writes Terry, of his own cooking style, which connects the dots between the fresh food his grandparents grew in their South Memphis kitchen garden, African-American soul food and recipes for local, seasonal food he has made as an adult in Brooklyn and Oakland urban kitchens. Recipes are paired with suggested soundtracks: Garlic broth makes him think of Etta James; sweet corn broth conjures TV on the Radio; and Strawberry and Slightly Hot Pepper Jam goes best with Run-DMC. Not only does Terry provide six recipes for using each part of a fresh watermelon -- whole slices with basil sea salt, a martini, a vinaigrette, a sorbet, and spiced pickle rinds -- he also suggests a couple films about the "stereotypes associated with black folks eating watermelon." And his California-Applejack Toddy is inspired by Fred Sanford's favorite drink, accompanied, of course, by the DVD box set of "Sanford and Son" along with the book Revolution Televised by Christine Acham. Vegan, vegetarian, flexitarian -- you could serve an entire family of meat eaters on his food and they'd ask for more.

The Girls from Ames: A Story of Women and a Forty-Year Friendship

What's so special about the 11 women who grew up together in Ames, Iowa, who are the subject of Jeffrey Zaslow's The Girls from Ames: A Story of Women and a Forty-Year Friendship? Well, nothing really -- and yet, in another sense, everything. With this book, Zaslow, who writes The Wall Street Journal's "Moving On" column, has set out to explore long-term female friendships -- what makes them tick, how they evolve, what they mean to women -- selecting this tightly bound group who grew up amid midwestern cornfields in the '60s and '70s and came of age in the '80s, specifically because they are so typical. "Born at the end of the baby boom, their memories are evocative of their times," Zaslow writes. "Born in the middle of the country, they now live everywhere else, but carry Ames with them. Their story is universal, even common, and on that level it can't help but resonate with any woman who has ever had a friend." To be sure, the particulars of these women's stories -- their personal tragedies, joys, and inside jokes -- are all their own. (Though a few years after they were teenagers driving around Iowa in their clunker cars, looking for a party, experimenting with alcohol and sex, and learning where they fit in, I was doing the same thing with my friends in my own Illinois town.) So while Karla, Kelly, Marilyn, Jane, Jenny, Karen, Cathy, Angela, Sally, Diana, and Sheila may be nothing like your friends from high school, or mine, their shared experiences and continuing bonds are something many of us can recognize. And to appreciate their friendships is to appreciate our own.

The Rider on the White Horse

Compositionally speaking, if a structural principle can be inferred from the eight stories that make up The Rider on the White Horse -- a selection of writings by the German author Theodor Storm (1817–88) -- it might well be this: Make it Old. Storm was an adept of the Novelle genre, in which the focus of a story inclined toward inspecting the ramifications of an event, whether it be an aborted love affair or, as in the case of the titular story, one man's effort to oversee a village dam. In practice, the stories in this collection -- with the exception of "A Green Leaf" and "Veronika" -- build less toward epiphanous moments than toward moments of refracted quietude where a sigh is more likely to be educed from the reader than an exclamation. Resignation is the dominant note tolled throughout these stories, which are often steeped in the passage of time; as such, observations like these burgeon: "er childhood existed in a place far beyond the birth of all the others"; "It was an old volume?its leaves were yellow and coarse"; "We had hearts as true as yours?how can you young people know how it was then?" For those who find themselves at odds with our youth-obsessed zeitgeist, there is succor to be found in these rebelliously old-fashioned stories, which contain beautiful high points such as this, which comes from "Immensee": "The moon no longer shown through the window; the full darkness had come; but the old man still sat, hands folded, in his easy chair, and gazed into the desolation of the room? Then he pushed his chair up to the table, opened a book, and buried himself in those studies to which he had once given all the best powers of his young manhood."

Killing for Coal: America's Deadliest Labor War

Out where the Rocky Mountain foothills stretch onto the Great Plains in windswept southern Colorado lies a forlorn, ramshackle pile of boards, the ghost town of Ludlow. Near it the United Mine Workers maintains a monument. Beyond the obelisk lies a heavy metal door on the ground; when opened, it leads down to a dank vault that gives off every sensation of a crypt. Though not a mausoleum, strictly speaking, it is an effective and chilling memorial to the April 1914 catastrophe now known as the Ludlow Massacre, when two women and 11 children seeking protection in makeshift cellars died of asphyxiation after the tents above them burst into flames. The fires resulted from an attack on a striking miners' encampment by a Colorado National Guard contingent composed largely of hired guns of the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, owned by John D. Rockefeller Jr. "Little children roasted alive" was mineworker organizer Mother Jones's angry summary. In Killing for Coal: America's Deadliest Labor War, historian Thomas G. Andrews takes us underground in unanticipated ways, beneath the surface of this familiar story. Informed by ecological sensibilities, Andrews reaches back to the formation of coal deposits in earlier millennia. He details the extensive but now-forgotten Ten Days' War -- a stunning workers' insurrection in the coalfields that ensued after Ludlow -- and reaches even farther forward in time to our own epoch of climate change. Guided by impressive alertness to the consequences of economies predicated on fossil fuels, Andrews resituates an episode in labor martyrdom within a transformative history of the American West and industrial development, along the way imparting new meaning both to Ludlow and to burnings originating from beneath the surface of the earth.

A Little Bit Wicked: Life, Love and Faith in Stages

You may know her from ABC's Pushing Daisies or the Broadway musical Wicked or as Sesame Street's Miss Noodle, but you may not know Kristin Chenoweth as she comes across in her new memoir, A Little Bit Wicked: Life, Love, and Faith in Stages. If Chenoweth -- singer and sexpot, comedian and Christian, inspiration to hometown girls and drag queens alike -- is a little bit wicked, she's also a lot of bit wholesome: a lesson in surprising contrasts. Chenoweth is chirpily funny, too, and reading her life story up until now (she's only 40) can feel like sitting backstage dishing with the most quippily chipper girl in the show. (When Chenoweth was in junior high, a fellow student accosted her in the girls' bathroom, demanding to know why she was so happy all the time. "It makes me want to beat you up," the girl said.) Yet Chenoweth -- who was born and raised in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, and had both classical music training and beauty pageant experience under her belt by the time she hit Broadway -- has had her share of heartaches. And though she's judicious with the dirty details (this book is more tell some than tell all), well, she's wasted enough time on the wrong guys, spent enough nights in cruddy sublets, and had enough hair emergencies to show her life isn't totally charmed. Which isn't to say it's not charming. In her acknowledgements, Chenoweth thanks her on-again-off-again boyfriend, Aaron "The West Wing" Sorkin ("Chenorkin," she calls their celebrity merger), "for reminding me to let the emotion come through." She's heeded his advice -- and her book is a little bit better for it.

Hella Nation: Looking for Happy Meals in Kandahar, Rocking the Side Pipe, Wingnut's War Against the GAP, and Other Adventures with the Totally Lost Tribes of America

Evan Wright began his journalism career as an editor at Hustler magazine, and the amiable con man sensibility he developed in Porn Valley has served him well as an immersion journalist specializing in outsider culture. In 2003, he embedded with a Marine Reconnaissance battalion in Iraq for Rolling Stone, and his first book, Generation Kill, detailed his time there. Wright has returned with Hella Nation, a collection of his most outlandish adventures from 1997 to 2007, including an entrée into the Church of Jesus Christ Christian Aryan Nation compound in Idaho, a crime spree with the violent, tree-sitting anarchists of the West Coast environmental movement, and one deadly investigation of a human growth hormone con operation in Arizona. Wright's piece on Pat Dollard, however, manages somehow to eclipse the rest of the magnificent coverage in the book. Once a smarmy, coke-snorting Hollywood agent, Dollard became frustrated with what he considered the leftist coverage of the Iraq war, so he hopped a flight to Fallujah, embedded with a platoon, and returned with over 300 hours of film. Wright follows the drug-addled documentarian's efforts to sell his movie, Young Americans (often stalled by alcohol and amphetamine benders) -- the resulting Vanity Fair piece became the longest profile of a single person in the magazine's history. Wright's style owes a hat tip to Hunter S. Thompson, but he has one up on the bleary-eyed King of Gonzo. Instead of headlining his own white-knuckle exploits, Wright uses his extraordinary insider access to expose the meat and marrow of the nation's underbelly.


If the image of Albert Speer, a prominent Nazi, juggling rubber balls as a way to relieve stress in the waning days of the Third Reich doesn't make you sit up and say, "Mein Gott, vas is los?" then Brendan McNally's debut novel, Germania, might not be for you. On the other hand, if rollicking adventures of Jews masquerading as Nazis, secret wartime shipments of gold, SS officers dreaming of hunting walrus in Greenland, and the tense emotional dynamics of theatrical families intrigue you, then Germania will fit the bill quite nicely. At the heart of the novel are the Flying Magical Loerber Brothers, a popular German juggling act (in more ways than one, as it turns out), who split up just as Hitler is rising to power in the early 1930s. Manni, Franzi, Ziggy, and Sebastian all go their separate ways, some serving in the German military and some going underground with Resistance groups. But as the Allies tighten the noose around Berlin in 1945, Hitler commits suicide, and major players like Speer, Heinrich Himmler, and Admiral Karl Dönitz vie to fill the Nazi power vacuum, the Jewish brothers are reunited through a series of complicated plot twists. McNally mixes fact and fiction in a novel that is one part Michael Chabon, one part Ken Follett, and one part Marx Brothers. During their heyday, McNally writes, the Flying Magical Loerber Brothers' "time in the air was a flagrant violation of the laws of gravity and physics." The same could be said about McNally's novel as it juggles unlikely bedfellows -- Jews and Nazis -- but pulls it off with the "ease of the daring young man on the flying trapeze."

Through Black Spruce

In part a sequel to Joseph Boyden's first book, Three Day Road, this novel concerns itself with Will Bird, the grandson of Xavier Bird from the earlier book. Will is a bush pilot who has a history of wild plane crashes, each of which he has miraculously survived. Currently, however, he lies in coma in a hospital in Mosoonee, 12 miles south of James Bay, the "home of the Cree." Boyden divides the novel into chapters alternatively narrated by Will (from his comatose mind), and his niece Annie, who sits by his bedside and recounts to him her adventures in Toronto, Montreal, and New York City. She went there in search of her sister Suzanne, now a successful model in Manhattan, who has since lost touch with her family. Boyden has a sharp eye for local sights and an ear for dialogue. The hands-on art of hunting and the resultant fur trade drive the town?s economy, and there is a palpable physicality to the writing, in its evocation of the guts and gore that are part of the trade. However, beneath the quiet of the hinterland bubble undercurrents of hostility. It is Suzanne's story that ties these disparate elements together. The fact that she eloped with Gus, the problem child of the Netmaker clan (who trade in drugs), points to a dizzying tale, where violence must lie in wait. It is to his credit that in a novel which so authentically captures the vicissitudes of desolate life, Boyden is also able to chronicle the vacant party-hopping sadness of supermodels. Taking a hard look at the tenderness of beasts, Through Black Spruce is a moving portrait of the Canadian outback.

The Plain Language of Love and Loss: A Quaker Memoir

Taylor, a college professor, builds up to the story of her teenage brother's suicide, and from there unfolds language so subtle and precise as to create a heart-wrenching, incisive story. Probing family dynamics and the burden of Quaker expectations alongside a generational hatred of conformity and unnecessary deaths, Taylor applies an academic's rigor to her quest for clarity. She's interviewed friends and family and explored psychological texts to help elucidate her family's central tragedy and its spinoff sorrows. Impressively, the commentary on Taylor's 12-year-old self seems just as believable as the analysis she offers from her present perspective as mother, wife, teacher and writer. Though unafraid to investigate depression, breakups and alcoholism, none of Taylor's writing whiffs of a tell-all for the sake of it. On the contrary, the author is humble and analytical in her reflections on what has been endured. Most striking of all is the way acceptance is treated in Taylor's memoir. Far from a trite "this is how things are" approach to acceptance, the author investigates the way in which her brother's death has permeated her life with a very beautiful mixture of anger, confusion and understanding. And from there, she accepts enough to be able to produce a poignant story out of what has been lived during a turbulent time in American history.

The Vampire of Ropraz

This disturbing gem from Prix Goncourt winner Jacques Chessex, barely 100 pages long, is a much-needed antidote to the spate of novels that make the vampire an object of romantic desire for girls and women of all ages. Instead, the titular character desecrates and defiles his already dead victims, wrenching them from peaceful permanent sleep and tearing apart their corpses until "the bestial meal consumed." He hunts in tiny Swiss mountain villages, such as Ropraz, at the turn of the 20th century, violating not only the bodies of three young women -- starting with judge's daughter Rosa Gillieron -- but also the placid spirits of the townsfolk, instilling fear and suspicion into their collective consciousness. The ensuing narrative seems superficially straightforward as a suspect is caught and tried, only to be declared mentally incompetent and later escaping to join the French legion. But look deeper and Chessex appears to be playing games with the reader. The Vampire of Ropraz claims to be based on a true story, but the name of Rosa's father matches that of a notable Swiss artist and restorer. The eventual suspect has the overlong teeth and shambling menace of a would-be vampire, but Chessex leaves the real possibility of his guilt an open question. And then there's the shocking amusement of an ending that meddles with history -- and causes the reader to come to grips with how complicit one is in widespread horror.

Piety Street

Like many of his fellow alumni of the University of Miles Davis, guitarist John Scofield, class of '82 to '86, likes to place himself in multiple contexts, placing his sui generis sound -- it fuses strains drawn from Charlie Christian, B. B. King, Wes Montgomery, Jimi Hendrix, and Jim Hall into a singular argot -- within diverse environments that other tonal personalities might find too disjunctive to navigate. No tourist in any of the regions he calls home, Scofield has displayed his fluency in the various dialects of American music on an across-the-map series of recordings over the past decade. His journey has encompassed harmonically complex postbop (En Route and Works For Me); impressionistic ballads (Quiet and This Means That); open-ended, blues-drenched jam-banding (A Go Go and Out Louder with Medeski, Martin & Wood, as well as Bump and Up All Night); an orchestral concerto (Scorched); an organ trio (Saudades with Larry Goldings and Jack deJohnette); and a New Orleans–flavored homage to soul master Ray Charles (That's What I Say with such guests as Dr. John, Aaron Neville, and Mavis Staples). The latter date, from 2005, foreshadows Scofield's latest offering, Piety Street, recorded last year in the Crescent City. Propelled by George Porter Jr., who plays bass with the Meters, pianist-vocalist Jon Cleary and drummer Ricky Fataar from Bonnie Raitt's group, and Louisiana roots vocalist John Boutté, he addresses a baker's dozen gospel songs from the canon. The repertoire -- highlights include a soulful, slow-burn "Walk with Me," a rocking, reharmonized "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," a Mardi Gras Indian meets Bourbon Street take on "It's a Big Army," a groove-centric "His Eye Is on the Sparrow," and a pair of reconfigured gems by Thomas A. Dorsey -- offers Scofield enough harmonic movement to extract him from his comfort zone and also allows him to tell his stories with fewer notes than he might normally play. Scofield's perspective may be secular, but he conveys the spirit-raising essence of the genre, swinging hard and conveying, as befits a true Milesian, a mind-set of creativity and freedom within the groove.

Happy Together

Let's start over. These are the decisive words on which the craterous relationship flaps between the two male lovers in Wong Kar-wai's Happy Together. The film, which has recently been reissued by Kino Video in a remastered edition, scored Wong a Best Director award at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival. Viewers fond of on-the-rails plotlines may by miffed at the film's whimsical ways, as when, for example, it cuts from a character reflecting on his geographical position to a series of upside-down shots that correspond to his imaging of what his native city on the opposite end of the globe would look like from such a vantage point. (Speaking with regard to the fact that the film turned out differently than what Wong initially had in mind when he began shooting, the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote, "Happy Together is less a film with a subject than a film about not being able to find one.") Conversely, for those from whom a so it goes falls readily from the lips, Happy Together should have the gummy immediacy of a weepy nose; its free-floating construction is advantageous toward its depiction of a chaotic, distance-pursuit relationship. Primarily set in Buenos Aires, the movie follows the story of two émigrés, Lai Yiu-Fai (Tony Leung) and Ho Po-Wing (Leslie Cheung), who leave Hong Kong to reinvigorate their bond. After a futile attempt to take a road-trip to a waterfall, Ho decides they should break up, but their cycle of separation and reconciliation is not over. Although their story is filmed in an alternating palate of black-and-white and sun-stroked colors, their relationship never feels inauthentic or diffused by the director's compelling studiousness.

Book of Clouds

Chloe Aridjis's Berlin is full of nebulae. Clouds, fog, memory, the past -- these atmospheric and historical forces surge up and surround the characters of Aridjis's beautiful debut novel, Book of Clouds. The narrator, Tatiana, wanders in a haze, her original reason for moving to the city -- to study German -- all but forgotten in her directionless present. She moves from job to job, apartment to apartment, spurred into activity more from necessity than inner compulsion. Tatiana is a Mexican transplant who landed in Berlin because of an unexpected grant, and she is now trying to figure out how the rest of her 20s -- and her life -- should play out. As she is poised between two continents and cultures, and between youth and adulthood, Tatiana's unfocused look at her life, and the general haze of the novel, seem appropriate to her position. And while her movements through the city may seem aimless, they are punctuated with episodes of delightful descriptive acuity: a woman distributing cinnamon buns to her ravenous sons, an old lady in a hooded raincoat leaning into the rain like a Tyrannosaurus rex, the winking raisin eyes of the marzipan bears that appear in her local baker's window around Christmastime. Moments like these, as well as the mysteries arising from her work for a German historian and the twists of a love affair with a local meteorologist, keep the seemingly vague story moving swiftly along. Uncertainty might be Aridjis's fictional specialty, but she captures it with rare incisiveness.

Rag and Bone

Watching an ultrasound of his unborn daughter swimming in the dark soup of the womb offered Peter Manseau more than just a glimpse of the infant soon to make her way into his arms. It put him on the road to another discovery. ?These bones are where belief begins,? he mused seeing the baby?s tiny limbs. And so began his wondrous journey to teach her, ?that faith is strange and beautiful and sometimes scary,? by way of exploring the stories behind a diverse collection of sacred relics the world over. Relics, those fragments of flesh, bone, or fabric believed to be taken from the holiest people to walk the earth, have been revered for thousands of years by the faithful of many religions. According to Manseau?s vivid descriptions, they are indeed as strange, beautiful (and sometimes downright scary) as the faiths that preserve them. From the Catholics? prodigious and peculiar assortment including the purported prepuce of Jesus (which he did not actually view) and the ?chewed piece of licorice? said to be the tongue of St. Anthony (which he and hundreds of others stood in line for hours to see), to a surreal traveling Buddhist reliquary, on to Kashmir?s most sacred Muslim treasure: Prophet Muhammad?s chin whisker, and others, Manseau?s unerring eye for detail makes for a fascinating travelogue. But it?s more than that. Drawing on history, spiritual traditions, legend and contemporary reports, this book is a totally exuberant compendium of human beliefs, certain to satisfy devotees of all stripes, ?because make explicit what we all know in our own bones: that bodies tell stories; that the transformation offered by faith is not just about, as the Gospels put it, the ?word made flesh,? but the flesh made word.?

The Industrial Revolutionaries

As familiar as the outlines of the Industrial Revolution are, no one will be surprised to learn that every steam-powered invention has a murky history of rivalries, precedents, and counterclaims. However unsurprising it may be, it is still fun to learn that a century before Edison had his Tesla, Watt had his Trevithick. The more gripping tale that Gavin Weightman has to tell in Industrial Revolutionaries, though, is of the commercial cold war waged especially by England and France through and over iron and steam, with many sidewise glances toward America. Gentlemen cross the Channel again and again to sniff out the secrets of new engines and recruit defectors -- a British artisan might face prison if he tried to return home after working in France -- while Robert Fulton tries to sell torpedoes to Napoleon before offering them to Nelson. The most fascinating and unfamiliar tale is that of the "Chosun Five." At a time when the shipwrecked Japanese fishermen rescued by American whalers might be looked on by the Shoguns as traitors infected by the West and even be executed, in 1854 five Samurai risked everything to secretly travel to Britain and bring knowledge of 19th-century technology back to Japan. Ten years later British vessels were shelling the Japanese coast, trying to force Japan to accept all at once the revolution that European industrialists had staged so fitfully over the previous century.

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
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).