Displaying articles for: May 2008

The Song Is You

From its absolutely gorgeous, period-perfect cover to its evocative portrait of the 1940s Hollywood studio system in action, Megan Abbott's new novel is a sensual feast. "Hop was rarely surprised these days," Abbott says of Gil Hopkins, a once-promising journalist, now a studio flack who knows where all the bodies are buried because he buried most of them himself. Her other main player is a young starlet who really existed: Jean Spangler, a sexy-longlegs who disappeared one night and was never seen again. The papers called her "Daughter of Black Dahlia," connecting Spangler to another notorious disappearance. Abbott makes this single mother of a five-year-old girl a deeply touching and fully understandable young woman: knowing the dangers of having little talent other than her looks but still thinking she can survive in a very twisted world. Hopkins has some damaging knowledge of his own about that world: he was probably responsible for bringing about Spangler's fate. It's only when a friend of Jean's appears from the past does his own guilt begin to percolate, and when that girl also disappears he is forced into action almost against his will. A famed song-and-dance team who specialize in rough sex are among the culprits, as are Gil's ex-wife and a blackmail ring that takes advantage of the creepy mileu to make their own failed Hollywood dreams come true.

Shakespeare's Wife

Literary historians have not been kind to Ann Shakespeare, n‚e Hathaway. She is painted as old, ugly and desperate, leading poor William astray, trapping him into a loveless marriage at age 18 (she was a ripe 26). Or maybe she was beautiful and sexually experienced and...unfaithful. Perhaps her talented husband hated her -- or lived in fear of her. In fact, little is known about William Shakespeare's wife, the mother of his three children, whom he married in 1582. "All biographies of Shakespeare are houses built of straw, but there is good straw and rotten straw, and some houses are better built than others," writes feminist icon Germaine Greer in her new book. "The evidence that is always construed to Ann Hathaway's disadvantage is capable of other, more fruitful interpretations, especially within the context of recent historiography." Greer attempts to right what she sees as a profound wrong at the hands of the "Shakespeare wallahs" who have remade the Bard "in their own likeness...incapable of relating to women" by undertaking a "systematic review of the evidence against Ann Shakespeare." Parsing parish and court records, letters, historical materials, and Shakespeare's own work, she redraws Ann as capable and independent. The portrait may be a complete fantasy, as Greer blithely admits -- "If Ann Shakespeare had both skill and business acumen, she could have become a wealthy woman in her own right," she writes in a typical passage. "So far we don't know that she did, but we don't know that she didn't either." But though Ann's image remains hazy, a detailed, compelling picture emerges of what it was like to be a wife and mother in Shakespeare's time.

Netherland

Joseph O?Neill's new novel, Netherland, is the rare fiction that is unabashed at the fact of its having been written. Hans, the pensive narrator, is a foreigner twice removed -- a Dutchman arrived in New York City by way of London -- and his voice has an outsider?s relish for the stranger words and usages of English. With a keenly perceptive eye, Hans takes us through his solitary New York existence in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks: his wife has left, taking their young son back with her to England, and Hans faces sudden, stark awareness of his own isolation. A tip-off from a cab driver leads him to a largely immigrant-driven cricket scene in New York?s outer boroughs, and Hans falls into an unlikely friendship with a soliloquizing Trinidadian named Chuck Ramkissoon, whose grandiose plan is to turn an unattended patch of park near JFK airport into an international cricket mecca. What follows is an awakening of sorts for Hans -- a chance for the recovery of a lost self -- and a less fortunate outcome for Chuck, whose racketeering operation introduces Hans to a seamier side of New York. While it would be easy to lump Netherland into the burgeoning school of post-9/11 fiction, its fixations have more to do with how a singular mind navigates the atomized world of the modern city (in this respect, O?Neill?s Irish inheritance is plainly visible). The novel is low on action and heavy on musing, but the sharpness of O?Neill?s reflective sensibility is more than enough to keep things moving: he packs into Hans all the revelation and despair of a man able to tunnel into his own depths.

Sing Me Back Home

One of those eternal country-music staples is the song about going back to your old childhood home and taking a look around. Somtimes the view is warm and fuzzy (Merle Haggard?s ?Roots of My Raising?); sometimes the singer pines for the past (Willie Nelson?s ?I Just Drove By?); and sometimes he can?t haul ass out of there fast enough (Tom T. Hall?s ?Homecoming?). Novelist and New York Times writer Dana Jennings pens his own version of this tune in a masterful musical memoir that recalls growing up in rural New Hampshire ("a rogue northeastern extension of Appalachia?) and the country songs that provided a soundtrack to his hardscrabble childhood. It?s not a sentimental picture. ?All Grammy Jennings ever wanted was to fuck and drink,? he recalls. ?If you?re seeking flour-dappled cheeks and chocolate-chip cookies cooling on the kitchen table, you?ve got the wrong shack, Jack.? Jennings superbly chronicles the doings of a clan of orphans and alcoholics, cheating wives and battering husbands, boozing, laboring, and brawling down that lost highway, leavening their tales with anecdotes about the music of Johnny Cash and Hank Williams. There are occasional clich‚s: he has no doubt that ?the golden age of country music? overlapped with his youth; nor does he find it hackneyed to put down feminists to prove his down-home credentials: ?The taint of their smoldering bras filled the air? (that?s some taint!) But his family portraits linger in the memory like a steel-guitar moan, especially his hard-living Auntie Helen, who sets him down and tells him, ?I got three men living in this g.d. house. And if you put ?em all together, you ain?t got one man.?

Things I Have Learned in My Life So Far

Usually, graphic designers are know as formulators -- with emphasis on form -- making what others have to say look good. But industry darling Stefan Sagmeister (best known for creating iconic album covers for the likes of Lou Reed and David Byrne) has produced an unbound book illustrating his own aphoristic maxims, and the globetrotting shenanigans he employed to stage them: the result is worth not just reading, but beholding. First, TIHLIMLSF is a fun thing to play with -- a die-cut cardboard box (outlining the author's face) with contents that can be shuffled to create radically different "covers." Muppet blue! Mad monkey mask! Pimples! Silly, but irrationally satisfying.Sagmeister not only has a mighty morphing mind, he also literally puts a lot of himself into his work. This monograph of projects represents a series of performance-art-stunt extremes: he dangled his legs outside an Empire State Building office window holding a sign and traveled to a shuttered amusement park in Singapore to erect bamboo scaffolding spelling out words on a man-sized scale. That he convinced his corporate clients to underwrite these wacky, costly endeavors is itself impressive. In the final analysis, the greatest value this exuberant catalogue offers is as a creative challenge; he makes it clear that if a merry prankster like him can have this much (lucrative) fun, so can you.

A Passage to India

David Lean?s visually stunning film version of E. M. Forster?s A Passage to India was recently released in a Collector?s Edition to coincide with the centennial of the legendary director?s birth. The 1984 epic, starring Judy Davis and Peggy Ashcroft, was nominated for 11 Academy Awards (it won 2) and was the last film directed by Lean (whose other credits include Oliver Twist, Summertime, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, and Doctor Zhivago). An exploration of misunderstandings between British imperials and Indian locals, Lean?s film is a largely faithful adaptation of Forster?s last novel, published in 1924. In addition to the restored and digitally remastered film, the two-DVD set includes cast interviews, a Forster retrospective, and insightful commentary from Lean and producer Richard Goodwin. (The latter describes the difficulty of shooting in India: "The big problem is crowd control. There are so many people who want to come and watch everything that it becomes impossible to film"; a closed set was built in Bangalore to manage the shooting of certain scenes.) Lean, who died in 1991, discusses how his artistic license drew the ire of some Forster scholars. "I said, 'I?m going to make a movie that with luck will be remembered for two or three years. There?s always the book, and those who are offended by the idea of making a movie of this classic, don?t have to see it. They?ll always have the book.' " Both, in their own ways, remain classics of their kind.

Third

Though it's been more than a decade since their last (live) album, Portishead remain as invitingly somber as ever. While the band's third studio album doesn't stray too far from the cloudy atmospherics that have earned this trio from Bristol a diverse and devoted following, its lack of novelty -- mainly due to the fact that in 2008 Third doesn't seem quite as surprising as their debut album, Dummy, did in 1994 -- shouldn't confound expectations either. Portishead specializes in unthreatening melancholy. (Notice how the alarms on the opening track, "Silence," sound more festive rather than ominous.) This lends their music an insular quality that's evocative without being dreary. Much of this can be ascribed to vocalist Beth Gibbons's frosty delivery. Gibbons can make lines as bluntly vulnerable as those that appear on "Nylon Smile" -- "Looking out I wanna know someone might care / Looking out I want a reason to be there / 'cause I don't know what I've done to deserve you / I don't know what I'll do without you" -- appear eerily serene. Of course, kudos must also be given to Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley, who are both multi-instrumentalists and producers on the album, for their remarkable ability to create musical textures that are as delicate and substantial as a tiramisu. Note that the lead single for Third, "Machine Gun," is one of the more disappointing tracks on this album, which deserves to be listened to in its entirety. Still, listeners on the fence would do well to check out the songs "Hunter" and "Plastic" to hear the band at its best.

The Films of Morris Engel

The name Morris Engel may not be synonymous with the French New Wave, but according to no less an authority than director Fran‡ois Truffaut, Engel was an essential progenitor of the cinematic movement. Little Fugitive, Engel's independent feature of 1953, provided a virtual blueprint for what an outside-the-Hollywood establishment film could achieve; a work born of personal will and vision whose individuality wasn?t lost on the aspiring directors of Paris or such maverick American independents as John Cassavetes. A virtually plotless tale of a seven-year-old who runs away from his New York apartment to roam throughout Coney Island, Little Fugitive benefits from charmingly unselfconscious performances from its young leads and Engel?s documentary-styled direction. His camera seems to follow, rather than lead, the precocious protagonist as he weaves his way through the massive crowds thronging the beach, partaking of the amusement park attractions and interacting with the carnies that line the streets. (Truffaut fans will recognize specific references to Little Fugitive throughout his 1959 debut, The 400 Blows.) Not least of the film?s wonders is its time capsule quality. The Coney Island of the early '50s is brought back to life in all its wonderful, tawdry glory. Keep your Disney fantasy lands -- Coney, as Engel well knew, was the real thing.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

At the raggedy end of winter, sunshine comes as a welcome reprieve, even if the weather may not be quite so lovely tomorrow. The same may be said for the life of the title character in Winifred Watson?s thoroughly charming 1938 novel. Miss Pettigrew, a 40-year-old governess who, by her own admission, has "no friends, no family, no money," appears promptly at 9:15 a.m. at the house of Miss LaFosse in hopes of landing a job. With the sort of attractiveness that drives men to unbridled distraction, Miss LaFosse can?t cook, clean, or choose which suitor to settle upon. What the 20-something lounge singer does quite ably is entangle herself in romances, and it?s the newly arrived Miss Pettigrew to whom she looks for rescue and counsel. Treated as a confidante for the first time, Miss Pettigrew rises to the task with aplomb, and the scenes that unfold between her and Miss LaFosse?s gentlemen callers are often laugh-out-loud funny. The character of Miss Pettigrew is so engaging that reading of her travails over a 24-hour period feels like being in the company of an old -- and reliably entertaining -- friend. By mid-afternoon, Miss Pettigrew, saturated with dry sherry, has been given a makeover and introduced to Miss LaFosse?s social set as one of them. The two protagonists are each other?s perfect foil: Miss LaFosse offers her infectious sense of adventure; Miss Pettigrew, her outspoken common sense. To her surprise, Miss Pettigrew realizes that this is the best day of her life. She relaxes into her first name, Guinevere, settles into her borrowed dress, and herself experiences a variety of the grand romantic chaos swirling around her charge. Miss Pettigrew possesses an inner strength and beauty entirely her own, and this confident and authentic version of herself is, happily, here to stay.

The Girl on the Fridge

The successful short-short story, also called "flash fiction," operates like an elite military commando team: get in, get out, take no prisoners. But how do you reduce a universe of meaning to something smaller than of a breadbox? Etgar Keret makes it look easy. In his previous collection, The Nimrod Flipout, and now with The Girl on the Fridge, the Israeli writer hits us with one flash-bang surprise after another. These little gems range far and wide across the human experience; and, while some are strange and off-kilter, Keret never leaves us with head-scratching bewilderment. The short-shorts take us to places we recognize but then throw us detours in the space of a single word. A soldier tyrannized by his sergeant literally seals himself into a protective cocoon; a bickering couple?s love is renewed with the assistance of Crazy Glue; and a magician?s hat tricks suddenly have gory finales (bunny lovers, avert your eyes). The Girl on the Fridge is 176 pages long and contains 46 stories -- that should give some idea of how effectively Keret distills language. The opening story, "Asthma Attack," clocks in at only 115 words but speaks volumes -- not just about the subject of romance but about Keret?s way with words. It concludes with these lines: "When an asthmatic says 'I love you,' and when an asthmatic says 'I love you madly,' there's a difference. The difference of a word. A word's a lot. It could be stop, or inhaler. It could even be ambulance. " Keret chooses his words carefully and always leaves us gasping for breath.

Dressed: A Century of Hollywood Costume Design

In her closing acknowledgments to the eye-popping, nostalgic, and historically expansive archive that is Dressed: A Century of Hollywood Costume Design, author and accomplished costume designer Deborah Nadoolman Landis calls her baby "the most comprehensive book available on Hollywood costume design." Perusing over 600 pages containing over 800 images, plus commentary, the reader is hardly inclined to dispute her. This book shines unprecedented illumination on an underrated yet indispensable part of the cinema?s magic, using a methodology both simple and powerful. Landis pairs shots of actors in iconic or representative costumes (supplemented by revelatory designer sketches) with relevant quotations, aimed at elucidating the arcane parameters and exigencies of each particular design and the mysteries of the craft as a whole. The eye is drawn, again and again, to the subtle effects and craftsmanly decision making that underlie each item of clothing. Many of the images are famous -- Theda Bara as Cleopatra; Marilyn Monroe on the sidewalk grating; Brando as the Godfather; Uma Thurman as a tracksuit-clad assassin -- but Landis eschews stale iconography in favor of striking imagery from both well- and little-known films. She?s also is a fan of the plain and understated as well as the elaborate: the migrant simplicity of The Grapes of Wrath earns a majestic two-page spread. Considered as a story, Dressed follows a surprisingly natural arc: rude beginnings, followed by a Golden Age, a Silver Age, a shabby decline, and a partial revitalization. Threaded with reverence and regret, pride and anger, astonishment and humor, Landis?s book honors her trade and her unsung peers.

Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human

Elizabeth Hess's book is a polemical animal biography in the tradition of Black Beauty. Nim Chimpsky -- his very name a dig at the controversial linguist who held that language belongs solely to humans -- was among the first and most talented of chimpanzees to learn sign language. In the end, the results of "Project Nim" proved inconclusive, and Nim was "retired" from language research, disappearing into a cruel labyrinth of breeding programs and research facilities. Chimps in such conditions frequently died in medical trials; for survivors, euthanasia was not unusual. But here was a "lab animal" who could help cook dinner and wash up afterward. And most poignantly, he could talk. Nim's incarceration devastated him, and Hess charts his transformation from a tumbling toddler into an angry, dangerous adult. Throughout it all, Nim continued to sign, forever seeking the understanding of his mostly uncomprehending handlers. Near the end of his life, when Nim viciously bit another chimpanzee, his keeper squirted a dollop of antibacterial ointment into Nim's hand and told him to apply it to the wound; Nim ambled over and treated his companion with expert care. As historian Erica Fudge points out, the danger of teaching animals to speak is that we might not want to hear what they have to tell.

All the Sad Young Literary Men

Sad, yes. Literary, if you say so. Young, not even close. Indeed, the defining characteristic of the three 20-something protagonists in Keith Gessen's All the Sad Young Literary Men -- would-be Everymen named Sam, Mark, and, yes, Keith -- is how decrepitly old, vaguely pre-Enlightenment, they all seem. Since "literariness" absolves them from wage labor, our post-Harvard heroes spend these pages wandering the American Northeast, collecting the approbations of older male notables and the affections of seemingly interchangeable, lithesome young women. In their worldview, the best women (e.g., "The Vice-President's Daughter") are "impressive"; you may copulate with the girl, but the contract's with her father. Which is to say, what's so absurdly fascinating and scruffily endearing about Gessen's debut is how it makes white-male privilege read like identity fiction. Neither trust-fund aristocrats nor bootstrap strivers, these characters sentimentalize a bygone (and likely mythic) intellectual culture, one with commanding gatekeepers whose patronage alone could assure the rise of bright boys from the provinces. And thus the narrative here tends to interrupt stories of career stagnation and romantic embarrassment with strained parallels to Soviet literature or Israeli history -- the effect is one less of erudition than petulance: "But don't you see? I'm smart." Finally too in love with the idea of ideas to ever have any novel ones of their own, the man-boys in this episodic tale bumble around like latter-day Quixotes, minor nobility born too late, tilting and jostling for affirmation from the old, the dead, the imaginary. Yes, sad.

Fidelity

When Grace Paley died in August 2007, she was primarily eulogized as a short story writer whose three collections of fiction set benchmarks for a generation of writers. The short stories deserve all their accolades, but equal attention should be paid to her poetry. In Paley?s final collection of verse, Fidelity, the majority of the poems center around death, memory, and the loss of loved ones. Though her short fiction was filled with linguistic energy, political activism, and the manic rhythm of New York City streets, in Fidelity we find a writer who has mellowed with age (dare we say "gracefully"?). These are poems from an 80-something?s sober perspective of a world that has increasingly carried its hand basket to hell. War in general, and Vietnam in particular, continues to ring loud in Paley?s fist-like voice: "What a terrible racket they made / beating all those swords into plowshares." The collection is threaded with a vein of melancholic nostalgia as Paley calls upon the ghosts of her friends and family who, she recalls, "were in great pain at leaving / and were furiously saying goodbye." All is not completely sad, however; Fidelity crescendos to a note of uplift as, in the last stanza of the last poem, "This Hill," winter gives way to spring:

on this narrow path
ice holds the black undecaying
oak leaves in its crackling grip
oh it?s become too hard to walk
a sunny patch I?m suddenly in water to my ankles  April

Haunting and haunted, Fidelity is the superb epilogue of Paley?s career in which she furiously says goodbye.

The Girl of His Dreams

Nothing wears thinner faster than a crime series. Given that fact, Donna Leon?s 17th Commissario Brunetti mystery should be her weakest, for we know Leon?s Venice so well by now and we know Brunetti, his family, and his colleagues so intimately. Instead, The Girl of His Dreams is one of Leon?s best: a cunning, deceptively simple novel that exposes a modern nether world within her dreamy city. Brunetti?s introduction to that world is the body of a dead child floating in a canal. "Silk. It felt like silk. He latched his fingers around the strands and pulled gently?. As he backed up one step it floated closer, and the silk spread out and wrapped itself around his wrist." The girl was 11 years old, the daughter of a Gypsy or Rom family. Pathology reports reveal the presence of a sexually transmitted disease. "When he read the age of the dead child, Brunetti lowered the papers to the desk and turned his head to gaze out the window?. A pine tree stood at the far corner, some sort of a fruit tree a few metres in front of it, so Brunetti saw the sweet green of the still unfolded leaves outlined against the darker green of the needles." The girl?s story comes to the fore halfway through a novel that opens with the funeral of Brunetti?s mother, wonderfully rendered, and that also includes Brunetti?s investigation of a new Christian sect. Familiar themes recur (the power of corrupt politicians, of the Catholic Church, of the faded aristocracy), and familiar characters -- such as Brunetti?s pompous superior, his loyal subordinate, his omnipotent secretary, and his enduringly perceptive wife -- act predictably. Brunetti, however, has become more permeable and more interesting, as has Leon?s supremely entertaining -- and thoughtful -- fiction.

I Have Fun Everywhere I Go

Mike Edison?s aptly named memoir I Have Fun Everywhere I Go bears one of the longest subtitles in recent memory: "Savage Tales of Pot, Porn, Punk Rock, Pro Wrestling, Talking Apes, Evil Bosses, Dirty Blues, American Heroes, and the Most Notorious Magazines in the World." And that?s pretty much that -- a perfectly accurate and concise description of the contents contained therein. After dropping out of NYU (where his student film, a postapocalyptic skinhead zombie punk rock musical, goes relatively unappreciated), Edison put his writing skills to use at a mom-and-pop pornographic publishing house (where Mom and Pop were two gay men), churning out novels at the rate of one or two per week. He then went on to write for the aforementioned Notorious Magazines, a list that includes Screw, Penthouse, Hustler (there?s the porn) and High Times (there?s the pot). Strangely enough, his Ivy League father seemed to regard his son?s stint at Wrestling?s Main Event -- where Edison railed against Hulk Hogan and challenged his boss to a throwdown for the title of managing editor -- as the most humiliating gig of all. The punk rockers include the Ramones, Reagan Youth, the John Spencer Blues Explosion, and GG Allin (the guy best known for bringing his fixations with blood, vomit, and defecation to unsuspecting audiences around the world). The serious side to creating general mayhem is here as well: First Amendment rights, (mostly) progressive counterculture politics, and the ways to channel fury into satire. One couldn?t hope for a funnier guide to the doped-up, rollicking good cheer of 20 years in outlaw culture.

The Red Balloon and White Mane

It is a pleasure to welcome these new, restored high-definition digital transfers of two of the cinema?s most acclaimed short films; each which won the Palme d?or at the Cannes Film Festival for director Albert Lamorisse, and both have enchanted audiences young and old for more than a half century. Appearing for the first time on DVD, The Red Balloon is set, with equally firm footing, in the streets of Paris and the dream world of childhood; this beloved 34-minute fable tells a marvelous tale about a small boy who makes his daily rounds through the city trailed by a magical red balloon. Without dialogue, the story evokes the ephemeral (and imperiled) innocence of youth, that spell-like state that no language can ever really penetrate. White Mane, produced in 1953, three years before the release of The Red Balloon, treats the same theme in a starker and more passionate way. Shot in the wild, watery natural setting of the Camargue in southern France, it tells the story of a boy?s love for a noble and untamed horse. As the pair ride out to sea to avoid capture by a band of pursuers, you feel a piece of your most rooted self break free. Pauline Kael called the 38-minute, black-and-white White Mane ?one of the most beautiful films ever made.? The films are available separately.

Cheer! Three Teams on a Quest for Cheerleading?s Ultimate Prize

Maybe you dated a cheerleader. Maybe, more to the point, your crush dated a cheerleader. Maybe you?ve seen Bring It On -- or, oh, any high school movie, ever. No matter what, you are surely well aware that -- whether we look down at her with derision or vault her to the top of the social pyramid -- the cheerleader occupies an iconic place in the American imagination. But unless you watch a lot of ESPN2, you may not be aware of the spot that cheerleading, especially college cheerleading, now occupies in American athletics. Author Kate Torgovnick aims to change that with Cheer! Three Teams on a Quest for Cheerleading?s Ultimate Prize. "These are not just pretty women shaking pom-poms," Torgovnick writes, and the "ultimate prize" these athletes seek is not popularity. It?s the college nationals, and the team to beat is the Stephen F. Austin State University Lumberjacks. By telling their story -- and that of two competitors, the Southern University Jaguars and the University of Memphis All-Girl Tigers -- Torgovnick upends stereotype, elucidates history and fact, and schools us all: gymnastic, acrobatic, competitive cheerleading is clearly a sport, and (speaking of upending stereotype) there are plenty of massive, muscular cheerleading men who won?t let you forget it. Sure, there?s also some juice -- bulimia, drugs, and juice juice, as in steroids -- but Cheer! is Friday Night Lights, not shocking tell-all. Torgovnick bobbles when she inserts herself, jarringly, into the action, and at least passing interest or strong curiosity is a prerequisite for her highly detailed play-by-play. But otherwise: Rah-RAH!

Fidelity

When Grace Paley died in August 2007, she was primarily eulogized as a short story whose three collections of fiction set benchmarks for a generation of writers. The short stories deserve all their accolades, but equal attention should be paid to her poetry. In Paley?s final collection of verse, Fidelity, the majority of the poems center around death, memory and the loss of loved ones. Though her short fiction was filled with linguistic energy, political activism, and the manic rhythm of New York City streets, in Fidelity we find a writer who has mellowed with age (dare we say "gracefully"?). These are poems from an eighty-something?s sober perspective of a world which has increasingly carried its hand basket to hell. War in general, and Vietnam in particular, continues to ring loud in Paley?s fist-like voice: "What a terrible racket they made/beating all those swords into plowshares." The collection is threaded with a vein of melancholic nostalgia as Paley calls upon the ghosts of her friends and family who, she recalls, "were in great pain at leaving/and were furiously saying goodbye." All is not completely sad, however; Fidelity crescendos to a note of uplift as, in the last stanza of the last poem, "This Hill," winter gives way to spring:

on this narrow path
ice holds the black undecaying
oak leaves in its crackling grip
oh it?s become too hard to walk

a sunny patch I?m suddenly

in water to my ankles  April

Haunting and haunted, Fidelity is the superb epilogue of Paley?s career in which she furiously says goodbye.

The Magic of M‚liŠs

Seen from the vantage point of our present age of CGI-driven films, the visionary genius of Georges M‚liŠs has never seemed so prescient. M‚liŠs was one of those brilliantly impatient thinkers who grasp the essential elements of a new technological discovery and, while others are still mulling over its basic properties, indulge their fantasies and turn the whole process on its head. As much a dyed-in-the-wool entertainer and committed magician as he was a protean visual artist, M‚liŠs ranks among the most influential figures in international popular culture. And as The Magic of M‚liŠs collection makes clear, his short films are still as deliciously absurd and delightful as they must have seemed a century ago. Although the absence of the most famous of all his landmark works, A Trip to the Moon, disappoints, it doesn?t diminish the sheer enjoyment or importance of this set. Quickly grasping that film editing could creatively alter the viewer's sense of space and time, M‚liŠs calls on old-fashioned magic acts, music hall shenanigans, children?s book narratives, and proto-surrealist imagery to fashion mini-masterpieces that, to their betterment, shrug off conventional logic and verisimilitude. The very titles of these 15 films practically advise us to ditch reality at the doorstep and surrender to these over-the-top flights of fantasy; among them, The Living Playing Cards, The Untamable Whiskers, The Enchanted Sedan Chair, and The Impossible Voyage. The addition of the compact documentary Georges M‚liŠs: Cinema Magician provides us with the facts of an artist who, thankfully, hardly gave facts the time of day.

Gustave Courbet: 1819-1877

The conquering spirit of our modern painting derives from Courbet. These are the words of the greatest of modern art critics, Julius Meier-Gr„fe, about the most difficult of 19th-century painters, Gustave Courbet (1819-77). Difficult, because while Courbet painted some of the most startling and beautiful paintings of his time, he also made some of the worst to bear the signature of a master. These disparities have produced innumerable flights of fancy from art historians and have been explained by everything from the artist?s provincial origins to his political and social theories to his "ironic" formalism. A new generation of scholars is now focused on Courbet?s use of modern media and marketing to establish himself as a succŠs de scandale. Once he had achieved fame, he put less and less effort into pictures and became, as he wrote of himself in 1853, "the proudest and most arrogant man in France." This post-political view of Courbet informs the large exhibition that was organized last year in France and is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through May 18th. The sumptuous accompanying catalogue is the best summary of his life and work to date. It includes excellent essays on his politics; his relations with his key patron, Alfred Bruyas; his use of photography; and his influence on painters like Manet, Monet, and C‚zanne. And with more than 500 illustrations, the book is the most gorgeous possible guide to Courbet. To understand him, you?ll still need to go to Paris to the Mus‚e d?Orsay and to Montpellier to the Mus‚e Fabre, which between them hold a majority of the key pictures, but this catalogue is the next-best thing.

Somebody Scream!: Rap Music's Rise to Prominence in the Aftershock of Black Power

Of all those, the candidate himself not least among them, who have commented upon the unlikeliness of Barack Obama?s run for president, its novelty and defiance of the norm, the rapper DMX appears to have maintained a uniquely pristine state of incredulity. ?His name is Barack?!? said DMX recently, in an interview with XXL Magazine. Yes, the interviewer assured him: Barack Obama. "Barack?!" Barack. "What the is a Barack?! Barack Obama. Where he from, Africa? . . . You can't be serious. Barack Obama. Get the outta here." One quotes these remarks less to marvel at the solipsism of a rap superstar than to note that hip-hop and politics have always been uneasy bedfellows. For every "conscious" or politically engaged rapper, there have been 50 others whose estrangement from the political process has acquired the density of an ideology. But here comes Marcus Reeves with Somebody Scream! -- a coherent and clear-headed account of hip-hop culture in which its evolution is related at every turn to the prevailing reality of racial politics in America. That 1995 saw the Million Man March as well as the release of the fatherless Tupac Shakur's Me Against the World was not, Reeves shows us, an idle simultaneity. The beating of Rodney King was prophesied in the music of NWA, and the killing of James Byrd answered in the roar of the aforementioned DMX. The controversy surrounding Public Enemy in the late 1980s, writes Reeves, "helped expose a vacuum of black leadership within black America, so much so that African Americans would mistake a rap group . . . for real political leadership." Given the potency of the music, it was an easy mistake to make.

Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq

he Mongol invasion of 1258 was the only cataclysm in the last one thousand years of Iraq?s history comparable to the disasters that have followed the invasion of 2003. Few writers can say this with authority; Patrick Cockburn is one of them. Middle East correspondent for the Independent in London, Cockburn began visiting Iraq in 1977 and is the author of The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq and Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein, as well as a memoir, A Broken Boy. His latest book, Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq, is timely, invaluable, and, like all Cockburn?s work, beautifully and economically written. The rise of Muqtada -- "the most important and surprising figure to emerge in Iraq since the U.S. invasion" is examined here alongside the political, religious, and sociological forces that have shaped the region. Unlike many correspondents, Cockburn refuses to see Iraq as simply a war zone. Instead he conveys the reality of daily life, drawing on his own varied personal experience (the book opens with him almost being killed at a Mehdi Army checkpoint) and on interviews with, among others, Shia and Sunni militia fighters and clerics, Iraqi politicians, historians, and ordinary citizens. Elusive Muqtada emerges as a "highly intelligent but moody and suspicious" leader whose "power lies in swift retreats" and who is "persistently underestimated" by the U.S. In this elliptical portrait drawn in relatively few pages, Cockburn reveals more about Iraq past and present, and about the war and the current positions of Iran and the U.S., than do the many other bloated recent volumes that address the same subjects.

Atmospheric Disturbances

If Charlotte Perkins Gilman of "The Yellow Wall-Paper" fame had collaborated with Philip K. Dick to rewrite Jack Finney?s The Body Snatchers, the hallucinatory result might remind you of Rivka Galchen?s debut novel, Atmospheric Disturbances. The well-ordered life of psychoanalyst Leo Liebenstein has been lent color and quirky charm by his exotic flower of a wife, Buenos Aires–born Rema. But panic and disorientation set in one day when, upon the most dubious of subliminal clues, Leo decides she has been replaced by a "simulacrum," an imposter who, for reasons unknown, has taken the place of the real Rema. The manic fugue state and search that follows dovetails curiously with the paranoid fantasies of Leo's patient Harvey, who believes he is a secret agent in the employ of the Royal Academy of Meteorology, using weather manipulation in battle against the sinister 49 Quantum Fathers. Galchen?s ingenious metaphorical play with meteorology, taken together with her conspiracy-based game playing, suggests a heavy influence from Thomas Pynchon. ("49" Quantum Fathers indeed!) But whereas the trials of Oedipa Maas, however surreal, achieved an indisputable earthbound objectivity, the unreliable first-person narration by a plainly psychotic Dr. Leo lends a tone of deadpan fever dream to the whole of the narrative. Like Rima the Venezuelan Bird Girl in W. H. Hudson?s Green Mansions -- an earlier Latina victim of "civilized" intervention -- this Rema is also "killed" by a mind rendered disordered by the Anglo disease of too much thinking: Galchen?s ultimate villain.

Opting In: Having a Child Without Losing Yourself

In a 2003 cover story for The New York Times Magazine, Lisa Belkin argued that educated, affluent women -- the ones that, in her opinion, were the luckiest beneficiaries of feminism -- were "opting out" of the workplace in favor of family, exercising their supposedly feminist right to choose. AprŠs Belkin, les Mommy Wars. Five years on, it has become the 9,000-word article that launched several thousand pages of glowing endorsements and angry rebuttals, on blogs, in journals, and in at least a dozen books. Given Amy Richards?s credentials as a self-appointed spokesperson for younger feminists (she is coauthor, with Jennifer Baumgardner, of Manifesta and cofounder of the Third Wave Foundation), it?s unsurprising that she would find Belkin?s thesis troubling enough to explicitly refute it in her title. Feminism, argues Richards, has been unfairly represented as anti-family, and in fact family issues -- among them the inclusion of midwives in birthing plans, better childcare and support for working parents, and the promotion of anti-sexist childrearing -- have been some of its biggest accomplishments. In a chapter entitled "To Work or Not to Work Is Not the Question," she reminds women that respect for "women?s work" in the home was always part of feminism and insists that a progressive movement can?t possibly be solely concerned with the problems of middle-class and "elite" women. She contrasts her mother's life as a single parent with her own, in which she and her partner, Peter, more or less coparent their two boys, and holds up both as models of feminist parenting. As in her other work, Richards?s enthusiasm for including all women in her big feminista hug can, on occasion, lack critical bite. But overall this book provides a welcome respite from the snipers in the playgroup.

April 23: " 'A job,' the woman repeated again, smiling, as if I hadn't heard her. 'Would you like one?' "

Kenneth Calhoun (Black Moon) and Lysley Tenorio (Monstress) of the Discover Great New Writers program on B-movies, heritage, and finales.

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Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
In the Light of What We Know

Zia Haider Rahman's mystery of a brilliant Bangledeshi mathematician and the haunting crime he's committed barrels through the Ivy League, London high finance, and ravaged Afghanistan with vinegar-steeped prose recalling the best of George Orwell and Joseph Conrad.

The People's Platform

Why is the Internet - once touted as the democratizer of the future - ruled by a few corporate giants, while countless aspirants work for free? Astra Taylor diagnoses why the web has failed to be a utopian playing field, and offers compelling ways we can diversify the marketplace and give voice to the marginalized.

A Private Venus

Dubbed "the Italian Simenon," Giorgio Scerbanenco (1911-1969) began his crime-writing career with books set in the USA, but quickly shifted scene closer to home, the city of Milan.  In this adventure, appearing in English for the first time, his underdog hero Dr. Duca Lamberti finds himself in the middle of a seedy, scantily clad criminal racket, where the presence of an outsider could result in death.