Displaying articles for: May 2009

God Says No

Gary Gray, ?black outside and damaged inside,? prays to two Jesus statues to make him straight, but neither complies. Perhaps they?re simply annoyed at the way Gray gets turned on by a stained-glass depiction of David and Goliath in church. Even after he accidentally impregnates his girlfriend (?All women have mustaches, and fortunately for me, Annie didn?t bleach hers?), Gray?s entreaties go unanswered. In the early 1990s, unable to reconcile his sexuality with his fundamentalist faith, Gray becomes an expert in deception and sets increasingly lenient rules for his ?guy stuff.? Then a disaster coupled with a religious hallucination gives him the opportunity to escape his wife and infant daughter for a year of what he calls ?free checking?: the ability to indulge his desires in order to purge them for good. Hannaham feels genuine sorrow for the struggles of his pitiable protagonist. He transforms this first-person account of burgeoning self-awareness into a parable about the dangers of such strict adherence to Someone Else?s rules. As Gray goes to greater lengths to repress his urges and suppress himself, the novel, not surprisingly, takes a dark turn. It?s hard to be funny about a rehab facility in the Deep South that treats homosexuality as an addiction. Lighthearted beach reading, this isn?t, nor is it as twee as other McSweeney?s fare. Nevertheless, at its core, God Says No has a passionate sincerity that will certainly brighten some readers? days.

To Live or to Perish Forever: Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan

The cops came for me on a cold, rainy night. Such nocturnal visitations rarely bode well, let alone for an American journalist in Pakistan reporting on the country's rambunctious politics, a job tailor-made to pique someone's ire, that someone ever and always being the wrong someone. But Nicholas Schmidle doesn't know any better, for he is young, and much of the beauty of his reportage comes from the fresh eye he brings to the flabbergasting array of forces contending for ascendancy. How are you going to get the Pakistan story unless you talk to radical Islamists -- he seeks out jihadists in the same city as did Daniel Pearl -- tribal insurgents, ethnic nationalists, old-school politicos, the military, the rogue intelligence agencies, the man on the street. Just so, and Schmidle will pay for it with his safety; if he doesn't beat that drum, the narrative can't help buzz with tension. But the tension does not obscure Schmidle's illuminations: each chapter reads like a day trip that may happen to last for months, in search of political awareness. He doesn't neglect an elemental sense of place and incident -- the look of a village, a Sufi in a dancing trance, the play of a green kite against a periwinkle sky -- yet he is hungrier for understanding why Pashtuns have a bad reputation, why Pakistan has more assassinations than a porcupine has quills, or what lies behind the rise of the insurrectionary madrassas. Always in evidence is Schmidle's willingness to listen and then report, with polish but without varnish -- thus the late-night knock on the door.

Without a Song

If a musician's sound, style, and manner are a reflection of his or her personality, Freddie Hubbard must have been one cocky guy. Bold, assertive, demonstrative, extravagant, and always ferociously extroverted, Hubbard's trumpet playing announced its intentions from note one: "Listen up," it barked, "I've got something to say and you're gonna hear it." That swagger invigorates Without a Song, a posthumous recording that captures Hubbard at a midcareer peak on a 1969 European tour. (Hubbard approved the release of the previously unheard material shortly before he died of heart failure last December.) But the performances also remind us that in addition to his superior technical gifts and dramatic flair, Hubbard called on deep reserves of knowledge and taste that tinged his extravagant runs with harmonic daring and lyrical poise. Stoked on by a band of peers -- bassist Ron Carter, pianist Sir Roland Hanna, and drummer Louis Hayes -- Hubbard struts his way through up-tempo pieces like "Hub Tones" and "Blues by Five" with customary vigor and panache. Few trumpeters of that time -- or any time -- possessed the total command of the instrument that Hubbard almost insouciantly displays. Yet when he turns to stirring readings of the ballads "The Things We Did Last Summer" and "Body and Soul," this unashamed virtuoso also demonstrates his gorgeous round tone, firm melodicism, and unerring pacing. An untreated lip infection that seriously affected his playing unfortunately marred Hubbard's last years. A recording like Without a Song better keeps his timeless, life-grabbing artistry in mind.

Cooking Dirty: A Story of Life, Sex, Love, and Death in the Kitchen

Award-winning food writer and former chef Jason Sheehan entertainingly describes his hardscrabble career cooking across America in all-night diners, greasy-spoon eateries, and strip-mall restaurants. Far removed from the limelight of New York or Paris, or celebrity chefs with their instant name recognition, Sheehan brings us inside the chaotic, adrenaline-fueled, and multiethnic kitchens where our next meal might well originate. These kitchens, in Sheehan's rendering, are places where anything goes, including petty criminality, unexpected violence, and obscenely abusive language. Sheehan himself seems like an overworked, underpaid pirate captain living a life of swashbuckling excess. In his lowest moment, Sheehan bemoans working at Jimmy's Crab Shack in Tampa "deep-frying fisherman's platters for dimwits." While Sheehan depicts the nightly chaos inside a busy kitchen, he also expresses his hopeless, often unrequited love for cooking, as well as his addiction to the sense of community a close-knit kitchen represents. "This was The Life," writes Sheehan, "disasters and heat and blistering adrenaline highs, the tunnel vision, the crashing din...crushing pressure and pure, raw joy." As for why Sheehan never tried to make it big as a celebrity chef, he answers with a simple truth: "I was a cook. And for me, that was enough." Sheehan's eye-opening narrative is both anthropological, evocatively analyzing a bizarre kitchen subculture, and autobiographical, expressing his own confusing, often hilarious journey into the underbelly of American cuisine. Whether as a chef or a writer, Jason Sheehan offers up a delightful meal that's a pure, sensual pleasure.

Elephant Reflections

Most of us know elephants only from the circus and the zoo. Happily, there isn't a barking ringmaster to be found in Elephant Reflections, although some zebras, giraffes, and baboons make appearances. This breathtaking book of photographs by Karl Ammann shows African forest and savanna elephants as they live in nature -- playing, walking, eating, bathing, mating -- and the effect is mesmerizing. The collection includes instructive shots that illuminate elephant behavior as well as some more arty closeups, many of which make aesthetic studies of that improbably thick, wrinkly, cracked skin. In a gorgeous accompanying essay, Dale Peterson covers topics from elephant history to their habits and emotional ties (yes, they have them). He also writes passionately about the politics of the ivory trade and the conservation efforts it has stirred. Photographer Ammann contributes his own short piece, positing that the unregulated trade in elephant meat now drives more poaching in Central Africa than the trade in ivory. A perfect marriage of photograph and text (the two have collaborated once before, on Eating Apes), Elephant Reflections makes the case for safeguarding strange, intelligent creatures who, in Peterson's words, should challenge "our sense of entitlement and superiority, and who should, indeed, caution us, tell us to be careful, keep still, have respect."

The Little Stranger

Sarah Waters made her name as the writer of erotic "lesbo-Victorian romps" that effortlessly straddle the worlds of literary and genre fiction. Set in rural Warwickshire just after the Second World War, The Little Stranger is her fifth novel, the first with a male narrator, Dr. Faraday. We meet the doctor at Hundreds Hall, a former grand structure now wasting away, and home to the Ayreses for close to two centuries. Members of the landed gentry now fallen to ruin, the Ayreses -- Mrs. Ayres and her two grown children, Caroline and Roderick -- seem steeped in a bygone, gentler age. Called upon to examine the housemaid, Dr Faraday finds himself strangely drawn to the dilapidated house, where his own mother used to work as a maid 30 years ago. What begins as mild fascination with the house and its residents will transform itself into something more pronounced as Dr. Faraday scrambles to make sense of the strange happenings that begin to haunt Hundreds. Unexplained marks appear on the walls, fires start on their own accord, and footsteps break the silence of unoccupied rooms. Acting both as doctor and confidant, Dr. Faraday's life becomes closely entwined with the Ayreses, even as a string of greater tragedies descend on the Hundreds. This is quintessential Waters territory -- involving madness, suicide, and an arguable murder -- perfected over the rather steep arc of her work. Dripping with psychological suspense, The Little Stranger keeps the reader guessing on whether it is an atmospheric horror story or a macabre murder mystery right to the end.

Red and Me: My Coach, My Lifelong Friend

Male relationships can be hard to decipher sometimes, particularly older fellas from a bygone era. In the late '50s and throughout the '60s, Bill Russell led the Celtics to 11 titles in his 13 seasons with the team and broke racial barriers by being part of the first African-American starting five in NBA history as well as the first African-American coach in the league. But it's to his relationship with the Celtics' previous coach, the legendary Red Auerbach, that Russell devotes his third book, Red and Me. It's the story of a small, crusty, unafraid, ribald Jewish guy from Brooklyn somehow connecting with a proud, testy, unapologetic, close-to-the-vest black guy raised in segregated Louisiana and the projects of Oakland. How did they do it? The unspoken code of respect: "Although Red and I never talked about that, we had both experienced it the same way," Russell writes about one experience the pair shared, but this kind of commentary is ubiquitous. They didn't need to say everything -- or sometimes anything -- to each other to know they had each other's back. "That's what friends do for each other," Russell writes elsewhere. "No need to carry it farther than that: That's the way it's supposed to be done." One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is how the pair deal with anti-Semitism and racial hatred, both in Boston and during road trips through the Deep South, where Russell once led his fellow African-American teammates back to the airport when a restaurant wouldn't serve them. Auerbach, of course, had his friend's back at the time. Not that they had to talk about it.

Bruno, Chief of Police

Early reviewers of this scenic, sharply written series debut about the head cop in a small village called St. Denis on the River Vézère, in the Dordogne region of southern France (where the astounding caves of Périgord are) have already called it a perfect blend of Peter Mayle and Alexander McCall Smith. I'd like to add the late, much-missed Magdalen Nabb, author of the Marshal Guarnaccia books, to the mix. Benoît Courrèges, called Bruno by his many friends, is a fellow of many parts and talents. A former soldier who has embraced the pleasures and slow rhythms of country life, he lives in a restored shepherd's cottage, shops carefully at the weekly market, coaches the local children in rugby and tennis, makes his own excellent foie gras and pickled walnuts, and outwits the European Union bureaucrats from Brussels who try in vain to enforce their stupid laws governing local produce. He also solves the occasional crime, using his considerable wit and the charm that makes him glow in the eyes of many local women -- including a memorable character called the Mad Englishwoman. The peace of St. Denis is shattered by the savage murder of an elderly North African who fought in the French army. The man is found with a swastika carved into his chest, leading Bruno and his friend and mentor, the Mayor, to at first fear that militants from the anti-immigrant National Front are responsible. But when a visiting scholar helps to untangle the dead man's past, Bruno's investigation draws him into one of the darkest chapters of French history: World War II, a time of terror and betrayal that set brother against brother. Walker is the senior director of the Global Business Policy Council and has written many serious nonfiction books. He divides his time between Washington and the South of France -- where with any luck he will continue to tell us more stories about Bruno.

The Well-Dressed Ape: A Natural History of Myself

A classic science fiction trope asks us to imagine a human on exhibit in an interplanetary zoo. Thus deracinated, the captured human offers us a startling perspective on our species: we are just another cage-worthy animal, albeit with some unique traits and capabilities, but subject like any creature to scientifically objective categorization and analysis. It's precisely this devilishly sly and illuminating alien viewpoint that Hannah Holmes adopts in her new book, a "fact sheet" for Homo sapiens. Employing her own body as representative subject and her own experiences as a well-traveled journalist, she marshals wide-ranging, up-to-the-minute scientific research, along with intriguing speculations, to craft a fascinating, eminently readable portrait of humanity's physiology and behavior, our past, present and future amidst all creation. Throughout, Holmes deploys her love for and knowledge of the rest of the animal kingdom to good effect, comparing and contrasting humanity with our feathered, furred, chitinous and even microscopic cousins. As well, she plucks pertinent details from various non-Western cultures with anthropological exactitude. Her language is rich with nuance and metaphor ("The Maasai are as elongated as Giacometti sculptures."), lighthearted and playful while simultaneously rigorous with the facts. She is not shy about approaching thorny matters involving gender or racial differences. And she deals in a non-partisan manner with unresolved controversies. By the end of her survey, Holmes has succeeded admirably in "defining my animal self ? clarify my identity in the natural world," a valuable prize we all share along the way.

This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life

David Foster Wallace committed suicide last September, a grim reality that unavoidably colors This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life, a commencement address he gave at Kenyon College in 2005. This slim publication -- its 134 pages often contain one sentence -- warns of the dangerous, unhappy depressions of self-absorption and says "learning how to think," that old liberal arts mantra, "really means learning how to exercise some control over how andwhat you think." Every life experience casts us in the lead role, and that default setting is our greatest obstacle, Wallace says. "Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don't make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I'm gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to food shop, because my natural default setting is that situations like this are really all about me." To combat this attitude, we must be mindful and vigilant. "It means being aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot or will not exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed." In short, don't sweat the small stuff, because, well, most of it is small stuff. Clinical depression was not small stuff to David Foster Wallace. His suicide doesn't trivialize the advice in this brief, charming volume; but his advice doesn't help us understand his death, either.

Everything Hurts

Phil Camp, the crabby protagonist of Bill Scheft's novel Everything Hurts, is a man in pain. "The pain had started nine months ago. Innocently enough. In his left gluteus," writes Scheft, erstwhile head writer for The Late Show with David Letterman. "That's right. Pain in the ass." Phil, a divorced former sportswriter who has accidentally remade himself as a self-help guru, spends his days (and nights) lying on a wrestling mat in his sprawling Manhattan apartment, writing a popular syndicated newspaper column based on his bestselling book Where Can I Stow My Baggage? He rises from time to time to limp to doctors and therapists. Nothing helps -- until a peculiar man in sandals hands him a dog-eared copy of The Power of "Ow!" How the Mind Gives the Body Pain, by one Dr. Samuel Abrun. Abrun's book -- which attributes most pain to "Acute Psychogenic Syndrome," or repressed rage -- launches Phil on a journey of self-discovery that leads him to revisit difficult childhood memories; forces him to confront his bitterly estranged half brother, conservative radio talk-show host Jim McManus; and delivers him a love interest, Dr. Samuel Abrun's smart, beautiful daughter, Janet. At times, Everything Hurts itself can be a bit painful: It's clear early on what needs to happen for the central conflict to be resolved, yet Scheft stretches it out nearly to the breaking point before wrapping it all up in an almost-too-pat package. What's more, Phil's conflict hinges on a memory that's hugely important to him but somewhat trivial to the reader. However, despite the book's flaws, Scheft's clever prose and quirky characters inject a good dose of wry humor into the proceedings -- just what the doctor ordered.


Mickey Rourke was not the only aging, musclebound icon of the 1980s to return to screen prominence in the waning months of 2008 with a soulful star turn as an aging, musclebound has-been. But where The Wrestler merely allegorized the True Hollywood travails of its leading man, JCVD purports to depict them. Sort of. In this stylish second feature from the young French director Mabrouk El Mechri, Jean-Claude van Damme -- relegated to straight-to-video fare since 1999's Universal Soldier: The Return -- plays Jean-Claude van Damme, an out-of-work action star who stumbles into a hostage situation at a Belgian post office soon after returning home broke and on the brink of losing custody of his daughter in a California divorce court. Mistaking him for the perpetrator, the police begin negotiations with van Damme as a mob gathers on the street, chanting in absurdist support of their fallen hero. ("WHAT-IS-GO-ING-ON? WHAT-IS-GO-ING-ON?") As a French art-house meditation on fame and pop-cult transience, JCVD can seem rather neo–New Wave slick, and more than bit lacking in ambition. El Mechri channels Godard, for sure, but only by way of Charlie Kaufman and Anglo-American reality television. Indeed, like the decidedly sub-nova white dwarves featured on Dancing with the Stars, it's the hard-to-watch onscreen/offscreen pathos of JCVD's leading man that provides most of the film's intertextual suspense. Happily, if a bravura six-minute, no-cut soliloquy near the end is any guide, van Damme is both fully in on the joke and, it turns out, a tragiccomic actor of remarkable cunning and Rourke-like physical reserve. Then again, upon the film's release van Damme was quoted in a British tabloid hoping JCVD would help turn around a real-life custody row. "The only way I can bring my son back," he told The Sun, "is to be successful again as they were saying to him, 'Your father is a loser.' " The headiness of Van Damme's performance suggests he was kidding; the heart makes you fear he was not.

The Mighty Angel

Wit is the life raft on the boozy waters that brace Jerzy Pilch's The Mighty Angel. The winner of Poland's 2001 NIKE Literary Award, this remorselessly enjoyable novel concerns the goings-on of "Jerzy," a writer who has teetered in and out of rehab 18 times and always has a snug expression ready to sling. At the inpatient facility, this ingratiates him to his peers, who pay him to write their emotional journals -- a compulsory requirement for all aspiring teetotalers. While ghostwriting one such entry, Jerzy poses a series of questions that bask in the novel's ruminative superstructure: "How can the depths of the drunken soul be reconciled with the shallows of the drunken body? How can the loftiest flights of the soul ever be equated with a fearful barfing? What is the connection between the boldness and panache of the evening and the fear and trembling of the morning?" From the opening paragraph -- in which the protagonist awakens to discover a couple of Mafiosi in his room who have taken it upon themselves to act as literary agents for a female poet -- to the closing paragraphs that flick away the tragic arc that's usually prefabricated for books in the end-of-the-bottle genre, Pilch teases out plenty of LOL moments from desultory situations. All told, The Mighty Angel furnishes enough Schadenfreude to stylishly blacken just about any comedic sensibility.

Radiant Darkness

As a young teen, I was convinced that I had been born to the wrong family -- surely I was a lost princess or, even better, a misplaced goddess. Alas, my divinity was never recognized by my parents. Authors of young adult fiction have tapped into deity envy, shaping ancient myth into stories of teens with problems of godly proportions. At best these novels don't merely reflect a young woman's wish for independence, but explore some of the troubling aspects of leaving the nest. Emily Whitman's Radiant Darkness is a fascinating, complex version of Persephone, the goddess Demeter's daughter, who is courted by Hades, Lord of the Dead, and ends up underground for half the year. Whitman turns the story into a struggle between parental control and young desire. When Persephone frets that her overprotective mother is "never going to let me grow up. Another thousand years will go by, and I'll still be sitting here with my doll," Whitman has captured the laments of a thousand (mortal) Persephones, hankering after red lipstick and the bad boy down the block. The pleasure of this book springs partly from hearing snide teen talk with a mythological bent, and partly from the way in which Persephone runs into Hades' arms -- and learns to regret it. She discovers how much her mother adores her only when she sees how Demeter grieves, a despair that sends the human world into winter. Radiant Darkness offers a terrific story of a girl on the edge of womanhood, caught between a mother who offers no reverence and a boy who offers worship.

Wise Blood

His 1979 film of Flannery O'Connor's 1952 novel found Huston taking on a source that -- thanks to the author's distinctly idiosyncratic vision and writerly precision -- walked a dramatic tightrope between gothic grotesquerie and wide-open humor. The translation of O'Connor's bruised universe to the screen is made with the surest of touches, delivering a modest masterpiece in film. Given a thoroughly creepy tale crawling with religious fanatics, hucksters, and social outcasts, yet tickled by outrageous comedy, Huston kept a tight rein on the material, correctly sensing that the slightest missteps in balance might derail the works. His unerring talent for casting served him well. Brad Dourif as the independently minded preacher Hazel Motes seems to be incrementally crawling out of his own skin, his eyes seared by visions impossible to state. A superb ensemble including Harry Dean Stanton, Amy Wright, Ned Beatty, and Dan Shor -- in a standout performance as Enoch Emory, a perennial loser with a world full of bad ideas -- embody a stew of southern outcasts, each making wrong turns on the road to redemption. In the "what were they thinking?" category, it should be noted, lies Alex North's atrociously inappropriate and intrusive score, laden with hokey '70s TV flavorings and endless reworkings of "The Tennessee Waltz." The film triumphs despite this inexplicable attempt to shoot itself in the foot.

An Orchard Invisible

If you're blessed with a patch of ground, or at least a windowsill where you can perch a pot or two, then now is the season to plant a garden. And there's no better companion for your labors than Jonathan Silvertown's thorough yet eminently readable history of seeds, An Orchard Invisible, out from University of Chicago Press. Silvertown has written an accessible volume that nonetheless touches on everything from Ovid's Metaphorphoses to a corn fungus eaten as a vegetable in Mexico. Silvertown manages to keep the history, and the science, digestible. He has wisely structured the book so that a nonsequential perusal is as enjoyable as a straight read. Moreover, he has an ear for the elegant phrase. Explaining the vagaries of seed dispersion, he notes, "Dormancy is time travel" -- and cooking, he argues, is "evolutionary subversion." As with the best of any scientific history written for the lay audience, Orchard Invisible gives a sense of the inextricable connections between living things. Fruit, with its nutritive allure, helps explain the evolutionary development of three-color vision in humans. The practice of masting in oak trees, when bumper crops of acorns are followed by fallow years, contributed to the rise of Lyme disease. He quotes Thoreau: "I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders." An Orchard Invisible is a veritable wonder-cabinet.

The Pleasure Is All Mine

You can lick your fingers. As I said, it's a messy meal. Just refrain from loud sucking noises. And as for drinking wine with your bird, hold the glass by the stem, as you should. Thank you. No, thank you, Suzanne Pirret, for reminding us that eating alone need not resemble a date with a carton of ice cream and a spoon or -- worse still -- doling out sections of a store-bought rotisserie chicken five nights in a row. Instead this graduate of the Cordon Blue School, having tempered her knowledge in the heat of professional kitchens on both sides of the Atlantic, offers a manual on "cooking for yourself, decadently." A multitude of excellent recipes to prepare and eat solo follows, each with an appropriate drink pairing and handy kitchen tips that could only come from classical training, such as turning an egg through a sieve to "leave the yuck part of the albumen behind." Starting with a rich steak au poivre with frites (a meal Pirret notes would be her last, if she happened to wind up on death row), Pirret progresses through easy, fresh reinventions of a variety of dishes to end with a simple, decadent bread and chocolate: a thin slice of bread, a slab of chocolate, olive oil, cocoa and a little fleur de sel. ("Eat with a knife and fork," she advises. My pleasure.) The fact that it's liberally sprinkled with amusing anecdotes on everything food-related, from making reservations in NYC (fuggedaboutit) vs. LA (easy, no one eats!) to proper table etiquette (related in truly uproarious fashion complete with, shall we say, salty language), makes it all the more delicious.

The Posthuman Dada Guide: Tzara & Lenin Play Chess

Right before one goes to sleep, and just after one wakes up, the mind is as supple as a wind-plucked reed. During these intervals where fancy scampers aloft, the drag of everyday perception abates. Andrei Codrescu's outstandingly modulated essay, The Posthuman Dada Guide: Tzara & Lenin Play Chess, courts this state as it polkas around three imaginative conjectures: First, what if Tristan Tzara (1896–1963), a Romanian Jew who some believed was the founder of the Dada movement, played chess on October 8, 1916, with Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, (1870–1924)? Second, what are the symbolic ripples of such a matchup, if Lenin can be seen as a representative of a rationally motivated revolution that sought to perfect humanity by placing it under the thumb of the state, and Tzara can be seen as an artistic revolutionary who tried to liberate mankind from all stultifying institutions? Third, assuming that our technocratic age prides itself on rationality, efficiency, and increasing degrees of automation, might not the free-for-all, impossible-to-discern-on-your-GPS energies of Dada -- the art form that scoffs at all prescriptions/definitions -- be used for our collective good to shock us out of our fill-in-the-blank routines? Judging from the book's design, clearly Codrescu's academic publisher has high hopes that it will have broad appeal. The Posthuman Dada Guide is a slender, tower-shaped book whose pages have generous margins; its text is divided into small chunks of alphabetically organized subjects, which lend to the impression that it's intended for easy transport and frequent consultation. Based on my own experience -- I've read portions of the book at least three times now -- it seems that this is a work with a very long tail that will trip people up for many moons to come.

Born to Explore

Say you're going on a wilderness expedition and can take with you only what will fit into one compact Altoids tin: What would you take? That's just one of many thought-provoking survival questions addressed by Richard Wiese in his new book, Born to Explore: How to Be a Backyard Adventurer. Wiese, who has served as the Explorers Club's youngest president and hosted a syndicated TV show, also fills in readers on how to: build their own canoe; start a fire without a match; make an igloo; cook "Road Kill Stew" (no, that's not a euphemism); survive a moose attack; bake bread in a plastic bag; catch fish with a Coke bottle; chop down a tree; fashion a compass out of a sewing needle, a magnet, and a glass of water; and, well, a host of other useful things to know. In eight lively, amply illustrated chapters, accessible enough for the whole family to enjoy (included are many experiments and activities suitable for teens and up -- or even for parents to attempt with their kids), Wiese incites our curiosity not only about the faraway lands to which he has traveled ("Several years ago, while cross-country skiing to the North Pole?" is the sort of line he tosses off in passing) but also about the flora and fauna in our own backyards. "I hope Born to Explore inspires both the nature enthusiast and the nature-impaired and provides information on the tools needed to discover and love the outdoors," he writes. Mission accomplished?and pass the (curiously strong) mints.

Spade & Archer

It's no secret that Miles Archer, Sam Spade's sneaky and rather nasty partner, dies early on in The Maltese Falcon. The fact has been homaged and even parodied, and anyone who has seen the Bogart movie (where actor Jerome Cowan did a fine job on the short-lived Archer) or read the book knows that Miles met his maker before Spade could say an ironic "So long, buddy boy." Joe Gores, himself a former private eye who gave it up to write dozens of fine books, including 1975's Hammett and the sadly out-of-print Interface, has been trying to do a prequel to Hammett's most famous book for years. He finally got permission from Hammett's family in 2004. And what a splendid job he's done, bringing alive the smells and tastes of San Francisco during three well-defined periods -- 1921, 1925, and 1928 -- to illustrate the way Spade's character changed and developed. Spade at first is a young, less abrasive new boy opening his own detective agency. Gradually, he toughens -- largely because of Archer's bad deeds. Sam's assistant, Effie Perrine, begins as an ambitious but naive teenager with lots of natural smarts and graduates to a valuable asset. We also soon see how Spade's partner earned his reputation as a crafty bastard, romancing Sam's wife -- a favor which Sam later repays, in spades. You'll come away from Gores's amazing book with new awe and respect for the depth and breadth of his talent. And even more than in Hammett's own books, the city of San Francisco takes on a refreshing zest in its pre-tourist past.

The Soul of Medicine

If you find yourself having more dealings with your insurance company than your doctor, you may grow wistful reading Sherwin Nuland's latest. In The Soul of Medicine, the How We Die author, a practicing surgeon for more than 30 years, collects stories from colleagues describing their most memorable patients. He alters identifying details and presents them in the style of The Canterbury Tales ("The Gastroenterologist's Tale," "The Nephrologist's Tale"), following many with his own commentary. Most of the episodes occurred decades ago, giving the book a distinctly nostalgic tone. Nuland recognizes this, writing of today's practitioners, "Though some appear to ignore or be unaware of it, all physicians have a pastoral role in the care of each patient entrusted to them. They should be guides, wise counselors, and medical advocates." Still, the book makes for fascinating reading: from the dramatic (the surgical resident who discovers a patient's chest is filled with fecal matter, the result of a perforated colon) to the mundane (the dermatologist who painstakingly determines that a patient's shampoo is the cause of an unsightly rash), each chapter illuminates the intricacies of diagnosis and treatment. And Nuland's writing, as ever, is thoughtful and elegant, as in his description of the work of geriatricians, who "treat their patient like a fine old engraving, a line of which may have significance that would be overlooked were it not observed so carefully." Newbies in the field would do well to read this book, full of the moments of grace that such scrupulous observation can yield.

A Terrible Splendor

Tennis superstars Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal may play for great stakes in their quest for Grand Slam glory, but even their epic battles can't compare to the pressure felt by America's Don Budge and Germany's Gottfried von Cramm in their 1937 Davis Cup match, the subject of Marshall Jon Fisher's absorbing new book. With World War II looming, their match found sports and politics intersecting on Wimbledon's Centre Court, but for the anti-Nazi von Cramm, the stakes were even higher: "I'm playing for my life? won't touch me as long as I'm winning." Borrowing a technique from John McPhee's acclaimed Levels of the Game, Fisher weaves biographical information with both the ongoing drama of the match and the ever-darkening world political scene. The handsome, polished, homosexual von Cramm, an impeccable sportsman born to an aristocratic and wealthy German family, emerges as the most compelling figure in the book. Disdainful of the Nazis (he called Hitler "a housepainter"), he refused to join the Nazi party, no matter how intense the pressure. And intense it was. As the Nazi stranglehold on Germany crushed all dissent, the Gestapo monitored his activities, the tennis ace keeping out of jail only as long as he won matches. Shortly after his heroic loss to Budge at 8-6 in the fifth set, von Cramm was arrested, thrown into prison for a year, and sent to the Eastern Front. Despite winning the Iron Cross for bravery, von Cramm was dishonorably discharged because of his arrest by the Nazis on charges of immoral behavior. Solidly written and researched, Fisher's book is not without faults; repetition of tennis trivia and a plethora of speculative phrases diminish the solid underpinnings. Nonetheless Fisher's achievement is a substantial one, bringing alive a legendary match and, in von Cramm, a player of uncommon grace who, sensing his fate, could ironically only find peace and safety in the spotlight of Centre Court.

Bad Girls Go Everywhere

Feminism, you'd think, needs Helen Gurley Brown like a fish needs a bicycle. In 1970, feminists staged a sit-in at Cosmopolitan magazine -- its cover famed for "man-pleasing!" taglines and necklines -- demanding that editor-in-chief Brown use her glossy platform to advocate for women's liberation. Brown's response? To defend her magazine as "already feminist," writes women's studies prof Jennifer Scanlon in Bad Girls Go Everywhere: The Life of Helen Gurley Brown. Indeed, Scanlon posits Brown -- convincingly -- as a provocative pioneer of feminism's second wave: Brown's version, "more likely practiced by single women than by housewives, and by working-class secretaries than middle-class college students, has largely been left out of established histories of postwar feminism's emergence and ascendance." Brown, for starters, did use her platform to support the ERA, abortion rights, and contraception (and tried, unsuccessfully, to make her writing lesbian-friendly). Her feminism -- its bible: Brown's blockbuster Sex and the Single Girl -- was not a vision of matriarchal utopia but a clear-eyed, if eyelash-batting, look at 1960s reality and its hostility to "career" and single women. Brown was "messianic" about work -- not men -- as the source of women's fulfillment, if not survival. Rather than overturn the sexist system, Brown said, work it. Cleavage at the office? Let's face it: that's how you keep your job. Unlike Cosmo, Bad Girls is not a breezy read, but it's a well-researched corrective that puts "lipstick feminism" in its proper, valuable -- and colorful -- place in modern women's history.

The Winter Sun: Notes on a Vocation

By this point, Fanny Howe, who was born in 1940, has had many lives and many sorts of intellectual hunger. Nevertheless, some of her deepest questions seem unchanged from when she was about eight and did not like to speak to anyone. At this time, the woman who would give her life over to creating fine and lasting writing was a girl who did not like to believe in the reality of time, and wished to feel her own presence as timeless. Looking back now, Howe meditates, "I was often mute the background, sucking my thumb and daydreaming. In this posture, I was conscious of being coherent inside my skin, but it would take a while before I found out that I could test this coherence to see if it could survive changes in time and space -- by moving great distances." It is fitting that Howe should focus in on her own early feeling of coherence, because it is exactly what she is trying, in complex ways, to reassemble in this book. She is not after physical, narrative, or even linear coherence, but a philosophical coherence. Her essays are made partly by leaping through a meditation whose whole transcends the sum of the parts. This collage-like book of essays is in fact a kaleidoscope. The reflective fragments grow into wider, seemingly geometric patterns. Howe's early struggles to find what coheres lead to later, brooding preoccupations with finding God. And while her essays meander and seem often to splinter into fragments, they frequently catch themselves in refractions of an original delight. The older Howe writes: "For we gather and discard simultaneously as we move in time?. Only recognition can serve us in the end." She's after that recognition, and finds it, in moments.

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen

Filled with unforgettable characters who go fully against the cultural grain (a mysterious Mexican tribe of cliff dwellers who run hundreds of miles with ease, a cerebral former prizefighter who's become a hermit in the Mexican hills, a vegan ultra-serene ultramarathoner, two Beat-loving young guns who drink as hard as they run, a hilarious, Kramer-like renegade barefoot runner with logorrhea), Christopher McDougall's first book, Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, ostensibly tells the tale of the seriously socially challenged and self-named Caballo Blanco (White Horse) and his attempts to put together a 50-mile running race between the elite members of the dwindling Taruhumara tribe and some of the best American practitioners of ultrarunning, a sport for those who for some reason want to go farther than the standard 26.2-mile marathon distance. But McDougall, a contributing editor for Men's Health and a writer-at-large for Runner's World, as well as an ultrarunner who competes in the eventual race, uses the occasion to convincingly overturn standard running ideas (you don't need those super-expensive, mega-cushioned shoes!), figure out just why our ancestors picked up their hands from the ground and started running upright, and back up the concept that Nike is to blame for every running injury in existence for the past two decades. Along the way, he shares the stories of his characters and the history of ultrarunning in such an entertaining and engaging fashion that at times you want to put the book down, kick off your shoes, head out the door, and just simply run.

The Hit

In 1984, director Stephen Frears hadn't made a feature film in 13 years; Terence Stamp hadn't starred in a film in over a decade; and Tim Roth had a single movie credit to his name. The Hit, a flinty crime drama that was anything but its namesake on initial release, finds these three itching to bust into the game, which, in no time at all, each did. Wearing its existential trappings on its sleeve, the premise of this overlooked gem is, appropriately, simplicity itself: four mismatched people in a stolen car have to get from point A to point B, in a journey fraught with predictable but no less delicious tension. Willie (Stamp) is a criminal informer destined for, yet oddly accepting of, imminent death; Myron (Roth) is a loose cannon thug-in-training spoiling for a fight; while Maggie (Laura Del Sol) seems innocent but harbors her own taste for blood. John Hurt's frosty assassin completes the quartet. The Spanish countryside through which they drive -- a disturbing reflection of the characters' equal interdependency and deep mistrust of each other -- radiates a barren aridty that calls to mind The Passenger, Antonioni's similarly philosophically minded road film. The promise exhibited in Stamp and Roth's riveting performances, as well as Frears's deft handling of internal dread and external violence, soon came to fruition. Within a year, Frears had made his career breakthrough with My Beautiful Launderette, while Stamp and Roth would soon go on to establish themselves as vital and durable screen presences (Hurt, of course, was already there). To anyone watching, The Hit already gave notice that they were ready, willing, and able to step up to the plate.

B Is for Beer

Here is the story of beer, as told by Tom Robbins -- a man dedicated to the playful exercise of free will, ribaldry, and the phantasmagoric -- for a young audience. Go on, guffaw; Robbins would approve. Here, as well, is a beer story, one that artfully gnaws upon the truth of that "elixir so gassy with blue-collar cheer, so regal with glints of gold, so titillating with potential mischief." Those words come from Uncle Moe, radical trickster graybeard relative and guide to Gracie Perkel, kindergartener, who seeks to understand why adults quaff the bitter stuff. The setting is one Robbins knows and draws so well: Seattle, where at 6 p.m. in October the "stars are striking wet matches in an attempt to mark a path through the gloom," where the constant drizzle erases the fine line between this world and that other, parallel one. Moe takes Gracie to that fine line, then the Beer Fairy -- an iconoclastic, dragonfly-size, wisecracking Old Soul straight out of Flatbush -- assumes her charge; together they slip through the Seam to the other side, there to mull upon the riddle of beer without parental interference. A brewing lesson follows -- barley to malt to mash to wort, add yeast (freelance alchemist) for fermentation ("where the rabbit jumps out of the hat") -- spun with the same pizzazz that Moe laid out beer's history: "The Egyptians could have invented lemonade -- but they chose to invent beer instead." Trust Robbins's fairy to sing the joys of beer, a vehicle capable of providing a rapturous peek at the Mystery, the old "hi de ho." But alcohol is notoriously unreliable transport, he cautions: the mean get meaner, dumb dumber, alcoholism may lurk, drunk driving kills. And if Robbins wraps up this sweet entertainment in too giddyap a fashion, as if he had been dawdling, whereas dawdling is much of the message, thank him for giving kids a life-saving/life-giving beer manual, one they'll likely actually read.

The Book of Marvels: An Explorer's Miscellany

Back before science ruined everything with its explanations, there were marvels. They were the natural world's mysterious workings, signs and wonders: some delightful, some terrible, always awesome. The 19th century was the heyday of hard travel to distant places in search of knowledge and astonishment; consequent travelogues were thick on the ground, the writing particularly descriptive and fruity, the pages rich with aquatints, mezzotints, and chromolithographs. Jenkins, a historian at the National Geographic Society, has assembled a dramatic selection of material, words and period artwork from this Age of Marvels, knitting them together in an unobtrusive, informative narrative framework. There are choice snippets from the likes of Melville, Poe, and Conrad, but pride of place goes to explorers, both sung -- such as Mungo Park, Mary Kingsley, John Wesley Powell -- and unsung: John Van Dyke, perhaps, or Rosita Forbes, or Henry Tomlinson, who journeyed to "utterly back of even the Brazilian beyond." They returned with treasure for the armchair traveler: tales of the waterspout's twisted malevolence, the liquid radiance of the ocean's phosphorescence, the inky rush of a squall line. There were deserts -- "where everything was tuned to the key of flame" -- and the haunted woods of the Balkans. There were armies of six-foot-long electric eels riding Venezuelan floodwaters, pink icebergs in the deep blue sea, fata morgana and St. Elmo's fire, mountains so high "the floating Moone would shipwracke there, and sinke." Leave it to Mark Twain to administer the sleeve across the windpipe of rapturous prose, espying from Mont Blanc's summit "the Ghauts of Jubbelpore and the Aiguilles des Alleghenies." But still, how would you like your aurora borealis, as charged solar particles stimulating the magnetic field, or "an atmosphere of pale, ghastly green, through which shown the unspeakable glories of two mighty crimson and yellow arches"? Choose your marvel.

Notes from No Man's Land: American Essays

In her groundbreaking book Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, Toni Morrison observed the opacity of experiences of whiteness as they are depicted in literature. When Marlow, the ferry captain in "Heart of Darkness," travels deep into the Congo, he is stopped not by dark-skinned natives but by a white fog so thick that it blinds him. Morrison uses this image as tool to fathom the odd space that whiteness can inhabit in lived and literary spaces. Whiteness can seem to be a cultureless and silent nothing, a void that nonetheless exerts force as a central, normalizing vantage point. Yet whiteness is not nothing, and it is not normal: It is a space of unease, often policed and reinforced by the images of fear on its margins. In Notes from No Man's Land, Eula Bliss tries to stand on the margins of her whiteness and to look in. In a series of dazzling and often soulful essays, she explains a life mapped in white and also not-white ways. She finds that her whiteness sometimes makes her feel trapped. She is less postracial than alert to contradictions in the way this whiteness functions and to the ambivalent privileges it affords her. Her essays travel multiple, not always parallel forms of history -- personal and public trails that range from the history of telephone poles to coal mining towns to Laura Ingalls Wilder to public education. While her topics are heavy, she spins each essay gamely, with punning wit. The result: skeins that shimmer with metaphor, that pose and circle questions rather than trying to resolve them. "It isn't easy to accept a slaveholder and an Indian killer as a grandfather, and it isn't easy to accept the legacy a of whiteness as an identity," she writes in an essay where she acknowledges that she can see "two faces of the Brooklyn clock tower" -- and two faces of this question itself. "Perhaps it would be better if we simply refused to be white. But I don't know what that means, really." This may not be the answer, but the questioning opens doors to a new chapter of American self-understanding.

Closing Time

Joe Queenan has forged a literary career out of caustic eviscerations of everything from baby boomers (Balsamic Dreams) to those tea-drinkers across the Atlantic pond (Queenan Country). He eats acid and vitriol for breakfast. This, after all, is the man who once called Meryl Streep a "monotonously talented humanoid." So it might come as a surprise that he has peeled away some of his tough hide to try his hand at a tender memoir about growing up in Philadelphia. Closing Time is, by turns, brutally honest, brutally funny, and, yes, filled with scathing attacks on the unworthy. This time, Queenan targets his father, an alcoholic ne'er-do-well whose inability to hold a steady job kept the family hovering near the poverty line for years. Queenan Senior -- "a miserable, deranged, booze-soaked failure" -- was also fond of whipping his four children with the buckle end of a belt. "He beat us often and he beat us savagely," Queenan writes. Not quite an American Angela's Ashes, Queenan's memoir nonetheless takes the reader on a sentimental journey through Philly housing projects, his Catholic school years, an eventual escape into the comfort of literature, and a late-in-life reckoning with his dying father. One flaw with Closing Time -- and it's a relatively minor one -- is that because sarcasm is inevitably laced with exaggeration, it's sometimes difficult to distinguish between truth and hyperbole. Some of Queenan's funniest lines are balanced against the harsh realities of his circumstances: "Back in the Paleocene 1950s, when being fond of one's children had not yet come into vogue, poor people didn't seem to mind all that much if one of their offspring went flying out into traffic, as everyone had spares." When he's not tossing off punchlines, Queenan takes a sober look at what it means to grow up as a have-not: "Poverty is a tumor it takes a lifetime to excise, because poverty is lodged deep inside the brain in a dark corner where the once-poor don't want to look." Closing Time probes that shadowy nook of Queenan's past, and the result is a book that's as sad as it is funny.

July 22: On this day in 1941, on his twelfth wedding anniversary, Eugene O'Neill presented the just-finished manuscript of Long Day's Journey into Night to his wife, Carlotta.

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.