Displaying articles for: June 2008

Hotel Crystal

Hotels are incubators of restlessness and dreams. They prick the occupant's mind with their unfamiliar environments -- which, by extension, loosen the collar of identity. Olivier Rolin's Hotel Crystal makes playful use of this notion by exploring one man's attempt to recall all of the hotel rooms in which he has ever resided. The novel's chapters typically begin with a detailed description of a room, followed by a far-out, frequently droll anecdote about events that transpired therein. The Zelig-like protagonist, who shares the same name as the novel's author, is a writer who moonlights as a spy, arms dealer, smuggler, tutor to fallen monarchs, and consultant to the likes of economic wizards such as Alan Greenspan. Alas, perhaps due to his more dangerous exploits, or weariness with life, "Olivier Rolin" is unable to bring his project to a conclusion. After he goes missing, an acquaintance chances upon his recollections, which have been jotted down on disparate pieces of stationery. She turns these over to a group of editors, who collate the work and embellish it with amusingly pointy-headed footnotes. This smart, madcap book is ideal for the inveterate traveler as well as for anyone who enjoys academic farces (especially when punctuated with things such as a hijacking of the Mars landing probe, the manipulation of a Vatican insider, and an attempt to purchase a literary prize -- aborted because the funds required for that purchase are stolen by "Rolin" to pay off terrorist kidnappers).

The Spies of Warsaw

Alan Furst?s 14th novel opens in late 1937, in a Warsaw menaced by approaching war and teeming with spies of every stripe. Among them is Colonel Jean-François Mercier, an aristocratic French military attach‚ and beau id‚al of the dashing secret agent. Forty-six years old, his tall frame a palimp-
sest of war wounds, he is a melancholy widower. Among the many other spies afoot in these pages is German businessman Edvard Uhl, entrapped by a supposed countess into smuggling information on German tank design to the French. Uhl?s activities come to the attention of some exceedingly unpleasant Nazi secret agents, and his life becomes a problem for Mercier to solve. The only non-spy in this espionage-steeped arena seems to be Anna Szarbek, a lawyer for the League of Nations and Mercier?s serious love interest The novel moves back and forth between Warsaw and Paris with excursions, among them to the Polish-German border where our hero, creeping through the forest in his waxed Barbour field jacket, observes German military preparations and, later, to the Black Forest, where he wit-
nesses tank maneuvers. Both forays produce evidence suggesting German plans of attack for invasions of Poland and France. If you think Mercier manages to convince anyone with authority to act on his discoveries, you have forgotten your history. What we have here is a thrilling, cleverly plotted re-creation of the sort of hugger-mugger, double-dealing, and wishful thinking that marked the last crepuscular years before full-scale war plunged Europe into darkness.

What It Is

Lynda Barry has given us a rare thing: a work of art that describes its own origins. In this book, the writer and cartoonist behind Cruddy and Ernie Pook?s Comeeks shows readers how she makes art and encourages us to make our own. This is no mere instruction manual: each page is gorgeously illustrated with collage, letter fragments, monkeys, birds, and little Lynda Barry, whose trailer-park, TV-lit childhood and chain-smoking mother will be utterly familiar to devoted readers. In the first half of the book, Barry poses philosophical questions about art: Why do all children dance, draw, play, and write? When does that stop? Why do most adults, having given up art, still find it soothing to doodle in the margins? What is a monster, and what does it tell us about ourselves? In Barry?s case, we see her overcome her childhood insecurities and grow into a pretentious art student, only to become a professional artist stymied by two questions: Is it good? And: Does it suck? Art, she says, is not about thought but images. In the second half of the book, she guides us back into the nest of creation, accompanied by Sea-Ma, the googly-eyed class supervisor, in pursuit of the muse (personified as the Magic Cephalopod). With simple, resonant prompts -- list your first phone number, describe a car, a friend's mother -- she helps us fish around for images, then asks us to move around in the image. Both those who put down their pen for good and those who, like Barry, made their ?play? into ?work,? will find revelation.

Bryson?s Dictionary for Writers and Editors

I can never remember the definition of chimera. No matter how many times I?ve looked it up, I always forget its origin and meaning: "A wild or fanciful creation, taken from Chimera (sometimes Chimaera), a mythological beast with the head of a lion, body of a goat and tail of a serpent." Apparently Bill Bryson, author of A Walk in the Woods and A Short History of Nearly Everything, shares this etymological blind spot, because chimera is among the personal entries in Bryson?s Dictionary for Writers and Editors, "a personal collection, built up over thirty years as a writer and editor in two countries" and "intended as a quick, concise guide to the problems of English spelling and usage." First published in England by Penguin in the 1980s, Bryson?s 398-page compilation has been updated and re-released, and includes definitions, guides to punctuation and grammar, and helpful conversion tables (Celsius to Fahrenheit; kilometers to miles). In short, it?s equal parts The Elements of Style, Associated Press Stylebook, Webster?s New World Dictionary, and general desktop encyclopedia. "nevitably -- inescapably -- it reflects my own interests, experiences and blind spots," he says in the preface. Knowing that, you might be tempted to ask, "Then who needs this dictionary besides Bryson?" If you?re satisfied with your collection of reference books, perhaps this addition is unnecessary. The book, after all, doesn?t claim to be a definitive reference book. Then again, does such a thing exist? And what would you call such a wild, fanciful creation?

FDR: The First Hundred Days

The furiously busy first hundred days of Franklin D. Roosevelt?s presidency have become a benchmark against which all later presidents have been measured. FDR?s New Deal, Professor Badger tells us, "was an emergency response to the crisis of the Depression." Contrary to six decades of Republican rhetoric that?s depicted FDR as a radical proponent of Big Government, Badger explains that FDR was neither anti-business nor in favor of massive government budget deficits. Indeed, in confronting his first crisis, the propping up of the nation?s failing banking system, FDR borrowed his program directly from his predecessor, Herbert Hoover. Moreover, Badger explains that several of FDR?s New Deal programs relied heavily on local authorities for their implementation. In setting up much-needed controls on prices, wages, and production, whether for farmers (through the Agricultural Adjustment Act) or businesses (through the National Recovery Act), FDR pursued a bottom-up policy that relied on volun-
tary cooperation, local involvement, and minimal federal intervention. "The New Deal put its faith in grass-roots democracy," writes Badger. FDR viewed business as vital, but he loathed the sort of corporate and financial irresponsibility that he believed fostered the 1929 stock market crash. FDR?s goal, notes Badger, was "to get the market to operate in a more open and transparent way" so as to protect the public interest. Badger?s fresh and admirably fair-minded look at the New Deal?s beginnings takes readers inside the White House as a new president deals day-to-day with the greatest economic crisis in this nation?s history.

Freedom Suite

A masterpiece that provokes as many questions as it does musical satisfactions, Sonny Rollins?s Freedom Suite has lost none of its power or provo-
cative nature in the half century since it was released. Now reissued with the addition of three bonus tracks, Freedom Suite captures the venerated tenor saxophonist at an early peak of his extra-
ordinary powers, his unfet-
tered improvisational flights bolstered by the highly inter-
active team of drummer Max Roach and bassist Oscar Pettiford. Operating without the harmonic guide of either piano or guitar -- an unusual context for the period -- the trio tackles the ambitious 19-minute title composition, and a handful of standards. The immense confidence radiated by each player elevated the disc to instant classic status: the soaring force of Rollins?s muscular horn, Roach?s melodic drumming, and Pettiford?s sumptuous harmonic support remain inspirational today -- just ask any contemporary jazz musician worth his salt. Yet, amid all this brilliance, open-ended questions continue to confound. The original album came with a (now reprinted) statement from Rollins, baldly lamenting the racial divide then plaguing the nation. Does this social message find voice in the titular suite, which, for all its strength, doesn?t consciously evoke anger or conflict in its musical expression? And what do the presence of songs composed by such status-quo figures as Harry Warren, Meredith Wilson (of Music Man fame), and Noël Coward indicate? Is the ultimate musical "freedom" Rollins?s willingness and ability to play whatever he wants, however he wishes? Fifty years later, one can still ponder. And still revel in glorious jazz making.

Parallel Play

Veteran Canadian rock quartet Sloan surprised nearly everyone in 2006 with a sprawling, ambitious 27-song double album, cheekily titled Never Hear the End of It, that was generally regarded as their best record in years. How do you follow that up? Parallel Play, a punchy 35-minute distillation of their strengths. With all four members (the same since their 1991 inception) writing and taking turn on lead vocals, it's a bit of a miracle they've lasted this long and stayed this good. The album's title -- referring to how toddlers play near but not really with each other -- is a nod to their secret. Everyone in the band has his own specialty and is given space to do his own thing. Almost recorded as four mini solo-projects, Parallel Play nonetheless works as a cohesive album, though it's one that only Sloan (known for changing musical styles on a whim) would deliver. There's big, dumb riff rock courtesy guitarist Patrick Pentland (album opener "Believe in Me") while bassist Chris Murphy delivers crunchy power pop with typically wry lyrics. The best songs, this time out, come courtesy drummer Andrew Scott (the Dylanesque rave-up "Down in the Basement") and the band's other guitarist, Jay Ferguson, whose "Cheap Champagne" and "Witches Wand" recall '70s AM pop at its prime. And for a band who've delved into nearly every genre of music over their 17-year career, it seemed inevitable that they would eventually dip their toes into Caribbean waters -- which they do on Scott's bouncy but world-weary "Too Many." It's perhaps Parallel Play 's highlight, and one wonders what Sloan might do with country or even disco? Maybe next time.

Mister Sandman

First published in 1995, Mister Sandman is a fine specimen of Gowdyism: an idiosyncratic amalgam of the fantastic and everyday shot through with dark but kindly humor. Here are the members of the Canary family of Toronto in 1956: Gordon, a gentle beanpole of a man who recently found love, as he thought, with a maintenance man ("an orange-haired giant, eyes a flat creamy blue like seat-cover plastic"); Doris, his tubby wife, a compulsive and gifted liar in love with Harmony La Londe ("a lesbian Negro career woman who wore see-through negligees and had painted her apartment to match her parrot"); Sonja, the couple?s even tubbier 15-year-old daughter, sweet, a trifle dim, and -- whoops -- pregnant by her father?s lover; Marcy, a kindergartener and nascent nymphomaniac; and Joan, Sonja?s newborn, heard to scream, "Oh, no, not again!" at birth -- after which she was dropped on her head and never spoke another word. Mute, beautiful, and forever tiny, Joan, it emerges, is a musical genius and the mysterious center of this menagerie and the story. Gowdy?s writing is an intoxicating mixture of homely expression and brilliantly surreal characterization ("the car didn?t have a scratch and it cruised along as smoothly and quietly as a car sailing over a cliff"). The story darts ahead and back, appearing from all points of view, bringing us closer and closer to its denouement, which, bizarre though it truly is, amounts to a celebration of love.

Breach of Peace

In the foreword to Breach of Peace, Diane McWhorter observes that the victories of the civil rights movement have "an inevitability bestowed by hindsight." Eric Etheridge's stunning book collects the mug shots of the several hundred Freedom Riders arrested in 1961 while attempting to integrate bus and train terminals in Jackson, Mississippi, and it is an immediate, gripping reminder of both the risks that were taken in the civil rights struggle and of who took them. The group, half black and half white (a quarter were women), was remarkably young; in their faces we see strength, courage, defiance, dignity, and, occasionally, fear. The mug shots, which were only recently made public, have been compiled by Etheridge, who juxtaposes them with present-day photographs of the Riders and their recollections about the experience. "We were not afraid to die," says one. "I was scared witless," recalls another. With the Jackson jails quickly filled to capacity, Freedom Riders were sent to the maximum-security state penitentiary, where those who refused bail could languish for weeks and months. Many, looking back, speak of the brutal conditions at the prison, but quite a few now view their incarceration as a formative period of growth and learning, with Communists and pastors debating political strategy and with black and white activists, in segregated cells, communicating (and infuriating the guards) by singing freedom songs to each other across the divide.

The American Resting Place

You might expect a book about cemeteries to be morbid, dry or depressing, but The American Resting Place: Four Hundred Years of History Through Our Cemeteries and Burial Grounds is an enlivened narrative of the country?s expansion and development, as seen through its gravestones, graveyards, and burial practices. Marilyn Yalom, a cultural historian who?s previously written A History of the Wife and A History of the Breast, says visits to her mother?s grave in Alta Mesa, California, inspired her to write this 320-page book. "At first it was to be the study of only one site -- a year in the life of ?our? cemetery. I would note seasonal changes, various offerings left at different seasons, occasional gatherings in front of ethnically diverse plots, open graves for the newly deceased -- everything that brings life to a landscape devoted to the dead. In time, with a cultural historian?s curiosity, I began to ask questions about the broader picture." Over the course of three years, she and her son Reid, a photographer, visited more than 250 cemeteries -- from Boston to New Orleans, Montana to Hawaii. With her words and his photographs, the Yaloms covered a lot of ground, including military cemeteries, long-lost African-American burial grounds, and the recent trend towards "green burials." Nowadays, "even Arlington National Cemetery offers a green option for any qualifying veteran 'through burial of his cremated remains in a biodegradable box in a section of the cemetery without grave markers.' "

That Little Something

Charles Simic is perhaps the greatest living chronicler of mankind?s depravity. Yet, he can turn even the worst of times into the best of reading experiences. In his 18th collection of poetry, That Little Something, the current U.S. poet laureate focuses on "mouthwatering dishes of new evils" in our post-9/11 world. He does so with language that unspools images from fables, horror movies, headlines, childhood nightmares, and CIA torture handbooks. In "Those Who Clean After," it?s hard not to think of Abu Ghraib when Simic writes, "Evil things are being done in our name. / Someone scrubs the blood, / As we look away, / Getting the cell ready for another day." Another poem, "Dance of the Macabre Mice," opens with this stanza:

The president smiles to himself; he loves war
And another one is coming soon.
Each day we can feel the merriment mount
In government offices and TV studios
As our bombers fly off to distant countries.

Simic?s poetry is clean, brutal, and accessible to even the most verse-phobic members of our population. Years from now, survivors of whatever apocalypse we?re headed toward will be reading Simic for clues to how we destroyed ourselves.

Discworld Graphic Novels

Thirty-six volumes strong, Terry Pratchett?s bestselling Discworld novels of humorous fantasy have, like stealthy fire ants, migrated into every entertainment niche imaginable, from television to stage to radio to video games. Deploying lighthearted prose full of exotic visual bits -- the very setting of the book is a world carried through space atop a 10,000-mile-long turtle supporting four elephants and a platter-like inhabited zone -- they would naturally seem to lend themselves to instantiation as graphic novels. But this evolution was delayed nearly a decade. In 1991, the first book in the series, The Colour of Magic (1983), made the transition, followed the next year by the closely linked sequel, The Light Fantastic (1986). Now, essentially forming one long tale, the two graphic novels come combined in a single volume. Scripter Scott Rockwell sensitively trims the original material a bit but retains the goofy parody, awful puns, slapstick, and clever descriptive phrasing of Pratchett's originals. His knack for staging scenes and allotting panels efficiently keeps the action flowing at a nice clip. Full-page spreads are doled out sparingly but effectively, as when wizardly antihero Rincewind and his compatriots materialize in a cluttered magical shop. Steven Ross's subtle paint work display his fondness for the French genius Moebius. If fans can get past their affection for the Josh Kirby cover art traditionally associated with Pratchett?s novels, they?ll find here an faithful and charming visual translation of these much-loved fantasies.

Art and Today

Art and Today is the most comprehensive survey of contemporary art. Full stop. There simply isn?t anything else out there that compares to this book?s breadth: nearly 500 oversized full-color pages, representing more than 400 international artists of the past three decades. Rather than presenting these artists as a chronological progression of like-minded members of movements, this survey ditches the isms and substitutes 16 loose categories, in which many artists appear multiple times. An introductory text briefly covers the earlier part of the 21st century (Clement Greenberg, modernism, Warhol), then deposits us in 1980. The YBAs (Young British Artists) Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, graffiti artists Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, and Japanese artist Takashi Murakami show up in the "After Warhol" section; ready-made art includes work by Barbara Kruger and Jeff Koons. Abstraction is represented by Brice Marsden, Ellsworth Kelly, and Sol Le Witt, while Chuck Close, Vik Muniz, Elizabeth Peyton, and Gerhard Richter hang out in the realist corner. Artists who work with narrative -- like Cindy Sherman and Matthew Barney -- are in something called "postmodern storytelling," while a section devoted to technology-based art gives us Nancy Burson?s age-progression software and Eduardo Kac?s experiments with DNA. Let?s not forget Kiki Smith, Bill Viola, Kara Walker, John Cage, Bruce Nauman, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Lorna Simpson. If they make art, and they made it in the last 30 years, they?re in here. As with any survey, each artist is represented by only a handful of images. But Heartley does an admirable job of weaving it all together.


The last time Cassandra Wilson attempted an album devoted purely to standards --Blue Skies from 1988 -- she played it uncustomarily safe. Loverly, a new standards project, displays the considerable distance this acclaimed singer has come over the years. Loverly calls on the idiosyncratic mix of acoustic and electric instrumentation and rural blues inflections that her fans have become familiar with since the 1993 breakthroughBlue Light ?Til Dawn. The repertoire may draw from the likes of Lerner & Loewe and Harold Arlen, but the performances abound with folk and slide guitars, hand percussion, and the unconventional piano work of Jason Moran. In other words, off-kilter sheen on familiar material -- an approach that Wilson, in excellent, customarily laid-back form, takes to with second-nature glee. She also allows herself more freedom by wisely extending the standards concept to include the bluesy "St. James Infirmary" and "Dust My Broom," the Latinized Ellington hit "Caravan," the bossa nova warhorse "A Day in the Life of a Fool," and her own percussive original "Arere." The most resonant performances are the simplest. Accompanied only by the Joni Mitchell–esque guitar work of Marvin Sewell, Wilson delivers a "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most" for the ages; while "The Very Thought of You," with the lone support of bassist Lonnie Plaxico, displays the sensuous ease that no jazz singer of her generation has yet to match.

Girls in Trucks

Sarah Walters was born into the prim and proper debutante class of South Carolina, but that's as close as she ever comes to white-gloved gentility. The heroine of Katie Crouch's debut novel, Girls in Trucks, is a salty-tongued rebel who slips the bonds of a girlhood of dance lessons to find freedom in the cold and baffling North. There, Sarah loses her accent, her values, and, in sometimes sad and often spectacular fashion, her way in life. She had planned on greatness and instead has to settle for survival. Here's Sarah, halfway through the book, self-aware and still defiant: "I have made many mistakes in my life so far, the biggest of which, according to my mother, was leaving the South. Never mind the fact that I managed to spend three good years pining after a cruel man, that I have let a once promising career in journalism go, that I drink too much and have come to like my pot. I wouldn't say that I'm an addict, but try and take it away, and swear to God, I'll bite you like a snake." The story caroms from man to man and job to job, as Sarah struggles to make sense of her life. Just as it seems Crouch has written herself into a corner, she'll switch scenes, push forward or backward in time, and give herself a clean slate. It's a tricky little dance, and unlike our heroine, Crouch is up to it. From start to finish, she makes smart choices that keep the chick from derailing this often lovely bit of lit.

The Fire Within

Louis Malle's The Fire Within (1963) is a masterful film whose existential malaise never overtakes its cinematic beauty. The film -- which is based on a novel, by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, of the same name as the movie's original title, Le Feu Follet -- follows a recovering alcoholic's swelling disenchantment with life. From the opening scene, in which the main character, Alain Leroy, gazes upon the face of his mistress in a doomed effort to grasp the quintessence of her identity, the movie's grown-up tone is set. But although Alan wears a tie and fastidiously employs the formal mode of address ("vous") even with his confidants, he is a man who is uneasy with the pressures of adulthood. (Indeed, Malle makes us feel the weight of something as seemingly benign as cashing a check at the bank.) Early in the picture, we see that Alain has forebodingly written the date July 23 on the mirror in his room at the medical clinic where he is undergoing rehab. When one considers the many points of correspondence that both the film and the novel share with its creators, the mirror becomes a potent symbol of the story's intimate atmosphere: The book was inspired by the suicide of La Rochelle's friend the Dadaist poet Jacques Rigaut. La Rochelle would later go on to end his own life. The actor who plays Alain, Maurice Ronet, was himself given to drink. Furthermore, not only did Malle give Ronet his own clothes to wear during the shoot; he also gave him his own pistol to use. Watching this film, I couldn't help but recall Albert Camus's unforgettable postulation, "There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide." The Fire Within treats this theme with the surpassing intelligence and empathy demanded by such a subject.

The End of Food

Paul Roberts's new book arrives with grimly perfect timing. After years in which caloric abundance had seemed like the new norm for much of the world, skyrocketing prices for staples like corn and rice are causing food riots in countries in both hemispheres. Analysts have blamed many factors -- increasing use of corn for ethanol, growing meat consumption in Asia, drought in Australia -- but it's been difficult to discern whether we're seeing a momentary blip or a future of growing shortages. Wide ranging and deeply researched, The End of Food argues that the global food system is dangerously overstretched and, failing a dramatic change, will be unable to feed a population expected to grow by several billions in coming decades. The title refers to the conclusion of the "brief, near-miraculous period during which the things we ate seemed to grow only more plentiful, more secure, more nutritious, and simply better with each passing year." Roberts, author of The End of Oil, travels the globe and synthesizes staggering amounts of information to show how this age of plenty has shaped our way of life, and why that way of life is unsustainable. Neo-Malthusians have often been embarrassed by history; in 1968, Paul Erlich's The Population Bomb foretold imminent mass starvation even as modern farming practices were increasing agricultural yields worldwide. But in his sober (and sometimes plodding) way, Roberts makes a convincing case that this time, innovation may not be enough, and that food supplies could become as contested and insecure as those of every other kind of fuel.

By Hook or by Crook

In his latest venture into the quagmire of the English language, the linguist David Crystal embarks on a haphazard travelogue, modeled very broadly after W. G. Sebald?s The Rings of Saturn. Backcountry roads, pub signs, and excitable sheep are for Crystal all opportunities to digress and expound upon the variousness of English etymology. Writing with the colloquial lucidity of a professor downing a martini, Crystal is a more-than-able guide: his traipsing about the British countryside (with minor detours to India, Poland, and San Francisco) provides a delightful window into the intricacies of place names. Who knew that Bricklehampton was the longest isogrammatic place name in English? And for that matter, who knew an isogram was a word in which each letter appears an equal number of times? But By Hook or by Crook has more to its pages than just fun facts. Beneath its airy demeanor lies a real awareness of the fact that when dealing with language, politics tends to follow not far behind, and Crystal?s geographical premise allows him to take on the daunting linguistic questions raised by globalization. Crystal may have a nerd?s ardor for the finer points of grammar, but he?s no curmudgeon either -- his English is a language in an ongoing evolution, "a period in which the foundation for major linguistic change is being laid" by the Internet and the growth of new linguistic subcultures (Euro-English, Indian English, the "Singlish" of Singapore). Etymology may seem an arcane subject, but Crystal?s seemingly infinite curiosity is infectious -- it?s hard not to get caught up in his distinctly British relish for the absurd.

The End of Manners

Heartbroken after the demise of her relationship, Italian photographer Maria Galante has stopped taking chances. But she surprises herself by accepting a risky assignment: travel to Afghanistan to photograph women refusing to enter arranged marriages. In Kabul, Maria gently describes her surroundings as ?brown,? but her companion, Imogen Glass, the journalist writing the article, is more outspoken, calling the city "the place where all good manners have come to an end." Accompanied by Hanif, a local ?fixer? paid what is to him an enormous sum to act as their guide, Maria concedes that no matter how long one has been in the country, no foreigner is entirely aware of what?s going on. Her task -- to capture ?a strong image of a beautiful, suffering woman? -- appears impossible in the face of the custom that burqas should only be removed for husbands. After taking the perfect photo, of Hanif?s ailing wife, Maria realizes with horror that she had been ?holding the lens so close to Leyla?s face, I hadn?t even checked to see whether she was breathing.? With the acute and subtle poignancy that ran through her first novel, Rules of the Wild, Francesca Marciano raises questions about global politics and romance, and the role that risk plays in both. Maria doesn?t fall in love with a man but with Afghanistan. Still, in the messy, sweeping manner of all great affairs, her passion catches her off guard and also saves her life.

The Importance of Music to Girls

Music is important. And it's different for girls. That much is quite clear in Lavinia Greenlaw's collection of brief essays that eloquently chronicle the myriad false starts of becoming on the path to growing up. It's Greenlaw's halting progress toward adulthood that is somewhat less certain. "I was wrong -- standing in the wrong place and making the wrong shapes, the wrong noise." In 1970s Essex, with no MTV to guide her, Greenlaw describes falling into one genre after another. Desperate to "learn to be a girl," she flings herself headlong into Chopin and Chicago with equal fervor. Unlike boys, Greenlaw notes, girls aren't inclined to discuss music or play air guitar. Instead they spin records as a soundtrack to their metamorphosis: putting up posters and ripping them down; squeezing into pencil skirts, then tossing them aside for garbage bags; screaming, crying, spraying their hair into winged helmets, then cutting it all off. Punk, for example, "didn't just change what I listened to and how I dressed. It altered my aesthetic sense completely. This is what music could do: change the shape of the world and my shape within it." A poet who has also written opera libretti, Greenlaw's lyricism is constant throughout the changes she chronicles, whether evoking the thrum of the Sex Pistols or offering spot-on observations of awkward adolescent experiments. For those who came of age in the '70s -- and those who did not -- The Importance of Music to Girls is a riff off a familiar theme, inviting us to sing along.

Austerity Britain: 1945-51

?Magisterial? is the adjective commonly used to praise an imposing volume of history, but David Kynaston?s outstanding Austerity Britain: 1945-51 is triumphantly un-magisterial. Where other historians loftily survey, Kynaston rummages -- in diaries, letters, newspaper reports, surveys, archives -- to assemble a strikingly immediate portrait of the lives and preoccupations of ordinary citizens in a traumatized postwar world. The powerful and the famous are here too, of course, among them Churchill, Bevan, the Bloomsbury set, Waugh, Orwell. The Labour government?s nationalization scheme, the National Insurance Act and National Health Service, Britain?s postwar rationing, fascism, sexism, the class system, and other topics are examined at length. This is weighty, tangled matter, but we are drawn to it -- and through it -- not only by Kynaston?s lucid style but also by the voices of those most vulnerable to social and political upheaval. Harry Jack, for example, a factory worker, is remembered by his son: ?He ended his working life only a few miles from where he had begun it, and in much the same way; in overalls and over a lathe and waiting for the dispensation of the evening hooter, when he would stick his leg over his bike and cycle home.? Similarly, visiting a mining village ?of brick hovels? in 1946, James Lansdale Hodson remarked that ?It was nearer to hell?than anything I had seen since Belsen.? Kynaston shows that World War II did not demolish the British class system, broaden horizons, or engender communitarianism. People wanted privacy and some respite. In the war?s aftermath, they got progress -- political, social, and economic -- that seems all the more astonishing given the decades of conservatism that preceded it, to say nothing of what followed three decades later when, Kynaston writes, ?Margaret Thatcher came to power with a fierce determination to?dismantle much of the post-war settlement.? That story, eagerly awaited, will complete Kynaston?s study of Britain between 1945 and 1979.

Lamentations of the Father

Ian Frazier has a gimlet eye and a brain pickled in the juices of S. J. Perelman, Robert Benchley, and Art Buchwald. As one of America?s best living humorists, Frazier can effortlessly turn a newspaper clipping about the greenhouse effect into biting political satire: ?President Bush has called for a decade of additional research on global warming, but needs more time to decide which decade it will be, assistants to the president announced today. So far, 2060-2070 ?looks nice,? said one insider, though other decades have not been ruled out.? In his new collection of humorous essays, Lamentations of the Father, Frazier squints his eye at such topics as middle-age memory loss, an updated version of Laura Ingalls Wilder (?Little House off the Highway?), class notes from an alumni newsletter (?Jim Carmichael writes that he happened to see Marc Weinstein in the Salt Lake City airport not long ago and pretended not to recognize him?), and how to operate a motel room shower curtain. Lamentations of the Father is not as consistently funny as Frazier?s earlier Coyote v. Acme (despite trying to strike lightning twice with the similar ?Th-Th-That?s Not All, Folks?), and some of the essays lie on these pages like lead ingots, proving that humor is the trickiest of tightrope walks for a writer. However, when Frazier?s rapier wit is sharpest -- as in the book?s title piece and two others that summon the ghost of Erma Bombeck, ?A Cursing Mommy Christmas? and ?The Cursing Mommy Cookbook? -- there is no one who can make you laugh louder on a crowded subway than our generation?s Thurber.


Too soon? As it turns out, not really. Connoisseurs of the monster flick-as-national allegory will recall that Godzilla debuted in Japan a scant nine years after Hiroshima. King Kong premiered less than four years after the 1929 crash rendered Manhattan an Art Deco shantytown destroyed by greed and overrun with simian survival instincts. Given this history, perhaps Cloverfield producer J. J. Abrams should be commended for his restraint in waiting over six years before replicating -- and radicalizing -- 9/11 on film. Or rather, video . Indeed, the allegorical monster here is somewhat incidental; Godzilla may have embodied all the horrors of the nuclear age, but it takes some serious leaps of interpretive faith to suggest that Cloverfield's 60-story cipher of a sea creature has anything to do with terrorism or the like. No, straight metaphor is so last century; with high-quality digital video, Abrams and director Matt Reeves can evince the events of that benighted day -- or at least the televised footage thereof -- through direct aesthetic mimesis. Cloverfield may go down as the first action blockbuster better suited to the small screen than the big; the newly released DVD, sealed in its case by a brown sticker reading "Property of the U.S. Government," brings heft to the premise that we're watching a camcorder tape found in the remains of Central Park. Impossible to believe in a booming multiplex; played without the fancy surround sound on the oldest television you own, it becomes merely implausible, as you admire how rigorously the filmmakers stick to their admittedly ludicrous formal constraints. Perhaps the most delicious moments are when our 20-something protagonist-cinematographers briefly cross paths with the military and police response teams that form the grand-scale, Bay-Bruckheimer disaster pic playing out offscreen. Such elephantine productions were, of course, what people meant six and a half years ago, when they said it all "looked like a movie"; more stripped down and terrifying than ever on DVD, Cloverfield proves we've since learned disaster's less in what we see than what we don't.

Falcon Fever

You?d think Falcon Fever is just a book for bird lovers. After all, it tells the story of one man?s obsession from childhood on with training birds to hunt, the ancient art of falconry. But this memoir, written earnestly by the author of the bestselling Grail Bird and editor of Living Bird magazine, is much more than a treatise on the joys of birding. Tim Gallagher exposes us to the most excruciating moments of his life, such as when he spent a childhood evening endlessly rehearsing with his father?s gun how he would murder the abusive alcoholic and then kill himself, getting as far as chambering the bullet and aiming it at dear, old drunken Dad. But the life story pursues birds as they pursue prey. Gallagher's historical explorations offer a grand tour of falconry?s ancient and recent past, giving pride of place to the life of Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, the 13th-century Holy Roman Emperor who wrote what some consider falconry's bible, On the Art of Hunting with Birds. Stuffed with fascinating asides -- the phrase ?fed up," for example, comes from falconry -- Gallagher's book maps a connection between past and present: ?What was it that made me want to join falcons in the chase -- to hunt other animals with them?? he writes. ?I can?t explain it, but I know Frederick felt the same sense of awe and mystery.? Frederick and his story become a shadow that is always finding new ways to reappear in this fascinating look at a lively subculture too often unnoticed in America.

History, Mystery

For a minimalist, Bill Frisell sure gives us a lot to chew on. His new History, Mystery, is a double-disc set that finds the innovative guitarist and composer delving into familiar territory, but with enough tangy twists to lend surprise. Frisell has been called the anti–guitar hero, and for good reason. Over the course of a four-decade career, he?s pared down his playing to often skeletal proportions, yet paradoxically, his economic approach is all the more expressive and satisfying for it. Frisell loves to solo as much as the next guitar genius, but he tends to confine expansive outings to albums featuring his own working trios and the canny small group he?s shared with drummer Paul Motian and saxophonist Joe Lovano for the past 25 years. On History, Mystery he scores his most trenchant points through suggestive melody and textural arrangements. Given a larger ensemble -- here Frisell employs compact string and horn sections that include such sympathetic collaborators as violinist Jenny Scheinman, trumpeter Ron Miles, and saxophonist Greg Tardy -- he can delve into his deep sonic universe, culling freely from jazz, folk, blues, and world musics. The guitarist has a knack for writing modest yet fulsomely evocative melodies that register instantly, yet as a card-carrying eclectic, Frisell is always ready to toss curve balls. Among his spaciously conceived originals he slips in Thelonious Monk?s "Jacky-ing," Lee Konitz?s "Subconscious Lee," and Sam Cooke?s "A Change Is Gonna Come," as if to warn, "Label me at your own peril." No chance of it, Bill.

Rapture Ready

Why would a self-described New York Jewish liberal immerse himself for a year in the "parallel universe" of evangelical Christian popular culture? Partly from a misplaced fear of the so-called religious right, but largely from a genuine curiosity about this burgeoning alternative to mainstream pop. What journalist Radosh finds is a world peopled with Christian versions of Eminem, Hulk Hogan, Jon Stewart, and Dr. Ruth, all of whom find biblical support for their unusual ministries. A Christian retailing show, for example, offers a glimpse of a multimillion-dollar industry in ?Jesus junk? -- mostly ordinary stuff with Scripture printed on it. Radosh teases out the meanings of numerous books, videos, and CDs, many of which espouse a radically apocalyptic faith. He avoids actual church services in favor of Christian raves and comedy clubs, where he meets both intolerant literalists and ?postmodern? believers who embody a more magnanimous ethos. Despite the author's occasional turn to sarcasm and a tendency to see anti-Semitism behind every cross, this well-written book gets at the true heterodoxy of current evangelical culture. When he lets his subjects speak for themselves, they often reveal genuine faith and a desire to share their joy with others. And they do so with more self-questioning then you might expect. No longer rejecting popular culture, Christians enter the mainstream with a greater burden -- they have to reconcile both art and commerce with their beliefs. Radosh documents their struggles with both the skepticism and sympathy of an outsider.

Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organization

Ever since Stewart Brand identified computer technology a revolutionary new tool of social change in the 1960s, pundits have sought to chart the evolving cyber-landscape and its dramatic, often unpredictable effects on society and culture. In Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organization, Clay Shirky examines recent innovations that enhance, transform, and sometimes even harm networking and group dynamics. Ranging from the distant technological past -- the organization of railroads and the birth of institutional hierarchies -- to the eve-of-publication present (Twitter, one of his prime suspects, was only born during the composition of his study), Shirky builds a strong and exhilarating case for a true sea change in how people now relate to each other and pool their efforts. Anecdotal yet closely reasoned, the book maps how spontaneous assemblies -- from Flickr photo-sharing groups to Wikipedia's collaborations -- are capable of achieving their goals in ways more efficient and egalitarian than provided by old institutions. Without minimizing the potential for pain in the process (?It?s not a revolution if nobody loses?), Shirky reaffirms his oft-quoted belief that ?the Internet runs on love? and makes the case that this primal emotion lies at the center of many new Internet phenomena, which are otherwise unexplainable. The author overlooks some developments supportive of his arguments (MUDs, geocaching, and SETI@home all come to mind); moreover, he focuses exclusively on the use of these tools by ordinary citizens. But what happens when the cops or a dictator embraces Twitter? On this, Shirky is lamentably silent. Perhaps he feels the very revolution he so knowledgably limns will self-correctingly deal with such outcomes.

The Eccentric Billionaire

When John D. MacArthur, an insurance and real estate baron, died almost exactly 30 years ago (January 6, 1978) he may have been the second richest man in America (trailing only shipping tycoon and investor Daniel K. Ludwig). As the biography by former Time magazine researcher Nancy Kriplen makes clear, a difficult man to get a handle on. The improbable father of the "genius grant" and funder of PBS and NPR was probably best known while alive for being the brother of playwright and screenwriter Charles MacArthur and brother-in-law of Charles' wife, the actress Helen Hayes; the remaining facts about his life and career make up a mass of contradictions. , The son of a minister, MacArthur played fast and loose with the law. "John would talk rather proudly about the chicanery of his early days in insurance," Kriplen writes, retelling the story about how he'd deposit premiums and discard claims - figuring that if " someone really had a claim?he would hear from them again." At the same time, he was always ready to sue others. He cherished his image as a hard-hearted man of business (buying failing businesses on the cheap was a signature strategy); yet his insurance company, Banker's Life, was famed as one of the largest employers of the handicapped in Chicago. And though he seems to have founded his far-reaching Macarthur Foundation largely to avoid estate taxes, the politically archconservative founder gave its administrators free reign - which they took, funding PBS, NPR, and Amnesty International, and eventually instituting the famous, application-free "MacArthur Fellows award, which gives the recipient a large sum and a correspondingly wide berth to carry on their work. Kriplen takes a "just the facts" approach to this enigmatic man's life and legacy - the good news about that being that you can see his mix of self-service and good works as a Rorschach test and read anything into it that you like. But you never quite get an understanding, either, of why this particular parsimonious investor was able to make his billions, and can even to this day extend his reach into a world of culture he himself largely ignored.-

Dreamers of the Day

Mary Doria Russell's fiction has always dealt with power and the search for elusive lands as a means to further it. In her novels The Sparrow and Children of God, a band of Jesuits in the future colonize a distant planet. In Dreamers of the Day, Russell shifts her gaze to the Middle East, specifically to the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference, where a group of high-profile Europeans met to decide the fate of the region in the aftermath of the First World War. Agnes Shanklin, a 40-year-old spinster whose staid schoolteacher's life is transformed by a sudden inheritance of riches, sets sail for Egypt just in time to mingle with the illustrious company gathered in Cairo: Winston Churchill, a hoity-toity colonial secretary; Gertrude Bell, the redoubtable British writer credited with drawing up the borders of Mesopotamia; and the swashbuckling, locally beloved T. E. Lawrence. Agnes's sojourn in the company of these power brokers is richly conjured by the author, drawing on meticulous research. You may not agree with her political message, but it is impossible to ignore her conviction, born of a deep humanity, that geopolitics does not sit well with hubris. As America grapples with the fruits of its actions in Iraq, Dreamers of the Day is a timely reminder of that classic dictum: those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

The Complete Peanuts: 1967 to 1968

By 1967, Charles Schulz's Peanuts was grossing over $20 million per year. The comic strip's ancillary products extended from animated specials to pillows to the bestseller Happiness Is a Warm Puppy. Some of this outsized success shaped the strip in these years -- the super-marketable Snoopy took over, and its seasonal rythyms became predictable: in fall, Lucy and the football inexorably yielded to the Great Pumpkin and Beethoven's birthday. But Schulz was nevertheless still a comic genius in his prime, exploring the topography of his melancholy humor and finding new ways to humiliate Charlie Brown on the baseball mound. (The best: Snoopy takes over as a manager, and proves to have a short fuse, delivering violent kicks to his underperforming players.) This ninth impeccable volume in the Peanuts collection from Fantagraphics also marks the introduction of Franklin, the strip's first African-American character, whose dad, we soon discover, is in Vietnam. Encumbered with all this baggage, Franklin never really became funny, but he nevertheless lingered in the strip's ensemble for decades. Franklin did get one great straight line early on, when he encountered Lucy's psychiatric booth for the first time, initially mistaking it for a lemonade stand. "Are you a real doctor?" he asked her. Lucy's response: "Was the lemonade ever any good?"

Maps and Legends

In whimsical, ruminatively leaping essays, one of the Bay Area?s favorite wonder boys expounds upon his fascinations: golems, comic books, Kabbalah, Sherlock Holmes, genre fiction, and the early 1970s. In the process, Chabon both presents and defends the specificities of his life?s imaginative terrains, the eclectic ingredients he?s used to make his own literature, and the literary pathways he traveled to become a writer. Probably not just anyone could have had an early-'70s East Coast Jewish childhood and then, living in Oakland at the age of 25, crossed The Great Gatsby with Goodbye, Columbus to come up with Mysteries of Pittsburgh. But in the process of exploring where he?s from, Chabon is also offering an object lesson: Excavating ways that pay attention to particular passions, defending childhood loves, and preserving one?s own internal dialects are fertile terrains for making art. Chabon?s prose is rambunctious and even supercharged: He?s got a wonderful, digressive etymolygy of the word "entertain" as having to do with host and guest, performer and audience, twined in mutual suspension. For the most part, Chabon masters his own tightrope and ropes us in. If at times his expository gallivanting waxes precious or thin, Chabon also provides a generous working model. He argues that in making space for your own specificities and literary loves, you (the general, art-making you) have a chance to chart your place and time?s unique voice in literature. If you?re lucky, the addition of your loves may increase the sum of ways we (the general reading us) can mean and feel and know ourselves. That would be, Chabon argues, a triumph indeed.

July 26: On this day in 1602 "A booke called the Revenge of Hamlett Prince Denmarke" was entered in the Stationers' Register by printer James Robertes.

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

Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
Paradise and Elsewhere

Canadian short story marvel Kathy Page emerges as the Alice Munro of the supernatural from these heartfelt tales of shapeshifting swimmers, mild-mannered cannibals, and personality-shifting viruses transmitted through kisses.


When a persuasive pastor arrives in a sleepy farm town, his sage influence has otherworldly results (talking sheep, a mayor who walks on water). But can he pull off the miracle of finding kindly local Liz Denny the love of her life?  Small wonder looms large in this charmer from Andre Alexis.

The Hundred-Year House

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