Displaying articles for: June 2009

Master of War: Blackwater USA's Erik Prince and the Business of War

Erik Prince didn?t have to go into the military at all, but he?s ended up as the leader of America?s shadow army, Xe (formerly known as Blackwater). CNN executive producer Suzanne Simons? detailed new book, Master of War, chronicles the story of the 40-year-old Navy SEAL who left the military after his entrepreneurial father (who made the family a boatload by inventing automobile sun visors that light up) died and his wife was diagnosed with cancer. Prince took his inheritance and started Blackwater in 1997 to simply provide training sites for law enforcement and the U.S. military. Instead, he?s frighteningly changed the nature of war. Simons traces the company?s dramatic growth and changing mission, as well as the rise of the billion-dollar military-contracting business that Blackwater has come to represent. The government can now outsource many of its nastier military assignments to a once virtually unchecked band of well-armed former cops and soldiers from across the globe. Prince, who recently stepped down as CEO of the company, ran Blackwater with the same industrious zeal his father embodied: ?The lion wakes up in the morning, he knows he has to outrun the gazelle, or he?s gonna starve,? Prince says in the book. ?The gazelle wakes up and knows he has to outrun the lion, or he?s gonna be eaten.? Whether you?re the lion or the gazelle, when you wake up, you?d better be running.? All that running and explosive growth can get you in some trouble, though. In the past few years, Blackwater has brought the U.S. some controversial black eyes in Afghanistan and Iraq and has become a symbol of the gunslinging, tough-talking Bush administration. While the world is changing, the outsourced military isn?t going away anytime soon. Simons? book offers a tremendously important look into the hidden corners of that world.

Lost Boy

That polygamous Mormon sects can be, in reality, a lot more sinister and disturbing than, say, HBO's soapy Big Love may not surprise you. But you may be alarmed to learn, from a young man who experienced it firsthand, just how horrifying life within the cloistered compounds of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was under leader Warren Jeffs. Those of us who remember the FLDS "president, prophet, seer, and revelator" from the TV coverage of his 2006 arrest can summon images of a gawky, bland-looking fellow being led around in handcuffs. Lost Boy, an unflinchingly honest, brave and riveting memoir by the FLDS leader's nephew Brent W. Jeffs, will replace those relatively benign images with far more graphic ones. In it, Brent describes being brutally and repeatedly raped, beginning when he was only five, by his uncle Warren. (Two of Brent's brothers have also alleged that Warren raped them when they were five or six; one of those brothers, tormented by his memories, later committed suicide.) He evokes the complications and cruelties of life in a "plural" family, where one man, multiple wives, and countless offspring share a home. He depicts the increasingly harsh treatment of sect members under Warren's leadership and the way young men were heartlessly driven out of the fold by the power-mad "prophet," as well as these "lost boys" subsequent struggles to build new lives. "I don't know if polygamy always produces abuse of women and children," writes Jeffs, "but from my experience, it frequently does.? When women are seen as second-class citizens, I don't think polygamy can be anything but abusive." Lost Boy depicts one young man's struggle to right big wrongs -- and to find his way safely home.

Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine, and the End of France

Have the French lost their mojo at the stove? Has the toque of big cooking ideas and breakthrough flavors been passed to, say -- zut alors! -- Spain? If so, why? Was it a smug, king-of-the-hill complacency, with the handmaiden of blinkered chauvinism in attendance, that doused the French kitchen?s sizzle? That helped, writes financial journalist and wine columnist Steinberger, though he figures the root of decline is more likely to be found in the shambling French economy. Grand cuisine, with its emphasis on indulgence, has always needed big bucks to sustain its brilliance. Nor was nouvelle cuisine any different, Steinberger suggests: if defiant in its portions, its impossibly expensive, voluptuous artistry was more a palace revolt than a revolutionary turn. As the governments of Reagan and Thatcher toiled mightily to make the rich richer, thus circumstantially helping to bankroll the culinary revolutions in the U.S. and U.K., the French governments of Mitterrand and Chirac were elephantine bureaucratic nightmares, with taxes and regulations seemingly designed to thwart the entrepreneurial spirit. Not just the crème-de-la-crème establishments were hurt: where once 200,000 cafés, bistros, and brasseries brightened the French landscape, tightened purse strings reduced that number to 40,000, and McDonald?s colonized the province of cheap eats. Steinberger, who writes with the leisurely pace of those good old French lunches and a with salubrious measure of humor, convincingly argues that the Michelin Guide made matters worse with its greater concern for the bells and whistles of d‚cor than what was on the plate, coaxing restaurateurs into financially ruinous incidentals, while hyper-sanitized edicts from the European Union slipped a garrote around the necks of artisinal food makers. Imagine a world without stinky French cheese or, heaven forefend, all those French women who don?t get fat; with fast food on the uptick, 40 percent of the French population is now overweight.

Bergman Island

No man is an island, it is said, but some willingly sequester themselves on one to maintain solitude and inspiration. Faro, a remote spot off the Swedish mainland whose austere terrain harbors a dwindling three-digit population, is no Maui. But for director Ingmar Bergman, this isolated jut of land was apparently a little piece of Paradise. Bergman Island a documentary shot in 2003 for Swedish television, is a telling example of how the cult of personality can exert its own fascination, for it?s the influential filmmaker, rather than his films, that provides the focal point. With documentarian Marie Nyrerod at his side, Bergman shows us around his home, then ventures out (as it were) to locales that have personal significance to him. Yet the physical landmarks are less important than the memories and reveries that Nyrerod elicits in gently probing talks with the candid Bergman. Here Bergman reveals his conflicted feelings about his parents; his regrets about a domestic and love life that found room for five marriages and nine children; his fears -- literally outlined in a short list he?s provided -- and his abiding love for his last wife, Ingrid, who died in 1995. We learn much about the inner life of the man, but his enduring accomplishments in film and theater take second stage. A viewer has to approach this absorbing documentary with a previous knowledge of, and affection for, Bergman?s oeuvre, for Nyrerod is primarily interested in investigating how an artist's personality affects his work, rather than in presenting a survey of the work itself. That?s conveniently taken care of on the DVD?s handy special feature, "Bergman 101," a career overview by film historian Peter Cowie.

Creative Space: Urban Homes of Artists and Innovators

There is a self-help voyeurism that prompts most of us to pore over interior design books, the unconscious hoping being that the lavish photography will reveal the savoir vivre secrets of the rich and famous. The fallacious promise between the covers being, ?if you lived like them, you could be like them?!? In Creative Space: Urban Homes of Artists and Innovators you get to see professionally distinguished creative people (often with multiple hyphenated résumé credits) in their idiosyncratic natural habitats, where they actually seem to produce work. As having a separate office space is not easily affordable or even necessary, many work-live, often in challengingly small quarters. The London set designer that stores dozens of rolls of masking tape stacked in vertiginous columns in the living room. The sculptor whose massive art installation made from thousands of dismembered clothespins remain is openly in progress by the easy chair. The trendy boutique owner?s tiny Tokyo apartment that is mainly a bed, with there being so little room to spare, the clothes and hats are stored in view as decoration. The filmmaker loft with a mini atelier box within the larger space. Quirky collections roost everywhere, providing non-minimalist inspiration. Here, the images are deliberately casual, non-prescriptive, and realistic, notably including the non-aesthetic imperfections -- the garbage cans with ill-fitting liners, snarls of electrical cords, sloppy paint jobs, a broken plate in plain view, down-market Ajax liquid soap left in its original packaging by the kitchen sink, etc. -- that normal busy people live with. While this book may not provide the aspirational punch of others in its genre, it does eloquently deliver the message that those who have brilliant careers guiltlessly allow it to be the dominant resident in their living spaces, which may make the apartments seem unlivable to others -- but so long as the muse is happy, feng shui principles be damned.

Fugue State

Take as your foundation stones the young and brash Ian McEwan who wrote that macabre classic, The Cement Garden. Add a superstructure of Guy de Maupassant and Franz Kafka. Roof the whole edifice with Rod Serling and paint the dwelling with Harlan Ellison day-glo. Success! You?ve just built yourself the lurid, stylish, gothpunk haunted house that we call Brian Evenson. Evenson?s hypnotic new collection, Fugue State, features a troupe of obsessive characters trapped in fiendish neuro-labyrinths of their own devising -- or in blandly malign and implacably insane bureaucratic mazes. But far from succumbing meekly to these traps, Evenson?s protagonists exhibit immense and quintessentially human energies: they may ultimately go down to defeat, but they do so without granting easy victories to their oppressors -- even if the tormentor proves to be one?s own dark doppelgänger. Like Kafka?s stories, Evenson?s conceal a droll sardonicism beneath each moment of horror. In "Pursuit," the haunted narrator finds himself stalked by his spectral ex-wives and thinks, "A man might be capable of standing up to one ex-wife, but two ex-wives is something no ex-husband wants to consider?." "Invisible Box" opens with this sentence: "In retrospect, it was easy for her to see that it had been a mistake to have sex with a mime." "There is, in every event, whether lived or told, always a hole or a gap, often more than one. If we allow ourselves to get caught in it, we find it opening onto a void that, once we have slipped into it, we can never escape." So observes the narrator of "Desire with Digressions." Evenson specializes in diving with mordant glee down such holes.

Songs My Mother Taught Me

Songs my Mother Taught Me, the recent disc by the mezzo soprano Magdalena Kozená, has a particular resonance for this superb Czech singer. The recording includes Dvorák?s well-known song of the same name and other music that she heard during childhood. The disc begins with Kozená?s earthy, impassioned rendition of "If I Were a Strawberry Plant," an unaccompanied, traditional song. Kozená offers a characterful version of excerpts from Janácek?s "Moravian Folk Poetry in Songs" and "Silesian Songs," her warm, dark hued voice and expressive singing aptly partnered by the pianist Malcolm Martineau. Kozená imbues Dvorák?s nostalgic "Songs my Mother Taught Me" with a wistful eloquence, vividly contrasted with the vigorous "The Strings are Tuned," the next song in the "Gypsy Melodies" cycle. Also included on the disc are lesser-known works such as selections from "Folksongs and Dances from the Tesinsko Region" by Erwin Schulhoff, a pupil of Debussy who perished in a concentration camp. Peter Eben, a Czech composer who died in 2007, set his lovely, soulful "Lute Songs" to French, German, English and Czech texts, accompanied here by the guitarist Michael Freimuth. The oldest work on the disc is "To the distant beloved" by the 19th century composer Jan Josef Rösler, which Kozená sings with heartfelt pathos. Kozená also offers Martinu?s "Songs on Two Pages," including the evocative "A Girl from Moravia" and the passionate cycle "Fairytale of the Heart" by the 20th century composer Vitezslav Novák. All in all, a captivating disc of enchanting Czech songs sung with potent musicality and understanding.

The Bride Will Keep Her Name

It's easy to feel like you've lost a few IQ points when reading chick lit these days. Fortunately, Jan Goldstein's The Bride Will Keep Her Name is more than just your average guilty-pleasure beach read. This surprisingly incisive, fun story goes beyond sappy-romance conventions and dips fabulously in mystery, political intrigue, spy-novel thrills, and laugh-out-loud comedy. Manhattan art gallery manager Maddison Mandelbaum is engaged to a handsome, ambitious reporter, but one week before the wedding, she gets an anonymous email linking him to the death of a call girl with Eliot Spitzer–like connections. Her fast-paced investigation to uncover whether her man is fianc‚ or fugitive has the momentum of The Da Vinci Code -- and a similar touch of unrealistic, magical convenience -- but Bride shines most in its heartfelt exploration of a deliciously intriguing question: Do we ever really know the people we love? Through uncovering layers of personal and familial secrets, Madison learns that a successful marriage has less to do with knowing absolutely who your partner is before the wedding and more with being willing to find out for the rest of your life. "That's part of the fun. And the nightmare," says her wise dad, Marty, whose relationship with her is the most poignant aspect of the book. Goldstein's accessible, unclunky writing keeps the pages turning, and his knack for tapping into the female psyche is astonishing. Raising daughters with his wife, Bonnie, he has said of writing this novel, "There's long been a twenty-eight-year-old bride inside of me just waiting to burst out." With a story this entertaining, maybe more men should get in touch with their feminine side.

An Age of Kings

Before Masterpiece Theatretransformed the classics into costume-drama color TV, the BBC relied on a simpler model: no-frills Shakespeare in black-and-white. In the lean years of the early '60s, wise heads at the Beeb produced this ambitious series, The Age of Kings, eight of Shakespeare's history plays arranged chronologically by subject, not in the order composed. Those eight plays, from Richard II to Richard III, with all the Henry plays in between, cover nothing less than the protracted Wars of the Roses, England's internecine battles over succession that amounted to endless fighting among kinsmen. Fifteen one-hour episodes divvied up the plays, with half of Henry VI (Part One) deleted along with other scenes not essential to the larger arc. The result is a real treat: Shakespeare like you never see it anymore, not even on the stage. No gimmicks, no star turns -- just two sets and two cameras (with some smart close-ups) that focus attention where it belongs: Shakespeare's language. Once you do that, the history is clear, and the themes stark. The matter of kingship, still important in Shakespeare's day, animates these always engaging dramas, from betrayals, murders, and vengeance at court to scheming among the nobles throughout the country. Comic relief, of course, comes primarily from Prince Hal's tutor in the demimonde, the glorious buffoon Falstaff. But Hal himself, upon ascension to the crown as Henry V, leads his valiant "band of brothers" to victory on the battlefield, only to be followed by his weak son, who suffers from "churchlike humors." Robert Hardy carries the series as Hal, and there are fine performances throughout, with a pre-Bond Sean Connery as Harry Hotspur and a young Judi Dench as Henry V's beloved. Despite some emulsion lines and an occasionally unsteady camera, this is Shakespeare at its very best.

Below Zero

Blue Heaven, Box's last book, was a terrific stand-alone thriller about rogue L.A. cops retired to Idaho. Below Zero is a return to the Joe Pickett series, Box's ongoing dissection of crime in Wyoming as seen through the eyes of a game warden whose favorite big game is human villains. Below Zero is the ninth Pickett book, and it could be the best one yet. Beautifully written and constructed, with an art that underplays its excitement and emotional strength, it quickly becomes personal with a phone message: "Tell Sherry April called." But April, the Picketts' foster daughter, was killed in a bloody massacre, described in Winterkill, which Joe witnessed. In subsequent calls, the girl calling herself April gives so many details of their life together that Sherry begins to believe she really is alive. Joe is still skeptical. Meanwhile, Box's amazing ability to create villains both frightening and believable kicks into high gear. An older man, Stenko, his son Robert, and a young girl (the one leaving messages and texting Sherry) are traveling across the country. Stenko's purpose is to undo the damage he's done to the environment by erasing his "carbon footprint" first to zero and then to below zero. Unfortunately, he is lowering his footprint with a series of mostly violent crimes. Stenko's first target is in a trailer park: a giant mobile home, called The Unit by a retired farm couple, that gets about seven miles per gallon. Stenko shoots the couple, then burns The Unit. "Here's the deal," Stenko says to his next targets. "I was a hard-charger. Ambitious, ruthless, I guess.... But then I got the word from my docs.... I thought, What a selfish bastard I am. Like you two, I took and took and I never gave anything back.... Now I've got this deficit I'm trying to pay down."

Lucky Girl

I suspect many adoptees have been told they were lucky at some point in their lives: fortunate to have escaped an unknown fate; blessed to have been chosen by a new family who loves them. For Mei-Ling Hopgood, self-professed "Lucky Girl," it seems less about being told than about arriving at the conclusion herself. Kismet was not lost on this sixth daughter of a poor Taiwanese farming family, given up just after birth. After eight months in the care of an American nun, she crossed oceans and continents to be placed in the arms of the Hopgoods, a forward-thinking couple who fell in love with the little, dark bundle immediately. Rather than grow up unwanted by a family on a single-minded quest to produce male offspring, Mei-Ling describes an idyllic childhood, as a treasured daughter given every opportunity to succeed. But Mei-Ling never dwelled on her past, so it's a surprise when it comes to find her at age 23, at the beginning of her career as a journalist. With the skilled objectivity of a reporter, she chronicles a journey that takes her back to the welcoming bosom of her birth family and to Taiwan, over a complicated landscape fraught with confusing emotions. Though adoptees in reunion with their own birth parents will find plenty of familiar terrain in these pages, Mei-Ling's memoir goes well beyond an elated account of first impressions to cover the darker side of rejoining a family-in-progress. In an unflinching pursuit of truth, she pushes the Wang family's skeletons out of decades-long shadows and, in the process, learns a few things about herself. "You can't change your past, but you can choose where to go with what you are given." We should all be so lucky.

The Angel's Game

In Carlos Ruiz Zafón's breathtaking new novel, The Angel's Game, the author demonstrates a much wider range and self-assurance than in his international bestseller, The Shadow of the Wind. When struggling writer David Martin visits the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a magical place first introduced to readers in Zafón's earlier novel, he leaves a book he wishes to save and chooses a book he promises to protect. After he loses the love of his life to another man, a despondent Martin accepts an offer from an unusual publisher to write a book that he promises will make Martin immortal. The task thrusts him into a strange web of long-buried secrets, double-crosses, and madness. Zafón's use of language is often playful in a Borgesian way: " is a mystery. A sanctuary. Every book, every volume you see, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and the soul of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens." Much of the novel's energy also derives from Martin's sarcastic sense of humor, especially in conversations with a young assistant. Ultimately, though, the appeal of The Angel's Game lies in its careful portrait of Martin and its exploration of what it really means to love someone. Readers who appreciate books, romance, and intrigue will find this novel a subtle, unforgettable, and satisfying page-turner.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle

Directed by Peter Yates, The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) is a subdued crime drama. Set in and around the Boston area, the interior locations look well trodden; the bling factor doesn't sashay much beyond a nice leather jacket and a muscle car. Based on the novel by George V. Higgins, the movie abounds with earthbound personalities, workaday criminals who don't toot their prowess or commandeer social spots, but simply want to maneuver through the day without getting nabbed. In the title role is Robert Mitchum, who plays a middle-aged family man who makes his living doing itty-bitty jobs for dodgy acquaintances. Faced with an impending prison sentence in New Hampshire, Coyle haplessly decides to turn informant because he doesn't want his kids to grow up without him. From the editing to the dialogue to the climax -- nothing about this movie hankers to razzle-dazzle, which is a good thing considering the genre's bias towards sensationalism. If anything, The Friends of Eddie Coyle strives to pinpoint the anxiety that underlies the criminal life that is epitomized by the saucer-deep level of trust among confreres. In that respect, the movie's take-home wisdom is dispensed by a gun smuggler -- trivia buffs take note -- named Jackie Brown (Steven Keats) who schools a new connection by stating, "This life's hard, man. But it's harder if you're stupid."


Like Madonna's, the brutal tenacity of Iggy Pop's longevity is most immediately legible in the crags and canyons of an otherworldly musculature. As goes the body so goes the body of work -- the erstwhile Material Girl has staved off geezer oblivion by giving herself over as a rock-hard machine to niche European producers seeking aerobic Confessions on a Dance Floor. The more you know about supposed Godfather of Punk Iggy Pop, at 62 even gaunter than Madonna, the less surprising it should be that his path to late-career creative surprise turned out to be through the work of novelist-provocateur Michel Houellebecq. You needn't read, or care about, Houellebecq's self-seriously ugly fiction to appreciate the incongruous pulp genius of Préliminaires, Pop's first album of new material since the inconsequential Skull Ring (2003); said to be inspired by La Possibilité d'une île, it's mercifully more interested in spinning its own minor-key possibilities than dwelling on the barren symbolic island of Houellebecq's nasty little book. The result is a woozily mature record that opens with Pop covering -- you can't make this up -- "Les feuilles mortes," the Edith Piaf standard. His French baritone is more than serviceable and sets the stage for the (English-language) originals to come, which range across languid torch song, ominous spaghetti-western spoken-word, and dinner-concert jazz and blues; its eclecticism above all suggests the lost world of vocal pop, a halcyon pre-rock catholicity that Pop excavated to great effect on his 1977 post-Stooges debut, The Idiot. But if Préliminaires necessarily lacks the vitality of youthful abandon, as 36 jaunty minutes of graceful songcraft, it is a wizened work in unusually good shape.

Flying Across America: The Airline Passenger Experience

Nowadays, when you're standing on long, snaky lines, clutching your discount e-ticket and waiting to shuffle shoeless through airport security, it's hard to remember that air travel was once a glamorous, exotic adventure enjoyed only by the well-dressed rich. While today we think of flying as something to be endured, when commercial air travel began less than a century ago, it was something to be enjoyed. In 1929, when Charles Lindbergh's Transcontinental Air Transport offered the first air-rail passenger service across the country, you might have boarded a Ford Tri-Motor aircraft wearing your finest fur coat, been served an elaborate lunch on real china with gold-plated utensils, and watched sheep scatter across farmland through curtain-clad windows you could open for air. Then again, back in those days, the noise in the plane's cabin was deafening and the trip from New York to Los Angeles took about 48 hours. In his large, amply illustrated, and carefully researched new book, Flying Across America: The Airline Passenger Experience, Daniel L. Rust, assistant director of the Center for Transportation Studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, traces how people have experienced transcontinental air travel; his narrative moves from the beginning in 1911, when Calbraith Perry Rodgers became the first person to fly across the country, through the swingin' jet-set years, to the present day. Rust peppers his history with firsthand accounts, including passenger Jessie Gray's depiction, in 1933, of the view from above: "As if in the hollow of a great hand, I am upheld serenely to see the entire picture instead of tantalizing detail and unsatisfying incompleteness." With these sharp observations -- as true today as ever -- the book takes flight.


Aesthetics as an independent academic discipline may have faded with the 19th century, but in Roger Scruton's vigorous, decidedly unfashionable little book, Beauty, it's as timeless as ever. An investigation into the nature of the ineffable -- how, and what, shapes our experience of beauty -- his treatise is more an inquiry than an answer. Scruton is, by training and by temperament, a philosopher, and he approaches his analysis with a logician's steady reason. Beginning with a series of platitudes -- "Beauty pleases us," "Beauty is always a reason for attending to the thing that possesses it," and so forth -- and continuing through its pages, he tries to distill what exactly is meant by this vexing term. Beauty is, for Scruton, a rational but almost spiritual process of encounter between beholder and beheld -- be it a landscape, a painting, a simply arranged table. "When looking on the world disinterestedly," he writes, "I don't just open myself to its presented aspect; I bring myself into relation with it, experiment with concepts, categories and ideas that are shaped by my self-conscious nature." But it's easier to say what Scruton thinks beauty isn't. He's at his most passionate (and least cogent) when on the attack, lashing out at contemporary art and postmodern desecration. Scruton can come across as curmudgeonly and prudish (a British academic could not sound more uncomfortable talking about "the 'convict' style of black American 'gangstas' "), and, despite all his logical contortions, a bit imprecise. But then, it's only because he has picked, pointedly, the one subject that defies rational explanation.

Not Becoming My Mother

Am I imagining it, or does Ruth Reichl?s mother resemble Betty Friedan? In the photograph on the cover of this slender, touching portrait, Miriam Reichl appears to have the same heavy-lidded eyes and prominent nose as the feminist icon. But the comparison may have occurred to me because Miriam's disappointing life evokes Friedan?s landmark work, The Feminine Mystique: "As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night," wrote Friedan, ?she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question -- Is this all?? Reichl's book -- which grew out of an arresting award-acceptance speech in which she credited her mother as ?a great example of everything I didn?t want to be? -- attempts to trace how far Miriam's life really reflected Friedan's portrait. She employs a treasure trove of letters and musings that Miriam had scribbled on scrap paper throughout her life and preserved in a box. Much of what her daughter found was surely painful to read: Miriam's ambitions to be a doctor were thwarted by controlling parents, who were obsessed with marrying off the daughter they thought of as "homely." The lessons Reichl draws from her mother?s misery -- among them that a worklife is "the key to happiness" -- cut right to the heart of the thorny conflicts that have vexed modern feminism. More and more educated mothers defend their decision to stay home, while working-class women have long had no choice but to occupy jobs that could hardly be called "the key to happiness." But this short, powerful book offers an up-close look at an experience common to many women of Miriam's generation, and it is as brave for Reichl to get to know this new mother as it is heartbreaking that she didn?t do so until years after her death.

Last Night in Montreal

We know from the second sentence of Last Night in Montreal that protagonist Lilia disappears, but it is the first sentence -- "No one stays forever" -- that defines this beautiful, complicated, and occasionally disappointing debut novel. Lilia enters grad student Eli's spartan and stable life one day at a coffee shop. She has a bohemian beauty (Eli finds her choppy, self-barbered hair "thrilling") and a fascination with his study of dead and dying languages. At first, this seems to hold the key to Mandel's plot: We constantly misinterpret the words of the people we love. It's less important to know about Eli than to know he cares enough about Lilia to try and understand why she, in her own words, "doesn't know how to stay." Lilia, used to an itinerant lifestyle after years of moving rapidly with her father, leaves Eli in one city and pops up in another, living with the mysterious Michaela. Michaela's father, police officer Charles Graydon, is also chasing Lilia -- but his reasons for doing so couldn't be more different from Eli's. Unfortunately for plot cohesion, at this point the idea that "no one stays forever" takes over, and sometimes remembering why an event or character matters takes effort. Fortunately for Mandel's future as a novelist, that theme was the right one to pursue. The author is concerned with the different faces of neglect and their consequences. Once Lilia's full story is revealed, characters understand each other all too well -- and perhaps too late. Mandel's exquisite use of language and pacing mean that every last word counts, up to the very last sentence.

At Least in the City Someone Would Hear Me Scream

Wade Rouse is an unlikely modern-day Thoreau. Sure, he's quit his high-powered job in St. Louis and struck out for the territory on the sparsely populated shores of Lake Michigan, with nothing more than his partner, their dog, a healthy dose of hope, and Walden in hand as a guidebook. But the self-professed neurotic urbanite's attempts to renounce big-city addictions -- Kenneth Cole shoes, Starbucks triple-shot-no-fat-no-whip white mochas, among others -- are not always successful. Take the first chapter of this chronicle on adjusting to life in the woods, in which he fends off a wily raccoon's assault on his trash can, and then his head, with the only two things he never leaves home without: lip shimmer and breath spray. Turns out the latter serves double duty as pepper spray, thwarting the beast long enough to release its toothy grip on Rouse. From there, Rouse ticks off the ten lessons he's determined to glean from his new life, such as "eschewing the latest entertainment and fashion for simpler pursuits" and "participating in country customs," both of which he tries desperately to embrace (the ice fishing scene is truly laugh-out-loud funny) and decidedly fails to achieve. His attempts to rediscover religion and redefine the meaning of life and love, however, produce poignant epiphanies. The true success in the book is how Rouse manages to toe the line (feet encased in stylish slides) between hilarity and philosophy, proving that enlightenment can be found in as unlikely a place as a karaoke contest, where he's reminded of his mother's teaching, "It's not where you choose to live; it's how you choose to live."


Would the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair of August 1969 maintain its sturdy cultural significance without the 1970 film Woodstock, the Oscar-winning documentary that captured the event in all its muddy, drug-infused, glory? Probably. In the face of massive obstacles (traffic, sanitation, weather) this unprecedented gathering of 400,000-plus youths was both a stunning display of communal cooperation and the occasion for a score of legendary musical performances. Not something easily forgotten. Yet there's no denying the enormous role that the film played in cementing the festival into our historical consciousness. This reissue marks the event's 40th anniversary, offering a director's-cut expansion and a third DVD with additional, previously unreleased numbers. Some of the added material reminds us how much deplorable music was endured by attendees: for all the stirring performances the official film captures -- the Who, Richie Havens, Jimi Hendrix, among them -- this version also serves up the grueling white-boy blues offerings of Canned Heat, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and the Grateful Dead. These are thankfully offset by new footage of Creedence Clearwater Revival's compact, butt-kicking "Born on the Bayou" and "I Put a Spell on You." DVD bonuses aside, Woodstock remains a marvel -- one of the handful of music-related documentaries deserving of its continued reputation. To their vast credit, director Michael Wadleigh and his team of editors (chief among them a young Martin Scorsese), resist the temptation to concoct a self-congratulatory cinematic love fest of hippie unity. Rather, with their brilliantly realized use of split-screen action, the filmmakers present the festival in full: we hear from counterculture sloganeers, suburban kids out of their element, locals both exasperated and embracing of the unexpected invasion. And never is the accumulating filth much out of sight.

Lucha Libre: The Family Portraits

In her spellbinding Lucha Libre: The Family Portraits, the acclaimed Mexican photographer Lourdes Grobet reveals the masked gods of lucha libre (freestyle wrestling) at home, at play, and, in the case of the minor deities, at day jobs as cops or dentists. Grobet shows us técnicos, good-guy guardians of the moral order such as the Son of El Santo, looking comfortably bourgeois in his upscale living room -- except for the fact that he?s peering at us through the teardrop eyeholes of a silver hood. We meet dirty-fighting rudos (bad guys) like Parka, posing in a cemetery; his skull mask and skeleton bodysuit could launch a Ph.D. dissertation on Mexican fatalism and black humor in the face of official corruption and narco-terrorism. Parka himself would probably say that I?m overthinking this. Then he'd drop me with his bone-jarring Skull Bomb move and, if the ref wasn?t looking, finish me with a steel folding chair. Like Mexican culture itself, lucha is too full of contradictory meanings to be neatly tied up with an Octavio Paz quote or laughed off as Nacho Libre kitsch. As Grobet suggests, lucha puts a masked face on Mexico?s split personality: Aztec and Catholic, aristocratic and revolutionary, sublime and soap-operatic. Sure, lucha acts out the power fantasies of the poor, who dream of giving their oppressors a gladiatorial beatdown. But unlike American wrestlers, luchadors specialize in high-flying moves -- somersaulting, backflipping, springboarding off the ring ropes -- that flaunt acrobatic prowess and risk serious injury. Defying gravity, such stunts invest lucha libre with a defiant spirituality, catapulting the wrestler closer to god, and ultimately to godhood. And who wouldn?t want to be a god? Looking into the shyly proud eyes of the cute little boy seated in front of his big-shouldered daddy, the rudo wrestler Aztec Blood, you know the answer.

Hello Goodbye: A Novel

You could call Emily Chenoweth's Hello Goodbye a coming-of-age book. Abby, a young woman vacationing with her parents before her sophomore year in college, sheds her childhood innocence and stumbles into adulthood in this gentle, almost delicate story. But it's also more than that. Seductive and sad as a late-summer breeze, this debut novel is an exploration of aging, of enduring friendships, of the complicated relationships between parent and child, and of love, old and new. Abby's mother, Helen, is dying of cancer; doctors have given her only nine months to live, though neither Helen nor Abby have been told. Abby's father, Elliott, has gathered old friends at what he keeps referring to, much to Abby's irritation, as "the best hotel in New Hampshire" to celebrate the couple's 20th anniversary. "Elliott understood that in the story of his and Helen's marriage, the end had already been written. But the path to that conclusion was still left to forge -- how the days and weeks would go, and what solace and joy would be found in them, were in many ways up to him," Chenoweth writes. "So he had summoned their friends to this place where they would eat and drink and reminisce, and when they left, they would say, for the last time, goodbye." But Helen's goodbye provides the backdrop for Abby's arrival. "It was as if the cancer had finally proved that she and her mother were not two complementary sides of the same person," Chenoweth muses. As Abby becomes her own woman, we remember our uncertain first steps into adulthood. And as Helen fades and Elliott considers the future, we contemplate the inevitability of our own.

Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City

In 1927, Henry Ford, vast in determination, ingenuity, and protuberant opinion, and increasingly contradictory in his fantasies, moved forward with his plans for a settlement in Brazil's Amazonian jungle, soon known as Fordlandia. Initially inspired by the carmaker's alarm over a proposed British and Dutch rubber cartel, the project was an experiment in applying the principles of mass production to agriculture, specifically rubber plants and their tapping. But it was also an attempt to create a "great industrial city" in which a harmony of mechanization and nature would give rise to a better and, as Ford firmly believed, Emersonian way of life. Ford's distaste for expertise and precedent led him to ignore the experience of companies that had successfully exploited the tropics. He was swindled and misled in the land deal and pushed his own views on everything, imposing industrial regimentation and American ideas of a decent life -- punctuality, indoor plumbing, canned peaches, square dancing, and the like -- upon a pre-industrial people. The result was a failure with many installments, but it paled before the fiasco of attempting to subdue the gigantically vital, implacable jungle with its legion of parasites. Growing rubber trees according to Dearborn, Michigan's, notions of efficiency was never achieved, and the effort was made all the more futile by tumbling rubber prices. In a sense the entire enterprise was a sideshow, darkly comic at times, in the progress of global capitalism; but under Grandin's complex scrutiny and eye for character, it also provides a multifaceted, if ghoulishly lighted, spectacle of Henry Ford's preoccupations and disenchantment with America as it had come to be in the 1920s and 1930s.

The Exchange-Rate Between Love and Money

The worldly young people of Thomas Leveritt's novel have all the information they need. They know that religion doesn't work; ideology doesn't work; movements and philanthropy and even basic goodness are broken irredeemably. Ah, but there's always graft, corruption, and commerce; the profit motive, the predatory principle. Leveritt's protagonist Bannerman joins his buddy Frito in a venture exporting Bosnian beer from a Sarajevo transformed into by war, ethnic cleansing, and international aid into a bazaar of gnashing teeth. The beer, Frito is convinced, was the secret to the Sarajevans' uncanny survival during the siege; this makes it not only an enticing enigma but -- more important to Frito -- a saleable brand. But Bannerman and Frito's designs go awry; they find the almighty dollar is broken, too -- broken by design, and no warranty. What's left? Love, of course: Bannerman falls into it with Frito's girlfriend, Clare, a placid, freckled prosecutor for The Hague. Love is broken, too, but we already knew that; everything that falls converges also. As love and the export business break them, Bannerman and Frito turn to bounty hunting, helping to seize the war criminals who are as abundant as beer in the once-besieged city. In the end they're left with violence -- which always works, only never as intended. Leveritt's novel is knowing, sometimes cloyingly so. But he catches the frustrated hopes of a generation for whom cosmopolitan idealism and world-weary ennui are unresolved. And he does it through a living idiom that fizzes, crackles, and tingles but never breaks.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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."

July 29: On this day in 1878 Don Marquis was born.

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).