Displaying articles for: July 2008

L'Assassin

There's much to be said for good, old-fashioned thrillers, in which the protagonist is up against a tangled web of villains who have the president of the United States on speed dial. In the sequel to Le Crime (originally published as A French Country Murder), New Yorker cartoonist Peter Steiner revisits his character Louis Morgon, a retired CIA operative living in the sleepy French village of Saint-Léon sur Dême. Morgon continues to be persecuted by his deranged former boss, Secretary of State Hugh Bowes, who sets off a string of murders with a robbery of Morgon's house that at first seemed "noteworthy only for its ineptitude." The real crime is much more complicated, as Morgon is framed as a terrorist working with al Qaeda. Allegedly, this partnership helps him channel his hatred for America, an incendiary claim that fuels Morgon, along with a local police detective, Renard, to investigate matters, traveling to Afghanistan and the U.S., where he reconnects with his estranged grown children. Steiner's prose, as that of Dan Brown and John Grisham, won't win him fans, but his story, and Morgon especially, make for the literary equivalent of a mystery starring James Stewart: here is a man in the middle of a maelstrom who must stop a murderer and simultaneously sort out, with bumbling charm, his imperfect personal life.

Saturn's Children

When science fiction fans wax nostalgic for the novels of Robert A. Heinlein, they are more likely to have Stranger in a Strange Land, Starship Troopers, or his celebrated juveniles in mind than the solipsistic, arguably misogynistic books that appeared at the tail end of his career. Leave it to Charles Stross, author of Accelerando and Halting State, to find a fresh way to pay homage to late-period Heinlein in a space opera with decidedly 21st-century sensibilities. Saturn's Children uses Heinlein's 1982 novel Friday as its template, chronicling the solar system–spanning adventures of Freya Nakamichi 47, a femmebot designed for the carnal pleasures of her human masters. Unfortunately, humans died off two centuries ago, leaving Freya and her robotic siblings at extremely loose ends. On the run from aristocratic slaveowners with a grudge, the comely android takes a job as a courier, carrying a mysterious package in her abdomen from Mercury to Mars. En route, Freya finds herself imprinted with the memories of one of her missing sisters, falls in love with the wrong artificial person, and discovers unsettling secrets about the original model in her line. This overly complicated stand-alone novel never quite achieves the sublime lunacy or the mind-bending inventiveness of its author's best work. But rather like the book that inspired it, Saturn's Children offers more than its fair share of action, humor, artful extrapolation, and intriguing discourses on the nature of free will.

Travel Pictures

Divided into four parts, Travel Pictures by Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) is a proud, unruly book that was inspired by the poet's travels across Germany and Italy during the early part of the 19th century. Rather than sticking to the familiar travelogue form, Heine's book is an exercise in poetic fancy that reads like a collection of short stories. Curiously, Heine seems less invested in the lyrical evocation of the places that he visited -- as one might expect from a writer identified with German Romanticism -- than in treating the reader to a number of baser delights, such as pulling pranks, savaging one's enemies, and recounting a good ghost story. One display of Heine's earthiness is occasioned by the lack of a vacancy at an inn, obliging the author to share a room with a traveling salesman. Alas, the man from Frankfurt regales Heine -- a converted Jew -- with a carelessly anti-Semitic remark about Jewish merchants' abdication of noble values in favor of maximizing their profit margins. In response to this, Heine tells the man that he's a sleepwalker and apologizes, in advance, for any misfortune that may be visited upon him due to this condition. In the morning, Heine writes: "he poor fellow did not shut an eye all night, fearing that I might in my sleepwalking state do something regrettable with the pistols I kept lying in front of my bed." After reading this poet's biting account of his travels, one would imagine that most readers will presume that those pistols were loaded and primed for any eventuality.

Confessions of a Former Child: A Therapist's Memoir

Among the many pitfalls that can befall memoir, there are special classes of pitfall reserved for memoirs by therapists. Because the writers come armed with arsenals of theoretical know-how, they can be overly brooding, full of false epiphany, or highly academic. They can navel-gaze, stare into a wistful distance, or endlessly deconstruct themselves in search of object lessons. Occasionally, some of these formulas work, and sometimes they are pleasing and insightful, but what's refreshing about Daniel Tomasulo's memoir is that it celebrates emotional complexity without seeming to do any of these things. Though written by a therapist, it seems only to be recounting a life with generous humor and a gentle wisdom acquired in hindsight. Tomasulo, who lost his father to a heart attack and his mother to cancer, meditates on other losses as well: some as large as losing friends and patients to heroin, others as small as the pain of throwing away old running shoes. And as a man of Italian and Irish ancestry living in New Jersey, Tomasulo offers linked vignettes with a "regular-guy" simplicity that comes off as generous, slightly gritty, and down-to-earth. As his stories leapfrog through time, it becomes apparent that he has a simple guiding philosophy: it is possible to live in the past and present at once, and that it's possible to feel contradictory feelings at the same time. Living with complexity is his sense of resolution. The stories aren't really pat, but what Tomasulo occasionally seems to lack in theoretical depth, he makes up for in warmth. Holding his newborn daughter in his arms for the first time, he feels the wide expansion of both present and past in the miracle of her body. At once, a rueful kicker: "It was at this very moment I realized I had become a father, that Nancy and I were now part of a family, and that my keys were locked in a car outside the emergency room with the motor still running."

The Outlaw and His Wife

As the star of Ingmar Bergman's 1957 film Wild Strawberries, Victor Sjöström, then in his late 70s, gives a radiant performance as an august professor pondering his life and impending death, one that is still treasured by devotees of international film. Unfortunately, the extraordinary work that Sjöström created as a director some 40 years earlier is less well known. The Outlaw and His Wife, the 1917 tragedy that established the Swedish master as a cinematic force to be reckoned with, remains as impressive in its visual strategies as it is bleak in its dramatic dimensions. Sjöström again stars, but here, in the early heyday of the silent screen era, his rugged physique and virile presence practically flood the frame. His future wife, Edith Erastoff, also gives a stirring performance, but both actors are, in effect, humbly costarring with the magnificent and often terrifying Scandinavian terrain, which the director so powerfully exploits. Nature overflows: imposing mountains, relentless rivers, steaming hot springs, chilling ravines, and violent snowstorms act as visual counterparts to the hapless protagonists, dwarfing and eventually overcoming them. It's the moody Scandinavian temperament made manifest. Uplifting, though, is Sjöström's impressive command of film technique; powerfully composed deep-focus shots that unite man and his imposing surroundings work in tandem with sharp editing to bring this elemental tale to its inevitable, wrenching conclusion. It's little wonder that Hollywood soon called. Sjöström's American silents of the 1920s, including The Wind with Lillian Gish, are further affirmations of his ability to conjure haunting drama from unforgettable visuals.

Stay Positive

Photos of Tampa's Ybor City neigborhood suggest nothing iconic, a generic pastiche along the lines of a Floridian Quincy Market. As refracted through three punch-drunk Hold Steady albums, however, its name has entered -- along with other locales including a mysterious civic plot known only as "penetration park" -- this century's mythos of rock 'n' roll Americana. Not ones to mess with a winning (and utterly singular) formula, the band delivers a fourth collection of lapsed Catholics and quarter-life crises with Stay Positive: the first verse of the closer, "Slapped Actress," insists, "Don't tell them we were down in Ybor City again." The second verse? "Don't tell them Ybor City almost killed us again." Newcomers to their antediluvian sing-along bar anthems (mostly upbeat) about first loves and hard drugs (mostly downers) might be surprised to learn that the Hold Steady are based in trend-stoked Brooklyn; like Joyce reimagining Dublin from Paris, front man Craig Finn likely needed an escape to the coast before he could realize his maximalist portraits of midwestern nihilism. Said coast may finally be exacting some erosion -- perhaps the formula's changed after all. After all, the best tracks here -- "One for the Cutters" and "Joke About Jamaica" -- feature expanded, minor-key soundscapes and flunkie character sketches refreshingly more jaundiced than anything on 2006's Boys and Girl in America. ("When there weren't any parties," Finn yelps in indictment, "sometimes she partied with townies.") Indeed, if that last album was in thrall, sonically and thematically, to early Springsteen, consider "Stay Positive," for better or worse, neo–Billy Joel: still about the darknesses on the edge of town, but with one eye, at least, toward moving out.

The Snake Charmer: A Life and Death in Pursuit of Knowledge

When renowned herpetologist Joe Slowinski was bitten by a many-banded krait, a profoundly venomous snake found throughout Southeast Asia, he knew better than anyone the daunting odds he faced. He gathered together his colleagues, fellow biologists engaged in a survey of remote northern Burma, and described for them the symptoms he would experience: first the potent neurotoxin would numb his extremities; next his eyelids and head would droop; soon thereafter the paralysis would reach his diaphram, and he would stop breathing. Drawn to all that creeps, slithers, and crawls, Slowinski mingled the macho charge he got out of handling deadly serpents with a zealous curiosity about the natural world. Author Jamie James charts the origins of Slowinski's passion for nature: artist parents who fostered curiosity and exploration, access to the rough woodlands and fossil-laden riverbanks of the Midwest, and above all an immunity to fear that lead Slowinski to great discoveries and, ultimately, to his death. As his symptoms progressed, Slowinski's colleagues fought to keep him alive, administering mouth-to-mouth breathing in the rank tropical heat for hours, awaiting a rescue that never comes. But it's wonder, not suspense, that's at the heart of this book. The Snake Charmer is more than a tale of derring-do, discovery, and death in the jungle; it's also a story of the grandeur of the biosphere and the lengths some people will go to understand and protect it.

The Flash Press: Sporting Male Weeklies in 1840s New York

If the health of a democratic society can be gauged, in part, from the robustness of its vices, then 1840s New York was hale indeed. Here, for a brief period, the discerning brothel creep, blackmailer, "libertine republican," "sporting gent," dueling enthusiast and aficionado of bare-knuckle boxing was serviced by four different weekly publications. Their editors were dystopian supermen: William Snelling of the Sunday Flash had lived as a young man with the Dakota Indians and lost part of his left hand in a duel; George Washington Dixon of the Polyanthos once performed a 60-hour marathon of pacing, "fortified by only water, raw oysters, and a single glass of wine." Our contemporary American libido, with its reliance on Internet pornography, would have displeased them: why pursue the "unhallowed passion" of onanism when the "conjunction copulative" is so available? The Flash Press chronicles this small, significant fit in media history: the rise and fall of The Whip, The Rake, The Libertine, and The Flash are recorded in prose quite adequate to the raciness of the theme, and then comes the icing on the cake -- nearly 100 pages of excerpts. The tone is uniformly triumphant, trickster-ish, superb: one remembers Cyril Connolly's contention that there are epochs in the development of human consciousness, moods of the mind, during which it is impossible to write badly.

A Gentleman?s Guide to Graceful Living

Michael Dahlie?s first novel, an elegant, restrained dark comedy, could be called a kinder, gentler Handful of Dust. It is 1998, a dreadful year for 57-year-old Manhattanite, Arthur Camden, a mild-mannered deviation from a line of business titans. He has run the family firm into the ground, and his wife of 32 years has left him, preferring someone who?s fun and on the ball. The point of Arthur?s life, never finely honed to begin with, now completely escapes him. His only friends, aside from his sons, are -- or seem to be -- his fellow members of the Hanover Street Fly Casters. But, unsurprisingly, disaster strikes there, too, and Arthur packs his bags -- an activity he has always enjoyed -- and sets off on a doomed, though terribly funny, journey. The better we get to know Arthur and his feelings of invincible of inadequacy, his natural talent for entering every situation on the wrong foot, and his own wonder at his knack of exasperating others, the more we are drawn to his self-deprecating decency. When he does sally forth we find ourselves rooting for him as if he were coming of age. ("After the concert?Arthur suggested they get dinner, and before long they were seated at a corner table at a restaurant called Epi Dupin, leaning into each other and, although Arthur felt he was not qualified to identify it as such, flirting.") Dahlie?s writing is limpid and deadpan, maintaining the spirit of Arthur?s orderly, if baffled, soul. What is more, out of this unlikely material comes extraordinary suspense. Will Arthur pull it together? Will his tormentors get theirs? What is going to happen? This is a book I could neither put down nor bear the thought of finishing.

Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It

While you may not always be able to evaluate a book by its cover, you certainly can judge this one by its dedication. The authors -- who helped implement a new way of working at Best Buy, the consumer electronics chain -- wrote this for ?people who work, and know there?s a better way to do it.? Ressler and Thompson say they have found that better way. Companies need to create a Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE), a way of working where employees can do whatever they want, whenever they want, as long as their job is done. The 40-hour work week is, they say, ?outdated, outmoded, out to lunch.? There is precedent for this, of course: ROWE is how freelancers and many salespeople do their jobs. And the book is filled with short testimonials from Best Buy employees, as they tell how they love this new way of working. However, Ressler and Thompson never quite show how the work gets done within a ROWE. If we saw how a representative sample of employees -- say someone from HR, IT, finance, marketing, and purchasing -- met their goals, it would be a much more compelling case. As it is, we have to take the authors' argument on faith. Still, intuitively, the idea of treating employees like grown-ups, people responsible enough to get their jobs done well and on time, is appealing. And if the book does nothing more than start a series of discussions about how work gets done, it will be a worthwhile accomplishment.

The Totally Made-Up Civil War Diary of Amanda Macleish

The Totally Made-Up Civil War Diary of Amanda Macleish weaves the contemporary story of fifth grader Amanda MacLeish and the "totally made-up" diary of Amanda?s fictional Civil War–era ten-year-old Polly. Like Polly and her war-afflicted family, Amanda?s world is falling apart -- her good-natured father has moved out, and Amanda entirely blames her irritable mother. Amanda?s best friend, Beth, seems to have found a replacement buddy. And half the kids in her class are clueless about writing or the Civil War:

Patrick finished reading. The class clapped politely.
"What did you like about Patrick?s diary entry?" Mr. Abrams asked.
What could anyone possibly say? "I liked the places where you could read your own handwriting." But no one would want to say something mean in Mr. Abrams?s class.


Despite its somber themes, Claudia Mills?s newest novel sparkles like a glass of ginger ale, peppery and sweet. Spirited Amanda blunders through mistakes that only make us love her more. A splash of American history, a dollop of friendship, a pinch of philosophy, humor, pathos, even a dash of romance -- The Totally Made-Up Civil War Diary of Amanda Macleish has something for every young reader.

Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten

Filmmaker Julien Temple, who has made his career documenting the Sex Pistols, turns his attention to another Brit punk legend: Joe Strummer, the iconic, world-wise frontman for the Clash, who tragically died of a heart attack at the age of 50 in 2002. Temple is painstakingly thorough in laying out this insidery biography of the influential musician. Born in Turkey to a left-wing diplomat, John Graham Mellor (who rechristened himself Joe Strummer for his instrumental style) spent much of his childhood moving from country to country before his parents sent him and his soft-spoken older brother (who would years later become a neo-Nazi before committing suicide) to the bully-ruled halls of boarding school. From here we follow Strummer through a Bob Dylan–esque, self-mythologizing evolution, from art-school student and squatter activist to aspiring rockabilly musician to, in his joking words, "Punk Rock Warlord" (after being fixed up with Mick Jones, Keith Levene, and Paul Simonon by self-proclaimed punk legend and manager Bernie Rhodes). Temple brilliantly uses old audio of Strummer to have him posthumously narrate his own story and brings together old friends, ex-friends, former bandmates (Temple doesn?t offer names, and the subjects don?t identify themselves -- a frustrating elision for a less acquainted audience), and an assortment of celebrities (e.g., Bono and Matt Dillon), who converge at a campfire to deliver revelatory stories (an old girlfriend said he was "never bothered about money, but did care about fame"). If the nearly two hour-long doc isn?t enough to satisfy diehard Strummer fans (for whom Temple's completist approach is best suited ) there are 100-plus bonus hours of interviews from the cutting-room floor.

Missy

Scottish playwright Chris Hannan makes his debut as a novelist with Missy, a rollicking tale of prostitution and opium addiction in the American West of the 1860s. While traveling through the Sierra Nevadas, "flash girl" Dol McQueen stumbles across a crate of opium, guarded by a nervous pimp who gives her the "missy" in an effort to keep it from falling into the hands of a sadistic gang of kids hot on his trail. Dol is only too happy to take possession because, at 19, she?s already an addict who will sleep with the dirtiest of men for a few hours of gonged-out bliss: "When you take missy you spread out like a peacock?s tail, and it feels like that?s the number of eyes you have." Of course, this makes it hard to keep the opium long enough to sell it and buy her way out of the business. The story is told through Dol?s eyes, and it?s here Hannan excels with the fearless and funny voice of a lower-class heroine scratching her way up toward redemption. When she?s high, Dol has "eyes like a piece of taxidermy," and the smell of the drug is like "a dirty slum girl with a mouth full of colored candy." While there are distracting lapses in plausibility -- the opium?s original owner all-too-readily gives up the valuable stash, for example -- Hannan?s vigorous style keeps us engaged in Dol?s quest to save herself from a life of missy and misery.

Essen

The confluence of Jewish-American culture, rhythm and blues, jazz, and food may sound like a terrifying New World cultural collision, but Essen (Yiddish for "eat") actually goes down like Katz?s pastrami (i.e., like butter). For the past few years, Paul Shapiro, a New York–based saxophonist with serious new-jazz and R&B credentials, has put a postmodern spin on Jewish musical themes, honoring the past yet never forgetting that over-the-top humor and extroverted theatricality (and culinary obsession) are grand elements of the tradition. Essen turns a loving eye on novelty numbers whose melting-pot origins can be traced to such dizzying sources as the music hall icon Sophie Tucker, jazz singer Mildred Bailey (herself of Native American blood), African-American artists Cab Calloway and the team of Slim and Slam; and the legendary Yiddish comedy duo the Barton Brothers. Shapiro and his multiracial Ribs and Brisket Revue go to town on timeless ditties like ?Matzoh Balls,? ?Tzouris,? and ?A Bee Gezindt,? laying on bluesy vocals, jazzy riffs, funky beats, and madcap interjections as if they were applying crucial mustard and sauerkraut on top of that aforementioned pastrami. What makes the album a delight, apart from the delicious absurdity of much of the material (?dunkin bagels -- splash in the coffee? indeed!) is the balance of top-notch musicianship (hear, for instance, Cilla Owens?s idiomatic command of both Yiddish and blues inflections on ?Mama Goes where Papa Goes?) and lighthearted sensibility. Essen leaves us, yes, hungry for more.

Buckminster Fuller: Starting with the Universe

Reading the accompaniment to the eponymous Whitney Museum of American Art exhibition, it becomes clear why the ideas of this "comprehensive anticipatory design scientist" remain so provocative. The thrust of the lead curator's essay and the majority of the plates emphasize Fuller's (1895-1983) architectural and design legacy. Those pages concentrate on his most surreal schemes, such as: "Sketch of Zeppelins dropping bombs and delivering 4D towers to be planted in craters"; his spaceship-reminiscent Dymaxion House; his three-wheeler Dymaxion Car; his Dymaxion Map of the world, and his most identifiable creation, the geodesic dome. The essays that are most revelatory are those that address Fuller's relationships with an enormous range of artists and innovators who inspired or collaborated with him on status quo–skewering concepts. What a summer back in 1948 at Black Mountain College, where he participated in an Erik Satie production that also involved choreographer Merce Cunningham, composor John Cage, and artists Willem and Elaine de Kooning! One of his great friends from his impecunious Greenwich Village days was the Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi, who worked with Fuller on "4D Transportation Unit" (ca. 1932) and the Dymaxion Car. While this book will expand the public's appreciation of Fuller's legacy, it also contains curious omissions. Given that that the most famous geodesic dome in the public consciousness, the Disney Epcot Center (1982), which has a Fuller signature phrase ("Spaceship Earth") for its name, is not even mentioned seems odd. Nor is I. M. Pei -- known for such Fuller-like geometric constructions such as the Louvre Pyramids (1989). Also, as a visit to Fuller's Wikipedia page will reveal, his associations were also far more diverse than this book would suggest. Perhaps the authors considered it too wacky to mention that he went on several speaking tours (1976-79) with Werner Erhard, himself a controversial utopian and founder of the EST (Erhard Seminars Training) courses, but to omit Erhard and so many other notable talents and eccentrics Fuller cavorted with is to undervalue his omnivorous guileless curiosity, which, arguably was the true secret to his polyphonic genius.

Love Today

There were many signs that Maxim Biller -- a prolific German author, playwright, and journalist -- should offer a highly lauded American debut. Two short stories appeared in The New Yorker in the span of two months. For his first full-length English collection, his German was reshaped by noted translator Anthea Bell, who brought English speakers a delicately valenced version of Sebald?s Austerlitz in 2002. Biller, who is Czech born and emigrated as a child, typically captures cosmopolitan, post-Wall German cities populated by Turks, Poles, Israelis, Egyptians, Germans, and what seems to be a pervasive (and perverse) sense of malaise. Love Today speaks to the apparent alienation of these spaces, exploring the way a hydroponic hypermodernity conspires with a self-chosen rootlessness to make "love today" impossible. Characters -- be they Israeli, Greek, Turkish, Iranian, or German -- fail to love, fetishize, cheat on, and abandon one another against the bleak backdrops of Frankfurt and Berlin. In stories with titles like "Seven Attempts at Loving" or "The Maserati Years," people disappear into veils of rain or screen themselves behind hard, glassy facades while watching strangers. In "On a Cold Dark Night" an Israeli man congratulates himself for the lie he?s told to get a woman into bed, thinking with savagery about damaging her pale German skin. In "We Were Sitting at Cibo Matto" a married man tells his friend about the orgies he is having, then disappears into a club to have more. There are obviously many precedents in literature for urban mythologies of the oh-so-modern and tragically bleak. Unfortunately, this one fails either to rivet or shock -- instead, Biller?s formulae of alienation seem so repetitive as to grow merely rhetorical. "She stopped, shed tears, and then went on again," ends one story. "I felt very cold," ends another. Grimly, in the next story, the ennui resumes.

The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction

Southern blacks viewed the three post-Civil War constitutional amendments as guaranteeing them equal protection under the law. Yet postwar dreams of equality would be dashed during Reconstruction. Much of that failure traces back to the Colfax Massacre. During Reconstruction, white supremacist groups such as the KKK used violence to prevent southern blacks from exercising their legal rights, and elections were deeply influenced by the de facto disenfranchisement of terrified blacks. After one disputed election, a group of black Republicans peacefully occupied the courthouse in Colfax, Louisiana. A white vigilante mob gathered, and on April 13, 1873, they attacked the courthouse, setting it and gunning down those who fled. Blacks who surrendered were executed, with the death toll reaching 60. The outraged U.S. attorney, James Beckwith, sought to convict the killers, but got no cooperation from Colfax?s white community, and little help from blacks, who feared further reprisals. Charles Lane expertly describes the legal proceedings against nine whites, charged by Beckwith with federal crimes. In the end, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the Colfax killers were subject only to state law: "the Supreme Court had decreed," summarizes Lane, "that the Negroes must look to the states for protection." Predictably, the white defendants were freed by state authorities, and southern states began to restrict rather than protect civil rights. The federal government would not interfere with Jim Crow for nearly a century.

The Foreigner

Crime fiction that tells us about life in mainland China have become so common (such authors as Lisa See and Qiu Xiaolong are among the leading practitioners) that it comes as a surprise to realize how little we know about what goes on in the darker streets of Taiwan. Fortunately for us, Francie Lin -- a Harvard graduate and a former editor of The Threepenny Review -- spent two years in Taiwan on a Fulbright Fellowship, which doubtlessly planted in her mind the idea for her absolutely riveting debut thriller. It's about a 40-year-old bachelor called Emerson Chang, a San Francisco financial analyst who doesn't speak a word of Chinese. He has spent his life looking after, and being browbeaten by, his Formosa-born mother, a tough cookie who runs a cheap motel she has renamed the Remeda Inn to suck in the chain's runoff. Mrs. Chang wears her nationality like overdone makeup, saying that her only wish is to have her ashes scattered on her native ground. When she dies, Emerson -- after being somewhat shaken by the news of her large bequest to his younger brother, Little P, who deserted the family and is now deeply involved in the Taiwanese criminal underworld -- sets off for Taiwan, where Little P seems to be running some very shady business out of his uncle's karaoke bar. Lin catches the flavor of the Taiwanese world -- especially its underworld -- with great skill. But she is best at combining her action scenes with touching moments of memory, as Emerson realizes how much his mother lost by coming to America. In a Taiwan hotel lobby, waiting for Little P to show up, Emerson listens to "the nasal strains of an old Shanghainese pop song.... My mother had liked these pop songs from the mainland herself, the old, plaintive ghost of Shanghai glamour."

The Two Kinds of Decay

Acclaimed poet Sarah Manguso thought she was suffering from a weeks-long head cold during her junior year at Harvard in 1995, before tingling, numbness, and shortness of breath suggested something more mysterious -- and dire. She soon found herself in the intensive care unit of the local hospital, where they administered the first of 50 rounds of aphersis, an excruciating four-hour process of removing and replacing toxic components in the blood. Thus began Manguso?s nine-year battle with a disease so rare it has no name. Its closest approx-
imation is "chronic idio-
phathic demyelinating polyradiculoneuropathy" -- in other words, her immune system was decimating her nervous system. With spare, precise prose, gallows humor, and piercing observation, Manguso seizes and artfully organizes shards of memories of paralysis, breathlessness, extreme pain, and terror. She "grew used to being sick and looking forward to recovering" only to become "used to having no prognosis at all, because with a mysterious disease, all things are possible." Manguso masterfully evokes her yearnings to indulge her 20-something appetites (e.g., sex and alcohol) while instead forced to confront mortality -- enduring misdiagnoses and interminable hospital stays, encounters with former classmates turned nurses, and the death of a former lover. The Two Kinds of Decay is an indelible meditation on remembering what one longs to forget, by a woman emerging from the exile of illness.

Names on the Land: A Historical Account of Place-Naming in the United States

If you?ve ever wondered how the places around you -- from the Bronx and the Bowery to Appalachia and Oregon -- got their names, then you?ll delight in this smart and witty history of place-naming in the United States, a key to many of the roadside mysteries that cover the American landscape. First published in 1945 and revised a few times since, Stewart?s classic study relies on a wealth of literary and archival sources, from contemporary accounts of the great European explorers to 19th-century court records. Stewart?s often poetic celebration of American ingenuity and resilience reflects the historical contours of discovery and expansion. And it begins with the Spanish, Dutch, and English colonizers who brought with them a desire to put their mark on the new lands. They commemorated their royal sponsors, their native towns and cities, and their religious beliefs. If the Spanish in Florida and California honored saints and sailors, the Puritans in New England avoided any hint of papistry or royalty. New Yorkers will find in every name ending with ?kill? or ?rack? the ghosts of their Dutch ancestors. But the real surprise is how often the newcomers let the places name themselves, or so they thought, since their understanding of the native Indian languages was marginal at best. But a good-faith effort resulted in Arizona, Connecticut, Seattle, Des Moines, Niagara, and Potomac, to name a few. Each frontier allowed for new naming opportunities, though the average miner or trapper often lacked imagination and settled for mere description: thus the many ?flats? and ?forks? and ?hills? of the West. The folk etymologies, the orthographic mistakes, the flurries of ?good taste? revisionism: all these add to a uniquely American story. Readers of Stewart?s charming narrative will never look at a map or roadside sign the same way again.

In Search of the Black Fantastic: Politics and Popular Culture in the Post-Civil Rights Era

Chris Rock?s 1990s stand-up routine comparing "blacks" and "niggers" was explosive and controversial, but the comedian consistently denied that his humor was political, once remarking dismissively, "It?s just jokes, man." Richard Iton?s In Search of the Black Fantastic doesn?t let Rock off the hook that easily: the author?s cogent analysis of the well-known routine ("A black man that?s got two jobs going to work every day hates a nigger on welfare") leads him to conclude that the comic?s material effectively undermined the notion of the welfare state. The broader argument of Iton?s challenging, incisive book is that African Americans, reacting to a history of political disenfranchisement, have long regarded cultural production as a way to achieve political aims; as a result, popular culture has always played an outsize role in mobilizing and shaping black politics in the United States. In addition to Rock, Iton, an African American Studies professor at Northwestern University, devotes sections to Paul Robeson, Amiri Baraka, Richard Pryor, Bob Marley, Spike Lee, Public Enemy, and Erykah Badu. He credits all of them, during periods of "exhaustion with politics itself," with invigorating political discourse, "bringing into the field of play those potentials we had forgotten, or did not believe accessible or feasible."

The Explainers

When 27-year-old Jules Feiffer presented himself at the office of New York?s alternative news tabloid The Village Voice in 1956, he had little idea that his weekly comic strip, which was quickly accepted, would come to define that very paper for many readers. Hip and unlike any other cartoons on the literary horizon, Feiffer?s word-heavy narratives relied on minimalist graphics, often six or eight drawings of the same character kvetching about his or her lonely place in the universe. A far cry from the slick humor of The New Yorker or the simple gags of the daily newspapers. Feiffer?s strips came to define a generation of New Yorkers, the same neurotics who people the novels of Philip Roth or the skits of Nichols and May. This fat anthology collects the first decade of Feiffer?s 40-year tenure at the Voice. And if the laughs are more often chuckles, and the ironies seem heavy-handed, remember just what Feiffer?s world was about: a time of nuclear panic, McCarthyite investigations, and mind-numbing conformity. Feiffer punctures as many liberal platitudes as he inflates: he?s down on suburbia and consumerism, up on civil rights and protest. He documents the ongoing war between the sexes with a post-Thurber twist: everyone loses. We meet whiny Bernard, a thin and meek nebbish; barrel-chested Huey, a smooth-talking make-out artist; and -- my favorite -- the dancer in black tights who always manages to express herself in tune with the seasons. As the decade progresses, so do Feiffer?s political concerns -- a turn that will be apparent, no doubt, in the next three welcome volumes.

Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive

In 1984, social psychologist Robert Cialdini published Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. He did his research by studying car salesmen, Hari Krishnas, telemarketers, and other master persuaders, cataloguing the tricks of their trade and distilling the underlying psychological principles. The result was a field guide on how to apply -- or resist -- the bait-and-switch, the lowball, the reciprocity effect, and the other tools of the persuasive class. An instant classic, the book is still taught in Psych 101 courses everywhere. Now, in Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive, Cialdini -- along with his research collaborators Noah J. Goldstein and Steve J. Martin -- revisits the same terrain, bringing to bear the latest advances in the science of mind. As it turns out, the laws of influence don?t work the way we think. Take social proof -- the fact that when we see other people doing something, we want to do it, too. It?s why product testimonials work so well. But it also explains why some marketing campaigns backfire: One anti-littering campaign bears the slogan, ?This year Americans will produce more litter and pollution than ever before.? By communicating that littering is common, these ads actually make the problem worse. For the same reason, a sign warning that a national park was threatened because so many people were removing pieces of petrified wood resulted in a tripling of the rate at which people stole. Presented in short, engaging chapters, each illustrating one principle of persuasion, the book is filled with similarly jaw-dropping insights. It also provides concrete suggestions on how to harness this wisdom in real-life situations. Like Influence before it, Yes! will no doubt prove indispensable for anyone curious about the art of persuasion.

Mad Men: Season One

It?s practically clich‚ at this point to say that last summer?s debut of the Golden Globe–winning Mad Men was one of the best, most exciting premieres on television in recent memory, but there?s a good reason for it: Creator Matt Weiner, an executive producer of The Sopranos, is a brilliant and thorough storyteller, with a productive obsession with precision and authenticity when it comes to period drama. Set in the fictional Manhattan advertising agency Sterling Cooper in 1960 -- a presidential election year and moments before a world-changing cultural revolution -- the series primarily follows the sphinx that is dashing creative director Don Draper (Jon Hamm), a master compartmentalizer who gives new meaning to the phrase ?self-made man.? Don?s conventional family is tucked away in suburban Connecticut, but the real clues to his multifaceted identity are partially exposed by his extramarital affairs with artist Midge Daniels (Rosemarie DeWitt) and department store owner Rachel Menken (Maggie Siff), for whom he feels deeply, even though he believes romantic love was ?invented by men like me to sell nylons.? Through campaigns for iconic brands like Lucky Strike and Right Guard, as well as the pervading haze of cigarette smoke and liquor -- viewers can get a contact hangover from the volume of nicotine and booze these Brylcreemed men consume. We also become intimately acquainted with the Sterling Cooper staff, most notably the Eve Harrington–esque ad-sales rep Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), the kitten-with-a-whip office manager, Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks), and Don?s ambitious and na‹ve secretary, Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss). The cast is stellar, and the writing, sets, and clothing impeccable: in this limited-edition, Zippo lighter–shaped box set, numerous bonus features combine with exceptionally thorough audio commentaries to shed light on everything from the pitch-perfect wardrobe to some surprising ways the casting of the series wound up changing the story itself.

April 19: "What you see first, after the starting gun's crack, is a column of bobbing runners, thousands of them, surging downhill..."

Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch is the winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. James Parker calls this Dickensian coming-of-age novel "an enveloping…

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Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
Poems That Make Grown Men Cry

And women too.  Luminaries from Colin Firth to Nick Cave and Jonathan Franzen chose the poems that bring them to tears, and the result is a stunning collection of poignant verse from writers like Auden, Whitman, Bishop, Larkin, Neruda and many others.  Warning: choking-up hazard.

The King of Pain

Trapped beneath his entertainment system, reality TV mastermind Rick Salter reflects on his life and tries to piece together the events of the previous evening. Seth Kaufman’s romp is an outrageous meditation on pain and entertainment in a deranged world in which the two are often interchangeable.

The Good Inn

Frank Black, frontman for the Pixies, has written a transgressive historical fiction with shades of Thomas Pynchon (focused as it is on the history of explosives and cinematic pornography), all set in a hallucinatory Edwardian Europe.