Displaying articles for: July 2009

Robert Graves: A Biography

In the popular imagination, the private lives of artists are rarely happy. British poet and novelist Robert Graves thought it best they were miserable. Whether the domestic train wrecks he contrived as a consequence actually benefited his writing, as he believed, is doubtful. Bruce King?s concise and oddly circumspect biography doesn?t attempt to resolve the issue. But as an introduction to a fascinating author, it asks the right questions. As a schoolboy and during military service in the First World War, Graves was, in all but deed, homosexual. Soon, though, he was working hard to underplay the sexual preferences of his early manhood. After a failed marriage to an ardent feminist who, curiously, dressed like a man and professed contempt for the male sex, he consistently pursued women who treated him abominably and who offered no hope of regular sexual gratification. It?s enough to activate the latency sensor on the least sophisticated gaydar. Eventually these humiliating relationships produced the personal mythology of artistic creation that is The White Goddess. In that book, Graves outlines an instinctive religion in which unloving women are the idols and bad sex the central rite. Thankfully, the metaphysics and melodrama didn?t stop him writing wonderful books. The novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God are an uncanny imagining of patrician life in ancient Rome. The deceptive simplicity and traditional structures of his poetry helped preserve the English lyric from Pound and Eliot?s elitism. Did Graves really need the White Goddess to write? Did he actually believe in her? King doesn?t say. But at least this biography should leave readers wanting to know more.

The 10th Victim

Elio Petri's The 10th Victim (1965) is an Italian science-fiction farce set in the 21st century, which is conceived here as a swinging utopia whose populace still seems to prefer the mod fashions of the mid-1960s. War is nonexistent, now that the human race has learned to let off steam through legal and organized "hunts" between its instinctually violent members. The champion huntress Caroline (a skimpily attired Ursula Andress) is set to annihilate the equally experienced Marcello (the suave Marcello Mastroianni, sporting hilarious bleach-blond hair). The two groovy killers battle across beautiful minimalist sets as a macabre form of love inevitably blossoms between them. The plot's many murderous gimmicks propel the "camp" factor through the roof: boots secretly rigged with explosives, a miniature machine gun concealed in a brassiere, a crocodile hidden in a posh swimming pool, etc. The film strives for satire with its ample stabs at commercialism, violence, and fame (at times it even seems to anticipate the absurdity of reality TV) but it is primarily a screwball comedy about the commitment issues that eternally pester the ladies' man. Petri punctuates this theme in a shootout between Marcello and the frustrated women in his life, a literal battle of the sexes. The main attraction is Mastroianni's deadpan performance, and here the great Italian actor is just as brooding as he was in and Divorce, Italian Style, constantly ruminating upon both his impending demise and his tangled relationships. The confusion of genres, the hip costumes, the cartoonish violence, the pop-art visuals, and the fascinating futuristic lounge score earn this amusing film well-deserved cult status. This new DVD edition has been remastered from original archival negative materials.

Say Everything: How Blogging Began, What It's Becoming and Why It Matters

Queen Victoria would not have been amused. We live in a confessional age in which authenticity demands saying everything about oneself. From politicians to celebrities to ordinary people, mainstream culture is increasingly self-revelatory. Reality television, call-in radio, and millions of self-published personal electronic diaries known as "blogs," have become the most popular vehicles of this confessional culture. Why is this? In Say Everything Scott Rosenberg quotes Nick Denton, the founder of the New York City–based blog Gawker who, in explaining the value of 9/11 blogs said, "Only through the human stories of escape or loss have I really felt the disaster." The point of media, Denton implies, is to "feel" rather than "explain." The old industrial model of professional journalists handing down coldly objective information is being shoved aside by a hyper-democratic experiential model in which everyone publishes their feelings about everything. And the most experiential of all modern media confessionals is the Internet blog -- of which there were 64 million in 2008. Rosenberg, a cofounder of the Internet magazine Salon, really does say almost everything (even a little too much) about the blogging revolution. With patience and not a little love, Rosenberg introduces us to the crazy panoply of blogging founding fathers: virulent anti-Semite John Barger, a brilliant yet prickly software programmer with a Socratic obsession about truth called Dave Winer, and the first blogger, Justin Hall, who, in celebrating the new year in 2005, blogged: "I really enjoy urinating." But blogs aren't just the refuge of the mentally ill. Over the last ten years, more and more writers have embraced the blog: Rosenberg explains that in everything from politics to sex to "mommy" blogs, the experiential self-published Internet diary has gone mainstream, turning blogging's "great outpouring of human expression" into the future of all media. Rosenberg criticizes mogul Barry Diller for suggesting that talent remains the one scarcity in today's media. But this book is a glitteringly subversive argument against Rosenberg's own thesis. It's a beautifully written and meticulously fair narrative about the past, present, and future of the blog. Only somebody with Rosenberg's incomparable ability could have written Say Everything. We are lucky to have his unique talent.


One of the most challenging assignments for a composer is to write an elegy for an event or person of national significance. But John Adams was up to the task when Lorin Maazel and the New York Philharmonic commissioned him to write a memorial to the victims of September 11th. Adams describes his On the Transmigration of Souls as "a memory space -- a place where you can go and be alone with your thoughts and emotions." It's an apt description of the work. The composer assembled the text from sources that included messages about missing loved ones posted near Ground Zero. Pre-recorded sounds include street noises, a siren, the recitation of names, and the soft voice of a child saying "missing" -- which opens the work and is repeated over the choral background. The 22-minute elegy veers between eerie calm and climaxes of tolling bells, sirens, voices, and blaring brass. Robert Spano conducts the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in a stirring performance of this profoundly spiritual piece, featured on a Telarc release called Transmigration. The disc also includes elegies by Jennifer Higdon, John Corigliano, and Samuel Barber -- including the latter's Adagio for Strings. Spano offers a richly hued performance of this famously poignant work, which was played on the radio following the announcement of Franklin Roosevelt's death in 1945 and is now an instantly recognized symbol of grief. Also included on the disc is Barber's Agnus Dei (a choral setting of the Adagio), sung gracefully by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chamber Chorus. Walt Whitman wrote his "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" as a tribute to the slain Abraham Lincoln. Jennifer Higdon evocatively sets his poem in her recent Dooryard Bloom for baritone and orchestra. John Corigliano's Elegy is based on an incidental score composed for an off-Broadway production of Wallace Frey's Helen, about the aging Helen of Troy. Corigliano dedicated his Elegy to Barber, his mentor, whose musical ethos is reflected in this soaring neo-romantic work.

Newton and the Counterfeiter

Until the ghost of Arthur Conan Doyle provides us with a new adventure concerning Sherlock Holmes and his insidious archnemesis, Professor Moriarty, we shall have to be well content with a new work of nonfiction that exhibits all the same Anglophile-satisfying exoticism, narrative brio, intellectual daring, and personality-rich cast: Thomas Levenson?s excellent Newton and the Counterfeiter. Scrupulously researched, elegantly presented, illuminatingly insightful, and slyly topical, this narrative centers around the lesser-known period in the life of the genius Sir Isaac Newton. In his late 50s, with his major research and discoveries behind him, having suffered a mind-shattering crisis of faith and friendship, Newton secured the job of warden of the Royal Mint. There, he was rapidly forced to deploy all his wits against a horde of counterfeiters, chief of which was one William Chaloner, as wily a rogue as ever clipped shillings. Deftly supplying historical and sociological details as needed, Levenson begins his tale at Newton?s birth, succinctly elaborating the man?s character and accomplishments. A parallel track explores the necessarily less well documented life of Chaloner, a charming, hubristic rogue for whom no small amount of pity and understanding is evoked. On an ineluctable collision course, the two titans of probity and rascality go head-to-head in the latter half of the book, cat-and-mousing it to produce all the suspense of any mystery novel. Levenson has chosen an era and set of incidents that carry much relevance to contemporary headlines. Fiscal scams, political intrigues, scientific advances and their cultural impact, wars and shortages, the role of the ?new? media (cheap printing), the torture of dissidents -- all these issues and more, so central to Restoration citizens, still carry immense and significant freight for modern readers. But such admittedly serious issues take a backseat to the thrill of watching Isaac Newton in Sherlockian disguise, meeting informers in a sleazy tavern!

You Are Here: Why We Can Find Our Way to the Moon, but Get Lost in the Mall

I hope you will find this book an optimistic one, writes psychologist Colin Ellard at the beginning of You Are Here: Why We Can Find Our Way to the Moon, but Get Lost in the Mall. By and large it is. The author is concerned that we've become so detached from our physical environment that we've lost our navigational instinct (all the tools we've created to keep from getting lost -- street signs, GPS -- have actually contributed to our haplessness). But Ellard, who has an easygoing first-person style, is a genial guide to our shortcomings, cheerfully describing his own adventures getting lost everywhere from a Canadian forest to Beijing to the Arctic. The first half of the book compares the way humans and animals navigate space, and it's humbling to learn how much better loggerhead turtles, bees, and desert ants are at finding their way than we are. (In one of his many clear and engaging summaries of scientific research, Ellard describes the discovery that ants, after foraging for food, can travel 20,000 times their own body length to return to their nests.) The book's second half examines how humans have designed space, covering residential, professional, urban, and virtual. It too contains a wealth of fascinating information, such as the finding that people's movements through cyberspace follow the same principles as their movements through real space. His conclusion, that "the way our minds parse space" has led us "to neglect our stewardship of our planetary home to the extent that we risk losing it," is anything but optimistic, but even the dark ending can't entirely dampen the fun that has preceded it.

The Supremes: A Saga of Motown Dreams, Success, and Betrayal

The lifespan of the Supremes strangely parallels that of their chief commercial competitors of the '60s, the Beatles. In their classic configuration with lead singer Diana Ross and support vocalists Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard, the hit-making trio lasted only a handful of years --1962 to 1969 -- virtually shadowing the Beatles' own brief, brilliant existence. Yet while the British legends maintain a virtually pristine legacy, the Supremes' tale is mired in ugly accounts of collective sordid behavior; Ross's rampaging ego and gift for backstabbing; and, in the pathetic case of Ballard, early, ignominious death. In other words, perfect fodder for any intrepid biographer willing to delve into the murky waters of Motown history. For unlike the multi-talented Beatles, the Supremes were far from a self-contained unit seemingly predestined for success no matter whom they eventually aligned themselves with. Without the Motown machine behind them -- in particular, Holland-Dozier-Holland's expertly crafted songs and production -- and the monolithic guiding hand (make that fist) of company founder and mogul Berry Gordy, the triumph of the group is practically inconceivable. In workmanlike prose that gets the dirty job done, Ribowsky minutely chronicles the incestuous bedding and vicious infighting that went on between Motown acts, as well as the shifty business machinations that allowed Gordy to flagrantly screw his artistic "family." If the author never attempts to make a truly compelling case for Ross's unique vocal prowess, he does display a genuine affection for the Motown sound and its workings, acknowledging the indispensible contributions of the label's studio musicians, -- particularly the influential bassist James Jamerson -- and those of Brian and Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier. Thanks to these inspired collaborators, the mini-masterpieces of the Supremes' heyday have yet to lose their luster, but, as Ribowsky rams home, they came at quite a cost.

Please Step Back

Robert Franklin, the fictional character in New Yorker editor Ben Greenman's fourth novel -- about a young man who christens himself Rock Foxx and goes on to lead a mixed-race-and-gender funk-rock band in the '60s and '70s -- was born when Greenman tried his hand at writing a biography of the leader of the race-and-gender-mixing funk-rock band Sly and the Family Stone. But fiction proved more illuminating than fact, and Greenman's treatment of a band that produces music "sweeter than the Beatles and more filling than Dylan" becomes all the more filling when he makes it his own. The young Robert leaves his chilly Boston home, with only a note for his mama, to test his moves in California. He puts a Nordic girl on bass, a black girl on vocals, and Italian guy on guitar in an era when one can still make the argument on national television that allowing members of the Negro Leagues into the baseball Hall of Fame is like putting "animals next to people." They listen to the Velvet Underground, open for the Stones and decline to play Woodstock, due to Robert's fear of flying. The verses follow a well-worn groove: His first hit comes before he's even figured out how to be a proper rock star. He achieves, then squanders fame, fortune, and the love of a good woman. But the brilliance of this novel is in its riffs: This is a writer who sees rain "coming down like there was a jailbreak in the clouds" and can write: "He had the whole world in his hands. If he dropped it, would it bounce?" One is amply rewarded for listening all the way through to the end.

Dedicated to You

Kurt Elling's latest opus, Dedicated to You, documents a January 2009 concert on which the 41-year-old singer -- framed by his working trio, the Ethel String Quartet, and tenor saxophonist Ernie Watts -- addresses the repertoire performed by John Coltrane on his popular 1963 collaboration with baritone crooner Johnny Hartman (John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman) and on Coltrane's equally revered 1962 songbook project, Ballads. For all the iconic status of these albums, each was a one-take affair on material drawn more or less randomly from the musical theater and Brill Building wings of the Great American Songbook -- the British Invasion was still a year away, and these songs, not yet "classics," were still positioned firmly in the zeitgeist. While neither Coltrane nor Hartman needed much prepping to bring forth a point of view, Elling -- he launched this project on a commission from the 2006 Chicago Jazz Festival -- offers anything but an impromptu treatment. Instead, he offers a highly curated, polished recital, deploying savvy stagecraft to engage the audience, weaving in and out of the tight arrangements in ways that allow him to project his idiosyncratic sensibility with impeccable craft in matters of pitch, breath control, and command of meter. Dedicated is less conceptually ambitious than Elling's prior date, Nightmoves, on which he wove together leitmotifs drawn from poem-song, original lyrics set to instrumental improvisations from the jazz canon, and extended, on-the-highwire vocalese improvs into an explicit narrative arc, which he described as "late night; dark night of the soul; only questions at the top of the form and only beautiful answers at the end." As on his 2001 Blue Note tour de force, Flirting with Twilight, Elling asserts his embrace of the terms of engagement that existed for Hartman, and such core Elling influences as Mark Murphy, Jon Hendricks, Nat Cole, and Frank Sinatra; performances like "Nancy with the Laughing Face," "Lush Life" and the title track confirm his stature as a musician who can be mentioned in the same conversation with those masters.

Richard Stark's Parker: The Hunter

The Hunter, Donald Westlake?s first novel concerning tough-guy criminal Parker (issued originally under the pseudonym Richard Stark), masses a trim 198 pages. The new graphic novel adaptation of this caper, illustrated by Darwyn Cooke, weighs in at 140 pages. Given the fabled thousandfold ratio of pictures to words, this statistic should tell you that the new version is an uncommonly faithful retelling. But what mere numbers won?t reveal is how authentic the book feels, as a movie-on-paper capture of Westlake's original ambiance and tone. Anyone who read Cooke?s '50s superhero saga DC: The New Frontier, knows Cooke?s flair for limning America in her postwar, populuxe, pre-swinging-'60s glory. Given the 1962 setting of The Hunter, Cooke is in his glory, drawing seedy settings and characters. Anyone who read Cooke?s Spirit stories knows of his facility depicting Eisnerian gangsters and femmes fatales, and his portraits here translate Westlake?s descriptions with flair and accuracy. And anyone who read Cooke?s Catwoman heist tale, Selina?s Big Score, knows of his affinity for the crime genre. In short, this talented artist-writer is the perfect fellow to adapt Westlake, and he never falters. He retains Westlake?s convoluted chronology and shifts in perspective without baffling the reader. He makes very few cuts and interpolates very little new material. Dialogue and narration comes straight from Westlake, although certain swears forbidden in 1962 are now intermixed for verisimilitude, and a couple of the killings are grimmer. This is one of those rare instances where translation to another medium produces a work which not only honors the original but also reveals new angles and aspects to the story, in a manner unique to the new format.

Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It

After two exceedingly good novels (Liars and Saints was shortlisted for the Orange Prize), Maile Meloy has returned with a full collection of the terse, emotionally compact short stories that she nails with precision and grace. This collection is loaded with daddy issues. Taken together, they create an interesting arc about the effect of a father's love or lack thereof on young girls: The daughter of a single father is unnerved when he can't protect her; a father confronts the girlfriend of his daughter's killer; two brothers, a ski bum and a bourgeois doctor, despise one another but compete over their fierce love for the doctor's teenage daughter, whom he regards as "the best thing had ever done." Meanwhile, a wealthy Argentinian patriarch who discovers his former mistress is now working as maid, can look at his two indulged daughters and think that "children were experiments and his had failed." Many of these stories take place in Meloy's native Montana, with its big skies, vast spaces, and freakish summer snow. She is particularly deft when describing men of few words and compelling actions: In "Travis B.," a small-town ranch hand courts a big-city lawyer by showing up to take her to dinner on his horse. And in the exceptional "Lovely Rita," a young factory worker, confronted with death and a love he can't quite seem to grasp or even acknowledge, chooses to exile himself from his home as a way to distance himself from regret. Each one of these stories is a tiny, perfectly crafted masterpiece.

For All Mankind

Al Reinert answers a single question in For All Mankind, his poetic 1989 documentary about the Apollo missions to the moon: What did it feel like? The former newspaper reporter tosses chronology aside in favor of narrative. He weaves together a single journey to the lunar surface based on millions of feet of footage from nine Apollo missions, much of which had never before emerged from its icy vault at NASA's Johnson Space Center. This unorthodox picture, which has been remastered by Criterion for the 40th anniversary of the 1969 moon landing this month, may never earn plaudits from space buffs for historical accuracy, but it certainly wowed viewers at the Sundance Film Festival where it won both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize. Opening with John F. Kennedy's 1962 speech inciting the space race "for the progress of all people," the film launches the viewer into the mental realm of the American astronaut. An eerie soundtrack by Brian Eno sets the mood as Reinert juxtaposes philosophical narration from crew members with popular tunes they listened to at the time, including Frank Sinatra and the booming motif of Stanley Kubrick's 2001. Reinert wants to tell us that the astronauts are ordinary men in extraordinary circumstances as they gleefully somersault in their seats, fumble with moon rocks, or recall the haunting dreams they had sleeping in the Lunar Module with an entire planet to themselves. The troubles of Apollo 13 are only hinted at in the documentary, but Reinert would explore that drama six years later as screenwriter for the eponymous feature starring Tom Hanks.

The Book of William: How Shakespeare's First Folio Conquered the World

In recent years several authors have taken on the daunting challenge of biographizing Shakespeare. From the scrappy Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt to the highbrow ruminations of Harold Bloom's Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human, books abound that interweave the meagre details of Shakespeare's life with the rich history of his time, seeking ways to account for the eruption of his singular genius. In fact, the motivations of readers and publishers in the fraught era following the Bard's lifetime may have more to tell us about the transmission of that genius and the construction of its legacy. In The Book of William, Paul Collins unclasps the secret book of the First Folio -- the first posthumously-published edition of the Bard's plays and the chief source for his work -- and reads matter deep and dangerous. For this legacy of world literature would have been lost in nature's infinite book of secrecy were it not for the greed of early publishers, the burgeoning enthusiasm of critics and the public, and the tender ministrations of collectors. Collins, a professor and book sleuth in the McSweeney's orbit, follows the fate of the few surviving First Folios from seventeenth-century printshops to Sotheby's auction room, watching as copies slip through the fingers of robber barons and rare books librarians alike. Scholars have long known the riches to be sought in the material history of books; in the story of the early editions of Shakespeare's works, Collins finds dukedom large enough for the general reader as well.

Dreaming in Hindi

Katherine Russell Rich hit the skids with a bump and crash. Recovering from two bouts of cancer and getting fired from her magazine job left her with a life that, she says, "no longer made any kind of sense to me." So the tradition of Eat Pray Love, she set herself on the path to reinvention by studying Hindi. "I no longer had the language to describe my own life. So I decided to borrow someone else's." Using her skills as a journalist, Russell Rich dove into researching second-language acquisition (SLA) and how it affects the brain. Living like a college student for a year in Udaipur with a local family while attending classes was at first a welcome distraction. "This book was going to be solely about the near mystical and transformative powers of language," Russell Rich writes. She found that words have destructive powers too, "to reshape people" and leave them twisted and broken. During her sojourn, Russell Rich witnessed a teacher's violent accident, a fellow student's mental breakdown, and her own views of both home and host countries -- and herself -- tested in the wake of 9/11. Though eloquent and thorough, Russell Rich's memoir bears a hint of apology for falling short of clearly illustrating the changes wrought by the ephemeral nature of language and communication. It's okay, though, for as she pulls us through her year, we too are ensnared in the tendrils of speech and culture, caught up in the colorful world they define.

Dark Dreams

One of the best-reviewed crime fiction books last year was Michael Genelin's Siren of the Waters, which introduced Commander Jana Matinova, in charge of the police in Bratislova, Slovakia. Jana, the daughter of a Czech judge, is smart and tough and enjoys her work -- even though the Communist regime has destroyed her marriage and damaged her family. Siren featured one of the genre's best villains -- a shrewd and frightening killer who was involved in shipping young Slovak women around the world as sex slaves. The villain in Dark Dreams, the second book in what could well be a long and monumental series, is equally vicious: a top politician who raped Jana's best friend, Sofia, when she was a vulnerable teenager. Jana chased the culprit?s car, identified him, and vowed someday to bring him to justice. Sofia, having made her name as a reformer, is now a member of Parliament. Jana has fallen in love with an upright government prosecutor, and Sofia is carrying on a notorious affair with a suave, married fellow MP. The brisk narrative sends Jana across Europe to unravel a criminal conspiracy involving multiple murders that has entangled the hapless, impulsive Sofia in its web, and ultimately to the criminal mastermind, the onetime Communist Party boss. Genelin is a lawyer who has served with the Department of Justice in Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Hungary, so he knows the turf. He also writes with a sharp, clear style that lights up his characters. When Sofia, deep in the dangerous affair with her married colleague, asks Jana if her late husband cheated on her, Matinova thinks about her life with Daniel. ?It had been hard, but not because of women. He had been a revolutionary, had robbed banks for his cause. A handsome man, charismatic opinionated, willful... And finally, when his world imploded, he'd committed suicide. The literal truth was that he had been unfaithful, but not in the way Sofia meant...? It's only July, but it's hard not to see Dark Dreams at or near the top of many best-books-of-the-year lists.

The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy

It takes a certain courage (or recklessness or hubris) to write about being a foreigner in Italy, to choose that often-traveled road so littered with clich‚. But in her smart and original memoir, British novelist Rachel Cusk explores the land of gelato and olive trees -- joining a parade of English-speaking writers that stretches from E. M. Forster to Elizabeth Gilbert -- and makes the experience seem fresh. Dispirited by the routine of life in gloomy Bristol, Cusk and her husband take their two young daughters out of school and board a boat for France to begin a three-month adventure, renting a house in Tuscany. Cusk does not romanticize Italy, nor does she fetishize its sensual pleasures. Though she has a sharp eye for physical detail, she leads with her intellect. Museum visits spark pages-long ruminations on history and religion, including Cusk's own unhappy history within the Catholic Church. Italian cuisine doesn't just taste good; it affirms a childlike desire for simplicity. "The pizza has nothing to hide, no dark interior, no subconscious fascination with its own viscera," she writes. Cusk's restless mind continually leaps from observation to analogy. A beautiful but polluted bay has "a feeling of mystery, almost of secrecy.... It is like a violated woman who refuses to give up her secret." Mystery, not epiphany, is what Cusk craves -- and what she offers readers. "To seek held no particular fear for me," she writes. "It was to find, and to know, and to come to the end of knowing that I shrank from."

Bury Me Deep

Nobody combines historical fact with bravura fiction the way Megan Abbott does. In The Song Is You, she took the real story of a young Hollywood starlet who really existed: Jean Spangler, a sexy-longlegs who disappeared one night and was never seen again. The papers called her Daughter of Black Dahlia, connecting Spangler to another notorious disappearance. The true parts of Bury Me Deep are based on another case that filled the tabloids in 1931, when a young Hollywood woman named Winnie Ruth Judd -- labeled Trunk Murderess, Tiger Woman, and Blonde Butcher -- gave herself up, saying that sexual jealousy had caused her to kill two of her female friends and dismember their bodies, after which she packed them into two trunks and shipped them to Phoenix. She was found guilty and was sentenced to death. Later, her lawyer asked for an amended verdict of not guilty on the grounds of insanity. Judd was finally sent to a mental hospital (probably because of a sheriff involved with the dead women). She escaped seven times; after the final escape, she spent six years working as a servant for a wealthy family in San Francisco. Abbott's fictional version, Marion Seeley -- like Judd, a doctor's wife -- is both scarier and more touching. In her unique, pared-to-the-bone prose, Abbott brings her to vivid life. "Joe Lanigan, her corrupter, was no longer hers, would permit her to fall to the guillotine before he sullied his overcoat," Seeley says about the owner of a chain of pharmacies who she blamed for her actions. And about her husband, wracked with grief and guilt about her crimes, Seeley says, "He told of a day and a night spent in joints, judas holes, low-down nighteries and barrel houses, trailing the wastrels on Thaler Avenue and Gideon Square. The sad tramps and drifting souls who seemed, somehow, to wear his own face." All three of Abbott's books have been nominated for an Edgar Award; she won one for the much-praised Queenpin. She deserves another for Bury Me Deep. And it's definitely a must-read for anyone who wants to see one of the best crime writers around perform her magic.

The Vision Revolution

Primates are set apart from most mammals in their greater reliance on vision and a correspondingly reduced sense of smell. This trait is so extreme in humans that nearly half of our oversized brains are dedicated to processing visual information. As Mark Changizi explains in the introduction to The Vision Revolution, the visual system is perhaps the best-understood part of the human brain -- but, while researchers have mapped out how, few have provided satisfactory explanations for why we see the world the way we do. As a theoretical neuroscientist, Changizi focuses on why humans have evolved such visual "superpowers" as color vision and binocularity. His answers are surprising, overturning theories that have dominated primatology since the 1970s. For example, Changizi argues that (despite what many textbooks say) color vision did not evolve to help our arboreal ancestors locate fruit in the jungle canopy but rather to help them read the social cues found in subtle changes in skin tone. (Or not so subtle, if you think of a baboon's behind.) Readers, however, need not be well versed in academic debates to enjoy Changizi's lucid explanations. Filled with optical illusions and simple experiments for the reader to perform, this book may be the most fun you'll have learning about human cognition and evolution.

Boarding House

Roland Barthes's well-worn axiom, declaring that a photograph is not merely the sign of its subject but its "trace," receives a strange turn in Roger Ballen's latest series, Boarding House. The photos were taken, as Ballen claims, around a half-deserted rookery belonging to one of Johannesburg's less-appetizing quarters -- but the real setting may be somewhere inside Ballen's head. An American living in South Africa for upward of three decades, Ballen began his career as a documentarian of the Robert Capa stamp, with several essays on life in South Africa's hardscrabble Platteland (the title of his second book). Shadow Chamber, published in 2005, signaled a shift to more symbolic terrain: animals and people appeared alongside still lifes and sculpture in deliberately posed compositions that emanated a singular (not to say creepy) theatricality. Boarding House is in much the same idiom. As David Travis, formerly of the Art Institute of Chicago, writes in the introduction, "in the Boarding House?we confront?coat hangers, body parts, squalor and rodents." The squalor and body parts are real; the Boarding House, perhaps somewhat less so. Ballen's interiors, alive with Basquiat-esque graffiti, are suspiciously picturesque, and Travis hints darkly at the artist's increasing reliance on "an element of fiction." The mysterious contents of the Boarding House stand in for the greater mystery of which the photographs themselves are the evidence: Did Ballen, in fact, work with the denizens of the squat to make his pictures? Or are these false traces of an imagined "Boarding House"? How do we know?

Loser's Town

In Loser's Town, Daniel Depp tries to conjure up the Hollywood noir of Raymond Chandler with a mystery that is less a whodunit than it is a dark portrait of modern L.A. Depp is a film industry insider (yes, he's Johnny's brother) and tells his tale with all the gusto of a gossip columnist. His detective, David Spandau, is an ex-stuntman who has found a new niche in life as a bodyguard-cum-detective. Spandau -- described as resembling Robert Mitchum -- is something of an antique in sleek, chic Hollywood, a throwback to yesteryear's grizzled but gentlemanly gumshoes. Reeling from the recent breakup of his marriage, he's starting to feel numb "to anything good and decent in the universe." Cue the entrance of Bobby Dye, temperamental hotshot actor whose career is poised to take off?if it weren't for that pesky little matter of the dead girl in his bathroom. Dye hires Spandau to find out who's been blackmailing him, and it's not long before the ex-stuntman is tangled in a plot that involves lovelorn gangsters, neurotic agents, pouting actors, and enough movie clich‚s to choke an Oscar presenter. Loser's Town suffers from some first-novel flaws, with bumpy pacing and dialogue that comes across like a carefully scripted movie conversation -- one that tries too hard to be funny, cynical, clever, poignant, crass, and earnest. But one thing Depp does well is embrace Los Angeles in all its seamy glory: "There was a beauty still there, sometimes, beneath all the corruption, like in the face of an actress long past her prime, when the outline of an old loveliness can still be glimpsed through the desperate layers of pancake and eyeliner." Depp knows L.A. like a husband knows his wife's skin.

The Whole Difference: The Selected Writings of Hugo von Hofmannsthal

While familiar, perhaps, to opera buffs as Richard Strauss' librettist, one assumes that for most English-language readers the name Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1874–1929), like that of his compatriot Karl Kraus, looms like a partially buried talisman -- nominally familiar, but only that. This is lamentable because Hofmannsthal was one of the major writers of his time. As a teenager, he erupted upon Viennese literary society as a lyric poet some hailed as the spiritual successor to Goethe. But over time, he left many of his early admirers dejected as he steered away from poetry to try his pen at other creative ventures. Qualitatively speaking, the trajectory of the works brought together in The Whole Difference: The Selected Writings of Hugo von Hofmannsthal -- edited by the poet, critic, and president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, J. D. McClatchy -- reinforce the arc of Hofmannsthal's critical reception. The first half of the anthology offers an invigorating selection of Hofmannsthal's poetry, short stories, and essays on figures such as Shakespeare, Balzac, and Wilde. The writing here is panoramic; I found myself making frequent annotations beside many sentences such as this: "There is something lyrical about the dress of a whore and something commonplace about the emotions of a lyric poet." Unfortunately, the enthusiasm that's likely to spur on any reader drawn to beautifully governed writing faces a daunting slug during the second half of the book, which is given over to two plays, The Difficult Man and The Tower. The former is a comedy of errors, not particularly funny, and the latter is a tragedy composed in a neoclassical vein about a king's futile effort to elude a fatal prophecy. The Tower's main failing is that exchanges between the characters rarely coalesce to give the impression that they are speaking in anything but a vacuum. As disappointing as these last selections are, they are recompensed by the earlier selections, whose vim is incorruptible.

1959: The Year Everything Changed

Those of us who weren't yet born in 1959 might think of that year as being pretty much the same as any other. And for all I know, those of you who lived through it do, too. But in his new book, 1959: The Year Everything Changed, Fred Kaplan, who writes Slate's "War Stories" column, contends that it was "the year when the shockwaves of the new ripped the seams of daily life, when humanity stepped into the cosmos and also commandeered the conception of human life, when the world shrank but the knowledge needed to thrive in it expanded exponentially?when everything was changing and everyone knew it -- when the world as we now know it began to take form." Kaplan lays out the evidence to support his claim in 25 highly readable chapters, covering everything from Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and the Beats to the space race and the "missile gap" to the civil rights struggle and the advent of the birth control pill and the microchip. And that's just to name a few areas that Kaplan points out as having had watershed moments in 1959. "The truly pivotal moments of history are those whose legacies endure," he writes. "And?it is the events of 1959 that continue to resonate in our own time." After all, as Kaplan indicates, without the microchip, introduced by Texas Instruments on March 24, 1959, where would the Internet, cell phones, and laptops come in? And without the Pill, for which FDA approval was sought on July 23, 1959, how different would our family structures -- and women's lives -- look today? Chilling thought. Let's hear it for 1959.


The revival by Two Dollar Radio of Rudy Wurlitzer's first novel, Nog (1969), with a fresh introduction by Erik Davis, introduces a lucky new generation of readers to an essential piece of '60s literature that remains as crunchy and toothsome yet unsettling a nonpareil as it registered upon its debut. It seems likely that Wurlitzer, a screenwriter of note, derived his inspiration and narrative template not so much from other tripped-out novels of the era -- think The Crying of Lot 49 and Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me -- as he did from avant-garde cinema, particularly the French New Wave. The dislocated, seemingly patternless comings and goings of a nearly memoryless man, possibly named Nog, can be mapped in spirit and almost on a literal level to a film like Luc Moullet's The Smugglers. Toss in a soupçon of realism and romance from Jules and Jim and a healthy dash of Godard, and you have the essential game plan for Nog. But Wurlitzer's book is able to display a rich interior life in a manner cinema struggles to replicate. Nog's deadpan first-person narration is autistic, cubistic, and shamanic, using incantatory lists and anally compulsive powers of observation as his magical barriers against the dissolution of the self. His psychic geography recalls Ballard's wandering, self-destructive prophets of paradigm shift, and space time itself becomes a living threat that must be wrestled into submission -- or at least a stalemate. Yet Wurlitzer entertains on the level of sheer plot as well. Nog's capricious West Coast encounters with a host of American purebreds, from the hippies Lockett and Meridith to the right-wing gun nut Bench, all couched in droll vernacular, provides a constant impetus to turn page after page in this surreal California phantasmagoria.

The Weight of Heaven

Thrity Umrigar?s newest novel, The Weight of Heaven, straddles the United States and India as Frank and Ellie, a grieving American couple, relocate in the hope of healing the trauma of their only child's death. Frank takes a position managing a factory in a small Indian town, and at first the move seems like the right one. Ellie feels at home in her adopted country, helping out in the village, teaching school and counseling women. But the company that owns the factory has leased the village?s trees from the Indian government and has prohibited the villagers from accessing what had been a source of medicine, shelter, and income for generations. Frank becomes the face of the company pillaging the village?s land, and violence follows him. Seeking solace, he turns to his servants? child, who he tries to shoehorn into the empty space left by his son's loss. Rather than a fresh start, India soon becomes just a different setting for Frank and Ellie to splinter apart. We follow their breakdown moment-by-moment, like a slow-motion death spiral. Umrigar does seem to pull up, finding a lighter note as Ellie befriends former investigative journalist Nandita. Their friendship provides welcome air for both Ellie and the reader, but by its last quarter, the novel has set its course for tragedy. The drama centered around the factory proves a distraction from the story of Ellie and Nandita who, after following a once-unquestionable path -- college, successful career, rewarding marriage -- are left with an emptiness in their lives that neither woman seems interested in filling. This delicate and far more compelling story is overrun by the tale of rage, obsession and misery that dominates the rest of the novel.

April 17: "In less than three years, both GM and Chrysler would be bankrupt, and a resurgent Ford would wow Wall Street..."

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…

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.