Displaying articles for: August 2008

Dry Storeroom No. 1: the Secret Life of the Natural History Museum

Paleontologist Richard Fortey specializes in trilobites, a vast group of extinct arthropods; he's also an award-winning writer whose books revel in the wonders and mysteries of natural history. Here he turns his attention to the institution in which he pursued his career: the Natural History Museum, the vast treasure house on the Cromwell Road in London, where Fortey began his scientific career in the early 1970s. Behind the stuffed giraffes and dazzling arrays of gemstones, generations of scientists have named, measured, and preserved specimens from every branch of the tree of life, seeking to document and understand our planet's seemingly endless biodiversity. Although the working methods of these scientists have changed radically in Fortey's lifetime -- measurement of dried skins has given way to DNA sequencing, and museum scientists have traded safari jackets for lab coats -- it remains crucial in a time when biodiversity is imperiled by climate change, pollution, and habitat destruction. But as Fortey amply documents, museum naturalists pursue their research not so much out of a sense of mission as for the sake of sheer curiosity and love of the natural world. Although long on institutional anecdote and lacking the essayistic elegance of the work of such natural history writers as Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould, Fortey's book works much like some of the eccentric scholars he profiles in its pages: shabby and unkempt, it ambles in reverie through a cabinet of wonders.

The People on Privilege Hill and Other Stories

Jane Gardam, who turned 80 in July, might be the most venerable overnight sensation in literary America today. While she's often a contender for the biggest book prizes in her native England, her oeuvre (nearly 30 volumes to date) has only recently begun to hop the pond. In 2006, Europa published a handsome edition of her spectacular 12th novel, Old Filth, followed in 2007 by a reprint of her Whitbread Prize–winning 1991 novel, Queen of the Tambourine. For readers unfamiliar with Gardam and for those who long for more, Europa's release of her latest story collection will be a pleasure. Some of the volume's 14 stories are nearly as spacious as novels, while others are bright snapshots. But all showcase the keen intelligence that presides over these inventions. Several tales examine the tragicomic dislocations of old age, including the title story, which reintroduces Sir Edward Feathers, the octogenarian hero of Old Filth, and "Babette," whose title character is "a creature of tatters and wisps, in a long coat and a none-too-clean balaclava helmet." In "Pangbourne," a rich old woman falls convincingly in love with a gorilla, while "The Latter Days of Mr. Jones" tells of a dreamy old aristocrat, more at home with ghosts than with the living, who's accused, absurdly, of rape. Ghosts waft through other stories here, and the macabre turns sci-fi in "The Flight Path," an eerie glimpse of the London Blitz. But my favorite, "The Hair of the Dog," is more earthbound: after years away, a grandmother returns to a now-unfamiliar London, swarming and frantic. Suddenly, a lull drops over the city, and tears come with "the beauty of the silence, its promise." Gardam's literature lives in that deep breath, in the silences among the clamor of everyday life, where everything -- past, present, and future -- is taking place.

Letters to a Stranger

In 1974, at age 27, the poet Thomas James shot himself in the head, leaving behind this scalding book of poems. Letters to a Stranger received a single review, dismissing James as "pale Plath." It quickly went out of print, lost but to a few ardent fans, none more passionate and persistent than poet Lucie Brock-Broido, whose shimmering introduction to Graywolf's reissue -- part of its new Re/View Series -- merits the price of admission to the uneasy, brilliant, death-adoring, death-defying verses within. Robert Frost wrote: "Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting." Thomas James, young as he was, knew how to land a poem. "Wine" begins, "I have bottles to kill" and ends with branches, "Perforated with their simple blossoms." "The Moonstone" concludes with "A day-moon tries its pulse and vanishes." James was violently gifted, fearless in boiling leaps of metaphor: "And looking into your eyes I see a pollen-dusted pond / Shaken with silver rings before the storm begins." That genius shines most poignantly in the cornerstone poem and gem of this first and only collection, "Mummy of a Lady Named Jemutesonekh XXI Dynasty."

?They slit my toes; a razor gushed my fingertips.
Stitched shut at last, my limbs were chaste and valuable,
Stuffed with paste of cloves and wild honey.
My eyes were empty, so they filled them up,
Inserting little nuggets of obsidian.
A basalt scarab wedged between my breasts
Replaced the tinny music of my heart?

Death stalks this darkly beautiful book -- the poet's own suicide seems inevitable, and his handsome, mournful face rises like a cloud on the front cover, obscured, half-hidden as he must remain: so much "obsidian" promise undelivered.

Across the Crystal Sea

Across the Crystal Sea marks a departure for pianist Danilo Perez, 43, an intrepid explorer of turbulent musical waters on myriad leader and sideman projects for the past two decades. An alumnus of bands led by pioneer Pan-Americanists Dizzy Gillespie and Paquito D'Rivera, Perez played a key role in conceptualizing the multilingual tilt of '90s jazz through a series of Verve and Impulse albums that documented his ingenious admixture of folkloric beats and melodies from various South American and Caribbean cultures -- particularly Panama, his homeland -- with harmonic and rhythmic dialects drawn from a long timeline of hard-core modern jazz. These days, Perez is best known for his eight-year association with the Wayne Shorter Quartet, in which he creates tabula rasa improvisations on Shorter pieces with titles like On the Milky Way Express and As Far as the Eye Can See. On Crystal Sea Perez navigates a smoother surface -- i.e., a plush suite of charts by Claus Ogerman, the 77-year-old "light classical" maestro whose past credits include gems by Antonio Carlos Jobim, Hank Jones, and Diana Krall. Here Ogerman orchestrates themes by choral composer Hugo Distler, Sibelius, De Falla, Rachmaninoff, and Massenet. He also offers a single original and dresses up two less-traveled "standards" for reigning diva Cassandra Wilson, here wearing her Shirley Horn hat, to interpret. In complete command of the forms, Perez imparts a tidal ebb-and-flow, tone-painting through the ravishing melodies with meticulously calibrated touch. Playing their roles to perfection, bassist Christian McBride and drummer Lewis Nash sustain the lyric simmer.

Black and White and Dead All Over

From the first chapter, Black and White and Dead All Over is loaded with evidence that John Darnton has crafted more than a murder mystery. Picture this: the body of the assistant managing editor of the New York Globe, notorious for humiliating his staff, is found dead on the floor with an editor's spike --used to "kill" stories -- driven into his chest. What follows is not only an investigation by NYPD detective Pricilla Bollingsworth and Jude Hurley, the Globe's own up-and-coming investigative reporter, but a tongue-in-cheek romp through the thinly disguised fictional landscape of The New York Times and the contemporary media industry. As Bollingsworth and Hurley traverse the gritty streets of New York and the bubblig cauldron of chaos and productivity that is the Globe's newsroom, their story unfolds like an action film. Along the way, Darnton tempers the grisly (death by mummification in the newspaper bundling machine) with the comic (the owner of the Globe plops the end of his rival's bespoke tie -- decorated with winged, pink typewriters -- into a cup of coffee), and throws in a strong dose of sardonic commentary about the news business for good measure. Drawing on decades of his own experience at the Times, where he served as a foreign correspondent and editor, Darnton brings to life a vivid cast of characters with colorful names such as Outsalot (the restaurant reviewer) and Pomegranate (he's overweight) that are just enough like their real-life counterparts to keep the reader speculating who they might be, along with the murderer, until the very end.

The Likeness

Tana French worked as an actress before she started writing, at age 33, and she inhabits her characters with such ease that one feels genuine regret that they aren't available to, say, grab a pint at the local pub while trading South Park quips and riffing on the kind of over-groomed women who never buy their round. Her debut novel, Into the Woods, was a police procedural about two cops earning their sea legs in the Dublin Murder Squad, but the relationship between Rob Ryan and his partner, Cassie Maddox, was so finely drawn that it could have just as well been simply about the difficulties of platonic friendships between men and women. And yet French deposited not one but two tantalizingly suspenseful mysteries at the core of the novel -- and then had the audacity to leave the most spectacular of the two unanswered at novel's end. What nerve it took, then, to begin The Likeness somewhere else entirely. While Rob narrated the first novel, the voice in this novel belongs solely to Cassie. She is lured back to undercover work when a body shows up that is her exact likeness. Her old boss, Frank, convinces her to impersonate the dead woman in her former life. Once there, however, Cassie becomes so charmed by her new life as a graduate student in literature that she nearly forgets her purpose is to find a killer. French meticulously builds suspense in the most natural, harrowing way -- her characters are so perfectly built that one feels capable of analyzing them and second-guessing them as one would do with friends. Cassie is so well articulated, in fact, that one can imagine a second mystery hovering like some phantom scrim that she is too close to see. If it's there, French is wise enough not to tip her hand; her books work most perfectly in the empty spaces between.

Victory of Eagles

Even if the very idea of books about dragons makes you want to flap your wings and fly away, Naomi Novik's Temeraire series might change your mind. "Patrick O'Brian with dragons," wrote one admiring reviewer when Novik hatched the series as a paperback original with His Majesty's Dragon. And now the story of a young British naval officer who becomes the head of his country's formidable dragon air force in the war against Napoleon (who has some nasty dragons of his own) continues at full strength, moving into hardcover with Book 5 and having just been acquired by Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson for the big screen. Temeraire, bred by a Chinese wizard as a gift to Napoleon and captured (still inside his egg) by the ship on which Will Laurence is sailing, instantly bonds with Laurence -- who reluctantly gives up the sea for the sky. The pair have many adventures together. Now, on the heels of their mission to Africa (told about in Empire of Ivory ) and seeking the cure for a deadly contagion, the dragon has been removed from military service, and Laurence has been condemned to death for treason. Meanwhile Napoleon's forces have breached the Channel and successfully invaded English soil. Their prime objective is the occupation of London. The newest, and best, ingredient Novik has added to Victory of Eagles is turning Temeraire from a military to a political animal -- a winged Stephen Maturin to Laurence's Jack Aubrey. Banished to the Welsh breeding grounds called Pen Y Fan, "after the hard, jagged slash of the mountain at their heart," the dragon learns to negotiate with other dragons who solve their disputes with politics rather than displays of strength. It's a wonderful conceit, supremely executed. Patrick O'Brian would have loved it.

My Fantoms

The French critic and man of letters Théophile Gautier is best known, at least on these shores, as a kind of father figure to the Bohemian romantics of 19th-century Paris, famous for his coinage of that enduring mantra "Art for Art's Sake." In the hands of his sure-footed translator, the biographer Richard Holmes, however, he is a master in his own right, the author of the seven gothic phantasmagoria collected in My Fantoms. The "Fantoms" of the title are, variously, apparitions and seductresses emerging from death and worlds beyond in pursuit of an earthly love ("fantom" is itself a "decorous, slightly arch" term of Holmes's own invention). Gautier's heroes are men treading the line between dream-states and madness, prone to romantic reverie at the hands of the women who enchant them. With the exception of "The Poet" -- less a story than a eulogy to Gautier's dearest friend, the writer Gérard de Nerval -- they share an otherworldliness, a sense that the line between reality and the imagination is more porous than we tend to believe. In "The Tourist," for instance, a young traveler, obsessed by the perfect cast of one of Pompeii's ash-encrusted women on display at a museum in Naples, is transported across the centuries to meet his ideal love, alive in the streets of that ill-fated city. "The Priest," one of Gautier's more outré creations, marries the French erotic tradition with a gothic sensibility: the result is a boldly transgressive tale, replete with a vampiress, a splintered self, and a glancing exploration of necrophilia. Like Onuphrius, his alter ego in "The Painter," Gautier is an artist who "almost invariably?injected everyday events with some grotesque element on his own fantasy." We are luckier for it.

Passing Strange

Stew, the corpulent black joker who leads the band called the Negro Problem, wouldn't seem like the most likely candidate for adapting his life story into a Broadway musical. But Passing Strange, which told the story of his youthful move from middle-class Los Angeles to Amsterdam and Berlin -- wrestling with his racial and artistic identity all the while -- was a triumph. It even won a Tony Award (for the book, but still). Many of the elements that made Passing Strange shine in the theater are absent on the cast album; especially missed are the bulk of Colman Domingo's supporting performance and the clever casting of black performers as Nordic princesses, which gave extra resonance to questions of racial "passing." And while the Negro Problem records work better as albums, there's still plenty to enjoy about this disc: Stew's wry presence as the "Narrator" of his own life, the supple groove of the house band, or the blistering Berlin rock song "May Day." At their best, the lyrics capture both the "Superfly in the buttermilk" experience of being a black American abroad and the sometimes-pretentious but always-funny awakening of an artistic free spirit: "I am the twentieth century incarnate," sings Daniel Breaker as Youth (the stand-in for a younger Stew). "The twentieth century coming home covered in mud / And missing a shoe."


This vigorous, high-spirited, wide-ranging survey of personally admired authors hardly limits itself to the literary world. Befitting Mario Vargas Llosa's long and distinguished career as both novelist and statesman, the pieces in this collection cover aspects of all three overlapping worlds postulated by Karl Popper, the philosopher whose works occupy Vargas Llosa's mind in his concluding essay. Carried aloft by Vargas Llosa's pellucid prose -- his esteem for the fabled clarity of Ortega y Gasset is an internalized and externalized grail -- the reader is treated to sharp and wise observations on "the world of natural and material objects; the subjective and private world of the individual mind; and the world of cultural creativity." Vargas Llosa's praise for Isaiah Berlin's work might equally be applied to his own: "Each essay in this magisterial work reads like a chapter of a novel whose action takes place in a world of thought and in which the heroes and villains are ideas." Whether examining the cosmopolitan erudition of Borges, the fantastical conceits of Cervantes, the fallacies and dangers of nationalism, or the half-mythic origins of his native Peru, the author provides immense delights in the form of spot-on metaphors, striking aphorisms, and valuable historical and sociological insights: "The most remarkable aspect of the civilization? it managed to eradicate hunger in that immense region." Ultimately, these essays trumpet the supreme value of fiction: as a bulwark against the dissatisfaction, disillusionment, and disenchantment engendered by the exigencies of existence.

The Yoga Teacher

Alexandra Gray, yoga teacher to celebrities and author of one previous book, explores the Western fascination for this ancient Indian exercise form. The story revolves around Grace, a pharmaceutical saleswoman whose lifelong fascination with yoga, combined with the gentle initiation of her yoga instructor, gives her the confidence to chuck her dull job and head to California to take lessons at the Bodhi Tree, a disciplinarian yoga camp. On returning to London, she becomes a yoga teacher, but her transformation is fraught with troubles -- financial and emotional. Gray's narration flows smoothly, and her familiarity with the world of demanding celebrities and sex-seeking teachers lends authenticity and panache to the tale. The treatment never really turns syrupy, and Gray includes enough down-and-out characters to balance the lightweight concerns of some of the cast. From an aging model whose motive for yoga is thin ankles to a socialite who shows displeasure in sharing the table with her, Grace must imbibe the generous spirit of her craft to deal with her clients. In one scene, she ponders that she felt like a traveling minister, "admitted to the world of the uber-rich clutching reliquaries." The story builds to a suitable conclusion, with Gray, in the true spirit of yoga, showing us the sublime within the material.

Tuna: A Love Story

Warm-blooded, topping out at 1,500 pounds, and able to swim faster than 50 miles an hour, tuna captured the imagination of fisherman long before the advent of Charlie Tuna or the sushi bar. To the ancient Phoenicians, who caught them in vast cities of nets, they were as important as the buffalo was to the American Indian; today, American consumers eat more than one billion pounds of canned tuna per year. In Tuna: A Love Story, Richard Ellis describes the ways of these sleek, ceaselessly wandering creatures and the fishermen who catch them by hook or net (or, currently, raise them to market size in pens called "tuna ranches" in the open sea). Ellis exhaustively documents the toll commercial fishing takes on wild populations of tuna -- especially the remarkable bluefin, largest of the several tuna species and focus of the sushi trade. Swimming in all the planet's oceans, bluefin are apex predators whose disappearance would upset open-ocean ecosystems worldwide. Meanwhile, rising mercury levels in tuna flesh -- a measure of increasing ocean pollution -- threaten to render this important protein source inedible. Ellis not only fears for the state of the seas and human health but for the fate of this majestic creature -- and on the savagery that takes place far out to sea beyond the consumer's gaze, he is unsparing: "Seeing a bluefin tuna gaffed with spears," he writes, "is like seeing a thoroughbred racehorse being hacked to death with an ax."

Dream City

Comic strips, the 1933 World's Fair, gangsters, and book collecting are thrown into the stew pot in Brendan Short?s first novel, Dream City. Faintly echoing Michael Chabon?s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Short traces the arc of one comic fanboy?s life from Depression-era Chicago to the present day. As a child, Michael Halligan is an avid reader of Big Little Books --chunky, palm-sized dime novels that hit their peak 70 years ago. With titles like Flash Gordon on the Planet Mongo, Chester Gump at Silver Creek Ranch, and G-Man on the Crime Trail, the Big Little Books offer avenues of escape from Michael?s hard-knock life as the son of a numbers runner and an adulterous mother. As he grows, Michael tries to recapture his youth by collecting all of the Big Little series, including a rare edition given to him by none other than Buck Rogers at the World?s Fair. Diehard bibliophiles will be turned on by the book porn in Dream City, as when Michael states that his Big Littles with their "sturdy, vibrant spines" helped him to "forget himself and his life, at least for a while, and that just being in the same room with his collection made the world seem understandable and orderly." Just as Michael is immersed in fantasy worlds where good and evil are sharply delineated, Short attempts to paint a panoramic mural of 20th-century America and shows we've been in steady moral decay since the days of Buck Rogers and the Lone Ranger.

The Summer Book

Tove Jansson's novel is bewitchingly simple: Sophia and her grandmother spend summers on a tiny island in the Gulf of Finland. the elements of their story are as simple as the beginning of the world: rock and rosebud, cesspool and juniper, the colors of water and sky. And as melancholy; there is loss here -- Sophia's mother, dead of illness, and the grandmother's own waning health -- though grief goes largely unspoken. In place of eulogy and complaint, Sophia and her grandmother practice the balm of attention. Their focus holds on the ephemera -- cloud and down, root and weather -- they attend to their changes, husband their possibilities. The vignettes that serve Jansson as chapters here are contiguous, not continuous, suffused with the serial disconnectedness of days of sun and rain. Migratory waterbirds come, and one dies of love; a storm rises in answer to a deliciously wicked prayer; crates of liquor bob in the ocean on midsummer's eve. Jansson, who lived on an island like Sophia's, became famous for her "Moomintroll" comic strip and books for children. Like the small forest creatures in those works, Sophia and her grandmother infuse their acts and days with a mythopoetic intensity. Disregarded and unnoticed by the wider world, they make stories to sustain themselves. And yet they learn that the worthwhile things are found alone and in quiet, as a cat pounces on a bright bird amid the flowers. Jansson's small masterpiece is a summer book, to be savored with summer's end.


France?s only challenge to the genius of American silent film comedy rests with the inimitable Jacques Tati (1907-82), whose handful of movies mostly feature his alter ego, Monsieur Hulot, who bumbles through modern life with an insouciance worthy of Chaplin or Keaton. Criterion here reissues the fourth and final Hulot movie, first released in 1971 but as fresh and funny as any dumb-doper movie at the local cineplex. If not quite as stunning as Mon Oncle (1958) or Play Time (1967), Trafic returns to Tati?s favorite -- and inexhaustible -- theme: the absurdities of everyday existence. In this case, Hulot, with his familiarly elastic body and off-kilter walk, must deliver a car he?s designed to an auto exposition in Amsterdam. The problems are predictable -- flat tire, engine trouble, traffic jams -- but Tati spins a new turn on every old setup. He choreographs a major accident with visual jokes that invoke both Rube Goldberg and Monty Python. And his montages are pure pleasure: a symphony of opening and closing car doors and hoods; a gaggle of bored motorists picking their noses and yawning; a squeaking chorus of windshield wipers. All of which he punctuates with quick flashes of junked car heaps -- the final resting grounds for the car culture he both celebrates and mocks. That?s Tati?s ambivalence in a nutshell. Awed by modern design, as here embodied in Hulot?s fully loaded station wagon camper, Tati, like Chaplin and Keaton before him, sees the indignities and dehumanization so often inherent in innovation. But Hulot remains undefeated and lumbers on, always falling forward, and always -- as Tati describes him in a supplemental interview -- "human, simple, shy." A documentary by Tati?s daughter Sophie places him exactly where he belongs -- in the pantheon of world comic cinema.

At Mount Zoomer

I lost a bet when word went out that Montreal's Wolf Parade would be releasing a second album. Not that anyone was complaining: Their debut album, Apologies to the Queen Mary -- introduced on blogs and produced by Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse -- was one of the most anticipated albums of 2005. By the time it came out, the band was already sick of playing some of their best-loved tracks live.The problem, however, is that like so many other Canadian bands (Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene, New Pornographers) Wolf Parade is stuffed with more talent than is prudent for the efficient day-to-day workings of a band. Specifically, they have two world-class front men: Dan Boeckner (the tall, angular, guitar-rock guy) and Spencer Krug (the smaller, rounder spastic guy, most often behind his keyboard). Boeckner has his own band, Handsome Furs, with his wife, Alexei Perry; Krug, for his part, plays in four other bands (Sunset Rubdown, Swan Lake, Fifths of Seven, Frog Eyes). While each of these are exceptional bands in their own right, there's a special kind of anarchy when these two -- along with Hadji Bakara and drummer Arlen Thompson, who also produced the record -- come together. Rumor has it that they gave Sub Pop an ultimatum("no singles"), and the record is fully of densely layered, multiple-part songs that reveal new complexity with each listen. But even the lighter, prettier arrangements -- Krug?s "California Dreamer," Boeckner?s "Grey Estates" -- are belied by the dark lyrics. The two come together to trade verses on "Kissing the Beehive," a nearly 11-minute behemoth named after the Jonathan Carroll novel. Here?s hoping they can clear their schedules long enough to produce a third installment.

How to Read Chinese Paintings

Chinese paintings, with their meticulous brushwork and calligraphy, can be dazzling. But that very codified perfection can also alienate the non-connoisseur into an uncomprehending daze. For those who have wanted to be more clued in, Metropolitan Museum curator Maxwell K. Hearn offers this catalogue, which decodes these works and makes them accessible to a 21st-century Western audience. Hearn discusses 36 masterpieces (dating roughly from the 8th through the 17th centuries) from the Metropolitan's stellar collection, illuminating how each work exemplifies a particular quality: i.e., "The Subtle Subversive" or the "Landscape as Self-Portrait." Once the subtleties are highlighted, the details come alive with meaning -- and even pointed political metaphors. For instance, Hearn explains that the "Groom and Horse" became an allegorical plea "for the proper use of scholarly talent" (the groom being the scholar). Ironically, today's technology plays a starring role. Many paintings are easier to "read" in reproduction here with the aid of digital photo manipulation that can better amplify contrasts. The high-resolution enlargements also expose the brushstroke sequences behind the construction of characters and dense compositions. Among the most surprising revelations is that the Chinese, way back in the 700s, did their own version of blogging commentary. Just as we now "scroll" through a history of email correspondence or tack a reaction to another's blog entry online, Chinese scholars, emperors and other admirers wrote calligraphic colophons, stamping their vermilion personal seals and often writing appreciations right on the original, permanently altering the artwork itself for the next generation. While our contemporary cyberspace forum is more democratic, typical reactions tend to be slapdash, without aesthetic flair, and are destined to be deleted. On these paintings, however, the tradition of these artistic paper trails manage -- with the simplest of technologies -- to keep the past alive in dialogue with the present.

The Writing Class

This latest novel from Jincy Willett, who wrote the well-liked Winner of the National Book Award, focuses on an extension school class of would-be fiction writers; its premise is that years of rejection slips have pushed one of those would-be writers from the cliffs of sanity into the realm of murder. It?s a mystery from the Agatha Christie vintage. Most of the characters, at some point, stumble into the glare of suspicion, and Amy Gallup, a washed-up novelist and the class instructor, must play detective. Francine Prose?s Blue Angel and Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys also harvested satire from the vanity, fecklessness, and unintentional comedy of a writing workshop, but they didn?t rack up a body count. The idea of a failed writer?s anger turning murderous has a giddy verve, and the novel?s tone is appropriately playful. Events ultimately reach a helium pitch of incredibility, but the volume rises with deceptive gradualness, in part because Willett gives her protagonist a rich, idiosyncratic inner life. The author remains attentive, also, to the ways that language shapes and animates character. Amy keeps a blog with lists of "funny-looking words"; one female workshop participant grows increasingly consternated over the default use of masculine pronouns. Even as Amy expatiates to her pupils on the rules of good storytelling, elsewhere the book cheerfully violates them. The cleverest trick comes, finally, when the murderer?s own notes are exposed to the harsh atmosphere of a good ?workshopping.? If life and death fall under the rubric of morality, the novel argues entertainingly, then so do mixed metaphors, bad dialogue, and clich‚. Off with their heads.

The Family Mashber

If you're unfamiliar with the Yiddish writer Der Nister -- a pseudonym of Pinhas Kahanovitch (1884-1950) -- you're both a) not alone and b) no less likely to enjoy an intimate knowledge of the Ukrainian market town of Berdichev. Masked as "N." in Der Nister's remarkable saga The Family Mashber, Berdichev was not only the imagined locale for this sprawling achievement in fiction but also a very real and vibrant place (it was the birth city of Conrad and home of Sholom Alechim, and even the site of Balzac?s wedding nuptials). Der Nister, who perished in the anti-Yiddish Soviet purges of the late 1940s, fashioned a sui generis novel in his story of this city, replete with peddlers, holy men, moneylenders, gangsters, brothel keepers, and fallen aristocrats. The Mashbers of the title -- Moishe, the respectable bourgeois businessman who falls from grace; Luzi, an otherworldly itinerant who sets the events in train that will destroy Moishe; and Alter, the idiot brother whose moments of clarity take on Delphic significance -- are at once tangibly real in the novel and beacons of symbolic import. But the most memorable figure in The Family Mashber isn't a Mashber at all but the drunken nogoodnik Sruli Gol, a mysterious antihero who all but floats along the novel?s surface. It would be wrong to call this novel either social realism or magic realism. It wouldn't be incorrect, though, to rank it among the most marvelous literary rediscoveries of the past decade. In his preface, Der Nister wrote that he had written the novel "to give young people a sense of the great distance that separates our reality from that earlier one." Let us be thankful that he did so.

22 Dreams

If eclecticism were a crime, Paul Weller would be rotting away in Britain's Strangeways prison for decades now. Ever since he broke up the new wave /punk trio the Jam in 1982, Weller has followed his own muse exclusively, dodging limiting musical categories. His new 22 Dreams is unsurprisingly all over the map: pure pop, raucous rock, airy exotica, classic R&B, and folk rock are all convincingly essayed, only to be left on the wayside until their creator returns to them when the mood strikes him. And yet, somehow, it all holds together. Credit it to a Weller's authoritative voice; literally, as an emotive and adaptable singer free of affectation and as a craftsman who can imbue differing styles with unmistakable personal touches. Weller's influences are hidden in plain sight (hear how Weller "transforms" the Electric Prune's immortal "I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night" into the winking title track) yet this gleeful musical packrat has a knack for artfully sculpting the sounds of the past into contemporary pleasures much like peak era Todd Rundgren. So the shifting, spacey grooves (complete with piano and trumpet work from the legendary Robert Wyatt) of the instrumental tribute to Alice Coltrane ("Song for Alice") can somehow rest easily between the heartbreaking ballad "Invisible," with Weller eloquently accompanying himself on piano, and the neo-classic soul "Cold Moments," itself so reminiscent of Weller's accessible Style Council work. Musical schmorgasbords can often veer from embarrassments of riches to mere embarrassments, but the satisfactions of 22 Dreams match its abundance.

The Wrecking Crew

It makes perfect sense to Thomas Frank that George W. Bush would refer to himself as a "dissident in Washington" despite being behind the biggest executive branch power grab this side of Nixon. Conservatives, in what Frank calls a "supremely cynical maneuver," paint themselves as revolutionaries and outsiders even when they're running things; that way, they never have to take responsibility for government's mistakes and can point to those mistakes as proof that government doesn't work. In this nervy, brainy, no-holds-barred book, the liberal commentator argues that the "fantastic misgovernment" we live under -- his examples include the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the administration of Iraq -- is "the consequence of triumph...by a movement that understands the liberal state as a perversion and considers the market the ideal nexus of human society." With the sharp analysis and scathing wit that characterized his 2004 bestseller, What's the Matter with Kansas?, Frank covers the decimation of the civil service in favor of outsourcing (the current administration actually tried to "contract out the job of supervising contractors"), the demolition of the regulatory state, and the use of deficit spending to paralyze the government. Frank entertains even as he alarms: he describes right-wing pundit Michelle Malkin as having "the appearance of a Bratz doll but the soul of Chucky," and similar gems pop up on nearly every page. But the overall tone is ominous, with Frank warning that even if the Democrats win the White House, it will require "years of hard political work" to return the government to the people.

Street World

The Street finds its own uses for things, William Gibson noted in 1989. Nearly 20 years later, the editors of Street World substantiate his observation by enlisting nearly 100 photographers to compile eye-popping visual evidence of their transnational urban culture -- at once homogenous and geographically idiosyncratic -- that exists outside and beyond the media-dominated, commodified discourse. Graffiti artists, street performers, musicians, fashionistas, skateboarders, lowriders, motorcycle clubbers, shantytown dwellers, and juvenile cliques mix in a global stew of home-grown, amateur, lowbrow trends, fads, and creative modes of expression, which continuously bubbles and churns beneath our noses, tossing up bits and pieces that get co-opted by the for-profit mainstream. With the United Nations recently reporting that this year will see, for the first time in history, fully half the world's population living in urban environments, such unmapped territory can only assume ever-greater prominence. Street World attempts to be comprehensive but remains a scattershot, incomplete cartography of this brave new world. No preliminary editorial plan of coverage is evident. Rather, the book seems to have been assembled along the lines of "the things one hundred cool photographers found interesting, subsequently sorted into loose categories." Consequently, large areas of the globe -- China, most notably -- go unexplored, as do whole subcultures that justifiably deserve attention (live-action role-playing games, flash mobs). But the imagery and information that is included possess a journalistic vividness that will delight and astonish. Humanity's unquenchable creativity and need for self-expression elude all corporate trammels, and Street World embodies the anarchic spirit of its subject with both elegance and charming rudeness.

A Diary of the Century

In 1927, 15-year-old Edward Robb Ellis bet two friends to see who could keep a diary the longest. One boy petered out after two weeks; another kept daily entries for three months before calling it quits. Ellis, on the other hand, was still writing his diary in 1995 -- 24,000 days and 20 million words after that teenage wager -- earning him a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records. About 1 percent of that diary has been distilled into the one-volume A Diary of the Century, first published in 1995, three years before the author's death. The reissue doesn't offer any new material; but what's here remains a multicolored mural of American life across seven decades. In his introduction Pete Hamill writes, "The diarist has one essential goal: to freeze time." Ellis does that with gusto and an obsessive compulsion for detail. Each of his entries is like a flashbulb popping on an American timeline: bank failures during the Great Depression; Louis Armstrong blowing his trumpet in a New Orleans jazz club; a stunned Grace Kelly emerging from an elevator to face a pack of reporters; an execution at Sing Sing; and thousands of other memorable moments. As a reporter in the Midwest and New York City, Ellis seems to have been everywhere and rubbed elbows with history's who's who. Browsing the names in the index, you realize Ellis is the Forrest Gump of diarists. Robustly sentimental and splashed with an inevitable egocentrism, this diary is as close to being there as most of us will ever get.

Inverted World

Societies are dependant upon collective perceptions that insulate their populace, transforming individuals into citizens. Christopher Priest's post-apocalyptic novel literalizes this notion -- by depicting a citizenry whose self-image rests upon "an internal need to survive in a strange environment" -- then tests it to see what transpires when a society's blinkers begin to slip. Priest imagines a nomadic group that travels laboriously in a seven-storey contraption its native inhabitants refer to as "the city of Earth," but which reminds one outsider of "a large and misshapen office block." Journeying, for esoteric reasons, along a northerly course, the city makes use of impoverished people encountered along its route. These "tooks" are solicited into providing physical and sexual labor, in effect, helping the city in its transport and the replenishment of its population. As one city dweller says of the arrangement, "I suppose we take more than we give." Furthering this ostensible satire is the fact that English is the mother tongue of the city, while the tooks speak languages like Spanish. Originally published in 1974 and recently reissued by NYRB Classics, Inverted World is a well-plotted, hallucinatory novel that is buttressed by a clear prose style. Given that numerous commentators now earn their living by explaining why real-world societies have come to revile the West, it's evident why a novel that explores one civilization's predatory tendencies, which are emboldened by an environment where natural resources are scarce, should make a welcome reappearance.

Last Call at Elaine's

The ten-year span from the mid-'80s to the mid-'90s of the recently deceased century was surely nobody?s Golden Age. Yet every era encompasses revelatory moments of whimsy and glory, farce and tragedy, art and pathos, enough to cobble together a Silver Age -- or at least a Brass -- periods perhaps ultimately more charming and real in their all-too-human catalog of failure and second-rate achievements than those rare halcyon times when impossible deities held court. Such is the decayed milieu captured in the pages of Brian McDonald?s twin-tracked memoir. From 1986 until 1997, McDonald tended bar at the legendary dining and drinking establishment founded by Elaine Kaufman in 1963. For a time Elaine's had been the hippest of in-spots, drawing the famous, the near-famous, and the infamous into its unassuming ambiance at Second Avenue and 88th Street in New York City. When McDonald began his tenure there, the place was in a slump. He describes nights barren of customers, with Elaine a morose and wounded presence. The book offers a sympathetic but unsparing portrait of the proprietor as a charming heap of neuroses and bravado, living solely for her restaurant, unable to occupy herself on the two nights each year it was closed. The tale of the prickly friendship between owner and barkeep is matched by jaded yet earnest depictions of Elaine?s colorful clientele. Deftly intertwined with the saga of the bar and its denizens is McDonald's own Bukowskian life story: professional bartender at 18; full-fledged alcoholic as a young adult; then 14 years of sobriety, education, and writerly success, leading to relapse and a second recovery. Like his idols Pete Hamill and Jimmy Breslin, McDonald employs street-smart prose to good effect, creating a fascinating account of the not-so-lush life.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Timed, no doubt, to the release of the upcoming feature film, Penguin Classics has reissued its collection of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Jazz Age Stories as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The titular tale, an absurdist parable of a man who is born in old age and regresses to childhood over the course of 70 years, is just one among the 19 stories gathered here, the full roster of Fitzgerald's first two collections. In a way, Fitzgerald's early stories are a training ground for the author we've come to know, full of his habitual wit but with more whimsy than usual. In such stories as "The Camel's Back," about a man disguised as a camel at a costume party who tricks his noncommittal lover into marrying him, and the classic "Diamond as Big as the Ritz," we catch a glimpse of the decadent exuberance of post-WWI America, unconstrained by the trifling boundaries of realism. Still, these stories are, for the most part, hardly without Fitzgerald's melancholy touch -- the novelette "May Day," in particular, is a somber indictment of the ravages of the Jazz Age and the aftermath of war upon a set of young men and women whose lives intersect one fateful night in New York. Fitzgerald's more ambitious stories, "May Day" among them, outclass some of the collection's more lighthearted efforts: "Head and Shoulders," in the O. Henry–esque orthodoxy of its structure, would seem the work of a less than mature creator. But then, that is one of the great pleasures of this collection -- the chance to see one of America's most iconic authors in the throes of his literary evolution.


Charles Wright has won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the National Book Award. He has nothing to prove, and his poetry reveals his independence and eccentric elegance. Littlefoot, Wright's 18th book, takes on memory and loss; mortality; writing; landscape; inner and outer weather. The book-length poem has a long, slow, floating quality. It discourses on time's ravages and gifts.

It may not be written in any book, but it is written --
You can't go back.

Littlefoot is inhabited by birds, mountains, clouds, and trees more than people. It instructs us like the Tao Te Ching laced with American grief. "But nature is not sincere, nor is it insincere." We must not "be negligent, / So that our hearts end up like diamonds, and not roots." Gorgeous imagery occupies every page. "Deer huddle?then burst like flames in the air." Wright depicts "the Chinese vocabulary of the grasses," "the dark bandages of dusk." He wields color like a master painter -- "poppies along the near hill glisten like small fires, / Pink and orange and damp red." Yet the poet worries that he hasn't done enough." "All I have left undone, I hope someone will make good / in this life or the next." Littlefoot begins and ends in autumn, transforming melancholy to praise-song, "Praise for the left-over and over-looked, / praise for the left hand / And the horse with one lame leg." It is a hymn composed of "pennywhistle music" and silence "here under the latches of Paradise."


When examining the Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer's (1889-1968) seminal take on the vampire legend, one may do well to proceed by asking the vulgar question: is Vampyr scary? Doing so confronts one with what the film is and is not and clues one in to why a large segment of the Berlin audience that attended the film's 1932 premiere demanded- - unsuccessfully -- their money back. When Dreyer set about making Vampyr, his intention was to generate moolah. But as might be supposed of a director whose previous film, La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (1928) stands as one of the supreme achievements of the medium, Dreyer was unable to harmonize his commercial intentions with an ability to stomach pat formulas. Rather, he trussed his work up with ambiguity and disjunction, instead of coddling his viewers with unruffled titillation. The film traces the adventures of Allan Gray, "a dreamer for whom the line between the real and the supernatural became blurred," who happens upon a village where he becomes involved in various enigmas that twirl around a wizened vampire and her partner, a malign doctor. While Vampyr is not a scary film, it is an unsettling one that encourages multiple viewings. This is particularly true because of the manner in which Dreyer moves from objective to subjective perspectives and fiddles around with causality. Dreyer has been frequently cited as one of the true poets of cinema -- a man who sought spiritual forms out of a medium that is predisposed to maximizing its secular appeal. Though his other masterpieces, such as Day of Wrath and Ordet, unfurl like rigorously metrical processions, Vampyr is the cinematic counterpart of gothically styled free verse.

Strange and Stranger : The World of Steve Ditko

If you know Spider-Man, chances are you're just one of 100 million casual movie viewers. If you know Dr. Strange, it's likely that you've read a few comics, however long ago. But if you know the Question or Mr. A, it's pretty certain that you're a dyed-in-the-wool fan of artist Steve Ditko, creator of all the heroes cited above and one of the seminal architects of the comics landscape, and consequently responsible for a myriad hours of viewing and reading pleasure for countless fans. Now even the comics newbie can experience the full range of Ditko's accomplishments, thanks to Blake Bell's masterful, copiously illustrated biographical study. With passionate yet unremittingly objective scholarship, Bell chronicles the life and work of this notoriously reclusive and stubborn artist. The shadow of creative tragedy hangs over Ditko's career: his vast, eye-popping output, from early horror comics in the 1950s to his final Ayn Rand–dominated preachments of the '90s, was all produced for cut-rate wages at a backbreaking clip. When his work fell out of favor, the financially strapped artist was reduced to taking such projects as a coloring book for the Transformers franchise. Bell is forthright on the myriad sins of the comics industry but equally tough on Ditko's own failings, mainly an insanely unswerving dedication to the Objectivist creed that sabotaged every effort to help his cause. The author trains his keen eye on just what made Ditko's talent unique and groundbreaking; his analysis puts weight behind fellow artist John Romita's estimation, which placed Ditko in rarefied company: "They are what I call creators. The rest of us are illustrators."

Little Criminals

Kerrigan's prose is luxury stuff, said The New Yorker when The Midnight Choir came out last year. His new novel, published in the U.S. by Europa, the champion of new crime fiction from across the pond, is certainly all that. It's also a scathing look at the moral values of the New Ireland, the so-called "Celtic Tiger" whose economy is widening the gap between rich and poor in ways that the country's shameless former British landowners couldn't imagine. Frankie Crowe heads a largely inept gang of "little criminals" who try to steal, shoot, and bludgeon their way into the good life. Crowe has ambition in plenty, but he's also a bit of a nut case, and not even his sensible older cohort Martin Paxton can keep him from screwing up. Case in point: a kidnap scheme goes wildly wrong when Crowe and his boys grab the wrong man -- a lawyer who isn't doing badly but who has no way of raising the two million quid Frankie is asking for. Everything goes downhill from there, except for Kerrigan's beautiful writing, as clear and pure as spring water. "The shooting came at the end of a period -- more than a year -- in which a lot of things didn't quite work out," he tells us after a pub holdup fails because of faulty intelligence. "By now, Frankie Crowe and Martin Paxton were supposed to be on their way somewhere. Instead, they were here in a small town in County Meath, still scrounging for the rent."

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

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

Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
The Hundred-Year House

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

Watching Them Be

What makes a film actor into a larger-than-life movie star? James Harvey's passionate, freewheeling essays explain why there are some faces (from Greta Garbo's to Samuel L. Jackson's) from which we cannot look away.


What if you called up the spouse on the verge of leaving you -- and instead found yourself magically talking to his younger self, the one you first fell for?  Rainbow Rowell, author of the YA smash Eleanor & Park, delivers a sly, enchanting take on 21st-century love.