Displaying articles for: September 2008

Invasion 68 Prague

On August 19, 1968, Josef Koudelka, a 30-year-old aviation engineer, returned to his home in Prague from Romania, where he had gone to take pictures of Gypsies. The next night Koudelka was awakened by a friend calling to say that Soviet tanks were in the streets. Koudelka, who had never done any journalistic work, sped out to spend most of the next seven days compiling an extraordinary record of the surprise attack that Leonid Brezhnev launched to crush the reforms of Alexander Dubcek's "Prague Spring," and the responses of his brokenhearted countrymen. As 165,000 invading troops and 4,600 tanks quickly took control of Czechoslovakia, a country of 12 million, and as paratroopers seized Dubcek and flew him out for coercive talks in Moscow, Koudelka raced around his hometown capturing something more than an excellent historical record. The 250 photographs in this book constitute a rare and poetic vision of a nation coming together, not in victory but in defeat. The images of young people sitting in front tanks, or boys strutting with their flag, certainly convey widespread defiance, anger, betrayal, and bits of commendable bravura. But even more compelling are Koudelka's pictures showing the private expressions of fear of citizens as they reflexively draw their fists to their cheeks or gape in open-mouthed horror or simply stand in stoop-shouldered but unmistakably sullen submission as the Soviets direct traffic. Koudelka took his photos as his own gesture of personal resistance. For some time he kept them hidden. After a year some made their way to the West, where Magnum Photos distributed them, crediting them to an unknown person referred to as PP, for Prague Photographer. Koudelka kept his role secret for another 16 years, to protect his Prague relatives from possible reprisals by Dubcek's hard-line successors. Now on the 40th anniversary of the invasion, the Aperture Foundation has published this powerful album and is sponsoring an exhibition at its gallery in New York that runs through Oct. 30th.

Notes on Directing

Understanding that the art of directing is the art of getting the best out of people, veterans Hauser and Reich have subtitled their Notes on Directing "130 Lessons in Leadership from the Director's Chair." Some of my favorites: Introduce bad news with "and" not "but." That is, "The costume looks great, and when you keep your hat up, we can see your gorgeous face." Anger is always preceded by pain. "When an actor jumps to angry choices, look back together for the moment when the hurt occurs because that is what is more important -- and more interesting." Every Object Tells (quoting Romulus Linney): "Everything on the set should be used up, burned up, blown up, destroyed, or otherwise completely chemically altered over the course of the story or else it didn't belong there to begin with." And one that could be a mantra for every overburdened parent: Assume that everyone is in a permanent state of catatonic terror. "This will help you approach the impossible state of infinite patience and benevolence that actors and others expect of you." Full of clear-headed advice, this slender volume communicates more than a shelf of self-help books. What words speak more directly to human drama -- whether on the stage or in the bedroom -- than #65 and #70: Never, NEVER bully... and Please, PLEASE be decisive?

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee

When we meet Pippa Lee in the dreamlike opening chapters of Rebecca Miller's first novel, she seems anything but complex. As the third wife of Herb, a literary lion 30 years her senior, Pippa has managed to settle herself neatly into a trophy wife's mold, having produced twins and played the consummate hostess to the publishing cognoscenti for decades. But Herb's heart attack and the couple's abrupt move to a suburban retirement community jar the serenity and security of her existence, releasing Pippa from the demands of city society while being surrounded by octogenarians. Through ensuing episodes of walking in her sleep (and eating, smoking, and driving), Pippa discovers her lost voice, literally, as she sets off on a path to recover the memory of her lost self ?- the speed-popping, S&M wild child she was before she met Herb. Switching to a first-person narrative, the story's pace changes dramatically as Pippa offers reminiscences that reveal the quiet voice of an observer who, despite emerging "from Suky's womb fulsome and alert, fat as a six-month-old, and covered in fine, black fur," has been reactive almost all her life. Miller, as daughter of the illustrious Arthur and wife of Daniel Day-Lewis, should understand what it is like to stand in the long shadow cast by a famous man. However, Miller's painting, acting, and writing and directing films have established her as a success in her own right. Perhaps that is why she gives us a Pippa who scrutinizes her "secret lives" and discovers that she may still have more to offer at 50 years of age than a perfectly golden crŠme brûlée.

The Little Book

First-time novelist Selden Edwards here conjures up a light fable about the birth of modernism -- a frothy bit of time-travel that makes literal Nietzsche's idea of the eternal return. In this case, we're given to understand that Edwards's all-American hero, Frank Standish Burden III, and his father, Frank II, were able to change the course of modern history and culture by traveling back to Vienna during its golden age. With cameos by Freud, Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, and a host of Viennese luminaries, Edwards compounds his historical conceit by comparing the radical politics and artistic tumult of the fin de siècle to America in the '60s. Frank III, known to friends as "Wheeler" for his devastating baseball pitch, shows up Zelig-like at all sorts of crucial moments in his own time as well. A hip refusenik in the Bartleby tradition, he walks off the mound at the Harvard-Yale game -- one pitch shy of a perfect game; and off the stage at Altamont -- he's also a kick-ass rocker who learned his licks from Buddy Holly himself. But Wheeler, "a stranger in a strange land" wherever he is, rises to greater challenges when he wakes up one day in the past -- a past inhabited also by members of his own Boston Brahmin family, who figure greatly into the future of politics and culture. The plot twists can be dizzying, with some weird suggestions of incest, but Edwards's mythic quest and liberal notions will delight fans of Jack Finney and John Irving. His New Age-y ideas about a "symmetric reality," "state of flow," and "life force" serve him well for this improbable romp through time.

Minding the Store: Great Literature About Business

More than we sleep, play, or make love, we work. Yet despite -- or perhaps because of -- this dominant daily grind, much of our literature is biased toward other pursuits. Nonetheless, there exists a substantial body of fiction concerned with labor and craft, selling and acquiring, professional zest and despair. Famed sociologist and psychiatrist Robert Coles and co-editor Albert Lafarge have collected short works of fiction and nonfiction in an anthology that admirably captures this overlooked literary subject in an entertaining and thought-provoking fashion. The famous bards of the marketplace -- John O'Hara, John Cheever, John Updike among them -- are all represented with well-considered, un-stale selections, while lesser-known authors such as Jean Thompson provide equally exceptional offerings. The selection, strong as it is, will provoke readers to offer counterweight items, in particular anti-work voices such as Jack Kerouac's. The purely American focus is limiting, and a couple of poets defined famously by their day jobs -- T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens -- surely must have had something to bring to the table. The anthology as a whole neither fully condemns nor completely endorses our preoccupation with work and its costs and rewards, but does see the subject as an ineluctable constant. No Wordsworths, lamenting how with "getting and spending we lay waste our powers," need apply.

Mr. Gatling's Terrible Marvel

It occurred to me that if I could invent a machine -- a gun -- which could by rapidity of fire, enable one man to do as much battle duty as a hundred, that it would...supersede the necessity of large armies, and consequently, exposure to battle and disease be greatly diminished, wrote Richard Gatling in 1877, 15 years after patenting the first working machine gun. Gatling was often at pains to justify his creation, but as self-serving as his words sound today -- inventing a machine gun to save lives? -- he was likely sincere, observes Julia Keller in Mr. Gatling's Terrible Marvel: after all, in the optimistic 19th century, the benefits of technology seemed limitless. Even so, resistance from military higher-ups delayed adoption of the gun, which Gatling, a self-taught engineer, had hoped would hasten a Union victory in the Civil War. Some simply refused to accept that machines could trump individual valor ("It does not seem like soldiers' work," complained an infantryman testing an early version). But attitudes shifted, and besides seeing action in the Spanish-American War, the mean-looking Gatlings were wheeled out to break labor strikes and clear the West of Native Americans before being rendered obsolete by deadlier descendants. Keller draws a line from the Gatling gun to the AK-47 and the atomic bomb, lending an uncomfortable prescience to Gatling's words. Bloody as it was, the 20th century, she writes near the end of this lively, fascinating book, proved that "the more deadly and effective the technology used in a war, the fewer the numbers of human beings required to fight it."

The Earrings of Madame de...

It was not without misgivings that the German-born, Jewish director Max Ophüls (1902-57) began work on the penultimate film of his career, The Earrings of Madame de... Adapted from a novel by Louise de Vilmorin (published in 1951, two years before the film's release), the Belle Époque story follows the extramarital goings on of an upper-class Parisian couple. Ophüls wondered if his project -- with its focus on the thwarted love affair between a pampered countess and an Italian diplomat -- was anemic in its conceit compared to other literary works he might have transcribed for the screen. In any event, it was the structure of de Vilmorin's novel that impressed him rather than its contents. In the film, Madame de... (played by Danielle Darrieux) sells a pair of diamond earrings, a gift from her husband (Charles Boyer), to cover a 20,000-franc debt she incurred on the sly. Through a series of coincidences, the earrings find their way back to the couple and in the process become laden with an outsized symbolic power. Ophüls's ability to use a modicum of dialogue to express expansive feelings and his unfailing sense of mise-en-scène -- identified by a camera style that seems almost aquatic in its fluidity -- lift what might otherwise be a foamy indulgence to the rich substance of art. Without derision, one might say that The Earrings of Madame de... represents the apotheosis of the chick flick.

American Wife

A word of advice before reading American Wife: put Laura Bush firmly out of your mind. While bestselling author Curtis Sittenfeld has waxed rhapsodic about her admiration for the first lady, she insists that in this novel, her most ambitious work to date, protagonist Alice Blackwell is most certainly not Laura Bush. Sittenfeld has conceded that she drew on some major events in Mrs. Bush's life, such as the horrific car accident that killed a fellow student in high school and her marriage to a man who is eventually elected president and steers the country into a controversial war. The rest, she says, she invented within the framework of that reality. This is where it helps to forget everything you know about the first family, for what waits to be discovered is not just a gossipy roman à clef. Instead, readers will find a story that unfolds like life itself: with small moments illuminated in high relief and milestones almost blurred by their great significance, as well as a host of characters with real meat on their bones. But what really sets this novel apart is a subtle but insistent question that begs reflection throughout the story. As American Wife juxtaposes the intimacies of marriage with larger-than-life public personas, and personal values with party politics, Alice wonders, "How much is at stake when you decide something?" Though she's addressing her husband, there is a sense she's asking herself, and the reader, the very same thing.

Bottomless Belly Button

Many a young cartoonist in recent years has gotten bogged down by minutiae: depicting in excruciating detail the back-and-forth of a breakup or the mechanics of nose picking. In its early pages, with pie charts of family relationships and a taxonomy of different varieties of sand, the 720-page graphic novel Bottomless Belly Button threatens to fall into that trap and entirely vanish into creator Dash Shaw's navel. Remarkably, the 25-year-old Shaw instead builds a complicated multigenerational drama and makes a name for himself as a major new cartoonist. The story centers on the Loony family: after four decades of marriage, the parents have decided to get divorced. Their three adult children visit them in an unnamed beach town and cope with the disintegrating family in various ways: by angrily searching for the underlying cause of the divorce, by getting drunk, by flirting with a cute camp counselor on the beach. Shaw's sketchy art can be as awkward as the members of the Looney family, but that only makes it more moving when there's a moment of fleeting grace: a beach chair floating away, for example, lofted by too many helium balloons. And his narrative is filled with small moments that linger with you, as when one character teaches a young child how to make a wish before blowing out birthday candles: "You can't make anyone die or force someone to fall in love with you," he says. "Those are the rules."

How to Get Rich: One of the World's Greatest Entrepreneurs Shares His Secrets

The intent behind this irreverent and entertaining autobiography/management advice book couldn't be clearer, argues author Felix Dennis, the publisher of the (in)famous "lad" mag Maxim and numerous other magazines. "Bugger the glib insights," he writes. "What the world needs is an anti-self-help book. A book that tells people how hard it is to be a great manager or great anything. About how hard it is to get rich." And he succeeds in doing that by pointing out how a successful entrepreneur (the only career path Dennis believes will lead to true wealth) needs to sacrifice relationships and just about everything else in a single-minded focus on success. "You need to be a predator" (although, he suggests, a courteous one.) But once you get past that, and the numerous semi-serious asides -- "if it flies, floats or fornicates, always rent it" -- you find some surprisingly workable rules of thumb that don't involve merely hunting and killing one's commercial prey. Among them: A compulsion for becoming rich is necessary for you to increase the odds of it happening ("Desire is insufficient"), but ideas alone are also not enough ("Concentrate on great execution"). Own what you create, he cautions, and "Hold on to every percentage point you can." And as a manager, be counterintuitive and hire people smarter than you. Finally, don't stay with any enterprise too long: "Sell before you need to, or when bored." These sorts of truisms inch Dennis dangerously close to a traditional business/self-help book. But, perhaps that should not be surprising. Despite all his bluster he believes "almost anyone of reasonable intelligence can become rich, given sufficient motivation and application." But that, he implies, is harder than most people would like to believe.

Gorgeous George: The Outrageous Bad-Boy Wrestler Who Created American Pop Culture

James Brown learned about fashion from him, Muhammad Ali studied self-promotion under him, a young Bob Dylan rode a confidence-building moment he shared with him for years, and millions of American in the earliest days of television either loved him or hated him. He is the renowned wrestler Gorgeous George, one of television's first stars. There weren't tons of shows to put on the air in the early days, and wrestling entertainment, which happened in every city across America nearly every night, was cheap and plentiful -- and viewers loved it. And Gorgeous George was made for TV (or, as he says, "television was made for me"). George Wagner had been just another wrestler on the circuit until he and his wife slowly developed the persona of Gorgeous George, a preening, self-absorbed, bleach-blond prissy boy complete with a valet to carry his ridiculous props (such as a feather duster for his chair and tea cups for between-round refreshments) and outrageously beautiful capes. Known as the Human Orchid, George was the king of early wrestling on TV and the prototype of nearly every bad-boy wrestler who has come after him. Gorgeous George author John Capouya doesn't just capture the ups and downs of this incredible man, but he casually opens cultural doors to readers and exposes us to the backrooms and highways, carnival bigtops and fashion choices of the times. The book isn't just about a man but about postwar America and why we'd even want such a character as Gorgeous George to throw ourselves at: "After World War II, America was readjusting, reforming and reassembling itself into what exactly no one knew. But it was clearly going to be different," Capouya writes. "Then television came and took hold, and Gorgeous George did as much as any single person to ensure that new device became a fixture."

Human Love

Strange that the Angolan civil war, which lasted from 1975 to 2002, remains one of the least discussed proxy conflicts of the Cold War, as it was one of the strangest. The conflagration managed to drag in apartheid-era South Africa, Mobutu's Zaire, China, and the U.S. -- all on the same side. Cuba had boots on the ground. Human Love, the new novel from Andreï Makine, takes as its protagonist Elias, an Angolan who has witnessed and participated in much of that war's long grotesquerie. His story is recounted by the Russian writer he meets in a military prison. If the love of the book's title proves sketchy, with too few of the flecks and flinches of an actual, individual relationship, the book nevertheless finds veins of rich, dark satire. At a conference on Africa, held in a European capital, the unnamed Russian attends a colloquium on "African Life Stories in Literature." In the crucible of war, a neutral, even meaningless term like "factionalist" quickly becomes a pejorative, and the book's accounts of violence -- rapes, executions -- ooze out leached of emotion, cast almost in a Houellebecqian glare. Elsewhere, Elias meditates on his life as a "professional revolutionary" -- a revealing little oxymoron -- and the phenomenon of "revolutionary tourism." The one character in the book who plausibly fills both roles is also its only true historical figure, and the irony of his cameo, as a mentor to Elias, serves as a token of the novel's unsparing, jaundiced, and periodically gripping effort to perforate myths and lay bare the ways in which bloodshed exhausts ideals. It is, of course, Che.

Ritual: A Novel

The heroine of Mo Hayder's latest novel, Ritual, is Sergeant Flea Marley, a female police diver who, one April afternoon, finds an amputated hand in the murky waters of Bristol Harbor. A predictable opening for a police procedural, but we are also in for horror. "She gave the hand a experimental tug?.it floated free of the silt, coming away easily. At the place where a wrist should be there was just raw bone and gristle." Hayder plunges us into a claustrophobic, distorted world, just as she did in her previous, and perhaps finest, novel, Pig Island. We resurface spooked and unsettled by her vivid depiction of drug addiction, prostitution, murder, sadism, insanity and, of course, body parts. "f there was one thing he?d been around the block with it was the mutilation of the human body," exhausted chief inspector Jack Caffrey reflects, "and he'd known more distressing combinations of the way the familiar can become the unfamiliar than he cared to remember." Caffrey, introduced in Hayder?s early novel Birdman, here works alongside Flea Marley on killings that are connected to drugs but that also expose a black market for body parts, right there in quaint old Bristol. The investigation is, however, just one strand in an intricate, often brutal novel of shifting perspectives and disconcerting echoes. Hayder keeps us guessing not only about what is happening but also about who these people are. The familiar becomes the horribly unfamiliar as, with clinical precision and yet palpable compassion, she once again reveals the human heart to be the most damaged body part of all.

A Journey Round My Skull

If one could extract the subplot from Hannah and Her Sisters involving Woody Allen's hypochondriacal brush with mortality via a possible brain tumor, then hand those pages to the team of Franz Kafka, Robert Benchley, and Isaac Bashevis Singer for a rewrite, one might possibly get back A Journey Round My Skull: a surreal, absurdist, yet philosophically and emotionally deep and fancifully antic meditation upon death and life. Frigyes Karinthy (1887-1938) had gained literary fame in his native Hungary for a wide range of literary material. At age 48, he was prosperous and complacent, a prolific craftsman. Then came a baffling array of symptoms, leading to the diagnosis of a brain tumor. This book is the narrative of those days -- which he survived, only to die of a stroke shortly afterward. Karinthy's book captures and captivates our interest on two levels. The medical drama is the obvious surface attraction, full of suspense and intellectual puzzlement along the lines of the great Berton Roueché's "Annals of Medicine" tales in The New Yorker . The vivid journalistic account that progresses from onset of symptoms to diagnosis to treatment to recovery allows the reader to enjoy a vicarious passage through the fires of illness. Charming period details (imagine a doctor today taking time out for a game of chess with his patient!) contrast with instances of mere flesh and blood overcome by beauracracy that still ring true today. (In matters of health insurance, we should all be as lucky as Karinthy, who found a sympathetic Countess to foot all the bills.) But even more intimate and alluring is the self-portrait of the man and artist, and Karinty's droll, wistful, sardonic observations on our debauched and glorious human nature. Anatomizing human foibles and virtues, he acknowledges his own vain Imp of the Perverse that made him fight treatment for so long. (Decades before K�bler-Ross, Karinthy charts the Five Stages of Grief.) Then he imagines what a fellow writer will think upon hearing of Karinthy's illness: "What a piece of luck! Providence had created so that that obituary notice might be written?. Perfect!" Unsentimental yet heartfelt, Karinthy's observations recall his analysis of his particular personality: "Every minute I am obliged to concentrate on my whole life." This account is indeed a whole life distilled into its most crucial moments.

Cultural Revival

After a four-year hiatus from recording, tenor saxophonist David Sanchez, now signed to Concord's "Picante" Latin Jazz division after a decade-long, seven-album relationship with Columbia-Sony, presents Cultural Survival, a recital comprising six original compositions and a pair of Sanchez-ized classics by Eddie Palmieri ("Adoracion") and Thelonious Monk ("Monk's Mood"). As on Sanchez' Grammy-nominated recordings Obsesi¢n (1998), Melaza (2000), and Travesía (2002), on which he deployed the harmonic language and interactive imperatives of jazz to recontextualize the folkloric rhythms and melodies of his native Puerto Rico, the sound matches no previously known "Latin Jazz" category. For one thing, Sanchez writes melodic lines that imply rather than explicitly state the percussion (hand drummer Pernell Saturnino, his longtime partner, performs on only two compositions). For another, vamps and montunos are mostly absent, a function of Sanchez' decision -- in part inspired by a lengthy 2005 tour with Pat Metheny -- to pare down from sextet to quartet; guitarist Lage Lund fulfills the harmonic, solo, and unison functions previously executed by pianist Edsel Gomez and alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon. On the epic finale, "La Leyenda del Carnival," inspired by Sanchez' decade-long immersion in traditional African musical dialects, pianist Robert Rodriguez weaves cross-rhythms into the flow with percussive authority, while on the title track and "Manto Azul," Danilo Perez and the leader, who turns 40 next month, conduct a sparkling conversation in notes and tones, reaffirming affinities that they first articulated two decades ago, documenting the ongoing refinement and elaboration of their ideas. Not least, Sanchez is one of the living masters of his instrument, a master of pace and dynamics, sustaining a ravishing -- call it "Latin" -- tone at all tempos.

Hubert's Freaks: The Rare Book Dealer, the Times Square Talker, and the Lost Photos of Diane Arbus

If collecting is an art form, then a collector - like many a troubled artist -- also may have his demons. Such is the conclusion of Gregory Gibson's account of collector Bob Langmuir's picaresque pursuit of a trove of lost photographs by Diane Arbus. Like Arbus, Langmuir was an aficionado of the "Old, Weird America" -- Greil Marcus's name for the semi-mythical demimonde of hucksters, tattooed vampires, and petty thieves who haunt the edges of American culture. As a collector, Langmuir graduated from old records to rare books to photographs and ephemera. He's primed for the score of a lifetime when he picks up the archive of Hubert's Dime Museum and Flea Circus, a Times Square sideshow, for a song. Entranced by the window it opens up on the world of its performers; only later does he realize that the archive include lost photographs by Diane Arbus, taken while she documented "American rites, manners, and customs" on a Guggenheim fellowship. But the very qualities that serve Langmuir so well as a collector -- his intensity, fervent imagination, and talent for jive-talking -- vex his relationships and confound his hopes; as Gibson's narrative unfolds, the question of whether Langmuir will survive the struggle within himself becomes every bit as compelling as the story of Arbus's rediscovered photographs. In the tradition of Joseph Mitchell and A. J. Liebling, this is a fine and riveting profile of troubled artists and the traces they leave behind.

Violence

Slavoj Zizek, the prolific Slovenian cultural theorist, has never flinched in the face of our knottier political dilemmas. In Violence, his inaugural contribution to Picador's Big Ideas/Small Books series, one of our most urgent, and vexing, social ills gets the Zizek treatment: a heady, dynamic, often exhilarating dive into the vortex of his particular brand of Lacanian theory. Violence's title is not to be taken at face value; what we get here is not an anatomy of brutality in any literal sense but rather what Zizek describes as "six sideways glances" at his subject. For Zizek, what he calls "subjective" violence -- the crime and terror we traditionally associate with the term -- is only the beginning. His real interest is in more systemic forms of violence: the ways in which language, cultural norms, and capitalism "sustain relationships of domination and exploitation." Drawing upon everything from pop culture ephemera (Nip/Tuck and M. Night Shyamalan) to global affairs (9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict), Zizek takes aim at the Left's presumption that its ethos of freedom and multiculturalism carries with it no violence of its own (which is not to say the Right isn't lambasted as well). Zizek is better at diagnosing what ails our society than he is at providing salves for these wounds -- that his call to arms is a call to inaction, based on the notion that abstention from the political system is the best rebellion against it, feels discouraging at best. But even if Zizek leaves us with no real prescription for the problem of violence, his injunction, borrowed from Lenin, to "learn, learn, and learn" is a start. He may not have an answer, but he can still give us an education.

America Eats!

The very title -- exclamation point officially included -- conveys the exuberance of its original editors. Starting in the late '30s, as part of the Works Progress Administration, a passel of notable writers -- Eudora Welty, Saul Bellow, and Ralph Ellison among them -- were paid to document American cooking from coast to coast. Alas, the project was met with the same suspicion as many other WPA projects -- Frivolous spending! A haven for Communists! -- and was soon killed for good. Now food writer Pat Willard has retrieved the shelved manuscripts, placing selections from the originals side by side with an account of her own coast-to-coast road trip to track down modern havens of American eating. No mere recipe hound, she stays true to the original project, with an eye on "importance of social gatherings that glorify the non-professional cook and keep traditional cookery alive." The selections from WPA writers document thresher's dinners, chitlin struts, and squirrel hunts -- with dialect, social attitudes, and racial prejudice intact. Willard finds county fairs and venison farms, and explains the difference between Brunswick stew, booya, and burgoo. The occasional recipes come in proportions meant for sharing -- say, 30 pounds of oxtail, four hens, and a bushel of tomatoes. While plenty of food writers have documented American cookery, few do so with quite the same vintage charm, literary snap, and respect for the kind of recipes best made in neighborly batches to serve 50 or 500.

The Proof of God: The Debate That Shaped Modern Belief

Those interested in what the narrator of Walker Percy?s Love in the Ruins calls "the dread chasm that has rent the soul of man ever since the famous philosopher Descartes ripped body loose from mind and turned the very soul into a ghost that haunts its own house" will find plenty to be getting on with in this excellent little book. The Proof of God is a narrative of ideas, beginning in the thickets of medieval theology and cutting a clean path toward modernity: here, digestibly, is the story of how human reason separated itself from God, and of how the Cartesian blade came down at last between res cogitans (the mind) and res extensa (everything else). In 1078, Saint Anselm assembles his Ontological Proof, in which man?s capacity to conceive of a perfect Being is adduced as proof of that Being?s existence. Schopenhauer will one day categorize this as ?a charming joke,? but it holds water for 150 years -- until the Franciscan monk William of Ockham enters, with his famous razor of reduction: "What can be explained by the assumption of fewer things is vainly explained by the assumption of more things." Ockham initiates the slow severing of the divine from Western consciousness, and soon enough we arrive at scrupulous, black-wigged Descartes, dubitating everything but the fact of his own doubt. The Proof of God wraps up a trifle hurriedly, the final chapter accelerating past Bertrand Russell?s atheism toward that Martian moment when Ludwig Wittgenstein recognizes all ideas as ?language-games.? Then again, perhaps a sort of empty whizzing sensation, as the mind of Western man finally rounds upon itself, is not altogether inappropriate.

Why You Should Read Kafka Before You Waste Your Life

There are biographies of literary icons, and then there's James Hawes' s Why You Should Read Kafka Before You Waste Your Life. In this case, you can judge a book by its cover. An ironic play on Kafka's story "Metamorphosis" has the insect lounging cross-legged, reading a bug-sized version of this book that's illustrated with a postage-stamp sized photo of "our hero" brooding darkly. Though Hawes holds a Ph.D. in German literature, his content is anything but dry or academic. Instead, he reveals Kafka the man in an extended, enthusiastic conversation, full of rambling asides and copious footnotes that read like conspiratorial whispers: "In the summer of 1913, Kafka bangs endlessly on about 'necessity,' that favorite concept of every German since Hegel who ever planned to do something morally dubious." Hawes takes great pains to put the oft misunderstood Kafka in the context of his time by offering a snapshot of the sweeping changes that overtook Mitteleuropa in the early 20th century. Then, he fleshes out the many sides of Kafka the person: lawyer, writer, smitten suitor, hypochondriac with a taste for bizarre porn. Using letters, diary excerpts, news clippings, photos, and illustrations (yes, some of the contents of the locked bookcase are revealed!), Hawes produces an edifying and thoroughly entertaining portrait that urges readers to revisit those classic stories once more because, he argues, "Kafka the writer sees more honestly than Kafka the man."

Town of Mirrors: The Reassembled Imagery of Robert Pollard

The word "prolific" is woefully inadequate to effectively convey the sheer volume of words set by music by the former fourth-grade teacher, former front man of Guided by Voices, and current solo artist Robert Pollard. With more than 1,000 songs registered with BMI and more records than one can reliably track, he's the sort to put together four-disc, 100-song retrospectives of previously unreleased material alone. (One music reporter suggested the man seriously consider the carbon footprint involved in pressing all that vinyl.) Not content to merely sing the songs in his head, Pollard has illustrated them as well, plastering the results over decades' worth of CDs, LPs, seven-inches, and flyers, now collected in one volume. Most pop songs, asserts Rick Moody in the introduction, are the "musical equivalent of a franchise restaurant with multiple health violations." But in Pollard, Moody hears "a collage-oriented fragmentation of constituent elements: longing, failure, desire, protest, alcoholism, unions, cars, sexuality, loneliness, acne, despair, and/or the good feeling one has when one is about to dance." And the collage-like feel of Pollard's "recombinant pop gems" exactly matches the actual collages in this book: fragments torn from '60s advertisements, girlie mags, superheroes, and space age and sci-fi movies. The titles, happily, are as playful in their verbal juxtapositions: "Ladies and Their Instruments," "Eight Bars of Meaningless Matilda" "The Floating Babies in Space Program" "Depicting the Wise Man as a Comet." Any Pollard fan will recognize this as a worthy dispatch from his beloved, singular artistic universe.

Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud, from Poisoned Candy to Counterfeit Coffee

A crusading chemist once asked his fellow Englishmen, "Who but a maniac would choose to season his victuals with poison?" This was at a time -- 1820 -- when food was so adulterated that only a willed suspension of disbelief made it consumable: water in the milk, sand in the sugar, sweepings in the tea, of course, but weapons-grade additives, too, such as lead to sweeten ropy wine, copper to brighten greens, Prussian blue toxins to make baby's bonbons the merrier. Food writer Bee Wilson brings a feisty, learned hand to this history of food swindles while coaxing dark comedy from a greed so biblically powerful it could kill. The adulterer's cabinet was full of ingenious horrors to bamboozle the public, and the quick-buck schemes are terrible and fascinating. Squaring the frauds with their greater economic and political contexts is where Wilson hits an artful stride. It is bracing to witness her social conscience as she explains how the shift from agricultural to industrial society dimmed our familiarity with traditional foods, how swindling sunders the trust of citizens, why the poor are disproportionately affected by swindles, and how the thievery is abetted by governments loath to intervene in the free market, for the laissez-faire state is on the lookout only when its revenues are jeopardized. Lest we feel distant from the wily 19th-century grocer, Wilson makes it gin clear that watering down, coloring up, bulking out, and plain poisoning are still with us, as are dyes, flavorings, and fortifiers -- pettifogging, in a word, the same old deceit now legalized.

The Small Back Room

Although finally entrenched in the pantheon of international filmmakers, British director Michael Powell remains an odd duck -- a baroque visionary who was also a level-headed chronicler of domestic and professional life, albeit one with a not-so-hidden subversive streak. Working closely with his creative partner, the writer and producer Emeric Pressburger, Powell turned out lavish extravaganzas (The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus), well-wrought melodramas (I Know Where I'm Going), pointed social farces, and a deeply disturbing, sexually charged thriller, Peeping Tom, that effectively ended his film career in 1960. Coming after the chromatic splash of the ballet fantasia The Red Shoes, The Small Back Room, a black-and-white WWII drama about a tormented bomb specialist, couldn't be more of an about-face in style. Yet the inner anguish and obsessive nature of the typical Powell protagonist permeates this engaging, if not fully satisfying, 1949 production. Beautifully crafted and stocked with strong performances, Back Room nonetheless feels stilted for a wartime drama, its ponderous critique of British bureaucracy dragging the dramatic arc downward just when the pace needs picking up. And violating his own sober direction, Powell stages an expressionistic Lost Weekend-meets-Spellbound sequence demonstrating the temptation of the bottle that is not only jarring, but, worse, near campy in its outsized visual exuberance. Yet Powell's insistence on revealing the neurotic tendencies simmering behind the stiff-upper-lip veneer of the characters makes for compelling viewing even when the narrative wanes. The chinks in the armor are what fascinated this ever-fascinating director, and it's the psychological wear and tear just behind the stoicism that speaks to us today.

13 Things That Don't Make Sense: The Most Baffling Scientific Mysteries of Our Time

A couple of years ago, in the pages of New Scientist magazine, journalist Michael Brooks penned an essay bearing the same title as this new book. He identified a baker's dozen of scientific enigmas whose unriddlings, if ever found, would portend major and consequential paradigm shifts in our understanding of various aspects of creation. Sensing the theme's larger potential, Brooks added and discarded topics, undertook some firsthand investigations, and has now produced a volume that provides a fascinating and humbling perspective on humanity's vaunted scientific wisdom. The book's chapters are arranged with beautiful logic on a continuum of topics that begins with physics and cosmology, proceeds through biology, and ends, more or less, in consciousness studies. Concise historical backstory and vivid portraits of researchers offer a true sense of the Great Work of science and the still-murky dark corners of its realm. All 13 bafflers strike me as worthy of the attention -- save for the final chapter's mystery of homeopathy. The likely fallout from solving the conundrum of that practice's reputed effectiveness simply doesn't attain the magnitude of the other items. Brooks indulges in a vigorously polemical freethinker's stance at times, as in his criticism of scientists for not pushing the search for ET life on Mars, but he generally hews to an agnostic journalistic tone well suited for such controversial topics. To paraphrase Dryden, Brooks illustrates that "Scientific dogma is sure to heresy near allied / And thin partitions do their bounds divide."

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.

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.

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.

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

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

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

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

The King of Pain

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

The Good Inn

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