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Archive for the ‘Penelope’s Picks’ Category

Room237Have you watched The Shining? Did you notice the placement of cans of Calumet Baking Powder in the hotel pantry? The disappearing chair, the impossible window, the reversal of the hexagonal carpet pattern? Danny’s hand-knit Apollo 11 sweater? If you’re like me, you were too busy recoiling from scenes of ax murders and blood gushing from elevators to pay attention to the carpeting.  But for some obsessed fans, every piece of set decoration, every line of dialogue, every camera shot in The Shining is a potential clue to the film’s hidden meaning.

Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 horror classic, adapted from the Stephen King novel, is ostensibly about a family isolated in a haunted mountain hotel while the father (played by Jack Nicholson) gradually becomes murderously insane. But Kubrick included so many weird scenes and omens not found in the book that an entire subculture grew up around analyzing and interpreting the film. Room 237: Being an Inquiry into The Shining in 9 Parts is a documentary narrated by five members of that subculture who are convinced that they have cracked Kubrick’s secret code.

Is the Calumet baking powder can a reference to the massacre of American Indians? Are a German typewriter (which changes color!) and the number 42 signs that the film is about the Jewish Holocaust? Do you have to run the film backwards to find its true meaning? Or perhaps the whole thing is a cloaked confession by Kubrick that he was involved in faking the video of the moon landing.

Room 237’s director, Rodney Ascher, found an unusual and rather brilliant way to tell his story. We never see the five narrators; we just hear their voices expounding their various theories. The visuals consist almost entirely of thousands of movie clips—from The Shining, naturally, but also from Kubrick’s other movies as well as a huge number of familiar Hollywood films.

While the theories may sound loony when I describe them, actually they’re not. Most of the signs and portents that the narrators see in The Shining really are there—although I’m pretty sure that the guy who insists you can see Kubrick’s face in the clouds above the hotel is making it up. It’s not crazy to believe that every detail of the movie exists for a reason, since Kubrick was a legendary control freak. So there are no bad edits, no continuity errors, and you’re off down the rabbit hole, trying to find out what it all means. Maybe Kubrick had a secret message, or maybe he was just messing with your mind. Trying to interpret The Shining is like entering the haunted Room 237 in the movie’s Overlook Hotel: go there, and you are marked for life. If you love movies and pop culture, watch Room 237, but take warning from its tagline:  “Many ways in, no way out.”

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keithBeatles or Stones? Yes! This fall, about 50 years after the founding of the two bands, we’re seeing a new crop of books about their early years, including Tune In, the first volume of Mark Lewisohn’s planned mega-biography of the Beatles, and Beatles vs. Stones, a historian’s look at the public images of the two groups. But I doubt that any book published this year will have the impact, or the sales, of Keith Richards’s autobiography, which came out in 2010.

Life has to be one of the best books ever about the cultural and political explosion that happened in the mid 1960s—witnessed from the epicenter by a kid who just wanted to play blues guitar and ended up a pop superstar in the Rolling Stones. The book is raw and rude. Keith disses a lot of well known people, and reveals without apology the depths of his bad behavior: the groupies and girlfriend-swapping, the endless hard drugs and booze, the arrests and trials, the wild parties and trashed hotel rooms.

“Some of my most outrageous nights I can only believe actually happened because of corroborating evidence…  The ultimate party, if it’s any good, you can’t remember it.”

Fortunately, Keith is just as revealing about his music, documenting how he created his epic guitar riffs, and almost effortlessly wrote hit song after hit song with Mick Jagger. He has collaborated with everyone who is anyone in music, and tells good stories about his encounters with Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, George Jones, Tom Waits, and many others.

If possible, don’t read Life in print; listen to the audiobook version instead. Its offbeat, somewhat laid-back production is oddly suited to the story and to Keith’s distinctive style. There are three narrators, each taking a turn at reading in the voice of Keith : Johnny Depp (a close friend and admirer of Richards), the Irish rocker Joe Hurley, and Keith himself.  This is disorienting for the listener, since the narration switches without warning from Depp, reading quite neutrally in his American accent, to Hurley, who does an over-the-top interpretation of Keith: slurring words, chuckling, and mumbling in a South London accent. At first I was put off by Hurley’s reading, but it grew on me and eventually I settled in to enjoy it. Keith narrates the final section of the book, covering his recent years, which are comparatively uneventful—oh, except for the time he fell out of a tree in Fiji and suffered a life-threatening brain injury.

Some parts are better than others, but the book, like a good album, opens with its strongest number. Superbly narrated by Depp, this is the story of the 1975 arrest of Keith, fellow band member Ronnie Wood, and two friends while driving a Chevrolet Impala packed with illegal drugs and weapons through Fordyce, Arkansas. This legendary culture clash between rural southern law enforcement types and long-haired British rockers can be read as hilarious farce, complete with a drunken judge and a victory parade for the bailed-out musicians. But there’s a dark heart to the story, a reminder that this was the Vietnam Era, the always-present backdrop of songs like “Street Fighting Man” and “Gimme Shelter.”

What a drag it is getting old… For years now, the Stones have endured writings in the press making fun of their withered appearance and calling on them to retire, for decency’s sake. So far, neither the band nor their fans are ready to pack it in. In the summer of 2013, the Stones rocked out in electrifying sets in Hyde Park and at the Glastonbury Festival before screaming crowds spanning three generations. You know what they say, baby: listen to your elders.

Check the WRL catalog for the audiobook version of Life

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TraversoWhen I was growing up in northern New England, I used to try wild apples. They could be found in the countryside and even deep in the woods, still growing in orchards abandoned 50 or 100 years before. Quite a few of these apples were “spitters,” but the good ones spoiled me for any supermarket commodity apple.

Amy Traverso’s book made me remember those old orchards, which are stark evidence of the collapse of diversity in American apple growing. One hundred years ago, about 15,000 named varieties of apples were grown in North America.  Today, most of them are extinct. Apple preservationists are working to reverse this trend, and thanks to their efforts, you can now buy heirloom varieties such as Black Oxfords, Roxbury Russets, and Yellow Transparents at farmers’ markets and specialty orchards. But what to do with them when you get them home? The Apple Lover’s Cookbook has it covered.

The heart of the book is a detailed guide to 59 apple varieties, all of which are currently grown somewhere in the country. Each type of apple gets a glamorous photo along with information about its history, best uses, availability, appearance and taste (e.g., “flavors of honey and pear” or “sweet, rich and spicy, with a mild aroma of cilantro”). The usual supermarket suspects are here, but never mind them. The fun is in learning about and desiring varieties that you have never heard of, with evocative names like Westfield Seek-No-Further, Esopus Spitzenburg, or Calville Blanc D’Hiver.

The most useful and clever thing about the guide is that each variety is assigned to one of four categories based on its taste and texture: firm-tart, firm-sweet, tender-tart or tender-sweet. Most of Traverso’s recipes call for apples by category, not by name, so you can use a supermarket apple or an heirloom, as long as it’s from the right category. However, if you’re just cooking with Granny Smiths, you’re missing the point.

This is probably the place to confess that what first attracted me to this book was a photograph of a doughnut. The beautiful pictures of dishes such as Apple-Stuffed Biscuit Buns, Dutch Baby, Apple and Mustard Grilled Cheese Sandwiches, and Pork and Apple Pie with Cheddar-Sage Crust will have you searching the kitchen junk drawer for your apple corer.

If this book has a hero, it is the Maine apple historian John Bunker, profiled in one of the brief articles scattered among the recipes. The story of how he tracked down and rescued the last known branch of Marlboro apples in existence is downright inspiring. In honor of people like him, don’t buy that pretty but soulless Red Delicious the next time you visit the supermarket. Put it back down, and see if you can find a Baldwin, a Gravenstein or a Northern Spy instead.

Check the WRL catalog for The Apple Lover’s Cookbook

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I hate books I can’t understand,” said Bell. “I like a book to be clear as running water, so that the whole meaning may be seen at once.”  —The Small House at Allington

Anthony Trollope’s fictional heroine, Bell, likes just the sort of book that Trollope himself wrote, clear as running water. After his death, Trollope’s reputation was that of a writer of light fiction lacking in plot and literary style. Now the literary tide has turned, and he is praised as a master of realism. Whereas his great contemporary, Dickens, gives us a three-ring circus of grotesque and absurd characters in every chapter, Trollope writes of ordinary people who are neither all good nor all bad. They talk and gossip as ordinary people do—about their gardens, politics, who is engaged to whom—and their characters and feelings are subtly revealed in these everyday conversations.

Which brings me to Timothy West. I love reading Trollope in print, but I can understand why some people fault his prose as boring or flat. Not until I listened to his novels performed on audiobook by Timothy West did I fully appreciate the glory of Trollopean prose. The man was born to read Trollope, and Trollope was born to write novels to be read by Timothy West.

If you have not read Trollope before, I recommend starting with Barchester Towers, the second of Trollope’s six Barsetshire Novels, even though it alludes to events in the first book, The Warden. It is Trollope’s best-loved novel, and for good reason. The great question that touches all others in the story is, who will rule the diocese of Barchester: the vain but cowardly new bishop, Dr. Proudie, his terrifying wife, Mrs. Proudie, or his sanctimonious chaplain, Obadiah Slope? Entertaining events ensue. All of the many characters are guilty of human weakness or bad judgment—yet their failings and moral dilemmas are treated with humor and (for the most part) forgiveness.  West voices the characters perfectly. He is especially superb as the narrator, who is continually making witty asides to the reader.

Sadly, there is no real Barsetshire. Trollope is said to have taken his inspiration for the cathedral city of Barchester from the real Salisbury in Wiltshire, and his country locales from various places in England’s West Country. But though Barset exists only in the imagination, there is no more pleasant place in the world to spend a few quiet hours.

Check the WRL catalog for Barchester Towers on audiobook

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How can this be? The library’s copy of The Essential New York Times Cookbook is sitting on the shelf. Cooks of Williamsburg, you are seriously missing out.

Here are recipes that readers have clipped from the pages of The New York Times and treasured for decades. Amanda Hesser sifted through 150 years’ worth of food columns from the newspaper, and polled thousands of readers to compile a collection of about 1400 keepers. She looked for recipes that represented their era or that inaugurated a food fad, such as David Eyre’s Pancake or Jim Lahey’s No-Knead Bread. There are classic dishes (even one for tuna salad) and far out dishes (Eggs Suffragette). Above all, the recipes are interesting, varied, and thoroughly tested. Follow them and you will make wonderful food.

Not in the mood to cook? The book makes lively bedside reading. Hesser introduces most recipes with witty commentary about the history of the dish—or about the quirks of the food writer who originally published the recipe. Each chapter opens with a timeline tracing food fashions through the decades. The vegetable timeline includes

1880s—fried eggplant is a staple
1940s—the decade of spinach
1950s—nothing good is happening in veggie-land
2008—the year of the Brussels sprout

So far, I have made Amazing Overnight Waffles (they’re not kidding), Madame Laracine’s Gratin Dauphinois (the apotheosis of the potato), Boeuf Bourgignon I (incroyable), and Puree of Peas and Watercress (the greenest dish you will ever eat, and one of the most delicious).

So why is our copy languishing on the shelf? Could it be the lack of color photographs? Gorgeous pictures are de rigeur in today’s bestselling cookbooks. They’re not limited to photos of a finished dish—you’re just as apt to see a full-page glamor shot of a radish. I’m as susceptible to food porn as the next person, but after all, it’s just fluff. On sheer substance, Hesser’s book beats everything else out there—hands down.

Check the WRL catalog for The Essential New York Times Cookbook

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The fact that Vladimir Markov was killed and eaten by a tiger is horrifying enough. But even more chilling is that the tiger singled out Markov for death, stalked him, and waited patiently at Markov’s house until his victim appeared. This was no random case of man-eating—it was first-degree murder.

Around this sensational 1997 attack, John Vaillant weaves a complex narrative about people and tigers in the Primorye region of far eastern Siberia. In this remote place, covered in deep coniferous forest known as taiga, life is harsh for man and beast. The people eke out marginal existences in the crumbling ruins of Soviet-era towns or in crude cabins in the forest. Also struggling to survive in this environment are several hundred Amur (Siberian) tigers, the last remnant of a tribe of huge cats who once roamed eastern Russia, China and North Korea.

By the end of the book, you will begin to understand why the tiger killed Markoff. But the drama of the hunt for the tiger remains offstage much of time, as the author fills in the backstory—the history and geography of Primorye, facts and legends about the iconic Amur tiger, and the personal lives of the central characters. The hero of the story is Yuri Trush, a tough ex-Army man whose “Inspection Tiger” team is called in to investigate Markov’s death. A law-enforcement officer whose job is to protect tigers from poachers, Trush must now try to destroy one of these animals he so admires. The tale is elegantly told, with empathy for all—especially the tiger.

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Siberia is known for the gulag, cold weather, and mosquitoes, none of which is a big tourist draw. Fortunately for those of us who are unlikely ever to visit Siberia, Ian Frazier has been there five times. As a traveler, he is omnivorous, investigating and reporting on the history, the people, the land, the language, the prisons, the trash, the bathrooms, and most of all the mystique of the place.

Frazier is an engaging, self-deprecating guide. For the longest of his five trips, he hired two Russian men to drive with him from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok, about 6,000 miles. A typical safety-conscious suburban American, Frazier is aware of feeling less than manly compared to his traveling companions, who smoke, drink, and chase women; are able to fix anything that goes wrong with their clunker of a van; and who never, ever wear a seatbelt. When he notices a car being towed by means of a seatbelt, he observes that this is the only time he ever saw a seatbelt being used in Russia.

Like fellow travel writer Bill Bryson, Frazier has a fondness for odd facts and small, local museums. A native of Cleveland, he rather endearingly collects every possible scrap of information about fellow Ohioans who have visited Siberia, beginning with George Kennan, a famous explorer and cousin of the noted Cold War diplomat of the same name.

Siberia is a big place—encompassing nine percent of earth’s land mass—and it takes a big book to cover it. This is a rambling trip, full of personal and historical digressions. It takes in the Mongols, the tsars, and Stalin as well as today’s oil boom and climate change. At many points in his narrative, Frazier mentions that he has stopped to sketch, and the results, a series of delicate, expressive drawings, make fine illustrations for this quirky, eye-opening travelogue.

Check the WRL catalog for Travels in Siberia

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In these majestic photographs, the great mammals of East Africa seem to be passing away before our eyes. Elephant, lion, zebra, cheetah, and giraffe are captured in poses so timeless and perfect that it is hard to believe they were taken in the wild. The sepia tone makes them look like old photographs of long-dead relatives. These portraits alternate in the book with awesome two-page panoramas showing animals, alone or en masse, against the empty landscape. As you page through the book, the landscape becomes drier and dustier, and the images of the animals themselves are paler, as if they were fading away.

A Shadow Falls is the second in Nick Brandt’s projected trilogy of books featuring his wildlife photographs taken in Amboseli National Park, Maasai Mara, and other preserves in east Africa. In the first, On This Earth, many of the animals are seen in sunlit, verdant landscapes of grasses and trees. While the photographs in A Shadow Falls are equally stunning, enough so to make you gasp, here the landscape often appears bleak and unable to sustain life. Brandt is now at work on the third book. The titles of the books will form a sentence, the ending of which will not be revealed until the third book is published in 2013: On This Earth, A Shadow Falls, …..

I can’t stop looking at the photograph on the cover of A Shadow Falls. I have never seen such a wonderful elephant. This elephant can no longer be seen in the wild—he is dead, killed by poachers in 2009. Poachers aren’t the only threats: tremendous herds of cattle are being illegally moved into the parks, where they drink what little water there is, forcing the wild animals to leave the protection of the preserve in search of sustenance. As Peter Singer says in an introduction to the book, the shadow that falls on these animals is ours. As much as Nick Brandt’s photographs may fill us with awe, they should also fill us with sorrow—and shame.

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A book of perfume criticism? And why not? Just as music is art for the ear and painting is art for the eye, perfume is art for the nose. You and I might not be able to distinguish a perfume masterpiece from a dud, but the authors can, and they are at their most entertaining when describing the awfulness of the worst ones:

“Shrieking hair-singeing horror, probably first rejected for use as an industrial drain cleaner.”

“…like getting lemon juice in a paper cut.”

“A vile, cheap, cloying masculine that would be disheartening as the smell of the hotel shampoo in Ulan-Ude.”

The Guide contains brief reviews of about 1500 perfumes, which are rated from one star (awful) to five (a masterpiece). The “smell character” of each scent is described idiosyncratically in a two-word phrase, which will be more or less meaningful depending on your knowledge of perfume materials: classic amber, floral chypre, metallic fruity, floral wreck, trashy raspberry. A glossary in the back of the book will help with interpretation.

Luca Turin is a Name in the perfume world. As a connoisseur of perfume, he has few peers in his ability to distinguish and describe smells. He is also a biophysicist who has proposed a radical new theory of how the sense of smell works—which has brought down on his head the wrath and scorn of some rival scientists. (This rumble in the halls of science is entertainingly recounted in Chandler Burr’s The Emperor of Scent.) In 1992, he shook up the industry with the publication of his first perfume guide in French. This 2008 English edition is co-authored with the perfume critic and blogger Tania Sanchez.

Of course, the first thing to do when you get your hands on The Guide is to look up your favorite scent, hoping that the reviewer does not compare it to the smell of the bathroom in Hell. Next, you will want to dash out to the nearest department store fragrance counter and start sniffing. But even readers who do not wear perfume may find The Guide irresistible. The reviews are witty, almost addictive to read. They’re also written with deep inside knowledge of the perfume industry, opening up an entire subculture for the reader. How best to summarize the book in two words? Nose candy.

Check the WRL catalog for Perfumes: The Guide


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The climate is very healthy although inclined to be cold… *

In 1910, a British Army officer writes these words to reassure his mother about the place where he will soon be traveling.  Because the officer is Captain Lawrence Oates and the place is Antarctica, this may rank as one of the great understatements of all time. Oates froze to death on Robert Falcon Scott’s 1912 South Pole expedition. Knowing that he was a burden to his comrades, he heroically walked away from their tent in a blizzard with another epic understatement:  “I am just going outside and may be some time.”

A glance at the titles in the list below gives a more accurate idea of the polar climate than Oates’s balmy report. The words doom, tragedy and ice, ice, ice occur again and again in accounts of polar exploration.  The title of a book by John Maxtone-Graham could have been a watchword for would-be polar adventurers: Safe Return Doubtful. Some day when you feel that the weather is too hot, read one of these thrilling true stories of adventure and survival in the high north or high south latitudes—bearing in mind that the polar ice is not as fearsome as it once was.

*Quoted in I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination, by Francis Spufford

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Maybe you’re looking forward to the release next month of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.  Maybe, like me, you couldn’t bear to wait, and mail-ordered the U.K. edition when it was published last fall. Either way, once you have read the last novel in Stieg Larsson’s insanely popular Millennium trilogy, then what?  Larsson is dead, and obviously can write no more books about Lisbeth Salander, dragon-tattooed Swedish computer genius and violent righter of wrongs.

Larsson had written half of a fourth novel at the time of his death, but it’s unclear whether it can ever be completed by another writer.

Here are a few other favorite novels whose heroes are tormented masterminds like Salander—improbably brilliant schemers and ace duelists who handily crush all adversaries except their own demons.

Other suggestions? Add them in the comments below.

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If you’re a moviemaker, a cheering audience is the ultimate validation. Is that why every uplifting, “feel good” movie has to have a scene in which the plucky underdog/person of integrity wins an ovation from everyone in the stadium/courtroom/classroom/assembly hall? In a recent flop, Pirate Radio, the heroes are on a foundering ship in the middle of the North Sea, but wouldn’t you know it, a cheering crowd miraculously appears on hundreds of small boats bobbing around in the water.

In their typical overblown form, with triumphant music thundering on the soundtrack, these scenes send me running for the exit or the “off” button. But there are many worthy movies that include a scene where the hero is applauded or cheered. Here are a few:

(Hat tip to the writers of the Onion A-V club, whose brilliant book of lists, Inventory, includes “6 Keanu Reeves Movies Somehow Not Ruined by Keanu Reeves.”)

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Brits love potato chips. They call them “crisps” and consume 10 billion bags (packets, in their lingo) of the things per year. They go in for crazy flavors: prawn cocktail, chicken tikka masala, Marmite, slow-roasted lamb with mint, Cajun squirrel, or Builders Breakfast, which are supposed to taste like eggs, buttered toast, bacon, and ketchup. This national habit must have something to do with pubs. My English friend Janet says, “A pint is too wet without a packet of crisps.”

Pandemic snacking on crisps generates appalling quantities of litter in the form of discarded crisp packets. I know this because nearly every British crime novel that I have read contains a scene of desolation or depressing banality featuring… empty crisp packets. Packets blowing in the wind, lying in the gutter, sitting crumpled in the pathetic debris of a murder victim’s apartment. I started noticing this 20 years ago, but it was no passing fad—the trope is just as popular today. Here are a few cases:

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columbineWithin hours of the massacre last week at Fort Hood, reporters were asking Dave Cullen if the rampage was “like Columbine.” Cullen cautions that we can’t know yet—that we must wait for the facts. “If we guess now, the myths will be with us forever.”

Cullen knows how hard myths die. He was a reporter at Columbine on April 20, 1999, and has worked on the story ever since. He has seen the stubborn persistence of early, inaccurate beliefs: the crime was variously blamed on some combination of Marilyn Manson, a “Trench Coat Mafia,” Satanism, and bullying in those first chaotic days. Ten years later, Cullen puts the myths to rest in a masterwork of reporting that finds the ideal balance between sensitivity and service to the truth.

Columbine sets out to answer the question of questions: why? Should we be surprised to learn that there are at least two whys? Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris were both seriously messed up, but in very different ways. Drawing on interviews and reams of documents, including journals by the killers that were made public in 2006, Cullen details their final year, during which they planned the attack and engaged in troubling behavior that was not exactly unknown to authorities.

The narrative shifts back and forth in time from the murder plot to the personal stories of the victims—those who survived and those who died—to the community’s response to the tragedy. There are accounts of heroism that I hadn’t known about: two Eagle Scouts who tried to save a beloved teacher who was bleeding to death… a Lutheran minister who held a secret funeral for Dylan Klebold and expressed sympathy for his parents, acts of compassion that cost him his job.

Of all the books that I have read in 2009, Columbine is the one that stays with me. It tells a dark and disturbing story, difficult to read but important to know. Mostly, it makes me grateful for reporters like Dave Cullen who work to bring the truth to light, no matter how unwelcome it might be.

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zeitounHere’s a tale with a bracing lack of ambiguity. It is a shameful story, an incredible story that I wish were a work of fiction.

Abdulrahman Zeitoun exemplified the “American dream.” A Syrian-American citizen who had settled in New Orleans in 1994, he ran his own successful painting and contracting company, and was known to customers all over town as a hardworking, reliable family man.

Then Katrina came. His wife and children left before the storm, but Zeitoun (nobody called him by his first name) stayed behind in order to look after their properties. After the levees failed, he remembered an old canoe that he had stashed away, and took to paddling around the flooded streets. Because the canoe was so silent, he was able to hear feeble cries for help that rescuers in motorboats and helicopters would never have noticed. He saved a woman who had been clinging to a shelf in her drowned living room for 24 hours. He took food to dogs left behind by their owners. A devout Muslim, Zeitoun believed that God had meant for him to stay in the city and help people. Every day at noon, he phoned his wife, Kathy, who was with friends in Arizona, to tell her that he was OK.

One day, he stopped calling. He simply disappeared from the face of the earth. The story of what happened to him is as appalling as it is compelling. No, he did not fall into the hands of lawless hoodlums; he fell into the hands of people charged with upholding the law.

This is essentially an oral history, Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun’s story as told to the author. Don’t expect a thoroughly documented work of reportage. Not that anyone, as far as I know, has come forward to contradict the Zeitouns’ account of their ordeal.

In the future, the “Zeitoun Affair” may come to stand as an object lesson in injustice and prejudice just as the Dreyfus Affair did in France 100 years ago.  The story is creating ripples. The director Jonathan Demme is planning a movie (an animated film, inspired by the book’s cover artwork by Rachell Sumpter). And Dave Eggers is using proceeds from the book to create a nonprofit foundation to support the rebuilding of New Orleans and the promotion of human rights.

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FOTMIf you think you’re allergic to folk music, here’s the cure. This three-disc anthology of live recordings contains some of the most powerful, soulful music ever made with or without benefit of amplifiers. It’s not folk music in the “folkie” singer-songwriter genre—the performers are mostly Southerners born in the late 19th or early 20th century who played in the old-time, early country or blues traditions: Maybelle Carter, Dock Boggs, Mississippi John Hurt, Clarence Ashley, Bill Monroe.

The boxed set’s 55 tracks document a series of concerts in Greenwich Village during the folk revival of the early sixties. A group of young scholars that included Peter K. Siegel and the late Mike Seeger brought traditional artists to New York to perform for audiences who truly understood how great they were. These musicians had been forgotten, and were now being rediscovered late in their lives. On one track, the banjo player and bluesman Dock Boggs tells the crowd that he had put aside his banjo for the past 25 years, working as a coal miner until Mike Seeger called him up out of the blue.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that because these are important archival recordings, they are difficult to listen to. The tracks have been chosen for their drive and universal appeal. The sound quality is excellent. There are fiddle tunes, blues, ballads, gospel songs, solos, duets, trios and quartets. Needless to say, there is no filler–every track is worthy of your full attention. A few personal favorites: Bill Monroe’s wailing vocal and turbo-charged mandolin on “Brakeman’s Blues;” Maybelle Carter’s soulful rendition of “The Storms are On the Ocean;” several numbers by the exuberant one-man band, Jesse Fuller; and the joyous gospel song, “Before This Time Another Year,” by Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers.

Acoustic guitar players, listen closely to Fred McDowell, John Hurt, Jesse Fuller, Doc Watson, Roscoe Holcomb. These are the masters you want to emulate.

Happily, we are now in the throes of a new folk revival. Ex-punk rockers are forming old-time string bands, and young hipsters are flocking to fiddle-and-banjo festivals. This recording should delight and inspire this generation and their grandchildren, too.

Check the WRL catalog for Friends of Old Time Music

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RoseannaA team of Swedish police detectives are trying to solve a murder. It takes months. They start with no clues. They wait for a break in the case. They stare out the window at the rain. They play endless games of chess. They walk the streets of Stockholm after dark, looking up at people in lit windows. They drink coffee.

Dull reading? Not for a second. The story moves swiftly along, especially in the many long passages of dialogue. The economy of the prose is a wonder.  Instead of breakneck action, the novel offers the great pleasure of watching professionals at work, really at work, in their offices, on the phone, in the interview room.

Roseanna is the first in a series of 10 crime novels by the husband-and-wife team of Sjöwall and Wahlöö. Originally published between 1965 and 1975 (the year of Wahlöö’s death), they have now been reissued by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard. The fact that they are back in print has everything to do with the current craze for Nordic crime fiction, sometimes dubbed “Scandinavian Noir.” Sjöwall and Wahlöö invented this genre, and they are its master artists. In April 2008, the Times of London ranked them 15th on their list of the top 50 crime writers (though if there were a competition for Most Umlauts in an Author’s Name, they would surely take first place).

The central character in the series is Martin Beck, First Detective Inspector with the National Police. He is an ordinary man with one exceptional quality: his skill in questioning witnesses and suspects and knowing when they are lying. But Beck is no lone sleuth. He and his colleagues form an ensemble cast whose daily routines and minor idiosyncrasies are detailed with dry humor. Here, they are searching for the killer of an unidentified woman whose body was dredged from a lake. What they gradually learn about her and how she lived her life makes them ever more determined to arrest her murderer, no matter how long it takes.

The novel is strongly grounded in its Swedish settings, so much so that I recommend using Google Earth as a companion to your reading. Follow the detectives as they stake out a house on Runeberg Street or tail a suspect down Småland Street, keeping in mind that Sweden, and the world, have changed since the book was written some 45 years ago.

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Child44How do you investigate a murder in a society where the very idea of murder is unthinkable? This is the existential challenge confronting Leo Stepanovich Demidov, a Soviet state security (MGB) officer in the latter years of Stalin’s dictatorship. When he finds evidence that a colleague’s young son has been murdered, he covers it up.  According to the Party line, such a crime is a not possible in the Soviet utopia. To say otherwise is the kind of blasphemy that leads to the Lubyanka prison and a bullet in the back of the head.

Leo Stepanovich’s mind becomes free to inquire only after an enemy denounces him. He loses his important job and cushy apartment, and is sent to work in a miserable Siberian town. There, truth assaults him from all sides. His wife admits that she married him only because she feared his power in the secret police. His colleague’s murdered son, he learns, is only one of dozens of victims of a sadistic serial killer. And the true nature of the Soviet system is becoming clearer every day.

Perhaps you’re thinking that Child 44 is a brooding psychological novel that explores its hero’s moral dilemma in a deep and leisurely way. Nyet! It is a thrilling thriller that grabs you by the lapels and won’t let go. The violence is grisly and plentiful. The chase scenes belong in an over-the-top action movie. (The novel is set to be made into a film, with Ridley Scott directing.) As the story reached its crescendo, with plot bombs exploding right and left, I should have been rolling my eyes at the implausibility of it all. But too late! I was already completely hooked.

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