Friday, December 16, 2005

John Updike Discusses Warhol's Striptease, Leonardo's Materials

John Updike Discusses Warhol's Striptease, Leonardo's Materials

(Interview. Edward Nawotka is a critic for Bloomberg News.
The opinions expressed are his own.)

By Edward Nawotka

Dec. 16 (Bloomberg) -- In another life, John Updike might
have been a cartoonist instead of the author of 52 books,
including 23 novels.

A Pennsylvania farm boy who went to Harvard, Updike
contributed drawings to the Harvard Lampoon and spent a year
studying art at the Ruskin School of Art and Design in Oxford,
England. It wasn't until he joined the staff of the New Yorker
magazine in 1955 that he committed to just writing.

His latest work is ``Still Looking'' (Knopf, 222 pages,
$40), a collection of 18 essays on American art, from Winslow
Homer to Jackson Pollock. It is a companion volume to 1989's
``Just Looking.''

Now 73, Updike doesn't do extensive book tours. He spoke
with Edward Nawotka by phone from Boston, near to his home in
Beverly Farms, Massachusetts.

Nawotka: It's been 16 years since your previous collection
of art criticism. All this time you've continued going to
exhibits and reviewing various shows for the New York Review of
Books. Is that correct?

Updike: I usually write about two exhibits a year, usually
for the New York Review. Mr. Silvers, the editor, continues to
flatter me with the implication that I'm some kind of an art

Innocent Amateur

Nawotka: All along, you've maintained that you're an

Updike: I don't have any connection with the art world as
such. I don't live in New York. I don't go to the galleries. So
I do come to the shows with a certain innocence, about as much
as an average showgoer.

Nawotka: This book ranges from John Singleton Copley to
Edward Hopper. Do you have a favorite?

Updike: Hopper. Some of the earlier ones, the New York
ones, when you're looking in a window. I like the way he sees

Nawotka: You seem to have a strong relationship to the
Abstract Expressionists. In (1963's) ``The Centaur,'' the main
character is an expressionist painter, and in (2002's) ``Seek My
Face,'' there is a characterization of Lee Krasner, Jackson
Pollock's wife.

Updike: Yes, there was an attempt to imagine what it was
like to be a woman in the Abstract Expressionist scene. I'm
attracted to it because it was the most spectacular and dramatic
group movement in my lifetime. And for the first time, the
American colonies were bringing artistic news to Europe.

Macho Art

Nawotka: It was also quite masculine, macho.

Updike: It was macho, perhaps the last unembarrassed macho
art movement we have.

Nawotka: I understand you had an encounter with Andy
Warhol, of whom you write a short appreciation in this book.

Updike: I met him at some party. He was wearing a tuxedo
and I remarked that I didn't expect to see him in a tuxedo. So,
he unbuttoned his pants to show he was wearing blue jeans
underneath the tuxedo pants. I thought it was quite a Warholean
moment, a 3-D, surreal event.

Nawotka: If there was a particular artist from history that
you could spend some time with, who would that be?

Updike: It would have been nice to been able to advise
Leonardo that his ``Last Supper'' wouldn't last the way he was
painting it.

Reckless Chemistry

Nawotka: You mean you'd advise him to use better materials?

Updike: I don't know what he did wrong, but many painters
I've discovered in my limited self-education have used ruinous
methods. Including some of the Abstract Expressionists. Certain
things by Rothko are deteriorating with great speed. It wasn't
the Abstract Expressionist style to worry about posterity. They
used what materials they could and were quite reckless in their
chemistry, though the Pollocks hold up quite well. He did use
hardware store paints to great effect.

Nawotka: Have you collected art?

Updike: My present collection includes some things I've
been given, a Steinberg, and Andrew Wyeth had given me things
which I framed. By and large, I'm not a collector. I think the
amounts of money people expect to get is alarming.

Nawotka: Too disproportionate to what a writer might get
for a short story?

Updike: Oh, yes, or a poem. You can write quite a wonderful
poem and get just $60 for it, so you tend to harbor your pennies
if you're a writer.

Nawotka: Would it be far out to guess your next project is
a novel?

Updike: It is a novel. It even has a title: ``Terrorist.''
As a writer, you find that the older you get, the more removed
you get from the action. But I'm still trying to take the pulse
of the country.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Bored With Xbox 360? Try `Freakonomics' and `Mao' as Gift Books

Bored With Xbox 360? Try `Freakonomics' and `Mao' as Gift Books

(Review. Edward Nawotka is a critic for Bloomberg News. The
opinions expressed are his own.)

By Edward Nawotka

Dec. 14 (Bloomberg) -- You might think that a book reviewer
asks Santa for the Complete Penguin Classics Library -- 1,082 books
listed at $13,315.84.

Not so. What I really want for Christmas is an Xbox 360 game
console from Microsoft Corp. hooked up to a wall-sized plasma
television screen. And I don't feel guilty for asking, thanks to
Steven Johnson's ``Everything Bad Is Good for You'' (Riverhead, 256
pages, $23.95; Allen Lane, 10 pounds). Playing video games improves
our ability to decode complex puzzles, Johnson argues. Eureka! Pass
the controller so I can hone my critical faculties.

After all that mental exertion, I'll crave something less
taxing -- like a book explaining why the world is flat. Luckily,
publishers provided several top-shelf nonfiction titles to choose
from this year.

Start with Malcolm Gladwell's look at cognition, ``Blink''
(Little, Brown, 288 pages, $25.95; Allen Lane, 16.99 pounds). As in
``The Tipping Point,'' Gladwell marshals scientific research and
anecdotal evidence to challenge conventional thinking. This time,
he argues that gathering more data doesn't necessarily help you
make a better decision, be it choosing a mate or plotting a war
game. Sometimes following your instinct is best.

Freaky Economics

Counterintuitive thinking also informs Steven D. Levitt and
Stephen J. Dubner's ``Freakonomics'' (HarperCollins, 256 pages,
$25.95; Allen Lane, 20 pounds). This book gives serious
consideration to such questions as whether it's more dangerous for
kids to have a gun -- or a swimming pool -- in the house.

If you're among the multitudes who've read Thomas Friedman's
``The World Is Flat'' (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 488 pages,
$27.95; Allen Lane, 20 pounds), skip ahead. If not, you'll want to
know that the New York Times columnist says globalization has
become a greater threat to U.S. economic dominance than it was when
he published ``The Lexus and the Olive Tree'' six years ago.

Speaking of American hubris, don't forget the boys at Enron
Corp. Sure, you think you've heard enough about Ken Lay, Jeff
Skilling and Andy Fastow. Yet Kurt Eichenwald's ``Conspiracy of
Fools'' (Broadway, 784 pages, $26) invests the tale with enough
drama to trump most thrillers.

Another title that aspires to be a definitive account is ``102
Minutes'' by Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn (Henry Holt, 322 pages, $26;
Arrow, 7.99 pounds). The authors recovered e-mail traffic and phone
transcripts to create a harrowing narrative of what happened inside
the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

Vikings Fade Away

With Hurricane Katrina and all the other weather-induced
misery of 2005, my nominee for book of the year is Jared Diamond's
``Collapse'' (Viking, 592 pages, $25.95; Allen Lane, 25 pounds).
Diamond explains why some civilizations thrive and others, like the
Viking empire, fade away. He focuses on the environment, arguing
that how well we nurture nature may determine our fate.

Joan Didion made a comeback with her book ``The Year of
Magical Thinking'' (Knopf, 228 pages, $23.95; Fourth Estate, 12.99
pounds). In this painfully honest chronicle, Didion describes her
life following her husband's sudden death from a heart attack a
month before their 40th wedding anniversary.

Two other memoirs -- ``Oh the Glory of It All'' by Sean Wilsey
(Penguin Press, 496 pages, $25.95; Viking, 14.99 pounds) and ``The
Tender Bar'' by J.R. Moehringer (Hyperion, 384 pages, $23.95;
Hodder and Stoughton, 16.99 pounds) -- show that a misspent youth
can be redeemed.

Wealth and Barflies

Wilsey, who was raised by rich, crazy parents in San
Francisco, has written a laugh-out-loud chronicle of his absurd
childhood. Moehringer, who spent much of his Long Island youth
listening to barflies discuss the wisdom of Sinatra, delivers a
moving tribute to male camaraderie.

Plenty of noteworthy biographies came out this year, from
Doris Kearns Goodwin's look at Lincoln and his circle, ``Team of
Rivals'' (Simon and Schuster, 934 pages, $35), to Ron Powers's
superb ``Mark Twain,'' (Free Press, 726 pages, $35; Scribner, 25
pounds). One broke more new ground than the others: ``Mao'' by Jung
Chang and Jon Halliday (Knopf, 815 pages, $35; Cape, 25 pounds). It
highlights Mao Zedong's murderous legacy. The book is banned in

Lastly, I recommend Temple Grandin's ``Animals in
Translation'' (Scribner, 368 pages, $25; Bloomsbury, 16.99 pounds).
The author, an autistic professor, uses her illness to decode
animal behavior. Did you know that pigeons have been trained to
distinguish between a Picasso and a Monet? Or that prairie dogs
have a language with sounds resembling nouns, verbs and adjectives?
You'll never see your pets the same way again.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

McCourt's School Days, Moehringer's Boozer, War Doctor: Memoirs

(Review. Edward Nawotka is a critic for Bloomberg News. The
opinions expressed are his own.)

Dec. 8 (Bloomberg) -- Before Frank McCourt won the Pulitzer
Prize for ``Angela's Ashes,'' he taught a creative-writing class in
a public high school in New York.

The course was so popular that one desperate mother offered to
spend a weekend with him -- sharing a bed at the resort of his
choice -- just to get her daughter admitted.

McCourt recounts this and other episodes from his 30 years as
an educator in New York in his latest memoir, ``Teacher Man''
(Scribner, 258 pages, $26; HarperCollins UK, 18.99 pounds).
On his first day at a Staten Island vocational school in 1958,
McCourt confronted ``a vista of breasts and biceps'' --the hostile
children of working-class dads who had fought in World War II. Five
schools, one community college and 33,000 classes later, he teaches
brainiacs at Manhattan's elite Stuyvesant High School how to get
into the Ivy League.

The classroom was good to McCourt. It's where he found the
irreverent, self-deprecating voice that he employs here, as in
``Angela's Ashes'' and ``'Tis.'' That charming blarney, along with
his knack for creating offbeat homework assignments -- he once
asked students to write an excuse note from Adam and Eve to God --
won over pupils and uptight school administrators alike.

Some scenes smack of every inspirational school movie ever
made. Yet McCourt regenerates the genre with his keen eye and
unfailing ear for New York argot. (``Youse don't lissena teacher,''
says one father.) Ignore the echoes of ``Goodbye, Mr. Chips.'' This
book is worth reading in its own right.

`The Tender Bar'

Like McCourt, who sought succor from school-induced stress in
the White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village, J.R. Moehringer has
spent plenty of time on bar stools. In fact, he wasn't old enough
to drink when he first landed on one.

A Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Los Angeles Times,
Moehringer grew up as the child of a single mother. He sought a
surrogate father among the denizens of Dickens, a tavern where his
Uncle Charlie tended the bar in Manhasset, Long Island. He recalls
his search in ``The Tender Bar'' (Hyperion, 368 pages, $23.95; to
be published in the U.K. next month by Hodder and Stoughton, 16.99

Dickens was a place filled with cigarette smoke and Sinatra on
the jukebox. It was the 1970s, and the customers were mostly men
who drove Cadillacs, wore Foster Grant sunglasses and spent their
days half-lit on Vodka Gimlets.

Drinking and Carousing

While Moehringer's mother and her extended family provided
food and shelter, the tavern offered education. There, Uncle
Charlie and his sidekicks -- Colt, Bobo and Joey D -- schooled him
in the arts of drinking, carousing and skirt chasing.

The memoir follows a classic coming-of-age trajectory, tracing
Moehringer's flight out of Long Island, first to Yale and on to the
New York Times. As the book closes, he returns to the bar after the
Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to report on the funerals of
almost 50 Manhasset dead. You'll grow so fond of the tavern that
you'll ache for the fathers Moehringer outgrew.

Jonathan Kaplan is a triage surgeon who admits to reading
``the war news like job-vacancy ads.'' He honed his skills on
battlefields in Angola, Eritrea and Mozambique. He recounts his
evolution as a doctor in his latest book, ``Contact Wounds: A War
Surgeon's Education'' (Grove, $25, 278 pages; to be published in
the U.K. this February by Picador, 17.99 pounds).

A white South African born in 1954, Kaplan was inspired by his
father, an orthopedic surgeon who served with the British army
during World War II and defied apartheid to operate on blacks back

Severed Nerves

The author's wanderlust set in early. Before becoming a
doctor, he worked on a kibbutz in Israel and lived in the
Seychelles among witch doctors. As soon as he qualified to practice
medicine, he went off to a war in Angola, where 100,000 land-mine
victims offered him plenty of practice.

Though Kaplan's depictions of suffering feel uncomfortably
voyeuristic at times, his descriptions of surgical techniques are
vivid. When preparing a limb for amputation, he severed nerves so
cleanly that they ``retracted up into the flesh,'' he writes.

Kaplan's previous memoir, ``The Dressing Station,'' offered
even greater medical detail. This account is more reflective,
delving into his motives. Far from thinking he's God, Kaplan voices
doubts about his professional ``suitability.''

War gave him a sense of purpose, he says: In battle, his doubt
``vanished in the immediacy of survival.''

Monday, December 12, 2005

Gift Guide for Guys: Christmas Books for Those Grumpy Old Men

Gift Guide for Guys: Christmas Books for Those Grumpy Old Men

(Review. Edward Nawotka is a critic for Bloomberg News. The
opinions expressed are his own.)

By Edward Nawotka
Dec. 12 (Bloomberg) -- Books remain an ideal holiday gift.

They're not too pricey, yet reflect the thoughtfulness of the
giver. So why's it so hard to find a good book for a guy?

Blame it partly on packaging. Publishers wrap even macho
titles in dust jackets meant to attract women, who buy more books
than men do. Take James Frey's ``My Friend Leonard,'' a gritty
memoir about suicide and the Chicago mob: It comes dressed in a
pale pink cover and girly cursive type.

To help cut through the camouflage, here's a list of guy
books, sorted by personality types. You might find what you need
for that man who never wants anything (except a vintage Ferrari).

For the Alpha Males among us, there's ``Ultramarathon Man'' by
Dean Karnazes (Tarcher Penguin, 280 pages, $19.95). Karnazes has run
226 miles (364 kilometers) nonstop without sleep and raced 130 miles
through Death Valley, where his shoes melted. His autobiography shows
how much pain it takes to become an elite athlete.

For the man who has almost everything, consider ``The Complete
New Yorker'' (Random House, 125-page book and eight DVDs, $100), a
handsome set that collects all 4,109 issues in the 80-year run of
the New Yorker magazine through January 2004. You can browse on
your computer and print what you like.

Mr. Know-It-All might enjoy ``The Areas of My Expertise'' by
John Hodgeman (Riverhead, 235 pages, $22). This ``almanac'' of fake
history, oddball lists and absurd advice includes such things as
``short words used on a submarine to save oxygen.'' Also included
are ``jokes that have never produced laughter'' and ``brief lives
of some notable hoboes.''

`Smooth, Shiny Girls'

Dog lovers will fall for ``Marley & Me'' by John Grogan
(Morrow, 292 pages, $21.95), the story of how a young couple's
marriage profoundly changed after an irrepressible yellow Labrador
weighing 97 pounds (44 kilograms) joined the family.

For the fellow who fantasizes about becoming a private eye, try
``Philip Marlowe's Guide to Life'' by Raymond Chandler (Knopf, 83
pages, $14.95). This anthology of quotes from Chandler's noir novels
is made for wannabe tough guys who can appreciate a line like this:
``I like smooth, shiny girls, hardboiled and loaded with sin.''

Does the man like a laugh? He'll cachinnate over ``Don't Point
That Thing at Me'' by Kyril Bonfiglioli (Overlook, 174 pages,
$13.95; Penguin, 9.99 pounds). First published in the U.K. in the
1970s, this comedy detective novel stars Charlie Mortdecai, an
aristocratic art dealer/thief, and his manservant, Jock Strapp.

Plimpton on Golf

For the sports nut, look no further than ``Coach,'' edited by
Andrew Blauner (Warner Books, 283 pages, $25.95). An anthology of
25 stories about coaches, this book includes contributions from Pat
Conroy (about his basketball coach at the Citadel) and Jonathan
Ames (on the French commando who taught him to fence at Princeton).
George Plimpton discusses golf.

For adults who like comics, consider ``Absolute Watchmen'' by
Alan Moore (DC Comics, 484 pages, $75; Titan Books, 75 pounds).
This graphic novel, first published in 1986 and repackaged in a
gorgeous slipcase edition, is the original anti-hero superhero
comic and a classic.

Know a guy who plays air guitar? He might groove on ``Music
Lust'' by Nic Harcourt (Sasquatch Books, 285 pages, $16.95).
Harcourt is the Los Angeles DJ who gave artists like Norah Jones
their first spins on U.S. radio. His book recommends music for
``every mood, moment and reason.''

Cinematic Snobs

Movie snobs will appreciate ``Never Coming to a Theater Near
You'' by Kenneth Turan (Public Affairs, 401 pages, $14). A Los
Angeles Times film critic, Turan reminds you of ``all those great
movies you promised you'd see once they came out on video'' but
have probably forgotten about.

For the would-be world traveler, there's ``Honeymoon With My
Brother'' by Franz Wisner (St. Martin's Press, 275 pages, $23.95).
Wisner, a former Republican publicist and real-estate consultant,
was ditched at the altar. He consoled himself by selling his house
and taking a yearlong trip around the world with his kid brother.

Lastly, any family man should take a look at ``Why Do I Love
These People?'' by Po Bronson (Random House, 385 pages, $24.95; to
be published in the U.K. next month by Harvill Secker, 12.99
pounds). The self-help guru interviewed hundreds of families,
seeking to decode their secrets. He concludes that a happy family
life requires far more than love, though love is a good start.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Caravaggio Portrayed in New Bios: Bloody Brawls, Food Fight

Caravaggio Portrayed in New Bios: Bloody Brawls, Food Fight

(Book Reviews. Edward Nawotka is a critic for Bloomberg
News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

By Edward Nawotka
Nov. 24 (Bloomberg) -- One afternoon in 1604 Caravaggio
flung a plate of fried artichokes in a waiter's face and
threatened him with his sword. The fellow couldn't tell the
painter which were prepared in oil and which in butter.
(Caravaggio had ordered four of each.)

Though a genius when it came to portraying the intensity of
faith in dramatic light, Caravaggio (1571-1610) could have
benefited from anger management classes.

Judging by two new books on the artist, ``The Lost
Painting'' (Random House, 261 pages, $24.95) by Jonathan Harr
and ``Caravaggio: Painter of Miracles'' by Francine Prose
(HarperCollins, 149 pages, $21.95), he spent a lot of time
trolling the streets of Rome looking for a fight or a girl for
the night.

The painter was in and out of jail. Both books relate how
Caravaggio supposedly slashed a rival in the Piazza Navona for
chatting up his favorite prostitute and model.

Not long after, rather than pay off a debt on a lost sports
bet, Caravaggio picked a fight with the winner and stabbed him
to death. That murder forced Caravaggio to flee Rome for good
and sent him into exile in Naples, Sicily and Malta. He died of
malaria while on his way back to Rome to receive a pardon from
the Pope.

Mystery Man

Other than his police record and his art, little is known
about Caravaggio -- in particular what happened to his
paintings. A number are missing and presumed destroyed.

``Fewer than eighty authentic Caravaggios -- some would
argue no more than sixty -- are known to exist,'' writes Harr,
who chronicles the search for one masterpiece, ``The Taking of

Harr's story begins when Francesca Cappelletti, a 24-year-
old Italian student, discovers what may be an entry in a
centuries-old ledger for the sale of the painting. The paper
trail leads her from Italy to London to Scotland, and eventually
to Dublin, where by strange coincidence the painting is
discovered in a Jesuit dormitory by an Italian art restorer
working for the National Gallery of Art.

Harr won the 1995 National Book Critics Circle for ``A
Civil Action,'' which detailed the fight between the citizens of
Woburn, Massachusetts, and a pair of corporations over
groundwater contamination. He was able to breathe life into a
lawsuit, thanks largely to the charismatic attorney at the heart
of the story (played by John Travolta in the 1998 movie).

Sick Brawler

Here, Harr struggles to keep the action flowing. Although
we learn a great deal about the subtleties of combing through
archives in dusty basements of ancient palazzos, such academic
research is almost impossible to dramatize. Instead, he relies
on the personal life of Caravaggio and of the contemporary
characters to add zip.

Though Prose is the author of 13 novels, she paints a more
methodical portrait in her book, which is part of the ongoing
``Eminent Lives'' series of short biographies published by
HarperCollins and Atlas Books.

Believing that most everything about Caravaggio ``can be
inferred from what he painted'' Prose focuses on creating a
chronology of the paintings and tying the events of his life to
the best-known works including ``The Gypsy Fortune-Teller,''
``The Crucifixion of Saint Peter'' and ``David with the Head of
Goliath.'' In that vein, she describes ``Sick Bacchus'' as a
portrait of the painter looking ``diseased, hollow-eyed,
bilious'' and dates it to a time when Caravaggio was
hospitalized after being kicked by a horse -- or what Prose
calls ``the era's equivalent of running into a door.'' He was
probably suffering from injuries sustained in a fight.

Different Approaches

Never mind their different approaches, both authors rely on
some of the same source material and enjoyed residencies at the
American Academy, which is housed in a magnificent villa on the
Janiculum, Rome's highest hill. Prose quotes extensively from
other biographers and relies particularly on Helen Langdon's
authoritative 2000 biography ``Caravaggio: A Life.'' Read
together, Harr tells a more colorful story and Prose is better
at interpreting the art.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Action Heroes Jackson, Roosevelt; Sleepy Descartes: New Bios

Nov. 23 (Bloomberg) --In an 1806 duel, Andrew Jackson let
rival Charles Dickinson shoot him in the chest from just 24 feet
away. It was a calculated risk.

Jackson knew Dickinson was the better marksman and reasoned
it was ``wiser to take the blow, recover one's balance and
return a careful shot,'' writes H.W. Brands in his vivid new
biography of the seventh U.S. president: ``Andrew Jackson: His
Life and Times'' (Doubleday, 621 pages, $35). Jackson was right:
He survived the wound and shot Dickinson dead. His resilience,
both physical and political, earned him the nickname ``Old
Hickory.'' A hickory branch, writes Brands, is ``thin but
impossible to break.''
Born to Ulster-Scots immigrants in South Carolina, Jackson
later moved to Tennessee, where he worked as a lawyer while
moonlighting as a land speculator, horse breeder and slave
trader. He was elected to the U.S. Senate at age 30, but quit to
take over the Tennessee militia and fight Indians.

There's far more to Jackson's legacy than his granite-
jawed, swoop-haired visage on the $20 bill. All his life,
Jackson battled ``birth and breeding as requisites for personal

Eventually, Jackson's astounding one-sided victory against
the British at the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812
made him a hero of the people, who in turn elected him to two
terms as president, from 1829-1837.

Echoing previous Jackson biographers such as Arthur
Schlesinger Jr., Brands remembers Jackson primarily as the
founder of the Democratic Party, the man who broke down
patrician barriers to politics. He was the first president to
shake 10,000 hands at his inauguration -- a feat seemingly every
president since him has felt the need to match or surpass.

Teddy Roosevelt

Where Brands has delivered a presidential biography full of
action, Candice Millard has written an action-adventure story
starring a president.

In ``The River of Doubt'' (Doubleday, 416 pages, $26), the
former National Geographic editor recounts an amazing episode
from the life of Teddy Roosevelt -- his exploration of a remote
section of the Amazon River in Brazil after he lost his run for
a third term in 1912.

Roosevelt was accompanied by his son Kermit, Colonel
Candido Rondon and a coterie of guides, porters and scientists,
some from the Museum of Natural History in New York.

Hungry Cannibals

The trip was ill-conceived. The group's dugout canoes were
heavy and couldn't handle the massive rapids and waterfalls they
encountered along the river. The food they'd expected to forage
and hunt was virtually nonexistent, and the water was filled
with giant killer catfish. Then, indigenous cannibals began
tracking the group, eyeing the plump, 220-pound Roosevelt.

By the end of the trip, even a hungry man-eater would have
recoiled at the prospect of a presidential platter. Roosevelt,
sick with malaria and an infected leg, was injecting quinine
directly into his belly. Millard recounts the moment when
Roosevelt offered to commit suicide with a lethal dose of
morphine so that his companions could more easily make it out of
the jungle.

Millard's riveting tale of exotic adventure adds a new
dimension of vulnerability to the myth of TR's uber-manliness.
It's the ideal book to read by the comfort of a roaring fire
while digesting an enormous Thanksgiving feast.


Unlike Jackson or Roosevelt, Rene Descartes (1596-1650)
didn't like to get out of bed, where he spent a good deal of
time cogitating (I sleep, therefore I think). The philosopher's
eccentric habits are the subject of ``Descartes' Secret
Notebook'' (Broadway, 288 pages, $24.95) by Amir Aczel.

Aczel, author of the bestselling ``Fermat's Last Theorem,''
frames his latest book as an investigation into the decoding of
one of Descartes's notebooks discovered by the German
mathematician Gottfried Leibniz in 1676. The real question is
why Descartes kept his work secret at all.

The son of French nobility and a Catholic who spent much of
his life living in Protestant Netherlands, Descartes may have
been a member of the Rosicrucians, a shadowy fraternity of
scholars who toyed with mysticism and alchemy. He may have
resorted to code in fear of the Inquisition.

Math Primer

Aczel does an adequate job of explaining Descartes's
mathematical and philosophical breakthroughs in the context of
his era, but the book too often reads like a dull math primer.
In a confounding, if intriguing final chapter, Aczel tries
to connect Descartes's formula for Platonic solids and the work
of contemporary cosmologist Jeffrey Weeks.

Weeks created a new model of the geometry of the universe,
one that allows travel through space as if it were a two-
dimensional plane. Think of the video game ``Asteroids,'' in
which a spaceship leaving the right edge of the screen reappears
on the left. It's a fascinating notion, but one that requires
another book to support it, not just seven pages.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Didion, Vollmann, Merwin Win National Book Awards in New York

(The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of Bloomberg.)

By Edward Nawotka and Philip Boroff

Nov. 17 (Bloomberg) -- Joan Didion won the National Book Award for nonfiction last night for ``The Year of Magical Thinking,'' her chronicle of a year in mourning following the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne.

William T. Vollmann was the surprise fiction winner for ``Europe Central,'' an 811-page World War II epic focusing on the German invasion of Russia in 1941.

The awards were announced at a black-tie dinner in New York that is the book industry's version of the Oscars. Each winner received $10,000.

In addition to the book prizes, writer Norman Mailer and San Francisco bookstore owner and poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti were honored for lifetime contributions.

The prestigious prizes give winners invaluable publicity, said Jane von Mehren, who oversees trade paperbacks for the Random House Publishing Group.

``A new group of people will hear about a book and possibly buy it,'' she said in an interview.

Didion's book is a primer on grief and captures the symbiosis of a 40-year marriage that ended when Dunne died on Dec. 30, 2003. In her minute-long acceptance speech, the frail, 70-year-old author thanked Knopf for publishing the book.

The unit of Bertelsmann AG ``accepted my idea that I could sit down and write a book that was not about anything at all and that it would work,'' she said.

`Europe Central'

Vollmann's ``Europe Central'' (Viking) mixes surrealistic and mythological characters with historical figures. The 46-year-old author once fought with the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan (chronicled in 1992's ``An Afghanistan Picture Show'') and smoked crack to research a book (2000's ``The Royal Family'').

Vollmann, a former mainframe computer programmer, said in an interview he hopes his upset win (over E.L. Doctorow's ``The March'') will raise his profile.

``If my books sell a little better, I can keep writing books,'' he said.

Mailer, who used two canes to hobble to the stage, bemoaned the marginalization of novels in American culture and the implications for the country.

``Would the English nation have been as great at surviving if not for Shakespeare?'' Mailer, 82, asked. ``Would Ireland be entering a period of prosperity if not for Joyce?''

Jeanne Birdsall won the young people's literature award for ``The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits and a Very Interesting Boy'' (Knopf).

W.S. Merwin won the poetry prize for ``Migration: New and Selected Poems'' (Copper Canyon Press). It was his first victory after eight nominations.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Woman Warrior, Surreal Satire, Diamond Thieves: New Books

Woman Warrior, Surreal Satire, Diamond Thieves: New Books

(The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of Bloomberg.)

By Edward Nawotka

Oct. 12 (Bloomberg) -- Kim Ponders is a major in the U.S. Air Force who flew E-3 AWAC surveillance planes during the 1991 Gulf War. She uses that experience as the basis for her debut novel, ``The Art of Uncontrolled Flight'' (HarperCollins, 181 pages, $19.95).

The main character is Captain Annie Viola Shaw, an Air Force Academy graduate who becomes an E-3 co-pilot during the first Gulf War. As a 5-year-old, Annie learns the ``elements of flight'' from her father Roc, himself a decorated pilot, and becomes enamored with his war stories about Korea and Vietnam. After Annie's mother dies in a fire started by a smoldering cigarette, father and daughter bounce between Roc's lovers in Boston and Texas until Annie escapes into the Air Force, marriage and, eventually, war.

Chapters jump back and forth in time, introducing us to the rest of Annie's E-3 crew: Bear, a banjo-strumming Baptist navigator; Killer, the misogynist radar operator; and Jago, the pilot and Annie's wartime lover. They build camaraderie in strip clubs, during SCUD missile attacks and in combat, where Annie's affair with Jago indirectly results in their plane getting shot down and her winning the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Ponders's message that ``the trick to being a woman in the military was to make yourself stand out, but only in a way that would leave them speechless to do everything twice as well'' isn't especially new. Fortunately, Annie is not reduced to a mere mouthpiece, and Ponders portrays her convincingly as a daughter, wife and lover, as well as a military officer.

Phil's Reign

George Saunders's ``The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil'' (Riverhead, 134 pages, $13) is unlike anything else you're likely to read this year. Part Dr. Seuss, part George Orwell, it's a surreal political parable about a pair of nations, Inner Horner and Outer Horner, that are populated by men, machines and plants fighting over the limited land resources.

Outer Horner is a spacious country that surrounds Inner Horner, a country ``so small it could contain only one Inner Hornerite'' at a time. One day, Inner Horner is struck by an earthquake that makes it three-quarters smaller and forces some of the Inner Hornerites into Outer Horner territory. Phil, a middle-aged ``slightly bitter nobody,'' rallies the Outer Horner militia to view it as an invasion and push them back.

Megaphones, Clavicles

Urged on by sycophants, including a media described as ``squat little men with detachable megaphones growing out of their clavicles,'' Phil soon seizes power and imposes martial law. He surrounds Inner Horner with a ``Peace Encouraging Enclosure'' and begins ``disassembling'' all who are disloyal to him.

Saunders, author of the short story collections ``Pastoralia'' and ``CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,'' may be the most widely read experimental fiction writer in America. His latest book may sound crazy, but once you're finished, it all somehow makes sense.

`Sweet and Vicious'

``Sweet and Vicious'' (Dial Press, 212 pages, $14) by David Schickler, describes the odd-coupling of God-fearing, Wisconsin farm girl Grace McGlone and thug Henry Dante.

Dante has stolen Los Planetos de Don Canto -- $40 million worth of diamonds named for and cut to look like the planets, from Chicago mob boss Honey Probrinkis. With McGlone, he flees across the Great Plains in a pickup truck, pursued by Probrinkis's minions.

Frustrating the mobsters' efforts to get the rocks back, the duo gives away the diamonds to people they encounter as a kind of penance for their previous sins. How McGlone and Dante dispense with each of the diamonds creates a discreet story of its own and leads to a confrontation with preacher Bertram Block, who raped McGlone as a 15-year-old during one of his God's Will Revivals.

As with his best-selling short story collection, ``Kissing in Manhattan,'' Schickler creates a series of bold, almost cartoon-like characters, among them ``the Adam Smith of the black-market ice trade from Moscow to Mayberry'' who is addicted to eating blueberries soaked in red wine.

Schickler's irreverent intermingling of sex, religion and crime is both provocative and funny.

Last Updated: October 12, 2005 00:06 EDT

Friday, October 07, 2005

Deadly Duel, Sherman’s Asthma, Souvenir Seekers: New Books

Oct. 3 (Bloomberg) -- In medieval France, God, royalty and the feudal government were virtually one and the same. Legal disputes could be settled by judicial duels, the outcome of which was deemed the ``judgment of God.''

In the year 1386, the last such duel was fought in front of the 18-year-old King Charles VI, his court and thousands of spectators on the grounds of a Parisian monastery.

In his thoroughly researched and oddly compelling ``The Last Duel,'' now available in paperback (Broadway, 242 pages, $14, UCLA professor Eric Jager uses the techniques of the modern legal thriller to tell the story of knight Jean de Carrouges and his one-time friend and rival Jacques Le Gris, who had been accused by Carrouges's wife, Marguerite, of rape. The accusation eventually leads to ``trial by combat,'' and the stakes are high: should Carrouges lose, Marguerite would be burned alive for perjury.

Jager keeps the story taut, building suspense as he progresses from the history of t he Hundred Years War to the complex feudal legal proceedings to the duel itself. That battle is fought atop armored warhorses with lances, swords, axes and daggers, and recreated in stunning detail.

All in all, it's a fascinating read. While the outcome of the battle is too dramatic to reveal here, suffice it to say that the end is bloody and as close as one is likely to ever want get to the brutal hand to hand combat that makes even the fiercest modern courtroom proceedings look like a mere playground dispute.

Sherman's Asthma

The most spectacular scene from ``Gone with the Wind'' is the burning of the city of Atlanta. Novelist E.L. Doctorow recaptures some of that drama in his latest book, ``The March,'' (Random House, 363 pages, $25.95), which reconstructs Union General William Tecumseh Sherman's bloody march through Georgia and the Carolinas at the end of the Civil War.

It is November 1864 and Sherman decides that with Lee's beleaguered army on the run, a scorched earth campaign will break the will of the South. ``The March'' uses multiple perspectives to create a detailed panorama of that campaign.

Sherman is not simply the remorseless monster of most histories -- his men call him Uncle Billy --- but an asthmatic insomniac haunted by the death of his young son. Soldiers, civilians and freed slaves coalesce around his army, among them a 13-year-old ``white Negro'' named Pearl, a stoic German surgeon operating for the Union Army, a Southern belle who loses her possessions and her innocence, and a roguish Confederate soldier who survives by masquerading as a photographer.

The novel offers impressionistic storytelling, delivered in snatches of dialogue and brief, vivid scenes. Yet there is also enough historical substance here to satisfy Civil War buffs.

As so often, the good Doctorow administers a heavy dose of the grotesque, including a walking, talking soldier with a spike in his head, and precise, artistic descriptions of gore, such as this one of battlefield brain surgery: ``the circular cutting head ground into the bony plate. Then he inserted a flattened blade under the bone and slowly levered the disk away from the skull. Under the cerebral membrane was an enormous blood blister purple in color. To Emily, it looked like the head of a toadstool. Hematoma, Wrede said.''

`Edge of Empire'

In ``Edge of Empire: Lives, Culture and Conquest in the East, 1750-1850'' (Knopf, 404 pages, $27.95) historian Maya Jasanoff places the collecting of antiquities and artifacts at the center of British and French colonialism in India and Egypt.

The vast collections of antiquities that were shipped back to the British Museum and the Louvre represented an effort to ``lay claim to history, civilization, to empire past and present.'' In Jasanoff's view, collecting is itself a metaphor for colonialism. Napoleon Bonaparte took the sentiment to heart as he galloped across Egypt in 1798, in part, to capture ancient artifacts before the English, among them, the Rosetta Stone (later ceded to the English in 1801).

Jasanoff mixes a fascinating set of profiles of the illustrious, including the British conqueror of India, Robert Clive of the East India Company, and his son Edward, with those of their more intriguing minions, who sometimes transformed themselves from lowlifes into connoisseurs and aristocrats.

Antoine Polier joined Clive's army in India when he was just 16 years old, amassed a vast collection of Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic manuscripts, only to be murdered in his Provencal chateau by French revolutionaries looking to loot his ``Indian treasure trove.''

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Mourning Didion, Twain's Life, High-Seas Hijackers: New Books

Mourning Didion, Twain's Life, High-Seas Hijackers: New Books

Oct. 5 (Bloomberg) -- On Dec. 30, 2003, writer John Gregory Dunne died of a heart attack while he and his wife, Joan Didion, were preparing dinner in their New York City apartment.

It was a month before their 40th wedding anniversary, and Didion was already grieving over their daughter, Quintana Roo, a 37-year-old newlywed who was lying in a coma at a nearby hospital. In ``The Year of Magical Thinking'' (Knopf, 228 pages, $23.95), Didion offers an aching chronicle of her thoughts and feelings, both rational and irrational, of the year following her husband's death.

As a hedge against self-pity, Didion begins by documenting every detail, from the drink in Dunne's hand when he died (a blended Scotch) to the science underlying cardiac arrest, hoping she can perform a kind of literary ``magic trick'' to ``bring him back.''

This has real consequences. Didion refuses, for example, to allow Dunne's organs to be harvested or to give away his shoes because: ``How could he come back if they took his organs, how could he come back if he had no shoes?''

Didion tries to distract herself by attending to her ailing daughter (who died in August 2005, after the book was finished), but quickly realizes it is futile.

``Grief was passive. Grief happened,'' she writes. ``Mourning, the act of dealing with grief, required attention.'' And so she began to write.

Didion, now 71, has been publishing novels and journalism for more than five decades but remains best known for her acerbic social criticism from the 1960s and 1970s. This book, her 13th, is equal to her earlier, influential work.

She provides an eloquent evocation of the symbiosis of a long marriage, where one is ``incapable of imagining the reality of life without the other.''

Mark Twain Bio

Ron Powers may well have been born to write a biography of Mark Twain. Like Twain a native of Hannibal, Missouri, Powers has written three previous books about the author, but none compare with his extraordinary new biography ``Mark Twain: A Life'' (Free Press, 736 pages, $35).

Resisting the temptation to psychoanalyze the writer, Powers instead focuses almost exclusively on the fantastic narrative of Twain's life. Born in 1835, Twain was a sick child who listened to stories at the knee of his family's slave, Uncle Dan'l, who inspired the voice of Jim in ``The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.'' He witnessed the Gold Rush, the Civil War and the capitalist frenzy of the Gilded Age, the title of a novel he co- wrote with Charles Dudley Warner.

Twain traveled the globe as ``America's Shakespeare'' and became, in Powers's words, the ``world's first rock star.'' Powers ties Twain's personal history to his books, illustrating how the author ``tirelessly inventoried his life to service his fiction (especially when the fiction was presented as nonfiction).''

By placing Twain in the context of history, and not just literature, Powers is able to position the writer as ``the representative man of his times.''


Like fellow Miami Herald products Carl Hiaasen and Edna Buchanan, Sean Rowe is taking his turn as a crime novelist.

His first thriller, ``Fever'' (Little, Brown, 263 pages, $19.95), features a rogues gallery of villains who plan to hijack a cruise ship en route from Miami to Havana, steal $30 million in smuggled drug money and blame it all on Cuban terrorists.

The anti-hero of this caper is Matt Shannon, an alcoholic former FBI agent and head of security for the targeted cruise line. Shannon is coerced into joining the scheme by his step- brother Jack Fontana, an ex-federal drug enforcement agent who has just served a prison sentence for a crime Shannon committed.

The rest of the crew includes a soldier of fortune, a Marxist airplane hijacker and a beautiful cello-playing nurse, though the characters aren't really the point.

Rowe's real skill is with plot. The plan to hijack the cruise ship is clever and plausible (keep this book out of the hands of al-Qaeda), and the aftermath of the attack corkscrews delightfully. But this noirish novel really distinguishes itself when it ventures into creepy territory such as cannibalism, crucifixion and genuinely shocking sex.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Eccentrics, Fenice Fire, Rat Man in New Berendt Novel

Eccentrics, Fenice Fire, Rat Man in New Berendt Novel

Sept. 27 (Bloomberg) -- After John Berendt's first book, ``Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,'' spent three years on the bestseller lists, the genteel port city of Savannah, Georgia, was overrun by fans of homicidal art restorer Jim Williams and outrageous female impersonator, the Lady Chablis.

Venice, the setting for Berendt's follow-up 11 years later, ``The City of Falling Angels'' (Penguin Press, 412 pages, $25.94) needs another tourist like it needs another pigeon baby. But I shouldn't wonder if tour groups are forming right now in front of the Fenice opera house, which conveniently burned down just days before the New York author arrived in town, casting about for a new topic.

That was in January 1996. The fire almost took down half of the city, which may seem incredible given the fact that Venice is periodically announced as sinking into the sea. But all the canals around the Fenice had been dredged dry for maintenance and the fire burned for seven hours. In the morning, all that was left of the lovely theater, a dream of peach and blue and golden curlicues, was the façade and a sooty fresco of, get this, Dante's Inferno.

Most people Berendt meets believe the fire was set by arsonists perhaps in the service of the Mafia. Berendt begins his own casual inquiry, interviewing witnesses, resident aristocrats, a menagerie of eccentrics and the numerous artists and expatriates.

Creepy Duo

He befriends the young ambitious prosecutor conducting the official investigation. It turns out that a pair of bumbling electricians set the fire to distract from some costly unfinished work, not expecting the place to burn down. Yet the point of this book isn't to unravel the mystery of the fire, but to ponder the true essence of Venice, a city famous for its theatricality.

Count Girolamo Marcello is Berendt's Virgil: ``To be Venetian, and to know how to live in Venice is an art...In Venice we move delicately and in silence. And with great subtlety. We are a very Byzantine people, and that is certainly not easy to understand.''

Berendt gradually uncovers a web of intriguing tales. There is the director of the Venice Guggenheim and his wife, a creepy pair of social-climbing academics who may have conned Ezra Pound's ancient mistress into giving up her valuable archives. The most perplexing tale concerns the suicide of a beloved homosexual local television commentator and poet, Mario Stefani, which sends his disbelieving friends on a hunt for a killer. They end up uncovering Stefani's sad obsession with a married grocer.

The Italian Rat

As in a Verdi opera, Berendt composes his story to highlight the city's most colorful characters against a vivid backdrop of history, mystery and fantasy. He is an expert at finding room for offbeat secondary characters, the rat poison magnate, for instance, who alters his recipe to suit changing local rat palates. Vexed that Italian rats have started preferring plastic to cheese, he adds granulated plastic to the mix, realizing in a Eureka! moment that plastic is ``the rats' equivalent of fast food.''

The only serious misstep is a tedious blow-by-blow of politicking among two competing patrons of a high-society charity that threatens to undermine multimillion-dollar architectural restorations. The ``he said, she said'' fight is so detailed that it gives the impression Berendt wouldn't take sides and risk offending any new friends.

The Truth?

Early on, Count Marcello advises Berendt to beware: ``Everyone in Venice is acting.'' He continues: ``Sunlight on a canal is reflected up through a window onto the ceiling, then from the ceiling onto a vase, and from the vase onto a glass, or a silver bowl. Which is the real sunlight? Which is the real reflection? What is true? What is not true? The answer is not so simple because the truth can change. I can change. You can change. That is the Venice effect.''

Over eight years, Berendt acclimated enough to capture some of the effervescent truth of Venice. Second books often fail because they are written too quickly to capitalize on success. Taking his time to get to know the city has served Berendt well.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

World's First Murder, Lost Wife, Cerebral Detective: New Books

(The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of Bloomberg.)

By Edward Nawotka

Sept. 15 (Bloomberg) -- In this week's new books, global bestseller Paulo Coelho depicts an author whose life unravels after his wife leaves him, Alexander McCall Smith delivers the second of his ``Sunday Philosophy Club'' series about a thoughtful Edinburgh sleuth, and novelist David Maine re- imagines the story of Cain and Abel in his second novel based on the Bible.

Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho's ``The Zahir'' (Harper Collins, 304 pages, $24.95) has already reached number one in over two dozen nations, from India to Iran, Argentina to the U.K. He is one of the best-selling authors on the planet, with an estimated 65 million copies of his books in print in 150 countries.

Coelho's most enduring work has been his 1994 novel ``The Alchemist,'' a fable about a shepherd who goes on an enlightened quest to find a treasure in the Egyptian pyramids. Its New-Agey message to follow your dreams made it a favorite among celebrities. Politicians, too, have embraced the book, making Coelho a regular guest at the World Economic Forum.

``The Zahir'' is the first-person story of a best-selling Brazilian author -- much like Coelho himself -- who is living in Paris and whose wife, Esther, a war correspondent, leaves him after returning from Iraq.

She is last seen in the company of a mysterious young man named Mikhail. The word ``Zahir,'' writes Coelho, comes from Islam and describes ``something which, once we have come into contact with them or it, gradually occupies our every thought, until we can think of nothing else.'' Esther becomes the author's Zahir.

On the Trail

The author picks up her trail through mutual friends and acquaintances to whom she has given the blood-soaked remnant of a dead soldier's uniform as a kind of totem. One day, Mikhail presents himself at one of the author's book signings and invites him to a quasi-religious nightclub act where the writer witnesses a cross between public confession and a whirling dervish performance. After a few tame Parisian adventures with bohemian youth, the pair embark on a trip to Kazakhstan to seek out Esther.

Together they experience spiritual transformation through Tengriism, the indigenous religion of the nomads.

In ``The Zahir,'' Coelho focuses his musings on the nature of love and marriage and concludes that, ideally, love is a form of acceptance. While this is not necessarily a profound message, the sheer enthusiasm with which Coelho delivers it, via globetrotting plots and colorful morality tales drawn from all variety of religious faith, is likely to entrance even the most cynical of readers.

Simple Lives

Alexander McCall Smith doesn't preach spiritual self- improvement in his books. Instead, his characters live simple, moral lives. The Scotsman is best known for his six ``No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency'' novels, which are set in Botswana and star Precious Ramatswe, a kindly, middle-aged female detective who dispenses folksy wisdom to clients over cups of red bush tea. These have sold millions of copies in America, where they are popular with book clubs.

Last year, Smith began a second series, ``The Sunday Philosophy Club,'' featuring another lady detective, Isabel Dalhousie, a philosopher living in Edinburgh who edits the Review of Applied Ethics.

She attends classical music concerts, has illuminating conversations with her housekeeper and concerns herself with small moral quandaries such as whether it is appropriate to publish an article that praises vice. (She decides not.)

Beyond the Grave

In ``Friends, Lovers, Chocolate'' (Pantheon Books, 261 pages, $21.95), the second book in the ``Sunday Philosophy Club'' series, Isabel becomes intrigued by the story of a man who, having just had a heart transplant, is haunted by visions he suspects may be the dead man's memories.

Her investigation takes her traipsing around Edinburgh searching for the man in the visions. Meanwhile, Isabel finds herself debating whether it is appropriate to try and break up her niece's relationship with a Bugatti-driving Italian suitor in favor of a young bassoonist Isabel might fancy herself.

While the story lacks any significant intrigue, McCall Smith knows how to lay on the charm. The book delights with its whimsical characters and vivid portrait of day-to-day life in Edinburgh, a city Smith clearly knows intimately and depicts in detail worthy of a good travelogue.

Old Man Cain

David Maine's first novel, ``The Preservationist,'' was a bold, uncensored portrayal of the biblical story of the great flood, complete with sex, animal feces and family strife aboard Noah's Ark. His follow-up, ``Fallen'' (St. Martin's Press, 256 pages, $23.95), depicts the story of Cain, Abel, Adam, Eve and the world's first murder.

As the book opens, we discover Cain is an old man; by the next chapter, we realize Maine's provocative plan is to tell the story backward, first depicting Cain as a tortured, angry adult marked by God, and then allowing him to devolve into a more innocent creature. In fact, as the pages pass, characters are brought back to life, including his brother Abel, their large extended family and eventually his overwhelmed parents, Adam and Eve.

Maine, an American who lives in Pakistan, is anything but reverent and his modern recasting of these all-too-human characters is bracing. Adam and Eve's young family suffers terribly at the hand of God, who speaks here in a booming voice. He is seemingly indiscriminate in his favoring the can-do-no- wrong son Abel over Cain, and it becomes evident that the fratricide is much more complicated than mere murder.

Blame the Parents

As the novel takes us back to the Garden of Eden, the relationship between God, nature and man becomes more intertwined. We are reminded the principal sin of the book is that of the parents and not of the son.

It's a very modern sensibility -- to blame your parents for your shortcomings. Each of the four principle characters, Cain (the eldest brother), Abel (the favored son), Adam (the awkward father) and Eve (the beleaguered mother), has their say. All the while, the pleasure for the reader comes from the particulars of their predicament as the first people on Earth.

Maine describes the discovery of music, weaving and sex and Eve's worries -- what it's like to be pregnant for the first time without knowing what to expect when you're expecting, and, most intensely, what it might be like to know you're responsible for destroying Paradise.

Maine has blown breath and life into the story of Cain and Abel, engendering a terrific and terrifying novel.

To contact the writer of this review:
Edward Nawotka at
Last Updated: September 15, 2005 00:23 EDT

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

`Dunces' Statue Survives Along With New Orleans's Literary Past

`Dunces' Statue Survives Along With New Orleans's Literary Past

(The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of Bloomberg.)

By Edward Nawotka

Sept. 14 (Bloomberg) -- With his flannel shirt, baggy pants, scarf and hunting cap, Ignatius J. Reilly was properly attired for a snowstorm, not Hurricane Katrina.

Before the massive hurricane struck New Orleans last month, the life-size bronze statue of the main character in John Kennedy Toole's Pulitzer-winning novel ``A Confederacy of Dunces'' was moved inside the Chateau Sonesta from its outdoor perch under the hotel's famous clock on the edge of the French Quarter.

Unlike so many homes and businesses, the statue survived the worst storm ever to hit the Big Easy -- a city with a long literary tradition.

From Tennessee Williams's ``A Streetcar Named Desire'' and Nelson Algren's ``A Walk on the Wild Side'' to Walker Percy's ``The Moviegoer'' and Anne Rice's ``Interview with the Vampire,'' New Orleans is the setting of some of the most popular plays and novels of the 20th century.

Rice, Toole, Lillian Hellman and Truman Capote are all natives, but the list of writers who lived in the city or spent considerable time there also includes luminaries such as Williams, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, O. Henry, Kate Chopin, Sherwood Anderson, John Dos Passos, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter and Jack Kerouac.

Fitzgerald, Faulkner

``A Confederacy of Dunces,'' Toole's satirical masterpiece about an eccentric 30-year-old man still living with his mother in New Orleans, occupies a special place in the city's literary history.

After failing to get his book published, Toole committed suicide in 1969 at the age of 31 by piping carbon monoxide into his car with a garden hose. Through the dogged efforts of his mother and the support of Walker Percy, the book was published in 1980 and won the Pulitzer for fiction the following year.

The Reilly statue mimics the book's opening scene, where he waits for his mom to pick him up outside the D.H. Holmes department store (now the Sonesta), a favorite meeting place for generations of New Orleans residents. Clutching a shopping bag, the shabbily dressed Reilly studies the crowd ``for signs of bad taste'' -- something he has no trouble spotting during his hilarious job-hunting adventures around the city.

Fitzgerald wrote little during his time in New Orleans, but developed a fondness for the potent local Sazerac cocktail. Faulkner, who grew up in Mississippi, wrote his first novel, ``Soldier's Pay,'' in New Orleans and the building where he lived in the French Quarter became a charming bookstore called Faulkner House.

Bohemian Lifestyle

Hellman describes her childhood in New Orleans in the early pages of her memoir, ``An Unfinished Woman,'' and Rice has used the city as a setting for many of her gothic fantasies featuring vampires and witches.

The town's bohemian lifestyle has attracted many artists and musicians, as well as writers. Algren chronicled the city's excesses in his 1956 novel ``A Walk on the Wild Side,'' which inspired Lou Reed to write a song of the same name. During the 1950s and '60s, Kerouac and fellow beat writers Charles Bukowski and William Burroughs often visited New Orleans and wrote about the city.

New Orleans continues to inspire writers interested in the supernatural, such as Jewell P. Rhodes, whose 1995 novel ``Voodoo Dreams'' is based on the life of 19th-century New Orleans priestess Marie Laveau. Another writer influenced by Rice is Poppy Z. Brite, who has switched from horror stories to crime fiction in ``Liquor'' and ``Prime,'' which both feature felonious and feckless New Orleans chefs.

Crime Novels

Crime has been a popular activity in New Orleans ever since ``Gentleman Pirate'' Jean Lafitte landed there in the early 1800s. Among the crime novels set in the city are David Fulmer's intriguing Valentin St. Cyr mysteries, and James Lee Burke's popular Dave Robicheaux series.

Just as famous as its criminals and musicians are Louisiana's colorful politicians. One of the finest political novels of the 20th century is Robert Penn Warren's 1947 ``All the King's Men,'' which was inspired by the life of former Governor and Senator Huey Long. A.J. Liebling's 1961 ``The Earl of Louisiana'' tells the story of Long's brother Earl, a three-time governor who was once committed to a mental institution.

Nancy Lemann, whose 1985 novel ``Lives of the Saints'' gives a classic portrayal of New Orleans high society, also has written about Louisiana politics. Her 1987 book, ``Ritz of the Bayou,'' is an excoriating portrait of former Governor Edwin Edwards, who went to prison for racketeering.

Yellow Fever

The city's roguish history continues to provide writers with material. Josh Russell's 2000 novel ``Yellow Jack'' vividly tells the story of a young daguerreotype photographer who documents the yellow fever epidemic that hit the city in the 1800s.

Other novels have addressed the changing character of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. John Biguenet's 2003 ``Oyster'' chronicles the rivalries between oyster-fishing families and oil companies, while Tim Gautreaux's 2004 ``The Clearing'' details a conflict between 1920s Louisiana swamp loggers and Sicilian immigrants.

Robert Olen Butler's short story collection, ``A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain,'' which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1993, is partly set among Vietnamese immigrants living in New Orleans.

One of the most familiar voices coming out of New Orleans these days doesn't even have a Louisiana accent. It is that of Andrei Codrescu, a Romanian emigre who is a regular contributor to National Public Radio and the editor of a local literary magazine called ``The Exquisite Corpse.'' Codrescu has published numerous paeans to his adopted city, including 1993's ``The Muse is Always Half Dressed in New Orleans.''

To contact the writer of this story:
Edward Nawotka at
Last Updated: September 14, 2005 00:06 EDT

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Going Abroad? Here's a Reading List from the IHT

Summer reading, in a new place
By Nora FitzGerald International Herald Tribune

Summer is a season of transitions: the end of school and fiscal years, the beginning of long-awaited holidays - and the moment that many people choose to make a move abroad. Summer is also the perfect time to dive into a really good book. We asked At Home Abroad correspondents, all of them expatriates of many years' standing, what works of fiction or nonfiction they would recommend to someone looking for insights into the expat experience or their new host countries. All of the books are in print and available in English, unless otherwise noted. Happy reading!

Window on the Russian soul

The reading list for a posting to Russia inspires humility. Some longtime Russia experts will give you a list of 300 books - to start - from Tolstoy and Turgenev to the doorstopping, epic histories of Orlando Figes. Others shrug and say, "Just read Chekhov."
My Russian literary sherpa is the grandniece of Tolstoy, Tatyana Tolstaya. Whether she is writing about the poet Joseph Brodsky or her girlhood suspicion of Americans, she offers up a "belyie nochi," or white night, on the Russian soul.
Her fiction has been compared to that of Gogol and Nabokov, but it is her collection of essays, "Pushkin's Children: Writing on Russia and Russians," that readied me for the historical sweep and massive scale of Russia. Her humor gave me ample sense of Russians' warm intelligence and the depths of their inferiority-superiority complex.

China? Take books with you

The best literary advice to someone getting ready for a posting to China is this: If you want to read certain books, take them with you. Books that are controversial or critical of Communist Party luminaries are banned or simply made unavailable in China, though some books are sold underground.

One of these is "Serve the People," by Yan Lianke, which is available only in Chinese. In it, an obedient soldier in the Chinese People's Liberation Army provides sexual services to his commander's wife during the Cultural Revolution. In one scene, the lovers are swept into a sexual fervor by smashing Mao Zedong busts and tearing apart Mao's Little Red Book. The authorities in China have banned the novella, though it has spread widely over the Internet.
In the forthcoming "Mao: The Untold Story," Jung Chang, author of the sublime memoir "Wild Swans," and her husband, Jon Halliday, have written the most scathing biography of Mao to date. And it won't be found anywhere in China. Mao, by the authors' account, was a cultural wrecking ball, a ruthless opium pusher and schemer directly responsible for 70 million deaths. The book, in English, will be available in October.

Travels with Stevenson

The Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson was an enthusiastic expatriate. Stevenson, who fought tuberculosis all his life, moved across continents seeking climates that would help keep his illness at bay. He clearly made the best of it, proclaiming in "Travels with a Donkey in Cévennes," his great travelogue, "I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move."
For the child who is a more reluctant expat, Stevenson's poem "Travel," included in "A Child's Garden of Verses," is a thrilling elbow-in-the-ribs to take leave of the "dusty dining-room" and embrace the world. It begins with a call to arms, or at least to an atlas:

I should like to rise and go

Where the golden apples grow; -

Where below another sky

Parrot islands anchored lie

From there, Stevenson prods his young reader to explore bazaars in "Eastern cities" and venture "Where the Great Wall round China goes."

- Holly Hubbard Preston

Path of the trailing spouse

"People tend to think that expat wives live in luxury compounds, drink a lot of gin and have affairs, so it's not surprising that we don't get much sympathy." From that auspicious opening to the closing words 292 pages later - "we are moving on soon" - Brigid Keenan, the wife of a British diplomat, perfectly captures the life of anyone who has ever moved abroad for a spouse's career.

In "Diplomatic Baggage: The Adventures of a Trailing Spouse," Keenan - a Sunday Times fashion editor in the 1960s who gave up her successful career to follow her husband with their children - traces the many details of everyday family life over nearly three decades in, among other places, Syria, Kazakhstan, Gambia, Trinidad, India and Barbados. Her emotional accounts of raising children far from relatives and dealing with those first lonely days in a new country will make trailing spouses the world over both laugh and cry as they remember their own "Keenan moments."
- Jennifer Conlin

A guide to playing with Chinese food

Ordering meals in China based on photographs often ends in disappointment: soups of meatless chicken necks or bobbing fish heads. So it helps to understand what's being cooked - although anyone who ventures to decipher a Chinese menu will soon find that literal translations make no sense.

With more than 10,000 different dishes, it takes time to learn the secrets of Chinese gastronomy, like knowing a "grease explode flower blossom" is really a peanut, or "fish fragrant pork" has nothing to do with fish scent, but refers instead to garlic and ginger, the flavoring traditionally used in cooking fish. The names of Chinese dishes blend folklore, language and tradition.

"Swallowing Clouds: A Playful Journey Through Chinese Culture, Language, and Cuisine," stands alone in offering insights into the nuances of Chinese cuisine and its etymology.
The author, A. Zee, offers an explanation for the name hoisin, the soy-based sauce typically used with Beijing duck, which translates to "fresh and flavorful sea food" but is actually a fruity or spicy sauce. Zee writes that it was invented by creative inland people "who had never tried seafood before but tried to imagine what fresh seafood tasted like."

- R. Scott Macintosh

French femininity explained

The French woman does not walk. She glides, her signature scent trailing her like an afterthought. She is reed thin but tucks into her crème brulée with enviable abandon. Worst of all, there's no way to describe her other than a certain je ne sais quoi.
Thankfully, there is "Entre Nous: A Woman's Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl," in which Debra Ollivier spells out the mysteries that could otherwise take a lifetime to unlock. How does the French girl differentiate between dating and an aventure - loosely speaking, a fling - and why is she comfortable with nudity on the beach but not with calling co-workers by their first names?

Rather than confirm stereotypes or merely describe her new compatriates, Ollivier, a seasoned expat, considers underlying reasons. She writes, for instance, that "French kings and queens were jewelry junkies. They wore big outrageous crowns, chunky medallions, slinky bracelets, and jeweled earrings. No wonder the French girl instinctively knows how to accessorize."
- Roxana Popescu

Why Britons are like that

Some books are dated the moment they come out, and some express enduring truths. "Notes
From a Small Island," by Bill Bryson, fits squarely into the latter category. Ignore the fact that the book came out a decade ago: The humor about the British in its pages is as funny and fresh today as it was in 1995.

Take the opening passage of the book, on how the British give directions - which anyone who lives there will tell you is, as the natives say, spot on: "You know that lay-by outside Warminster, the one with the grit box with the broken handle?" "You know, just past the turnoff for Little Puking but before the B6029 mini-roundabout." "Not the first left turning but the second one, there's a lane between two hedgerows - they're mostly hawthorn but with a little hazel mixed in."

Bryson, an American, lived in Britain for nearly two decades, and his love of the country and its people rings clear. It also gives him the standing, and the license, to write things like, "Nothing gives the English more pleasure, in a quiet but determined sort of way, than to do things oddly."
- Jennifer Conlin