Art & Culture

Classic Design Styles: Period Living for Today's Interiors by Henrietta Spencer-Churchill (McArthur & Company)

Though she grew up in the "Baroque splendor" of Blenheim Palace -- and yes: she's related to both that Spencer and that Churchill through her father, the 11th Duke of Marlborough -- Lady Henrietta understands both modern and traditional design. Even better: she has a perfect grasp on where old and new meet for beautiful results. Though there is much in Classic Design Styles that the would-be designer might find inspirational, it also provides a well-executed and illustrated text of all of the design styles that have an important place in the West, from Queen Anne to Empire, Victorian, Federal, Arts and Crafts and more. With the explaining out of the way, later in the book she gives examples of how these styles fit into modern homes and even, to a certain degree, how the uses of rooms in our homes have evolved over the years. Classic Design Styles is a must-have for the amateur -- or even expert -- designer. -- Monica Stark

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The Fairest Fowl: Portraits of Championship Chickens photographs by Tamara Staples, essay by Ira Glass (Chronicle Books)

Although the cover and title might have you expecting a cookbook, nothing could be further from the truth. The Fairest Fowl is the heart project of NYC-based photographer Tamara Staples, whose work has appeared in Harper's Magazine, Utne Reader and the Los Angeles Times as well as many galleries. In short, Staples is a serious photographer whose muse has taken her on a fowl ride. The earnest photographs are beautiful. Taken against seamless backgrounds of varying colors and textures, Staples' purebred subjects are adorned only by their own plumage and the canny expressions she manages to coax from them. Each photo is faced by a page that explains what type of chicken it is, the bird's provenance as well as highlights of its breed, the colors it can be found in and where this particular bird was photographed. It's an odd little book -- and certainly not one for everybody -- but it works. Quirky, off-center and beautifully executed. -- India Wilson

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Flora: An Illustrated History of the Garden Flower by Brent Elliott (Firefly Books)

Flora is a book to take your breath away. Larger than your standard garden-variety coffee table book, it first floors you with its larger-than-life presence before it seduces you with its beyond-belief illustrations and contemporary and historical content. Written and collected by Brent Elliot, archivist of The Royal Horticultural Society, Flora is one of those rare books that almost defies words. The world's best collection of botanical art is known to be held by The Royal Horticultural Society's Lindley Library in London so, of course, Elliott had the best possible in. Combine this with the author's expert annotations and really superb design, printing and production, and Flora is a showpiece. A majestic book. -- Aaron Blanton

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The Gallery of Regrettable Food: Highlights from Classic American Recipe Books by James Lileks (Crown)

The Gallery of Regrettable Food is James Lileks' ode to mid-20th-century food styling before copywriters and photographers developed any -- never mind good -- taste. Heaping helpings of horrid hash hurriedly flung on a plate and set in front of a camera was all that seemed necessary in order to illustrate fine food and elegant dining. Unrecognizable mystery dinners and lurid offal were the rage of the day as the Cold War heated up and the jellied animal organs congealed, trapped within prisons of fire engine red Jell-O smothered in pink vinyl sauces. Regrettable Food casts a humorous eye and queasy stomach toward what the kitchen Neanderthal blithely called "lunch," culling copy and illustrations from nowhere-near-classic food sources. If meals really did look like the grisly gourmet glop in Regrettable Food, it would make you wonder how anyone survived past breakfast. To me, three things make a book great: if it made me laugh, made me cry or made me think. In the case of Regrettable Food I can add one more: made me nauseous, but only 'cause I laughed so hard. -- David Middleton

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Gardens of New Orleans: Exquisite Excess by Lake Douglas and Jeannette Hardy (Chronicle Books)

Looking for a cure for the wintertime blues? Or just need a little escape any time of year into a lush, green, inviting oasis? Then get yourself a copy of Gardens of New Orleans: Exquisite Excess and lose yourself in the gorgeous photographs and accompanying profiles of gardens and how they grew. Authors Jeannette Hardy and Lake Douglas are both resident New Orleanians with deep roots in the city's horticultural life. It is clear that they have a deep and abiding love and respect for all manner of green spaces and the people who look after them. Especially interesting is the historical section at the beginning of the book, complete with maps of city layouts from the 18th and 19th centuries. This is no mere coffee table book of glossy photos and little else; each and every story is fascinating, and the photos are a source of inspiration to go back to again and again. -- Pamela C. Patterson

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The Good Citizen's Handbook: A Guide to Proper Behavior by Jennifer McKnight-Trontz (Chronicle Books)

The pure charm of Jennifer McKnight-Trontz' The Good Citizen's Handbook is its naïve and hokey jingoism. With its happy Dick-and-Jane-style illustrations and no-nonsense advice on everything from how to plant a tree to the proper display of the nation's flag, it is designed to help refocus our moral compass and teach us that politeness and good manners don't cost us anything and need not be a thing of the past. The Good Citizen's Handbook is a throwback to simpler times when Boy Scouts with brush cuts helped the elderly cross the street and a clean, starched white apron was mom's uniform of choice; when every apple-cheeked school kid put hand over heart while pledging allegiance to the flag. The only sidearm ever seen inside a school was on the hip of Officer Bob when he visited during "The Policeman Is Our Friend Week." Rap music was at least 40 years in the future and the Sunday drive when dad's hat blew off was the closest we ever got to road rage. -- David Middleton

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Mood Indigo by Vinny Lee (Pavilion Books)

This is a book that, since I reviewed it back in March, has manifested itself strangely in my life. My world is more brightly colored now as, immediately upon finishing the review, I rushed out and ordered deep, jewel-toned paint for several rooms in my home. I, who have always been pretty much a white-walls type of person, was so convinced by Lee's arguments for deep color that I allowed it to affect me with, I think, pleasing results. Am I more peaceful and studious in my blue room? More introspective in my room that is green? To be honest, I'm not sure. But I love this new me. And my visitors have been floored and impressed. A few have even been moved to deep color themselves. So, be careful: it's contagious. -- Monica Stark

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Poetry Speaks edited by Elise Paschen and Rebekah Presson Mosby (Sourcebooks)

Somewhere between a coffee table book and a textbook in format, with the addition of three audio CDs, Poetry Speaks is a great idea done well. The book portion of Poetry Speaks combines concise biographies on the included poets, selected portions of their work and an essay about each poet by a prominent living poet. None of the poets chosen for inclusion in the book are living. This, the publisher writes in a preface, "allowed the editors to review the entire body of work" of those included. A further criterion narrowed the field even more: since the CDs are an important component of the package -- and the name of the book is Poetry Speaks, after all -- the poets included in the book all had been recorded reciting their own work. The resulting package is entirely fresh and different. Imagine: to not only read about Tennyson, Browning, Whitman, Yeats, Gertrude Stein, Langston Hughes and Robert Frost, but to hear their voices placing emphasis on their own words. As the publisher writes, "Poetry speaks to each of us at another level, below our consciousness. Like music, it reaches inside to touch us." Poetry Speaks, then, is the complete touch. -- Adrian Marks

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Scotland and Its Whiskies by Michael Jackson (Raincoast Books)

With the enviable task of traversing the heather-filled glens and visiting some far-flung distilleries throughout bonny Scotland, Michael Jackson (the writer, not the pop star) fills our heads with the peaty aroma of one of the world's best-loved spirits. Scotland and Its Whiskies is a love letter to the fine art of distilling scotch and to the people and places that make each and every single malt unique. Going far beyond being just a treatise on these fine elixirs, the book travels through some of the most romantic -- and through Jackson's eyes, romanticized -- Celtic countryside you are likely to see. Owing in no small part to the glorious photography of Harry Cory Wright and Jackson's palpable love of a wee dram, Scotland and Its Whiskies is one of the prettiest books on alcoholic spirits I have read. -- David Middleton

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Vixens of Vinyl: The Alluring Ladies of Vintage Album Covers by Benjamin Darling (Chronicle Books)

Anyone who grew up in a household with a stack of Herb Alpert and Xavier Cugat records by the hi-fi will appreciate this fun and funky little album of LP covers featuring scantily clad and suggestively posed vixens and vamps. With album titles like "Warm and Willing," "Lush and Latin" and "Afro-desia," you know the kitsch level in Vixens of Vinyl has to be fairly high. (Don't even get me started on "How to Strip for Your Husband: Music to Make Marriage Merrier" or "Strip Along With Us.") Author Benjamin Darling, a vintage album-cover collector, has penned amusing little commentaries throughout the book on what it means to be a vixen, including an entire chapter devoted to cover model Sandy Warner, "the Blarney stone of vixenism." One glance at this book and you'll be transported straight back to 1965 -- in Ultra High Fidelity, of course. -- Pamela C. Patterson

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The War Against Cliché by Martin Amis (Knopf Canada)

Martin Amis has a way of getting under people's skin. It seems possible only to love him or loathe him: he's simply not a writer who inspires ambivalence. He never has been. As last year's memoir, Experience, proved, Amis is mellowing: his prose seems clearer and his thoughts more ordered and mature than at earlier points in his career. And nowhere can this transition from literature's enfant terrible to mature man of international letters be seen as clearly as in The War Against Cliché, a reasonably massive volume of the collected works of literary criticism published under Amis' byline between 1971 and 2000. Occasionally scathing, sometimes jesting and often brimming with passion and enthusiasm, no one who matters, it seems, entirely escapes his scrutiny. From Fay Weldon to Jane Austen and from John Milton and Charles Dickens to Truman Capote and Gore Vidal. Both Naipauls come under the knife, as do Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, William Burroughs, Elmore Leonard, Saul Bellow and many others. And it's joyous to read Martin Amis being Martin Amis for page after page after page. Cliché is a book geek's picnic and properly sets the author apart as -- arguably, of course -- the preeminent book reviewer of our time. -- Linda Richards

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Children's Books

The Cat and the Wizard by Dennis Lee (Key Porter Books)

He makes it look so easy. It's his signature. "A beard, a bundle, a right-angle stoop, And a hand-me-down coat Embroidered with soup, A halo of smoke And a sputtery sound -- The only real magic Magician around." Dennis Lee's rhythms and rhymes are so tightly wound, the tongue trips neatly over the compressed syllables and children laugh. I've heard them. With a distinguished background in literature aimed at grown-ups, his greatest career success has come from the books he's written for children. The children's books have included Alligator Pie, Jelly Belly, Bubblegum Delicious, Garbage Delight and, most recently, The Cat and the Wizard, the story of an unhappy wizard who meets a lonely black cat in a laundromat. "And chatting away In the clammy air, They find they both like Solitaire ..." The Cat and the Wizard is not a moral tale. There are no discernible lessons here. But it enchants and demands, always from youngsters, one more reading. -- Monica Stark

The Chameleon Wore Chartreuse by Bruce Hale (Harcourt)

What charms most about Bruce Hale's Sam Gecko mysteries is that they work on so many levels. Aimed at children at the 8-to-12-year reading age, there is humor here that most of his target reading age will simply lack the life experience to understand. And it doesn't matter: they won't miss a thing on that first read, but these are the kind of details that enrich a book through multiple readings and have it work on more than one level. In The Chameleon Wore Chartreuse, the third book in the series, the mystery involves a chameleon named Shirley's little brother, Billy, and a Gila monster named Herman. The mystery, however, is the icing on this deliciously cheery book. The pace is fast, the humor is authentic and the characters are fun to spend time with. -- Lincoln Cho

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Georgie by Malachy Doyle (Bloomsbury)

Malachy Doyle's Georgie is the shape of things to come: a young adult novel that is both daring and intellectually challenging. The unconventional story deals with a 14-year-old boy who hasn't spoken for as long as those who care for him can remember. Over time, the difficult child has regressed and, as the story opens, he lives little better than an animal: alone in a bare room, often naked and in his own filth. A move to a special care school for almost hopeless cases places Georgie in surroundings that enable him to begin the journey back to humanity. Georgie is occasionally dark and almost always gritty but it's a surprisingly hopeful story. If there's a message here it's about understanding and learning that things are not always what they seem. Though Georgie is Doyle's first young adult novel, he's written many books for younger children. -- Monica Stark

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Pet Boy by Keith Graves (Chronicle Books)

Writer/illustrator Keith Graves' last book, Frank Was a Monster Who Wanted to Dance, was published in 1999. One look through either that book or his most recent title, Pet Boy, is enough to tell you why there have been two whole years between books: Not only are his stories charming and complete, but his illustrations are so deep and rich and riveting, it seems likely it would take a long time to do them. And in Pet Boy there were certainly a lot of things to imagine. This time out we meet Stanley, a boy who is nuts for pets: not just one, but many. Actually: lots. "He studied each one carefully and played with it awhile, then locked it in a cage and stacked it in a pile." He keeps adding new pets to his collection, then rapidly gets bored with them and adds still more. Stanley gets his comeuppance, however, when he is abducted by alien merchants and taken "over spiral nebulae, through cold uncharted wastes. With a bump they finally landed in a most outlandish place." On the strange planet, Stanley is put on display in an alien pet store, where he is acquired by a compassionate three-eyed purple alien who ultimately, when faced with Stanley's unhappiness, determines to return his human pet to his natural habitat. Long story short, on his return home, Stanley -- like Scrooge before him -- sees the error of his former ways and becomes a model pet owner. On reconsideration, however, it's not long story short, at all. Pet Boy is a 32-page picture book, yet Graves packs a much longer book's worth of story and illustrations into his well-thought-out little tale. -- Linda Richards

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Caviar, Truffles, and Foie Gras by Katherine Alford (Chronicle Books)

Caviar, Truffles, and Foie Gras is everything a cookbook should be: it's beautiful, well-produced, interesting to read and it inspires you to jump to the kitchen. As the title would recommend, Alford's most recent book is elegant in both design and execution. After all, the ingredients the author is dealing with here are expensive and rare and the book reflects all of this as do, of course, the recipes. Squab with Black Truffle and Fois Gras; Steamed Lobster with Beurre Fondue; Fresh White Truffle Risotto; Seared Foie Gras with Sour Cherry Confit: clearly these are not recipes suitable for your average family dinner. On the other hand, if you enjoy occasionally making something truly memorable or spectacular -- or even just dreaming about it -- Caviar, Truffles, and Foie Gras will help you find your way. Elegantly. -- Monica Stark

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The Everyday Vegan by Dreena Burton (Arsenal Pulp Press)

Go ahead: tell someone you're a vegan. They'll either think you're from another planet ("Is that just slightly to the left of Altair?") or they'll wrinkle their nose and ask how you can live without eating anything interesting. And, to be perfectly honest, for many of the vegans I know, this is perfectly true. Think about it: eliminate all (that's all) of the animal products from your diet and what do you have left? Without meat of any kind plus milk, cheese, eggs, butter ... what's left? Zucchini, right? Zucchini and lentils. While both of those ingredients are actually used in recipes in Dreena Burton's The Everyday Vegan, there is a lot more besides. As Burton notes in her introduction, the book's title is meant to be interpreted in two ways: "In one way, The Everyday Vegan is for committed vegans looking for ideas, recipes, and instructions they can use every day of the year. In another, the book is for average ... people who want to start eating healthy but don't know where or how to begin." Burton begins her book with gentle instruction and illumination: where to shop for ingredients that may be unfamiliar and what they all are (how to tell dessert-style tofu, for instance, from silken tofu). Another section deals with cooking tips for all those special ingredients. A menu section and another on meal planning helps those new to this style of cooking deal with holidays as well as simple family meals. Burton has also given a section of the book to the concerns people voice when contemplating this type of lifestyle. Where proteins, calcium and various vitamins and minerals can be gotten with this type of eating. Most of the book, however, is devoted to the preparation of vegan food. In the main, these are recipes that could hold there own in any kitchen and they encompass all aspects of the diet: from appetizers to sauces, gravies and salad dressings (three troublesome areas for a lot of would-be vegans), soups and stews, salads and sandwiches, loads of entrées, great side dishes, as well as muffins and snack loaves, puddings, cookies, cakes, pies and other desserts. A note: another book with the identical title has been published recently. I've not had a chance to review that book so can't comment on its content, either way. -- Sienna Powers

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The Paris Cookbook by Patricia Wells (HarperCollins)

There are books that evoke the excitement of Paris. There are books that can help you make French food. But though it's been tried, few have ever evoked both things so perfectly as The Paris Cookbook. More than a cookbook, though certainly not less, Wells accomplished this effortlessly, with a cultivated Gaelic shrug. The Wisconsin-born author has lived in Paris since 1980 when she and her husband, Walter, both left their jobs at The New York Times in order to travel to Paris where Walter had accepted a two-year posting as deputy editor of the International Herald Tribune and Wells planned on devoting herself to becoming a freelance writer. They never left. "In those early years, my greatest luxury was time. Walter worked long days and I was alone all day and late into the evening. So I walked and I wandered this all-embracing city, pressing my nose against pastry shop windows and boulangeries, making regular pilgrimages to the famed Androuët cheese shop ... sampling food from every bistro on my ever-growing lists of spots to try..." Effortlessly, it seems, Wells evokes the Paris few tourists get the chance to see: at least not in totality. And then she whisks us away to make a dizzying array of Paris-style-and-Wells-adapted food, with each recipe prefaced by Wells' thoughts on the meal you are about to prepare, or a related story or some other aside that seems only to increase both your appetite and your desire to share, if only slightly, in her world. The Paris Cookbook is a shining example of the new order of literary cookbook. -- Linda Richards

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The Accidental Adventurer by Barbara Washburn with Lew Freedman (Epicenter Press)

The first-person account of the mountaineering adventures of Barbara Washburn, the society matron who occasionally donned cleats and clambered up mountains. Washburn was the first woman to climb Mount McKinley, the highest American elevation, though she is quite insistent that any accomplishment this might seem to have brought her was, as the title suggests, quite accidental. "It would be nice to say that I considered myself to be a pioneer and that I wanted to climb Mount McKinley to prove something for all women. But that would not be true ... To be perfectly honest, the main reason I wanted to go to Mount McKinley was that my husband was going and I wanted to be with him. That was perfectly logical thinking back then, I did not feel I had anything to prove." Washburn's book is candid and warm and, despite her protestations, occasionally heroic. Women still need heroes. It's enchanting to come across them in unexpected places. -- Monica Stark

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Borrowed Finery by Paula Fox (Henry Holt)

Paula Fox has earned a fine reputation in two separate fields of literature with her 24 previous books: six highly-regarded novels and 18 award-winning works of fiction for young readers. But Borrowed Finery is something else again: a heartbreakingly frank memoir of the author's early life in the 1920s and 30s as the child of two absent parents -- an indifferent mother and an alcoholic screenwriter-novelist father -- who left her in the care of various relatives and strangers from New England to Cuba to Canada. The spare and searing Borrowed Finery may well become a classic of the childhood-memoir genre; but its author is not one to rest on her laurels. At last report, the 78-year-old Fox was at work on a new book of short stories. -- Tom Nolan

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Chester Himes: A Life by James Sallis (Walker)

The African-American author Chester Himes (1909-1984) is best known for his surreal-noir crime novels involving Harlem police detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones: "strange, violent, unreal stories," Himes called them, which influenced one or two generations of later writers including Walter Mosley, Ishmael Reed and Gary Phillips. James Sallis (himself a well-regarded crime novelist) has done a fine and valuable job of telling Himes' life story -- a tale not without its own share of strangeness, violence and unreality. Alienated from family, imprisoned for years, living in Europe much of the time, Himes felt he stood "at a hard right angle to the world." Sallis is masterful at explicating Himes' biography and showing how its patterns were transformed into art. -- Tom Nolan

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Dashiell Hammett: A Daughter Remembers by Jo Hammett (Carroll & Graf/Otto Penzler)

Except when they went out of print during the political-blacklist years of the 1950s, Dashiell Hammett's novels and stories (including The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man and Red Harvest) have been popular and influential for eight decades. Less familiar were the facts of Hammett's own biography. But this year brought publication of new material that added much to our common knowledge of the father of modern American crime fiction. The massive Selected Letters of Dashiell Hammett (edited by Richard Layman and Hammett's granddaughter Julie M. Rivett) added detail and nuance to Hammett's life story. But the most intimate portrait of Hammett emerges through this slim and splendid memoir by his daughter Josephine, his second and only surviving child. Dozens of previously unpublished photographs illustrate the affectionate but candid text. -- Tom Nolan

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Fingerprints: The Origins of Crime Detection and the Murder Case That Launched Forensic Science by Colin Beavan (Hyperion)

Who knew that fingerprinting's past could be so captivating? Beavan tells how the brutal murders of an elderly paint shop proprietor and his wife near London in 1905 provided a case that would finally demonstrate the reliability of fingerprint evidence in distinguishing the innocent from the guilty. Digressing from there, he recounts a host of outlandish ways in which judges and others once sought to determine criminal culpability; traces early efforts in India to use fingerprinting as an identification tool; and explains the rivalries between the oft-conniving founders of various fingerprinting methodologies, one of whom was Charles Darwin's spoiled cousin. Beavan enhances his main themes by drawing in notorious criminal cases from the past, as well as lesser-known but hardly less bizarre ones, to make clear the necessity of unimpeachable identification. Like Dava Sobel's Longitude or Simon Winchester's The Map That Changed the World, Fingerprints mines the colorful human drama from what others might have dismissed as dry history. -- J. Kingston Pierce

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The Indie Band Bible by Mark Makoway (Madrigal Press)

It's not an isolated dream: to spruce up a part of the garage, get a group of guys together and make music so salient and sublime that the world has to listen. What's missing in this dream are the hard facts. The nuts and bolts and how-tos that only experience can supply. This voice of experience is exactly what feeds The Indie Band Bible by Mark Makoway, lead guitar for Moist and, as it turns out, a pretty decent writer. It was on the road to Moist's success that Makoway gained the experience to write The Indie Band Bible as well as the understanding that it was needed. He writes that he can "remember not knowing anything and, worse, not knowing anyone who knew anything about the music business." For those currently clearing a spot in the garage, The Indie Band Bible is a necessity, not an option. -- Lincoln Cho

Justice by Dominick Dunne (Crown)

Dominick Dunne's collection of essays on blue-blood and celebrity crime reveals the Vanity Fair writer and novelist at his best. Yes, there are compelling trials and grisly murder, but moreso, the book is Dunne dishing the dirt with the best of them and asking the kind of questions no one else asks. The definitive moment: Dunne asking Claus Von Bulow's girlfriend if she is wearing his comatose wife's jewelry. -- Josh Karp

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Leavenworth Train: A Fugitive's Search for Justice in the Vanishing West by Joe Jackson (Carroll & Graf)

Frank Grigware left his home in eastern Washington state in 1906, driven by the romantic desire to find what remained of the Wild West he'd heard so much about. Instead, he found trouble. In spades. Associating with a latter-day gang of train robbers, he was implicated in their botched theft near Omaha, Nebraska. Although author Jackson contends that Grigware was innocent of this crime, he wound up receiving the same sentence as the real culprits: life imprisonment at Kansas' Leavenworth Penitentiary. And there he would have stayed, had he not participated in one of the most exciting and unlikely prison breaks of the early 20th century. While all of the other escapees were recaptured within three days, Grigware remained on the run for the next 24 years, sought by Pinkerton detectives and later by J. Edgar Hoover's starch-shirted FBI agents. Over those years, Grigware became a family man and was even elected mayor of a small town in western Canada. But just when it looked as if freedom might be his for good, a seemingly modest legal infraction suddenly revealed Grigware's whereabouts and made him the focus of an international dispute over the logical limits of justice. Jackson does exceedingly well in Leavenworth Train at re-creating the events of Grigware's life and setting them against the broader canvas of U.S. penal and political history, and his dramatic writing style is a fine match with the sometimes incredible details of his account. -- J. Kingston Pierce

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Napalm and Silly Putty by George Carlin (Hyperion)

The follow-up to his 1998 book, Brain Droppings, George Carlin's Napalm and Silly Putty is the written extension of Carlin's stand-up routine. A big part of Carlin's routine is his vocal delivery, but truth be told, even though it's written down it loses none of its charm and still makes me laugh my ass off. No subject gets past the Carlin flame-thrower unscorched and he makes fun of some things that any ordinary comedian would shy well away from. Abortion, death, the old and the young, sex and television ("The only thing high-definition television will do is provide sharper pictures of the garbage") take the brunt, and an especially tough time is given to religion. Philosophy disguised as humor is what Carlin is preaching here, telling us that we should maybe take a step back and give a long, hard, questioning look at all the ironic and stupid shit going on in life. -- David Middleton

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Robert Mitchum: Baby I Don't Care by Lee Server (St. Martin's Press)

This biography of the definitive film noir anti-hero is a compelling portrait of a man who was ultimately unknowable even to himself. Filled with incredible Mitchumisms (his marriage proposal to his long-suffering wife of 60 years: "stick with me baby and you'll be fartin' through silk") and outlandish drunken escapades. Lee Server's book tells the story of an accomplished artist who did everything in his power to show the world that he wasn't even trying. -- Josh Karp

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Salvation: Scenes From the Life of St. Francis by Valerie Martin (Knopf)

The popular novelist (Mary Reilly, Italian Fever) illuminates the strange, beautiful life of the world's most beloved saint in this series of poignant, light-drenched vignettes. In keeping with her subject's paradoxical nature, Martin tells St. Francis' story backwards, from the time of his awful, disease-wracked death to the first awakenings of his spiritual calling. This is no plaster saint with birds fluttering down onto his shoulders, but a real human being on a nearly impossible mission, attracting followers who were in love with his idealism but continually strayed off his spartan, God-saturated path. Martin never tries to resolve the question of whether Francis was a spiritual genius or a total madman, but simply reveals his rich character in touching, sometimes humorous scenes. When his tunic catches fire he refuses to allow Brother Angelo to put it out, pleading, "Oh, do not harm Brother Fire." Beyond his eccentricities, St. Francis was a gutsy, heroic man, a spiritual anarchist who resembled Christ so closely in his white-hot commitment that it was a wonder he wasn't put to death by the crowds who claimed to love him. Though other biographies may deliver more facts, Martin's poetic work reveals the man in all his radical simplicity. -- Margaret Gunning

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Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand (Random House)

First-time author Laura Hillenbrand gives readers one of the better sports biographies ever written -- a rival to The Boys of Summer and anything else that captures the essence of a time, a place and an athlete. In 1938, the racehorse Seabiscuit garnered more newsprint than Hitler, Roosevelt and Churchill. He was an American sensation drawing thousands just to watch him get off a train and stretch his legs. Owned by a former bicycle repairman turned auto tycoon, trained by a nearly mute horse breaker from the plains and ridden by a former prize fighter who was too big to be a jockey, Seabiscuit, to his fans, was the greatest horse that ever lived. Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit captures the imagination of a down-on-its-luck country facing the prospect of a world war. It is one of those truly American stories that's more incredible than anything fiction could conceive. -- Josh Karp

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The Rope in the Water: A Pilgrimage to India by Sylvia Fraser (Thomas Allen)

Author and journalist Sylvia Fraser, too often dismissed as "Canada's Shirley MacLaine," shines with insight in this compelling memoir of a grueling, spiritually transformative trip to India. In this mystic land the 60-something author endures 33-hour train rides, close calls with death (she nearly drowns until a rope mysteriously materializes in the Arabian Sea) and a 10-day Vipassana retreat in which she meditates with no distractions for 11 hours a day. Even more enthralling are her personal reflections on spirituality, family and life's grubby realities, which provide a perpetual counterpoint to spiritual peace. The book's greatest strength is that Fraser refuses to check her brain at the door. When offered a kind of paradise among the Brahma Kumaris, she states, "What I'm being offered is the portal to a beautiful and attainable peaceable kingdom, and perhaps it is my weakness and my loss that I can't bypass my intellectual censors and walk through it." But this is no weakness, for her clear eyes see everything: poverty juxtaposed with wealth, immense freedom cheek-by-jowl with suffocating oppression. Fraser's India, a mindscape more than a place, becomes a metaphor for life itself. -- Margaret Gunning

Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood by Oliver Sacks (Knopf)

The brilliant and eccentric neurologist, author of such classics as Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, here shines the intense beam of his perception on his own early life. Sacks was a strange, introverted yet passionate little boy who kept a pet octopus in the bathtub and was so enthralled upon first seeing the Periodic Table of Elements that he "could scarcely sleep for excitement." Science was his destiny, and his horde of intellectual aunts and uncles carefully nurtured his gift. But this is a melancholy memoir, with the aching trauma of World War II casting a long shadow on Sacks' life. He was sent away to boarding school at age six to escape the bombings in London and returned four years later changed forever, suffused with "a sense that some special awfulness might be reserved for me, and that this might descend at any moment." Still, science was a great consolation: "My first taste was for the spectacular," he writes, "the frothings, the incandescences, the stinks and the bangs, which almost define a first entry into chemistry." Even those without a science background will marvel at Sacks' gift for language and his way of transforming cold chemistry into sheer poetry. -- Margaret Gunning

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Where Dead Voices Gather by Nick Tosches (Little Brown)

By turns scholarly and self-indulgent, focused and rambling, Tosches' quirky journey into the history of one Emmett Miller, a Georgia-born blackface performer and recording artist of the 1920s, is a one-of-a-kind tour de force. Miller, writes Tosches, was "one of the strangest and most stunning of stylists ever to record," a man possessed of "an altogether otherworldly voice" that seemed to be both "a death-cry and a birth-cry." Among those seemingly influenced by Miller were Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams and Bob Wills. Nick Tosches himself is not without influence as a stylist and this apparent labor of love (23 years in the researching, Tosches says) affords the perfect occasion to display his undeniable gifts. -- Tom Nolan

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Crime Fiction, Fiction and SFF