Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Fall Preview: If it's new to you, it's new

If you're like me, you've been out of school forever, but September still makes you feel you should be buying sweaters and books. And we do --- just in larger sizes and not schoolbooks. Oh, but they might as well be texts; we all know what the Assigned Reading (or Listening, or Viewing) is.

We know because magazines publish Fall Previews. They can be useful guides to the New Stuff. [Best of the breed: New York Magazine] But novelty, for all its charms, has its drawbacks --- far too often, we rush out to buy the latest and hottest, only to look at our new books, CDs and DVDs a few months later and wonder what the hell we were thinking. Meanwhile, last season's terrific but sadly ignored culture drifts further from our attention.

HeadButler.com is not immune to the charms of novelty. But its obsession is quality: recently released masterworks you may have missed and classics you can't put down (what is a “classic” but a bestseller that never stopped selling?). And because just about everything ever copyrighted is available on the Internet, “recent” is a very loose concept.

So here's what HeadButler.com would encourage you to consume as the leaves turn and the nights grow longer. Are they what “everybody” will be reading/watching/listening to? Nope. But tell yourself this: If it's new to me, it's new, right?


BOOKS

Cakes and Ale was Somerset Maugham's favorite novel. Published in 1930, it created an instant scandal, not just for its savage portrait of a popular London writer, but for its shocking peek inside a famous novelist's marriage --- she sleeps around, he doesn't care, and there's no fire-and-brimstone at the end. The book seems formless and weightless, a tale told by a friend over drinks. You cannot imagine how hard it is to do this.

Real Food: What to Eat and Why tells you to drink whole milk and eat the skin of that roast chicken. Nina Planck ran the Greenmarket for a while; she knows how to sell an idea. And her big idea is very appealing: A “traditional” diet brings health, “industrial” food will kill you. Her definitions are even more appealing. She wants you to drink not just whole milk, but whole milk from cows that have only been pasture-fed. Or do you enjoy eating beef and drinking milk from a cow that's been raised on discarded candy, a mountain of corn, antibiotics --- and even pureed cattle?

Dreaming in Libro: How A Good Dog Tamed A Bad Woman is Louise Bernikow's shaggy story of her most unlikely romance. Bernikow, a writer who used to carry around birth control and a passport in case an unexpected trip to Paris popped up, adopted a stray and discovered a new life. Dog lovers will cheer this charming memoir.

The Foreign Correspondent is such a fine book it's a shame it's consigned to a genre. But that's Alan Furst's dilemma: No one writes better espionage stories, set mostly in Paris from 1938 to 1941. For men, they're a relief; Furst's spies and Resistance fighters are unlikely civilians, not superheroes. For women, Furst's novels are a revelation; at last there's a “thriller” writer who can create credible women and conjure decent sex. And Furst always includes at least one memorable meal: "rognons de veau...sauteed with mushrooms in a brown sauce, and a mound of crisp pommes frites." His leading man mops up the veal sauce with pieces of bread, then orders cheese --- vacherin --- for dessert. And he cuts "a proper diagonal, not the nose."

The Adventures of Polo is the most charming book for 5-to-7-year-olds that our 5-year-old has ever read. Yes, you got that right. This series of books by the French illustrator Regis Faller tells whimsical stories in pictures; your child will delight in “reading” them to you. And you'll delight in Polo, an upbeat little dog in dark pants, a red jacket and a brown backpack who lives in a giant tree on a tiny island.

Banker to the Poor is the story of a radical economic idea. Thirty years ago, Muhammad Yunus loaned 42 women in Bangladesh a total of $27. The women put up no collateral. The assumption was that every borrower was honest and would repay the loan --- and he was right. Why? “The poor can't risk not repaying. This is the only chance they have.” The 1,417 branches of the bank that Yunus launched have provided $4.7 billion dollars to 4.4 million families in rural Bangladesh --- and, last year, Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Johnny U: The Life and Times of John Unitas is completely inspiring. Unitas, quarterback of the Baltimore Colts in the 1950s, starred in the game that made football players into celebrities. But not Unitas --- he was a regular blue collar guy whose teammates loved him. “Playing with Johnny Unitas,” one said, “was like being in the huddle with God.” For once, that's not BS.

Cook What You Love is the closest I may ever get to Melinda and Robert Blanchard's restaurant in Anguilla, but it's close enough. These are, they promise, “simple, flavorful recipes to make again and again” --- and I do. Nothing takes very long; “Reggae Pork” requires 36 minutes of preparation, and 30 of that is the marinating. It calls for just eight ingredients, all easily available. And, oh yeah...delicious.

Private Splendor: Great Families at Home is Alexis Gregory's picture-and-text homage to eight over-the-top European palaces, the families that created them and the heirs who maintain them. That he is friendly with the owners is crucial; these rooms are not, in the main, for photographic display. The photographs are dazzling, Gregory's text is historically deft, and every once in a while, there's a gem --- like the titled woman with an “irascible husband and a few very prominent lovers to make her life more agreeable.”

Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic is Esther Perel's radical approach to monogamy. It may not be for you, she concedes. But then again, neither may talk therapy and marriage counseling. Her “better” idea: Start two e-mail accounts just for the sexual dialogue between you and your mate.

White Apples and the Taste of Stone --- a half century of poems by onetime Poet Laureate Donald Hall --- made me wonder what rock I've been under for the last five decades. Hall's been an academic, but his heart is on his New Hampshire farm, the pleasures of New England life (baseball, cows, the obits in the Boston Globe), his marriage to poet Jane Hall, her illness and death, and his assignations with new women: “Lust is grief/that has turned over in bed/to look the other way." In short, he gets it all.


MUSIC

Josh Ritter made the best CD of 2006 in Animal Years --- Stephen King thought it was the best CD in half a decade --- and odds favor that he's done it again in The Historical Conquests. He calls it “nerd rock,” but then, never was so gifted a singer-songwriter so self-deprecating. And so hard to classify. Best bet: Watch him sing Girl in the War and To The Dogs. If you can resist him after that...

Andy Palacio and the Garifuna Collective have released the most exotic world music CD in years. The Garifuna are a tribe of Africans who ended up in Belize; their language is taught in a single village, and extinction's likely. Now its greatest musician has blended African, Cuban and Caribbean elements, then added Garifunan secret sauce. Best heard: late at night, with the lights out.

The Traveling Wilburys aren't going anywhere. George Harrison and Roy Orbison are dead. Jeff Lynne's faded. Only Dylan's still out there, on an endless tour. But back in 1988, for a couple of weeks in Los Angeles, these superstars decided to slap together some songs against a ridiculous deadline --- and had so much fun that their listeners did too. It's crazy, but this music has been out of circulation so long you may not remember the Wilburys sold 5 million CDs, or how good they were. Now their music is back, with a DVD of some awfully nice guys forgetting their fame and just hanging out.

Paolo Conte plays piano, smokes a cigarette, wears a tux. And sings. Sort of. That is, does Leonard Cohen sing? Chevalier? Durante? Conte made his reputation by writing unsentimental love songs and playing a million clubs. He became a legend in Europe. Why he's not a household name in America is nearly a national shame.

Teddy Thompson has the burden of famous parents, both legendary musicians. And of a deadly combination of great talent, massive intelligence and a bit of attitude. No matter. Separate Ways is songwriting and musicianship of the highest level, and not just because his parents show up. His follow-up, Upfront & Down Low, is a one-off: classic country songs, with a standard backup band --- and a string section, courtesy of the arranger responsible for the strings on Nick Drake's CDs. He's completely credible and totally satisfying.

Miles Davis was hanging out in Paris in 1957 when Louis Malle was starting his first film, “Ascenseur Pour L'Echafaud” (“Elevator to the Gallows”). They met. Clicked. And the 24-year-old director got Davis to record the soundtrack. The improvised result was one of the greatest jazz soundtracks in film --- some say the greatest. The trumpet couldn't be more evocative: mostly slow and breathy, thoughtful and tender, lonely and okay about it. In a word: cool. The quintessence of cool.


MOVIES

After the Wedding was the most powerful film I've seen in who knows how long. And I can't say I saw it all --- like just about everyone else in the theater, for the entire last half hour I was afflicted by a bout of silent sobbing that wouldn't quit. (Don't be scared; there's a happy ending.) This was Denmark's nominee for Best Foreign Film at this year's Academy Awards. It twists and turns fast, but you'll keep your eye on Mads Mikkelsen (the villain in “Casino Royale”). He's simply the most handsome man on earth.


PRODUCTS

Better Water: By now, you've read that bottled water burns ferocious amounts of energy (1.5 million barrels of oil just to make the bottles) and that 90% of these plastic bottles aren't recycled. So how green are you to tote a bottle of designer water that traveled a zillion miles to reach your lips? We now use a PUR Water Dispenser, which quickly filters two gallons of tap water. And we walk around with environmentally correct, endlessly reusable, aluminum Sigg bottles. Prediction: In a matter of months, all the cool kids will be carrying Siggs and the New York Times style section will make their coolness official. Suggestion: Beat the crowd (and help the planet).


COMING ATTRACTIONS


Mark Knopfler, once of Dire Straits, is the creamiest guitarist on the planet. The most intelligent songwriter (Shangri La) in the superstar class. And a genius collaborator (with Emmylou Harris, All The Roadrunning). His new solo CD, Kill to Get Crimson, features “Punish the Monkey (Let the Organ Grinder Go)”. Listen here, and believe.

Bruce Springsteen sent the E Street Band on a leave of absence. He brought them back for “Magic.” And on the strength on the single, his timing was impeccable.

Gloria Estefan has a surprise for those who see her only as a nonstop Latin hitmaker. She was born in Cuba; her father fought in the Bay of Pigs and spent two years in a Cuban jail for his troubles. Now, with an army of Cuban superstars, she's made 90 Millas, a sophisticated collection of songs that sound like classics from the Old Days but are both original and elegant. Gloria Estefan in the World Music section? Proudly.

Robert Plant and Alison Krauss are in a category beyond. When last we left Ms. Krauss, she had a triumph with A Hundred Miles or More, in which she flirted with duets. Now the premier singer/violinist in country/bluegrass has teamed up with the vocalist of Led Zeppelin for Raising Sand, a CD of duets that I cannot imagine will disappoint.

--- by Jesse Kornbluth, editor of HeadButler.com