Literary Review

From a Whisper to a Scream

Deliverance from Evil
By Frances Hill (Overlook Press)

In the recesses of America's collective psyche, there's a dark area of madness. Madness of the kind that took place in the God-fearing Puritan village of Salem in 1692, when a group of pubescent girls orchestrated so much mayhem that they destroyed the lives of hundreds of people, and caused more than a dozen upstanding citizens to be hanged as witches. How could it have happened in a rational society? How could people have stood by to let such madness play out? And if it happened once, can it happen again?  

Down the XXX Rabbit Hole

Beaver Street: A History of Modern Pornography by Robert Rosen (Headpress)

Ever wonder what kind of creature lurked beyond the green XXX door, helping create the $8 billion a year monster that is the porn industry? Ever wonder how Marvel’s X-Men, the Incredible Hulk, and Spiderman himself were behind it all?

The superhero tale is revealed in the just released, no-holes-barred Beaver Street: A History of Modern Pornography about men of steel, women of easy persuasion, phone sex, and the revolutionary fusion of computers and erotica.

The author is porn wunderkind Robert Rosen, known to men's magazine fans as Bobby Paradise. He studied under Catch-22's Joseph Heller at New York's City College in the '70s. He spent the next eight years freelancing and writing speeches for the Secretary of the Air Force. Between gigs, he drove a cab.

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes


by Herman Leonard
(Bloomsbury USA)

Herman Leonard soaked his film in chemicals before he headed out to capture jazz players, so its emulsion would be able to capture low light images. That's the left brain.

Smoke from cigarettes explodes, curls, whispers, hisses, and punctuates jazz giants from Duke to Billie to Louie to Miles -- a literal expression of a cliche, "cooking," that instead of making the image smaller, enlarges it. That's the right brain.

Most Honorable Number One Biography

chan_bookCharlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and his Rendezvous with American History by Yunte Huang (Norton Books)

There seems to be a new trend in biography. An author takes a deep "core sample" of the entirety of the world around the biography's subject, often even injecting his or her personal experiences researching and writing the book. Weather, stock tables, the history of minstrel shows or solid state engineering or cooking can weave in and out amidst unexpected finds at flea markets and wars.

A bellwether of this kind of tome, for this reviewer at least, was David Hajdu's magisterial Ten Cent Plague, a history of the comic books that could be an x-ray of American art and politics of our time. Yunte Huang's new, essential tome about Charlie Chan is a thrilling addition to this trend.

Still Somewhat Against The Grain

diana-athillLife Class by Diana Athill (Granta)
Growing Old Disgracefully BBC documentary

Diana Athill published Stet in 2000, her amusing and revealing account of her life as an literary editor, when she was 82. One could have been forgiven for considering it an astute piece of literary housekeeping, the final gasp of a pen that was about to be laid down for good. It was her fourth installment of memoirs. 

While My Alter-Ego Gently Sleeps

Rosie-LugosiThings I Did While I Was Dead by Rosie Garland (Flapjack Press) Once there was a vampire lesbian poetess called Rosie Lugosi, who prowled the cellars and subterranean dives of the poetry scene under the discreet but wonderfully protective cover of darkness. Corseted to the point of sublime expiry, she bared her fangs, cracked her whip and, like a fallen angel from one of the better girls' schools of England, lambasted her audiences into quivering submission with her iconoclastic verses. Straight men felt uneasy, and uncomfortably aroused; their women smiled, some in titillation, others to mask their growing sense of having been offended; the gay men approved of the camp spectacle, whilst the Sapphic sisters in the crowd felt all of the above emotions, and more.