Obituary: Harvey Pekar, 70, of 'American Splendor'

Harvey Pekar, who died Monday at the age of 70, should be the patron saint of soreheads. Even when he got successful he stayed cranky, maybe because being a crank was what made him successful. Not even Pekar was fool enough to fuss with that formula. After the "American Splendor" series of comics came out starting in 1976, he was hailed as the bard of the common man, a sort of genius of ordinariness. He was nothing of the sort.

Cyndi Lauper Sings the 'Memphis Blues'

The blues, like the novel, is always dead or dying, according to someone, somewhere. But somehow, time and again, both these old forms find a way to resurrect themselves. Still, if you were asked to name the best new blues album, would you pin it to Cyndi Lauper?

What Will Extra Features on E-Books Look Like?

Extra features on DVDs have become so commonplace that we take them for granted. We shouldn't. Hearing Robert Altman talk about "Gosford Park" thoroughly enriches our understanding, not to mention our enjoyment. But what about the same principle applied to books?

The Blues Needs a Pick-Me-Up

Is the blues dying? That's the question the Chicago Tribune's Howard Reich put to Lincoln T. Beauchamp Jr., a.k.a. Chicago Beau, a blues musician; radio DJ Steve Cushing; and the author David Whiteis. All of them admitted that this venerable American musical invention, now in its second century, was ailing.

Hank Jones: A Legendary Work Ethic

Hank Jones, the jazz pianist nonpareil who died May 16 at 91, was many things. He was the elder brother in a trio of astonishingly talented musicians (the other two: Thad on trumpet and Elvin on drums). He lived long enough to see jazz pass through nearly all of its 20th- and 21st-century permutations and mastered them all.

Stieg Larsson's Final Novel

Larsson was one of those rare writers who could keep you up until 3 a.m. and then make you want to rush home the next night to do it again. Given that there are more than 27 million copies of his books in print, it's worth speculating on how he did it.

I Love—Jimmy Webb?

I knew time was softening my jaw line, expanding my belt size, and even shaving almost an inch off my height. What I wasn't expecting was that simultaneously, it was surreptitiously fooling with my taste—my artistic taste. And yet there was the evidence, plain as day: all of a sudden, I liked Jimmy Webb.

Book Review: Rev. Martin Luther King's Assassin

When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968, a lot of people, including numerous civil-rights leaders and at least one congressman, assumed that a conspiracy lay behind his death. Much of this suspicion can be blamed on the sour, paranoid, unstable atmosphere of the late '60s, a climate that Hampton Sides recreates brilliantly in Hellhound on His Trail, his account of King's murder and the search for his killer. The deaths of King and the Kennedys, the...

A Love-Hate Relationship With Birds

Turkeys, cardinals, bald eagles—love 'em! It's those darned starling/crow look-alikes—not to mention those maddening finch/robin sound-alikes—that ought to be stuffed.

Review: Yann Martel's "Beatrice and Virgil"

Is it possible to write a fey novel about the Holocaust? Perhaps, you may be thinking, the better question is, why would anyone want to? But then, you have not read Yann Martel's Beatrice and Virgil, a strange—and often strangely beguiling—novel that is a story of a novelist trying not so successfully to write a novel about the Holocaust. The novel—Martel's novel, that is—also has another story tucked within it—a play that the frustrated novelist is asked to help finish. This play,...

'Psycho' Turns 50

Near the end of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, a psychiatrist pops in to explain serial killer Norman Bates to his captors—and to us, the audience: "I got the whole story—but not from Norman. I got it—from his mother." It's a scene that always elicits unintended laughs from contemporary audiences: they laugh at Norman's need to explain himself through the voice of his mother, they laugh at the dumbfounded looks on the faces of the local hicks—but mostly they laugh at a film that thinks it...

Bluegrass and Old-time Music Legend Ralph Stanley: The Last Hillbilly

Ralph Stanley, now 82, has been singing and playing professionally since the '40s, but the music he performs now is not radically different from what he grew up playing and singing with his brother, Carter, in the Stanley Brothers band. He doesn't label it bluegrass, although there are similarities. Stanley's sound—he calls it mountain music or old-time—predates bluegrass. There's nothing corn pone about this hard, starkly beautiful music, nothing manufactured. Some of it is gospel, and...

Boswell, Johnson, & the Birth of Modern Biography

When was the last time a notable person with lots to hide (obsessive-compulsive disorder, a refusal to bathe, the fact that he wore wigs that didn't fit) insisted that his biographer measure and record every fault with seismographic precision? It may well have been a good 236 years ago, on the morning in 1773 when Samuel Johnson divulged his theory on biography to James Boswell: "I well remember that Dr. Johnson maintained, that 'If a man is to write A Panegyrick, he may keep vices out of...

Book Review: Lorrie Moore's 'A Gate at the Stairs'

You can't say you don't see the trouble coming, not in a novel where the first line is "The cold came late that fall and the songbirds were caught off guard." The narrator is Tassie Keltjin, a Midwestern college student looking for baby-sitting work in December 2001. Her voice, as rendered by the ever adroit Lorrie Moore in A Gate at the Stairs, is a wonky mixture of farm-girl practicality, undergraduate sass, and a reflexive honesty that will prove her best armor against the posturing,...

Books: Another Vampire Story?!

If there's anything more insatiable than a vampire, it's the public's appetite for vampire tales. The trick for an author or filmmaker is to vary the formula just enough (teen vampires!) to suck back in those of us who have sworn off vampires (and serial killers) for good. In the case of The Strain, the big lure is not what's inside the book but the name of Guillermo del Toro as co-author (with Chuck Hogan) on the cover. Who among the fans of Mimic,The Devil's Backbone or Pan's Labyrinth...

Books: Did The Beatles Destroy Rock?

The history of popular music in the 20th century is old news. It begins, depending on who you believe, with Scott Joplin and ragtime. Or maybe when the Original Dixieland Jazz Band first performed in 1916. At that point, the story marches through Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and the swing era to bebop, then to R&B, followed by Elvis and the Beatles, then free jazz, maybe a little nod to disco, and wraps up with punk, grunge and hip-hop....

Worth Your Time: Sweden's "Everlasting Moments"

Visual acuity is at the heart of "Everlasting Moments," the beautiful new film by Sweden's Jan Troell ("The Emigrants"). Maria Larsson (Maria Heiskanen) is the working-class wife of an abusive drunk. After winning a camera in a lottery, she stumbles on her gift for photography and it changes her life, though not all for the better. This is a movie stripped bare of clichés about self-discovery.Maria soon finds herself in demand as a local portraitist, and in one scene, a mother whose child has...