Picks & Pans 

From hermaphrodite hero to king's mistress to '90s Disposall.

Is she/he a hero of our time or just a "Tiny Tim of a girl"? A middleman as end product or Grosse Pointe teen as Delphic oracle? A Tiresias to warn us or Janus-headed suburbanite to "man" her dead dad's door? A spinner of tall tales or latter-day muse of something epic-length? Presenting: Calliope (Cal) Helen Stephanides, male pseudohermaphrodite, with a voice that is first-person singular one minute and omniscient narrator the next narrating one family's 250-year history in Jeffrey Eugenides' mammoth Middlesex (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), sure to be a critics' pick once critics start nitpicking over this year's good fiction, and, no pseudo about it, they'd be right.

As you'd be wrong not to pick up on this story's long thread, a story that starts with "a pair of miscreants" on a mutated gene (hiding out on chromosome number 5; hence Cal's diagnosis: 5-alpha-reductase deficiency syndrome), then moves from a quiet village in Turkey to the Greek retreat from the Turks in Smyrna in 1922 (when it isn't detouring to present-day, former half-city Berlin), then moves from inner-city Detroit in the '30s to its upscale suburbs in the '60s, then to New York, then cross-country to San Francisco, then back to Detroit in a triumph of the will (the girl/boy's, the author's?) after 500-plus pages of circlings, doublings, dividings, inversions, reversals, foreshadowings, echoings, and just plain messy, highly human nature. (Suitably midway, finally on page 217: the Midwest birth of our heroine turned hero.) And what's with Eugenides' preternatural gift for inhabiting the hearts and minds of the female of the species? He did it in The Virgin Suicides. He does it here. Never mind. Enjoy.

More time travel: this time, with all-woman Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson in Madame de Pompadour: Mistress Of France (Grove Press) by Christine Pevitt Algrant, which is long on the facts and short on the richness and waste that was the court of Louis XV. Yes, we read samplings of court etiquette, court intrigue, fancy dress, royal marriages, bloody battlefields, the arts, and the rest of it during the life of an upwardly mobile bourgeoise, a woman who managed against the odds to win the heart of her king and the ears of her king's ministers. But do we get the full taste and feel of a subject and her world as captured by a skilled historian? No. The author of this biography was a student of classics at Cambridge, then she was a TV reporter, then she was a publisher in London and New York before becoming a writer on 18th-century France, and the checkered past shows. Informative, not definitive.

More travel: The Art Of Travel (Pantheon) by philosopher Alain de Botton, the next best thing to travel if you can't travel, as de Botton did, to Barbados, Amsterdam, Madrid, England's Lake District, the Sinai desert, Provence, and the insides of his own bedroom. Or as he's done, as you here can too, in the writings of J.K. Huysman, Charles Baudelaire, Gustave Flaubert, Alexander von Humboldt, William Wordsworth, John Ruskin, and Xavier de Maistre and the paintings of Edward Hopper, Eugène Delacroix, and Vincent van Gogh. If only the history of ideas were always this alive, this agreeably delivered, we'd be philosophers too. See especially: de Botton on the semiotics of an airport sign, on the emptiness of sightseeing, and on the thrill of departure/dread on arrival. Handsome book. Photos, reproductions a plus.

More on the idea of ideas: the life of contemporary playwright Tom Stoppard in Tom Stoppard: A Life (Palgrave) by Ira Nadel, which will either cement your admiration for the man who loves to populate his stage with argued thoughts (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Jumpers, The Real Thing, Arcadia) or confirm your suspicion that this is a playwright incapable of peopling that stage with fully realized characters. But Nadel's book is at least the well-researched life of one man, one who, now that he's got in touch with his Jewish Czech heritage, still has time to advance as a playwright whose works move us as much as challenge us. The odds, based on his latest, The Invention Of Love: Don't bet on it.

Another bet: the odds on Michael Bracewell putting up one bit with anything pop-cultural this side of 1960: nil. Excepting: the wise counsel of queen and countryman Quentin Crisp; the no-nonsense of singer-songwriter Patti Smith; the crooning of Bryan Ferry; the ear-splitting of the Velvet Underground; the fine art of Bridget Riley; the hit-or-miss of David Bowie; the antisuccess of punk guru Howard Devoto; the once-upon-a-time talent of actor Malcolm McDowell and conceptual artist Yoko Ono; and maybe the two-for-one zombies Gilbert and George, now that we're close to reaching rock-bottom. Otherwise, take your pick among the pickings blisteringly disposed of in Bracewell's When Surface Was Depth: Death By Cappuccino and Other Reflections On Music and Culture In the 1990's (Da Capo). Recklessly overwritten but not stupid.


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