This week’s book reviews in brief


NON-FICTION:

“The Second Amendment: A Biography” by Michael Waldman; Simon & Schuster (272 pages, $25)

The 2nd Amendment is just 27 words long: “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” But in that single, awkwardly constructed sentence, Michael Waldman suggests in “The Second Amendment: A Biography,” the essence of the United States may be revealed.

“A living Constitution,” Waldman writes, “does not discard the spirit of the document, but seeks to apply its timeless principles to modern challenges that could not have been imagined by the Framers or their contemporaries. It reflects with frankness that our sense of human dignity has, in fact, evolved.”

These notions of dignity and evolution motivate “The Second Amendment,” which offers a smart if occasionally frustrating historical overview of America’s 200-plus year relationship with guns.

“The Second Amendment” is not without problems; in places, it moves too quickly, assuming knowledge, particularly of legal cases, many of us don’t have. More than once, I had to look things up (the passage of the 1968 Gun Control Act, for instance), when Waldman wasn’t clear. In the end, however, the book makes an argument for the 2nd Amendment as a kind of mirror — reflecting shifting mores, shifting attitudes.

That’s not always, or even generally, a good thing: Remember how pressure from the NRA and others helped shut down congressional debate over assault weapons in the wake of Sandy Hook. Still, as Waldman stresses, this is less a final outcome than part of an ongoing back-and-forth about who we are and what we value, a process that is messy and imperfect but also (when it’s working) democratic — in other words, fundamentally American.

“Dangerous Rhythm: Why Movie Musicals Matter” by Richard Barrios; Oxford University Press (288 pages, $34.95)

Richard Barrios calls it that “bump” moment — the pivot point in a film when the characters who have thus far been chatting, spatting, courting and carousing just like normal folk burst into song. Suddenly they’re no longer in the real world, but on a plane of existence where an orchestra can swell out of nowhere, where average Joes and Jills belt and croon and effortlessly show off their waltz moves, their tap skills, their synchronicity with a line of high-kicking chorines.

It’s the movie musical, that strange beast that — when done right — can be sublime, transcendent, inspiring. And when done wrong — well, consider 1969’s “Paint Your Wagon,” with Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin gargling through Lerner and Loewe, or Lucille Ball’s megaton-bomb swan song “Mame” in 1974, or the instantly forgettable “Panama Hattie” of 1942. Really, “Panama Hattie.”

In “Dangerous Rhythm: Why Movie Musicals Matter,” Barrios, a film historian with a particular affinity for the wildly diverse song-and-dance genre, offers a hugely readable, authoritative meditation on the Hollywood musical. From its nascent days, during the tumultuous transition from silent cinema to talkies, to new hits and misses such as “Rent” (2005), “Sweeney Todd” (2007) and “Mamma Mia!” (2008), Barrios notes the through lines, the breakthroughs, the anomalies, the crises, the trends, the stars.

Musicals, he writes, are the most “conspicuous” of movie categories — whether you love ‘em or hate ‘em, by their nature they call attention to themselves. “Their risks are as amplified as their budgets and soundtracks, their fiscal and aesthetic stakes are high, and they stand out as much when they fail as when they succeed.”

Some may argue with the esteem (or lack of same) in which he holds certain titles, but that’s the author’s right, and there’s very little else to argue with in this provocative, wide-ranging book. Clearly, musicals do matter — back in the day (any day), and here and now.

FICTION:

“Mr. Mercedes” by Stephen King; Scribner (448 pages, $30)

In “Mr. Mercedes,” Stephen King gives the ghosts and ghouls a rest and returns to the non-supernatural suspense genre of such earlier novels as “Cujo” and “Misery.” He also resists the bloat that has crept into his books over the last decade, keeping the story moving at lightning speed — I dare you not to read the last 100 pages in one sitting — and focusing primarily on two characters, antagonists about to embark on an elaborate dance of wits.

One is Bill Hodges, a retired 62-year-old detective who is divorced and estranged from his only daughter. Bill spends his days on his La-Z-Boy, watching reality TV shows and playing with his .38 Smith & Wesson. Occasionally, he sticks the barrel of the gun in his mouth, but he hasn’t yet reached the point at which he’s ready to pull the trigger. After years of active duty, he’s depressed and bored and feels obsolete but not yet suicidal. He’s getting there, though.

The other is Brady Hartfield, a “genetically handsome fellow with neatly combed brown hair and a bland say-cheese smile” who a few months prior rammed a stolen gray Mercedes into a crowd of unemployed people waiting in line at a job fair (the story is set in 2009, the economic depression playing a supporting role). He killed eight people, including a baby, but was never apprehended.

Hodges is haunted by the unsolved case. Hartfield, who lives with his alcoholic mother and holds down two jobs (computer repairman and ice-cream truck driver), is a psychopath so twisted he got a sexual kick out of mass slaughter and can’t stop reliving it.

“Mr. Mercedes,” which was written last year, feels like it was inspired in part by tragedies such as the shooting in the Aurora, Colo., movie theater and the school killings at Sandy Hook. What drives seemingly sane people to do such barbaric things?

But King doesn’t exploit these cases for entertainment, nor does he treat the loss of human life lightly (neither does he engage in the national gun debate, practically avoiding firearms altogether). This is a taut, calibrated thriller that only occasionally veers into manipulation and sentimentality.

“Faces in the Crowd” by Valeria Luiselli, translated by Christina MacSweeney; Coffee House (154 pages, $15.95 paper)

“Sidewalks” by Valeria Luiselli, translated by Christina MacSweeney; Coffee House (120 pages, $15.95 paper)

New York, that city of bohemian encounters, has a special place in the history of Spanish-language literature. Jose Marti, Cuba’s national poet, lived for a time in New York. So did the poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca, who penned “Poeta en Nueva York,” while living there in the 1920s.

Around the same time, the lesser-known, ill-fated Mexican poet Gilberto Owen lived nearby — on the opposite side of Morningside Park from Garcia Lorca, as depicted in “Faces in the Crowd,” the first novel by Valeria Luiselli.

Born in Mexico City, raised in South Africa and now a resident of New York, Luiselli writes in Spanish. In “Faces in the Crowd,” just released in an exquisite English translation by Christina MacSweeney, Luiselli’s fictional alter ego is a young female writer living in Gotham as Owen and Garcia Lorca did — in a kind of literary exile.

“Sidewalks” gathers Luiselli’s essays, most of which have her wandering about cities and countries (often on a bicycle) in search of literary ghosts in places as diverse as Venice and Mexico City. In “Relingos: The Cartography of Empty Spaces,” Luiselli finds meaning and beauty in the vacant, “dead” corners of Mexico City; in the essay “Permanent Residence,” Luiselli proclaims she has found inspiration in Joyce, Sebald and Vila-Matas, among others.

Together with “Faces in the Crowd,” her essays in “Sidewalks” are a wonderful contribution to the long tradition by which authors re-imagine their cities as dream-like spaces created for them to wander around, daydream and discover.

 

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