This is a great time of year for book and movie hounds. In theaters, we can see the serious Oscar contenders, as well as the art house or indie films that are jockeying for position. Meanwhile in bookstores, readers can save money while picking up some of the past year's most celebrated books -- and a rediscovered classic -- newly released in paperback. Here's a quick guide to some highly recommendable paperbacks published recently.
The Translator: A Memoir by Daoud Hari (Random House, $13). Hari, a native of Darfur, escaped when his village was wiped out by genocidal Janjaweed soldiers. He returned as a translator for UN investigators and reporters and produced this short, utterly candid, powerful memoir. Hari pulls no punches when describing what he has seen in Darfur, which is way more than you or I will ever see, or want to see, and yet his steadfast decency and his simple, direct, elegant prose create an intimate, almost ethereal atmosphere that transcends the crisis, as important and in need of being understood by the West as it may be.
Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood by Mark Harris (Penguin, $17). Harris justly won critical raves for his look at the five films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in 1967, at a time when "old" Hollywood was creatively constipated and a new generation was making its move. In the Heat of the Night won the Oscar, but it's Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate that had the longest lasting impact. Harris provides three-dimensional portraits of major players, and in the end, shows how quickly the film industry dinosaurs gave up the ghost when faced with a tsunami of new, fresh talent that had been influenced by the French New Wave of cinema.
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. (Vintage, $14.95). The new best-seller status of this legendary (in literary circles) novel is irony of the highest order. Yates' 1961 debut was one of the earliest, and still one of the strongest, fictional treatments of the dark side of America's post-war suburban dream, telling the story of a young couple whose supposedly perfect life comes undone amid dreams of the creative life and authenticity. Revolutionary Road was a finalist for the National Book Award, has been highly praised by the likes of William Styron, Kurt Vonnegut, Tennessee Williams and Richard Ford, became a touchstone of modern American fiction, and was chosen by Time as one of the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present. And yet it never sold well, and Yates practically disappeared from sight. Now, a film version has finally been released, and Yates, who died in 1992, has his first best seller. That in itself is a story deserving of another book.
Life Class by Pat Barker (Anchor, $14.95). Booker Prize winner Barker received lukewarm reviews for Life Class, but this writer found the story, of a young British couple whose lives are drastically changed by World War I, a strong, delicately observed novel that deserved more attention. The scenes of battle on the continent are powerful, even shattering, and the war's later effects on the protagonists' lives, thoughts, art and social class is a gripping look at how well-meaning people can become caught up in upheavals despite their best intentions.
Charlatan: America's Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam by Pope Brock (Three Rivers Press, $14.95). This combination cultural history and biography is about the greatest medical quack of all, Dr. John Brinkley, and the man who put the AMA on the map by finally nailing him. In the 1920s and '30s, Brinkley became a multi-millionaire by scamming thousands of patients who believed he could cure "male potency problems" by grafting goat testicles onto those of his patients'. He cured some, killed untold hundreds and butchered thousands, while also pioneering early radio, revolutionizing U.S. political campaigning. Later, he even invented "border radio" -- super-powerful stations just over the border in Mexico, which introduced country music and the blues to areas outside the South. This is a well-researched, funny, nearly unbelievable read, and the most entertaining nonfiction book of 2008.
Other new worthwhile paperbacks:
The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie (in stores now).
The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare by David Hajdu (Feb. 3).
His Illegal Self by Peter Carey (Feb. 10).