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June 26, 2012 5:25 PM

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The Passionate Reader: June 26, 2012

Everyone has seen Man Ray's iconic photograph, "Le Violon d'Ingres," which shows a nude woman photographed from the back and ornamented at the waist with F-holes like those of a violin. But few know much about the woman in the...

Everyone has seen Man Ray's iconic photograph, "Le Violon d'Ingres," which shows a nude woman photographed from the back and ornamented at the waist with F-holes like those of a violin. But few know much about the woman in the picture.

kiki.jpgShe was Kiki, the glamorous bohemian known as the Queen of Montparnasse. Now there's a new graphic biography by Catel & Bocquet, "Kiki de Montparnasse" (SelfMadeHero), which delineates her life in charming illustrations. Born illegitimate in Chatillon-sur-Seine, she soon made her way to Paris, where she startled and delighted the art world as a model, singer and lover of artists -- Man Ray and the painter Foujita among them. Kiki's life was a rackety affair at the center of this bohemian world, replete with drinking, drug-taking and a rapidly changing roster of romances. The clean-cut black-and-white drawings mesh perfectly with the story they tell, one of beauty, exuberance and eventual self-destruction.

wild.jpg"Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail," by Cheryl Strayed (Alfred A. Knopf) is the story of the opposite: A young woman found herself going down the wrong track with ne'er-do-well men and drugs after her mother unexpectedly died at a relatively early age and her marriage fell apart. Although she had never done anything like that before, Strayed -- a name she gave herself -- decided to address her disintegrating life by walking the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and to Oregon and Washington by herself. Her prescription worked. She dealt with loneliness, black bears and blizzards, along with such inconveniences as the fact that her shoes didn't really fit. Later, she was to marry and build a life for herself in Oregon with her husband, son and daughter; the book came out two decades after the experience. Oprah Winfrey chose this book as the first to inaugurate the new edition of her book club, and she's right; it's riveting and inspiring.

lives.jpg"Lives Other Than My Own" (Metropolitan Books) by Emmanuel Carrere, is another book about healing from loss. Carrere was on vacation with his girlfriend Helene in Sri Lanka in 2004 when the tsunami hit. Their hotel was on a cliff, and they were fine, but that, of course, was not the case for many, many others. Carrere befriended a couple, Jerome and Delphine, who had lost their four-year-old daughter. Then, when he returned home, he learned that Helene's sister, Juliette, was dying of cancer after a long remission.

Juliette was a small-town judge. Carrere describes how the survivors put their lives back together in the face of overwhelming loss. Carrere is a noted journalist in his native France, and his harsh, fascinating book "The Adversary: A True Story of Monstrous Deception," about Jean-Claude Romand, a man who faked his life and murdered his family when they were on the verge of discovering his lies, appeared in an earlier edition of "The Passionate Reader."

fish.jpgRich Cohen's new book, "The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America's Banana King" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) is a biography of Samuel Zemurray, a Russian emigre who became an early 20th-century Master of the Universe. Starting by cadging and selling bananas on the cusp of ripeness thrown out by existing importers, he launched his own highly successful company, Cuyamel, which eventually merged with United Fruit. When he didn't like the policy changes in Honduras, a key country in his enterprise, he simply conspired to overthrow the government and won much more favorable terms for his firm. After he retired, the executives running United Fruit began steering the company in the wrong direction, and his large portfolio of its stock dropped precipitously in value. Zemurray's solution, of course, was to go back to work and run it himself. The fascinating tale of his innovations in banana growing and distribution, along with the vast array of characters needed to make his empire work, including, but not limited to, peasants and CIA agents, and such stories as his feud with Huey Long, make for wonderful reading.

heart.jpgThen there's "The Heart Broke In" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), a new novel by James Meek. Meek constructs an engaging tale of two siblings, one, Ritchie Shepherd, a former pop star who runs a reality show for teen talent, and his sister Bec, a scientist who is looking for a cure for malaria. Val Oatman is the editor of a tabloid newspaper who is in love with Bec, something he shares with gene therapist Alex Comrie, who may or may not have discovered a cure for aging. These characters and others maneuver around one another in a compelling, believable and amusing narrative that takes all of them to unexpected places.

marilyn.jpgWho is the actress whose cover photo drives the most Vanity Fair newsstand sales? Is it America's sweetheart Julia Roberts, or perhaps this year's highest-paid actress, Kristen Stewart? No, according to a top ad executive at the magazine, it's Marilyn Monroe, who died 50 years ago and appeared on the cover again most recently in May. Now Keith Badman has written "Marilyn Monroe: The Final Years" (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press). Badman, who has penned several pop-culture books, goes over Monroe's last years in exhaustive detail, driven, apparently, by extensive research and a need to correct the record. Much more than twice-told tales are gone over again. The book isn't well-written, but Badman makes its new information convincing. The question -- for this reader, at least, who has always been a keen Monroe fan -- is, at this point, what difference does it make whether, say, Bobby Kennedy was or was not with Marilyn on a certain evening? I mean, who cares?

Well, judging by the experience of Vanity Fair, quite a few people.

The Worlds of World War I

beautysorrow.jpgFor those who, whether from watching "Downton Abbey" or for any other reason, are fascinated by the First World War, here are two books that make great further reading.

No superlative is too over-the-top to describe the wonders of Peter Englund's "The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War" (Alfred A. Knopf). Englund, a Swedish historian who has also worked as a war correspondent, almost created a new genre in this long, astonishing book. He interwove the stories of 20 people, none of them well-known, ranging from a German schoolgirl to a distinguished American surgeon, in a chronological account that ranges across the giant tapestry of the world where the war unfolded. Most of us think of the war as something that took place largely in France and Belgium, but the European powers of the time had colonies, and Englund takes us to much more obscure theaters as well, including Poland, the Balkans, East Africa and Mesopotamia. Using letters and journals, he makes his characters come fully to life.

There are many strange and fascinating incidents, including the surprising popularity of Paris prostitutes with venereal disease, who were actually paid extra by men who hoped that becoming ill would keep them from going back to the front, or the way that, whenever a dignitary tried to visit the men who were on duty in the Italian mountains, they would instigate a skirmish with the enemy to put a stop to it. It's a book that you will want to read again and again.

perfect summer.jpgAlso captivating is Juliet Nicolson's "The Perfect Summer: England 1911, Just Before the Storm" (Grove Press). Nicolson, who's the granddaughter of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, conjures up images of an England in full flower during a beautiful summer before the First World War. From racing season to country-house visits, all of the prelapsarian pleasures of Britain were there and being enjoyed. The book makes it very clear exactly what was about to be lost.

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