We're liking Daniel Craig, "In the Next Room," the short-story collection "Astray," Al Hirschfield and Soundgarden.
1 With due respect to Sean Connery, the 007 mantle has been passed. In "Skyfall," his third outing as Britain's indispensable superspy, Daniel Craig makes the character his own. His James Bond is as cunning, courageous, carnal and existentially cool as any we've seen. He's also fallible. He mourns fallen colleagues, bleeds when shot, suffers the punishing physical and spiritual pangs of life as a middle-aged government hit man. It helps that's he's playing off the best Bond villain ever: Silva (Javier Bardem), a flamboyant sociopath with deep, bitter scores to settle.
2 A play about the early medical uses of the vibrator has the potential to be an "SNL" sketch, loaded with double entendre and broad winks. Playwright Sarah Ruhl's "In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play" doesn't shy from the humor of looking back at past mores, but she puts the jape to a serious use: technology's temporary buzz does not answer the eternal need for intimacy. At the Jungle Theater, director Sarah Rasmussen coaxes performances that are perfectly pitched. In particular, Christina Baldwin and John Middleton shine -- though watch for exquisite moments with Annie Enneking and Austene Van, too.
3 It's the kind of book that could come off as assignment-y: Select an odd historical footnote and imagine it into a short story. In the hands of Emma Donoghue, however, the payoff is anything but rote. Her new story collection, "Astray," hopscotches between eras and locations (London, the Yukon, Jersey City), dropping the reader into situations that are by turn heartbreaking, mysterious, charming and off-kilter. A slave master's wife joins a slave in a hastily planned escape. A daughter uncovers a shattering secret about her famous father. Two young gold miners nearly freeze to death. Each story is followed by a note on the source. Donoghue's ability to voice a wide range of characters is uncanny. Fourteen stories and nary a clunker among them.
4 Al Hirschfeld's drawings may have been the toast of Broadway, but for kids across the rest of America, the greatest caricaturist of the past half-century is Mad magazine's Mort Drucker. The brilliant artist is celebrated in "Mort Drucker: Five Decades of His Finest Works," a generous collection of classic spoofs of everything from "Bonanza" to "House." To flip through these pages is to take a trip through the changing pop culture, from musicals in the 1960s to big-screen blockbusters in the '70s and '80s to the explosion of TV in more recent years. The book includes testimonials from Michael J. Fox, Steven Spielberg and J.J. Abrams, as well as a colorful poster suitable for both framing and laughing out loud.
5 Against many odds, including the truly odd distraction that has been singer Chris Cornell's solo career, Soundgarden's "King Animal" reignites the towering inferno stifled by the band's breakup 15 years ago. The metallic Seattle grunge heroes revisit both their rawer and sludgier early days and their more anthemic and polished commercial heyday for the reunion album, which lands Tuesday -- hopefully a precursor to an overdue Twin Cities date.
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