Sculptor Pete Helzer's The Storyteller. Honoring Oregon's own, Ken Kesey.

Winter Reading 2003-2004

Time for a warm fire and a good book — EW reviews the glitterati of the litterati for your reading pleasure. Enjoy!

 

FICTION: Novels

Music for Peace
The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason.
Vintage Books, 2002. Paperback, $14.

From the onset, the premise of Daniel Mason's debut novel compels. The year is 1886. Edgar Drake, a shy, inward piano tuner who specializes in working on Erhard grand pianos is told that his services are needed in remote British Burma.

The year before, a physician, soldier and self-described poet who had succeeded in forming several alliances with the area's ruling princes had convinced the British Army to deliver him an Erhard grand piano. Now it needs tuning. Drake agrees to brave the wilds of Burma to tune the piano owned by the mythical Surgeon-Major Anthony J. Carroll who, it is rumored, uses music, not arms, to create peace.

Drake has embarked on a quest whose outcome he cannot begin to fathom as he packs his tuning tools and prepares to leave his wife, Katherine, who supports his journey.

Drake is mesmerized by the panoply of color, sounds and people he observes on his journey. But slowly he begins to awaken to the shadow side of his journey. A careless hunting accident in India alerts him to the inevitable:

He feels already that a tear has begun, irreparable, like bits of paint lost as dust to the wind in the ripping of a canvas. It has changed everything, he thinks. This is not part of my plan, my contract, my commission.

As the story deepens, Drake loses hold of the order that for so long has defined his life. The sky heaves with rain. He loses his way in the damp, thick landscape. The Major is not the man Drake expected to encounter. His mission is not what he thought it was. He fights to retain his political and moral neutrality, but the jungle that is late 19th century Burma is thick, deep and consuming.

Mason has a stunning command of place and time. His details of music, landscape, scents and sound are intimate and true. The narrative pacing stammered toward the end, and I grew impatient with the exotic, idealized female character with whom Drake becomes entangled. Still, The Piano Tuner is an absorbing, fulfilling read and a laudable first novel. Alice Tallmadge

 

The Many Faces of Home
When The Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka. Anchor Books, 2002. Paperback, $9.95.

Julie Otsuka's concise, understated novel tells the story of one nameless family among the 120,000 Japanese-Americans forced to leave their homes, jobs, schools and pets during WWII "for their own protection."

In 1942, the night after Pearl Harbor, the FBI arrests a middle-aged Japanese-American man. His kids, who've never seen him leave the house dressed in less than suit and hat, watch him taken away in his bathrobe and slippers. Six months later, following U.S. government instructions, his family packs up their comfortable Berkeley house in readiness to go away, too — where, they don't know. The family is taken by train first to San Francisco, where they spend the summer living in horse stalls with other detainees and then to a concentration camp in a powdery dry Utah desert for three years.

In the absence of any real activity, with long lines for meals and showers, each desert day seems longer than the last. Known simply as a boy, a girl, a mother and a father (who's held at a separate camp), the family relies on letters and on each other to stay above despair.

Otsuka's unembellished storytelling handles troubling details in an almost bland manner. You sympathize with her characters and want them to make a noise against the indignity of their imprisonment, but they don't. Two-thirds through the novel, however, Otsuka's impersonal tone changes into a defiant first-person narrative. It's almost like a bitter return to consciousness after a long period of numbness.

Japanese-Americans were returned to the "outside world" after almost four years, with train fare and $25, about the same as given to released convicts. But as Otsuka shows in this dignified, moving novella, the end of the war doesn't bring back what these families have lost: They can never truly go home again. Kaukab Jhumra Smith

Character Formation
Old School by Tobias Wolff. Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. Hardcover, $22.

Tobias Wolff's first novel reads like a memoir that takes fictional liberties, and Wolff has intimated as much in recent interviews. Novel, memoir or something in-between, Old School is a reader's delight. Wolff makes storytelling look simple, but his elegant, disarming style is deceptive, because among lucent prose and ironic humor lies his serious intention to show the boulder-strewn path a "book-drunk" schoolboy must travel to find his own literary voice.

The New England prep school the narrator attends has a long literary tradition of bringing three notable writers to campus each year. Final-year students submit stories or poems to be judged by the writer, and the winning boy has a private conversation with him or her. In 1960, Robert Frost, Ayn Rand and Ernest Hemingway were to visit, and our hero wants to write a stunning, contemporary story to win the chance to visit with Rand and/or his hero, Hemingway.

I don't know if students still read Rand, but I love the narrator's headlong rush to embrace her pitiless elitism, his disillusion at her autocratic presence and his ability to recognize the sacrifice made by his parents and grandparents for him compared to her heartless characters.

"I could no longer read Ayn Rand's sentences without hearing her voice. And hearing her voice, I saw her face; to be exact, the face she'd turned on me when I sneezed. Her disgust had power. This was no girlish shudder, this was spiritual disgust. …She made me feel that to be sick was contemptible."

Later the narrator faces an even more daunting lesson around Hemingway's scheduled visit, but for now, it's enough that he brings to his own life the lesson learned from observing Rand's ruthless, naked power. Something like this may have happened to Wolff in his formative years, because in his memoir, This Boy's Life, he looks at the circumstances of his life squarely, without sentiment or blame, and loves all the characters who fill his story.

A layered, literary story, Old School is accessible on a number of levels. It's a beauty. — Lois Wadsworth

 

She Who Is
Wintering by Kate Moses. Anchor Books, 2003. Paperback, $13.

If the number of books written about an individual determines whether they have achieved icon status, poet Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide in 1963 at the age of 31, has made the grade. Her short, meteoric life and her six-year marriage to British poet Ted Hughs has prompted volumes of biography. Her poems have been peered at and prodded; a movie about her life has just been released. Icon and archetype, Plath's allure remains: young, gifted, depressed, jilted, dead.

I doubt the reams written about Plath get closer to her emotional interior than Wintering's fictional account of her last months. Author Kate Moses, born a year before Plath caved in to the depression that haunted her for more than a decade, could well be Plath's second self, a voice from beyond the grave that allows us to enter the poet's troubled genius.

Moses doesn't push the case that the "she" who inhabits her book is Plath. She doesn't need to. Moses' language is so lush, so electric, her emotional perceptions so exquisitely drawn that if she is not channeling Plath herself, you simply don't care. Whoever Moses is channeling, the character is believably close to the Plath revealed in her poems and journals.

Any doubt that Moses can pull off the fictional recreation of Plath falters midway on page 2. "What has happened to her customary morning dread, the sharp stink of her panic?" Moses writes as her Plath wakes in her newly rented London flat on Dec. 12, 1962. "Where is her more orthodox heart with its quick metallic ticking, grinding in her chest? Her mind searches for it, the familiar hemorrhage of fear, the known morning ritual of materializing terror…" By page five, questioning the veracity of the fictional Plath is moot. There is only abject voyeurism, the thirst to know more about this grasping, vibrating poet.

This thoroughly female book is fed by the interior anguish and exterior details of Plath's daily struggles. Moses deftly weaves into the narrative events from Plath's life that fed her poems: a sliced thumb, bees from her backyard hive, the mother who sucked away her spirit, the father who died too soon, the husband who left her, the horse that, briefly, carried her beyond it all.

Wintering demands immersion. Soak up its glorious words and lush images. See the acres of daffodils that dazzled her when winter gave way to spring at her manor house in Devon. Feel what we all lost because even the promise of the flowers' beauty was not enough to coax Plath out of the darkness that closed down around her like a shroud. — A. Tallmadge

 

Trickster
Coyote Cowgirl by Kim Antieau. Forge, 2003. Hardcover, $24.95.

Dear Kim,   
Congratulations on the publication of your third novel, Coyote Cowgirl. I'll tell my pals in Eugene to check out your cosmic road trip through the surreal West. They have a fondness for the peculiar in that burg.

I'll talk about your heroine, Jeanne Les Flambeaux, who's the black sheep on the family farm, blessed with stylish chutzpah, emotional stamina and a shrugging attitude toward bumbles and misfortune. She's also a torch singer, who croons ballads dedicated to food and friendship. She became my instant buddy, sharing recipes and gossiping about her goofy life.

My favorite running gag is Jeanne's ambivalent relationship with a chatty crystal skull, dubbed Crane (as in cranium). How did you come up with this wacky dude? After dubious lover Johnny books with the family jewels, our gal rescues Crane but fails to recover a ruby scepter so important to her mom and dad.

In hot pursuit, Jeanne and the ancient noggin set off on a journey that would give Hunter S. Thompson a silly grin. They travel to the casinos of Vegas, a Goddess temple and eventually a Southwestern oasis of calm and loving grace. Along the way, people disappear in ways that would alarm talk radio jocks devoted to crop circles and spooky abductions. Familial bonds are reconnected, and Jeanne discovers that her latent skills as a chef are beyond potent.

Well, Kim, that's my take on your tasty tale. Have readers told you that your narrative reminds them of Gabriel Marquez's madcap realism or the mysterious spice and teardrops in the film Like Water for Chocolate? We writers work with the same basic ingredients, but clearly, your visions are your own. In your novels, short stories, and personal essays, you see beyond nearby hills to the higher ridges where the tricksters howl. — David Johnson

 

Single Girl Blues
Me Times Three by Alex Witchel. Touchstone, 2002. Paperback, $13.

In Me Times Three, 26-year-old Sandra Berlin discovers that her high school and college sweetheart and now fiancée, Bucky Ross (descended from Betsy Ross), has been cheating on her with two other fiancées. It's the late 1980s, and Sandra works in Manhattan as an editorial assistant for Jolie magazine. Until she discovers Bucky's infidelities, Sandra's biding her time, looking forward to the wedding day and getting promoted from editorial assistant to wife and mother.

After Bucky, Sandra finds herself thrust into the reality of her own life. With her dreams to marry into the Betsy Ross lineage dashed and the promotion to wife and mother nowhere in sight, she faces instead her unsatisfying job working for a Jolie editor she fears and dislikes.

Sandra also has to get into the Manhattan dating scene, and anyone who's seen HBO's "Sex and the City" knows that the scene can be one serious pool of sharks. (In an interesting side note, Sarah Jessica Parker, the star of "Sex," provides a review blurb for the book.) The chapters that enumerate Sandra's awkward, excruciating social interactions mercifully compress the year of dating to a few names and scenes.

Finally, in a major subplot, Sandra must accept the fact that her best friend from college, a gay man named Paul Romano, is dying of AIDS. Here Witchel really recaptures the fear and panic of the '80s when AIDS was so new, terrifying and real.

Me Times Three falls into the class of "chick lit" — books about smart, modern women searching for love and luck, all the while worrying about body image and perfect outfits. I'm not a huge fan. I wonder what Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen or Emily Dickinson would think to see women's literature evolved to quick-read novels with girly, cartoonish covers aimed at the
20- and 30-something women of the world.

Sandra figures out how to get the right guy and how to get the job that's worthy of her. But I was still left feeling a little sad that she defined her life (and this novel) by these main pursuits. Witchel writes with a punchy tone, but some sections in the middle get a little sluggish. — Bobbie Willis

 

Intense Surprise
Good Morning, Killer by April Smith. Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. Hardcover, $24.

April Smith takes the reader on a roller coaster ride with Ana Grey, a feisty FBI agent with a screwed-up personal life. I love stories that show a hot-shot woman bucking the male-dominated scene, but Smith also shows us the vulnerability of Grey's persona.

Grey is brilliant, brave and sensitive, the perfect cop to investigate the brutal rape of a young girl, with whom she becomes close. Smith shows us the turmoil that victims and their families go through, the total disruption that a crime of violation wreaks on their lives. Smith also shows the effect of such crimes on the law enforcement officers who have to investigate them. In a break with many novels that feature women, Smith does not focus on Grey's looks. In fact, all I remember of Grey's appearance is that her hair is frizzy, and she's small.

I would have been satisfied with the story if it had stayed focused on the rape. However, about halfway through the novel a disturbing event occurs that is totally unexpected. I had to put the book down and stop reading. I wondered if this twist was within the rules or what. By morning, though, I could hardly wait to get back to the story.

If you also like mysteries about women cops, get this book. It's the second in Smith's series about Ana Grey, and I hope she writes many more, using this interesting woman as star. — Geneva Miller

 

Atheist's Tale
Outside Looking In by Gil Gaudia. Xlibris, 2003. Paperback. $19.54.

First-time novelists are content usually to tell a good story. Only occasionally does one gamble in an attempt to convince readers of a controversial view. Outside Looking In by Eugene's Gil Gaudia attempts both and succeeds with me.

There is a thread — sometimes more like a rope — of autobiography in this tale of an independent-minded boy from the streets of depression-era New York City. Late in life, the protagonist, Gene Geminni, finds a measure of peace living in Oregon with his lifelong partner, Ginny, a pseudonym for Gaudia's wife, Jeanne.

Wherever Gene travels or whatever circumstances he finds himself in, the author advances his thesis that non-believers are persecuted by intolerant people who believe in an institutional "god." Note the irony in the favorite expletive of the atheist hero: "For Christ's sake!"

Gaudia's view is a reaction to Pascal's Wager, the philosophical suggestion that a belief in "god" can be logical and pragmatic: "You weigh the gain and loss by wagering that god does exist. If you are right, you gain all. If you lose because god does not exist, there's really nothing to be lost. So one has to wager that god does exist."

Prior to undergoing kidney surgery, Gene has a pre-operation visit with the surgeon, who asks Gene and Ginny to join hands with him and "pray for God to guide my hands."

Gene explodes: "Not on your (______g) life! If you think I'm going to let someone chop into my body while he's counting on some mysterious being to be responsible for it going right, you're out of your mind!"

Ginny's intervention repairs the medic-patient relationship, and the operation proceeds and is successful. But even as the anaesthetic dims his awareness, Gene thinks: "How did I get here, trusting a theist who believes a cost-benefit-analysis could pave one's way to heaven?"

The novel speaks to Gaudia's troubled torment over the non-believer's mistreatment in a society that proclaims itself to be god-fearing. — George Beres

 

Story Collections

Cuban Rhythms
Cubanísimo The Vintage Book of Contemporary Cuban Literature, edited and introduced by Cristina Garcia. Vintage, 2002. Paperback, $18.

Editor Cristina Garcia writes, "For Cubans, there is nothing more fundamental than music." Author of Dreaming in Cuban and Monkey Hunting, she writes, "In Cuba, children clap out dance rhythms before they can walk." The stories and poems that make up ¨Cubanísimo are "loosely grouped according to different musical and dance modes." It is the editor's wish that these five sections "capture something indispensably Cuban." She succeeds.

Danzón, the first musical style, "is very much turn-of-the-century, with the traditional structure and charm of a classical concerto." Included here is Fernando Ortiz, whose essay on Cuba's two major crops is a poetic litany of delicious contrasts such as: "Tobacco is as daring as blasphemy; sugar as humble as a prayer."

In her story, "The Founders: Alfonso," Lourdes Casal describes the influence on Cuba of the Chinese who escaped the chaos of their native country to toil, practically as slaves, in the sugarcane fields. "Even forty years later, the Spanish expression 'They made a Chinese fool out of you‚' still rankled," she writes.

"Only the most assured venture onto the dance floor when a mambo is in full swing." Severo Sarduy, who dances between genres with dizzying audacity, writes:

HELP (leading a protest by the trio, real leader of the masses style, very confident): We strive to come out!

MERCY (sprecht-gesang): Like the tortoise from his shell,

like the chicken from his egg,

like the corpse from his hole, yes!

For those whose curiosity has been piqued by the rhythms of Cuba's writers, the editor includes a sumptuous discography. You could do worse than spend a rainy Eugene winter weekend reading ¨Cubanisimo while listening to danzón, rumba, son, mambo, and salsa in the background. — Josephine Bridges

 

Bad Faith
The Falling Nun … and other stories by Pamela Rafael Berkman. Touchstone, 2003. Paperback, $12.

This is not a book for the faint of heart. Berkman's collection of short stories explores worlds of pain in excruciating detail and in every human manifestation. At times, I had to leave this slim paperback on the other side of the room for days at a time, afraid to go back for the rest.

But go back I did, because what Berkman writes feels real and is even occasionally edifying. The stories don't all end happily, but hope, friendship and endorphins keep the collection from spiking above the pain threshold.

The first story, "Tat," is about a lovely young woman who's getting her first tattoo, an old fashioned Valentine, on her forearm. She wants to wear her heart on her sleeve. She is already covered with piercings, and for her the tattoo is the next step.

"She knows that part of why she likes the piercings is that they belie that her skin is undamaged and whole, that she herself is unpunctured," Berkman writes. "She knows that everyone is punctured."

The nervousness, the anticipation, the very real physical pain set against the isolation and emotional pain the character feels are written with a wonderful sensitivity, threads of sexuality and a modern cultural tone.

The whole book has a pop culture feel to it. "The Falling Nun," a bitter story about broken love and desperation, concerns a little plastic nun ordered from the Archie MacFee catalogue. The hope is that when the nun falls off your desk, love will enter your life. Of course, love is not always a good thing. In this story, love is betrayal, pain, fragility, helplessness and heartbreak. The women in the office end up smashing the nuns together, and the story ends with "smashing the motherfucking little bitches to kingdom come. Nothing can help us, you know. Nothing."

All the stories are fairly intense, but fair warning for sensitive readers must go out for "Men Have More Upper Body Strength." This is a very graphic, detailed description of a rape. It made no real difference to me that the aggressor was a woman and the victim a man, though it gave a broadened perspective to the act. It's an ambitious story, where Berkman has found a way for us, the readers, to have sympathy and hate for both characters.— Marina Taylor

 

NON-FICTION: Memoir/Biography

Afghanistan
The Storyteller's Daughter by Saira Shah. Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. Hardcover, $24.

Daughter of Sufi fable writer Idres Shah and descendant of Afghan royalty, Saira Shah was raised and educated in England. As a young journalist, she spent several years living dangerously in and around Afghanistan during and after the Soviet occupation. Her memoir of those years, The Storyteller's Daughter, is a fascinating mixture of myth, history, cultural conflict and political outrage. It gives the reader a rare glimpse into an Afghanistan most of us will never see.

The media portrays Afghanistan as a country wracked by war, the Taliban, terrorist extremists, physical ruin and a heritage of violence. But few Westerners have had in-depth access to the country in all its complexities. Shah's book, in addition to being a personal journey, adds to the media sound-bytes something rarer: portraits of the people of Afghanistan and the richness and beauty of their devastated culture.

Among the people she encounters in her travels, the lawless Pushtun mujahidin, Zahir Shah, serves as guide and goad on her first trip into the northern mountains, where she meets villagers so isolated they hardly know there is a war on. Later, she discovers three traumatized, unforgettable young girls, whose rescue becomes an obsession. And in nearby Pakistan, her passionate, hilarious Afghani relatives first plot to marry her off to a local boy, and then help her to ruin the match. Far from being stereotypes or faceless foreign people, the individuals in this book are at once culturally strange and humanly familiar to the reader. In portraying them, Shah brings alive a picture of Afghan culture that few other writers have been able to do.

Unfortunately, although fascinating and educational, the book is flawed as a personal memoir. Shah's detached journalistic clarity saps her narrative of its emotional impact. Reading The Storyteller's Daughter, one knows that the author cannot have lived through these events without being deeply marked by them. Yet in choosing to intellectualize her emotions rather than to personalize them, Shah holds the reader at arm's length, both from the story and from the intriguing woman who lived it. In this, the power of her amazing story is sadly weakened. — Lark Wadsworth

 

Life Stuff
The Stuff of Life: A Daughter's Memoir by Karen Karbo. Bloomsbury, 2003. Hardcover, $24.95.

Like her father whose death she records in The Stuff of Life, Portland writer Karen Karbo is both tender-hearted and tough. Slug her in the arm and "she don't even cry," but break her heart, and she'll write a funny book about it.

Having inherited at least a portion of her sense of humor from her father, a man who amused himself by propping a WWI submachine gun in the bathroom corner to startle his teenage daughter's boyfriends, Karbo tells us, "Next to the right to bear arms, my father's most cherished value is bucking up."

Karbo's story begins with a trip to Boulder City following the death of her stepmother, one part of the inseparable unit known as DadandBev, as in "DadandBev loved Nevada because there is no income tax and it was easy to get a concealed weapon permit." Karbo inherits from Bev "not one chipped teacup or funky, beloved brooch." But she does re-inherit her father, the designer of the Lincoln hood ornament. "Suddenly, I am not just in the loop, I am the loop that goes straight from my dad to me and back, something we both find alarming," she writes.

Karbo falls back into a teenager's awkward interactions, but the moment doesn't last long. After asking his daughter, "Have you joined the NRA yet?" Dad says in almost the same breath, "I seem to have this growth on my chest." Karbo knows right away it's lung cancer — her father has been a long-time Marlboro man — and later she will fetch him packs of cigarettes in his final days, even though doing so makes her feel "like a member of Team Kevorkian."

Striking just the right balance between comically absurd and poignant, Karbo shows how to care generously for a dying parent without losing one's sense of self. Whether you love or hate Karbo's wiseass humor, you can't help but see it as a character trait that carries her through this arduous journey. — Alice Evans

 

Defying Diagnosis
Raising Blaze: Bringing Up an Extraordinary Son in an Ordinary World by Debra Ginsberg. HarperCollins, 2002. Paperback, $12.95.

By the time Blaze Ginsberg turns 13, he has been evaluated by no fewer than 10 psychologists and psychiatrists and alternately "diagnosed" with autism or charming eccentricity, ADHD or an advanced sense of humor, mental retardation or above-average intelligence.

For Blaze's mother, getting a diagnosis is a bi-polar process at best. One morning, she sends her son to his first day of kindergarten; that afternoon, she sits in her first of many meetings with school psychologists and special education teachers. "I have gone from having a beautiful, bright child to a handicapped kindergartener in the space of a few minutes," she says.

It's hard to resist Ginsberg's interpretation of Blaze as a misunderstood and unique, even brilliant boy. At six, he assigns colors to the days of the week, the seasons, and the letters of the alphabet. At 8, he composes songs with titles such as "Deadland" and "Nervous Night." At 10, he asks to re-enact his birth.

The hard fact is, these talents don't translate into success in the classroom. Blaze's work is far below grade level, and his behavior is over-the-top. He routinely stomps out of the classroom, talks nonsense and panics during fire drills. How can Ginsberg honor his gifts and prepare him for the world? It's a dilemma worthy of Solomon.

Ginsberg's attempts to offer assistance on Blaze's educational odyssey are nothing short of heroic. A single parent who waits tables and writes on the side, she volunteers in Blaze's third grade special education class, attends every morning of fourth grade, then tries home schooling until she runs out of money. Like Blaze, she defies categorization.

Ginsberg says she wrote this memoir with Blaze's blessing and felt compelled to write it. "I had never found a book like this, although I'd been searching for many years," she writes. This story is a gift, then, even if you don't have an unusual child. After you read it, you'll wonder what happened and root for Blaze too. — Holly Knight

 

Too Careful
Living History by Hillary Rodham Clinton. Simon & Schuster, 2003. Hardcover, $28.

If you are conflicted about Hillary Clinton (and who isn't?) don't expect to slog through her 528 pages of text and find some resolution to your conflict. I laid down the book even more unsure about this woman who would/could be the first woman president of the United States.

It is dizzying to imagine the first woman president. Hillary Rodham Clinton has the right resumé: Midwestern middle-class family, strong Protestant roots, evolving social conscience, degrees from Wellesley and Yale Law school, a successful career, marriage to a charismatic politician, and the inexorable march with him to the top.

This is all carefully chronicled in Living History. That's the fundamental flaw of the book. It's too careful a chronicle of the brilliant presidency of Bill Clinton and the nearly perfect preparation of Hillary Clinton to someday succeed him.

The Monica Lewinsky episode, which certainly drew the eight-million-dollar advance, comes across as a painful blemish: "I never believed that I had the luxury of climbing into bed and pulling the covers over my head," Clinton writes. "As his wife, I wanted to wring Bill's neck. But he was not only my husband, he was also my president." She wondered several times whether they should stay together.

As we all knew she would, she stayed by her man at this critical juncture just as she did in his first presidential campaign when the Gennifer Flowers story hit the national press. It's impossible to imagine how Clinton could have incurred a greater political debt to his wife. Although the topic is never fronted in Living History, this book is partly about pay-back time, first a seat in the U.S. Senate and next, the presidency. This fall Bill Clinton told a gathering of contributors at their New York home that the two best presidential possibilities at this time are Wesley Clark and Hillary Clinton. She has disclaimed ambitions for 2004, but 2008 is the magic year.

So it is entirely appropriate that she put her story out there now in the fashion that male candidates nearly always do. But if you want to know more about her, don't bother with the book. Read the reviews. The best is Gary Wills' apt conclusion in the New York Review of Books, (08/14/03), which reflects my own conflict:

Much of the earthquake response to the career of Hillary Rodham Clinton is simply one sign of a far wider seismic disturbance rumbling through the whole of our society. That is why her book is a significant event — significant more for the polar responses to it than for any fresh thinking in it.

Other sources include Maureen Dowd, The New York Times Book Review (06/29/03) and Joyce Purnick in "Metro Matters," The New York Times (06/19/03). Better than either of these is Elizabeth Kolbert's long New Yorker (11/13/93) piece. — Anita Johnson

 

Brief Life
Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino by Emily W. Leider. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003. Hardcover, $35.

Mention Rudolph Valentino to my mother, and her eyes would become misty, her lips would moisten slightly and "Ah, Valentino," she, who as a Michigan teenager pretended she was Theda Bara, would sigh. Emily Leider's superb new biography of the silent screen star tells me why and a great deal more besides.

"Valentino had much to do with waking American women up to just how exciting, sensual, and romantic love and sex could be. He was alluring precisely because he didn't look or behave like a Midwestern American woman's brother, boyfriend or husband," Leider writes in the preface to her exhaustively researched account of the silent screen star's tragically short life.

Born in Italy in 1885 to a middle class Italian father and a French mother, Valentino died in New York of acute peritonitis in 1926.

Dark Lover is biography at its best, placing its subject squarely in the context of his times — Leider is an acute cultural historian — and written in a style that is a bit too breezy and slick at times but not often. She brings Valentino and early Hollywood to life in a manner that makes the book a genuine page turner.

Since Leider's earlier Becoming Mae West is just as good for the same reasons, I expected a fine book. What I did not expect were the meticulous analyses of Valentino's films; the vivid descriptions of his dancing, which garnered little but contempt from red-blooded American males; and a searing indictment of the manipulation of celebrity not only by the press but also by the actor's Hollywood masters.

Make no mistake: Fearful of spoiling his image of robust health and mysterious sexuality, Valentino ignored the symptoms of ulcers and appendicitis until it was too late. He was 31 years old. — Martha Ullman West

 

Political is Personal
Revenge: A Story of Hope by Laura Blumenfeld. Simon and Schuster, 2002. Paperback, $14.

Is it possible to transform evil? That's the question on Laura Blumenfeld's mind in the opening scene of her book. She's sipping tea with the family of the man who shot (but did not kill) her father. She arrives unannounced, does not disclose her identity, and then listens with remarkable self-composure while the shooter's family expresses support for his actions. "He did his duty," the father says. "Every Palestinian must do it. Then there will be justice."

By tracking down the shooter and his family, Blumenfeld pursues her own form of justice. Or is it revenge? It's hard to tell. Her definition of revenge is not conventional (she has no intention of using a gun, although she occasionally entertains the idea), and she's not sure what form her revenge will take, but she is sure of her goal: "I wanted him to realize he was wrong."

 

For a year, she pursues this goal incognito by meeting with the family, corresponding with the shooter, and researching her options. Will it be collective or constructive revenge? Should she leave it to God or take matters into her own hands? What about forgiveness? In an attempt to chart a course for herself, she interviews a wide range of experts on the politics of vengeance, from Yitzhak Rabin's assassin and members of the Albanian Blood Feud Committee to shopkeepers and fifth-grade girls.

This quest is deeply personal, and Blumenfeld resists all attempts to interpret the attack on her father — or on anyone for that matter — as political. For her, the political is personal. "I wanted them to understand this conflict is between human beings, and not disembodied Arabs and Jews," she says.

In Blumenfeld's hands, the book's title is not oxymoronic. She achieves a radical, even transformational, form of revenge and no one, including the reader, is the same afterward. Hers is a story of hope more necessary and urgent than ever. — Holly Knight

 

Family Saga
Eliza and Mentora: The Story of a Pioneer Family in Northern Maine by Brenda Shaw. Silverwater Press (PO Box 51567, Eugene, OR 97405), 2003. Paperback, $16.95.

Anyone interested in real people's lives and history will find this book compelling. Shaw has taken family records — diaries, letters, journals — and public records of deeds, deaths, births and wills, along with newspaper accounts of the times to weave the story of a pioneer family in the harsh world of the northern Maine forests.

What is different from the history books we were subjected to in school, at least in my day, is that much of the narrative revolves around the women of the family, namely Eliza and her daughter, Mentora. Shaw's earlier work, The Dark Well, takes place after this book, which she is calling a prequel.

The reader receives a revealing picture of how women were able to cope in a time when their rights were severely limited by law. Eliza provides stability for her family, runs a farm and a successful sewing business in spite of the untimely death of her first husband during the Civil War. But a brutal second husband took advantage of laws that said she was, as a female, little more than chattel.

Eliza's life is dedicated to her family, and although she seems to relish a man's role in her life, it is through her efforts and skill that the family prospers. The offspring of her first marriage are left with considerable assets to continue to build their lives.

Shaw follows the family through numerous times of grief, but she recognizes times of joy also. However, the story becomes confusing with the addition of so many characters, and near the end, their identities began to blur in my mind. It's still an engrossing read.

Proofreading of the book is somewhat careless. One long passage is repeated, verbatim, a chapter later. There are numerous misspellings and grammatical errors besides the original quotes from historical records. The archive of family members' pictures is dramatic — Geneva Miller

 

General Non-fiction

 

From Hot Rocks to Eden
Life on a Young Planet: The First Three Billion Years of Evolution on Earth by Andrew H. Knoll. Princeton University Press, 2003. Hardcover, $29.95.

Ever since I learned of the metaphysically stunning idea that the sub-parts of our own cells used to be free-living bacteria, and that bacteria created our planet's atmosphere and basic biological chemistry, I have been boring people with these facts. But here's a chance to get it from a real authority. Andrew Knoll, Harvard paleontologist and author of Life on a Young Planet, says:

"As large animals, we can be forgiven for holding a worldview that celebrates ourselves, but in truth, this outlook is dead wrong. We have evolved to fit into a bacterial world, and not the reverse. Animals may be evolution's icing, but bacteria are the cake."

Knoll has written a marvelous book explaining the current state of knowledge as to how life arose. Just finding rocks of the right age (about 3.5 billion years) is a challenge. Few accessible examples exist owing to the constant recycling of planetary crust via plate tectonics. And then interpreting the scanty evidence takes equal parts imagination, careful reasoning, and illuminating technology, all of which, fortunately, are available to paleontology at the moment.

Knoll explains in layman's terms, but without condescension, the basics of reading geological formations; why the tree of life has recently been reorganized, dividing life into three branches: Bacteria, Archaea (one-celled creatures similar to bacteria), and Eucarya (everything else, including plants and ourselves); and how genetic analysis of living organisms can provide clues to past life forms.

He then details the wild creativity of the microscopic web of creatures who invented photosynthesis and oxygen respiration, and who organize the great cycles of the elements carbon, sulfur, nitrogen, and more through the oceans, atmosphere, and biosphere, upon which we superior life forms are utterly dependent.

Knoll's clear prose, peppered with colorful anecdotes, nicely captures how the first denizens of a hot and acrid pile of rock transformed it into Eden. — Valerie Brown

 

A Sign of Respect
Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses, by Robin Wall Kimmerer. OSU Press, 2003. Paperback, $17.95.

Don't skip the short preface. Here the author describes her first childhood view of a snowflake through a hand lens. It taught her to see something many of us never see: another level of complexity to natural beauty that lies, as she puts it, "just at the limits of ordinary perception."

And because it is essential to her world view and her approach to knowledge, Kimmerer lets us know right at the start about her Potawatomi heritage. Three decades later, she tells us, she almost always has a lens around her neck: "Its cord tangles with the leather thong of my medicine bag, in metaphor and in reality."

Both scientific and indigenous ways of knowing inform this book.

The science is real, and the pages are littered with botanical names. It would be hard to avoid. You can't do science without naming things and, because few people pay attention to mosses, few have common names. Besides, as the author reminds us, in the Native American tradition all beings are recognized as persons, and all have their own names. It is a sign of respect to call a thing by its name.

"Words and names are the ways we humans build relationships," she says, "not only with each other but with animals and plants."

Thus Gathering Moss is much more than a uniquely readable and entertaining natural history of mosses. "I want to tell the mosses' story," Kimmerer says, "since their voices are little heard." I checked the library, and sure enough there are very few books about mosses intended for a general reader.

But as the action switches from the Adirondacks to the Willamette Valley and back again, as well as from the botanical to the personal, this book is also about family, community, human rapaciousness and the power of plants to heal a damaged world. — Rachel Foster

 

Border Tales
Down By the River: Drugs, Money, Murder and Family by Charles Bowden. Simon and Schuster, 2002. Hardcover, $27.

If you've read James Ellroy's hard-crime novels, you may be practiced at following multiple strands of myriad plots. I had to learn how to read this densely packed book with its many facts, characters, conflicts and complicated interrelationships. Nonfiction writer Charles Bowden has written about the American Southwest, the environment and Mexico for the last 25 years. He lives in Tuscon, has written for Tuscon Weekly, has published 11 books and won the 1996 Lannan Literary Award for Nonfiction.

Like Ellroy, Bowden's style is exactly the right way, the only way, perhaps, to tell the many-layered stories that make up the true tale of the 1995 murder of Bruno Jordan, brother of the DEA intelligence chief in El Paso. A story about family, drugs and society, the book begins in the border town but leads inexorably into the ubiquitous Mexican drug business, implicating many characters and destroying others.

The book profiles one of the least-known (in this country) but most ruthless and successful of Mexico's drug kingpins, Amado Carrillo Fuentes, who died in a hospital following surgery in 1997. Some say he outlived his usefulness to the politicians, including Vicente Fox and others in high places. It's clear his death didn't stop drug trafficking across the border.

Bowden details the decline of Bruno Jordan's drug agent brother, Phil, who becomes so embroiled in his investigation that he ignores orders to stop working the case from both his own and the Mexican government. Why was Bruno killed, if not to send a message to him? Phil asks. He had no known connections to Carrillo Fuentes' Gulf cartel. The answer drags most of Phil's large Mexican family into the bottomless cesspool of drug politics, along with politicians and law enforcers on both sides of the border.

Bowden's impassioned search for the truth requires not only great courage but also dogged perseverance. Bowden respects language as a poet might, and he uses word power to shape his vision of the big picture with both literary precision and soulful emotion. He wants readers to share his understanding of what happens down by the river, where "the unwritten history" of two nations joined together through mutual corruption is "erased as soon as it happens to hit the page." Read this book, and you'll have a notion of the futility this justice-seeking journalist lives with every day. — Lois Wadsworth

 

Underground Economy
Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market by Eric Schlosser. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003. Hardover, $23.

Eric Schlosser's new collection of three essays or exposés, brings us snippets of U.S. history that some might consider best left hidden. In these stories, we discover an underground economic engine that has left an undeniable mark on society, both by the products of the underground and by the forces committed to stopping them.

Schlosser's previous book, Fast Food Nation, told us about the fast food industry. Here he weaves a fascinating tale that looks at the pleasurable sins of our country. Our personal hunger for sex and drugs and business's desire for better profits has fueled a hidden economy that while not under the radar screens of government and culture, nonetheless cannot be easily quantified, tracked or stopped.

Efforts to stop underground commerce become the personal crusades of a few, who, through sheer force of will, work to change a nation's laws, habits and social values for better or for worse. Deciding who is right or wrong on issues of sex, drugs, and labor is a discussion that will go on indefinitely, with each side equally passionate about their views.

The first essay, "Reefer Madness" describes the growth of the marijuana trade into arguably one of our biggest cash crops, despite efforts of law officials to curb the trade. Schlosser highlights how the emotions in the war on drugs has led to the point where being convicted (rightly or wrongly) of marijuana trafficking leads to greater punishments than murder.

"In The Strawberry Fields" brings to light how our passion for exotic fruits such as strawberries has led to an exploitation of migrant labor that destroys the workers'
hopes of a fair chance at the American
Dream.

The final essay, "An Empire of the Obscene," tracks the growth of pornography and the U.S. sex industry by following the history of one entrepreneur of the trade. Schlosser contrasts the puritanical values that underlie our society against the reality of our desires.

Schlosser writes about his select subjects in a style that enlivens what is in essence a history of the phenomenal growth of these black market commodities. His book makes one stop to wonder if we, as a nation and society, need to re-evaluate what we are fighting against. – Scott Stolarczyk

 

Strange Trip
Fugitives and Refugees: A Walk in Portland, Oregon by Chuck Palahniuk. Crown Publishers, 2003. Hardcover, $16.

Novelist Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club) has mischievously warped the guidebook genre with Fugitives and Refugees, a walk on the dark side of Rose City, USA. I can picture the PDX Chamber of Commerce debating whether to endorse this notorious homeboy's helpful hints for out-of-towners, sex tips for every persuasion, funky fun facts, and the ultra-bizarro with a twist of sleaze. It's my wild guess that you won't find this book on a shelf in Made in Oregon.

So step right up, the carnival is always in town! For women seeking men with hairy backs, there's Bear Hunting Night at the Dirty Duck Pub. If you want to yodel away your inhibitions, try Nasty Karaoke Night (Wednesday) at the Jefferson Theater. And guys and gals into whips and chains shouldn't miss the annual KinkFest sponsored by the Portland Leather Alliance.

Palahniuk also gives directions to Puddletown's mildly strange, which includes Suicide Bridge aka Vista Avenue Viaduct, the Feral Cat Races at PGE Park, and The World's Largest Hairball at Mount Angel. Is a theme emerging?

He mentions two of my favorites: the Starks Vacuum Cleaner Museum on Grand Avenue — check out the antique Hoovers — and the Historic Museum of Early Oil Days, with its splendid collection of gas pumps from the era of the Flying Red Horse.

Palahniuk's well-researched guide also lists worthy attractions such as Portland's Japanese and Chinese Gardens, hip watering holes, tasty eateries and dance halls with bouncy floors. He provides a personalized backdrop to his tour of Stumptown with a rambling memoir jotted on postcards, and he kick-starts his breezy blurbfest with a vocabulary lesson:

Can you define Three Groins in the Fountain, Big Pink, Jail-Blazers, Trendy-Third Ave., or Trustafarians? If not, you'll need this how-to-do Portland on a slow weekend manual, providing you have the nerve and the gasoline. — Dave Johnson

 

The Low and Noble
The Immortal Class: Bike Messengers and the Cult of Human Power by Travis Hugh Culley. Random House, 2002. Paperback, $11.95.

"It was not love that made me a cyclist, nor was it any kind of innate passion for alleyways, punk rock, political disenfranchisement," writes Travis Hugh Culley. "I was a cyclist by default; I was broke."

Imbued with the rhythm of cycling, The Immortal Class reads at times like a text for a course in Political Economy or Urban Planning, at times like a tale of high adventure. Readers must pedal hard up steep, uneven grades between downhill glides on new asphalt. It may not always be easy reading, but like the bicycle that inspired it, Culley's book works.

"In time, I too would learn that an experienced messenger can see anywhere from five to thirty seconds into the future." It's a bold assertion, but delivering messages on a bicycle in a city is no easy way to make a living, and couriers need all the advantages they can get.

Motor traffic is the most obvious danger to a bicycle messenger, but it isn't the only one. Exhaustion and dehydration are subtle threats to couriers. While Culley describes kind and helpful police officers, they are far outnumbered by ignorant bullies. When the author is badly injured in a collision with a taxi door for which the cab driver is clearly responsible, the officer on the scene asks, "What were you riding a bike for, anyhow?" It gets worse. Police harassment of couriers is routine, and police brutality toward cyclists peacefully expressing their opinions is not uncommon.

That's not all. When a road hazard that posed no threat to motorists but grave danger for cyclists was left unsigned, and a cyclist was seriously injured, the courts ruled that bicycles were "permitted but not intended" on the road in question. Yet "cities first began paving roads in the early 1890s under the lobbying pressure of an organization called the League of American Wheelmen," a cycling group.

The Immortal Class is ultimately an ironic title. Culley has a gift for foreshadowing, and throughout the narrative, the reader senses the approach of tragedy. When it strikes, the author knows that "only sad, meaningless chance" has kept him from being the victim.

Culley has retired from his career as a bicycle messenger, but he remains an advocate for all cyclists and for his vision of the city of Chicago. "I am trying to imagine," he writes, "what it could be like to live both dense and peaceful." Amen. — Josephine Bridges

 

Outside the Cocoon
Power and Terror: Post 9/11 Talks and Interviews by Noam Chomsky. Edited by John Junkerman and Takei Masakazu. Seven Stories Press, 2003. Paperback, $11.95.

Inspired by Noam Chomsky's book, 9-11, John Junkerman undertook a project to document Chomsky's views on terrorism and American power. In spring 2002 Junkerman and his team interviewed Chomsky and filmed his speeches; the twin result is a film and book, both titled Power and Terror.

Chomsky's optimism intrigued Junkerman. What I get from Chomsky's speeches is not optimism but realism. Until recently, my literary forays explored pure imagination: fiction, science fiction, fantasy. The events of the last couple of years have jarred me awake. I've expanded my reading to many news sources as well as current non-fiction, and like other newcomers to a near-disastrous scene, my initial response was panic. Oddly enough, the way that Chomsky puts current events into historical context calms me.

Using examples such as the correlation between US military aid and torture over the last 20 years and US involvement of terrorist activities since the 1980s, Chomsky indicates some roots of the 9/11 attacks. He says the best way to prevent terrorism is to stop participating in it. His ideas provide a perspective that removes my panic without lulling me back to sleep. The closing words of his March 22, 2002 speech sum it up:

"So if you want to listen to some voices outside the cocoon, it's not hard to hear them, and they'll answer the questions about why there's a campaign of hatred against us, whether it's now or in 1958, and in a good part of the rest of the world where people just don't enjoy being ground to dust under somebody's boot. They don't like it, and it leads to hatred. You can indulge in the fantasies if you like, but that's a choice. You certainly don't have to."

Power and Terror reads well; the speeches and interviews flow in a logical, conversational way. And Chomsky's look at terrorism without the lens of hypocrisy is refreshing. – Paula Hoemann

 

Capitalism's Higher Purpose
The Soul of Capitalism: Opening Paths to a Moral Economy by William Greider. Simon & Schuster, 2003. Hardcover, $28.

William Greider's back with a new book that examines capitalism with a critical but hopeful eye. Greider has made a name for himself as a reporter for The Washington Post, "Frontline" on PBS and The Nation magazine. His two previous books, Who Will Tell the People and Secrets of the Temple were praised for their insight and depth investigation of American politics and the Federal Reserve.

American-style capitalism is under attack today not only from ideologues on the far left but also, and more significantly, from political moderates. Increasingly, moderates are growing cynical in the face of blatant corruption on Wall Street, corporate shenanigans on a grand scale, pension funds theft, government policy dictated by special interests, and large-scale environmental destruction at home and abroad.

Few of us are eager to abandon capitalism, but can we "fix" capitalism so that it has a "soul" or higher purpose of more equitably meeting the broad needs of society? How can our economy contribute to democracy rather than dimish it? Grieder doesn't put much faith in liberals' demands for more legislation or regulation, but he finds hope in the creative new business models quietly taking root in U.S. enterprise.

Greider writes at length about companies today that are successfully replacing feudalistic hierarchies with shared ownership and decision-making.

"Running a successful business is difficult," he writes, "and self-ownership is more so, because people must also alter their own attitudes and aspirations and develop new, more trusting relations among themselves. Profound change is always difficult, yet it is always required to reach the next important stage in human fulfillment."

Although "This country has its fools and scoundrels," Greider writes, "on the whole the people are quite remarkable, resourceful and serious about their lives, often courageous in the worst circumstances. … We have only just begun to the story of who we are, what we might become as a nation."

This book looks at capitalism from many angles, from what's taught in business schools to the paradoxes of high-tech enterprise and from the impact of local government to consumer demand. In all, Greider is optimistic about the engine that runs our economy. — Ted Taylor

 

Unlock Your Creative DNA

The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life, A Practical Guide by Twyla Tharp. Simon & Schuster, 2003. Hardcover, $25.

"Without passion, all the skill in the world won't lift you above craft. Without skill, all the passion in the world will leave you eager but floundering. Combining the two is the essence of the creative life."

So says one of this country's most creative choreographers in The Creative Habit, intended to be a practical guide to creativity for anybody, but in effect really useful for those who want to make art of any kind, but particularly dance.

The book's dozen chapters include a number of strategies for unlocking what Tharp calls one's creative DNA. While many of them are potentially useful, they also function as a the author's creative autobiography and a description of her own process. Chapter 2, "Rituals of Preparation," is a case in point. Tharp describes her process of going to the gym and working out at an impossibly early hour of the day. Then she strongly advises readers to develop their own.

Tharp isn't known for either modesty or humility, and neither quality is apparent here, but her candor in Chapter 11, "An A in Failure" is commendable. In describing the Chicago tryout failure of what became the Tony-award winning Movin' Out, she turns her own artistic problems into an object lesson in corrective action.

It is interesting, if appalling, that Tharp, who is extraordinarily well read and articulate and whose thinking is most of the time as elegant as her choreography, lists no women at all as her artistic heroes in any field. Beethoven, Mozart, Yeats, Rembrandt, Matisse, and Balanchine are on her list of role models — choices about whom no one can quibble — but does Tharp think no women belong on that list? Perhaps not, which is unfortunate, because the battle for recognition of women artists still needs to be fought and fought hard.

That being said, The Creative Habit contains much that is interesting and practical, particularly for artists beginning their careers. — Martha Ullman West

 

Using Less, Living Better
Radical Simplicity: Small footprints on a finite Earth by Jim Merkel. New Society Publishers, 2003. Paperback, $17.95.

Perhaps a more interesting story than the reconfigured concepts in Jim Merkel's book is the author's own transformation from Defense Department computer designer to sustainable-living guru. The Exxon Valdez spill raised Merkel's consciousness, and he's put the guilt to good use.

After 14 years searching for a simpler way of life, Merkel has created a work that uses three tools to help those who want to recreate their lifestyle.

The first measures the impact or ecological footprint you make on earth's resources in your daily life, using a series of calculations designed to break down the smallest components of consumption into a measurable equation. The second tool offers a way to become financially free by saving money, eliminating debt and finding right livelihood. The third emphasizes the need to get close to nature.

At times a lovely, well-written read, at other times a slog through calculus, Radical Simplicity is nonetheless a worthwhile contribution to the body of sustainability literature. For those who can't suffer through the math, another option to measure your ecological footprint is found on the Internet at www.lead.org/leadnet/footprint/intro.htmWhether you use the book or take the online quiz, you'll be amazed at how much more you consume than you need. —Aria Seligmann

 

Past and Present
Living on the Earth by Alicia Bay Laurel. Gibbs Smith, 2003. Paperback, $18.95.

Alicia Bay Laurel's Living on the Earth was first released in 1970 and tagged "the hippie bible." The New York Times calls the author "the Martha Stewart of the hippie age," for her complete manual on simple living in her own handwriting with her sketches.

Bay Laurel (not her parents' surname but her favorite tree) provides information on topics as diverse as furniture, candlemaking, backpacking, midwifery, sewing drawstring pants, making sunflower milk and gardening. Its timeliness and relevance to a generation poised for change made Living on Earth a best-seller when it first came out.

For The Whole Earth Catalog, J.D. Smith writes, "This could be the best book in this catalog. It is a book for people. If you are a person, it is for you. If you are a dog, for example, and can't read very well, it still might be for you…"

Re-released in November to turn on the next generation to a simpler way of life, Living on Earth, printed and bound in the U.S. on recycled paper with soy-based ink, contains then 20-year-old Bay Laurel's original introduction, "When we depend less on industrially produced consumer goods, we can live in quiet places. Our bodies become vigorous; we discover the serenity of living with the rhythms of the earth. We cease oppressing one another."

And from her home in Maui, Bay Laurel adds in this version, "I had hoped at the time that living in wilderness would guarantee the awakening of compassion. Today I see this most profound evolution occuring everywhere. It is key to our survival as a species!" —Aria Seligmann

 

 

 


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