By Jincy Willett
Thomas Dunne Books; 323 pp.; $23.95
"A well-wrought piece of fiction, I used to lecture Guy, helps us make sense out of the chaos of our lives. Why be deliberately obscure when real life is so impossibly fractured and opaque?"
That Dorcas Mather, narrator of Jincy Willett's first novel, should use the word "lecture" while addressing a well-published, National Book Award-winning novelist, Guy DeVilbiss, goes no small way in defining her character. A confirmed New England spinster and 44-year-old virgin, Dorcas tells her raucous narrative in a manner that best suits a lifelong librarian: as a novel composed as she reacts to another book, the reading of which occurs while Dorcas, in "her library," waits out an approaching hurricane.
Winner of the National Book Award is the life of Dorcas' twin sister rendered first through an appalling and sensationalistic memoir -- In the Driver's Seat: The Abigail Mather Story -- and again through Dorcas' clarifications and elaborations as she reads along. Naturally, the novel morphs into Dorcas' story as well.
The Mathers are lifelong New Englanders, in particular, Rhode Islanders: "Rhode Island natives ... are under ordinary circumstances so shy and mistrustful around people they don't know as to seem almost deranged. ... [W]e have no stage presence at all, no Southern theatrics, Midwestern irony, Western hyperbole, New York cynicism. We don't even have the famous and overrated Maine understatement. We have instead an Unfortunate Manner."
No small coincidence that the Mather sisters share their name with New England's famous and influential forefathers: Increase Mather, president of Harvard University, and his son, Cotton Mather, both noted Puritan clergy and authors. But while Dorcas assumes the Puritan conventions of self-control and denial, Abigail lives a life in open defiance of such qualities. Abigail is a physically abundant woman with abundant appetites. The men in her life, with one notable exception, last only so long as they give her pleasure. The sisters complement and encourage each other. Together they raise Abigail's daughter, Anna, and Dorcas' struggle with her sister's promiscuity never overwhelms her affection. Dorcas even notes that "When it comes to books, I am a sensuous woman," especially when the "new book pile" awaits cataloging.
Their comfortable albeit unconventional lives shift when Conrad Lowe, DeVilbiss' college roommate, visits. Lowe attracts Abigail because he ignores her; he attracts Dorcas because she finds him funny. ("He was funny; this was one of his worst traits.") Despite herself, Dorcas enjoys his company, her acerbic wit seduced by his.
Eventually, Lowe's pathological manner surpasses his favorable traits and is magnified with his marriage to Abigail. His many transgressions involve organizing an "intervention" party to discuss Abigail's weight, with Dorcas and Anna the unwitting guests. Intervention parties were in great favor, Dorcas writes, and involve "luring an unsuspecting citizen into the company of those very humans he has every right to trust in order to confront him with his most obvious frailties." They have gotten so popular that "even in the exurbs the prudent alcoholic avoids friendly gatherings of more than two, and even then leaves his motor running."
Plot elements aside (almost insignificant), the star of Willett's novel is her witty and likable narrator, Dorcas Mather, who one suspects is a good deal like her author.
-- Lisa C. Hickman
By Tobias Wolff
Knopf; 195 pp.; $22
At first glance, Tobias Wolff's novel Old School brings to mind the novelist John Knowles. The cover photo of adolescent boys sitting at rows of long dinner tables, dressed identically in dark suits with heads bowed in prayer, immediately recalls Knowles' A Separate Peace. But aside from the same setting -- a New England boys' prep school -- the similarities end there.
Old School chronicles the life, specifically the school-age years, of a narrator who does his best to fit in among the rich boys. Although this fictional formula is not uncharted territory, Wolff's presentation of his narrator's struggles is exceptional.
That narrator is never named, but we learn several key things about him -- his Jewish heritage, the death of his mother, and, most importantly, his love of literature. This last fact the author introduces in the book's opening sentences, and it carries the plot of the entire novel.
At this school of privilege, students are regularly treated to visits by literary giants, and a student writing contest is judged by that "giant." To the victor go the spoils: a private session between the visiting writer and the winning student. Robert Frost and Ayn Rand both stop by, but no author is more anticipated than Ernest Hemingway. In a school where bravery is worn on the sleeve and spoken of openly, the larger-than-life author, war veteran, and confidant to presidents and politicians is greatly admired.
Our narrator admires Hemingway too but struggles to compose a fictional piece for the writing contest. At the last hour, after reading through earlier student compilations, he "discovers" his story. The piece is more than a fictional reflection of his life. It is a confession of his desire to be accepted for the person he is instead of for the persona he has constructed.
When the narrator is accused of plagiarism, however, he is stripped of his winning title and expelled from the school. Instead of ending the story at this point, however, Wolff follows the narrator's life after his fall and after he learns of another dark secret from another "mask wearer" at the school. The novel explores the ramifications in the lives of them both.
Old School is Tobias Wolff's first novel in a career that has included acclaimed short stories and the memoir This Boy's Life. Here he's made plagiarism not so much an immoral act as one of survival. The book will appeal to any reader who's ever wondered, "If only I were ..." -- Janel Davis
By Harry Mulisch
Viking; 180 pp.; $22.95
"What mattered in art was always the how, never the what," Dutch author Harry Mulisch writes in his disappointing new novel, Siegfried. "The art form was the real content."
A slim book that still lacks focus and concision, Siegfried excels in neither the how nor the what; both the story and its telling are fundamentally flawed.
Siegfried opens with Rudolf Herter, a Dutch writer famous for his 1,000-page epic novel, The Invention of Love. He is in Vienna with his much younger companion, Maria, for a "cultural-affairs program," which will involve interviews, dinners, and a public reading. During a question-and-answer session with a television reporter, Herter stumbles across an idea for a novel about Hitler: "By now a hundred thousand studies have been devoted to him, if not more: political, historical, economic, psychological, sociological, theological, occult, and so on ad infinitum. All those so-called explanations have simply made him more invisible," Herter theorizes. "Perhaps fiction is the net that he can be caught in." But how, he wonders, can anyone devise a more extreme story for Hitler than the one the FÅhrer created for himself?
Following a lecture and book signing the next evening, Herter is approached by an elderly couple named Ullrich and Julia Falk, who have an amazing story that will add the crucial piece to the puzzle of Hitler. Servants at Berghof, Hitler's mountain retreat, the Falks know of Hitler's secret son named Siegfried, a child he had with his lover, Eva Braun. In a political move, however, Hitler forced the Falks to claim the baby as their own and raise it themselves at Berghof. His actions toward the boy, especially as the Nazi forces begin to realize their defeat, reflect Hitler's true spirit -- or lack thereof.
If Siegfried begins as a novel about writing a novel, it becomes something much more banal: another gee-whiz, what-if novel about Hitler. If the first half manages to sustain a storyline, the second half descends into a morass of philosophizing with only the barest fictive frame. As Herter raves into his tape recorder, Mulisch writes that Hitler was a "nihilistic divinity" or "an extraexistential being: Nothingness," but it all amounts to nothing more than a parlor trick -- clever but ultimately useless.
If indeed fiction is the only way to get at Hitler, which seems to be the most interesting point Mulisch has to make, then why does Siegfried resort to such a transparently nonfictional method as the bald exposition of ideas? Perhaps because Mulisch is not writing the novel as a vehicle to search for answers but merely as a means to explain his own predetermined conclusions. He has only to put those ideas in the mouths of noncharacters like Herter and Maria and wait for the perfect time to draw everything together in a stiffly calculated finale.
But in providing such a pat conclusion that only proclaims his own self-regard, Mulisch sacrifices the how in favor of the what. The result is a novel with no trace of a soul, which, ironically, is Herter's precise charge against Hitler.
-- Stephen Deusner
By Jim Crace
Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 246 pp.; $23
British fiction writer Jim Crace is a graceful artist, almost a minimalist -- one is tempted to label him such after his last book, the beautiful, Borgesian The Devil's Larder -- except that he can write a story of depth and complexity that rivals the best novelists today. He has done so with his new novel, Genesis, a DeLilloesque exploration of love and sex, personality and politics, set in an Orwellian no-time. Our main character is a vain, celebrated actor named Felix "Lix" Dean, a man with dangerous potency. Every woman he beds he impregnates.
Crace opens Genesis with the end of the story: Lix married to Mouetta, his final wife, as far as this narrative goes. "Every woman he dares to sleep with bears his child. So now, it is Mouetta's turn," the novel begins. Crace then slowly illuminates the denouement through flashback. He even numbers the first chapter "6." It's a cunning device and serves his story well: You are witness to the construction of character, not to mention the polymorphous sociopolitical environment, which becomes more oppressive as the story proceeds.
Genesis takes place in an Everycity, a place of turmoil somewhat like the near-future, an unnamed European metropolis called here only City of Kisses (Paris?) or City of Balconies (Verona?). The repression Crace is getting at is both personal and political: "It's hard to credit now our absurd lightheartedness, our determined disregard for any law and regulation. All the things our parents should have cared about were flouted on the street, without a care, with appetite." And of one of Lix's wives, the activist/feminist Freda, who happens to be Mouetta's cousin, the author says, "She wanted the drama of the streets relocated in between the sheets." Sex is politicized and every lover judged.
Crace is a seductive storyteller -- each flashback chapter reads like a dark fable, and Lix becomes, to some extent, less (or more) sympathetic as he is delineated, depending on your point of view. It's a complex portrait. Crace says of him, "Lix, for all his faults, for all his fickleness, was capable of love." At least that.
Genesis is a sexy, pungent piece of writing. It builds on an already distinguished body of work that includes the award-winning novel Being Dead, whose method is similar to this newest book's. It too begins at the end. Crace carries this conceit off with nimble and stylish aplomb. The past seems inescapable. It seems not even past.
-- Corey Mesler
By DBC Pierre
Canongate Books; 288 pp.; $23
Move over Catcher in the Rye. There's a new book on the shelves guaranteed to become the preferred reading material of serial killers and psychopaths everywhere. That book is Vernon God Little, a first novel by the pseudonymous DBC (Dirty but Clean) Pierre, an international confidence man who claims that his newfound love of fiction writing is his first step on the road to absolution.
This is, in fact, an infuriating, inconsistent mess of a novel filled with the kinds of strained, semipoetic metaphors that only Tom Robbins can pull off on a good day. ("Soft as an ovary falling on oatmeal." Whaaaa?) That said, Vernon God Little might just be a masterpiece in spite of itself: chilling and truer than anyone might ever care to admit.
Pierre's black comedy is more critical than satirical, and the author borrows content and style from J.D. Salinger, Immanuel Kant, Don DeLillo, Sanford and Son, Beavis & Butt-head and the list goes on. The book's trial-by-television theme is hardly ground-breaking, and an absurd (yet predictable) 11th-hour reprieve is filched directly from The Threepenny Opera. But at the center of the story is Vernon, a world-weary 15-year-old who came of age in the era of Internet porn and fast food. He is the Holden Caulfield for a new, more dangerous century with an anal fixation and angst to spare. Falsely accused of a Columbine-style slaying, he chooses flight over fight, and his misadventures take the reader on a tour of America's collective underwear drawer, where our dirtiest secrets are buried. In so doing, the novel exposes the great, unspeakable flaw of democracy: Sometimes the majority is wrong to the point of perversion. Sometimes the most unnatural crimes really are the product of minority oppression. Sometimes the truth is hidden in plain sight, and justice is crippled by her blindness.
Vernon Little suspects we are all born with an invisible knife in our backs. He knows that if you let anyone close enough to discover the knife's whereabouts, they will twist it again and again. He saw his best friend, Jesus, a sexually confused (and abused) teenager perpetually tortured by his peer group, mow down 16 students before sneaking a bullet into his own brain. Implicated by circumstance, Vernon watches his life turn into an amped-up version of The Truman Show. He sees his little hometown prosper from his suffering and notoriety. He trusts only the great, unrequited love of his life, a bubble-headed babe with stars in her eyes, to help him in his time of need and is repaid with selfishness and treachery. She plays on Vernon's raging teenage hormones to goad him into a false confession. "Tell me you killed them for me," she whispers, as U.S. marshals wait outside the door. "Tell me you killed them for me."
Vernon God Little draws inspiration not only from the Columbine massacre but also from the kangaroo trial of the West Memphis 3 and "reality programming." It's a clear and vivid portrait of how deviants are not born but created. It shows us an America that dreams its monsters into existence.
"What kind of life was that?" Vernon asks as he awaits execution. "A bunch of movies, and people talking about movies, and shows about people talking about movies."
When the wheels of commerce grind real life into fiction, who can separate truth from lies? DBC Pierre, that's who.
-- Chris Davis
By Stephen Hunter
Simon & Schuster; 403 pp.; $24.95
Much as we suspected, Earl Swagger did not make his way home from the swamps of Mississippi (Pale Horse Coming) and settle down to chasing speeders on Arkansas highways. It seems that, while leaving his young son Bob Lee home to ponder the question "to hunt or not to hunt" (or more specifically, "to shoot or not to shoot"), the World War II hero turned patrolman and gangbuster went off to Cuba and piddled around in the Cold War. Or so it says in Havana, the most recent installment in the Swagger series by Stephen Hunter.
Now, you just know it has to be fun when the honorable redneck lawman gets tapped by Walter "Frenchy" Short, a CIA operative who has betrayed him once before (Hot Springs) to carry out the Big Noise (assassination) the agency has decided is necessary to make upstart rebels (i.e., Castro) realize that America means business. Of course, Russia is pretty serious too, in 1953; and Speshnev (aka Zek 4715, from Gulag No. 432, Siberia) also arrives on the island to protect Castro so he can be trained and polished for the Soviets' purposes. Meyer Lansky is well ensconced, running the casinos and various other enterprises; and he inherits Frankie Carbine (the Times Square Horsekiller), who teams up with the local sadist, Ojos Bellos ("Beautiful Eyes," so-named for what he can do with a sharp blade), to accomplish the Mob's idea of the American way. There is one loyal prostitute and one glamorous woman to help Earl when he gets into a little trouble. Castro spends most of his time napping and hiding. Hemingway stops by for a drink.
This is largely a novel of time and place. In his Acknowledgments, which are placed at the back of the book, Hunter says that he had meant to flesh out the character and career of Earl Swagger but ended up contradicting some material in Black Light. Hunter revels in his own inconsistencies (picture Yoknapataw-phans carrying .38s), and it's obvious that he had fun with Havana. He's been busy the last few years -- writing novels, winning a Pulitzer Prize, and holding onto his day job as film critic for The Washington Post. He refers to Havana as a roman noir set in a film noir. I saw it more as Dick Tracy in 3-D.
Havana is pleasant reading. It can even make you laugh out loud. It is not a book that will scare you if you read it alone late at night, but it might not be compelling enough to keep you awake till all hours in the first place. At any rate, Hunter's ongoing tilt with Papa is entertaining. So too are a few tidbits thrown our way to keep us looking ahead for more. Don't be surprised if future installments take us back to boot camp, where we learn why Earl hates Navy men. Or maybe Frankie will make good on his threat to do in the man who really shot Ben Siegel. It's more likely, though, that Hunter will follow up Havana with a more serious, plot-driven novel. At this point, the biggest mystery is whether Hunter can deliver a hero with real character, as opposed to a cast of "characters" in motion. We already know he can't touch women with a 10-foot pole. -- Linda Baker
A Book of Musings
By Amy Tan
Putnam; 398 pp.; $24.95
When people ask what I do for a living, I have a bad habit of shrugging and saying, "I type."
Of course, this downplays what I actually do: organizing what people say, think, and do into a (hopefully) powerful or interesting newspaper story. But to the outward and modern eye, I sit at my blue iMac, clicking the mouse and clacking the keys.
And were one watching this little writing endeavor, he or she would glean very little insight from the experience. There is no way to see the internal struggle over word choice, where inspiration comes from, or what the end result will look like.
That is what makes Amy Tan's latest, The Opposite of Fate, particularly compelling. In this book of essays, fans of Tan's novels -- The Joy Luck Club, The Kitchen God's Wife, The Hundred Secret Senses, The Bonesetter's Daughter -- now get a peek at the real Amy. She does not play champion-level chess. She does not have a philandering husband. But her grandmother did commit suicide by swallowing raw opium. And she does draw great inspiration from her mother.
Tan writes of her "real" life as vividly as she writes of her fictional lives. And as the old saw goes, truth is often stranger than fiction. Many of her novels pivot on coincidences and eerie circumstances. But what to make of the ghost in Tan's San Francisco home? Or the brain tumors that killed first her older brother and then her father, both within a year's time?
One of the most poignant essays in the book is the true story of Tan's grad-school roommate, a young man named Pete. His tragic -- and strangely foreseen -- death eventually led Tan toward writing novels. After his murder, Pete began to come to Tan in dreams, giving his support and advice, and it was dream-Pete who told her she would one day be a writer.
The Opposite of Fate spans moments from Tan's childhood to the events that have happened since publication of her first novel -- making The Joy Luck Club into a movie, going on tour with the Rock Bottom Remainders (a band that includes Dave Barry and Stephen King), and coming up with a Cliff's Notes version of her life. But because the book is not a memoir but a collection of essays, Tan returns to some events and thoughts again and again.
While worthy as a stand-alone tale of an Asian-American novelist, The Opposite of Fate works best as a companion piece to the author's works. Like the bonus features on a DVD, it offers insight into Tan herself.
-- Mary Cashiola
By Sidney S. McMath
The University of Arkansas Press;
476 pp.; $34.95
In one of the saddest press releases you'll ever give an ex-post-facto read to, the University of Arkansas Press served notice last summer that the venerable Sid McMath, a nonagenarian and well-regarded former governor of Arkansas, would participate in "a whirlwind tour approaching the velocity of a high-powered political campaign" and would "once again stump the state, only this time to promote his memoir Promises Kept." That book tour was to have begun on October 3rd and, after 14 appearances in all, was to have ended on December 20th. McMath developed what was described as an "irregular heartbeat" on the very eve of the proposed tour, however, and died at his Little Rock home on October 4th.
It is hard not to imagine that the excitement might have proved too much for the 91-year-old braveheart who fought in World War II as a Marine and rode a veterans' reformist campaign into the Arkansas statehouse in 1948 -- a "clean-up" crusade chronicled in part within novelist Stephen Hunter's best-selling 2000 thriller, Hot Springs. An unabashed liberal at a time when the desegregation controversy was beginning to complicate Democratic primary elections, McMath was upset in his reelection bid in 1952 -- a circumstance in effect terminating a career that many observers (including the old Life magazine, which made him the subject of a cover article) had seen as potentially leading to the presidency. McMath made two abortive comeback attempts -- a 1954 U.S. Senate race which just fell short and a 1962 gubernatorial race against his former protÇgÇ, Orval Faubus, the man who disappointed McMath and other Arkansas progressives by making common cause with segregationists.
All this is accounted for in Promises Kept, a fetching memoir of McMath's wartime and political experiences that also chronicles some of the several pathfinding legal cases that he was involved in after his career as a public official had come to an end. The only aspect of McMath's life that a reader might wish he'd given more detail to was the roadbuilding "scandal" (some regarded it as wholly artificial) that the then governor's political enemies used against him in the 1952 election. Ironically enough, the affair -- which involved allegations of improperly awarded contracts -- was the outcome of an ambitious McMath project designed to bring postwar Arkansas, hobbled by a lack of usable thoroughfares, into the modern world -- one in which such political successors as Senators J. William Fulbright, Dale Bumpers, and David Pryor (the last of whom provides an appreciative foreword) and, most notable of all, Bill Clinton were to make their mark. -- Jackson Baker
By Mark Salzman
Knopf; 325 pp.; $24
For a teen gangbanger in Los Angeles, the prospect of picking up a pencil and committing his feelings to paper probably seems like a sissy thing to do. In the world of guns and gang colors, self-expression is often limited to graffiti tags scribbled on passing trains or on the walls of rundown convenience stores. But there's a small miracle lurking in the pages of Mark Salzman's True Notebooks, the real-life tale of how a published author magically transformed seemingly hopeless thugs into poets and composers of poignant prose.
True Notebooks is a journal of Salzman's experiences teaching a writing class composed of young murderers and thieves locked down in an L.A. juvie hall facility. At first glance, I thought the premise sounded a bit clichÇ, but Salzman does such a great job showing the transformation these kids experience through writing that it's hard not to be moved.
Salzman, author of the novel Lying Awake and the memoir Iron and Silk, had been experiencing problems developing a young gangbanger character in a novel he was working on. When he turned to a fellow author for help, his friend invited Salzman to observe his writing class at the local youth detention center. Salzman decided to give the idea a spin, but after class, he was approached by a persistent nun who, without giving him much chance to consider it, convinced him to start his own class.
Naturally, Salzman was hesitant at first: a middle-aged, white book nerd teaching a group of mostly Latino and African-American hoodlums how to write. He foresaw disaster, and as a reader, I did too. I pictured a scene from one of those inner-city-school-meets-substitute-teacher movies where, despite the sub's passionate desire to change the kids' troubled lives, something horrible happens anyway. But much to Salzman's and my surprise, he was just what some of the kids needed.
Most of them came from broken homes, joined a gang to replace the family they never had, and then, by some unfortunate turn of events, committed murder. During their incarceration, they were given more than enough time to think about what they'd done, and most were filled to the brim with unexpressed emotions. Inside the classroom, the words came pouring out. Salzman reprints them here, and considering that these are no straight-A students, most of it is decent. Essay topics range from lamenting the missing father figure to appreciating the beauty of clouds floating past prison-cell windows.
Salzman was the first role model these boys had been exposed to in a while, and writing class became their weekly moment of escape. Meanwhile, Salzman's muse was returning through these unlikely mediums.
In True Notebooks, Salzman has a way of making the boys at Central Juvenile Hall seem more like misguided youth than cold-blooded killers, and by the book's end, you'll find yourself wishing them all a second chance.
-- Bianca Phillips
Diary of an Ordinary Iraqi
By Salam Pax
Grove Press; 203 pp.; $13 (paper)
The word "clandestine" in the subtitle may be misleading: a 30-year-old architect, schooled in Vienna, maintained (at risk to his freedom) a detailed online journal (a Web log) that was followed by people around the world. The word "ordinary" in the subtitle may be misleading too: Pax, an artistic, music-loving intellectual in a place run by fundamentalists, writes that his general mistrust of religion is enough for him to be considered an "infidel" by any "regular Joe" in Baghdad.
Pax's ordinariness can be found in his gut reaction to war in general. His allergy to hypocrisy and doom is surpassed only by his hay fever, of which he writes, "The sexual life of palm trees makes me weep." It is this sort of detail, in the midst of descriptions of burning, oil-filled trenches, that stuns the reader into a realization beyond weeping: American bombs are falling on people just like us.
Pax addresses his friend, Raed, who is traveling outside Iraq: "[A]nd do you know what else I read in The New York Times? The American troops they are studying how the Israeli Army fought in Jenin. Jenin. Remember how Jenin looked like after the siege? How comforting is that?"
As a glimpse of life in Baghdad leading up to the war in Iraq, Pax's "blog" is by turns sad and funny. He recounts absurdities like the various "controlled" television networks and lousy programming ("they even do the channel-surfing for you -- do they love us or what?") and the silly, official practice of spelling out the name of the band Bush on the radio, all the while turning a sharply ironic eye on the day-to-day: "The black market price of a locally produced bullet for your lovingly customized AK-47 is 35 Iraqi dinars -- that's less than two cents or cheaper than the price of one chemically flavoured Iraqi lollipop. Go suck on a bullet, kid."
A media junkie, he uses the Internet as a tool for acquiring and dispensing information, which highlights the main difference between this war and Gulf War I: The immediacy of the Web, like a window in real-time, presents a starker picture than the greenish night-vision videos of smart bombs raining down during 1991.
Pax's portrait of Baghdad includes street vendors hawking cola drinks named for holy Arab sites and scenes of his family and friends trying to simultaneously prepare for and distance themselves from the inevitability of war. (It is somehow unsettling to find that five million people reside in the capital, or did before the attacks began.) He observes "creepy journalists" and national leaders who act like idiots and, like an Iraqi version of Dilbert, recounts hilarious exchanges with his employer, "Evil_Boss_Unit." When the sirens go off and the bombs start dropping, he reveals that the favorite movie in his hunkered-down household (filled to overflowing with displaced extended family) is Ice Age.
Pax was eventually asked to contribute to The Guardian of London and toured Iraq with Raed in order to photograph and document civilian casualties and those uprooted by the fighting. His unsparing wit, like his journal, negates boundaries: "No good news anywhere. No light at the end of the tunnel -- and the American advance doesn't look that reassuring. If we had a mood barometer in the house it would read TO HELL WITH SADDAM AND MAY HE QUICKLY BE JOINED BY BUSH."
Perhaps it is this observation that makes Salam Pax an appealingly honest Iraqi citizen of the world and an ordinary human being. Like an extended prose poem on the uselessness of war and control, Salam Pax is a triumph of mood and tone -- a beautiful offering to an ugly world.
-- Denise Parkinson
By Saira Shah
Knopf; 254 pp.; $24
"Two people live inside me. Like a couple who rarely speak, they are not compatible. My Western side is sensitive, liberal, middle-class pacifist. My Afghan side I can only describe as a rapacious robber baron. It revels in bloodshed, glories in risk and will not be afraid."
Saira Shah, author of the memoir The Storyteller's Daughter, is describing herself. She grew up in England but was seduced by the tales her father told her -- wild ancient myths, fables, and the irresistible climb up a family tree that once was rooted in a land of plentiful fruit, beautiful birds, and magical pools of water.
While Shah pays no mind to her mother's Indian heritage, she is eager to absorb Afghan culture and have that culture absorb her. And her father encourages her -- until she actually wants to go to Afghanistan. Her father wants to keep her safely in that fantasy place he has created; he does not want her in the destroyed and dangerous Soviet-invaded country. But she goes anyway and works as a freelance journalist, eventually producing the well-regarded documentary Beneath the Veil.
By the time Shah made that documentary, those two people inside her were melding. But before, as a young woman, she had used both to suit her whims. There was the time she attended a family wedding in Pakistan and decided that an arranged marriage to a cousin was what she wanted. The Westerner in her changed her mind. The Afghani in her got her out of the match. Families lost face, but Shah decided it was absolutely proper to keep all the nice gifts her suitor bought her.
This theme of emotional division is a tricky one that can lean toward the corny. But Shah is an elegant writer and her experiences were amazing. She climbed mountains for days, was smuggled into hostile territories, suffered frostbite, had a gun held to her head, disguised herself as a man, and struggled to flee bombs in a burka.
By recounting her experiences and by going back and forth in time, adding old Afghan stories to sum up her situation, Shah thoroughly illustrates the mindset of her half-countrymen, which led to that country's crumbling. Likewise, she unveils her own mindset and the crumbling of her father's idyllic country. -- Susan Ellis
By John Hollinger
Brassey's, Inc.; 302 pp.; $21.95 (paper)
Before I tell you about John Hollinger, I need to tell you about Bill James.
James, a self-taught statistical expert and truly original thinker, has profoundly impacted the study of baseball over the past 20 years by taking widely accepted assumptions (the way batting orders are constructed, the way relief pitchers are used, etc.) and subjecting them to rigorous and objective statistical analysis. James' work has inspired an entire generation of fans (this one included) and, in recent years, he has begun to affect the way the game is managed and played, culminating this year in the bestselling book Moneyball (see below) and with James' own hiring as a consultant for the Boston Red Sox.
Hollinger, the basketball editor for CNNSI.com, cites James as a primary influence on his Pro Basketball Prospectus, a hopefully annual publication currently in its second edition. It is essentially a basketball equivalent to the Baseball Abstract James published annually in the '80s.
Pro Basketball Prospectus includes lengthy essays on each NBA team, focusing on franchise-building and management strategies. It also profiles every player in the league. These profiles are spiked with Hollinger's own statistical analyses, the methods of which are outlined in a separate essay. Several thematic essays early in the book focus on topics such as how to evaluate individual defensive performances statistically and how to predict the career paths of young players.
Like James, Hollinger exposes the folly of conventional wisdom. One example is the "assist-turnover ratio," which is constantly referenced not only by journalists and announcers but even by coaches. It's a dumb statistic that doesn't capture the on-court skills (a player's effectiveness as a ball-handler and passer) that it is meant to reflect. Hollinger explains why and replaces it with something better. His message (which any thinking fan should agree with): Statistics only lie if they're misused.
Also like James, Hollinger is not only an original and persuasive number-cruncher but an engaging, humorous writer. Fans looking for a good read rather than a compendium of stats won't be disappointed. (Hollinger on former Wizards point guard Tyronn Lue: "One of the great things about basketball is that you'll always see new things you never thought could happen. For instance, I never thought there could be a player who would be a dead ringer for Jar-Jar Binks, but then Tyronn Lue came along.")
Pro Basketball Prospectus is a long-overdue project that hoops junkies with an affinity for numbers will treasure, but even basketball fans who weren't high school mathletes should have their appreciation for the game enhanced by it.
For more information on John Hollinger or the Pro Basketball Prospectus or basketball in general, consult Hollinger's Web site, Alleyoop.com. -- Chris Herrington
By Michael Lewis
Norton; 288 pp.; $24.95
Michael Lewis, known for his insights into the financial world -- Liar's Poker and The Money Culture come to mind -- takes a slight detour in Moneyball, a behind-the-scenes look at high-stakes baseball prospecting.
Focusing on Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics, Moneyball argues that a major-league team can stay competitive by being shrewd. The trick is statistical analysis and a willingness to challenge the old-fashioned way of evaluating baseball players.
Beane was himself a case study. A gifted athlete 25 years ago, he was considered a can't-miss baseball prospect. He had all the traditional skills used to measure potential -- speed, athleticism, strength, agility. But Beane flopped and learned a lesson: These are valuable qualities, perhaps, but you often overpay for them and don't necessarily get the results you want.
With that in mind, Beane and his gurus started looking for hidden signs of success. On-base percentage is one of those all-important measures, because those who excel at getting on base inevitably produce more runs. And more runs in baseball leads, usually, to more wins. This same methodology can be applied to pitching. The key to good pitching, obviously, is getting outs while keeping people off base. It does not matter if a pitcher throws the ball 90 miles an hour. Pitchers who don't walk batters or who have a gift for inducing groundballs are just as likely to be successful.
Lewis walks us through a baseball draft and a mid-season trade deadline to demonstrate how Beane, through the force of his personality and a disciplined approach, manages to find unexpected talent, such as star pitcher Barry Zito, who was overlooked by many scouts because he did not throw that hard. Lewis gives much of the credit for Beane's system to Bill James, a man who started crunching baseball numbers more than 20 years ago in an effort to improve the way excellence on the field is measured. Fans of Bill James will no doubt recognize the method to Beane's madness.
Can small-market teams compete against those with millions to throw on great players? The question was emphatically answered this year by the upstart Florida Marlins, who won the World Series by beating three teams with much higher payrolls. But the A's were already well on the way to making the case. Agree or disagree with the analysis, Moneyball, which appeared last spring, is a postseason read baseball fans will still enjoy.
-- George Shadroui
True Tales of Rock and Roll Gone Wrong
Edited by Sleazegrinder
Critical Vision; 185 pp.; $19.95 (paper)
A whole book of nightmarish touring stories from mostly obscure rock bands is clearly too much of a bad thing, and the cumulative effect of reading these tales is more than a little numbing. Actually, though, it was a pretty cool idea for an exploitation-press quickie title, but editor Sleazegrinder (aka Ken McIntyre, a Boston-based rock writer) and the bands telling the war stories here promise way more than they can deliver.
There are close to 300 touring vignettes in Gigs From Hell, and what's interesting to note is the similarity of the tales: One or several of the band members are always outrageously drunk or high. The van/vehicle the band is traveling in either breaks down in the boondocks or is in the process of breaking down in a cartoonish fashion (lots of busted radiators, jackknifed trailers, and engines billowing smoke on some highway). The promoter and/or club owner shortchanges the band its money or outright refuses to pay the promised guarantee. The audience is either nonexistent or violently hostile to the band's performance. And the accommodations after the gig are classic fleabag flophouses with grimy sheets or creepy offers from psychotic fans. ("You can stay at my place, dudes.")
If rock-and-roll touring is so universally dire, why do bands keep "getting in the van" (to quote a hoary clichÇ)? There must be some substantial reason why so many rock musicians keep touring despite the degradation. As a onetime bar-band drummer turned reviewing hack who spent a fair amount of time playing the toilet clubs of this great nation in the '80s, I'd say the main draw of touring is the degradation.
There's no purer collective suffering or economic stupidity than taking to the open road in a crappy van filled with musical instruments and like-minded fellow sufferers (your bandmates). Touring is guaranteed to piss you off, make you physically ill, and bankrupt you, financially and morally. Like the gambler who once told me that the "high" is the certainty of losing, touring is all about losing and losers.
This collection of tawdry tales spells out that mindless desire to punish yourself all too perfectly. And, yes, a second volume is already planned.
-- Ross Johnson
Forbidden Territory and Realms of Strife ($25, in paperback) is the one-volume, double-set autobiography by an author you never heard of, and after some 400 pages, you still won't learn a lot about the journalism and less about the novels that made Juan Goytisolo an archenemy of Franco and a fave with Continental Communists starting in the 1950s. But this guy's led an awfully interesting life, if by "interesting" you mean player in mid-century leftist European politics (literary division), friendship with mid-century European writer superstars (especially that jailbird-as-poet Genet), and author of his own mid-century coming-out story (Arab men of the working-class variety being the goal, and goal met, midway Goytisolo's [married] life). Kudos to Verso publishing for bringing Goytisolo to my and now your attention. ... The highlight, hands-down, inside Da Capo Best Music Writing 2003 ($16.95, in paperback): Philip Gourevitch's reprinted New Yorker profile, titled "Mr. Brown," of James Brown. More "forbidden territory": teenage Latinos' inexplicable love affair with Smiths frontman Morrissey, as featured in Chuck Klosterman's "Viva Morrissey!," as brought to you originally inside Spin. ("'People are always asking me if I'm gay because I have a photo of Morrissey hugging Johnny Marr,' says Alex Diaz, a 16-year-old Smiths fanatic who plans on joining the marines when he's old enough. 'My friends always ask me, "Why do you like these queers?" But, you know, he's probably just bisexual.'" You know.) Very honorable mention to: Lawrence Joseph for "The Music Is: The Deep Roots of Detroit R&B" (reprinted from Tin House). But make what you will of Jay McInerney's profile of Fat Possum head honcho Matthew Johnson in "White Man at the Door," run originally in your and my news source for aging Delta bluesmen, (again) The New Yorker. Nice to see here, though: a biographical sketch of Mr. Sahm -- as in, Doug Sahm -- in Mitch Myers' "A Lone Star State of Mind." (Doug Sahm? Find "You're Doing It Too Hard." Push "play." Keep pushing.) For laughs: a rerun of The Onion's "37 Record-Store Clerks Feared Dead in Yo La Tengo Concert Disaster." ... Grant Hart, you were right: It's not funny anymore. Reference to: Da Capo's (again) Milk It! ($17.95, in paperback) by Jim DeRogatis, author of Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs and the author now of some "Collected Musings on the Alternative Music Explosion of the 90's." The word on DeRogatis: terminally self-stuck. And he got fired by Jann Wenner for hating Hootie & The Blowfish? So what. But maybe see his essay "The Original Alternative Rock Band?" (originally run in The Chicago Sun-Times) before you're at the Hi-Tone December 16th. ... Then see Anarchy, Protest & Rebellion ($27.50, in paperback from Thunder's Mouth Press), according to the eye and camera of Fred W. McDar-rah, the Village Voice staff photographer who shot everything and everybody from the late '60s on, if by "everything and everybody" you mean the New York City cultural/political scene, with an early side stop at the '68 Democratic convention in Chicago. These images have either never been published or were first published (and only once) in the Voice, and they're a bona-fide sight to behold and recall: Living Theatre fun-couple Judith Malina and Julian Beck; Charlotte Moorman, topless at her cello and Nam June Paik at her feet; Bread & Puppet Theatre members on Fifth Avenue protesting Vietnam and inspiring today's photogenic antiglobalists; Hubert Selby looking (what?) happy; Susan Sontag under arrest; Linda Gail Lewis (onstage with Jerry) space-aged and spaced out. This in addition to the Black Panthers up to great good in Harlem, Penn Station intact then torn to bits, Alma Mater at Columbia getting a good cleaning, and a bum on the Bowery backed by an equally derelict poster for the musical Stop the World I Want To Get Off. ... Need a photographic update of the strictly writerly variety? See Author Photo: Portraits, 1983-2002 ($35), a retrospective of the work of Marion Ettlinger, published by Simon & Schuster and foreworded by Richard Ford. Ettlinger's stuff can be positively Lucian Freudish -- double that in the case of her "Erica Jong" -- and you've probably spotted some of these 200-plus black-and-white images inside a book jacket or three. No? Go to her "Tobias Wolff," page 16, page one of this very endpapers.
-- Leonard Gill