By Kyle Longley
Louisiana State University Press, 350 pp., $39.95
At a time when the name of Al Gore, who came so near to being the nation's 43rd president only four years ago, may begin to fade out of currency, it is doubly useful to find a new biography of the former vice president's father, Albert Gore Sr. A native of Possum Hollow in Middle Tennessee, he represented the state in the U.S. Senate from 1953 to 1971 and nursed hopes for the presidency himself.
There is the wonderful story about a confrontation on the Senate floor between first-term Senator Gore in 1956 and South Carolinian Strom Thurmond, at the time still a nominal Democrat. At issue was the "Southern Manifesto," a then-notorious declaration in favor of continuing segregation and one signed by most Southerners in Congress. Even Arkansas' renowned senator J. William Fulbright had been cowed into adding his name, but Estes Kefauver and Gore, Tennessee's two senators, were holdouts. In a staged encounter, with the press looking on, Thurmond insisted to Gore, "Albert, we'd like you sign the Southern Manifesto with the rest of us."
Gore's response was simple and eloquent: "Hell, no!"
That same year, Gore launched his own bid for national office, becoming a candidate for the vice presidency when Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson departed from tradition and let the party convention that year decide on his running mate.
Kyle Longley in Senator Albert Gore, Sr. quotes a preexisting recollection from George Reedy, later press secretary to President Lyndon Johnson and then a member of the Texas delegation, along with Senate Majority Leader Johnson: "A man came running up to us, his face absolutely distorted . 'Where is Lyndon?' the man asked. 'I think I've got a chance if I can only get Texas.'" Finally recognizing the interloper as Gore, Reedy recalled, "I have never seen before or since such a complete, total example of a man so completely wild with ambition it had literally changed his features."
There are many such arresting stories reported in Longley's book. Unfortunately, the two cited, like virtually all of the other facts and anecdotes contained therein, are borrowed. Though the book is adorned with a foreword from Al Gore Jr. and the author's bibliography indicates he has conducted some interviews of his own -- mainly with secondary figures -- his work is essentially a compilation of already available information. A clip job, as it were.
There are also annoying errors, beginning with an abundance of misidentifications: Nashville Tennessean political writer Larry Daughtrey becomes "longtime editorial writer Larry Daugherty," for example, while Cartha DeLoach, J. Edgar Hoover's well-known aide-de-camp, is referred to as "Carl." Worse, the views of longtime Commercial Appeal editor Frank Ahlgren, whose paper was always close to the late E.H. Crump, are confused with those of the Memphis Press-Scimitar's Ed Meeman, an anti-Crump crusader. And Lord only knows what Longley, a professor at Arizona State University, means by defining the Church of Christ as "a conservative hybrid of Southern Baptists."
There are times too when Longley seems to forget his own narrative. Having documented the decline in recent years of the progressive tradition in Tennessee, he elsewhere writes of Gore, Kefauver, and former Governor Frank Clement as if they were the Three Amigos, a gallant band of like-minded pathfinders, when, in fact, they were archrivals and virtually the last of the liberal, populist breed that flowered in the Southern states from the New Deal to the mid-'60s.
Even so, Longley's book is a useful addition to the political bookshelf and a reminder of the productive career of the Tennessee Democrat, a Vietnam War opponent and supporter of civil rights who became "Target Number One" for removal by the administration of Richard Nixon. Narrowly defeated by Bill Brock in 1970, the senior Gore would later muse that he had been "promoted to private life by a marginal error on the part of the people of Tennessee." For all the gameness of that, Albert Gore Sr. had taken his defeat hard, and it was perhaps a blessing that he died, in late 1998, at a time when it still seemed that his son might succeed in achieving the ultimate prize that he had coveted for himself. -- Jackson Baker
By Michael Chabon
Fourth Estate, 128 pp., $16.95
I cannot tell you the name of the main character in Michael Chabon's new novel, The Final Solution. The author does not reveal the man's identity, but he leaves small clues peppered throughout the book. What I can tell you is that The Final Solution -- which is set in 1944, many decades after the main character's peak prominence -- is based on a very famous 19th-century literary figure, whose advanced age Chabon imagines with keen wit and formidable imitative abilities. Other characters refer to him simply as "the old man," and while renowned for his investigative prowess that once, many decades ago, regularly confounded constables, his name was "redolent now of the fustian and rectitude of that vanished era." He is an artifact of a different time.
To disclose the old man's identity would diminish the experience of reading this intriguing, intelligent, imaginative book. As the subtitle A Novel of Detection implies, there is a lot to detect and infer in Chabon's story and prose, the protagonist's identity only one matter among many. For example, there is the mute Jewish boy named Linus Steinman. A refugee from Hitler-ruled Germany, Linus lives with the Panicker family in their boarding house, under the eye of an Aid Committee agent named Martin Kalb. Linus' only friend is an African gray parrot named Bruno who recites snippets of Goethe and spouts seemingly random numbers in German.
In addition to Linus' unknown past and Bruno's curious counting, there is the murder of Richard Shane, a boarder at the Panicker residence who is killed by a forceful blow to the back of the head. Was it Mr. Panicker, a clergyman angry at his wife's doting on Shane? Was it Reggie Panicker, the juvenile delinquent who had plans to steal Linus' parrot? Or was it Mr. Parkins, another lodger with hush-hush ties to the war effort? At the behest of the local police, the old man arrives to investigate and, using his scrutinizing eye, eventually and predictably solves the case.
While Chabon maintains a quick pace and indulges in passages of riffing prose that, like the proximity of malice and murder, are meant to excite readers, in many ways The Final Solution is more sobering than its dime-novel premise. Mortality is a crucial theme, especially since the sleuth is himself so old. When he moves, his bones and joints creak loudly, alarming the other characters and seeming to echo throughout the novel. Even so, the old man is valiant in the face of death: "It would please him well enough to amount to no more in the end than a single great organ of detection, reaching into the blankness for a clue."
Perhaps even more powerful is the intersection of this style of light detective fiction with real-life atrocity. As its play-on-words title suggests, The Final Solution concerns the Holocaust, but, as with the main character's identity, the novel mentions neither that terrible event nor its instigator, who has since become synonymous with evil. This reticence may frustrate some readers, but understatement conceals an enormous and weighty idea: For Chabon and his sleuth, the roots of such evil -- its origin and its motivation -- can never be detected, which is simultaneously comforting and utterly horrifying. -- Stephen Deusner
By Marilynne Robinson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 256 pp., $23
In 1980, Marilynne Robinson published her first novel, Housekeeping, to universal acclaim. Rarely has a first book been so accomplished, so masterful, so downright beautifully written. Its every sentence is a crafted work of art, and the overall arc of the book seems to encompass all of life. As the years went by and (save for a couple of nonfiction works) the pen of Robinson remained quiet, the fear began to grow that we were witnessing another Harper Lee. Perhaps, the thinking went, Housekeeping was all she had to say, its crystalline beauty so compact and powerful, it spent its author's gifts. Moreover, it was felt, Housekeeping was enough for any writer to accomplish. But all that went by the wayside when word went out that a second novel was due from Robinson, and now that novel is here.
Let's get the obvious question out of the way early: Is Gilead another Housekeeping? The answer is no. Readers looking for the lyrical language on every page of that first novel will be disappointed.
The more important question: Is Gilead a good novel? Yes, in spades. Different, sparer, told in the flat Midwestern voice of a retired preacher, Gilead is a very good novel indeed. Its subject is how God manifests Himself in ordinary lives. The quest at the heart of the book is passionately realized; the characters, finely etched and memorable.
Gilead is told by the Reverend John Ames, who, nearing death, his sermons behind him, sets out to relate the particulars of his protracted life, a life lived close to God, or so he hopes. He leaves behind a much younger wife and their young son. Ames' dying wish takes the form of a sort of prayer for the living. It also reflects on a life well-lived, including some soul-searching concerning Ames' best friend and his wayward son, John Ames Broughton, the preacher's namesake and a moral thorn in his side. Broughton is a troublesome man, mean-spirited in a way that calls the preacher's good intentions to task. His saga also encompasses generations past, including his Civil War grandfather and his fight with the abolitionists.
The book begins: "I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I'm old, and you said, I don't think you're old." It's a beguiling first sentence, a microcosm of the story about to unfold.
Robinson is also after what makes us human and what binds us together in families, in societies, in the love of God. Ames says, "In every important way we are such secrets from each other, and I do believe that there is a separate language in each of us, also a separate aesthetics and a separate jurisprudence. Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and what is acceptable -- which, I hasten to add, we generally do not satisfy and by which we struggle to live."
Ultimately, Gilead could have come from a writer different from the one who wrote Housekeeping, and indeed this is the case. Marilynne Robinson is 24 years older and, one may assume, a different woman. Over the years, she must have tired of answering the question, When another novel?
Now, she has answered it, and Gilead is her answer -- a hymn to man and God, an invocation for the living, the story of one man's vision, and a lovely prose poem of a book, that leads the reader to ask: What next?
-- Corey Mesler
By John Leland
Ecco/HarperCollins, 386 pp., $26.95
I'd lost track of John Leland in recent years, but he'd always been a heroic figure as an original Spin columnist in the late 1980s. When Rolling Stone presented its list of rock's 100 greatest singles back then -- a typically dreary, conservative list of classic-rock givens that shortchanged punk, hip-hop, and anyone who wasn't a white guy -- Leland hurled a spitball at the big boys with his own alternative list, which championed as the Greatest Single of All-Time Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock's "It Takes Two," a hip-hop hit then still in heavy rotation. Leland was making a point about the value of immediacy in pop music and the stodginess of canonization, but that wasn't all: "It Takes Two" still sounds like a pretty good choice.
Nearly 20 years later, Leland's as sharp as ever too, as illustrated by this 400-page tome of cultural history that charts a longtime American obsession: hipness. In tracing the etymology of the term back to West African tribal words brought to America via slave ship (hepi for "to see" and hipi for "to open one's eyes"), Leland makes the case that hipness is inseparable from racial collision, a story of "the dance of conflict and curiosity" that binds black and white America.
Leland, who acknowledges that he's more interested in the persona than the person (calling the book the history of a public perception), cites Mark Twain and Louis Armstrong as the greatest American embodiments of hip, each of their cultural styles rooted in both Africa and Europe. Leland builds the book around what he calls "convergences of hip," such as the urban migrations of the early 20th century, which happened in concert with the rise of jazz, the Harlem Renaissance, and the Lost Generation; the post-WWII period of bebop and the Beats; and the urban scenes of the 1970s centered around hip-hop and punk. Along the way, he discusses such archetypes of hip as Bob Dylan, Richard Pryor, Miles Davis, and Tupac Shakur.
But Hip: The History isn't entirely a cultural celebration. Citing John Lennon's escape into domestic bliss in New York, Leland acknowledges that hip can be a prison. It can also be a convenient excuse for screw-ups: "This is not a book about devoted fathers, good husbands, or community pillars," Leland writes.
Though Leland puts a hopeful spin on the racial politics of hip, calling it "the story of synthesis in the context of separation," he also acknowledges the aftertaste that sometimes comes from racial emulation or homage. At its worst, Leland writes, hip can be "white supremacy posing as appreciation," "a self-serving release from white liberal guilt, offering cultural reparations in place of the more substantive kind."
-- Chris Herrington
A Walk in the Park
By T.C. Boyle
Viking, 418 pp., $25.95
T. Coraghessan Boyle's Drop City, a 2003 National Book Award finalist, offers the best portrayal of the counterculture movement to date. Yet far from resting after such an accomplishment, Boyle quickly follows Drop City with another remarkable novel, The Inner Circle. Boyle brings many of the same authorial gifts that made his tale of hippies so compelling to the story of Dr. Alfred C. Kinsey and his loyal circle of researchers. As the portrayal of Kinsey expands and deepens, there are moments of admiration, repulsion, and awe.
Kinsey, whose original concentration was the study of Cynipids (gall wasps), turned his attention, intellect, and unyielding work ethic to the study of human sexuality. After years of compiling sexual histories and researching behavior, Kinsey released his controversial reports -- Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953) -- and changed the way Americans thought about human sexuality. Kinsey, in part, was driven by the notion that of all living organisms the sexual nature of human beings was the least studied and understood.
Any difficulties Boyle may have felt attempting to chronicle the life of the noted zoologist-turned-sexologist disappear with his narrative approach. Kinsey's story is told through the eyes of his first and most dedicated disciple, John Milk, whose surname aptly describes aspects of his personality. Milk, who is overly adaptable and weak, clearly cannot contend with the sheer force of Kinsey's personality.
The two men meet when Milk is a student in Kinsey's famous marriage course at the University of Indiana in 1939. Kinsey, after reviewing Milk's sexual history, takes a liking to the young man, finds him employment in the biology department, and trains him as his first field researcher. Like Kinsey, Milk conducts thousands of histories. Often after Kinsey delivers a lecture -- the two travel around the country -- the men would spend hours, sometimes whole nights, taking histories from volunteers.
Gradually, Kinsey, known as "Prok" to his staff, takes on additional researchers and the cultish inner circle is formed. Kinsey demands complete loyalty and secrecy. Circle members should be married and, for all appearances, respectably so. In reality, Kinsey sleeps with his male researchers and encourages sexual freedom and experimentation among all circle members, including spouses. What some might term orgies, voyeurism, and perversity, Kinsey claims as natural and unfettered sexuality. The famous 0-6 scale, for example, one of the more notorious aspects of the Kinsey reports, was devised to chart sexual proclivities, from purely heterosexual (0) to purely homosexual (6). Kinsey felt humans are pansexual (most falling somewhere between 0 and 6), and restrictions imposed by society and religion lead to sexual maladjustments.
The novel would not succeed without the spark of Milk's wife, Iris. Far from a devotee, Iris despises Kinsey and his controlling, manipulating ways. When Kinsey surprises the couple with a down payment and financing for a house as a Christmas bonus, Iris, like Milk, is moved. Yet Kinsey shows up at their home very early the morning after Christmas and insists they look at a house he has predetermined they should buy. He finds it sturdy and economical and its location ideal. Iris detests the crackerbox house and tells Kinsey she will not be "dictated to, bullied or blackmailed." Much more than a house is in dispute, however. Iris knows her husband sleeps with Kinsey and others on the road, and when she falls in love with a member of the inner circle, Kinsey steps in and shuts the affair down. His dispassionate attitude toward sex and his insistence on complete adherence to the code of the inner circle become abundantly clear.
What Boyle accomplishes with Milk as narrator is the intimate introduction of the circle members, their interactions with Kinsey and his wife, and a constantly appraising sidelong look at Kinsey. The man who emerges is famously complex. He is a genius; a fervent workaholic; thrifty bordering on miserly; disapproving of alcohol and tobacco; and famously open minded. His two drives are work and sex. He is superhumanly able to separate emotion, love, and commitment from sexual activity and to refrain from a single judgmental thought. That, more than anything, is the true mystery of Alfred C. Kinsey. -- Lisa C. Hickman
By Michel Faber
Harcourt, 240 pp., $23
Michel Faber has an instinctive, empathic talent for writing from women's perspectives. Under the Skin, his second novel, followed a woman who preys on hitchhikers and unraveled a strange, fearless story. His breakout novel, The Crimson Petal and the White, was a bawdy Victorian epic about a London prostitute named Sugar. These were no mean feats, especially for a male writer: His female protagonists are always real and believable -- and never exploited -- even when plagued by hysteria.
Faber's latest book, The Courage Consort, a collection of three novellas (two of which were published separately in Britain), adds two new memorable heroines to his oeuvre. Both women are complex and sympathetic, albeit emotionally damaged and distraught. The title story opens with its main character, Catherine, sitting on a window sill, wondering if the four-story fall will kill her. What keeps her from plummeting is news from her husband, Roger Courage, that their vocal group, the Courage Consort, has been cleared to spend two weeks at a remote lodge in rural Belgium to practice a difficult piece called Partitum Mutante.
The group practices all day, making noise from dawn almost until dusk, but during the evenings, the house and the woods around it are eerily quiet, except for an inhuman cry that only Catherine seems to hear. "The Courage Consort" at times reads like a haunted-house story. Someone even proclaims, "There was no such thing as ghosts." As Faber ratchets up the tension, both in the story and in the house, the novella increasingly recalls Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, most notably in its infantilized female protagonist and its effective blurring of real and imagined terrors.
Like the title story, "The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps" features an unhinged woman bedeviled with thoughts of suicide. Siân is a former paper conservator who now works as a postgraduate archaeologist at a dig in Whitby, where she is part of a team exhuming some 60 skeletons. During the night, she is tormented by nightmares of her own grisly death, but she spends her days with Magnus, a handsome doctor, and his dog Hadrian, poring over an ancient scroll belonging to Magnus' late father.
Through Siân, Faber examines the way history renders individuals utterly anonymous under common racial categories like "Angles," "Welsh," or even "Americans": "How ruthless History was, taking as raw material the fiercely independent lives of sixty human individuals blending them all into dirt, reducing them to a single word."
"The Fahrenheit Twins," the final and most recent novella, at first seems a little out of place: Instead of an adult woman, it centers on two lonely twins on a bleak, isolated island in the Bering Strait. When their mother dies unexpectedly, the titular twosome -- a girl named Tainto'lilith and a boy named Marko'cain -- take her out into the tundra and wait for a sign from the universe regarding what to do with the body. When they return home, Faber implies, their bodies will be changing and their frozen paradise will be disappearing.
The title The Courage Consort derives from the Wesleyan adage "sing lustily and with good courage." Faber writes in this same manner, developing the stories to their logical, although never predictable, ends and remaining unafraid of the feminine or the fantastical. Despite their differences in length and subject matter, these stories -- along with Faber's previous novels -- carry a formidable emotional force as they evoke "the vocalisations of a terrorised soul." -- Stephen Deusner
By Betsy Prioleau
Viking, 354 pp., $24.95
According to Betsy Prioleau, the seductress is the most misunderstood woman in the world. The word alone conjures up a man-eating woman bent on using her wiles to conquer males for her own needs and desires. With no harm intended, Prioleau said in a recent phone interview that her only goal was to help women realize that they can be "The Total Woman."
In just six chapters, the author explores historical examples of women who have had it all together. Beginning with the goddess Venus, whose image is replicated in almost every early religion and culture, to present-day divas like actress Camryn Manheim and boxer Laila Ali, the book presents images of all types of women in control. A seductress is a woman who knows that it is not about a pretty face, said the author, but about the brain in her head. She uses her brain to command her destiny.
"The art of seducing is innate," said Prioleau. "Somewhere along the way girls got programmed wrong. The sexual revolution threw out the baby with the bathwater and taught girls that the way to get guys was by baring a lot of flesh. The biggest message in this book is that you have to have a huge sense of self."
Throughout the book, Prioleau focuses on the nontraditional appearance of many of the 50 sirens chronicled, going so far as to describe some of them as outright ugly. Still, with self-awareness and simple common sense, they ruled their homes, families, and even entire empires, thereby making their physical beauty the least important of their qualities. The author combines well-known divas, like Josephine Baker, whose self-confident (and naked) image is included in the book, with lesser-known females of equal stature. The author organizes her subjects into categories that include "Belle Laides," "Scholar-Sirens," and "Sirens-Artists." Readers learn about Italian opera star Pauline Viardot, whose mastery of languages, drawing, and musical composition attracted a husband and young lover, a ménage à trois that lasted 40 years. Nineteenth-century novelist George Sand fled from an early marriage and became a literary siren whose works placed her first in the hearts of many men. And Eva Peron, better known as Evita, went on to noteworthy work in government and for her people.
Prioleau begins her study by dispelling the myths of womanhood that have been taught to girls for centuries and that were based on the fulfillment of men. The author defends successful practices with historical examples and straightforward instruction, for example: "Compliant, eager-to-please yes girls not only give off the BO of need, they fail men at a gut level."
Unlike Dr. Laura Schlessinger's The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands, which centers on women fulfilling their needs by satisfying men, Seductress argues the opposite.
"I'm saying the total opposite of Dr. Laura, which basically teaches women to use various tricks, cater to a man's ego, etc.," said Prioleau. "That's the old way's message and it goes way back. I'm saying that you don't have to manipulate and use deceit and guile. All you have to do is be your best self, like these women were."
Unlike self-help or how-to books, Seductress is careful not to cross the line into preaching, nor is it filled with examples of a you-can-do-it philosophy. The information reads as history.
Prioleau said there is hope for the future and points to Oprah Winfrey, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Queen Latifah as the newly minted seducers of the current sexual revolution. Jennifer Lopez, Britney Spears, and Paris Hilton exemplify the negative stereotypes of the past. According to Prioleau, "It's an open freeway and women need to floor it." -- Janel Davis
By Liza Featherstone
Basic Books, 288 pp., $25
This concise but well-documented book is background material gleaned from interviews with plaintiffs, witnesses, and attorneys and from the evidence compiled during the discovery phase of what is now a class-action suit on behalf of all former and current female Wal-Mart workers.
In Dukes v. Wal-Mart, women claim to be underpaid to the point that their employer teaches them how to apply for food stamps and other government assistance. This, in contrast to better-paid male associates who have families to support. Despite years of hard work, fruitless transfers, and unearned demerits and demotions upon nearing the eligibility for management training (all the while, training young men who soon become their supervisors), legions of women have failed to advance within the Wal-Mart "family."
For the most part, the plaintiffs do not consider themselves women's libbers. Some had thought sexual harassment was dirty stuff (on the woman's part) that ought not to be discussed in public. Many believe that Wal-Mart could actually become the family-centered, values-oriented place it advertises itself to be. They would like to continue working there, if conditions improve.
Under the glare of recent adverse publicity -- illegal immigrants working as janitors; employees being locked inside buildings, working off the clock -- Wal-Mart has begun to experience some changes, both inside and out. Job listings are now being posted. Boycotts and union talk are in the air.
A la Jon Stewart, who reportedly joked about women buying 99-cent sweaters and then being surprised that the retailer indulges in harsh employment practices, it would be easy to blame Wal-Mart's misdoings on consumers who need the convenience and savings the store offers. However, Liza Featherstone is sympathetic to shoppers who are only minimally better off than the workers they are exploiting. She puts responsibility squarely on management's shoulders. Wal-Mart has more than some splainin' to do. -- Linda Baker
By Warren St. John
Crown, 275 pp., $24
I've been trying for years to explain to the uninitiated why my heart pounds, my palms sweat, and my teeth clench during a St. Louis Cardinals baseball game. (To say nothing of why my heart breaks when the Cards are embarrassed in the World Series.) I might as well try to explain the existence of a higher power to an agnostic.
Likewise, Warren St. John, a New York Times reporter, attempts to explain the inexplicable in Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer. A born-and-bred fan of University of Alabama football -- who went on to graduate from Columbia -- St. John spent the fall of 1999 following the Crimson Tide as part of the team's weekly RV convoy. His mission? To study what makes a fan a fanatic.
Writes St. John in his introduction, "Crying one's self to sleep over the failure of a group of people against whom you have no legitimate quarrel -- in a game you don't play, no less -- is not rational."
While it may not be rational, blind devotion to a sporting cause -- be it Tide football, Tiger basketball, or Earnhardt racing -- is quite real and human. And it's when St. John touches on the thread of passion connecting sports fans from one rooting faction to another that his book shines. From the couple that missed their daughter's wedding because it coincided with the annual Alabama-Tennessee game (what was she thinking?) to the longtime fan buried in a casket painted Tide red with a scripted "A," St. John illuminates the religion of sport by highlighting extremes among his fellow Bama fans.
Unfortunately, St. John buries himself a little too deeply in this world. Describing game action with the likes of "on our first drive ..." and going into detail on one season-ticket holder's recipe for hot pickled tomatoes are examples of St. John standing a little too close to the trees. And as vivid as his prose can be, there are sections where he, well, takes his eye off the ball: "The young woman next to me is probably twenty or twenty-one, lithe and tall, with collarbones like wire hangers, perfectly pedicured toes the size of jelly beans, and a feathery bob of brown hair that rustles seductively against the back of her neck when she stands to cheer."
Yes indeed, there's more to life than football, even Alabama football.
An important biographical tidbit to keep in mind: St. John was 30 years old when he made his "journey into the heart of fan mania." He was a relative babe in the woods exploring a devotion that, say, a 70-year-old Red Sox fan would describe in far different terms. Nonetheless, the author could be considered precocious simply for recognizing the "mania" aspect of his endeavor.
The author's game-by-game diary may become tedious for a reader not born and raised at the altar of Bear Bryant. More enlightening is St. John's introspection when faced with overtly racist fellow fans in Gainesville, Florida. And his homework on dopamine -- the brain's pleasure-providing chemical -- is a compelling statement on the physical reality of fan devotion. It's a shame he only gave the research a single chapter.
-- Frank Murtaugh
Warren St. John signs Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer at Davis-Kidd Booksellers on Friday, November 19th, at 6 p.m.
By Sam Harris
W.W. Norton, 256 pp., $24.95
You have to love The End of Faith, an old-fashioned atheist screed that 1) bashes self-righteous Christians who long for a literal Armageddon in the Middle East so "we may be with our Lord," 2) bashes angry Muslims who look forward to a bloody clash against the infidels of the West, and 3) bashes Jews who welcome a military confrontation with the enemies of Israel. I, for one, enjoyed the hell out of it.
Author Sam Harris argues that religious allegiances should have no bearing on public life and certainly not in the political realm, because belief is, of course, irrational and unreasonable. Faith also endangers the future of humans in general since it seems we are poised on the edge of a wrenchingly violent "end times" scenario that kooky Christians, Muslims, and Jews welcome and await.
If you're in the nonbeliever camp, there isn't much in The End of Faith that hasn't been argued before -- basic stuff, like if you choose to believe in a particular invisible deity dreamed up in the desert thousands of years ago, you can't just pick and choose the nice bits.
Jesus is not simply the sweet fellow who went all soft and gooey in his Sermon on the Mount. That nonviolent stuff is all well and good, but what really matters is fulfilling a death-cult yearning for the end of time and the return of our Lord.
Why all this violence? Because it's in the Bible, and it's God's will. (End of debate with a thought-terminating cliché that can't be proven, thank you.) Never mind that there are quite a few other fanatical death cults shopping around for those elusive WMD and might just use them against their enemies (uh, that would be us, my fellow Americans) if they can get their righteous mitts on a few "nook lear" devices.
All these religions think they're right. They're all anointed by their respective mean-ass gods. And they don't believe much in realpolitik. It's Armageddon time, so let's get it on, drop the Big One, and all that. Afterward, we'll meet again in the clouds with the pale Nazarene or in Paradise with a virgin or 20 or on the Temple Mount or somewhere divine. If this book doesn't give you a piss shiver, then it's too late for you. Come to think of it, it's too late for all of us. -- Ross Johnson
By Alice L. Hutchison
Black Dog Publishing, 253 pp., $39.95 (paper)
The sparks of a Roman candle shoot from a sailor's crotch. A Hollywood starlet is led down a set of stairs by four sturdy greyhounds. A clown in Kabuki makeup reaches toward a glowing blue moon. Mythological figures, under the influence of hallucinogenics, mob the god Pan. Marianne Faithfull rises from a stone sarcophagus and makes her way to a Celtic temple.
Stills from the hauntingly demonic films of underground cinema guru Kenneth Anger are themselves works of art, a point made in Alice L. Hutchison's Kenneth Anger: A Demonic Visionary. The book, filled with full-page color and black-and-white images from 14 of Anger's films, represents the first time the filmmaker approved the use of these stills for reproduction, stills that film viewers would otherwise only see in a fleeting glance. The book is by no means a comprehensive study of Anger's work, but interspersed throughout is biographical information on the artist-filmmaker and an analysis of his major works.
Anger drew heavily on the works and life of occult author Aleister Crowley. Anger idolized Crowley and soon became obsessed with occult rituals. In Scorpio Rising, for example, he subtly compared occult initiation rites with the secret rites of motorcycle gangs in the 1960s.
Anger's earlier works dealt with homoeroticism and the relationship between violence and masculinity, as evidenced in his oldest existing film, Fireworks. Shot at his parent's house when Anger was 17, the 14-minute film plays on the image of a sailor as brute sex symbol. Throughout his career, Anger also toyed with images of Hollywood bombshells, mixing adoration and disgust. From Puce Moment, a six-minute short depicting a starlet getting dressed, to his picture books Hollywood Babylon and its sequel, books that chronicled Hollywood's scandals, he demonstrated that love/hate relationship.
Watching Anger's films can be a bit like reading obscure poetry. Hutchison's book helps to clarify the obscurity, and a copy of Kenneth Anger will do more than impress your cult-film-fanatic friends. It'll also allow you a glimpse inside the mind of underground cinema's devilish dreamer. -- Bianca Phillips
By William Tsutsui
Palgrave Macmillan, 240 pp.,
My nephew, Wade, discovered Godzilla in 1998 when TriStar Pictures released an updated version of the Japanese cult classic. Many critics faulted the film's soulless special effects, but Wade couldn't care less. He watched the movie at least 40 times, delighted over and over by the monster's rampage through New York City.
Twenty-six years earlier, William Tsutsui was loving the giant green lizard in another special way: He was the only kid at his school's Halloween carnival to wear a Godzilla costume, handmade by his mother out of chartreuse rayon and lots of foam rubber.
Now an associate professor of history at the University of Kansas, Tsutsui's recollection from third grade begins a loving homage to Godzilla that is both scholarly and personal. The book, titled Godzilla on My Mind, is timely as well. On November 29th, the fire-breathing movie monster will be honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The ceremony also will coincide with the premiere of Godzilla: Final Wars, the 28th Godzilla release from Japan's Toho Company.
It's been five decades since Godzilla first crawled out of Tokyo Bay, and the monster's story is, by now, a familiar one: Radioactivity from a nuclear accident transforms a sleeping dinosaur into a raging mutant lizard 10 stories tall. Perhaps less well know, especially to younger fans, are the monster's roots in Asian folklore, the fearful vulnerability of the Japanese people after World War II, and the creativity and imagination of Godzilla's filmmakers during the 1950s.
Tsutsui has researched all these topics, beginning with Gojira, the first Godzilla movie and still Tsutsui's favorite. Did you know, for example, that "Gojira" combines the Japanese words for "gorilla" and "whale"? Or that the star of Gojira, actor Shimura Takashi, also had a major role in The Seven Samurai, considered by many to be the greatest Japanese film ever made? Or that the film's miniaturized set of downtown Tokyo included pylons of wax that were melted with heat lamps to simulate the destruction of Godzilla's radioactive ray?
And in case you're wondering what kind of dinosaur Godzilla really is, try fusing a Tyrannosaurus rex with an iguanodon and a stegosaurus. "The costume itself was fabricated from a framework of bamboo stakes and wire, with thick overlays of latex and padding of urethane foam," Tsutsui writes. "And the actor who played Godzilla reportedly lost 20 pounds over the course of the shoot." It's no wonder. He could spend only a few minutes at a time sealed inside the hot and heavy suit.
Conceived as a blockbuster with a dark message, Gojira was a horror film in the truest sense. "The theme of the film, from the beginning, was the terror of the Bomb," writes Tsutsui, quoting Tanaka Tomoyuki, the film's producer. "Mankind had created the Bomb, and now nature was going to take revenge on mankind."
By the time Gojira became Godzilla, King of the Monsters two years later, made-for-America action had replaced a third of the original film. Yet despite the cuts, the beloved movie icon remained quintessentially Japanese, and perhaps just as important, prepared Americans for the globalization of Japanese pop culture still to come.
"I've always felt that the joy of the Godzilla movies, when all is said and done, is that they are pure and simple fun," Tsutsui writes. Fortunately for us, Godzilla on My Mind is much the same: fun to read and thought-provoking too.
-- Pamela Denney
Have you hugged your listings-compiler today? Seriously. Somebody from the newspaper or magazine or guidebook you're reading had to gather the information that steers you to the perfect restaurant, the stop-snoring seminar, the downtown walking tour.
The know-it-all of Insiders' Guide to Memphis (Globe Pequot Press, 288 pp., $17.95, paperback) is Nicky Robertshaw, a whip-smart freelance writer who used to be a reporter for The Memphis Business Journal and who currently covers dining for Flyer sister publication, Memphis magazine.
Her book, now in its second edition, first came out in 2002 and took Robertshaw about a year to write. The second took three months to update.
"That involved checking every single fact in the book to make sure it's up to date," Robertshaw says. "That's everything from whether a restaurant still has the same special dessert it had two years ago to the hours of an attraction."
A quarter of the restaurants in the first edition are gone or closed. "That was one of the things I found really surprising," she says. "Of course, when you take away a quarter of the restaurants, you have to think of which restaurants are worthy to take their place. Insiders' Guide ... they don't want you to just throw everything in there. They want you to mention the restaurants you would recommend."
-- Susan Ellis