Port Mungo • I Love Everybody • Essential Cinema • Getting Mother's Body • True North • Natasha and Other Stories
100 Most Dangerous Things • Found • Candyfreak
By Bill Clinton
Knopf; 957 pp.; $35
Newsweek's Jonathan Alter has observed that, as a result of the publisher's rush to get My Life, former President Bill Clinton's hefty bildungsroman/memoir, into bookstores this summer, a multitude of typos remained uncorrected in the first editions to roll off the press. Most of these were trivial; at least one -- which occurred in the mammoth autobiography's very last sentence -- was anything but.
Citing some of the helpers who assisted him through the life and times he had just chronicled, Clinton concluded with a sentence beginning, "None of them are responsible for the failure of my life ... ." The substitution of "failure" for the intended "failures" (things were set aright in mid-press run) posed an issue which the book, in either its corrected or uncorrected forms, never quite resolves.
On the evidence presented by the former chief executive, who wrote much of the volume in longhand and under the aforesaid deadline pressure, it is hard to account Clinton the president a failure. As he is not bashful about reminding us, on his watch the nation experienced its longest extended period of prosperity ever, budget surpluses were created for the first time within memory, a war was won (in Kosovo) without a single American casualty, and a start -- abortive, as it turned out -- actually got made in settling the long-simmering hostilities between Palestinians and Israelis.
These were some of the high points of an eight-year tenure during which President Clinton's poll ratings were to remain extravagantly high, transcending even the 1994 Republican electoral tsunami that won control of Congress away from Clinton's Democrats and surviving even a never-ending media and prosecutorial siege that concluded with the 42nd president's impeachment.
We all know that story, and it is told again here -- from the perp's perspective, as it were. Or the scapegoat's, depending on your own point of view. Clinton makes a compelling case for the latter, accusing special prosecutor Kenneth Starr of heaping some presidential peccadilloes (one of them aka Monica Lewinsky) onto a going-nowhere investigation of the long-gone Arkansas real-estate transaction known as Whitewater. All this for right-wing partisan reasons. Starr's true purpose? "[T]o create a firestorm to force me from office."
Framing the issue that way, Clinton is able to make penitential confessions of the sort we have become familiar with through his numerous recent TV interviews, while at the same time presenting himself as the victim of an inquisition that was aimed, ultimately, at the American presidency itself. Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy, meet Jerry Springer.
Yet one of those contrite TV acknowledgements -- he had done it "because I could" -- has its counterpart in various acknowledgements between the lines of My Life. There are disingenuous moments in those shadows, as when Clinton recounts advising Lewinsky: "I told her some women had avoided questioning by filing affidavits saying that I had not sexually harassed them."
One contention in the book -- that Clinton's Arkansas upbringing under a strong, loving mother and an alcoholic and sometimes violent stepfather had forced him to live "parallel lives," one public and one private -- has received ample publicity already, and whether a reader accepts it or not may depend on what one's personal definition of "is" is.
Though it may annoy readers who want to hasten on to the "good parts" (either political or personal), the book's lengthy early section devoted to the Arkansas political scene may have special resonance for those (like myself) with personal memories of the state and its politics. And in true autobiographical style, that early part prefigures outcomes. The young man who would eventually become governor himself before moving on to the presidency in tandem with his accomplished wife Hillary is portrayed as a neophyte political hand in a 1966 governor's race, charged with escorting his candidate's wife around the state. "I was used to being bossed around by women, so we got along well ... ."
And there's the tale of Clinton, upset for reelection after his first two-year gubernatorial term, opting to try again two years later and encountering an elderly man who had helped vote him out because "[y]ou raised my car tags." Clinton presumed to ask, "If I ran for governor again, would you consider voting for me?" The man smiled and replied, "Sure I would. We're even now."
On the basis of the saga presented in My Life, coupled with the continuing aura of celebrity that surrounds this ex-president, Bill Clinton seems to have come out so far no worse than even. -- Jackson Baker
By David Sedaris
Little, Brown; 257 pp.; $24.95
At my brother's wedding a few years back, my older brother gave a wonderful best-man's speech. But he stumbled through it and clearly agonized over the gaps and repetitions. Two weeks later, my sister got married. After the groom's best man delivered his speech, I lied and told my brother that it was his turn. He believed me and stood up with a look of absolute panic. Ha, ha, we all laughed at him. My brother then put me in a headlock. I'm in my 30s; he's in his 40s.
Isn't it funny, that particular brand of cruelty we reserve for our family, our lovers, and ourselves? Through genetic-material swap, we have the right to say whatever and act in ways that are purely reprehensible but somehow, someway equal, boundless affection.
It's funny, and author David Sedaris is funnier and funniest. In his latest collection of essays, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, he works over his siblings, his parents, his boyfriend, and himself. He is open to pointing out the doings of the dark side of his heart, but the residual effect for the reader is mostly one of deep caring and loyalty.
But here's the thing about Sedaris: He is everywhere. Many of the stories in the book have appeared in magazines, been featured on NPR, or been tested in the readings he gives across the country twice a year. Overexposure is a bad thing, and Sedaris fans may worry that they've already gotten the author's best, that we, the readers, are over it.
Sedaris fans who hesitate, however, are missing out. Those stories the reader is familiar with are worth reading again, and the new essays are as terrifically absurd as any of Sedaris' earlier work. While he knows how to tell a story, the author's best gift is his nonsensical asides. Take, for example, his story "Repeat After Me," about a visit to his soft-hearted, animal-loving sister, Lisa. Brother and sister go to a movie:
"Normally, Lisa's the type who talks from one end of the picture to the other. A character will spread mayonnaise onto a chicken sandwich and she'll lean over, whispering, 'One time, I was doing that? And the knife fell into the toilet.' Then she'll settle back in her seat and I'll spend the next ten minutes wondering why on earth someone would make a chicken sandwich in the bathroom."
The knife and the toilet had me laughing so hard I cried. I lost my place and had to start over again -- with the knife and toilet, which made me cry and stop again. Knife, toilet, laugh, cry, repeat.
Cruel but funny. -- Susan Ellis
By David Foster Wallace
Little, Brown; 336 pp.; $25.95
David Foster Wallace has a reputation as something of a wunderkind. His first novel, the exuberant, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink Broom of the System (1987), written when the author was 25, established his name as an experimentalist. But it was the publication of the behemoth Infinite Jest (1996) that cemented that reputation. Along with William Vollman, Wallace is carrying the postmodern torch, handed down from Gass and Pynchon and Coover.
So, can an author who has produced a 1,079-page magnum opus be equally adept at the short form? As evidenced by this new collection, the answer is assertively yes. This assemblage of largely very lengthy short stories shows a writer who is self-assured, maniacally comic, and a wordsmith of the first water.
Here, Wallace's storytelling method is skewed, divergent, digressive. He often lets you in through the story's backdoor, so to speak. At times, his tale's presumed text is not as interesting as its subtext -- by design. "What teachers and the administration in that era never seemed to see was that the mental work of what they called daydreaming often required more effort and concentration than it would have taken simply to listen in class," he writes in "The Soul is Not a Smithy." Indeed, these stories seem daydreamed, and the deviating mini-stories embedded in the main frame are gorgeous set-pieces, ingeniously employed.
"The Soul is Not a Smithy" achieves an eloquent, fevered intensity with its protracted, unfolding narration relating a story about a substitute teacher who cannot stop writing "Kill Them All" on the chalkboard. In "Another Pioneer," the speaker extrapolates a wild tale concerning Paleolithic rain-forest tribes from an eavesdropped segment of story overheard on an airliner.
Admittedly, Wallace's style can seem impenetrable. To begin with, he doesn't believe in too many paragraph breaks. (The book's final story, the novella-length "The Suffering Channel," is a bit more conventional, in form at any rate.) And his ultraliterary intentions occasionally leave the audience behind. However, he is fearless and insanely imaginative, and the adventuresome reader who follows his labyrinthine plot strands -- Russian dolls within Russian dolls -- will be rewarded with, simply put, some of the best writing, sentence for sentence, in fiction today. These sentences, Rube Goldberg constructions of dizzying inventiveness and detour, sometimes run for an entire page. And Wallace's deadpan delivery of arcane and jargon-laden prose -- whether it's corporatespeak or anthropologist's argot -- is hilarious. Further, he is a master of narrative sleight-of-hand. What is really happening seems repeatedly to be offstage.
The title story is a comical tour de force about a man, a bit of a prig, whose wife has accused him of snoring. "Not, of course, that it would even necessarily constitute an actual 'fault.' But I do not. Nor am I in the habit of being incorrect or confused about whether I myself am asleep or not ." The rambling riffs of this narrator are pitch-perfect, and "Oblivion" is possibly the most accessible story in the collection.
Like Godard in film, Wallace constantly defies your expectations. When you think you have a handle on a story, you don't. This constant rug-pulling is not just highbrow high jinks, not just for sport. Wallace wants you to keep up with him, follow his discursiveness, as if he is regularly saying, Now pay attention, pay attention now. David Foster Wallace is ambitious in the best sense of the word, and he continues to astound with his literary high-wire act. -- Corey Mesler
By Kathy Y. Wilson
Emmis Books; 284 pp.; $19.99
Your Negro Tour Guide, a collection of columns that appeared in Cincinnati's alternative newsweekly, is a book that should be read aloud. Although not written as poetry, Kathy Wilson at times takes on the lyrical patterns of writers such as Maya Angelou, Countee Cullen, and Amiri Baraka.
The book's topics cover popular culture and current events, ranging from politicians and Cincinnati City Hall to Black History Month and beauty parlors. In each situation and setting, Wilson writes her opinions and makes no excuse for the sometimes abrasive tone in which they are delivered. She is, after all, a columnist, able to bypass many of the traditional guidelines in news reporting. The candor is refreshing.
The book opens with almost three pages of acknowledgements, again in short, metered sentences. From her mother to her muses, James Baldwin and Zora Neale Hurston, no one is overlooked. "My editor Jack Heffron is as far from my experience as I am from his. But we made love and birthed a book," writes Wilson. And birthed they did.
The title refers to the metamorphosis that took place in Wilson's relationships with fellow, white co-writers. As the only black in the newsroom, Wilson met their searches for answers with resounding responses. What began as snappy comebacks became a career of explaining and embodying the black experience from Wilson's viewpoint.
Wilson uses her column to expound on issues affecting Cincinnati, including the riots, curfews, and boycott which ensued in 2000 and 2001 after police killed two young black men. An entire section of the book contains the columns written during and after this chain of events. Using her skills as a reporter, Wilson recounts the news, but even more interesting is her storytelling as she describes the intangibles: the feelings of the slain men's parents and the evolution of race relations.
Throughout the book, Wilson baits readers with catchy column titles, such as "Harlem on My Mind" and "Thanks for the Mammaries," and keeps us turning pages with clever humor, meaningful metaphors, and pop-culture references. At times, the columns become preachy, weighed down with advice for African Americans and others to take charge of their lives. But even then there's always a statement, usually made with deadpan delivery, to remind us of our responsibilities.
When asked by colleagues about her negative experiences of "driving-while-black," Wilson's response is almost chilling in its accuracy:
"It makes for colored schizophrenia, for healthy distrust when a white someone wants to be entertained by the horror of our daily drive-bys on normality ... . So, yeah, I've got one too many driving-while-black horror stories of epic proportions. And you should hear me tell 'em. They're hilarious. But ain't shit funny."
For a change from the usual summer reading list, Your Negro Tour Guide provides a brief view of the world from someone else's seat and through someone else's eyes. -- Janel Davis
By Michael Bamberger
Atlantic Monthly Press; 209 pp.; $23
On the third Saturday of May, the kids at Pennsbury High stage a prom in the school gym that dazzles parents, news crews, and, most important, the seniors themselves.
Every year, they come to the prom -- the jocks, the geeks, the Goths, the kids in algebra class nobody knows -- arriving in a parade of floats, dog sleds, mail trucks, mobile homes, and vintage convertible Mustangs. Couple by couple, the procession continues down a red-carpet walk. Hundreds of spectators, many who remember their own Pennsbury proms, whistle and applaud.
Inside, the school is transformed into an elaborate theme called "Hollywood Nights." Drawings of celebrities cover the cinderblock walls. There are gigantic popcorn boxes and a papier-mâché Oscar painted gold. A life-size Forrest Gump sits on a bus bench. Nearby, cardboard cutouts introduce Whitney Houston, Justin Timberlake, and Alyssa Bergman, the school's 2003 homecoming queen idolized for her beauty and her sleek Corvette.
Okay, stop. Is this wonderland for real? Yes, every person and detail, says Michael Bamberger, a journalist with Sports Illustrated who spent a year immersed in an ordinary high school with an extraordinary 30-year ritual: the Pennsbury prom.
Located in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, the story of Pennsbury High parallels life in adjacent Levittown, an assembly-line suburb built by legendary developer Bill Levitt. Many Pennsbury students live in the same houses their grandparents bought for $65 a month in the early 1950s. These days, remodels and additions hide the original four designs, but the heart of the community remains the same: work hard and love your family.
Through friendships, e-mails, and endless observations, Bamberger explores the school and the suburbs with a handful of teens and teachers connected in unexpected ways: Principal Bill Katz, a basketball star at Pennsbury in 1967; overachiever Lindsey Milroy, the prom committee co-chair; quarterback Bobby Spear, the three-letter athlete with a secret family life; outsider Harry Stymiest, a fixture at PHS-TV in spite of cerebral palsy; couple Rob Stephens and Stephanie Coyle, parents themselves by their senior year; and junior class president Bob Costa, whose tenacity just might land singer John Mayer as the prom's headline act.
Like most creative nonfiction, the book's focus on real-life events leaves little time for insight. Consequently, Wonderland is more about what kids do, not how kids think. But for me, Bamberger's uneven introspection wasn't much of a problem, because I read Wonderland while visiting my mother in Maryland. She still lives in the house where I grew up: a 1962 colonial built by Levitt & Sons. As I read about the notables and the "anonymous souls, passing through school with shuffling feet," I could interpret facts with feelings, because Pennsbury was so much like my own high school experience.
"Pennsbury was ideas, realities, emotions," Bamberger writes. "It was death, and it was most certainly life." Or, as one mother recalls, Pennsbury wasn't just a school. It was a world.
Overromanticized? Perhaps. Oversimplified? Yes, that too. But in a time of politicized education, isn't it comforting to know that somewhere in America, no child is left behind because of a community, not a school voucher? -- Pamela Denney
By Patrick McGrath
Knopf; 242 pp.; $24
British novelist Patrick McGrath's latest "gothic" novel starts interestly enough then veers into a morass of repetitious chapters that make the same point relentlessly until you're inwardly screaming, Get to the juicy stuff, already!
The book centers around a charismatic painter, Jack Rathbone, and his adoring sister, Gin, who tells his story in a series of flashbacks. Seen through her worshipful eyes, Jack is a larger-than-life hero whose drunken excesses and tortured relationship with his paint and canvasses only add to his mystique. When 17-year-old Jack marries 30-year-old Vera, also a painter, also a drunk, Gin disapproves. Her descriptions of Vera and her tarty clothes sound catty, almost jealous. Hmmm.
When Jack and Vera move to Port Mungo, a godforsaken Caribbean outpost, Gin hears only secondhand news of her brother until she decides to visit. The Port Mungo scene is debauched, populated by drunken expatriates and a few natives. Jack and Vera now have a daughter, Peg, who at 6 is already smoking cigarettes and living like a jungle animal. Gin also meets Vera's local lover, John. It's all quite civil but quite uncivilized.
Gin returns to New York to continue her tale. In ensuing chapters, we learn of Peg's mysterious death, which becomes the central emotional hinge of the novel. Did she really die in a boat accident? And why did Gin's snooty other brother, Gerald, get custody of Jack and Vera's second daughter, Anna, when she was still a baby?
Something's fishy in Port Mungo, and it's not the conch fritters. It's at this point when redundancy sets in. The semi-astute reader will come up with the probable answer to the mystery of Peg's death and Jack's undimmed rage well before it's all revealed in the final bloody pages, after the now-grown Anna returns to meet her father.
Port Mungo is a decent airplane or beach read, but its characters are more props than people. The story creeps you out, but it doesn't convince. -- Bruce VanWyngarden
By Laurie Notaro
Villard; 240 pp.; $12.95 (paper)
An editor once told me that disasters, calamities, and other forces of nature might be bad for the traveler, but they're great for the travel writer. In short, a relaxing trip to the beach is a boring read. The trip to hell, well, that's a story. In her own journey through life, humorist Laurie Notaro proves this time and time again.
Notaro, former humor columnist and the author of The Idiot Girls' Action Adventure Club and Autobiography of a Fat Bride, is back in all her self-deprecating splendor for I Love Everybody (And Other Atrocious Lies): True Tales of a Loudmouth Girl.
In the title chapter, she tries to foil her already questionable karma by loving everybody, but she is derailed by cell-phone-toting teenagers, a stinky, big-haired line cutter, and a man who added a racquet-ball "scrotum" to the back of his truck. If everybody Notaro tried to love were normal, the stories wouldn't be very funny. Luckily, she had her encounter with the scrotum truck guy.
In another episode, she divulges how -- after some bad turbulence on her flight -- she decides to switch from Diet Pepsi to wine, thank you very much. Unfortunately, when she upgrades her beverage, she's in an emergency-row seat in first class and has not had anything to eat. She's thinking about how she's getting drunk and putting everyone in jeopardy when the flight attendant offers her another (free, first-class) glass of wine. Frankly, if there's an emergency, she thinks, the other people on the plane don't stand a chance.
But things don't end well for our heroine. She writes: "Having two drinks sloshing around in an empty belly while you're on an airplane should come with this prediction: 'Chances are likely to excellent that when you get up and stagger to the toilet-ette after downing your second complimentary beverage, you will entirely forget to batten down the hatch that flashes the "Occupied" sign outside the door and the pilot will walk in on you when you are in mid-pee.'"
Though one might begin to wonder just how Notaro gets herself into these situations, in the end her stories are just too funny to care. With her caustic wit and daily misadventures, Notaro could be the Erma Bombeck for the happily childless set, reformed hair-band groupies, employees with bad bosses, and anyone with a bit of a snarky side. And the way she can ride a tangent from, for instance, buying "The Sims" computer game all the way to hiding in her bedroom for eight minutes while her mother-in-law stands at the front door, is brilliant.
Notaro is the kind of gal you'd want to invite to a party, give her a drink or two, and then listen to what comes out of her mouth. Only problem is, you'd have to be careful to make sure you didn't end up in -- or as -- one of her stories. -- Mary Cashiola
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
Johns Hopkins University Press;
425 pp.; $35
The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties
By J. Hoberman
The New Press; 433 pp.; $29.95
Jonathan Rosenbaum and J. Hoberman might be the finest film critics of their generation, but that isn't all they have in common. The pair has collaborated in the past, most memorably as co-writers of the cult-classic Midnight Movies. Now they strike separately with a pair of fine film tomes.
In some ways, Rosenbaum, film critic for the alternative weekly the Chicago Reader, is to American film discussion what Ralph Nader is to American political discourse: He's a major voice committed to combating the nexus of studio marketing, corporate-media publicity, box-office receipts, Oscar telecasts, and the American Film Institute lists, which, Rosenbaum argues, both drive and limit the discussion of cinema in this country.
That said, Essential Cinema doesn't exactly do what its title claims. Other than an introduction that lays out Rosenbaum's philosophy about film canons -- lists provide a key guide for self-study, and serious film critics and scholars shouldn't leave listmaking to the AFIs of the world -- and a personal canon of 1,000 (!) films at the back of the book, Essential Cinema is just a collection of previously published reviews.
Rosenbaum dealt with the topic of the title better in his last book, Movie Wars (subtitled "How Hollywood and the Media Conspire To Limit What Films We Can See"), which effectively and appropriately excoriated the AFI's list of the greatest American movies. Movie Wars was a polemic that might brand Rosenbaum a crank or angry prophet, depending on your perspective. Essential Cinema, by contrast, is a chance to enjoy a bunch of reviews from the best long-form film critic on the planet, including brilliantly detailed explications of Rear Window, Eyes Wide Shut, and M.
But caveat emptor: Rosenbaum is the rare American film critic who approaches the medium from a global perspective. Only about a third of the material in Essential Cinema covers American films.
Whereas Rosenbaum presents his complex and frequently epiphany-spurring arguments in direct language, Hoberman, film critic for The Village Voice, is more of a stylist, much more of a postmodernist. His The Dream Life is the more ambitious of the two books under review. It is also mostly fresh material based not on his Village Voice reviews but on the film class he teaches at New York University.
Not so much a history of '60s movies as a history of the '60s itself as told through the decade's films, The Dream Life focuses on such "cult films writ large" as Spartacus, The Manchurian Candidate, Dr. Strangelove, Bonnie & Clyde, The Wild Bunch, and Dirty Harry.
Embracing the Marshall McLuhan concept of the "global village," Hoberman weaves the cultural history of an era (Hoberman's '60s ranges from Sputnik to Watergate) where "movies might be political events, and political events were experienced as movies." Based on the notion of cinema as "shared fantasy and social myth," Hoberman ties movies to reality through juxtapositions: John Wayne's pro-Vietnam War The Green Berets, for example, with the riots at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention; Dirty Harry with Tricky Dick, both "legal vigilantes" in Hoberman's formulation.
-- Chris Herrington
By Suzan-Lori Parks
Random House; 257 pp.; $12. 95 (paper)
Suzan Lori-Parks enters the writing world reaching for a level of artistry where few black writers stand, especially black women. Toni Morrison is there. Alice Walker is there. Zora Neale Hurston is there too. Parks takes her place beside them with Getting Mother's Body, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright's debut novel.
Getting Mother's Body tells the story of troubled Billy Beede, the youngest member of an extended family known in the small town of Lincoln, Texas, for their incredible bad luck. Billy and her family's quest is to dig up the jewels buried with her mother's body in order to pay for Billy's abortion. Gossip and rumors swirl around the young woman. The townspeople pity her for the loss of her "loose" mother but slyly shun her because of her unwedded pregnancy.
Just as Billy works "hair magic" in a salon, Parks uses her writing magic to relay the thoughts of the townspeople, who take turns stamping the story with their own version of events. The technique could have been disjointed, but Parks keeps the tale concise and fast-paced.
Parks endows each narrator with the spark of recognizable human behavior, something even the most talented writers have trouble performing with minor characters. The setting of the rural town in no small part contributes to this feat. Parks paints the Texas town using detailed strokes to shape the characters and form the backdrop for the quest for buried treasure.
Destiny courses throughout the novel and intertwines with the characters' dreams of redemption from the past, creating another thread in the tapestry of Getting Mother's Body. Each character has a smudge on his or her heart, and each sees the jewelry (and the money to be made from it) as a way to wipe away painful mistakes and memories. Only then can Parks' characters reach their full potential in a world that neglects them.
Redemption and the glory that money may bring has a long history in literature, especially literature that documents the lives of impoverished blacks. Parks knows this as natural law and offers us the pathos of her characters. Grab a copy of Getting Mother's Body and, cliched as it sounds, don't put it down. -- Christian Edge
By Jim Harrison
Grove Press; 388 pp.; $24
Jim Harrison's sprawling new novel, True North, adds to his impressive corpus -- seven novels, four novellas, seven poetry collections, two volumes of essays, and a memoir -- and will be welcomed by his large and loyal fan base, including those who turned out in numbers at Harrison's June signing in Oxford, Mississippi. "Sprawling" here is a gentler word for undisciplined. True North seems to float free of an editor, and there are times when the writing would have benefited from one.
David Burkett, Harrison's first-person narrator, tells readers early in the novel that he wasn't quite 18 years old when "I declared my intentions to Lake Superior on a stormy night near the grave of an old Indian ... that I wasn't going to use up my life thinking about myself which seemed to be the total preoccupation of my schoolmates and all of the adults I knew."
Oath or not, Burkett, the fourth David Burkett in a wealthy, prominent family whose fortune came from logging Michigan's Upper Peninsula, still spends an unhealthy amount of time thinking about himself. And that line of thought extends to fishing, women, dogs, fishing, women, dogs, and, to elevate his concerns, his 22-year-long project: a full disclosure of his forefathers' rapacious logging.
Burkett comes, he notes, from a long line of alpha, predator males. His father, whom he describes as "purely awful," is in some ways the worst. He lives off family investments, explains away the family sins with "making money is never very pretty," and has an unsavory fondness for underage girls. Much of True North centers on the son trying to free himself of his father's sins. Once the narrator decides to unravel his family's legacy -- to show it as immoral in the way the Upper Peninsula was ravaged and the way the people who toiled for the company were exploited -- his mental and emotional health suffer.
Burkett's journey takes readers through the 1960s, '70s, and '80s and involves the loss of both parents, one wife, several girlfriends, and the astounding accumulation of documents for his disclosure project. Fortunately for Burkett, and ironic given the nature of his mission, he is supported during these years by family trust funds, substantial even with his father's pervasive pilfering. As one reader of Burkett's 100-page essay, "What My Family Did," succinctly surmises, "Nice to see a rich f--er crying over spilt milk."
Reading True North is a little like rifling through Burkett's documents. Along the way, there are some beautiful passages, wonderful epiphanies, and Harrison's gifted way of sharing the Upper Peninsula. The area is vividly, though reverently, rendered. Burkett's personal odyssey, likewise, is not without merit. He chooses difficult, compelling women, one of whom is a poet; he sorts through complicated emotions in relative seclusion; and his moral compass is accurate, humane, and as sure a guide as one might hope for. -- Lisa C. Hickman
By David Bezmozgis
Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 147 pp.; $18
David Bezmozgis' debut short-story collection, Natasha and Other Stories, is autobiography concealed like a nesting doll within fiction. These seven interconnected stories, all told in first person and arranged chronologically to form an arcing narrative, re-create the Goldfinch neighborhood and the suburbs of Toronto during the late 1970s and 1980s. The Berman family -- father Roman, mother Bella, and son Mark, who narrates -- are recent immigrants from Russia, and the stories depict their endless adjustments to their new North American lives. The particulars of Natasha seem to match up so closely with Bezmozgis' life that readers may find it difficult to parse reality from invention.
This blurred distinction speaks to Bezmozgis' complex voice. He nicely depicts the unbalanced rootlessness of immigrant life and the ways that the strangeness of Toronto affects family members differently. In "Roman Berman, Massage Therapist," for example, Mark's father, a former gym manager in Latvia, wrestles with the English language and Canadian accreditation requirements to open a massage clinic, finally relying on his son to draft the wording on the advertising flyers. His parents "were strangers in the country, and they recognized that the place was less strange for me, even though I was only a boy."
Adapting to their new Canadian surroundings is difficult for the Bermans, but it's not nearly as hard as making Toronto their home: starting businesses, making friends, and, for Mark, growing up. Even those uncertainties are preferable to life back in Russia.
The drawback to such fiction so strongly anchored in the author's life is that it too often reins the stories securely within one viewpoint. Mark can be an intriguing character, but too often he becomes merely an observer of the life around him, not a participant. Instead of bringing the other characters to the forefront, this technique too often relegates them to supporting roles, which becomes more problematic the more intriguing they are. For example, Natasha, the 14-year-old title character who becomes 16-year-old Mark's girlfriend and lover, is intriguing enough for her own novel, but Bezmozgis consigns her to a bit part in a single short story.
Autobiographical fiction like Natasha can sometimes signal an unimaginative or self-absorbed writer, which prompts an important question: What will he do once he has told all the stories of his life? Only Bezmozgis' subsequent work will reveal the depth of his talent and vision, and for now, Natasha is a hesitant promise of greater things. -- Stephen Deusner
By Laura Lee
Broadway Books; 235 pp.;
I have a friend, not Yogi Berra, who once told me that most bathroom accidents happen in the bathroom. This is not a statement to argue with. For specifics, check Laura Lee's 100 Most Dangerous Things in Everyday Life.
Lee's book is an alphabetized list of items and actions that seem safe enough but are really lying in wait to maim and even kill. She presents her warning in a page or so, backed with statistics, examples, and cute little line drawings, and then provides tips to avoid the maiming and the killing.
Lee begins with "Art Supplies," including the lung-coating dust that comes with sculpting. Her advice? Be an accountant or be careful. Her last entry is "The Weekend," a time for binge-drinking, overexertion, and headaches brought on by the sudden break in workplace stress. The good news is that if you end up in the hospital on a Saturday, the survival rates are better, but, says Lee, take it easy nonetheless.
In between art supplies and the weekend: laundry (you may get pulled in and mangled by a still-spinning washer); cute guys (sometimes they're not very nice); garbage (U.S. sanitation workers have the third-highest job-related death rate); being short (tall people earn more); books (a falling one can break your toes); chairs (toddler + recliner = possible suffocation); teaching (emotional strain); even safety devices (antilock breaks and child-proof pill bottles give a false sense of security); and on and on until the perils reach 100.
But back to the bathroom. Take a slightly askew seat on the toilet and you risk injury to a particularly sensitive body part. That nice warm bath you've drawn may actually be scalding (especially if you live in Japan). When you cut yourself shaving, do you not bleed? And the tap water you use to brush your teeth may be filled with unkind organisms, but, like the bathtub, the bigger problem is burns.
Think of 100 Most Dangerous Things in Everyday Life as the opposite of what-you-don't-know-can't-hurt-you philosophy. But don't be scared. Lee's cheeky approach is harmless fun. With its short chapters and range of topics, it's a book to pick through at your leisure. Perfect, say, for bathroom reading. -- Susan Ellis
By Davy Rothbart
Fireside/Simon & Schuster;
252 pp.; $14 (paper)
I'm taking my morning jog when something on the ground catches my eye. It's a dirty piece of crumbled notebook paper lying next to a garbage can. It's trash-collection day, and this little guy apparently escaped the morning transfer from can to truck. My curiosity gets the better of me, and I bend down to pick it up. I'm hoping it's a lost love letter or maybe a rough draft of a suicide note. But much to my dismay, when I open the wad of paper, it's completely blank. What a letdown!
The disappointment I feel is a direct result of having read Davy Rothbart's Found. It's a massive compilation of notes, photos, and drawings found on sidewalks, stuffed inside books, or discovered wherever people lose things.
Contributors have been sending their finds to Rothbart over the years for publication in his 'zine, also called Found. When Rothbart's collection grew large enough, he decided to compile the items into a book.
From a note that a small child wrote urging her parents to get off drugs to silly things scribbled on scraps of paper ("I'm sorry about last Friday ... I thought it was you!! I swear"), Found is both a touching and hilarious look into the private lives of strangers. It's like reading someone's journal, sans the guilt.
Many of the notes are downright laughable. One of my favorites is a Post-It that reads, "Happy Fuckin Valentine's Day, you fat ass bitch. P.S. I didn't think you needed any more candy." Others are cute, like the message written on the back of a photo: "Be Right Back. -- Godot." And some are tragic, like the photocopied flyer of a man missing after 9/11.
Rather than cast the notes' contents into consistent type, Rothbart gives his book a 'zine feel by photocopying. You could be stumbling upon the items yourself. Reading the handwriting gives you a sense of how people felt when they wrote the messages.
More important, though, Found has a way of opening your eyes to the world around you. Before reading the book, I considered myself a fairly observant person, but I rarely went so far as to pick up stray trash in the hopes of getting a peek into someone else's life. Now, when I jog, my eyes are aimed at the ground, scoping out any possible fabulous find. And since Rothbart encourages his readers to continue sending in those finds, it's all the more reason to run with my head down. -- Bianca Phillips
By Steve Almond
Algonquin; 266 pp.; $21.95
Steve Almond likes candy and thinks more candy would make the world a better place. In his new book, he proffers humorous proof of his credentials as a bona-fide "candyfreak" and works from the assumption that he is not the only such freak around. (If, for instance, in addition to hoarding, stashing, and willful indulgence, you have used candy for holistic purposes -- such as substituting Charm's Blow Pops for the orthodontia your parents couldn't afford -- you qualify.)
Documenting that the Big Three (Nestle, Hershey's, and Mars) are in fierce competition for the taste buds and dollar bills of customers worldwide, Almond focuses on several smaller candy companies that lack the resources to refrigerate and thereby distribute their candy on a grand scale and to pay the "slotting fees" needed to get large retailers to place their candy bars near check-out lines.
Almond also meets "chocolate engineers" who sample new concoctions and test equipment. He visits the fourth- and fifth-generation makers of Valomilk in Merriam, Kansas, struggling to keep second-generation machines running. He finds that smaller companies supplement their flagging incomes with contract manufacturing and the production of knockoffs of national brands for discount stores. (Power-bar devotees, take note: Your health food may have been made in a candy factory.)
In Nashville, Almond tours the Standard Candy Company, maker of both Goo Goo Cluster, which he declares to be "by far the best-known candy bar in the South," and Goo Goo Supreme. He claims to have wolfed down fresh-made Goo Goos as ravenously as any Southerner or marshmallow lover. (He is neither.)
Almond obviously admires the eccentrics and eccentricities of the candyfreak community and makes a convincing case that candy lovers will and should go to great lengths to satisfy their cravings if candy makers do not bring the goods to them.
Although he does justice to his subject, Almond does not pretend to be scientific or evenhanded. Much as he never questions the popularity of Goo Goos in the South, he attributes the origin of the Baby Ruth name to Grover Cleveland's daughter -- not baseball icon Babe Ruth -- and cites as his source of information "any aficionado."
The question is: When Candyfreak is no longer a new release, where is an aficionado supposed to shelve it? -- Linda Baker