By Lily Burana
Talk Miramax Books; 328 pp.; $23.95
If prostitution is the oldest profession, stripping falls somewhere between the advent of auto mechanics and computer programming. And whereas prostitution has both a long and storied history (from Mary Magdalene to Moulin Rouge), there's no vast legacy for strippers. There's Showgirls and Gypsy, and that's about it.
In Strip City: A Stripper's Farewell Journey Across America, Lily Burana sets out to explore stripping -- from the dark corners of peepshow booths to the back VIP rooms of strip clubs to the "meat racks" lining the stages. Burana is looking for answers to all the big stripping questions: why women strip, how women strip, how women strip well, and why men find it alluring. As the book is also a journey of self-discovery, Burana is in search of the stripper heritage, to find out about her occupational forebears.
Eighteen years old, just out of high school and nursing a rebellious streak, Burana moved to New York. After a few months discovering how hard it can be to pay the rent, she got a job dancing in a booth at a place called Peepland. A seasoned veteran, she headed to San Francisco's female-empowering Lusty Lady and, after that, on to the Mitchell Brothers' O'Farrell Theater. Then, around 1994, she got out of the business altogether to become a writer.
Five years later and newly engaged, Burana can't get her old job off her mind. Having always wanted to strip across the country, she figures this might be her last chance (just as bachelor parties are a groom-to-be's last chance for debauchery). And even though she has both a career in journalism and a fiancé -- and she's been around long enough to know the pitfalls -- she decides to go back to stripping full time. The money can be good and the gratification can be even better. She packs up her pasties, gets a fake bake, and heads back to stripper school. It is this journey she describes in Strip City.
It's easy to see how a woman could get sucked into stripping, and Burana counts herself one of stripping's success stories. She's never been assaulted and doesn't seem to carry any psychological hang-ups from her time doing sex work.
As she hits the hot spots of Las Vegas and the Exotic World Burlesque Museum and the low lights of New Jersey and El Paso, Burana tries to look at every aspect of the business, from the names the girls call themselves to how "showing pink," totally nude dancing, became common. Woven into the fabric of this thong story are her own experiences as a stripper, from her early days at Peepland to her first fur coat (inspired by Dynasty reruns after work) to her lawsuit against the Mitchell Brothers for unfair employment practices and on to the impossibility of getting a good bikini wax in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
Although Burana's story is engaging and humorous, she clumsily veers from being the sociologist of stripping to reveling in the adrenaline and adulation of the crowd. As much as she tries to comment intelligently and remain journalistically objective, she loves stripping, loves the thrill that comes from having dollars stuffed into her G and all eyes on her. Her friend Scarlett Fever, another ex-stripper turned professional woman, talks about the recent movement to glorify both stripping and prostitution. Burana says she knows what Scarlett means. Of course she does. Strip City is no rail against the evils of stripping.
But even in a narrative where no one but Burana is allowed to malign stripping, the daylight comes peeping in. As a stripper, you might make tons of money, have the adulation of every man in a club, and learn how to light your nipples on fire, but, in the end, it's just better to keep your clothes on. -- Mary Cashiola
Edited by Karen Haber; illustrations by John Howe
A Byron Preiss Book/St. Martin's Press; 235 pp.; $24.95
Publishers everywhere are rushing to capitalize on the oncoming freight train that is the movie version of J.R.R. Tolkien's Fellowship of the Ring, the first of three films based on The Lord of the Rings trilogy to be released over the next three years. Meditations on Middle-earth is only the latest in a string of tributes to Tolkien. The essays here are by some of today's biggest writers in the fantasy genre, including George R.R. Martin (A Song of Fire and Ice), Raymond Feist (the Riftwar Saga), Ursula K. Le Guin (the Earthsea trilogy), and noted Tolkienist Douglas Anderson (The Annotated Hobbit). Rounding out the book are the drawings of John Howe, who faithfully illustrates scenes from Tolkien's Middle-earth books.
Too many "critical" studies of fantasy literature turn out to be intolerable personal essays on the importance of imagination without any thought given to the history of the genre or its underlying tenants. Worse still is the alternate route, which concentrates less on the fantastical and more on the academic.
Happily, Meditations walks a fine line between the personal and the expository. Sixteen essayists give their take on Tolkien's work and how hobbits changed them forever. For example, Poul Anderson (The Broken Sword) notes his own passion and pain while waiting for the appearance of the next book in Tolkien's trilogy. Also prevalent are constant comparisons to earlier works of British and American fiction.
Each author gives us a fresh look into Tolkien's work and, more importantly, his influence. Whether it is Terry Pratchett (the Discworld novels) lamenting Tolkien's lack of prestige in literary circles or Le Guin's analysis of Tolkien's "rhythmic pattern," all do so with heart toward the fantasy author who inspired a revolution in writing and publishing in the 1960s.
That said, one has to wonder why Karen Haber does not share in that passion. In her preface, Haber (a noted science-fiction writer) writes with some disdain about how past acquaintances may have traveled too far into Tolkien's world and ignored the real one. Her evident dislike of high fantasy is obvious. At the same time, perhaps that's her point. In a world that still downplays the importance of the fantasy genre, perhaps a nonbeliever like Haber adds a needed edge of skepticism to a collection of essays by the converted. The result is an admirable balance between the popular and the academic. Beyond the two is the truly magical world of Tolkien's Middle-earth. Meditations on Middle-earth is fitting tribute indeed. -- Chris Przybyszewski
By Susanna Kaysen
Knopf; 159 pp.; $21
My pussy hurts.
That is the short, simplified, crude version of The Camera My Mother Gave Me. Luckily, Susanna Kaysen, the author of Girl, Interrupted, knows how to make her personal problems funny, real, and, perhaps best of all, interesting.
It begins one day when Kaysen goes to her gynecologist because of a painful spot on her vaginal wall. Her doctor treats her for a yeast infection -- it could be an isolated infection, he says -- but the spot only gets worse. Over the next year and a half, Kaysen goes to her internist, back to her gynecologist, to a "vulvologist," to any friend who has ever attended med school or studied alternative medicine, and to a biofeedback specialist. In the process, she applies antifungal cream to the spot and estrogen cream as well, uses vinegar rinses, saltwater soaks, and a jelly formulated with the correct vaginal pH, takes a baking-soda bath, and stops eating yogurt. Nothing helps.
Gynecology can be funny. From the paper sheet to small talk about the weather or -- horror of horrors! -- your love life, the surreal can become the sublime. Kaysen taps into this vein of humor, but don't get distracted. This is a book about pain.
The Camera My Mother Gave Me refers to the Luis Bunuel film Viridiana. In one of the movie's more outrageous scenes, a maid is asked to take a group snapshot and agrees, lifting her skirt to use the "camera" beneath. While the book's title is clever, the camera is never used explicitly by Kaysen as a metaphor for her privates. For most of the book, it's her "vagina." And the repetition of vagina, vagina, vagina on every page not only reinforces how dire her medical problem is but how her vagina is the main, if not sole, character in the book. Still, a female reader can read about a year's worth of simmering, stinging, sometimes jagged vaginal pain with only so much detachment.
The book's a trip worth taking, however. The most intriguing part of Camera is not Kaysen's illness itself but how that illness affects Kaysen's life and how little modern medicine seems to know about "women's problems" in general.
At the beginning of the book, Kaysen is already worried. She doesn't want the psychological problem that associates sex with pain. But in the course of 150 pages, she is essentially describing the death of a sexual animal. Kaysen portrays herself as a once-happy-go-lucky, if aging, single gal. She and her carpenter boyfriend, she writes, had two activities in common: thinking up home improvements and having sex. But when her medical problems start, the relationship becomes a tug of war for and against sex.
Kaysen also suffers from not knowing what, exactly, is wrong with her. There's a medical term to go with her symptoms and a surgery that's 45 percent effective but no conclusive answers. She doesn't know how she contracted the condition or why it does what it does. She's searching for something that may not even, according to science, exist.
By the end of the book, Kaysen's self-perception has completely changed. She's a different person and she knows it. And that is perhaps the most painful part of all. -- Mary Cashiola
By Sylvia Smith
Canongate Books; 247 pp.; $14 (paper)
Sylvia Smith, 50ish Londoner, wants to make some money. She realized this when, at age 40, she took stock of her life: no kids, no man, no real career, no money (on the other hand, she did have nice clothes, nice cars, and nice vacations). Her plan was to make it in the stock market.
Misadventures is Plan B.
Composed of short moments (from the throwaway to the meaningful) that are mostly Smith's experience (but not always), Misadventures is a memoir hybrid, an anecdotography. Brisk as it is, the book provides a mess of insight into Smith's absurdity-absorbing character.
Smith was the replacement child (her brother died just three days old) of bingo-lovers. She had a knack for letting neighbors' dogs loose after promising to hold onto the leashes tightly. She dated a member of the Dave Clarke Five who quit just weeks before the band hit it big. She was left waiting once at a train station with a pan full of sausages for a no-show boy who requested said sausages. She notes that one friend dropped her soapy baby during bath time, while another friend accidentally knocked her 2-year-old in the head with the wooden sole of her Dr. Scholl's sandal. She's worked as secretary for an engineering firm and a chemical company. She had hemorrhoids at the same time as her father. She got ointment; he got surgery.
Misadventures works through accumulation, abetted by the short length of the chapters. The reader, intending to read just a chapter or two, can suddenly find herself halfway through.
As for Plan B, to make money from Misadventures, Smith already has plans for the money:
"Shaunagh knew I was writing this book. I said to her, 'I read in the paper the other day that a new author got a sixty thousand pound advance from her publisher. If that happens to me I'll take you out to dinner.' She replies, 'You are going to get all that money and that's all you're going to give me?'" -- Susan Ellis
By Philip Martin
University of Arkansas Press; 206 pp.; $19.95 (paper)
"There I go again, I guess, worrying a question that mightn't even deserve asking," writes Philip Martin in the introduction to his new collection of essays, The Artificial Southerner. Martin is a critic and columnist for Little Rock's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and has made contributions to and assisted in the editing of a string of books. He is also the author of a previous collection of essays, The Shortstop's Son, published in 1997.
It is often difficult to cram any collection of essays into a tidy summary, though the University of Arkansas Press describes The Artificial Southerner as tracking "the manifestations and ramifications of 'Southern identity' -- the relationship among a self-conscious, invented regionalism, the real distinctiveness of Southern culture, and the influence of the South in America." Roughly translated: The book is a potluck dinner with a theme.
The essays, for the most part, are brief, affectionate engagements with the South at its most extreme and are not always terribly relevant to a Southerner's place in the universe. It's also decidedly not going to dislodge the mystery of what it means to be a native of the South from the entanglement of possibilities. Martin's essays are downright entertaining when he sticks to the story. It's when he inflates his revelations that he gets in trouble, though he does get away with genuine profundity here and there.
The introductory essay opens appropriately, and perhaps too predictably, with a statement from William Faulkner's doomed Quentin Compson: "I don't hate the South. I don't hate it. I don't. I don't." From here, Martin tries to reconstruct an entire region by his own contact (no matter how inconsequential) with its famous, and in some cases, infamous natives -- Elvis Presley, Jimmy Carter, Johnny Cash, Bill Clinton, George Jones, Eudora Welty, Hank Williams, Lucinda Williams, and Tom Wolfe, to name a few -- as well as encounters with non-Southerners, such as Ralph Ellison and Barry Goldwater.
Martin is at his best when he talks musicians and music, especially country and blues. In his essay "Whither the Blues?" he writes: "It's hard to accept the self-aggrandizing gestures of a Jimmy Rip or a Kenny Wayne Shepard after you've had long-dead Robert Johnson infect your nightmares with his nettling menace. Pain like that man's is consecrated and wild, and you don't have to be a blues purist to respect it." And he has a particularly insightful essay on Johnny Cash, "the damned saint," and his three-CD release Love, God, Murder. On Cash, he writes: "He understands that without sin there can be no forgiveness, so that every transgression can bring the penitent closer to God." Martin manages to rework a few of the frayed perspectives on Elvis as well and gives us a few (more) reasons to respect Lucinda Williams.
Martin goes on too long about Bill Clinton and is positively obsessed with the Southern inferiority complex. But he manages to pull together an otherwise disparate collection of essays and make it engaging. Philip Martin in The Artificial Southerner isn't trying to be an authority on the South, but when he writes, "Indulge me a moment; maybe I can better explain what I mean," it's a request well worth honoring. -- Lesha Hurliman
By Allison Graham
Johns Hopkins University Press; 215 pp.; $32.50
"According to the movies, the southern problem has never been white people; it has, it seems, always been social class."
So goes the final sentence of Framing the South, a study of images of the South in film and television as a reflection of attitudes toward the civil rights movement. Author Allison Graham, a professor of media and communication studies at the University of Memphis, delivers an entirely spot-on analysis of how popular culture has simplified and muddled the meaning of the movement, most prominently through latent class bigotry.
Graham delivered a fascinating lecture on her topic earlier this year at a symposium on film and Southern politics as part of the IndieMemphis film festival, and Framing the South delivers on the promise of Graham's arguments on that day.
Graham contends that the story of the civil rights movement, as told through the mainstream entertainment industry, is a constantly repeated story that has reactionary Southern whites battling the progressive forces of Northern whites and Southern blacks, a class-based vision where the primary concern isn't black justice but white redemption. In Graham's view, the entertainment industry lacks "a narrative framework for dramatizing institutional racism" and therefore substitutes an easy scapegoat for a complex social problem. Defining the "redneck" or "cracker" as this scapegoat, the entertainment industry creates a simulation of the movement. The struggle over civil rights becomes a crusade to purge white society of embarrassing, socially unacceptable elements, making this historic era, in Graham's words, "an arena of white -- not black -- heroism." From Atticus Finch to the good white lawyers in films such as Ghosts of Mississippi and A Time To Kill, Hollywood has presented progressive, dignified whites as the heroes of the movement.
"Hollywood's role in the refinement and perpetuation of this story since the early 1950s is the subject of this book," Graham writes early on. In truth, she strays off this core topic plenty, with mostly rewarding results. Among them are the decay of Old South attitudes through film adaptions of Tennessee Williams' plays, the "harmless hillbilly" character (a way for Hollywood to represent the South without dealing with race issues at all), and the careers of Andy Griffith and Elvis Presley as a dramatization of the retraining of white working-class Southerners.
But Framing the South is most forceful in its introduction and concluding chapter ("Civil Rights Films and the New Red Menace"), where Graham focuses on her central argument -- especially her deflation of sacred cows (including To Kill a Mockingbird, in this critic's opinion a great film on childhood but useless at best on the subject of race) and how Hollywood's central civil rights conceit persists to this day.
As Graham writes, "The refusal to indict social and political institutions for racial injustice, in fact, would become an immutable characteristic of a new genre, the civil rights film, born from the marriage of To Kill a Mockingbird and In the Heat of the Night. The commercial success of later films like Mississippi Burning, Ghosts of Mississippi, and the series of John Grisham adaptions of the 1990s attests to the durability of the old Southern mythography. However, the astounding popularity of a narrative and iconographic system that developed more than 40 years earlier precisely for the evasion of contemporary political realities suggests that our national understanding of race and social class has changed little since 1954."
Graham also spikes her analysis with pointed comparisons to actual events from the civil rights movement, most notably the story of school desegregation in Hoxie, Arkansas, which was at odds with the image of the desegregation battle told through the media, and the example of intraracial class tensions among white Southerners in the case of J.W. Milan and Roy Bryants, the Mississippians who killed Emmett Till.
A very readable work of cultural scholarship, Framing the South should be equally functional inside a college classroom (probably its primary purpose) and on your bedside table. -- Chris Herrington
By Marc Spitz and Brendan Mullen
Three Rivers Press; 296 pp.; $13 (paper)
As the authors point out in the introduction to We Got the Neutron Bomb, the seedy, soiled history of Los Angeles punk in the 1970s has received only a drop of ink in comparison to the gallons spilled on the twin-city output of New York and London. Jon Savage touched on it in his masterful 1991 book England's Dreaming, and the Don Snowden-edited Make the Music Go Bang: The Early L.A. Punk Scene (1997) was a fine, if brief, volume that served as a showcase for the often stunning, black-and-white photographs of Gary Leonard.
Yet the occasionally groundbreaking work of Los Angeles outfits such as the Weirdos, the Germs, X, Black Flag, and others has been something of a stepchild. Maybe because so many of the scene's main players were infatuated more with the drug-fueled decadence of L.A.-transplant Iggy Pop than the assaultive music he made in the late 1960s and early 1970s with the Stooges. Maybe because a rampant obsession with Bowie-esque glam produced onstage spectacles that were more performance art than the kind of rock-and-roll that could successfully translate to vinyl. Or maybe an overall lack of touring kept the West Coast rebellion from spider-veining across the country. Whatever the case, any city that can produce the disparate likes of the Weirdos, X, Black Flag, the Blasters, the Go-Go's, and Los Lobos is worthy of some kind of even marginally definitive history.
Unfortunately, We Got the Neutron Bomb -- named after the Weirdos' classic 1978 single -- isn't it. Compiled by Spin scribe Marc Spitz and L.A. club owner Brendan Mullen, the book is presented in the oral-history format that worked so well for Clinton Heylin's From the Velvets to the Voidoids and Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain's Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk. Neutron Bomb, though, is a complete mess, from the horribly edited hodgepodge of quotes to the authors' collective inability to put the story together with any coherence, flow, or finesse. Instead, Spitz and Mullen deliver a half-baked mishmash of drunken nights and damaged days set to the caterwaul of a gamut-spanning range of bands, with an emphasis on the seminal Germs and their ill-fated frontman Darby Crash, a cult-obsessed pseudo-Scientologist who in 1980 offed himself at age 22 with a massive dose of heroin, just one day before John Lennon was murdered.
The historic roots of the scene at least are here: the Stooges' tornado-like relocation following the release of their epoch-shattering album Raw Power; the formation of the teen-trash Runaways instigated by West Coast bullshit merchant Kim Fowley; the influential role of hipster DJ Rodney Bingenheimer; the clarion arrival of London's the Damned. In the aftermath of these events, bands formed, fanzines were created to cover them, and an ever-changing lineup of venues were set up to host the madness. Much is made of the L.A. scene's early denizens, a noteworthy mix of gays, lesbians, blues nuts, rockabilly hounds, and open-minded explorers who embraced everything, music-wise and otherwise. And, of course, there's a lot of sex, a lot of drugs and booze, and after the music evolved into hardcore, a lot of pointless violence.
What's missing, though, is a writer's knack for simply telling a good story -- and despite the end-result evidence offered by Spitz and Mullen, there is a good story to be found somewhere in the history of L.A. punk. Much like Michael Azerrad in his infuriating recent postpunk tome Our Band Could Be Your Life, Spitz and Mullen have squandered an opportunity to adeptly chronicle an important chapter in American rock-and-roll history. As it is, Joan Jett -- founding member of the Runaways, producer of the Germs' debut album, and an artist worthy of her own book -- expertly sums up the L.A. explosion of the punk-rock 1970s (and rock-and-roll, period) in an inspired aside offered to the bumbling authors of We Got the Neutron Bomb: "A defining moment for any teen misfit is finding others like yourself, even if the only thing you share is the feeling of not belonging anywhere else." -- John Floyd
By Daniel Pinkwater
Simon & Schuster; 203 pp.; $20
Is there anything more tiresome than someone talking about his dog? Especially when that person won't let you interrupt so you can get your two cents in about your own, far superior pup?
Then there's Daniel Pinkwater's Uncle Boris in the Yukon, a smart and sweet homage to a lifetime of dogs. If he claims not to understand them, Pinkwater does know one thing: More than man's best friend, dogs are entertainment.
Pinkwater's stories run the gamut: from the fantastical (the Uncle Boris of the title had a sled dog who spoke Yiddish) to the sappy (his beloved Arnold, given a shot to be "put down," lived until Pinkwater told him it was okay to die) to the instructional (housetrain a dog by cramming a suppository up his rectum during outside time, though it might take two for the particularly stubborn).
Pinkwater came by his appreciation of dogs honestly. When he was a boy, he wanted a dog, so his father promised to get him a monkey. Instead, he got a bird. After a number of birds, he finally received a wheezy Boston terrier unsuitable for running alongside a young boy peddling on his bike. The next dog he received was suitable. That dog would have nothing to do with him, opting instead to cling to Pinkwater's father.
And so it goes. Pinkwater skips his adolescence -- would we have noticed had he not pointed out the omission? -- and takes us through his list of loyal Labs and most-favored Malamutes. There were some dogs he loved and some he ignored. There were dogs who shed obedience training like so much hair. So Pinkwater and his wife, a woman with a Snow White gift around animals, started their own dog-training schools and even wrote a book. There was also an encounter with a wolf, a Pinkwater fascination, and that wolf licked the author's surgical wound and chewed up a roll of film.
The moral of Pinkwater's stories? Yap away about your dog all you want -- and don't let anybody interrupt. -- Susan Ellis
Compiled by Professor Anders Henriksson
Workman Publishing; 150 pp.; $12.95
As it turns out, you can judge a book by its cover. Take Non Campus Mentis, for example. This slender volume, graced with a torn notebook-paper motif and the cartoon image of a young, red-nosed scholar raising up his frosty, beer-filled mug, just screams, "Hey, everybody, look! I'm a piece of garbage not worth the pulp I'm printed on." And trash it is, albeit very funny trash that will make a fine addition to your bathroom reading list. If you are so inclined, that is.
Compiled by Professor Anders Henriksson, Non Campus Mentis is the history of the world as told by college students via term papers and bluebooks. The bizarre collection of malapropisms and misunderstandings can be out-and-out hysterical until you consider that the information is coming from, as they say, our "leaders of tomorrow." That's when the cold shivers begin. After all, these are college students writing about things they should have learned in high school. Here's a prime example: "History, a record of things left behind by past generations, started in 1815. Thus we should try to view historical times as the behind of the present."
Students of classical history will be thrilled to learn that "Greek semen ruled the Aegean" and that "we know about this thanks to Homer's story about Ulysses Grant and Iliad, the painful wife he left behind." More tragic still is the story of Alexander the Great, who died "with no hairs."
The history of the Middle Ages is detailed, lively, and chock-full of facts like, "Around the year 1000 people were afraid that an acropolis was lurking around the corner." How scary is that? We discover that "Charles V spent most of his reign aging" and that "the invention of the sex tent helped determine place and orientation at sea."
Some of the most interesting tidbits concern the era of industrialization. For instance, we've always known that Europe was a special place, but now we know why: "European nations had the raw materials to start an industrial revolution," we are told, "but they did not have the knowledge to start a revolution and thus they were retarded."
There are certainly enough giggles in Non Campus Mentis to make it worth your look, but unless this sounds like the book you've been waiting for all these years I'd hold out on making the purchase. -- Chris Davis