Express Reviews

Hounds make history, and fat writers make points.

The Secret Wars of Judi Bari
By Kate Coleman
Encounter, $25.95

Firebrand Bari had a talent both for publicizing Earth First’s cause of saving redwoods and for alienating almost everyone who got professionally or personally close to her. She is most famous, of course, for her political organizing and the grievous injuries she suffered when she and fellow activist (and ex-lover) Darryl Cherney were car-bombed in Oakland in 1990. Coleman’s well-researched, coolly objective bio covers these prominent chapters in her subject’s life most thoroughly, from the demonstrations and alliances she tried to forge with loggers through to the FBI’s bungled attempts to prove that she and Cherney were knowingly transporting the explosive. That persecution made Bari into a celebrated martyr for her cause, yet behind-the-scenes accounts show her as a belligerent and mistrustful woman who spent the last (and extremely physically painful) years of her life more concerned with trying to get back at the FBI than continuing her environmental work. Her conflicts began long before she became famous in the late ’80s, and there’s much here on Bari’s rebellion against her family — due in part to their abandonment of left-wing politics for a more bourgeois lifestyle. The ultimate secret of who really planted that bomb remains a secret, though Coleman probes murky mysteries (including theories that Bari herself planted it) bound to fuel speculation for years to come. — Richie Unterberger

Scoot Over, Skinny
Edited by Donna Jarrell and Ira Sukrungruang
Harcourt, $14

As you try to decide how the government’s new dietary guidelines have already screwed up your appetite and sense of self-worth and whether to see Neil LaBute’s contentious new play, Fat Pig, when it comes to the Bay Area, you will realize that of course you’re not alone. The whole country must have body-image issues by now. There must be a national fixation on fat. Enough, at least, for editors Jarrell and Sukrungruang, who are both fat, to have edited what they call a “fat nonfiction anthology” which illuminates the diversity and vitality of “fat” experiences in American life. Star power appears in the form of New Yorker writer Atul Gawande’s (somewhat morbidly) fascinating profile of “The Man Who Couldn’t Stop Eating,” and bitingly funny bits from David Sedaris and Anne Lamott. When Lamott writes with characteristic vim of her bulimia, “I learned how to do it more effectively by reading articles in women’s magazines on how to stop doing it,” she sets a balancing tone for the whole book. Other pieces, by lesser-known writers, range in quality. Several contributors seem defensively inclined to think they can read the minds of the nonfat around them, and several proffer unsurprising mush (“none of us have ever been taught to admire the bodies we have”). There also is the recurrent theme of squeezing uncomfortably into airplane seats. Things being as they are, the book’s target readers will probably feel embarrassed bringing it up to the cash register, but will also be glad for having done so. The best testament to its success is how much you’ll just want to keep reading — and won’t, therefore, want to get off your ass. — Jonathan Kiefer

By David B.
Pantheon, $25

The savage march of madness through humankind rattles the pages of this internationally acclaimed work charting the author’s elder brother’s battle with epilepsy. It’s a graphic novel, but that term trivializes the big themes, exquisite art, and utterly engrossing plot of a 361-page bloodbath whose original French title was The Rising of Great Evil. The disease’s mysterious causes and dubious treatments drive the illustrated narrative, in which angular, sensitive David watches husky Jean-Christophe grow sicker and sicker, his violent outbursts escalating along with the severity and frequency of his seizures. Yet this isn’t another Lifetime special about a sick, sad family. The nonepileptic world offers a vivid corollary to the serpent coiled inside Jean-Christophe. Bloody war histories, 1960s civil unrest, suicide, family dissolution, murder, and betrayal haunt these pages. All of civilization staggers, seizes, and convulses as the artist struggles to understand his brother’s fate and his own. David B. crystallizes the pain, stringing black gems into rare jewelry that shimmers where human kindness glints off the surface. Most powerful are his incarnations of epilepsy as a Mesoamerican reptile, sprawling ancient Egyptian and Asian visual motifs, immense war scenes, and a cyberpunk ode to dark science. It’s a relentlessly brutal saga whose author finds armor and armistice in art. — David Downs

Welcome, Foolish Mortals
By Ben Ohmart
BearManor Media, $29.95

For some readers, it’s enough that this breezy, readable bio — subtitled “The Life and Voices of Paul Frees” — is the true story of the voice behind Boris Badenov. Others will clamor to learn about the voice talent who did Disney’s Ludwig Von Drake; John and George for the Beatles’ animated TV show; Poppin’ Fresh; and the disembodied host of Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion. The late Frees’ vocal personality was so pervasive in Boomer pop culture and its perennial reruns that he is now inescapable. The man performed literally thousands of voiceovers and dubs on TV and radio shows, commercials, theatrical cartoons, movies and trailers, and records from the 1940s until his death in 1986. He and his wife once dubbed all the characters in a movie: four hundred loops in one day. In terms of influence and saturation, Frees ranks with such voice kings as Mel Blanc, Stan Freberg, Don Pardo, and Ken Nordine. He even looked like a cartoon character — the book is chock-full of snapshots of the impish Frees cavorting at parties and on Hollywood sets, wearing his trademark bushy mustache and tinted shades, mugging with Vincent Price and kissing Shelley Winters. Yet few outside showbiz knew his name. Frees’ consolation for his anonymity, Ohmart asserts, was his bank account. He could do a voice job in twenty minutes, then scoot off in his chauffeured Rolls.

— Kelly Vance

A Dog’s History of America
By Mark Derr
North Point, $25

Every dog shall have his day, but not until now has the entire species been given its place in history — if only in North America’s. New York Times contributor Derr starts with canines crossing the Bering land bridge with Asian nomads who became the first “native” Americans, then moves all the way through to the species’ pervasive, often dysfunctional presence in modern society. Unfortunately, dog lovers anticipating a lively account befitting the exuberant character of their best friends might be disappointed: Derr’s narrative is somewhat flat and scholarly, and he frequently digresses to encompass the scope of a generic history text. His politics intrude on his commentary in rambling critiques of social institutions and cultural paradigm shifts. (To his credit, though, the Spanish conquistadors’ savage deployment of dogs against native peoples justifies an extensive account of atrocities perpetrated by Christopher Columbus and his successors.) Intriguingly, he covers the presence of dogs in expeditions ranging from Lewis and Clark’s transcontinental jaunt to various Arctic forays, as well as the role of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson in early breeding efforts, and examines the development of dogs for hunting and herding, their use in war, and their painful, often classism-tinged integration into urban society. Even general readers not smitten with Canis familiaris will find much to enlighten and inform here if they can overcome the textbookish style and accept the frequent disappearances of dogs from the discourse. — Mark Nichol

Chronicles, Volume One
By Bob Dylan
Simon & Schuster, $24

There are three types who’ll get kicks out of Dylan’s first major autobiographical work: devoted Dylanites, readers looking to build or expand an imposing folk-music record collection, and those curious about icons in general. That isn’t to say that Chronicles isn’t impressively written — Dylan has a way with words, in case you haven’t noticed, and his perspectives on world history, politics, and personal dynamics are usually refreshing. He adopts an appealing narrative style, too. From the rarefied days of youthful success in New York City’s folk scene, this volume moves on to the years Dylan spent in Woodstock, shunning fame for family life with a wife and three kids; then to his recovery from a 1981 freak accident, his sessions in New Orleans with Daniel Lanois for Oh Mercy, and then back in time to his journey from Minnesota to that precipice of success again. The primary drag for readers pledging their time to Chronicles is its incessant name-dropping. Keep a pad and pencil by your side, take notes, cross-reference, and you’ll find that there’s a lot to learn. — Stefanie Kalem

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