Short Takes

Book briefs for the month of June

The Biographer’s Tale
By A.S. Byatt, Knopf (2001), $24

If a story about a man writing a story about a man who wrote stories about other men sounds a little dry, distant, even dull–well, bingo! A.S. Byatt’s latest novel takes academic storytelling to new levels of cerebral anesthesia.

She begins with an interesting enough narrative told by Phineas G. Nanson, a graduate student who abruptly abandons his plans to become a postmodern literary theorist in favor of a life “full of facts.” His advisor suggests that he write the biography of Scholes Destry-Scholes, who was himself a biographer. Nanson takes on the challenge with great enthusiasm, devouring Destry-Scholes’ three-volume biography of Sir Elmer Boles, a noted explorer and scholar, as well as his unfinished pages of research on other subjects. The result is a confusing and painfully dull collectiaon of facts that haunts the narrator and bores the reader to tears.

The kind of scholarly and literary detective story that Byatt handled so well in her Booker Prize-winning novel Possession is painfully absent here. The reader is kept too distant from the characters to care about them in the least, and the narrator doesn’t come to life until the last fifty pages of the book. The first hundred pages are mind-numbing excerpts of Destry-Scholes’ supposed research on three other notable figures who seem unrelated to anything else. While there are moments in which Byatt’s usual deft writing shines through, those small gems are buried beneath layer upon layer of underwhelming and uninteresting details. –Claire Splan

LEMON
By Lawrence Krauser, McSweeney’s (2000), $16.50

In the beginning there was Dave Eggers. And Eggers wrote A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and it was good. And from the mind of Eggers sprang McSweeney’s, the semiquarterly literary magazine, as well as the somewhat more regularly published Web site www. mcsweeneys.net. And from McSweeney’s Volume 2 came an excerpt of playwright Lawrence Krauser’s first novel, Lemon. And now, finally, we have Lemon itself. And it is good. And so terribly strange.

Lemon, for which Krauser has individually ink-scribbled the slipcovers of all 10,000 extant copies, follows the slow decline of Wendell, a memoist for a company run by the heirs of Buckminster Fuller. He is dumped by his girlfriend following an epistolary exchange in which he complains, “If our relationship were the history of music, then we have not evolved beyond Mozart.” Things go downhill from there. A pinched nerve paralyzes half of Wendell’s face. He has to wear an eye patch. His apartment deteriorates. His friends, who serve as the foil to his increasingly disintegrating life, are smug in their normalcy. And then this lemon turns up.

Let us be frank: Wendell transfers his affections from girlfriend to lemon. Let us be more frank: he eventually–and I am not sure how to describe this to you–has sex with it. He loses his job. His parents freak out. His friends do likewise. His boss terms him a “citrussexual.” He has many thoughtful moments about what it constitutes to be a “thing,” and if to love one is so very strange. Yes, it is. But then again, maybe it isn’t.

Lemon is mostly prose, but Krauser occasionally breaks into limerick as well as into one long poem that turns out to be more or less a History of the Lemon Since the Beginning of the Universe. Every now and then, the text veers into digressions on the role of lemons in art, the lemon-shaped dome in architecture, the cultural significance of yellow. On first read, Krauser’s narrative style can be oblique, occasionally almost Yoda-like; you have to peer through the words to see the story beneath. But on second read, it’s perfectly lucid, and when it is good, it is so very, very good. “Love, or the word love, is like an elusive jungle bird that because it is so durable has thousands of mimics and camouflaged neighbors,” Krauser writes. And later, “The heart is not a loony mess of gloopy flaps and percolating snailations, it is a lively gob of joyful leaping-forward/ diving back. More glossy than matte, it is all of a piece, break-dancing master of the house, the liveliest spot in the body.” Lemon is a book for sour times, when the hero is a grotesque, and love is a very bitter fruit.–Kara Platoni

THE PRICE OF MOTHERHOOD: Why the Most Important Job in the World Is Still the Least Valued
By Ann Crittenden, Henry Holt (2001), $25

A few years after she resigned from her reporting job at the New York Times to be with her infant son, Ann Crittenden bumped into an acquaintance. “Didn’t you used to be Ann Crittenden?” the person asked.

The encounter sparked more than five years of research in fields such as child development, economics, history, and public policy, and culminated in The Price of Motherhood, a study in which Crittenden argues that the equality women have been fighting for, not to mention the health of our society, will only be realized when mothers’ unpaid labor is recognized and counted as productive.

In our country’s precapitalist era, a wife was counted as an asset, not as a dependent, and her work was considered as part of the family’s overall economic status. But with Alexander Hamilton’s 1791 Report on Manufactures, human productivity was linked to monetary reward, thus denigrating home labor and elevating factory, shop, or office work.

Consequences of this paradigm-and-policy shift still plague us today. In the eyes of the US government–and therefore many of its citizens–the unpaid labor of raising children has nothing to do with the economy, a belief that creates its own bizarre logic: A nurse who feeds an infant formula does productive work, while a woman who breast-feeds her child does not; a full-time nanny receives Social Security credits, while a full-time mother does not; a public-school teacher performs valued work, while a home-schooling parent does not.

Crittenden offers a number of ideas for “how to bring children up without putting women down,” such as establishing equal Social Security for spouses, a year’s paid parental leave, equal pay and benefits for equal part-time work, universal preschool for three- and four-year-olds, free health coverage for children and their primary caregivers, and adding unpaid household labor to the Gross Domestic Product. But she also acknowledges that this kind of change can only happen if women themselves demand it: “And before that can happen,” she writes, “women have to understand that the true costs of care include their exclusion from full participation in the economy and society.”–Kate Madden Yee

DIVIDED WE STAND: How Al Gore Beat George Bush and Lost the Presidency
By Roger Simon, Crown (2001), $25

The moment has passed, but nevertheless, Roger Simon’s hindsight view of the troubled 2000 presidential election still makes for worthwhile reading. Simon has written a fast-paced, entertaining account of the race–cross-cutting across the Gore, Bush, and McCain campaigns–that still reads like old-fashioned investigative reporting. And, following a steady stream of Bob Woodward books that purport to present insider information while reading like press releases, his knowledgeable objectivity is refreshing. We learn how no aspect of the election escaped politics: Sandra Day O’Connor wailed, “This is terrible. This is terrible,” when the networks called Florida for Gore; John McCain’s true opinion of the McCain-Feingold campaign reform bill was that “It’ll change [American politics] until smart guys find a way to corrupt it.” And Gore campaign manager Bill Daley’s opinion of both candidates was, “To tell you the truth, I think [the American public] never really liked either one of them.”

Simon also provides useful insight into Bill Clinton’s formidable influence–not only over the 2000 election, but also on American politics in general. Clinton was the first president to be “First Friend” to the nation. In appearances at Town Meetings and television talk shows and 24/7 press coverage, Clinton made the presidency seem more like a job than a symbol. This kind of intimacy with Americans placed a burden of charm and likability on both Gore and Bush–a burden that Bush, the “compassionate conservative,” found easier to carry off. Simon portrays Bush as hopelessly callow (the bookshelves of his governor’s office in Austin are filled not with books but signed baseballs), yet this shallowness served Bush well with the electorate. Gore’s intellectual demeanor, in contrast, appeared arrogant and aggressive.

Simon argues that Gore, the winner of the popular and possibly the electoral vote, was largely ruined by television’s premature assignment of Florida to Bush–making Gore appear the challenger and Bush the incumbent. Still, Simon doesn’t rule out Gore, who received the largest number of popular votes since Ronald Reagan, as a strong candidate in 2004.

Serious political coverage in America is almost a lost art; Simon proves that it isn’t yet dead.–Nora Ostrofe

BOOK OF DREAMS
By Jack Kerouac, City Lights (2001), $17.95

All of us have dreams. Some of us record them, though few of us collect them in a book, as Jack Kerouac did long ago. In 1961, Lawrence Ferlinghetti published a short selection. Now we have the complete text.

Curiously, Kerouac’s Book of Dreams–a movie of his subconscious mind, he calls it–is one of his most overtly political works. Indeed, you might call it an anti-communist manifesto. “The fact that everybody in the world dreams every night ties all mankind together … and also proves that the world is really transcendental which the communists do not believe,” Kerouac writes in the foreword. He also dismisses Sigmund Freud and his school of psychology: “Freudianism is a big stupid mistake dealing with cause & condition instead of the mysteries, essential permanent reality of mind essence.”

Yet Kerouac’s dreams seem to be ripe for Freudian analysis–there’s a surfeit of sex and sex symbols–though many of the dreams are so obvious that they make interpretation superfluous. For example, Kerouac describes a dream in which he’s the famous author of a novel titled On the Road. Surely we don’t need this record of his subconscious mind to tell us that! Again and again, he dreams about people who were famous in the 1950s: Dinah Shore, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Mickey Mantle, Jerry Lewis, Jack Paar, and Senator Joseph McCarthy, the leading anti-Communist crusader of the day, and one of Kerouac’s heroes.

Of course, he also dreams about travel by car, bus, train, trolley, boat, and subway. Even at night, while he was asleep, he was on the go, and burdened with images of war, revolution, apocalypse, and Armageddon.

Despite his disclaimer, a Marxist interpretation of his dreams might prove fruitful. The writing here, as elsewhere in Kerouac’s body of work, is spontaneous, and the author argues that spontaneity is superior to other forms of expression. What he doesn’t say is that he was so self-disciplined that for a whole decade he wrote down his dreams immediately after waking. “Dreamers of the world, unite!” this book seems to say. “You have nothing to lose but the tyranny of your conscious mind.”–Jonah Raskin

MICHAEL BLOOMFIELD: IF YOU LOVE THESE BLUES
By Jan Mark Wolkin and Bill Keenom Miller, Freeman (2000), $24.95

By 1967, Michael Bloomfield was considered by most young guitarists of his generation a god among men. These guitar players included people like Carlos Santana, Duane Allman, Bob Weir, the Doors’ Robbie Krieger, and thousands of others. Bloomfield had already recorded “Like a Rolling Stone” with Bob Dylan and was signed to Columbia Records for a multi-album deal. Fans and groupies bought his records, asked for autographs, and generally worshipped the ground he walked on.

Ten years later he was strung out on heroin–or drinking several fifths of straight gin a day when trying not to shoot dope. Then in 1981 Bloomfield was found dead in his car of a coke-heroin overdose, an unidentified DOA at the age of 37. This new “oral biography” explains how such an end could come to a compassionate, witty, intelligent, and talented young guitar hero who seemed to have had it all just a few years earlier.

Born into a wealthy Chicago Jewish family, Bloomfield was an outcast and rebel early on. He felt more of a connection to the black people working for his family than to his parents’ socialite friends. Introduced to the blues on the South Side of Chicago, he became hooked on the idea of playing music on his “starvation box” (as his father called a guitar) instead of working at his father’s business. It wasn’t long before he was performing in the Butterfield Blues Band, making records and touring the U.S. Learning about Bloomfield’s trials and tribulations in the fast-moving music business of the ’60s makes for fascinating reading. The San Francisco scene in particular should interest Bay Area readers, and the segment on Bill Graham, Chet Helms, and the Fillmore Auditorium is especially eye-opening. The reader gets a real feel for Bloomfield’s humor and insight as well as for the tragic failings that led to his downfall.

The interview subjects include friends and family, from Bob Dylan to Bloomfield’s mother, and many well-known Bay Area musicians. For any music lover, this book is a loving but tragic tribute.–Mark Hummel

SNOW MOUNTAIN PASSAGE
By James D. Houston, Knopf (2001), $24

Adults who read Patty Reed’s Doll as children and were mesmerized by the tragic story of the Donner Party will find James D. Houston’s Snow Mountain Passage particularly compelling. Houston’s inspiration for the novel came from the fact that his Santa Cruz home is the place where Patty Reed, a child survivor of the Donner Party, spent the last years of her life. In the attic of the house Houston found the small doll that Patty Reed carried with her during her terrible snowbound ordeal.

The story centers not around the Donner family, but around the Reed family. James Frazier Reed–a prosperous, ambitious, strong-willed man–set out from Springfield, Illinois in what was called the Palace Wagon. Meant to carry his frail wife and his four children in comfort across the long emigrant trail, the heavy wagon became a burden. Casting the story from Patty Reed’s perspective, Houston writes: “For all his desire to save time and make a speedy crossing, why had papa built that family wagon so big and cumbersome it slowed down everyone who traveled with us? … Just getting as far as it did must have set some kind of record.”

The wagon and its passengers were star-crossed. James Reed pushed the fateful decision to take the Hastings cutoff, which cost the group crucial extra time. Then a flare of anger caused him to kill a man, which resulted in his expulsion from the wagon train. Houston follows Reed as he leaves his wife and children behind, flounders in early ominous snowfall as he crosses the Sierra Nevada, and finally makes it to Sutter’s Fort. In exchange for promises of help for his family, he joins a group of volunteer soldiers engaged in the erupting war against Mexico. The clock ticks.

The focus of the story is Jim Reed’s fall and redemption. Meanwhile, Patty Reed’s fictional “trail notes” keep the reader in touch with his snowbound family and build the tension. Although the emphasis is not on the lurid details of the disaster, Houston chooses his details for powerful effect. “The men from the rescue party … they claimed they saw some of the Donner youngsters sitting on a log with blood running down their chins, eating Jacob Donner’s heart and liver.”

He softens the pain with Patty’s poignant remembrances of the landscape: “Though thick clouds had gathered at the summit, right around us the daylight was bright and clear. You could see every needle on the pines. Faraway jagged ledges of granite looked so sharp you could cut your finger if you reached out to touch them.”

Houston writes economically, but passionately. He gives this familiar piece of California’s history a fresh face and a feeling of intimacy, and makes it worth revisiting.–Elizabeth Rush

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