Brief Reviews | Miscellany | Chicago Reader
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Another Bullshit Night in Suck City: A Memoir

Nick Flynn | Norton | It's a conundrum: what is a child's responsibility to a parent when that parent has long since abandoned him? In his new memoir Nick Flynn takes his sweet time getting to the heart of this question, rifling through his past to make some sense of his present. Jonathan Flynn--con artist, fabulist, and drunk--was a stranger to his son until 1987, when he wandered into the Boston homeless shelter where Nick had been working for three years. The younger Flynn wants nothing to do with him--he has demons enough already, thanks. But as he warily comes to know his father he can't help but edge closer to the awful truth: you're stuck with him, get used to it. An award-winning poet, Flynn scrapes beauty from the cracks of the city, displaying an intimate familiarity with the topography of homelessness, in which a city is mapped by park bench and ATM lobby and every bundle of blankets on a steam grate could be his father. His swooping, wildly creative narrative is a wry tromp through the poverty, crime, death, and all-purpose self-destruction of his own harrowing biography. But it's also an unsentimental homage to the men he bathes, feeds, and picks up off the streets. Sometimes compassion, he seems to be saying, is the hardest responsibility of them all. --Martha Bayne

Bald: A Memoir/Novel

Russell David Harper | Scala House | The hero of Bald, the debut "novel" by career proofreader Russell David Harper, is a balding, alcoholic poster boy for the underpaid clerical grunts of the world. Having begun life as an intellectually gifted, solidly upper-middle-class brat, 30-year-old Russell Cole--which is to say, Harper--has no excuse for failing to make good, except that the house and kids and whatnot just aren't as alluring to him as Led Zeppelin and generic beer. "It's only the upper middle class that truly knows how to whine," he writes. "And if I do, from time to time, I cannot help it." Harper's narrative is rambling but entertaining, crafted with all the pointless complexity you'd expect from a person whose livelihood depends on ignoring the forest for the trees. Cole/Harper doesn't have much of a life--"As a clerk, I get everything as a copy," he says. "I don't actually live a life of my own." But in its hyperrational, clerkly way his analysis of his own low standards is often dead-on and hilarious. --Ann Sterzinger

Bloodsworth: The True Story of the First Death Row Inmate Exonerated by DNA

Tim Junkin | Shannon Ravenel | Two horrible events occurred in Baltimore County, Maryland, in the summer of 1984: a nine-year-old girl was raped and killed in the woods near her home, and the wrong man was made to pay for it. Attorney and novelist Tim Junkin's new book about the case shows that from the moment police zeroed in on ex-marine Kirk Bloodsworth--after someone claimed he resembled a composite sketch--he was caught in a tide pulling him inexorably toward conviction.

Junkin has a knack for making complex legal and scientific concepts comprehensible, and he provides a detailed and compelling account of Bloodsworth's ordeal. Scenes from Bloodsworth's nine years in prison--two on death row--are particularly memorable for depicting his dreary and frightening existence behind bars: roaches drop from the ceiling as he tries to sleep, a dinner consists solely of an overcooked tomato, three men split open his head attempting to rape him. To escape, Bloodsworth begins injecting the "poor man's speedball," a mix of the narcotic Talwin and antihistamine.

After learning about advances in DNA technology, Bloodsworth persuaded his lawyer to get physical evidence from the case tested. In May 1993, DNA lifted from the victim's semen-stained underwear finally cleared him.

There's no rogue cop or conspiracy in Bloodsworth, no easy hook on which readers can hang their outrage. Junkin deftly illuminates the fallibility of the system: a trial is a contest, he writes, "a re-creation that may or may not bear any semblance to what it purports to mimic." --Tori Marlan

Chronicles, Volume One

Bob Dylan | Simon & Schuster | A central part of Bob Dylan's mystique is that he's never allowed much of himself to reach the public. First and foremost he's an entertainer, and he well understands the importance of persona, so it should come as no surprise that his autobiography--actually more of a memoir--is yet another chapter in his endless tale of reinvention. Brazenly ignoring the most celebrated episodes of his career--his ascent as a protest singer, his transformation into iconoclastic rocker, and his mid-70s and mid-90s creative revivals--he instead focuses on his first year in New York before landing a record deal, his self-imposed exile in Woodstock during the early 70s, and the making of his mediocre 1989 album Oh Mercy.

Obviously, this is not the definitive Bob Dylan story. But it's undeniably his best work of prose, full of sly humor, colorful language, and sharp observations that prove he was and is much more aware of the world at large than we might've expected. His musical analyses--of people like Bertolt Brecht, Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, and Robert Johnson--cut to the heart of their work, and there's a palpable thrill to reading Dylan recount his struggles to bring his musical vision to life. This volume--a second is planned--is a fascinating, entertaining ride. Just don't expect resolution. --Peter Margasak

The Freedom: Shadows and Hallucinations in Occupied Iraq

Christian Parenti | New Press | Christian Parenti's The Freedom won't do much for those seeking to disprove the idea that Iraq is the new Vietnam. An impassioned first-person report from the front lines of a war where those lines are blurry, the book reveals chaos, brutality, and absurdity on all sides. Charting a meandering course through the madness, Parenti prowls the sewage-clogged streets of Sadr City, where crime and typhoid are rampant, and chases down car bombings outside the Green Zone, then ducks inside to throw the air-conditioned bureaucracy of the "occupodian" Coalition Provisional Authority into scathing relief. He embeds with a company of bone-weary National Guard grunts, whose scorn for their CO is matched only by their capacity for black humor. In Sunni Adhamiya, Parenti and his young translator pursue a foolhardy appointment with an alleged member of the resistance. Outside Fallujah he hooks up with a squad of paratroopers and a Kurtz-like adrenaline junkie who carries a huge knife and claims to be writing a book. IEDs explode, body parts fly, and everyone everywhere gobbles Valium like aspirin.

The Freedom isn't a perfect book. Presumably written in a hurry and on the fly, it's pocked with just enough redundancies and typos to give the reader pause, and Parenti's politics--he writes for the Nation--are never far from the surface. But, vivid and charged, it's nevertheless an urgent, ruthless indictment of a disastrous mess, the architect of which is never in doubt. Says a bit of scrawled graffiti on a wall in Sadr City, under a mural depicting the infamous Abu Ghraib photo of a hooded prisoner standing on a box, "THE FREEDOM FORM GEORGE BOSH." --Martha Bayne

Hunger and Thirst

Daniela Kuper | St. Martin's | The debut novel by Chicago native Daniela Kuper is set in the Jewish enclave of Rogers Park in the 1950s. Irwina has been living with her mother, dreaming of owning a fancy dress shop. Then she meets charming Buddy Trout at a dance at the Aragon Ballroom. "In a woman's life there is only one first dance," Kuper writes, and it doesn't take long for smooth-talking, smooth-moving Buddy to convince Irwina that he can make her dream come true. He does--they get their shop on Lunt, and all is well for a time.

But the dream is marred by Buddy's drinking and egomania and the couple's competition for the affection of their 12-year-old daughter. A gossipy, kvetching Greek chorus of kalooki-playing "women-in-the-building" provides running commentary. Kuper does a nice job with period details, and her secondary characters add plenty of color. Meanwhile, I can handle a typo or two in a book, but The Phil Silver's Show? Louie Aparicio? Roger's Park? Mayor Richard J. Dailey? Jeez, don't publishers hire proofreaders anymore? --Jerome Ludwig

Night Visions

Thomas Fahy | Dark Alley | What in hell is Thomas Fahy thinking? Hasn't he ever read a really good psychokiller thriller--like Shane Stevens's By Reason of Insanity or James Ellroy's Killer on the Road? If he has he should know that the fun of the thing is in the villain, as Victorian tinkerers like Bram Stoker figured out a long time ago so we wouldn't have to. And if he hasn't, what's he doing trying to write one? The author's bio says Fahy "grew up surrounded by music," and Night Visions uses Bach's "Goldberg" Variations--which 18th-century insomniac Count Keyserlingk supposedly had his harpsichordist Goldberg play to soothe him to sleep--as the source of an evil that haunts contemporary San Francisco attorney Samantha Ranvali, who can't sleep either. It's no use going into the convoluted mess Fahy makes of all this, except to say again that the genre's cardinal rule is broken: there is no single villain of any interest. Heroine Ranvali is less intriguing than daytime TV, and I'm not even sure what happens at the end. But none of this would matter if this book had--oh, I don't know, Dracula? --Patrick Daily

O: The Intimate History of the Orgasm

Jonathan Margolis | Grove | I'd like to see somebody try to get through this book without finding her hands in her pants. Jonathan Margolis has crafted this anthropological history of the sexiest primate's favorite sensation with an abundance of research and a drily humorous writing style that grazes targets like the "more primitive American states" where certain forms of generosity remain illegal. His grown-up attitude--no coy tee-hees here--allows him to touch on issues from the difficulty of capturing the sensation of orgasm in words to the connection between the rise of monogamy and the rise of property rights and even to the possible evolutionary role of rape without once sounding like a maniac of any stripe. Of course the thing is stuffed with fun facts--did you know that the barnacle, the only animal whose phallus, relative to body size, outstrips the human's, "throws its penis away once a year and grows a new one"? But this doesn't mean the book lacks for depth: the chapter titled "The Evolutionary Paradox of Orgasm," for instance, will fascinate armchair philosophers who want to know how the hell we lucked out. --Ann Sterzinger

Old Friends

Stephen Dixon | Melville House | Two-time National Book Award bridesmaid Stephen Dixon explores the relationship between two writers whose friendship spans 30 years in his new novel, Old Friends. Irv and Leonard have been dedicated practitioners of serious fiction all their adult lives, though neither has had much success beyond publication in small literary magazines. No matter--they're not looking for glory; they just love writing, and that's the bond that ties them together through the years. And the decades hold struggles that transform and further cement their friendship: Irv's wife, lit scholar Loretta, has become confined to a wheelchair, requiring constant care, and Leonard himself falls victim to dementia, requiring his young wife Tessie, a former student, to confine him in a grim care facility. Through the characters' phone calls and letters Dixon touches on a variety of topics--language, memory, aging, infirmity, friendship, the act of writing. This is wonderful work by a real craftsman: no fancy-dan literary loop-the-loops, no bells and whistles, just artful storytelling. --Jerome Ludwig

The Pirates! In an Adventure With Scientists

Gideon Defoe | Pantheon | Relentless in its thorough rape and pillage of the remarkably universal swashbuckling archetype, Gideon Defoe's absurd first novel, a bad-history map of all manner of boyish 19th-century enthusiasms, begins as an exercise in high-jackass obviousness but swiftly sets sail for stranger parts. Tricked by his rival Black Bellamy into attacking the HMS Beagle, the rakish buffoon known only as the Pirate Captain falls in with Charles Darwin and a supersmart "Man-panzee" named Mister Bobo, who communicates through flash cards. In a romp ranging from the high seas to an ersatz Galapagos Islands to a still-sillier perpetually foggy London after dark, the captain and his nameless crew--identified merely as "the pirate with a scarf" or "the pirate with an accordion," etc--face soul-stealing madmen, ham shortages, scary cartographic art, and the even scarier vagaries of pirate fashion. But thanks to some old-school buccaneering (which usually involves roaring, a cutlass, and perhaps a dinosaur mask) they triumph over each. The poker-faced Defoe--allegedly a direct descendant of Daniel--leaves no trope, or easy incidental routine, unturned. The result is a tidy, handsomely bound little volume that's funnier line for line than anything I've read in years. --Brian Nemtusak

Scream Queens of the Dead Sea

Gilad Elbom | Thunder's Mouth | Israeli expatriate Gilad Elbom's tricky and ingratiating debut will likely be recognized chiefly for its attempt to transpose the brutality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict onto the grimy, ground-level melodrama of an understaffed mental hospital. His protagonist works as an orderly and obsesses over linguistics and death metal, commuting to work in a Subaru he frets would be the perfect conveyance for a suicide bomb. He's also having a semikinky affair with a woman named Carmel, who's waiting for her terminally ill husband to die. To blow off steam in between running pointless errands for beleaguered doctors, he enjoys probing conversations with his sad charges, murderers and the profoundly confused, who provide a poignant chorus. Meanwhile, the conflict, always lurking in the background, is treated with a certain weary resolve (our hero wants to move to a country like Finland with legendary unsolved murders, since in Israel "you can't get killed without two or three paramilitary organizations fighting to take credit for your death. And you, as a good citizen, must die."). The humorous result captures the blood-tinged absurdities of Israel, but some of Elbom's ploys--annoying metafictional breaks and his fan-boy cataloging of metal bands that are presumably meant to seem obscure--dilute the novel's effectiveness and staying power. --Mike Newirth

Seconds of Pleasure

Neil LaBute | Grove | A new medium can leave a writer's flaws dangling in the breeze. When novelists get it in their heads to write a play, out comes stilted dialogue; when playwright-screenwriter-director Neil LaBute tries his hand at a book, it becomes painfully clear how much he depends on his actors to help suspend one's disbelief in his nuance-free characters. Seconds of Pleasure, a snack pack of short stories about relationships, is filled with pithy lines; unfortunately everyone speaking them is torn from the pages of a textbook about sociopaths. There's no shortage of blurbs from critics lauding this Mormon "dark prince" for shocking their socks off, but he had me giggling, especially with "Ravishing," which reads like a stoner college kid's premise for a creative-writing exercise: "What if there wuz a dude so evil he made a snuff film?" Poe was great, but he invented the one-note effect for his stories, fella, not yours. --Ann Sterzinger

Television

Jean-Philippe Toussaint | Dalkey Archive | Television is sort of like the air we breathe--not of the highest quality but no one can avoid involuntary intake, and Jean-Philippe Toussaint has a good time with this in his seventh novel, translated from the French by Jordan Stump. An anonymous French narrator on leave from his university post spends the summer in Berlin trying to write about Titian while his pregnant wife and son vacation in Italy. But nothing is getting done. What to call the painter--le Titien? Tiziano Vecellio? No sense putting pen to paper before this is decided. He turns off the tube for good and still, nothing but busy sloth: our man lounges through museums, goes swimming, neglects for no discernible reason his promise to tend to his neighbors' plants, then twists through some nail-biting slapstick to cover the damage. Is TV even to blame, or does our heroic procrastinator suffer from some deeper spiritual deficit? Or is the damage already done, and in this day of the sound bite can he think of the intersection of 16th-century art and politics only in anecdotal terms? At least Toussaint finished this novel, a deadpan comedy with serious intent. --Patrick Daily

Village of the Small Houses: A Memoir of Sorts

Ian Ferguson | Douglas & McIntyre | At first Ian Ferguson's Village of the Small Houses looks like a quirky memoir of life in Fort Vermilion, Alberta, an edge-of-nowhere burg in the Canadian subarctic, so far north that one year "it snowed every month, even in July." Ferguson's father was a schoolteacher in the town, which was peopled by characters like Tommy Francis, an Indian who cut off his big toe to qualify for disability. "It was breathtaking to see someone that bone-lazy," Ferguson writes, "and it made him a celebrity." The town physician was a turbaned East Indian who competed for patients with a Cree medicine man; the movie theater was a Quonset hut where pictures were projected on a bedsheet. But in this quaint setting is a universal story about one of those childhood friendships that don't survive to adulthood. Ian's best pal is Lloyd Loonskin, an Indian orphan and the kind of boy every other boy wants to be: he can fight, he's brave enough to break into the school after dark, and when he gets lost in the woods his wilderness skills keep him alive for five days. But the Fergusons came "from out," and like most white people, they returned there: Ian's friendship with Lloyd ends at age 15, when he moves to Edmonton to attend high school. He becomes a playwright, but he and Lloyd meet again, in an epilogue that strips away the whimsy and shows how life turns out for a boy born in the right skin, and a boy born in the wrong skin. --Ted McClelland

Welcome to the Machine: Science, Surveillance, and the Culture of Control

Derrick Jensen and George Draffan | Chelsea Green | Are you concerned about the uses of nanotechnology and radio frequency ID tags or the role played by surveillance cameras in events like the 2003 guns-out drug raid on a predominantly black South Carolina high school? According to author-activists Derrick Jensen and George Draffan, you should be: such phenomena represent the realization of Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon and a long-feared opportunity now being seized by business and the state to exert control over our actions. In chapters with titles like "Nothing to Fear," "Money," and "The Noose Tightens," they explore the intersection between technology (the Echelon surveillance system, for example, or the shadowy products of the Defense Department's R & D branch, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and those who would use such wonders to track our movements, purchases, and associations. Jensen and Draffan's mix of observations and outrage can be unnerving or entertaining ("The FBI is developing a National Instant Check System, but how can they find terrorists when they can't even smell their own moles?"). And they're deft at integrating diverse subjects into a cohesive argument as they raise the alarm. But it's all alarm, tonally: they start off at a high pitch and never let up with the suppositions and snide asides, achieving a level of conspiratorial overkill that should appeal to Nader voters everywhere. In this regard, Christian Parenti's underrated The Soft Cage is a better tool for understanding the ongoing assault on privacy and civil liberties. --Mike Newirth

Windblown World: The Journals of Jack Kerouac 1947-1954

Edited by Douglas Brinkley | Viking | Jack Kerouac was only 47 when he died in 1969, but he left enough material that he's been publishing steadily ever since. This new edition of journal writings--edited by Douglas Brinkley, a historian most recently on the best-seller list for his biography of John Kerry--covers a pivotal time in Kerouac's early career, when he was hard at work on The Town and the City and On the Road. This is not the Kerouac of legend, fortunately. He's living with his mother in Queens and writing industriously, as obsessed with word counts as anyone who's ever tried NaNoWriMo. Many entries are simply reports of how far he got that day, juxtaposed with the familiar run-on outbursts of mystical ecstasy, straightforward longings for a wife, children, and a farm, and impatience with his more privileged friends.

It doesn't make for gripping reading if you're not a fan. But if you're seeking chicken soup for the writer's soul, this is gold--even in his mundane self-cataloging Kerouac can't help but write beautifully. He carefully documents exactly what it means to try to use writing to break out of solipsism, eventually addressing nearly every type of anxiety and frustration and joy found in the pursuit. The shards of genius seem almost accidental and incidental, but I've got to suspect that the canny young scribbler--very interested in his place in literary history all his life--knew someone would be reading these writings someday. --Monica Kendrick

Your Secrets Sleep With Me

Darren O'Donnell | Coach House | This is a bible for the dispossessed, a prophecy so full of hope it's crushing. The beginning has the American police state out in full force--a car bomb has gone off outside a Homeland Security office--and Muslims are fleeing to the north, clogging up the QEW on the way into Toronto, where John Racco, backhoe operator, loses his shit and commences to slam his machine's scoop into the traffic-jammed cars, one after the other. Paranoia grips the city when a few weeks later an enterprising tornado picks up the CN Tower and dumps it into Lake Ontario.

In a world like this caffeine consumption can only rise--O'Donnell's narrative follows a cadre of Toronto kids through their afternoons at the city's cafes, where they talk among themselves like cocaine-buzzed graduate students. (He keeps things lively through direct address, at one point even entreating the reader to press his lips against the book's rough pages and give it a kiss.) Meanwhile, his young characters run from the law, discover and use their own sexiness to great profit, and finally embrace the spirit of the age to perform miracles, walking on water and learning to fly. By the book's end there's even something of a virgin birth on the horizon. I won't divulge the child's identity here--who knows, it could be you. --Todd Dills

The Zigzag Way

Anita Desai | Houghton Mifflin | This short novel's protagonist, Eric, a postgrad historian in search of a subject, travels from Massachusetts to Mexico with his scientist girlfriend, Em, who's doing fieldwork. Left to his own devices Eric journeys into the countryside with a vague idea of visiting the now defunct mines where his Cornish grandfather worked in the early 1900s. Along the way he meets an unlikely character in Dona Vera, a European anthropologist who presides over her subjects, members of the vanishing Huichol tribe (notable for their annual pilgrimage up the mountains to harvest peyote), like Jane Goodall over her chimps. Eric continues up the mountain after a brief, dismally comic sojourn at Vera's place and arrives at the normally deserted mining town just in time for Day of the Dead celebrations--ghosts and all.

Desai fractures her skinny narrative with tangents about Vera's escape from the Nazi assault on Austria and the premature death of Eric's grandmother, suffered while giving birth to his father as Pancho Villa's rebels were closing in. But she spends far too much time exoticizing the landscape and the characters and not enough letting their feelings or the irony of their situations take hold. She's done better--check out 1980's Clear Light of Day for the goods. --Todd Dills

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