Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Speed Reader

By Jessica English, Julie Birnbaum, Chris Romero

JANUARY 5, 1998: 

by Kurt Vonnegut (Putnam, cloth, $23.95)

I was overcome by so much anxiety about whether I would be disappointed in Timequake, it took me months to start reading. Vonnegut, apparently, had the same problem writing it. He devotes the prologue to likening his decade-long challenge of writing his last book to Hemmingway's The Old Man and the Sea. Although the premise of Timequake seems a bit less inventive and mind-blowing than Vonnegut's other books (earthlings experience a decade of déjà vu after the universe just decides to stop expanding for awhile), this novel is as big a riot as Breakfast of Champions--the one that first cinched my Vonnegut fanaticism by way of the author's trademark acerbic humor (not to mention the doodles of assholes and Ajax breaking up the text). Vonnegut's whacked drawings appear in Timequake, too, as well as his beloved and pitied alter-ego Kilgore Trout and his brand of left-field wit wherein scientific logic, etc., is derived from questions like: "Q: What is the white stuff in bird poop? A: That's bird poop, too." This is Vonnegut. And I say: Go old man, go. (JE)

Compañero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara
by Jorge G. Castañeda (Knopf, cloth, $30)

Once in a while, good timing transforms a person who might have been just an ordinary historical figure into a legend. Castañeda's biography of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, one of the most famous revolutionary leaders of Latin America and Africa in the '50s and '60s, explores the forces which created a countercultural icon. Detailed and focused, Compañero explores Guevara's life from birth to death in a narrative that is heavy with research and an obvious expertise in political science. Castañeda neither glorifies nor vilifies the socialist hero, whose death in 1967 resulted in a Christ-like photograph that created a martyr for generations to idealize. Instead, it explores his life in its social and political context, from his privileged childhood in Argentina to his career as a Cuban leader. The 400-plus page book is sophisticated, complex, sometimes dry--obviously for those well acquainted with Guevara's revolution and the politics of his era. It will clearly become a strong part of the canon of works about this uncommon man. (JB)

Mothers of Invention
by Drew Gilpin Faust (Vintage, paper, $15 )

Pin-up girls. What image comes to mind? Well, what have you heard regarding the women of the Civil War? Written by a historian, Mothers of Invention is full of facts and "pin-up" girls, who did not present their strengths in heels and stockings but used previously silenced opinion and ferver to manage their communities and businesses. The author pieces together a society within a society of the Southern upper-class elite and the changes that come to these women during the Civil War. With many of the male figures gone to battle, women's independence emerges, and this society, so carefully maintained before this time, reacts like a co-dependent lover that has just been told "It's over." Most of the stories are supported by the accompaniment of ambrotypes or actual diary excerpts as well. As such, Mothers of Invention is both inspirational and extremely educational. (NJ)

by the editors of ben is dead (Little, Brown, paper, $12.95)

I was never very fond of bathroom literature, finding the concept quite unsavory. But, with age and the slowing down of certain functions, potty reading has taken a favorable turn in my eyes. Even the writers of this book, all editors for the magazine ben is dead, acknowledge that retrohell is a book best read over more than one "sitting." It's loaded with bits and pieces of amerikana, pop lore and those media marvels that plagued us in the '70s and '80s. Footage of the elusive Bigfoot, getting physical with Olivia Newton John, Lite-Brites and some funky looking kid named Mason Reese are all included--certainly enough mind scraps to amuse the twenty- and thirtysomething audience.

My only gripe concerns the format used to present each info-nugget. Instead of receiving stats and other impressive morsels, the reader is fed silly quips and uneventful personal memories that somehow tie-in to the subject matter. Fortunately, most topics have several commentators, so if one annoys you, there's the option to skip to the next. (CR)

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