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Weekly Alibi Speed Reader

By Jessica English, Julie Birnbaum, Stephen Ausherman, Todd Gibson

FEBRUARY 9, 1998: 

by Toni Morrison (Knopf, cloth, $25)

Paradise is a small Oklahoma town named Ruby, population 360. What happens in this all-black community, which was begun after the Civil War by a handful from the Freedmen's Bureau, is that the once oppressed become the oppressors. With Paradise, Nobel prize-winning author Toni Morrison presents a poignant and elegant dystopian novel very different from the slew of others in the genre. Here, the men of this patriarchal community target a women's convent--really a safehouse of sorts--outside of the town's limits. Ruby's sordid social history is told through chapters devoted to these shunned women singularly--Mavis, Consolata, Seneca, etc.--vignettes that unfold the mysteries of generations in the town, the cruelty these women have suffered for having opposed the ideal community and the feud between two brothers who lead the town. Morrison's pen is smooth, her prose alternately ethereal and suspenseful. ("More men come out, and more. ... Circling the circling cars. Ninety miles from the nearest 0 for operator and ninety from the nearest badge.") Beautiful, the only way to describe a work of such caliber. Paradise is every bit as good as her prize-winning work and deserving of all the praise the press has slathered on it already. (JE)

Special Cases
by Rosamond Purcell (Chronicle, cloth, $24.95)

Subtitled "Natural Anomalies and Historical Monsters," Special Cases transforms subject matter that is often relegated to the realm of the sideshow and the supermarket tabloid into a complex and fascinating scholarly work. The book is based upon a 1994 exhibit at the Getty Research Institute in Santa Monica, Calif., by the same name. Purcell's focus, the relationship between mythical "monsters" and their true counterparts, is highly academic--she describes it with a hyperextended metaphor about a slide show in which artists and scientists through the centuries converge to discuss abnormalities. The motley collection of art and sculpture related to the subject from all over the world, Purcell's luminous photography and a richly informed text are beautifully presented in the polished volume. In the end, the appeal of Special Cases falls somewhere between detached academic interest and the visceral attraction toward the freakish. It is a study in legend, anecdote, sociology and medicine. (JB)

The Writer's Life
edited by Carol Edgarian and Tom Jenks (Vintage, paper, $13)

I already have at least five books of quotations. So when I came across this book of quotes from the diaries of "literary artists and their intimates," I initially thought it seemed like the wrong hook on an overdone format. A writer's best writing, whether it comes in diaries or otherwise, will find its way into the next manuscript. No writer keeps his best material to himself. The writing of their intimates, however, is another story. I found these gossipy little nuggets to be the most intriguing.

Other advantages with this book: It offers brief biographies of the authors, whether they're famous or not-so. It attempts to strike a balance by including a fair number of women and minorities. And it doesn't quote anyone under 40. So it seems the married couple of authors put in a lot of thought and research when culling quotes from more than 200 writers. They even threw six of their own into the mix. (SA)

Last Night in Paradise: Sex and Morals at the Century's End
by Katie Roiphe (Vintage, paper, $12)

At long last, somebody writes intelligently about the post-AIDS sexual climate. Katie Roiphe analyzes recent sexual history--from the sexual revolution to the present day--by weaving together anecdotes, critiques and examples from such diverse sources as Vogue, Magic Johnson, French cinema and her own family. She particularly excels in exposing the hidden agenda of the "new moralists," who attempt to use the current climate of sexual paranoia to return society to the repressive values of the past. Her lively pen and deadpan wit serve her well in her quest to deconstruct sexual media myths. And while some will fault Roiphe for the lack of an all-encompassing solution/conclusion to her arguments, she wisely realizes that there can be no easy answers in such a diverse age, and she instead relies on common sense: "We struggle with the desire to ... be careful and not careful, to be free and not free ... and it's in the uneasiness and confusion of this struggle that most of us love and are loved." You go girl. (TG)

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