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Austin Chronicle Off the Bookshelf

MAY 3, 1999: 

How to Do It

by Rudolph M. Bell, University of Chicago Press, $25 hard

Imagine that you and your partner are a young couple in Renaissance Florence. No Parenting magazine. No Mom.com. No Girlfriends' Guides. Instead, you might consult The Treasury of Good Health (1586) or the Compendium of Rational Secrets (1564). How to Do It: Guides to Good Living for Renaissance Italians, a survey of Renaissance advice books, is for those who prefer learning about the past through personal history instead of territorial disputes -- and those who have a secret fascination with advice manuals. How to conceive a boy? Do it in the morning beneath a virile painting. How to cure impotence? Rub crushed myrtle, juniper, and other leaves on the sleeping member. How to tell if you're pregnant? Drink honey with rainwater; those with child will develop indigestion. How to deliver a baby? Crouch on a birthing chair and scream. How to Do It is a curiosity, a unique reference book, and a window into the wisdom and obsessions of another age -- which aren't, of course, so different from our own. -- Robin Bradford



Always in Pursuit

by Stanley Crouch, Vintage, $14 paper

Stanley Crouch has long been among our most insightful jazz writers. He is also a controversial commentator on American culture who is known for his independence of thought and thorny contentiousness. Whether waxing rapturously about the courtroom performance of Johnnie Cochran, dissing Tupac Shakur for his "minstrelsy of thug life," bludgeoning a narcissistic Michael Jackson as a metaphor for the deterioration of popular culture, or simply punching out a fellow jazz critic at a party, Crouch always seems to be raising hackles in some quarter and does so with relish in Always in Pursuit: Fresh American Perspectives. Like his influential predecessors Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray, Crouch effectively covers his subjects by examining their fundamental importance within the larger context of the "Great American Experiment." I find Crouch to be most eloquent, however, when writing about jazz. His long essays on Duke Ellington and Miles Davis (and film director John Ford, for that matter) celebrate their extraordinary talents by illustrating why they are such quintessentially American artists. -- Jay Trachtenberg



Getting It On

Edited by Mitch Roberson and Julia Dubner, Soho Press, $15 paper

Getting It On: A Condom Reader is not the campy, tongue-in-cheek instruction manual you might expect from the title. Poetry and prose contributions from literary heavyweights like Martin Amis, T. Coraghessan Boyle, and John Irving guarantee a level of quality writing that is fairly consistent throughout the collection. The problem lies in the concept itself: The only thing binding these 29 works together is the often-peripheral appearance of a condom at some point in each selection. The editors say they chose their topic because "Everyone has an anecdote about ... condoms. ... So why not a book?" This lack of a meaningful theme weakens the collection when compared to numerous others on the market. Everyone has an anecdote about losing their keys, too, but that doesn't mean there should be a book about it. -- Jessica Berthold



Elephant Winter

by Kim Echlin, Carroll & Graf, $22 hard

Kim Echlin, a globetrotting Canadian journalist, compresses her cosmopolitanism into the poignant symbol of a tropical-animal ranch (with elephants, zebras, etc.) set, in the off season, among the snowy wastes of Ontario. Sophie Walker has been teaching in hot Zimbabwe, but has come home to tend her dying mother, a prominent artist who lives, quaintly enough, next to the Ontario Safari Ranch. Proximity, for Sophie, soon leads to her affair with Jo, the elephant keeper, and thence into the lore and keeping of elephants. This incongruous Eden is invaded by Alecto, a mute pachyderm savant who projects a strange, electric aura which fascinates and repels Sophie and Sophie's mom. Jo bristles at the man, who he thinks of as an elephant killer. Echlin intersperses quirky chapters about elephant language that have a nice, mini-Melville feel. But the book's one flaw is Sophie, who is right about too many things to be quite likable -- she has a disconcerting, New Age-ish smugness. When Echlin says about Jo that "he knows what he discovers through his own experience, and that he knows exquisitely," we are tempted to apply the same tag to Echlin herself. -- Roger Gathman


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