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Tucson Weekly Word on the Street

Settle in for the Lazy Days of Summer With Our Elite Set of Page-Turners.

By Various Reviewers

MAY 26, 1998: 

HERE'S THE LATEST bit of bad news from the scientific community: Researchers have found that people whose vacations consist of kicking back and doing nothing for a couple weeks actually lose IQ points over that period. Like it or not, the brain is like a muscle in need of constant exercise.

So instead of picking up the latest Grisham gruel, try Tricky Dick and The Pink Lady--Sexual Politics and the Red Scare, by Greg Mitchell (Random House, $25). This fascinating page-turner looks at the 1950 U.S. Senate race in California between Eleanor Roosevelt protégé Helen Gahagan Douglas, and spawn of the Devil, Richard Nixon.

The moderate Democrat Douglas started the race with a huge lead in the polls and then watched in horror as Nixon used first Commie-baiting tactics, then sexist and anti-Semitic remarks (her husband, actor Melvyn Douglas, was Jewish) to chip away at her lead.

Near the end of the race, out of frustration, it was Mrs. Douglas who stuck Nixon with the moniker "Tricky Dick."

Reads like a novel, but is so much more fulfilling in the end.

And if you like this, go back and read Mitchell's National Book Award-nominated The Campaign of the Century, a compelling look at Upton Sinclair's quixotic run for governor of California in 1934. The forces that lined up against the pre-hippie Socialist would go on to influence national politics for the next half-century. A great book.

If you want to go a little bit lighter without crossing over into the netherworld of popular fiction, there are several good books about sports you might gnaw through.

The best sports book I ever read was Foul!, a savage look at the terribly sad but ultimately uplifting life of New York City basketball legend Connie Hawkins. Alas, this book is no longer in print and you can't borrow my copy.

Therefore, I recommend Summer of '49, by Pulitzer Prize-winner David Halberstam (Avon Mass Market, $6.50). This is a smile-all-the-way-through book which is virtually a day-by-day journey through the American League race of 1949; a race which saw the arch-rival Boston Red Sox, led by Ted Williams, and the Joe DiMaggio-led New York Yankees come down to the last game of the season in a dead tie. Last game, winner take all. (Amazingly, the previous season had ended in a three-way tie!)

Halberstam interviews many of the players who took part in that magical season and paints a portrait of a simpler time when kids were glued to the radio, men played hookey from work to sneak off to the ballpark, and (sigh) baseball actually meant something.

Of course, there's always the chance you'll do something horrible, die and end up in hell. Be warned that the Hades Bookstore and Gift Shop has only one book on its shelves this summer--the novelization of Spike Lee's He Got Game.

--Tom Danehy


For light pulp fiction for your summer vacation, you can't do much better than Carl Hiaasen. A columnist with the Miami Herald, Hiaasen doesn't just write mysteries; he uses the genre to craft comic social satire. Hiaasen's latest, Lucky You (Knopf, $24), is his typical madcap romp through south Florida, a corner of the globe which may actually be as corrupt as Arizona.

The heroine of Lucky You, JoLayne Lucks, is lucky enough to win the Florida Lotto--but unlucky enough to find herself the target of two bumbling morons who fancy themselves members of the White Rebel Brotherhood. Bode Gazzer and his pal Chub swipe JoLayne's ticket to finance their budding militia.

Enter Tom Krome, a former investigative reporter downsized to feature writer. When Krome stumbles into JoLayne's predicament, he signs on to help her retrieve the ticket, setting in motion a rip-roaring chain of events that climaxes with a shotgun, a deserted island, a kidnapped Hooters waitress and a particularly tenacious blue crab.

Along the way, Hiaasen skewers militias, Christian charlatans, crooked judges and newspaper editors. (There's not a real journalist alive who won't be delighted by the fate of Krome's fluff-happy editor Sinclair.)

If a hardback is too much weight to carry down to the beach (or just too expensive), Hiaasen has a whole pile of books available in paperback. Especially recommended: Tourist Season, which involves a quasi-terrorist group declaring war on Florida's tourists, and Skin Tight, which takes a scalpel to the plastic surgery industry, the legal profession, corrupt politics and Geraldo Rivera.

--Bootsie Nightengale


Rarely, if ever, is the topic of garbage treated with such respect and artistry as in Don DeLillo's latest novel, Underworld (Scribner, $27.50). Perhaps more accurately, Underworld looks at the ample and varied waste of contemporary America, and ways in which we as a society seek to make sense, and ultimately, use of it: industrial waste, household waste, wasted lives, junked cars, shooting up junk....

As a famous baseball is chased through time and space, the reader is brought into contact with a myriad of characters who are seeking to deal with the garbage and waste surrounding them. Each find a niche in Underworld: a man whose life is salvaged from juvenile delinquency and an ominous sin to become a fully assimilated member of the middle class, and ironically, the architect of landfills of monumental proportions; an artist who creates a vibrantly colorful work on the grand scale of a graveyard of disused Air Force bombers; and graffiti artists living in an abandoned building furnished with the jetsam of the city who sell junked cars for scrap and create angelic spray can memorials to the wasted lives of street children found murdered in their 'hood. And rather than find themselves overcome by the deluge, DeLillo's characters create rafts of junk on which to navigate the polluted waters.

Along the way, DeLillo takes the reader for a ride on the anti-scenic route through the last half of this century, including serial killers, the Cold War, urban decay, the rise of the suburban strip mall, and a collective sense of community replaced by pop culture, among other themes, create a portrait of dark hues and somber images. A long, slow read (827 pages), by one of this country's finest contemporary novelists.

If you're looking for summer reading that'll soften the edges of our harsh landscape, forget DeLillo and rediscover Kem Nunn. In The Dogs of Winter (Simon/Pocket Books, $14), Nunn takes the reader to a place on the Northern California coast where cold green Pacific swells pummel deeply troubled shores.

A fallen-from-grace surf photographer is summoned from his life of pain pills, alcohol and wedding shoots to document an extremely enigmatic surfing legend riding the waves of a fabled break which has never before been captured on film. When he arrives, with two young, smartass pro surfers in tow, he finds something more ominous than just secret spots and huge surf.

Inner demons are on the rampage in the sleepy coastal town of Sweet Home: from the Indian Affairs counselor tormented by his mixed blood and ineffectualness in dealing with local tribal tensions, to the legend's young wife, haunted by the mysterious murder of a young Indian girl she never met. In fact, this novel's principals are, to a character, doing battle with their own psyches. Throw in Indian meth lab operators with bad attitudes (particularly toward the White men in their midst), a healthy dose of black magic and a few Great White sharks haunting the surf line, and this novel will deliver a tale which is deeply thematic yet with enough suspense and colorful description to never be bogged down by the weight of the theme itself.

Nunn's writing is fluid, and his language true to the nuances of the surfers, Indians and lowlifes he portrays. The cliffhangers and foreshadowing will pull readers over the falls and leave them immersed in the whitewater of inner turmoil, secret sin, and the search for redemption.

--Joe Russo


IF TV RERUNS, endless beers and trashy novels just don't cut it for you, what better way to pass the wretched summers in Tucson than by contemplating your own bellybutton, or better yet, the ultimate nature of human knowledge?

Edward O. Wilson, one of the scientific giants of our age (best known for his work detailing ant behavior, arguing on behalf of the principle of biodiversity, and brilliantly laying the intellectual groundwork for the hybrid--and highly controversial--discipline of sociobiology) tackles that difficult problem with a sage's modest self-assurance in Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge by Edward O. Wilson (Knopf, $26).

Admitting early on that he's certainly not a know-it-all, Wilson nevertheless predicts that thinkers in many disciplines must sooner or later conclude that all of our knowledge and ability to perceive the universe is shaped by certain basic rules. And, surprise! The genetic make-up of our species, he maintains, will be shown to have much to do with how we gain and use our ever-increasing store of knowledge--from macroeconomics to microbiology, from hard physics to romanticism and other movements in art and literature.

In the process of making his point, Wilson takes us on an erudite tour of the human intellectual endeavor, from the orderliness of the Greek mind and its ultimate triumph in the Enlightenment, to the fractionalized food-fight underway in today's well-stocked science larder.

His argument that certain branches of science are more basic than others is obvious to anybody who's ever taken high-school biology and chemistry courses, but his prediction that we'll be seeing many of today's disciplines enveloped by their more basic cousins, with countless temporary, hybrid offspring, has apparently prompted a spate of cranky reviews from the world's more insecure cognoscenti. They've never been big on common sense, anyway.

And make no mistake: For all of his luminous thought on the nature of mankind's ever-swelling treasury of scientific knowledge, Wilson's message is ultimately ultra-common-sensical: In our complicated world with its myriad problems and limitless possibilities, we must seek a common understanding of our place in the universe. If we fail to heed that challenge, humanity risks chaos and dissolution--a fate worse than postmodernism.

But then, we know about such things hereabouts in the summertime. Another beer, please.

--Buzz Click


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