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Austin Chronicle Off the Bookshelf

JUNE 1, 1999: 

An Ocean in Iowa by Peter Hedges Scribner, $11 paper

An Ocean in Iowa is at once as charmingly unassuming as its seven-year-old protagonist, Scotty Ocean, and as complex as the boisterous Sixties in which Scotty grows -- if not up, then a year older. An earlier novel, What's Eating Gilbert Grape, established Peter Hedges' penchant for writing about families, and in this galloping romp of a read he continues transcending the conventional psychobabble about "dysfunctional families" by painting a loosely knit clump of real people lightly sketched yet with all their foibles touchable and close. The Ocean family is more or less held together by will, faith, fear, and the need for love. Despite Scotty's youth, this is not a children's story. Hedges casts aside nostalgia and sentimentality as he recreates the cultural din of Bonanza, bubblegum pop music, watching men land on the moon, and the Vietnam war resonating among the deceptively placid facades of suburban Des Moines.

-- Mason West


The Way of Zen by Alan Watts Vintage, $12 paper

In a Buddhism course I took in college, someone as his final term paper on Zen handed in a blank page. The professor wrote across it: "You have clearly achieved an understanding of this subject ... F." The moral? Religion and academia do not always mix. Problems arise when we try to speak about things that are inherently unspeakable. That said, Vintage Spiritual Classics has recently re-released (in elegant paperback form) a classic popularization of Zen Buddhism from the mid-1950s that poses such paradoxes both implicitly (how does one write about Zen?) and explicitly ("Why is a mouse when it spins?"). Alan Watts, despite a slightly arrogant tone, provides a solid background in the history and practice of Zen with The Way of Zen, widely acknowledged as the definitive introduction to Zen for the Western mind.

-- Ada Calhoun


Hitchcock's Notebooks by Dan Aulier Spike Books, $30 hard

Since the critics raved about Dan Aulier's previous book, Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic, this exhaustive but meandering new work has been eagerly anticipated. And while Hitchcock's Notebooks does not disappoint, it's for hardcore Alfred Hitchcock fans only. Since the Hitchcock estate granted Aulier complete access, this is indeed a fascinating glimpse of a man operating at the top of his craft. Fortunately for Aulier (and for us), Hitchcock's staff held on to seemingly everything he ever wrote. Hitchcock's Notebooks opens with still photos from his first film, The Mountain Eagle (for which no print survives) and includes material regarding Kaleidoscope, the film famous for having been shot but never finished. The book gathers drawings, memos, letters, scribbled notes, and storyboard descriptions galore. If there's a weakness here, it's in the book's obsessive inclusion of the mundane alongside the fascinating. While more stringent judgment might have strengthened the overall content, consider the overall product as a sort of bootleg Alfred Unplugged.

-- Stuart Wade


Are You Ready?: The Gay Man's Guide to Thriving at Midlife by Rik Isensee Alyson Publications, $13.95 paper

The priority that gay male culture places on youth and beauty leaves more than a few gay men in a state of petrified denial regarding life's natural progression. It's not surprising that when many gay men reach the age when denial is no longer an option that emotional issues can come boiling to the surface. Rik Isensee, a licensed clinical social worker, has written Are You Ready?: A Gay Man's Guide to Thriving at Midlife to help ease the transition for the over-35 set. As the title suggests, Isensee's book voices the soothing and optimistic idea that midlife can actually be a quite liberating time for gay men who have already dealt with the stresses of coming out. Each chapter opens with some expository comments by the author followed by comments from people who have survived the transition to midlife intact. Isensee knows that brevity is the soul of wit and his book is an admirable reflection of that tenet. -- John Baker



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