The bright summer's darkest books, short-listed.
By Leonard Gill
JUNE 21, 1999: When it comes to summer reading, there's no battling the comprehensive Book Review section of June 6th in The New York Times, so the Flyer won't try -- and for good reasons. First and foremost, the Times covers only what's already on the shelves and broken down according to the most predictable categories. Thus ...
Under "Gardening": I say, Why plant, when, with your mower gunning, you've got straight edge?
Under "Cooking": I say, in two words, Forget it. And while you're forgetting it, at temperatures closing in at the 100-plus-degree mark, make it a clean break and forget eating. If the popular combination therapy of basic C's -- caffeine, cigs, Celexa -- doesn't act as an appetite-killer, The Skinny: What Every Skinny Woman Knows About Dieting (And Won't Tell You!) (Dell) by Patricia Marx and Susan Sistrom promises the unhealthiest (read: proven) methods of instant weight reduction. Sample wisdom: "Weigh yourself constantly or never."
Under "Travel": I say, Boycott Peter Mayle's newest moneymaker Encore Provence (Knopf), because Adam Goodheart in the Times -- who satisfied my suspicions by flat-out calling Mayle "a repeat offender" in "the worst of today's travel writing" -- says so. If you must pretend you can afford to travel this summer, see Helen Langdon's thoroughly researched Caravaggio: A Life (Farrar, Straus), which for my money has the cheapest ticket (a measly $30) if your destination-of-choice this year is dark, mean Counter-Reformation Rome.
But under no circumstances be dry, like the Times, of drink. If common sense doesn't already dictate you have over Bud, Jack, and Daniel, consult Penelope Wisner's Summer Cocktails (Chronicle). You'll be in fancier, but by no guarantee better, company.
What else? Papa's got a brand-new bag coming up called True at First Light (Scribner's), but from its very contemporary, very dreadful subtitle, A Fictional Memoir, E. Hemingway must at least have been in his right mind to have kept this one under wraps. Bypass the estate of Hemingway, then, and head straight for the unknown and out of Africa: Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah, whose Gifts and Maps (both from Arcade) round out this author's already superlatively received "Blood of the Sun" trilogy. According to Ishmael Reed and Salman Rushdie, this trio of works, finally available on these shores in August, solidifies Farah's position as a writer of world rank. Care to challenge Reed on this? Take the easy out -- it's summer -- don't argue.
You say, You don't read, know not one person who reads fiction? Try on the upcoming nonfiction for fit:
Under the category True Crime: Jim Heimann in Sins of the City: The Real Los Angeles Noir (Chronicle) digs deep into L.A.'s newspaper morgues for the blackest B&W photos your bleeding heart could ask for. David W. Maurer's 1940 classic investigation of big- and low-life swindlers, The Big Con (reissued by Anchor), delivers the goods on the best grifts going, make that gone. Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster (Vintage) by Mike Davis, author of the excellent City of Quartz, catalogs the "thrust zones, fire belts, social inequality, and suicidal greed" of Southern California. And how do these natural man-made disasters compare with their Mid-South counterparts? Substitute "Bible" for "fire." You've got your answer.
Under the sub-category East Coast mayhem: The self-christened clubkid James St. James, dubbed a "celebutante" by that august news organization Newsweek magazine, uncovers the "bizarre, almost surreal universe of drugs, abandon, decadence, and gender-bending boys and girls" in the mid-'90s downtown scene of New York City in Disco Bloodbath (Simon & Schuster). Prescription: murder. Sounds: tired. Translation: perfect beach book. (N.B.: After basking in the shadows of Limelight, St. James has since descended on disaster-capital L.A. Future object? Is it feasible? The unearthing of more done-to-death material.)
For more throwback and gender-bending, consult Jaye Zimet (co-author of Queer Baby Names) and her Strange Sisters: The Art of Lesbian Pulp Fiction 1949-1969 (Viking), a book that seriously considers 20 years of trash paperbacks. The topic of perennial interest: "Butch brunettes pursuing and seducing blond femmes." Grove Press, meanwhile, has for your edification in July two early, unpublished plays (The Visitors and Fred & Madge) and an unpublished novel (Between Us Girls) by the baddest boy and the greatest hope of the '60s English, absurdist stage (until, that is, he was hammered dead in the head), Joe Orton.
In August, James Miller's Flowers in the Dustbin (Simon & Schuster), subtitled The Rise of Rock and Roll, 1947-1977, is yet more reason "to mark the triumph of the psychopathic adolescent" in America. On the visual-arts playing field, but back again on the far side of the Atlantic, Julian Stallabrass in High Art Life (Verso) takes a good, hard look at the shenanigans otherwise known as British fine art of the past decade. And shuttling back State-side, literary/social critic Mark Caldwell, in A Short History of Rudeness: Manners, Morals, and Misbehavior in Modern America (Picador), accounts for, among other downturns in civilization, the disease that is Martha Stewart. For evidence of yet more diseases yanking at your last nerve, consult Caldwell by July but, till then, pray for cure.
More cases of nerves: You've got the family on the road, for hours, trying to reach some stretch of un-landlocked water. Do yourself, your loved ones a favor and pack Rubberneckers: Everyone's Favorite Travel Game by Matthew and Mark Lore. The catalog from Chronicle advises you "crack open this box of glossy cards and let the fun begin!" Well, let it.
But maybe it's August, and any self-respecting shrink (yours?) is taking a breather and a hike. The ever-dependable Oxford University Press is here to the rescue during that critical month with a sure-fire campsite topic Electroschock: Restoring the Mind by Max Fink. But you say you're beyond treatment. There's hope come September -- from Andrews McMeel Publishing and from the pen of Drs. Oswald T. Pratt and Scott Dikkers. Their self-help manual is called You Are Worthless: Depressing Nuggets of Wisdom Sure to Ruin Your Day. Hint, however: Pratt's a pseudonym and Dikkers is the guiding light behind Madison, Wisconsin's alternative paper The Onion. Sound familiar? Yes. Dikkers hit the jackpot with Our Dumb Century. So, closing the season, at the close of the millennium, take comfort knowing there's what looks to be a worthwhile, cool spot beyond summertime's blues.
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