Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Speed Reader

By Blake de Pastino, Jennifer L.X. Scharn, Angie Drobnic and Chris Johnson

AUGUST 3, 1998: 

Shelf Space
by Jerry Jankowski (Chronicle, paper, $17.95)

It looks like Chronicle Books' long-standing fascination with pop culture has finally reached its logical end point. After years of exploring every cranny of Americana--from miniature books to movie Westerns--Chronicle at last presents us with Shelf Space, a coffee table catalog of, well, ordinary stuff. A designer's-eye view of consumer culture, Shelf Space takes as its focus the packaging of everyday, brand-name articles from the mid-'40s to the mid-'60s. Author Jerry Jankowski explains that this was an era when graphic design was called upon to make each new product stand out among the post-war abundance, a point which he proves diligently in chapters devoted to such subjects as laundry soap and beer cans. Unfortunately, Jankowski seems just as flustered as we are with the obscurity of his subject matter, because his tone constantly swings from the overly serious (like his account of "how packaging has advanced civilization") to the studiously snide (like his observation that Hollywood brand candies were manufactured in "sunny Centralia, Illinois"). Even if he isn't quite sure how to approach it, though, Jankowski certainly knows his stuff. His passage on the evolution of supermarkets is the sort of thing you can't find anywhere else, and his analysis of the Tide detergent box is the kind of fanatically close reading that will send any pop culture buff straight to his own cluttered corner of heaven. (BdeP)

The Ibis Tapestry
by Mike Nicol (Knopf, cloth, $23)

The ibis is a legendary bird that the Egyptians believed hatched the world and created language. She does not judge us by our actions but by the stories we tell. The Ibis Tapestry is a disturbing portrayal of South Africa's bloody past and present. The narrative is written through the eyes of Robert Poley, a Cape Town author of "airport blockbusters" who becomes engrossed in discovering why arms dealer Christo Mercer was murdered. Poley is then drawn into a world of hatred, bloodshed and complete disregard for human life. And in the end, it is questionable whether Poley, representative of a sad majority of people, learns anything at all. The rich historical references and fictional characters create an allegorically disconcerting tale of political belief and social unrest. Separating the fact from the fiction is difficult, because every word is plausible to the point of sheer believability, and trying to divide the two would do an injustice to the crux of the matter. Mike Nicol, like the ibis of lore, has left the story to us. (JLXS)

by David Sedaris (Little Brown, paper, $12.95)

Childhood is hell, and this set of memoirs from David Sedaris shows that all too well. His father forces his sister to stay at the golf course while she gets her period for the first time. His mother performs impressions of her own son's obsessive/compulsive tics during the parent-teacher conference. And David himself wonders if all the neighbors--and perhaps his own family--are involved in a kinky suburban sex ring. But Sedaris' genius is that he makes it all laugh-out-loud funny with an inimitable style grounded in the love of language. His writing is that of a well-trained craftsman who carefully selects exactly the right words to describe a given situation. Beyond that, Sedaris imbues the moments of youthful horror with a sensitivity that shows a dysfunctional family can still be filled with love. (AD)

Trees and Shrubs of the Trans-Pecos
by A. Michael Powell (University of Texas Press, paper, $34.95)

For many people, yard work is simply another name for work, while another admittedly smaller group views the same activity as gardening. I have a passion for gardening that necessarily entails a desire to learn more about plants. I can identify many of the wildflowers along the roadside (globemallow, firewheel, etc.). Heck, I even know a Latin name or two. But when it comes to a book like Trees and Shrubs of the Trans-Pecos and Adjacent Areas, I feel like a dabbling amateur. The book, which really is more of a textbook, is thoroughly crafted by the author, almost to a fault. It is so in-depth that it is nearly inaccessible for anyone who doesn't devote virtually all of their time to flora. However, the book is certainly not without value. There are ample illustrations showing the difference between individual species and a wonderful section on cacti (something I wouldn't consider a tree or shrub, but then again I'm no botanist). The introduction also features some excellent writing about the five general vegetation types of the region. Incidentally, of the more than 400 species covered in the book, many can be found in eastern and northern New Mexico. (CJ)

--Blake de Pastino, Jennifer L.X. Scharn, Angie Drobnic and Chris Johnson

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