Book Briefs

Many Pretty Toys by Hazard Adams (SUNY Press, $24.50) In our multimedia age, it's refreshing to be reminded how literature on its own, and without being written for TV, can compellingly define the watershed events of the century. The events at issue in Hazard Adams' brilliant fourth novel are the student anti-war and anti-establishment protests of the late 1960s and early '70s, which forever altered our world view of how those coming of age matriculate into society. In narrating these matters as they occurred on an unnamed college campus, Adams evokes his book's literariness by exploring the consciousness of a diverse set of firsthand witnesses to these happenings. His narrators are academics who are the caretakers of literary and historical tradition, as well as of the well-being of their student charges. Through their diary-voices they draw literary and historic parallels radically (Yeats, Joyce, Blake, Irish independence), make philosophical insights (Plato), and implicate the radically evolving interests of literary criticism. The genius of the work is that Adams accomplishes all this in a light and conversational tone. His characters grow in interest and the reader finds herself really caring about them and what may befall them. The venues that he alludes to are more than coincidentally identifiable with the University of Washington, where Adams is a professor of comparative literature; to Princeton University, from which he took his baccalaureate; and with the University of California at Irvine, where he served as chancellor. His off-campus locations allude to Anderson Island in south Puget Sound, and his narrator's often hilarious recounting of his high school days invite recollections of a thinly disguised Lakeside School (Shoreham), where Adams' poet-father Robert Simeon Adams was headmaster, and Seattle's Helen Bush School (Nora Barton), which in the early '40s was a girls' boarding school (complete with ladders for clandestine exits from the dorm). Circulating throughout the tale is the unsuccessful attempt of a detached but critical public to reach a democratic consensus on the tragic and angry actions played out before it. JOYCE PARNELLI Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Banks (Viking, $23.95) A male friend of mine loved reading Bridget Jones' Diary, but was so embarrassed about it that he made his girlfriend carry it around for him. This, better than any example I could draw out of literary or sociological theory, demonstrates the stigma attached to so-called "chick lit," which is, even at a literary level, about women and their relationships with men. There are books of this ilk that are significantly bad, that no one should be forced to carry around, but Melissa Bank's debut book, The Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing, is not one of them. I had, in fact, a number of reasons to dislike The Girl's Guide, one of which being that it is a collection of "linked" stories, which to me usually signifies a novel too lazy to be fully executed as such. The writing is loose, deceptively simple, and at times a bit choppy, but should not be dismissed. Bank makes good use of the series of vignettes about the emotional and romantic development of Jersey girl Jane Rosenal; each one is a short stab at the heart. The opening story, "Advanced Beginners," shows Jane watching her callow older brother break a good woman's heart, and a number of the middle stories chronicle her on-again, off-again relationship with a significantly older man, the end of which relationship is delicately intertwined with the decline in her father's health. One of the most refreshing aspects of this book is the lack of family dysfunction. The family members misstep, are thoughtless toward each other, and sometimes don't say what should be said, but at heart they are a good, fully functional family. Bank is not afraid to end a tense story happily, and the effect is not cheap but one of real relief. EMILY HALL Me by Jimmy "Big Boy" Valente, as told to Garrison Keillor (Viking, $15.95) Pro wrestler to talk-radio host to suburban mayor? Actually, that's a pretty logical progression. Jesse "The Body" Ventura's election as Minnesota's governor surprised everyone but him. It wasn't so long ago that we had a president who sported pince-nez and a cigarette holder, so why all the fuss over Ventura's pink feather boa and tights? Besides, Minnesota functions pretty well already, so how much harm could he do? Since Garrison Keillor's preferred literary mode is satire (particularly aimed at the excesses of his prime audience, NPR liberals) and his home state is Minnesota, Me was probably an inevitability. He's been criticized for rushing this slender volume (176 pages) into print, as if he should have waited for some reason. No, Me is a swift rapier cut, and the funnier for it. Keillor swoops in, precision-bombs his (admittedly enormous) targets, and moves on. It's the tale of Jimmy "Big Boy" Valente's picaresque journey to power: his utterly Velveeta upbringing by adoptive parents Arv and Gladys Oxnard, proprietors of the House of Lunch caf黠his Charles Atlaslike metamorphosis from bully-victim to US Navy WALRUS; his stint in 'Nam and his first encounter with nemesis-to-be The Rodent (a character portrait with a frisson of racism surprising for Keillor); his stumble into the wrestling biz (his first character's a crowd-enraging environmentalist hippie villain named "The Flower Child"); his flirtation with Hollywood; and his realization that wrestling, acting, and politics are all really one profession: celebrity. Despite all this colorful incident, Me never strays far from Keillor's usual territory—his subject Northern Plains Protestant rectitude, his method meta-literary fancy in a perfectly pitched deadpan (part Calvin, part Calvino). Keillor and Ventura are both populists, after all—it's just that their main point of disagreement hits Keillor where he lives, as Ventura's libertarianism makes him an opponent of tax dollars going to Keillor's employer, Minnesota Public Radio, which incidentally is the carpet-bagging Wal-Mart of Midwest broadcasting. Keillor keeps the tone light, and Me probably won't strike deep enough for anyone seriously concerned or angered by Ventura's political ascent. GAVIN BORCHERT Otherwise Engaged by Suzanne Finnamore (Knopf, $22) In this wannabe Bridget Jonesstyle confessional, 36-year-old Eve finally (finally!) gets her live-in boyfriend Michael to propose. Narrating the tempestuous period between their jubilant ring expedition and her solo walk down the aisle, Eve throws her $7,000 ring at her fianc頡bout 7,000 times, cries on command, and ups appointments with her therapist to twice a week. At times a buffoonish caricature of the Bride-to-Be, Eve convinces herself that her hoped-for storybook ending is nothing but a sham, that there is no such thing as happiness, and that Michael is, by turns, an overly hairy guy with bizarre domestic habits or just plain boring. In a glamorous ad agency job that pays for her to make forays to Paris and to numerous San Francisco hot spots, Eve carries us along with her pitch-and-roll preparations, her shaky family history, and through enough unfunny, out-of-place melodrama that by the end we could really care less if Eve ends up with a prenuptial pimple or a quickie divorce. EMILY BAILLARGEON A Leaf in the Bitter Wind by Ting-Xing Ye (Hungry Mind Press, $23) Falling Leaves by Adeline Yen Mah (Broadway Books, $13) Communism has always had a particularly morbid hold on the American imagination, the kind of guilty car-wreck fascination that forces you to stare straight into the mayhem while thanking your lucky stars you're not a part of it. Ting-Xing Ye's new memoir A Leaf in the Bitter Wind is, in this sense, a 20-car pile-up. Beginning with her idyllic early years on Purple Sunshine Lane as the fourth child of a successful factory owner, Ye relates in careful, loaded prose the onslaught of the Cultural Revolution and the unraveling of her life and family in the wake of such massive change. From the death of her parents to years spent in a remote prison labor camp, the struggles seem endless and insurmountable for Ye—and yet, against all logical possibilities, she triumphs. Ye's writing is clean and vivid, but the power behind this memoir lies in the woman behind the words and the obstacles she faces with wit and stoicism. The same cannot be said for the author of Falling Leaves, another memoir written by a Chinese woman born and raised under the Communist flag. Adeline Yen Mah was the fifth daughter of a wealthy Shanghai businessman and a mother who died while giving birth to her. Mah's father remarried a Eurasian beauty who came to rule the house and family with an unparalleled cruelty, inescapable even after her death. Fleeing China for the safety of Hong Kong, Adeline's young world was colored not by the evils of Communism but by the manipulation of a woman seemingly bent on her destruction. Like Ye, the obstacles Mah must overcome as a woman in a patriarchal society, as well as the unwanted stepdaughter of a pathologically brutal woman, are formidable; yet the personal strength found in Ye's memoir is absent here. Mah consistently portrays herself as a pathetic, needy soul, desperate for love and affection. This is not to say that self-pity in this heart-wrenching story isn't understandable, but of the pair only Ye seems to be fighting for herself. SAMANTHA ENDER

 
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