edited by Mark Sanders and Jefferson Hack (Phaidon, $39.95)
The celebrity interview isn't exactly our richest source of literary art. But for coffee-table art—now we're talkin'. After all, no matter how good the writing in England's The Face or America's Interview may or may not be, those magazines are creatures of their art directors first and foremost. So it fits that Star Culture, a new collection of interviews from the UK monthly Dazed & Confused—which competes with The Face for its international jet set audience and the proletariats who love 'em—is published by Phaidon, one of the largest art-book publishers in the world. If you're going to adorn your efforts in fame worship with upmarket respectability, you might as well outfit yourself completely.
Star Culture, then, is a book you pick up because it looks good, or at least interesting. Its cover and title pages are designed with eye-straining op-art patterns. But once you figure out what the hell those letters are, hey!--there happen to be plenty to actually read, without even forcing you to bump up the date of your next visit to the optometrist. And that reading is extraordinarily varied. Several of the 38 interviews collected here pick up on Interview's tradition of reporting celebrities' conversations with each other: a relaxed conversation between literary extremists Irvine Welsh and Dennis Cooper about work methods; a worshipful Bj�querying German musique concrete pioneer Karlheinz Stockhausen; a wonderfully bitchy exchange between David Bowie and fashion designer Alexander McQueen. (Bowie: "Are you gay and do you take drugs?" McQueen: "Yes, to both of them." Bowie: "So what are your drugs of choice?" McQueen: "A man called Charlie!")
The more traditional Q&As, between anonymous interviewer and hallowed subject, are something of a catalog of '90s pop cool: hip-hoppers Ice-T and the Beastie Boys, artists Damien Hirst and Jake and Dinos Chapman, political dissidents Noam Chomsky and Ralph Nader, actor Vincent Gallo and Italian porn-star-turned-politician Cicciolina. This mixture, of course, just about defines the pop-art m.o. adopted by Dazed & Confused, alternating silly with serious and giving equal weight to both. Whether Star Culture does anything more than that, however, is entirely up for debate.
by Rebbecca Ray (Grove Press, $13)
Rebbecca Ray was only 16 when she wrote Pure. That fact alone might cause you to pick up the book, as I did, marveling at how one so young could have the determination to write a 400-page novel. Ray's prose is plain and straightforward—hardly a line in the book seems artful or even memorable—yet the London-based author is able to sustain our curiosity with her increasingly disturbing story about a 14-year-old girl.
Contrary to the book's pleasing title and packaging (the front and back covers are filled with images of daisies), the unnamed teenage narrator has a disarmingly kinky bent. In school, she lets boys feel her up during lunch and develops a reputation as "the kind of girl you fucked." She reveals that when she was younger she played out rape scenarios with a girlfriend: "We'd bang our hips together for ages and it felt nice even though it hurt. It felt good and I didn't want to stop. . . . And there was nothing friendly about it, or pretty or nice." Finally, she becomes sexually involved with an abusive man more than twice her age.
Surrounding all this is the diseased relationship of her parents, who seem to go at it every chance they get. Petty arguments about what to eat or watch on TV turn into ugly shouts or tearful silences. Clearly, each wants out of the marriage but is too dependent on the other to leave.
Pure is a challenging read, with very little joy in it. Each chapter adds another dimension to the book's darkness, but Ray doesn't sensationalize any of the perverse events, nor does she sentimentalize with florid self-pity. Given the unnerving character of the narrator's experiences, Ray makes a wise choice to withhold details. She leaves just a little bit for us to imagine, and that bit is enough to cause worry.
The Mother Trip: Hip Mama's Guide to Staying Sane in the Chaos of Motherhood
by Ariel Gore with illustrations by Ellen Forney (Seal Press, $14.95)
"Children need interesting mothers," Ariel Gore writes in The Mother Trip, quoting a feminist scholar. Lord knows, Gore has lived up to that maxim. In 1989, she was 19, pregnant, and a high-school dropout roaming around Europe. Eleven years later, she's not only an author but a cult phenomenon: a curly haired, tattoo-wearing, unabashedly sexual single mom who runs the print and Internet 'zines Hip Mama (and who definitely bears no relation to Al).
Published by Seattle's Seal Press, Gore's mothering guide uses examples to convey its author's message to other moms. To paraphrase slightly, Gore's message is: Women don't have to check their personalities at the maternity-ward door. It's strange that this needs saying, but it does. In the cultural imagery, mothers have a blank face, referred to mostly when being told how they should raise their kids. "Forget the rules," Gore intones. Dump the guilt. Nurture your creativity and your dreams, as well as your children.
So far, so good. Trouble is, Gore doesn't go much further. Her strength is really a kind of motivational talk—half rebel, half New Age-y. In rebel mode, she confers with "shit-kicking mamas" on how to start a "mama revolution" and advises sex wherever and whenever ("in the car between day care dropoff and work"). Mellowing out, she advocates cooking, gardening, and extravagant furniture buying. Curiously, she gives a lot of details about these subjects—offering a recipe for "medicine woman soup," extolling the virtue of blue roses, and swooning over her giant purple velvet couch—but almost none about actual mothering. I'd be far more interested in considering, for instance, what to do when your child stumbles in on you and your lover on your extravagant purple couch. Or how Gore reconciles her professed belief in attachment parenting, a school of thought that advocates mother-child closeness to the point of sleeping together in the same bed, with her call for sexual and creative freedom.
But this isn't a book about your kids—"adaptable little creatures, they are"—this is a book about you. "Take a moment to imagine the perfect mother," Gore writes. "She is you." Read The Mother Trip when you're feeling unappreciated and blue—not when you want to do some hard thinking.
by Yvonne Vera (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, $12 paperback)
The setting is colonial Zimbabwe of the late 1940s, where "For almost twenty years Fumbatha has done nothing but build" the white man's city, holding it "brick by brick on his palm." He is 60 years old. One day, young Phephalaphi swims across the river and emerges, sleek with water, where Fumbatha sits brooding on the bank. Suddenly he wants this woman "like the land beneath his feet from which birth had severed him."
Phephalaphi moves into Fumbatha's tiny house in the black township of Makokoba. The lovers delight in having "a window to clean, a dress to be ironed, a long-lost hurt to pick from the floor like a loose nail." The drawers for their belongings are two suitcases, which they keep under the bed unless they happen to need "some rummaging through the contents [to] set life into a semblance of order." They make love, their bodies "desiring flight," sharing "an intolerable tenderness," forgetting "the walls thin like lace."
Still, Phephalaphi wonders "who could she be and how, where could she be and with what wings"—she secretly dreams of becoming a nurse. When the academy announces openings for its first black students, Fumbatha tells Phephalaphi she shouldn't apply. But she resists him, and in a tight community of traditional ideas about women and marriage, the repercussions of her choice cost her everything.
Prize-winning Zimbabwean novelist Yvonne Vera's story of love and conflict has simple outlines, but her rhapsodic voice sings it into the reader's imagination with a wild, joyful extravagance. Stamping a letter, awaiting the train, watching children make toys out of trash, even sensing the onslaught of violence—every event is a poem of enchanting freshness. Some passages need firmer editing, and point of view shifts oddly once, but such criticisms feel trivial in the dazzle of Butterfly Burning's whole.
by Tom Gilling (Viking Press, $23.95)
British journalist Tom Gilling exported himself to Tasmania almost 20 years ago. Though his path was not a form of punishment, as an Englishman he must have wondered what life would have been like as one of the penalized. His novel, The Sooterkin, is proof of such musings. Through fiction the author places himself in various settlers' shoes, describing the country from the point of view of a chaplain, a midwife, and the members of a family that includes the title's sooterkin (a sooterkin being a strange, animal-like offspring of a human, which in this book most resembles a whiskery seal pup).
Fleshed out enough to reveal both their darker sides and their more endearing qualities, Gilling's sometimes cartoonish characters include a doctor, a scientist, an American, and a printer whose notices dot the text with reportages on the pup's arrival, his career as a performer, his disappearance, and the hunt for his return. The printer writes these clippings in a conspicuously exaggerated style akin to the era, complete with odd capitalizations to Indicate Importance, which in turn remind readers that they're reading a book. Despite these narrative tricks, Gilling has written a book to be believed, not doubted. The details he records—from the smell of whale blubber in all of its states of life, death, and use, to the sailors hanging upside down on a ship's figurehead cleaning off bird poop with a broom—evoke a well-researched reality.
by Kit Reed (Forge, $22.95)
Jenny has a problem: She's married to an idiot. She's also madly in love with a dashing fellow named Reverdy, except she doesn't know where he lives. Except that she goes to him every night on the offshore island of St. Elene. Except St. Elene doesn't exist—not outside Jenny and Reverdy's typed online chats.
It's called by philosophers (and by at least two characters in the book) "performative utterance"—saying a thing makes it so. In RL (real life) this applies to words such as the "I do" in the marriage ceremony, but in the world of online chat all speech is performative. The world is literally created by words, be those text chats or the more arcane language of code.
Kit Reed, a respected speculative fiction writer, knows this terrain well enough to craft not only a lively story about the people who hang out in virtual-world chats (and the people they are when they log out), but about online privacy, the importance of code, and even a bit of dot-com-career lust. @Expectations is a nifty story—sort of a fictionalized, melodramatized version of Julian Dibbell's My Tiny Life, and that was certainly a fine way to spend a lazy afternoon—and deserves a better readership than it's likely to attract with the cheesy women's-book cover it was sporting when it reached my geekish hands.
The fun is marred by a big honking canard of a plot device designed to make us understand that see, some folks online really ARE crazy. Reed didn't have to do it; chat and Usenet regulars know full well that some folks online are bonkers enough plain without making them fancy. Extraordinary plot devices are of course the prerogative of the speculative-fiction writer, but this one rings so hollow that it knocks the reader right out of the suspended hammock of disbelief—and since the book (not to mention the entire online chat experience) is about suspending disbelief, that's a problem.
The reader is advised to pick herself up, dust herself off, and return to the hammock. @Expectations has, eventually, a real charm—Jenny may not be an ideal heroine, but the point is that real ones never are, and Reed has a terrific feel for the strange and shifting reality boundaries of VR and RL for those deep in the chat lifestyle. @Expectations turns out better than anyone accustomed to run-of-the-mill "cyber" fiction has a right to, um, expect.