Book Shorts

CRAWLING AT NIGHT

by Nani Power (Atlantic Monthly Press, $24) ITO'S A SUSHI chef, "a master of the chiseled shape, shokunin. To you and me: some sushi chef." Ito's still new to New York from Japan; his English is poor to nonexistent. His love of traditional Japanese poetry and literature, his mastery of the art of sushi (which he watches his customers defile with too much soy sauce as they babble jocularly, shallowly, appallingly)—these are nothing in his adopted land, where yuppie women on the other side of the sushi bar call him "cute." His life is one of awkwardness, profound aloneness, aching memory: "So much space, so many people, when you are one, he thinks. In this country one wears loneliness like a coat." Mariane's a waitress at the sushi restaurant, a full-blown alcoholic, a barfly. She drinks sake surreptitiously on her shifts and deludes herself that the baby she gave up years before is still waiting to be reclaimed, perfect, small, hers. She lives for her hazy, drunken daydreams and the drinking that makes them hazy; she brings men home from bars if they pay the bill; "She sinks to the old white tile floor, her face a heavy chunk of dough conforming to and retaining the pattern of the grout . . . waking later to the crackle of a stream of urine, resounding in the bowl by her head on the white tile, arching from a young, hungover boy with his eyes closed, groaning softly." Crawling at Night is their sad story, along with the sad stories of several others; it is a paean to the calm wretchedness of isolation, of lost love, of desperation and sorrow. Crawling at Night is elegant and true, a reporting of ruined lives filled with pathetic and horrific scenes that are silken in their fluidity, poetic in their unflinchingness. Bethany Jean Clement Nani Power reads from her novel at Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main, 624-6600. 8 p.m. Thurs., June 7.   THE VIRGIN OF BENNINGTON

by Kathleen Norris (Riverhead Books, $24.95) KATHLEEN NORRIS NEEDS someone to talk to. She has stories to tell the world, if only the world would listen. It was hard to be a wide-eyed Midwestern girl in an East Coast liberal arts college—the only girl at Bennington who didn't indulge in drugs or fuck strangers. People didn't understand her because she was a poet. They called her the "Virgin of Bennington," a title she defied by having affairs with one of her girlfriends and, later, a married professor. When Norris quit school and moved to Manhattan, she landed a plum position as an assistant to Elizabeth Kray at the Academy of American Poets, in the center of the literary world, where she met a lot of famous people. She even got to hang out at some of these celebrities' loft parties and do drugs with them. This changed her life, and she was compelled to write a book about it. The Virgin of Bennington is the journal of a frustrated grown-up teenager—a gross display of Norris mourning her past isolation, name-dropping like a fiend, and canonizing herself as the Outsider on the Inside. The book's purpose switches erratically between a vehicle for self-aggrandizement and a eulogy for Kray, Norris' mentor. Unfortunately, because the story itself isn't interesting, the dense, clinical style in which it's written only adds insult to the reader's injury. It's clear that the book is something that Norris needed badly to get off her chest, and you feel for her when you read it, but the fact is that her personal struggle to adulthood wasn't especially remarkable. Meg van Huygen   GUINNESS BOOK OF WORLD RECORDS 2001

edited by Tim Footman (Bantam Books, $7 paperback) MOST OF US remember the photos from our first encounter with the Guinness Book of World Records: the man covered in a coat of bees; the guy with the lengthy (and quite dirty) fingernails; the oldest living Siamese twins; the tallest man; the shortest woman. Freaks, in other words—all of them examples of otherness and sideshow sensationalism. One had to feel sorry for those whose biological (or psychological) makeup relegated them to a blurb in a book of firsts and onlys. But that's why we pored over this text in the first place, for its uncommon compilation of experiences as compared with our not-so-extraordinary lives. Now here's the latest edition of the book we all hoped one day we would improve by adding our own fantastic talents. Ironically, it's small and in paperback. Containing easy-to-browse category lists and plenty of those blurry newsprint photos, this version finds the inanimate object as hallowed as the amazing physique or the bewildering human feat. Skipping past the longest boat, the biggest death toll by an earthquake, and the animal world, the superhuman stuff still thrills with its random, mind-boggling attempts by folks to make their mark on the world. Arulanantham Suresh Joachim of Sri Lanka, for example, balanced on one foot for 76 hours and 40 minutes. Huzzah! And in the "youngest" category, the youngest married couple on record was a Bangladeshi husband and wife whose ages together add up to a year and two months (it was an arranged marriage to settle a land dispute). Go figure! And in the picture that rivals Mr. Bees, Kevin Thackwell of Stoke-on-Trent, England, gets his moment of glory for being the person able to clip the most clothespins to his face and neck (116! Ouch!). It's a lovely image, worth a cringe or two, and it pretty much sums up the simultaneous futility and nobility of attempting to be uncommon in a pretty darn common world. Emily Baillargeon Russin   ETIQUETTE FOR OUTLAWS

by Rob Cohen and David Wollock (Harper Entertainment, $14) A CONTRADICTION IN terms, isn't it? Real outlaws don't need no stinkin' book to tell them what's what—the only rules they live by are the rules of the jungle: Do unto others before they do unto you. "Outlaw," in the case of Cohen and Wollock's handy little book, means a "fairly youngish, edgy person who is not your parents": in other words, that vast nation of the vaguely hip and countercultural who get their sex advice from Dan Savage, not Abby and Ann, and really aren't kept up nights by the salad- vs. shrimp-fork debate. That said, the tips offered in Etiquette are, like most other items of sage advice, mainly common sense. Do you tip a hooker? Of course; she's providing you with a service, just like any waiter/ bartender/bellhop you've ever encountered, and all those folks do for you is carry your bag or slap your drink on the counter. Actually touching your monkey merits as much, if not more, monetary consideration. What piercings hurt most? A hint: If penises are more sensitive to outside stimuli than eyebrows, how do you think a four-inch needle will feel impaling that tender flesh? Should you jokingly throw a Crips gang sign in front of a Blood just for fun? Shockingly, it's not recommended. But aside from the somewhat obvious, Etiquette provides plenty of useful tips on everything from how best to worm your way out of a DUI to how to respectfully address a Mistress at the dungeon of your choice. A number of urban myths also get dispelled along the way, such as the mistaken notion that police officers posing as dealers or prostitutes must identify themselves if asked. The book is also sprinkled with first-person interviews and tip-fests from the likes of a pimp, a porn king, a legendary graf artist, and even a bona fide rock star. Granted, this is no masterpiece, but hey, even rebels need something to read in the bathroom; Etiquette for Outlaws will make a nice addition to those waterlogged piles of Mad and Maxim. Leah Greenblatt   THE IMMORTAL CLASS: BIKE MESSENGERS AND THE CULT OF HUMAN POWER

by Travis Hugh Culley (Villard Books, $19.95) IF, AS ARCHITECT Rem Koolhaas suggested, traffic jams reveal the delirious heart of a city, then what might the urban bike messenger reveal? Neither driver nor pedestrian, this holy fool cruises through clogged urban arteries with the city's crazy blood pounding in his ears—at least according to Travis Hugh Culley, the 25-year-old author of The Immortal Class: Bike Messengers and the Cult of Human Power. The memoir charts Culley's time in what he sells as an elite, oppressed fraternity that carries the keys to urban redemption in waterproof bags. It's light on linear narrative—seasons and girlfriends come and go without introduction or segue. What he's really after is the simple experience and glory of defying physics, weather, and human endurance, and coming back for more. Now, exuberantly narcissistic flyboys are not without some appeal, but there's more to recommend this book than the author's suggested physical genius. While most of Culley's language is just hot air, he sometimes hits so true that you wish him five years and a tough editor for his next outing. The best part of this book, though, is the author's arrogantly honest and probably unintentional portrait of that intersection in adulthood where he discovers that the world is unfair, and comes to believe he alone knows how to change it, if only someone would listen. The dime-store sociology that supports Culley's resulting bicycle activism is disposable, but the internal contradictions in his stance are profound. He ponders the question, "How can we show these people that we have kindness?" He answers it by starting a fight. On the one hand, Culley demands a world built for bikes; on the other, he wants to be free to flaunt all rules in the pursuit of speed. He demands acknowledgement from the rest of the world, only to respond with precisely the distance and contempt he rails against. Kirsten Marcum   IN MAREMMA

by David Leavitt and Mark Mitchell (Counterpoint, $24) WHEN DAVID LEAVITT read from his novel, Martin Bauman; or, A Sure Thing, at the University Book Store last year, an audience member asked him if he had any pointers for young fiction writers. Inspired by his experience of living in Italy for most of the '90s, he offered one piece of advice: Go abroad. In Maremma: Life and a House in Southern Tuscany, co-written by Leavitt and his partner Mark Mitchell, is the memoir of the years they spent in a modest yet charming 1950s farmhouse located in a province that "is like an actress: It always shows itself from its best angle." Consisting of varied, tightly penned essays—on such subjects as Italian acquaintances ("Olimpia," "Pepe"), their town's tie to Pennsylvania ("The Hershey Connection"), and missing American food ("Turkey Tetrazzini")—this book will interest Leavitt fans with its episodes from the author's personal life abroad, as well as Italiophiles with its equally sensuous and humorous insights into la vita italiana. While worshiping the country's cuisine and espousing its slower pace of living, Leavitt and Mitchell lament its bureaucracy and snicker at its citizens' tendency to shrug off work whenever possible. (They tell of one comic incident when, upon spotting a wasp crawling inside their mailbox, their postman insists they deliver a note to the post office assuring him he won't be reaching inside a wasp's nest the next time he visits.) Just as suggesting a hungry young writer purchase a plane ticket to Italy isn't the most practical advice, so In Maremma occasionally causes Leavitt and Mitchell to sound like aesthetes addressing commoners: The authors claim they moved to Maremma because, as they so dramatically phrase it, "we wanted to flee Florence. . . ." Likewise, one might raise an eyebrow upon reading that "coffee in the country is rarely as good as it is in the city (and coffee in Rome or Florence or Milan is never as good as it is in Naples)." Its unintentional snobbery aside, In Maremma is an engaging read—if not for its functionality, then for its eclecticism. David Massengill

 
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