This Week's Reads

UNVEILED

With Afghanistan, it was about Osama. With Iraq, Saddam and his WMDs. With Iran, the veil? I wonder what Dubya has in mind for the Islamic Republic, so it's a good time to hear from Azar Nafisi, whose memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran (Random House, $23.95), describes 18 years of living under that strict theocracy. A Western- educated academic (now at Johns Hopkins), she returned to Iran in 1979 full of idealism about teaching in a regime freed from the Shah. What she found instead, as the screws of Islamic repression were tightened, was a "perverse intimacy of victim and jailor" that she repeatedly compares to Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading. In truth, unless you need to brush up on your Nabokov or Henry James, the interweaving of textual exegesis and personal memoir feels like padding ofor a distracting lecture fromNafisi's valuable account. But one point she makes, and a good one, is the personal dissociation necessary to live under a totalitarian regimethe creation of an "other self" to endure the daily indignities of the veil, pat-down searches, censorship, and worse. (Many intellectuals were imprisoned and executed by Iran's secret police.) "I felt light and fictional," Nafisi recalls. "Life had acquired the texture of fiction written by a bad writer." She finds herself acting according to the often absurd script of Khomeini's Iran, then tries to tweak her role. This places her in the tradition of what might be called the literature of totalitarianismlike Kafka, Kundera, or Havel, if she were more the writer, less the professor. Still, even while wading through the academic infighting, book-club gossiping, and occasional Häagen-Dazs moments of weakness and self-doubt, you're always keen to follow Nafisi's basic story: How will she cope with the clampdown? Then: Will she get out? It's not the most suspenseful or insightful memoir ever written, but it's one of the few to date that address an intolerant regime that may soon be changed. Brian Miller Azar Nafisi will read at Elliott Bay Books (101 S. Main St., 206-624-6600), 7:30 p.m. Fri., April 25. FUTURE SHOCKS Bill McKibben is a writer who sniffs out the worst big-picture trends, thinks about them deeply, takes them seriously, explores the margins, then returns with a warning. Fortunately, his life expectancy has exceeded that of a coal-mine canary. He's made a career out of telling us what we don't want to hear about the consequences of our best intentions. The End of Nature made him famous; now Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age (Times Books, $25) sounds a warning that may seem like a kind of Luddite liberal's hysteria. First, McKibben says, we seized control of nature; now, we're literally about to change what it means to be human. We're standing "on the edge of disappearing even as individuals." Technology that has been the stuff of science fiction is about to become reality: genetic tinkering to create "enhanced" humans; nanotechnology that blurs the line between man and machine; the ability to turn our progeny into engineered products that can be upgraded or discarded like last year's software. Just as we have stripped sacredness from nature, we're now prepared to remove the natural from the human. If you think genetically altered Frankenfoods are a global disaster, just wait until Monsanto does people. Far from being science fiction, McKibben argues, these technological capabilities are near-term potential realities. The proliferation of Petri-dish tech may be unstoppable. Unless, of course, we say "Enough!" In the tradition of other New Englanders, like Henry David Thoreau and ecologist George Perkins Marsh, McKibben finds hope in what he says is the one essential human characteristic we have at our disposal: the ability to exercise self-restraint. A set of values that finds beauty and abundance in what one has, rather than the endless striving for more, is our thin green line of defense against self-devouring progress. We faced the same dilemma in the Garden of Eden. McKibben suggests that, in search of more, we are now about to leave the land of our banishment for even harsher zones beyond. Unless we simply refuse to go. Knute Berger Bill McKibben will read at Elliott Bay Books (101 S. Main St., 206-624-6600), 7:30 p.m. Mon., April 28.

FLOTSAM AND JETSAM

the Hero of Robert Stone's lightweight yet lumbering novel Bay of Souls (Houghton Mifflin, $25) is Michael Ahearn, an English professor at a mediocre college in what might as well be Lake Wobegon, Minn.the kind of place where in bitterest winter fresh-killed deer hang frozen in the trees. His big-boned, bucktoothed Norwegian American academic wife suspects him of groping his gorgeous grad-student assistant; in fact, his mistress is an empty wet dream of a dame named Lara Purcell, from the Caribbean isle of St. Trinity via the Sorbonne. Michael's drinking/hunting buddies call her "the hottest babe in the history of the state." She plays squash ruthlessly; when Michael flirtingly suggests he might beat her, she purrs, "I'll have your soft heart on a dish." Later on, she fires great blow up his midlife schnozz, makes him fuck and choke her, and quotes moony, swoony lines from Rilke about the revivifying effects of morbidity: "And we? We glow as one, a new creature invigorated by death." So after his son almost freezes to death in the snow (in a remarkably enervated scene), Michael runs off to St. Trinity with Lara, to help her with her big problemher soul is AWOL. She lost it to the ghost of a black anti-colonialist rebel at the Bay of Souls, where today victims of island despots get shoved out of airplanes to be devoured by sharks, and what remains is then left to then drift and sink to the lowest spot in the Atlantic, way off the continental shelf. Isn't that deep? Nope. Stone is a past master of the spiritual/political plunge, but if this book were his last, the mastery would be in the past. Lara has no soul to loseshe's just an X-otic ecstasy receptacle like some sodden fantasy of Papa H. Her soul-recovery plan is voodoo hoo-hah, bad Russell Banks pastiche, and Michael's febrile adventure perfunctory, slapdash, and half-assed. There are eight nice pages about Michael's death-defying dive into a wrecked plane and great sentences strewn throughout, but the real wreck here is Stone's reputation. Tim Appelo Robert Stone will read at University Book Store (4326 University Way N.E., 206-634-3400), 7 p.m. Tues., April 29. BLACK AND WHITE

During the doldrums of spring, when most movies and books disappoint, it's nice to crack a pair of new comic books, both from Seattle's own Fantagraphics, that render good and evil in suitably stark tones. (Or, on second thought, just make that evil and evil.) Nightmare Alley ($14.95) is an adaptation of the 1946 circus-noir novel by Lindsay Grehsam, filmed in 1947 with Tyrone Power, and now illustrated by Spain Rodriguez (of ZAP comics). Trust me, the comic book is by far the best of the three versions: All the fat has been cut away to highlight the sex, sickness, and self-disgust. Con man Stan Carlisle goes from the carnival midway to Fifth Avenue and back again, destroying lives and losing precious loves along the way. Though haunted by the lost innocence of his youth (and the perfidy of women), he's entirely hard-boiled: "Nothing matters in this lunatic asylum of a world but dough. If you don't have it, you're end man on the daisy chain." In his merciless rendering, Rodriguez's cross-hatching and line work make even the brightest days and hopes very dark indeed. Employing a very different medium, the scratchboard, Swiss artist Thomas Ott's Dead End ($13.95) dispenses with words entirely in two tales of criminal karma come home to roost. Lurking scorpions, poisoned booze, ominous ceiling fans, and suitcases full of cash fill Ott's wide panels (like 70mm movies). The world is viewed between venetian blinds, through hidden peepholes, or via headlights about to smash through the guardrail. It's like David Lynch engraved on ingots of coal. No one can be trusted, everyone is betrayed; yet each successive victim somehow manages to look surprised before the lights flick out. Like Alley's fraudulent-mentalist-turned-murderer Carlisle, Ott's nameless heroes are all doomed to the inkiest of fates. Yet Carlisle maintains at least a trace of humanity, while Ott scratches that into oblivion. Somehow, it feels like an advance. B.R.M. BURYING BABYLON

As long as humans have waged war and destruction, they have also tried to compensate by finding ways to preserve history and culture. As we witness the sacking of Baghdad, there is a special poignancy in the looting of its precious antiquities, for it was the ancient Mesopotamiansthe Babylonians, Sumerians, and Assyrianswho first attempted to communicate their accomplishments and deeds down the centuries by burying messages addressed to the future in the foundations of their temples. So Time Capsules: A Cultural History (McFarland, $39.95) is a timely reminder of that preservationist mission, first begun with clay and cuneiform, now continued with pixels and bytes. Today, especially in the West, nearly every new high-rise or shopping mall features a cornerstone time capsule a small cache of souvenir items that, we hope, will tell our distant descendants a little something about who we were and what we hoped and dreamed. More grandly, the whole idea of modern, scientific time capsulesfrom sleek metal cylinders filled with artifacts and microfilm destined for 5,000 years hence to hurtling satellites with etched-metal pictographs addressed to extraterrestrialshas been propelled by worry of a cataclysmic future. The first so-called "time capsule" was designed by Westinghouse as a high-tech project for the 1939 World's Fair, but its creators were very conscious that WWII might make it far more than a multimillennial promotional stunt. It could one day be civilization's road map back after a new Dark Age. I have known Capsules author William E. Jarvis for more than a decade as a fellow time-capsule aficionado, and while his book is a bit weighed down by detail and scholarly jargon, it is without doubt the definitive book on the subjecta kind of time capsule of time capsulesas it explores our history of attempting to preserve history outside of museums, libraries, and ordinary archives. As such, it's a bit like opening Fibber McGee's closet, a chaotic repository of eccentric characters and the many manifestations of their noble and egotistical efforts to make our voices heard across the ages. K.B. info@seattleweekly.com

 
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