Serial killers, pinup girls, and hatchet jobs about your former bossit must be summer, right? Oh, but it's not all sandy fun and sunblock stuck

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Summer Reads and Beyond

Serial killers, pinup girls, and hatchet jobs about your former bossit must be summer, right? Oh, but it's not all sandy fun and sunblock stuck to those pulpy pages. There's serious stuff, toolike grouchy old Don DeLillo, grouchy dead Clement Greenberg, war in Iraq, and Political Activism 101. Besides, the weather may not improve until July, anyway, so you can pick a book to suitgloomy or sunny.

IMMIGRANT SONG

"Now we'll see who whips the Groundhog in the banya." It sounds like S&M, and while that does play a small part in The Russian Debutante's Handbook (Riverhead, $14, new in paperback), Gary Shteyngart's vividly sprawling, unreasonably entertaining 2002 debut novel goes way beyond sex. The book is literally all over the map: from Leningrad, where our hero, Vladimir Borisovich Girshkin, is born; to Westchester, N.Y., where he's raised; to Florida, where he's pursued by Catalan mobsters; to Prague, where he finds refuge with Russian mobsters; plus a few other passport stamps I'm leaving out.

Dubbed "failurchka" by his doubly overbearing mother (both Jewish and Russian, you see), Vlad is frail, sickly, undersexed, underemployed, undermotivated, and possibly balding at the age of 25. As the novel begins in 1993, college dropout Vlad has no prospects and loads of guilt. He's no bootstrapping, high-achieving "alpha immigrant" but more "beta," he frets. Those Catalan mobsters are almost doing him a favor by chasing him to Prague, a "better place to be unhappy," where his fortunes abruptly change.

Shteyngart makes Vladimir a kind of greedy, lazy Candide figure on a polyglot picaresque. We see the world through this immigrant's thickly bespectacled, maladjusted, half-Soviet eyes. Vlad hates everything outside the city: "nature's dictatorial regime, its cult of greenness." He marvels at Miami's "blightscape of motels" and the face of yet another mobster (the Log): "nine-tenths scowl, one-tenth eyebrow."

Shteyngart's language is always playful and allusive, providing a spark for his hapless hero. It's an assimilation comedy, if you will, about a guy who never quite fits inand is never quite sure he wants to. (He's too Jewish to be Russian and too Russian to be American; in Prague, skinheads mistake him for a Turk.) Vladimir compares himself and other post-Soviet wastrels to Eastern Europe's infamously cheap, scorned automobiles: "We're like human Ladas or Trabants." Yet no matter how underestimated and self- deprecatory, like Vlad himself, they have an amazing ability to survive. Brian Miller

Gary Shteyngart will read at University Book Store (4326 University Way N.E., 206-634-3400), 7 p.m. Thurs., May 22.

POMPOUS ASS

"DearLet's agree to overlook (maybe even enjoy) the absurdity that joins us: You agree to indulge my lecturing on matters I didn't understand until I was older than you, and I make every effort to connect to your passions and objectionsto take your arguments seriously, even though you're too young to have had the experience I draw on."

Thus begins Letters to a Young Activist (Basic Books, $22.50), Todd Gitlin's contribution to an "Art of Mentoring" series inspired by Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet. It's hard to imagine any 20-year-old activist tolerating such a pompous ass. But then, it's also hard to imagine Todd Gitlin knows any actual young activists.

Gitlin, once president of Students for a Democratic Society (in 1963, just before it became relevant), is now mainstream media's safe Rolodex substitute for interviewing actual activists. For the last 30 years, he's made his living explaining away activism to fellow boomer editors and reporters at networks, The New York Times, and the like. Unsurprisingly, boomersnot studentsare also his audience in Letters.

Leaving aside Gitlin's absolutism, his excessive use of imperatives (do this, don't do that), his frequently tortured metaphors, and his failure to even define activism (presumably we know it when it blocks rush hour), not all his advice is bad. Encouraging activists to focus on changing actual policy, or to not dismiss all things American out of hand, for example, are tips activists of all ages could do well to heedif those tips advance their goals.

Yet Gitlin generally assumes only one valid activist goalimmediate policy changeand that the theories underpinning such activism are timeless. Simple, pragmatic empowerment strategies like teaching, witnessing, and disseminating information via the Internet are notably missing from Gitlin's suggested reading list (as well as from his own text). Tellingly, the elder Gitlin would have given the younger Gitlin the exact same advice back in 1963.

A critic, by definition, explains to the public the work of an artistor, in Gitlin's case, activist. The critic shouldn't have to explain the public to the artist/activist. In presuming to do so with Letters, Gitlin mostly just explains Gitlin. I can't think of a worse mentor. Geov Parrish

Todd Gitlin will read at University Book Store (4326 University Way N.E., 206-634-3400), 7 p.m. Wed., May 21.

BOOM TO BUST

Don DeLillo's sentences are practically all priceless, and I don't resent a penny of the $2.3 million he made for writing the flop novel Cosmopolis (Scribner, $25). As Auden said of Freud, DeLillo has become a climate of opinion: Without his influence, we'd have lost everybody from Jonathan Franzen to Bret Easton Ellis. Calamitously, Cosmopolis resembles The Corrections much less than American Psycho. It depicts the daylong crossing of Manhattan in April 2000 by 28-year-old Eric Packer of Packer Capital, leaving his $104 million skyscraper penthouse for a haircut on the West Side aboard his white limo, which has more features than the Batmobile.

Traffic is gridlocked thanks to a presidential visit, so Packer has all kinds of time on his hands. Time to let his proctologist probe his asymmetrical prostate; to endure a WTO-like riot; to diddle his mistress Didi while attempting to buy the Rothko Chapel; to watch the gory throes of the International Monetary Fund's chief being assassinated live on the Money Channel; to join a nude movie shoot; to see the funeral of Sufi rapper Brutha Fez; to gloat over his nuke-capable Tu-160 Blackjack bomber; to thrill-kill an innocent bystander with his bodyguard's voice- activated Czech rifle; to blow his fortune indulging his yen to speculate on the yen; and to jaw aimlessly, endlessly, portentously, at random.

Two things undo DeLillo. First, he was overtaken by events, like everyone else. He started out, like Kurt Andersen with Turn of the Century, sizing up the bubble culture, only to have it all pop in his face like stale gum, blown away by Sept. 11, Iraq, and the coming Great Bush Depression. More destructively, he created characters who might as well all be a single characteror rather, none at all. DeLillo writes, "[Packer] felt the passion of the body, its adaptive drive over geological time, the poetry and chemistry of its origins in the dust of old exploded stars." No, he didn't! He didn't feel a thing, nor think it. Cosmopolis is an empty head trip that goes nowhere slow. Tim Appelo

ABSTRACT ART, CONCRETE EXPRESSION

A lot of people hated Clement Greenberg (1909-1994) for his bitchy, imperious pronouncements, his habit of articulating his personal taste as if it were universal law (like there's anything wrong with that). The essays and interviews collected in Clement Greenberg, Late Writings (University of Minnesota Press, $29.95) are taken from a period (1970-1990) when his influence and reputation were waning. His critical heyday coincided with the abstract expressionism of the '50s, but his tone of supreme self-assurance remained very much intact to the end of his life.

One of the not-so-guilty pleasures of the book, in which the critic handily takes on everything from postmodernism to Indian sculpture, is Greenberg's way with a put-down. Sure, he could pour on the invective at great length, as in his attack on "avant gardism" (the tendency toward art that has the stereotypical "far out" look of something entirely new, but which is, in fact, thoroughly bland and conventional). But my favorite bits are when, like a titan in repose, he cannot even be bothered to formulate a complete argument against a target not considered worthy of his energies. About a pair of rival critics, Max Kozloff and Harold Rosenberg, he says only, "I don't think [they] look at art, really, they do something else."

The interviews Greenberg gave to various art magazines are particularly lively and accessible. It is here that Greenberg shares the secret behind the unshakable confidence he had in his eye (he could, from a young age, draw with photographic accuracy). He also dishes like a drag queen ("Jim Dine could paint, though he's dumb as the day is long") and frequently scolds his interviewers ("God, you're so intellectual! You're fancying it up!").

If Greenberg seems out of date, it is only because having a clearly expressed point of view is so out of fashion in the quagmire of overintellectualization and trendy, tail-chasing literary theory that is art criticism today. May his sun rise again and burn off the smog of his successors. David Stoesz

OFF THE RACK

Lauren Weisberger now probably also wears Satan's favorite brand, too, thanks to the success of her The Devil Wears Prada ($21.95, Doubleday). Too bad her writing is BCBG at best. Weisberger's debut novel tells the harrowing tale of an idealistic young college graduate named Andrea Sachs whomuch like the author herself, a former assistant to the legendary Anna Wintour at Voguegoes to work for a legendary fashion editor in order to advance her hopefully New Yorker-bound career. The glitch, of course, is that evil Runway editrix Miranda, a whippet-skinny, preposterously demanding demon in Jimmy Choo stilettos, wants only Andrea's skills as a browbeaten errand runner and general whipping post, not as a blossoming wordsmith.

Predictably, Andrea's soul and spirit are swiftly crushed by the wicked fashion-industry machine and the woman who rules it with her bony iron fist. She soon loses touch with any semblance of an outside lifewhich includes her increasingly bitter boyfriend and a dangerously alcoholic best friend.

Weisberger's writing is nothing if not beach-worthy. Though her New Yorker ambitions are laughable (Cosmo, yes; Glamour on an off day, maybe), she knows how to move the book along swiftly, even as Miranda's increasingly bizarre antics grow repetitive. She also neatly answers the question of why Andrea would stay on for such endless torture: Miranda's Runway assistants are virtually guaranteed the entry-level position of their choice at the Cond頎ast-style publishing company in which Runway is housedif they can first manage to make it through one year of indentured servitude. As mildly diverting as Devil is (especially for fashion junkies), in the end, readers will probably be as relieved as Andrea to escape the panicky, oppressively anorexic hallways of Runway and be let back out into the real world again. Leah Greenblatt

HEY, GOOD LOOKIN'!

A coffee-table book, to paraphrase a familiar sentiment, should be seen and not heard. Or, rather, it should at least sit pretty and keep its mouth shut unless it's sure it has something to say. Two cases in point: the sleek, compact volumes Come Fly With Us! A Global History of the Airline Hostess and Sunkissed: Sunwear and the Hollywood Beauty 1930-1950 (both from Collectors Press, $24.95).

Johanna Omelia and Michael Waldock's picture parade of stewardesses knows how to behave. No one's trying to win a Pulitzer here but the book contains just enough easily digested text to make it breezily informative. Along with the expectedand very entertainingon-the-job fashion shots, we get an efficient rundown of both the evolution of air travel and the changing roles of the women that have long been its stock-in-trade. (There's even a reprint of a 1968 Parade magazine cover featuring a row of heavily made-up hostesses and the headline "GirlsThey Make a Little Airline Big.")

Not so deft is Joshua James Curtis' Sunkissed, which manages to make a book full of great vintage cheesecake photos seem a little embarrassing. Curtis' collection of stars and, mostly, starlets is often delicious (has anyone ever been as red-hot as Rita Hayworth?). Unfortunately, his accompanying text sounds like the sweet but dotty commentary of some nostalgic old queen thumbing through scrapbook pages in a dusty attic. In addition to the weak phrasing, Curtis lets loose with a few bloopers in his captions: He fails to fully contextualize the unknown players (Joy Hodges, anyone?) and explains the legends with randomly punctuated howlers like, "Carole Lombard, in a pajama suit was tragically killed in a plane crash [sic]."

Both books will look great on the table, but only one of them should be invited for conversation. Steve Wiecking

NOIREST OF THE NOIR

The book has been described as "Hannibal Lecter meets L.A. Confidential meets Chinatown," but even that Hollywood characterization doesn't do it justice. Former Los Angeles police detective Steve Hodel has written one of the most compelling true-crime books of all time in Black Dahlia Avenger: The True Story (Arcade, $27.95), which recounts the author's own investigation into the unsolved murder of a young woman named Elizabeth Short in 1947. Found naked, posed, and cut in half in a vacant lot, Short became the stuff of legend when her case was dubbed the "Black Dahlia" murder.

Now here's the twist: Hodel claims to have solved the case by demonstrating that the killer was his father, Dr. George Hodel, a former musical child prodigy turned Hollywood physician and shrink who hobnobbed and sex-partied with the stars at his bizarre Mayan-temple inspired home (built by Lloyd Wright, Frank's son). Not only that, but Hodel also ties his father to the "Lipstick Murder," which followed the Dahlia killing. He also contends that his father and a helper were possibly responsible for the murders of a slew of women in post-war L.A. Thus, Avenger becomes a kind of "Daddy Dearest"with Daddy as serial killer.

Lest one think Hodel's book is merely displaced Freudian patricide, consider that the author was a highly respected LAPD homicide investigator and, for the last decade, a private eye in Bellingham (he's since moved back to L.A.). Step by step, he gathers evidence, interviews surviving witnesses, and builds his case. And since the book's publication this April, documents not accessible to Hodel have been released that confirm that Dr. Hodel indeed was a prime suspect in the case.

Hodel, long estranged from his father, reconciled with him late in his father's life. After his father's death in 1999, he discovered a small album containing photos of Elizabeth Short, including one apparently shot in Dr. Hodel's home. Following this lead, however, the author must confront family pathologies that go way beyond one simple murder. Hodel discloses that his first wife was a former lover of his father's. And we learn how Dr. Hodel also raped his 14-year-old daughter during group sex (and was acquitted in a sensational, O.J.-style trial).

Hodel also presents a credible theory that the Dahlia case remained unsolved because of a 1940s police cover-up designed to protect a ring of Hollywood abortionists. If that's not weird enough, enter his father's friend, the avant-garde artist Man Ray. Some of the symbolism in the Dahlia slaying, Hodel posits, may have been a kind of sick message to Man Ray. The Dahlia murder as a surrealist act? In this most noir of noir stories, it's a real possibility. Knute Berger

CASUALTIES OF WAR

Never mind the recent deluge of "No Iraq War" posters, rally cries, and bumper stickersprotesters would've been better served handing out copies of Iraqi artist Nuha Al-Radi's Baghdad Diaries: A Woman's Chronicle of War and Exile (Vintage, $12). Beginning in 1991, her memoir of wartime Baghdad (and beyond) is excruciating and utterly fascinating. The appeal of Diaries is twofold: It's a glimpse into a society we know next to nothing about; and a heartbreaking record of how war affects the lives it doesn't end.

Al-Radi is not a whiner. Writing of herself, her family, and her neighbors, she provides a sober, day-by-day account of efforts to surviveand to retain some kind of normalcyunder disturbingly adverse conditions. Bombs drop day and night. Bridges and houses are destroyed. Civilians are killed. Electricity and running water are nonexistent. Necessities, such as food and gasoline, are sparse and expensive. Yet, somehow, life must go on. The most arresting aspect of Diaries is its quotidian detail, how the mundane becomes extraordinary in the context of war. Going to the dentist, keeping a garden, visiting friends across townsuddenly these seem almost heroic endeavors.

To the privileged Western reader, seriously deprived of information about 24 million Iraqi people, this chronicle offers a lesson on every page. A self-assured artist who lives alone in an upper- middle-class neighborhood, Al-Radi hardly fits the Western notion of an Arab woman. Her hair and body are exposed. She wears Western clothing and travels frequently (during peacetime). Most of her friends and family members in Diaries are stereotype-defying women, too.

During the first Persian Gulf War, the bombing lasted 42 days, after which Al-Radi records a subsequent decade of hardships under embargo and sanctions. (She also lived abroad during this time.) Her narrative ends, perhaps inexorably, with another American-led attack on her country. Diaries is bitter about U.S. power (and about Israel), but it is also invaluable for honestly depicting the lives of those who, though freed from Saddam, now chafe at that power. Katie Millbauer

books@seattleweekly.com

 
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