NATIVE STATE

By Tony Cohan (Broadway Books, $24.95) You know you're in good hands when an author opens his book with a passage that knocks

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This Week's Reads

Tony Cohan, J. Robert Lennon, Anne Lamott, and Caroline Alexander.

NATIVE STATE

By Tony Cohan (Broadway Books, $24.95) You know you're in good hands when an author opens his book with a passage that knocks you out. "The memory has the luster of a dream," Cohan begins his new memoir, unfurling an introductory reminiscence of his 4-year-old self standing with his father on a hillside overlooking Los Angeles. The description takes in the twinkling milieu with cinematic detail: the quality of light, the song on the radio, the noises beyond, and "Dad's arm, sweeping upward, [seeming] to cradle the sunshot heavens as if they are a spray of flowers, embracing multitudes." Then lightning cracks, rain falls, Tony's perpetually distraught mother slides down the slope in drunken disarray, and "This earthly paradise is infested." An essayist and novelist (On Mexican Time, Canary), Cohan has written an exemplary memoir that starts with "California as suspect, ersatz Eden, needful of unmasking" and opens out into the rest of the world, detailing in exceedingly elegant prose the growth of a young man with a gift for "peeling away the surface of life around us, searching for a new, ugly beauty." His reflections are, in many ways, nothing new: Here are the alcoholic mother, the overbearing father (in this case, a fallen producer/director from radio's Golden Age), and the overburdened son. And Cohan's reflections are occasionally so ornate they threaten to put too much literary pomp on such familiar American circumstance. But the author has carefully pitched his tale, balancing it with humor and the knowledge that his life amounts to much more than any one anecdote could communicate. The book relates not only his mother's decline, his father's tiring transition into old age, and Cohan's own tumultuous development as an artist and a man (there are wonderfully observed passages about his epiphanic period playing drums in the '50s and '60s), but also how much each little story in anyone's life feeds from, and into, every larger tale. STEVE WIECKING Tony Cohan will read at Third Place Books (17171 Bothell Way N.E., 206-366-3333), 7 p.m. Wed., Sept. 24. MAILMAN

By J. Robert Lennon (Norton, $24.95) Ten days in the life of Albert Lippencott, a 57-year-old mailman in an upstate New York hamlet, turn out to be colorfully rendered and amusingly pathetic, but there's a stamp missing here. Lennon's novel of a funny fuck-up makes you care about "Mailman" (as he calls himself), but the character falls short of the grandiloquent excess of, say, Ignatius J. Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces or the self-conscious plunge of remorseless alcoholism in David Gates' Jernigan (a recent high-water mark among hitting-the-skids narratives). The extent of Albert's afflictions (real and imagined) just doesn't go far enough; he never, literarily speaking, goes postal. We're in the town of Nestor (basically Ithaca, home of Cornell), the same college-town milieu Lennon has explored in earlier novels. Albert is the drop-out son of a Princeton prof, a cast-out from ivy-clad privilege who has nothing but scorn for the vegan, Volvo-driving, bring-your-own-shopping-bag ethos of smug Nestor. His chief pastime is stealing mail from the people on his route, surreptitiously reading and photocopying it, then finally delivering it. As we learn in the loop-the-loop digressions and recollections that punctuate the novel, a psychotic undergraduate episode brought Albert low in the '60s (he was in the nuthouse when JFK was shot), and by June of 2000, he's divorced, despised, disrespected, and overlooked; so could his life get any worse? Oh, yes, there's a suspicious, painful growth under his armcould it be CANCER? Lennon treats us to a little bashing of Ithaca's resident scholar-charlatan-celebrity (Carl Sagan, turned French), takes a muddy detour to Kazakhstan, and goes on a road trip to Florida to visit Albert's retired parents. But his craft isn't sufficiently contained. Mailman sprawls, egregiously. As Albert says, "No way, for Mailman, to compartmentalize the old bean," meaning he's not really in control of his own thoughts. Yet Albert is a real and sympathetic character as his mind races hither and thither: "Madness was not a simple you-is-or-you-ain't but a gradient, a continuum upon which he was somewhere south of normal." His life is a mess, so no wonder he looks for a kind of order or solace in reading the letters he carries. But Albert's big epiphany, drinking vodka as the sun rises over a Florida beach, is that the envelope he really needed to open was his own. And readers will have already received that message about 400 pages earlier. BRIAN MILLER J. Robert Lennon will read at Zeitgeist Art & Coffee (171 S. Jackson St., 206-624-6600), 7:30 p.m. Wed., Sept. 24. BLUE SHOE

By Anne Lamott (Riverhead $14) A few weeks back, before I began Salon columnist Anne Lamott's seventh novel, I logged onto that Web site and read her most current missive about dragging her teenage son to church. Lamott is a 49-year-old single mom with dreadlocksthere are intimations that this makes her "cool"who's often chronicled her younger, darker days and subsequent salvation via, among other things, religion. Although normal parent-teen tension applies, her column avowed that her kid is totally cool with Godexcept he just doesn't like church and all the rules. Such is the conflicted case with Mattie, Blue Shoe's deeply religious, but not fanatical, heroine. She leaves her husband, in part, because they don't share a spiritual connection. (Like Lamott's son, he didn't want to go to church on Sundays.) Yet Mattie is no saint: During the course of Shoe, she watches some porno flicks, curses like a sailor, screws her ex (since remarried), and has a best friend who's a dyke. Later she takes a lover whose sexual shortcomings are graphically described; then she hooks up with another married man. (What was that commandment about adultery?) Safe to say Lamott belongs to a progressive parishand that she's given Mattie permission to subscribe to the same lax doctrine. Shoe is about families and the strange things that connect themsometimes tangible, sometimes not. (Mattie undergoes many wrenching changes with her ex, kids, and parents.) But it's also about faith and the importance of regular church attendance, and Lamott's Bible-thumping did initially annoy me. Then I realized that I don't get annoyed when I'm reading, say, a love story involving a 16th-century Hindu or a prewar Jew. That her heroine's born-again creed is more contemporary and familiar shouldn't make Lamott's novel a turnoff for urban secular typesespecially because Mattie is so often funny, albeit in that crabby, single-mom kinda way. So don't dismiss Shoe, a 2002 New York Times best seller (new in paper), for its somewhat excessive religiosity. However, Lamott does commit the sin of excessive metaphors, sprinkling goofy "like this"s and "like that"s throughout her story. By the end, you become so dizzy with stupid similes that you roll your eyes toward heavenwhich is, clearly, where Lamott wanted you to look, anyway. LAURA CASSIDY Anne Lamott will appear at Town Hall (1119 8th Ave., 206-628-0888, $20), 7:30 p.m. Thurs., Sept. 25. THE BOUNTY: THE TRUE STORY OF THE MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY

By Caroline Alexander (Viking, $27.95) "I am in hell," declared a disturbed Fletcher Christian as he watched Lt. William Bligh and 18 of that commander's loyalists depart the British cutter Bounty aboard an overloaded launch in April 1789. But it's Bligh who's been damned to hell during the two centuries since. In the famous movie adaptations, he's the heavy to Christian's hero: Charles Laughton opposite Clark Gable (1935), Trevor Howard against Marlon Brando (1962). Yet as Caroline Alexander describes him here, Bligh was a "passionate" man who'd learned his leadership techniques and "almost fetishistic concern for hygiene" in service to the great explorer Capt. James Cook. Far from being a sadistic tyrant who ruled by the lashes of tongue and leather, Bligh had hoped to complete the Bounty's voyage to Tahiti (where breadfruit trees were to be collected) without a single flogging. It's a testament to Bligh's character that several sailors who were not ordered off the Bounty went with him voluntarily, and that Bligh was then able to navigate their open boat all the way to Timora 3,600-mile triumph that seemed certain death. If Alexander's portrayal of Christian is fuzzier, it may be because his motivation for mutinyhe evidently cracked after a disagreement over filched coconuts"would have been laughable, had so much death and suffering not resulted." (Most of that death and suffering befell the mutineers, not Bligh.) One of Christian's brothers, Edward, also did much in the sea scandal's wake to recast his sibling as a wronged man instead of a criminal The story of the Bounty, Alexander reminds us, is also the story of an 18th-century media sensation. Then came the movies. Although The Bounty gets off to a slow start, focusing on the subsequent British naval sea hunt for Christian and his mutineers, Alexander (The Endurance) eventually shows her skill for bleeding drama from the seemingly parched carcass of history. Drawing on wills, personal correspondence, and court records, she presents a complicated yarn that touches on man's hunger for Eden and other familiar Bounty-legend themes. More than that, this important, gripping history is about very human misjudgments and their tragic consequences. J. KINGSTON PIERCE Caroline Alexander will read at Elliott Bay Book Co. (101 S. Main St., 206-624-6600), 7:30 p.m. Tues., Sept. 30. info@seattleweekly.com

 
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