This Week's Reads

Michael Moore, Victor LaValle, Anne Garrels, and Susanna Moore.

DUDE, WHERE'S MY COUNTRY?

By Michael Moore (Warner Books, $24.95) I'm proud to say that in my old gig as Amazon.com's best-sellers editor, I helped propel Michael Moore's Stupid White Men to the top of the charts. And though I don't share his extremist politics, many of the most inflammatory observations in his new screed are unfortunately true. As Moore notes in Dude, never-elected President Bush has "turned the White House into the Home of the Whopper." He's quite right in saying that Bush's administration responds to any criticism by echoing Richard Pryor's recommended defense upon being caught by one's wife in the physical act of adultery: "Now are you going to believe meor your lying eyes?" Moore further recounts how the Bushes have been in bed with the bin Ladens, the terrorist-funding Saudis, and Enron criminals. And how U.S. television aired 25 times as many pro-war sources as antiwar during the first phase of the apparently eternal Iraq conflict. And how there would've been no 9/11 had the airlines not thwarted Ralph Nader and Moore's 1987 attempt to install impenetrable cabin doors ("at a cost of 50 cents more per airline ticket," Moore alleges). And how CEOs make 411 times what their workers make. And how the Republicans are fanatically intent on fleecing 99 percent of Americans to enrich 1 percent. And how terrorism has been overhyped for cynical political advantage: In the peak terrorism year 2001, Americans were10 times more likely to die by suicide, meaning, Moore writes, "YOU were a greater danger to yourself than any terrorist." But now that he's had a No. 1 best seller (plus an Oscar for the most popular documentary in film history, Bowling for Columbine), Moore seems to be coasting. Dude is slack, unfocused, less funny, and more often crazy than his prior work. "Hey, here's a way to stop the suicide bombings," he writes. "Give the Palestinians a bunch of missile-firing Apache helicopters and let them and the Israelis go at each other head to head. Four billion dollars a year to Israel, four billion a year to the Palestiniansthey can just blow each other up and leave the rest of us the hell alone." Gee, I wonder why Thomas L. Friedman never thought of that. Moore actually lauds Ann Coulter: "She's got more balls than the entire Democratic Leadership Council. [The left is] just jealous because we don't have an Ann Coulter." Dude, if you keep writing like this, we will. TIM APPELO Michael Moore will appear at the Paramount Theatre (911 Pine St., 206-325-3554; $15-$45), 8 p.m. Sat., Oct. 25. THE ECSTATIC

By Victor LaValle (Vintage, $13) Too often, the quirky-family novel feels like an extended stand-up comedy riff of the "You think your parents are nuts? Wait'll you meet mine!" variety. It's hard to pull off without either flailing hysterically or adopting a detachment that makes the writer look like an asshole going for cheap laughs. (See Douglas Coupland's 2001 All Families Are Psychotic). But Victor LaValle's debut novel, just out in paperback, sidesteps those problemspartly by being earthier than most quirk-fam books, partly by being riskier. Rather than falling into the usual mode of a normal person surrounded by maniacs , LaValle's protagonist and narrator, Anthony James, is a borderline paranoid-schizophrenic whose family brings him home after his life has unraveledhe's dropped out of college without telling them, and his weight has ballooned to 315 pounds. And while his mother, sister, and grandmother may be off their respective rockers, LaValle never resorts to the sitcom-ish device of making them even wackier than Anthony. The Ecstatic's plot turns are colorful enough (it follows a road trip to a Virginia beauty pageant that Anthony's 13-year-old sister enters), and LaValle is terrific at drawing the family's Jamaica, Queens, neighborhood. But the book's best moments come when Anthony muses or reminisces unbidden by dialogue. Rather than simply rendering his main character as a sideshow freak, LaValle portrays Anthony as an actively intelligent guy who actually seems to have learned something at Cornell (at least while he was attending classes). His dilemma is more acute as a result, and our sympathy for him a lot less forced. MICHAELANGELO MATOS Victor LaValle will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co. (101 S. Main St., 206-624-6600), 4 p.m. Sun., Oct. 26. NAKED IN BAGHDAD

By Anne Garrels (Farrar Straus Giroux, $22) Thanks to the Pentagon strategy of "embedding" reporters, the invasion of Iraq had to be the most closely chronicled military campaign since Vietnam. The strategy resulted, too, in our hearing far more than usual about journalists' own personal experiences of the wartheir own hardships, their own crappy MREs, their own techniques for desert hygiene. I'm guessing quite a few media memoirists have war books pending; given her reputation, it's appropriate that the first out of the gate should be NPR's veteran correspondent Anne Garrels. She'll be a hard act to follow. Not because she suffered the most deprivation or the most death-defying adventures (though there's plenty of that here). But because her writing is so honest, fair-minded, astutely observed, and gripping that you almost forget that you already know how the story ends. With Naked, she has set the bar inspiringly high, as she did during the war, for integrity. Garrels was one of the handful of American reporters who remained in Baghdad after the U.S. bombing began. (With typical modesty, she notes, "at this point leaving is as dangerous as staying.") Despite Naked's fiery bombs-away cover and its title (which refers to her doing secret NPR reports in the buff, so that she could beg for time and hide her satellite phone if an official came knocking on her hotel door), more than half the book actually takes place before the invasion. Garrels paints a clear-eyed portrait of a totalitarian society, where Saddam's image serves as the screen saver at every Internet cafe, citizens are either mute or programmed, and "minders," drivers, and the Information Ministry suck up hundreds of dollars a day in fees from desperately competitive Western reporters. Garrels is almost stunningly unpolitical; she shows no signs of worry as to whether the war is necessary or justified. "I am fascinated by how people survive," writes this veteran of Bosnia, Chechnya, and Afghanistan, "and how the process of war affects the attitudes of all sides involved, and how they pull out of it." Which is not to say her book is judgment-free: She leaves no doubt as to her loathing for Saddam's despotic regimeas well as for those members of the U.S. media, such as CNN (and the Seattle P-I, for that matter) who served up soft, Saddam-friendly coverage, which they then cashed in for easy visas. At one point, as the press waits around for war to start, Garrels writes: "I hope I don't descend to doing the inevitable zoo story. . . . Every war has a zoo: Sarajevo, Kabul, and now Baghdad. Animals are a lot less demanding an interview than people and a lot easier to access." In a risky choice, Garrels' narrative is punctuated with e-mail updates that her husband sent out to family and friends, reflecting on his nutty, war-chasing wife. This could have been a maudlin disaster, but her husband, artist Vint Lawrencewhose great caricatures appear in The New Republic and elsewhereis such a brilliant writer himself, his notes so full of touching humor and genuine love, that his contributions end up enriching the book immensely, making Naked as much an affectionate portrait of a driven woman as a tale of war. MARK D. FEFER Anne Garrels will appear at UW Kane Hall, Room 130 (206-634-3400; free tickets required from University Book Store), 7 p.m. Mon., Oct. 27; and at Elliott Bay Book Co. (101 S. Main St., 206-624-6600), 5 p.m. Tues., Oct. 28. ONE LAST LOOK

By Susanna Moore (Knopf, $23) Like the quip about Ginger Rogers, that she did everything Astaire did, but backward and in heels, there seems to be nothing Susanna Moore cannot doand in the first person. After the eroticism of 1995's In the Cut with its raw New York setting and brutally audacious conclusion (and after collaborating on the screenplay for the Jane Campion film featuring Meg Ryan and Mark Ruffalo that opens Oct. 31), Moore now sets her sights on British aristocrats in the mid-19th century, the folly of English imperialism, and an entirely different kind of seduction. Based on actual journals, this mad, riveting saga is told through six years of diary entries by the savagely observant Lady Eleanor, as she accompanies her unmarried (incestuous) brother, Henry, to Calcutta, where he's been made governor-general. Since she's our eyes on this overwhelmingly "other" continent, it's nice that Eleanor is as astringent as she is intelligent. You can almost see one eyebrow arch as she describes her younger sister, Harriet, another member of the party: "She even seems to cough with a lisp." Yet Harriet, far from the ninny she seems, is the first to allow herself to be taken by India in its full range of beauty and barbarism. Eleanor fights longer, through paralyzing heat and torrential monsoons, until she looks beyond her revulsion to see the country clearlyand the senselessness of England's colonial presence in it. It's hardly accidental that by this time, tropical diseasesand the soothing drugs that alleviate themhave overtaken them all. Henry's blind stewardship is clearly doomed from the night he calls "the girls" to look at a dead crow tossed onto his veranda, ominously wearing "a tiny red soldier's tunic complete with brass buttons and a sergeant's stripe on the chest." Yet it's not until Henry mounts a ruinous three-year trek to the Punjab that this imperial debacle is played out. Ah, empire! SHEILA BENSON Susanna Moore will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co. (101 S. Main St., 206-624-6600), 7:30 p.m. Mon., Oct. 27. info@seattleweekly.com

 
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