This Week's Reads

M. Dylan Raskin, David Montgomery, Joseph Stiglitz & John Newhouse, and Peter Carey.

LITTLE NEW YORK BASTARD: A MEMOIR

By M. Dylan Raskin (Four Walls Eight Windows, $13.95) You get on the bus and sit down. Then some crank sitting next to you starts rattling off his life story. You think about getting off at the next stop, but you end up listeningand cursing yourself for being so tolerant. That's what reading this pissed-off memoir is like. It seems reconstructed from a mutant strand of Catcher in the Rye DNA: A precocious malcontent casts off the shackles of school and home and sets out on his own. Raskin battles superficiality and hypocrisy at every turn; on more than one occasion, he longs for the simple joys of childhood. Instead of calling superficial people "phonies," Raskin dubs them "filthy animals." Like Salinger, Raskin is crazy for italics, often using them to emphasize one syllable in a word. Like Holden Caulfield, our antihero has outlandish escape fantasies: "I've always had an idea to hollow out a really big tree and go live inside it. I'd live like those elves who make the cookies. I don't remember their names, but they live in a hollowed-out tree." (Pleasewho doesn't remember the Keebler Elves?) When he stumbles on something that actually moves him (a pair of fleece pants, for example), Raskin's angry facade breaks down, revealing something childlike and almost sweet: "They were gray and they weren't exactly the prettiest things in the world, but they were ridiculously soft and very October-like." His anger, on the other hand, feels largely unwarranted as is evident in a conversation with his mother, who asks, "Why can't you just be like everybody else? Just go along with the program!" Raskin retorts: "Because the program sucks, and I don't want to be like them. They are what's wrong with the whole freakin' world." Oh, that's righthell is other people. Some of what Raskin has to say is funny and truejust like the irate stranger on the bus. But mostly he hammers away at easy caricatures of jocks, bimbos, and stodgy professors. After listening to Raskin for 288 pages, I was dying to get off that bus and never look back. NEAL SCHINDLER M. Dylan Raskin will appear at Cafe Allegro (4212 University Way N.E., 206-634-3400), 7 p.m. Wed., Nov. 12. KING OF FISH: THE THOUSAND YEAR RUN OF SALMON

By David Montgomery (Westview Press, $26) Imagine what went through his editor's head when David Montgomery proposed a book about salmon and the things people have done to them. One word: Cod. Six years ago, that book by Mark Kurlansky told the same story about that other fish and became a surprise best seller. Salmon are more glamorous and more biologically interesting than cod, and they've played as big a historic role. And so what might otherwise be an obscure tome by an obscure academic (Montgomery is a UW geomorphologist) gets a national rollout from a major publisher. Two problems. First, this fish story is much more complicated than the one Kurlansky told. Salmon number six in species rather than onemore if you consider their char and trout cousins, which Montgomery doesn't. Their turf includes, or used to include, not just the North Atlantic banks but seas, rivers, lakes, and streams from France to Greenland to New York to Siberia to Japanoh yeah, and the Pacific Northwest. And their anadromous lifestyleincubating in the relative safety of fresh water, then emigrating, fattening in the open sea, and fighting back upstream for one kamikaze burst of spawningcomplicates the story more. Anadromy makes salmon particularly vulnerable to a range of abuses: overfishing, not just at sea but offshore and upriver; dams and levees; urban, agricultural, and industrial pollution; logging and paving; and even the hatcheries and "farms" that purport to sustain them. Making such a story breathe requires art, and there's the second problem: Montgomery is no Kurlansky. He achieves basic readability and gets off the occasional zinger ("The king of fish had become the fish of kings"). But he seeds his riffle with repetitions, syntactical and semantic slips (every ravaged run is "decimated"), paragraphs that seem assembled at random, and infelicitous phrasings. Worst of all, he succumbs to that perennial vice of scientists trying to lighten up: He inserts cloying, gratuitous references to his doger, "field assistant Xena, a black Lab-chow mix." There oughta be a literary leash law. Fortunately, Montgomery hits his stride as he gets to his area of expertise: the shapes of Northwest streams, the ways they change, and the effects of these changes. And it's worth wading through the flotsam to get to a tale that, though it's been told before, cries for retelling in a time of crisis. He relates historical episodes that will seem at once fresh and dismayingly familiar. Beginning with Malcolm II in 1030, the kings of England and Scotland ordered that salmon receive safe passage upstream to spawn. But, like the environmental regulations of today, such rules were backed by weak enforcement and even weaker penalties. It is astonishing how early observers correctly diagnosed the salmon's plight. "Fish are more affected than quadrupeds by slight and even imperceptible differences in their breeding places and feeding grounds," Vermont naturalist George Perkins Marsh wrote in 1864. Almost all the processes of agriculture, and of mechanical and chemical industry, are fatally destructive to aquatic animals within reach of their influence." Fourteen decades later, some in this region and in the White House still claim we can correct those impacts by pumping indiscriminately bred hatchery fry into damaged rivers. Montgomery salutes federal salmon protection as more rigorous and resistant to special interests than state efforts. But, as he also notes, the Bush administration has stopped defending and extending Endangered Species Act listings of wild runs. Meanwhile, a generation of consumers is growing up eating mealy-fleshed, artificially dyed farm fish (a topic Montgomery brushes over in only three pages), while Alaskan fishermen can't sell the fruits of their still-healthy wild runs. After 1,000 years, the story ain't over quite yet. ERIC SCIGLIANO David Montgomery will appear at University Book Store (4326 University Way N.E., 206-634-3400), 7 p.m. Thurs., Nov. 13. AS COOL AS I AM

By Pete Fromm (Picador, $24) Pick up this novel in a bookstore, skim its jacket, then glance at the author photo and bio, and you might suspect a printing mistake. The jacket describes a coming-of-age storya mother-daughter talecentered around 14-year-old Lucy Diamond. The 45-year-old novelist Fromm has a handlebar 'stache; he lives in Great Falls, Mont.; and he certainly doesn't look like the type of guy who'd be privy to the inner thoughts of teenage girls. But Fromm's not a three-time winner of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award for nothing. (His prior titles include How All This Started and Indian Creek Chronicles.) Cool is more than just a convincing portrait of a precocious Great Falls teen, all of it delivered in Lucy's first-person voice over two eventful years. Fromm's characters and imagery are so vivid that the book teems with life. Lucy, with her sharp wit and defiant buzz cut, seems like a fully formed character from the novel's first pages, like a real girl who tripped and fell into Fromm's typewriter. But Lucy doesn't trip; she doesn't fall. She's cool inside and out, independent, beautiful, lovedand lonely. With a logger dad who's home only a few random weeks a year and a lonely mom who bides her time mostly between her telemarketing job and a string of boyfriends, Lucy's the prototypical latchkey kid. She cooks, she cleans, she makes out on the couch with her scrawny childhood best friend, Kenny. Sometimes her situation seems contrived, far-fetched (she's too strong, too mature, too melancholy), but Fromm keeps you believing in her character. It's the relationships in CoolLucy and her mom, Lucy and Kenny, Lucy's mom and dad, the self-outcast Lucy with her schoolmatesthat are so convincing, mostly because they're imperfect. Fromm coaxes readers along with a subtle optimism that all the broken relations will get better. He doesn't guarantee happy endings for Lucy or anyone else, but that spirit weighs against the dismal and the ordinary to achieve a beautiful balance. KATIE MILLBAUER Pete Fromm will appear at Eagle Harbor Books (157 Winslow Way E., Bainbridge Island, 206-842-5332), 7:30 p.m. Thurs., Nov. 13. THE ROARING NINETIES: A NEW HISTORY OF THE WORLD'S MOST PROSPEROUS DECADE

By Joseph Stiglitz (W.W. Norton, $25.95) IMPERIAL AMERICA: THE BUSH ASSAULT ON THE WORLD ORDER

By John Newhouse (Knopf, $23) Bush-hating Seattle readers will find plenty of ammunition here to fight on two fronts. Washington, D.C., insider journalist Newhouse writes about foreign policy and Nobel Prize-winning economist Stiglitz (Globalization and Its Discontents) about the fallout from the '90s boom years. Neither is going to unseat Krugman or Franken or Moore among Bush-bashing best sellers; they're both too wonky for that. Read in succession, however, the two point to the unexpected U.S. problem of too much power following the Cold War. If I could abridge them into one volume, it'd be called Dude, Where's My Peace Dividend? Imperial America is the much worse book of the two, informing us that "Condi Rice is an enigma" and "Colin Powell has all the tools." Secondary sources abound; most of Imperial is written straight from Nexis, while the rest amounts to conversational table scraps from Beltway dinners and cocktail parties. It's a short, shallow screed packed with the usual indictments of unilateralism. You can agree with everything Newhouse says while groaning at its obviousness. News flash: "Diplomacy never really had a chance in Iraq." The villains are Dubya, Sharon, and Pakistan. Heroes? Though all three signed on with Bush's Iraq invasion, Newhouse still lauds Blair, Putin, and Powell. Stiglitz was an economic adviser to Clinton, and Roaring Nineties is something of a mea culpa for that administration's pro-corporate policies. He now regrets being such a deficit hawk and siding with Richard Rubin in his efforts to keep the bond markets happy. He's in favor of Keynesian stimulus directed at workers, not CEOs. Stock options are bad, deregulation is bad, Bush's tax cuts are bad. Sweden, groan, is good. Stiglitz is plain about labeling much New Economy wheeling and dealing as "theft," but he has no problem with globalizationif, and this is a big if, it's applied without U.S. double standards (meaning protectionism, tariffs, subsidies, and the like). He's pro- business, but also pro-redistributionist, meaning money should flow from rich to poor, at home and abroad. This gets us back to the keyword among keywords that clog both books: unilateralism. Both argue that the U.S. has exercised its might and wealth badly in the first three administrations since the Berlin Wall fellbreaking treaties, flouting allies, and generally behaving like history is over. Thus we see the return of gunboat diplomacy to secure peace and tax breaks for the rich to float the economy. Stiglitz won his Nobel prize for his '70s work on "asymmetrical information," which demonstrated how capitalism falls short of being fair and efficient when all parties are not on a level playing field. Today that field seems to be tipped entirely to our advantage, yet somehow we're losing the game. BRIAN MILLER Joseph Stiglitz will appear at Town Hall (1119 Eighth Ave., 206-652-4255, $15), 7 p.m. Thurs., Nov. 13. John Newhouse will appear at Town Hall ($5), 7:30 p.m. Tues., Nov. 18. MY LIFE AS A FAKE

By Peter Carey (Knopf, $24) The conservative poet Alfred Noyes, author of "The Highwayman," used to like to read aloud alternating passages from T.S. Eliot and the phone book and bitterly crow, "See? Can't tell the difference, can you?" Harold Stewart and James McAuley, conservative poets stuck in the Australian army in 1944, expressed their similar loathing of Eliot and the modernist movement in a cleverer way: They invented a modernist poet, Ern Malley (said to be short for "earnest maladroit"), and wrote a letter allegedly from Ern's sister to the actual editor of the non-fictitious literary journal Angry Penguins. Ern's sister told his tragic life story and enclosed his incomprehensible masterpiece, and the Angry Penguins editor took the bait and published it with fanfare. Then Stewart and McAuley sprang the trap and exposed their hoax. This episode has now inspired Peter Carey, the Booker Prize-winning novelist who loves to make fiction out of bits of reality (True History of the Kelly Gang), to write a novel along the same lines. In My Life as a Fake, there's only one hoaxer, Christopher Chubb, and it seems his creation, the writer Bob McCorkle, has actually come to life, pissed at his creator. The novel's epigraph is from Frankenstein. McCorkle kidnaps Chubb's little girl, leading him a merry chase in Malaysia and parts beyond. Calamitously, Carey frames this story with the recollections of the book's (or metabook's) narrator, Sarah "Micks" Wode-Douglass, editor of the actual literary prestige journal The Modern Review. She stumbles upon the decrepit Chubb by chance in Kuala Lumpur, where she's been lured by another poet, the sinister, dashing, mysterious John Slater, who she believes destroyed her parents' marriage and her mother's life. Chaotic events are narrated to us through various levels of reminiscence; it's as if you were reading the book through several magnifying glasses, some of them held by hands other than your ownwobbly hands holding cloudy magnifying glasses. The dizzying effect reminds me of Faulkner at his drunkest, only without the Old Testament style. Fans of nested narratives and Carey diehards will find Fake bracing. I found it a fascinating flop. TIM APPELO Peter Carey will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co. (101 S. Main St., 206-624-6600), 8 p.m. Wed., Nov. 19. info@seattleweekly.com

 
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