This Week's Reads

Lee Gutkind, Tariq Ali, Rick Whitaker, and Jim Phillips & Rosemary Gartner.

FOREVER FAT By Lee Gutkind (University of Nebraska Press, $26.95) Many of the essays collected in Fat close with a moral. The title piece, a chronicle of the author's formative experience in the Coast Guard (and the physical transformation it inspired), concludes as follows: "I have learned that it is fruitless to attempt to obliterate the past. Who you were is who you are." A fine lesson, to be sure, though any sentient reader could have gleaned it simply from the story itself. "Dog Story" ends similarly, as the memory of Gutkind's beloved pet, Icy, brings us back (again) to his erstwhile weight problem, his prom night rejection, and his self-helpish personal mantra: "Never give up, never give in, fall down nine times, get up ten." (It makes perfect sense when the author reveals in "Clarity," a marital postmortem, that his ex-wife used to fume when he spat such truisms.) Furthermore, after taking certain nonfiction writers to task (in "Becoming the Godfather") for putting invented words in the mouths of real people, Gutkind produces some pretty wooden "realistic" dialogue himself. As the leading advocate for "creative nonfiction," if not its most engaging practitioner, Gutkind edits a journal (Creative Nonfiction, what else?), teaches, organizes a regional conference, and has authored 12 books. As a writer, he's extremely candid and sincere, if unsubtle; he builds scenes with a blocky, workmanlike vigor that prioritizes events and situations over technique. No surprise, then, that this celebrated "godfather" should be an NPR contributor; in a medium where Garrison Keillor's folksy, everyman tone is the gold standard of earnest storytelling, Gutkind must feel right at home. The most daring aspect of Fat is that its author lays out his rules for nonfiction writing in the introduction, putting us on high alert for any discrepancies in the stories that follow. It's a gutsy move that transforms the reader into a critic; it also distracts from the substance of the essays, however, focusing our attention on the dancing hands of the puppeteer, not the various marionettes he manipulates. NEAL SCHINDLER Lee Gutkind will appear at Richard Hugo House, (1634 11th Ave., 206-322-7030, $5), 7:30 p.m. Fri., Dec. 5; and at Elliott Bay Book Co. (101 S. Main St., 206-624-6600), 7:30 p.m. Sat., Dec. 6. BUSH IN BABYLON: THE RECOLONISATION OF IRAQ By Tariq Ali (Verso, $20) For four decades, exiled Pakistani historian Tariq Ali has written nonfiction (including The Clash of Fundamentalisms), novels, plays, and even an opera challenging injustices of Islamic and Western cultures alike. Seattle Weekly's Geov Parrish reached Ali at his home in London; what follows is a partial transcript of their conversation by phone and e-mail. (For a fuller account, visit www.workingforchange.com.) Seattle Weekly: A number of American commentators have come through Seattle with books lambasting Bush. How might your view of Bush and the impacts of American Empire differ? Tariq Ali: Bush and the neocons are an easy target and clearly deserve the opprobrium, but the American Empire didn't start with them and won't end with them, either. The mood of liberal America today is "anyone but Bush." I understand that, and there's no doubt that a defeat for Bush would be seen as a defeat for his policies at home and abroad. Fine. Good. But what next? Is American politics destined to repeat itself endlesslyalternating between hard cop and soft cop? One yearns for a strong third party which can become the voice of the economically and politically dispossessed. SW: Is there any viable scenario for Iraqi self-rule that doesn't involve the Americans being dislodged by force? T.A.: The U.N. is today little more than an instrument of the U.S. The secretary general has as much real power as a waiter in the White House. My own feeling is that the only way the Iraqis will be able to get rid of the military occupation and the economic colonization is through a combination of political struggles and armed resistance. SW: How would you distinguish that from arguments that military force was required to dislodge Saddamthe whole humanitarian intervention thesis? T.A.:The humanitarian intervention argument was not used to justify the war. It's emerged now because all the other lies have been exposed. The armed resistance of an occupied nation is qualitatively different from that of the occupier. There is no equation, as there was none in Algeria, Vietnam, Angola, or Mozambique. Tariq Ali will appear at UW's Kane Hall (Room 130, 206-543-2985), 7 p.m. Fri., Dec. 5; and at Keystone Church (5019 Keystone Place N., 206-632-6021, $8), 7 p.m. Sat., Dec. 6. THE FIRST TIME I MET FRANK O'HARA: READING GAY AMERICAN WRITERS By Rick Whitaker (Four Walls Eight Windows, $20) In his introduction to this fairly enthralling reader's journey, Rick Whitaker maintains that the book was written "for the sport of it, and with the hope of thinking somewhat profitably about the meaning, and a few of the techniques, of becoming and being oneself." Whitaker is being humblein its own modest way, his deceptively slim (224 pages) exploration of gay literature is as valuable a piece of queer theory as Vito Russo's seminal contemplation of homo cinema, The Celluloid Closet. Whitaker's humane consideration of selected literary giants as gay people makes for an engrossing readhe has great taste and singularly captivating insight. Emily Dickinson's heartrending love letters to her brother's wife are compared to the impassioned French troubadours of the 12th century. Walt Whitman's visits with dying young Civil War soldiers remind the author of AIDS patients. And Whitaker has an almost empathic comprehension of Herman Melville's melancholy homoeroticism. What lifts the book to a higher plane, however, is the author's ability to personalize his astute reflections without seeming indulgent. A section on "our patron saint," Oscar Wilde, uses the bittersweet wit of the Irish genius to simultaneously mourn and make peace with the death of gay culture, which Whitaker touchingly equates with the nearly extinct type of homosexual who would sing along to the Hello Dolly! soundtrack. He also takes Gore Vidal down a deserved notch. An ex-prostitute (Assuming the Position: A Memoir of Hustling), Whitaker says that the imperious Vidal, who dislikes being "labeled" homosexual, reminds him of former clients: "Rich and untouchable, these geriatric gentlemen seemed bent on proving to me that, try as I might, there was simply no way to bring them anything more than mild, passing pleasure of the most superficial and trivial sort." The discussion here is so richhonest, assured, and compulsively contemplativethat it makes you want to pick up your favorite book and tell everyone what you think of it, and why, and how it defines who you'd like to think you are. That is, of course, what Whitaker wantsto expose himself to others and perhaps give readers the inspiration to find themselves in the mirror of his pages. STEVE WIECKING Rick Whitaker will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co. (101 S. Main St., 206-624-6600), 6 p.m. Sat., Dec. 6. MURDERING HOLINESS: THE TRIALS OF FRANZ CREFFIELD AND GEORGE MITCHELL By Jim Phillips and Rosemary Gartner (UBC Press, $29.95) In the annals of Seattle's crime history, few tales rival the bizarre murder of "self-styled messiah" Franz Edmund Creffield and the courtroom drama it precipitated. The slaying took place early on May 7, 1906, at the corner of First Avenue and Cherry Street, while the reportedly lecherous prophethead of a flock of Holy Rollers that had scandalized the community of Corvallis, Ore., and who had been tarred and feathered and imprisoned for his troublewas walking with his wife. Suddenly, George Mitchell, whose two sisters had fallen under Creffield's spell, raised a pistol and put a bullet in the back of Creffield's neck, killing him instantly. It seemed a clear case of premeditated homicide; Mitchell is supposed to have told police, "I came here to kill that man." Yet according to Holiness, "Newspapers approved, or at least sympathized with, Mitchell. . . . [M]oney was raised for his defense; and there was even talk in Corvallis of striking a medal for him." He was eventually acquittedonly to fall in a subsequent revenge shooting by his own sister, Esther, in Union Station that left Seattle "shamefully disgraced." The now-forgotten story of Creffield, a German-born former Salvation Army officer who, beginning in 1903, led a Northwest religious cult called the Church of the Bride of Christ, was front-page fodder for The Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in the pre-World War I era. Not surprisingly, since it featured reports of cultists rolling on floors and screaming in spiritual agitation, rumors of animal sacrifice, claims of widespread sex between Creffield and his female acolytes, and the eventual asylum incarceration of his followers. Yet this history has not previously been so thoroughly researched and presented as it is herewhich is both a good and bad thing. Co-authors Phillips and Gartner, both of whom teach criminology at the University of Toronto, have certainly plumbed a wealth of dusty records in order to assemble their study not only of Creffield, but also of the societal expectations placed on his female adherents and the "unwritten law" that murder might be justified in order to preserve family honor. However, in their adamancy not to sensationalize what can only be considered a sensational historical episode, the authors sometimes bury the appealing outlandishness of their subject beneath a landslide of academic contextualism. J. KINGSTON PIERCE Jim Phillips and Rosemary Gartner will appear at U.W. Kane Hall (Walker-Ames Room, 206-543-2985), 7 p.m. Mon., Dec. 8. info@seattleweekly.com

 
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