This Week's Reads

Katherine Beck, John E. Keegan, and Dora Loewenstein & Philip Dodd.

OPAL: A LIFE OF ENCHANTMENT, MYSTERY, AND MADNESS

By Katherine Beck (Viking, $24.95) Doubts followed Opal Whiteley almost immediately after she hit it big with her childhood diary, published by The Atlantic Monthly in 1920 when the author was 22. Chronicling a hardscrabble existence in the logging camps of Oregon and a storybooklike experience of nature (sample chap- ter title: "How Opal and the Little Birds From the Great Tree Have a Happy Time at the House of Dear Love"), the diary soon attracted skepticism could Opal really have written the whole thing as a 6- and 7-year-old? This, for instance: "I did have beginnings of hurry feels to go to the pig-pen. I have thinks Sadie McKibben saw the hurrys in my eyes. She said she would like to go hurrys to the pig-pen too." Of course, the real question is not, Did a child write this? but rather, Who in the world would want to read it? It's an important question, for Opal to this day has followers who compare her to St. Francis; no less than three versions of her diary are in print (including one for children); a musical of her life has been produced; and there's even a charter school in Portland dedicated to her vision of creativity and communion with nature. It's also a question that that the Seattle mystery writer Katherine Beck frustratingly ignores, offering instead a painstaking account of Opal's movements from childhood to her long, sad decline and death in an institution in 1992. With myopic intensity, Beck addresses the burning issues of what parts of Opal's story could be faked, who she might have slept with, and what rich people she sponged off of (Beck calls her "the Kato Kaelin of the twenties and thirties"). It's all very hot stuff in the insular New Age world of Opal devoteesthe book has already stoked fires of controversy onlinebut not very meaningful if Opal's mannered, mossy mysticism gives you the "hurry feels" to get far, far away. DAVID STOESZ Katherine Beck will appear at University Book Store (4326 University Way N.E., 206-634-3400), 7 p.m. Thurs., Dec. 11. A GOOD DIVORCE

By John E. Keegan (Permanent Press, $26) John E. Keegan reminds me of his fellow local novelists Mark Lindquist and Jonathan Raban. Lindquist's 2000 Never Mind Nirvana blends a prosecutor's-eye view of a date-rape case with a tour of the local rock scene. Keegan, a former prosecutor and eminent attorney, dramatizes a child-custody battle set in Seattle's collision of counterculture and lawyer culture in the 1970s of mood rings and Open Marriage. Keegan does a better job of rendering intense emotional states than affectless Lindquist; like him, he nails the local scene of the epoch in question. Keegan's spot-on descriptions of the Deluxe Bar & Grill tête-à-têtes and the Brobdingnagian driftwood of Copalis Beach don't outdo the lyric beauty of the Seattle magicked into being by Raban's prose in Waxwings, but the legal travails in Divorce do echo the bogus child-murder case in Raban's bookthe scary way everyday events take on sinister overtones when toted up against you in court. Keegan's tale asks you to decide the case for yourself. When uptight law partner Cyrus Stapleton's wife, Jude, joins a feminist women's group, is it fair for her to fault him for being such a square? (His idea of rebellion is risking colleagues' wrath by question-ing Ford's pardon of Nixon.) Does he deserve to be washing his dishes and socks in the same sink in a basement unit at the Alhambra Arms while she gets the manse? Should he really be dry-humping Jude's women's-group leader? And when Jude's sex life takes a socially unsanctioned turn and the kids act out (drugs, sex, life-risking behavior), should he rescue them from her self- actualizing pad? There is some clunkiness in the narrative, but the story is absorbing and the characters ring true. TIM APPELO John E. Keegan will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co. (101 S. Main St., 206-624-6600), 7:30 p.m. Sat., Dec. 13. THE GREAT FIRE

By Shirley Hazzard (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $24) I don't think I've ever fought a book as fiercely as I did this one. Its October publication had the trappings of an event: This is Hazzard's first novel in the 23 years since her revered The Transit of Venus took the National Book Critics Circle Award; beside it on her mantel, she can now add the National Book Award, which Fire earned just last month. It wasn't Hazzard's dense, specific style but a pair of central characters that I resisted: Helen and Benedict Driscoll, precocious teenagers living in 1947 Japan. They're encountered by Aldred Leith, a damaged, decorated, yet self- effacing English officer who comes to Kure (near Hiroshima) to complete a major book on the convulsive changes occurring in China, where he's traveled the prior two years. Leith's father, Oliver, a randy, celebrated London novelist, has always been remote and chilly, a state his 32-year-old son, already divorced and the veteran of desultory affairs, begins to fear will be his, too. That is, until he meets 17-year-old Helen. She and her equally engaging brother couldn't have more unlikely parents. Australian and hateful, the senior Driscolls are grand creations, Wagner by way of Dickens: wife Melba with her lip-smacking delight in her (imagined) social superiority; husband Barry with his Queeg-like tyranny over the men he commands as the town's medical administrator. At the heart of this grand love story between Leith and Helen, her rarefied and hermetic world with 19-year old Benedict became a real speed bump for me. Helen, whom an observer calls "a quaint little mermaid of a girl," has been inseparable from her brother "since she could crawl," but especially since he developed a rare degenerative disease. They're a virtual archipelago of sensitivity and brilliance, these two implausible prodigies, reading Gibbon and, currently, Carlyle to each other. "A loud book," Benedict warns. "But the excitement is magisterial," Helen adds. I would have foundered right there, except that something about this combination of illness and precocity brought me back to the resourceful Edwardian children of E. Nesbit, or The Secret Garden, and softened my heart. That Hazzard uses an old-fashioned mold for her two innocents finally seemed a small matter against the power of her writing, so lucid, so nuanced, and so insightful about the work that must occur before damaged souls, let alone nations, can regain themselves. The scene shifts constantlyJapan, Hong Kong, England, New Zealandas Hazzard draws us into the streets and lives of people attempting to shake off the great fire of the title, Hiroshima and World War II itself. We are placed so intimately in each setting, through the colors, the smells, the textures underfoot, the harsh sounds in the streets, that the novel becomes our own two-year walking tourlike Leith's across China. By the last third of the novel, after Leith has realized that age be damned, Helen is his salvation, and he hers, Fire begins to generate an almost unbearable tension. With time, distance, and the contemptible Driscolls conspiring against the lovers, Hazzard's conclusionwith its simple, soaring last sentencecomes as an article of faith that, occasionally, love can be earned. SHEILA BENSON ACCORDING TO THE ROLLING STONES

By Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, and Ron Wood; edited by Dora Loewenstein and Philip Dodd (Chronicle, $40) Nobody ever accused the Rolling Stones of being obscurantists, but nobody accused them of being especially forthcoming, either. You don't hold on to the biggest still-running brand name in rock and roll for four decades by playing looseor rather, you limit that looseness to the stage and the studio, watching the bottom line every minute you're not performing or recording. Given Mick Jagger's penchant for public coyness, not to mention the fact that the Stones haven't made a noteworthy album in a quarter century, this is the kind of strategy that pleases shareholders and means squat in terms of less important itemsamassing a compelling oral history of your band, for example. Clearly modeled on 2000's The Beatles Anthology, According to the Rolling Stonesnote the title's market report likenessis in many ways the exact opposite of that book. Where the Beatles' fond recollections were couched in cozy myth, the Stones seek to demystify their own legend. Granted, the band's bluntness is a great deal of the reason they're legendary to begin with, but where Anthology would devote an entire page to a detail as minor as Paul McCartney growing a mustache to hide a brief disfigurement resulting from a moped accident, the Stones sweep past the making of their greatest recordsthe quartet from 1968's Beggars Banquet through 1972's Exile on Main Streetlike they were errands on the way to the real work of creating records nobody remembers a month after they're released, like Steel Wheels and Voodoo Lounge. It's hardly news that the Stones like to kid themselvesand therefore us, the readersabout their continuing relevance, but waiting to discuss bassist Bill Wyman, who was with the band from its inception through the early '90s, until the book's final third smacks of poor sportsmanship. Anyone who wants to know what the Stones were like in their glory days rather than how making Steel Wheels really brought Mick and Keith's friendship back togethergosh!is advised to hunt down a used copy of Stanley Booth's 1985 The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones. Your coffee table might miss the decor, but you won't. MICHAELANGELO MATOS info@seattleweekly.com

 
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