This Week's Reads

Hampton Sides, Paul Roberts, and Bob Woodward.

Americana: Dispatches From the New Frontier

By Hampton Sides (Anchor Books, $13.95) Your typical anthology of magazine articles is a heaping helping of sloppy seconds, a mismatched bunch of stories far removed from the hot moments that inspired them. But while some of the pieces in Hampton Sides' collection Americana do indeed have that not-so-fresh feeling (a 1994 dispatch, for example, tells us all about some crazy "rave" thing the kids are into), most hold their ground, thanks to his cracking good journalism and storytelling craft. An editor-at-large for Outside magazine, Sides seems happier writing about nature than pop culture; but the guy's a pro, and none of his stories—many of which originally appeared in The New Yorker and The New Republic—fails to go down as smoothly as a Seinfeld rerun. And that's just the problem. This probably sounds like a perverse and/or willfully bitchy criticism, but what these pieces suffer from is a surfeit of good taste. They skate effortlessly along on a sheen of glossy prose toward neat, journalisty conclusions. Eccentrics and visionaries—the inventor of Tupperware, skateboarder Tony Hawk, the godfather of Mormon archaeology—are regarded with an expertly concocted mixture of irony and affection. Vivid details and whimsical quotes are marshaled with aplomb. There's more than a whiff of the prefab, and Sides' enthusiasm for his subjects can verge into salesmanship. Titles like "Mystery! Science! Theater!" venture a Tom Wolfe–ian note, while the stories themselves lack any of Wolfe's unhinged, rhapsodic glee. After 448 pages and 30 articles, several of them autobiographical essays, I came away with admiration for Sides' sheer technical prowess as a journalist, but no sense of the man, what pisses him off, or what he's passionate about. Americana is a record of Sides nailing his deadlines with style. But I cannot love him as much as his editors probably do. DAVID STOESZ Hampton Sides will appear at University Book Store, 7 p.m. Thurs., May 6. The End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World

By Paul Roberts (Houghton Mifflin, $26) In this book, Paul Roberts, once a Seattle Weekly reporter and a regular contributor to Harper's magazine on environmental subjects, surveys the role of petroleum in the modern era and concludes that the world is moving ever more rapidly toward a drastic shortage of fuels. (Not only oil, but natural gas and coal are considered for their environmental impact.) Roberts adduces numerous statistics in support of his thesis and comes to the conclusion that unless governments and citizens alike adopt a more realistic attitude toward energy consumption, environmental, societal, and economic catastrophe will ensue. His arguments are convincing. But does anybody—anybody outside the White House, that is—need convincing? Every statistic in Oil has been publicly cited repeatedly before. Its warning about the terrible consequences of ignoring the realities of today's energy regime is a truism of print and broadcast journalism. The people who might be enlightened and energized by this book are the least likely to read it; and somehow I doubt Dick Cheney has time these days. Those most in sympathy with its assertions are already driving their hybrids, taking the bus, and riding their bikes to work. The book is structured in three parts: the first primarily historic; the second descriptive of our present energy economy; the third looking toward probable and possible futures. But reading the book is like traversing the same swatch of territory over and over from different directions; its landmarks become drearily familiar from repeated sightings. After 330 pages, we are no further advanced toward a plan of action than we were in Roberts' introduction. Of course it is unfair to expect a reporter to resolve issues the world economy, and world leaders (chiefly our own), can't resolve. But is it fair to ask us merely to share his quandary? ROGER DOWNEY Paul Roberts will appear at UW Kane Hall, Room 220 (free advance tickets required from University Book Store), 7 p.m. Wed., May 12. Plan of Attack

By Bob Woodward (Simon & Schuster, $28) Call it déjà Woodward. For a couple of weeks, I've been reading mostly admiring references to Bob Woodward's new book tracing the Bush run-up to the invasion of Iraq. Many of those commentators hadn't actually read the book; they were quoting snippets of it, or basing their words on press accounts of its revelations. Attack doesn't merit such praise—or criticism. It's every bit the work of stenography that Woodward's prior 9/11 book, Bush at War, was: an endless succession of accounts of Beltway meetings and the power players who attended them. The uproar is not over Woodward's conclusions, since he doesn't really offer any. It's over his superb research into what actually happened. It's very useful, but unless you're a political junkie (and maybe even if you are), this ain't riveting stuff. But more disturbing is what, again, Woodward left out of his book—namely, the rest of the universe. While Woodward dotes on the military minutiae of various invasion-plan drafts, Iraq's experience of the invasion and its aftermath rates barely a mention. U.N. and inspection machinations prior to attack figure only as sinister outside developments that might complicate Bush's insistence on war as a first option. The millions who marched in global protest rate no mention at all, but that's consistent: They didn't exist in Bush's world, so they don't exist in Woodward's. This is the insiderist failing of Attack. It reveals in shocking detail the obsessiveness of Bush and his inner circle as they plan and conduct their war, but Woodward's view is just as claustrophobic, just as lacking in context, and ultimately just as uninterested in consequences. It's why people hate Washington. The one editorial choice Woodward does make is to emphasize how little George Bush questions his own actions; he thinks about his decisions ahead of time, we learn, and so sees no point in rethinking them later. Nor does Woodward. Had he done so, Attack might've been a tour de force. Instead, it's a prose equivalent to the Congressional Record: an essential account, but one that ducks the accountability of its protagonists or the illumination of its readers. GEOV PARRISH info@seattleweekly.com

 
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