This Week's Reads

James Marcus, Craig Seligman, and Chuck Palahniuk.

Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot.Com Juggernaut

By James Marcus (New Press, $24.95) It's quite an accomplishment to pull off a truly engaging, amusing dot-com memoir— particularly when the memoir centers as much on the ups and downs of the Dow as the implications of surrendering one's soul to Amazon.com's advertorial mini reviews and its "culture of metrics." Mark the accomplishment even more pronounced when the book comes out alongside a slew of other tech-world tell-alls, and just two years after a fairly successful inside-Amazon account—and all this not even 10 years past the initial fervor of the Internet gold rush. Amazon employee No. 55 James Marcus has done all of this, and a little more, with Amazonia. Where Mike Daisey's less serious and more slapsticky 21 Dog Years: Doing Time @ Amazon.com—first a one-man show, then a book, then an off-Broadway show—focused on his weirdo-techie colleagues and slacker culture, Amazonia manages to be just as entertaining while probing middle management, stock splits, and bizarre business strategies. Then, improbably, Marcus makes sense of it all with heavy doses of Emersonian philosophy. But Marcus doesn't just bat around erudite parallels between the Panic of 1837 and the dot-com demise; he dishes plenty on other early Amazon colleagues, two of whom—Nicholas H. Allison and Tim Appelo— have current SW bylines. Unlike Daisey, however, he's not out to settle scores or make other Amazonians—including founder Jeff Bezos—look stupid or petty. It's the author's balanced and restrained personalization of the company, and his honesty about his own foibles, that make his economic analysis so palatable. The numbers are offset by the characters, and vice versa. As senior editor of the literature pages at Amazon, Marcus describes clandestinely pushing titles and authors not of the ultrapopular Oprah Book Club ilk—and you can't help but root him on for it. Yes, he was as seduced as anyone by the lure of the eventual cash-out, but as his family and crappy Honda are falling apart during his 1996–2001 Amazon tenure, Marcus renders himself more as middle-class observer than desperate money grabber. (But in the end, Marcus does just fine, too—even though he didn't vest until after the Nasdaq crash.) What remains to be seen is how Amazonia will go over in these parts. (Marcus, like Daisey, has since relocated back to New York.) Since we all know at least one poor sucker who spent a Christmas stint packing books in Amazon's infamous old SoDo warehouse, this boom-and-bust story might seem old hat. Fortunately, Marcus is a wonderful writer who should win over even the most jaded dot-com vets with his swift, clever, and intelligent rendering of their history. That Marcus has freed himself from Amazon's crypto-corrupt blend of marketing and reviewing books to finally write one of his own is a benefit to readers everywhere—whether they buy it from his ex-employer or not. LAURA CASSIDY James Marcus will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co., 7:30 p.m. Mon., June 28. Sontag & Kael: Opposites Attract Me

By Craig Seligman (Counterpoint, $23) Craig Seligman's double-barreled intellectual bio of his idolized pal Pauline Kael and the more icily remote Susan Sontag is as outrageously unreasonable as its subjects, and almost as inspiring. It would make way more sense to pair Kael as an "opposite" with her auteurist nemesis, film critic Andrew Sarris, and Seligman does cover that infamous smackdown (slanting it in Kael's favor). But he focuses instead on Kael and Sontag, who aren't opposites—they're just strikingly different, with ironic parallels. Both were secular Jewish single moms from the West who directed their philosophy-department-trained intellects toward pop culture. Both conquered the East as cultural critics whose essays took no prisoners, suffered no fools, and imperiously proclaimed the last word on any subject at hand. And they went such separate ways that only Seligman's immense cleverness manages to corral them into the same delightfully digressive essay. Sontag sprang to rock-star fame in youth as a high-culture expert on pop culture, then went through more morphs than Madonna: postmod novelist; experimental filmmaker; redefiner of photography, fascism, and illness as metaphor; and, finally, astoundingly, best-selling intellectual romance novelist. Kael discovered film criticism by marrying a theater owner in her 30s, and scarcely made a dime nor a dent until Mr. Shawn made her filmdom's diva at The New Yorker in her mid-40s. Seligman's meticulous, perverse comparison of Kael and Sontag is exhilaratingly illuminating. Nobody ever nailed Sontag's style better: "As colorless, as odorless, and as intoxicating as vodka." He freely confesses he's ass-over-teakettle in love with Kael's brassy, faux-demotic sensibility, and aghast at Sontag's dour, abstract puritanism: "Next to Kael's catholicity, Sontag's high-mindedness— her horror of the vulgar and the low—makes her look thin-skinned and finicky, a kind of modernist Margaret Dumont." He prefers Kael's wicked, vulgar glee (and also once worked for her at The New Yorker). Like a crusading nerd attorney, Seligman defends Kael against all accusers. He makes short work of Renata Adler's ridiculous ax murder of Kael's reputation in The New York Review and niftily acquits her of Alfred Kazin's and Leon Wieseltier's charges of anti-Semitism. He's not quite so successful on one count: the gay-bashing charges leveled against Kael by The Celluloid Closet author Vito Russo and others. But you have to smile when Seligman quotes her response after Sarris objected to her insinuation that auteurist guys were "homosexuals of the rugged all-male variety." Kael bitchily snapped, "It would never have occurred to me to suggest that you were of 'the rugged all-male variety.'" Seligman gives Sontag short but darn good shrift, and while he flatteringly Vaselines his lens on Kael, he does demonstrate that the movies, and the world of discourse around them, got smaller without her. TIM APPELO Craig Seligman will appear at University Book Store, 7 p.m. Fri., June 25. Stranger Than Fiction

By Chuck Palahniuk (Doubleday $23.95) Chuck Palahniuk goes on and on and on and on. Writing about the North Regional Olympic Wrestling Trials, the Fight Club author goes through an exhaustive, sometimes stomach-turning laundry list of the athletes he meets and the injuries they've suffered: hyper­extended elbows, dehydration, broken noses, cauliflower ear, a torn heart valve. The problem isn't so much that the details get a little nauseating, it's that they get boring. Similarly, in discussing a writer's conference in a Sheraton ballroom, Palahniuk uses the phrase "your seven minutes are up" over and over again to punctuate and illustrate an equally exhaustive laundry list of the contestants there. He sits with Marilyn Manson for what feels like days, using 10 just-drawn tarot cards as a frame for telling his story. At least no one can accuse Palahniuk of not offering a plethora of examples to back his "Ain't life crazy?!" collection of essays. Unfortunately, the examples tend to evoke not shock but apathy and fatigue. A related problem is that some of the essays are just plain not as kooky as Palahniuk wants them to be. The Manson piece is a great example. This guy was an oddity in the mid-'90s, but we've had 10 long years to get used to his shtick. Ditto "Testy Festy," wherein our daring reporter sits in on the Rock Creek Lodge Testicle Festival near Missoula, Mont. The last time I thought Rocky Mountain oysters were funny was when John Candy discussed them in Planes, Trains, & Automobiles—and that was 1987. What's more, there's yet another problem plaguing these essays: Palahniuk's writing. When you're not bored by the redundancies or the lack of strange, you're wrestling with burdensome passages like this: "Every sentence isn't crafted, it's tortured over. Every quote and joke, what Hempel tosses out comedian-style, is something funny or profound enough you'll remember it for years." Huh? I checked twice to see if my copy of the text is an uncorrected proof. Nope. Palahniuk's fiction, especially his early stuff (Survivor, Choke, Lullaby), is truly groundbreaking and strange. The strangest thing about Stranger Than Fiction is that it isn't strange at all—at least not in a good way. L.C. Chuck Palahniuk will appear at UW Kane Hall, Room 130 (free with book purchase or $5 from University Book Store), 7 p.m. Tues., June 29. info@seattleweekly.com

 
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