This Week's Reads

Nora Johnson, James Lyons, and Lesley Hazleton.

Coast to Coast: A Family Romance

By Nora Johnson (Simon & Schuster, $25) Essayist, novelist, and screenwriter Nora Johnson, who wrote so memorably about the meaningful places in her life in her first memoir, You Can Go Home Again (1982), returns to broaden that canvas with another, Coast to Coast. It's an unusually clear-eyed portrait of the two complicated households of her youth: the high-living one with her father, Nunnally Johnson, in Hollywood in its true heyday; and the loving, unruly one with her divorced mother in New York. Mostly it's about how unanchored she felt in either place, always. Nunnally, a Georgia-born newspaper and short-story writer, went to Hollywood in 1932 and became Twentieth Century Fox royalty. His screenplay for The Grapes of Wrath (1940) was an early landmark; his last was The Dirty Dozen (1967). His wife, Marion, also a writer, was temperamentally too volatile and insecure for the empty, business-driven social life of a Hollywood wife, especially one with a dangerously susceptible husband. So, when Nunnally dallied with Grapes' ingénue, Dorris Bowden, Marion snatched up 6-year-old Nora, the nanny, and the Swedish chauffeur, then stormed back to New York to be the center of her own world as a spirited divorcée, a world as long gone as her memorable martini-fueled parties. Thus, through WWII, the McCarthy era, and college at Smith, Nora spent summers with Nunnally, Dorris, and their growing family and "regular" life and school in New York with Marion and her man of the moment. Although she doesn't yet know it, Nora is already a writer, a spy in both camps, soaking up every detail of life in the shadow of superstars: the nannies as buffers, always there, no matter how "broke" Marion feels; the indifferent meals with household help when the adults are away; the speed of kitchen gossip, beating Walter Winchell and Louella Parsons by days; the ubiquitous "friends" of her father's (from the William Morris Agency), who smooth her way on cross-country train trips, like sweepers at a curling match. The author is merciless about what it's like to be an adolescent in an era when Hollywood so clearly sets the stakes (ah, the '50s: good girls/bad girls, nothing in between). She deftly sketches an A-list Nunnally party that finds Dorris a wreck beforehand (at this level, hostessing was "like major surgery"). There, late in the evening, a very drunk Johnny Mercer spots Nora's anorexic best friend, Julie: "Who dug that thing up? It's like a skeleton on a diet." In the ghastly silence, Humphrey Bogart becomes the "supersavior," going over to the girl with a whispered comment that lights up her face and defuses her pain. Superstars throw Nora's life into relief even at Smith, where her English teachers try to keep classmate Sylvia Plath from answering every question, while her peers wrestle with their day's toughest question: whether to put their hard-won education to use or to fold up quietly and marry. (Although marrying means immediate expulsion from Smith, weddings are endemic, leaving Smith's educators aghast.) At 21, still vying doggedly for her father's approval, Nora is ecstatic as he offers to advise her while she rewrites her novel in progress, The Unloved City, based on what she'd observed in postwar Berlin, on the set and behind the scenes of Nunnally's production of Night People. As his suggestions begin to erode her already fragile story, their closeness turns grim; although, as always, she's overwhelmed by the feeling that it's she who's done something wrong—again. All the more reason for a reader to feel mild outrage when—as Nora rushes into a disastrous marriage like a barrel on its way over Niagara Falls—she stops the clock. Nowhere in Coast do we learn how, only four years later, she managed to distill everything from her mother's warm, scatty life into the background for the book and then the movie of The World of Henry Orient. By this time, she owes us the story of how she and her father could possibly have collaborated on this screenplay—turning her bittersweet comic story about adolescents, wild crushes, and parents, both good and bad, into a movie classic—without a drop of blood on the walls. SHEILA BENSON Selling Seattle

By James Lyons (Wallflower, $22.50) Neither simply a dismal dissertation nor a clip job culled from Nexis, this absurdly academic little monograph on our fair city is nonetheless interesting for the subject it raises: How did Seattle become, in effect, a brand? It's a great question, and one we locals don't consider often enough, because we can't see how that brand has value outside our borders—whether marketed by Hollywood, outdoor-sports retailers, or coffee-shop proprietors. You've got to worry when what is, essentially, a semiotics study by an English film lecturer turns out to rely on "texts" like Sleepless in Seattle, Singles, and Frasier. Lyons' amply footnoted sources include the usual ivory-tower suspects (Michel Foucault, Mikhail Bakhtin, and Walter Benjamin), but also informed local writers such as Jonathan Raban, historian Roger Sale, and former SW staffers Fred Moody and Mark D. Fefer. Problem is, the former outweigh the latter. Second-hand media accounts abound, while Lyons' direct observations—is it unreasonable to ask if he's ever previously visited the Northwest?—are entirely absent. His Seattle is a signifier, not an actual city, but of such badges are successful advertising campaigns made. So he finds that in its media representation, "Seattle came to connote a more desirable version of American urbanism, and thus functioned ostensibly as a city that had 'avoided' urban decline and its indicators." In other words, on celluloid and in glossy magazine spreads, Seattle has been presented as a paradigm of the natural (signified by REI), the new economy (Microsoft and Amazon), the homogeneously white (The Hand That Rocks the Cradle), the remote (Twin Peaks, Northern Exposure), and the authentic (grunge). No less an authority than Sleepless writer-director Nora Ephron says ours is a city "where people have chosen lifestyle over work." (Again, this begs the question as to whether she, like Lyons, has ever set foot anywhere in the city—much less downtown.) What's curious is how this representation has been almost entirely shaped by outsiders like Lyons. Apart from a brief nod to Starbucks and Howard Schultz (a branding genius if ever there were one), Selling Seattle has no method to its meta-ness. It's all signs, no substance. But after our '90s heat has cooled, after the dot-com crash and Boeing HQ's relocation to Chicago, what do we signify now? Our brand has been tarnished, Lyons argues, or "problematized" by the WTO riots and shifting economic winds. If Seattle doesn't connote failure and urban decay, like Detroit, neither does it emblematize resurgence and strength, like New York. Still, Lyons' book ought to provoke local debate despite his god-awful prose, lack of shoe-leather reporting, and some whopping miscues. (Sorry, but Eddie Bauer hasn't been a Seattle company for ages; it was just another bankrupt brand bought by a national retailer.) If, as he argues, marketers are now looking for "the new Seattle" to represent the ideal metropolis, we might at least question why we can't regain that status for ourselves—or whether we ever wanted it in the first place. BRIAN MILLER James Lyons will appear at Ravenna Third Place Books (6504 20th Ave. N.E., 206- 525-2347) at 2 p.m. Sun., Sept. 26. Mary: A Flesh-and-Blood Biography of the Virgin Mother

By Lesley Hazleton (Bloomsbury, $24.95) Seattle author Lesley Hazleton goes to great lengths to convey the predicament she faced in writing the story of Mary, mother of Jesus. Verging on self-deprecation, Hazleton shares how she wondered if she were worthy of such an undertaking, how she labored over the decision to follow through. To the nonbeliever, it seems an odd and somewhat unnecessary conundrum; to the fan of history—or, for that matter, the average reader—it's a warning flag, a reason to squirm in your seat and wonder what you've gotten yourself into. Like getting into a taxi and being told by the driver that it's his first week on the job, Hazleton's hemming and hawing makes for very nervous passengers. Eventually, though, it's clear that Hazleton didn't really need to issue the advance apologies. The factors contributing to Hazleton's hesitation, her mixed bag of religious affiliations being paramount, actually serve her very well. Beginning with the name Hazleton uses for her—Maryam, which is the equivalent of Mary in ancient Aramaic, the language she spoke—Jesus' mother is given unprecedented breadth and depth. This is Hazleton's very point; she's not content with the Anglo-Christian model, and she doesn't want you to be, either. Like the fair-skinned image of her son that most modern Caucasian Christians take as picture-perfect, Mary's image has also been made into one that approximates that of her followers. In Hispanic churches you might find the skin hues darker, just as in black congregations you might find a black Jesus, but Hazleton, who spent four years researching Mary and draws heavily on her experiences as a student and resident of Middle Eastern countries, offers a mother who is somewhere in between. But will you accept her? At its most difficult to ingest, Mary feels off-puttingly similar to advanced Sunday-school texts ("We do not know the names of the individual men who wrote the New Testament gospels; like most writing of the time, these books were pseudo-epigraphical—written under the name of a well-known figure from the recent or even the distant past, like the apocryphal Wisdom of Solom, or the Book of Enoch," goes a typical, and tiresome, workmanlike passage), but at its easiest, it reads like very good fiction (Hazleton makes genuine characters—people with hobbies and chores and friendships and fears—out of people we have previously only known as passages in the Bible). What's most difficult is the integration of the two—or rather, that the two styles don't always come together seamlessly. Hazleton toggles between a scholar's recitation of the facts, imaginatively written though they sometimes are, and an artist's imaginings of the nuances, emotions, and colors that breathe life all over the more stuffy stuff, but some readers won't cotton to the back-and-forth, across-the-board approach. Surprisingly, this doesn't feel like a book for Christian women's reading circles. Although it isn't exactly irreverent, Mary exhaustively explores so many unexplored areas (virgin birth being, perhaps, the most fascinating) and gives such form and imperfect humanness to the exalted that there's no doubt that fundamentalists and those who live strictly by the Book are bound to take issue—and, in the end, it's this risk taking and deep-sea diving that makes Mary, and Hazleton's Maryam, exciting. LAURA CASSIDY Lesley Hazleton will appear at the University Temple United Methodist Church Chapel (1415 N.E. 43rd St., 206-632-5163) at 7 p.m. Mon., Sept. 27.

 
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