This Week's Reads

Judy Budnitz, Howard Rosenberg, Tim Guest, and David V. Herlihy.

Nice Big American Baby

By Judy Budnitz (Knopf, $23) Call it What to Avoid When You're Expecting. Anyone who has shaken hands with the fear involved in having a child will recognize the irony in the title of Judy Budnitz's latest story collection, which should be shunned by uneasy expectant parents. It's not that Budnitz obsessively chronicles all that can go wrong in childbirth and child rearing, but rather that she illuminates the way in which relationships, particularly those between parents and children, can become warped. Budnitz is the previous winner of an O. Henry Award, and she's clearly spent time reading the work of that prize's namesake, as well as the stories of Roald Dahl and Ray Bradbury. Her deftly crafted pieces delight in the casual, sometimes well-meaning cruelty we inflict upon one another. The opening story, "Where We Come From," sets the tone: An adoptive mother secretly relishes the bad dreams that have made her young son open up to her for the first time, planning that "if his nightmares stopped, she'd simulate them (a Halloween mask dangled from the roof, say)." This is dark stuff, with occasional touches of humor; and, like Dahl's writing, it's eminently readable. Take the funniest title in the 12-story collection, "Preparedness," in which a paternalistic dolt of a president chastises the nation in a televised address: "We've got to do better next time. Or else. Now I want you to turn off the TV right now and go up to your rooms and think about what I've said." Oh, if only the idea of a leader who makes military decisions using "a console that for simplicity's sake had been designed to resemble the President's favorite video game" seemed more like a caricature. . . .  Budnitz's stories are odd and discomfiting, but they're beautifully constructed and written openly. Those willing to explore the dark underbelly of the myth the book's title represents will find Baby to be fertile ground. PATRICK ENRIGHT Judy Budnitz will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co., 7 p.m. Wed., March 2. Not So Prime Time: Chasing the Trivial on American Television

By Howard Rosenberg (Ivan R. Dee, $26) Having been homebound and forced to watch an awful lot of TV over the past six months, it's hard for me to understand how former Los Angeles Times–man Howard Rosenberg won a Pulitzer Prize for his television criticism. Not because he's a bad writer or lacks insight into the most influential medium of the last century; his judgments are basically sound and pithy, as befits a collection of 60-plus columns originally published between 1986 and his 2003 retirement. O.J., Princess Di's funeral, Geraldo, the presidential elections, Anita Hill, Survivor, genocide in Rwanda, Bill O'Reilly—he's got opinions on them all, usually in short, bulleted paragraphs. But those opinions are all generally scornful and disapproving (as you'd infer from the book's subtitle), and Rosenberg's ire grows numbing very fast. He's like the cranky, self-appointed ombudsman for all of TV land, forever upholding the (old) standards and practices of journalism that are—big drumroll, please—no longer practiced anymore outside of newsprint (not that we haven't got problems of our own). He retired his Underwood too soon to cluck his tongue at Dan Rather–gate and yet at just the right time; he's one more voice in the one-note chorus we won't have to hear. And Janet Jackson's Nipple-gate? We're spared that opprobrium, too. As someone once said of literature, the best criticism of a book is another book. Inexplicably absent from Prime Time's index is any mention of The Daily Show and Jon Stewart, who's been on the job for over five years now. If you want a critique of TV news' failings, Stewart does that every night—as does The Simpsons on weekends. Rosenberg, a print man through and through, is working in the wrong medium about the wrong medium. He refers back to Edward R. Murrow and TV's golden age without any reference to the future. He suggests televising executions —now there's a bold stroke of Swiftian satire. But what about the future of a TV sphere expanded by cable, satellite, and on-demand? Rosenberg can't think beyond one 6 o'clock outrage to the next. If The New York Times' Frank Rich often strays too far from his media beat with big-picture ruminations on Fox, Al-Jazeera, and CNN, Rosenberg never steps out of the newsroom. And were there any TV shows or figures he actually liked during his 27-year tenure? Jackie Gleason, Charles Kuralt, and Howard Cosell maybe, but there's almost nothing from the airwaves of today. I guess you had to be there at the time. BRIAN MILLER My Life in Orange: Growing Up With the Guru

By Tim Guest (Harcourt, $14) When does a commune become a cult? Is it when you're asked to dye all your clothes orange? When your guru starts buying himself Rolls-Royces with communal funds? When sex between sexagenarian swamis and teenage girls is just another fact of commune life? Though British journalist Tim Guest describes these cultish behaviors, and many more, in this fascinating memoir, his tone throughout is remarkably evenhanded—not at all like the '80s tabloid exposés of the Orange People, as the followers of Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh were commonly known. (The "Rajneeshees" of Antelope, Ore., were a staple of Pacific Northwest news at the time.) Guest's story is at once simple and amazing. His mother's rebellion against strict Catholicism leads her to the Buddhism-tinged teachings of Bhagwan, who, in the late '70s, began preaching meditation, polyamory, and disco dancing as ways of unmooring oneself from earthly ties. As Guest notes about his mother, who brought him into the ranks at age 6 in 1979, "She could have her path to enlightenment, with sex, drugs, and rock and roll along the way." The perfect religion? It could have been, if only the utopian ideals of Bhagwan's communes—which ranged from India to Germany and England during the movement's peak—hadn't given way to human folly. In retrospect, Guest understands his upbringing: "My mother and her friends wanted to surrender us, their children, to the love and support of the commune, in order to save us from the traumatic confines of nuclear family life." Yet these principles petered out in practice. All Guest knew as a child was that his mother, as she rose ever higher in Bhagwan's bureaucracy, started fobbing him off on his mild- mannered father. When the cult collapsed in 1985, Bhagwan and several followers faced charges of financial wrongdoing and, in certain cases, poisoning. Most got away scot-free; according to Guest, the guru's most notorious henchwoman now runs a senior center in Switzerland. What's extraordinary about Guest's story, even more than the fact that he lived through it, is that he reports its minutiae so objectively. When he finally tips his hand, it's indirect: He reveals the text of a letter he wrote to his mother years after their ordeal, confessing his unhappiness with her negligent parenting—then includes her reply, a heartfelt apology. Otherwise, Guest keeps his judgments to a minimum, wisely letting the reader decide where to draw the line between commune and cult. NEAL SCHINDLER Bicycle: The History

By David V. Herlihy (Yale, $35) The next time you're driving down Dexter Avenue, you might pause to thank those pedaling in the bike lane next to you. In the years before Henry Ford and the Model T, U.S. cycling enjoyed a 20-year boom that helped spawn the "good road" movement that would lead to paving and standardization of highways. Horses and carriages could manage muddy tracks, but the tens of thousands of Americans embracing the bicycle—produced on early assembly lines Ford would later perfect—wanted smoother surfaces. They also wanted the autonomy of individual transportation that trams and trains couldn't provide, to live and move according to their own schedules. Mass-produced and affordable to the masses, the one-man velocipede was the precursor to the one-driver car. That era's selfishness produced a boon that is a curse to us now, as the daily rush hour reminds us. Handsomely presented, comprehensively researched, and well illustrated, this history of self-propelled transportation draws short of such sociological analysis. Author David V. Herlihy has done an impressive job of tracing the bicycle's (predominately European) evolution from early-19th-century "hobby horse" to today's titanium mountain bike, but his emphasis is on the evolutionary steps that culminated in the more-or-less modern "safety bicycle" of the 1890s (with same-size wheels and rear-chain drive, allowing riders to reach firm ground with their feet). Intrepid readers will have to crank up a mountain of two-wheeled arcana to get there: the draisine, which riders mounted but then propelled with their feet on the ground; the big-wheel era, when pedals were added to the front axle for direct-drive power; and various contraptions that used one's arms or stair- stepping legs to lurch forward at subhorse speed. To anyone who rides for pleasure, pedals to the office, or watches Lance Armstrong on TV, Herlihy's scholarship doesn't really get that interesting until the 20th century—ironically when America's great bike boom turned to bust. Since then, mini-booms stemmed from the Depression, World War II rationing, and the '70s fuel crisis, but Americans have only gotten fatter, more suburban, and car dependent. Meanwhile, Herlihy notes, bicycles have become a fixture of European life and a transportation staple in developing nations. He's an enthusiast but not an editorialist, and his history is never hectoring. Those wishing for some advocacy on the subject—like how our increasingly dense Seattle could better accommodate its short-distance commuters—will have to conduct those debates on their own, perhaps when stopped at the next red light, SUV idling next to bike. BRIAN MILLER

 
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