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Weekly Alibi Speed Reader

By Steven Robert Allen, Susan Schuurman, Stephen Ausherman, Todd Gibson

JANUARY 26, 1998: 

Best American Short Stories 1997
edited by E. Annie Proulx (Houghton Mifflin, cloth, $25)

A pair of scissors relieves us of E. Annie Proulx's superfluous, graduate-speak introduction. Likewise, a black marker voids her idiotic section headings. And then it's a short, thrilling free fall into a steaming tub of new American fiction. Ha Jin's "Saboteur" is a particularly masterful piece about a Chinese intellectual and his run-in with authorities; Cynthia Ozick offers a fine new installment in her Puttermesser series, and Jeffrey Eugenides' "Air Mail," which treats of a traveler's spiritual awakening in southern Asia, is funny and sincere in its religious sentiments.

There are a few anemic stories here, too, but Tobias Wolff damns us with the only truly awful one: His story "Powder" is sentimental and gimmicky. Thankfully, at four pages, it's not a big time-waster either. All in all, Best American Short Stories 1997 reads better than The O. Henry Awards 1997, its nasty, dim-witted cousin. The face of God might not push out of the surface of every page, but take a bath in this one, and you'll come out clean as a duck and free of all regret. (SRA)

Beautiful Flowers of the Maquiladora
by Norma Iglesias Prieto (Univ. of Texas Press, paper, $9.95)

One explanation for the unprecedented economic boom on Wall Street has to be the phenomenal profits made possible by NAFTA. U.S. companies move their assembly operations to "Third World" countries where they enjoy lower wage demands, less environmental regulations and relatively weak organized labor opposition. Maquiladoras are such factories located just south of the U.S./Mexican border, where American factory bosses hire predominantly young women (ages 16 to 25) with little education and no work experience, thus ensuring passive compliance with oppressive working conditions. Beautiful Flowers of the Maquiladora contains life histories of 50 such women, and although a bit dated (originally published in Spanish in 1985, translated into English in 1997), this documentation of worker exploitation and calculated brainwashing forms a solid part of the growing historical record against abusive labor practices abroad. And while Prieto's social and economic analysis can be a bit academic, the poignant testimonies of the various female workers are not only tragic in their tales of misery but inspiring for the occasional moments of courageous empowerment against seemingly insurmountable obstacles. (SS)

Jack Frusciante Has Left the Band
by Enrico Brizzi (Grove, paper, $12)

This book has sold 700,000 copies in Italy, which means either a lot of Italian kids are reading, which is good, or contemporary Italian literature is as bad as Italian TV, which is tragic. Our young protagonist, Alex D., likens himself to Holden Caulfield, but plays Tetris, watches hours of MTV and quotes The Cure. He's a punky little rascal who never quite figures out that his life is so boring because he can't identify with anything in it without comparing it to American or British pop culture. ("The priest looked like Lou Ferrigno as the Incredible Hulk.") Didn't that generation-X/post-modern detachment trend die a decade ago? In any case, I can only recommend this book to the 14 to 18 crowd, or anyone who might enjoy an American '80s teen love story set in Italy in the '90s. (SA)

The Fight
by Norman Mailer (Vintage, paper, $12)

Norman Mailer, in his nonfiction books, has developed a unique style over the years. He mixes journalism, sociology and personal essay in a prose narrated by a third-person "Mailer." He includes himself in the story; hence, the reissue of The Fight, his 1975 account of the heavyweight championship match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, is often more about Mailer's real and imagined sufferings and digestive problems than about a boxing match. He pontificates freely, a tactic which, at its worst, flirts with the irrelevance and unintentional comedy of a Grandpa Simpson tirade. At his best--and Mailer at full steam is a powerful writer--his many anecdotes about Ali, Foreman and the boxing industry are filled with an easy wit and intelligence. His recollection of an early morning jog with Ali alone is worth the price of admission. Mailer certainly knows his subject, having boxed himself for a short time in the '50s. If you're a boxing fan, you'll love it. If not, try his Advertisements for Myself instead. (TG)

--Steven Robert Allen, Susan Schuurman, Stephen Ausherman and Todd Gibson

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