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Weekly Alibi Speed Reader

By Dorothy Cole/Abigail Fisher/J.M. de Biasi/Ann Peterpaul

MAY 17, 1999: 

Celebrating the Coyote, by Barbara Waters (MacMurray & Beck, paper, $16)

Barbara Waters has to be the most open-minded person on the face of the earth. This book is about life with and without her late husband, the Taos writer Frank Waters. Frank wrote as if he believed almost anything anyone told him; his widow is even more accepting. Part of what is fun about this book is the same thing that is frustrating about it: she repeats every story and mystical theory as if it were fact. Evangelical Christianity, traditional Spanish folklore and the latest New Age customs all carry equal weight. Consequently, there are a lot of interesting details here. There are also a lot of details that we could have done without. You get a picture of her everyday life, both before and after the death of her husband, that is immediate and realistic.

This is all the more striking because, in much of Frank's writing, he sounded as if he were single all his life. In fact, he was married four times. Barbara acknowledges this self-contained quality of his without actually calling him difficult to live with. I found it worthwhile to see Frank Waters and his neighbors through the eyes of a normal person, although you could hardly call this woman conventional. Waters travels from Taos to Tucson to the coast of the Pacific Ocean, in the search for a new life pattern. What she finds is a way to be alone.

Although the subject matter veers in every direction remotely related to the grieving process, this book is easy to follow. Waters taught English for many years, and she uses the language well. She also makes it clear that this is a chronicle of her own journey rather than a blueprint for anyone else to follow. She inhabits a universe where chicken feathers and coyote dogs bring messages from the spirit world. Ultimately, though, she doesn't force anyone to go there with her.

The bibliography at the end of the book tells as much about the author as her book does. But don't skip the story she tells.

Byron, by Benita Eisler (Alfred A. Knopf, cloth, $35)

From a passionate, incestuous relationship through the death by cancer of his neurotic and never cherished daughter Ada, Byron, by Benita Eisler, is the literary equivalent of "The Jerry Springer Show." Lord Byron's life contains everything found on the worst talk shows, including rampant rationalization, total unwillingness to call unacceptable behavior unacceptable and, of course, lots of sex and violence.

Byron was adept at surrounding himself with people who would continually rescue him from himself. After his death, his friends and family burned his memoirs to keep the world from learning the true motives behind his hedonistic and violent life.

This 836-page volume is replete with the historical details of Byron's alcoholism, his legendary rages, his compulsive gambling and his constant seduction of both men and women, including the long sexual relationship with his sister that produced both a daughter and the best of Byron's romantic poetry. After the telling of each sordid foray into depravity, the narrative rationalizes away culpability, citing his deformity, his emotional neediness, his poverty, etcetera, ad nauseam.

Even his wife Annabella's prodigious documentation of Byron's criminally damaging behavior--accumulated to fight Byron for custody of a daughter he named for his sister/lover and called at her birth an "incredible implement of torture"--was used by the biographer to implicate Annabella as unbalanced and vindictive.

This biography is too large, too long and too pedantic to appeal to readers of confessionals. The author seems convinced that it is unforgivable to use a monosyllabic word when a polysyllabic word will do. It is also far too lurid for the literati. Readers would be better served purchasing and perusing the lyrical and strongly autobiographical Don Juan. Byron is one life better left unexamined.

Milk in My Coffee, by Eric Jerome Dickey (Dutton, cloth, $23.95)

Racism is still an issue. In our arrogance, we indict others for harboring resentments towards various races but will proclaim at the top of our lungs that we are not of that ilk. Eric Jerome Dickey's new novel, Milk in My Coffee, takes a new look at this age-old problem. A young, middle-class, African American computer analyst named Jordan Greene is joined by a cast of characters representing several personal viewpoints from black culture. With a smooth and amazing vernacular, the scenes of card parties and even the simple interaction of friends become wonderfully engaging.

The plot revolves around Jordan's budding romance with Kimberly Chavers, who happens to be white. The emotional meat of Milk in My Coffee comes from Jordan and his friends dealing with this new influence in his life. Here is where Dickey's realistic and accurate insight into human behavior becomes clear. He manages to make the problem seem understandable, drawing the audience into a novel that moves at a strong but calm pace.

The book has several similarities to Terry McMillan's How Stella Got Her Groove Back. Both include sets of strong, successful black characters, a romantic conflict intensified by outside influences and rich language which digests in your stomach like a good meal. When it comes down to the crunch, though, Dickey's work far surpasses McMillan's. The social issues dealt with in Milk in My Coffee, for example, are more relevant and make for a better story.

The single biggest drawback to this sentimental drama is the sudden and abrupt ending, which gives the reader the impression that Dickey is wrapping up quickly instead of taking the time to let the story come to a natural conclusion. Yet as an important novel illustrating the racial barriers that still exist between us, Milk in My Coffee offers a worthy contemporary glance into human nature. Hopefully, it will find its way on to the bookshelves of readers of all races.

Diary of a Santa Fe Cat, by Peggy van Hulsteyn (Sherman Asher, paper, $8.95)

Cat lovers will no doubt find this lighthearted, whimsical tale of the adventures of Vanity, a calico from Santa Fe, to be a clever and affectionate insight into the cat world. Situated in the City Different, the story is told from the viewpoint of Vanity, a female cat well deserving of her name.

We first come upon our heroine as she is being taken to the local animal shelter by her turquoise-bedecked owners who are following their channeler's advice to get rid of Vanity. Santa Fe itself soon becomes an object of sly fun. From the animal shelter, Vanity is adopted by a loving, upscale couple who live in an adobe house complete with skylights. Her first meal is appropriately trendy--consisting of salmon enchiladas.

On a trip to the Cat Spa, Vanity yowls in the car to irritate the owners and then admits, "I felt a little guilty (but not much; guilt genes are not part of our makeup)." And thus a great truth is uncovered about our feline friends. When Vanity is taken skiing, the uppermost thought in her mind is what to wear. At a City Council meeting she discovers that much ado about nothing is the order of the day.

The most entertaining vignette of this small book consists of the events surrounding the Fiesta celebration. In a parody of the pet parade, the animals dress their humans in costumes. Vanity dresses hers as "turistas," laden with Indian jewelry, a 10-gallon hat, bolo tie and five cameras.

Peggy van Hulsteyn tells her story in a tone of affection and wisdom. Santa Fe, with its beauty and its airs, is an ideal location. There are times when the anthropomorphism becomes excessive and Vanity almost turns into a Santa Fe caricature. Yet van Hulsteyn's book, with illustrations by Jaquelyn Quintana, captures part of the magic of cats, and in doing so, boosts the spirit.

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