Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Off the Bookshelf

MAY 24, 1999: 

Jonathan Swift: A Portrait, by Victoria Glendinning, Henry Holt, $35 hard

It's no surprise that the man who described happiness as "a perpetual possession of being well deceived" was not himself so deceived. In this chatty and personal portrait of the author of Gulliver's Travels -- who died more than 250 years ago -- Glendinning is like an aunt introducing the reader to a strange and fascinating celebrity whose acquaintance she has made. Her biography is an entertaining overview of the personal quirks and political diet of one of our language's greatest wits. Orphaned of parents and country, Swift was a social misfit, a man who found outrageous humor in the stark politics of his time, yet did not himself crack a smile. Though he recorded his life through letters to a female friend, he lived without a companion. Glendinning's highly readable portrait sent this reader back to Brobdingnag to watch the giants romp. --Robin Bradford

Tina Modotti, by Pino Cacucci, St. Martin's Press, $24.95 hard

It is a life out of a Dos Passos novel. A 17-year-old Italian seamstress in San Francisco in the 1910s meets and marries a society artist and becomes one of the Twenties legends. Tina Modotti's affair with her husband's friend, Edward Weston, propelled her into photography, and when she and Weston went to Mexico, she immediately found, in the people and objects there, her subject. She became a café bohemian legend, hanging around with the likes of Rivera and Siqueiros. Pino Cacucci's biography is unfortunately campy, done up in Harlequin romance epithets. Cacucci implies that Modotti conspired to assassinate one of her lovers, Trotskyist Julio Mella, but his novelistic, unsourced episodes are not totally trustworthy. Sadly, Modotti became a Stalinist thug. Her lover, Vidali, was one of the worst of Stalin's Cominterm henchmen, helping organize Trotsky's assassination. Modotti practically gave up photography for politics. When she broke up with Vidali, she mysteriously died. This bio is recommended only if liberally compared to more reliable sources. --Roger Gathman

Slackjaw, by Jim Knipfel, Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, $22.95 hard

Jim Knipfel, a columnist for the New York Press, has always immersed himself in the shadows and hung with the outcasts. In his twenties, Knipfel learned that he would have to adapt to permanent darkness as he began to lose his vision. His memoir, Slackjaw, shows how his dry sense of humor and admiration of the absurd helped him cope with the genetic disease that caused his visual deterioration and the suicidal depression that ensued. While the topics of this story seem weighted and depressing, his memoir is not. Knipfel pokes fun at himself a great deal and shares a slew of arousing characters, like his punk friend/partner-in-crime, Grinch. He often states that the only thing he's good at is telling "stupid little stories." Knipfel proves that this is a gift. However, an alternative newspaper is a better forum for his writing style than a memoir, since one of his strengths is his ability to take a subject like Henry Miller or Boxcar Willie and run with it sans choke collar. Knipfel is a treasure in short spurts. --Laura Klopfenstein

Sinatraland, by Sam Kashner, Overlook Press, $22.95 hard

It's Frank's world ... and he just lets us live in it, as the old saw goes. But "Finkie" Finkelstein also believes that Frank wants to know how things are going. And so he tells him in painful detail, via hundreds of pathetically intimate letters, about being a swinging seller of window coverings in the life that he thinks is a straight-up parallel to Sinatra's world. Sam Kashner's Sinatraland is not without its charms and pathos. And Finkie's unwittingly brutal self-portrait sometimes verges on hilarious. But the letter device gets tiresome and Finkie's persona begins to grate. Still, it's hard to quarrel with the depth and breadth of Sinatra references. And the the very last line (no peeking) is nearly worth the price of the book. --Mike Shea

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