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JUNE 28, 1999: 

In the Cellar by Jan Philipp Reemtsma (Alfred A. Knopf, hard-cover, $24)

Jan Philipp Reemtsma was kidnapped in 1996 and held for four and a half weeks in a basement while his captors arranged for ransom to be paid. Numerous foul-ups, mostly the result of poor communication, occurred in the 33 days he spent alone in chains. This book is about waiting. Reemtsma has spent a career studying violence in society. He describes himself in the third person, combining a victim's natural fascination with his attackers and a scholar's quest for meaning. His dread and confusion bring him increased self-knowledge, as well as strong hints at what is universal about his feelings. As a student of the great philosophers, he uses his own reactions to question some of the assumptions that underpin their theories.

Because the most striking aspect of his experience was the feeling of total removal from everyday life and total dependence on strangers, he gives few details about what was going on outside the cellar. At one point he realizes how his family fortune, which he appears not to have thought about much before the kidnapping, has become the source of his ordeal. After a lifetime of imagining himself to be more than just some rich guy, he is reduced to the amount of profit his rescue is worth. "No one demanded that he renounce a belief, so he had no opportunity to stand fast ... all that was at issue here was his life on the one hand or a very great deal of money on the other." He emerges both grateful and resentful toward his kidnappers for his relatively humane treatment.

The book was translated from German by Carol Brown Janeway, and although I have to give credit to any good translator, I imagine that Reemtsma's prose made the transition fairly easily. My one major gripe about the book is that it should have been divided into chapters or sections. It isn't quite short enough, at 223 pages, to flow smoothly all in one piece.

-- Dorothy Cole

Po Man's Child by Marci Blackman (Manic D, paper, $12.95)

The influence of Toni Morrison on this San Francisco writer is clear. There is even a chapter in Po Man's Child entitled "Beloved." The literary accomplishment demonstrated in this debut novel, however, indicates that Blackman could be the next Toni Morrison. Or Katherine Dunn. Or William Faulkner. Or, plainly put, Marci Blackman.

Po Man's Child is an astonishing collage of memories and family histories relived by Po Childs, a lesbian who ends up in the hospital after sustaining injuries in a fierce S/M scene with her lover, and who then checks herself in for a three-day stay at a psychiatric institution. There she returns to the roots of her misery. The linchpin for the dissolution of the Childs children -- the self-mutilating Po, the terminally thirsty Onya, and Bobby, who traded in addiction to heroin for addiction to Allah -- is the dissolution of their parents' marriage after Gregory Childs was found to be having an affair with Jessica, his brother's white wife. This story, and the story behind and ahead of it, is populated with rich characters: Uncle Ray Childs, who suffers a psychotic breakdown yet is unable to kill himself even with the most extreme measures; cigar-smoking Aunt Florida, who had a public long-term lesbian relationship in the 1940s; Po's solemn mother.

The miseries endured by each are said to be the result of the Curse of Uncle George -- a runaway slave who demolished his body to outdo his overseer. The rendering of speech is exquisite, and the details are precise. The description of how Po's father won a liquor store in a card game, for example, is almost cinematic. And her fellow patients in the psych ward -- the motor-mouthed, violence-prone Agnes, the fear-paralyzed Lilah, the spectral, emphysemic "phlegm ghost" Sylvia -- feel like old friends immediately, the way strangers in horrific situations bond instantly. While Po's reconciliation with the Curse seems to wrap up a little too neatly, you know that the stories of all the other characters will continue, haunted. Po Man's Child is the first book in a trilogy. I can't wait for the next installments.

-- Ken Hunt

American Indian Population Recovery in the Twentieth Century by Nancy Shoemaker (UNM Press, hardcover, $39.95)

In this academic study of trends in the American Indian population, three major drawbacks to quantifying are clearly and repeatedly stated. Starting with the gross inadequacies of all pre-European contact figure estimates for indigenous peoples, then continuing with the wholly inaccurate reporting of reservation census takers at the turn of the century, the list of problems conclude with the current inflated rise in population counts due to increased self-reporting. Unfortunately, in her first 98 pages Shoemaker successfully convinces her audience that the instrument is too faulty to gauge a conclusion. Then in her last five pages, she draws a conclusion.

There are other problems with the content of the piece. One glossed over tidbit that would seem important to the theory of recovery is that if the American Indian population is numerically growing, how many of this number are culturally distant if not culturally ignorant of their heritage? Another barely mentioned ingredient in the success or failure of the title's promised recovery is whether tribal enrollment standards are driven more by politics and money or preservation of the nation's cultural integrity.

Originally presented as the author's thesis at the University of Minnesota, this recent release by the University of New Mexico Press is better used as an argument against a statistical approach to anthropology than hopeful news for the Native American nations. As for writing style, the words that jump most readily to mind are "dry," "esoteric" and "inconclusive." American Indian Population Recovery in the Twentieth Century is, however, thin and well annotated and therefore the perfect book for an undergraduate student's last minute anthropology paper.

-- J.M. de Biasi

The Lake Dreams the Sky by Swain Wolfe (HarperPerennial, paper, $13)

A lake somewhere in Montana becomes the center stage for an epic struggle between unbridled lovers -- who are perpetual outsiders -- and the mundane, hard-drinking townspeople who never experience the likes of an imaginative thought.

The woman, Rose, is white but was raised by a family of Indians, the Red Crows. She works in a cafe where she holds her own among bored husbands and petty men in their company suits. Cody, her lover, is an artist and loner, an ex-logger, essentially a drifter. Together, their furious passion for each other ignites the spiteful hatred of others.

According to the Red Crows, in the telling of the world's creation, the primary character is the lake, and the counter force is the "serpent of Loneliness" that lies at the bottom. Catherine, the Red Crows' matriarch, speaks in metaphors and teaches through stories that are wild and beautiful, like something from Carlos Castañeda. Her culture is alienated from the more prosperous white one, but is philosophically richer. Both cultures contain characters that are complex, such as the white entrepreneur named Tidyman who longs to live in Algeria and whose secret love is poetry. At one point he tells Cody, "There's only two things white people do here. They kill things and they make money."

The Red Crows clan is a curious lot. They live on the fringes of town, forever marginalized, yet comfortable with all the natural surroundings.

Against such a backdrop, ominous forces, like dark clouds, slowly gather around Rose and Cody, determined to give them righteous punishment. Cody is viewed as the main transgressor, because he is not common. Swain Wolfe's prose flows easily and smoothly with hardly a ripple, like the apparent calm of the lake, the centerpiece of his novel. Certain twists and turns of the plot are somewhat far-fetched, but they provide for good excitement and heart-stopping suspense. The poetic imagery is a quiet and powerful presence throughout, like the serpent of Loneliness forever lying at the bottom of the lake.

-- Ann Peterpaul

Coming of Age: Photographs by Will McBride (Aperture, hardcover, $45)

McBride has had a schizophrenic career. Much published and praised as a photojournalist, he is equally, but covertly, famous for a more controversial body of work, one that has kept him largely unshown and unpublished in the U.S. McBride, an American who lives in Germany, has spent decades photographing boys, teenaged and younger, in contexts that, while not explicitly sexual, are almost always about sexuality. These pictures, seized by Customs and available (if at all) only as under-the-counter "erotica," have earned him a reputation as the boldest of iconoclasts -- or a child pornographer, depending on who you ask. Coming of Age allows us to judge for ourselves.

Last year's grassroots campaign to attack -- with stormtrooper tactics -- bookstores that stocked the similarly controversial work of Jock Sturges caused a publishing world fracas and left behind an air tainted with bitterness and embarrassment. But it's in this very context that Coming of Age does something unexpected. It draws together McBride's "personalities" and shows them to be two parts of a whole. Miles from the posed artificiality of so many of his German contemporaries, McBride's work is committedly documentarian. The few studio pieces in Coming of Age are pretty weak: a self-conscious "crucifixion," an artily metaphorical sequence about "Overpopulation." But the pictures that document rather than manufacture moments in boys' lives are accomplished and often moving.

There's an impressive consistency in McBride's work, from the innocent-looking uniformed schoolboy pictures of 1962 to a druggy, mascara'd, Nan Goldin-like series from the '80s. Like Goldin's work, McBride's is controversial only if controversy is wrung from it. The pictures themselves are honest, uncompromised, for the most part free of shock value or deliberate naughtiness. His portrayals of boys on the cusp of manhood are as generously observed and as socially meaningful as any of his magazine work; if they're exploitive, they're not more so than the endless Time covers of agonized victims (Kosovo, Columbine) we're subjected to daily. The photographs are well served by Aperture's elegant production; and if the bits of poetry that accompany the pictures are not particularly necessary, they are not intrusive either.

-- Jeffrey Lee

God of the Rodeo by Daniel Bergner (Crown, hardcover, $24)

Daniel Bergner set out to write an article about the inmate rodeo at the state prison in Louisiana. He wound up so fascinated by the warden and prisoners that he wrote this book.

He's a little too hung up on Warden Burl Cain and his power over the inmates. Forgive me for not being surprised that a Louisiana state official should be religious, charismatic, but ultimately self-serving and corrupt. What is a surprise is the amount of rehabilitation and old-fashioned redemption going on amidst this collection of violent criminals. Most of Bergner's asides and ruminations have to do with the least interesting part of the story, his own dealings with Warden Cain. With the two of them, too much of this is personal. Bergner seems so hurt by Cain's having fooled him in some way that he is unable to approach his antics with the same fairness that applies to the crime and addictions of the convicts. I don't doubt that the man is as corrupt as this book portrays him, but the inmates are the real story.

When he focuses on the prisoners, Bergner writes without condescension about a world, a reality and a way of thinking very different from his own. The book is subtitled "The search for hope, faith, and a six-second ride in Louisiana's Angola prison," but most of the material is less sanctimonious than that sounds. There are enough details here to provide balance for the brutality of the rodeo itself in the lives and crimes of the participants. Bergner does make the common mistake of being overly sympathetic; his subjects are much more down-to-earth than he is about why they are in prison and why they accept the risks and humiliations of the rodeo. Most of the details, events and memories recounted here are ungentle in the extreme.

According to current popular mythology, these are the most violent and reprehensible men in the most violent region of an overly violent country. Bergner succeeds in making them stand out as individuals. For that, if for nothing else, this book is worth reading.

-- Dorothy Cole

Claire's Classic American Vegetarian Cooking: 225 New and Favorite Homestyle Vegetarian Recipes by Claire Criscuolo (Dutton, hardcover, $24.95)

I love meat. I love the way it smells. I love the way it looks. I love its lovely texture. My sweetest dreams are often of meat: fat, juicy slabs of meat extending over the edges of enormous steel plates, tubs full of meat, meat flying through outerspace, meat covering my naked ecstatic body.

It's often been difficult during 10 long years of devout vegetarianism to remain sane in a world full of meat. I'm not sure whether I'm just a glutton for deprivation, or simply don't want to give in to the dark side of my nature. Whatever the case, one must be practical. An herbivore like myself cannot live on meat fantasies alone. A vegetarian must eat vege-tables, and to do this with grace, a vegetarian must possess a decent vegetarian cookbook.

I prefer cookbooks which revel in the intimate bond between food and language. Unfortunately, Criscuolo's descriptions of her dishes are somewhat bland, and statements like "I highly recommend playing Frank Sinatra's duets on the stereo while you eat this marvelous dinner" make me more angry than hungry. I also prefer that a cookbook focus almost entirely on entrées. Unfortunately, only maybe a fifth of Criscuolo's book contains main courses.

Most importantly, though, the ideal cookbook should contain ingredients that are readily available from any ordinary grocery store. I don't have the time or the money to seek out and purchase the dried petals of the rare spotted dragon orchid only found high in the inaccessible crevices of the Ecuadoran Andes. In this arena, Criscuolo finally comes through for me. The only rare ingredient I spotted was a lonesome shallot (which I believe is some kind of fishing tackle).

In the end, I can't trash a cookbook containing recipes like "Cajun-Style Pan-Blackened Tofu with Pepper Relish" and "Grandma McHugh's Baked Beans with Meatless Hot Dogs." My wife made the Goat Cheese Pizza, and it was pretty darned tasty. Claire's is a passable addition to the canon of vegetarian literature.

-- Steven Robert Allen

Full Moon by Michael Light with an essay by Andrew Chaikin (Alfred A. Knopf, hardcover, $50)

Paul Simon wrote a song about the moon called "Song About the Moon." The lyrics go something like this: "If you want to write a song about a face/If you want to write a song about the human race/write a song about the moon."

It's kind of a dumb song, but that's not really the point. What Simon was trying to say, I think, is that the moon both before and after 1969 has had a profound effect on our collective earthbound psyche. The moon has been the symbol both of a misty, pagan spiritualism and concrete, human aspiration. Even now that human feet have finally danced across that barren lunar soil, the power of the moon remains, unexpressed and inexpressible.

Soon mining companies will drill into the core of our luminous, grinning satellite. Soon space tourist corporations will offer weekend package cruises to Club Crater. Before that happens, before the magic dies, you should take a few moments to page through this book. In celebration of the 30th anniversary of Apollo 11, Knopf presents 56 black & white and 72 color photographs, meticulously captioned, documenting our early dramatic voyages to the lunar surface. The photographs were culled from over 32,000 images in the NASA archives. It's a big, fat, expensive tome, but I have to admit these pictures are stunning. Clear, awesome images detail every aspect of the first missions, from the faces of the astronauts floating in zero gravity, to breathtakingly dramatic over-the-shoulder views of our lovely emerald home, to the stripped, inhuman landscapes of the moon itself. This book records the visual, visceral drama of a special place that will soon become so familiar that it will be about as exciting to the average daydreamer as Gary, Ind. See it now, before it's too late.

-- Steven Robert Allen

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