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Weekly Alibi Speed Reader

By Dorothy Cole, Jessica English, Blake de Pastino, Jennifer Scharn

SEPTEMBER 14, 1998: 

My Heart Laid Bare
by Joyce Carol Oates (Dutton, cloth, $26.95)

A framework of fairy tales and moral lessons overlays some basic romantic historical fiction in Joyce Carol Oates' latest novel. Oates places a family of tricksters and con artists in the mainstream of American history from the 1880s to 1930s and almost gets you to care what happens to them. Someone from the family is instrumental in just about every social movement of the period. The patriarch is a control freak who turns all his children's plans into wreckage; he's a little too good at fooling himself, along with the people he's conning. There's a large enough cast of characters to sustain 531 pages just by guessing what they'll try next, even if the mystical overtones are heavy-handed. (English-speaking writers just haven't quite mastered magic realism.) Fans of historical fiction will enjoy this if they can get past the somewhat tiresome inner agonizing of the characters. Fans of anything by Joyce Carol Oates will get a generous helping with an above-average amount of action. Surprise, surprise, the dad's life ends in tragedy. Surprise again, the most honest characters are the most successful. (DC)

A Garlic Testament
by Stanley Crawford (UNM Press, paper, $14.95)

"To dream a garden and then to plant it is an act of independence and even defiance to the greater world," writes author Stanley Crawford, who has lived on his farm in northern New Mexico with his wife since 1969. A Garlic Testament, first published in 1992, is his covenant with the land by his profession, a story about living by and with the earth, working with one's hands and living a full life. Divided into four parts, the book is organized by seasons--Autumn: Plantings; Winter: Borders; Spring: Contexts and Summer: Exchange. The metaphor between seasons and life, the garlic bulb and our selves, is obvious, but only Crawford could pull it off so well--because he does not preach or prattle on about nature. Crawford is down to earth as a writer, and his prose is rich with the distinctive beauty and culture of New Mexico. Filled with lore about this cherished and mysterious crop thought to ward off vampires, insects and many illnesses, A Garlic Testament engenders these properties as a text also--depending on your demons and ailments--without the bad breath or any odorless pills to pop. (JE)

Design for Victory
by William Bird and Harry Rubenstein (Princeton Architectural Press, paper, $17.95)

The difference between graphic art and propaganda has often been little more than a matter of spin, and nowhere was this more true than in the patriotic posters that slathered America during World War II. The poster campaign was one of the biggest federal art projects ever undertaken; and it was also, it turns out, the beginning of a long, unsuccessful marriage between Art and the American Government. Historians William Bird and Harry Rubenstein do a good job of describing how those posters--usually thought of as symbols of national unity--were actually pawns in a series of cultural conflicts. First, it was a clash between Washington and Madison Avenue, with the New Dealers using posters to demonstrate the utility of modern art, and the admen wanting to turn them into "advertisements" for the war. Then it was factory owners versus unions, with both sides using war graphics in the workplace to further their agendas. What readers will appreciate most about this study, though, are the posters themselves--nearly 200 of them, lovingly reproduced in all their didactic glory. From the nascent feminism of Rosie the Riveter to the hokey esprit of "Shootin' the Bull Ain't Shootin' Nazis," they are slick pin-ups of an America that--by and large--existed only in the popular imagination. (BdeP)

Paradise Burning
by Chris Simunek (St. Martin's/Griffin, paper, $12.95)

So you think being a journalist for High Times would be akin to frolicking through the Garden of Eden? Well, OK, maybe you're right. But the pot counterculture has its fingers deeply grooved in depression, estrangements and suicide as well. This book details every aspect of the highs and lows of living in a drug world. Now that that disclaimer is out of the way, let's carry on to the juicy side of Chris Sumek's first and surprisingly well-written book. He chronicles his journeys (all paid for by High Times, mind you) to the massive annual biker rally in Sturgis, S.D., to Jamaica to find Bob Marley's roots and to a meeting with the Sex Pistols on their reunion tour, among other cannabis-induced adventures. The depiction of Pot Smokers Anonymous meetings, nevermind the hilarious fact that such a group exists, displays the writer's keen wit in a Hunter Thompson-esque setting that kept me laughing out loud. And I wasn't even stoned. (JLXS)

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