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By Leonard Gill, Editor

NOVEMBER 17, 1997: 

Perfidia

By Judith Rossner
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 308 pp., $23.95

AFTER A SIGNIFICANT LULL, AT least in terms of critical and popular attention, Judith Rossner is back with a powerful novel centered on a complex, mother-daughter relationship. Inspired, as was Rossner's Looking for Mr. Goodbar, by a real-life murder case, her latest novel, Perfidia, models its narrator and central character, Madeleine Stern, on the young woman whose acceptance to Harvard was rescinded when the college learned that she had murdered her mother.

Rossner's characterization of Madeleine rivals only that of her mother, Anita, a brilliant, self-made woman whose volcanic temperament keeps her daughter constantly on edge. When the two are "friends," readers glimpse Anita's enticing qualities: She's warm, darkly witty, conspiratorial. But just as quickly -- and in direct relation to the amount of Tequila consumed -- she becomes physically and verbally abusive.

Perfidia, Spanish for betrayal, opens with Anita leaving Madeleine's father, a Dartmouth professor, and taking the 5-year-old with her on the road. They settle in Santa Fe, where Anita opens an art gallery and quickly becomes pregnant with Madeleine's half-brother Billy, a child she favors beyond all reason. The night of Billy's birth marks Madeleine's first of many betrayals, and from this point on, she is on her own. As painful as those scenes are when Anita unfairly lashes out at her, the most hurtful moments occur when Madeleine feels entirely ignored.

Billy's father Wilkie is soon replaced by Lion, a stoned-out ne'er-do-well who keeps Anita sexually satisfied. Home life is anything but traditional: Madeleine might as easily happen upon the two making love as on an acid trip. Lion's untimely, or timely, death by an overdose leaves Anita furious. Her next live-in, Ellery, a psychiatrist, offers Madeleine stability and encouragement, until Anita's high-wire act becomes too much even for him. The matricide (occurring just days before Madeleine is scheduled to leave for college) follows soon after Ellery's departure.

Madeleine, fractured by her mother, has nonetheless inherited Anita's intelligence and sexual neediness, but unlike Anita, is thoughtful and giving. Toward the novel's conclusion and meditating on her own affair with Ellery's son, Madeleine muses:

"And then we made love some more. I figure it's okay to call it making love because it isn't the same as being in it, which is about your brain, as far as I can understand. If you're not in love, your body might feel the same as if you were, but your brain's out there in the cold, a little orphan, watching the warm room with the books and fireplace through a window."

If Judith Rossner's sympathetic portrayal of Madeleine Stern ends ambiguously, the disquiet suggests that Madeleine's childhood has forever left her watching from outside in the cold. -- Lisa C. Hickman


Honey, Mud, Maggots, and Other Medical Marvels
The Science Behind Folk Remedies and Old Wives' Tales

By Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein

Houghton Mifflin, 258 pp., $24

MAGGOTS AND LEECHES can be good for you. Eating dirt may take away the fatal effects of poison. The Dark Ages technique of bloodletting may not be that bad after all. And honey and sugar extracts can be much more than food additives. Traditional and alternative medicines are making a comeback asserts Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein in their new, excessively titled book, Honey, Mud, Maggots, and Other Medical Marvels: The Science Behind Folk Remedies and Old Wives' Tales.

That's a fairly commonplace statement, and if it were the only assertion of the Root-Bernsteins, the book probably would not be worth reading. The two authors, however, put alternative medicine into a context that other writers have not by placing the whole of medicine on a historical timeline. Through this approach we learn that medical progress has not always followed a straightforward line toward modern science. Rather, it's been a convoluted, twisting line in which natural cures to ailments gain and lose credibility. Our contemporary history is seeing a resurgence in some alternative approaches to medicine because the more technical, synthetic solutions seem to be losing ground, especially as more virulent strains of viruses successfully resist antibiotics.

The book is written in ordinary language for the average reader and scrupulously avoids overly sophisticated explanations about why leeches can help bloodclotting and fly larvae -- yes, maggots -- can clean a severe wound. By thus reaching for a wider audience, the authors are, in effect, helping to fuel the revolution in which doctors and the standard practices are healthily questioned by a better-informed public.

The authors aren't a pair of forest-dwelling Druids calling for the banishment of scientific laboratories, however. Robert Root-Bernstein is a physiology professor at Michigan State University and a former research associate of Jonas Salk, discoverer of the polio vaccine. Michele Root-Bernstein is an accomplished writer of history. The two deserve credit for maintaining an objective perspective even as they show how the established medical community has for too long been blind to the many cures hidden within old wives' tales. They also admit to how medical research has often taken nature's amazing cures and improved upon them. Rolaids and Mylanta contain minerals one can indeed get by eating clay, but it's a potentially dangerous practice still observed in some parts of the United States and the rest of the world.

Beyond their historical examples and anecdotes, the Root-Bernsteins conclude by calling for a more systematic study of folk remedies, an approach once reserved for science's more sophisticated solutions to illness. They make a cogent argument in their sensible book. -- Phil Campbell


The File: A Personal History

By Timothy Garton Ash

Random House, 256 pp., $23

IN 1989, AS THE BERLIN WALL CAME tumbling down, so too did the towering mountain of secrets concealing East Germany's Cold War past. And as Oxford historian and journalist Timothy Garton Ash was to soon find out, everything he ever heard about the notorious, prying eyes of the East German secret police, or Stasi, did not even begin to scratch the surface.

In the first chapter of The File: A Personal History, we find Garton Ash getting ready to peer into his own buff-colored, two-inch-thick dossier kept by the Stasi. Because "about one out of every fifty adult East Germans had a direct connection with the secret police," the reunified German government set up the Gauck Authority (named after the "forceful but eloquent East German priest who heads it") to deal with the hoards of curious people wanting to know what the Stasi knew about them. Garton Ash writes that while some files uncover devastating secrets of betrayal, his fellow students at Humboldt University in East Germany would just die to have a chance to boast to their girlfriends that they were the subject of one of these sexy, mysterious files. "No one ever says, 'I'm sure they didn't have one on me.' One could describe the syndrome in Freudian terms: file envy."

So thanks to Germany's sunshine laws, Garton Ash gets to turn the tables and spy on the Stasi, which recorded his "bourgeois-liberal attitude and no commitment to the working class" to the color of the purse that a now-forgotten girlfriend carried on a date (dark brown). But while the file unmasks friends and lovers as informers and reconstructs a rather interesting personal history, the author again turns the tables and uses his file to unmask the mystery of the East German secret police and the secret lifestyle it forced many of its citizens to live. He searches for answers to questions, such as, "What is it that makes one person a resistance fighter and another a faithful servant of a dictatorship -- this man a Stauffenberg, that a Speer."

And this philosophical question is the essence of Garton Ash's search. He goes back to interview and confront those who informed on him and the officers who watched his every move -- not to scold or get revenge, but to understand why they did what they did.

In fact, he is surprisingly forgiving of those who snitched and almost sympathetic in understanding the Stasi's role. After interviewing the man who was head of the division in charge of watching him, for example, Garton Ash describes the officer as a "good man ... intelligent and fundamentally decent."

More than a unique perspective on the secret world behind East Germany's side of the wall, The File is a marvelous study of human nature. What does make one person a traitor and another a patriot? The answer is not so black and white, good or bad. And Timothy Garton Ash does a great job looking back at this intrusive East German system of spying without once sounding triumphant or judgmental. -- Tanuja Surpuriya


The Confederate War

By Gary W. Gallagher

Harvard University Press, 210 pp., $23

LIKE ANY OTHER MAJOR HUMAN event, the American Civil War and its attendant cataclysms have been subjected over time to this or that wave of historical revisionism. Had the South chosen to wage a 20th-century-style guerilla war, it might well have earned a victory, it is said. The consciousness of slavery bore down Southern will, and loyalties to region and state undermined the concept of nationhood, it is also argued. Even had final defeat on the battlefield not sealed the issue, the Confederacy was destined to erode from within.

These and other emergent theories of the South's defeat in the conflict that raged from 1861 to 1865 are given their comeuppance in Gary W. Gallagher's succinctly written and formidably sourced and illustrated The Confederate War. Gallagher, a professor of American history at Pennsylvania State University, also shatters some of the kindlier myths about the war that have settled into the American popular consciousness: most notably, that Robert E. Lee, the military genius who accounted for the South's most stirring victories, was an opponent of slavery and friend of the Union who took up arms merely because of his attachment to his native state of Virginia.

General Lee did indeed advocate partial emancipation and arming of the freed slaves toward the end of the war, Gallagher demonstrates, but solely as stratagems to bolster the South's declining military strength. And Marse Robert, whose Army of Northern Virginia drew its cadres from throughout the 13 seceding states, was clearly on record as espousing a Southern nationhood.

That such a nationhood was well on its way to creation and was prevented not by internal disintegration but solely by the cumulative weight of Northern military and industrial might is Gallagher's major argument. He quotes with approbation the Confederate colonel Charles S. Wainwright: "As it is, the rebellion has been worn out rather than suppressed." And Gallagher adds in his own voice: "No other white Americans have lost such a huge percentage of their young men killed and maimed, or have had to withstand such intense pressures for so long."

The culture that mustered such heroic resolve did so, however, to perpetuate "a slave-based social system that guaranteed white control over the black people who made up 40 percent of the population." And there is not much of the Glorious in the Lost Cause fanaticism of one Ann Devereux Edmonston, a representative diarist whose war-cry was "Freedom for whites, slavery for negroes" because "God has so ordained it." (North Carolinian Edmonston was such a fire-eater that she first scorned Lee -- whose penchant for the attack would today be regarded as, to say the least, pro-active -- as an altogether "too timid" warrior.)

Gallagher's subtitle is How Popular Will, Nationalism, and Military Strategy Could Not Stave Off Defeat, and that's pretty much the size of it. Zeal, patriotism, valor, and even President Jefferson Davis' insufficiently praised military strategy of launching periodic offensives from within a defensive ring: All these pluses could not -- in the absence of foreign intervention -- offset the overwhelming Northern superiority in men and materiel.

Gallagher's final statement is provocative to the point of being unsettling: "It defies modern understanding that any people -- especially one in which nonslaveholding yeomen formed a solid majority -- would pour energy and resources into a fight profoundly tainted by the institution of slavery. Yet the Confederate people did so. Until historians can explain more fully why they did, the story of the Civil War will remain woefully incomplete." -- Jackson Baker


Why Things Bite Back
Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences

By Edward Tenner

Vintage, 431 pp., $13 (paper)

APPARENTLY, WE HUMANS CAN'T do anything right. Oh, we think we're clever, but it turns out that all of our dazzling inventions and discoveries have unforeseen negative consequences. Technology designed to make our lives run more smoothly has in fact only made things more complicated.

In Why Things Bite Back, Princeton-based science historian Edward Tenner describes hundreds of examples of this phenomenon in almost every field of endeavor, from medicine (overuse of antibiotics creates drug-resistant strains of bacteria) to agriculture (super-vigorous plants and animals introduced to benefit us -- e.g., kudzu -- turn out to be noxious pests) to computers (expected gains in productivity are cancelled out by the amount of time and resources we spend upgrading and learning new systems and dealing with glitches; also, our complete dependence on computers means we're really up a creek when the system crashes) to sports (improved high-tech equipment gives athletes the overconfidence to take greater risks, leading to more injuries) to environment (better flood-control measures have encouraged more people to live in flood-prone areas, making natural disasters more costly).

The list goes on and on, as does Tenner's litany of our errors. His supply of admittedly fascinating anecdotes seems endless. Basically, that's what this book is: a meticulously researched, carefully footnoted collection of anecdotes.

What's missing is analysis. Where is the "why" in Why Things Bite Back? Why don't we do a better job of forecasting the implications of scientific discoveries? Why can't we learn to look at all the possible effects of an invention, rather than just the effect we desire?

Tenner offers no real answers. He maintains that we can't really predict unfortunate outcomes -- we can only deal with them after the fact. The problem, he says, is not so much with machines but with cultural preferences; we're so bent on achieving a certain standard of living that we're willing to accept trade-offs. But the price we pay, according to Tenner, is a need for constant vigilance. We cannot eliminate "revenge effects"; we can only try our best to keep them at bay.

It's a sobering thought, and a humbling book. For every step forward our ingenuity takes us, our lack of foresight takes us one back. -- Debbie Gilbert


It's a Slippery Slope

By Spalding Gray

Noonday Press, 105 pp., $10 (paper)

THERE'S NOTHING LIKE A GOOD mid-life crisis to get the testosterone levels into the red zone. We take up skydiving, ice climbing, fly fishing, Tai Chi, night classes for a real estate license, anything that might bridge the chasm between who we thought we were and who we have become, between where we thought we were going and where we ended up. Leave it to Spalding Gray. When his life goes down in flames at 52, it leaves the longest contrail, cuts the widest swath, lands with the biggest explosion, and shatters the most lives. And he makes certain everyone knows about it. Punch his name into an Internet search engine, and you'll get more hits than a ironwood bong at a Joe Cocker concert. But the guy can flat-out tell a story.

It's a Slippery Slope is what you would expect from a guy -- and, lest we forget, a well-known, talented guy -- ricocheting among love, lust, loss, betrayal, joy, and despair at the speed of life. It is provocative, irritating, sentimental, cynical, from a Boy Scout and the Antichrist. Gray simply snaps into his downhill 195 skis, bolts down the chute, and we're caroming down the mountainside with him, metaphorically working through his infidelities, his back-to-back marriages, the death of his father, the birth of his daughter. Gray's pursuit of himself -- the ultimate chase -- is relentless, sanguine, manic, the misguided and occasionally well-intended steps of someone in the throes of an identity crisis and who is determined not to change.

But It's a Slippery Slope is not just a book about a particular period in Gray's larger-than-life life. It is performance art transformed into text, a stage monologue turned paperback book, and, at some point, a life that became a stage play with multimedia residuals, the ultimate pay-per-view. Plato said that the unexamined life wasn't worth living. Spalding Gray agrees, plus you should pay admission. -- David Lyons


Keys to the City
Tales of a New York City Locksmith

By Joel Kostman

DK Publishing, 136 pp., $19.95

JOEL KOSTMAN IS A LOCKSMITH in New York City, a job that entails all the inconveniences and provides none of the glories awarded to doctors, social workers, and other on-call professionals. At first, the $45 Kostman earns for showing up anywhere in the city at a moment's notice, regardless of weather, traffic, or his own emotional state, hardly seems worth it -- until, that is, you read one of his short stories. Then you realize Kostman is doing exactly what he was meant to do in life: meet people in need, solve their immediate problems, and write about them.

Kostman's stories are sometimes funny, mostly insightful, and even touching, and his acute powers of observation enable him to discern much more about his customers' personalities than they realize. While replacing deadbolts and repairing key jams, Kostman often unlocks fears and frustrations. He empathizes, for example, with a single mother trying to lock out her abusive husband, listens as a Holocaust survivor reads him her memoirs, and comforts a demeaning, but pitiful, upscale divorcee with a compassion only one with his own tale of love lost could express.

In some of the more lighthearted stories, Kostman listens to Mozart with five old, naked men, changes a lock for Bugsy Siegel's doctor, and dresses up in Eddie Cantor's jacket and tie. In those instances, Kostman thankfully refrains from the soul-searching and lets the uniqueness of the experiences shine through.

Kostman is an excellent, slice-of-life storyteller. His Keys to the City could prompt even the most mechanically unsavvy student of human nature to dream of learning to use a Vise-grip and hole saw. -- Jacqueline Marino


Always Outmanned, Always Outgunned

By Walter Mosley

Norton, 208 pp., $23

WHEN A PUBLISHER PROMISES the introduction of a "bold new character" by a major author, there's a cynical part of the critical reader that responds, So what. It's almost too calculating, a tackily obvious reminder of the fact that, for publishers, all literature is simply product to be pushed.

So you could be forgiven for coming to Walter Mosley's latest, Always Outmanned, Always Outgunned, with some trepidation, since its cover promises "Mosley's most compelling new character since ... Easy Rawlins." Mosley achieved fame with Rawlins, the memorable detective of Devil in a Blue Dress and A Little Yellow Dog, among other books. Set in 1950s Los Angeles, Mosley's Rawlins novels invested the mystery form with new life, bringing social realism and complex characters to the limp old gumshoe genre.

But perhaps Mosley has grown tired of walking Easy's streets. Enter Socrates Fortlow, the protagonist of Always Outmanned. Socrates spent 27 years in prison for killing a young couple. The only reason he wasn't executed, Socrates believes, is because his victims were black. "They didn't kill me because I was the best kinda rule-followin' niggah," Socrates says. "I killed my own people an' then let myself get caught." He lives in present-day L.A., amidst gangs, drugs, riots, and racism too devious and subtle to register on the ACLU's radar.

Always Outmanned, Always Outgunned (the title is Socrates' description of the black man's life) is a series of interconnected short stories featuring Socrates. Although there is some repetition (Socrates' "rock-breaking hands" are mentioned in virtually every story), the episodic effect works to show all sides of Socrates' character. Sometimes proud, sometimes vindictive, sometimes scared, sometimes foolhardy, Socrates is a fully realized creation.

Fundamentally, Always Outmanned is the story of a man's attempt to survive in an indifferent world. Socrates looks for work at a grocery store, and the layers of bureaucracy take his simple persistence as a threat. Black militants see him as, at best, an embarrassment; high-rolling dope dealers dismiss him as a naive old fool.

Despite his name, Socrates tends to philosophize with his fists. Still, he constantly works to find the words to express the roiling emotions in himself. In "Letter to Theresa," for instance, Socrates writes to a lover of nearly four decades ago: "I saw you in a dream the other night and so I wanted to say hay .... You was always asking when was I going to stop being so crazy. I never said nothing to that because I didn't want to be lying." The response he eventually receives is comforting, though not what he'd desired.

The cast of characters in Always Outmanned is fascinating and revelatory: Darryl, the street kid whom Socrates desperately wants to keep from becoming a gang victim -- or member; Iula, who runs a grill housed inside two school buses welded together; Right Burke, the terminal World War II vet who asks Socrates for a final act of love.

Socrates is the extraordinary kind of character who resonates far beyond his age, race, class, and gender. Always Outmanned, Always Outgunned is urban fiction at its finest. * -- James Busbee


The Undertaking
Life Studies in the Dismal Trade

By Thomas Lynch

Norton, 199 pp., $23

"EVERY YEAR I BURY A COUPLE hundred of my townspeople."

So begins this dark gem of a book. Thomas Lynch is a funeral director by trade, a poet by avocation. He is the owner of a lyric Irish soul, with an eye for finding big truths in small-town life. Garrison Keillor with the cornball whimsy.

The Undertaking is a collection of essays -- or better said -- literate musings on life, love, and death. They are things of great beauty and sadness and humor. Lynch's insights are irrevocably shaped by his profession, his time spent with "the living and the living who have died" -- women, children, old men, his own father and mother -- but he has a true poet's voice. He writes sentences and paragraphs that will haunt you like a November rain, and you will welcome the haunting.

In truth, there is little morbidity in these pages, only the carved-in-stone reality of a life lived full. Food, drink, travel, literature, death -- all part of the inevitable passing through; all celebrated in their turn. When it comes to death and the dismal trade, Lynch doesn't shrink from the details, but he turns what could be horrific -- a young girl killed by a headstone thrown from an overpass; the embalming of his own father -- into prose that touches the heart.

Lynch is actually a widely published poet, in addition to his duties as the sole undertaker in Milford, Michigan. He offers one poem in The Undertaking. I leave you with part of it here:

Such stillness leaves us moving room by room/rummaging through cupboards and the closetspace/for any remembrance of our dead lovers,/numbering our losses by the noise they made/at home -- in basements tinkering with tools/or in steamy bathrooms where they sang in the shower,/in kitchens where they labored over stoves/or gossiped over coffee with the nextdoor neighbor,/in bedrooms where they made their tender moves;/whenever we miss that division of labor/whereby he washed, she dried; she dreams, he snores;/he does the storm window, she does floors;/she nods in the rocker, he dozes on the couch;/he hammers a thumbnail, she says Ouch!

Buy The Undertaking; read the whole thing. It won't kill you. -- Bruce VanWyngarden


X20
A Novel Of (Not) Smoking

By Richard Beard

Arcade Publishing, 311 pp., $22.95

TWENTY WISHES GRANTED, 20 dreams come true, 20 desires effortlessly fulfilled, each and every day.

That's what Gregory Simpson, the son of a non-smoking Glasgow tobacconist, is up against in this first novel by Richard Beard. The novel itself is couched as Simpson's journal, composed of 20 chapters for the first 20 days of going cold turkey.

The early chapters are choppy and disjointed -- as Simpson struggles just to keep his hands busy -- until the narrative succumbs to something close to order by the end. Strains are intertwined as the narrator's ruminations move in two directions at once, up to the first cigarette and away from the last. In fact, Simpson, who, we are told, smoked 20 a day for 10 years (hence the title) as part of a tobacco-company experiment, rarely lights up on the page as his reflections focus on his pre- and post-smoking selves. The protagonist's relationship with cigarettes is thoroughly wrapped up with sex and death. Sex, because of the reckless Lucy, who took his virginity in what may or may not have been a bet to entice him to smoke; and death, because of his namesake uncle, who died an early death at the hands of the thin white tube.

Along the way, we meet a cast of characters whose lives are in some way ruled by the lately maligned weed. There's Julian, a charismatic university-acquaintance-turned-industry-flack, who ultimately enlists Simpson as the experimental "Mr. X"; Walter, the indestructible centenarian, who had his first serious smoke before a failed firing squad; the miscellaneous members of the Suicide Club; and Theo, the renegade researcher whose death sparks Gregory's decision to kick.

The tone is at the same time wistful and hyperbolic -- tending toward the unreal without fully embracing hyperreality -- as Simpson's obsession with cigarettes long precedes his addiction, becoming a symbol of nihilism and self-hatred long before becoming a habit. While this belies the banality of how people really get hooked -- and occasionally risks casting Gregory as an unsympathetic sap -- it allows grand, and often dead-on, aphorisms on the existential properties of nicotine, as when Simpson writes in his journal, "It has been the century's open addiction, the world-wide admission that breathing by itself is simply not enough."

The principle weakness of the book is one common among first novels, as the disjointed narrative (even by the end) often seems less like structure than a calculated attempt to avoid the bother. X20 is filled with great writing but falls just short of being great, despite its frequent incisiveness. * -- Jim Hanas


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