Fifteen book reviews, essays and readings that continue to receive a record number of hits.

  • An Honorable Defeat: The Last Days of the Confederate Government, by William C. Davis (Harcourt). "It was the first 'living-room war' (photography had been discovered a mere fifteen years before). It contained all the necessary elements of tragedy --- family against family, ancient feuds brought out in the open and resolved by legalized murder --- the rivers of blood that Civil Wars always seem to inspire.

    "It was nakedly and shamelessly futile: slavery was on the decline, and would have gone out of existence by the end of the 19th Century from determinism, merely because the economic structure of the industrial revolution and the ownership of humans are incompatible.

    "Given this imbalance, it should have been a quick in-and-out war. But, as with World War I (for which, technologically, it was the precursor) it went on and on, draining resources, ruining the land, killing almost 650,000 men, wounding another 200,000. The tolls for death and disfigurement were four times greater than those of World Wars I and II."

  • Edward Curtis: The Master Prints, Dan L. Monroe, Editor (Arena Editions/PGW) "It's lovely stuff, and no amount of doctoring or romanticizing can falsify the haunting faces that fill these pages. If there is no dirt nor squalor, there is at the same time no shame or humility. These are people with the artifacts of clothing and tools and hair and eyes and the very set of their faces that bespeaks power and grace. If Curtis set out to glorify a people who had been scandalously misused, he succeeded. If he set out to change the way they were treated by exploitative hunters, trappers, politicians and the BIA --- he, to our eternal shame --- failed miserably."

  • Dr. Laura: The Unauthorized Biography, Vickie L. Bane (St Martins). "If Doctor Laura was seeking to become famous, with Bill Ballance she picked the right guy. If she was looking for someone who would keep her deepest secrets, she shoulda stood in bed. Over the years, Ballance seems to have lost whatever little affection he had for his old squeeze. His uncensored memories of their time together have appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Vanity Fair, and several other newspapers and magazines. They are uniformly obnoxious, highly personal, and hilarious.

    "For instance, there's the matter of pet names. He called Laura his little plum, she called him her 'Pillow Plumsicles.' She wrote notes to him signed, 'Your Tottle Bug.' We used to thrash around like a couple of crazed weasels, he told Vanity Fair. He dubbed her 'Ku Klux.' Why? Because she is a wizard in the sheets."

  • Confessions of a Raving, Unconfined Nut, by Paul Krassner (Simon & Schuster). "Judge Julius Hoffman looked exactly like Elmer Fudd. I expected him to proclaim, Let's get them pesky wadicals! The court clerk looked exactly like Goofy. It didn't matter that a Disney character was making a guest appearance in a Looney Toons cartoon --- one learns to accept such discrepancies in a dreamlike state.

    "Now I was being instructed by Goofy to raise my right hand and place my left hand on a Bible that was positively vibrating. Do you hereby swear, asked Goofy, that the testimony you are about to give in the cause now on trial before this court and jury shall be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God? The truth for me was that LSD --- or any other catalyst for getting in closer touch with your subconscious; whether it be meditation, Zen, yoga --- served as a reminder that choices are being made every moment. So naturally I assumed that Goofy was offering me a choice. No, I replied."

  • "García-Lorca's Afro," by Elizabeth Gold (Teachers and Writers Collaborative). "Then they were off, describing that afro, which grew more and more enormous, sheltering an oven, a refrigerator, a jacuzzi, Grandma, God, and Big Ben.

    "They also drew pictures: García-Lorca in sideburns, a goatee, and a great mushroom cloud of an afro; a García-Lorca who was nothing but a mound of afro; and --- in a drawing which I think of as an extraordinary metaphor for a poet --- García-Lorca as a tiny, tiny man with a huge afro sprouting apples. One boy went even further, drawing García-Lorca's alter ego, García-Loco.

    "I have no idea why they found that afro so captivating --- or why I did, too. But at one point this boy lifted his head and said with a look of serious dreaminess (and he was usually a wild boy, who found it almost impossible to keep still), Is this what a poem is? Just making things up?

    "Yes, I said, that's exactly what it is."

  • The Ethics of Homelessness: Philosophical Perspectives, G. John M. Abbarno, Editor (Rodopi). "I wrote to the City Fathers and offered for their consideration another kind of experiment. Since the homeless population in America's Finest City --- as we characterize ourselves --- had soared to over the 25,000 mark, I suggested that we turn the space over to the destitute, since they got little else from the city besides constant harassment from the police and social agencies. I figured they might welcome some peace and a place they could call home, out of the line of fire, as it were.

    "'Save a couple of the Navy buildings for a community center,' I said. The rest of the land would be divided into plots twenty feet by twenty feet, which, if done right, could shelter some 1500 families. Lots would be awarded by lottery solely to those who could prove that they were below the poverty level, the very poorest getting the highest priorities."

  • My Bloody Life: The Making of a Latino King, by Reymundo Sanchez (Chicago Review Press). "My Bloody Life tells us perhaps more than we might want to know about gang life. It's not just colors and dress and tattoos and what you say, how you say it, how you identify yourselves to others. There are the rules: defend your brothers with your life; avenge any wrong to any of them in the most brutal way possible; get a reputation as a killer --- it's the quickest method of getting one of the Queens in your bed; never rat on anyone, no matter how viciously you are questioned; when the police catch you and demand you identify the gang-member who did the most recent drive-by shooting, point at any member of any of the other gangs at random --- that's enough to get them sent to jail."

  • Dream Street: W. Eugene Smith's Pittsburgh Project, Sam Stephenson, Editor (Lyndhurst/Norton). "Smith lived for three years knee-deep in the blood and stink of a vicious war (all carefully cropped from the pages of the magazine that paid his way). He also had to live with the failure of the war to lead us into a promised paradise-on-earth. It is entirely possible that Smith was driven to distraction by the bitter contrast between the dream of an Ideal Post-War America and the black-and-white reality so exquisitely limned in these duotones. For no matter what he thought or wrote, his photographs gave the lie to America's dream of the new, wonderful world.

    "This is a man who was driven --- so driven, that after finally giving up on the project, he wrote, "'Pittsburgh, to me, is a failure...the main problem, I think, is that there is no end to such a subject as Pittsburgh and no way to finish it."

  • Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy, by Diana Preston (Walker). "The disaster occurred in 1915, as a result of being hit directly mid-ship by a torpedo fired by a German U-Boat (officially the U-20). The Lusitania sank in eighteen minutes. Of the 1,959 passengers and crew, 1,198 died of injury, drowning or exposure, including 49 children. As the author notes dryly, Compared with daily casualty figures at the Front, the Lusitania fatalities were tiny. But world reaction to what had occurred off the Irish coast Friday 7 May 1915 was enormous."

  • Wall-to-Wall America: Post Office Murals in the Great Depression, by Karal Ann Marling (Minnesota). "The most entertaining story of them all concerns a somewhat giddy modernist named Lloyd Ney who came up with a bizarre mural called New London Facets. The service rejected it out-of-hand because of the very strangeness of it, but Ney took himself off to New London, Ohio, where the work was to be mounted in the local P.O., and by sheer enthusiasm, got the citizens --- including the local Chamber of Commerce --- so worked up in favor of his mural that it came into being. It's a doozey. In abstract fashion, it shows not only floating postcards and bottles and scissors and an Uncle Sam figure in a fedora, but a local lunatic named Belle Fontaine, two area physicians who were known to wear shawls in preference to topcoats, and a hippopotamus. Why the beast? Because the first hippopotamus sighted in America had apparently turned up in New London."

  • Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire, by Richard B. Frank (Penguin). "We knew that the Japs --- that was what we called them --- were a bad sort because we had heard that when they invaded China, they would take Chinese babies and throw them up in the air and catch them on their bayonets. After I grew up, I figured this was mere propaganda, but Richard Frank contends that the Japanese were truly brutish.

    "We knew about the Death March at Bataan, and medical experiments they did on live patients. What we didn't know about was what they did to the Chinese and other Asians. In the occupied territories, the death rate for the nationals totaled some 100,000 a month --- through forced labor, starvation, and outright murder. That's 100,000 Asians dying, every month, for three or more years.

    "Our dropping the bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, he tells us, not only brought the war to an end, it saved hundreds of thousands of lives in the occupied countries, and, ironically --- saved even more lives of the Japanese. For in the few days after they had declared war --- and in the following months of peace, the Russians killed off 350,000 Japanese (mostly non-military). If the Russians had invaded the island of Hokkaido --- their contingent plan --- Frank claims that the Russians would have murdered everyone in sight."

  • Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, James Agee, Walker Evans (Houghton Mifflin/Mariner)."Let us now praise famous men and our fathers that begat us. The quotation is from Sirach --- also known as Ecclesiasticus --- one of the Apocrypha of the Old Testament. The irony of the words is obvious and biting, for Agee is describing, minutely, the least famous, the poorest of the poor, the men (and women, and children) who lived in and around central Alabama in the middle of the depression, in the summer of 1936.

    "If you have never read Agee you might consider the possibility of dropping this review and calling up the American Book Exchange or Powells to get a copy of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men so that you don't have to waste your time in having me tell you what a fine piece of work it is. Barring that, let me say that it's the work of a young man (twenty-seven) who knows words and knows how to use them and wants us to see and hear and smell and feel what it is like to be intimately involved with three families who are certainly not famous but certainly are poor --- dirt poor as we used to say."

  • "The Non-Judgmental Listener," by Carlos Amantea. "Murray Bowen, in his wisdom, says there have been therapists around for centuries, perhaps for as long as people have been speaking with more than guttural grunts and cries.

    "Somewhere, five thousand years ago, in Chaldea, or at the edge of the Euphrates, there must have been a good, nonjudgmental, non-critical, supportive listener. In India, at the time of the birth of the Masters, there was another kind of Master, wasn't there? --- an early Master of the Masters, not saying No, or What you are thinking is wrong, or You have sinned --- but rather, giving forth with an understanding phrase: It may be best not to judge others or even yourself, he might have said. The dreams, he would say: They are hard to give up, aren't they? Harder, even perhaps, than giving up the anger..."

  • Truer Than True Romance: Classic Love Comics Retold, by Jeanne Martinet (Watson-Guptill). "It's an idea whose time has come. You take a few of those mooshy love comics from forty years ago and leave the drawings just like they were but you change the dialogue to where, say, that blonde young lady with the perfect face and lips is talking to that russet-haired stud --- but instead of talking about her giving him up to marry Charlie because she's tired of being poor, with exactly the same pix, you get the following:

    She: 'I can't help it, doctor! He's the only man who really likes me --- the only man who doesn't think I'm fat.'

    He: 'You're being self-destructive, Can't you see what a wonderful woman you are? Sick, but wonderful.'

    Then, below: 'My Heart Said Yes --- But My Therapist Said No!' It's True Love Romances for today."

  • Moko Maori Tattoo, Hans Neleman, Photographer (Edition Stemmle). "There is no going back with the facial tattoo of the Maori. It is a painful process of design which states publicly one's passionate belief in one's people, and their ways, and their religion and history.

    "These photographs, almost a hundred in number, are a wonderful peek at a culture of artful difference. Some of the tattoos are delicate, understated. But some are a poke in the face, so to speak, at the world.

    "Sinn Dog's decoration, running across the lower half of his face --- like a mask --- including nose, lips, cheeks and chin, proclaims MONGREL FOR LIFE. He is an ominous-looking dude, with or without tattoo. Meeting him in a bar, I would suspect most of us would speak to him with caution and some care. His life-time sign, right there before your eyes, says it all."

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