Articles, Reviews, Poems,
Readings or Letters
That, Over the Years,
Continue to Receive
The Most Hits

Maori Tattoo

Hans Neleman,
(Edition Stemmle)
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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Paris 1919
Six Months that
Changed the World

Margaret MacMillan
(Random House)
Paris 1919 is one of the best general interest books of historical fact and whimsy we've ever come across. It covers one short period, and is filled to the brim with the weird and waggish people who participated in one of the strangest gatherings of all times. This is historical writing equal to Barbara Tuchman at her best. If we did stars here at RALPH, we'd hand this one a

out of a possible

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The Best
Spiritual Writing

Philip Zaleski, Editor
(Harper San Francisco)
Out of the forty essays that Zaleski has chosen, there are few that touch the heart or the mind (or the soul). The worthy ones are Richard John Neuhaus' chronicle of almost dying, David Rensberger's droll tale of having a panic attack on the roof of his house, and a study of God by Annie Dillard. Most of the other articles are either ho-hum, or are heavily cadged in Old Testament homilies --- ones that are sure to offend, religious stories that revel in the blatant sexism that has been and always will be at the heart of Christianity, most of all, that you and I are Sinners, to be born in Sin, to die in Sin. Even our immense respect for Jimmy Carter cannot make his "Conversation" --- and his terrible poetry --- worth including in this book.

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In Search of
Deep Throat

The Greatest
Political Mystery
Of Our Time

Leonard Garment
Since Woodward and Bernstein have said that they will reveal the name of Deep Throat when he (or she) expires, it's becomes rather anticlimactic even before it begins. And Garment is fond of backtracking over the same evidence again and again, which makes the reading less of an adventure in truth and more of a trial for the long-suffering reviewer. To say it is an exercise in trivia is an understatement, especially when we learn at one point that the author was in serious correspondence with one Chase Culeman-Beckman, age eighteen, who presumably had hot inside information gleaned from the fact that he was at summer camp with Carl Bernstein's son --- and had learned the identity of DT through him.

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In Flanders Fields
The 1917 Campaign
Leon Wolff
(Viking Press)
Since earliest times military offensives have failed in this mild-seeming land because of a physical obstacle not apparent to the glance; for in Flanders the ground is almost pure fine-grained clay, sometimes with a crust of sand on top or a thin coating of loam. In certain places there is no topsoil at all; these clay fields, called clyttes, exist at their worst north of Ypres in the vicinity of the Houthulst Forest.

Because of the impervious clay, the rain cannot escape and tends to stagnate over large areas. Unable to soak through, it forms swamps and ponds, and sluggishly spreads toward one of the already swollen rivers or canals. The ground remains perpetually saturated. Water is reached at an average depth of eighteen inches and only the shallowest of puddly trenches can be dug by the troops, reinforced by sandbag parapets. When the topsoil dries during fair weather, it cracks open. The next rain floods the fissures. Then the clay blocks slide upon themselves, causing little landslides.

The problem of terrain has bedeviled military commanders in Flanders throughout history. In the early 1700s Marlborough told how "our armies swore terribly in Flanders." By a curious transposition of numerals, in 1197 Philip Augustus was trapped with his army in the morass southwest of Ypres, and similar frustrations occurred during the days of the Roman conquest.

For clay plus water equals mud --- not the chalky mud of the Somme battlefield to the south, but gluey, intolerable mud. The British War Office Archives are full of reports in this vein: "Part of company bogged in communications trench south of St. Eloi; two men smothered." "Three men suffocated in mud near Voormezeele."

"Men had to lie flat and distribute their weight evenly in order to prevent sinking into the mire." "The trenches are very wet, and the water is up to the men's knees in most places." "Trenches full of liquid mud 2 to 3 feet deep." "Men in pitiable condition coming out of trenches; wet through, caked with stinking mud from head to foot."

When one officer was instructed to consolidate his advance position, he wrote back, "It is impossible to consolidate porridge." "Trenches full of liquid mud. Smelt horribly. Full of dead Frenchmen too bad to touch. Men quite nauseated."

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Sex and the Single
Stock Trader:

How I Made $10,000
In Junk Stocks
In Six Months

Terrence "Buck" Mellon
First, let's have full disclosure here. I have been trading stocks on and off for over half-a-century. Every time I invest, no matter how speculative or conservative, word immediately goes down the line, "He's buying! You will know what to do!" So if I've gone long --- whether in Enron, IBM, North Arabian Gold, or Phelps-Dodge --- immediately, as they say so scenically in the trade, the stock "falls out of bed."

If I go short, the company will find a new well in the Arctic, or the FDA will be in the midst of approving its new cancer drug, or it will suddenly find itself about to be bought up at twice its current stock price by GE.

Thus I am a stock magician. In a matter of weeks I can turn a few thousand dollars into mere hundreds, and those into a net deficit in my once-robust brokerage account.

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Boca Rococo
How Addison Mizner Invented
Florida's Gold Coast

Caroline Seebohm
(Clarkson Potter)

Those of us who grew up on Alva Johnston's delightful The Legendary Mizners have a problem with Seebohm's version. She tells us that the 1952 biography was crammed with misinformation, including the no-staircase story (that Mizner built a two-story house, but forgot to put in stairs). This leads your reviewer to a peculiar dilemma: Should we praise books for their joy, wit, and style; or should we honor, instead, facts and precision. What if the latter waxes ponderous?

The older book's endearing picture of Addison sketching his buildings' designs as he stood out in the Florida sun with his workers in front of an empty sand lot is a beguiling one. Seebohm's portrait is far fuller and a tad more tragic (being gulled by his various toyboys and by members of his own family) but it isn't half as much fun as the raffish early volume that we recall with such pleasure.

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The Victorian Nude
Alison Smith
The singular characteristic of the more than 200 pictures represented here --- some exquisitely colored and enlarged --- might be described as painters, sculptors, sketchers involved in a game of Hide-and Go-Seek: where the most delicious of the meadowlands are shielded from the eyes of hungry viewers by a myriad of devices: hands, shadows, scarves, wings, leaves (especially fig), branches, drapes, boa feathers, general murk, the edge of the canvas, hips and legs, the body being half-turned away --- and, in one case, half-obscured by a giant snake. On the occasions where there is no barrier to obscure what Restoration songsters dubbed the furbelow, it is rendered as a flesh-colored humplet --- with no more hair than a mussel.

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The Million
Dollar Mermaid

Esther Williams
(with Digby Diehl)
(Simon & Schuster)
The East Coast media went quite gooey over The Million Dollar Mermaid. Interview on National Public Radio. Fond review in The Washington Post, fond review in The New York Times --- with a follow-up interview, a nice squishy one, by Todd S. Purdam. "Nothing quite prepares a visitor for the sight of Esther Williams herself," Purdam tells us,

    in short white shorts, black flats, black tube top and white cotton blouse adorned with a rhinestone-speckled applique of a top hat and gloves on the front. She emerges from the shade of her living room in full-body makeup, legs firm and posture perfect, smiling that 1,000-watt waterproof smile, and asks politely, "Would you like to take a swim?"

We're back in 1950 again, on a MGM lot, aren't we? At one point, he questions that she would stay with controlling husband Lamas for so long. "I think it's so funny when people think they can't control a movie star," she says, smiling brightly. "They can. We're just women, you know." Right. Just women. And mermaids.

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Westward Ha!
Dear Lolita Clark,

Westward Ha! is my favorite book and I enjoyed reading your perceptive review of this neglected masterpiece. I was so impressed that I immediately decided to take out a subscription to your journal. But it seems that all the "links" on your web-page expired.

When I entered Ralph Magazine into a search engine I was directed to an Australian "Girlie" journal. Not exactly what I expected. Could you send me subscription information for your journal (not the Australian one...)?

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S. T. Joshi, Editor
(Ohio University Press)
Readers who have never sampled Mencken would be well advised to spend some time with this volume. Certainly no other English critic since Samuel Johnson --- with the possible exception of George Bernard Shaw --- was able to integrate a love of bombast, an acute political sense, an encyclopaedic knowledge, a loathing for idiocy, and a scintillating vocabulary into a single, delicious whole. Words you and I can only dream of using he does so to good effect, and with appropriate wit. For example, there are

    specialists paraded in the newspapers --- on the tariff, on military affairs, on foreign relations, and so on. But the average congressman lifts himself to no such heights of sagacity. He is content to be led by the fugelmen and the bellwethers. Examine him at leisure, and you will find that he is incompetent and imbecile, and not only incompetent and imbecile, but also incurably dishonest... His intelligence is that of a country newspaper editor, or evangelical divine...

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DADA knows everything. DADA spits everything out.

BUT . . . . . . . . .

      about Italy
      about accordions
      about women's pants
      about the fatherland
      about sardines
      about Fiume
      about Art (you exaggerate my friend)
      about gentleness
      about D'Annunzio
      what a horror
      about heroism
      about mustaches
      about lewdness
      about sleeping with Verlaine
      about the ideal (it's nice)
      about Massachusetts
      about the past
      about odors
      about salads
      about genius, about genius, about genius
      about the eight-hour day
      about the Parma violets

        NEVER        NEVER       NEVER

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Glory in a
Camel's Eye
Trekking through
the Moroccan Sahara

Jeffrey Tayler
(Houghton Mifflin)
When all is said and done, you and I (and probably Tayler) will never know why he spent these traditional forty days wandering the wilderness. But he is an engaging traveling companion, has much to teach us about the culture and the people and where they have come from, and what makes it possible for them to survive.

If I ever decided to go trekking in the desert, I would hope you would have my head examined. But, after that, if I was dead-set on it, I would want you to remind me to take Glory in a Camel's Eye along as my guide and my inspiration.

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LK: I appreciate your awareness of luck. There's so much of that, "If you want it badly enough and you try hard enough, you can do anything."

CC: That's a blame-the-victim mentality. In rehab I saw people with the greatest attitudes who struggled every day, worked so hard in PT, and never got one iota better. Then there'd be somebody else with the worst attitude in the world --- lazy, nasty, whiny, wouldn't work hard --- and they got better and walked out. To suggest that if somebody only had a different attitude they'd get better is just this side of criminal.

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The Lost King
Of France:

Revolution, Revenge, and the
Search for Louis XVII

Deborah Cadbury
(Fourth Estate)
Maximilien Robespierre, founder of the Terror Party, announced that the king, queen, Marie Thérèse and Daffy should stay in the Tour d'Argent since it had been demoted to two-stars by Michelin but later they were moved to the Great Tower of the Temple where the head cheese was said to be divine, "vaut le voyage."

The French Revolution finally ended up in the hands of the Flashers and because of his modesty, Louis decided to run away with his family to the Netherlands. They dressed up in fright wigs and capes and drove off in a deux chevaux. French transportation being what it is they got stuck in a traffic circle near Jersey City. The Assembly then ordered Louis and family back to Paris, and since the revolutionary urban renewal project had destroyed the Bastille, the royal family was forced to go back to the Toolshed.

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Suicide in
The Desert

From Soul of Nowhere
Craig Childs
(Sasquatch Books)
Desire means nothing without a body, I told myself, holding back just enough so that the blade would not draw blood. I thought that words must be formed by a voice, by a pen on paper. Wilderness must take a form. What is it that the land has taught me? To be bound and unbound at once. To be seamlessly mortal and infinite. To live. Slowly, I withdrew the knife, staring over this darkening country. As the knife came down, the desert changed. It spread around me the way circles of water ripple outward when a stone has dropped into the center. I fanned into the land, rippling across the surface in all directions. I could smell the ground, its dark volcanic dust driven into crannies and protected beneath mats of stone. I felt the shape of every crag. At that moment I realized that I had fed my life to the land. But I was not dead. I was still here, amazed as I took in a breath, the air as palpable as water through my lungs.

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And his

Albert Fried
(Palgrave/St. Martins)
In the hands of a lesser writer, this might be called Five Characters in Search of an Enemy, but the book has something more going for it. Fried has taken the time and the energy to bone up on these five characters --- and they are dyed-in-the-wool characters --- and what he has to say about their rants, their angers, and their personalities is sound, and sometimes quite surprising.

For instance, Al Smith chose as an enemy one whose program for bettering America was not too far from his own. Ditto for Father Coughlin. John L. Lewis got the power to create the CIO because of enabling legislation of "The Little New Deal" --- those bills passed during the last two years of Roosevelt's first term (most of them pushed through by the president).

Huey Long had reason to distrust the president. It was pure politics, and the Roosevelt administration was hitting him where it hurt, in the kickback system of Louisiana upon which his financial resources depended. If he had not been murdered in 1935, he would have been a serious threat at the democratic convention of the upcoming year.

Perhaps the most mysterious of them all was Lindbergh --- a man who professed to hate the spotlight, but went on radio again and again to blast America's slow move towards the rearming of England. Fried brilliantly explains Lindy's fascination with Nazi Germany:

    Like everyone else he was extremely curious about Germany. In the three and a half years since Hitler took power Germany had miraculously changed. From a nation that had been paralyzed by conflict and depression and hopelessness Germany was now united as never before in her history, was prosperous, thanks to vast military and public works programs, and was the focus of world attention. She bore no resemblance to the Germany that had been crushed and humiliated by the Versailles Treaty.

He cites Lindbergh's political innocence that allowed him to be wooed by the likes of Göring and Hitler --- an alliance that was soon enough to doom his efforts to stop the end of American neutrality. In the hands of FDR, his innocence came back to haunt him and ruin his chances for success.

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The Making
Of McPaper

The Inside Story
Of USA Today

Peter Prichard
(Andrews, McMeel &
The purpose of this review is not to defame social workers, HEW bureaucrats, teachers, television station owners, fundamentalist ministers, and the other ne'er-do-wells who feed off the poor and untutored. Instead, we would like to concentrate on the sizable proportion of the population that is neither totally unlearned nor totally literate...namely, those who possess some reading and writing skills --- say, around the eighth-grade level.

Studies indicate that this bloc may encompass as much as a third of our country's population. 98 percent of all homes have television sets; 89 percent of the homes have two or more television sets, but it is found that television reaches out and sells itself best to these, the semiliterate, who constitute a great proportion of our total population.

The early history of America may be a study of political and religious forces, but it is, as well, a study of the growth and dominance of mercantilism in our culture. (Some have claimed that the Constitution is best understood studied as an economic document rather than a political one).

In the past century, considerable effort has been expended to reach this huge semiliterate market --- and not to sell them on further knowledge. Enlightened on-the-air schooling, ideas presented intelligently and well, might have carried the poor and unlettered into the higher levels of individual wisdom --- sorely needed by a functioning democracy.

But, somewhere it was decided that it was preferable to make consumers (rather than patricians) out of the citizenry, to avoid dangerous enlightenment. In this way, instead of marching in the streets and demanding their rights, the populace could be inveigled to a lifetime of consumerism, safely functioning as part of the spending society. Indeed, astute commentators have often stated that America long ago ceased to be an Adam Smith-style capitalistic republic; rather, it quickly become a pure Norman Vincent Peale-style consumerist one.)

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My Bloody Life
The Making of a
Latino King

Reymundo Sanchez
(Chicago Review Press)
Sanchez is a powerful writer, but he isn't much for philosophy. He accepts the raison d'être of gangdom: create a cell, evoke blood loyalty, know that the gang provides a home, companionship, a way out of poverty (he is surprised at the sophistication of their marketing --- buying guns and drugs in quantity, making a sizeable profit in the markup, a true capitalist organization).

But he only incidentally touches on the core truth of gangs: why they are allowed to exist at all.

We all know that residents of the ghettos live in constant terror --- of getting killed, of losing family members to the endless warfare, of being robbed and beaten, of having their children get caught up in the violent world they've learned so well from the only teaching machine they have readily available: television. (Poorer children watch an average of ten hours a day, immersed in classic double bind messages: you must have this from the commercials, and here's how to get it from the "action" programs.)

The cant is that police are ham-strung by laws (and the ACLU), which prevents them from wiping out gang activities. But it's at once simpler and more cynical than that. Gangs provide needed services for urban centers as a whole. Inner cities are lifetime holding tanks for minorities --- keeping them away from the suburbs (except in menial jobs).

Escape is almost impossible. Powerful economic forces are in place to keep the poor and the minority in the war zone. Rents are cheap. If you are Latino or Black, the 'hood is where your families live. Poverty and unemployment are the rule, so those who want to survive must go into one of the accepted tax-free ghetto businesses: protection, dealing drugs and guns, procuring and selling stolen goods, prostitution. Thus the center of our cities is a jail carefully linked to other state-run jails (Sanchez points out that most of his gang activities were sanctioned by leaders serving time in the pen).

It sounds bitterly cynical to suggest that gangs at war can help to reduce the minority population, but Sanchez seems to confirm this.

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McCarthyism in

Ted Morgan
(Random House)
It is only when he gets to the very real conflicts, the astonishing dramas, and the wonderful characters in subversive-stalking does Reds come to life. But the chapters on early Joe McCarthy are worth the price of the book. They include his little-known involvement in the Malmédy Massacre controversy where, late in WWII, over a hundred American soldiers were captured and massacred by the German SS.

McCarthy headed up a senatorial investigation in 1949 which was, surprisingly, not about the death of so many unarmed American prisoners, but whether German troops captured later had been brutally questioned by the U. S. Army. Excerpts from the transcripts shows McCarthy's techniques in full flower: insults, sarcasm, innuendo and self-pity, plus a strange sort of interest in private parts. The Senator returns again and again to the question of whether SS men had been "kicked in the genitals," "injured in the testicles," "kicked or kneed in the groin."

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The Lourdes
Of Arizona:

Five Days on the
Front Lines of

Carlos Amantea
I attract the attention of a wiry counselor from the eastern shore of Maryland by the name of Lisa. She is a helper, another that I define as a Trench Worker. She tells of alcoholics, the wife-and child-abusers, the lonely and the depressed, all the terminal cases that she sees in the course of a week. "The trouble with this conference," she says, "is that they tell you techniques for dealing with stuck families, or wife beaters, or alcoholic, violent fathers --- but they don't tell you how to deal with all of these in the same family: Where do you begin?"

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