Bookmarks: Brief reviews of new and overlooked books

Assassination Vacation
by Sarah Vowell
Simon & Schuster, February 2006, 272 pages, $14 [paperback]

Recently issued in paperback, Assassination Vacation is Sarah Vowell’s pilgrimage into an often neglected sector of the American landscape: that of assassination buffs. Vowell’s people and the monuments they guard are the jumping off point for her strange, compelling look into the interconnectedness of U.S. history through its most famous killers and wannabe killers. The assassinations of Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley are the book’s core, but it is the twists of fate, the historical trash, and the characters she meets that make this book enjoyable and unique.

Vowell’s considerable research and lust for her subject have wrought a book that is part history lesson, part personal digest, part murder-mystery, and part social critique. With each assassination explanation she puts together a delectable travelogue/history that reveals brilliant synchronicities between people and their eras. With Lincoln, for instance, she visits historical sites and pieces together John Wilkes Booth’s murder plan. The plan weaves its way to an intriguing conclusion in Dry Tortugas Park where one of Booth’s co-conspirators was imprisoned. IN discussing Garfield, Vowell moves from New York state taxation politics, to Garfield’s daily life, and onto the life of his unstable murderer, Charles Guiteau. On McKinley, we read about his empirical presidency, the AC/DC currency debate, and about the misunderstood anarchist Leon Czolgosz, who would eventually take McKinley’s life.

These scraps of American history are glued together in Vowell’s wry voice, both jovial and attuned to coincidence. Her attention to detail puts her in the front ranks of populist non-fiction writers. Digression and anecdote are her bread and butter, and her observations are sharp, ironic commentaries on today’s world as seen through the prism of history.

Vowell’s style is particularly engaging. She seeks out truth via often tentative connections, and by doing so, makes sense of what can seem like a random, fruity country. The personal part of her journey is perhaps the most rewarding as she describes days dragging friends and family to monuments and mountaintops as she continues her research. Insight and humor is gleaned from the smallest details on these trips. Vowell’s telescope is slightly warped, but to superb effect.

C.W. Thompson Amazon

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First & Fifteenth: Pop Art Short Stories
by Steve Powers
Villard, November 2005, 183 pages, $17.95

Steve Powers is a quintessential postmodern cultural producer (the new, more-inclusive moniker for those creative types formerly known as artists). Having established his street cred in the mid-1990s in New York City as a graffitist known by the tag ESPO, Powers has since created work for more “legitimate” venues like art galleries and international art expositions as well as brand names like Nike, Calvin Klein and Marc Ecko. In 2004, he helped organize the Dreamland Artists Club, which, under the auspices of the nonprofit public arts group Creative Time, brought 20 artists to Coney Island to paint signs and decorate amusements for various local businesses.

First & Fifteenth: Pop Art Short Stories is a collection of illustrated episodes begun while Powers was working in Coney Island. It’s almost too ephemeral to be called a graphic novel — one story doesn’t have any words at all, just illustrations of the action visually unfolding from panel to panel. It’s more like a book of graphic parables, quick, simple narratives rendered in iconic fashion. They don’t evoke the comics so much as the way advertising appropriated the comic-strip format, especially in the 1920s and 1930s, to sell laundry soap, mouthwash, and other mass-market consumables.

Taking its cue from American vernacular visual culture (i.e., hand-painted signs, graffiti, pulp illustration, etc.), the book is as much indebted to the cartoons of Chris Ware and image appropriations of Richard Prince as it is the deconstructive lettering of Ed Fella and David Carson. Which is to say that underneath the seemingly primitive style is an insider’s knowledge of the role in recent art theory of so-called low culture in upending the highfalutin aesthetic pretensions once embraced by the avant-garde. Indeed, where avant-garde art once rejected kitsch, postmodern art revels in it, unabashedly proclaiming that if weren’t for bad faith there’d be no faith at all.

That bad faith dogs Powers somewhat. The stories of First & Fifteenth are said to be inspired by the zeitgeist of the East Village neighborhood Powers calls home, “a place,” he claims, “where people are bad at being good and good at being bad.” But the East Village, a parcel of gentrified real-estate carved out from the northern tip of the Lower East Side, where a miniscule one-bedroom apartment with a bathtub in the kitchen rents for over US$2000 a month, isn’t what it was even in the days of Keith Haring and CBGB, when crackheads freely roamed Tompkins Square. These days, it’s where Paris Hilton goes for sushi and Gen-Xers go to buy designer togs for toddlers to wear on play dates. There’s still the odd bum here and there to give the place atmosphere, but it’s mostly grad students and tourists now. That doesn’t invalidate First & Fifteenth so much as make it seem wistful, longing for the days before Gotham became a division of the Walt Disney Company.

Vince Carducci Amazon

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The Ice Queen
by Alice Hoffman
Back Bay Books, January 2006, 224 pages, $13.95 [paperback]

Those familiar with the Grimm Brothers know that fairy tales are often darkly-themed, with unconventional characters and settings. The nameless narrator of Alice Hoffman’s latest novel, The Ice Queen, is set up similarly. Hoffman’s desire here is clearly to emulate this mode of storytelling and her novel. The story unfolds through the eyes of this narrator who lives an emotionally frozen life, thus personifying her Ice Queen moniker.

The narrator’s rigid character is set in childhood, when a hapless wish to never see her mother again comes true and her life unexpectedly ends. The guilt over this tragedy follows the narrator through adulthood, as she shuts herself off from any potential human connection. Single and living a quiet life as a librarian, she has a relentless need to help others, fueled by that long-standing guilt. Her primary research interest, too, is death and it is this obsession, ironically, that ultimately leads her to life.

Hoffman, who is known for blending fantasy and reality in her fiction, uses the fairy tale theme of wishes by granting one of the narrator’s — to be struck by lightning. The strike is obvious symbolism for the life-altering change through which the narrator will journey. Her death obsession draws her towards Lazarus Jones, another lightning strike victim who is said to have been dead for several minutes before a resurrection. What follows is a predictable love affair with the magical elements of his fire melting her ice.

Hoffman, here, isn’t trying to make her story believable in an empirical sense, but even with its magical elements, the truth of her characters, especially her narrator, never fully emerge from the page. Though it is understood that the narrator will change for the better, Hoffman is so focused on her character’s frozen self, no other dimension is allowed necessary time to fully develop.

Even so, Hoffman’s lyrical prose and stark imagery are again on display. And the narrator’s insights and inner turmoil are rendered well. Still, the novel gets stuck trying to remain loyal to its fairy tale theme, which ends up stifling potential emotional connection. Unlike a good fairy tale, where the main characters are remembered and revered, Hoffman’s narrator remains nameless and therefore, a little soulless, too.

Christina Clarkson Amazon

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Your Ultimate Pilates Body Challenge: At the Gym, On the Mat and On the Move
by Brooke Siler
Broadway, December 2005, 240 pages, $17.95

A sequel to her The Pilates Body, Brooke Siler’s Your Ultimate Pilates Body Challenge follows the standard exercise book format of listing various exercises with accompanying pictures. The purpose of Siler’s book goes beyond these basics, however, to describe just how you too can incorporates standard Pilates training at the gym with movements in everyday life. Siler does her best to convince devotees of the exercise system that by following some simple instructions, you’re Pilates workout can last through your workday and during your leisure time.

Whether or not further books outlining the same techniques are required is questionable. Siler’s book is not entirely unique, though it’s glossy look and Siler’s friendly nature lifts it above the standard. One can’t help but wonder just who her audience is, as some of those out-of-the-gym Pilates workout tips are clearly designed for the young and fit like Siler rather than older, middle aged folk like those at my own Pilates class. Few of us will be snowboarding in the near future, for example. We will likely be toting bags and children at some point, so descriptions on how best to use our bodies for these tasks are useful and welcome.

Siler’s new selling point here is those everyday Pilates workouts, that she calls “Invisible Workouts”. Are they useful? To some readers, maybe, but it’s clear her “revolution” is as much about selling books as it is about toning and perfecting muscles. Siler even goes so far as to near-invent a better way of working out called “metaforming”, in which imagery is employed during workouts to increase results. Alongside the old-school Pilates rules, such as those governing breathing (“at no point, Siler writes, “should you allow the muscles of your abdominals to expand with your breath… this is a non-negotiable element in the Pilates system”), she calls on readers to, for instance, “imagine you have a corset cinched around your waist, securing your center” while exercising. This, she says, works better than simply contracting your abdominal muscles. Why, we’re never convincingly instructed, but it certainly sounds promising, if a little left of center.

Siler’s book needs these radical and out there alterations to a standard workout system in order to gain relevance and immediacy in the ever-flooded self-help and exercise book market. There are more than enough of these types of books on the market, so anything seemingly new-fangled will assist in their promotion. A longer, more in-depth discussion on the benefits of “metaforming” would certainly benefit this kind of book — but, in the end, it’s not that kind of book. It’s detailed enough for regulars to pick up new tips, and simple enough for newbies to use it as a starter’s manual. If you prefer your fitness instructors one-dimensional and super-non-threatening, Siler’s Challenge might be right for you.

Dave Howell Amazon