by Joshua Ortega (Omega Point Productions, $19.99) Omega Point Productions booth, Sat., Oct. 20-Sun., Oct. 21
SEATTLE, 2051. The flying cars, the androids, the all-purpose TV/PC/telephone devices, the monorail (far out!!), and the biochip implants that monitor everyone's thoughts are new developments, but the terrain of Joshua Ortega's ((FREQUENCIES)) will seem very familiar to current Emerald City denizens. There are riots. There are hippies in Fremont. There are rich people on the Eastside. There's a giant technology company that may or may not be malevolent but is surely intrusive and paternalistic.
If anything, Ortega's vision of the future is perhaps a bit too familiar. ((FREQUENCIES)) is laden with current pop-culture ephemera (I regret to inform you that annoying slang like "phat," "the bomb," and, most notably, "hella" will still be in heavy rotation decades from now). The constant references to late 20th century artifacts are more like a laundry list of things Ortega finds cool—the Beatles, Marilyn Monroe, reggae, '50s autos, A Tribe Called Quest—than useful narrative elements. This distracting tendency is truly a shame, as the primary ideas that guide Ortega's novel are indeed crucial ones.
In the tradition of 1984, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451, ((FREQUENCIES)) is a meditation on the place of the individual in a society increasingly equipped to infringe. In addition to being mercilessly bombarded by constant corporate messages, the brain waves of the populace are directly monitored by "thought police" charged with eliminating any subversive activity. Privacy rights and the ethics of cloning are given some thoughtful consideration here, as are the deepening class divisions fostered by technological "advances." Thankfully, the book never devolves into a blind anti-technology screed; it fairly approaches technology as something to be treated with equal measures of caution and wonder.
Ortega is at his best when he sticks to the broader social themes. Where he suffers most, though, is with his central characters. Agent McCready, the brusque, chain-smoking, foul-mouthed rebel, and Ashley, the ever-inquisitive, deeply spiritual, (naturally) beautiful corporate heir, are both caricatures. They often work better as mouthpieces for the book's grand themes rather than fully developed personalities, but the good news is that ((FREQUENCIES)) appears to be just the first in a series. If over time he paints his characters with enough subtlety that they can truly develop lives of their own, Ortega should make a real contribution to the genre.
THE BOOK OF THE COURTESANS: A CATALOGUE OF THEIR VIRTUES
by Susan Griffin (Broadway Books, $24.95) "Tricks of the Trade: The Secret World of Brothels and Courtesans" with Susan Griffin and Alexa Albert Hugo Stage, 4:30-5:30 p.m. Sun., Oct. 21
MANY TALES of history remain untold. It's not called "his-story" for nothing, and as countless multicultural advocates have pointed out, much of what passes for truth is just what was recorded by white, Christian, wealthy, and powerful men. So any book that attempts to offer a fresh perspective on the accepted chain of events is a welcome addition to the library.
Prominent feminist Susan Griffin wants to bring the overlooked courtesans, such as Sarah Bernhardt, Colette, and Veronica Franco (on whose life the unintentionally hilarious film Dangerous Beauty is based), out of the forgotten bedrooms of history's famous men. Of course, much of the detail of their stories is lost to the ages. Griffin writes: "But that is why fiction exists—so we may see the undocumented moments that would otherwise pass out of history, and thus out of our understanding, unwitnessed." Her attempt to retell these stories is as much imagined as researched and is organized around the awkward subtitle, "A Catalog of Their Virtues." Each chapter is devoted to a quality, such as charm, brilliance, grace, and beauty. The tact of telling the stories of these extremely exceptional women through these virtues feels forced: The same characters show up in different categories, and who's to say that Mogador's timing, for example, was more or less important than her beauty? Like the supermodels and superstars they preceded, these women found "success" mainly through luck. For every courtesan who "makes it," countless other low-level hookers die penniless and miserable.
But Griffin dwells only briefly on the downside. There are few details about what these women's lives were really like: how they coped with sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies, vicious lovers. But more often they're portrayed as women who, following tough girlhoods, sailed into their whoring lives quick with bon mots and coated in jewelry. Lines such as "Among children who have been abandoned or endangered, it is often the case that when they come of age they find a home in history" seem impossibly absurd. Stranger still is the lack of any acknowledgment that nights out to the opera and elegant orgies were far out of reach for nearly everyone, male or female. The missing social context lurks just outside the stories, like the tuberculosis spores that took the lives of so many of these women.
Audrey Van Buskirk
NAPPILY EVER AFTER
by Trisha R. Thomas (Crown Publishing, $24.95) "Falling Out of Fashion: Stories of Identity and Transformation" with Trisha R. Tomas and Alex Shakar Stafford Stage, 11:45 a.m.-12:45 p.m. Sun., Oct. 21
NAPPILY EVER AFTER is a romance novel with delusions of grandeur. It aims at being a story about a black woman's struggle to come to peace with her appearance, but disjointed characters, overly easy plotlines, and the heavy-handed—and overused—theme cripple the novel and condemn it to share a shelf with paperbacks whose covers depict bare-chested, long-haired men trudging through wheat fields with busty, submissive maidens in their arms. Like those novels, there just isn't anything challenging about Trisha Thomas' debut.
That said, Nappily Ever After is not without its guilty pleasures. Like catching an episode of General Hospital when you're at home sick or spending the day in bed with a Danielle Steel novel just for thesheer, silly roller-coaster ride of it, reading Nappily is like taking a vacation from your brain. And like all vacations, it can be relaxing and even a little entertaining. Although her main character Venus' dilemma—having high-maintenance hair and a low-quality boyfriend—smacks of early '90s Terry McMillan, the pace with which Venus decides to do something about it keeps the pages turning. And while it's nearly impossible to believe in the second and third dimensions of Venus' ex—a medical doctor who engages in booty calls and drops cartoony street slang—it's mildly amusing to read along as his male member leads him down Dumb Male Road. When Venus' trouble increases threefold to include sexual harassment in the workplace, a married suitor, and a note-dropping stalker, the twists and turns are predictable and were dog-eared long ago in books gone by—but they are twists and turns nonetheless.
What's most troubling about Nappily Ever After is that Thomas doesn't dig below the already overturned surface of racial and romantic issues. Venus carries on about the effects of chemical hair relaxers, bemoans her broad nose, characterizes her peers according to their skin tone, and struggles to keep afloat with her white male co-workers. Had this novel been released a decade or so ago, perhaps these quandaries wouldn't be quite so pass鮠But as it stands, if Thomas wants to make a unique, stimulating statement about being black, short-haired, single, and proud, she's going to have to try a little harder.
THE SECONDS: POEMS
by Linda Bierds (Putnam Publishing Group, $24) "Linda Bierds and Melinda Mueller" Beard Stage, 3:45-4:45 p.m. Sat., Oct. 20
THE POEMS in The Seconds take as their bases historical figures of varying prominence, or paintings, or even arias; thus many have explanatory subtitles, like "From the Vacuum Tube; Toward the Painting: Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1768" and "The Highland; Zelda Fitzgerald, 1939." Further, an introduction relentlessly explicates, "This volume looks at seconds in all its meanings: as particles of time, as stand-ins for someone else's battles, as damaged goods. Its underlying conceit is to think of humans as creations of the gods, who . . . made them . . . as stand-ins, as seconds."
It all sounds quite too much of a conceit, intellectualized and overly specific, but the poems are fascinating and accessible in their fundamental beauty. Gorgeous with spareness and intelligence, each piece employs its historical character or work of art to capture discrete moments (seconds, if you will) that glow with clarity. Many have an eerie cinematic quality, zooming in on sensory details one after another, until with, for example, the period piece "Will You Walk in the Fields With Me?—Early Dueling Challenge," you are standing right there: "It is the moment after turning. No one has fallen/one bullet passing through a hat brim, the other/entering a birch tree with the sound/of a hoof through shallow ice." At the end, "the beasts of the fields stand steaming," and you realize you are one of them.
Elsewhere, Vermeer parcels out his belongings in a will that can only be described as painterly; Louis Pasteur dreams in an armchair; an aged Marie Curie drifts in and out of elided time; Marc Chagall marvels at the moon walk, the astronauts "in their silver suits." It seems wrong to quote from these poems, they are so carefully constructed yet seemingly effortless, each word in its exact place. There is no fluff here, just seconds ticking away, marking time and measuring mortality.
Bethany Jean Clement
CARTER BEATS THE DEVIL
by Glen David Gold (Hyperion, $24.95) "Stick To Your Pens" with Glen David Gold, Alice Acheson, Carole L. Glickfeld, and Roberta Cruger Carver Stage, 1:45-3 p.m. Sat., Oct. 20
DON'T TELL David Blaine magic is a dead art. That master conjurer still has the ability to make you gasp, "How the hell did he do that?" But it's true that his modern-day success is a rare bird. In his first and brilliant novel, Carter Beats the Devil, Glen David Gold takes readers back to the early 20th century, when magicians were prominent celebrities who drew enormous crowds. He's created a wonderfully appealing and elusive character in Charles Carter the Great, a popular magician from a family of wealthy San Francisco eccentrics.
The story opens with a bang. Dreary President Warren Harding dies after participating in one of Carter's tricks involving decapitation and mauling by a tiger. The illusion ends harmlessly, but the president turns up murdered for real a few hours later. The Secret Service wants Carter to reveal the contents of his conversation with the woeful president just hours before he died, but Carter refuses and becomes a suspect himself. From there, the chase is on, though with red herrings falling from the sky and more weird characters popping up than in a David Lynch movie, it's a challenge to remember there's a mystery to solve. Structured on the traditional three acts of a magic show, the novel vaults back in time to Carter's childhood and magical education rife with true characters (a self-absorbed Harry Houdini makes an appearance) and obscure historical bits. One minor complaint is that it's difficult to tell at times what's fact and what's fiction. But, of course, obscuring the truth is a magician's prerogative, and one Gold takes full advantage of. President Harding did in fact make a fateful visit to the West Coast in 1923. He actually fell ill in Seattle before dying in a San Francisco hotel room. The official cause was a heart attack, but conspiracy theorists have long thought something dastardly was afoot.
But Gold's intention isn't to rewrite history; it's more to open minds to alternate possibilities for reality, truth, and fiction itself. With deft prose and a remarkable grasp on a complicated and mostly hidden world, Gold takes readers on a magical, memorable trip. By the book's end you'll find yourself stunned, mouth hanging open, just as you are when Blaine shows you a card that ends up in a football three blocks away.
Audrey Van Buskirk