This Week's Reads

Danny Goldberg, Edward Tenner, Indu Sundaresan, and Will Ferguson.

BLOCK THE VOTE Danny Goldberg's Dispatches From the Culture Wars: How the Left Lost Teen Spirit (Miramax, $23.95) has a great premise: The decline of the American left stems from its increasing alienation from the popular culture that defines the world to millions of young Americans. It's an intriguing idea. Unfortunately, it's presented like a marketing gimmick that Goldberg, a veteran music-industry marketer, himself might make. Instead of tacking a hit record onto his memoir, Miramax seems to have decided it needed a catchier title and a new opening chapter. Goldberg managed acts from Led Zeppelin to Nirvana, and he's since helped run seemingly every corporate music division in L.A. That history serves here as a name-dropping background to Goldberg's free-speech activism and fund-raising for Democratic candidates. His Hollywood-liberal political diary turns out to be a chronology of election cycles, censorship battles, and the meetings that love them. Remember 2 Live Crew? Zzzz. Meanwhile, Goldberg's teen-spirit theme is missing vast chunks. How do we know adult Democrats are square? They condemn youth culturestop the presses! and offered the stunningly unhip Tipper Gore and Joe "I'm more religious than you" Lieberman in 2000. Does that really mean Democratic candidatesor Republicans, for that matteractually hate kids? Goldberg overlooks a more obvious explanation: Unhip adults are bigger campaign donors and more frequent voters. The 52-year-old Goldberg only seems to value youth for their votes. He never once quotes or cites an actual young person. In his world, unit sales and SoundScan reports speak for the young. If given a chance to say why they're not voting, perhaps the young would mention the perceived irrelevance of politicians; the futility of trying to influence them; and nonelectoral, youth-led phenomena like the anti-globalization and anti-sweatshop movements. But Goldberg's memoir gives no sense of how the left might stop sneering at youth culture and celebrate it instead. A book on that topic would be a great idea. GEOV PARRISH Danny Goldberg will read at University of Washington Kane Hall, Walker-Ames Room (206-634-3400; free tickets required), 7 p.m. Wed., June 25. FLIP-FLOP In our age of VCRs forever flashing "12:00" and Microsoft's random, infuriating "Illegal operation performed, program will be shut down" pop-up windows, Edward Tenner made a big impression with his 1996 Why Things Bite Back, about technology's unintended consequencestwo steps forward, one step back, with that last step sometimes leading to the hospital or morgue. In Our Own Devices: The Past and Future of Body Technology (Knopf, $26), he takes a somewhat more benign view of technology, since his subject is really humankind's near-infinite ability to adjust to it. In tracing the evolution of the chair, from medieval stools to the cubicle-fave Aeron model, he predictably sees a decline in posture, a weakening of the back caused by the crutch of technology. But stillthose Aeron chairs are cool! Ever the tech-head, Tenner can't help but get off on all the levers and buttons. Of the ubiquitous Japanese zori (aka thong, flip-flop, sandal, or "go-ahead" in Australia), he cites differences in the Japanese "piston gait" and more American heel-toe "swing style" of walking. Yet zoris are cheap, comfortable, and (again, after their '70s hippie-surfer craze) fashionable; you can't run in them or they'll flip offthey're shoes for relaxing, well suited to long, unemployed days spent at Starbucks. So there's a feedback loop between technological innovation and improvised technique. (The uncomfortable wing tips we'll save for job interviews.) Tenner also suggests that the availability of cheap eyeglasses has collectively weakened our eyes, allowing us to relax into record levels of myopia. But reading is pleasant, and contacts are disposableso where's the harm? Though the subjects Tenner raises are intriguing, Devices unfortunately reads like a New York Times Magazine feature padded with footnotes and filler. There's an argument here, somewhere, but Tenner is unwilling to make it. He can't come down either pro or con (it's more like cro-pon), and resorts to constructions like "To some . . . " to couch any dangerous conclusions. Well, even though I wear a bike helmet (which may encourage "risk compensation," i.e., biking more recklessly because I'm protected from the potential consequences), I prefer to read dangerously. And I'd prefer that Tenner wrote that way, too. Instead, he cobbles together his book, like Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation, Reefer Madness), out of copious secondary sources, citing David Foster Wallace, Nicholson Baker's The Mezzanine, Gary Larson cartoons, and even comedian Barry Humphries (aka Dame Edna Everage). He covers a lot of bases and a lot of interesting ground, but I wish his computer had crashed, destroying all his work, and forced him to go back and wing it without a helmet or a seat belt or a copy-and-paste command. BRIAN MILLER Edward Tenner will read at University Book Store (4326 University Way N.E., 206-634-3400), 7 p.m. Wed., June 25. EMPRESS OF THE SUN Bellevue author Indu Sundaresan began her partially fictionalized account of Empress Nur Jahan with last year's The Twentieth Wife (Washington Square, $14 in paper), her first novel. In The Feast of Roses (Atria, $24), she continues the second half of the empress' lifeand peppers it beautifully with her rich and well-informed vision of 17th-century Mughal India. Mehrunnisa, as she was called before her marriage, literally becomes the 20th wife to Emperor Jahangir in Wife. Roses subsequently takes readers inside the courts and behind the walls of the zenana (which Sundaresan's smartly included glossary defines as a harem or interconnected group of houses and rooms). There, Nur Jahan negotiates and nurtures the social and political alliances that will yield the power she thirsts for. All the while, she must defend herself against plenty of jealous, spiteful enemies. At the heart of Roses is the real-life, real love story of Jahangir and Nur Jahan, but this novel is more than a historical romance. Early on in Roses, the fiercely ambitious and ballsy Nur Jahan makes an unusual request: to accompany her husband to the jharoka (balcony) where he hears petitions from commoners and court insiders alike. In an unprecedented move, Jahangir concedes; and when Nur Jahan speaks out against the request of one of the court's main players, the entire empire is stunned. Because this breach is permitted by an emperor very much in love with a somewhat unlikely heroine (remember: She's only No. 20 in the harem), both pay a price for her boldness. Densely packed with historical detail and the florid descriptions of its era, Roses moves with relative speed through the days of this remarkable woman. Sundaresan logged plenty of hours researching these two volumes, but the results are never academic and always entertaining. LAURA CASSIDY Indu Sundaresan will read at University Book Store (4326 University Way N.E., 206-634-3400), 7 p.m. Thurs., June 26. HELP! Edwin Vincent de Valu is a lowly editor at Panderic Press in a metropolis filled with imposing skyscrapers that "were built during the Great Potash Boom of the late 1920s." He's a cynical, sarcastic middle-aged everyman in moral, marital, social, and professional decline, about to change the world by encouraging the publication of a self-help book by the enigmatic Rajee Tupak Soiree. Author Will Ferguson is delighted by his own whimsical cleverness in Happiness (Perennial, $12.95, now in paper), but if it doesn't sweep you up, too, you're not reading very carefully. Busily avoiding manuscripts with awful cover letters, Edwin can't seem to avoid Soiree's mammoth What I Learned on the Mountain (which, among many other grand promises, claims it will "help [people] improve their posture and spelling and will give their lives meaning and purpose"). Shamed by the author's accompanying remonstrative note ("Perhaps you are lost in a cubicle . . . as anonymous and unfulfilled as your own hopes and failed dreams . . . "), Edwin drops the tome into the wastebasket. It's soon returned to him by the building's ex-janitor through the window of a limousine from which the now-bejeweled man and his wife serenely inform him, "We despise you." Ferguson can be awfully glib (he's having a mite too much fun piling Panderics on potashes), and you know any book parodying popular culture is going to skirt the edge of self-parody. He is also dizzyingly, inescapably funny, nailing every single uncomfortable detail of society's comic, willful detachment. Running after an elevator in a moment that could mean his job, Edwin still has the time for the epiphany that "Conan the Barbarian movies may not entirely reflect reality." Happiness races along on such hairpin-curve contemplations. It is breathless and fearless, and you're willing to follow it into places unexpected. And it goes there. STEVE WIECKING Will Ferguson will read at Third Place Books (17171 Bothell Way N.E., 206-366-3333), 7 p.m. Thurs., June 26.

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