This Week's Reads

Ved Mehta, Traci Elizabeth Lords, Frank Owen, Lisa Tucker, and Meredith Broussard.


By Ved Mehta (Thunder's Mouth, $24.95) Ved Mehta is a writhing tangle of contradictions: blind and percipient, cash-strapped and living large, spoiled and scourged, fanatically bel- letristic and stylistically tone-deaf, revered and reviled, uncontrollably prolific and not widely read. As he repeatedly explains in the rock-polishing-machine prose of his "Continents of Exile" memoir series (Harbor is its 10th installment), Mehta lost his sight to meningitis at age 3 in India. Ambition, luck, and cussedness propelled him through Pomona, Oxford, and Harvard, and into the arms of surrogate father Mr. Shawn, who installed him at The New Yorker from 1961 to '94. There, Mehta was driven by an irascible refusal to knuckle under to his disability: He flaneured Manhattan sans white cane and cut dead anyone who tried to help or condescend to him. Some less privileged colleagues found him so mean they mimed pushing him down the stairs as he passed (a tale not told by Mehta, who may not know it happened). But rich people were kind: At a 1968 dinner party with Edmund Wilson and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, he met the daughter of the plutocrat who inspired Ian Fleming's Goldfinger. As Harbor relates, Goldfinger's plane flew him to Dark Harbor, Maine, where his benefactress had a home. She gave him the equivalent of $73,000 in today's money to buy his own place there in '81. "I felt that my pride had been injured [by her generosity]," he writes. Their friendship chilled, but Mehta pocketed the money to begin a new life as an islander. It was nuts: He'd mastered Manhattan, but the coastal island of Islesboro was precisely the wrong place for a blind bachelor. As stubborn as Aguirre, Mehta persisted, built his dream house (designed by towering modernist architect Edward Larrabee Barnes), and, after a lifetime of romantic disasters, blissfully married a wife 22 years his junior (in 1983) and fathered children. He tells it all in way too much detail, but it's an amazing tale. TIM APPELO Ved Mehta will read at Elliott Bay Book Co. (101 S. Main St., 206-624-6600), 7:30 p.m. Mon., Aug. 11. TRACI LORDS: UNDERNEATH IT ALL

By Traci Elizabeth Lords (HarperCollins, $23.95) A friend of mine recently encountered ex-notoriously underage porn star Traci Lords at an evening she was hosting in a West Hollywood gay bar. He asked her how she was doing, and she answered, "I'm well," in a formal tone, then calmly proceeded to kick off her shoes, hop up on the bar, and dance. This is the same person we get in Lords' heartfelt autobiography: a young woman who has spent her life trying to balance "good girl" innocence with an adult's sense of adventure. Nothing in Underneath is revelatory, yet it feels more immediate than similar confessionals because Lords is so successful at conveying who she isand who she was. She shouldn't be expecting any Pulitzers; most of the writing is earnestly gauche. But she makes abundantly clear how easily the internal struggles of any sweet, curious young girl can be manipulated. The product of a broken home with a brutal father and weary mother, the one-time Nora Kuzma is raped at age 10 by her 16-year-old crush: "How could I deny it?" she writes of her resulting self-image. "I was a whore." Underneath is awkward but often touchingly honest. Lords' descent into hard-core porn is plainspoken and articulate ("My sexuality had robbed me of so much, and now it gave me something that had eluded mecontrol"), as is the modest acceptance in mainstream Tinseltown she has since achieved. There are also small dollops of tell-all gravyincluding an almost-affair with Johnny Depp on the set of John Waters' Cry Baby; and casual dissing of jealous fellow porn stars (including a nice defensive jab at gay icon Jeff Stryker). However inelegant, Lords has done herself no shame here. STEVE WIECKING CLUBLAND: THE FABULOUS RISE AND MURDEROUS FALL OF CLUB CULTURE

By Frank Owen (St. Martin's Press, $24.95) This true-crime book is somewhat misleadingly titled. Frank Owen focuses not on nightclubs generally but specifically on the club-kid scene of the Limelight and Tunnel, the twin towers of mid-'90s New York nightlife. Centered on the murder of drug dealer Angel Melendez by the wildly delusional, fame-hungry party promoter Michael Alig, the "King of the Club Kids," Clubland is more a sordid tell-all than a celebration of nightlife à la Anthony Haden-Guest's The Last Party. Melendez's killingwhich Owen describes in grisly detailhelped spell the beginning of the end of the mid-decade N.Y.C. club boom; it was also one of the first nails in the coffin of rave culture in general. Owen makes a curious gumshoe. An ex-rock critic from Manchester, his turn- of-the-'90s writing for Spin reflected a sensibility turned on by the aural wonderland of hip-hop's and rave's sampladelic golden ages. Owen's utopian impulses manifest themselves in Clubland's opening chapter, in which the author retraces his steps on Special K (aka Ketamine, a horse-tranquilizer-cum-hallucinogen that underwent a mid-'90s clubland vogue), and its epilogue, where he decries the misspent energy of a club scene gone seriously sour. In between, Owen turns his bitterness into an advantage. It's hard to imagine any other way to approach the material here: Nearly everyone in Clubland is a slimeball of some sort or other. Peter Gatien, the eye-patched owner of the Tunnel and Limelight, spends his weekends bingeing on cocaine and hookers. Alig, Gatien's primary promoter, killed Melendez, cut him apart, and dumped him in the river; after the victim's disappearance, Alig proceeded to parade his ambiguous status as a possible murderer like a society matron showing off a brand-new poodle. Owen describes a long procession of Staten Island Mafia cronies surrounding Chris Paciello, who brought New York- style clubbing to Miami Beach, complete with behind-the-scenes brutality. And if that's not unsavory enough, there are a variety of snitches, crooked FBI agents, and drug dealers, too. It's almost impossible to decide which of the book's characters comes off worstand since bad people make good characters, it means Clubland is one hell of a page- turner. MICHAELANGELO MATOS THE SONG READER

By Lisa Tucker (Downtown Press, $12) The song reader in Lisa Tucker's first novel is twentysomething Mary Beth, who supplements her income by interpreting the song lyrics that get stuck in people's heads. If, say, you had the chorus of "Endless Love" running through your head and you were thinking about breaking up with your boyfriend, she'd give you advice based on those lyrics. She and her teenage sister, Leeann, who narrates Song, live in a small Missouri town with a precocious 2-year-old boy whom Mary Beth adopted when a former client abandoned him. The girls' mother is recently deceased; their father is M.I.A. and, it would seem, more than slightly crazy. So while Mary Beth makes sense of the world via songs, Leeann struggles to make sense of her family calamities. As Mary Beth helps one of her clients through her scandalous memories of past abuse (via songs by the Clash, Culture Club, and Duran Duran that Tucker erroneously lumps together as new wave), Leeann is smack-dab in the middle of her own teen turmoil. I'm a music writer, and notwithstanding all Song's rave reviews, I think the song-reading premise is pretty silly. True, I read my horoscope every day, yet if "Endless Love" is stuck in my head, it's because I heard it over the P.A. system at the grocery store. Pop songs, like gum and good Web sites, are designed to be sticky. Song is just goofygoofy plot, goofy narrator, goofy book. Occasionally, Tucker gives Leeann wisdom and maturity beyond her yearsshe needs it to handle the shit that life has thrown her way. Even so, she's a kid, and kids are naive. They're supposed to be. Reading Leeann's narration, you feel the author's adult perspective insinuating itself into her head where it doesn't belonglike a pop song, in fact. LAURA CASSIDY THE DICTIONARY OF FAILED RELATIONSHIPS: 26 TALES OF LOVE GONE WRONG

Edited by Meredith Broussard (Three Rivers Press, $11) Pace Tolstoy, all unhappy relationships are unhappy in their own way, as demonstrated in this anthology of 26 sharp, insightful, and often painfully funny looks at fizzled romance. Editor Meredith Broussard sandwiches the previously unpublished stories of gifted young female authors like Thisbe Nissen, Susan Minot, and Pam Houston with her own confessional account of the book's impetusa one-man emotional wrecking crew she code-names Tony Columbo. The strict A-to-Z format, like most collection conceits, allows a few duds in the door. Heidi Julavitz's excellent, lyrical starter, "Ambivalence," leads directly into the supremely underwhelming "Berniced," in which Eliza Minot (Susan's younger sister) uses first-person Valley Girl upspeak to purely annoying effect. Other stories, like Darcey Steinke's "Orgasm," are over before they begin, or ultimately lose their steam, like Dana Johnson's "Threesome." And not all tales end hopelessly: Anna Maxted's class-war-in-paradise "Dagenham" only punishes the bad guys; while Mary Beth Hughes' spare, evocative "Honeymoon" teeters on a razor's edge of hope. One of the best entries, Martha Southgate's "Kid," explores a married, middle-aged black woman's ultimately unrequited passion for a young white housepainter in prose that is at once both ordinary and heartbreaking. Don't mistake Dictionary as the sole province of sad singles, à la the Lifetime network, fat-free ice cream, and multiple cats. Even the most atrociously in-love know how imperfect the heart can be. It is, after all, what makes it so interesting. LEAH GREENBLATT

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