This Week's Reads

Leah Bendavid-Val and Laurie Notaro.


Edited by Leah Bendavid-Val, (National Geographic Books, $30) Living under a president with an unprecedented lack of interest in the rest of the world (apart from bending it to his ideology), there's never been a better time to take an interest in the rest of the world. Yet the curious thing, despite cable television, satellite dishes, and broadband, is that the rest of the world becomes even harder to understand despite such 24/7 multimedia proximity. There's too much information, which is why the relatively ancient medium of photographyaround 150 years old and countingremains so useful and powerful. As any of the 84 star National Geographic shooters included in this coffee-table compendium would tell you: It's not just what's included in the frame that countswhat you crop out is equally important. Thus, in Robb Kendrick's 1998 photo of a water main passing through a Bombay slum, the top edge stops just at the rooflines of the shanties. Barefoot children use the massive pipe as a walkway that bisects the frame, and slum, vertically. You know he could've positioned the camera lower, or cropped the image differently, to show Bombay's gleaming glass high-rises and office towers above the rude hovels topped with plastic sheeting and old tires. But he didn't; that would've been too easy an irony. Study the image more closely and you'll notice that there are no spigots to serve the slum dwellersit's like a freeway without off-ramps, bound for the city's thirsty, wealthy suburbs. Most of these 250 shots culled from National Geographic's 10.5 million photo archive and sorted by region are pictorial, not political. (If it's pain and suffering you want, turn to Magnum.) Some might say they're too "pretty" as a put-down, but the world isn't just starving refugees and burning oil wells. Beauty can be part of a foreign culture's strangeness. Arid, hostile landscapes are generally the most photogenic. Then there are the shocks that cut through the pictorialismlike two Bedouins kneeling to pray beside their camel in a black-and-white image from 1911. It would've seemed quaint in the modern age of telegraph wires and ocean liners; now it seems prophetic, modernas if there's a Humvee waiting on the other side of the sand dune. Even as the traditional photochemical medium seems close to disappearing (in favor of digital photography), there's more to learn leafing through these 500 pages than in an evening spent glued to CNN. BRIAN MILLER Contributor Chris Johns, a Seattle Times photographer in the early '80s, will appear at Third Place Books (17171 Bothell Way N.E., 206-366-3333), 7 p.m. Thurs., Oct. 9. AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A FAT BRIDE: TRUE TALES OF A PRETEND ADULTHOOD

By Laurie Notaro, (Villard, $12.95) You can tell from the cover of Laurie Notaro's second book that it doesn't contain serious literatureor even subtle, nuanced comedy. The jacket image suggests a cross between Three's Company and Roseanne. As it turns out, Notaro's chapter-by-chapter anecdotes are a lot like sitcom episodes: Short, easily digestible, and, funnysort of. The problem with Notaro's vignettes is that they're all of those things to a fault. Each autobiographical chapter is too-cutely titled with teasers like, "Dreading the Wedding," "What's on That Dog's Butt?," and "Peace, You Stupid Asshole." Most are about two pages long. The long ones go on for six. You get the feeling that Notaro (The Idiot Girls' Action-Adventure Club) and her editors don't think you can handle more than a spoonful at a time. Moreover, each bite is dreadfully concise. Just like a half-hour block of prime-time situation comedy, there's a conflict, a slapstick complication, and a neat little square knot tied at the end. As for the humor, Notaro pokes fun at her fat ass more times than you can stomach. No one in her circle of family and friends is safe from her scattershot clich├ęs: Her grandmother is kooky and vaguely senile; her ex-boyfriends are all from hell; her sister is prissy and petrified of breaking her nails; and her mom is overly thrifty, meddlesome, and addicted to QVC. Unlike, say, David Sedaris, she can't transform such familiar family fodder with genuine wit or comedic restraint. But I, too, was once a brideif not fat, then certainly weird, unable to deal with my relatives and, in a nutshell, woefully unprepared. So I could relate to Autobiography, as many women might, had it been written by someone with a heart and a brain rather than just a tongue and a cheek. LAURA CASSIDY

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