This Week's Reads

Sasha Cagen, Paco Underhill, James Shreeve, and Chalmers Johnson.


By Sasha Cagen (Harper - San Francisco, $19.95)

We're here and we're quirky, say the self-described "quirkyalones," those independent spirits who prefer being alone to being in a bad relationship. What started in 1999 as a term 'zine publisher Sasha Cagen used to describe her and her friends' virtually relationshipless (and therefore seemingly odd) lifestyle soon led to her Utne Reader essay, which soon spawned an entire movement. And behind every great modern movement is a bustling Web community. (How did pre-Internet obsessives manage their compulsions, anyway?) A Web shrine was created, people visited, they identified, they—finally!—felt as if they belonged. They blogged and they IM'ed and they Friendstered like rabid Howard Dean supporters, and now their 30-year-old leader has written her first book.

Is this a unique new revolution? Hardly. QAs have always existed—remember the swinging '70s, anyone?—but give Cagen credit for coining a term. Her QA manifesto is inspiring, with its talk of a new, more free section of society in which it's OK to not have a significant other on Valentine's Day—which Cagen and her minions are ambitiously trying to rebrand as International Quirkyalone Day—or to not bring a potential life mate home for Thanksgiving. Accordingly, her book is crammed with dozens of profiles of, and testimonials from, certified QAs—all intended to prove that while QAs are indeed quirky, they are not really alone.

There are also some basic definitions: QAs can be men or women; they do have vibrators, active social lives, a "family" of friends, and often separate houses/bedrooms/workspaces even when living with a partner. They don't date for the sake of a warm bed or stay in subpar relationships for fear of being alone. They're not coldhearted, loveless prudes, but uncompromising romantics who believe in true love and won't settle for anything less.

Who are the paragons of quirkyalone-dom? Nina Simone, Katharine Hepburn, Abigail Adams, and James Baldwin were—or would have been, had the classification existed in their times. Other would-be QAs: Angelina Jolie (AJ 2.0: the new, child-adopting, Africa- saving, supposedly less creepy version); Laverne and Shirley; Margaret Cho; Queen Latifah. Then there are "the enemies of quirkyalones everywhere": Ashton Kutcher, Ben Affleck, Meg Ryan, and Tom Hanks.

Not sure whether you qualify to join the QA crowd? Cagen's quiz will set you straight. I scored as a respectable—I think—86 percent: "quirkytogether" (prone to relationships) QA with intermittent quirkyslut tendencies (prone to, um, sex between relationships). I'm already drawing out plans for the separate, conjoined houses I'll inhabit with a future mate, à la Frida. Cagen's movement feels organic to me—less whorish than many of the book-sales-driven phenomenons invading pop culture.

Finally, would you even want to join Cagen's ranks? Apart from her quiz, your answer will depend on a complex formula of precise personal data including, but not limited to, your favorite Missy Elliott song, the number of times you've seen Porky's, and how you like your eggs fried. If you're getting tired of your neighborhood bar scene, check out one of her readings this week. Just don't tell anyone you're there on the prowl, cause that's not quirky—that's just creepy. KATIE MILLBAUER

Sasha Cagen will appear at Third Place Books (17171 Bothell Way N.E., 206-366-3333), 6:30 p.m. Fri., Feb. 6; and at Elliott Bay Book Co. (101 S. Main St., 206-624-6600), 5 p.m. Mon., Feb. 9; and at University Book Store (4326 University Way N.E., 206-634-3400), 7 p.m. Mon., Feb. 9.


By Paco Underhill (Simon & Schuster, $25.95)

I go to Northgate Mall once a year to buy socks, underwear, shirts, and jeans. I'm out in 30 minutes. I love that. Paco Underhill, retail consultant and author of Why We Buy, spends most of his professional life in malls, and he loves them even more. I respect that. As a "retail anthropologist," he not only makes his living analyzing the shopping patterns of average mall-goers, he influences them as well by helping the Gap, Starbucks, and Saks get a sense of why we wander where we do and spend (some $308 billion per year) what we do.

For instance, beware the dreaded "shallow loop." You know the pattern: From your parking space, you rush through some inauspicious entrance into the mall, scan frantically for the one purchase upon which your life urgently depends—Jeans! Nylons! A bra that won't show through your new sweater!—then beat a hasty retreat. This is not why malls were created, Underhill argues. Instead, they seek deeper penetration. They want us to spend the day—that's why they offer food, movies, video arcades, even skating rinks and rock-climbing walls to keep us there.

Much of Call—breezy and conversational— is like a PowerPoint presentation to clients seeking to save their ailing malls. The book is padded with dialogues between Underhill and representative shoppers (teens, older women, befuddled men), which somewhat obscures its strengths in analysis. To wit: Malls are designed for slower walking, unlike the city's hectic bustle; malls are more feminine (to their detriment) than strip malls and big-box electronics stores, which skew more male; American malls lag beyond their foreign counterparts—for which Underhill does much of his business, it must be noted—when it comes to bringing good food, alcohol, decent movies, and attractive bathrooms into the retail arena.

Originated in Edina, Minn., some five decades ago, then popularized with the federally funded freeway-and-suburb binge, the mall is now on life support. (Just look at Northgate—or worse, Southcenter.) Most malls are now older than the boomers who grew up in them. Malls are now iconic—even ironic—and subject to ethnic makeovers and tear-the-roof-off experimentation. Yet we continue to go, as does Underhill, because they're so central and so fascinating. Sure, they helped kill off downtown retail centers, but now the two are converging: Today, the author sees mall-like "affinity centers" grouping like-minded merchants (e.g., Barnes & Noble, Starbucks, and Restoration Hardware). If that sounds familiar, look no further than University Village, whose safe, pleasant, predominantly outdoor shopping milieu has effectively killed University Way as a retail strip.

It's possible we should even be feeling nostalgia during what may be the twilight of the malls. "I put a large amount of the blame on the mall's fatal flaw—its lack of mercantile DNA," Underhill writes. "This is an industry driven by real estate, not retailing." With Amazon and Wal-Mart further eroding the sector, he notes, the "narrative device" of good store design will have to improve dramatically if malls and retailers expect us to play a further part in their story. BRIAN MILLER

Paco Underhill will appear at Third Place Books (17171 Bothell Way N.E., 206-366-3333), 7 p.m. Wed., Feb. 11.

THE GENOME WAR: How Craig Venter Tried to Capture the Code of Life and Save the World

By James Shreeve (Knopf, $26.95)

This is basically a book about middle-aged guys in white lab coats taking meetings, talking on the phone, and sending e-mails to one another: not, on the face of it, Robert Ludlum stuff. But you have to hand it to science writer James Shreeve (The Neandertal Enigma). He was smart enough to involve himself as an obser-ver of the race to decode the human genome from the get-go, tough enough to stick with the job even when some very important doors were slammed in his face, and sensitive enough to sense the blood lust driving his bespectacled cast of scientist characters, the titanic egos clashing behind their bland bureaucratic natterings.

The most colossal egos portrayed here belong to the leaders of the campaign to sequence and describe the 3 billion–odd coding elements of human DNA. It doesn't take much to render vivid Craig Venter, the ex–surf bum and school drop-out who in 1998 blithely announced to the world that he and some very big money were stepping in to do the job that hundreds of nonprofit scientists and dozens of labs worldwide were dawdling over. Shreeve's real accomplishment is capturing the fire raging inside externally colorless Dr. Francis Collins, the born-again biologist leader of the official government-financed genome sequencing effort pitted against Venter's Celera. The accomplishment seems all the greater when we learn that the secretive and suspicious Collins kept Shreeve at arm's length throughout the book's writing, while the expansive Venter all but invited him into the hot tub.

Despite that handicap, Shreeve manages to balance his treatment of the two, without slighting the dozens of peripheral figures, well known (e.g., DNA code discoverer James Watson) and obscure. By the time you reach the neck-and-neck finale of the race to the genome during the summer of 2000, you'll have gained a good basic education in the science and issues involved—along with a survey of some of the most baroquely topiary intellects alive today. ROGER DOWNEY

James Shreeve will appear at University Book Store (4326 University Way N.E., 206-634-3400), 7 p.m. Wed., Feb. 11.

THE SORROWS OF EMPIRE: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic

By Chalmers Johnson (Metropolitan Books, $25)

When Chalmers Johnson's Blowback was published in 2000, Foreign Affairs said it read "like a comic book." Reviewers mocked his assertion that U.S. interventionism abroad was creating the climate for catastrophic terrorist attacks at home.

No one was laughing a year later, when 9/11 seemed to vindicate Johnson's prescience. Now, the iconoclastic international-relations scholar is back. Sorrows is, if anything, a more harrowing and potentially controversial tome. The subtitle isn't just hyperbole; it accurately reflects Sorrows' contention that militarism could topple American constitutional democracy itself.

Yet this isn't just another left-wing excoriation of George W. Bush. Johnson's searing indictments of U.S. policy transcend party lines and extend farther back than the 2000 election. A swollen defense budget and massive troop deployment overseas, he argues, move America closer to a garrison state that starves domestic needs to feed the colonial impulse. Similar trends, Johnson claims, led to the downfall of the U.S.S.R.—a fate he foresees for the U.S. as well.

Indeed, Johnson's keen eye for historical comparisons is the book's greatest strength. Though Sorrows examines past empires (Roman, Japanese, British) and touches on a wide array of contemporary topics (war profiteering, secretive intelligence agencies, economic globalization), Johnson never loses focus. Each anecdote advances the book's larger thesis about an out-of-control defense apparatus.

Johnson's writing style is often exhilar-ating. Eschewing both wonky Beltway language and academic jargon, he writes with the white-hot fervor of a Baptist minister. This passionate rhetoric—and the chilling subject matter—might make Sorrows the most riveting political book published this year.

The volume's one off-putting component is its unrelenting pessimism. While painstakingly cataloging America's troubles, the author doesn't offer any alternative vision for the country until the book's end. His one-paragraph solution—restricting profligate Pentagon spending through congressional reform—feels skimpy and underdeveloped. Then he concludes that such reform "is difficult to imagine," which makes for a rather gloomy sermon. JEFF SHAW

Chalmers Johnson will appear at Trinity United Methodist Church (6512 23rd Ave. N.W., 206-624-6600, $5; advance tickets at Elliott Bay Book Co.), 7 p.m. Wed., Feb. 11.

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