This Week's Reads

Starbuck O'Dwyer, Anthony B. Chan, Chris Abani, Jennifer Vogel, and Dean King.

Red Meat Cures Cancer

By Starbuck O'Dwyer (Vintage, $13) Lord knows our fat-assed, SUV–driving, supersized nation deserves all the satire it can get. Plus fries. Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation helped sound the alarm that we're living in a self-inflicted obesity epidemic (itself partly the result of our country's unprece-dented affluence and obstinate immobility); there's even a recent Sundance documentary, Super Size Me, about a guy who goes on an all-McDonald's diet for a month—with predictably disastrous results. Given such a big, fat, high-cholesterol target, it's surprising that Starbuck O'Dwyer couldn't arrive at juicier results in his first novel. His rather antic, slapdash Red Meat centers on a midcareer corporate everyman suffering a midlife crisis at the worst possible moment. Widowed, unhappy 48-year-old Schuyler "Sky" Thorne labors for a fast-food chain, Tailburger, based in upstate New York. Its products are wildly unhealthy, and he knows it. Worse, the company founder wants to make them even more unhealthy (by undercooking the meat, adding more grease, etc.) and to market them ever more crassly—think Harmony Korine movies, gangsta rap, and cyberporn. Sound ridiculous? Of course—that's an entire school of satire, to be as exag-gerated and outlandish as possible. Yet satire has to have some kind of point to its silliness. Sky's boss, a history buff, has changed his name to Frank Fanoflincoln, after our 16th president, which is funny but pointless. So too are O'Dwyer's scattershot tangents on greedy sports agents, corrupt politicians, and—I hear cobwebs blowing here—the dot-com bubble. Singly, any one of those targets would be deserving of our ridicule. Collectively, they amount to a sloppy picaresque as Sky clings to his pension, appeases his boss, and films a sex tape far tamer than Paris Hilton's. The author is an Ivy League attorney with roots in upstate New York (if not fast food) who also comments on legal affairs for NPR, and here the breadth of his résumé may work against him. He gives us every item on the gut-busting American menu instead of cooking the bugs out of his main course. BRIAN MILLER Starbuck O'Dwyer will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co., 5:30 p.m. Fri., Feb. 27. Perpetually Cool: The Many Lives of Anna May Wong

By Anthony B. Chan (Scarecrow Press, $45) UW communications professor Anthony Chan's bio of Hollywood's first Chinese- American starlet communicates in the manner of my car radio set on scan: Every few seconds, just after it's hooked your attention, the narrative changes stations with a jolt. The book is really a collection of disjointed, overlapping essays circling the fascinating figure of Wong Liu Tsong, the Los Angeles–born immigrant laundry-man's daughter who became Anna May Wong (1905–1961), broke into silent movies at age 14, scandalizing her dad, and shot to the top like Chinese fireworks. At 5 feet 7 inches, she towered over Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Bagdad and her alleged lover Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express, strutted the English stage with Laurence Olivier, hit it big in the '20s heyday of German cinema, then finally sank into bit parts and TV roles back in America. (Produced in Britain, the 1929 Piccadilly played here earlier this month; a DVD restoration will arrive this fall from Milestone.) Because censors forbade Asians to kiss white men on film, and because movies are about sex and death, Wong's characters were perpetually doomed on film—unless they were impenitent killers. As she put it in her cornball wiseacre way, "I died a thousand deaths." Off-camera, she died a thousand deaths as Asian roles went to whites like Myrna Loy in The Crimson City. Austrian Luise Rainer got the Oscar for The Good Earth, the movie Wong most wanted. Goddamn foreigners taking American jobs! Based mostly on secondary sources, Chan's bio can't quite pluck out the heart of Wong's mystery, but it's tantalizingly intriguing (so much so that two other bios have just been published). She seems to have been amazingly tough, as a girl had to be in an era when shopkeepers put signs in their window reading "Dogs and Chinese Not Allowed." She was also incandescent on the flapper social scene, the epitome of "silk-sheath-skirt chic." Chan gallantly tries to protect her reputation, suggesting that when alcoholic cirrhosis and a heart attack killed her right after signing to star in Flower Drum Song, "It was almost as if her death . . . came more from exhaustion after having lived a full and eventful life [than] from her health issues." Nice try: The girl partied herself to death, like her white doppelgänger Louise Brooks. Chan's done his homework, but often he tendentiously tries to impose theory on an anarchic life—although the book's centri-fugal structure is perhaps appropriate, given her unruly passions. He should've heeded the warning of Charlie Chan, which he quotes: "Theory, like mist on eyeglasses, obscures fact." TIM APPELO Anthony B. Chan will appear at University Book Store, 7 p.m. Mon., March 1. Graceland

By Chris Abani (Farrar Straus Giroux, $24) The ghetto bars and drug houses of Lagos, Nigeria, are hardly a place for a young boy. Chris Abani's GraceLand paints an often horrific and sometimes profound portrait of life in one such ghetto and of its victim: a 16-year-old Elvis impersonator named Elvis Oke. Abani's narrative weaves together several stories with an ease that masks an underlying structural complexity. The novel begins in 1983 with Elvis' attempt to eke out a living doing hip-thrusting dances for tourists on the beaches of Lagos. In alternating chapters, Abani reveals Elvis' early childhood during the late '70s and slowly pieces together a Faulknerian litany of family tragedies that is, at times, almost too painful to read. Elvis is a surprising, conflicted character. He suffers through the usual teenage pangs of sexual awakening and parental conflict. He likes American action movies and rock music. He reads Rainer Maria Rilke, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison; and he is a serious student of dance. Yet he's also tempted by the power of wealth-at-any-cost and lured by incestuous sexual fantasies. Meanwhile, Redemption—a friend who seems to have his hand in every corrupt deal in Lagos—draws Elvis into the world of coke smuggling, prostitution, and forged passports. Alongside Elvis' tale, Abani splices in epigrams of Igbo lore, ritual, and recipes—plus regular pronouncements by the oracular King of the Beggars. The author, a Nigerian dissident and exile now living in L.A., infuses GraceLand with Nigerian politics. He hints at a growing popular resistance to the military regime with the same temerity that got him imprisoned and tortured during the '80s and '90s. The novel, Abani's third after a 16-year gap, is hardly perfect. At times, his prose wants more precision and pruning. Yet the figure of Elvis captures something essential about postcolonial Africa. His hero's child's-eye view allows us to perceive Nigerian politics and poverty with brutal clarity. Though a work of fiction, GraceLand also serves as a history far more powerful and fantastic than any official account of Nigeria's teetering progress toward democracy. That history is still being written in blood. Yet for those like Abani who have escaped Nigeria, GraceLand suggests its wounds may finally begin to heal. PATRICK O'KELLEY Chris Abani will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co., 7:30 p.m. Mon., March 1. Flim-Flam Man: A True Family History

By Jennifer Vogel (Scribner, $23) The memoir's not dead yet. Just when you thought you'd had enough abusive alkie parenting, desperate loveless humping, penurious childhoods, drug-gulping adolescences, and best-selling attempts to overcome and make peace with it all, former Seattle journalist Jennifer Vogel delivers a coolly written, untherapeutic story of life and love with her criminal father, helping redeem the genre, if not herself. Largely absent during the author's Midwestern childhood, John Vogel was an arsonist, scammer, bank robber, and expert counterfeiter. Opening with his 1995 funeral, Flim-Flam alternates family history with chapters set during his final months on the lam. While the story has plenty of absurdist novelty value (e.g., the author gathering her friends to watch Dad portrayed on Unsolved Mysteries), it has much universal resonance as well. Free from self-pity or Mommie Dearest histrionics, the book movingly depicts the pain of growing up in a disintegrating family and the fear of both losing and being too close to a horribly flawed man. "I was learning a particular sort of independence," Vogel writes of her teenage descent into cold rage and delinquency. "It was gradual at first. But then, all at once, I realized that nothing terrible happened when I broke the rules." Those rules extend to family life as father and daughter flee together to Seattle in the mid-'80s, where they establish a kind of "don't ask, don't tell" approach to their mutually wayward lives—until he eventually gets busted for bank robbery. (In Seattle, it should also be disclosed, the author spent a year in the late 1990s working with me at this paper; today she's managing editor at one of our sister publications, City Pages, in Minneapolis.) Initially, I was frustrated at Vogel's refusal to get beyond her own bio to identify a cultural context, apart from '70s song titles, for her family's quirks. This seems like the natural journalist's impulse: to view every human story through the lens of a larger issue, as Laura Blumenfeld does in her recent memoir, Revenge. As it turns out, however, Vogel's book is ultimately more affecting for its own small, sad dimensions. Precisely where I felt the story was starting to drag with too much mundane detail, it was, in fact, quietly building momentum. And Vogel's style is just as quietly poetic and restrained. She writes, "Dad had never been interested in the slow, dutiful mechanics of becoming successful—only in the serene, wrapped-in-cashmere end result." Permitting herself some admiration for Dad's charm and resourcefulness, Vogel finally owns up to his callous, manipulative side as well—and her own. (What was it Janet Malcolm said about all journalists?) Suffusing Flim-Flam is Vogel's troubling sense that at any point she might face the fate that's common to all of us: She might become just like Dad. MARK D. FEFER Jennifer Vogel will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co., 7:30 p.m. Tues., March 2; and at University Book Store, 7 p.m. Wed., March 3. Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival

By Dean King (Little Brown, $24.95) There's just something a little wrong about enjoying a survival narrative. There you are, lying on the couch, sipping a glass of merlot, and reading about shipwrecked sailors so desperately thirsty they'll drink camel piss. But I have to admit I have a weakness for the whole Shackleton–Into Thin Air–Touching the Void man-against-the-wild genre. And Dean King delivers a whopper of an endurance story in this new nonfiction account about an American merchant ship that ran aground in 1815 at Cape Bojador on the western edge of the Sahara. (The title is a bit of pedantry by the author: The old Arabic name was Zahara, and he has us journey "on" the desert rather than in it.) As we learn in the throat-parching story of the Commerce, the following two-month odyssey was a trip into hell, a sequence of hardships that went from bad to worse to abysmal. Led by ship's master James Riley (who rivals Jack Aubrey as the epitome of a stalwart sea captain), the crew of the Commerce is tested by dehydration, starvation, blistering sunburn, dysentery, oozing sores, gritty irifi winds, and the nuclear heat of the Sahara. Not much was then known about this 3,000-mile expanse of sand, and King's tale finds the crewmen lurching blindly through terra incognita. Early in the book, there's a wonderful cinematic moment of hopelessness when Riley and his 11 men climb a sea cliff only to find an expanse of lifeless dunes stretching to the horizon. That's the time most of us would crawl under a rock and wait for the end. But Riley's crew presses on and eventually stumbles upon fellow human beings—which proves worse than solitude. They're captured, stripped of their belongings, and made slaves by Sahrawi nomads. When the stranded sailors aren't worked literally to the bone by their starving masters, they're fought over by scimitar-wielding bandits on camels. Although King's account has a rousing, page-turning quality, he does have a tendency to oversell his heroes a bit. You get the feeling he feels compelled to market Riley and his crew as paragons of virtue rather than letting their faults and strengths speak for themselves. And on a few rare occasions, King's descriptions of Arab nomads veer into stereotype (bulging eyes, fierce looks, and the like). Nevertheless, Skeletons makes a most unpleasant trip into pleasant reading. Just make sure you've got a large beverage close at hand—though preferably not camel piss. ANDREW ENGELSON Dean King will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co., 5:30 p.m. Wed., March 3.

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