The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus
By Owen Gingerich (Walker, $25)
In 2002, Smithsonian astronomer emeritus Owen Gingerich published his magnum opus: An Annotated Census of Copernicus' De revolutionibus orbium coelestium libri sex. That 400-page volume, result of 30 years burrowing through the rare-book collections of the world, describes in minute detail the 600 copies of two editions of the same book, in which the great Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus asserted that the Earth revolves round the sun, not vice versa. Here, Gingerich takes us on what sometimes feels like a day-by-day re-enactment of his feat, library by mildewed library, page by annotated page, flyspeck by flyspeck.
The resulting Book should by rights be stupefyingly dull to anyone not professionally concerned with 16th-century star charts, early printing technology, and Renaissance penmanship, but somehow Gingerich's enthusiasm for his dusty subject, his innocent assumption that the reader will be as gripped by his quest as he was manages to keep one going through list after list of latinized Polish and German names, enigmatic geometric diagrams, and fuzzy photographs of crabbed scrawls in unknown languages. These latter are the real point of Gingerich's study, which was undertaken to discover whether Arthur Koestler was right to assert that nobody read Copernicus' great study of the heavens in the master's own lifetime. Well, thanks to Gingerich, we now know that Koestler was wrong, though after 300 pages and more footnotes than I've encountered since grad school, I'm still not clear whether I'm supposed to be pleased or disappointed. ROGER DOWNEY
Owen Gingerich will appear at University Book Store, 7 p.m. Mon., March 29.
By Tom Carson (Picador, $14)
Is it possible that the secret history of the 20th century can be read through the pop-cultural references of the baby boom? So it would seem from this ephemera-crammed fantasia (new in paper), one of the oddest and most inventive titles of last year. Each of its seven distinct sections is told by a different castaway from the famous sitcom. Each character seems only dimly aware of his or her future fate on the eternal island; that endlessly rerun TV existence stands parallel to their separate stories—all seven of which, in turn, bear a curiously parallel aspect. Yet in common to each is an even more embedded quasi-authorial presence—perhaps like the Architect in the Matrix movies—whom we might as well call G (not to be confused with God, however).
G isn't exactly Gilligan, whom we find—in veiled form as '50s beatnik Maynard G. Krebs, whom Gilligan actor Bob Denver first played on TV—in a Rochester, Minn., nuthouse. The very name "Gilligan" recurs in anagrammatic form throughout Wake, like a kind of genetic code, perhaps damaged, that all these stories share. And the stories are pretty damn entertaining. Here we have Ginger at a Palm Springs sex party with Sinatra, JFK, and Sammy Davis Jr. There's the Skipper as a World War II PT boat commander, again bumping into JFK. The Professor becomes progenitor to the CIA, a supercilious Cold War ogre fond of A-bombs and pansexual encounters. Mary Ann mixes with Holly Golightly, dates Jean-Luc Godard, and possibly inspires Breathless! Lovey (Thurston's wife) becomes a smack-addict lesbian lover to Daisy Buchanan on Fitzgerald's Long Island. And poor befuddled Thurston himself helps sponsor the career of future spy Alger Hiss. Among other political cameos are Nixon, Bob Dole, both Bushes, and Roy Cohn. On the celebrity-fictive front are Ed Wood, Holden Caulfield, Delores Haze, and Bettie Page.
Wake becomes a tsunami of the last century's detritus, a paranoid Pirandello-esque wallow in promiscuously mixed signifiers. The Skipper leads to Ernest Borgnine's PT boat pilot McHale, leading to a gag about Ethel Merman, Borgnine's future wife. The characters begin to rebel against their narratives and narrator; Ginger grouses about "a vapid situation comedy about some castaways." No one wants to be marooned in their own particular story; they're all trying to escape somehow, to get off their narrative island, perhaps to reach G (their maker?) back in Cold War America circa 1964 (when the show debuted, only to run four seasons), even while they sense that century is gone.
Tom Carson isn't merely delivering some slapdash pastiche. Every so often, he'll stop his billiard-ball riffing and deliver a clean shot of prose, like Ginger's description of JFK's "grin strikingly if oddly reminiscent of autumn leaves with a pack of Chiclets at the center." Becalmed in enemy waters, the Skipper recalls, "If there were a Richter scale for silence, we'd have been off it."
Espionage also runs throughout Wake. It is, in some sense, a political novel that charts the rise of the Cold War's military-industrial apparatus. A certain master spy named Jack Egan flits about each of the seven segments; and he has a certain boomer-age son who goes by various permutations of G—Gilbert, Gilly, Gil, etc. Is Egan Sr. real? Are the castaways real? Is Wake's increasingly dark chronicle—what Mary Ann calls "this flimsy, endlessly mutable, peculiarly clickety-clacking maze"—only to be believed as a construct of phantom G? Carson's sensibility is like Don DeLillo filtered through the Nickelodeon Channel; at a certain point, Hiroshima and Godzilla—yes, he's here, too—begin to assume equal importance. For poor lost G, wherever he is, whoever he is, it's all TV, all the time, with every channel being received all at once. BRIAN MILLER
Around the Bloc: My Life in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana
By Stephanie Elizondo Greist (Villard, $33.95)
Putting into practice the phrase "Don't knock it till you've tried it," young journalist Stephanie Elizondo Greist spent much of her college and postcollege years living in Communist, post-Communist, and socialist countries in order to decide for herself what was so scary about the color red. This chronicle of her experiences, which began in the late '90s, is less journalism or political analysis than a personal travel memoir. Along the way, we get glimpses of each country's culture and politics, raising various issues that Greist leaves unanswered. In this way, Bloc is somewhat of a tease, but it's also fast-paced, observant, and often funny to read.
Greist's affair with Marx and Mao starts with a year-abroad program from the University of Texas. In Moscow, the self-described Chicana-hippie-feminist is incensed by the political apathy and unabashed materialism of the younger generation (though she marvels at the reverence they hold for art and, especially, literature). Then there's the patriarchy to rail against, but she also manages some fun. The Texan, who learned Russian in college in hopes of becoming a foreign correspondent, develops a taste for vodka, eats a spectacular volume of beets, and nabs herself a Russian boyfriend.
Later, in Beijing, she works as an editor at an English-language news magazine that's basically a Communist Party mouthpiece. She witnesses university life and finds it to be (surprise!) militaristically demanding, equally as awful as Russia's destitute, dreary colleges. She also develops a taste for snake blood and spends time with artists in the city's designated Cultural District, where again, like in Russia, the younger generation is obsessed with making money.
Greist winds up in Havana during the Elián González controversy. Pleased to finally find a population that's actively political, she attends rallies alongside diverse Cubans: Mothers march for Elián; patriots cheer for Castro. She wonders what will happen when Castro dies and whether Western tourist dollars will destroy his legacy, but she doesn't pass judgment on whether this would be good or bad. Instead, she paints a vibrant Cuba with a lively Santeria culture, a unique love for dance, and a generally happy (though also hungry and frustrated) population.
Greist is a curious, attentive traveler, and her clear, ordered writing style makes Bloc a pleasurable and eye-opening read. We see her transformed by her travels, evolving from an idealistic vegetarian feminist in Moscow to a turtle-eating young woman who enjoys the attention of Cuba's notoriously aggressive men. Her writing rides the line between the light travelogue and the overtly political, and she spares us the whiny, uninteresting details that tend to mar travel memoirs. If you're left wanting to learn more about the Russian mafia, civil rights in China, or Cuba's economic despair, perhaps Greist intends to address those in another book. Or, with Bloc as inspiration, you could go there yourself. KATIE MILLBAUER
Natalie Wood: A Life
By Gavin Lambert (Knopf, $25.95)
Pauline Kael, in her deliciously merciless review of West Side Story, called Natalie Wood "machine-tooled," and I suppose, in a sense, she was right. A child actor forged by a stereotypically ambitious stage mother to be the family breadwinner, Wood never lost that efficient, freshly scrubbed, sometimes desperate desire to please. It was evident even when adult roles called for her to be sexy; she's equally unconvincing as both the girl and the woman in 1962's Gypsy. Yet that same quality is precisely what made her a star: You could see her working very, very hard for approval, and there was something touching in the effort that drew audiences to her. This affectionate new bio gets straight to the heart of the matter, illuminating the particular appeal of the angst-ridden deb of Rebel Without a Cause and Splendor in the Grass. "When the persona fitted the role," Splendor director Elia Kazan says here, "you couldn't do better."
Gavin Lambert had a long friendship with Wood—she'd starred in the movie version of his Inside Daisy Clover in 1965—and he's both clear-eyed and sympathetic to her fits and furies. Wood emerges as a nervy, tentative, yet thoughtful woman who "never entirely forgot the shock of discovering a world outside that only looked uncannily like its studio facsimile." Lambert's devotion probably has Kael cackling madly in her grave, but the generous access given him by Wood's intimates—husband Robert Wagner is remarkably candid—captures the complex spirit of a whole human being. (And if tales here of her camaraderie with homosexual friends don't make her a gay icon, nothing will.)
Wood's nebulous 1981 drowning is discussed in depth for those still curious. But, as the title suggests, it's her life that's of more interest, and Lambert does her justice—she comes off like a ball of fire. After losing her virginity as a teenager to 43-year-old Rebel director Nicholas Ray, she promptly calls co-star Dennis Hopper for a roll in the hay, who remembers, "I was astonished. And this was the 1950s, when girls who'd turned 16 only a few months earlier just didn't do things like that." Anybody who can give Dennis Hopper a jolt is my kind of girl. STEVE WIECKING