Potpourri for $100, Please...

Totally Unrelated Book Reviews


Health Online

by Tom Ferguson
Addison-Wesley, $17 paper

Little has generated more hype of late than the Internet. Entrepreneurs and corporations, in a mad frenzy to pick the bones of this medium clean, have marketed all manner of internet-related drivel, supplying cyber-skeptics with plenty of grist for their mills. But even the most steadfast skeptics would be hard-put to dismiss the value of Tom Ferguson's Health Online.

Though low-key, this reference book makes a compelling case that the Internet is a vital resource for those looking for information on something central to all of us: our health. The book's subtitle, "How to Find Health Information, Support Groups and Self-Help Communities in Cyberspace," is a pretty apt description of its contents. Arranged catalog-style, Health Online is part online primer, part online medical directory. Part I offers up the essentials of online culture and etiquette and includes a glossary of common terms that will help rig newbies with the necessary savvy to glide gracefully into cyberspace. Part II is a "step-by-step tour through the self-help neighborhoods" of America Online, CompuServe and Prodigy, with a brief discussion of some of the smaller networks. Part III outlines specific groups, networks, and information sources on the Internet: mailing lists, newsgroups, Web sites, etc. You will be able to find support groups for whatever ails or interests you, including cancer, endometriosis, depression, homosexuality, diabetes, and bodybuilding.

This book demonstrates that the Internet may revolutionize health care to the consumer's benefit. Those who are geographically or physically isolated can find support from home. And those who feel uneasy about attending live support groups, or whose schedules forbid such attendance, may anonymously, and on their own time, tap the vast reaches of cyberspace for succor. All in all,Health Online is a colossus of information enlivened by compassionate and engaging anecdotes, promoting a self-deterministic approach to dealing with one's health.

-- Katie Hafner and Andrea Perry Katie Hafner is the co-author of Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet, with Matthew Lyon.


Give Us A Kiss: A Country Noir

by Daniel Woodrell
Holt & Co., $22 hard

Doyle Redmond is the sort of reckless and remorseless criminal white trash that Americans really take a shine to. Especially when he's safely tucked away in as entertaining a novel as Daniel Woodrell's Give Us A Kiss: A Country Noir. There's nothing particularly dark about this book, but it does have a certain Raymond Chandler rhythm, just moved down the river a ways, into the heart of the Ozarks. Here in Howl County, Arkansas, Doyle comes from a hillbilly clan that takes a well-planned crime as a sign of refinement. The long line of incarcerated and fugitive Redmonds come complete with lost inheritance, hill country clan feuds, and names like Niagra and General Jo. So, when Doyle is sent to rustle his fugitive brother, Smoke, out of the hills, he tucks a pistol into his belt and you just know nothing good is gonna come of it.

The novel is delivered as a series of swift punches -- short chapters riddled with wily and inventive turns of phrase. While reading, I took to taping excerpts such as "[t]hen the screen door slammed, and out came this vision of hillbillyette beauty. She held a pistol in her hand in a fairly neighborly and utterly charming fashion" to the fridge, just for their clever wit. Woodrell's prose fairly dances off the page and the story doesn't disappoint either. As Doyle and Smoke brew up a mess of trouble with Johnny Law and the Ozarks Mafia, young hillbillyette beauties fall headlong for the brother criminals. Before long they've graduated into the ranks of their revered forefathers as legendary outlaws, blasting their way through to a fairly happy Hollywood ending.

The book reads like a summer movie, all fun, quick action and the dreamy kisses of first love. But it's smart enough that you won't have to feel any guilt in your pleasure. Let this one burn up a hot summer weekend for you. -- Kayte VanScoy


Pollen

by Jeff Noon
Crown, $23 hard

"Four-letter words. These four-letter words are ones people use every day. You want a four-letter word that really gets a reaction? Snot." -- Lenny Bruce

Well, Len, there's a lot of snot flying around Manchester in Jeff Noon's latest venture into the world of "vurt," the dangerous virtual reality games that have become not only an addiction, but a dangerous parallel world, in a future Britain. People are sneezing themselves to death and then turning into plants. Clouds of pollen whirl through the air, and while some Mancunians are allergic, some are not; policewoman Sybil Jones and a young taxi driver named Boda (short for Boadicea) who is a cog in Manchester's vast X-Cab network/cult are trying to get to the bottom of it.

Still, much of the excitement of Pollen is due to the ideas set up in Noon's highly overpraised debut, Vurt, and that's a shame, because this is a rare case of a sequel being vastly superior to its predecessor. Vurt was a major disappointment, a novel with a sad case of Science Fiction Syndrome, in which a novelist has many good ideas, spends the first half of the book gleefully throwing them out among the characters, and then nothing. Of course, this being SF, the ideas are quite complex and have to be juxtaposed against one another so the reader can get some idea of the issues at play, but without a plot, preferably backed up by a central idea, they're just ideas.

The thing is, Pollen has lots of ideas running around in it, and a darn good plot, all eventually focusing on mankind's relationship with the myths of death and rebirth it has invented to explain the turning of the seasons. The story starts with a gypsy cab driver (he's half-dog, half-human, the result of a past period of history when mankind was overwhelmed with a plague of horniness that caused people to have sex with other species and the dead, resulting in dogpeople, zombies, and who knows what else) driving out into zombie turf to pick up a fare that's been given him by Boda, who has fallen in love with him. She's a young girl, smelling of flowers, and within seconds of delivering her safely into the city center, he becomes the pollen's first victim. All we know is that she's called Persephone, which is a big clue in itself. Officer Jones, with her dogboy assistant, Kracker, is first on the scene, and, being a Shadow, a vurt-resistant telepath, she's able to access his last memories, filled with zombies and a young girl.

Jones has her own secrets: a zombie child kept secluded at home, and a daughter who has run off and vanished -- she turns out to be Boda, who has sublimated her real self to Columbus, the X-Cab magnate, a man with plans for the future of Manchester, none of them pretty. Boda, feeling guilt for the cabbie's death, becomes an outlaw, on the run from Columbus, the police, and the pollen that is claiming new victims by the hour, exacerbating the already poor relations between the various "pures" and mutants. Aided and abetted by Gumbo, a pirate broadcaster, reconciled tenuously with her mother, she sets forth on a voyage that eventually brings a motley crew to the vurt of Hades and a confrontation with Satan/John Barleycorn himself.

As with Vurt, there's a lot on the table at any given time, but this time Noon moves like a virtuoso as he deploys his alarms and surprises. Unfortunately, like I said, there's no understanding the novel's last pages without having read Vurt, but the metaphoric richness and surprising beauty of the finale make the task (and it is one) of reading the prequel worth it.

Noon's an amazing young talent, as his next book, Automatic Alice, a cybernetic recasting of Alice in Wonderland for children, will make clear when it is published later this year. That such a talent can survive the praise heaped on a clunky debut and develop so bounteously is immensely pleasing, and makes one look forward to what he is planning next.

Pollen will also undoubtedly be a great relief for people living in Austin, which some consider the allergy capital of the world. After all, you haven't yet had to drive down the streets windshield-wipering the snot off of your car just so you can see where you're going. As Jeff Noon makes clear, it could be a whole lot worse.

-- Ed Ward


I Was Amelia Earhart

by Jane Mendelsohn
Knopf, $18 hard

Jane Mendelsohn's first novel is slim -- it's small enough to fit inside your coat pocket, to slip under your pillow -- but the subject matter is anything but slight. In I Was Amelia Earhart, Mendelsohn re-imagines the story of Earhart's last flight. What if, instead of crashing into the sea, the aviatrix had landed on a desert island? If she had a second chance to live her life? It's an ambitious project. Earhart is one of those mythic figures whose image is fixed in our minds like a Warhol print: we see her with her short-cropped hair, silk shirt, leather pants, scarf fluttering at her neck. Mendelsohn's scheme is to give this image a voice, to draw Earhart out of the picture-frame and into our imaginations.

The novel recalls various episodes in Earhart's life: her first flight across the Atlantic as a passenger; her marriage to George Putnam, the publishing heir who hoped to profit from his wife's flying; her complicated relationship with her alcoholic navigator, Fred Noonan. But most importantly, it details Earhart's struggle with self-identity. Earhart, as Mendelsohn portrays her, is a divided person: Half public personality, the "great heroine" who "wore leather and silk with such glamorous nonchalance;" half a lonely, depressed woman who feels, as she approaches middle age, that she has "lived her entire life, having crossed the Atlantic solo and set several world records" and "has no one to share her sadness with." The novel reflects this self-division by switching frequently between third- and first-person voices. As Earhart explains, "Sometimes my thoughts are clearly mine. I hear them speak to me, in my own voice. Other times I see myself from far away, and my thoughts are ghostly, aerial, in the third person." It is a clever characterization of Earhart: insightful, complex, and believable.

Appropriately, the prose is super-lyrical. Here is how Earhart describes the first leg of her trip: "We became voyeurs of the intimate relationship between wind and sand. We watched the air draw fine lines on the surface of the desert and make wrinkles in the face of the wasteland. We saw a dust storm whip the ground into the air until the world disappeared from sight. Later, in the aftermath of the apocalypse, ominous black eagles appeared out of nowhere, winging around us, like carpetbaggers hoping to benefit from the devastation of a war." More prose poem than novel, more elegy than history, I Was Amelia Earhart has the ethereal quality of a shimmering silver plane looping towards the sun.

And like a departing plane, the novel fades as it progresses. Except for Earhart, the characters -- Putnam, Noonan -- are thinly drawn. The desert-island future Mendelsohn imagines for Earhart feels flimsy and stale, somewhere between a Hollywood remake of Robinson Crusoe and a Gilligan's Island rerun. The way to read this book, I think, is to forget it is a novel. Don't expect plot, rich characters, dramatic episodes. Instead, think of it as an extended poem, and let the inward-looking lyricism of the prose carry you away.

-- Tamsin Todd

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