Geisha and Other Books of 1997

Dusting off the Bookshelf

Film rights for Arthur Golden's first novel, Memoirs of a Geisha (Knopf, $25 hard), have just been bought by Columbia Pictures, but for God's sake, don't wait for the movie. This is one bestseller that delivers the shamelessly simple satisfactions of commercial fiction without the lackluster writing and careless editing that make so many popular novels disappointing, if not unreadable. Geisha is mind candy for smart people, an exquisitely executed piece of writing with a daringly imagined premise and the narrative energy of a fairy tale. It is not boring for a second. A geisha: In the Western popular imagination, she is the denizen of worlds both exotic and erotic, inhabitant of a role so heavily stylized as to obscure the identity of its player. The idea of seeing behind the made-up mask, of being invited into the private life of such a creature is tantalizing. This is the promise that Memoirs of a Geisha richly fulfills, giving us the first-person reminiscences of Sayuri, tracing the events that tear her from her childhood in a remote fishing village, catapult her into slavery in Kyoto's geisha district, then lead her to triumph over her enemies and misfortunes to become the most famous geisha in the world.

Every inch of the journey is paved with fascinating detail about geisha life: from makeup made of nightingale droppings to the cold-blooded auctioning of virginity. Yet realism and historical accuracy don't stop this narrative from being an archetypal story of good and evil, capture and escape, hateful cruelty and undying love. There's a good witch, a bad witch, an evil crone, a long-lost prince, even a frog. In opposition to a villainess as wildly vile as Cruella de Vil, we get a heroine whose virtues are virtually Bronte-esque: not only a pure heart and a bright intellect, but a pair of extraordinary -- especially in Japan -- blue-gray eyes.

That Arthur Golden, a young male American writer with a Masters degree in Japanese history, has been able to so confidently and believably cross gender, culture, and time to tell this tale is either a tour de force of the novelistic imagination -- or proof of reincarnation. It will be fascinating to see what he does next. -- Marion Winik

Lonesome is the operative word in Barry Hannah's 1997 collection of short stories, High Lonesome (Publishers Group West, $12 paper). With rich but tangled prose, Hannah creates a dark and jaundiced catalogue of Southern creeps and misfits astounding in their variety, most of them drunk, mean, and struggling against the "high lonesomes" in unique and perverse ways. (Drunk, mean, and perverted: must be Southern literature.) They are "never quite dead but little else," in the words of one character, men of misplaced passions who live in hovels by the railroad tracks, hairy little recluses and sodden geniuses doing battle with demons both public and private. In this fight they generally fail but still survive, squeezing grace from the most unlikely of places. It is a complex world in which our sympathies are both engaged and strained by characters as likable as they are repulsive, as real as they are unreal. For all of this depth, most of the stories in High Lonesome escape easy comprehension; some come damn close to escaping any comprehension at all.

At the root of the matter is Hannah's much-celebrated prose style. It is rich, yes, and strange and sexual and jarring and dark; it is, in the words of many, a unique American voice. It is also thick and abrupt, and in many places quite hard to understand: It would be a revelation, perhaps, if it weren't so infernally baffling. It is disjointed, self-conscious, and at times meaningless. Most of the stories in High Lonesome aren't stories for sinking into, but stories for puzzling over, for trying to discern just what Hannah wanted us to take away from a phrase like "love is a buttered clarinet." Perhaps our confusion is his goal. If so, he succeeds at an alarming rate.

Don't criticize what you can't understand, Bob Dylan advises, and in that spirit I will decline comment on perhaps half-dozen of Hannah's offerings ("Taste Like a Sword," "Through Sunset Into Racoon Night," and "Repulsed" among them). Still and all, there are some very good stories in High Lonesome, stories even I can understand. Among the best are "Carriba," a well-voiced white trash tale of death and retribution, and "Drummer Down," a dark elegy for a generous but heedless galoot. "Get Some Young," "Uncle High Lonesome," and the unexpectedly tender "Creature in the Bay of St. Louis" are all fine pieces as well.

Without a doubt, Hannah is a skilled writer with unique, whiskey-fueled sensibilities and a strangely sinister vision that deserves to be heard. He is at his best, however, when he is modest -- when he trusts his finer instincts and allows story to take precedence over style. In High Lonesome, that doesn't happen often enough.

-- Jay Hardwig

I went to college with a girl named Cindy. In the one class we shared, each day brought a new litany of depressing stories, one more bleak than the last. Really rotten stuff, and the sheer amount was staggering as was her unwillingness to admit that some of what was going on was well within her control. Sure, there were days when I thought she was just making it up, when I thought that her only true tragedy was a desperate need for attention. And there were other days that I truly empathized and wished that something could be done. Mostly, I just tried to avoid asking any sentence that sounded like "how's it going?" because, to be honest, it had all become strangely funny. It made me just want to go home and shower after speaking to her, wash away the guilt at silently laughing at her situation.

That is exactly what I wanted to do after reading Through the Habitrails by Jeff Nicholson (Bad Habit, $14.95 paper), a collection of comics that catalogues his lousy job, scary relationships, and search for inner peace. Through a haze of existential angst, Nicholson uses his simple but evocative drawings and direct text to illustrate exactly what happens when you get trapped and begin to gnaw off your own leg to find your way free. But Nicholson has at least one advantage over Cindy: He knows how darkly funny his situation is and, tongue in cheek, you can feel him laughing along beside you, knowing that if you didn't laugh, you would just have to cry until your body ran out of water.

This is not a fun read. You get to observe a human being literally pickle himself to escape from being sucked dry by his employers and watch him lash out at anything that gets in his way while he plans his suicide. As a finale, his one last hope forces him back into the same, sad cycle. It's not really the stuff from which good bedtime stories are made.

So why read it? I suppose the easiest answer is that the skewed humor puts his whole experience in perspective. He survived and has dealt with it enough to turn this book into something more than self-indulgent psychotherapy. But the hard answer may be that you can see yourself also trapped within this work, and how close a trip through the habitrails could be for any of us.

-- Adrienne Martini

In The Death and Life of Bobby Z (Knopf, $22 hard), Don Winslow has whipped up a flawed but entertaining imbroglio of drugs, guns, money, and assumed identities set in the trans-border desert netherworld of Mexi-Cali-Baja-Fornia. He's not the first to use this particular underworld as a backdrop, but he might be the wittiest to date.

Winslow's low-key prose rumbles under the narrative carrying the twisting, turning plot forward at a brisk pace. Juicy, oddball characters and sardonic humor separate Winslow from the pack. He engages the reader from cover to cover. The tale opens on Tim Kearney, career screw-up, serving time in San Quentin for knocking over a corner store on the drive home from a stretch in Chino Prison. The night clerk's court testimony nails Tim and his partner as lame-o deluxe when he recounts the robber's instructions: "Don't stickin' move, this is a fuck-up!"

Like a pardon from the governor, the DEA offers him a ticket to ride that he can't refuse. They convince Tim to impersonate Bobby Z, a vanished West Coast pot ringleader, long enough to participate in a body swap for a DEA agent being held by a Mexican drug lord. Once the masquerade begins, Tim/Bobby Z finds that being reborn as the coolest, most legendary weed rustler on the Coast -- his nonstop flight from Loserville to Luckytown -- comes with much unexpected baggage. Former lovers, a six-year-old son, and a colorful assortment of ex-partners and enemies loaded with animosity and deadly weapons all complicate his simple transformation. Now he's on the lam again with a first-grader in tow who's bent on playing superheroes -- like X-men vs. Magneto. And it seems like all of California is torn with indecision: Snuff him for who he is or snuff him for who he was.

Bobby Z was a legendary Man of Teflon, but Tim proves to be not without his own resources. He was a combat-decorated Marine in the Gulf War (dishonorably discharged, of course) and that experience, combined with street wiles, adrenaline, and dumb luck keep him and the boy alive long enough to set up a major showdown. The body count is fearsome.

Winslow is a gifted and exciting voice on the scene and if we hear the accents of Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen we shouldn't let it bother us. With cinematic scope and vivid imagery, his action sequences (and there are lots) almost read like a film script passing as a novel. Does he have major motion picture rights on his brain? Was he mentally casting Brad Pitt being chased through the desert dunes on Bobby Z's dirt bike with the littlest Mmmbop Hanson hanging on for dear life? Believe it.

The Death and Life of Bobby Z is a refreshing escapade, like cruising the Pacific Coast Highway in a GTO -- top down and a frosty beverage between your knees. Winslow has the goods to satisfy your mystery jones. A quick fix or a nasty addiction? Only time will tell.

-- Mike Shea

In 1976, Paul Fussell received the National Book Award for The Great War and Modern Memory, the central premise of which was that there are "some intersections of literature with life we have taken too little notice of." In Doing Battle: The Making of a Skeptic (Little Brown, $13.95 paper), the author again successfully brings "art and life into strange relation," this time as a memoir.

Doing Battle occasionally evokes two classics, Stop-Time by Frank Conroy and Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves, whom Fussell idolizes. He begins with a typical adolescence in Pasadena, before California became "an El Dorado of fools [and] Charles Mansons." That Fussell would describe his own high school as a "place where spelling was still taken very seriously as an intellectual achievement" reveals in part how the sarcastic "Boy Fussell" later would become a full-grown cynic. He remembers that the young women at Pomona College proudly resisted the social pressure "to embrace... flatware patterns [and] appear always in exactly the right clothes."

Then comes the wake-up call.

"I learned to kill," Fussell writes of his education at Officer Candidate School. "I learned to relish the prospect of killing... and to rejoice in the conviction of power and superiority it gave me." In the book's core moment, he is a 20-year-old second lieutenant, asleep on a French battlefield. He awakens, immediately after night combat, amidst scores of dead German boys in uniform. "Suddenly I knew that I was not and would never be in a world that was reasonable or just." Later wounded seriously, he recovers, but vows never to take orders again.

Doing Battle captures distinctive moments, not only of one life, but of a society the author believes to be "in essence absurd." However, this is not an anti-war memoir. Fussell, who edits The Norton Book of Modern War, is no pacifist. His condemnations here are by no means limited to war, and in fact include shots at the military, academia, and religion. Lumped together as targets, these topics amount to mere logs on a much larger Fussell blaze, fueled by years of lively testiness toward a wide variety of societal frauds.

Despite the gloom, not to mention gory details, Doing Battle possesses the advanced sense of humor one expects from the person who (in 1983) produced Class, an irreverent response to The Preppy Handbook. Other Fussell titles, including BAD, or The Dumbing of America and Thank God for the Atom Bomb and Other Essays illustrate his twin skills -- being both a great wit and a spectacular curmudgeon.

Still, any writer as provocative as Fussell demonstrates there is still a place for skeptics, unpopular though they may be. Like nearly everything Fussell has written over the last 20 years, Doing Battle is a study in irony -- in this case, a reminder that "the pursuit of happiness" can be snatched away without warning, and that war, though always terrible, is sometimes necessary.

-- Stuart Wade

Maybe I like Miss Manners because I secretly harbor desires of referring to myself in the third person as effortlessly and elegantly as she does herself. More likely, my admiration results from her irreverence and wit when it comes to dealing with the etiquette establishment. Her new series of "Basic Training Manuals," two of which have been published so far (Miss Manners' Basic Training: Communication and Miss Manners' Basic Training: Eating, Crown, $15 each, hard), make the distinct point of not talking down to the reader. For someone who received a book entitled Stand Up, Shake Hands, and Say How Do You Do at his 12th birthday, not talking down to the reader is quite an accomplishment for a book of etiquette.

The manuals consist of a question-and-answer format; Miss Manners takes the most cogent and telling letters from her 25-year stay at the Washington Post and as a syndicated columnist and answers them with wit and directness with a side of social commentary thrown in for good measure. The Communication manual, for example, discusses topics such as whether it is acceptable to wear a beeper to a dinner party, how long someone should remain on hold before hanging up in frustration, and whether it is all right to use the call-back code to reach someone who declined to leave a message, among other issues like Netiquette and phone tag. The Eating manual, in which Miss Manners acknowledges that proper eating etiquette "requires practice," although "if there is one thing we have a chance to practice, it is eating," covers touchy issues like "how to set a table so that the diners don't think of it as a multiple choice test," how to debone a fish, pound a crab, eat sushi properly, the spinach-in-teeth rule, and, germane to many Austinites' lives, rules for accommodating vegetarians and dispensing of hot food taken too blithely into the mouth.

Miss Manners defies our sense of what it means to learn our manners, but that's because she is deeply attuned to why we have manners in the first place -- not to create a stuffy, snickering environment but to make us feel at ease among others. -- Claiborne Smith

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