Author by Author

Notable Folks in Their Own Write

Reviews by: Jim Hightower | D. Marion Wilkinson | Jan Grape | Tom Grimes | Tom Doyal | Evelyn Palfrey | Marian E. Barnes | Elizabeth Crook | Jim Bob McMillan | Barbara Bonds Thomas | Jesse Sublett

Jim Hightower is one of 11 local literati contributing reviews in this issue.
photograph by Kenny Braun

There is a great deal of editorial hand-wringing these days about the nastiness of political campaigns, and many yearn for the "good old days" when the political arena was graced with statesmen who engaged both their worthy opponents and the larger public in a learned discourse on the great issues of the day. You want learned discourse? Try this bit from one of Texas' greatest statesmen, Sam Houston, characterizing an opponent in his 1841 campaign: "You prate about the faults of other men, while the blot of foul unmitigated treason rests upon you. You political wrangler and canting hypocrite, whom the waters of Jordan could never cleanse from your political and moral leprosy."

Campaigning - a term derived from wars - has never been nice, but the difference today is the power of television advertising to spread the nastiness so quickly, and the power of money (needed to buy the ads) to corrupt the process so thoroughly. Even the manipulative, raucous, negative, dirty, money-funded, bullshit campaigns we mostly get now are not as new as we assume. In fact, they can be traced to a time, a place, and a face: 1950, California, Dick Nixon. This is the virtue of Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady by Greg Mitchell (Random House, $25 hard), a book that relives Nixon's infamous race for the U.S. senate against Helen Gahagan Douglas in 1950. In this campaign, he red-baited her as being "pink right down to her underwear," and his tactics were so deplorable that she was the one who first stuck him with the "Tricky Dick" nickname.

This particular Senate campaign is worth reliving not only because it produced the politically malignant Nixon we (or at least I) later loved to loathe, but also because it put American politics on the slippery downward slope of successful negative politicking that is making such a mockery of democracy today. A grocer's son who rose to - and plummeted from - the highest political perch in the land, Nixon was a moderate Republican congressman going into this campaign, and he emerged as a scowling scoundrel with a boundless appetite and aptitude for political mischief. Red-baiting, racism, corporate money, smear campaigns, anti-Semitism, enemies lists, slush funds, media manipulation, and the general vileness that is his presidential legacy were all pioneered in the 1950 race that became known as "the dirtiest in state history."

In addition to the usual rummaging around in newspaper morgues to research his book, Mitchell is the first biographer to root through the Nixon Library for archived material that sheds light on this campaign. Plus, the author draws on previously unpublished material discovered - appropriately enough - in a trunk in some dark corner of the National Archives in Washington (my guess is that someday a floor tile will be lifted in a similar dark area, and there will be the missing 18 minutes from the Watergate tapes). As a result of this useful poking about, Mitchell has produced a book that not only depicts the drama of Nixon and Douglas, but also has cameo roles by everyone from Katherine Hepburn to Eleanor Roosevelt, Cecil B. DeMille to Earl Warren.

Among the discoveries in Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady are that the man himself was deeply involved in the smear tactics of this campaign (having had assorted Watergate tapes released in the 1990s, with their raw ugliness intact, it is instructive to read about Nixon's personal involvement decades earlier in crafting anti-Semitic innuendoes against Ms. Douglas); that the dirty-tricks tactics that came to light in the Watergate fiasco were presaged in 1950 by the mailing of fake pro-Douglas postcards from a non-existent group called "The Communist League of Negro Women"; and that both John and Robert Kennedy supported Nixon against Douglas.

My own theory is that Richard Milhous Nixon is not dead. He embodied way too much evil, paranoia, puss, bile, and hatred to just up and die. This is a guy who burned so fiercely with the raw need to conquer those whom he perceived to be his enemies that he would shred, bend, twist, and use everything and anything - including his dog "Checkers," the IRS, a suitcase of cash from Archer Daniels Midland, the youth of America, Elvis Presley, and the U.S. Constitution - to "win."

Whether or not his body actually is in that tomb in Southern California, he certainly lives on as the guiding spirit of the unprincipled cynics in charge of both political parties today. Newt Gingrich, just to take the Republican example, is Nixon without the five-o'clock shadow, having now institutionalized the tactics of the master. It is a politics that is destructive to our democratic process, that leads directly to corrupt government controlled by the moneyed elites and that is a total turnoff for the public. But, as Nixon learned half a century ago, it works. The key to killing Nixon - and finally giving democracy a chance - is to drive the stake of total campaign finance reform, including the outlawing of any private money going into elections, through his spiritual heart. -Jim Hightower

When I learned my first novel had been selected as a finalist for the 1996 Spur Awards, I immediately went out and bought the other two contenders. As soon as I read Richard S. Wheeler's Sierra, I knew mine was a lost cause. The novel was a remarkable chronicle of the winners and losers of the California gold rush, meticulously researched and brilliantly plotted. My only consolation was in hearing Wheeler's acceptance speech at the Western Writers convention, during which he credited the work of his Tor/Forge editor, who had read a draft of the novel and then sent 30 pages of comment and suggestions. I had similar editorial struggles with Not Between Brothers and likewise owed many debts for the book's success. At any rate, I have since become a fan of Wheeler's work, and was pleased to be assigned his most recent novel for review. The Buffalo Commons by Richard S. Wheeler (Forge, $24.95 hard) does not disappoint. Wheeler has applied his considerable talents to the ecological war being waged in his home state of Montana. Laslo Horoney, a Texas real estate magnate and one of the wealthiest men in the world, dreams of releasing free roaming buffalo in the sparsely populated regions of eastern Montana, western Dakota and northern Wyoming - The Big Empty. He backs his vision with around four billion of his own dollars, buying up what acreage he can from hardscrabble framers and ranchers more than ready to quit, and sets his crews to work removing barbed wire, shacks and grain silos, and planting native grasses. Such a monumental project immediately meets with monumental obstacles, first in the spirit of the Nichols family, a fourth-generation ranching family of considerable holdings and deep ties to their land, with whom Horoney sympathizes deeply. Soon others enter the fray, including state and federal bureaucrats more interested in asserting their own authority than in doing what is best for the taxpayers they serve; ecological scholars and experts on corporate payrolls in pursuit of their own agendas; and wealthy, new age "greens," self-appointed defenders of "nature," adept at "monkey-wrenching" the best efforts of all concerned. His conflict in motion from the beginning, Wheeler allows his plot to stew at a thriller's pace. I was delighted by the novel's many surprises.

An additional strength of The Buffalo Commons is Wheeler's ability to approach an emotional issue from the viewpoint of the many opposing sides. What the author accomplishes, to my mind, is demonstrating in subjective terms the human cost of our ecological mistakes, the confusion about what we should do about them, and the pain and suffering that will inevitably mar any future course we decide to follow. The novel explains that "nature" is a relative value, continually in a state of flux. None of the experts can agree on what exactly "nature" is. This becomes a problem when well-intentioned activists attempt to "restore" it. The only thing everyone knows for certain is that we cannot go on as we have. To do so is a guarantee of apocalyptic doom.

Given the commercial success of A Perfect Storm, The Other Side of the River, and Into Thin Air, I initially wondered why Wheeler did not approach the ecological issues that form the heart of The Buffalo Commons in the non-fiction arena. He certainly lends the subject the veracity of considerable research. Wheeler, however, is a gifted novelist at the height of his lengthy career, and after I completed The Buffalo Commons it no longer mattered that he chose fiction as his format. It would not surprise me if Wheeler collects his third Spur Award for his ambitious efforts. This novel is testament to the changing nature and importance of fiction produced by my colleagues at Western Writers of America. Far from genre work, The Buffalo Commons elbows its way beside the best of contemporary literature. This novel of healing deserves a wide read.

The Buffalo Commons, among other things, is a parable in 69 chapters of our immediate and terribly uncertain future. Its themes transcend the boundaries of the novel's northern plains setting. Central Texans, in particular Austinites, have long been at ecological odds. The tide turns one way and then the other, but I don't see where much ground is gained. Meanwhile, experts predict that the Austin-area population will double by the year 2020 and we have no plan, no common ground. Emotionally charged and polarized combatants would do well to read The Buffalo Commons and open their minds to its controversial themes - its plea for understanding and its hope for the wisest course. Mr. Wheeler gives us a novel of pain and conflict beautifully told in the hope that cooler heads will prevail as we redirect our pioneer inheritance, ingenuity and energy toward the third millennium and a new age. The hardy characteristics that once conquered nature must find a way to heal her, all while never forgetting that human beings belong on the face of the earth, and the earth belongs to the cosmos, and nature/God rules all. If you happened to read the "Acknowledgments" to my novel, Not Between Brothers, you will find this message to my young sons: "Spur up, boys. The future's your wilderness." I'd like to think Mr. Wheeler agrees. And I'd also like to think we both believe we'll find our way. -D. Marion Wilkinson

Jan Grape
photograph by Kenny Braun

John Douglas, retired FBI profiler and co-author of Obsession : The FBI's Legendary Profiler Probes the Psyches of Killers, Rapists, and Stalkers and Their Victims and Tells How to Fight Back (Scribner, $26 hard), sees his current job as "educating the public and the police about the obsessive sexual predators who dwell among us." The public is learning, becoming more aware through media depictions such as The Silence of the Lambs and this year's television show, Profiler, which all have some basis from Douglas. He plumbs the minds and motives of those who commit these terrifying and seemingly inexplicable offenses. In particular, his studies of three obsessional killers, Ed Gein, Gary Heidnick, and Ted Bundy, were used as a composite prototype of the "Buffalo Bill" character in The Silence of the Lambs. (Douglas himself was the model for Lamb's Special Agent Jack Crawford.)

Nonetheless, much remains for the public to learn and Obsession forges a considerable path in providing insight, especially insight into the "unsub," the law enforcement term for the "unknown subject," who stalks and rapes and murders. In a recent phone interview with Douglas, who has been promoting Obsession across the nation, Douglas mentioned specifics about unsubs. "We have 1,700 police departments in America and still there are no standards for reporting, tracking, or dealing with these unsubs," he says. "We're still trying to get information computerized on a national level. The FBI has been working for more than a dozen years to do this with its VICAP (Violent Criminal Apprehension Program)."

But the unsubs are not the only obsessed figures in Douglas' book. There are the men and women who become obsessed with hunting down the unsubs, sometimes to the detriment of their own marriages, families, and well-being. We meet the families of the victims, some of whom become obsessed with seeing that their loved ones did not die in vain. They work tirelessly to get tougher laws passed against stalking and to get states to register sexual offenders and form support groups for other families. Last but not least, the book covers those individuals obsessed with helping to recognize the young people who could grow up to be predators. Or how education of the young can help combat crime and despair. The reader soon realizes what a deep sense of compassion Douglas has for the victims and their families. When he first began talking to groups, people would gather afterwards to speak with him; he thought they wanted to shake his hand and say they enjoyed his talk but what they actually wanted was to talk about their loss or struggle to cope. Or about being a victim of violent crime - like rape. "What could I have done? Was it my fault?" they ask. Obsession sounds a resounding "No."

This is the third book from Scribner by Douglas and his co-author Mark Olshaker. Olshaker, a novelist and filmmaker who wrote and produced the Emmy-nominated PBS Nova program Mind of a Serial Killer, also won an Emmy in 1994 as the writer of Roman City. Their first book together, Mindhunter, details the elite FBI Investigative Support Unit which Douglas headed as it follows the Atlanta child murderer, San Francisco's Trailside Killer, and Seattle's Green River Killer - a chase that nearly cost him his life. Their second book, Journey Into Darkness, tells of crimes against children and young adults. None of the duo's books are for the faint at heart but Obsession in particular provides insight into understanding the minds of both the hunters and the hunted. And that really is Douglas' goal. -Jan Grape

Several years ago, the zine culture was stormed by the emergence of a new publication out of Chicago called The Baffler. Its stated mission was to "blunt the cutting edge," and in its brief but notable existence it has attacked everything from the "alternative" music scam, Wired magazine, and Quentin Tarantino films to Edge Cities and the Culture of American Business. What makes The Baffler's critiques of our culture valuable, however, are the brilliance and wit with which they have been carried off. Now, the best of their essays have been collected and published under the title Commodify Your Dissent (W. W. Norton & Co., $15 paper). It's indispensable and, moreover, wickedly funny reading. You can begin by buying shares in The Baffler's faux company, "Consolidated Device," which "is unarguably the nation's leader... in the fabrication, consultancy, licensing and merchandising of deviant subcultural practice." The Baffler's most scathing essays are directed at the "Culture Trust, five or six companies whose assorted vice-presidents now supervise a broad swathe of American public expression; figures like Murdoch, Geffen, Eisner and Turner" are "the new captains of industry" who have rescued the U.S. "from the dead end of `military-industrial' supremacy" and turned us into an "emerging information-and-entertainment superpower." According to Baffler editor-in-chief Thomas Frank, who is one of Newsweek magazine's "One Hundred Influential People for the 21st Century," "the Culture Trust is now our leader in the Ginsbergian search for kicks upon kicks. Corporate America is not an oppressor but a sponsor of fun, provider of lifestyle accoutrements, facilitator of carnival, our slang-speaking partner in the quest for that ever-more apocalyptic orgasm."

The Baffler takes its direction from the muckraking political essayists of the 1920s and, despite its cavalier tone, its editors are deeply committed to political and economic change for the middle class, or what used to be known as the "labor left." To Frank, "The business of business is our minds, and the only great divide that counts anymore is whether or not we comprehend, we resist, we evade the all-invasive embrace." But, he admits, "very little that is adversarial is allowed to filter through."

This is what makes the collected Baffler essays in Commodify Your Dissent necessary reading. Who else, for instance, would describe Quentin Tarantino as "an American who doesn't merely love junk, but who proselytizes on its behalf every chance he gets... Tarantino's most important talent... is as an agent for commerce, a booster for the commercial values of industry product, a symbol of Hollywood Triumphant... the perfect shill - hip, comforting, and infectious."

Capitalism unbound is, at bottom, what the editors of this funny and angry collection dissect with merciless intelligence and passion. The writers also mourn the sense of community that existed before "Edge Cities," which is "where corporations go to `reengineer,' free from the labor unions, tight regulation, and tax burdens of traditional downtowns."

The Baffler's argument is a vital one, and must be heeded if we are to have any control over our regional, ethnic, or even individual cultures in the future. Tom Frank predicts the coming of a "Dark Age" in which "there is to be no myth but the business myth... we will be able to achieve no distance from business culture since we will no longer have a life, a history, a consciousness apart from it .... [A] matter-of-fact disaster, as natural as the supermarket, as irresistible as air. It is putting itself beyond our power of imagining because it has become our imagination, it has become our power to envision, and describe, and theorize, and resist."

Look around the mall and you'll find it's hard to argue. But the best place to begin to gain a sense of the possibility for resistance is by reading Commodify Your Dissent. -Tom Grimes

Tom Doyal
photograph by Kenny Braun

Ethan Mordden has written 17 volumes of nonfiction, most of them about show business and music, and seven novels, most of them about what it's like to be a gay male in the last half of the 20th century (I've a Feeling We're Not in Kansas Anymore). This particular time span has been loaded with good material, including the gay liberation movement, the gay civil rights movement (the two are related but different), the scourge of AIDS and death, and the selection of gays by the Christo-fascisti as their favorite demonized minority for use in fundraising letters. Mordden has tracked all of these events, and his latest novel, The Venice Adriana (St. Martin's Press, $23.95 hard) has it all; it may be his most beautifully written book. Mordden's style is straight-ahead narrative - compelling, entertaining, knowing, and warm.

In this splendid achievement, Mordden has combined his interests by authoritatively sweeping the reader to the opera world of Venice in 1962, where a young, gay New Yorker has been dispatched by his employer, a publisher, to ghost the autobiography of a fabulous opera diva at the end of her astonishingly successful career. The end of Adriana's career is not pretty. Think of Maria Callas with all the canceled performances, inappropriate men, drugs, tantrums, depression, and deteriorating voice.

Along the way our young protagonist Mark Trigger discovers who he is sexually, falls in love with the ancient city of Venice, meets the great and near great of the times, and comes to know the meaning of La Dolce Vita. Meanwhile, the reader guesses at the "real life" identities of some of the characters encountered in the heady milieu that was Venice in 1962. Is this character based upon the spaghetti Western-era Clint Eastwood or Lex Barker, one of the movie Tarzans of the time? Is this one Onassis? That one Pearl Mesta, the original hostess with the mostest?

While I am not an opera queen (despite having some important qualifications in the "queen" department), Mordden makes the Venetian artistic demimonde of 1962 come alive and beckon. If you do love opera, this is certainly the book for you. -Tom Doyal

Set on the beautiful Northwest coast, Sharp Edges by Jayne Ann Krentz (Pocket, $24 hard) takes us inside the world of priceless glass, struggling artists, and wealthy collectors. Presumably the title is a reference to broken glass, and although there is plenty of shattered glass, Ulterior Motives may have been a more fitting title. Sleek, chic museum curator Eugenia Swift must travel to an island artists' colony to inventory the famous glass collection of a wealthy collector who has just died in a freak accident. Although she is dying to see the collection he bequeathed to the museum, Eugenia has an ulterior motive. Her friend Nellie has mysteriously disappeared. She was living with the collector in his fabulous glass house when he died. The official story is that Nellie left the island on a boat in rough waters, was washed overboard, and presumed drowned because the body has not been found. Eugenia isn't buying it. She knows Nellie is a strong swimmer, as well as able an boatsman. That, coupled with a strange visit from Nellie just before her disappearance makes Eugenia determined to find out what's happened to her friend.

She's not alone. The uncool, unsophisticated-seeming private investigator, Cyrus Colfax, foists himself on her trip under the guise of conducting a discreet investigation for the estate's attorneys. He proposes that they front as a couple on vacation. He too has an ulterior motive. He is determined to find the Hades Cup, a priceless glass artifact that nearly got him killed a few years prior, and that the collector was rumored to have owned at his death.

Swift and Colfax are a mismatch from the start. Tempers as well as temperatures start to rise immediately, and continue to soar as Eugenia and Cyrus work together to solve their respective mysteries while keeping themselves alive. The result is a fairly good romance story woven into a better mystery.

The hero is an appealing and likable fellow. Underneath his quirky facade - a collection of bright, tropical-print shirts - he is morally grounded and professionally competent. Three years prior, a misjudgment on his part resulted in him flubbing an important case and getting shot, to boot. The future of his business - and perhaps his life - depends on his correcting that mistake. Though in the past he has been drawn to women who require his protection, his attraction to Eugenia is based on admiration for her strength and determination.

Unlike Cyrus, the heroine is so terribly competent and cool that she evokes no empathy. She comes across as cold and unfeeling. The abrupt evolution of Eugenia's relationship with Colfax left me wondering why she would involve herself intimately with a man for whom she'd so recently shown such downright contempt. Even her relationship with Nellie does not appear to have been warm enough to adequately motivate the trouble she goes to to unearth her friend.

Although the romance aspect of the story is somewhat puzzling, that does not detract from a mystery plot that is structurally strong. There are subplots that are interesting and tightly interwoven. No loose ends are left untied. The writing is proficient. Put all these things together and you should have a page-turner. Not.

Sharp Edges reads like an episode of Moonlighting. One reviewer compares the couple to the indomitable duo - Tracy and Hepburn. They read more like Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd. If you enjoy made-for-TV movies, but are a reader at heart and prefer the feel of the printed page, this is the book for you.
-Evelyn Palfrey

Pages almost turn themselves for readers of Evelyn Palfrey's The Price of Passion, a genre blend of romance and African-American life that can be found in either of those sections in bookstores. Palfrey's second book, The Price of Passion (Moonchild Books, $14.95 paper) combines a conflicted love story, a mystery baby, a clash of wills, and elements of a detective thriller to keep readers guessing and hoping for 383 pages. Intrigue and questions swirl when Vivian's husband, a middle-aged politician, brings his baby by another woman home to her. Who is the baby's mother? Where is she? Why doesn't she claim her baby? Trapped in an unbearable marriage with a baby she does not want, Vivian struggles to escape. Unexpectedly, she finds herself bonding with the baby, and falling in love with another man.

The realistic portrayal of African-American characters' behaviors and lifestyles is the strength of this book. Those characters, though, could be more developed. For example, as Vivian changes from not wanting the baby to bonding with it, readers share few of her thoughts and feelings. They also witness her husband's behavior without being privy to his inner motivation. However, Palfrey avoids mistakes of early novelists whose characters of African descent project emotions, behaviors, and situations compatible with white society, but unrealistic for African-American life. Further, she eschews character stereotypes popular in many modern novels about African-Americans; departing from current trends, she portrays African-American men with strengths that outweigh flaws, and women who are not victimized by men. Readers gain insight into African-American church services, entertainment, gospel music, jazz, and blues. Palfrey recounts the slave ship journey to America of the banza, an African instrument, the forerunner of the banjo and guitar. She notes that the blend of the banjo with European folk music branched into American country music and that guitar music branched into traditional blues, rhythm and blues, modern blues, and gospel music.

Extremely explicit descriptions of sexual encounters highlight the book without dominating the writing. The story is propelled by a romance involving characters over 40 years old. Set in Austin, readers may relate to familiar city sites as story background including Sixth Street, Catfish Station, and the University of Texas Law Library.

An Austin municipal court judge, Palfrey is married to Darwin McKee, County Commissioner, Precinct 1. Palfrey's first book, Three Perfect Men, was written when relatives challenged her to write a novel with positive African-American male characters. Palfrey blended her acceptance of that challenge with a determination to romanticize middle-aged characters. Concerned by the scarcity of romantic stories about middle-aged people, she says, "I liked romance novels when I was young. But I got older, and characters in these books didn't." Insisting that life, and romance, improve with age, she says, "After you're 40 or 50, you can recognize a frog across the room. You don't have to go kiss it to figure it out!"

Based on interviews with readers and responses to queries in her books, Palfrey is writing a third novel which will not have a young, slim heroine. This book will boast a glamorous heroine who is large, shapely, full-figured, voluptuous, and who has reached middle age. -Marian E. Barnes

At first reading, A Road We Do Not Know by Frederick J.Chiaventone (University of New Mexico Press, $15.95 paper) seems a difficult and clumsy book. It is packed with unnecessary footnotes and burdened with too many characters. But for persistent readers, some of the apparent weaknesses grow into strengths. The unwieldy format is not actually a bad strategic choice for a novel of the day George Custer fought the Sioux at Little Bighorn. First published two years ago to little critical notice, the book sold itself by word of mouth. It was reissued last month by the University of New Mexico Press in a paperback edition which would have benefited greatly from the inclusion of more maps and a reference list of major characters.

The author is a retired army officer and professor of International Affairs. His knowledge of men in battle is evident on every page, but his problems come from depicting too many men for the reader to remember. He narrows his focus to a single day, but clutters the lens. Not only does he dramatize almost the entire Seventh U.S. Cavalry, but also the Lakota Nation with its many tribes and clans - the Hunkpapas and Miniconjous and Oglalas and more - as well as the Cheyennes and Arapahos who fought with them, and the Rees and Crows who served as scouts for Custer. Characters become so numerous the reader may suddenly rear back from the page in bewilderment and bawl, "Who are these people?" We would like to know them well enough to care about them. Short of that, we would like at least to recognize them when we come across them later in the book. The writer has a solid picture of his people, but I for one felt burdened with the constant weight of my confusion.

I would say this stacking of characters is the biggest fault of the book, except I think it may well be the point of the book. There were a lot of people out there in the valley of the Little Bighorn killing each other on that hot day in the summer of 1876. Chiaventone's characters often lose distinction, but the images are strong. We forget the people. We recall the blood.

The reader is surprisingly willing to traipse blindly on, approaching the battle with the same optimism that carried Custer's troops. This may be because the author is as bold as Custer. He blunders into big mistakes, tangling up his points of view and depicting scenes of jocularity which aren't actually all that funny, but he makes no apologies. His footnoting of the fiction is distracting, and at times he's less than subtle. (When one character says to another, "My hair'll be just fine, Jim. I expect them Injuns is off the other way," the reader knows for pretty sure them Injuns ain't.) Still the reader retains confidence, even when the author adds yet one more character, and this one is a horse.

Does he know what he's doing? He seems to. And surprisingly, it works. His language isn't gussied up. His dialogue is real. (My personal favorite line is "Unplug yer damn ears.") He manages to give Indian dialogue a ring of authenticity, enhancing it with Lakota words. There are no strained metaphors or bad attempts at poetry. His men act like men and the women pretty well stay out of it, both to the credit of the women and the author; too many war stories are trashed by gratuitous romance badly integrated. He presents a more whimsical Crazy Horse, a less crazy Custer, and a more deliberate Sitting Bull than we have seen before. He doesn't judge them. Nor does he pussyfoot around in fear of political incorrectness, but tromps right through the mire of torn loyalties and human failings into the heart of the battle. The combat itself, "dirty, heartbreaking work," is depicted unflinchingly.

Even the inherent problem - that most readers will already know that Custer lost at Little Bighorn - which diminishes the driving force of plot, the author uses to advantage, establishing a grisly expectation as Custer's men approach the valley.

The excruciating fight itself is shown to us from such close range, through the vision of so many characters, that we are educated, gruesomely enthralled. And in the finest moments we are deeply moved.

There's a lot of sorting out to do along the way, and the reader has to keep his wits about him. But for those interested in Western history, or in the drama of war, this book is worth the vigilance and labor. -Elizabeth Crook

Peter Carey, the author of Oscar and Lucinda, and winner of England's Booker Prize, has created a vivid, diverse portrait of London in the 1800s in his new novel Jack Maggs (Knopf, $24 hard). The miserable and tormented lives of the poor and the criminal underclass are put under Carey's microscope. The result is lively, often biting dialogue characteristic of the period replete with the implied vulgarity of Cockney slang. Most importantly, his characters stand proudly in their place alongside those created by Charles Dickens. Through his masterful storytelling, Carey gives us an exciting reprise of Great Expectations. The most endearing quality of Jack Maggs is also its most basic. With its meticulously crafted narrative, the novel stands on its own as an adventure story, and can be read without reference to Great Expectations. It may be more fun to catch the way Jack Maggs mirrors Dickens and the incidents of his life.

When choosing David Copperfield as the name of the character said to be his most autobiographical, Dickens called the character Thomas Mag, and the novel Mag's Diversions. The name came up again, with a slightly different twist, for the convict Magwitch in Great Expectations, which seemed to fit much better. In the 1800s "to mag" meant "to pilfer," and Magwitch, the thief who gave Pip his expectations, clearly fits this definition.

In 1837, Jack Maggs, a convict transported to Australia, returns illegally to London. He is facing death if he is caught. An orphan raised to be a thief, his childhood apprenticeship in crime helped prepare him for life. After Maggs is paroled in Australia, he becomes wealthy and the benefactor of Henry Phipps, an orphan in England who once showed him kindness. His return to England is to claim his place as surrogate parent and take his rightful place in the household.

The story takes an interesting turn when Maggs cannot find young Phipps. He becomes a footman in the house next door, which is owned by Percy Buckle, a former fishmonger, who has become wealthy through his own benefactor. The Buckle household is full of bizarre and interesting characters, and it is here that Maggs encounters Tobias Oates, who very much resembles the young Charles Dickens. In an unusual turn of events, Oates uses hypnosis on Maggs and uncovers juicy tidbits from Maggs' background that he can use as fodder for the stories he publishes for The Morning Chronicle. The story takes off here and literally leaps off the page as the reader anxiously turns.

Through his characters, Carey creates a refreshingly old-fashioned narrative, which he tempers with today's contemporary sensibility. These are the components that make up the signature of Carey's best work. From the first page of Jack Maggs, he takes Dickensian license in his detail. Maggs wears a red waistcoat and carries a silver-tipped cane. He is described as having a hawklike nose and has two fingers missing from his left hand. After being gone for 24 years, he finds many changes in his home city of London. "There was now a tobacconist in Great Queen Street," Carey writes, "and a narrow little workroom where glass eyes were made for dolls and injured gentlemen."

Carey does not try to rewrite Dickens, but takes us behind the scenery to view his creative genius. The book takes a glimpse at "real" events and sources then transforms them into something fresh and different which discourages comparison to other work.

Due to limitations placed on him by his publishers, Dickens could not write directly about prostitutes or abortionists or homosexuals, but clear references can be found throughout his work. In Jack Maggs, Carey breaks this old mold, and produces a wonderful and new picture of the London we have all come to know and love. This novel transforms the characters we discovered in books by Dickens into a rich story about class, the identity of a nation, and art. These are all subjects very dear to Peter Carey, an Australian who now lives in New York.
-Jim Bob McMillan

The tender story within A Gift From Papa Diego / Un regalo de Pape Diego by Benjamin Alire Saenz (Cinco Puntos Press, $10.95 paper) - about being separated from loved ones - is sprinkled with Spanish expressions throughout the English version, adding to the flavor of this bilingual tale. In it, Little Diego misses his Mexican grandfather, Papa Diego, and wishes they both lived in Texas so they could see each other often. Although Little Diego's father assures him that families can live in different cities, even different countries and still love each other, Little Diego continues to long for his grandfather. After reading some old Superman comics, Little Diego hints that he'd like a Superman costume for his approaching birthday. He has a daring plan that the costume will allow him to fly to Chihuahua to see Papa Diego. His older sister, Gabriela, teases him that his stunt won't work, but Little Diego is determined. His disappointment at the failed Superman experiment turns to joy upon seeing his grandfather waiting for him at home; he then felt "as warm as the burning candles on his cake." A glossary of the terms used is provided at the end of the book. In addition, a complete Spanish text is printed on each half page. Illustrations of wonderful clay figures painted with bright colors highlight the narrative and provide an attractive graphic border. This paperback original is a debut into the world of children's books for Mr. Saenz, and he has succeeded in writing a poignant read-aloud book for young children - at once entertaining and comforting. -Barbara Bonds Thomas

Just imagine you're back in the days when tall-rigged wooden sailing ships ruled the seas. One early morning you peer through the coiling mists hanging over an estuary called Hampton Roads and you see this amazing thing: It's about two hundred feet long but only about a foot of the deck is above water. No sails. The whole thing appears to be made of iron, not wood. About amidships is this cylindrical thing sticking up, like a big tin can. "Tin can on a raft" is the phrase that comes to mind. This is what the thousands of soldiers gathered on the shores and fortifications around Hampton Roads, Virginia saw on the morning of March 9, 1862, when the brand new Union ironclad, U.S.S. Monitor, steamed down the coast from New York to join the rest of the federal ships blockading the entire Southern coastline. Although many had been expecting her arrival, and had read about her in the newspapers, the appearance of this revolutionary war vessel had to be no less startling than if a UFO had set down on the waves. Monitor, by James Tertius deKay (Walker & Company, $21 hard), tells the story of the construction and brief but startling and violent career of this strange-looking little vessel. The author has written a popular history treatment of the story, emphasizing the fact that although the Monitor was not the first warship whose hulls were armored with plate iron instead of wood (France's Gloire was first, with Britain's Warrior quickly following suit; the Confederacy's C.S.S. Virginia made her debut exactly one day before the Monitor), the Union ironclad was an utterly revolutionary vessel, with dozens patentable new inventions on board. Not the least of these was her rotating gun turret; all other warships, with their "broadside" arrangements, aimed their guns by literally turning the ship in the direction they wanted to fire. Thanks to her brilliant, iconoclastic creator, the Swedish engineer John Ericsson, the Monitor arguably changed the course of the war by saving the Union blockading fleet at Hampton Roads from certain destruction at the hands of the C.S.S. Virginia, which had ravaged the Union fleet there the day before like a fox in a hen house. The Confederate ironclad also caused a virtual panic to break out in Lincoln's cabinet. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton sent hysterical telegrams to the governors of coastal states, warning them to "MAN YOUR GUNS, BLOCK YOUR HARBORS, THE [VIRGINIA] IS COMING!" Stanton and others also fully expected the Virginia to destroy the entire Union fleet, then, for dessert, steam up the Potomac River to begin shelling Washington, D.C.

But none of that happened, because the Monitor, clearly the superior warship, arrived in time to stop the Virginia. The battle that ensued was the first time in history that armored warships had clashed in combat. It was a strange battle: both ironclads whaled away at each other for five hours, neither one able to sink or incapacitate the other. (Unfortunately, the Monitor had been forced, by an arcane bureaucratic precaution, to use reduced powder charges in her new eleven-inch guns; with full loads, the Monitor would certainly have blown the Virginia out of the water.) Overnight, all wooden warships in the world had been rendered obsolete. Naval architecture was changed forever. Moreover, certain European nations who had been contemplating an alliance with the Confederacy suddenly decided it was not such a good idea.

The story of the Monitor is an exciting, important one, and the author renders it well. The small format of the book (5 x 7 1/2 in.) reminds one of the fact that history can be just as entertaining and thrilling to read as a paperback novel, with more than enough violence and intrigue to satisfy a devotee of hard-boiled detective novels and spy stories. -Jesse Sublett

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle