Lies, All Lies
The Silver Castle
Random House, $23 hard
In the past few months, several journalists have been busted for fabricating news articles. Clive James is a popular journalist and TV personality in Britain, often described by his countrymen as a "great wit." One gets the feeling he is so popular and expert a journalist he would never stoop to fabricating news stories. That doesn't mean, however, that he can't write fake news and use the label "fiction" to stay out of trouble. So, after filming a documentary in Bombay, James did just that, pouring the observations too personal for his show into his novel The Silver Castle. A self-indulgent soapbox, this armchair exercise in determinism asks something to the effect of "What if I, Clive James, great wit, had been born without the luxury of Western civilization?" The answer is something like, "a less great wit who goes nowhere."
The novel focuses on the rise and fall of Clive James' poverty-stricken alter-ego Sanjay, a lucky, charming, and handsome boy born without a chance in a slum outside of Bombay. As a kid, he stumbles onto the lot of The Silver Castle, the Indian equivalent of Paramount Studios, and falls in love with its glamour. The image of "Bollywood" dancing in his head, Sanjay leaves home as a preadolescent to seek his fortune. He joins various gangs, works as a prostitute, and eventually finagles his way into the film industry. Sanjay's ultimate fall from the glorious world of the movies is used by James to prove that, in India, poverty and ignorance are perpetuated by a "natural law," "like gravity or decay."
In support of James, it is true that the poverty in India is grinding, and it is true that being born poor, especially in the third world, makes for a grossly limited scope of opportunity. Unfortunately, James approaches this issue as a journalist rather than as a novelist, draining the topic of all imaginative potential and creating something more like a false documentary than a work of literature. James' fictional devices appear purely as a dry platform for his theory that the poor don't develop character since they lack community and are therefore subject to "a kind of animal destiny."
Even this would be bearable (if controversial) reading were it not for the fact that James insists on repeatedly dragging us into his camp. In a classic, and classically infuriating, example of authorial intrusion, James slips into the first-person plural every chance he gets, using a tone so familiar one would think he and the reader were roommates at Eton. According to James, "we" spend our time in India "isolated and insulated" in hotel rooms with fully stocked mini-bars. In India, "we" are told, "life is chancier than we are used to in the West." In fact, James' refrain throughout The Silver Castle is that he and we are lucky not to have been born in India, a country which, Mr. James tells us is, among other things, superstitious and destined to be poor forever.
As someone who has spent much time in India, and does not share James' grandiose sense of Western civilization, I was constantly pleading with Mr. James to remove me from his team. All to no avail, for Clive James, great wit, has things to say about the country he was entranced by during the full two weeks he spent in Bombay with his film crew. This nudging, winking, "aren't we better than them?" mindset not only hearkens back to the day when India was a British colony; it also fails to ring true on any level. As for the style, this is not a novel; it is an uninformed, heavily biased documentary lent legitimacy (but not in any sense artistry) by its designation as "fiction." In the end, The Silver Castle reveals far more about James' condescending socio-political views than it does about the rich cultural landscape he supposedly depicts. --Ada Calhoun
The Father of Spin: Edward Bernays and the Birth of Public Relations
by Larry Tye
Crown, $27.50 hard
PR!: A Social History of Spin
by Stuart Ewen
Basic Books, $17 paper
The reason you publicly smoke, or own an electric fan, or even enjoy bananas can be directly linked to Edward Bernays. Boston Globe writer Larry Tye has sifted through the 800 personal fileboxes the late Bernays left behind to produce the first biographic document of the legendary "father of spin." The fact that Bernays even has this moniker is testament to his skill as a publicist -- he gave himself the title.
He lived to be 103; his life spanned the "Remember the Maine" to the "I Didn't Inhale" eras. All during those years, Tye tells us, Bernays operated close to the nexus of power -- close enough to singe the eyebrows of some very influential people. For one thing, he was Sigmund Freud's nephew. One of his best friends was Arthur H. Sulzberger, publisher of The New York Times.
Bernays engineered "consent," his own euphemism for persuading the masses. His legend was sealed when he made headlines with his orchestrated procession of smoking debutantes -- parading down Fifth Avenue -- an event that forever changed attitudes regarding women smokers. Hired to promote a poor-selling new product, the electric fan, Bernays personally created the word-of-mouth demand that eventually made the small appliance ubiquitous. He was the first "corporate" PR man, pioneering such practices as inventing a scholarly sounding "institute" -- United Fruit -- that in reality was nothing more than a crusading lobby for a particular consumable -- the banana. United Fruit's descendants, in spirit, today include the Canned Food or Beef "Councils."
Tye's book is a rewarding profile of a man who himself shunned the spotlight, as he manufactured media exposure for his clients. Dull in spots, the book is equal parts academic biography and media history lesson. But it's worth a look to anyone interested in media machinations past and present. There will never be another Bernays but as consumers and media become increasingly sophisticated, one wonders -- after reading The Father of Spin -- what PR will achieve in the next century.
"Is there any reality anymore, save the reality of public relations?" asks Stuart Ewen in PR! A Social History of Spin.
Maybe not. Reading a press release for a book about public relations evokes that classic line by comedian Steven Wright: "I put instant coffee in the microwave and I almost went back in time."According to its press release, PR! is a "stirring chronicle of the troubling link between truth and hype." Gushy prose, but is it accurate?
In this instance, yes. Ewen successfully illustrates public relations' necessity, as well as its faults. PR! is an ambitious history of a profession that is still in its adolescence. The author, who teaches media studies at Hunter College, has spent a decade tracking a phenomenon that functions entirely as an "unseen engineer."
The book focuses on influence-shapers via case studies from the first half of the century. Ewen weaves a thread through the Progressive journalism of the early 1900s, which railed against the monopolies, and continues into periods of World War propaganda, emerging mass media, and corporate-sponsored appeals to consumers. We find out why Standard Oil, AT&T, and other spin pioneers spent millions to influence public opinion during the heyday of the newspaper. PR! leaves the reader less than satisfied regarding public relations during the TV Era. We learn less than we'd hope to about PR's current incarnation as the sophisticated, misunderstood oxymoron we all know and loathe.
Finally, Ewen persuades his public to guard against media elitism. Too many of those who collectively determine public attitudes believe there's a "fundamentally illogical public" out there. Reporters and publicists, Ewen asserts, can ill afford to assume that ordinary citizens are incapable of seeing the world clearly, much less understanding it. If they do, they -- not us -- need a reality check. --Stuart Wade
Something to Declare
by Julia Alvarez
Algonquin Books, $20.95 hard
As a girl, nothing was more consoling than the aroma of tortillas being made on a Sunday afternoon. They were a staple of every meal, consistently delicious, and somewhat wondrous. How did a few simple ingredients become something so filling?
Like that familiar food, there is something consistently satisfying in the work of Julia Alvarez. Evenly crafted, accessible, and refreshingly open-hearted, her poetry, prose, and magazine articles in such diverse publications as Allure, Latina, and the Washington Post Magazine feed an appreciative and growing audience. Over the years, many readers have written to her with questions and comments about her work, and Alvarez graciously addresses them in her new book of essays, Something to Declare.
Born in the Dominican Republic in 1950, she immigrated with her family to New York at the age of 10, to escape the repressive regime of General Rafael Trujillo. Much of her work deals with the shadow-life of exile, the desire to belong in a new place, and longing for a homeland that she can visit, but will never fully return to.
Alvarez divides Something to Declare into two parts, "Customs" and "Declarations." "Customs" is largely reflections on events, people, or choices that made Alvarez the woman and the writer she is today: afternoons with her grandfather at the opera, learning about life and love from housemaids as a girl, searching with her sisters for clues on how to be an American girl by watching the Miss America pageant on television. Readers familiar with her novels, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, In the Time of the Butterflies, and ¡Yo! will gain insight on the creation of these works that may provoke a re-reading of them.
Because writers work largely in seclusion, there never seems to be a lack of interest in a writer's process. Where does she find inspiration, where and when does she write, and so on. Alvarez addresses these issues in the second part of the book, "Declarations." Non-writers or novice writers may take direction from the description of her workday in "Writing Matters" and from "Ten of My Writing Commandments." But to the struggling, working writer, these chapters will likely sound like the drip, drip, drip against an aluminum pan. Alvarez's less-studied statements on writing, as when she relates how she found her voice, may hold more interest to journeymen writers. When on a short-term residency at the prestigious Yaddo writer's colony, Alvarez recalls how she felt smothered by the self-imposed expectation of doing "important" work.
"And then ... I heard the vacuum going up and down the hall. I opened the door and introduced myself to the friendly, sweating woman, wielding her vacuum cleaner. She invited me down to the kitchen ... there I met the cook, and as we all sat, drinking coffee, I paged through her old cookbook, knead, poach, stew, whip, score, julienne, whisk, sauté, sift. ... I began to hear music in these words ... (the) beautiful vocabulary of my girlhood."
The generosity of Alvarez's writing and the respectful approach to her readers makes Something to Declare a cordial invitation to new readers, a necessary staple for her current fans, and a satisfying meal for all. --Belinda Acosta
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
by Jean-Dominique Bauby
Vintage, $11 paper
Next time you're sulking in your tent or moping about feeling bored, spend the two hours it takes to read The Diving Bell and the Butterfly in its entirety. In fussy, snivelling people, Jean-Dominique Bauby's memoir is likely to induce one of two things: shame, for the way they've been acting, or a sudden lust for life.
In December of 1995, Bauby, the 45-year-old editor-in-chief of French Elle, suffered a massive stroke that left him paralyzed, totally disabled except for the use of his left eye and his mind. Stranded on his back in a hospital, what did he do with his new condition? Using a contrived system of language, he blinked out a book -- albeit a small one -- which teaches his audience a lesson he apparently knew all along: Life is about living well.
Bauby isn't obvious or preachy with this assertion; it's through his chronicling of sensual memories that a reader gleans inspiration. He complains about his condition minimally, referring to his feeling of being "locked-in" as being in a diving bell, a closed-in, domed, sort of air-locked container used in the 17th century for diving. The butterfly part of the metaphor comes in when he realizes that his memory and mind can take flight, even though he is without use of his body. "There is so much to do. You can wander off in space or in time ... visit the woman you love, slide down beside her and stroke her still-sleeping face. You can build castles in Spain, steal the Golden Fleece," and his mental adventures go on and on.
Some of the best passages are about food -- robbed of his ability to eat, Bauby channels his still-healthy appetites into delicious prose reminiscent of MFK Fischer's. The book is so brief that excerpting any more quotes is pointless -- Bauby's words work best in the context of his book.
And clearly, this is a book, available now in its first paperback English edition, that is crying out to be read. --Meredith Phillips
The Phish Book
by Richard Gehr and Phish
Villard, $27.50 hard
The Pharmer's Almanac
edited by Andy Bernstein
Berkeley Boulevard, $15.95 paper
I took this assignment because I figured, as host to many neo-hippie obsessos who have used my multi-VCR setup to dupe their Grateful Dead and Phish videos for their buddies, I had at least some working knowledge of this Vermont improv-groove combo. I had a horrible feeling, however, that even brief exposure to The Phish Book and what I assumed would be the slavish adoration that fans of the "Dead of the Nineties" are prone to would make me lose my lunch in short order. Thankfully, the tome turned out to be a well-designed, intelligently written discourse on the history of the cult band. Centering mostly on chat from the band members themselves regarding their influences, songs, and attitudes about life in general, The Phish Book is a volume which both the dedicated Phish fan and those with casual interest can peruse without nausea. The generous helping of photographs of the band, at home and in front of audiences of umpty-jillion fanatics, also provides the Phishophile with proof to the rest of us that this group, who get no radio play and the bulk of America have never heard of, are actually popular. They're also quite amusing, using their cult status to assemble the official world's largest collection of naked people (over a thousand who are of course represented by several photos here) and present huge annual shows wherein the band interprets famous epics by other artists (The Who's Quadrophenia, Talking Heads' Remain in Light, the Beatles' White Album). The Phish Book is not a bad read at all, and not likely to trigger your vomit reflex after all.
It was no surprise, then, that soon after completing it I was presented with The Pharmer's Almanac, which (Huur-rr-ruff! Splash!) embodied everything I was afraid the first book would contain: maps, graphs and charts, analyzing and cross-referencing every song in every set list of every concert the band has played since their inception in 1983. The criticisms herein are every bit as incisive as those of a drum circle as recounted by one of the ganja-addled participants. A bit of sample exposition, spewed forth by a co-author between bouts of attempting to resuscitate Jerry Garcia through voodoo rites: "I was telling myself it was the greatest Phish show of all time, and I couldn't enjoy it because I went and took so much acid." Add to this more phonetic puns than have ever been heard at a Pflugerville Pfun Pfestival and you get the excruciating picture. Don't blame the band, though, as they only authorized the first of the two books reviewed here. Not that it matters -- if you're a true fan (or Phan) of the group, you probably have both of them memorized already. --Ken Lieck
The Kingdom of Zydeco
by Michael Tisserand
Arcade Publishing, $29.95 hard
One of the most well-known stories about Black Creole dance music is the one of an accordion player hired to play a country house dance. The musician arrives at the farm house, finding only fair-skinned dancers inside. The dancers are shocked by the musician's dark skin, but still needing to hear his music, they make the accordionist stand outside the house, playing his instrument through a window while wearing white gloves. In some versions of the story partygoers are depicted as white; in others, they are described as light-skinned Creoles (intra-racism being just as real as inter-racism). Regardless of the specifics, it's a chilling tale of race and music's intersection. It's highly fitting, therefore, that in Kingdom of the Zydeco Michael Tisserand begins with a description of the social factors that have shaped and directed the accordion-driven music, including differentiating between the commonly and incorrectly conflated descriptors "Cajun" and "Creole." Kingdom of Zydeco is not a tome about zydeco music as much as it is a work about the culture of Southwestern Louisiana and Southeast Texas, a useful approach because zydeco's social milieu -- music, dance, and people -- cannot be pulled apart. And thankfully, unlike many writers of musical culture, Tisserand doesn't spend page after page laundering dry facts. Instead, he guides eager readers through the genre's major events by letting the actors of these events spin their own tale.
And what a tale it is. The name zydeco comes from the French term for snap beans, les haricots verts. During the acoustic age, the music was played when rural folk commenced the tedious task of preparing a harvest's worth of snap beans. Like all valuable work music, zydeco has a beat that just won't quit, a rhythm that mandates dancing. So it wasn't long before this music became standard fare at house parties, as in the infamous story of the white-gloved accordionist. After a few thorough introductory chapters, Tisserand, editor of the New Orleans cultural weekly Gambit, devotes space to the more prominent figures in zydeco's pantheon, including Amédé Ardoin, Canray Fontenot, Bois Sec Ardoin, Boozoo Chavis, and the King of Zydeco, Clifton Chenier, prime mover behind the zydeco anthem "Zydeco Sont Pas Salé" and cousin to Houston's blues great Lightin' Hopkins. Yet the bond between zydeco's greatest and East Texas is stronger than blood, as Tisserand illustrates how the waltzy dance music evolved in the crucibles of the Texas oil-active cities of Beaumont, Port Arthur, and Houston to create a "local alloy of Texas blues and French Creole music." Via up-to-date interviews the author allows the style's contemporary movers and shakers to say what's hot and what's not, finishing the treatise off with a section entitled, "Keys to the Kingdom: Further Listening, Reading, Viewing and Dancing." Tisserand's writing tone is not unlike Alan Lomax's in the latter's outstanding Land Where the Blues Began, evincing sympathy, understanding, and fascination with the musical culture: "Zydeco ... is a way of life that is both rooted in tradition and as contemporary as next weekend." --David Lynch