Cool reads for hot months

What do you do to while away the hours as you work on your tan and/or burn off your weekly allotment of stress? Here’s a sampling of timely (or just plain lively) new tomes that are sure to absorb your attention as you soak up those sweet summer rays.

From Girls to Grrrlz: A History of Women’s Comics from Teens to Zines (Chronicle Books, 1999), by Trina Robbins

From Little Lulu to Slutburger; from pert Sorority Sue (who used her intoxicating perfume to knock out drooling frosh) to the ferocious “Hothead Paisan, Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist,” Robbins excludes no ink sister in this ambitious retrospective of female comic-strip characters.

Even paper dolls get their due: Poring over the alternately slim and plump waiting-to-be dressed vixens from the ’50s, it becomes apparent that, at least in one area (that would be body image, not clothing), girls had more choices then than they do now.

And it seems that enough time has elapsed since the grunge-induced fanzine explosion of the early ’90s to enable Robbins to also devote a chapter to the study of “grrrlz” comics (the term, spawned by Allison Wolte and Molly Neuman’s Riot Grrrl zine, has become a kind of handy catchall for any politically flavored cartoon heroine). When all is said and done, however, this is a picture book — sublime cover, gorgeous colors, splashy graphics — but then, any approach even a touch more scholarly would have been shamefully pretentious. Happily, Robbins knew where to draw the line.

No Hiding Place (Down Home Press, 1999), edited by Frye Gaillard, Amy Rogers and Robert Inman

This vigorous anthology of works by Charlotte-based writers fuels itself on a sort of anti-theme: Its contributors shine despite living where they do. And what, pray tell, is the name of the muse-crunching demon that lurks in this steamy region of strip malls?

Commerce, apparently.

Charlotte, instructs Inman in the book’s introduction, is “a banker’s town … you can’t miss the downtown skyline, the dynamic energy of the place, the unmistakable feeling when you talk to many Charlotteans that here, the art is the deal.” But, continues Inman, a burgeoning litter of literary talent may be the salvation of the Panthers’ den: “They both reflect the city Charlotte is becoming and enlarge its possibilities. They force Charlotte to consider its soul as well as its pocketbook,” he concludes.

Of course, as with any literary collection, the book is only as good as the sum of its stories (plus poems and essays, in this case). Herein, legends are honored: The first chapter of Carson McCullers’ masterpiece The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, which she wrote in Charlotte, is included, as are two whimsical pieces by Charles Kurault (newer talents compose the bulk of the book, however).

Race relations are highlighted in Kays Gary’s classic poem “Dorothy Counts” — an account of Dorothy Counts’ first day as the first black student to attend a white high-school in Charlotte — and updated in Sam Fullwood III’s forceful essay, “The Rage of the Black Middle Class,” excerpted from his book Waking from the Dream: My Life in the Black Middle Class (Anchor Books, 1996.)

No Hiding Place is best when it’s addressing crucial social issues. Lighthearted pieces have a place in any anthology, of course, but in the wake of thoughtful gems like Amy Rogers’ “Rising from the Ashes” — about the 1991 factory fire in Hamlet, N.C., that killed 25 people — one gets the sense that living in Charlotte these days attunes writers to the galling unfairness of life.

Censored 1999: The News that Didn’t Make the News (Seven Stories Press, 1999), by Peter Phillips and Project Censored

After noting that “the mainstream media’s [extensive] coverage of Bill Clinton’s sex life is directly related to the increased significance of Censored 1999,” Peter Phillips serves up what he sees as last year’s most dangerously underreported news stories. Among them are the revelation that Coca-Cola has not, as promised, begun using recycled plastic in bottling its millions upon millions of gallons of soda per year (as reported in the Winter 1998 issue of Earth Island Journal), and the confirmation that the Clinton Administration did, indeed, authorize the continued use of toxic chemicals in children’s toys (from a story that appeared in June 1998’s Multinational Monitor).

And, in keeping with his own call for responsible journalism, Phillips also provides updates on the stories in 1997’s Censored list. Because the book stresses government cover-ups (not to mention outright lies), this is not a tome well suited to the more reactionary brand of paranoid. Still, by presenting well-documented, concrete horrors — compared to the obscure but mounting hysteria shrouding the impending Y2K crisis — it’s perversely comforting, somehow: Here, at least, is a clear view of the battle.

World Explorer Magazine, Vol. 2, No. 4

This apparently biannual rag, published by the World Explorers Club of Kempton, Ill., suggests new ways to get away from it all. Far, far away, that is — from anything. The cover promotes the magazine as a kind of travel guide for hard-core adventurers, but at least one article reads more like the marginalized reflections of an old-school eccentric: “Cosmic Faces: In Search of Points of View” is Albert E. Sindlinger’s singularly awesome, carefully photographed exposition of human likenesses discovered in natural earth formations. From the blurred face on Mars to the profile of Cochise protruding from a Chiracahua, Ariz., cliff, these eerie countenances “beckon us to wonder where we wander in search of the mysterious and perhaps unexplainable in life,” muses Sindlinger, adding, “Maybe the cosmos has a sense of humor.”

Escape reading at its finest.

Freaks Talk Back (University of Chicago Press, 1998), by Joshua Gamson

OK, so maybe you had every intention of surfing past those tacky TV talk shows en route to the midmorning news report — it’s just that, somehow (damned heat!), the channel resolutely stuck in its groove, refusing to budge. And now — after succumbing to the appalling chaos of Jerry Springer or the unwieldy circus of Ricki reruns — you need a little something to reinstate your mental equilibrium. If so, this masterfully absorbing study of daytime talk shows provides a stabilizing voice of reason.

In deep, intentional contrast to the breathtakingly one-track nature of talk shows, Freaks Talk Back addresses the explosive growth of tabloid TV in all its inconsistencies.

The author reveals how, at one taping of “The Maury Povich Show,” he witnessed a woman guest who had lost her daughter immediately start crying when asked about the incident. Then, when the producer decides he’s unhappy with Povich’s intro and orders a re-shoot, this natural actress dries up immediately — only to dutifully reproduce her outburst, seconds later.

Focusing most closely on how talk shows simultaneously provide a celebratory forum for people of “sexual nonconformity” and exploit them, Gamson proffers even more fascinating testimony from the guests themselves.

One former “Geraldo Live” victim, transgendered guest Linda Phillips, recalls: “They lied to us about what we were going to do and how we were going to do it. … The last time we went on they really conned me. They said, ‘wouldn’t you like to have a one-on-one with Geraldo?’ I said, ‘You have no idea how badly I’d like to do that.’ And that’s the time we went on with the weightlifter and the tallest man in the world, the strongest man in the world, you know, that sort of thing. It was a freak show. … We said ‘We’re not going to go on’ … but [when] the assistant producer comes by and we ask about our return tickets … she looks at us and she says, ‘You’ll get them when you come off the stage.'”

And then, in a chapter called “Truths Told In Lies,” Gamson flexes another angle: “Talk shows leave openings, sometimes tiny, sometimes rather gaping, but typically more than elsewhere in mass culture, for honest expressions to burst through, little shots of something like the truth, through walls of distortion.”

All in all, a hard book to tune out.

A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail (Broadway Books, 1999), by Bill Bryson

After two decades of living and working in England, native Iowan Bill Bryson decides to come home the hard way: by leaving his wife, son and new digs to hike the entire length of the Appalachian Trail (that would be 2,100 miles, on a 60-year-old path that winds from Georgia to Maine).

An old buddy, Stephen Katz, decides to tag along, with predictably hilarious results. Overweight and reassuringly maturity-challenged, Katz sees Little Debbies as second only to God and spends his first day on the trail pitching everything else in his pack over the side of a cliff.

But Bryson sobers up the story with carefully researched facts about the AT’s dubious history and triumphant survival in the face of environmental negligence. Halfway through the book, he and Katz survive an early-spring blizzard to emerge in Gatlinburg, confronting the unsettling realization that they’ve hiked only a tiny fraction of the trail. Serious doubts set in.

And that’s as far I’ve traveled in this particular narrative, at this point. But thus far, at least, the journey itself has been well worth the effort.

All books reviewed are available at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe (55 Haywood St.). World Explorer magazine can be purchased at Downtown Books and News (67 N. Lexington Ave.).

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