Utne Reader Book Reviews, May – June 2008

article image

A Classic Case ofUs Vs. Them
A Stranger Among Us: Stories of Cross Cultural Collision and Connection
edited by Stacy Bierlein (OV Books)
It’s a vast world, but editor Stacy Bierlein crammed the whole thing into A Stranger Among Us, despite her modest apology for “cultures and settings that may not be represented.” Pish. This anthology of international fiction explodes with unexpected combinations of place, ethnicity, and nationality–and it’s no mistake that collision precedes connection in the subtitle.

The 30 contributors possess varied backgrounds and a common fascination with the frustrations and faux pas of cross-cultural dialogue. In “Shoes,” Etgar Keret paints the chilling equivocations of nascent ethnic pride, portraying a boy who comes to believe that his German-made sneakers contain the flesh of relatives killed in the Holocaust–then pities his mother’s ignorance of this fact. In “The Naked Circus,” G.K. Wuori describes the dystopian passage of a mysterious mail-order bride sent to live with a dying American woman, whereupon the visitor miraculously absorbs the beloved wife’s identity prior to her passing. Fiction, here, is well suited to the task of telling truths: Unfettered by factual accuracy, the dreamlike and disconcerting scenarios cast cultural realities in sharp relief.

Ultimately, though, we can’t help but be limited by our perspective. As Ana Menendez prods in “In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd”: “Antonio laughed . . . but he was careful not to laugh too hard. . . . He and Carlos were Dominican, not Cuban, and they ate their same foods and played their same games, but Antonio knew they still didn’t understand all the layers of hurt in the Cuban’s jokes.” –Julie Hanus

Rock On: An Office Power Ballad
by Dan Kennedy(Algonquin)
The mainstream music industry is an easy target these days, wracked not just by the old mediocrity but also by diving sales and deep layoffs as the assault of the MP3s continues. So Rock On, Dan Kennedy’s account of working at Atlantic Records as the bottom fell out, could be construed as piling on if Kennedy weren’t so damn funny and, despite a good-sized ego, occasionally self-deprecating and even sweetly human as he describes his time inside the belly of the corporate beast. (You’d better be self-deprecating if you’re writing print ads for Phil Collins and creating TV spots for Jewel.) A McSweeneys.net contributor and spoken-word performer with a laserlike wit, Kennedy deploys his considerable snark with deadly precision. –Keith Goetzman

Uncertain Peril: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Seeds
by Claire Hope Cummings (Beacon)
The biotechnology industry spins its trial-and-error species splicing as a precise science that’s unlocking the mysteries of DNA in order to feed the world. Claire Hope Cummings resoundingly debunks this marketing offensive. By co-opting, manipulating, and patenting seeds–and strategically eviscerating local farmers’ rights to save them–agrochemical giants aren’t securing the world’s food supply; they’re putting it at risk. Genetically modified crops have eroded biodiversity and short-circuited the natural adaptability that is crucial in the era of climate change. Like many others, Cummings finds hope in sustainable and traditional farming. More valuable, though, are her scathing critique of the scientists who have shielded this unscrupulous industry from public scrutiny and her call to return the discourse–and control over our food supply–to the public domain. –Hannah Lobel

Revolutionary Spirits: The Enlightened Faith of America’s Founding Fathers
by Gary Kowalski(Bluebridge)
Who knew that George Washington avoided references to God or Jesus? Or that Thomas Jefferson edited miracles out of his version of the New Testament? In Revolutionary Spirits, author Gary Kowalski, a Unitarian minister, captures the quirky personalities and nontraditional religious views of these freethinking liberals (yes, that’s the word they used). Kowalski also includes chapters on Ben Franklin, Thomas Paine, John Adams, and James Madison, all of whom believed in science, the wonders of the natural world, and some kind of divine presence. Yet many criticized organized religion, particularly Christianity, for its “superstition, bigotry, and persecution,” as Madison put it. “Question with boldness even the existence of God,” advised Jefferson. Amen. –Mark Pendergrast

Punk House: Interiors in Anarchy
photography by Abby Banks; edited by Thurston Moore (Abrams Image)
Communal living got a swift kick in the rear from the punk movement as the DIY ethos was exported from the club to the kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom. In Punk House, photographer Abby Banks captures the magnificent clutter of dozens of group living spaces across the nation, from Anarchtica in Chattanooga, Tennessee, to the Clown House in Portland, Oregon. These attitude-spattered, hygiene-challenged dens span a wide range of attributes and amenities: Some have libraries; some have tarps for roofs. To be sure, this is a drive-by view of punk house life, with no sign of the tempeh-clogged toilets, the straight-edge-versus-druggie tensions, or the strangely dented baseball bats under the angry skinhead’s bed. So Banks might be accused of romanticizing this way of living. But glamorizing it? It doesn’t seem possible. –K.G.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.