Utne Reader Book Reviews: November-December 2008

Delta Blues
Curse Of The Black Gold: 50 Years of Oil in the Niger Delta
photographs by Ed Kashi; edited by Michael Watts (powerHouse)

Welcome to the other end of your gas pump: the Niger Delta, a major supplier of U.S. oil and, as depicted through photojournalist Ed Kashi’s lens, a scarred hellhole of a place ravaged by a corrupt government, a savage military, and ravenous multinational oil corporations. You could call Kashi’s large color-drenched photos gorgeous, but it’s an unsettling beauty: rich in misery, lush in heartache, saturated in tears.

His landscapes are stunningly bleak: A slaughterhouse site runs with rivers of red; outhouses perch on stilts over the ocean; a slum lies in ruins, sacked and burned by soldiers. But his portraits of the Nigerian people capture pride in the face of oppression, glints of hope on the dark side of an economy built on extraction.

Kashi’s photos are paired with essays, reports, and interviews that flesh out the backdrop to the story (fact: the country makes $45 billion a year in oil revenue, yet most of its citizens live on less than a dollar a day). But it’s his eye for telling visual detail that gives new, haunting resonance to the question “Pay at the pump?” –Keith Goetzman

We Could Be Heroines
Hellions: Pop Culture’s Rebel Women
by Maria Raha (Seal Press)

Famous rebels, whether they are real-life stars or imagined characters, have been largely defined by mainstream perceptions of rebellion. Hellions examines the confined role of the female rebel, often remembered for her self-destruction, aggressive sexuality, or uncouth behavior–a cautionary tale rather than an encouraging model of feminine empowerment. Author Maria Raha explores the lives of legendary resisters, from the freethinking Virginia Woolf to Marilyn Monroe to Rosie the Riveter, the rabble-rousing campaign face of female factory workers, and urges us to reexamine the media’s one-dimensional interpretation of their stories. We need, she writes, a popular image of women who are simultaneously intelligent, sexual, strong-willed, and self-reliant to inspire rebellion in the rest of us. –Kari Volkmann-Carlsen

Musings on Miscellany
Collections of Nothing
by William Davies King (University of Chicago)

Cigar bands. Chopstick diagrams. A booklet containing hundreds of patterned envelope linings. Cartons of flattened cereal boxes. Meet William Davies King, who collects “nothing–with a passion.” In Collections of Nothing, King catalogs his strangely fascinating obsession with worthless miscellanea and reasons it “had to do with a personal experience of nothingness, coming from hollow afternoons, uneventful evenings, and nights alone.” Analyzing himself and his collecting, King makes a case for his bizarre method of filling the voids in his life. Should you pity him for his wasted nights or respect him for all those “committed hours of gluing”? King wants both, and his wish is not unfounded–he is only a few soup labels away from drowning in ephemera. –Elizabeth Ryan

Middle America Fights Back
Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland
edited by Joshua Frank and Jeffrey St. Clair (AK Press)

There’s more to U.S. politics than the white noise emanating from the coasts. The 43 disparate essays and interviews in Red State Rebels, many of them originally published in the muckraking biweekly newsletter CounterPunch, cover such stories as the government’s Ruby Ridge siege in Idaho, resistance to the
Mount Graham telescope in Arizona, “plowshares” actions against weapons of mass destruction in North Dakota, and the growing secession movement nationwide. Environmental activist David Brower, quoted partway through, sets the tone for the whole book: “Every time I’ve compromised, I’ve lost.” Whether providing accounts of flaming defeats or tales of courage, hope, and victory, Red State Rebels offers an antidote to timidity. –Chris Dodge

A Boy’s Life: Uncensored
Fight Scenes
by Greg Bottoms (Counterpoint)

Being a teenage boy is tragically common and altogether trite: A thick slab of the population used to be young men, and many of us wrestled with idiocy. Still, it’s the weird or vicious things you remember. The time that kid ate a bird. Or when someone swung at you with an actual sword. In Fight Scenes, Greg Bottoms reflects on the flotsam of his adolescent memories–pornographic Polaroids, a mentally disabled boy incited to expose himself–and finds that male intimacy sometimes meant keeping victims close at hand. Slinking somewhere to the left of autobiography (Bottoms says it’s best to read memoir as fiction), these stories speak to anyone who remembers the anxious currency of the word fag. –Michael Rowe

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