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November 16, 1986|ALEX RAKSIN

Carnival for the Gods, Gladys Swan (Random House: $6.95). The glimmer of hope cherished by Dusty, the leader of the carnival, and his wife Alta, fades early in this gentle allegory when the troupe becomes stranded on a New Mexico highway. Even when Dusty breaks through his normally cool reserve and backhands Alta for the first time, though, members of the moribund company only fathom their fate for moments at a time; taking their stage illusions home, they deceive themselves with uncharacteristic professionalism. Happiest are troupe members like Billy, who invariably returns to the ground after flirting with grandeur. In one chapter, Billy hopes to defy gravity and become the "Master of Up"; in the next, he confesses, "I'm a now you see it now you don't man--coins and cards and scarfs." Billy is the only troupe member to seek consolation from within, though, so when the wandering performers arrive in surrealistic "Ventura City," they're seduced by the city's pink Moorish castles, rainbow-colored towers and "Super Rock" music. Until, that is, Billy dies, and the city's architectural wonders no longer bring comfort. By then it's too late for members of the troupe to begin self-reflection. Dusty and Alta do, nevertheless, come to share some of Billy's wisdom, concluding that there is value to be found in the experience, if not the fulfillment, of dreams. As Dusty says, "It's all a spectacle , and we're in it for the play."

As Far as You Can Go Without a Passport: The View From the End of the Road, Tom Bodett (Addison-Wesley: $6.95). "There's sure no such thing as long, dull summers on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula," writes Tom Bodett. Many might disagree, but not after reading Bodett's essays, or hearing them on National Public Radio. Even though Bodett's radio pieces are delivered in a drawl, and his subjects are invariably mundane--fishing for halibut, cutting trees, shopping for groceries--Bodett is never dull. Everyday events prompt consternation (of socks that disappear in the dryer: "Could the garment and appliance industries be in cahoots together, creating an artificial sock demand to keep us buying?") and satire (of Hollywood's "experiments in genetic engineering": "Did you ever notice that nobody you see on television looks like anyone you know?"). Equally moving are essays in which Bodett doesn't skew his perspective for effect, from speculations on a stranger crying in a nearby car in "Private Pains" to reflections on his child's future in "Baby Names."

Back to the '80s: A Deja View of the 1980s in Cartoons and Essays, Jack Ohman (Fireside: $5.95). A hippie places a flower at the end of a rifle under the caption "Vietnam," while under the caption "Grenada," we see a young Reagan devotee dusting off the barrel with a "cleaning kit"; stars in the night sky form the outline of the Space Shuttle Challenger while a flag flies at half mast nearby; Former Interior Secretary James Watt, shaped like a log, lies on the forest floor after cutting off his legs with a chain saw--Jack Ohman's cartoons for the Portland Oregonian capture 1980s America, from the somber to the satirical. Ohman's writing isn't as evocative, for the several paragraphs of text accompanying each cartoon add little to the picture. Ohman's notion that the '80s are the "Re (repeat) Decade" is simplistic, prompting him to make awkward analogies: "Geraldine Ferraro was a '50s mom . . . then Wally and the Beaver (played by 75 million voters) came stomping in, shoes muddy, and asked if there was anything in the fridge." When Ohman's cartoons are themselves based on text, the outcome is more successful; particularly biting is a mock front page from USA Today, claiming the paper is "Just like TV!"

From the Ruins of the Reich: Germany, 1945-1949, Douglas Botting (New American Library: $9.95). Little grows from the ruins during the period covered here. Destruction was followed by more destruction (looting, rape, profiteering, violence), as the Allies sought an eye for an eye, attacking Nazis and other government representatives. Czechs slaughtered some of the Sudeten Germans, Poles expelled the East Prussian Germans, the Russians helped pillage the defeated nation. Douglas Botting's portrait of the victors is, in short, less than glowing, but he doesn't whitewash Nazi horrors. "From the Ruins of the Reich" is an evocative and largely anecdotal account of a slow and painful recovery. And while it's too anecdotal at times, offering vignettes rather than detailing the way the industrialized nations governed Germany, Botting provides an account of a little-known period and effectively illustrates the elusiveness of "the enemy."

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