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November 16, 2003|Susan Salter Reynolds

Hilhaven Lodge: The Photo Booth Pictures

Brett Ratner, Introduction by Robert Evans

powerHouse Books: 216 pp., $35

There's something powerful about this pedestrian photographic format. For one thing, we've all done it -- sat in the coffin-like box and faced the machine's eye, waited apprehensively (even if it's only a passport photo) to see the results. No photographer, just a wizard behind the curtain and a slot that belches images. Director Brett Ratner ("Rush Hour," "Red Dragon") has an old-fashioned photo booth in his home, Hilhaven Lodge. His formidable guests -- Michael Jackson, Britney Spears, Shaquille O'Neal, Chelsea Clinton, Jackie Chan and you name it -- have all been asked at one time or another to enter the booth. With most of them, there's little hope of catching the real person behind the personality, but there are surprises. Almost all the women try to seduce the camera; supermodel Heidi Klum, Mariah Carey -- they do that thing with the lips. A few subjects maintain the exact same expression for all four pictures -- best of all the painter Francesco Clemente. A handful produce one really scary frame (a sort of "Is there an alien in that body?" look): Michael Jackson, Rod Stewart, Nicolas Cage. Several seem nervous -- particularly Peter Bart, editor of Variety. Most surprising are the truly elegant: These are people you know cannot take a bad picture -- particularly Eva and Michael Chow, Norman Lear and Robert Evans.

*

Joe's Word

An Echo Park Novel

Elizabeth Stromme

City Lights Books: 258 pp., $11.95 paper

It's hard to understand why this delightful novel made its debut in France in 1996 and has only just graced its hometown, but it may be that the French love our L.A. noir almost as much -- the French publishers even more -- than we do. The Joe of the title is a writer for hire, the modern equivalent of a medieval scribe. He writes resumes for non-English-speaking job seekers, business letters to Mexican investors, grievance letters, term papers, love letters to young girls in faraway countries. He is an intricate part of his Echo Park neighborhood, connecting its odder characters and catering to their deepest needs. He's the first to figure out what's going on when, say, the neighborhood's air quality is traded for pollution credits and political favor. His nights there are like everyone else's, regularly transformed into "white nights" by police helicopters and requiring ear plugs. Joe is torn between Clio, the artist with the Jean Seberg haircut, and Corazon, the Filipina he lured to the U.S. by the sheer poetry of the letters he wrote for a client. Stromme knows how to find the beauty in the L.A. landscape: "In fact if you closed your eyes and let yourself drift, you might've thought you were in the tropics, the air was so perfumed. But I didn't. No one would. You had to keep your eyes open in Echo Park."

*

American Wives

Beth Helms

University of Iowa Press: 150 pp., $15.95 paper

It takes a brave writer to create such relentlessly sad scenarios in her stories -- and to use as heroines that boring and unappealing creature, the unhappy wife, genus Americanus. It's hard to read about the deals these women cut for the sake of their children or their house or simply because their self-esteem is so low they think they can't function alone. All of them inhabit a smaller world than the men they're married to: the Army wife who relies on tranquilizers; the woman who befriends her husband's lover; the woman whose husband is bedding her best friend and their au pair to boot. Perhaps the most chilling story is "Men in Italy," in which the recent widow of a cheater takes her estranged daughter on a trip to Italy. A strange man trails them. The daughter confesses that he's a detective hired by her lover's wife. Feeling used, the mother tells the detective of the lover's plans to meet her daughter at their hotel. Then she decamps. The revenge is terrifyingly paltry compared to the shattered lives and homes. There's no silver lining in Helms' stories, no end of the rainbow, no dignified old age. Fantastic!

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