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Archived Short Takes

 July 1999 Short Takes

The Little Book of Chaos
Craig Brown
Riverhead Books
96 pp.







Do you reach for a pistol when you see someone coming up your driveway with a beatific smile and a Bible in their hands? Wouldn't watch Oprah unless she fought alligators naked and with nothing but her bare teeth for weapons?

Boy, do I have the book for you.

Craig Brown's The Little Book of Chaos is guaranteed to annoy nine out of ten friends when you follow its advice. Actually, you might even think of it as a Friend Tester--pull a few of these pranks, and you'll know who are your real friends and who are members of that damn Saint conspiracy that's driving this world to hell in a cutesy, doily-lined hand basket. For starters, you might try this one:

"Maintain a roll of damp toilet paper for your visitors, leaving them to ponder whether it fell into the toilet."

If they laugh, you've got a friend for life. If they're angry, show them the door and good riddance.

But be sure to hand them a complimentary copy of The Little Book of Chaos on their way out--just to put a little smudge on that halo.

--Charlie Onion

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Skin Game:
A Cutter's Memoir

Caroline Kettlewell
St. Martin's Press
178 pp.









Caroline Kettlewell survived twenty years of cutting herself with razor blades, glass and once with the saw attachment of her Swiss Army Knife. What drove her to do this to herself? What dark secret lurked in her background, threatening her happiness with its shadowy fingers coldly caressing her?

Nothing much, really.

That's the truly scary part of Skin Game. The average upbringing, the feeling of not quite fitting in, the free-flowing anxiety over growing up--there are millions of these stories out there. Fortunately, they don't all end up with gouged and torn skin and blood smeared on bathroom mirrors.

Ms. Kettlewell tells her story in a frank and forthright manner,
observing herself and her life situations with a distance that often seems as if she is writing about a character in a novel rather than chronicling her own pain. Her writing is crisp and clear, and it shows a strong sense of humor.

It would have been easy for a lesser writer to turn this book into overly melodramatic, flesh-ripping-disease-movie-of-the-week material. Instead, in Ms. Kettlewell's deft hands, we can easily see that even seemingly average lives often mask a darker side.

Will this book save some poor tortured souls? That's hard to say. As Ms. Kettlewell points out, if a cutter makes it to thirty, she (cutters tend to be overwhelmingly female) has usually made some peace with herself. (Cutting also brings with it other symptoms--a full sixty percent of cutters suffer some form of eating disorder, and that is often more dangerous.)

It's highly unlikely that this book will climb bestseller lists or be the book of choice for that trip to the beach. But it's a vivid look inside the mind of someone fighting hard to stay on top of an increasingly difficult world.

--John Porter

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Inner Revolution:
Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Real Happiness

Robert Thurman
Riverhead Books
322 pp.










In Robert Thurman's estimate, the European Renaissance was an outer revolution that emphasized human reason and human enterprise and drove great advances in science and the arts. In Tibet, on the other hand, an inner revolution was taking place at the same time. Its "energies were directed inwardly," Thurman writes, "toward progress in the development of an inner universe, toward spiritual progress."

Today, Thurman argues, we're overdue for a world-wide inner revolution, to counterbalance the problems the Renaissance's outer revolution created by ignoring inner development. ("What may look on the surface like steady, stable progress toward a global modernism modeled on the United States," Thurman writes, "is really a deeply unstable world with widespread suffering.") And our model, he thinks, should be the sort of 'enlightenment culture' Tibet developed in the course of its own inner revolution.

A variety of factors conspire to bring down well-intended books about Asian philosophy. The subject is obscure and often counterintuitive to Western readers, and it's consequently hard to make Western language conform to the writer's needs. And it's even more problematic when the experience to be described lies beyond the realm of all language, Western or otherwise. The tendency is to write in bulky, awkward, poorly defined abstracts that rely too much on their original, alien context for meaning.

But Thurman, who was the first Westerner to be ordained a monk in the Tibetan tradition, writes with such compelling authority and clarity that even the Western reader familiar with the subject might find Thurman's text to be eye-opening. It's a beautiful balancing act, neither skirting the abstract terminology altogether nor talking down to his audience with oversimplifications. Indeed, despite its esoteric subject matter, the book might be called a quick read if one weren't so often tempted to slow down and re-read some of Thurman's best passages.

This is a timely, often profound book--highly recommended.

--Woody Arbunkle

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The Biotech Century
Jeremy Rifkin
Jeremy P. Tarcher / Putnam
272 pp.









In his latest shot across the bow of genetic science, Jeremy Rifkin acknowledges that the benefits of the biotechnology revolution (driven by the sudden convergence of genetic science and computers) are often quite obvious. But what about the risks? Rifkin argues (as he has for the last twenty years) that while there are indeed great things to come from advances in genetic science, there are equally great risks, should we accept all biotechnology's offerings unreflectingly. A few examples of the morally questionable acts that may become commonplace, in Rifkin's estimate: the human DNA code could be patented and manipulated by any number of corporations, governments or research institutes; parents could alter their child's DNA makeup in utero to favor looks, intelligence or mere attitude; a completed Human Genome Project could allow individuals to see into their genetic future and accurately predict their eventual deaths from genetically based diseases.

While he's not a great stylist, Rifkin's prose is quite readable, and that's of preeminent importance for Rifkin's intended audience. After all, he's not pitching these ideas at the genetic scientists themselves, but rather at us, the public that stands to gain--or lose--if these scientific advances are allowed to continue unquestioned. These sorts of books tend to get hysterical at times (think of how flummoxed Kevin McCarthy's character was in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, when no one believed his story about the pods), but Rifkin does an admirable job of pushing his ideas without getting too shrill.

If you're the sort of reader who likes to read easily digested books that predict the future--dire or otherwise--this is the book for you. If that's not your cup of tea, maybe you should give Rifkin's book a try anyway. He seems to have a knack for predicting the future, and if he's right, you'll want to put in your own two cents before it's over and you're being replaced by a clone that's been genetically altered to like conformity.

--Woody Arbunkle

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Rebuilding the Indian
Fred Haefele
Riverhead Books
210 pp.




No, this isn't a book about Native American land reparations. The 'Indian' of the title refers to a 1940s Indian Chief motorcycle, and Fred Haefele attributes his recovery from a mid-life crisis to its restoration. In Haefele's own words, he's a "fifty-one year-old tree surgeon, an ex-professor with an unsuccessful novel under my belt. It took me six years to write my novel, four years not to sell it. I've come into $5,000 dollars and I'm in the mood to do something foolish." The foolish gesture, of course, is buying an Indian 'basketcase'--that is, a motorcycle that's essentially a box of parts. Unfortunately for his budget, he learns his wife is pregnant immediately after buying the bike. And even though one Indian historian has said that Indians have "all the technical wizardry of old lawn mowers," restoring them can get expensive. (Haefele's 5-10 Law: "If you buy a Chief basketcase for $5,000, you will end up putting another $10,000 into it, no matter how you try to scrimp.") The result is the sort of dilemma writers love to pose: "Can I get it right this time, this husband-and-father business? Can I really put this old bike back together? And am I kidding myself to think I can do both?" Haefele has an engaging, easy-to-read voice, and his casual pace allows him the freedom to explore the inherent uncertainties behind both fatherhood and motorcycle restoration without making their similarities seem forced. It's definitely a guy's book, but Haefele manages to coax some nicely understated philosophy out of something that could have been an unfortunate cross between Iron John and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

--Woody Arbunkle

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Chump Change
David Eddie
Riverhead Books
230 pp.


David Henry, a college graduate defeated by New York and fettered with an amazing array of bill collectors and ex-girlfriends, wants two things: to lead the good life and be an amazingly rich writer. Trouble is, the only thing he's ever had published is a letter to a small magazine. Somehow, he manages to parlay that into a career, with plenty of strange pitfalls along the way.

While it would be easy to classify this in the "slacker novel" genre that seems to haunt Generation X, this has more in common with some of the novels of the fifties that pulse with the rhythm of the streets, tempered by the wildness of drinks, drugs and occasional flat-out sex. It's a remarkable first novel, and one can only hope that Mr. Eddy's publishers recognize his talent and keep him teamed up with the right editors to nurture his career. Far too often, a brilliant first novel is followed by mediocrity and finally obscurity. Let's hope this is not the case, simply for selfish reasons.

We all need more reasons to have a good laugh, and this is one work that can provide it.

--John Porter

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The Inner Treasure
Jonathan Star
256 pp.











How's your Taoist reading going these days?

Read any good Sufi poems lately?

And when it comes to the Hindu gitas, are you a Bhagavad Gita kind of guy or more the Avadhuta Gita type?

Don't worry--if you're stumped, Jonathan Star's just produced the perfect anthology for you. In the course of two hundred and fifty-six pages, he manages to offer selections from the Veda-Upanishad-Gita traditions of Hinduism, the Tao Te Ching and Chuang Tzu, the Buddhist masters of India, China and Japan, the Old Testament, the Roman Stoics, Sufi poets, the Christian mystics of the Middle Ages and the Poet-Saints of India. It's an ambitious selection for a relatively small book, but Star manages to hit most of the high points, and in his introductions to each section, he artfully manages to compress complicated ideas into small spaces that belie their complexity.

Star belongs to the school that tries to find the common ground among the seemingly disparate world religions, and he's right to look for proof in their mystical traditions. Where the doctrinal differences between the Sunnis and Shi'ites of Islam are profound, the Islamic mystical discipline of Sufism is remarkably similar to the more esoteric elements of Buddhism--or even to the medieval saints of Christianity, for that matter.

At heart, he argues, the highest truth of all the world's mystical traditions--the answer to all devotees' deepest questions--lies in the center of your own being. As the Sufi master Ibn al Arabi says, "When the mysterious unity between the soul and the Divine becomes clear, you will realize that you are none other than God. You will see all your actions as His actions; all your features as His features; all your breaths as His breath."

It's heady stuff, but Star manages to keep the reader on track quite nicely. It's a highly recommended anthology.

--Woody Arbunkle

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