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Archived Short Takes


 August 1999 Short Takes

The Murder of Tutankhamen:
A True Story
Bob Brier, Ph.D.
264 pp.







Bob Brier's central thesis--that Tutankhamen was dealt a fierce blow to the head and died after languishing for months--is certainly one hell of a hook. And it's a cunning move to open, as he does, on a fictional account of how it might have happened--complete with the pharaoh sleeping alone and unwitting while a dark, powerful intruder creeps silently into his room. In a relatively brief span and with the aid of standard mystery devices, Brier manages to bring the pharaoh to life in a familiar, easily visualized setting. Sure, it's a history book. But the first chapter reads more like a whodunit.

But the enduring virtue behind Brier's thesis is his proof. First, of course, are the historical facts: just before the reign of Tutankhamen, the triumvirate (pharaoh, national military and priests) that had ruled Egypt for nearly two thousand years underwent radical power shifts. In what became the world's first recorded religious revolution, Tutankhamen's father, Akhenaten, had declared all gods but a single sun god (the Aten) to be false, and he moved from Thebes to a new 'holy city,' much to the consternation of the priests, who until then had lived quite well on royal donations. (Brier likens Akhenaten and his followers to the counterculture of the 1960s.) It was also the first time the pharaoh did not lead his army against his enemies, and a schism developed between the pharaoh and the military. But Tutankhamen moved the capital back to Thebes and renounced his father's religion after Akhenaten's death, and Egypt experienced a strong economic and military rejuvenation. Despite his success, Tutankhamen was murdered. But who did it and why? Harkening back to the mystery genre, Brier brings the suspects together in his final chapter and reveals the one he thinks murdered Tutankhamen--but of course, a review is duty-bound to pass over such revelations in silence.

On the physical side, Brier doesn't have the sort of conclusive forensic evidence you might expect, since Tutankhamen's body was returned to its tomb shortly after its discovery. What we have today are chiefly the data collected by scientists at the disinterment and subsequent autopsy (this includes photographs of the mummified body and photographs of the contents of the organ jars) plus X-rays taken of the mummy in 1969 and 1978 (the X-rays have never been released in a scientific publication). While the photographs seem to indicate Brier may be right, for definitive proof, scientists would need to study Tutankhamen's body itself, along with the internal organs removed during the mummification process. As Brier points out, if Tutankhamen did indeed die in a coma, his intestines and stomach should be empty. And a significant hematoma caused by a blow from Brier's night intruder should leave a buildup of blood matter and elemental iron on the skull.

A grim thought, but provocative, nonetheless.

Rest assured--you won't find yourself knee-deep in Egyptian Dynasty charts in this book. It's a whoppingly seductive effort, aimed at a popular audience. If you want a nice, guiltless escape from daily demands, read it, by all means.

--Doug Childers

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Eric Jerome Dickey







An interview about Seinfeld's popularity once prompted Julia Louis-Dreyfus to remark, "I don't know why it's so popular. All the characters are so mean." That's sort of the reaction I had toward Eric Jerome Dickey's Cheaters.

Yes, the characters are mean. Vindictive. Self-centered. Self-destructive. They're also very funny and, in their own way, loving.

Cheaters is a fast-paced ride through the dream-filled buppie world that surrounds LA--itself a city of dreams. Stephan, who works with computer systems and feels that a woman isn't complete until she's had sex with him. Darnell, the married lawyer who dreams of being a novelist and who lusts after Tammy. Chanté, an upwardly mobile accountant who's the best in the board room but who destroys every relationship she's in.

Dickey is a master of characterization. Even his minor characters are realistically fleshed out and lovingly drawn. Even the nasty ones.

Especially the nasty ones.

Dickey also has a rare facility with language--both with dialogue (he is a master of rhythms and the sounds of real speech) and with descriptive passages.

Cheaters could easily have become a giant cliche, an Ice Cube movie translated to hardcover. Instead, in Dickey's hands, it is a funny, touching and ultimately enjoyable look at a group of lost souls searching for love, meaning and redemption among a city of strangers.

--John Porter

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Glen Duncan
Riverhead Books
322 pp.







Gabriel Jones, the hero (if that's the right word) of Glen Duncan's Hope, is a man's who's reached such a low point in his life that he has to rely on abject lust and obsessive memories to stay alive. It's a dangerous strategy, he admits: "Passion with nowhere to go is life on the brink of neurosis." And Jones, it seems, is tumbling over the abyss. To keep himself going, he obsessively reviews a failed relationship with a college girlfriend named Alicia and his present preoccupation with a prostitute named Hope.

What Jones wants--really wants--is a passion coupled with love for a good person. He is not, in his own estimate, a good person, but he's convinced that loving a good person gives him goodness. And the corollary is true as well: sex without love only worsens his own nature. It's a hell of a dilemma, and it's unlikely to be resolved through an affair with a talented but loveless prostitute--whether her name's Hope or Despair.

Of course, he experienced that perfect combination of love and lust with Alicia...but then she found out how lacking he truly was in goodness. Hence Hope and the abyss. At heart, though, it's Jones's failure to come to terms with his own self--to define love and hope within--that does him in (or will, if he doesn't figure it out in time).

Hope is a grim but intoxicating book: honest but not blunt, soul-bearing rather than brutal, it touches one deeply with its pathos. That it is Duncan's first novel--and that he is only twenty-nine--is astonishing.

--Charlie Onion

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Why the Tree
Loves the Ax
Jim Lewis

Berkley Books
276 pp.


Look out, Thelma and Louise: Caroline Harrison's going to give you a run for your money.

In Jim Lewis's sordid tale of a drifter's life gone from bad to worse, Caroline winces her way from one bad decision to the next, following her mistakes like a trail of stale breadcrumbs to the witch's house in the woods.

Lies, seductions, crimes small or large: nothing is planned, so anything is possible in Caroline's life on the road. She travels from New York to Sugartown, Texas, and back again to New York, looking for signs that won't appear on a highway. She is an ego in search of a self; a pilgrim in search of a soul. Or perhaps she's a hungry ghost: her appetite for her missing personality consumes her.

Why the Tree Loves the Ax is a haunting book that reveals its secrets slowly. And Lewis has matched his subject perfectly to his prose style. Like Caroline, it is beautifully delicious, yet mysterious and foreboding. And just as Caroline is netted by her fate, the reader is likewise drawn in, and the oven door slams shut.

--Daphne Frostchild

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God Is A Bullet
Boston Teran

Alfred A. Knopf
305 pp.







Boston Teran's first novel, God Is A Bullet, opens with a crime guaranteed to make you cringe.

One night in a sleepy California postcard town, a woman is killed, her husband is tortured and killed, and a young girl is kidnapped. Initially, it appears to be a random act of violence by a drug-crazed, Manson-like cult. Appearances, though, are nothing if not deceiving: the killers are indeed cultists, but the act is far from random.

Left to make sense of the whole affair is the girl's biological father, a desk jockey at the neighborhood cop shop. He tracks down every lead, which eventually brings him face to face with a young junky trying to quit both heroin and the cult life she has been leading. The cop is too whitebread to pass in this underworld, so it's up to this drying-up Virgil to act as a guide on this tour of hell. Soon, this less than dynamic duo is in pursuit of Cyrus, the leader of the Left Handed Path, a group that picks up garbage kids off the street, gets them hooked on drugs and turns them into killing machines.

Teran shows a great deal of promise with this debut. His dialogue crackles with intensity, and his plot carries the reader along at a rapid pace. The only drawback is his occasional tendency to get a little preachy.

There has been a bit of hubbub about this book's publication. The cult dealings are graphic and violent, and some thought it might be a little rough for mass consumption. But consider: the book deals with a kidnapping and drug deals, occurrences not often noted for their civility and decorum. Teran has simply created a world that is every bit as frightening as today's headlines.

Fans who like a little hard-core with their hard-boiled will not be disappointed.

--John Porter

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The St. James
Women Filmmakers Encyclopedia:
Women on the Other Side of the Camera
Edited by
Amy L. Unterburger

Visible Ink Press
568 pp.



As the subtitle suggests, this encyclopedia focuses on the women who have had a role in producing films, rather than merely appearing in them. Thus, it includes information on more than two hundred female directors, producers, cinemaphotographers, art directors, editors, screenwriters, costume designers and animators.

Some of the entries are obvious: Leni Riefenstahl, Edith Head and Lillian Gish from the past, Diane Keaton, Jodie Foster and Thelma Schoonmacher from the present. But the book's editor, Amy L. Unterburger, manages to find enough obscure American names and significant foreign filmmakers largely unknown in the United States to let the casual reader wander happily through large spans of unknown--and revealing--areas.

For each of the subjects, Unterburger offers a filmography, biography and an appreciative essay. The book also has a chronology of film history and a well-written, informative foreword by Gwendolyn Audrey Foster.

This is, in short, a wonderfully complete book whose subject has been woefully neglected by film historians.

--Daphne Frostchild

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The Trials
of Tiffany Trott
Isabel Wolff

Onyx Fiction
404 pp.







Tiffany Trott is a successful thirty-seven-year-old advertising copywriter with only two problems: she needs a man, and everybody knows it. Her mother worries endlessly (and quite vocally) about Tiffany and the prospects for grandchildren; her friends set her up with invariably disappointing suitors; and the men she manages to snare simply leave the moment she brings up that dreaded word, 'marriage.' Her trolling the personal ads and visiting a Club Med don't yield much worth bringing home to meet Mum either. And all the while, of course, everyone keeps asking what that tick-tick-ticking is. Why, it's Tiffany's biological clock, of course!

So what is Tiffany to do?

Keep trying, naturally. This is a comic novel, after all, and all comedies end in marriage, right?


Before Tiffany trotted across the big pond, she was first the subject of a newspaper column and then a bestselling book in the British market. Now, she's arrived just in time for the American beachgoer's vacation. It's brilliant timing, really: The Trials of Tiffany Trott should play well among the beachgoing Anglophile circles. While it has more than its fair share of sophisticated Britishisms, it also has that effortlessly slick, fast quality we all look for in a good beach book. More clever than hilarious, it should get quite a few readers nodding in agreement as the waves roll in and yet another covey of young innocents dash by, laughing youthfully.

--Daphne Frostchild

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