Culture To Go

Bob Callahan & Scott Gillis

Barry Gifford's Perdita Durango

Neon Lit/Avon

In Literary Luxuries: American Writing at the End of the Millennium, author Joe David Bellamy laments the current state of American letters in "an Age of Eye Candy suffering from tooth decay of the soul." What he would make of the Neon Lit series of illustrated fiction I don't know; perhaps it'd rate as a kind of literary health food confection, the Tiger's Milk bars of the book world.

That's not to say these books aren't worth savoring, or that you'd give 'em to your kids as snacks. Inspired by '20s pulps and post-war film noir, Neon Lit applies to current crime fiction the same kind of graphic chops Art Spiegelman (who edits the series along with writer Bob Callahan) brought to Maus. They read fast, but like all good comix--or lit, for that matter--you'll find yourself going back again and again, finding new details and lingering over familiar ones.

The series debuted last year with Paul Auster's psuedo-autobiographical noir City of Glass and continues with Gifford's Perdita Durango, which offers up further adventures of the bloodthirsty firebrand played by Isabella Rossellini in the Gifford/Lynch film Wild At Heart. Gifford steps to racist fears with his murderous Latina-and-Jamaican couple in a way that might (and probably should) make readers uncomfortable. But evil is a given here; some sinners are just more charming than others. Meanwhile, Scott Gillis's scratchboard illustrations positively hum with energy, combining high-contrast drama and creepy realism in a timeless, Lynchian sorta place where a dread and a retro-punk can wander into what appears to be a late 1950s performance by Celia Cruz and La Sonora Matancera.

From Japanese manga to Latin American soaps, illustrated literature has long been a cultural staple around the world. With the Neon Lit series, the U.S. starts catching up in an impressive way. A little eye candy isn't always a bad thing. (Will Hermes)


Hanif Kureishi

The Black Album


In his second novel, Kureishi, the screenwriter of My Beautiful Laundrette, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, and London Kills Me, takes on the trials and tribulations of Shahid, an uncertain community college student. A lonely newcomer to London, Shahid finds a friend in his neighbor Riaz, and despite his religious ambivalence, falls in with this charismatic Islamic preacher (who somehow combines race activism, working class organizing, and the Koran) and his zealous troop of South Asian students. In contrast to Shahid's search for community is his lust for his young, white hipster professor Deedee Osgood, who so firmly believes in her progressive politics that she takes lovers among her black and Asian students; with her he discovers escape in all-night raves, Ecstasy, and sexual abandon. Shahid passively bounces between Riaz and Deedee, but is eventually forced to choose between them in a zany series of events involving the fatwah on Salman Rushdie, some erotic poetry, and an eggplant which was found with a message from Allah.

Kureishi is known for his engaging and clever, if not hilarious writing, but, more importantly, for his success in bringing a sassy wit to issues of racial conflict, immigrant alienation, and the hypocrisies of white, bourgeois progressive politics. The Black Album's main flaw, however, is that its central conflict--Shahid's choice between Riaz and Deedee--is not compelling enough because both characters are somewhat shallow. In response to the fatwah on Rushdie, Riaz and his posse burn The Satanic Verses; Deedee tries to censure these censors by calling in the police. After you finish the book and the buzz of Kureishi's witty writing wears off, you realize you're in the same place you were when you started the trip--only now it's gotten later. (Andrew K. Kim)

Jonathan Kozol

Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation


Coverage of the death of 6-year old Alisa Izquierdo late last year in New York City after years of child abuse provoked outrage and grief across the country. While Alisa's story doesn't appear in Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation, it could. She could be 7-year-old Cliffie, who talks about seeing a man get shot like it's an everyday occurrence. Or perhaps Annabelle, who is 11 and optimistic despite the barren wasteland of her South Bronx neighborhood.

Jonathan Kozol has been writing about poverty, education and homelessness for almost 30 years, and his message hasn't gotten any more hopeful since Death at an Early Age, an account of his first year as a Boston public school teacher. In his latest book, the voices of poor children are much more prominent than those of academics and analysts: His aim is to let those speak who are most affected by the increasing poverty in the United States, then highlight statistics to try and get to the root of it all. Amazing Grace offers no easy solutions, but once again Kozol eloquently argues for America's need to change its priorities. We can only hope that people will start listening. (Thomas Marzahl)

Jim Goldberg

Raised By Wolves


Photographer Jim Goldberg's work has such emotional energy that it almost hovers above the pages of this book, remaining troubling long after it's set aside. Like Orpheus, Goldberg descended into an underworld--in this case the worlds of teenage runaways in Los Angeles and San Francisco--and returned with 10 years' worth of pictures capturing these kids, who haunt street corners and doorways, underpasses and crash pads, hustling sex and panhandling for enough drug money to keep them numb.

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