Pimps and Whales 

Reviews for the month of February 2006.

Queens Reigns Supreme: Fat Cat, 50 Cent, and The Rise of The Hip-Hop Hustler
By Ethan Brown Anchor, $13

In "The Bridge Is Over," rapper KRS-One issued a fatwa against fellow MCs from the borough of Queens: Bronx keeps creatin' it and Queens keeps on fakin' it. Oh snap! ... or not. By today's standards it seems, what's the term, mad quaint? Yet the thrust is still an integral (and problematic) part of hip-hop today. The question of street cred, who has it and why, haunts this engaging if exhausting book. Brown offers a wildly interesting account of the drug trade's evolution in southeast Queens, where two blocks could mean the difference between middle-class normality and cracktown. Many of Queens' early rappers ran with people in the drug world. Others grew up on the ensuing folklore. The results could be devastating, as Brown shows through the person of Tupac Shakur, a rapper famished for the gangsta bona fides he couldn't merit on the street. Despite his "Thug Life" tattoo, Pac -- who spent a few teenage years in Marin City -- was such an incompetent hustler that he had to return supply to his distributor. Then there's 50 Cent, who slung his share of rock, and whose mother died from her own habit. Maybe one day bullet wounds and prison bids will no longer be a requisite for a rap star. And if the exurban audience doesn't like it, well, maybe they never really did.
-- John Dicker

Hidden Camera By Zoran Zivkovic,

translated by Alice Copple-Tosic

Dalkey Archive, $13.95

An undertaker returns to his apartment and finds an envelope shoved beneath his door. Inside is an invitation to the screening of a new film. With nothing better to do than stare at his pet fish, he slinks down to the local cinema, shows his ticket, and sits down. Onscreen is an image of himself on a park bench eating lunch, engrossed in a book and oblivious to a gorgeous woman right next to him. This brilliant and creepy opening launches us into the latest by Serbian novelist Zivkovic, poised on the crux of paranoia and wonder. Fastidious and finicky, the undertaker seems to invite hostility: "I only drink water at the end of the meal," he sniffs at one point, as if this were a virtue. The way he offers such justifications suggests that some unknown observer needs an explanation. As our hero becomes obsessed with outsmarting his shadowy watcher, it dawns on us that there is no point to this torment. What makes the novel haunting is how quickly the anxious narrator adapts to his situation. Like a mouse in a maze, he changes directions every time he encounters an obstacle, and his free will soon becomes a joke. As in Kafka's work, big ideas course through this bleak social commentary, but they never feel dropped from on high. Rather, they rise up organically from within the story, so powerfully that when you finish, you'll find yourself wondering who told you to pick up this nasty little book anyway.
-- John Freeman

Vanilla Slim

By Bob Armstrong

Carroll & Graf, $14.95

George Carlin included "a pimp with a low profit margin" on his famous list of "things you never see." Carlin apparently never met Bob "Vanilla Slim" Armstrong, an ex-San Francisco Chronicle freelancer busted recently for operating the Zen Escort Service out of his Tenderloin office/crash pad. If Armstrong's memoir is to be believed, he was spilling crystal meth on the cuffs of his Armanis and running $500-an-hour tail to city johns while pulling down about as much as, say, a middle-school PE teacher. Believe him or not, this self-described "improbable pimp in the empire of lust" is a gifted, visceral storyteller, and he starts his confession with a bang (ha ha). When he's describing the sex industry's ins and outs (again, ha ha), the book purrs: "A woman must draw on all her strength and a pack of lies to go through with this job. Cordelia pretends to be fire while her heart remains cold. All men are blind in the presence of a Zen nightbird; her eyes are spared nothing." And yet we never really learn the answer to the most obvious question: Why? What really made a talented, middle-aged writer who resembles your best friend's dad take up pimpin'?
-- Joe Eskenazi

The Private Journals of Edvard Munch

Edited and translated by J. Gill Holland

University of Wisconsin Press, $29.95

Norwegian painter Munch is best known for his 1893 work, The Scream, which has entered Western consciousness so thoroughly as to become kitsch, reprinted on inflatable dolls, pillows that shriek when squeezed, mousepads, and mugs. The popularization of this icon of angst -- a solitary figure on a bridge above a fjord, waves of sound represented by waves of color that reach up to the sky and down to the earth -- contrasts with Munch's own sensibility about both this painting and his understanding of his art. That sensibility emerges in this collection of excerpts from his journals, subtitled "We Are Flames Which Pour Out of the Earth." Illustrated with Munch's drawings, the entries range from the 1880s to the 1930s and are written in a prose-poetry style that tends toward the surreal. Munch writes unself-consciously and with visual acuity, often describing a world drenched in color: "The sun was going down ... had/dipped in flames/below the horizon./It was like/a flaming sword/of blood slicing through/the concave of heaven." Women capture Munch's particular and frequent interest; his journals describe the tension he feels between this interest and his passionate commitment to art, his tone alternating between tenderness and hatred.
-- Kate Madden Yee

50 Designers/50 Costumes

Compiled by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Academy Imprints, $24.95

Plot. Action. Dialogue. That's what sticks in the mind after a movie, as you're turning key bits of script into mottos or mantras. But who the heck remembers what Jackie Chan wore? With a few famous exceptions, costumes in films are kind of like soundtracks: adding to an ambience nicely, but forgotten in the big clatter and swish. In this book, companion to an exhibition at the academy's Beverly Hills gallery, costume designers give backstories in their own words for the clothes worn in dozens of recent productions -- from Terminator 3 to Cold Mountain to Shanghai Noon to Shaft. Their decisions were based on research, interviews with writers and actors, and sense and sensibility. "Austin's world was very textural and very plush," recalls Deena Appel, costume designer for Austin Powers in Goldmember, "and I felt orange velvet would be the answer." Working on the first Harry Potter film, Judianna Makovsky sought clues in J.K. Rowling's best-seller, but "if you read the book closely, most everything is described as either purple or green." In the end, "we researched everything from medieval sources to a Mexican surrealist painter." For the kind of film fan who likes to see all the layers, this book is itself a chamber of secrets: Regarding Pirates of the Caribbean, Penny Rose reveals that throughout the shoot, "I was probably one of the few people who knew that Jack Sparrow was based on Keith Richards."
-- Anneli Rufus

The Whale Caller

By Zakes Mda

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $23

In a seaside town in the new South Africa, a grizzled man stands on a cliff-edge and blows his horn, fashioned from a piece of dried kelp. A whale arcs out of the water in response, while a bedraggled woman in torn fishnets and red stilettos fumes in the shadows. Welcome to what has to be one of the strangest love triangles in literature: a tense battle between a whale and a town drunk for the affection of a gentle recluse, the Whale Caller. Don't pick up this novel if you're looking for outright political commentary. While it's set in post-apartheid South Africa, the primary evidence of the country's transformation is the influx of whale-watching tourists whose presence annoys the Whale Caller. It's primarily a surreal love story, with scenes and characters that seem at least half hallucination. There are the Bored Twins, two little girls who sing like angels but spend their days torturing frogs in the marshes, and Mr. Yodd, a disembodied voice who lives in a grotto. The Whale Caller's connection to these entities, not to mention his bond with the behemoth from the deep, seems to cast him as an embodiment of a mystical way of life left behind in the country's rush toward modernity. But with an author torn between allegory and the desire to develop realistic characters, the book ultimately delivers on neither.
-- Eliza Strickland

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