Short Takes 

Book briefs for the month of September

The Heart is Deceitful above all things
By J.T. LeRoy
Bloomsbury (2001), $23.95

So much has been written about J.T. LeRoy, wunderkind author of last year's acclaimed truckstop-prostitute fairy tale Sarah, that one might worry his persona as reclusive genius would obscure the genius that is his actual talent. The release of these brilliant autobiographical short stories, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, proves once and for all there is nothing mysterious about LeRoy's gift for weaving heartbreaking tales of pain and neglect and infusing them with a powerfully raw intimacy. He has written what he knows and it is clear that as a fifteen-year-old (his age when most of The Heart transpired), he knew too much too soon.

Essentially the prequel to Sarah, this collection contains ten interconnected stories that map, in fearless and clinical detail, LeRoy's chaotic, nomadic, and abuse-filled childhood. Heart-wrenching from page one, with turns of phrase simply yet compellingly rendered, it's a paralyzing read. The book opens with "Disappearances," which chronicles the return of young Jeremiah to his birth mother, Sarah, an eighteen-year-old drug addict and drifter, after four years in a healthy, loving foster home. What follows is his on-the-road odyssey of physical, sexual, and drug abuse.

Set initially against the backdrop of Appalachia and continuing on to California, the stories relate, with brutal honesty, what can happen when a child of abuse tries to raise of child of her own. When the mother bottoms out in "Foolishness Is Bound in the Heart of a Child," Jeremiah is deposited with his strictly religious West Virginian grandparents. Physical contact with his grandfather consists mainly of beatings dictated by his fundamentalist Christian doctrine of hellfire and damnation. Jeremiah may come to know his Bible well, but he also comes to crave those beatings, often bringing them on himself, misguidedly equating them with love insofar as they are the most consistent forms of touch he has known.

It is this schizophrenic dichotomy of coexistence with his rebellious, drug-addled mother and his strictly moral and stoic grandparents that confuses, bends, and warps his considerably pliable psyche. Ultimately it shapes a human being unable to understand love or gender, or to create safe boundaries, as demonstrated by the collection's final story, the profoundly searing and unforgettable "Natoma Street." Terrifying and compelling, it chronicles the teenaged Jeremiah's overwhelmingly desperate search for love, attention, or even death, through a sadomasochistic encounter on San Francisco's Natoma Street; and though by book's end the reader can understand the why of the search, it makes it no easier a read.

The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things is the literary equivalent of a highway pileup -- astounding in the knowledge that this was a life truly experienced. How can one so young write so eloquently, with such a mature sense of style and nuance? Perhaps an answer lies in LeRoy's childhood soul dying long ago, and his being reborn as an adult-child of vision -- one needing to tell this tale, to document the horror.
--Beth Bachtold Westbrook

The Seven Daughters of Eve
By Bryan Sykes
W.W. Norton (2001), $25.95

Reading The Seven Daughters of Eve, by Oxford geneticist Bryan Sykes, I recalled being a preteen in the 1970s and picking up a book belonging to my grandparents, a work titled The Bog People. Written by the Danish archeologist P.V. Glob, it described the 20th-century excavation of millennia-old human remains from Scandinavian peat bogs. The book's remarkable photos showed the pickled corpses -- plaid woolen clothing, male pattern baldness, and all.

The immediacy of the forgotten past is a theme that echoes through The Seven Daughters as hauntingly as it did through The Bog People. Sykes' contention -- based on his DNA research, and apparently supported by a consensus of his peers -- is that 95 percent of the native-born European population can trace its matrilineal descent directly to one of only seven women. Six of these foremothers, according to Sykes, lived at various times and places during the Paleolithic era, while the seventh, with her contemporaries, helped inaugurate farming in Europe. Sykes has reached his conclusion by analyzing human mitochondrial DNA, which has the special property of traveling intact from mother to offspring. Starting with a contemporary population that shares a mitochondrial signature, Sykes uses the rate of spontaneous mitochondrial mutation over generations to date the existence of the clan's common maternal ancestor.

With droll British wit, Sykes narrates milestones in the piecing together of Europe's great matrilineages: Among other tales, we get the account of Sykes' recovery of DNA from a 12,000-year-old mummy found in England's Cheddar Gorge. The remains turned out to have a mitochondrial signature in common with Ursula -- the oldest of the alleged European matriarchs, who lived in the Mediterranean 45,000 years ago -- and with Cuthbert, butler to the eccentric Alexander Thynn, Lord Bath. The latter fact came to light because Lord Bath's estate included the area where the remains were found, and the lord had wanted his own DNA tested to find out if he was matrilineally related to this ancient inhabitant. He was not. These are just a few of the surprises that await readers in this astonishing book.
--Karen Armstead The Rough Guide to Hip Hop
Edited by Peter Shapiro
Rough Guides/Penguin (2001), $11.95

Rough Guides commenced cranking out its signature travel "mini guides" and phrasebooks in 1982, eventually expanding into music. The Rough Guide Reference Series bravely tackled opera, jazz, house, and techno, among others, amassing tidy little tomes that are for the most part decent starter kits for the genre novice. The daunting task of managing the inevitable hip-hop installment fell to IMAX All Access coproducer Peter Shapiro, noted contributor to Village Voice and Wire, and author of Modulations: The Word on Sound.

His Rough Guide to Hip-Hop starts out strong, referencing Rudy Ray Moore, Blowfly, and Redd Foxx as proto-MCs. Shapiro theorizes about how an overzealous city planner's decimation of the Bronx ultimately helped spawn hip-hop culture. He is wise to explain hip-hop as a culture, too, since it is often erroneously envisioned as merely the music (itself only a portion of what those "in hip-hop" describe as a way of life). Essential MCs, DJs, producers, labels, graffiti taggers, and body-rockers (dancers) are listed in compact biographies, joined with critical discographies of mostly must-have twelvers, LPs, and CDs. Shapiro's done his homework, and his voice is informed and deft. There are moments when he reminds one of the late Lester Bangs.

However, Shapiro falters when he peppers his descriptions with too many hip-hop terms, many of which any proper b-boy would eschew as co-opted by the mainstream and therefore no longer a welcome element of the manically evolving hip-hop lexicon.

Learn a little about the processes of b-boying and DJing, the battles of taggers vs. NYC's Metropolitan Transit Authority, brief histories of the electro and Miami bass sounds, and dalliances with British, French, and Canadian hip-hop. Oddly, while Shapiro asserts that the RZA and Ghostface Killah mention him in a track, neither are referenced in Shapiro's alphabetically arranged lists. Shapiro has also helmed the Soul Music and Drum 'n' Bass entries.

Further reading should be Nelson George's Hip Hop America and Vibe History of Hip Hop by Alan Light, Vibe magazine editor.
-- Stacy Meyn

Editors
The Best from Five Decades
Edited by Saul Bellow and Keith Botsford
Toby Press (2001), $39.95 hardcover, $29.95 paperback

Saul Bellow and Keith Botsford, longtime friends and collaborators, have edited three first-rate literary magazines over the years, starting with The Noble Savage in the 1960s, the brief-lived ANON in the '70s, and News from the Republic of Letters, which they founded in 1989 and which continues to thrive today. Editors, a massive 1,116-page tome -- a little unwieldy for bedside reading, unfortunately -- features the best from five decades of these magazines.

A freewheeling compilation of fiction, essays, poems, interviews, and more, the book includes such diverse authors as Nelson Algren, Martin Amis, G.V. Desani, Herbert Gold, John Hawkes, Seymour Krim, Arthur Miller, S.J. Perelman, Thomas Pynchon, Harold Rosenberg, et al., as well as pieces by Bellow and Botsford themselves. One nifty, humorous little essay by the Nobel Prize winner, "Pains and Gains," starts out considering the calculations the human mind makes in crossing a room so as to perform a few useful chores along the way, and winds up contemplating a pregnant woman who has fallen on the cold sidewalk but refuses a hand in getting up, waiting instead until a cop can come and document her plight for a lawsuit against the city.

Botsford, who also translates from the Italian, contributes pieces by Umberto Saba, a killer short story titled "Two Old People" by Silvio d'Arzo, as well as a rare short story by Giuseppe Tomase (The Leopard) di Lampedusa -- the stunning "Lighea, or the Siren," which concerns an elderly Sicilian professor of the classics, now living in Turin, and his account of the affair he had in Sicily as a young man with a siren. How did this come to pass? As a student he had rowed out to sea to study, and in ancient Greek declaim "out loud lines from the poets, and the names of forgotten gods...." She eavesdrops: "I heard you speaking a language like my own; you please me, take me.... Don't believe the tales told about us; we do not kill, we only love." Too well, apparently; since then, the elderly professor has never taken another lover.

All in all, a terrific, and terrifically different, anthology. I should note that Toby Press, however, continues not to distribute to bookstores, making its books available mainly online (www.tobypress.com).
-- Michael Covino

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