Short Takes 

Book briefs for the month of October

Heavier Than Heaven
A Biography of Kurt Cobain
By Charles R. CrossHyperion Books (2001), $24.95

Though we've all lived through the ending, watched the broadcasts, seen repeats of MTV Unplugged, I read on, page after page, to see what happened next. Or rather, how it happened next. I've watched docudramas suggesting Kurt Cobain was murdered, blaming drug dealers or his wife or other jealous musicians, but none go where this book has gone -- to the source itself, Cobain's own journals, two dozen in all.

Charles R. Cross isn't a removed, making-money-off-the-dead sort of biographer. He can say he was there. He lives in Seattle and was the editor of the Rocket, a Northwest music and entertainment magazine, which also ran the first-ever Nirvana cover story. After four hundred interviews in four years with Cobain's immediate family and friends, Cross' book comes off like a time-lapse movie. He makes me feel the ceaseless Northwest rain in my bones. He makes me see Cobain vividly at crucial points in his life: the lonely childhood, his first guitar, first heartbreak, his parents' divorce.

Faithfully chronicling Cobain's rapid rise to fame, quoting his journal at key points, this book reads like a novel of a tragic hero rather than a VHI Behind the Music biography. The never-ending depression, chronic stomachaches, and drug addiction are all there. Instead of casting blame on others, Cross does an excellent job of showing the stages of Cobain's addiction and his subsequent withdrawal from friends and family, and depicts not a fame-hungry rock god but rather a sensitive and creative boy/man trying to exorcise demons, pain, and loneliness. Cross deals empathetically with all aspects of Cobain's life, including his marriage to the controversial Courtney Love.

One may argue that suicide is a selfish act, and in most cases I would agree. My father once told me, however, that some people were not meant for this world. Cobain seems to have been one of them, something which this biographer manages to put across.
--Angelique Gibbons

The Donald Richie Reader:
50 Years of Writing on Japan
By Donald Richie
Compiled, edited, and introduced by Arturo Silva
Stone Bridge Press (2001), $19.95, paper; $29.95, cloth

In 1947, Donald Richie made an unthinkable move and settled in devastated, postwar Japan. Save for five years in New York, he has lived in Tokyo ever since, writing prolifically about Japanese culture and reveling in the outsider status that gives him the "best seat in the house" for observing Japan.

Arturo Silva has had the good sense to anthologize Richie's perceptive cultural commentary, eminently readable fiction, masterful film criticism, and excerpts from 18 of his 30-some books, giving a satisfying taste of Richie across the genres and the years. Selections include charming portraits of celebrities and ordinary folks; eyewitness accounts of unusual religious festivals (such as one with children sleeping in holes on the beach); stories imparting Zen philosophy; and condemnations of Western tourists who bring an "assumption of superiority" in "their mental luggage."

Whether he's describing his travels through the undeveloped islands of the Inland Sea or commenting on the customs of Tokyo residents, Richie's love of Japan shines through, as does his sadness at the steady, consumer-driven disintegration of its culture and serene landscape: "Already the change is upon us -- already the innocence is fading, going, gone. It lingers here, in these islands that I have so recently visited, but only for a time. I'm fortunate to have seen it."

Not content merely to lament this loss, Richie acts as an anthropologist, obsessively recording details of both the vanishing culture and the one replacing it. He documents everything from architectural tendencies to the pinball-like game pachinko, clothing trends, tattoos, and Japanese attitudes toward flatulence and public urination.

Richie proves a delightful companion, and this stuffed-to-the-gills collection will leave readers thirsting for yet more of his vast oeuvre.
--Eve Kushner

Bel Canto
By Ann Patchett
Harper Collins (2001), $25

Ann Patchett achieves something remarkable in her novel Bel Canto. She writes about a hostage situation in South America, replete with terrorists and gun-toting teenage guards and the tedium of captivity, and imbues the entire siege with music and romance and a kind of unlikely grace.

The birthday party at the vice president's house is in honor of Mr. Hosokawa, a major Japanese businessman in the same league as the diplomats and other powerful party guests. Mr. Hosokawa is a huge opera fan, so much so that renowned soprano Roxane Coss has come to South America specifically to sing at his party. The terrorists break through the air-conditioning vents early in the story, and the rest unfolds like a cross between a chess game and a waltz, characters discovering sides of themselves they never knew existed as they adapt to an utterly new set of rules.


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