Thursday, January 26, 2006

Skin-Flick Awards, Incendiary Events and Hawaiian Lepers: Books

Skin-Flick Awards, Incendiary Events and Hawaiian Lepers: Books

Jan. 27 (Bloomberg) -- Pornographic filmmakers and starlets roll into Las Vegas each January for the Adult Video News Awards, a.k.a. the X-Rated Oscars. Staged in a ballroom jammed with surgically enhanced blondes, the event honors artists such as Stormy Daniels for her performance in ``Camp Cuddly Pines Powertool Massacre.''

David Foster Wallace attends the awards in his latest book, a collection of essays and criticism, ``Consider the Lobster'' (Little, Brown, 343 pages, $25.95; Abacus, 10.99 pounds). He comes away with a slideshow of arresting images, the most timid of which involves a G-string clad actress ``forked dorsally over the knee of a morbidly obese cell-phone retailer.''

Wallace is best known as the bandanna-capped author of ``Infinite Jest,'' a pedantic novel in which he laced characters from a tennis academy and a halfway house together with digressive footnotes and a Ph.D.-level vocabulary. Though the book showed flashes of brilliance, its 1,076 pages proved too long and too discursive for most.

A decade later, Wallace's head rag is gone. Yet his academic tricks are again on display in ``Lobster,'' which takes its name from a trip to the Maine Lobster Festival. The visit reminded Wallace of a ``Roman circus or medieval torture-fest'' as he watched lobsters by the thousands being boiled alive to sate the hunger of 100,000 tourists.

Updike and Satyriasis

Elsewhere, Wallace expertly dissects such things as why the campaign of a Republican senator, John McCain, appealed to young voters. He also picks apart authors including John Updike, whom he calls ``heterosexual to the point of satyriasis.''

Wallace is engaging and exasperating by turns; he himself says his writing can seem like ``fatuous navel-gazing.'' Only one piece here goes light on marginalia: a heartfelt recollection of sitting with church-going grandmothers in rural Illinois as they rocked in chairs and watched the World Trade Center towers collapse on a flat-panel TV on Sept. 11, 2001.

Amitav Ghosh, a peripatetic India-born novelist and journalist, witnessed those attacks from his home in nearby Brooklyn Heights. The onslaught created a ``generation gap that separates me from my children: their imagining of the world will be different from mine,'' he laments in his latest book, ``Incendiary Circumstances'' (Houghton Mifflin, 320 pages, $25).

The book offers 17 pieces of reporting spanning 30 years. Ghosh opens with the Asian tsunami of Dec. 26, 2004, showing how survivors on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands struggled to create a paper trail so they could identify themselves to banks.

`Fluttering Barrier'

``The sea took my uniform, my ration card, my service card, my tribal papers -- it took everything,'' a corporal in the Indian army says. ``I can't prove who I am.''

Ghosh also revisits India's controversial nuclear-weapon test in 1998; the start of the 1991 Gulf War; and anti-Sikh riots that killed 3,000 people in New Delhi following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on Oct. 31, 1984.

Not content to be a witness, Ghosh helped organize a march against that rioting. At one point, women among the marchers confronted rioters by stepping forward to form a protective circle around fellow protesters.

``Their saris and kameezes became a thin, fluttering barrier,'' Ghosh writes. The act embodied Gandhi's ideal of nonviolent resistance, shaming the rioters into retreat.

This collection offers a valuable reminder that our planet is convulsed with cultural and political volatility, whether we care to watch or not.

Hawaiian Lepers

In October, President George W. Bush made the chilling suggestion that he'd consider using the military to enforce a quarantine should avian flu break out in the U.S. Before taking that step, Bush ought to read John Tayman's ``The Colony'' (Scribner, 421 pages, $27.95), a history of lepers exiled to the Hawaiian island of Molokai.

Tayman transports readers to the 1860s, when Hawaii's monarchy was haunted by a smallpox epidemic that had killed half the population of Oahu. Fearing leprosy might pose the next big health threat, the government of King Kamehameha V shipped lepers to a rocky peninsula on Molokai.

On Jan. 6, 1866, the first 12 arrived. They were given only a few shovels and axes, gray wool blankets, some salt beef, bread and two cottages. By the 1890s, the colony had swelled to 1,174 people and 423 buildings.

Deliberate Infections

``The Colony'' often reads like an adventure story, recalling hardships the lepers suffered. One horrifying chapter describes how Arthur Mouritz, the settlement's physician, experimented with healthy patients, using scalpel and hypodermic needles to infect them with ``serum brimming with leprosy bacteria.'' Tayman also documents acts of kindness administered by clergy members such as Flemish Catholic missionary Father Damien, who caught the disease and died in 1889.

The book offers medical insights into leprosy, today known as Hansen's Disease. Roughly 5 percent of the world's population is susceptible, though the incidence is higher among Hawaiians and the French. Untreated, the disease causes disfigurement. It's seldom fatal. In the 1940s, scientists developed Dapsone, a drug that keeps leprosy from reproducing and prevents disability and communicability.

Hawaii's quarantine law remained in place until 1967. Today, 28 people still live on the grounds of the colony; four survivors gave Tayman vivid first-hand accounts.