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Two books almost too good to be true

Reviews by Rick Levin (RL) and Sophie Annan (SA)

SANTA ROSA'S Black Sparrow Press has reissued in full, unexpurgated glory Newspaper Days (cloth, $35; paper, $18), the second volume of American novelist Theodore Dreiser's autobiography. Originally conceived as but a single installment in a sweeping literary project called The History of Myself, the memoir documents the tumultuous, ass-busting years Dreiser spent eking out a living as a stringer for various big-city papers. It's a zinger, this book--one of the most pleasing, engaging, and interesting works I've read in a very long time, by anyone.

In its scope (nearly 700 pages), scene (fin-de-siècle urban-industrial America), trajectory (the coming-of-age of a brilliant novelist), and style (straight-up American naturalism), Newspaper Days seems to capture every palpitation of Dreiser's young soul, while at the same time providing a breathtaking, revealing panorama of American society as it busts the seams on the 20th century.

Dreiser, who eventually abandoned journalism to write such classic novels as Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy, is wickedly, hilariously vivid in his depiction of newsroom goings-on: the strange, jaded idiosyncrasies of veteran reporters, the internal politics of bureau chiefs, the elephantine hypocrisies of media spin. He offers sharp, canny expositions on corporate corruption and class warfare, as well as all manner of Whitmanesque disquisitions on Western history, literary theory, classic philosophy, and the nature of the teeming, spinning cosmos.

And running parallel to and impacted by all of this valuable social history is the most intimate, candid portrait of Dreiser's own anxious, neurotic, hyperactive, libidinous, brilliant psyche as he awakens to the wide world. This is a grand American book. Every sentence sings. (RL)


WHEN SOMEONE asks, "What do you think of Mexico?" the only sensible answer is "Which Mexico do you mean?" In True Tales from Another Mexico (University of New Mexico Press; $29.95), Sam Quinones, a freelance journalist based in Mexico City since 1994, goes way off the beaten track to explore parts of the country most Americans never see--or even read about.

The book covers a host of fascinating stories. We read about the lynching of two innocent men in 1998; Quinones' 1997 story (finally being picked up by the U.S. national media) of scores of murdered women in the border town of Ciudad Juarez; the influence of a Los Angeles gang whose mores have displaced those of the Virgin of Guadalupe in a Michoacán village; how the paleta, a Popsicle-like frozen treat, made the isolated village of Tocumbo, Michoacán, "the wealthiest village in Mexico."

Fascinating as these tales of subcultures are, Quinones is at his best in his informed overview of entrenched attitudes to authority. He tears the lid off the vast reservoir of disgust, fear, and dissatisfaction that enabled Vicente Fox of the right-of-center National Action Party to wrest the presidency from the near-imperial grasp of the PRI in last summer's election. The Institutional Revolutionary Party did its best for 71 years to keep the country in the dark ages. "Like an old snakeskin, the PRI was crumbling, crusty, unnecessary and in the way," Quinones writes. "In the end Mexicans shrugged it from their backs with surprising ease." It wasn't really easy: the Priistas fought to keep Fox out of the race. The legislators also blocked efforts to grant absentee voting rights to their citizens living abroad; in his recent California visit, Fox pledged to work for such a program.

As Quinones says, "The United States is now part of the Mexican reality"--and vice versa, as recent census figures demonstrate for those who weren't paying attention. (SA)

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From the May 24-30, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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