Speed Reading

A SLOW DEATH: 83 DAYS OF RADIATION SICKNESS

By NHK-TV "Tokaimura Criticality Accident Crew"

Vertical

160 pages

$19.95

It’s tacky to begin a review of a book about death by radiation poisoning by praising the design of its jacket. But I’m afraid I have to — John Gall’s art for A Slow Death: 83 Days of Radiation Sickness is unique in a gaze-snatching fashion. It combines hues of yellow and green, block patterns, and a news photo backdrop into an attractive, enigmatic, and faintly disturbing image that makes a browser wonder, "What exactly is inside this book?"

The answer is an account of a nuclear plant worker’s gradual demise after he was accidentally exposed to 20,000 times the maximum tolerable amount of neutron beam radiation. As some alleged environmentalists (including figureheads such as Al Gore) have begun touting the benefits of "non-carbon sources" of energy — an evasive way of saying "atomic power" — Hisashi Ouchi’s death comes across as an extreme cautionary tale.

Built from a television documentary about the nuclear accident, A Slow Death bluntly but compassionately renders Ouchi’s physical symptoms — which included massive skin loss — and the emotional impact his plight had on the doctors and nurses who treated him. The last extraordinary aspect of Ouchi’s story involves his heart, which persevered and remained relatively healthy while the rest of him demonstrated the impact of radiation — as the book puts it, "it continued living amidst the destruction of virtually every other cell in his body." (Johnny Ray Huston)

REFLECTION OF A MAN: THE PHOTOGRAPHS OF STANLEY MARCUS

Photo selection by Allison V. Smith

Cairn Press

192 pages

$60

Sale signs at Macy’s and other businesses tend to suggest that the department store is a 20th-century phenomenon on its way down. But the department store had a great curator of sorts in Stanley Marcus, the Marcus in Neiman Marcus. An over-the-top extravagant collection of the businessman’s photography, Reflections of a Man might seem like a vanity project, but in fact it reveals a talented cameraman and, somewhat enticingly, the aesthetic point-of-view that might have gone into creating a popular chain of stores.

Dallas was Marcus’ home, and his version of the city wasn’t characterized by ugly American cowboy mentality so much as a love of beauty, parties, and profitable combinations thereof — he invented an annual Fortnight celebration as a way to boost sales during the slack period between back-to-school and the holidays. Oscar de la Renta’s brief forward to this monograph is a semi-flattering if fully affectionate account of Marcus’ unflagging success at making a sale. An old press pass reveals he wanted to be a photojournalist, but his public profession proved far more lucrative.

As for the photos, they are gorgeous, Popsicle-bright Kodachrome images of life in the South and abroad in Europe. Marcus had a terrific eye for patterns and repetitions, whether they came from cubic carpeting on the floor of a Paris fashion show or funny visual rhyming between Stetson hats and hanging lamps in a Houston restaurant. Christian Dior and Pucci pose with personality for Marcus, but his skill isn’t so much for portraiture as it is for the art of commerce, capturing the flair of couturiers as well as balloon and sponge vendors on the street. (Huston)

HOME: SOCIAL ESSAYS

By Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka)

Akashic Books

282 pages

$15.95

THE HUNGERED ONE

By Ed Bullins

Akashic Books

192 pages

$14.95

I didn’t ask, so don’t tell me why queers have come to be the fashionable sacrificial stooges for pandering new Democratic presidents. For some overstanding on the matter, read Amiri Baraka’s intro to the most recent edition of Home: Social Essays, a collection he wrote between 1961 and 1966 as Leroi Jones. Anyone familiar with reprints of Jones’s autobiographical works knows that they afford Baraka with a chance to engage in scathing (and sometimes funny) multileveled assessments of his past writings and views. Here, he leaps right into a critique of his past use of the word "fag" that insinuates tribute (without naming names) to some of the strong, influential queers he’s worked with over the years. It’s a prescient genuine act, but characteristic — Baraka was calling Obama "slick" years ago at a City Lights reading.

Baraka also writes a preface for a reprint of Ed Bullins’ story collection The Hungered One, but it’s Bullins’ introduction that makes an impression, because of its open-ended refusal of readings that interpret (and thus restrict) the title tale as an allegory. The Hungered One is filled with pieces that do exactly what they set out to do — "An Ancient One," for example, perfectly renders a city scene that happens in front of my building every day of the year. But it’s that title story — more horrifying than anything a genre writer like Stephen King has imagined — that lingers. It’s as uncanny as a nightmare, and as real as human nature. (Huston)