On Wooden Tablets

by Pascal Quignard

(Burning Deck) $10.95If you want to learn about ancient Roman history, pick up a textbook. If you want to learn about ancient Roman life, pick up Pascal Quignard's On Wooden Tablets: Apronenia Avitia, a zuihitsu spanning 20 years in the life of Apronenia Avitia, Quignard's fictional diarist. In the summary of Apronenia's life (written by an unnamed "biographer") that immediately precedes Apronenia's diary, Quignard invokes the names of history's other famous diarists--Ailios Aristeides, Sei Shonagon, Pontormo, Samuel Pepys--thereby drawing a similarity with "this type of daybook composed by antiquity's landowners and wealthy aristocrats," and positioning the fictional Apronenia among them. Although Apronenia's tablets span the period of the Roman Empire's worst devastation, the external world is never mentioned. Quignard invites the reader's moral indignation toward the patrician Apronenia, whom he shows deeply steeped in the trivia of her own life, priding the immediate and sensual over the historic and epic, and he simultaneously shows how--in Apronenia's life as in our own--food, wine, sex, and friendships are concerns of epic proportions. This is escapist literature at its finest, a merry blend of historical fact and fiction (were the Romans really obsessed with butt depilatories?) that will help one forget the modern-day troubles of what Michael Hardt and Toni Negri call "Empire." When overcome with imperialistic guilt, take the counsel Apronenia offers after one of her friends suffers a miscarriage: "I felt miserable and it lasted till lunch, when I dined on oysters and boletus mushrooms." KATE PREUSSER

Hard Drive to the Klondike: Promoting Seattle During the Gold Rush

by Lisa Mighetto and Marcia Montgomery

(University of Washington Press) $19.95Seattle has forever profited from the illusion that each new, rich population buying land and spending money here has discovered this beautiful nook for itself. Currently we are hard at work bringing the Japanese over to see Ichiro, NikeTown, and the ferryboats; this trend began long before the disinterest of the now broke urban software developer. Seattle has a long legacy of final frontiersmanship; it just reinvents the frontier after the last has been conquered.

Hard Drive to the Klondike: Promoting Seattle During the Gold Rush recounts in great and sometimes painful detail the grand marketing scheme that initially "put Seattle on the map." Before Seattle realized its best asset was promotion, it was a soggy, ill-constructed, out-of-the-way port town losing an immigration battle with Tacoma. But in 1897, with the arrival of a steamer of "rich men" coming from Alaska, it shortly declared itself the essential stopping point in "the greatest migrations in the history of the world." Thanks to the efforts of the brilliant and insane Erastus Brainerd (Bureau of Information secretary and later Seattle Post-Intelligencer editor), Seattle burned itself into the minds of those hit with gold fever. One woman from New York apparently arrived in Seattle and asked, "Can I walk to the Klondike or is it too far?"

Nearly 70,000 out of a total of 100,000 prospectors heading up to the Yukon decided to first stop in Seattle. Not only did the hotel and entertainment industry flourish, but merchants providing travelers with a year's worth of clothing, liquor, food, transportation, and miscellany ensured a solid economic foundation for our city. Only a couple of years after the first gold discovery, Seattle became the financial center of the Pacific Northwest.

This book has no pretensions about insisting that the Klondike created Seattle; that's part of its academic/coffee-table-book charm--in addition to a well-formulated illustration of "Selling Seattle," it is woven with photographs, newspaper advertisements, graphs, maps, charts, and tangential history lessons. Its main appeal is not going to be with tourists in Pioneer Square's Klondike Museum or academics browsing the University of Washington press library. This book is for those with a curiosity about the ontology of a boomtown, about the promiscuity of a city and the legacy of Seattle's perversity. And who more perverse than our current population, we who have been drawn here by some wind and found reason to stay. MEGAN PURN

Hip Hoptionary: The Dictionary of Hip Hop Terminology

by Alonzo Westbrook

(Broadway Books) $12.95Aspiring hipsters be warned: This book will help to translate colorful rap terms and expand your slang vocabulary, but will disappoint those seeking an improved understanding of hiphop. The Hip Hoptionary is less a comprehensive dictionary than a lazy list of colloquial terms borrowed from popular proverbs and bad rap songs.

Which isn't to say it's not an interesting book... it's just confused. For example, completely fictitious phrases (such as Nelly's legendary "e-I") are interspersed with common vernacular. "Food for thought" and "to boot," for example, have absolutely no roots in hiphop culture. This in itself is not necessarily a problem, but this book, which claims to offer definitions, seems to lack one of its own.

In the promotional material, the compiler, Alonzo Westbrook, markets the book as a "translation guide" that even teachers can use to relate to inner-city youth who "only speak hiphop." Likewise, the last sentence of the introduction grandly claims that "the flowering of Negro expression continues...." Now call me a snob, but are terms such as "PSLs" (Pussy-Sucking Lips) and "gratta" (pants stuck in the butt) really the author's idea of flowery Negro expressions?

Perhaps the book's biggest flaw is that it pays too much attention to clichés, and panders to those who so easily (and often happily) confuse the whole art for one part: the negative images. The book focuses on the commercial rap stereotypes, with any given page containing references to violence, sexism, and drugs.

As an inner-city youth, a hiphop lover, and an expressive Negro, I would hope that this is not the definitive guide to my culture. When strangers greet me with a "What's up, homey" or a "Yo, dawg," are they then expressing that "Negro sentimentality" that Westbrook borrows somewhat clumsily from James Baldwin? Or are they assuming that my Negro status means that I speak a certain way?

This Hip Hoptionary indulges in the same shallow stereotyping of the Ebonics-slinging Negro that the entertainment industry is so eager to capitalize on, blurring the line between authentic cultural expressions and regressive exploitation--or, better yet, blaxploitation. AARON JENKINS

Society Must Be Defended

by Michel Foucault

(Picador) $26This book contains a series of lectures the French philosopher Michel Foucault delivered at the Collège de France from 1975 to 1976. The instructors of this prestigious institution--which offers no grades or diplomas, just lectures that anyone is free to attend--are required to make an annual public report of the research they have conducted over the previous year. The instructors explain what area, field, or subject has preoccupied them, and offer the results, if any, of their work.

From early January to the end of March of 1975, Foucault's lectures, organized into 11 chapters in this book, examined the possibility of war, rather than law, as an alternative model for understanding the mechanisms, functions, and distribution of power in Western society. He writes in the beginning of chapter two, "This year, I would like to begin... a series of investigations into whether or not war can possibly provide a principle for the analysis of power relations: can we find in bellicose relations, in the model of war, in the schema of struggle or struggles, a principle that can help us understand and analyze political power." Later, in the invaluable "Course Summary" (which must be read before embarking on the lectures), Foucault explains that he wants to abandon the analyses that "make law the basic manifestation of power" because what he wants to understand are not the "terms" of these relations but their "basis." He hopes that war may provide this direct understanding.

Beyond the relevance of the lectures to our current "Empire" situation (as Hardt and Negri call it), the book offers an opportunity to read one of the greatest stylists and minds of the 20th century without much difficulty. The inquiry opens up a rich area, and the poetry flows effortlessly from the philosopher. But I don't recommend entering Foucault's complex theories by way of this book; it's way too easy--you must first suffer through at least Madness and Civilization (the English version), The Order of Things, Discipline and Punish, and History of Sexuality Volume One before enjoying such a relaxed and instructive text. CHARLES MUDEDE