The Light Stuff

A Rough Guide to the Flash and Trash of Summer Reading

Lethal Seduction is not Jackie's best. Her flair for tasteless excess and infatuation with betrayal and power-grabbing seem self-consciously rooted in the 1980s, and that, in fact, was the Ultimate Jackie period. So with her cultural markers and personal obsessions somewhat out of date, she attempts compensation with a slightly goofy, if admirable, stab at multiculturalism (you and your beach blanket mates can fight over which one of you will play Kimm Florian, the teetotaling, sexless Native American lesbian private detective in the movie adaptation). A politically correct Jackie? Hmm, I'd rather see the Native sister get down like all the other characters than play the neutered noble savage. Well, one shouldn't quibble. Jackie has once again proved that she's aces at her trade—cranking out a slick, quick, and dirty read we can embrace as simultaneously engrossing and inferior. Long live the Queen! —Lily Burana

The Chinese Garden
By Rosemary Manning
The Feminist Press, 184 pp., $12.95 paper

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Rosignano Solvay, Sea 2. August 1998 (detail), from Beach & Disco by Massimo Vitali
Massimo VitalI, from Beach & Disco, published by Steidl
Rosignano Solvay, Sea 2. August 1998 (detail), from Beach & Disco by Massimo Vitali

Ah, the sweet bondage of the closet. It may be small, but it's also deliciously dark, intensely private, and compellingly historical. You know you're not alone there. Rosemary Manning's The Chinese Garden was originally published in 1962 and has now been reissued by the Feminist Press. Slender as a keyhole, it concerns the sapphic goings-on at Bampfield, a British boarding school for girls, in the late 1920s. All the Mädchen in Uniform elements are in place: a charismatic and mannish headmistress known as Chief, hockey sticks, cold runs before breakfast, footsteps after lights out, heated particular friendships, heartbreak, pathology, and girls calling from bed to bed, "Not tonight." So overloaded is Bampfield with latent inverted passion that even the piano keys in the music room are "moist and sticky." Our 16-year-old heroine, who writes plays about "the horrors of marriage" and has a lavish fondness for secret gardens, is the quintessential tender searcher of the genre, simultaneously observant and appetitive: "There resided within me, the schoolgirl Rachel Curgenven," she reflects, "another self, a restless, hungry, immaculate being."

Baby. But Manning, who was herself the closeted headmistress of a girls' school (she died in 1988), leads her Rachel not so much to the discovery of sex as to the discovery of sexual hypocrisy. Even as the just-published Well of Loneliness is being covertly passed from hand to girlish hand, Bampfield, like the boy scouts, is rooting out the very homoeroticism that constitutes it: When two girls are discovered in bed together, the headmistresses, though guilty of the same crimes against nature, cast them out. "Exposed and quivering," declares Rachel, "lay the lie which ran through the whole school like a nervous system." First consciousness, suggests Manning, may be even more important than first love. Hot as it is, The Chinese Garden is most provocative, and strangely timely, as a sensuous discussion of ethics. —Stacey D'Erasmo

Beach & Disco
By Massimo Vitali
Steidl, 144 pp., $49.95

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Massimo Vitali, 56, a photojournalist turned movie cameraman, launched these paired photo projects in the wake of a 1994 national election that prompted him to question the sanity of his fellow Italians. While on a Tuscan beach vacation, he says he "made the decision to have a closer look at my compatriots," and the results are the richly descriptive leisure landscapes gathered here.

Sociology at its most seductive, Vitali's study of Italians at play may have been sparked by a moment of shocked skepticism, but it feels generous rather than judgmental. In the contemporary mode (think Gursky, Struth, and Ruff), the photographer maintains a cool distance from his subjects. For his expansive beach panoramas, he stations himself on a high platform just beyond the breaking surf and waits until people forget his presence; for the more claustrophobic pictures at clubs, he perches unobtrusively above the action and rarely catches a dancer's eye. In both situations, Vitali observes people in various degrees of abandon who have not composed themselves for the camera's eye, but his godlike surveillance is almost tender. He may have set out to investigate the Italian citizenry, but he ended up with a privileged view of us all: gregarious, lost, foolish, expectant, all too human. —Vince Aletti

Multimedia Goddess Britney Spears
Britney Spears' Heart to Heart
By Britney and Lynne Spears
Three Rivers Press, 135 pp., $12.95 paper

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Anyone who thinks it's a little too soon for Britney Spears to have penned a memoir doesn't understand Britney Spears. The girl is explicitly about being all things to all people—she's a virgin and a whore—and doing it in the quickest, most accessible way possible. In fact, I'm amazed it took her so long to write a book, but she probably had to search around for the right coauthor before realizing that her mother, Lynne Spears, had the goods and the Polaroids.

Alas, though this ultrasincere epic is less excruciating than the desperate one written by Backstreet Boy Nick Carter's mom, it's relatively leaden proof that Britney should be seen and maybe even heard, but never read. Much as I've dedicated my life to a kitsch appreciation of Brit, a true multimedia goddess who channels Annette Funicello via Marilyn Monroe, Britney Spears' Heart to Heart is a gushy teen magazine article in the form of a book, and it doesn't do justice to her trampily titillating grandeur. As a performer, she's capable of edge, but the memoir mainly serves up homilies, perky stories, inspiration, and cute captions ("It's fun to dress up, but I like to kick back and just relax too. It can be exhausting singing and dancing all day.") What you learn is that the real Britney is a nice, clean, sober workaholic who, when she finally addresses the subject of her surgery, means her knee surgery. Yuck!

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