Reviews of 'Gilded Youth,' 'Nog,' 'Bucky Fuller'

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GILDED YOUTH: Three Lives in France's Belle Epoque, by Kate Cambor. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 307 pp., $25.

The phrase fin-de-siècle, in any century, has an ominous feel. We search for clues that point to our imminent and certain demise. In this dramatic, real-life tale of three intertwined lives, Kate Cambor conveys the dashed hopes not just of families and individuals, but of an entire culture. Jean-Baptiste Charcot (son of famed neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot), Leon Daudet (son of writer Alphonse Daudet) and Jeanne Hugo (granddaughter of writer Victor Hugo) were the celebrity brats of France's Belle Epoque. None had shoulders quite broad enough to carry the legacies of their forebears.

What Cambor calls the "frenetic exuberance" of the late 1800s in Paris - in science, art and literature - had collapsed by the time these three friends were ready to make their marks in the first decades of the 20th century. Revolutions in all three fields made the ground under their feet unsteady, not to mention all the complicated family dynamics and resulting vulnerabilities. "Gilded Youth" is full of glittering things - ideas, salons, dreams - ultimately blinding to the three young people. Paris burns brightly in the background.

NOG, by Rudolph Wurlitzer. Two Dollar Radio, 142 pp., $15.50 paper.

'Nog" is a short, strange trip, a cult classic. It was published in 1969, the debut brainchild of Rudolph Wurlitzer. There is tripping, there are tattoos, there is sex with multiple partners. Go West! Go East! Cowboys, Buddhists and cowboy Buddhists abound. Who is Nog? "He was apparently of Finnish extraction, was one of those semireligious lunatics you see wandering around the Sierras on bread and tea, or gulping down peyote in Nevada with the Indians." A bit of Jack Kerouac, a bit of James Joyce in the moments of revelation when the clouds part, if only to shine light on the octopus (don't ask).

The narrator hitchhikes, meets other world travelers - it's all very fluid. "How am I to know except by looking back if I am settled or not? I am not thinking about going on or not going on. There is no anguish, no confusion even though I don't remember what happened last night after leaving the kitchen." The trippiness contains an Ariadne's thread to something older and more meaningful: an effort to break free, a hero's tale.

BECOMING BUCKY FULLER, by Loretta Lorance. The MIT Press, 284 pp., $29.95.

This odd book has two story lines: In one, Loretta Lorance strives to show how inventor and architect Buckminster Fuller (famous for his geodesic domes) carefully constructed his own public image. In the other, more interesting one, she shows how Fuller's expertise in manufacturing evolved to his creation of the Dymaxion House.

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The Dymaxion House was meant to solve many of the world's problems by providing affordable, efficient and humane housing. As with many of Fuller's inventions, one wonders why it did not flourish as a marketable, much less profitable, alternative (and it is possible that its day simply has not yet come). But Lorance's explanation - that Fuller hobbled his own inventions out of sheer obstinacy and ego - seems incomplete at best. The book contains some beautiful drawings by Fuller and his wife, Anne. His legacy and enduring appeal (especially to young people) transcend any mean-spiritedness in the book.

AMERICAN ROMANCES: Essays, by Rebecca Brown. City Lights, 162 pp., $16.95 paper.

'Some things, no matter how far apart, occur again the same. They happen the same again and over again. The same except for different, and forever." Now that we are swimming in information, facts often seem more like flotsam than train tracks leading anywhere. The circle seems ever more appropriate as the shape of history.

Rebecca Brown, info-entrepreneur, can write her own history, pairing, for example, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Brian Wilson (who grew up in Hawthorne, Calif.). "Hawthorne, writer from the east, and Hawthorne, suburb in the west, are twisted in a Möbius strip: the child and its evil twin, the maker and its son. The City on the Hill became the suburb in the sand."

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Out of this archaeology comes a new view of Puritanism, scarlet letters, dreams of the Founding Fathers. Snail paths intersect at junctions (matrices) formed by common names and places. The essays in "American Romances" cover a lot of ground: listening, faith, invisibility, extreme reading, the West. They practically read themselves, that's how much fun they are.

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