Duke University Alumni Magazine

Taming It Down

By Kim McLarin '86. William Morrow, 1998. 312 pages. $24.

Then emotionally aware
Of the black and boisterous hair,
Taming all the anger down.
--Gwendolyn Brooks

n one of her finest moments, Hope Robinson, protagonist of Taming It Down, dispatches a former lover to fetch her another gin and tonic while she ravenously devours a party meal. Upon his return, she slam dunks the accommodating chap with the following verbal moves: "What do you want, David?" Of course, he "just wants to be friends." "'David,' I said calmly, 'go to hell.'"

Given the evidence of her marvelously written first novel, one suspects Kim McLarin might dispatch, with equal verbal facility, anyone who decided to read her achievement into unholy alliance with the mass of "black-sister-speaks" or "black girlfriend" books that occupy so much shelf space at chain bookstores everywhere. Not only does McLarin possess a sure ear for dialogue, but also a magnificent sense of figurative language. Her all-woman childhood household was an "estrogen palace." Further examples: "Memphis, Tennessee, home of Elvis and the Mississippi and other things great and wide," or "but still the sun sat buttery and warm in the sky." The list could be multiplied. Added to it on the side of praise would be her characterization. For those who have worked among the middle class, especially the middle-class sector that reads and peoples academic novels, McLarin must be judged nearly flawless.

For example, while they share the same basic white, educational, and career niche, David and Stephanie are in no way as "golden" as Amy, Hope's white prep-school roommate. Hope's sisters Faith and Charity are as different from each other as they are from their domestic nurse mother. We recognize the "types," but are struck by the individuality of tone and temper McLarin bestows upon her characters. The young Malcolm is a fiercely funny and ultimately sympathetic portrayal of the 1990s black male activist as pedantic, revolutionary reporter. No one escapes the mordantly satirical wit and humor of McLarin; she seems capable of taking down even the most earnest folly with an arch one-liner.

This is the autobiographical first novel of a middle-class, African-American woman's life that some of us have been awaiting. It is a fully captivating read as we follow the fortunes of Hope from her impoverished, Memphis girlhood in a house full of women to her mother's serendipitous discovery and enrollment of the adolescent girl in a fancy New England prep school named Astor. Then comes Dray University, a southern oasis of higher education remarkably akin to Duke.

Hope's major at Dray is journalism, and the school is the scene of her first mind-numbing bout with identity politics. When Hope writes a story for the school paper criticizing a black fraternity's hazing practices, she is visited by a legation of black women who demand a retraction, a show of her "black" loyalty. Hope refuses, just as she has refused to be herded together in "blackness" on Dray's "central campus."

Race and identity are governing themes of Taming It Down. But both have been converted from polemical subjects to difficulties of consciousness. The novel is both autobiographical and a bildungsroman, tracing the developing consciousness of an escaped prisoner of black poverty (a poverty whose structural principle is "waiting") who makes good in a universe designed for the pleasure and comfort of the few, the proud, the rich and white. Taming It Down is a self-critique for those who wish to maintain equilibrium in a world that is not fair.

Affirmative action, interracial relations, bonding of blacks in the white workplace, and the incumbencies of "home" are all given play as we follow the maturation, trails, and perils of Hope in a world where it is easy for the young and black to slip over the edge. No mistake about it, the playing field for Hope's generation is flat but not level. When you slip over the edge: there be dragons, or, at least, difficult personal demons. "Therapy" is a topic of Taming It Down, but one suspects the best work of the novel will not be to portray, but to provide therapy--a brilliant therapeutic read for those who secure the pleasure of this fine book's company.

Kim McLarin is a marvelous, promising talent whose alma mater should send up a salute, and set up at least one book party on campus. That way, "Dray" can pay homage to its own.

--Houston A. Baker Jr.

Baker is a visiting professor of English and guest editor of American Literature at Duke for the 1998-99 academic year.

Cats' Paws and Catapults: Mechanical Worlds of Nature and People

By Steven Vogel. W. W. Norton, 1998. 382 pages. $27.50.

f you like reading John McPhee, Diane Ackerman, and Stephen Ambrose, you'll love reading Steven Vogel. The previously dry academic fields of the sciences, history, and biography are now publishing darlings as a talented group of witty, accessible, articulate authors make their turf user-friendly to the lay reader. Vogel gets our attention, writes persuasively, and tells some great stories.

In writing Cats' Paws and Catapults, Vogel, James B. Duke Professor of Biology, admits that it is the elegance of natural design that seduces many biologists into their vocation. Keeping an open mind with a balance of appreciation for human technology and nature's own evolved devices, Vogel asks the reader to do the same. We see the way living things work, juxtaposed with similar manmade endeavors. Using the same elements in a shared environment, nature and man often assume different strategies. You'll never look at hinges, water flow, chain-saw teeth, spider legs, or blowing leaves in the same way after reading Vogel's absorbing treatments.

Vogel, having been trained as a biologist, not an engineer, has an infectious love of biomechanics. His mission is to engage the reader by looking at design in nature beyond the ideas presented in standard charts and textbooks. He's very willing to cross disciplines to explore possible similarities in function or form. In one paragraph, he leaps from steam engines to a theory about straight roads in three sentences. It's a pleasure to keep up with him.

Writing about force in columns, cylinders, and beams, Vogel throws in the analogy of long, thin pieces of dry spaghetti. Writing about surfaces, angles, and corners, he casually mentions that Wyoming, while appearing to be rectangular, really has a shorter northern border. Later, he presents a chart comparing the stress and strain features of mild steel versus...cow bone. Writing for the intelligent reader, not just the ivy-towered scientist, Vogel wants us all to get it, and enjoy it as much as he does. (He even relates a story from his childhood, when Steve Vogel, budding biologist, tracked fruit fly patterns with a phonograph needle and some thread.)

Well aware of the power of illustration to our Nineties attention spans, Vogel adds humor and surprise in spot-drawings to connect his own prose. One picture features a stop sign with some very tiny lettering. Closer squinting reveals a coda of "and smell the flowers." Kathryn K. Davis' cornucopia of drawings add to the hypertext flow of the book. I found myself willingly jumping around from written text, to pen-and-ink icon, to explanatory footnote. So who needs a CD-ROM?

Vogel's choice of illustrations reminded me of those childhood magazine games where we would be asked to choose an item that doesn't belong with the group. Not only are his diagrams reflecting his writing, they are tools to keep readers on their toes. Check out the rubber duckie (page 226) and the perturbed fish (page 182) and see if Dr. Seuss doesn't come to mind.

He is especially generous and appreciative of four groups of mammals: inventors, librarians, editors, and cats. His book is sprinkled with tales of adventuresome, free-associating biologists who've never gotten their full due. Vogel champions the efforts of the behind-the-scenes lab workers, library rats, and tinkerers. They are his true heroes. And their stories continually keep Cats' Paws and Catapults entertaining.

We relive with interest the saga of ex-machinist-logger Joseph Cox, who noted the

tunneling technique of a large wood-boring beetle, copied its alternating cutting teeth patterns, and went on to invent the ubiquitous Oregon chain. And the story of the Swiss engineer and avid walker Georges de Mestral, who went hiking one day in 1948

and returned with a better idea, is totally inspirational. De Mestral studied the sock- and-dog clinging patterns of the cocklebur and invented Velcro.

But equally fascinating are Vogel's asides about D'Arcy Thompson, a pioneer in bio-mathematics, and George Orwell's observations about the speed attained by mice falling down a coal mine shaft. How about the life work of Olavi Sotavalta, who, in the 1940s, compiled a compendium of wingbeat frequencies for insects that is still reliable fifty years later? Whether it's the psychological testing of Zulus in the Fifties or explaining the concept of "lock-in" with regard to a dominant technology in the marketplace (QWERTY keyboards, VHS videotape), Vogel gives biomechanics an accessible, everyday relevance.

--John Valentine '71, M.Ed. '74

Valentine, co-owner of Durham's Regulator Bookshop, lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina.

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