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READING THE RANGE

There is a new, Phoenix-produced television show that is witty, informative and, most surprising of all, telecast on KAET.

The Valley's PBS outlet, Channel 8, has long been recognized for its local lineup of dull talking heads. Is there a sauna bench in any YMCA more stultifying than KAET's Horizon show?

Quick! Mark Flatten: In what city would you be most likely to smack that Flemish-peasant head of yours by walking into the Berlin Wall?

But never mind all that. With the tweedy-sounding Books & Co., KAET is ready to hoist cocktails.

You can toast co-hosts Jana Bommersbach and Ron Carlson for the vitality of the new program.

The appeal of these two isn't simply their contrast to KAET's usual lineup of self-satisfied toads. Bommersbach and Carlson are also a stimulant to commercial television's narcotic bite.

You know what I'm talking about.
You turn on the television and use the remote control to jump continuously from station to station creating a 36-channel movie, a Bedlamlike stream of consciousness that makes absolutely no sense, but is twice as interesting as anything listed in TV Guide.

Bommersbach and Carlson are the sort of conversationalists, however, who can get you to pause, no matter what stage of attention deficit disorder afflicts you.

The plain truth is Ron Carlson could talk the ears off a ferret.
But because Carlson is more likely to say, "I read somewhere that . . ." rather than "I think . . ." or the even deadlier "I once wrote . . ." , he is never a bore.

And Bommersbach is like a visual jolt of Prozac. You'll feel better just watching her on the air. Why isn't everyone on television this generous and engaging?

It is also one of life's more pleasant surprises to discover Jana actually discussing someone else's work.

KAET, Bommersbach and Carlson should be congratulated for trekking over literary landscape that, in Phoenix, is hardly even congealed. Known nationally as a bad town for books, the community just lost another independent bookstore, Dushoff Books Ltd., for lack of support. And if the timing for a show devoted to authors in the Southwest is hardly propitious, the very format of a program devoid of steroid abusers and car wrecks is dicey.

In fact, the premiäre telecast on April 17 with Jana and Ron interviewing each other about their own recent books, The Trunk Murderess: Winnie Ruth Judd and Plan B for the Middle Class, respectively, almost collapses in self-consciousness. Clearly, these are two hosts in search of someone who will listen long enough to be identified as a guest.

Too bad. Plan B is a marvelous collection of short stories with "Blazo" suggesting that Carlson has even more substantial work in front of him once he abandons the literary pyrotechnics on display in the quirky, but ultimately silly, "On the USS Fortitude."

Is Carlson working out larger themes? We'll never know because he wasn't asked. As for Bommersbach's trunk murderess, the Winnie Ruth Judd book really does deliver to the reader an insider's view of an American crime legend, but how did a normally lucid journalist like Jana end up with a book that is such an indigestible knockwurst?

Ron and Jana are too civilized and gay to ask hard questions of each other, or their guests, for that matter.

But oddly enough, once Bommersbach and Carlson begin alternating in the spotlight and abandon the opening show's joint-host format, the broadcast begins to zip and the prevailing ethic of delicacy and decency proves no hindrance.

You see, the guests, because they are writers, do not need the rude provocation to respond with insight into their work. An appreciative and receptive Carlson or Bommersbach is more than enough stimulus.

For example, when Carlson hosts Alberto Rios on April 24, the discussion about the author's new work, The Iguana Killer, is illuminating. Rios parses the difference between the usual gringo description of his work, "magical realism," and the more useful Hispanic understanding of "the marvelous real."

Later in the telecast, Carlson recalls a review in which it was suggested that "a short story is an author's response to the most important questions he or she can ask."

Rios will have none of this gravity.
"I don't think I ever want to deal with the most important question I have," protests a cowering Rios. "I wouldn't do it justice . . . we're going to fail."
Aha!
As a reader, then, I now understand why I have the uneasy feeling with Rios that he uses "magical realism" or "the marvelous real" the way some writers use science fiction--as a crutch to avoid the frightening consequences of confronting that which is actual. In fact, several years ago when Rios learned that his submission to New Times' annual fiction collection had not secured the top position and instead was in the second-place slot, he sought to withdraw his entry. Such is Rios' obsession with failure.  

Bommersbach is every bit as successful as Carlson at prompting writers to open up.

I sat down with Paul Perry's unauthorized biography of Hunter S. Thompson, a tumbler of whiskey and an evening full of expectations. By two in the morning, I wanted to pitch the book into the fireplace. How could the gonzo journalist's life be rendered as flaccid as George Bush after an all-night toot?

Speaking of his book Fear and Loathing: The Strange and Terrible Saga of Hunter S. Thompson, Perry confides to Bommersbach during the May 29 broadcast that his instincts are essentially those of a censor.

Perry at one time edited Running magazine, then a cutting-edge monthly whose hip owners at Nike adopted as a goal the publication of the once-seminal, but long-since-burned-out husks Norman Mailer, Ken Kesey and Hunter S. Thompson. Finding himself in Hawaii covering a marathon for Running, Uncle Duke sent back a dispatch brimming with racial descriptions which the sensitive Democrat, Perry, promptly edited out of the manuscript. Ignore for a second that Hawaii is the most racially stratified state in America, where the only thing lower than a Filipino cane cutter is a Howli, islander slang used to denigrate whites. Instead, picture someone dry-cleaning Hunter Thompson's prose to make it politically correct. You begin to sense why Perry was the wrong man for this biography.

These suspicions are confirmed when Perry tells Bommersbach that he censored the preface to his very own book because it was "too negative."

Perry believes he uncovered evidence that the man who defined Richard Nixon for a generation of Americans is, in the words of Hunter S. Thompson himself, "brain damaged."

Citing Thompson's homecoming reunion in Kentucky, as well as a recent film documentary, Perry alleges that Thompson's speech has become unintelligible as a result of titanic substance abuse.

But Perry couldn't bring himself to include this information in his biography.
Well, Christ!
You can omit the astounding revelation that Hunter S. Thompson has turned into Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" poster child if, in fact, the gossip is just so much unfounded slop. But you can't suppress this fact or refuse to investigate the allegations because just thinking about the possibility turns your gizzards into tapioca.

The most riotous segment of Books & Co. taped to date is the May 1 show, featuring Bommersbach and her former colleague at New Times, Deborah Laake.

These two women were not destined for intimacy.
When you telephone Bommersbach these days, her answering machine declares: "Hi. This is Jana. God only knows where I am right now . . . and she's not telling."

So you can imagine the reaction of this chain-smoking feminist in 1981 when a skeptical Laake, fresh to the newspaper, asked Bommersbach at their first lunch if Jana really expected equality with men.

The moment is more poignant when you know Laake's secret: She was only six weeks out of a mental institution when the two women broke bread. By then Laake had already begun the incredible journey that would culminate in her just-published book Secret Ceremonies: A Mormon Woman's Intimate Diary of Marriage and Beyond.

Laake charts our culture's murkiest depths, where pale-eyed women are suspended in tidal surges of religious subservience. And yet there is nothing dreary in her tale. Her vision is hopeful, life-affirming. Laake does not distill her insight into a clumsy, wood-burned plaque engraved with rhetoric from astringent libbers. Her book is as textured and layered as life itself.

Laake's literary achievement is neither esoteric nor precious; in fact, the book is propelled by raucous revelations: the Mormon church's most secret ceremonies; details about her marriages that will make her ex-husbands whistle long and low; and, yes, the masturbation scene.

The book's disturbing portrayal of the something-less-than-human men who were the Mormon bishops in Laake's life, as well as her frank depiction of the Temple's ritualistic voodoo, is already causing an outcry.

In Salt Lake City, where her book first appeared in condensed form in Cosmopolitan magazine, the Mormon faithful are already jumping out of windows and using cellular phones to call and complain to radio talk-show hosts before corkscrewing into the pavement.

In Phoenix, the church hierarchy has initiated excommunication proceedings against Laake.

It must all be enormously satisfying, or so one would gather watching Laake and Bommersbach quip their way through the show.

Today, Jana and Deborah are infamous equals who enjoy each other enormously. In the broadcast, they just put their hands on their hips and wag their tongues at each other.  

"I married a man I believed God had chosen for me," admits Deborah.
"Now why did you think that?" asks an astonished Jana.
"Because he told me so!" at which point both crack up in waves of laughter.
"He was not your dream man?"
"My family still refers to him as 'the twit.' . . . It certainly does add to the feeling of panic if you don't like him."
After a brief bit on Laake's second marriage, Jana declares, "And then you married a third time."

"I did, and you know this one."
Yes, Jana agrees, she does indeed know this man.
"And we won't say much about him," mugs Bommersbach. "Because, as you well know, I don't like that man."
Laake's jaw drops into rare speechlessness and Jana forks the roast, "But, then, neither do you."

When Scott Jacobson from Arizona Public Service Company previewed Books and Co., he saw this exchange. Jacobson immediately took out his utility's checkbook and underwrote the first 13 telecasts.

My only gripe with Books & Co. is the time slot KAET has chosen to air the broadcasts, Saturday mornings at 11:30. Let's not mince words here.

KAET is a unique member of the PBS family. In the midst of this clan of overachievers, Channel 8 is like your Uncle Claude who sells insurance and no one wants him left alone with the little kids because you just aren't sure.

Channel 8 made its national mark by telecasting the intellectual ghoulishness of open-heart surgery performed by Dr. Ted Diethrich, a healthcare giver so craven he needed his own staff publicist.

Last month, on Saint Patrick's Day, KAET chose to broadcast a special on the Queen of England including footage of her bestowing battle ribbons upon troops in Britain's army of occupation in Northern Ireland.

This tasteless programming was immediately followed by a request for donations to KAET from two former media personalities, Phil Allen and Elin Jeffords, who promised sleazy paperbacks about Princess Diana to anyone who would send a check to Channel 8.

Because of Jana Bommersbach and Ron Carlson, KAET has the opportunity with Books & Co. to mount a show that is stimulating and enriching. Don't bury the telecast on Saturday mornings.

Put it opposite American Gladiators, and kick some butt.


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