in conversation with Fred de Sam Lazaro!

Monday, April 16, 2018, 7 pm
American Swedish Institute, Larson Hall
2600 Park Avenue South, Minneapolis
This event is co-sponsored by Norway House

Rain Taxi invites you to meet internationally bestselling journalist and writer Åsne Seierstad, the acclaimed Norwegian journalist whose The Bookseller of Kabul was an international best-seller in the early 2000s, and whose most recent book, One of Us, was selected by the New York Times as one of their top ten of 2015. Seierstad will be discussing her brand new book Two Sisters: A Father, His Daughters, and Their Journey into the Syrian Jihad. In this riveting new work of literary reportage, Seierstad tells the story of two teenage Somali-Norwegian sisters who, in late 2013, left their family behind in Norway to join the Islamic State in Syria. Seierstad traces the sisters' journey, but she also tells their parents' story, as they attempt to bring the girls home and then struggle to accept that they may be gone forever. Books will be available for purchase. Don’t miss this chance to meet one of Norway’s pre-eminent writers of nonfiction!

At this special event, Åsne Seierstad will be in conversation about her book with Fred de Sam Lazaro, executive director of the Under-Told Stories Project at the University of St. Thomas and a correspondent for PBS NewsHour. Fred has reported from 68 countries, focused primarily on issues related to poverty that are under-reported in mainstream U.S. media. Learn more about the Under-Told Stories Project HERE.

This is a ticketed event. Advance ticket sales have ended. You can still purchase tickets at the door ($5 each)—doors open at 6:30pm. All are welcome!

About the Book, Two Sisters:

Two Sisters, by the international bestselling author Åsne Seierstad, tells the unforgettable story of a family divided by faith.
Sadiq and Sara, Somali immigrants raising a family in Norway, one day discover that their teenage daughters Leila and Ayan have vanished—and are en route to Syria to aid the Islamic State. Seierstad’s riveting account traces the sisters’ journey from secular, social democratic Norway to the front lines of the war in Syria, and follows Sadiq’s harrowing attempt to find them.

Employing the same mastery of narrative suspense she brought to The Bookseller of Kabul and One of Us, Seierstad puts the problem of radicalization into painfully human terms, using instant messages and other primary sources to reconstruct a family’s crisis from the inside. Eventually, she takes us into the hellscape of the Syrian civil war, as Sadiq risks his life in pursuit of his daughters, refusing to let them disappear into the maelstrom—even after they marry ISIS fighters. Two Sisters is a relentless thriller and a feat of reporting with profound lessons about belief, extremism, and the meaning of devotion.

Åsne Seierstad decided to write Two Sisters after the girls’ father approached her about the idea. Sadiq was engaged in an effort to bring his daughters home, and to spread their story as widely as he could. (He also contacted filmmakers, who turned the story into a documentary, as well). As Seierstad writes in her author's note at the end of the book, Sadiq "was seeking better cooperation among parents, schools, mosques, and the police," and wanted to prevent this from happening to other families.

The first thing that Seierstad did was to interview the family. Sadiq and his wife Sara also gave Seierstad access to materials that their daughters left behind, as well as invited Seierstad into their home in Norway, and to Hargeisa in Somaliland. During the course of working on the book, Seierstad traveled with Sadiq to Hatay Province in Turkey, across the border from Syria. Sadiq and Sara read the finished manuscript before publication, and were given the opportunity to make corrections.

The result is a careful work of journalism that avoids heavy-handed moralizing or easy answers. It doesn’t pretend to tell a story that's representative of any one culture, but rather tries to document this single family's extraordinary story, and to shed some light on the recent history of ISIS, the experiences of immigrants in Europe, and the process of radicalization.

About the Author:

Åsne Seierstad is an award-winning Norwegian journalist and writer known for her work as a war correspondent. She is the author of One of Us: The Story of a Massacre in Norway—and Its Aftermath, The Bookseller of Kabul, One Hundred and One Days: A Baghdad Journal, Angel of Grozny: Orphans of a Forgotten War, and With Their Backs to the World: Portraits of Serbia. She lives in Oslo, Norway.

Praise for Seierstad’s previous book, One of Us (2015):

“A masterpiece of journalism . . . a brilliant, unforgettable book.” —Michael Schaub, NPR.org

“The book attains an almost unbearable weight . . . From the opening pages it has an irresistible force.” —Eric Schlosser, The New York Times Book Review

“One of Us reads like a true crime novel, but it has the journalistic chops to back it up . . . Not only a stunning achievement in journalism, it’s a touchstone on how to write about tragedy with detail, honesty, and compassion.” —Samantha Edwards, The A.V. Club

“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t read the first half of One of Us with perpetually moist cheeks . . . If it is true, as Stephen Jay Gould contended, that ‘nothing matches the holiness and fascination of accurate and intricate detail,’ then Ms. Seierstad has delivered a holy volume indeed.” —Dwight Garner, The New York Times

“A brilliant if unrelenting piece of reportage, one that cements Seierstad as among the foremost journalists or our time.” —Oliver Poole, The Independent

“[One of Us is] a new In Cold Blood, an essential read.” —Heather Mallick, Toronto Star


Monday, April 9, 2018, 7:00 pm
Plymouth Congregational Church, Sanctuary
1900 Nicollet Ave, Minneapolis
co-sponsored by Literary Witnesses

Join us to hear one of America’s most acclaimed poets, a master of the personal lyric, read from his work! Gregory Orr is the author of a dozen volumes of poetry, including Gathering the Bones Together (Harper & Row, 1975), We Must Make a Kingdom of It (Wesleyan University Press, 1986) and Concerning the Book That Is the Body of the Beloved (Copper Canyon Press, 2005), as well as the memoir The Blessing (Council Oak Books, 2002). His latest book is A Primer for Poets and Readers of Poetry (Norton, 2018).

Books will be available for purchase courtesy of Birchbark Books, and a reception will follow!

This program is part of the 20th anniversary celebration of Literary Witnesses, a poetry series which over its history has featured the likes of Robert Bly, Lucille Clifton, Jane Hirshfield, Galway Kinnell, Naomi Shihab Nye, Charles Simic, Gary Synder, and dozens of other poets. Other anniversary events will be held on Sunday April 8; these include a reading by poet Sam King at noon in the chapel, and a conversation between Sam King and Gregory Orr on the topic "Can poetry save your life?” at 4 pm in Guild Hall, after which a reception follows.


a special film screening and poetry event
cosponsored by the Autism Society of Minnesota

Thursday, March 29, 2018, 6:30 pm
Minneapolis Institute of Art
2400 Third Avenue South, Minneapolis

As a special precursor to National Poetry Month and Autism Awareness Month, the Autism Society of Minnesota and Rain Taxi invite you to a special evening with and about a remarkable young poet named DJ Savarase. Our program, which celebrates the publication of Savarese’s chapbook A Doorknob for an Eye and the feature film Deej, will include a screening of the film and a Q&A session with DJ himself. Chapbooks and DVDs will be available for purchase. Don’t miss this opportunity to redefine “normal” and to see “what the ideal of full inclusion requires but also what it can accomplish."

This event is free and open to the public,

Just added: We are pleased to announce that the work of two Minnesota poets with autism will also be presented at this event! Meghana Junnuru, a non-verbal autistic, is a joyful and savvy poet whose work addresses many disability topics. Chetan Junnuru is an adventurous writer who is using poetry to heal his heart and also to reach the hearts of other individuals with autism. Meghana and Chetan are siblings with autism who maintain the blog Grow Our Joy to share their inner thoughts and progress with as wide an audience as possible.
Read Meghana’s review of DEEJ here!

About the Author, the Film, and the Chapbook:

Abandoned by his birth parents and presumed incompetent, DJ (“Deej”) found not only a loving family but also a life in words, which he types on a text-to-voice synthesizer. The film Deej shows how he deals with high school and dreams of college, confronting society's obstacles to inclusion and the sometimes paralyzing beauty of his own senses along the way. As part of his advocacy on behalf of other nonspeaking autistics he embraces filmmaking and poetry, and discovers what having a voice can truly mean. A Doorknob for an Eye is published by Unrestricted Interest, a small press dedicated to transforming poetry through the voices of those with autism.

Beneath the Radar: An Interview with Janet Capron

interviewed by Ben Shields

Until recently, Janet Capron—author of the new book Blue Money (Unnamed Press, $16)—was using her literary talent to write pharmaceutical literature and instructional film scripts for oncologists. By the time she met me for a decadent (but non-alcoholic) dinner several weeks ago, that had all mercifully changed. We dined in the West Village's Caffe Reggio, the last of the bohemian coffee houses in which one may order a single drink and linger for the next four hours without harassment. And that is precisely what we did. As we talked about Janet's life on the street—as a junkie, prostitute, writer, and documentarian of degeneracy—I did not hear a single political cliché for the entire discussion, and instead absorbed one prankish cultural critique after another from Janet's side of the cheese plate. This proud Park Avenue schoolgirl-turned-floozy has chronicled her high bourgeois class suicide in an outrageous debut novel—which, as she discusses below, never lets the burden of actual facts get in the way of what things were really like in 1970s New York. Read on for her remarks on Germaine Greer, Peter Pan, and how her life went from the saddest non-publishing story ever to that of a lecture-touring writer.

Janet Capron: You look a little different than your photo.

Ben Shields: Do I? Maybe in the photo I didn't have a beard. Where did you even see my photo?

JC: Somewhere on the Internet, Ben.

BS: How strange. I'm very unimportant.

JC: That can change in an instant. Stick with me, kid. I've got like ten pages now, having gone all my life as a completely beneath-the-radar person. It doesn't take much.

BS: Well, enough about me. I don't want to start off too academically, but one thing that's missing from your book is your college years. Weren't you at Bennington?

JC: [laughs] I started at Bennington. I would have loved it if I'd really been there. I got kicked out. But this isn't a genuine memoir. I wrote it as a novel, which meant free to access my imagination. I'm a big defender of autobiographical fiction; I don't think there's anything wrong with mixing it up. So, people are saying, oh, you must have felt terrible when Eddie got killed . . . Well, I'm sorry, that didn't happen. I'm more and more regretting having agreed to let it be called a memoir.

BS: Well then, I won't ask at any point, "did this really happen?" That's such a philistine-American journalist question, anyway. The more you stick to strict facts in a story, the more the real emotion behind it vanishes.

JC: It's all a line against imagination. I think imagination is in deep peril. Even when the facts of life are more melodramatic than fiction could ever be, just the act of eliminating the imagination and sticking to memory is deadening no matter what.

BS: That is related to the psychoanalytic practice of free-associating. Not worrying about the logical connections. And once that happens, authentic memories do begin to resurface.

JC: There's no such thing as accurate memory, as far as I'm concerned.

BS: When did you go back to Columbia?

JC: 1982. (After getting my BA, I went onto the Graduate Creative Writing Program at Columbia's School of the Arts, where I began work on what would become Blue Money.)

When I was an undergraduate, you could still be a writing/English major, which meant you could take a lot of writing workshops. It was a split major. So, I was completely immersed in writing even then, and there was this brilliant teacher there, J. R. Humphreys, who was the founder and head of the famous Adult Writing Program. Part of me was running from my previous life in the street and very happy to be back in the citadel, the cloister, the ivory tower. I felt protected. At the same time, that life in the street was still very fresh. So, I wrote this story, it was kind of like—do you know Blue Angel with Marlene Dietrich?

BS: Naturally.

JC: It was a take-off on that. It was about a massage parlor hooker. At the time, I had this crush on my physics professor, whom I ended up getting engaged to, but never mind. At that point, it was a distant crush. He was really cute and nerdy. I cast him as this nerd, because I was trying to imagine the two of us together. In the story, he goes to the massage parlor in the heat of the summer, and falls in love with this really tough little hooker who teaches him a bit about life. Humphreys either knew or somehow figured out that I had actually lived this for real, and he said you've got to mine that material now, or you'll lose it forever. He said we tend to forget our twenties after a while. So that was how I came to write Blue Money, an autobiographical novel about my twenties.

BS: When did you actually write Blue Money in its present form?

JC: The last draft was in 2002.

BS: Why do you think it was a difficult sell?

JC: If I had written about this experience as morose, a mea culpa, I think it would have been published a lot sooner.

BS: I never thought of that. If it had culminated in an anorexia diagnosis, it could have been out ten years ago.

JC: Right.

BS: Near the beginning of the book, you're rejoining the bar scene with your friend Michael, whether or not he's real—

JC: Oh, he's real—

BS: OK, and you're rejoining that scene after having left it to be with a radical feminist group. What kinds of things were you doing with them?

JC: I was very enamored of someone called Robin Morgan, who was a really big force in the feminist movement. She spearheaded the burning of the bras. There was this group, I can't even remember the name of it, of which I was a part. I was living with a guy and we were doing a lot of acid. I was 21 . . . A lot of the women were very butch. These were not lipstick lesbians, OK? And they were all Maoists, which now I'm more sympathetic to than I was then. Then it was quite shocking. I wasn't prepared to handle all of that. I didn't feel at home there, plus as I say in the book (I wrote this to be honest to this experience, not to set myself up as some kind of role model): I was an alcoholic and a drug addict, and a sex addict too. I loved all of that. I was a hedonist. I wasn't a very serious person, really. I tried. I had moments. I was capable, but not of sustaining it. Alcoholism and addiction undermined that.

BS: Nothing can compete with that.

JC: No, nothing.

BS: It sounds like this clash you experienced with the feminists may not have had to do with the fact that you weren't serious enough. Maybe they simply weren't fun enough.

JC: It wasn't about fun, I'll tell you that. It was just six months or something. But I thought it was important to establish that because it was a perspective that I held onto throughout everything.

BS: I heard that Germaine Greer is your model feminist.

JC: Oh yes—and she's more than just a feminist, you know. I'm so glad you're familiar with her.

BS: She was just on the BBC earlier this year discussing agricultural issues! She's so broadly learned.

JC: I don't use this term lightly: she's a genius. And my agent is her agent. The Female Eunuch is one of the seminal works of the 20th century.

BS: I agree. And Greer is almost more or less absent from Gender and Women's Studies programs, which is a disaster.

JC: It is a disaster. Because nobody wants to take a look at what's really going on.

BS: Yes, it's a great book. It draws upon the entire Western canon to make an argument about human and female sexuality.

JC: And it's not about "breaking a glass ceiling" [rolls eyes]. Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae is also a book I think about practically every day. Do you know how much feminists hated her?

BS: What do you make of all the recent controversies surrounding Greer's comments on transgender issues?

JC: Do I have to go there? If she's brave enough, I guess I will. My book is all about asking, what is the difference between men and women? We have these very narrow, culturally determined sex roles that have nothing to do with what the real difference is. It's not about high heels, I'll tell you that. That's what the first wave of feminism established, that it's just like being in drag. I don't care what gender. We all know that sexuality is a continuum, and they're acting like it isn't. If we were actually allowed to be a man inside of a woman's body, it could be a sacred thing to be. Like, oh, this should be our priest! This is someone who gets it all.

BS: Speaking of Sexual Personae, there is a line where Paglia says something to the effect of, "how many transsexuals should be seeing shamans instead of surgeons?"

JC: Bingo!

BS: Some gay men also "wish" they were women, without being "transgender," precisely because women are allowed to be in drag at all times! Now, in the Huffington Post blurb for your book, they wrote that Blue Money was a glimpse into a "simpler" New York, before AIDS and gentrification. Do you really think it was that much simpler?

JC: Oh my god, yes, my child. I don't want to patronize you, but in those days, it was so wonderfully innocent compared to now. I'm not saying it was "safe." Now it's "safe," in a lovely 1984 sort of way. I'm being hypocritical, because I love the fact that I can walk around at four in the morning and not be afraid. But I never was afraid, because back then I was so crazed on drugs and alcohol . . . I had a lot of moxie. One thing about my book that is interesting to millennials is that you had hookers living on Sutton Place. And believe me that part is true. No one wanted to live here. The president had said, "New York, drop dead!" It was so great. Everything was so cheap, free, and wild. There was a genuine counterculture, the likes of which I have not seen since. And it spanned many generations. It was all the bohemians that were still left alive, plus all the hippies, plus all the punks, all of us!

BS: The reason I asked was, the life that you recount in the book is far from simple. It made me wonder, when I read that, if it's just a false nostalgia. But you are saying it's not.

JC: I don't think so. Things have gone backwards. For instance, the Black Panthers were still around in those days, and they were idealized. It was an unbelievable intelligentsia leading the way. And they were destroyed. Every last one of them were killed or put into prison, solitary confinement for life. You have to understand, before all that happened, we imagined that we were living in an open society where you could affect change. Now, we're going to have to be much more strategic. It's a lot more sinister now. The press was probably not free then, but compared to now? We don't even know about all the domestic terrorism that's going on in our country, let alone New York. And we have mass incarceration—it affects us, even us, sitting here in our bourgeois bubble. This undermines the entire society.

BS: Let's keep talking about your literary life. What are you reading now?

JC: This great book called As Close As I Can Get to You by Dan Siegler. It's not out yet. His agent is still shopping it around. He asked me for a blurb—my first—and luckily I love the book. The author is a straight man, and through a series of circumstances he gets into drag. And he starts having a little affair with a woman who gets off on it. So, he has to get made up every time he goes to see her. In the three times that they've had sex, she's the only one who gets off. It's sui generis. I thought it was going to be one of these typically millennial stories, which I get impatient with.

BS: What's a typically millennial story?

JC: Well, I don't want to knock anybody, but I'm given books to read that I'm told I'll be interested in because they're by "young feminists," and I'm not interested in them. There are a lot of people getting published who have nothing to say.

BS: At the same time, there is a rise in memoirs.

JC: Don't even mention memoirs to me, because I'll get upset.

BS: Any in particular?

JC: Yes, I'm not naming them. But Dan Siegler's isn't one of them. He starts talking about how it's such a drag, pardon the expression, to have to put your makeup on before you go out. I thought, yeah, a whole lifetime. Weeks and weeks. Not that I don't love to do it at the same time.

BS: Maybe not every morning.

JC: But it's very fun to have it at one's disposal. I can't help but be blonde.

BS: Going blond changed my life entirely.

JC: Doesn't it? I mean you're cute anyway, but now you're blazingly cute! From across a crowded room.

BS: Oh, stop it.

JC: It's true. It's the blonde thing. You're telegraphed. Like, "I want to be perceived as a sex object, thank you very much."

BS: Now one thing that kept coming through to me in this book is, despite all the chaos you have experienced and subjected yourself to in your life, you have read a tremendous amount. I don't mean you merely have a literary style; I mean you actually mention a great deal of literature in the book. Baudelaire, Flaubert, Blake—they're all in Blue Money.

JC: My publisher asked me to take the Shakespeare references out, and I said, no! I can't imagine writing something without putting it in that context. I would feel like I was hyperventilating without that.

BS: I'm the same way. The reason I mention it—I don't do drugs, so I don't know— when you're doing speed and staying up for days, I'm amazed that one of the things you do is read Flowers of Evil out loud.

JC: I did. There's that part where I say I feel guilty about it, reading and reading, because poor people can't do it. I thought it was an unfair thing that I loved books so much and that I had access to this. But I've discovered that the real intelligentsia in my life is almost entirely from the inner city. Which is fascinating to me. There's nothing anti-intellectual about being poor or working class. That was a big revelation.

BS: Is there a book that made you want to become a writer when you were young?

JC: J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, which is a very subversive, weird book. Because it's really about death and about being outside of society. It's really about being marginalized and completely disregarded. At the end of that book, Peter is in a bardo. He doesn't know he's a fairy. He thinks he's still a little boy. So, he flies back to his bedroom window, and there is his mother, who has another little boy in her arms. She says, "oh, dear Anthony." That's when Peter realizes he's not a little boy anymore. He's been replaced. It's the most tragic thing I've ever read. It's worse than Grimm's Fairy Tales.

BS: I'm going to ask a rather provocative question. You've expressed admiration already for working-class intellectualism. In the book, you mention once or twice that you would consciously hide what you called either your Park Avenue or private school "dialect." I was wondering if you ever found yourself wishing that you could have become underclass, or at least a less privileged class. The reason it's provocative is that it contradicts received notions about how one must regard their "privilege."

JC: I think in general the impulse was to commit class suicide. The longer I'm around the clearer that is to me. I desperately wanted to get out. My grandfather was this "champion of the working man"—but I never saw any working people unless it was the doorman, elevator man, or the handyman. That Park Avenue thing I came from is so rarified, so moneyed. I wanted out. In those days, nothing was gentrified. You had Park Avenue, then at 96th—boom! I couldn't go there. I could barely go down Lexington Avenue. So, it was extremely limited.

BS: Of course, that class suicide is what led you to prostitution. In my mind, people pay for prostitution because they want, ostensibly, a sexual encounter divorced from intimacy. But at least a couple times in the book, you give examples of people obviously not doing that. Plus, you write that sex and marriage, sex and true love, remained intimately linked despite your best efforts. How did an extraordinarily high volume of sex for so many years affect how you experience intimacy?

JC: As a student of Germaine Greer—I think I mention this in the book—I thought it was very important that I come while having intercourse. I'm talking about as a cis-gendered heterosexual woman, coming. I had that experience when I was nineteen. I went out with a young Chicano in San Francisco and he just knew how to do it. He understood. I was in pursuit of that. Yet I had all the hang-ups that most women do. I've since written an essay about it. Part of the reason women have such a hard time is, if it takes them a long time, they're embarrassed. It's not an intrinsic part of the reproductive process, so it's just for one's own pleasure that one would come. Therefore, because it's frivolous, unimportant in some way—

BS: Like homosexuality. The female orgasm and homosexuality are not necessary.

JC: Exactly. For that reason, women are ashamed and embarrassed and don't even try. They have no expectations of their partner. The partner has no expectation of himself. This is not universally true, but it's true to a large degree. More than you could imagine. Because it's still prevalent, I was interested in understanding my sexuality absolutely stripped of all the conventions and everything that had been imposed on it. One of the ways to get in touch with that was to make oneself a pariah outside of society and in that sense, it was genuinely liberating for me. I no longer had to answer to that nice girl, which is so inhibiting.

BS: So, you learned about sex not through "gender and sexuality studies," but—get this—sex!

JC: Exactly! The capacity that females have. I think it terrifies straight men.

BS: It's probably the reason for 90% of misogyny—men know on some level that women are experiencing something sexually that they never will. On a related note, Norman Mailer believed 90% of anti-black racism was because white people knew subconsciously that somehow blacks are closer to sex.

JC: Well, I think Mailer had a pretty active imagination, but I'll tell you one thing about him. He understood human sexuality better than a lot of people do. He was saying: sex used to be extremely consequential. I grew up in this extremely anomalous time when there were no STDs. There wasn't even herpes! If you got some kind of VD, you took penicillin and that was it. He was saying, throughout history sex has always had enormous consequences. The passion of nature is what he was talking about.

BS: You were having sex in the golden era of birth control and no diseases. Now, whenever you're screwing you're thinking about what you could potentially be catching. And while we're still on Mailer, he also discussed the thrill of the knowledge, the risk, that there may be a conception, negated by the pill.

JC: The pill is an awful thing, it really is. I'm not saying everybody should conceive, but I don't think the pill is good for you.

BS: Hormonally it can be disastrous. A lot of people think it's bizarre what Mailer said, but earlier this year I saw in either the Post or Daily News that there are guys now who, when they have sex, purposely wear a condom designed to break. It's disgusting, but it proves the theory correct.

JC: Of course. Because sex has consequences regardless of whether it's conception or not. We can't compartmentalize it as much as we think we can. I was always in search of passionate sex. Amy Schumer has a great line in her HBO special where she says, "Guys, would you make sure that your partner comes? Do you think that we just want to be a witness to your process?" I keep repeating that because a lot of women do that. It's like the guy says in As Close As I Can Get to You, the book about role reversal I'm reading: "I'm OK with it [not coming]." So funny to hear a guy say it! It's a terrible denial of self on such a basic level.

BS: I once met the porn actress Seka. She recounted how during filming, after the guy would ejaculate, the director would yell, "Cut!" And she would say, "Cut my ass, I haven't finished."

JC: Yes—we've lost that. It's another thing that has backslid since the ’70s.

BS: Who was your worst trick?

JC: I don't remember any of them. It's like working in a haberdashery. I mention in the book I found out that sexual chemistry does triumph over circumstance about as often as it does in ordinary life: rarely. Once in a great while you'd have this physical chemistry for one reason or another. But honestly the others are all interchangeable, transactional. Bing bing bing!

BS: It makes me think of Bowie's best album, Station to Station. He couldn't remember recording it. I think that artistic creation and casual sex are not unrelated.

JC: Oh yeah. I do remember a lot of the women I worked with, though. I'm not trying to romanticize it, but they were really outlaws. Especially those madams. They had decided they were not going to give a damn about what society thought of them. One that I particularly admired had this beautiful little penthouse somewhere around Sutton Place. One of her really close friends was Miles Davis. There was an element of this that was very counterculture. It was exciting, I have to say. You know, they talk about "the male gaze" now, but that works on so many levels. It's not just men. It's all the "nice" people in society.

BS: The "nice" gaze—I love that idea! What are your politics beyond sex?

JC: I am involved with an activist group called African People's Socialist Party. Omali Yeshitela is their leader. He's the most brilliant person I've ever listened to. I discovered him because I saw a flier back in 2008 for a talk he was giving, speaking out against Obama. No black person in the country was doing that then. The first time I went to hear him speak—and this is all a matter of public record—he talked about Obama going up to Martha's Vineyard with all the Wall Street fat-cats where he was vetted and interviewed, and Omali Yeshitela said that was when Obama got the job. This was before the election! He also said that Obama was going to get away with doing more than any white conservative male would ever dare to try and do. So, Chairman Yeshitela has become my leader. It's unbelievable, the integrity he has.

BS: Do you feel that really happened?

JC: The police militarized under whom? Obama. The drone program, wars escalated—and mass incarceration? Mushroomed under Obama. I read Chris Hedges religiously, and Glenn Ford of Black Agenda Report. You must get that. Black Agenda Report doesn't even try and reach the white community, though plenty of white people are reading it. It's so brilliant and cogent. When I need to hear the truth, I go there.

BS: Are you single?

JC: I am. I'm so happy. Once the hormones weren't raging anymore, I felt this enormous relief. All of a sudden, I could do other things. I could go to the museum. It freed me up. I haven't had much luck in love at all. I had a shrink once say to me, "Good and kind aren't even on your list." I think they would be now, but that was true then. Funny, sexy, and brilliant were very high on my list, and good and kind were just whatever.

BS: God, do I relate to all of that. Desire can be wonderful but it can really poison your mind. I've already lost years to all of that.

JC: I know, and you've got a lot of years left. I can remember throwing the I Ching because I wanted things to work out so bad. Obsession—it's just the worst. Proust's Swann's Way is the best book about obsession ever written.

BS: It's even worse if you tend to intellectualize everything. You become obsessed with the obsession. But back to tricking. The PC term for prostitution is now "sex-worker." What do you think—

JC: I hate that. It sounds so corporate. It's like when the waiter comes and says, "Are you still working?" No, I'm eating. I hate it, hate it, hate it. What's wrong with whore? "Sex-worker" is like calling a woman a "lady"—it's a euphemism. I don't think whores want it. This is what I'm for: the decriminalization of prostitution. OK? And let's stop pathologizing every woman who ever chose to be a prostitute. Let's just drop that right now. Nowadays, it's fine to sleep around with guys and get nothing from it. Including satisfaction. In our society, that's fine—god forbid you should get paid for it. Then you still have women divided against themselves, the good girls versus the bad girls. Do you think that doesn't work on women subliminally? Now my experience isn't true of all prostitutes. But my experience is enough to tell me that the received opinion, most of what we are told about prostitution, is a total lie. So, women are really at odds with themselves. I see that as something that has to be dealt with. Not legalization—we don't want government control.

BS: By obsessively campaigning for legalization of certain sexual decisions, it can accidentally shift the mentality to, "we can't accept this until the state does."

JC: Yeah. And then what? People tend to dismiss sex as all very minor and silly. Gore Vidal once said, when they've got you by the short hairs, they've really got you. Originally it was the church that had control over people's sexuality. There's not any sex in movies now, it's just violence. They don't even bother with sex!

BS: I know. One example, perhaps you like this film, but Todd Haynes's lesbian film Carol

JC: Oh, I hated that fucking movie. It's like two polite little lady narcissists that don't even have genitals as far as I can tell. Give me a break! I hated it.

BS: How do you think it would have changed your experience as a prostitute if it had been legal, like in Amsterdam?

JC: I thought the women I saw in the window in Amsterdam were fantastic. But that's a much different government, for one thing. When I was doing it, we all had terrific doctors, we were all very clean, we didn't need the government regulating anything. We kept all our money, didn't pay taxes. We were outlaws. The way it's pathologized now—people think any girl who decides to become a whore is mentally disturbed, unstable, comes from a terrible home, abused. No! That's not true. There are all kinds of reasons. Including grad students at NYU who can't afford tuition.

BS: Edmund White talks about that, how there wasn't this huge gap between hustling and the middle class in the past. Like you'd hire some hooker, and during the pillow talk you'd find out they were a law student.

JC: You know, he was a real champion of mine. I met his husband, the writer, Michael Carroll, and I started telling Michael about my book. He kept saying, you should really write Edmund. Finally, I screwed up the courage and sent him 70 pages of the book. That same day, I get this absolutely wonderful response saying he loved the chapters, and he was helping me with my query letter and everything. My book is now in the window at Three Lives Books, and it's on the same shelf as Edmund White's Our Young Man. Every time I see that, I feel like Anne Baxter in All About Eve.

BS: Do you know any young prostitutes?

JC: I know one. She recently got sober. Frankly there's a little bit of a lack of curiosity on my part. I do know that it's changed in ways that are unappealing to me. When I was doing it, there were all these cathouses. It was convivial. We depended on each other. Now it sounds so lonely, comparatively, with these escort services.

BS: We agree on everything.

JC: I've noticed that. Are you Pisces?

BS: No, Aries.

JC: Thank God.

BS: You're averse to Pisces?

JC: No, they're just afflicted. Alcoholics and drug addicts. I'm Libra with a Capricorn Moon.

BS: That can be a really difficult Moon sign. You're prone to convincing yourself that the right way is always the hardest way.

JC: Oh my god. I hate that very notion, and I'm so burdened with it.

BS: I want to end with whether you'd do it now. Not meaning "if you knew what you know now" kind of cliché way, but meaning if you were that age, in today's world, would you do it all?

JC: A woman at a reading asked me, full of judgment, full of confrontation, "Would you let your daughter do this?" So, I said, first of all, my poor hypothetical daughter, who would probably have an alcoholic father too because I tend to mate with my own afflicted kind, would probably end up an alcoholic or drug addict like her parents. That worries me a hell of a lot more than if she were a grad student at NYU and needed to pay the tuition! No big whoop. Big deal. Hell yeah.

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The Art of Topiary

Jan Wagner
Translated by David Keplinger
Milkweed Editions ($18)

by Allison Campbell

It is uncommon for a book's title to summarize its contents as accurately as German poet Jan Wagner's The Art of Topiary. The collection, Wagner's first translated into English, is full of poems that clip the ordinary into precise shape and sound. In Wagner's handling, objects reach their fullness through an examination of their margins. If topiary is the art of trimming into shape, then much of Wagner's poetry in The Art of Topiary can be described as the art of examining the edges. The book collects thresholds.

In his poem "gecko" Wagner marks a lizard "hurrying over the wall: a wandering crack that heals itself from behind." The lizard is defined, in part, by the space it leaves uninhabited. This fragment of the prose poem shows Wagner's concern with the places where one thing ends and another begins. It also reveals how delicately and effectively he employs sound. The perceptible alliteration of wall and wandering is complimented by the repetition of the voiceless, and not as readily detected, H—hurrying, heals, behind.

Because The Art of Topiary is translated, credit for the sonic qualities of the English versions of these poems goes predominantly to American poet David Keplinger. Keplinger writes in his introduction that he prefers the term collaborator to translator and describes the balance between "connotation, form, and literalness" that was achieved through numerous exchanges of drafts between himself and Wagner. Also in the introduction, he makes specific reference to his work on "gecko" saying that translating the poem "involved reproducing the alliteration, assonance, and consonance of Wagner's original." In addition to these more subtle sonic elements, Wagner's poetry employs rhyme. He is the rare contemporary poet who can use and adapt established forms so naturally that they are enjoyed long before detected. Even the highly structured poems in The Art of Topiary sound natural and appear driven as much by sense, by intellectual aim, as by poetic meter. This balance between idea and form is most wonderfully struck in "centaurs' blues:"

we have poisoned all the heroes, taught princes and their heirs,
we have poisoned all the heroes, got drunk and put on airs,
and all was ruined anyway and made unfair.

where does the rider start? where does the steed end?
who can know if he is steed or rider in the end?
something paused—and something galloped, gathering speed.

The poem, a take on traditional sonnet forms, continues with two more rhyming tercets and finishes with a couplet. Because The Art of Topiary has Wagner's German originals on the facing page, one of the joys of reading these translations is the ability to see where Keplinger was able to retain both sound and sense and when he compromised the former for the latter.

An American reader of Wagner need not know that the poet has translated Charles Simic and James Tate into German, but after reading The Art of Topiary Wagner's inclination toward these playful poets of dark sense and David Lynch imagism seems obvious. Like Simic and Tate, Wagner is capable of presenting reality with an accuracy that makes normality uncanny. The chameleon is "hiding in the world," and the dinner napkin has "nothing but the red butterfly / of lipstick inside." It is this mix of obviousness—a chameleon does hide in the world—and original vision—have you ever thought of those lipstick marks as a butterfly?—that give readers of The Art of Topiary the sense of discovery we all want, from life in general and from poetry specifically. When you add Wagner's musicality to his familiarly strange images the poet's place as one of the most celebrated contemporary German poets is eminently understandable.

In the book's title poem, Wagner describes the work of a topiary artist who has disappeared leaving "a gentleman's image as his last great work." Here is the literal image, the shape of a man cut by the man it mimics. Figuratively, the line encourages readers, at least this one, to think about how the images we make, through our seeing and description, in turn make us. Let's hope more of this gentleman's images appear in English, and soon.

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Philip Guston & The Poets

Edited by Kosme de Barañano
Hauser & Wirth Publishers ($55)

by Mark Gustafson

As painter Philip Guston (1913-1980) and poet Clark Coolidge used to discuss (in conversations recorded elsewhere), the creative acts of painting and poetry have much in common. Guston liked talking with poets, and he liked reading their work. In fact, he read deeply and widely—from Baudelaire, Rilke, and Rimbaud to Beckett, Kafka, Kierkegaard, Jung, and many more.

Robert Hughes has written that "in terms of intensity and influence," Guston stands above all other American painters of the 1970s, because of his "leap back into figure painting from 'high' abstraction." Although he went through several definable phases over a long career, the most momentous change came after the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. Guston wanted, as he said, "to bear witness." He turned to painting banal, everyday objects—books, shoes, hands, lightbulbs, clocks—which he called "tangibilia" (or "crappola")—and, occasionally, hooded Klan figures.

Although the primary focus in Philip Guston & The Poets is on his work from that time, the gorgeous reproductions are sometimes juxtaposed with examples from earlier periods, to startling and instructive effect. An exhibition at the Gallerie dell'Accademia in Venice was the occasion for this publication; rich with Venetian and Renaissance treasures, that museum has a vested interest in showing Guston, who loved Italy and its painters—most notably Giotto, Masaccio, Piero della Francesca, and Tiepolo, as well as de Chirico. The hyperbolic preface by Paolo Marini, the museum's director, comes as no surprise.

The exhibition's curator, Spanish art historian and critic Kosme de Barañano, provides the commentary. The following poets and poems furnish his framework: D.H. Lawrence, "The Ship of Death"; William Butler Yeats, "Byzantium" and "Sailing to Byzantium"; Wallace Stevens, "The Sail of Ulysses" and "Domination of Black"; Eugenio Montale (translated by Jonathan Galassi), "Mediterranean," "Summer," and "The Lemons"; and T.S. Eliot, "East Coker." In keeping with the Italian emphasis, de Barañano leans especially on Montale. The rationale for this entire venture, however, feels a little shaky, or maybe it's better to say that it foils initial expectations—except in the case of Eliot, there is no direct evidence that Guston knew or cared for any of these poems or poets.

Late Guston paintings are surely "unique and challenging," and "they resist the siege of interpretation." Cartoonish for one thing, at first glance they may seem to be simple, although they are anything but. As de Barañano writes, "They do not belong to the traditional iconography of Western painting, but rather to the aesthetics of the metaphysical, transcendentalist, or imagist poets." They are more like the stuff of dreams, sometimes disturbing.

At the outset, de Barañano is careful not to claim too much for his comparisons. Aiming to "open parallel sensations," he wants to understand Guston's pictorial work "in relation to the poetic thought" of these five poets, "who also sought to express ideas not previously formulated." They are, he says, "the painter's spiritual brothers."

Parallelisms abound. De Barañano observes that Lawrence's "The Ship of Death" and many of Guston's paintings speak of the inevitability of the end. He also notes that as Yeats describes the act of writing in "Byzantium," so Guston describes artistic creation in his painting The Line. Such statements expose the hazards of this book's approach: death and poetry are two familiar poetic concerns, hardly exclusive to or even particularly characteristic of these poets. Still, we may agree with the statement that "all of Guston's late paintings are not only his 'Ship of Death' but also his 'Sailing to Byzantium,' his rite of reconciliation: his journey in search of his own vision of painting and of eternal life for the images of Painting."

Turning to Stevens, de Barañano says: "Nearly all of 'The Sail of Ulysses' . . . seems to refer to the themes of the night soliloquy which also defines the last phase of Guston's work." True enough—Guston usually painted at night, with artificial light—as the following is, too: "As with Stevens's poems, it is difficult to summarize what the image in a Guston painting is, what story it tells, and what it means." Again, this is hardly unique to Stevens. One might have sympathy for an art historian attempting to deal with this very demanding poet, but neither the Stevens aficionado nor the unversed reader is well served. De Barañano gives the distinct impression that he is flailing about, struggling to stay afloat.

The similarities between Guston's "simple yet strange" images and Montale's Ossi di sepia (Cuttlefish Bones), as well as "their political and existential concerns," is enough to convince de Barañano that Guston knew Montale's poetry, despite lack of proof. "Guston's canvas is like a beach that gives refuge to a random pile of debris and broken, dislocated things." Both artists revolted against the elevated and rhetorical fashion of their fellows, in favor of "a more humble, more agile vocabulary." They also share "a fragmentary syntax." While one might not share de Barañano's certainty (and might come up with other fitting matches), the pairing of these two artists is surely the most useful and rewarding one.

Last comes Eliot, the only poet here whom Guston explicitly references in a painting (entitled East Coker—T.S.E.). De Barañano hauls out an old Eliot chestnut: "The purpose of Guston's images, in terms of the objective correlative, is not to describe feelings, but to reveal an emotion, a thought." He also states that, "while both [Guston and Eliot] are highly educated and technical, they nevertheless allow themselves to be led by their instinct."

Overall, in an analysis like this, speculation is assumed; wild associative leaps are fine (the footnotes are rife with them); interpretation is interpretation. But at this point, the reader may feel adrift, on a fishing expedition in the course of which no fish have been caught. Some have been seen, yes, but only dimly. How to get back to shore?

Like a lifeboat, the epilogue, "From the Iliad to the Odyssey," appears just in time. Invoking two additional rather well-known poems, it rescues both the reader and the commentary, and the consequence is a sense of exhilaration. In the end, de Barañano says, "painting, like poetry, doesn't need descriptions but rather only accepts approximations." His best approximations are of the former. "Guston's enigmatic images invade us like disturbing dreams," he writes, "where some objects may be recognized but not their meaning. Guston creates a personal mythology, which arises in part from the world outside . . . but also from his deepest subconscious." That is a useful summation of the "visual poetry" of Guston's paintings.

Following the epilogue, a pleasing appendix of sorts includes brief introductions of each poet, full texts of the poems (and other material), and as a bonus, "two parentheses" of Guston's drawings made specifically for poems of Clark Coolidge and Musa McKim (Guston's wife).

Art criticism and literary criticism, at their best, can be illuminating and thrilling. In the present case, it might have been better to let the poets speak more often for themselves. Nevertheless, this is a beautiful and stimulating book that goes a long way to making intelligible the last and perhaps most quizzical phase of Philip Guston's work.

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The Disconnected

Oğuz Atay
Translated by Sevin Seydi
Olric Press (£50)

by Jeff Bursey

The first thing to be said about The Disconnected (Tutunamayanlar in its original Turkish) is that it is available in a handsome limited edition, so the curious should contact the publisher quickly at the link noted above if they want a copy. The second thing is that it is considered of great importance in its homeland. In this novel, originally published in 1972, Oğuz Atay (1934-1977) brings together local literary concerns (i.e., the culture and languages of the Republic of Turkey as well as its predecessors), Russian literature (Ivan Goncharov's Oblomov is often cited, as are Chekov and Dostoyevsky), and 20th-century European fiction. Multiple and shifting points of view, time jumps, and the medley of modes, along with the underlying moodiness of the work emanating from its two main figures, Turgut Özben and his dead friend Selim Isık, mark this as a Modernist work.

This is its first translation into English. Translator Sevin Seydi started working on it as the original sheets came out of Atay's typewriter and discussed it with him. What she has produced is a narrative filled with tones—sombre, tender, brooding, puckish, malicious, defeated, constrained, bookish, melancholic—and the flow of feelings reflects how life is experienced rather than resembling a collection of set pieces devised by an author. It is far from a work of realism, for Turgut converses with the shade of Selim (it gives nothing away to say he committed suicide) whenever he thinks about him or encounters him in one of the many pieces of paper in his or someone else's possession. "Ah Selim, you have scattered your life away, left and right! These notebooks are all that remain." It is through apostrophe as a figure of speech—addressing the missing as if present—that the dynamic of their complex friendship is conveyed.

His sleuthing into Selim's past often ramps up Turgut's emotions—anger, grief, and depression, among others. This is tied to what may be a key item of this aspect of the novel: "to understand the meaning of life I need the meaning of death not to remain obscured." The pursuit to uncover the why of Selim's death helps Turgut come to some kind of terms with an inexplicable act while revealing how much he didn't know about his friend. Süleyman Kargı shows Turgut Selim's dreadful unpublished poem, "Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow," which is the subject of a lengthy analysis by Kargı. Here is a brief example of each: "Year nineteen thirty-six: known to but few. / To him, for sure, it's an important date." The explication of these lines tells us Selim's birth year, and that he "weighed five kilos and eight hundred grams exactly when he was born." This figure is regarded with suspicion by Kargı on the grounds that without a midwife or doctor around the weight could not be so accurately gauged unless someone placed the baby on the local butcher's scales. "That Müzeyyen Hanım [Selim's mother], well-known for her cleanliness should consent to this; that in a butcher's shop, among animals hanging from hooks, with flies all around them, Selim, on a cold autumn day, should be placed on a dirty balance, seems a very distant possibility to me." Mythopoeic exhalation and academic wheezing inflate poem and poet in a pastiche by Atay that courts the reader's patience even as it entertains, for few things in literature are as tiresome as ridiculous praise given to a flawed literary work by a thoroughly negligible figure. This section's abundant humour and outlandish conceits save the criticism, and the poem, from descending into sheer whimsy, though it's a close call.

That is not the only instance of narrative teetering between one mood and another. Each venue Turgut enters in search of his friend—homes, nightclubs, brothels, and bureaucracies—is a foray into the occasionally painful unknown by a character and also an opportunity for Atay to provide lists, transcripts, an 80-page unpunctuated section, mini-biographies, diary entries, the language of commercials—"All along the road our advertisements will keep you company"—and much else, ranging from the elegiac to the satirical. How does one accept this often humourous telling of a story that is replete with Turgut's grief? Are we to laugh or cry or scoff at the whole enterprise? Either you put The Disconnected aside as not enough (or too much) of one thing or another, or you tussle with its competing demands. One of Atay's most significant achievements is making this a book you can't read passively.

In the assumed world of the novel's events, from the first page Turgut finds it hard to tell his wife, Nermin, how inconsolable he is. Apart from the matter of his friend, he recognizes that that he can't discuss a crucial aspect of himself that most readers could identify with:

So am I going into this with the whole of myself, without even protecting 'it'? It, that 'thing', a little bit of himself that no one knew about; difficult to describe, but whose existence was very clear to him. Would he endanger that too? He had never surrendered the whole of Turgut. Never. He had kept it to himself. A 'thing', the value of which was known only to himself. Others too hide many things; even so, they may be left with nothing for themselves. This was different: if told it would have no value; therefore it could not be told. And even if you did give someone the 'thing', they would hardly notice it.

The struggle to keep hidden this mysterious "it"—an ineffable part of each of us scarce capable of definition in a way that would satisfy everyone—and the desire to speak of "it" is one more example of stress in the novel. Such seesawing instills a delicious tension in the reading experience, and it often seems like the perpetual motion behind the entire work.

A further stress, one that is political and historical, surrounds The Disconnected. The novel first appeared one year after the eruption of a bloodless military coup in Turkey that endured for some time. It is impossible to read this work—which brings together socialism and Marxism, European and Russian ideas, personal identity and the sadness of those who feel they don't fit in with their own society—without thinking of Turkey in the light of 2016's failed coup against its authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Selim, the disconnected of the novel, must have had numerous counterparts in real life for the work and its title to resonate so powerfully since it was first published, and as we read Atay now we can hardly remain blind to the disenfranchised, penalized, and arrested in contemporary Turkey.

Above I used the word "possession," and here it has a second important meaning. Everyone who has come into contact with Selim is haunted by him, and also wants to possess him. This is summarized by one member of the college cadre Selim and Turgut were part of when the topic of Selim's other friends comes up: "You went to the lady violinist's concert with this chap [a friend outside their group], didn't you? We would have embarrassed you, wouldn't we? We wouldn't have understood about B major . . . Only we here can be of any use to you." Turgut's encounters with other circles of friends eventually stop making him feel jealous or anxious. "We are not afraid any more . . . to hear what people have to say about Selim." When he reaches Anatolia, Selim's birthplace, he shares a cigarette with a peasant and thinks of his friend: "Was it to be your fate to be so alienated from one who makes his bread from the wheat sown by his own hands?" Fate, or social conditions, upbringing, poor spirits, tragedy; readers will arrive at their own judgments.

There is one last thing to mention about The Disconnected. The opening section, "The Beginning of the End," states the manuscript we are about to read was written by Turgut Özben and sent to an unnamed journalist (presumably Oğuz Atay) for publication. Then the "Publisher's Note" insists the events are "mere products of the imagination." This meta-device might seem to set the novel up as an extended joke, but, instead, amidst the humour The Disconnected is a mature consideration of grief's effects and a work that displays supple literary skill. We are fortunate to have it, finally, in English.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2017-2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy

Ta-Nehisi Coates
One World ($28)

by Chris Barsanti

Until recently, when the true desolation of the early Trump era has started metastasizing in even the most ardent optimist's heart, America had a script to use after a catastrophe. Whether a mass shooting, natural disaster, or police atrocity, each event was termed an opportunity for a "national dialogue" on guns, race, class, climate change, or what have you. Those conversations never happened because there was always another catastrophe, and in any case, the culture had mostly lost interest in the public intellectuals needed to push forward such a conversation. That changed, however, in 2014, when The Atlantic published one of the most talked-about pieces of writing in recent memory, Ta-Nehisi Coates's "The Case for Reparations." Suddenly, the country was having a conversation. And it wasn't an easy one.

When Coates published his first book, 2008's The Beautiful Struggle (Spiegel & Grau), there was no sign of the incisive political essayist he would become. A memoir about growing up in West Baltimore amidst the devastation of the crack wars and in the shadow of his ex-Black Panther father, it was lyrical and powerful, but primarily on a personal level. The larger issues that Coates would later tangle with remained largely on the sidelines. But that same year, Coates started writing for The Atlantic just as it was turning into the country's most important mainstream magazine of ideas. The results, captured in his new collection We Were Eight Years in Power, hit like a thunderclap reminder that white supremacy in America is a thing of the present, not the past.

Coates takes his title from a plaintive 1895 plea from Thomas Miller. One of the few black Representatives elected from the South after the Civil War, Miller was lamenting the painfully brief window of opportunity provided blacks in the old Confederacy before the anti-Reconstruction reactionary backlash. Coates mirrors that time frame with the eight years of the Obama presidency, tracking each year with a key Atlantic essay from that year and a running present-day commentary from Coates on himself during that year both professionally and personally. The result is not just a chronicle of the Obama years but the gestation period of a writer as he morphed from a popular blogger musing on politics, sports, and video games to perhaps America's most salient public intellectual.

The essays range from pinpoint to expansive. The First Year's "This is How We Lost to the White Man" is a portrait of both Bill Cosby's hectoring self-improvement speeches and a critique of bootstrapping harangues of black audiences dating back to Booker T. Washington. The Sixth Year's "The Case for Reparations" single-handedly reopened the previously taboo question of what America owes its black citizens for the centuries of pillage and pain. While Coates' voice develops and strengthens over the course of the book, the style remains much the same: lucid, curious, probing, and prone to a melancholic sense of tragedy. By always giving his essays a sturdy historical foundation, he keeps them from seeming like just a reaction to the newest outrage.

So even his most joyous piece, the Eighth Year's "My President Was Black"—a loose and celebratory take on the legacy of Obama, whose optimism Coates had often found unjustified—is shadowed by the institutionalized racism whose structure Coates spends much of the rest of the book tracing and explaining. The epilogue is "The First White President," an agonized exegesis of the white totalitarian assumptions at the core of the Trump presidency. On page after page, Coates fights the myopia over the "majestic tragedy" of American popular history, which so often ignores basic facts like how "racism was banditry . . . not incidental to America [but] essential to it."

It is too easy to call Coates the modern-day James Baldwin. Baldwin is the more consciously literary—Coates probably doesn't have a Giovanni's Room in him—while Coates hews to the style of a magazine writer looking for a punchy first line, like "Last summer, in Detroit's St. Paul Church of God in Christ, I watched Bill Cosby summon his inner Malcolm X" or "The first I saw Michelle Obama in the flesh, I almost took her for white." Still, Coates' second book, the meditative Between the World and Me (Spiegel & Grau, 2015), was inspired by The Fire Next Time, and both of their writings are oracular in tone and suspicious of easy solutions. When Coates writes that "there are no clean victories for black people, nor, perhaps, for any people," it's hard not to hear Baldwin's mournful moral urgency ringing through.

Coates might not be America's greatest writer. But right now, in the shadow of a resurgent white supremacy, he might be its most important.

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Silence: In the Age of Noise

Erling Kagge
Translated by Becky L. Crook
Pantheon ($20)

by Adrian Glass-Moore

Many of us live under constant attack by noise, a most insidious enemy since it passes itself off as a friend. We are likely to say "it's too quiet" whenever silence wins a brief (and it is always brief) victory over noise. Erling Kagge, a Norwegian adventurer, achieved extreme silence when, in 1993, he walked alone for fifty days in Antarctica to the South Pole. He purposefully discarded the batteries to his radio at the trip's outset, leaving him confidently devoid of any human contact for the duration.

"I was never bored or interrupted," Kagge writes of the experience in Silence: In the Age of Noise. "I was alone with my own thoughts and ideas. The future was no longer relevant. I paid no attention to the past. I was present in my own life." The book could just as aptly be titled Presence, which writer Fran Lebowitz argues persuasively is increasingly rare. If you are in the street and looking down at your phone, then you aren't in the street, she says—you're on your phone. It follows that had Kagge traversed Antarctica while tuned in to the radio, he would have been tuned in to the radio, not in Antarctica.

Thus, we can say that not only did Kagge travel to extreme places, he was there when he did so. This puts Kagge in a unique position to dispense information he gathered which we are unlikely to obtain on our own, since we are neither likely to visit such extreme places nor forego distractions while we are there. Whatever knowledge Kagge possesses he transfers largely by osmosis. He doesn't spell it out for us, opting instead to spread his ideas over thirty-two wide-ranging micro-essays, each no more than a few pages.

Silence is not only found in silence. Kagge found it on top of the Williamsburg Bridge, spanning the East River between Manhattan and Brooklyn, which he climbed with a fellow "urban explorer" in 2010. "I heard nothing," Kagge writes. "Below me, the traffic thundered past in four lanes, while the subway pounded rhythmically on its way in and out of the city centre. I was consumed by all that I saw and I shut out all the noise. You cannot wait for it to get quiet." Kagge also found silence, or presence, or beauty—whatever you want to call it—during a trudge through New York City's sewer system. Despite the "ceaseless noise," he writes, there was a "negative beauty—by virtue of all that is not present."

Kagge defines silence broadly as a state of mind, one that can be achieved without moving to Antarctica. But the fact is he did go to Antarctica. There is an urge within many of us to escape the physical din, not simply to tune it out. "It is not enough to withdraw from the mob, not enough to go to another place," wrote Michel de Montaigne. "It is our own self we have to isolate and take back into possession." Yet more than 400 years after Montaigne wrote that, physical displacement retains its allure, including for Kagge, who writes that he once "flew eighteen hours from Oslo to Sri Lanka in order to relax." Aware of the irony, Kagge can't help but report, "It was fabulous."

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Foolish Questions & Other Odd Observations: Early Comics 1909-1919

Rube Goldberg
Sunday Press ($35)

by Jeff Alford

Even before he was celebrated internationally for his zany inventions, Reuben Lucius Goldberg churned out cartoons like a machine. He built his comics around a simple premise, typically a recurring punchline or structural gimmick. His 1912 cartoon I'm The Guy features repeated wordplay, with characters who "put the ale in Yale" and the "con in congress." The 1914 strip Old Man Alf of the Alphabet turns familiar acronyms inside out: in one cartoon, a poker I.O.U. is explained to actually mean "I'm Often Untruthful." Some strips were riddles, with literary titles hidden in silly scenes: "Next station is Ferno," a train conductor announces in one puzzle, while two passengers muse about how a friend named "Bill Dante" lives in town. "What does this awful mess represent?" the cartoon asks.

Between 1907 and 1938, Goldberg created over 100 different cartoons, and while many of them were short-lived, a few proved to have substantial staying power due to their delicate balance of social satire and relatable humor. From 1909 to the mid-1930s, Goldberg penned a single-panel comic called Foolish Questions that repeats the same sarcastically screwball shtick with each new iteration. Every cartoon depicts a person in the middle of particular task, interrupted by an onlooker who asks, stupidly, if they're doing exactly what it looks like they're doing. The interlocutor, naturally, receives a snappy reply. "Feeding the cat, Lemuel?" a man asks, as another man tends to his feline. "No, you herring, I'm biting the horns off a goat." Some can be quite sassy: "Going to school, Sonny?" a man asks as schoolboy tromps by. "No you simp," he replies, "I'm on my way to an undertaking parlor to meet a bunch of live ones."

The formulaic nature of Foolish Questions allows little room for flourish, but Goldberg manages to capture the early 1900s in a vaudevillian shimmer and trades social niceties for some bite. In one cartoon, a major world event is brushed aside: "Oh, has the pole been discovered?" a man asks as another man reads the newspaper, its front page screaming reports of recent arctic exploration. "No, you rummy-this is an account of a dog fight in a frying pan."

Foolish Questions laid the groundwork for the machine drawings that would transform Goldberg into a household name. Goldberg realized through the strip that he could sink into a gag and let that machine run until its wheels fell off. His inventive chain reactions were absurdist, imaginative feats: one, for example, depicts a "Professor Butts" wearing his "Self-Operating Napkin," which connects his soup spoon to a headpiece carrying an alarm clock, a rocket, and an exotic bird, all of which would somehow lead to an automated face-wiping. By the 1920s, Goldberg was everywhere, from syndicated funny pages to progressive art magazines like Tristan Tzara's Dada. Today, his drawings and, more importantly, his influence, can be found in major art museums: much of Dada's mischief and the momentum of Futurism can be chained backwards to Goldberg's pen. Jean Tinguely's kinetic sculptures, for example, owe a mechanized tip of the hat to the cartoonist's pointed dreams of useless complexity.

Sunday Press's Foolish Questions & Other Odd Observations compiles over 250 of Goldberg's cartoons, including his complete Foolish Questions output for the Sunday Chicago Tribune from 1909-1910. To read them all in sequence is somewhere between mind-numbing, soothing, and positively transcendent. The book is beautifully produced, with the subtlest coloring that accentuates Goldberg's brilliant penstrokes and trailblazing lettering. But to have what is loosely the same joke repeated four times a page creates a bizarre new reading experience: the book's elegant presentation suggests there must be some way to unlock these gags and find some cohesive, metatextual glue between them all. Could there be repeated themes to the interchangeable variables of name, action, and put-down? Foolish Questions & Other Odd Observations feels like a riddle in itself, like there must be a code to crack their screwy simplicity.

In the end, we may not need to put the gold in Goldberg; these cartoons make as much sense as "playing auction pinochle with a musk ox", and that's perfectly alright. Left to their wacky inanity, they showcase a writer committing wholly to a simple goof, and that commitment alone boasts a marvelous sort of artistry. Perhaps it is because these gags do not transcend into something larger that makes them so special. While they may risk oversaturation and feel at times repetitive, they hold a remarkable mirror to the wonderful ridiculousness of daily life, reminding us that even when we have nothing to say we find a way to say it, day after day.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2017-2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018