Tag Archives: Fall 2016

Disorder 299.00

disorderAby Kaupang and Matthew Cooperman
Essay Press

by Carol Ciavonne

On the way to the psych ward      there are elevators that are glass and elevators that are steel      this is clear      most designers and children who do not die in helicopters prefer glass elevators

If Disorder 299.00 were not a digital chapbook, it would have to be bound in steel and glass. The photocopied cover, in fact, appears to be steel, printed with an image of faceless (removed ovals of steel) mother and father, and their lovely (intact) baby. Mother and father are dressed in conventionally gendered attire, as if to show the traditional expectations of parenthood. But this will not be a traditional experience for poets Aby Kaupang and Matthew Cooperman, or for the reader, and the title of the book is the first indication.

The girl began, and then so did the book, a mirror for sorrow
or anger or fear.

For Kaupang and Cooperman, this is family life; uncountable trips to medical entities to try to find help for Maya, who is autistic and also has life-endangering physical problems.

Again and again at the ER
soothing her body. The daughter didn’t eat, didn’t
sleep, didn’t laugh, didn’t shit, didn’t walk anymore. We
went for a long visit. Doctors said erythromycin, they said
tape a bag to her shoulder. We went again when they said
she was crazy, a crazy summer when our little girl lived with
other un-specifiable children.

Maya is labeled in the hospital system as 299.00 “unspecified diagnosis.” Although this label is troublingly nonsensical, labels are a literal fact of life for the family. Aby is MOC (Mother of Child) in the endless documents of hospital visits, Matthew is FOC.

I went to the pharmacy      she was not there

I went to the surgeon      she was not
I went to the TV the nurses’ station the family respite station
she was not there      I was not there

a we everywhere
MOCs and FOCs as assemblies
of pills

The authors have so much of labeling that they invent a word for themselves, the other MOCs and FOCs, and the children being cared for.

cardiums: heart bouquets, whack jobs


they that were the cardiums wore it on their sleeves      their crimson gowns
forehead temples and they wagoned      there were they that were in the wagons
and those that carted others in wagons      it was numerous      who or who all      were cardi-

they passed through the foyer      we drank coffee      averting our eyes from sadness to
sea tanks      we admired the sea tanks      we too being cardiums

Kaupang and Cooperman write in a variety of syntax, in the distancing acronyms as well as the personal I or we, their experience as helpless, sometimes desperate parents, and as individuals who do sometimes vehemently desire their “normal” lives back.

The difficulties of caring for Maya physically, and the emotional roil of her health and behavior are laid out with no punches pulled. In this work, it’s clear that Maya’s condition compels the poets to constantly question themselves, as parents, as a couple, and as individuals. Their lives are often tuned simply to survival mode—Maya’s actual survival, and their own emotional survival. It’s a topic requiring deeply personal exposure of pain, anger, guilt, fear, and love.

The structure of the book, using actual documents and forms, personal statements, statistics and fragments of description, is a near perfect dovetailing of content to form. The documents are visual evidence of the mind-numbing and heart-breaking forms that the authors must use to describe/report their lives and Maya’s within the hospital system. In some, both the child and the parents are described in the dry clinical style that seems to question the actions and observations of the parents. “The cause is unknown and that is vexing to the mother.” The forms, too, do not fit the patient, and the listed behaviors are impossible to check off. The patient  is a form from the hospital; The Patient  is a form created by the authors that demonstrates how elusive any description of behavior can be, and is especially so in Maya’s case.



As with the re-labeling, in redefining the limiting clinical language, the authors rewrite the hospital experience into one more human, less rigid, and somehow hopeful—more Maya, her actuality and possibility. Some of the textual pieces are clearly written by one poet or the other, illustrating how each individual parent sees and reacts to events, and yet the reproduced documents and the use of “we” also make it clear that this is shared experience. The fragmented syntax, a staple in post-modern work, makes particular sense in interpreting and reading the lives of Maya and her parents, with all the jolts, reverses, and accelerations of living with autism. This is a book that could be given to other parents of children in Maya’s situation, since one of poetry’s great virtues is to help us know that we aren’t alone. Even the incidents in the book that are particular to Cooperman’s and Kaupang’s experience resonate; the particular in poetry so often pierces a quite different heart. Some of the lines will be familiar to anyone who has had to be in a hospital with a loved one, and the lines are stark:

the truth of the hospital system is
death prevention and sometimes
death theft and the truth of the
ER more so . . .

Some of the lines are a personal revelation of love and the sadness of knowing that Maya’s life will not be as they had imagined it:

Present is
this gift of the daughter’s enormous need
and absent is the dream of her own dream
a blue house and yellow car, two Chinese dogs
and a child of her own.

Some are the experience every parent knows of that edge of love and fear:

I staunch the fear of my own death and her
perpetual childhood. Today was a good day.

The open and sometimes head-on approach in Disorder 299.00 includes the poets’ relating that some readers of the manuscript have questioned whether they love their daughter. No one who has not lived with the extreme rigors of caring for an autistic (and in these years, very ill) child, with the ever present fear of calamity, can completely understand the impact of a shared life that can lurch from control to chaos on an hourly basis, but Cooperman and Kaupang have made beautiful, blended, astonishingly honest and profoundly moving poetry of their experience. Although Disorder 299.00 makes a fine digital chapbook, I would love to see it in print also; it’s a book that needs to be on the small table in the hospital waiting room, where words of steel for strength, glass for looking through and into, are always needed.

Early in the book, the authors ask, by way of quieting the reader’s apprehensions of the future,

What is there to say of this child? She lived, lives through
this. So did we. You want to know more about her. So did
and do we.

The final poem is a portrait of Maya today.


when our daughter rises it is with and without her mouth

she sings in phones of plosive thirds that do not complete

the scheme      and yet they are awake      they are very awake

third           third           third

she sings with her body and to her body         a plateau of sinew

to hold a twitch of song

she moves the bed by pressing everywhere

up               up             up

she levitates the bed by hanging hours on the bed
our messenger      she is out front


she sings in hunger or wetness

and we rise

Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2016


problemsJade Sharma
Coffee House Press / Emily’s Books ($16.95)

by Bradley Babendir

Maya, the main character of Jade Sharma’s debut novel Problems, has a lot going wrong in her life. Her marriage isn’t working, she isn’t making much money, she hasn’t made progress on her thesis, and she is addicted to heroin. At different points throughout the novel, each of these problems becomes the central focus, which helps the book feel as though it constitutes some sort of revolution in addiction narratives.

There is no skirting the fact that Maya is an addict, but Sharma is deft at displaying exactly how that alters her life. Yes, getting clean would be a good idea and likely improve the prospects in her life immensely, but getting clean won’t make her love her husband or write her thesis. She’ll begin to save more money, but that does not guarantee financial security, either. In Problems, drug addiction is a problem for Maya, and like all other problems, it has its own set of unique obstacles, but that doesn’t make it the defining issue of all moments of her life.

For example, one of the longer sections of the book involves Maya visiting her husband’s family, heroin free. Her withdrawal causes problems, but so does the fact that Peter’s family doesn’t approve of smoking and she is hankering for a cigarette. Their divergent views on what’s appropriate to watch and talk about similarly cause rifts.

None of this is to say that Sharma backs away from the tough reality of addiction. Just as space is given to the ways Maya’s life would be regardless, there is acknowledgement of the problems that her drug use brings, and there are many. The descriptions of her withdrawal are agonizing and the lengths she goes to for money in a crisis are simultaneously shocking and inevitable.

Sharma’s prose is plain and unflinching, leveraging the brutality of the narrative to its full effect—the author seems uninterested in adding a little stevia to make the book easier to stomach. Her only flourish is occasionally diving into the second person, an effective tool when it is used, as it implies Maya’s impulse to distance her actions from herself.

Problems is short enough to read in a weekend afternoon, but it might be tough to go out for drinks right after. There is hope scattered throughout and at the end, but it is less pronounced than the dread, desperation, and the unsettling sex scenes. Perhaps Sharma’s biggest achievement is allowing these things to coexist in such a well-constructed package. There are laugh-out-loud moments and there are moments where a deep breath is necessary before moving forward. Even after finishing, the images are hard to shake.

Once the haze of the initial reading fades away, though, one is mostly left with excitement: about whatever Sharma writes next, and whatever Emily’s Books, the new imprint from Coffee House Press, publishes next. Few debuts manage to be as forceful and commanding as this one.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2016

Blood, Bone, and Marrow: A Biography of Harry Crews

bloodbonemarrowTed Geltner
University of Georgia Press ($32.95)

by Patrick James Dunagan

The life story of novelist Harry Crews is one of triumph and defeat, with defeat usually overwhelming triumph. Not much about Crews is pretty, but it is at times courageous, even if most always raw in accompanying detail. With a lifelong devotion to shocking others, Crews courted the extreme with the sort of measured pace by which most might pursue a regimen of daily exercise. His life is a remarkable tale of sui generis hardscrabble southern gothic literature. Book after book by Crews is filled with bizarre tales of circus-freak characters and assorted weirdo personalities inspired from underground backwaters of Americana. While his earliest work is all fiction, he was arguably writing at his best when he later dived into exploring autobiographical material. Ted Geltner’s Blood, Bone and Marrow delivers the full goods on Crews, the son of Georgia tenant farmers who was determined to succeed despite the handicaps of ill luck, alcoholism, and an impoverished upbringing.

Throughout his life, Crews remained uncertain regarding his true father’s identity. In 1937, he wasn’t yet two when his mother Myrtice’s first husband Ray suddenly passed away. Six months after Ray’s funeral Myrtice married Ray’s just-recently-divorced brother Paschal, who immediately took on the role of father to Crews and his brother Hoyett. It wasn’t until many years later that Crews would come to learn that the man he grew up knowing as his father was in actuality perhaps his uncle. By all accounts Ray had been a devoted, dependable, hard-working husband, while Paschal displayed predilections toward alcohol and the wild behavior similar to that which Crews would later find he was himself prone.

At the age of sixty, Crews was still seeking out his ninety-year-old aunt Eva to learn about “the events surrounding his birth and the tale of two daddies” and to ask her “whose blood I got in my veins.” The unsettled nature of the exact sequence of Myrtice’s intimate relations with each of the two senior Crews brothers would eventually spill over, disrupting the relationship between her own grown sons. As children, “Hoyett wielded his power” over Harry as the elder sibling; it was a mismatched balance of power Crews never forgave. As adults, Hoyett “viewed Harry’s writing with disgust and saw his little brother as a godless drunk” while “Harry thought Hoyett a mindless bible thumper.” After Mytrice passed away late in life, the two brothers had a falling out over details regarding the handling of her death and never saw or spoke to each other again—one of the final acts in a series of obstinate refusals Crews had a lifelong habit of committing. Crews relied upon his healthy inclination towards such self-willed stubbornness to achieve everything in his life.

Nothing ever came easy to Crews. At the age of five he was struck with polio: one day his legs just started to curl up and kept on going until his feet tucked up under his thighs, leaving him bed-ridden for weeks and with a lifelong limped posture. Doctors told his mother he would never walk again, yet soon enough he began to drag himself around the floor, eventually gaining use of his leg—just in time to suffer another life-threatening event. Playing with cousins during hog butchering season, he fell feet first into a vat of scalding water when the carcasses of freshly slaughtered hogs were being placed to loosen their tough hides for scraping. If not for the fact that his head stayed above the water, bobbing about amongst the hogs, this would have no doubt ended his short life. As it was he lost the skin from the majority of his body and once again spent weeks bed-ridden. During these youthful periods of incapacity, however, Crews developed a penchant for exploring his imagination; spinning tales, he’d entertain himself and any family and friends willing to lend an ear.

Upon graduation from high school Crews enlisted with the U.S. Marines, who overlooked the fact that he’d been refused the day before by the U.S. Army due to the damage childhood polio had inflicted upon his leg. Crews intended to be sent to fight in Korea as Hoyett had a couple years previously, so that he too might prove his manhood in combat, yet three weeks into basic training the Korean War came to an end. Crews instead served three years in Florida performing airplane maintenance. It was hardly the glory-making debut of his manhood which he’d envisioned, however his time in military service did get him out of Georgia for the first time and opened the door to higher education, which eventually led to his lifelong teaching career and gave rise to his literary inclinations. Yet weeks into his education in Florida courtesy of the GI Bill, Crews was told that given his low test scores a college education appeared an impractical decision. Crews characteristically refused to quit, determined that if he wasn’t kicked out, he’d buckle down and manage to find his own way through. But first he took an impromptu cross country motorcycle trip West, “yet another quest for self-discovery” to broaden his sense of the world beyond Bacon County, Georgia.

Crews graduated from the University of Florida having studied writing both in and out of the classroom with the Southern gentleman writer Andrew Lytle. It was also the University of Florida to which Crews later returned and remained throughout his decades of teaching. Yet Crews himself never studied writing at the graduate level, holding his Master’s in Education instead; when he had applied for entrance to the graduate creative writing program he was denied. This reinforced his tendency to self-identify with the “outsider” status which became his trademark, both in and outside of the university. It was clear from his lifelong outlandish personal behavior, wearing his hair in a Mohawk and sporting numerous tattoos later in life, that he cherished keeping himself wild and fierce looking.

Determined to be a writer, Crews forced his artistic development through sheer will power. His ultimate self-taught lesson was to deconstruct Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, devising “a project for himself in which he would take apart a novel as one would a car, then put it back together again in order to discover, with his own senses, how it worked.” Crews in effect “reduced the book to a series of numbers: How many characters were there? How many days, weeks, years did the action take? How many cities? How many children, adults, women, mean? On what pages were the climaxes, the twists in the story?” It wasn’t an organic approach but it allowed the means for him to develop his own method of getting the writing done.

Early on in his teaching, after one student turned in a story containing an oral sex scene, Crews read it aloud to the class, abruptly stopping to ask the student whether or not she had “ever given a blow job” before declaring: “Never, NEVER, write about something you’ve never witnessed or done.” Geltner locates similar examples throughout Crews’s life, from his youthful dalliances with death, to his military career and motorcycle adventure, to his experiences amongst academics and within the publishing world—where time and again Crews followed his own rule, always writing only about that with which he had firsthand experience. If life became not particularly exciting, Crews was always sure to shake things up. He continually picked up hobbies, whether Karate, amateur weight lifting, or training hawks, and he would later shape many a novel around them. In addition, he was restless when not writing and prone to getting into violent fights, especially during ever frequent drop-down-dead drunken states—all of which bled directly over into his work.

Geltner came to know Crews firsthand in the final years of the author’s life, and he relates anecdotal tales of visiting Crews at home and driving him around on medical errands. These vignettes are dropped in throughout his narrative, and the end result is a well-rounded, full representation of Crews equally from all sides. There is his devotion to one woman, despite divorce and his flagrant affairs, some long-standing in nature; the rockiness yet steadfastness of his friendship; his failures as a parent; his steadily successful pursuit of greater financial triumph in both the literary world and the Hollywood writer’s market; and his associational brushes with celebrities such as Sean Penn and Madonna. Geltner also provides a thorough exegetical overview of all Crews’s writings, from novels to journalism to his attempts at writing for the stage and screen. In Blood, Bone, and Marrow, the life of Harry Crews is presented in all the hard-knuckled glory he’d desire, while also leaving his faults and weaknesses left truthfully exposed.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2016

The Fluidity of the Human Brain: an interview with Frank Bures

bures-frank-credit-dawn-petersonby Scott F. Parker

Frank Bures writes for many publications, including Harper’s, Runner’s World, The New Republic, Outside, and Poets & Writers. His essays have appeared in Best American Travel Writing and been noted in Best American Sports Writing and Best American Essays. His book The Geography of Madness: Penis Thieves, Voodoo Death, and the Search for the Meaning of the World’s Strangest Syndromes (Melville House, $25.95) has been getting a lot of attention from radio hosts who are excited to read its subtitle on air. I called him recently at his home in Minneapolis.

Scott F. Parker: Jambo, Frank!

Frank Bures: Hi, Scott.

SFP: Your author bio on the book jacket says you speak several languages. I know Swahili is one, and I think you speak Italian and Spanish. Are there more?

FB: Well, I speak decent Italian and Swahili, and I can kind of get by in Spanish. When I was in Thailand I could chat in Thai, not very complicated conversations, but more than most expats there. I have also lived with Germans and understand some of that. And I’m trying to teach myself French.

SFP: Does it seem like language comes easily, or do you put in a lot of time studying?

FB: Once you’ve learned one language it’s much easier to learn another. You can figure out what are the things you need to know. (And the things you need to know to fake it.) The languages that I’ve learned the best—Italian, Swahili, and Thai—they’re all difficult, but in different ways. In Italian there are a lot of verbs to memorize, and the conjugation is a little bit tricky sometimes. In Swahili conjugation is really complicated. And in Thai, the verbs are simple, but the tonal aspect is very difficult.

SFP: How is your interest in language related to your interests as a writer?

geographyofmadnessFB: When you learn another language you really have to learn another way of thinking, and the ideas that the words contain are based on a lot of assumptions that are not in the words themselves. There’s no direct translation for a lot of things. You have to understand the idea that’s trying to be communicated, not just the word. There’s a lot of context behind it. You’re not just learning a language; you’re learning a way to see the world. So that gives you a lot of insight into a culture and the way thoughts can flow—the different possibilities each language allows. I’m not of the school that believes that language is thought, but I do think it lays out some of the channels through which our thoughts can flow.

SFP: You write that upon returning to Minnesota after studying abroad in Italy, something was lost. Have you ever found what was lost?

FB: I don’t know. One of the things I lost was a kind of certainty that I don’t think is possible to find again once it’s lost. It’s the rock-solid assumption that the world works in a set way and you don’t even have to think about it. When you only have one set of stories to live by, your idea of who you are can be more solid. In that sense I guess since coming back from Italy, I’ve always been looking for other possibilities for who I could be.

When you get to the point in a language where you start dreaming in it and thinking in it, it feels like you have a different personality in that language. It almost feels like a new way of being in the world. And so maybe that’s what I’ve found.

SFP: It’s a destabilizing thought, how culturally created we are.

FB: Absolutely. You wonder, "Who would I be if I was born in these other places?” Would you be totally different? Would certain core personality traits be the same? There’s no way to answer those questions, but it certainly makes you ask them.

SFP: This relates to some of the central themes of the book: the importance of storytelling and the degree to which worldviews are culturally situated.

FB: The stories we tell shape our understanding of what causes things to happen, both inside and outside of us. When you’re around other people who don’t believe those stories, you have to question whether they’re true or not.

SFP: I know when you talk about koro [i.e., the belief that one’s genitals are disappearing] people often ask Why don’t they just check? It seems like what those who ask that question are really saying is that this culture stuff is great and all, but the scientific method is qualitatively different because it gets results—it’s verifiable, or at least falsifiable. So how do you respond to that question in general terms?

FB: I’m definitely a fan of the scientific method. I was raised in that culture, and I believe in the power of science. But when you apply it to medicine and illness and mental health and those kinds of things, you can see that part of the power of scientific medicine or biomedicine is the belief in it. The more strongly you believe in it the better it works. And you can measure that.

SFP: Doesn’t that further confirm the method itself?

FB: Yes. But what I’m talking about in the book is causal perception and its effects, not actual causation. Science tries to sort out what the causal mechanisms actually are, so they can be used in technology. And if belief is one of those causal mechanisms, then science should be able to show that.

SFP: This comes back to the idea, longstanding in the West, that the body is a kind of machine, reducible to physical processes—an idea you reject in the book.

FB: This gets into a different problem. The biomechanical understanding of things is partly rooted in the desire to do away with dualism, the idea that there is a person inside the body. Neuroscientists especially argue that they’ve solved that problem and there’s this causal flow from physical to mental that’s one directional. And that’s just clearly not the case. So the question is how you account for that. To me it seems like the neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga has a good handle on this. He explains it in terms of “strong emergence” versus “weak emergence.” The idea is that complex systems arise from small repeating actions. A weak version argues that you should be able to look at the parts and understand the whole; for example, you should be able to look at an ant and understand the colony. In a strong version, at some point a system takes on a different quality and starts operating by a new set of rules. He calls this a “phase shift.” Once that threshold is passed, the rules that applied to the individual parts no longer apply to the system. The best example is quantum mechanics, where one set of rules applies at the subatomic level, but once you cross over into the realm of general relativity you have a different set of rules. Nobody’s really come up with a way to unify the two, and they probably won’t.

Gazzaniga argues something similar for the brain and the mind. The mind is something that emerges strongly from the brain, and you can’t go back and look at the parts to explain the mind. That also means the mind can act backward on the brain and change it—we can see that. So you have two directions of causal flow, top to bottom and bottom to top, rather than just from bottom to top—from physical to mental.

SFP: What do you think will replace the metaphor of body as machine? I wonder how living so much of our lives online affects how we think about the world.

FB: The Internet could be a new kind of machine metaphor—it’s a dynamic network as opposed to a single computer. But using the Internet as a metaphor is problematic because it’s mostly humans doing things through their machines—so you have that additional layer of complexity, not just the machines. We usually talk about brain as a computer, but I think that’s totally false; it leads you down all kinds of deterministic paths that I’m not crazy about. It doesn’t allow for any agency. The differences between a computer and a brain are so vast. The brain is the most complex system in the universe we know about. Even the most complex computer we have isn’t anywhere close. I especially don’t like the term “hard-wired” when we’re talking about the brain, because there’s nothing hard and there are no wires. The properties of a brain are more fluid than those of computers.

Our use of technology always shapes our ability to understand the body, and especially consciousness. Rachel Aviv wrote in one of her pieces in n+1 about how historically metaphors for consciousness have always been determined by the technology of the age. It used to be the telegraph, then the steam engine, and more recently the computer. They’re all only partially useful, if at all. We need a more dynamic model, in the same way that we need a more dynamic model for talking about culture.

I don’t have a good answer to this question. But I do feel like any machine/technology metaphor is going to have problems. I’m actually much more partial to fluid metaphors—rivers, water, current, those are much more reflective of the qualities of both the mind and brain. The flow of neurons seems to me like a fluid process, and the way cultural syndromes flow through a population is a fluid process as well. Part of the problem in the past has been the desire to put discrete, firm borders between one kind of illness and another, when they all have gradations of these fluid qualities.

SFP: A more dynamic model is what you’re offering in the book.

FB: That’s what I’m trying to do. I’ll leave it to people smarter than me to come up with a better metaphor, but I think that idea of a bioloop is pretty accurate and useful. It’s not a vivid metaphor, though, and that might be its fatal flaw. There have been other people in the history of science who have tried to challenge the simple biomedical model. George Engel, the psychiatrist, came up with what he called the biopsychosocial model. It’s one that doesn’t see just a physical to mental flow of things; he tried to take into account psychological and social aspects. But it never really caught on. I think it’s because it’s too messy, too complicated to be a good shorthand. The idea of bioloop is a bit more elegant and has more hope of catching on and being practical.

SFP: Let’s change course a little bit here. One of the threads in the book has to do with you becoming a writer. The book grew out of an article you wrote for Harper’s. I’m curious why you decided to make this your first book and what that process was like.

FB: The Harper’s piece was really a self-contained thing, but there were pieces of it that bothered me—in particular the section where I talked about culture. I felt like there were a lot of unanswered questions there and that those were my real questions. If these syndromes are culture-bound, what does that mean? What are the definitions we’re talking about? I wanted to figure out what it was. I tried to look for a definition of culture for a long time, but I couldn’t figure out specifically what it was or how it worked. I wrote a book proposal after the Harper’s thing came out, but I didn’t have the answers yet. I knew where I wanted to go, but I didn’t know how to get there, and I’m sure that was obvious. So I wasn’t able to sell that book. But it kept bugging me, and I kept working on it.

Then a couple years later I had a kind of breakthrough, where I saw that there was something about one’s life being a story—a chain of causally linked episodes—and that this identity is something we experience as if seen through our friends’ or peers’ eyes. For example, when you do something fun or interesting, you can think of people it would be fun to tell about it; people who would be excited about it. These people would be the audience for the story that that episode is part of. They understand the causal forces leading to and from that episode. They get what it means. They understand what it says about who you are.

Once I started thinking about it that way, and researching that, I pieced together a related essay for Poets & Writers, “The Secret Lives of Stories,” which was along those lines and which was a kind of endpoint for the book, in some ways.

Meanwhile the Harper’s piece kept circulating, so at one point I was contacted by an editor at Melville House asking if I wanted to turn it into a book. By that time, I had a better idea of what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it. So then I started working on that.

SFP: What are the challenges of working on something longer than a magazine piece?

FB: There were so many moving parts with this book that all had to make sense together. With something shorter, the frame is smaller, so there’s less to manage to make it make sense. Otherwise, it’s the same writing, trying to manage the ideas and storylines and to bring the reader to the point where you want to take them.

SFP: Is it ever hard being aware that the experiences you’re having have while traveling are for the sake of material?

FB: Yes, of course. That’s always an issue with writing nonfiction; there’s always a tension between living the experience and using it for writing. When you write it, it’s always a matter of selection. Nonfiction isn’t just writing down everything that happened. It’s writing down the things that were meaningful. You’re always excluding a lot of irrelevant stuff. In that way, it can feel like you’re sort of falsifying the experience, even though that’s how it works. That’s what writing is. That’s what storytelling is. Writing nonfiction isn’t about what you include, it’s about what you exclude. It’s a version of the storytelling we all do in our lives. We look back on our lives and pick out those episodes that are meaningful and use them to understand who we are, what we’ve gone through and how that event made us into ourselves. Somebody else looking at the same set of events might not pick the same episodes as important or meaningful.

SFP: Has there been any backlash to the book so far?

FB: A lot people assume that when you say something is culture-bound you’re saying it’s not real, or there’s no biology involved, or it doesn’t exist—something like that. But that’s not what I’m saying.

SFP: When you get to that point in the argument and you’re able to come back and say, look at anorexia, look at PMS—that’s a really powerful argument against the idea that our culture is somehow neutral.

FB: Some people just don’t accept these things are culturally related. To me, the one that’s most interesting to me is carpal tunnel syndrome. That seems like a simple mechanical thing, and yet it comes and goes based on the kinds of stories that are floating around, and the kinds of concerns and anxieties people have. It’s a kind of bioattentional looping, where you pay very close attention to your sensations and wind up driving them. It’s one condition where you can see pretty clearly how our narratives become part of this biolooping effect. It’s not saying people aren’t suffering from this or that. But then it goes away.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2016


raptureSjohnna McCray
Graywolf Press ($16)

by Renoir Gaither

Sjohnna McCray’s debut collection of poems makes obvious the import of Faulkner’s famous aphorism, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Winner of the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets, Rapture is an absorbing homage to McCray’s growing up as a biracial child of an African American father and Korean mother in the 1970s and ’80s, and it also sifts through various impressions of midlife identity as a gay man. The result is soulful, solemn soul-baring that leaves us changed by its wisdom.

In the opening poem, “Father & Son by Window,” McCray uses a second person narrative voice to paint an intimate scene of a son bathing his infirm father:

Tonight, you flip the night

as if it were a card.
You scrub his back,

move briskly through the arms.
You match the constellations

each to a different longing.
So light you’re hefting nothing.

The poem ends with an unassuming yet surprising metaphor, as tight and redolent as a shuttered church:

You follow the knots, the dark scars

on a face turned away from water.
His memory flickers on—

a light from a porch nearby.

McCray’s metaphors and similes create natural oases in the narrative ecosystem he renders. In the poem “Three Ways to Scat about a Leg & a Father,” these oases well up in disparate registers and sentiment:

Tonight, the fog rolls like slow music,

the moon is a monster under sheets.

The band of guardian angels
Hanging outside the window jive,
“Man, that cat is square.”

Such verbal derring-do can also shift to brutal honesty. In “Comfort Woman,” McCray reimagines his Korean mother’s experience as a sex worker during the Vietnam War. South Korea’s military established a string of comfort houses during the war to which it sent some 300,000 troops:

This is something my mother knew: to fuck
a man without a metaphor, without

even the slightest hint of a story,
is to be at the center of two deaths.

To see with her eyes is to see as
a camera lens stripped of gauze:

the unwelcome influx of light
reducing men to texture:

Here we encounter a speaker who maintains a bitter emotional distance, ringing out what’s essential and emancipating with an acute sensitivity that’s ultimately gratifying. In another example, the wickedly clever poem titled “Puberty in a Jar,” two boys catch salamanders beside a stream; the enterprise operates, of course, as a larger metaphor for desire and its all-too-often elusive objects. During a feverish attempt to capture an amphibian, the speaker’s companion submerges his jar in the water:

Glass breaks against the rocks.
Held in the sun, his hand
is dazzling covered in bits
of shards and mud. Blood

streaks through the creek
the color of cherries,
a lustful blush
that soon disappears.

The poem summons elements of myth—shared experience, sense of belonging, and ritual—as do others in this amazing collection. McCray shepherds us through this fluid and evolving project of discovering identity with compassion and grace.

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The Happy Marriage

happymarriageTahar Ben Jelloun
Translated by André Naffis-Sahely
Melville House ($25.95)

by Garry Craig Powell

The irony of the title of Tahar Ben Jelloun’s new novel, The Happy Marriage, probably goes without saying. The novel is a study in the unravelling of a marriage in the spirit of Ingmar Bergman, whose Scenes from a Marriage is frequently referenced in the chapter epigraphs, which are all from arthouse cinema. These set the tone of the characters’ lives, which are anything but those of conservative Arabs. The main character, a famous Moroccan painter living in France, knows real-life celebrities like Leo Ferré, Alain Delon, Francois Mitterand, and Antonio Tabucchi—as Ben Jelloun, himself a renowned Moroccan novelist living in Paris, probably does. The painter is obsessed with cinema, indeed far more than with painting, and leads a secular, sophisticated, and sexually promiscuous life. The narrative opens soon after the painter has a stroke following an assault by his wife, who has thrown a laptop and a bronze paperweight at his face; this prompts him to take stock of their twenty-year marriage.

The first three-quarters of the novel is a transcript of a text called “The Man Who Loved Women Too Much,” a third-person account of the disintegration of the marriage from his point of view, written with the help of a friend. According to this version of events, his unnamed wife is fourteen years younger, hails from the Atlas Mountains, and is a Berber, unlike him (he is an upper-class Arab from Fez), but she has lived in France, worked as a model, and has a patina of sophistication—enough, apparently, for Alain Delon to promise her film work. Nevertheless, although the painter is in love with her at the start, tensions arise between their families because of the social disparities: her family are hicks, and his mother complains that she is “not even white.” An aunt of his berates her: “Why can’t you speak Arabic properly and what’s up with that accent?”

In the painter’s view, his wife is a virago who employs peasant au pairs, cancels a symposium he’s due to attend in Berlin, and fires his loyal factotum—all without consulting him, out of jealousy. She is under the spell of Lalla, a fraudulent mystic, witch, and feminist. After the stroke, she becomes jealous of Imane, the tender young Moroccan physiotherapist who treats him, and fires her, to his fury. Dramatic as some of these events could be, they are mostly “told” rather than “shown,” and the language is flat and even clichéd at times (the painter is “white as a sheet”), so much of the potential vividness of the scenes is lost.

As with much Arab storytelling, the narrative here is digressive sometimes entertainingly so, as when Imane tells the painter a surreal “love story” about the woman who ate her husband in order to control him; but on occasion the digressions are clumsy, as in chapter fifteen, in which the painter lists his memories of past lovers, and chapter sixteen, an even more random collection of reminiscences. The reader half-expects a romance to develop between Imane and the painter, who is clearly in love with her, and yet the final crisis has little to do with this, but comes when he informs his wife that he wants a divorce.

This crisis is not resolved in the novel-within-the-novel but in the final part of the book, a first-person narrative called “My Version of Events,” in which his wife, whom we learn is named Amina, responds to the “The Man Who Loved Women Too Much” (which she snarkily points out is an allusion to Truffaut’s The Man Who Loved Women, yet another cinematic reference.) This narrative manoeuvre is not wholly successful because we don’t discover for whom she has written her response, or for that matter why the painter and his friend have put together the first manuscript.

Amina does corroborate some things we have learned from the painter: she admits they were deeply in love in the beginning, confesses she is “nasty” and violent, and spends more time with Lalla than with her husband and children (who are so shadowy that they never emerge as characters). She confesses that her own family always come first, and that she can be cruel. She taunts him with a text: “You don’t satisfy me either sexually or financially.” On the other hand, we learn that her husband is a cheapskate—assuming we can believe her—who always flies Business Class, while making his wife and children travel in Economy. He is, in her words, “an ayatollah in western clothes.” She divulges that she has “read many French novels and identified with the petty bourgeois characters from the provinces” and convinced herself that she too has an intense “an intense inner life.” However, she is no self-destructive Emma Bovary; her plan is to not to destroy her husband, but to make the invalid wholly dependent upon her. “He’s mine now and I can do what I like with him,” Amina declares chillingly near the end.

One might see The Happy Marriage as an expression of Arab male anxiety about the increasing independence and assertiveness of women. Interesting as that is, for an author who has won the Prix Goncourt and numerous other awards, one hopes for a greater mellifluousness of style as well as substance.

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The Accidental Life: An Editor's Notes on Writing and Writers

accidentallifeTerry McDonnell
Alfred A. Knopf ($26.95)

by D.W. Fenza

In 1992, Esquire magazine featured a white-on-white cover that was a bizarre homage to the graphic design of the Beatles’ White Album. “White People: The Trouble with America” the cover read. When I received that issue, I wondered how long the editor would keep his job. The essays inside indicted some of the white people who were the trouble with America, including Charles Manson and the cabinet members of President George Herbert Walker Bush’s White House. The issue also offered a story by Robert Stone. The regular appearance in the magazine of writers of Stone’s caliber was the main reason I had subscribed—Barry Hannah, Peter Matthiessen, Edward Abbey, Thomas McGuane, and especially Jim Harrison. I could not afford to travel to Paris that year, but at least I could read about Harrison’s gustatory exploits in Paris.

Harrison was an excellent surrogate, after all, since he had the soul of a poet and the appetites of six or seven people. Esquire was pugnacious then. It enjoyed boxing the ears of the status quo and jumping on the back of one zeitgeist or another. Another issue featured critiques by several feminists on what they thought about men, and the collective portrait of manhood was neither handsome nor reassuring. Esquire at that time was an odd vessel by which its publisher hoped to sell millions of dollars in advertising for luxury goods. The editor of the “White People” issue was Terry McDonnell, who would also put Spike Lee on the cover later that year. McDonnell’s tenure at Esquire would be brief. Strong editors of important magazines push at the boundaries of our culture as it reinvents itself, and sometimes the culture pushes back.

An earlier editor of Esquire, Harold Hayes, wrote this in a memo, which is quoted by McDonnell in his new book The Accidental Life:

A passive, inert dull magazine . . . is usually made up of editors who sit around and wait for writers to send them queries, or pictures, or finished pieces upon which they can react and then fulfill themselves. . . . Magazine editing is not just the act of choosing, it is an act of assertion.

In the last century, changes in American culture created opportunities for print magazines to capitalize on those trends, and editors had to push their magazines to ride the crest of whatever promised to be next. New readers had new aspirations, and good editors and their writers and photographers revealed those aspirations in stories, profiles, and pictures. Advertisers would pay dearly for the chance to complement those tableaux with the best possible accessories. John H. Johnson established Ebony in 1945. Jann Wenner launched Rolling Stone in 1967. Warren Hinckle unleashed Ramparts upon the 1960s. Helen Gurley Brown revived Cosmopolitan in 1965. Anna Wintour seized her post at Vogue in 1988. Liz Tilberis resuscitated Harper’s Bazaar in 1992. And Terry McDonnell devoted a frenetic lifetime of surfing cultural currents for Outside, Rolling Stone, Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and several other magazines. The Accidental Life narrates his editorial assertions with some of our most famous literary movers and shakers: Hunter S. Thompson, Richard Price, James Salter, Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Ward, Elizabeth Gilbert, Richard Ford, George Plimpton, Frank Deford, Elaine Kaufman, and many others.

The Rise of the Digerati

The Accidental Life is a quotable book populated by quotable people, and its account of the slow, ongoing demise of print magazines is an arresting subplot within the story of McDonnell’s career. Steve Jobs makes two appearances as a harbinger of the mortal wounds the digerati would soon inflict upon print media.

During a visit to the MIT Media Lab, McDonnell was asked by a young engineer what he thought about algorithms becoming the new epic poems of journalism. McDonnell replied that Machiavelli would love that. McDonnell’s peers were no longer other editors, but code, the formulae of Google and other aggregating media apps, which select for their readers what they wish to see based on their “likes,” what websites they have visited, what is most popular on the web this week, and what purchases they have made online. Algorithms provide instantaneous market research and editorial taste-making for specific demographic groups.

Of his time at Sports Illustrated, McDonnell wrote:

Soon enough I’d be spending more time with tech developers and executives than with writers. But the new work was fast and satisfying too, and I thought that what I saw coming could be very good for traditional publishers, a counterbalance, if we moved quickly. It was 2007 and magazines were already hemorrhaging readers, and advertisers weren’t making those multimillion dollar buys anymore, but change was always good if you could adapt. I made speeches about that at management meetings. It wasn’t until later that my job began to feel like an embed in a routed and retreating army.

According to a report of the Pew Research Center, 61% of Millennial readers prefer to get their news about politics and government from Facebook, while 39% of Baby Boomers use Facebook for their news. The shift to news curated by algorithms is well underway, and with it, millions of dollars or ad revenues have fled magazines and newspapers for Facebook, Google, and other aggregators of content.

“Creative disruption” is a euphemism for this change. For McDonnell and his peers, it is a Machiavellian coup with serial assassinations: LIFE, Mademoiselle, McCall’s, Gourmet, Teen, and even PC Magazine—rest in peace. The Sporting News and Newsweek would contract, quiver, and die to become ghosts of their former selves, as websites only. Most magazines now lead double lives, with free web-based articles undermining the newsstand sales and subscription sales of their issues in print. Why should you subscribe to a few print magazines when your mobile device can sample them all to your liking? Who needs editors and print’s slow production and distribution when algorithms and your smart phone can deliver what you want when you want it? Who needs a new print magazine for a new cultural movement when social media provides an outlet for that movement now and each formerly passive reader can embrace the thrill of working as a critic, activist, or confessional exhibitionist? Social media has blown apart the hierarchy of the magazine masthead and replaced it with a global 24/7 karaoke bar with billions of stages and video screens.

The Accidental Life is full of wistful passages for the days of flush magazine budgets, when editors could send writers on extended assignments with unbridled expense accounts. Hunter S. Thompson could report from several mind-bending points of view, each of them his own, and each tempered by whatever drugs he had ingested at the time, with the fire of each deranged synapse facilitated by Rolling Stone. It’s possible that William T. Vollman was even more excessive, with the scars, enlarged liver, and STDs to prove it. According to McDonnell, Sports Illustrated once spent $1.5 million on tickets for sports events, and many of those tickets were perks for staff, contributors, and advertising clients. Those perks are far fewer now.

McDonnell’s roster of contributing authors is mostly a white boys’ club because that’s what analog publishing was in his heyday. It remains that way today, mostly. Women such as Helen Gurley Brown, Elizabeth Hardwick, Liz Tilberis, Tina Brown, Natalie Nougayréde, and Pamela Paul would become gatekeepers too, eventually, but few women reach the top of the masthead. In a chapter on women’s magazines, McDonnell notes that one man, Jack Mack Carter, was the editor of three magazines for women: Ladies Home Journal, McCall’s, and Good Housekeeping. The legacy of white homogeneity in publishing made magazines vulnerable in the digital age because niche markets became more numerous and powerful. Glossy magazines, in most cases, lacked the will, the personnel, and the business model to serve the new demographics well. Driven by their ad revenues, glossy magazines had devoted themselves to the biggest possible markets of people with the highest amounts of disposable income: white women 18 to 49 years old, or white men 18 to 49 years old. The markets for media are now stratified and segmented by gender, age, region, race, education, income, cultural interests, political affiliations, buying histories, and sexual orientation. Websites and social media can cater to each growing group in a way that LIFE, McCall’s, and Newsweek never did. Many readers did not recognize themselves in the white bread world of slick magazines. The articles, the photos, and the ads did not portray their lives. But in social media, previously invisible and misrepresented communities could express themselves and see themselves—an exhilarating break from the past. Social media changed the balance of power regarding who speaks for whom. Glossy magazines, meanwhile, still hunger for a broader and bigger category of readers—a mainstream—that no longer exists.

Money & the Care & Feeding of Writers

A terrible characteristic of glossy magazines is that their content is shaped by their advertising and profit margins, but a wonderful characteristic of glossy magazines was that ad revenues afforded the ability to pay contributors a living wage and to reimburse writers for their research and adventures—investigations and travel that would provide the foundation for future books and royalties. Google, Facebook, and other aggregators have diverted billions of dollars away from local newspapers and national magazines. The redirection of those billions has diminished or terminated the paydays of journalists, writers, photographers, illustrators, and designers. Amid this change, the fate of investigative reporting is especially worrisome. The Washington Post did an analysis of the 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies, all of which conduct counterterrorism and domestic surveillance at 10,000 locations in the U.S. It takes years of diligence, a big team of professional journalists, and a lot of money to deliver such a high level of comprehensive reporting. Who will do that kind of reporting if the Post can no longer afford it? This is not the kind of news that can be crowd-sourced by the citizen-journalists of Twitter or by WikiLeaks. It is not the kind of project Google or Facebook would fund on their town-sized campuses. And what if your school board or local judges are possibly corrupt? Your local newspaper is probably too understaffed to investigate. Monster.com, LinkedIn, Craigslist, and eBay have decimated the income from your local paper’s classified ads, which once made big newsrooms possible.

The decline of the glossy magazines has blocked off one of the avenues by which one might become a professional literary author. In 1920, F. Scott Fitzgerald earned $3,975 for the sale of eleven stories to the magazines of his day, most of them now gone. Back then, with that $3,975, you could buy a new Ford for $250 and a new three-bedroom house for $1,900, and still have enough left over to hire a servant for the year, or you could rent a villa on the Riviera for $79 a month, as the Fitzgeralds, in fact, did. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s pay from magazines alone was a major harvest of green. With royalties from his first novel, This Side of Paradise, his income put him in Gatsby’s neighborhood—in the top 1%. McDonnell narrates the declining health of this old literary ecology:

. . . word rates have dropped at established magazine like rocks in draining ponds. Paying three and four dollars a word was no problem for me at Rolling Stone and Esquire, and there were many writers at Condé Nast magazines getting five dollars. Twenty years later, a dollar a word makes writers almost happy, in light of what they get from even a thriving website like the Huffington Post.

The World Wide Web demands that the democratization of journalism must be its own reward. Writers and editors of the Baby Boom face the digital culture, and they see a terrible beauty is born.

Print magazines provided a lot of social capital as well as the paychecks for good work. Good social capital makes its community wealthier in help, safety, commerce, and care. McDonnell’s stories about going to dinner with Kurt Vonnegut or playing golf on acid with Hunter S. Thompson reflect how lively those old social networks could be. There are many indications that the new virtual networks provide, at least, social capital for younger writers. The weakening of old-boy networks removes impediments for the advancing careers of young writers, but, meanwhile, Google and Facebook hoover up all the cash.

Can jobs in academia and Hollywood replace the economic base and social capital that our most talented writers once gained from their work for print magazines? Will the welter of the web someday do its own fact-checking, cultivate the better angels among our (sometimes very flawed) writers, show us their best work, and spare us their worst? Can the democratization and algorithms of the web preserve the virtues in discernment of print culture but spare us the old prejudices and failures? A new generation of writers, publishers, and readers will answer these questions, of course. In the meanwhile, The Accidental Life provides a vivid panorama of one literary society deposed by another.

Between the vagaries of Hollywood and academia, print magazines once provided a hub for writers to find jobs, solvency, and fellow spirits. In working with smart magazine editors, good writers became better writers. Their short stories, novels, and essay collections would be better for the collaborative work. Among the old guard, nostalgia for Elaine’s restaurant and the salad days of the Paris Review is an understandable vice. People like George Plimpton, Elaine Kaufman, McDonnell, and other editors comprised a network that administered love, money, and connections for writers. McDonnell’s accounts of these ministrations among great talents and their Jupiter-sized egos make this book worth more than the price of admission. The book dramatizes the making of a fine magazine as a team sport—an activity that requires ambition, stamina, expertise, heroics, camaraderie, intimacy, and awareness of our changing politics and culture.

Robert Ward wrote many episodes of the TV shows Hill Street Blues and Miami Vice, and he wrote the powerful novel Red Baker, among others. He also wrote celebrity profiles and short fiction for the magazines McDonnell edited. About editing the work of a major talent like Ward, McDonnell recalls:

I thought about what Ward had written about Lee Marvin and his father beating him and what had come out of that. Ward’s new piece was a short story called “Scouts,” about working-class fathers and sons falling away from each other: Troop 99 in Baltimore was in a bad part of town—and very different from what you’d find in the official handbook.
The pain in that sentence was ominous. The best writers all know how to do that. You didn’t edit it into their pieces any more than you edited their sensibilities. What you did was ask for more detail.

By such intimate ministrations of respect and discernment were the great magazines made.

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Admit One: An American Scrapbook

admitoneMartha Collins
University of Pittsburgh Press ($15.95)

by Edward A. Dougherty

Beginning with the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis and proceeding chronologically, Martha Collins’s new book Admit One relentlessly pushes against any sense that we live in a post-racial America. Slowly, inexorably, the supports are removed from any idea that “those kinds of things” happened back then or over there, to people not like us or by people not like us. Five poems in the “Postscript” section hurtle through the remaining decades and into our time, the current presidential election rhetoric echoing painfully right alongside.

The “Fair” section starts as reportage about what was there (including footnotes on their current locations) and who was there: Thomas Wolfe, Thomas Edison, Kate Chopin, and “My mother’s mother and father.” The inclusion of the autobiographical detail seems anti-lyrical—it’s presented as if it were not personal, but of course it is, and yet it lacks the resonance of feeling. This mood complements the narrative in Collins’s previous books Blue Front and White Papers, and it demonstrates how we all relate to such histories. Failing to admit this makes larger admissions more difficult. Amid information on the Fair, we learn that “people had been brought . . . to be displayed” and this introduces us to the first concept to be interrogated: the division and difference between “civilized” and “primitive.” It is just one of the distinctions the book explores between “human” and animal, savage, defective, or unfit. Once we can conceptualize that difference, all hell can break loose.

To stake out the tensions inherent in such a big project, Collins has devised a poem form, a kind of gloss: An individual word pairing operates as the title, then the body employs individual words or phrases to present and investigate its many meanings and uses. For example, “Fair / Fair / Fare” includes the festival but also “doesn’t play fair” and ends with “fare / well to be bought and sold.” In this way, Collins pauses the narrative of each section and allows the language we use to reveal values and contradictions. She does this with “Animal / Anima” by observing that anima means to breathe, and so “all animals / breathe the same.” In “Missing / Missing” she includes the sense of something lost and the longing for it, but ends by asserting that “we are the missing link” to complicate that section’s scientific theories.

Admit One tightens around a cluster of concepts based in biological formulations of race and Social Darwinism; this cluster centers around three words: eugenics, miscegenation, and sterilization. The eugenics movement gave rise to the “Better Baby Contests.” Defining who or what is the “wrong type” leads directly to Teddy Roosevelt’s conclusion that “We have no business to permit the perpetuating of citizens of the wrong type,” which led to keeping races from mixing and to sterilization. It became the life’s work of men such as Madison Grant to forge the links in this logical chain, and according to Collins, his book The Passing of the Great Race earned the praise of Adolf Hitler, who said, “The book is my Bible.

Hitler is not a passing reference. This cluster of concepts was embedded in American culture, from State Fairs (where better babies were measured), to Henry Ford’s Detroit, to Woodrow Wilson’s White House, and to Oliver Wendell Holmes’ Supreme Court. It was “science” and it made policy. It shaped immigration laws, laws in the majority of states banning inter-racial marriage, and compulsory sterilization laws. And so the progression from the Fair to Zoo to the KKK and the Nazis is something we all have to admit. At least that.

Collins artfully personalizes these progressions by introducing us to the lives of several particular people. One of these, Ota Bengo, was brought to America to be displayed at the 1904 World’s Fair, but he was later displayed at the Museum of Natural History before moving to the Bronx Zoo, where he was shown in the Primate House, a zoo designed by Madison Grant. To contrast this aspect of his story, Collins writes that “In April 2014, seven / chimpanzees escaped / from the Kansas City Zoo,” underscoring that animals demonstrate the intelligence and longing for freedom we typically only assign to humans (as if we were not animals).

Admit One concludes the trilogy Collins began with Blue Front and White Papers. Each book attacks the ideas and implications of race, and each employs intelligent precision of language, of sources, and of construction. Some smart publisher should gather these three books into a single volume—Collins’s “race trilogy” would be perfect for any social science teacher, creative writing instructor, or history professor to use in the classroom, and it constitutes a remarkably readable poetic opus that any reader will want to pass along to others, just to discuss it.

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The Other One

theotheroneHasanthika Sirisena
University of Massachusetts Press ($22.95)

by Jackie Trytten

In this debut collection of short stories, Hasanthika Sirisena presents characters in Sri Lanka and abroad in the aftermath of civil war, which seeps into many of their daily decisions and actions. Some families separate for economic reasons, and others learn it takes as much strength to stay as to go, all while trying to keep their identity wherever they live.

Sirisena’s characters are trying to fit in, to not be the other one—the one that is part of a minority, the one left out, or the one treated without respect or recognition. There is the one who finally allows her young son a Christmas tree, though they are Buddhist. There is one who converts to Christianity to help him advance his career in America, though he doesn’t believe in any religion. There are the ones who speak English to a lover because they don’t know the other’s language. In “The Chief Inspector’s Daughter,” two college students face their differences in language, upbringing, and the young man’s mistrust of her father and what he can do to people like him, a minority Tamil. In “War Wounds,” a woman’s younger brother, damaged by the war, becomes her responsibility and keeps her from joining her husband in Australia where he has found work. In “Third Country National,” a man works on an American military base in Kuwait after escaping an attack on a Sri Lankan army fort where he previously cooked.

Most of the characters in these stories don’t want to be the other one, but in the title story, Sebastian discovers he likes being considered one of the others. A cricket player who “grew up a Tamil and Christian in a country that had, still has, very little tolerance for either,” he realizes his South Asian teammates in North Carolina are respected by other teams for their skills; from the awareness that “cricket is also a great equalizer,” he learns acceptance and respect go both ways, and he invites an unlikely player, a Southern woman, to join his team.

Sebastian has other needs for cricket, too. “Cricket is my explanation. Cricket allows me to sit in a room of Sri Lankans and talk about something, other than pain and anger.” He is one character who finds a way through and past his history. “You see, for me, every tragic story is a story told in past tense: a recounting of sorrow done never to be undone. Every sports story, on the other hand, is, like all good love stories, a story told in present tense: when the ball twists and arcs and sails and dances, bobs and weaves, there is, in that second, a hundred different happy endings.” The stories in The Other One, which won the Juniper Prize for Fiction, convey tragic, sad, hopeful, and yes, sometimes happy endings.

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Messages from a Lost World: Europe on the Brink

messagesfromalostworldStefan Zweig
Pushkin Press ($25)

by Jesse Freedman

If ever there was an ambassador for Europe, an apostle for its culture and values, that man must have been Stefan Zweig. Born in Vienna in 1881, Zweig emerged during the interwar period as one of the continent’s foremost intellectuals, writing on topics ranging from art and identity to history and politics. Often, his essays read as a celebration, a paean to European achievement in the early twentieth century. Zweig’s works are filled with a profound appreciation not only for his native Austria, but for Italy and France, and for their shared contributions to what he labeled the “magnificent common edifice” of European culture. Zweig’s essays, including several translated into English for the first time in Messages from a Lost World, amount to songs of progress, bursting as they are with pride and fraternity.

Underlying Zweig’s conception of the world—of politics, economics, and culture—was an assumption of European superiority. Zweig intended this not in a racial sense, but rather as an homage to what he considered a process of continued intellectual refinement. He wrote, for instance, of a “unanimous inflaming” of the European imagination, arguing that its history had been endowed with the epic qualities first articulated by the early Greek poets. For Zweig, Europe’s past was cloaked in grandeur and civility, and was populated with great men. There could be nothing better, he maintained, than the artistic awakening of the Renaissance or the philosophical foment of the Enlightenment. Titian, Machiavelli, Calvin, and Locke: these sons of Europe were shared property, and all of the continent’s children—including its Jewish children like Zweig—could rightly claim ownership to the gifts they’d imparted.

While Zweig praised European history—going so far in 1931 as to describe it as “a heroic hymnal poem to unity”—he did so with an awareness that there were cracks at its seams. Events had conspired against Zweig in 1914, and now, as Europe entered the height of the interwar years, he sensed that same nervous energy. For Zweig, there could be nothing worse than war. Armed conflict promised mass destruction: the First World War, he wrote, would be a battle of “everyone against everyone.” That, of course, turned out to be true, but for Zweig it was far worse: the horror of total war threatened the “old order of life,” the vision of Europe he’d worked so diligently to uphold.

It’s here, in that dark space between Zweig’s love for Europe and his regret for its intractable march toward war, that Messages from a Lost World exposes the prescience and humanity for which Zweig has come to be known. In several essays, Zweig anticipates, for instance, a European union, a proto-state built on the idea of mutual cooperation. Like the League of Nations proposed at the end of the First World World, Zweig’s union sought to harness what he called a “supranational consciousness.” In the end, such attempts at union—and reunion—were foiled, and it’s as the Second World War approaches that Zweig’s songs of progress are transformed into lamentations.

That Zweig was unable to restore order by way of his writing (and the intellectual tradition of which that writing was a part) must have cut him to the core. His regard for civilization—which he defines as “humanity managed according to moral principle”—crumbled under the strain of war. Interestingly, however, it’s not to Germany alone that Zweig assigns blame. His disappointment focuses instead on the inability of European nations to overcome the temptation of conflict, to pursue moderation in the face of extremism. Zweig was perhaps most unnerved in 1934 when questioning the benefits of nationalism. “The European idea,” he wrote, “is not a primary emotion like patriotism or ethnicity; it is not born of a primitive instinct, but rather of perception . . . of a more elevated way of thinking.” Zweig feared what he called “spontaneous fervour.” In it, he identified a potential for the collective to come undone, and for old hatred and prejudice—including for Jews—to reemerge.

World War I had left Europe with a dangerous legacy: a form of state-sponsored propaganda in which language itself became perverted. Of those politicians who might exploit this propaganda, Zweig offers a pointed critique, labeling them as bellicose and bitter, with a “perennial taste for violence and hatred.” Zweig turns repeatedly when discussing European politics to the Tower of Babel, writing as early as 1916 (and again as late as 1939) of a nightmarish version of the continent in which people cannot converse, in which an omniscient power has removed the ability to communicate. This is an image that haunts Zweig, precisely because it’s one in which individual nations—as opposed to the collective—reach for the “eternal.” Without mutual intelligibility, he argues, Europe is nothing.

Before his suicide in 1941, Zweig returned in his writing to the Vienna of his youth. In it, he described the city’s “life force.” This, he maintained, was what was at stake in World War II: the ability of citizens to create freely, and to advance the shared heritage that made them European. Ultimately, Zweig and his wife, Lotte, succumbed to the darkness of war, but not before setting a course for those who remained. The purest form of history, wrote Zweig, charted the “relentless ascension to an ever more noble state of humanity.” That path is a noble one, indeed. With the crises swirling around Europe today, we’d do well to remember Zweig’s vision.

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