Tag Archives: spring 2008

BLUE PILLS: A Positive Love Story

Frederik Peeters
translated by Anjali Singh
Houghton Mifflin ($18.95)

by Donald Lemke

True love and terminal illness: in the hands of a novice storyteller, these ingredients often translate into sentimental tales of adoration and heartbreak. For comics artist Frederik Peeters, however, they form the basis of a starkly honest diary of self-revelation that transcends both clichés and cultures.

First published in 2001 in Switzerland and winner of the Best Book prize at the 2002 Angoulême International Comics Festival in France, Blue Pills: A Positive Love Story is an autobiographical graphic novel that follows the author’s relationship with his girlfriend Cati. This love story begins like many others. A despondent, cynical young man meets a delightfully optimistic and attractive young woman. After several chance encounters, the two start dating and soon the couple approaches their first night of intimacy. For Frederik and Cati, this moment is where the standard love story ends. One night, alone at Frederik’s place with a bottle of wine placed between them on the table, Cati reveals her invisible secret: she is HIV-positive and so is her four-year-old son.

This moment of necessary admission must have signaled the end of many flirtatious relationships for Cati: “Do you want me to go?” she asks Frederik, almost knowingly. Frederick stares back at her, but he might as well be staring into himself. Three silent panels follow. As Frederik continues to stare, words summarizing his most extreme feelings literally emanate from his body: passion, pity, desire, rejection, and sadness. The words flow out from him like smoke from the cigarette, dangling in his mouth. When the anxiety passes, Frederik dives into the fledgling relationship with both caution and curiosity.

“When I look backward,” Frederick later states, “I have the impression of happiness, and of a diffuse and permanent pleasure. But I know that it’s because of movement, of the close connection between heavy and light moments.” This insightful reflection summarizes the remainder of Blue Pills, a series of fairly ordinary moments in a relationship made extraordinary by uncommon circumstances. Although this succession of relatively uneventful events makes for a rather thin, almost improvisational plot, the book beautifully conveys the rhythm of the everyday. One moment, Cati and Frederick drift along, floating above their problems on a raft of sexual exploration and ecstasy. In the next moment, a condom breaks, a child gets sick, or a retroviral pill must be taken, and they are plunged back into the dark waters of fear, anguish, and uncertainty. As the story ebbs and flows, Frederick matures, learning from Cati, her son, and a comical doctor about a disease that is no longer a death sentence. In fact, Frederik realizes that the disease gives him greater awareness of his relationship with Cati and with life itself. “I know that this relationship has more compared to previous ones,” Frederick proclaims, “it’s that it lives, that it carries us, that it imposes on us its unpredictable rhythm, without running out of steam.”

Peeters’s dialogue is blunt, candid, and believable and, at times, his narrative reflects the poetic rhythm of his story; however, his real strength comes through in the illustrations. As Craig Thompson did in his acclaimed Blankets, Peeters fills the pages with loose, dark splashes of ink brushwork; each stroke feels effortless and casual, like a sketchbook. Still, readers will know that Peeters rendered the stylistically simple illustrations by choice, not by necessity. His method perfectly matches the manner of the story. The relaxed style feels personal, honest, straight from the hand of the creator to the page. Although the style is rough and loose, it does not lack detail or emotion. Peeters draws eyes that are both transparent and descriptive and body language that is just as emotionally telling. When Cati and Frederik lie next to each other in bed, the reader feels both their love and lust for one another, but also the restrictive cushion of the disease, which always lies between them.

Anjali Singh, a senior editor at Houghton Mifflin, surely recognized the illustrative qualities of Peeters’s work before acquiring and translating the book for the U.S. edition. Like some of her previous overseas comics aquisitions, such as Epileptic and PersepolisBlue Pills: A Positive Love Story is sure to transcend cultures, intrigue American readers, and receive the same notoriety here as it has abroad.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008


Harvey Pekar and Heather Roberson
Illustrated by Ed Piskor
Villard ($17.95)

by David Kennedy-Logan

Harvey Pekar’s newest book, Macedonia, is a nonfiction account of the travels and observations of Heather Roberson, a UC-Berkeley graduate student, in the Balkan nation of the book’s title. She visits the country to research her peace studies thesis, in which she is building the case that war is not the unavoidable facet of human existence most people believe it is. Her interest in Macedonia stems from the unusual fact that the country, sandwiched between Albania, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Greece, managed to secede from former Yugoslavia in the 1990s without sparking a civil war. The sociopolitical environment that allowed this historical anomaly—secession without violent conflict in a region riddled with violence and instability—is what Roberson wants to investigate.

Roberson is an idealist, and her thesis is idealistic, so it should come as no surprise that she has a hard time gaining traction with the people she interviews in the book. But she is not naïve, and both her beliefs and the book itself are impressive for the integrity and rigor of the research they demonstrate. Put your thinking cap on before cracking this one, because you’ll need it; the big ideas come fast and furious, and they never let up over the course of 140 pages.

The story follows Roberson from her comfortable grad-school life at Berkeley to the gritty streets of Belgrade, Tetovo, Skopje, and Pristina. By night, she crashes on friends’ and colleagues’ couches, and by day she tirelessly conducts interviews and debates with government officials, university staff, expatriates, and others. Not everything goes according to plan, of course, and the book does a nice job of capturing the giddy anxiety of being a lone traveler in a distant foreign country, complete with the occasional awkward interaction and mildly threatening episode.

So how did underground comix legend Harvey Pekar get involved in this project? Roberson was introduced to him in 2003, prior to her trip to Macedonia, at the time of the theatrical release of the film adaptation of American Splendor. Having always harbored an interest in politics and being free, thanks to the financial success of the film, to essay riskier subject matter, Pekar invited her to take notes during her trip that he would use as source material for a new book. He used them to create his signature stick-figure storyboards, which were passed on to comics artist and creative workhorse Ed Piskor to interpret and illustrate.

The result is a bracingly intellectual analysis of the history and culture of Macedonia and the surrounding region. Covering historical and political territory nearly identical to Joe Sacco’s Safe Area: GorazdeMacedonia is similarly challenging and eye-opening. But whereas Sacco’s storytelling style is kinetic and character-driven, Pekar’s sometimes sags under the weight of its relentless wordiness and intellectual distance. Many of the panels, and indeed entire pages, are literally overrun with text. This is likely due both to Roberson’s background in academia and the three-person creative assembly line that produced the book. Fortunately, at least the academic leanings are transcended by the book’s spirit of engaging with real people in the real world. Despite ingredients that could easily have made Macedonia ponderous and didactic, ultimately, it is neither.

The artwork, by up-and-coming Pittsburgh graphic novelist Ed Piskor, who had previously worked with Pekar on Our Movie Year, is done in bold black and white, adhering largely to standard indie comics style. Small panels portraying slightly caricaturized faces and body movements give way on precious few occasions to beautifully rendered full-page spreads. Though young, Piskor is an accomplished artist and his art serves the narrative well. Unfortunately, it is also entirely in service to the text- and dialogue-heavy narrative. Piskor was apparently given carte blanche by Pekar to set up each scene however he wanted as long as he preserved every word of text. Within these limitations, Piskor does a commendable job. He never gets lazy and falls into a repetitive talking heads approach, though there are stretches that veer towards tedium.

Macedonia is definitely a departure for Pekar. It doesn’t sport the acerbic wit or underdog heroism of autobiographical outings like American Splendor or the more recent The Quitter. On the whole, Macedonia is easier to admire than to enjoy. Harvey probably wouldn’t even mind that; I don’t think he has any interest in making things easy. In fact, the very concept of “the path of least resistance” is what is under attack in this book. Foreign cultures can be inscrutable, differing customs and mannerisms can make trust and open communication difficult. Buying into the divisive stereotypes that fuel ethnic conflicts is made much easier when the “enemy” is an abstract concept rather than a living and breathing individual.

Despite the tenuous peace in Macedonia, ethnic tensions between Macedonians and Albanians in the region are at a constant simmer and threaten to boil over at any time. With wars of varying sizes continuing to rage in other corners of the world, never has it been more important to consider any and all possible routes to peaceful resolution of conflict. Which is what makes this entire project, shortcomings and all, inspiring and important. Roberson, Pekar, and Piskor rolled up their sleeves and really got to know the individuals who inhabit this country so they could tell their story.

Harvey’s die-hard fan club will no doubt seek out this book, but in some ways he and Roberson are waging a quixotic battle. Some folks will be alienated by its sheer verbosity and others will simply reject its premise. At the last page, after the audience has winnowed, perhaps only those idealists who already share the authors’ view of the world will be paying attention. If that is indeed the case, it’s too bad, because Macedonia makes a morally uplifting and, more importantly, qualitatively convincing case for what can be accomplished through the right combination of starry-eyed idealism and educated inquiry. There’s no denying that the world would be a better place if more artists, more people in general, and above all, more heads of state, would set their expectations so high.

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008


edited by Klaus Biesenbach
Schirmer/Mosel ($90)

by Brian Bergen-Aurand

Berlin Alexanderplatz, a 16 hour and 15 minute epic drama about the life of Franz Biberkopf, rests at the center of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s career. It recounts the story of a man who has just been released from prison after having killed his girlfriend years before. He swears to go straight, but the economic and social stress of Weimar Germany pull him under, and he slowly loses control of his life and his ever-more-destructive relationships. Concerned with the slow time of living, transgression, punishment and atonement, trauma, dystopia, loss, embodiment, sexual relations, and what Thomas Elsaesser has called “the limits of specular space,” Berlin Alexanderplatz summarizes and comments on the rest of Fassbinder’s work. It tells the story of Germany between the wars as a country closing in on itself, serenading itself in the delusion of its own grandeur; in this way, it is a cautionary tale for any nation assured of its own position as the master race. Yet, the film is more than an adaptation of a novel that Fassbinder read at fourteen and that highly influenced him. It is, rather, his attempt to respond to a book he never stopped quoting (in word, image, and sound) for the rest of his life.

When the film was first broadcast on the German state-funded television channel WDR in December 1980, most people did not see what Fassbinder was trying to show them. It wasn’t that they couldn’t understand the film, but that they literally could not see it: as Klaus Biesenbach points out in his essay opening this book, the shots were too dark, too low lit, to be visible on the television sets then available. This technical difficulty, conjoined with the film’s violence and explicit sexuality, not to mention its length as a mini-series, doomed the production to little popular success at the time. In 2007, on the 25th anniversary of Fassbinder’s death, the Fassbinder Foundation (with the German Cultural Institute) released a restored 35mm print of the film. As well, they released Fassbinder: Berlin Alexanderplatz, a valuable addition to the study and appreciation of this film and its maker.

The book opens with a short series of set photographs and provides three introductory and interpretive essays (by Klaus Biesenbach, Susan Sontag, and Fassbinder), over 500 pages of film stills in color—each keyed to the scene and shot number of the screenplay—and the complete screenplay (translated into English) with an additional hundred or more black and white images from the film. It closes with photographs of 1928-29 and 2007 Alexanderstrasse, a compact time-line biography of Fassbinder’s life, and an extensive filmography and bibliography of works by and about him. It is an impressive, even daunting, volume.

In the first essay, “Black Paintings,” Klaus Biesenbach presents his memory of the film’s exhibition on television, explains the technologies involved in the film’s shooting and exhibition, catalogues Fassbinder’s immense influence on contemporary audio-visual-performance artists working with different projection formats, superimpositions, and collage and montage techniques, and defends the importance of the two-hour epilogue to the film as a complex ending to an unsettled work. He highlights Fassbinder’s theme of the body as means of exchange and payment when all else is lost. And he puts the film in the context of the late 1970s—focusing on the topics of sex and violence, social breakdown, authority, and systems in crisis, stating that throughout the film’s imagery and soundscape “The year 1929 is occurring simultaneously with 1979.”

Susan Sontag’s appraisal of the film, “Novel into Film: Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1983),” is the second essay in the book. She contextualizes Fassbinder’s work within the history of film adaptations, which she calls “the game of recycling.” “Being a hybrid art as well as a late one,” she claims, “film has always been in a dialogue with other narrative genre.” She gives a short history of filmed adaptations and their failings before coming to the main comparisons of her article. Here, Sontag supplies a useful, if condensed, comparison between Fassbinder’s filmed version of Alfred Döblin’s 1929 novel and Erich von Stroheim’s 1924 Greed, his filmed version of Frank Norris’s 1899 novel McTeague. (Interestingly, Sontag ignores the 1931 version of Alexanderplatz, directed by Phil Jutzi with Döblin’s collaboration.) Sontag compares the protagonists of the novels and the adaptation techniques of the filmmakers. She concentrates on how Fassbinder is able to complete the task Von Stroheim was never allowed to finish. (His 10-hour adaptation was cut down and 7-1/2 hours destroyed.) Alexanderplatz is not just important as a successful recycling, though. In the end, she argues, it is important because it is Fassbinder’s entire body of work in one piece—“more than a compendium of his main themes . . . the fulfillment and the origin” of everything he did.

The third essay in the book—Fassbinder’s own “The Cities of Man and His Soul. Some random thoughts about Alfred Döblin’s novel Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980)”—is his personal history of re-reading the novel throughout his life. He tells us the book did not “turn him on” at first. It wasn’t until over a third of the way through the novel that he realized the key to this work he would never leave behind—the meeting of the two men Biberkopf and Reinhold, whose relationship is the rest of the story. After returning to the book again and again, Fassbinder says, he discovered the “love” that runs through this relationship—not a sexual, homosexual love—but “a pure, not socially endangered love” that destroys them, in part because they cannot understand it and in part because it is too deep a love, too frightening a love. According to Fassbinder, Döblin’s novel is a thread woven into all his work, sometimes so deeply it amazes the director himself. The novel’s powerful affect comes not from the story—which is so small—but from “how the outrageous banality and incredibility of the story is told,” how Döblin exposes his characters’ very mediocrity with so much affection and love. In the end, Fassbinder’s hope is that Berlin Alexanderplatz is only the first of Döblin’s books we read, and that all of it will be read much more than it is today, “for the sake of the readers. Und for the sake of life.”

Available in German and English editions, this book is a valuable research tool and a significant companion to the film. Although its sheer heft (just over 7 pounds) makes it less than the perfect companion for a night at the movies or even an afternoon at a cafe, this is definitely no mere coffee table accessory. It provides the resources to transform the way we look at Fassbinder’s film and the novel that has affected so much of his life.

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008


When the Stars Threw Down Their Spears
Tom Smart
Goose Lane Editions & Beaverbrook Art Gallery ($55)

The Full Palette
edited by Bernard Riordon
Goose Lane Editions & Beaverbrook Art Gallery ($55)

by Alice Dodge

Bruno Bobak and Miller Brittain are two important 20th-century Canadian artists whose work remains relatively unknown in the U.S. Their careers both started in the late 1930s; Brittain died in 1968 and Bobak is still living. Each painter stays primarily in the realm of figurative and landscape work, but both employ widely varying styles and approaches over the course of their careers. Given the massive shifts in art going on internationally during this time period, neither artist's work can be considered particularly groundbreaking—neither is a Pollock or a Warhol—but both communicate exceptional depth of feeling. Each of these monographs conveys an artist's struggle to find his specific voice, and to deal with civilian life after war.

Both Bobak and Brittain were Official Canadian War Artists during World War II, and each monograph devotes a chapter to this aspect of their lives. War and art have a strange relationship; before photography, history painting was a primary means of documenting and glorifying war, unabashedly favoring whichever side commissioned the artwork. But after photography became the primary means of documenting war (from Civil War photography to the Abu Ghraib snapshots), modern painting became more interested in its critique, most famously with Picasso's Guernica. It seems strange that even after that painting's exhibition in 1937, the Canadian Armed Forces would set up a program in 1943 to bring painters to the field to document “significant events, scenes, phases and episodes in the experience of the Canadian Armed Forces.” 1

Bruno Bobak was the youngest of the Canadian War Records program's thirty-two painters; he was only twenty-one when sketches he made during his army training came to the attention of his superiors and he was sent to England and given a studio rather than assigned to the trenches. Though his first watercolor sketches of tank training and subsequent paintings are beautifully composed and executed, Bobak's work gets darker in 1945, and it seems as though he suddenly wants to express something terrible rather than simply follow orders; paintings like Dead Goats in Empel show the emotional consequences of war. While they are technically still propaganda, these paintings are not about glorifying soldiers' actions as much as they are an attempt at recording the soldiers' emotional states. This seems to be, at least in retrospect, the main benefit of this kind of 'documentation'; current official thinking about these works, as Laura Brandon of the Canadian War Museum puts it, is that "They may, in fact, represent an artistic truth and, in this sense, provide a more valuable record of the historical experience of the war than the field sketches." 2

At the time, however, the officers in charge of the Canadian War Records were looking for direct experience of combat rather than a reflection on its aftermath. Ironically, most of the artists did not actually go to the front, and their paintings are largely composed from field sketches of combat exercises or imagined battles. Miller Brittain was an exception to this; he was a bomb aimer in the Royal Air Force, and stayed on duty even after he was asked to become a War Artist. While his superiors were excited to have someone who could use combat experience in his art, Brittain was both traumatized by battle and more interested in the social experiences of his fellow soldiers; most of his work is of soldiers in the pub or barracks. He only made one painting that represents battle—Night Target, Germany (1946). It is a bizarre, haunting, and tremendously successful work, using both realist and abstract elements to give the viewer a sense of vertigo, destruction, and moonlit beauty, all at the same time. Tom Smart's overarching argument in When the Stars Threw Down Their Spears is that the formal elements of this painting—exploding bombs and straight shafts of searchlight—recur in all of Brittain's later work, which ranges from religious painting to surrealist-inspired landscapes and stylized 'everyman' figure compositions. Much of this work is, at first glance, too expressionistic and directly allegorical to interest a contemporary audience, but it does have a power that stems from a continued investigation and transformation of a singular image of beauty and destruction. Over the course of twenty years, Brittain's bombs trailing smoke become drooping flowers, a fitting image perhaps inherited from "In Flanders Fields", the seminal piece of Canadian War art.

The Full Palette is more of a biographical story, including details like Bobak's marriage to Molly Lamb, the first female Canadian War Artist, and how after the war they moved to Galiano Island off Vancouver, where they built a house out of their very salary—they worked for a logging company and were paid only in lumber. Bobak's style shifts radically over the course of his career, from brutal woodcuts to Turner-esque seascapes to bold, expressionistic figure paintings. It is in these figure paintings that his war is most readily apparent; his often contorted, elongated, tired bodies have the passion of something left unresolved.

Each of these books offers a comprehensive look at an artist who is less concerned with innovation than with communication. Both present fine portraits of artists who depicted the subjective experience of war, and who struggled to leave that experience behind them for the rest of their careers.

1 http://www.civilization.ca/cwm/artwar/essays/canada_worldwar2_art_program_e.html

2 ibid.

Click here to purchase Miller Brittain: When the Stars Threw Down Their Spears at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Click here to purchase Bruno Bobak: The Full Palette at your local independent bookstore
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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008

SLEEPING WITH BAD BOYS: A Juicy Tell-All of Literary New York in the 1950s and 1960s

Alice Denham
Cardoza Publishing ($14.95)

by Sharon Olinka

Alice Denham’s memoir is a genuinely subversive book that questions how we make flawed celebrities into authorities that determine literary standards. In elegant prose she describes how as an idealistic young writer in the 1950s she moves to New York to be a writer, and the heady freedom of parties, theater, and lovers (including James Dean) that ensues. Unfortunately she comes up against what Tillie Olsen in Silences called “the literary atmosphere that sets writers against one another, breeds the feeling that writers are in competition with each other. (In its extremist sense, Hemingway’s feeling that the measure of success would be ‘to knock Tolstoy out of the prize ring.’)”

Denham believes in something better, and more honorable. She believes, along with Olsen, that “literature is a place for generosity and affection, and hunger for equals—not a prize-fight ring.” This helps her endure Norman Mailer’s silly behavior, Philip Roth’s lechery, and the indifference of other writers, editors, and publishers who do not give her the respect she deserves. Denham does find help along the way, has her first novel published, and after many bitter misadventures and well-earned triumphs, becomes a founder of the feminist organization NOW in the 1970s.

It’s discernment that keeps Denham sane through all this—an ability to tell an unvarnished truth, and to poke gleeful fun at stupidity with a Swiftian cutting edge. No one escapes that scathing wit, even Denham herself. Her life is a testimony to how a woman’s talents could be falsely underestimated—see the chapter about her publication in Playboy—and how that same woman outlives the upheavals of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s to live a productive and fulfilled life as a writer. In Denham’s view, an emperor full of crap doesn’t deserve new clothes. She cautions us against further deception and we trust her voice, which gives counsel as well as pleasure.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008

SENSATIONAL MODERNISM: Experimental Fiction and Photography in Thirties America

Joseph B. Entin
University of North Carolina Press ($22.50)

by W. C. Bamberger

Joseph B. Entin begins his book on Depression-era fiction and photography by quoting from Pietro di Donato’s 1939 novel Christ in Concrete, where a character complains about the “transparent distant eye like policemen” with which the better-off view the poor. From there Entin proceeds to James Agee’s liberal-lashing comments in 1941’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: “This is a book… written for all those who have a soft place in their hearts for the laughter and tears inherent in poverty viewed at a distance.” Entin writes that these two statements are, respectively, critiques of naturalism and of sentimentalism, the default positions for social commentary in the early part of the 20th century. Sensational Modernism explores the artistic means di Donato, Agee, and others employed in hopes of derailing this social simplicity, which—whether they claimed to come from the right or the left—served to reinforce the power relations that helped (and still help) insure that the poor remain poor and distant, in more than one sense of the word.

Entin places these men within a “counter tradition” of left-leaning writers and photographers active during the Depression who used tabloid techniques as part of their aesthetic in an attempt to shock their readers into seeing the reality the traditional defaults obscured. (Other kinds of artists—such as the painter of teeming vertigo Reginald Marsh—are briefly mentioned in passing.) He does a good job of reshaping the concept of “sensational” to serve his end: joining to the cheap thrill aspect the overlooked but no less true idea that “sensationalism is a somatic discourse in the body and the sense, which emerged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to describe the philosophic theory that all knowledge stems from the immediacy of physical experience.” The combination of this emphasis on the physical, on shock tactics with self-consciously artistic forms, is what Entin calls “sensational modernism.”

To expand and support his premise, Entin offers analysis of the flux of social forces in the Depression era, and illustrates his points through both quoted texts and close analyses of photographs (many but not all of which are reproduced). But this is primarily concentrated in the introduction and first chapter. Latter chapters are much more in the line of standard literary or art criticism. Writers considered include Faulkner and Fitzgerald, Richard Wright and Tillie Olson, and William Carlos Williams. Entin identifies the distinction between tabloid and modernist uses of sensational effects as being largely a matter of self-consciousness (which is clearly an underlying element of Agee’s ironic comment above), of the writer or photographer using them to conscious artistic effect. Entin’s argument is convincing in regard to the writings, though this is largely because Williams’s or Wright’s use of sensational subject matter or language—an exaggerated emotional “dialect” used in much the same way dialect in dialogue might be used to frame a character’s circumstance—is much less shrill than the language to be found in the tabloids, even when they were trying to provoke the reader with invocations of the gruesome. Wright’s skill at affecting a flat narrative voice is very much in harmony with Entin’s idea.

Of all the writers considered here, however, it is Williams who comes off as the most interesting in how he manipulates the contradictions within his stories. Entin’s explication of Williams’s story “World’s End” turns text and characters from one side to another, allowing us to see the foundation of humanity that supports the lurid content. Discussing the character of the young girl who holds together a crumbling household, he writes:

What he finds attractive is her vigorousness, her hardiness, her apparent self-forwardness—and the fact that those qualities seem to give her the strength to withstand the doctor’s authority and challenge him with her steely gaze. The narrator counters her defiant nonchalance with his objectifying look, reasserting his male, professional prerogative through an aggressive fantasy of control in which he imaginatively strips her naked and assesses her body: “She had breasts you knew would be like small stones to the hand, good muscular arms and fine hard legs.” Stripping her bare allows him to typecast her . . . [to fit her] neatly within a familiar paradigm.

Entin’s unpacking of William’s “doctor stories” shows them to be at once genuinely caring yet steeped in the conservative brittleness of the traditional hierarchies of race, gender and class. His reading also reminds us that the “sensational” elements in them—the second-class status of female immigrants, a sexualized interest in the body of a young girl who has assumed the role of family leader—are still with us, and still difficult to face.

Most of the other writers come off as less rich. Fitzgerald especially is revealed as thin and obvious, and while Entin labors mightily to move Christ in Concrete out of the sentimentalist camp, the now-antiquated style works against the move: “mingled over the sweat of his stubble were the marine contents of his blood and brains that spread as quivering livery vomit” sounds more like first-draft Thomas Wolfe than like writing meant to awaken our conscience.

The work of the photographers—Weegee and Aaron Siskind—proves much more difficult to free from their long-standing positions in the naturalist and sentimentalist camps—though the photos often are both at once. The observation that Weegee’s use of blinding flashbulbs eliminates much of the mid-rage grays and so is reminiscent of German Expressionism typifies how Entin grapples with these strong, even iconic, images.

In the end, Entin is less successful in locking down a new sub-species of Modernism than he is in opening up works we may think we already know, and in prompting us to follow his trail of unfamiliar questions and so approach them from a new direction.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008

CHOICE: True Stories of Birth, Contraception, Infertility, Adoption, Single Parenthood, & Abortion

Edited by Karen E. Bender and Nina de Gramont
Macadam Cage ($15)

by Jessica Bennett

In the past year, three popular films dealt with stories of unplanned pregnancies. In Waitress, the woman is secretly planning to escape an unhealthy marriage; her pregnancy is an unpleasant surprise resulting from one night of acquiescing to her repugnant husband’s advances. In Knocked Up, the pregnancy comes of a drunken one-night stand between a successful, beautiful young woman and a slacker slob. And in the critical and box-office darling, Juno, the eponymous protagonist is a sassy high-schooler who finds herself pregnant after hooking up with a sweet, shy boy.

In each of these films, the women decide to carry their pregnancies to term. In none is the option of aborting the fetus given serious consideration. In the last of these, the abortion clinic is even treated as a sight gag, and Juno decides to carry the pregnancy to term, seemingly on a whim, upon hearing that her fetus has fingernails. Her emotional connection to the baby she carries to term is barely explored; when she meets with the baby’s potential adoptive parents, she blows off any rights she might have to be involved in the child’s life, saying that she wants to do it “old school” and simply hand the baby over and be done with it.

In reality, of course, pregnancy, abortion, childbirth, and motherhood are far more complex than even the most sensitive film can portray. This volume of twenty-four personal essays ambitiously tackles these subjects from a variety of perspectives, exploring as many different life choices and the consequences thereof as there are voices in the collection. In the introduction, the editors—both fiction writers—explain that they originally intended to collect stories exclusively about abortion. Upon sharing their own stories and the stories of people they knew, however, it became clear that a more comprehensive collection, one that addressed the myriad choices in women’s reproductive lives, could rise above the bumper-sticker polemics of the abortion debate.

The women here speak of the pains and joys of choosing motherhood or opting out; in becoming mothers naturally or through adoption; about pregnancies ending by difficult choice and by ruthless chance; of healthy babies, children with health challenges, and children tragically lost. It is not an easy grouping of stories to read. Even an emotionally distant reader would be hard pressed to tackle them all in one sitting. For the easily touched among us, whose own life experiences may resonate with some of those shared here, this collection is best consumed a story or two at a time, in sessions fortified by Kleenex and whiskey.

In such a wide-ranging anthology, both stylistically and subject-wise, something will connect with just about everyone; this means that you can pretty much count on a handful of the stories not being quite for you. Of course, it’s hard to fault the writing—even when it sounds tinny, forced, or artless—when the stories being conveyed are so deeply honest and painful. However, the quality of the writing is undeniably variable. When the prose is skillful, the combination of grief conveyed with deft craft is powerful. Consider co-editor Nina de Gramont, in “Water Children,” on the lasting pain of miscarriage, even once one has other children:

If by some macabre stroke of magic, I found out that my original child had not died. If through some inexplicable twist—the stuff of soap opera, science fiction, and daydreams—I discovered she had not died but lived, and now existed: somewhere out there, away from me.

I would go anywhere, I would do anything. To find her.

The handful of abortion stories here are sometimes harrowing and the choices described are never easy, but the book’s original intent—of exploring a woman’s primacy in making decisions regarding her own body—comes through, especially in the essays whose experiences occurred in the days before Roe v. Wade. These women who were denied safe choices, or any choices at all, convey chilling, almost Orwellian tales of covert journeys to unsanitary abortion providers and secret residencies in homes for unwed mothers. Even the more contemporary narratives reflect the shortcomings of our current system. Kimi Faxon Hemingway tells a horrifying story of her experience with RU-486, a drug that in France is administered in hospitals. In America, for a variety of reasons more political than medical, it is dispensed to women in a more do-it-yourself way, to sometimes disastrous, and even life-threatening, effect.

Thankfully, there are happy moments here—funny ones, too. And the collection ends with an unabashedly political essay by Francine Prose titled “The Raw Edges of Human Existence: The Language of Roe v. Wade.” The imagery of the story’s title is borrowed from Justice Blackmun’s own words in the majority opinion:

We forthwith acknowledge our awareness of the sensitive and emotional nature of the abortion controversy, of the vigorous opposing views, even among physicians, and of the deep and seemingly absolute convictions that the subject inspires. One's philosophy, one's experiences, one's exposure to the raw edges of human existence, one's religious training, one's attitudes toward life and family and their values, and the moral standards one establishes and seeks to observe, are all likely to influence and to color one's thinking and conclusions about abortion.

The phrase “raw edges of human existence” is almost poetic. As Prose puts it, “we immediately intuit the depth and sympathy with which it embraces the range of circumstances that might cause a woman on those raw edges to admit that she is unable to raise a child, as well as the pain and grief and regret that any of these situations and decisions might occasion.” This collection allows us a glance at some of these circumstances. The choice that these writers have made to share such personal stories reminds us of how essential it is to maintain a woman’s right to privacy, particularly over matters of such profound emotional gravity.

To return once more to Juno, her closest counterpart in Choice is Stephanie Andersen. As a junior in high school in 1997, Stephanie became pregnant. Unlike Juno, Stephanie initially wanted to keep her child. Late in her pregnancy, she decided to give the baby up for adoption, a decision she still regrets in spite of the college degrees that freedom from young motherhood allowed her to earn. The adoptive parents maintained contact over the years, and Stephanie now exchanges phone calls, emails, and gifts with her daughter, who is also someone else’s daughter. This situation is sad and beautiful and awkward, and doesn’t lend itself to a neat, happy ending. Don’t expect Hollywood to turn it into a movie any time soon.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008

JAVATREKKER: Dispatches from the World of Fair Trade Coffee

Dean Cycon
Chelsea Green Publishing ($19.95)

by Dakota Ryan

In an age of vanishing frontiers and looming globalization, modern pioneers cannot afford to wield the guns, germs and steel of their infamous antecedents. Instead, Dean Cycon argues, new explorers must be willing to plumb not only the so-called “dark” continents of Africa, South America and Indonesia, but also themselves, simultaneously discovering and disrobing to reveal the human element at the core of their search. Cycon’s chronicles traverse ten countries in nine chapters, tracking the consequences of conventional coffee trade from well-organized cartels in the Kenyan Highlands to disjointed family plots in Papua New Guinea.

As the owner of an organic coffee roaster in Massachusetts, the author’s curious encounters with careworn villagers generate tangible results both at home and abroad. Unlike the typical lawyer-turned-activist, however, Cycon writes in a down-to-earth, droll style, determined to forgo typical legislative inch-worming for an international grassroots assault. Brimming with élan vital, he wages war on the vast network of brains, beans, and bills that fuel New York’s Coffee Exchange, which ignores the increasingly inextricable fates of coffee drinkers and indigenous coffee farmers worldwide.

At times, the adventures read like science fiction, as our narrator basks both in the alien atmosphere and in his description of it. While trekking through Colombia’s Sierra Nevada, the self-proclaimed “Heart of the World,” for instance, he encounters the aboriginal Mamos, who ritually abduct young boys selected to receive the Earth’s wisdom in darkness. Then when his bad knee gives out on the trail, Cycon chews coca leaves, waxing poetic with the sudden burst of energy: “We were encompassed by surreal splashes of color. Long, drooping stamens awaited their dusting of pollen from the hummingbirds and bees that made the air vibrate. . . The forest was dotted with the deep green serrated leaves of healthy coffee plants, the branches drooping low under the heavy load of a ripening harvest.”

However, Cycon’s successive quests lack a definite narrative arc, each discrete excursion independent of its peers. While this may be expected, considering the chapters capture only fragments of an unfinished story, they do not always gibe as they should and sometimes border on redundant. Even more confusing are the author’s parenthetical detours, which devolve—especially in the rushed second half—into a tsunami of tongue-in-cheek quips, enclosed by smiles and frowns. Other risky tactics meet with more success, such as the assimilation of foreign words and phrases into conversation, though it is puzzling how little Cycon discusses translators, endowing his exchanges with an ambiguous lingua franca reminiscent of Star Wars’ English.

The blocks of italicized text after each chapter help offset the book’s minute missteps, grounding the audience in the recent developments of actual issues with Dragnet-like precision. While observing elections and farming practices in Guatemala City, Cycon plants a friendly kiss on Nobel Peace Laureate Rigoberta Menchu, who instructs him to “just keep your eyes on the voting, not on the women.” At the end of this section, some reflections in italics recast the country’s conflicts in hope and humor, bringing us full circle with his final punch line: “The national desire to integrate into the global economy draws more voters towards candidates promising jobs and money. Ex-combatants have settled down, many forming coffee cooperatives. . . Rigoberta may run for president of Guatemala, which shows how indigenous politics have continued to evolve and strengthen. She still won’t let me kiss her.

This politic fixation is echoed in later chapters as well, in which Cycon’s mission to assist beleaguered farmers is sidelined for the more general mission of helping victims of economic and cultural exploitation. In the pitch black, pouring rain, he frisbees packets of food toward a crowd numbering hundreds, waiting for “El Tren de Muerte—the Death Train” that will either carry them across the border to El Norte (America) or sever a limb with the careless cranking of steel wheels. After picking a fight with a Mara Salvatrucha, a member of the gang that roams the trainyard bankrupting emigrants, Cycon collaborates with the non-profit Polus Center to spearhead an outplacement program for the train’s victims. Likewise, after comparing a map of coffee fields to a map of mine fields, he steers Starbucks, Green Mountain, and the State Department into concert, developing “mine risk education” and funding the “Landmine Victims Trust.”

Cycon’s passionate belief in the power and productivity of organized groups is refreshing, and even unfamiliar at times, given Apathy’s apparent stranglehold on American culture and identity. By spinning a web of influence across business, law, activism, and agriculture, Dean and Dean’s Beans have led a revolution of unprecedented magnitude to redistribute the stolen wealth of the world’s coffee fields. Of course the bean itself is only a medium or metaphor for the greater struggle that will follow; it grows inside a cherry that must be chewed or beaten off before the true fermentation can begin.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008


The Movement of Earth's Kundalini and the Rise of Female Light, 1949–2013
Drunvalo Melchizedek
Weiser Books ($19.95)

A Shaman's Call to Personal Change: and the Transformation of Global  Consciousness
James Endredy
Llewellyn Worldwide (16.95)

The Return of Quetzalcoatl
Daniel Pinchbeck
Tarcher/Penguin ($14.95)

by Kelly Everding

Having survived the recent turn of the century without any disastrous end-of-the-world scenarios coming to fruition, and having slogged through the last seven years in a Big Brother-ish, post 9-11 world under the fog of war but still ticking, we may think we’re in the clear for the next hundred years. Well, think again. Another date looms in front of us, one writ long in ancient calendars that bespeaks a prophecy. Fortunately, this prophecy lacks the hell fire and apocalyptic metaphors we’ve all grown accustomed to. According to the Mayan calendar, on December 21, 2012, the world will end—at least the world as we know it—and this is a good thing. With the date only five years away, a slew of books have cropped up to explain why. Three in particular approach the Mayan prophecy of 2012 from unique perspectives that reveal the personal, internal aspect of this “end of the world”: a “child of the sixties” shaman; and a young ex-Catholic eco-activist, and a somewhat cynical New York journalist. Each approaches the impending transformation of personal and collective consciousness with honesty, sincerity, and candor.

Drunvalo Melchizedek, founder of the Flower of Life Workshops, explains in Serpent of Light that the Earth’s Kundalini has been on the move since the middle of the last century, en route from the Himalayas of Tibet to the Andes of Chile. Along the way, this serpentine energy met some obstacles due to the troubles and blockages in the world, but with the help of ceremonies performed at various ancient, indigenous sites, the Serpent of Light will make its new home in Chile. The Precession of the Equinox takes roughly 26,000 years—which the ancient Sumerian civilization calculated with amazing precision 6,000 years ago. “We have all heard that we are moving into the Age of Aquarius. This is true. On December 21, 2012, the axis of the Earth will be on the edge of this constellation, and, for the first time in 12,920 years, it will also be moving toward the center of the galaxy instead of away from it.” He goes on to point out that currently, the magnetic poles of the Earth are shifting and will soon reverse. The Earth’s magnetic field has “weakened sharply” in the last 500 years and has exhibited anomalies in the last four decades resulting in migratory birds losing their way and interference in airplane navigation. These documented changes, along with the general bad news of global warming, global warfare, and corporate greed, seem to point the way toward a big change—one we need whether we believe the prophecy or not.

With this in mind, Melchizedek proceeds to tell the story of travels he and others made in the last twenty years across the Americas and beyond, travels inspired by his guiding angels and his Egyptian scribe spirit Thoth. “They are true stories, though they may seem incredible by modern beliefs, and are given to you to inspire you to perceive the possibility of a beautiful future outside of the darkness cycle that seems to be invading this world.” Melchizedek speaks from a very intimate and personal point of view, as he relies on meditation and communication with these guiding principles in this life, and the travels he embarks on become internal journeys too, although they are shared with many people who have the same purpose. And so, speaking of the healing and integration ceremonies he and others performed at key locations, Melchizedek speaks to our imagination. Visiting the ancient sites of indigenous peoples like the Mayans, the Incas, the Anasazi, and the Maori, are necessary stations in healing the Unity Consciousness Grid so that the Serpent of Light may perform its duties at the appointed time. Melchizedek claims that this new age will mark the ascension of feminine energy over male, resulting in a healthy integration of the two. Once the Unity Consciousness Grid is fixed and whole, the Serpent of Light can guide humanity toward a change in consciousness, “or a change in how one interprets the One Reality.” Melchizedek has worked toward this healing for nearly forty years, in preparation for this much-needed change that may come just in time to save us from ourselves.

* * *

James Endredy’s book Beyond 2012 approaches the prophecy from his own life journey toward eco-shamanism, trying to re-integrate the sacred, natural world into our consumerist/corporate 21st-century lives through ceremony and spiritual alliances with the sentient forces of nature. A previous book, Ecoshamanism: Sacred Practices of Unity, Power, and Earth Healing, also delves into this practice, building on Endredy’s study of shamanic practices from different cultures for the past twenty-five years. Endredy structures Beyond 2012 with meditative conversations he has with the Kakaiyeri, a Wirrarika indian term for “deities and spirits of nature.” In particular, he communicates with Grandfather Fire (Tataiwari) and Grandmother Growth (Nakawé), who guide and encourage him as he seeks answers to questions about the changing world and the need for a collective consciousness change in its people before they destroy it.

Endredy’s work is also a practical guide: he walks the reader through a short history of prophecy from many religions to put the Mayan prophecy into perspective, and spells out the many natural and man-made crises that could speed along the destruction of our fragile world. Seen together, the accumulative evidence of the many natural disasters that have struck us in the recent past (devastating tsunamis, floods and droughts, earthquakes and mudslides, and not to mention possible threats from near-earth objects) is enough to make anyone believe we are at the end-times. But on top of all this, Endredy lists the horrors we have inflicted on our planet in the name of progress, greed, and expediency: global warming, warfare, pollution, and the rise of drug-resistant bacterias. As Grandfather Fire says, “You are out of balance with creation.” In order to get back into balance, we need to awaken our Luminous Self, a state of consciousness that unites us with nature and other people. This awakening is not without its painful aspects, as we must face our own selfish behaviors and failures as well as the horrors we have afflicted upon others, but it is a necessary step in healing our broken world. Endredy provides instruction in how to connect again with nature, advising us to align our sense of time and time-keeping spiritually with the earth rather than the arbitrary business calendar and deadlines that drive us to go faster and faster until we kill ourselves with stress. The Mayans had both a civil calendar and a sacred calendar to balance out their lives, and Endredy provides a suggestion for a twenty-day calendar that would work in tandem with the standard Gregorian one we use today, listing the names for each day and what each one signifies and requires. He also provides information on creating altars and other sacred spaces as well as a practical guide for “living through the Luminous Self.” Beyond 2012 offers a new way to see our selves and how we fit into the world. Especially moving are the conversations between this humble human and the wise spirits of the earth, which provide a powerful, more organic way into discovery and awakening. “As much as you can, in every moment, walk the earth as a little sun,” says Grandfather Fire.

* * *

In 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl, Daniel Pinchbeck approaches the subject of the prophecy with a journalist’s eye, tempering an open-mindedness and willingness to believe with a New Yorker’s skepticism. As he says in his introduction, “I find it very strange —yet strangely familiar—to be making this investigation. I grew up a secular atheist in Manhattan. As a journalist in my twenties, I drank to excess at cocktail parties and wrote magazine profiles of celebrities, shoe designers, and artists. I never imagined I would recover a mythic dimension to existence.” His cynicism melts away as he opens himself to new experiences of consciousness. He goes on to say:

Often I have felt less like a person than a convenient intersection for ideas to meet and mesh, a magnet or strange attractor, compelled or fated—perhaps tragically misguided—to draw together Jungian psychology, quantum paradox, Frankfurt School critique, anthroposophy, and Mayan mythology with explorations of such seemingly outré subjects as crop circles, alien abductions, Amazonian shamanism, and the end of time. Whatever the fate of this work, I feel grateful—as well as humbled—to have received the chance to explore such awesome mysteries.

And so the book opens up as part-memoir, part-exploration into the murky subjective world of consciousness, reinforcing the idea that these metaphysical journeys cannot be severed from personal experience. Pinchbeck is extremely candid about his upbringing, his love life, and his struggles in maintaining relationships, and these intimate moments of realization rise up here and there as he probes the boundaries of belief. Still, his book is the most intensive and “objective” look at different phenomena which rely on deeply internal moments of perception, moments that expand consciousness and open up new ways of seeing the world and our selves. Be it through herbal (McKenna’s mushroom-consciousness and other psychedelic plants), extra-terrestrial (crop circle hunts and alien abduction scenarios), or ceremonial (Mayan rituals involving song, dance, and meditation) means, Pinchbeck re-orients these practices as part of a movement toward a massive consciousness shift that is also involved in the ascension of the female energy. “Women are seeking to evolve to a higher state of consciousness, a deeper realization, of their creative and erotic nature, but this can take place only if it is accompanied by an equally profound shift in the masculine psyche, from brutality and control to patience and mastery.” Pinchbeck eloquently juggles all of this mind-boggling and sometimes conflicting information as he weaves his own personal journey of discovery, taking part in ceremonies and attempting to break down the cynical and negative barriers we’ve all built up as a species over thousands of years.

While the female spirit or energy is supposedly in the ascension, it’s interesting that most spiritual leaders are men, at least the ones who write the books and lead the seminars and speak from the pulpits. That said, at least we do have a viable woman candidate running for president, and Oprah is a powerful conduit for information to the nation’s women, no matter what you think of her. Even so, five years doesn’t seem long enough to change everyone’s mind; it might take some catastrophic and painful change to turn around the greed-driven compulsions of corporations and governments. To overturn the disastrous effects of environmental neglect, the ravages of poverty and starvation, the ruinous state of healthcare, the addiction to oil, and the raping of our natural resources will require a big fight to oust the powers-that-be that feed off the continuation of the status quo. There must be a tipping point, a massive shift in global consciousness—but the world certainly cannot survive without it.

Click here to purchase Serpent of Light at your local independent bookstore
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Click here to purchase Beyond 2012 at your local independent bookstore
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Click here to purchase 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl at your local independent bookstore
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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008


Gary Westfahl
McFarland & Company, Inc. ($35)

by Ryder W. Miller

Gary Westfahl, a Pilgrim Award-winning science fiction scholar, here commemorates Hugo Gernsback, the writer and magazine editor recognized by many as the founder of science fiction. Westfahl does honor some of Gernsback’s literary forebears, especially Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, but he credits Gernsback with setting the modern science fiction phenomena in motion, claiming it was “Gernsback’s ability to forcefully communicate his ideas, and to elicit a strong response to those ideas, that most clearly separates him from all his predecessors.”

Gernsback (1884-1967), who self-published his stories and articles in magazines such as Science and Invention and Amazing Stories, began serializing his novel Ralph 124C 41+: A Romance of the Year 2660 (currently in print from Bison Books in their Frontiers of Imagination series) in 1911. Westfahl regards the book, which he admits that “No one could say… is a good novel,” as the “foundation of science fiction,“ but pointlessly derides the author numerous times (e.g., “Needless to say, Gernsback is no Faulkner”). He usefully suggests, however, that Gernsback’s very role as publisher, editor, and science fiction proselytizer may have been what held his writing back: “If he had been a struggling writer striving to sell science fiction stories to pulp magazines, he surely would have learned to pay more attention to developing his characters and keeping them involved in exciting situations and less attention to scientific discussions.”

Hugo Gernsback and the Century of Science Fiction is at times dry, academic in tone, and repetitive because it collects essays and articles Westfahl wrote for scholarly publications. Westfahl does write with confidence and precision, but the work lacks drama; particularly painful is the analysis of the many variant editions of Ralph 124C 41+. Still, here recounted is one of the central storylines of the history of science fiction. One can easily gather why a major science fiction award, “The Hugo,” was named after Gernsback, who succeeded in getting his message to the masses.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008