Tag Archives: Spring 2012

THE PRODUCTIVE WRITER: Tips & Tools to Help You Write More, Stress Less & Create Success

Sage Cohen
Writers Digest Books ($16.99)

by Marj Hahne

Thank the writing gods that Sage Cohen “compensated for insecurity by being overprepared.” Her second guide for writers, The Productive Writer: Tips & Tools to Help You Write More, Stress Less & Create Success, is generous, comprehensive, pragmatic, and optimistic—and departs from its kin by saying things we haven’t already read or heard a gazillion times.

Think like a dog. Honor thy day job. Practice makes perfect possible. Avoid wardrobe malfunctions. Don’t be prissy, be prepared. Cohen’s fresh articulations come from a writer’s life lived honestly, unromantically. She knows that “we are training ourselves in the samurai sport of cosmic butterfly catching” at the same time that “writing is just another thing that we writers do.”

Two notions that will particularly hit home for undisciplined writers with no patience for their own bad writing are (1) the reward of finishing versus the reward of figuring and (2) lowering expectations as a productivity strategy. Both align with what Cohen posits may be our writer’s goal: “To feel friendly with the words that come and the words that have yet to come. To let them know they are welcome here.”

The Productive Writer serves business and creative writers alike, with nuts-and-bolts chapters on platform, time management, information organization, presentation, and promotion. Cohen proposes that we discard the long-glorified archetype of the Suffering Writer or the Starving Artist, and embrace a new paradigm: “The Productive Writer who cultivates his being such that he becomes hospitable to a sustainable life and writing practice that is attuned to possibility and hard-wired for prosperity.”

I’ll write to that. In fact, I wanted to raise my pen to Cohen on nearly every page. Because she knows what she’s talking about, she doesn’t set us up for failure with “sounds good” abstractions and platitudes. You only need to see what’s in front of you. Find new ways to pay yourself first. Build wasted time into your schedule. Get buy-in from your family. Woo your computer.

Cohen is so committed to our practical success that she gives away seemingly everything she’s learned in her twenty years of producing both poetry and marketing copy. To facilitate the here-now applicability of its many tools and tips, The Productive Writer provides worksheets, checklists, and examples either within its pages [20+] or as links to downloads [11]. This book is so satisfying, so affirming in its scope, because it addresses writing as the whole-person, mind/body/spirit endeavor we know it to be—especially from the trenches of the empty chair and the blank page.

Send a thank-you note to everyone who purchased something from you. This may be my favorite tip in the entire book. Cohen reminds us throughout The Productive Writer that the writing life is also about gratitude and relationships—with others, with yourself, and with the writing itself—and that “when we let love lead, our lives and our work become far less confusing.”

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012

HOW TO READ THE QUR’AN: A New Guide, with Select Translations

Carl W. Ernst
University of North Carolina Press ($30)

by Spencer Dew

Approaching the Qur’an “like any other writing”—i.e., as a human work rooted in history, rather than as divine revelation, an eternal “aesthetic miracle” which can thus never be translated—Carl W. Ernst applies the sort of academic, non-confessional reading that has long been standard for academic study of the Jewish and Christian scriptures to the Qur’an. Muslim claims to the text’s divine status are one reason for this lack of literary historical reading of the Qur’an, but Ernst traces out a history of non-Muslim dismissal of the text, as well. There will surely be those, both Muslim and non-Muslim, who reject the notion that one can read the Qur’an “without being required to either accept or reject its authority as a divine message,” but these parties are also likely to reject the idea of the academic study of religion in general. Ernst, on the other hand, carefully argues that his “nontheological reading is not meant to be an antireligious rejection of the divine status of the Qur’an as accepted by Muslims. Rather, it brackets out the question of religious authority as something outside of the scope of the present inquiry.”

Put simply, Ernst encourages us to read the Qur’an closely for “its style and structure, its reference to earlier literary productions, and its historical contexts, including its initial audience.” Readers in this mode should eschew imposing contemporary categories or theological notions back onto the seventh-century text, resist reading the text in the light of later Islamic theology, practice, and history. This, then, is the “How To Read” of the title—Ernst’s book lays out theory, justification, and method, with ample examples, for an approach which, again, has long been taken for granted in the academic study of Jewish and Christian sacred texts. Just as those texts are, in the academy, “not studied today primarily through the authoritative interpretations found in Midrashic commentaries or the writings of the Church Fathers, but as literary texts that emerged in particular historical contexts,” so Ernst wants to articulate an approach to the Qur’an that frees the text from its layers of interpretation within the Islamic community. Such “nontheological” academic work has long provided Jewish and Christian religious communities with a source of both fascination and explicitly theological readings. Ernst is quite open to the fact that this book will be of interest and use not only to scholars and students and curious non-Muslims, but also to mosque reading groups and individual Muslims eager to experience a text they take to be God’s direct revelation in a fresh light.

While Ernst has no interest in what he terms “the trite category of ‘influence’—i.e., arguments, often in the past polemic and anti-Islamic, that Christian and Jewish or other traditions influenced the text of the Qur’an—he is invested in parsing out “the connections that the Qur’an has with other cultural traditions.” He insists that just as non-Muslims need to drop the facile notion of “influence,” Muslim scholars should not respond to such comparisons with “defensiveness.” The text of the Qur’an offers evidence for, among other things, “detailed acquaintance with the ritual performance of Christian worship service, in the form of the Magnificat and Benedictus biblical songs that are quoted and revised in suras 3 and 5.” Parsing out allusions to biblical texts, Ernst shows that “the Qur’an demonstrates detailed knowledge of the way that the Gospels reinterpret earlier biblical texts, but it takes an independent position in reevaluating the Old and New Testaments and its relation to both.” Christians constituted an important audience for the Qur’an, as did the wider citizenry of Mecca, whom the text indicates to be cosmopolitan and “relatively sophisticated” in their acquaintance with religious ideas. Comparison is also useful, Ernst suggests, in making sense out of aspects of the text that might otherwise read as contradictory. Considering parallel arrangements in the gospels and certain Near Eastern texts, Ernst explains how seemingly contradictory statements flag relationships between values and function rhetorically for readers or hearers.

Ernst’s attention to form—ring structure, parallelism, intertextuality—helps elucidate the rhetorical power of the Qur’an. He shows how the text repeats key terms, as with the notion of “burning” in sura 74, and accentuates emotion, as when images of heaven and hell are paired, with “the virtuous and the sinner reflecting aloud on the good or evil deeds that brought them to this final moment.” To introduce his readers to the fruits of recent scholarship “without the jargon and overly technical language” of such studies, Ernst walks readers through the relations of such findings to given samples of text. His annotated translations, marking examples of parallelism and emphasis and intertextual reference, make echoes and evocations visible, showcasing the value of an attentive literary analysis. Ernst likewise explains the visceral effects of Qur’anic poetics and Qur’anic recitation, and how those techniques relate to the message—as when, for instance, “the impression of a violent desert raid” emerges from both imagery and rhythm, “giving a gripping sense of impending doom to the promised judgment in the afterlife.”

Muslim, non-Muslim, religious, and irreligious readers will all find in the Qur’an, as Ernst presents it here, something of interest. This is a groundbreaking and essential book, surely to be of interest and use in mosque study groups and intellectually minded book clubs as well as classrooms. An appendix on “Suggested Interpretive Exercises” will serve all such audiences well. While resolutely “nontheological,” Ernst’s attentive and clear-eyed engagement with this profoundly important book is explicitly ethical; his project here echoes those Qur’anic “declarations that unmistakably propose a vision of religious pluralism as part of God’s plan,” offering a rewarding glimpse into the history and literary power of one of the world’s most important texts.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012

THE GOLDEN-BRISTLED BOAR: Last Ferocious Beast of the Forest

Jeffrey Greene
University of Virginia Press ($22.95)

by Linda Lappin

On a mild winter afternoon, a friend and I are returning at dusk from a walk in the country outlying a village in central Italy. The road skirts the rim of a gorge separating us from the village. To the left rises a tall ridge, behind which fields and oak groves stretch on for miles to thickly wooded slopes. Preceding me by a few yards, my companion has just disappeared around the bend when a thundering of hooves and a tearing of branches bursts down upon us from over the ridge.

Alarmed, I step up my pace to see what’s causing the ruckus, and coming round the curve, am just in time to see a huge black shape leap from the road and hurtle down into the gorge. I stop dead in my tracks, dazed by this vision that has left a feral tang in the air. All I saw was a blur, but my friend has seen—and almost collided with—a wild boar on the gallop.

These incursions of the wild and archaic into our 21st-century lives are at the heart of The Golden-Bristled Boar, part nature study, cultural enquiry, and personal history by award-winning poet Jeffrey Greene, an American expatriate who lives in France. Greene’s delightful first memoir, French Spirits (Harper Perennial, 2003), told the story of how he came to buy and restore a very unusual home: an 18th-century presbytery in rural Burgundy. In this new book, he sets out to explore in-depth just one aspect of La France Profonde where he makes his home: a passion for wild boars, a “tribe” that shares his territory, flourishing “in implausible obscurity, given its size, numbers, and vast distribution,” emissaries of the wild on a “continent devoid of wilderness.”

It all begins when a neighbor gives Greene and his wife, Mary, a chunk of wild boar meat that sends them on a search for recipes. Although well aware of the presence of boars in the woods surrounding his village and their use in rustic cuisine, Greene knew very little about the living animal from which this piece of flesh had come. Soon insomniac nights find him rising from his bed, throwing a coat over his pajamas, and driving out to isolated areas where he crouches in damp thickets for hours, waiting to spot a pack of boars, known in French as a compagnie. Through this unusual occupation he learns “a pleasant Zen-like way out of self-absorption into the act of noticing.” His newfound passion, or perhaps obsession, is shared by Mary who joins him in this ritual act of attention, hoping to glimpse a few cuddly piglets or a solitary adult frolicking in mud under the moon.

Greene’s pursuit of boars takes him from France to Tuscany, Sardinia, Corsica, and the American south, where he seeks to investigate their anatomy and habits, their presence in art and mythology, and their use in haute cuisine. He talks to naturalists, researchers, hunters, chefs, museum curators. Among the many characters whom he meets on his quest are a local nature artist and an autodidact historian of local lore, whose homes are shrines to the genius loci, cluttered with boar skulls, fossils, artifacts, signs of the human and animal presences inscribed in the land. Modern geographers would call this collecting of local artifacts deep mapping: the assembling of all information available about a small square of territory. Deep maps lay bare the soul of a place by revealing the stratifications of its natural and cultural history, charting the lives, natural cycles, and stories intersecting there. In a way, The Golden-Bristled Boar, along with Greene’s entire oeuvre, is an act intent on deep mapping his adopted home.

Like creatures from a netherworld mirror-imaging our own, boars sleep during the day in barrows hidden in the underbrush, venturing out at twilight to reclaim our woods, fields, and lawns. Boar society is matriarchal: the oldest sow leads the pack. Adult males roam the woods alone, or sometimes with a young male friend. People and boars don’t mix easily except in circumstances perilous to both—on the hunting ground usually, or the highway, where they can cause dreadful accidents. And as legend claims since Adonis bled to death after being gored in the thigh, it can be very, very dangerous to confront an adult boar. Greene explains the physiological reason for that: it has to do with the curvature of their tusks, once described by poet Robinson Jeffers as “long, naked knives in their jaw.” Animals, said James Hillman, teach us about ourselves. They appear in our oldest myths and in our dreams as wily tricksters, revered enemies, images of beauty and power. We recognize our own instincts in their behavior; they remind us of what it meant to be at one with our environment. In more primitive societies, Greene’s fascination for boars might have been interpreted as an undeniable sign that he had found—and been recognized by—his totem.

Near the end of the book, Greene meets his totem eye to eye in a thrilling encounter of mythic resonance recounted in luscious prose: “I had blundered rudely into a boar’s lair. In a moment, a veering beast and startled man met at the threshold of darkness and inner shock. Suddenly nothing was neutral, not the black trees, frigid lake, or sentient moon. We had almost touched.” This book is really about the ways in which fragments of our environment splinter off into our imagination where like seeds they may grow into myths, dreams, poems, or passions connecting us to matrix from which they sprang. Jeffrey Greene urges us to take the time to investigate our living space where our own totems are surely hiding, waiting to be recognized if only we too can learn to temper our self- absorption with a little patience.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012


Why People Reject Religion
Phil Zuckerman
Oxford University Press ($24.95)

Buddhism Naturalized
Owen Flanagan
MIT Press ($27.95)

by Scott F. Parker

The secular minority in America has grown to its all-time highest proportion of the population: 15%. Small as this number sounds, it’s roughly double what it was twenty years ago. Statistics like these, and facts like Barack Obama’s thought to include “nonbelievers” in his inaugural address, sent Phil Zuckerman off to investigate why our country—among the most religious in the West—is losing some of its religion.

A sociologist, Zuckerman pursued this question by conducting eighty-seven formal interviews with self-identifying apostates. These subjects span a wide range of ages, ethnicities, education levels, and religions abandoned, but they skew in the direction of white, ex-Protestant Californians aged twenty to sixty. Because Zuckerman’s method is inductive, the reader should keep the demographics of his samples in the back of her mind. The front of her mind, however, should be left for the stories of the apostates, which are the highlights of the book.

Zuckerman presents a classification system of different types of apostasy, and he organizes his chapters around recurring themes, but he leaves the apostates plenty of room to tell their own stories in large chunks of transcribed text. As a general rule, people who have made intentional decisions are more articulate about their conclusions than those who come across their positions accidentally. Unlike people who are conveniently born into their preferred religious (or secular) environments, apostates—often at the cost of friends and family, and despite social pressure and personal inertia—have ruptured a major part of their self-identity, and they tend to be pretty good at saying why.

One of the things to notice in the self-reporting in Faith No More is the humility of the subjects. For example, Stanley, a former minister-in-training, is entirely un-dogmatic in talking about religion:

I would say I’m definitely not a religious person, but . . . I don’t feel that I need to call myself an atheist really, because to me that feels like I have something I’ve got to prove. . . . So to me, I guess I could maybe say that I feel there’s a part of me that could be spiritual, but I don’t like that term because it’s connected with religion. I guess in the end, I would say I know there’s aspects of my experience that I cannot explain through logic and reason and I just kind of leave it at that.

Having sacrificed religious certainty, Stanley embraces his limited understanding. But such acceptance doesn’t come easily for all. Another apostate, Trent, laments the sense of purpose he lost with religion: “I still don’t necessarily have a clear sense of purpose for my life. Which is something that I miss. Because it just feels so much more secure, like: ‘I KNOW why I’m here. . . . I KNOW my goals.’ Like, I don’t really have that anymore.”

Developing or locating a workable worldview for oneself is a fundamental human responsibility, and one that is perhaps felt most acutely by apostates. It’s just such a worldview that Owen Flanagan presents in The Bodhisattva’s Brain—a naturalized Buddhism that is workable in the age of neuroscience and compatible with empirical research—writing that “Buddhism being intellectually deep, morally and spiritually serious but nontheistic and nondoctrinal . . . may sit well poised to be an attractor for the spiritually inclined naturalist.” Flanagan, who is “allergic to hocus pocus,” gives a version of Buddhism stripped of all supernatural elements that he thinks is among the best approaches our species has yet developed in response to the challenge of finding meaning and flourishing in this world.

Imagine Buddhism without rebirth and without a karmic system that guarantees justice ultimately will be served, without nirvana, without bodhisattvas flying on lotus leaves, without Buddha worlds, without nonphysical states of mind, without any deities, without heaven and hell realms, without oracles, and without lamas who are reincarnations of lamas. What would be left? My answer is that what would remain would be an interesting and defensible philosophical theory with a metaphysics . . . an epistemology . . . and an ethics.

Eschewing anything that can’t be empirically verified or at least defended, Flanagan is left with a non-religious Buddhism that serves many religious functions: describing an intellectual/metaphysical orientation, establishing a mutually supportive community, and providing a moral framework for adherents. But Flanagan doesn’t offer these functions as their own defenses; rather, he appeals to the way the world is—his naturalized Buddhism can be held only provisionally insofar as it is true. Flanagan attributes the claim “that Buddhism should not commit itself to any beliefs that are not also scientifically credible” to the Dalai Lama himself. In defending his take on Buddhism, then, it’s worth Flanagan’s time to spend some energy demonstrating how the metaphysics that will be foreign to some readers is not incompatible with science. This includes thorough explication of dependent origination—“everything that happens depends on other things happening”—and anatman—the rejection of an essential self that follows from dependent origination.

Flanagan’s attention to metaphysics demonstrates the care he takes to avoid the common Western reduction of Buddhism to certain extractable features. Meditation, for example, is a practice that can be taken out of context and used toward various ends, but Flanagan is interested in Buddhism as a single coherent system that utilizes meditation to confirm metaphysical claims about the nature of the (non-)self (anatman) and cultivate correct ethical and epistemological views. And the purpose of all this? To achieve Buddhist-defined flourishing, which “comes, if it does come, from practices that aim at enlightenment / wisdom and virtue / goodness via meditation.” All of which serves “to direct our natural urge to happiness to the right sort of happiness and then to work with reliable methods to achieve it.”

Yes, happiness of the right sort. Buddhism defines happiness according to Buddhist values, which tautology it attempts to avoid through the claim that the values follow from the metaphysics. Flanagan himself isn’t sure this follows (in particular he’s unconvinced that anatman should necessarily lead to selflessness rather than hedonism), and it remains an open question whether one must fully comprehend the ins and outs of Buddhist philosophy to practice it, but The Bodhisattva’s Brain gives a careful and deliberate analysis of these issues.

Flanagan’s book is a fairly dense example of analytic philosophy, and the reader looking for a friendly introduction to Buddhism is advised to look elsewhere. But those interested in the effort to construct meaning from the secularized stuff of experience will find a sincere effort and helpful model in Flanagan’s Buddhism. Demonstrating the Buddhist concept of upaya—adapting one’s approach to suit particular circumstances—Flanagan gives us a Buddhism compatible with our scientific understanding of the universe that affords one of our best opportunities to cultivate human flourishing today.

Click here to purchase Faith No More at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Click here to purchase The Bodhisattva's Brain at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012

BEAT ATLAS: A State-by-State Guide to the Beat Generation in America

Bill Morgan
City Lights Books ($15.95)

by Graziano Krätli

We, who have seen the best minds of our generation drained by dullness, craving celebrity scandals, deluding themselves with best-selling fixes, inspirational guides, and other coffee-table grounds; we common educated readers, rubbish-resistant and reluctant to praise, yet always ready to recognize talent (or at least genuine effort), we may look at this little treat of a book, smartly designed and handsomely elongated to fit smugly in a pouch or pocket, and expect more than its format suggests. Some readers, in fact, may get confused or frustrated by the way in which biographical details are chopped off and scattered all over the map, in a kaleidoscope of inconsequential and occasionally repetitive fragments. (The index helps to identify and reconstruct the narrative, yet it does so in a topographical rather than chronological order.) The emphasis on topography should further remind readers that Beat Atlas is a reference book, and as such is meant to be consulted, not read cover to cover. (No reference book is anyway, let alone one that aims to document the peripatetic writers of an entire generation).

In fact, while contributing to the Beat canon, the Atlas also belongs to a sub-genre of reference works such as Ehrlich and Carruth’s Oxford Illustrated Literary Guide to the United States or its northern counterpart, Albert & Theresa Moritz’s Oxford Illustrated Literary Guide to Canada, as well as more geographically or historically specific works like Miriam Levine’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England (1984), Noëlle B. Beatty’s brahmanic Literary Byways of Boston & Cambridge (1991), and scores of other topographically-minded titles. What distinguishes Beat Atlas from such guides, though, is its focus on a literary generation rather than geography.

Following in the steps of his two previous guidebooks, The Beat Generation in New York (1997) and The Beat Generation in San Francisco (2003), renowned Beatologist Bill Morgan takes the reader on the road and in all fifty states, starting in the working district in Lowell, Massachusetts, where Jack Kerouac was born, and ending in a Tibetan hermitage in the rain forest of Hawaii, whose natural surroundings, not to mention the crescent- and star-shaped windows, inspired the poet Michael McClure. In between stops include big cities and small towns alike; but also national parks, wilderness areas, mountain peaks, lookouts, and the Arctic Ocean. The latter provides a lesser-known glimpse of Allen Ginsberg as a young merchant marine, passing through the Bering Strait in July 1956, “on a freighter that supplied the DEW (Distant Early Warning) line along the northern coast of Alaska.”

Sketching a literary topography of the country inhabited and crisscrossed by the Beats during the coldest and direst years of the Cold War (as the DEW detail reminds us), the Atlas defines a geographic and cultural space which is far removed from our own, yet which sometimes feels strangely, even grotesquely, familiar. This is the space where major and incidental figures were born and grew up; went to school (or, more often, dropped out of it); enlisted in the armed forces or sought temporary employment, only to find themselves unfit for either; married, divorced, remarried, re-divorced; committed crimes from the pettiest to the most serious, and were arrested, imprisoned, bailed out; drank and took drugs, and were treated for mental conditions; wrote, published, read their work, lectured and taught; campaigned and protested against the dirty secrets and lies of their time; and eventually died—prematurely for the most part, and occasionally tragically, but almost always sadly. The multitude of domestic and institutional addresses depict a social and existential landscape defined by unrest, displacement, alienation, sorrow, paranoia, and violent and self-destructive behaviors. Not surprisingly, psychiatric hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and correctional institutions figure as often as schools, colleges, and academic libraries, although some of the latter house major collections of Beat-related materials—poetry in particular.

Much of the Beat Generation’s appeal lies in its anecdotal substrate, rather than in its strictly literary output. This inevitably results in the inclusion of ancillary figures whose relationship to the Beats was ephemeral, instrumental, or outright tragic. A number of entries document David Kammerer’s homoerotic pursuit of Lucien Carr throughout the country, until Carr murdered him in Manhattan’s Riverside Park in 1944 (an event that the present guide does not cover, focusing instead on Kerouac’s incarceration in the Bronx County Jail as a material witness). In keeping with the male-dominated world of the Beats, the women within Beat Atlas are often married, divorced, abandoned, or murderded rather than truly and fully acknowledged for their literary or artistic achievements. For instance, both Billy Burroughs Jr. (William S. Burrough’s only son) and Jan Kerouac (Jack’s only child, whom he refused to acknowledge) followed in their fathers’ steps: leading vagabond lives, fighting drug and alcohol addiction, and managing to publish a couple of novels each before dying at earlier ages than their more famous parents (Billy at 33, Jan at 44). Jan, however, receives significantly less attention than Billy in the book, something that is reflected in the (not always reliable) index. More balanced is the extent to which Morgan documents the Beats’ intersections and interactions with other literary groups and figures. In addition to Ezra Pound’s and Walt Whitman’s birth places, the Atlas includes entries for some major poets associated with Black Mountain College (Robert Creeley, Ed Dorn, Charles Olson), the San Francisco Renaissance (Robert Duncan, Madeline Gleason, Kenneth Rexroth, Jack Spicer), and the New York School (John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler), as well as composer Philip Glass (who introduced Ginsberg to his own Buddhist teacher, and whose opera Hydrogen Jukebox put some of Ginsberg’s poems to music), the publishers James Laughlin (of New Directions), Barney Rosset (the owner of Grove Press and founder of the Evergreen Review), the writers Hubert Selby Jr. and Charles Bukowski, and the musicians Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.

How many of the locales described in Beat Atlas will actually become travel destinations is difficult to say, and this is perhaps the main difference between this and Morgan’s two previous guidebooks. It is easier, in fact, to pack The Beat Generation in New York or The Beat Generation in San Francisco when travelling to either of these cities than it is to plan a trip based on this fragmentary topography. Nevertheless, the book’s value somehow exceeds its practical purpose as a travel guide, and therefore it should not come as a surprise if readers are inspired to visit their local library rather than to hit the road. But it is difficult to imagine a line of Beat aficionados forming outside the St. Mary’s Cemetery in Appleton, Wisconsin, where in February 1968, after giving a reading with the satirical rock band The Fugs, Allen Ginsberg and fellow poets Tuli Kupferberg, Ed Sanders, and Ken Weaver “performed an exorcism at the grave of Senator Joseph McCarthy”; or a couple of college seniors planning a field trip to the minimum-security prison in San Luis Obispo in which Timothy Leary was serving a twenty-year sentence on drug-related charges when, in September 1970, he managed to escape. With the help of the Weather Underground, Leary and his wife fled to Algeria, then to Switzerland, Vienna, and Beirut, eventually landing in Kabul two years later.

This and other experiences, explorations, and expatriations to foreign countries (Mexico, of course, but also Europe, North Africa, South America, India, and Japan) seem to prefigure the next title in the series. Readers who want to know more about Leary’s années de pèlerinage, or the European career of the Harvard-educated poet Alan Ansen after he helped edit William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch manuscript in Morocco, or who wonder whatever happened to (Elizabeth) Hope Savage, “Gregory Corso’s first great love affair,” after she “moved to India and lived a vagabond life,” stumbling upon Ginsberg on the streets of Calcutta in 1963, only to disappear “again into the crowds,” might have to wait another seven or eight years. And while doing so, these readers will have ample time to ponder Beat Atlas’s few minor flaws, namely the occasional typo (such as Bering Straight instead of Strait), the inadequate index (Gabrielle Kerouac, for example, figures in many more pages than the two that are listed), and at least one misattribution: both Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen graduated from Reed College, in Portland, Oregon, in June 1951; but it was the former, not the latter, who presented a senior thesis “titled ‘The Dimensions of a Haida Myth.’” The text’s full title is He Who Hunted Birds in His Father’s Village: The Dimensions of a Haida Myth, and it was eventually published by Don Allen of Grey Fox Press in 1979, reprinted in 1991, and reissued by Counterpoint in 2007. An awkward slip, given Morgan’s vast expertise on the subject, but one which readers will be willing to forgive.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012


Edited by Leah Price
Yale University Press ($20)

by Jeff Bursey

In the second title of Yale’s Unpacking My Library series, Leah Price interviews Alison Bechdel, Stephen Carter, Junot Díaz, Rebecca Goldstein and Stephen Pinker, Lev Grossman and Sophie Gee, Jonathan Lethem, Claire Messud and James Wood, Philip Pullman, Gary Shteyngart, and Edmund White. Each interview consists of a set of almost identical questions (though Pullman writes an essay for his response), and is accompanied by high-quality photographs of the subjects’ libraries, with a special focus on the top ten books chosen by each author (except for Bechdel, who provides eleven).

Some of the questions are: “How far back does your collection stretch?”; “Temperamentally, are you a pack rat or a toss rat?”; “Have there been periods of your life when you stopped reading?”; and “Are there kinds of books you keep in places other than the bookshelf—cookbooks, phone books, pornography?” Though the porn question often gets dropped or ducked, Díaz is ready for it. “I actually own no out-and-out pornography. If I did, I’d probably have it out on my shelves. I’ve never liked the idea of a hidden book. It means no one will ever randomly pick it up and have a conversation with you about it.” He ends this thread humorously: “I know you guys didn’t look too closely on one shelf, because there were stacks and stacks of role-playing games on it. Some of those are more cringe-inducing than any page-worn copy of Hustler.”

Given the opportunity to inspect the libraries of writers, it’s likely we’d look for matches with our own tastes, try to spot their influences, and note what writers or topics took up most of the shelves. Also under inspection would be the arrangement of the books and the set-up of the bookcases. Price asks about all these things and more. Bechdel has cardboard file folders labeled, for instance, “GAY COMICS MISC - QUEER,” and her books are situated waist-high along long walls, or over a television, whereas Carter has tall bookcases with a short one extending into the middle of a room. The effect is like moving from a college student’s library to that of a professor’s, and the multiplicity of storing and presenting books is one of the charms ofUnpacking My Library. The arrangement within the bookshelves also is worth commenting on. Goldstein and Pinker have white cubes, and the latter’s enthusiasm for “the joy of cubes” led to a television bit that’s available on YouTube. We get good views of the neat (Shteyngart, for whom bookshelves “add a sense of drama to the living room”), the aesthetically driven (Lethem, an advocate of built-in shelves), the messy (Pullman's library is partially blocked by guitars and an amplifier, while White stacks books on the floor, balancing lamps and telephones on them), and the precisely catalogued (Bechdel).

The photographs reveal occasional overlaps of taste. Plato appears often, but more intriguing is the high regard for Hergé. Tintin appears in three places: Bechdel’s top books contain Tintin in Tibet, Pullman similarly ranks The Castafiore Emerald (neither explain their reasons), while for Grossman and Gee L’Ile Noire is fronted on a shelf. Lethem, represented on the shelves of Grossman and Gee, shares with them titles from the same edition of the collected Peanuts, and has many books on comics. White has a copy of Wood’s How Fiction Works, and I wonder if Lethem does, too. It’s a pleasant surprise to see works by three of the industrious Powys family (John Cowper, Theodore Francis, and Llewelyn) in Pullman’s library, and amusing to contemplate, on the shelves of Grossman and Gee, Wyndham Lewis’s Tarr lodged near books by Stephenie Meyer. They also have a pitchfork leaning against a wall. Indeed, most writers have some objects in among their books, but Goldstein thinks that that practice qualifies “as what philosophers call a ‘category mistake.’” Many books by Bellow rest on Wood’s bookshelves, along with Hazlitt’s collected works; on Shteyngart’s, Philip Roth and Nabokov (and works in Russian) are well-represented; Pullman likes Trollope. Where Grossman thinks it “odd” to have his and Gee’s books at hand, White’s works rub against those by others.

As each writer brings their own particular answers to whether or not they keep every book they buy (most don’t, but find parting can be hard, though Pinker is “not sentimental about books as physical objects”), so their libraries offer readers (or viewers) much to consider about idiosyncrasies of taste when it comes to dictionaries, the role of the thesaurus, and book borrowing. Lethem is firm in this matter: “I hate lending, or borrowing—if you want me to read a book, tell me about it, or buy me a copy outright. Your loaned edition sits in my house like a real grievance.” Opinions vary on e-books and paper, though Claire Messud, wondering what will happen to her collection after her death, offers this perspective: “Doesn’t anybody but me ever imagine an apocalypse after which there is no electricity, no computers?” Further: “Anybody who thinks books are dispensable is someone entirely lacking in appreciation of sensual pleasure. I pity such a person.”

These and more topics are addressed, briefly and at times sharply, in Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books—in itself a sensual pleasure for the eyes, and a book fans of the writers, and of books and libraries, will enjoy.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012


Sonya Hartnett
Candlewick Press ($16.99)

by Kelly Everding

Sonya Hartnett’s stirring and unforgettable book, The Midnight Zoo, takes the reader out of the present moment and into the frightening, uncertain times of World War II. Two Romany brothers, Andrej (12) and Tomas (9), along with their infant sister, Wilma, flee a brutal attack by German soldiers on their camp. They lose their family and everything they know as they try to survive in a war-torn land, driven further and further away by ethnic hatred and indiscriminate bombing, living off of scavenged and stolen supplies as best they can. It’s a hopeless situation, so Hartnett introduces the magical improbability of an abandoned zoo, a safe haven of sorts, which the children literally stumble into one moonlit night. Any initial fear is overcome by intense curiosity as they discover that the animals cannot harm them; in fact they are trapped, starving and abandoned to their fate, much like the children themselves. As bombs hurtle to the ground, and the moon steadily moves across the sky, reality shifts to something more profound, something ineffable. We enter into another possible world.

The children awaken to voices not their own. The animals begin to speak to them, and in speaking with the caged beasts, the boys take part in a symposium of sorts, discussing the nonsensical aspects of the world in which they live. The animal fable is a tried and true way to hash out the complexities of human behavior, especially the baffling cruelties of war, what one person can do to another. Children and animals are often the victims of brutality that goes beyond their understanding. By telling their stories, they attempt to transcend the horror, and discover some kind of truth. As Tomas relates, “They called us crows. . . . They laughed at our caravans and our statue. They yelled at us. But we weren’t doing anything to them. They killed my uncle without speaking one word to him. But he was a good man.” The llama responds, “It’s no use trying to make sense of what people do.” The wolf concludes, “I’ve told you the reason for everything that happens. Somebody decides that they will have their way.”

Hartnett creates a complex story that doesn’t pull any punches. There are hard truths here, truths that find expression in the wondering voices of children who are faced with very adult problems, as well as in the voices of beasts who want to be free of their cages and return to their natural states. All of them hunger to be free of their situations.

But there are many kinds of hungers. The eagle, the bear, the monkey, and the seal; the wolf, the chamois, the llama, and the kangaroo; the lioness and Andrej, and Tomas and Wilma, and doubtlessly even the boar: all these had an echoing place inside them from which something vital was now missing. Andrej remembered the boy he’d been such a short time ago—a boy who had trusted that the world was strict but fair. Since then he had seen this faith upended and made laughable. . . . This wasn’t a world that made sense to Andrej: it was a hard wintry shell of a world, bare of compassion.

How do we stop the perpetuation of war and cruelty? What will it take to turn away from revenge, fear, and destruction? Sophia Hartnett’s The Midnight Zoo takes us out of our cages and gets the conversation going.

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012


Brian Selznick
Scholastic Press ($29.99)

by Roxanne Halpine Ward

Brian Selznick’s Caldecott Medal-winning book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, employs illustrations and text to tell a story brimming with secrets and mysteries. In his newest book, Wonderstruck, Selznick again deftly pairs art and words, but in an even more complex and compelling tale of museums, silence, language, and family.

Wonderstruck’s protagonist, Ben, is a twelve-year-old boy in Minnesota whose mother recently died in an accident. After finding a strange locket and book among his mother’s things, Ben sets out for New York City to find the father he’s never known. In a parallel tale, the book also follows Rose, a young girl who runs away to New York fifty years before Ben does. The intersections of Ben’s and Rose’s experiences—and, eventually, their lives—become both fulfilling and surprising as they each seek answers on their journeys.

Selznick smartly uses the text to tell Ben’s story and the drawings to tell Rose’s, a technique that delineates the two plots while simultaneously emphasizing the experiences that Ben and Rose share during their adventures: arriving in New York, exploring the American Museum of Natural History, and weathering a severe thunderstorm. The two stories complement and play off each other, drawing Ben and Rose closer and closer together, until the text and art converge into one timeline and they finally meet.

Wonderstruck’s style is well suited to the subject matter, and Selznick does a masterful job of using form to reinforce the story: Rose is deaf, and as we follow her journey, the drawings capture the silence of her world. Ben, who has grown up hearing, is a natural storyteller for the text portion of the book, and he describes his world and his discoveries in vivid detail even as we glimpse the same settings through Rose’s eyes.

As deaf characters and culture are rarely represented in fiction, young adult or otherwise, the author is to be commended for his careful and nuanced presentation. The intertwining of the art and text adds layers of meaning to the story, making the characters’ deafness seem real and relatable. Ben, after losing his hearing, feels “swallowed” by the silence of his new deafness and struggles to come to terms with the change; Rose in 1927 learns that “talkies” are coming to her town’s movie theater, and what used to be her escape becomes one more way she feels lost and left behind by mainstream culture. Ben’s confusion and fear and Rose’s obvious dismay are perfectly paired. The deafness that both protagonists experience, and Selznick’s depiction of that deafness, makes the condition relevant to young readers.

Selznick’s exhaustive research continues to pay off not only in his work on deaf culture, but also in his presentation of museums, collecting, and cataloging. Ben is a collector at heart: he falls in love with space, plotting the stars in the Milky Way on his bedroom ceiling; learns all the different types of birds that live near his home; and keeps a treasured box full of items he’s found—a smooth rock, a bird skull, a turtle made of seashells. Rose keeps a scrapbook of clippings about a certain movie star and loves to build paper models of New York City’s buildings. The city is a place she dreams of visiting but can only gaze at from her bedroom window across the river, so her models allow her to “collect” the city though she’s forbidden to leave the house.

Other characters have collections, too. Ben’s mother, a librarian, catalogs books and collects inspirational quotes, and his new friend Jamie collects Polaroid photographs and secrets about the American Museum of Natural History. The Museum, with its impressive array of collections, becomes a focal point for both Ben and Rose; an exhibit on Cabinets of Wonders, the precursors to modern museums, attracts both protagonists and provides the book’s title. Selznick takes the classic adventure story of a child hiding in a museum and adds his own spin; young readers will be captivated as Ben and Rose each fall in love with the Museum and realize what their collections truly mean to them.

All these details are deftly connected through the intertwining text and art. Ben’s discovery of the book about the Cabinets of Wonders exhibit becomes a catalyst that leads him to New York, while Rose’s visit to the same exhibit in 1927 is one of the events that sparks her new life. When Ben eventually finds the exhibit, long since closed to the public, in a hidden room of the Museum, the earlier text descriptions from Ben’s book fit together with the illustrations of what Rose saw, and the whole room is familiar to the reader. Selznick capitalizes on even small themes: Ben’s love of the stars is mirrored in Rose’s reading of “star” magazines about Hollywood celebrities and in Selznick’s drawings of the sky.

It might be noted that Selznick falls short in developing his minor characters; Ben’s mother and Jamie are rendered well, but Ben’s and Rose’s other family members and Jamie’s father read like background props rather than real characters. However, Selznick more than makes up for this in his nuanced depiction of Ben and Rose. Young readers will find much to relate to as the protagonists struggle to be understood and risk everything in search of a true home and family. When Rose finds a giant meteorite in the Museum and learns that it was once a shooting star, she makes a wish on it, for somewhere she can belong. In the same way that a museum exhibit can fill its viewers with awe and wonder, Selznick reveals his characters’ deep emotion at discovering, after significant hardship and disability, a place where they belong.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012

Two perspectives on Matt Ruff's The Mirage

Matt Ruff
Harper ($25.99)

by Nathaniel Forsythe

November 9, 2001. Sunrise in Baghdad is at 6:25, and as the first rays strike the Tigris and Euphrates twin towers, an old man stands in the main dining room of the Windows on the World restaurant, gazing out at the city.

And so, with the aplomb of a diving 767, Matt Ruff introduces the premise of his new novel, The Mirage. In this politically charged alternate history, the United Arab States are locked into a global war against radical Christian terrorism. Nine years after the November 9th attacks, an Arab occupation of the Eastern seaboard has become a quagmire, with mounting casualties and no end in sight.

To explore this topsy-turvy world, the novel takes the mode of an espionage thriller. It moves as quickly as anything by Tom Clancy, shoving its team of Arab Homeland Security agents into a violent hostage situation from the starting gun. There’s Mustafa, the dutiful protagonist haunted by the death of his wife on 11/9, sardonic and secretive partner Amir, and feminist rookie agent Amal. If you’ve ever read a book you bought off an airport rack, then you can guess how this will go—each cop carries a dark, compromising secret that will come to light at a critical moment. Yet there’s far more fun to be had here in exploring the book’s looking-glass world.

The agents are brought in to investigate strange chatter in the ranks of the terrorist “Crusaders”: rumors of another world, one in which America is the real superpower and the Arab countries nothing but petro-dictatorships. The Christian terrorists believe that, if they kill enough Muslims with their suicide bombs, the veil that conceals this true world will be lifted and the righteous will ascend.

The novel’s satiric elements range from right on target to patently surreal. For instance, it’s surprising how familiar the names of Iraqi cities and Baghdad neighborhoods are to the average, news-reading American. It takes time for the sick joke to sink in, to remember exactly why we know names like Fallujah and Sadr City by heart.

But for every cutting jab, like the way Mustafa and Samir always confuse the dizzying variety of warring American Christian sects (Baptists, Pentecostals, Mormons, Episcopalians . . .), there’s a gratuitous clunker, like the fact that all the American militants sport Revolutionary era tri-cornered hats (something familiar, like baseball caps, would have been more appropriate and unsettling).

The greatest feeling of whizz-bang invention comes when, as the novel plummets through plot, we meet twisted versions of famous figures: Senator Osama bin Laden, Governor Muammar al Gaddafi, and—the book’s MVP—a charmingly roguish Saddam Hussein, who enlivens the proceedings immensely as a Gotti-esque mobster, bringing unpredictable charm to every scene he’s in. Meanwhile bin Laden is a drag as the antagonist—a bummer in any dimension.

The alternate history genre typically explores what-ifs, worlds in which Lee won at Gettysburg or Caesar Augustus discovered gunpowder. The parallel world of The Mirage has no such turning point, which is keen on Ruff’s part. It highlights the way that so many of the things we take as givens—like enmity between Jews and Muslims, or the primacy of the USA—are not fixed, but nor are they historical accidents. Ruff argues that the choices and efforts of individuals, working to reshapethe world in their own image, can raise up empires as great as the Chaldeans under Nebuchadnezzar and can grind nations down until they are as marginalized and desolate as the Iraq that American troops are now leaving behind.

Subtlety isn’t one of this book’s strengths, but it doesn’t need to be. There is a huge hole in American letters that hangs over Mesopotamia. We desperately need novels that dare to broach the subject of our collective guilt over the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the horrific loss of Iraqi and American life. And this is exactly what Ruff, in his unconventional way, is doing here. The novel may verge on absurdistsatire, but it holds a beating heart. Mustafa and Samir may watch CSI: Damascus and use a Wikipedia-like website called “The Library of Alexandria,” but they also struggle to reconcile their Muslim faith with modernity and mourn the human costs of continual war.

Frequently throughout the novel, Mustafa is gripped by a growing sense of unease, the thought that his world is not right, that he is living in a collective delusion. The feeling grows stronger when the team reaches America, where he intuits the people’s longing for a greater destiny. But he must ignore the feeling, and do his best to struggle through another day. Just as this novel is a satirical thought piece unsteadily piled on top of intensely readable thriller, Mustafa’s world isa crumbling tangle of delusion and illusion. And there is no escaping the indictment that we are doing something similar. We live our lives trying not to think about how our lifestyles impact the side of the world that we’d really rather ignore. The Mirage asserts that the aspirations of the Islamic world and those of the West will always collide. As one character muses, late in the novel, “Arabia in a state of nature, untouched by the dreams of the West. Now thatwould be an alternate reality . . .”

Matt Ruff
Harper ($25.99)

by Marjorie Hakala

Matt Ruff may or may not be a science fiction writer. His 2003 novel Set This House in Orderwon the James Tiptree award, which honors gender-bending science fiction and fantasy, but the book is categorized variously as science fiction, mystery, and general fiction, depending who is doing the categorization. Ruff’s new novel,  The Mirage, is an alternate history of sorts, a reimagining of the world we currently live in, different enough from reality to count as science fiction but politically aware enough that it could equally be considered satire.

The Mirage is set in a country called the United Arab States, which stretches from Persia from Iraq to Libya. The UAS is at war with the Christian States of America, in consequence of a Christian attack on Baghdad that occurred on 11/9/2001. The novel explores this flipped world through three UAS Homeland Security agents who are busy tracking down Christian terrorists when they encounter a story about another world, one where America is the superpower. Some of the Christians believe that that is the real world, and the world around them is only a “mirage”—and this belief has attracted the interest of some influential people, including a UAS senator named Osama bin Laden and the union head/mob boss Saddam Hussein.

There is a lot of world-building to be done in a novel like this, and a great deal of information that needs to be conveyed to the reader. Ruff for the most part handles this challenge deftly, interspersing the chapters of his narrative with entries from the “Library of Alexandria,” his fictional world’s answer to Wikipedia. The Arabia he has created is pointedly parallel to the United States in its superpower swagger, its large-country divisiveness, and its layers of self-protective bureaucracy, but it’s also distinctly Arabian. Divisions between Sunni and Shia are still important, as are Egyptian and Iraqi and Persian cultural differences, and the characters have complex relationships to their culture’s attitudes toward homosexuality, polygamy, and temporary marriages. Some of the women characters keep their hair casually covered, while others scrupulously cover everything but their face and hands at all times.

Ruff seems to have the most fun when he’s playing Arabian culture and real-world American phenomena off of one another, as in one scene that takes place in a music store:

Mustafa found himself in an open aisle between two entertainment mediums and two warring sociopolitical viewpoints. To his left, in the DVD section, a bank of flat-screens showed the governor of Lebanon, in his previous career as an action-movie superstar, maneuvering a jump jet between the skyscrapers of Beirut and using the plane’s nose-cannon to annihilate an army of terrorists. . . . To his right, in pop music, a wall of speakers and subwoofers blasted out the punk band Green Desert’s anti-war, anti-Saud anthem, “Arabian Idiot.”

The book’s premise is also perfect for some sly social commentary, which Ruff accomplishes with remarkably little need for invention. In one scene, a character is watching an anti-Christian propaganda film that features a Sunday school class singing real hymns. When his Christian roommate walks in, he awkwardly explains that “he hadn’t been making fun of all Christians, just the fanatical, Jew-hating, American variety.”

With a scenario this engaging, the book could easily be made of exposition alone. There is a great deal of that, but there’s also a compelling plot that deepens as the characters’ stories are fleshed out. Over the course of the novel, the reader becomes as curious as the characters are to learn the truth about the “mirage,” and what started out as a CSI-style procedural becomes an investigation into political power—and just what it might mean for that power to change hands.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012


Stephen King
Scribner ($35)

by G. A. Rozen

Genre bending isn’t exactly something Stephen King is known for. A master of the macabre and occasional practitioner of science fiction, King’s work tends to attract the reader with a darker sensibility. Sometimes he’ll sneak one by you, like the touching Hearts in Atlantis or the ode to childhood imagination The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, but even that positivity and inspiration is seen through a darker lens. His newest work, however, 11/22/63, is something entirely new, a work closer to historical fiction than science fiction. If you’ve been waiting for a more accessible opportunity to enjoy one of the most prolific scribes of the last half-century, there’s never been a better time than now.

Jake Epping is a flawed man. Recently divorced, Jake teaches high-school English. He also works with adults seeking GED’s, a way of earning a little extra scratch to get by. One day, casual acquaintance and owner of the local grill, Al Templeton, lets Jake in on a secret. The storeroom of his diner is a gateway. Whenever someone steps through it, they emerge in the past—September 9, 1958, to be precise. Every time.

Don’t worry. The more technical discussion of time-travel, in which scientific theory and jargon awkwardly cascade from a characters lips, never comes. This is not a story about the intricacies of time-travel. King develops the rules to his world relatively quickly, never lingering too long on the minutia. The result is a story that skips the headaches associated with similar plots, and instead focuses on the action at hand.

Templeton passes down his mission to Epping: travel back to 1958, move to Dallas, and prevent the impending assassination of President Kennedy in 1963. While initially reluctant, Epping eventually embarks on his journey, forced to live five years in the Cold-War past. This is where the novel truly shines.

King first attempted to write this book in 1971, just after the release of his first novel, Carrie. While he loved the concept, he found the actual work overwhelming. Reading the completed novel now, it’s easy to see what was so intimidating. 11/22/63 is a dense piece of fiction. Every little stick of information is the product of tireless research. The 1958 price of a pound of ground beef and a root beer. The arrangement of downtown Dallas. Even the detailed description of Lee Harvey Oswald’s apartment, where Epping watches him prepare to change the world. The amount of time that’s been put into building a realistic portrayal of the country is staggering. All the while, Jake’s driven to increasingly extreme measures to accomplish his objective. The tension is a slow build, but it keeps the action tight.

It’s the intense research, the fully-realized world of the mid-twentieth century, that makes the novel a unique accomplishment. If you haven’t let yourself crack open one of King’s novels before, 11/22/63 will capture your imagination in a way you might not expect, while the diehard King reader will find the same humanity and style that makes him one of the most popular writers of our time.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012