Tag Archives: Spring 2013

FATALE: Book One & Two

FATALE
Book One: Death Chases Me
Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips
Image Comics ($14.99)

FATALE
Book Two: The Devil’s Business
Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips
Image Comics ($14.99)
by Spencer Dew

There’s a line from Lovecraft in the 1926 story “Call of Cthulhu”: “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.” Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, famous as a team with talent in the noir/crime genre of comics, snake in and out of the Lovecraftian shadows at the edges of that same hardboiled world in their series Fatale. Corrupt cops, clever journalists, eccentric novelists, and mysteriously gorgeous dames meet cultists at crime scenes and cemeteries and Hollywood parties, dimly lit bars and the sewers beneath San Francisco. Cynicism and sex and cigarettes, trench coats and whiskey and the occasional blackjack or sawed-off shotgun: these things get mingled with sigils and tentacles, a fragment of manuscript penned in “an unspoken language written on the skin of some ancient wyrm” and, in a particularly brilliant moment, a summoning spell cast in a heavy glass ashtray at a Chinatown bar—just a stream of blood drawn from the flesh of the palm and a business card left near the mutilated corpse of a human sacrifice.

Lovecraft was a master of turning that notion of “the most merciful thing” on its head, offering just enough tentative suggestions and atmospheric hints and occasional references to sheer, incommunicable horror to give readers the sensation of something cold and wet running down the edge of our tenuous grip on reality. Brubaker and Phillips demonstrate absolute mastery of that dynamic here, from the reaction of one lead character to an asylum whose inmates suddenly burst into laughter—“The kind that makes you want to burst your eardrums. The kind you hear in your nightmares”—to the reaction of another who comes home to find that something indescribably brutal has happened to his wife and to the son inside her womb. The Lovecraftian operates via an especially strange type of jouissance; our ability to cope, usually unquestioned, is suddenly presented as profoundly tentative and, over the course of a few paragraphs—or, here, a few panels—the narrative threatens to tear it wide open, rip it asunder, as various beasties occasionally do to their human flunkies or the civilian who stumbles into the wrong mansion on the wrong night.

But those who have best analyzed Lovecraft’s genius—Michel Houellebecq in his book-length study, Luc Sante in a notable essay, Andrew Leman in his remarkably spot-on silent film adaption of “Call of Cthulhu” from 2005—have emphasized the sexlessness, even the repugnance at the very notion of physicality, central to his work. So one new thing that Fataledoes, deftly, is bring sexuality to the fore, specifically in the form of Josephine, who does not age, and who has profound powers of influence over men, linked in particular to eye contact. We see plenty of gorgeous Josephine, her raven tresses reiterating the voluptuous curves of her body, her coy way of lowering her sunglasses to peek above their rim, sweetly commanding some dumbfounded fellow to do her some favor, surrender his car keys, commit suicide. A bad San Francisco cop, dying of cancer—he routinely coughs blood into a handkerchief—brought her back from a dungeon in Romania during World War II, which we catch only quick glimpses of, in flashback, just enough to let us know that the Nazis had opened a portal to someplace beyond our world. But Fatale unfolds in multiple chronologies. In San Francisco in 1956, Los Angeles in 1978, and across various locales in the present, characters attempt to solve their tiny mysteries—all part of the larger saga of Josephine and the dark forces that continue to hunt her.

Writers on Lovecraft also love to mention is how unfilmable his brand of horror is—this, of course, despite countless generally miserable attempts at adaptations (Leman’s retro-noir masterpiece being the exception that proves the rule). If you see the thing in the darkness, this logic goes, it ceases to terrify in that uniquely Lovecraftian way. One cannot maintain that edge of horror with a clear image; it is implication that gives the Lovecraftian its force. Fatale belies this, too, by keeping its supernatural elements grounded in a kind of realism. The creepiest things in these pages are the very human corpses, the symbols sketched on cocktail napkins or carved into flesh, the minions rendered identical and anonymous by matching pairs of round eyeglasses. Yet in true Lovecraftian fashion, that vertigo-inducing sense of having reached the precipice of awareness—which is also, simultaneously, that vertigo-inducing sense of how radically ignorant one is about the mechanisms of the world—remains more terrifying than any particulars. When a central character reveals his monster face, it passes as believable enough in the dark world of Phillips’s drawings because other faces—the actress, disconcertingly hungry for something she doesn’t have; the cop at the jail, a cameo roll, disturbingly angry; even the waitress at the diner, pinched countenance accentuated by horned spectacles—are as creepy as anything with tentacles attached. Likewise, the gritty and very real-world violence that punctuates these books is far more terrifying than anything done by superhuman teeth. Tendrils of gore string out from gun blasts. A man with his throat cut sits, sloppily, on a park bench. A man missing much of his skull and brain matter sits more stiffly by a fireplace. Indeed, Phillips—and Dave Stewart, the colorist for each volume—can make a pool-side scene sinister, the bright California sun muted, spooky. Framing and angles transform everything, from the steps out of a Greyhound bus to a moonlit ocean swim, into something reminiscent of nightmares—even as nothing explicitly frightening happens in either instance. Foreboding radiates from every page. There are some minor glitches in the art, where perspective skews body shapes or faces—particularly that of Josephine—take on an awkwardly silly, cartoon-strip quality. But these books are such page-turners that passing imperfections will barely register.

Rather, readers will be left with certain images—the trio of cloaked corpses stacked against a wall, blast-marks above what remains of their necks and jaws; the loupe in the eye of the collector of specialty films as he holds a particular reel up to the light; the close-up of Josephine’s full lips as she rubs two gloved fingers against them, remembering the pressure of a recent kiss and contemplating her unique variety of damnation—or certain phrases—a baffled narrator realizing that a certain “folk tale about the owl and the ribbon, it was in Dominic’s unpublished manuscript” or a debonair and mustachioed stranger promising a pregnant housewife that “This won’t take any time at all” or Josephine, having accepted a cigarette from a handsome young reporter, thinking to herself “It’s happening again” and “Why are men such damned fools?” Why indeed? Or, to return to Lovecraft’s observation, why must humans so consistently, and with such effort, wrestle against the warm embrace of ignorance? Why must we ask questions, why must we step into the shadows? As several of the hapless victims of Fataleknow all too well, along with the risk of madness and death, the shadows also promise an implacable attraction, an unparalleled thrill. These books deliver on that promise.

Click here to purchase Fatale, Book One: Death Chases Me at your local independent bookstore

Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Click here to purchase Fatale, Book Two: The Devil’s Business at your local independent bookstore

Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

HOW CHILDREN SUCCEED


Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character
Paul Tough
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt ($27)
by Shawn Patrick Doyle

Although the title of Paul Tough’s recent book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, suggests either a parental advice guide or a nostalgic call for a return to the Protestant work ethic, it is in fact neither. Instead, the book is Tough’s shot at discrediting the cognitive hypothesis: “the belief, rarely expressed aloud but commonly held nonetheless, that success today depends primarily on cognitive skills—the kind of intelligence that gets measured on IQ tests.” How Children Succeed documents compelling stories of innovative primary and secondary school teachers and administrators who find success by focusing on developing their students’ characters in addition to their minds. Tough annotates these stories with a wide range of contemporary theories on learning and development to present the case that what is missing from education is a nuanced understanding of how children develop character. The results are convincing enough to think he is on to something.

Tough’s biggest complaint with the status quo is that it focuses on developing the intellect and ignores the development of the person who will use that intellect. He believes that educational reformers have overinvested in cognitive skills. The book does not deny that a person’s intelligence plays a vital role in success, nor does it question whether frequent and dedicated practice from a young age will develop cognitive skills. Instead, How Children Succeed doubts the zealous faith in the importance of early cognitive development that leads overanxious parents to enroll their children in pre-schools that offer early instruction in reading and math while sacrificing much of what used to be pre-schools’ primary focus: developing the social and emotional skills necessary for primary school.

Although the book offers insights applicable to all American children, it is clear that Tough—whose first book, Whatever It Takes (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008), chronicled the efforts of educational reformer Geoffrey Canada’s efforts to overhaul the Harlem school system—feels passionately about the plight of children in poverty. Tough presents a sobering look at the effects poverty and other childhood traumas can have on a child’s long term success. Children who grow up in the type of stressful environments that poverty tends to produce fail to develop parts of their brain properly, especially the prefrontal cortex, which plays a vital role in the regulation of attention, emotions, stress, and self control. As he shows in several case studies, many children in poverty fail in school because they do not develop self control and other fundamental skills needed for learning. These ills are not, however, limited to students trapped in poverty. Tough also reports on students from affluent backgrounds who face pressures to succeed academically with little attention to developing the character attributes necessary for dealing with the stress that comes from high stakes academic performance; consequently, affluent teens exhibit disproportionately high rates of depression, anxiety, and drug use.

How Children Succeed reads a bit like pop psychology, similar to the type of books Malcolm Gladwell is known for. Tough’s storytelling is not quite as engaging as Gladwell’s, but that might be because his science is better. Whereas Gladwell draws criticism for cherry picking a small sample of psychological studies and loosely interpreting their results, Tough’s work can sometimes feel disjointed because of the breadth of the works he considers. Tough presents a complex picture of childhood development that draws on recent studies in psychology, sociology, and physiology. Almost without exception, these studies formulate theories that are fascinating because they are so counterintuitive to the way most of us think about learning.

Tough weaves into his book the theories of some of the foremost scholars on thinking and learning, including Carol Dweck, Claude Steele, Martin Seligman, and Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, each of whom have condensed their ideas into popular books of their own. However, the comparatively unknown Angela Duckworth, whom Tough calls “the guru of self-control and grit,” provides the backbone of the book’s argument about character. Duckworth’s work provides a list of seven character strengths that most interest Tough. Those strengths—grit, self-control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, and curiosity—are “especially likely to predict life satisfaction and high achievement.” Of these, Duckworth finds that grit, which involves “a passionate commitment to a single mission and an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission,” is the most useful at predicting who will persist and succeed at difficult tasks, and she has some intriguing evidence to back that up. Her twelve-question Grit Scale predicts who will persevere at challenging tasks and has been shown to be accurate in everything from determining who will make it to the later rounds of the National Spelling Bee to who will complete the brutal Beast Barracks summer training course at West Point.

How Children Succeed likely won’t bring about the type of paradigm shift it sees as a necessary foundation for the successful reform of the American educational system. It can, however, encourage readers to reconsider some of what they believe about a successful education. At the very least, the book provides a fair amount of water cooler fodder for parents, teachers, or anyone interested in education reform.

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THE WILDNESS WITHIN


Remembering David Brower
edited by Kenneth Brower
Heyday Books ($20)
by Ryder W. Miller

David Brower, the first executive of the Sierra Club in 1952, was probably the most famous and successful environmentalist of his time. He wore many hats: a father, husband, editor, activist, publisher, soldier, mountain climber, writer, speaker, and countless other simultaneous identities. We can thank him for the preservation of The Grand Canyon, as well as the many organizations he started such as The Friends of the Earth and The Earth Island Institute. Bower was also a man who changed with the times. Some at The Sierra Club didn't agree that the organization should extend its influence beyond the Sierra Mountains. After being fired by the Club in 1969, Brower took the environmental message global.

In The Wildness Within, David Brower’s son Kenneth Brower brings together accounts and accolades of his late father’s colleagues (Brower senior passed in 2000), creating a dynamic and inspiring portrait of the man. The book is also a personal journey for Kenneth Brower, who wrote the book in part as an opportunity to revel in his father’s memory:

For me, the interviewer listening to them, the sessions that produced these recollections were a very fine thing, almost a kind of séance, a chance to spend many weeks again in my father’s company.

Among the assembled to testify on David Brower’s behalf are a group of conservationists, naturalists, authors, and journalists such as Paul Ehrlich, Amory Lovins, David Foreman, Harold Gilliam, Paul Hawken, and Peter Hayes. Still many more would likely step up to tell their stories—and not all so thoroughly positive. Brower was not an effective politician: he had issues staying on budget, his positions were predictable, and he was perceived as uncompromising. But he was also sociable and convincing. Al Gore may have been the one who eventually secured environmentalism within politics, but he owes much of this success to Brower’s early work taking on the capitalist giants of the 1960s and ’70s.

The book excels at giving the reader the inside tale of a diverse movement that cared enough about future generations to save the natural wonders of the planet. David Brower often made reference to Goethe’s passage, “If there is something you can do / Or dream you can, begin it / Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.” The lesson that Kenneth learned from his father’s dream echoes this magical boldness: “The environmentalists job . . . is to fight as hard as possible on behalf of the Earth.” In The Wildness Within, Kenneth accomplishes a great deal in the service of keeping his father’s fight alive.

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WILL OLDHAM ON BONNIE “PRINCE” BILLY


Edited by Alan Licht
W.W. Norton ($16.95)
by Amy Wright

Will Oldham’s past reticence in interviews makes the release of Alan Licht’s book-length interview Will Oldham on Bonnie “Prince” Billy a welcome disclosure. Reading this dialogue it is clear that Oldham has long been ready to converse about his work, as long as it doesn’t manufacture a tiny back room from which it has to be done. His investigation into the creative process will especially appeal to other artists, considering the limitations of the singular perspective is something many artists have reckoned with. This musician transcends it via his larger-than-life lyric persona, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, who warrants a biography of his own.

Licht has the advantage over other interviewers in that he’s a musician who played with Oldham as an opening act and band member for a few New York concerts, and on the 2003 recordingMaster and Everyone. He is also versed in indie rock lore and able to make such connections as linking the “synth at the end of ‘Grand Dark Feeling of Emptiness’” to the 1972 instrumental hit “Popcorn.” In this way, the volume is a hipster’s reference, charting an underground movement that Oldham both navigated and shaped. Lichtʼs understanding of this influence may have earned him Oldham’s trust in talking openly and at length to set the record of his records straight.

It could also be Licht’s background in film that generates their conversational dynamic. Oldham originally trained to be an actor and is often first recognized for his role in John Sayles’sMatewan. When the pair met in the early 1990s, Licht was working for Kino International, a foreign- and independent-film distributor that later released Old Joy, a Kelly Reichardt film in which Oldham stars.

Oldhamʼs dramatic background informs his understanding of performance as separate from the person. He explains his view of working life in terms of actors like Humphrey Bogart, pointing out “there’s no substantial reason to identify a person like him with anything his characters have done.” It thus rankles him that in music, most people assume that the singer/songwriter is the one being expressed in each song. Rather than write within this limitation, he prefers the position of “text personification.” “It’s as if Elvis Presley is a written, created character like Stanley Kowalski,” he says. The idea, he goes on, “is to put forward something someone can have a clean emotional experience with.”

Favorite works of art may lead us to believe we are communing with someone in particular, but the universal must be free to contradict itself and move nimbly between differing subjects and points of view. The need for a flexible vehicle is evidenced in Oldham’s career, which ranges from singing “I See a Darkness” with Johnny Cash to enacting an over-the-top cover of Kanye Westʼs “Canʼt Tell Me Nothing” with Zach Galifianakis. His “alter ego,” as the fifth chapter calls Bonnie “Prince” Billy, enables Oldham to sing the same song one hundred times and to “honestly occupy” it.

Initially, Oldham facilitated his artistic expansion by performing under multiple band names, including Palace and the Palace Brothers. Early albums were filed under both monikers with the instruction to “see also Will Oldham.” The patchwork of compiling his fast-growing oeuvre came together when Bonnie “Prince” Billy was coined on a flight over Australia in 1998. If not for facilitating audience access, Oldham would prefer each album to go unbranded but by its title, like a film. His 1996 album, Arise Therefore, was released sans band name in order that it be met as an experience in itself.

Leave it to the singer/songwriter behind an album called The Letting Go to abandon his identity for each project. “A good record,” he says, “should involve my needs, the listeners’ needs, and the needs of the other people who worked on the record.” If it succeeds in creating a dynamic between multiple, changing band members and genres of music, it cannot be reduced to whatever singular hold fans might put around one man—a man who had to become a prince in order to flee the bonny castles of the set he just stormed.

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SHOPPING FOR A BETTER COUNTRY


Josip Novakovich
Dzanc Books ($15.95)
by Ned Randolph

I have a giant globe I inherited from my grandparents. My grandfather had it made in the 1960s, arresting its color-coded boundaries at the height of the Cold War. Much of its Northern Hemisphere is awash in pink, marking out the Soviet Union and providing a visual aid for the suppression of ethnicities that would later erupt in the wake of perestroika. Yugoslavia, which was puzzled together from the ruins of World War II, later splintered along ethnic lines in a bloody upheaval that seemed to personify the politics of the 1990s.

Alienation can offer rich fodder for expatriate writing, which taps a longing for a place out of reach, often a place accessible only in memory. The most predominate sentiment expressed by the writer Josip Novakovich in his collection of essays, Shopping for a Better Country, is a sense of loss—not only for a disappeared homeland but also for the country he adopted. Novakovich immigrated to the United States as a transfer student to Vassar College in 1976 and stayed on to study religion and philosophy at Yale University. He received a doctorate and considered returning, chafed by the patriotism and nationalism of his U.S. friends. “In our socialist education, nationalism was equated not only with the bourgeoisie but also with Nazism, and Croatian nationalists, invariably with Ustashas, the Croatian fascists who committed many atrocities in the Second World War,” he writes in the title essay. But the bloodshed that followed strongman Josip Tito’s death prompted Novakovich to remain as a “voluntary exile.”

The essays here are reprinted from various literary journals, and originally appeared from the early 1990s through 2011. In them, Novakovich reveals a complex permutation of identities. He was raised Baptist in secular Yugoslavia, whose main, though suppressed, religions were Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox Judaism, or Islam. He speaks fluent German though he says in Germany he felt like a second-class citizen: “For Germans, Croats and Serbs were mostly cheap labor, despicable lower-class trash.” A naturalized American citizen during the post 9-11 era, he finds himself further alienated by the rise of jingoism. He grows so disenchanted with U.S. conservatism and militarism that he decides to move to Canada, where he again finds himself an outsider.

The texts are also interspersed with personal stories describing visits to his ailing mother in Zagreb and eventually her funeral—stories that reveal a landscape of childhood memories and the changing topography of his homeland. He shares recognizable struggles in the existential guesswork of parenting, the strain of traveling with toddlers, and problems of getting artifacts and instruments through customs. There are missives from journals that were not initially intended for publication, a short essay about his botched attempt to write erotica, and a travelogue from a trip to northern Africa in 1969 published here for the first time.

Some entries feel raw, as when Novakovich learns about Ruth’s funeral:

Oh, shit, what to do? To pull out my son from his classes, and fly? But I hate funerals, they are either morbid and depressing, or duplicitously uplifting. I had just been to a memorial which was presented as the happiest occasion on earth, with lots of smiles and laughs, and I didn’t believe the mood. It was a Prozac memorial. Well, maybe it wasn’t, maybe the spirit was really so uplifting.

Yet Novakovich has a knack for presenting profound insights without calling attention to them. His own father died when he was eleven, which leaves his parenting template somewhat unfinished on fathering his two American children, especially his son. “He can’t stand it if I win at ping-pong or chess. I tell him, what would you like me to be, a loser? I played this game for thirty years and you for thirty days and you already want to beat me?” He relented, however, letting his son win at soccer (otherwise, the boy would cry and quit). When he let the boys at his son’s school beat him, though, his son cried again. “He had just lost the image of an invincible father, and that shook him up. Of course, that he could score against me would make him the best player, and my letting others score not only devalued my image but also his.”

Other essays tap into an anxiety of an expat who is seeing his country reborn as an international tourist destination. “I got used to treating Croatia as some kind of burden—so when people asked me about where to travel in the Balkans, I usually advised them to go to Slovenia and Greece. And then, suddenly, Croatia became tourist destination number one for the Lonely Planet and many tourist journals,” he writes. In contrast to the United States, which loses its luster under the Bush Administration. A Russian linguistics professor he meets is aghast that he has chosen America over Croatia.

She looked at me as if I was a madman. I was struck—first my relatives seemed to be crazy for not leaving Croatia, and now I am crazy for not living in Croatia.
I was sunk in gloom for the rest of the day, thinking maybe I had spent most of my life in the wrong place.
What a difference ten years make!

English is not Novakovich’s first or second language, yet it is his writing tongue. His prose is direct and dry, which incidentally matches the voice in his 2004 novel, April Fool's Day (Harper Perennial, 2006), reminiscent (at least in substance) of Milan Kundera, another expat who explores the nexus of repression under the Soviet legacy. However, Shopping for a Better Country veers closer to political manifesto. References to Bush-era politics might feel dated in 2013, even though some of the essays are updated with postscripts.

Novakovich, who was recently named a finalist for the Man Booker Prize, posted in January on Facebook that he had finally been granted Canadian citizenship, all of which seems to bring this project full circle. That suggests the timing for such a collection could be just right.

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ON A FARTHER SHORE: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson


William Souder
Crown ($30)
by Eliza Murphy

Midcentury America was a time of economic prosperity, innovation, and optimism, despite the Cold War, McCarthyism and the insidious hazards of nuclear fallout and DDT unleashed on the world. Once Rachel Carson blasted on the scene with her buzz-killing book, Silent Spring, the world changed. The public, initially intoxicated by the post-war economic boom, had welcomed newfangled compounds capable of ridding the world of pests of all persuasions, until Silent Spring obliterated unsustainable, maladaptive ignorance. Carson heroically nudged people awake to troubling truths with a pivotal text that unhinged blind faith in the sugar coated half-truths of government propaganda whose content “held within it the outlines of a partisan divide over environmental matters that has since hardened into a permanent wall of bitterness and mistrust” still evident today.

A veteran journalist, William Souder offers a powerful biography of Rachel Carson in On A Farther Shore, demonstrating how the historical and cultural milieu in which Carson was immersed led her to write her groundbreaking book. Published on the fiftieth anniversary ofSilent SpringOn a Farther Shore creates a complex portrait of Carson as an innately inquisitive, shy woman with talent that matched her ambition. Her love of the living world compelled her to take tremendous risks despite powerful detractors, and she eventually completed Silent Springeven as she fought a losing battle against cancer. In concise and elegant prose, Souder shows Carson’s evolution from biologist to award-winning author during a time when both the Earth’s population and the development and deployment of lethal poisons expanded phenomenally.

Carson’s public life as a writer started with her joyful ambles down brambly paths to her beloved sea, where she would wade in surf to show readers the creatures living beneath the ocean. Only after she gained popularity as a nature writer did she take on the controversial topic that transformed her. Instead of turning over rocks, she carried on correspondence with experts, trudged through thousands of documents while slogging through self-doubts as she adapted to personal hardships and debilitating illness. A naturalist first, and remarkably apolitical, Carson possessed an uncanny ability to pick and choose what she found important, even overlooking the Nazi sympathies of a writer she emulated. Souder suggests this tunnel vision may have enabled her to hone her focus.

Her education in biology and work as a writer for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries initially led her to tide pools, not the state house. After earning accolades for her books, and publishing stories in the New Yorker, she devoted the remainder of her life to exposing the hazards of pesticides. As a federal employee, she had had access to studies that showed extensive injuries to wildlife and workers exposed to DDT. She dubbed these chemicals, lauded for their beneficial use in eradicating bedbugs, malaria, and agricultural pests, “elixirs of death” that enter the food chain, kill birds along with insects, and lodge in the fatty tissue of animals who ingest or inhale them.

A reluctant crusader, she rallied support for protection of the natural world without losing her devotion to writing beautifully about what she loved and knew was at risk of harm. What resulted was not a polemic but a lyrical indictment of the chemical industry that continues to make some people squirm with unease. The world was not entirely prepared for her artistry—Silent Springsold out in the first two weeks after publication—but its arrival also pitted her against powerful chemical company executives who resorted to personal attacks to discredit her, even accusing her of being a Communist. She had taken on a complex scientific subject and turned a controversial topic into art of a very high order, an accomplishment not universally lauded, yet one that instigated acts of Congress after President Kennedy cited it in a public speech. Her book continues to inspire resistance among activists hell bent on stopping the incessant bombardment of the natural world with substances that disrupt hormones, alter behavior, shorten life expectancies, sicken fauna and wither flora. She left a legacy that permeates the commitment of journalists who wade through documents to apprise the public of the latest facts about far-reaching effects of the synthetic chemicals we ingest in food we eat, dust we inhale and water we drink; gases and particulates in the air we breathe; and the myriad of products that touch our skin.

Like Carson, Souder takes as fastidious an approach to research as his subject did. Nearly a tenth of the book is devoted to sources Souder relied on to establish the historical moment that ignited Carson’s passionate response to threats to the natural world. Souder provides a concise history of the conservation movement and shows how the publication of Silent Spring launched the environmental movement. At the time, protecting the natural world meant conserving wild lands and preserving natural resources, often for agricultural and extractive purposes. But that was about to change:

In 1939, the means for undoing nature itself had been discovered in laboratories in Europe and the United States. DDT and nuclear fission were to become the twin agents of a great change of heart and will . . . This was the new age, a time when nature—that part of existence outside of humanity—would no longer be the object of concern. Now it was to be the total environment, ourselves included. In the age of conservation, the species that had needed our protection were the animals and birds and fish. In the new age of environmentalism the species that most needed our help would be us.

Souder also shows us a writer struggling with her material: “Carson had also come to believe that one reason she was having trouble doing any real work was her uneasiness with the fact that human beings had acquired the means to reshape the world . . . she felt that her most cherished beliefs were crumbling.” He emphasizes the turmoil Carson experienced in a revealing passage from the extensive correspondence she kept with her dear friend Dorothy, a passage that summarized the urgency of what she suspected confronted us all. “I suppose my thinking began to be affected soon after atomic science was firmly established. Some of the thoughts that came were so unattractive to me that I rejected them completely . . . It was pleasant to believe, for example, that much of Nature was forever beyond the tampering reach of man.” Having dug deep enough in her archives, he uncovers correspondence that reveals her awareness, a half a century ago, that the negative implications of the rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would be immense.

Five short decades ago, only a few hundred registered synthetic chemicals were on the market to kill insects, fungus, and weeds; bolster food supplies; imbue cosmetics with magical properties; improve the mood, take away pain, attack antagonistic cells within the body. Despite Carson’s dire warnings issued a half century ago to take a different approach—to prove a product is safe before unleashing potential harm on entire ecosystems—today, over one hundred thousand synthetic chemicals are in commercial use, unleashed on a gullible public without sufficient testing. On average, three new ones enter the market every day. Investment pours into research and development, but scant is spent on researching health and safety. In this country, proving causation after the damage is done lays the burden on those who suffer ill effects rather than the makers who foist unsafe products on a public easily hoodwinked by clever marketing strategies and lies promulgated by science-denying media.

By telling us Carson’s story in such vivid detail, Souder squeezes some hefty bellows that ought to reignite efforts to cease the whole scale destruction of our host planet—a wondrous place to which we are inextricably linked.

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DERRIDA: A Biography


Benoît Peeters
translated by Andrew Brown
Polity ($35)
by Brooke Horvath

In Derrida, the 2002 documentary film devoted to the famed philosopher, he insists that “someone who reads a tiny paragraph and interprets it in a rigorous, inventive, and powerfully discerning fashion” is “more of a real biographer than one who knows the whole [life] story.” Such a remark from the often-autobiographical Derrida must have given Benoît Peteers pause. Perhaps that is why he prefers to open with Derrida’s insistence in a late interview that “you must . . . put philosophers’ biographies back in the picture.” Not that Peeters offers the picture Derrida perhaps had in mind, being quick to disabuse us of any misplaced expectations. “In this book, I will not be seeking to provide an introduction to the philosophy of Jacques Derrida, let alone a new interpretation of a work whose breadth and richness will continue to defy commentators for years to come. But I would like to present the biography of a philosophy at least as much as the story of an individual.” In the 629 pages that follow, the individual is more clearly discernible than the philosophy.

Avoiding as much as possible the sort of biography described by the British writer William Boyd as “a fiction conceived within the bounds of the observable facts,” Peeters leans heavily on the careful, chronological arrangement of an extraordinary amount of material gathered from the published record, as well as on Derrida’s archives (manuscripts, correspondence, seminar notes, and so forth) and several dozen interviews with family members and friends, teaching colleagues and former students, true believers and sparring partners. His account, boasts Peeters, “has refused to exclude anything” and parcels out Derrida’s seventy-four years into thirty-two chapters, beginning with the childhood of little Jackie, an Algerian Jew subject to French colonial rule, continuing through Derrida’s anxious, faltering education and eventual triumph as world-famous intellectual, the globe-trotting rock star of deconstruction, and closing with the philosopher battling pancreatic cancer and dying after lapsing into a coma, having asked “not to be buried too quickly so as to give resurrection a chance.”

Peeters’s prose, judged here via Andrew Brown’s translation, is clear, unadorned, and unpretentious; it is rarely stylish and generally utilitarian. Nevertheless, the abundance of direct quotations, especially of Derrida, combined with the intrinsic interest of many of the events narrated and the skill with which Peeters teases out traits of character, yield a life story that proves engaging if sometimes wearisome: so many books written, lectures delivered, seminars conducted, friends cheered or consoled; so many administrative chores undertaken, world crises addressed, barricades stormed. Derrida is also, I should add, at times quite moving. Peeters wishes us to understand the importance of young Jackie’s encounters with anti-Semitism and wants us to see that the brilliant enthraller of the world’s intelligentsia was once an insecure student for whom exams were “terrifying ordeals” and who remained throughout his life riddled by self-doubt, depression, and conundrum. We revisit the stories of Derrida’s arrest in Prague on bogus charges of drug trafficking and his unwavering defense of beleaguered friends (Paul de Man, Louis Althusser), glimpse his sometimes lackluster parenting and uncover the complications of a love affair and the child Derrida never knew, learn that he loved to swim and watch “bad soap operas.”

In the single chapter that abandons chronology, a small masterpiece of portraiture is achieved through a collage of charming trivia ranging from the answers Derrida once supplied to a questionnaire (“Favorite hero in a novel: Bartleby. Your favorite heroine in real life: I’m keeping that a secret”) to his skill as a driver and taste in clothes. Indeed, whether through excerpts from published texts, snippets of personal letters, or the recollection of close friends, the Derrida assembled here is a complicated, conscientious, generous, troubled, immensely likeable man, an obsessed workaholic whose fondest dream was “to leave traces in the history of the French language” and who claimed that he knew he wrote too much but defended himself by explaining, “I can’t help it. It’s my way of fighting against death.” It is difficult not to like and admire a man who, friends report, was found near the end of his life, ill with the effects of chemotherapy and barely able to write, “typing detailed reports on the papers of . . . students that continued to be sent to him.” It is difficult not to be charmed by one of philosophy’s most challenging thinkers when, two weeks before he died, he could remark to a friend so simply, “when I arrive in front of Saint Peter, this is what I’ll tell him: ‘I’m really sorry’ and ‘the landscapes are lovely.’”

As for Peeters’s desire to write “the biography of a philosophy,” the results here are less satisfying. Derrida wrote a lot—between 1986 and his death in 2004, his books appeared at the rate of two a year—and many are notoriously difficult. To expect a full unpacking would be unreasonable. What the reader mostly learns concerns the circumstances that motivated and gave shape and purpose to each text, the difficulties encountered in completing the task, the niceties of its publication, and the responses it elicited. Consequently, Derrida’s controversial importance remains insisted upon more than demonstrated. Still, enough gets quoted, described, and plotted on the map of Derrida’s evolving concerns to suggest the contour of his thought and to arouse or renew one’s curiosity and prompt a (re)turn to the books themselves.

Written for a French readership, Derrida may prove occasionally insufficient to the reader not already hip to the Byzantine nature of the French educational system or whose memory of the Algerian war of independence is hazy. Nor is Peeters invariably trustworthy. When, for instance, he tells us that Yale was “the cradle of the New Criticism, the dominant current [of literary criticism] from the 1920s to the beginning of the 1960s,” he is wrong regarding both place and dates. And as Peeters warned us, anyone hoping for clear definitions of Derridean terminology or instructions for performing a deconstruction is well advised to look elsewhere.

Complaints registered, I wish to underscore the service Peeters has performed: he has rendered Derrida approachable if not entirely graspable. As Louis Althusser, the great Marxist philosopher, wrote to Derrida in the early 1970s, praising him for getting “in ahead” of everyone else: “we’ll catch up,” but “only to discover that you’ve moved on.” With Derrida, we can at least visit some of the places Derrida once was, and some of the places that—thanks to him and marked by him—we have since desired to go.

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ZOO STATION: The Story of Christiane F.


Christiane F.
translated by Christina Cartwright
Zest Books ($12.99)
by Allie Curry

Zoo Station is a paradoxical of coming-of-age story. As Christiane F. grows up in housing projects of divided late 1970s Berlin, this intelligent young woman grows increasingly degraded by heroin addiction and prostitution. By the end of the book, Christiane is fifteen and has shot up nearly every morning for a year. The majority of the book details the worst period of her addiction when, as her most recent publisher stresses, her needs were not only chemical, but also social and emotional.

First published in Germany in 1979 with the aid of two journalists, the book was met with the immediate interest of German teenagers. Print success spurred its 1981 movie adaptation. David Bowie, the star of Christiane’s record collection, supplied the soundtrack (his first), thereby ensuring the film a cult status that it enjoys to this day.

Zoo Station is a new translation of the German original. Christina Cartwright explains in her translator’s note that she updated Christiane’s slang to American English in an effort to “hone the edge that is present in a lot of her commentary.” By this measure, she is successful: the book reads as the speech of an occasionally foul-mouthed, but genuinely intelligent and perceptive teenager. Additionally, Cartwright includes footnotes that help to situate an American reader possessing little to no knowledge of post-World War II Europe. The book’s editors append the work with a list of resources available to teenagers struggling with drug addiction and sexual violence.

All this is to say that one must nearly read around this repackaging of Zoo Station to grasp that it is a book intended for teenagers. Zest Books’ approach values storytelling over the rhetoric of prevention, and as a result, the book is a startling contribution to the genre of the young adult addiction story. American writers have most memorably treated these stories in fiction, but often at the expense of believability. A 1998 New York Times review by Mark Oppenheimer pans 1971’s Go Ask Alice and two addiction novels of the ’90s, writing:

I do not think children should read about heroin addiction. But if they must, it is a moral concern that the book be well written. A good war movie makes you despise war, a terrible one makes you grin, but a mediocre one might send you to the recruiting office. Producing literature that keeps children from shooting up is possible only if the writing is fresh and skillful, never trite.
(from “Just Say ‘Uh-Oh,’” November 15, 1998)

Zoo Station, a memoir, succeeds by Oppenheimer’s rubric; its nonfiction approach delivers the familiar narrative of a teen’s progression from “gateway” to “cooler” hardcore drugs without a trace of triteness. To make the most value-free assessment possible, Zest’s editorial and marketing decisions assume that today’s young adult readers are just as if not moresophisticated than the parents of Christiane’s generation.

It’s a fair point: today, largely through the educational and preventative efforts concentrated upon them, drugs are ubiquitous to even the most sheltered of American teenagers. (Christiane, however, only learns of drugs in social environments; her public school seemingly has no agenda other than filling itself to maximum capacity.) Contemporary educated American readers can therefore dispense with the propagandistic dross and appreciate Christiane’s damning critical insights.

Consistent with the recent trend in young adult literature that represents adults as either helpless or helplessly corrupt, Christiane describes a family and a community that are incapable of helping those who are young and addicted. This indictment extends to the structures of the German educational system and the private capital interests that shaped her corner of Berlin. Down to the signs posted about the housing project that all but forbid children from playing, her environment fails her. But Christiane’s sense of general disappointment is well tempered by her sense of personal responsibility.

Perhaps the most odious and most improbable of all the tropes that Oppenheimer describes as common to the young adult addiction novel is the unintentional first exposure. But Christiane consciously chooses her substances and her johns; she persists despite her friend’s attempts to deter her from heroin. “Despite what the newspapers always say, it wasn’t like I’d been victimized by some evil dealer or seduced by a junkie,” she explains. “It wasn’t at all the case that I’d been turned into a heroin addict against my will. I don’t know anyone who’d been forced to shoot up against his will.”

Zoo Station is a book with a strong commitment to honesty—even if honesty is boring. Chasing Christiane as she repeatedly chases her fix, shoots up, recovers, and relapses is often discouraging to the point of boredom, but it treats the drug problem in the terms that Jürgen Quandt, the director of a local protestant youth outreach center, is happy to see Berliners embracing: “as it really exists, instead of how we’d like to imagine it.”

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MOON-CHILD


Derek Walcott
Farrar, Straus and Giroux ($16)
by Isaac Butler

Who the heck reads plays for pleasure anymore? Even for those of us who work in theatre, buying a play and reading it for pleasure is a rare occurrence. After all, a script is an incomplete thing, made up of dialogue on the page, lacking either a production that brings it to life or the dense thickets of prose that novelists use to engage our imaginations. During the brief period stretching roughly from the late nineteenth century to the mid twentieth when general readers were buying plays, exhaustive stage directions flourished in part to compensate for this problem.

Yet the publishing of plays persists, particularly when the play in question is by an important author and unlikely to be seen any time soon. Such is the case with the prolific, Nobel-decorated poet and playwright Derek Walcott’s latest Moon-Child, a play that has, to date, only been seen in readings at the American Academy in Rome and the University of Essex. Moon-Child is so deeply untrendy—with twenty-three roles, at least a half dozen locations, mask-work, frequent songs, and high production costs—that if you want to experience Walcott in fable-spinning mode, the printed page is going to have to satisfy you for now.

Despite drama’s roots in poetry, theatre is now so disconnected from its ancestor that few who read Walcott’s poems seem to know his plays or (particularly) vice versa. Many theatre folk may only recall him as the lyricist for the Mark Morris/Paul Simon Broadway flop The Capeman, a show most famous for introducing Mark Antony to an English language audience. Yet Walcott has been working in theatre for his entire career, and is particularly important to the theatrical communities of Trinidad, where he founded the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, and Boston, where he founded Boston Playwrights Theatre and helped birth a local community of writers.

Moon-Child is, in fact, a musical adaptation of one of Walcott’s previous plays, Ti-Jean and his Brothers, which is now over a half-century old. In it, the devil comes to Earth in the form of Planter, who, as his name might suggest, is a wealthy creole landowner in St. Lucia. His servant The Bolom issues a challenge: whosever can cause the Devil to feel “anger / rage, or human weakness,” will win wealth and peace for themselves and their line. Three brothers named Gros-Jean, Mi-Jean, and Ti-Jean (literally, Big, Medium, and Small John) take a crack at beating the devil. Gros-Jean, representing strength, fails when his anger gets the best of him and he explodes off stage during a dinner party. Mi-Jean, representing smarts, tries to out-argue Planter, and dies after losing an argument with a goat. Finally, Ti-Jean, representing innocence, maybe-accidentally burns the Planter’s house and land to the ground, causing Planter “to vex,” and winning the bet right as his Mother dies. The Bolom, seeing the beauty and pain of human life, asks to take mortal form and becomes Ti-Jean’s younger brother. And they all lived et cetera and so forth.

As the story might suggest, and as Moon-Child says itself, we are in the land of children’s stories here. Twice the Narrator character (played, in both of the play’s readings, by Walcott himself) calls the play a fable, first intoning, “No more money under the table / or ripping off the poor / The moral of this fable / is—Innocence is Power,” and, a few pages later, “in this fable her three sons / pay homage to her [The Mother’s] glory, / as you have heard it at least once, / this simple Creole story.” As in Grimm fairy tales, the characters rarely have names and are pre- (or perhaps anti-) psychological, acting without subtext or subtlety, each standing in for some kind of personal quality or value.

Walcott’s choice to write almost the entire text in rhyming verse, alternating between an ABAB and AABB structure, reinforces the Once Upon A Time vibe even as he injects themes of post-colonial identity and the corrupting force of capitalism into the story. “Power enjoys an ecstasy,” Planter tells us, “that’s actual and slow, / that settles on all it can see / and smothers like the snow- / white flowers in the cedar, / embroidering the ground / with petals with as speedy / a claim and without a sound.” At the same time, Walcott isn’t so serious-minded that silliness—including Mi-Jean’s malapropisms and a laugh-out-loud moment when Ti-Jean “eunuchised” the vexsome goat—are beneath him.

Moon-Child is, ultimately, a quite good and sophisticated work of children’s theater—exuberant in just the right ways, simple without being simplistic, filled with moments of stage magic and narrated like a story book—but it may or may not be completely aware of this fact. Certainly the publisher, who decorated Moon-Child’s cover with a weeping mother straight out of The Trojan Women and proclaims the book “a remarkable new addition to the canon of one of the world’s most prolific Caribbean playwrights,” doesn’t seem to be aware of this. Yet we shouldn’t think it insulting to say Moon-Child would make a great children’s play. Children should learn about colonialism too, and, as we’ve learned from The Children’s Theater in Minneapolis or The New Victory Theater in New York, theatre for the younger set can be every bit as creative, thrilling, ambitious, thematically dense, and artistically ambitious as theatre for adults. Now that everyone from David Mamet to Melissa James Gibson has taken a crack at writing for the younger set, it’s good to see Derek Walcott in their company. Welcome, sir.

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PARK SONGS


A Poem/Play
David Budbill
Exterminating Angel Press ($14.95)
by Lynette Reini-Grindell

A collection of dialogues spoken by sixteen different characters, Park Songs opens up the intersections of poetry and performance, reminding us that “play” is a verb. The setting is an urban park—R.C. Irwin’s delightfully freakish accompanying photographs show people in concrete, paved environments, and even the duck pond populated with domestic geese suggests gravel nearby. Characters bump into each other as if wandering through a neighborhood square, many of them hanging out in limbo, waiting to move forward in their lives.

Tellingly, there is a poet, Mr. C., the park attendant. Mr. C. is not a successful poet, though, and he voices the angry thoughts of all unsung artists:

those motherfuckers got a hermetically sealed system and, Brother, either you play the game by their rules or you don’t get in! . . . They’re all a bunch of disembodied, cogitarian dipshits. Ideafiers with hands, eyes, nose, ears, lips, tongue . . . A bunch of crotchless, cockless, cuntless, thinking aparati, lexicalized cogni-buggers, ass lickers and dingleberry pickers, decipherers and dismemberers of The Word!

Budbill’s characters can also be plain-speaking, prosy. But the plainness of the language is deceptive, its rhythmic and vernacular play surprisingly evocative:

Jesse this is Shaun. Shaun this is Jesse.

Hey Jesse. Jesse Hey. Jesse Jesse Hey.
Jesse Hey. Jesse Hey. Jesse Jesse Hey.

Budbill gives instructions for how the play might be performed, in parts or as a whole, with or without music. Skeptical and eager to test the hypothesis, I asked a class of Intro to Poetry students, grumpy from just having turned in their first papers, to read several sections of dialogue aloud. Their moods immediately improved. They loved Park Songs’s humor, rhythmic language, and quirky characters.

The dialogues in the book’s first half introduce us to the characters and their problems: one works in a diner and longs for love, another suffers from a psychological ailment, another is a judgmental but frightened woman, etc. The scenes are slowly pulled together by the inclusion of a few blues songs, two of which are traditional, one original. In one way or another, all the characters sing the blues.

In the second half, the human contradictions develop. And despite that fact that Mr. C. is a poet, he is not the poet at the center of this poem-drama-opera. That honor should be reserved for the character Haal (rhymes with pal), so named because he Hangs Around A Lot. Haal is young. Towards the end of the book he asks the older Mr. C. for advice about a T-shirt business he wants to start, selling shirts with slogans like “Life Hurts.” Mr. C. does not cooperate, arguing the shirts will be as difficult to sell as poetry—doomed to failure. He is the poet who has given up on messages.

Haal, a young man with goofy creative optimism, finally persuades Mr. C. otherwise, and at the end we are left to understand that all the regulars at the park are wearing Haal’s T-shirt. Transformed into poems or lines of poetry, they wander through life, interacting with each other, all publishing their message in a new genre.

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