Tag Archives: Summer 2016

Night Sky with Exit Wounds

nightskywithexitwoundsOcean Vuong
Copper Canyon Press ($16)

by J.G. McClure

“In the body, where everything has a price, / I was a beggar.” So begins Ocean Vuong’s brilliant full-length debut, Night Sky with Exit Wounds. In it, Vuong shows himself to be a master of the lyric moment. With an expert blend of the tender and the destructive, Vuong compounds the contradictions of life in wonderfully impressionistic vignettes that give us the feeling of the feeling, so to speak, without offering us a logical resolution. In Vuong’s world, “entering a song” is “to lose / your way back”—and something similar happens to us as readers of his work.

Throughout Night Sky with Exit Wounds, Vuong turns to history and to myth, allowing them to inform and magnify his poems without ever losing their lyric intensity. Take “Telemachus,” for instance:

Like any good son, I pull my father out
of the water, drag him by his hair

through white sand, his knuckles carving a trail
the waves rush in to erase. Because the city

beyond the shore is no longer
where we left it. Because the bombed

cathedral is now a cathedral
of trees. I kneel beside him to see how far

I might sink. Do you know who I am,
But the answer never comes.

Here Vuong writes a classical figure into the modern day. Vuong’s Telemachus wants to be “like any good son,” faithful to his father. But while the classical Telemachus is straightforwardly the Good Son—tirelessly awaiting his father’s return and fighting nobly beside him toward the tidy conclusion—Vuong’s is a post-Freudian Telemachus, whose loving gesture of pulling his father from the water is inextricably linked with a mode of Oedipal violence, dragging the father by his hair.

What has intervened between Homer’s Telemachus and Vuong’s is not just psychoanalysis, but also the horrors of history. The problem Vuong’s Telemachus must face is not merely a swarm of ill-mannered suitors, but rather the impersonal obliteration of an entire bombed-out city. We soon learn that this large-scale historical violence has also had a directly personal effect on this Telemachus:

The answer

is the bullet hole in his back, brimming
with seawater. He is so still I think

he could be anyone’s father, found
the way a green bottle might appear

at a boy’s feet containing a year
he has never touched. I touch

his ears. No use. I turn him
over. To face it. The cathedral

in his sea-black eyes.

Odysseus is dead; there can be no triumphant return. Instead, Telemachus must be the hero—where heroism becomes the courage “to face it,” to look into the awful face of what humans have done to one another. Telemachus must do this not only for himself, but for everyone, anyone—after all, this Odysseus “could be anyone’s father.” And yet, Odysseus still remains firmly his father:

The face
not mine—but one I will wear

to kiss all my lovers good-night:
the way I seal my father’s lips

with my own & begin
the faithful work of drowning.

This ending is a tour de force, resolving and complicating at once all that has come before. Telemachus in a sense becomes Odysseus, and begins anew “the faithful work of drowning.” Yet this becoming is in some sense a mask—the face “I will wear.” Is this a collapse into the demands of Odysseus’ role, or an assertion of Telemachus’ free choice? The poem offers no easy answers—instead, it leaves us with the haunting beauty of that final line.

While Vuong handles such mythic allusions expertly, he does not depend on them. “Homewrecker,” for instance, is an intimate and tightly-focused glimpse into passion. It is the poem that first introduced me to Vuong’s work, and it remains one of my favorites for its seamless blend of love’s desire and destruction, and for its urgency and its precision. It is, quite simply, a stunning poem.

There is far more to say about Night Sky with Exit Wounds, which explores, among others, questions of war, identity, language, immigration, familial violence, and literary tradition. To do the book critical justice would require a book, so suffice to say that it is one of the most highly anticipated works of the year for good reason: it is a book to be read and re-read, and a debut that will cement Vuong’s status as one of the most important new poets writing today.

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

Six Capitals, or Can Accountants Save the Planet?

sixcapitalsJane Gleeson-White
W. W. Norton & Company ($26.95)

by Robert M Keefe

One could begin with a simple question: “What is the goal of a business?”

Perhaps one response would be, “To make money.” That sounds bizarre though, akin to saying the goal of an education is to get A's. Money and good grades are measures; to place the measure of a goal above the goal itself quickly risks losing sight of what the goal actually is.

So I'll propose what I feel is a more precise response: “The goal of a business is to create value.”

Value, alas, is an odd duck.

Open markets can express value. I use “open” here in contrast to “command” markets, i.e. those where a small coterie (king, dictator, politburo, cartel) sets prices. An open or “free” market is the aggregate of many buyers and sellers setting their fair exchange rates and responding to one another in a certain time, place, and circumstance.

If the time and place were, say, Romania in 2011, the market—at least in terms of music—had spoken resoundingly in the voice of Alexandra Stan. Her single “Mr. Saxobeat” became the first Romanian song to sell one million copies. Perhaps you heard the tune, though given its English lyrics and hyper-sexualized music video, may not have noted its country of origin.

I had a chance to DJ a wedding in Romania that year. I enjoy the challenge of entering another culture and learning what tunes evoke nostalgia, connect generations, and keep a party going. Finding the songs that people value. The couple suggested Maria Tănase, an artist that brought to my mind Lead Belly—someone deep in a national vernacular, but not upbeat wedding fare. At the party, when I played Stan it got some shakes and giggles. But when Tănase's mellifluous voice floated out into the night air of that quiet northern village and reverberated through its once heavily harvested forest, the people—so recently marched like pawns through someone else's wars both hot and cold—all rose and danced a slow folk dance with great joy.

What people value, and what they can or will purchase at a given time, are not always the same thing. Thus it may be foolish to claim markets can say nothing about value, but it is equally foolish to say they should hold a monopoly on the discussion.

Perhaps in the popping of various financial bubbles, a certain wisdom has been laid bare: financial growth is not unlimited and the distribution of financial capital is unequal and tends to accumulate towards those who already own a majority of it. The corrective bends towards redistributing financial capital: the $15 an hour wage, progressive taxation, higher corporate taxes. But is the problem being defined too narrowly?

Enter Jane Gleeson-White's Six Capitals, or Can Accountants Save the Planet? It’s a work more of reportage than avant-garde philosophy, but one that reports on cutting edge ideas in accounting with a keen and strongly critical eye.

Quite a bit of the babble that bubbles from the news of the day is concerned with only one of the six capitals she explores, financial capital. The idea “to make money” may simply be shorthand to say, “to create the highest increase in the value of financial capital.” Perhaps a worthwhile goal for one type of business.

But such a goal, as Gleeson-White argues, is too limited given the impact a business has on the community in which it exists. A business consumes resources (natural capital) and provides employment, education, and a sense of worth to people (human and social/relationship capital). A business changes what value it pursues, she argues, when it’s beholden not only to financial profit and loss but to other measures such as environmental impact.

Of the six capitals, Gleeson-White shines most fully when discussing natural capital, understandable considering the cultural momentum behind the sustainability movement and reflected in her “Save the Planet” subtitle. But for myself, despite the obvious ill effects of not accounting for natural resources, human capital is the starkest indicator of the success or failure of capitalist endeavor.

To be employed at a certain wage, under just conditions and with access to healthcare and continuing education, and to live in safe, healthy, active, and well-connected communities—these are high points of human well-being and dignity. Occasionally a financial market has such vibrancy—say post-World War II Flint, Michigan—to meet such conditions. But if human capital is tied to the perturbations of financial markets, or worse, subservient to them, how does such well-being develop over the course of a lifetime or generations?

One sector, that of non-profits, allocates resources into things society values in arts, sciences, education, etc. that fail to find great traction in a financial marketplace. In effect this decouples intellectual capital from an immediate return on financial capital. Could not a similar sector, adding to the mix of for-profits and non-profits, be developed? Let's call it a “steady-labor” model. Let it be run as a business, but with labor contracts that an outside entity (perhaps governmental) keeps stable. This would decouple the development of human capital from the financial ups and downs of the business itself.

Ultimately, the impact of business on the society that surrounds it is too great to be left in the hands of those who view it solely as a means of making money. That which has gone by the name of labor, or human capital—or, more simply put, humanity—should not be viewed as an expense, but as one of the primary assets to which capitalism must seek to add value.

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

We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s

webelievethechildrenRichard Beck
PublicAffairs ($26.99)

by Spencer Dew

We live in a terrifying world, shielding ourselves as best we can with fantasies that we insist, against all evidence, are true. For some, this means constructing a Manichean cosmos, a battleground between moral absolutes. For others, it means desperately clinging to a self-centered Enlightenment worldview that privileges rationality and individual liberty. Bad stuff happens, so the logic goes, and these systems offer some sense of order, salve: blame Satan or be reminded, in the words of Donald Rumsfeld, that “freedom's untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things.”

How else to begin to talk about the Satanic Panic of the 1980s, or the broader moral panic, as Richard Beck terms it, surrounding outlandish tales of child abuse, many of which were linked to accounts of bizarre devil-worshipping rituals? The standard comparison is with Salem and the witch trials there, the first instance in American law wherein the testimony of children was admitted as evidence. The mass hysteria, the absurd charges, the scapegoating of citizens as part of broader social anxieties: the parallels hold, but Salem was so long ago, whereas the Satanic Panic was on 20/20, boosted by Geraldo Rivera in a noxious and illogical two hours of yellow journalism; it had its days in court in our legal system, took place under our elected government, and unfolded in our so-called secular age.

There were fringe characters, to be sure—Mike Warnke, who monetized the diabolic for an Evangelical crowd, and Lawrence Pazder, who peddled a pulp horror novel as a work of psychiatry—but the most dangerous players weren’t those actively constructing narratives of underground cultists who force children to eat feces and rape them with flagpoles. The more dangerous, more terrifying, people were those complicit in this fiction, individuals who took steps to spread lies even as they insisted we do nothing more than believe. “We believe the children,” said one social worker, “cause that’s our job and that’s, that’s what our belief is.” Or as one book written for the training of counselors puts it, “No one fantasizes abuse . . . Believe the survivor. You must believe that your client was sexually abused, even if she sometimes doubts it herself.”

Beck, an editor at n+1, homes in on this rhetoric of belief, even as he opens the archives for evidence of what this act of “believing” looked like. We’re shown a cop, for instance, twisting a child’s arm and refusing to let go until she “retracted her retraction” to being victim to a sexual act he described in detail. We see psychologists presenting erroneous data in order to bolster the delusion of recovered memory therapy. We see counselors and therapists, proclaiming themselves allies to the children, the victims, victimizing them. “Are you going to be stupid, or are you going to be smart and help us here?” one child was asked by an investigator. With no accusation forthcoming from the interview, the child is told “Well, what good are you? You must be dumb.”

The panic is well-trod ground for non-dumb people intrigued and horrified by this modern-day witch-hunt, and has been covered in books from Jeffrey Victor’s Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend (1993) to Lawrence Wright’s Remembering Satan: A Tragic Case of Recovered Memories (1994) to Elaine Showalter’s Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Media (1997). Beck’s book is a reboot for the contemporary audience, many of whom are too young to remember the events described. His thesis is pointed: the moral panic is what the women’s movement, the sexual revolution, and the reordering of the family wrought. In Reagan’s crumbling economy, with women entering the workforce and, thus, children in daycare, the moral panic was a manifestation of anti-feminism and anti-homosexuality, of anxiety about traditional norms. “The day care trials were a powerful instrument of the decade’s resurgent sexual conservatism, serving as a warning to mothers who thought they could keep their very young children safe while simultaneously pursuing a life outside the home.”

Beck’s argument helps explain the odd bedfellows of the believe the children movement; Anita Bryant, who hoped to ban homosexuals as school teachers, found herself on the same side as Andrea Dworkin, who hoped to ban anything that might fall under the category of pornography. In the panic, all manner of ideologies could be read as leading in the same direction, to the same satisfying purge, the same ravenous commitment to the idea of pure victimization. Indeed, the moral panic was as much a kind of moral nostalgia, apocalyptic desires on play in detailed narratives about evil inflicted on the most innocent of all.

The material alone is so frightening, so demanding of attention and analysis, that it is almost beside the point to criticize Beck’s book for repetition or moments of sag. As we enter another era of paranoid politics, of mass anxiety, and of mainstream discourse scapegoating certain groups—Muslims, Mexicans, transgender folks—serious consideration of the Satanic Panic feels increasingly important, even if such consideration also inspires deep foreboding.

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

Eleven Hours

elevenhoursPamela Erens
Tin House Books ($15.95)

by Lori Feathers

In her new novel Eleven Hours, Pamela Erens unpacks the fearful anticipations of becoming a mother and the painful process of losing one. The story centers around two pregnant thirty-year-olds: Lore, a single elementary school worker who enters a New York City hospital, alone, to deliver her first child, and Franckline, the hospital obstetrics nurse who cares for her. Erens seamlessly moves the narrative between the two women as though the emotions, thoughts, and actions of one also belong to the other, amplifying all they share in common—pregnancy, loss of a mother, and overwhelming feelings of grief, guilt, and superstitious pessimism.

Eleven Hours bears witness to the emotions and pain of pregnancy and childbirth in prose infused with a gritty physicality that de-romanticizes impending motherhood. It is a language that bears witness to the non-negotiable demands of the corporeal:

The universe cannot be good. A good universe could not include the forcing of her child half inch by half inch down the birth canal, its soft head squeezed misshapen by the hugging walls; could not include her own grotesque and agonized prying-open.

During long hours together with little to do but await and respond to Lore’s labor pains, Lore and Franckline share nothing about their personal lives: Lore does not know that Franckline is pregnant, and Franckline is left guessing about the reasons why Lore is in the hospital without friends, family, or the baby’s father. Yet an intimacy develops, one that is somehow more than just the perfunctory trespass of modesties and inhibitions between patient and nurse. It is a closeness rooted in Franckline’s ability to intuit Lore’s fears because they are her own.

A fatalistic outlook grips both women. Lore drafts a twenty-page “birth plan,” a medical directive for herself and her baby that is less about her empowerment to dictate terms for care and more about her belief that something is certain to go wrong. A menu of horribles about her own pregnancy likewise haunts Franckline, so much so that she is keeping her four-month condition from her husband to save him grief and disappointment if she miscarries. These fears are rooted in a shared history: the withdrawal of maternal support and affection when Lore and Franckline both were quite young. This underlying theme of losing a mother enriches Erens’ story about the two pregnancies, because this shared legacy magnifies to the point of distortion the women’s perceptions about the ephemerality of love and life.

In addition to her mother Lore is abandoned by the next most important person in her life, her best friend, Julia. Lonely and impressionable Lore falls in love with Julia almost immediately:

Lore had never known anyone who behaved the way Julia did, who went directly to the important thing, and enabled you to talk about it too. So that you never wanted to go back to the ordinary type of conversation, which was all mask, all a way of never figuring out what really wanted to be said.

It is through Julia that Lore meets and becomes involved with Asa, her baby’s father and Julia’s on-and-off-again lover. Refreshingly, Erens writes about the love triangle not from the perspective of two women fighting over the same man but instead with attention to Lore’s love, including latent sexual love, for Julia. Lore and Julia become shape shifters for one another, attempting to satisfy each other’s need at times for a mother, a friend, a daughter, and a lover. When Lore finds out that Asa and Julia are sleeping together again, Asa’s betrayal is all the more devastating because it is also Julia’s:

And how stupid and arrogant Lore had been, to believe that she could take her pleasure of both of them, yet Asa could remain completely her own. The bliss, for so long, of that self-deception. Julia and Lore spooning atop a pile of coats at a party, dozing, while Asa talked on in the living room. Or Asa would say something that annoyed Julia, and Julia, slender Julia, would tackle him; he’d fake a fall, Lore would pile on. They’d roll and punch at each other like preschoolers, laughing, grabbing hair, baring teeth. Asa’s hand on Julia’s belly, Julia’s fingers grazing his mouth: were these knowing promises of what would be redeemed on another day?

Throughout this beautifully written novel, Erens explores the complicated emotions that connect women and those that can pull them apart, even severing a bond that should be indestructible like that between a mother and her daughter. There is a heavy dose of anguish in these pages and Erens describes this pain so honestly that its rawness is breathtaking. Unfortunately, in a dozen or so pages near the novel’s end, Erens veers away from her tiny cast of mostly female characters and puts us inside the minds of a few of the hospital’s doctors, an abrupt shift that feels disconnected from the narrative. But this is a rare false note in Pamela Erens’ brilliantly evocative novel.

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

Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War

farthestfieldRaghu Karnad
W.W. Norton & Co. ($16.95)

by Mukund Belliappa

For some years during the Second World War, my paternal grandfather, a mid-level employee of the Survey of India, worked in Baghdad. This anomaly—to the best of my knowledge, he never left South India for the rest of his life—had awakened little wonder in me, perhaps because my father’s family is not especially communicative. Besides, my grandfather’s much longer-lived reality—he returned to his wife and children, worked, retired, and then died in ripe old age, all without saying much about Baghdad—made his actual stint there seem not just unglamorous but uninteresting.

Raghu Karnad’s astonishing history, Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War, casts the Indians like my grandfather who served the British Empire in Iraq during World War II in a far more prestigious role. They were members of the so called “Paiforce” (the Persia and Iraq Force), tens of thousands of whom (soldiers, military officers, bureaucrats, cooks, police, mapmakers, surveyors, you name it) were relocated to a sprawling bureaucratic occupation of Iraq. Perennially beleaguered Iraq was to serve as “the final link in a supply chain” freighted with American war supplies bound for Stalingrad, a chain which “kept the Red Army on its feet.”

Fast-paced and sweeping, Farthest Field is a study of the Indian landscape—with a sharper focus on Indians in uniform—during the war years. India was the “principal base for Britain’s war against the Japanese, not to mention the United States’ campaign to aid China.” Indian troops delivered for the Allies one of their first victories of the war in the beginning of 1941, and were among the first to contest Rommel’s charge across North Africa. Farthest Field amounts to an eloquent, and essential, reclamation of the Indian contribution to the Allied war effort. Karnad brings to his project an infectious sense of wonder, and (going by his other writings on the topic in the mainstream media) a crusader’s zeal. The crusade is against the Indian state, which, like most states, likes to keep its history simple: only those who were fighting against the British Empire in the 1940s can be tolerated as heroes by the Indian state. These Indians of World War II are lost “between the closing chapter of imperial history and the first volume of the national record.”

Among these forgotten Indians were three of Karnad’s ancestors, and Farthest Field is narrated as the story of three young men—“three brothers-in-law turned brothers-in-arms”—who were officers in “the largest volunteer force the world had ever known.” One of them was Karnad’s grandfather. All three perished in uniform, though not on the battlefield. Only one of the three is satisfyingly studied: Bobby Mugaseth, scion of a wealthy Parsi family whose motivations for joining the army seem to have been hero-worship of his brother-in-law and postponement of the responsibilities of taking over the family business from an oppressively traditional father. Karnad does not embellish these abbreviated careers with speculative acts of valor or heroic purpose, and yet—such is the elegance and imagination of his prose—any ancestor would be proud of being commemorated in such style.

Karnad is gifted in his ability to digest entire battle scenes, cultures, or mind-sets into a phrase or a sentence. The Parsis were “sporting in business and businesslike at sport.” The British army “opened the roads from Kohima (on the Indo-Burmese border, against deeply entrenched Japanese forces) like roots open stone, slowly, and with an anguish inaudible to the rest of the world.” The Iyengar Brahmins were “past masters at reincarnating ancient privilege in the form of modern success.” A young man who had dared to breach the rigid endogamy of his community was “cut off” like “a limb infected by romantic insolence.”

The one glaring weakness—and one which gnaws as much on the reader as on the credibility of the very premise of Farthest Field—stems from the essential nature of its protagonist, Bobby Mugaseth. Bobby’s tiny community of Indian Parsis were, arguably, the most anglophile, devoted, and trusted subjects of the British Empire, and Bobby’s early life reflects that. Just past his college years (where he was a reveler at “brandy evenings and gramophone nights”), on the sea journey to Iraq from Bombay on a multi-decked transport ship, he is finicky like an Englishman: he “could tell from just the odorous air” which deck was Hindu, which Muslim and which British. After months of training, he is excited about finally “taking it to the Boche.” His best language is English and he gravitates to friendship with fellow British officers with whom he reminisces about the beddable women back at their training station. To a hypothetical English officer with racial feelings (from the litany of gross imperial attitudes that Karnad lists, such Englishmen were surely abundant in the British-Indian army), Bobby Mugaseth must have seemed (to quote Edward Said) “an ontologically funny native, hopelessly trying to be like ‘us.’”

Even as Farthest Field cleaves adhesively to its “Indian Story” (at each World War II battlefield reallocating credit for Allied successes), it seems to abrade that effort by its portrayal of Bobby Mugaseth as more English than Indian. Even Bobby’s immediate kin seem to share this opinion. “[Bobby’s] face was drawn and dark, suddenly like an Indian’s” (my italics)—this is the thought that flashes through his sister’s mind as she mourns over his last photograph, taken after the ravages of war had begun to show on his face. It doesn’t discredit the narrative as much as disorients it. The descendants of the tens of thousands of Indians who served the war effort might, like myself, find little to improve their orientation regarding those confusing times. The chapter on the Indian occupation of Iraq (which promised revelations about my grandfather’s experience) is grandiosely titled “Kings of Persia.” But if a reader has a possibly clichéd idea about how large groups of Indians live when relocated for work to an alien setting, then, disappointingly, Karnad gives the reader little about that period in Iraq that will challenge that cliché.

Novels, according to Novalis’s famous quote, “arise out of the shortcomings of history.” In the case of a writer of Karnad’s evocative powers, it is a formulation that, regrettably, often comes to mind after being first planted there by his stated intention of divining the “interior lives” of his three ancestors by using “fragmented evidence and testimony to build an account of their thoughts and beliefs.” The “interior life” of Bobby Mugaseth is a case in point. “Bobby scanned,” “Bobby felt,” “Bobby’s heart sank”—we are taken so close to him, much closer than one expects to go in a work of nonfiction, that he begins to feel like a character in a novel. I even came to believe that some of the paragraphs might originally have been written for a novel. But that kind of scrutiny only reveals other defects. For instance, the large gap between the abundant joie de vivre with which Karnad imbues Bobby’s pre-war attitude and the moribund desperation associated with his mysterious and tragic death—a gap that is tailor-made for a purely fictional treatment—is hardly intelligible in Farthest Field.

Other scenes in Farthest Field might bring Novalis to mind as well—like the few pages that sketch the journey of Karnad’s grandparents through the mud forts of the Empire’s dangerous Afghan border. He is a junior commissioned officer. She is pregnant. They are yet unmarried. Both their families are rabidly against the union. He is sick with the Asthma that will soon kill him. By regulation she can be by his side only as the guest of a sympathetic senior officer. In situations like this a reader might wish that Karnad’s supple prose had been applied instead to fiction.

Farthest Field is most satisfying as a coming-of-age book; in that incarnation it is a welcome addition to the history of a period which has been too closely tied, on the one hand, to pieties like “the freedom struggle” and Gandhian asceticism, and on the other, to barbarisms like the bloodbath of partition. One can hope that young Indians approach this history in that spirit, because at its core, this is the story of young people, quite like themselves, trying to lead secular and modern lives, with the puckered lips and raised eyebrows of Indian tradition glowering all around.

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

Lady Midnight

ladymidnightThe Dark Artifices: Book One
Cassandra Clare
Margaret K. McElderry Books ($24.99)

by Jessica Port

Lady Midnight, first in a new series of Shadowhunters novels by Cassandra Clare, takes everything exciting about her previous novels and amplifies it. It has a great cast, an enthralling plot, witty humor, romance, mystery, and plot twists that will have the reader gasping out loud. One part murder mystery, one part magic, one part romance. And it doesn’t stop there—this is a book that will make the reader ask questions. What does it mean to love someone so completely that you yourself are thrown to the wayside? How do you move on past love? And, most importantly, what are you willing to sacrifice for those you love?

Lady Midnight features three main protagonists. Emma Carstairs, the central character, is a witty, sarcastic, seventeen-year-old girl hell-bent on solving her parents’ murder from five years prior. She is accompanied by her friends Cristina Mendoza Rosales, a reserved girl running from Mexico City and her past, and Julian Blackthorn, Emma’s Parabatti (a magically-induced platonic soulmate) who is struggling with raising his four younger siblings, the loss of his father and older siblings, and falling in love with the one girl he can legally never have. When they finally find a lead, and a string of murders across Los Angeles, they’re given a week to find the murderer.

Clare populates the novel with incredibly strong characters, from the three main protagonists to the hugely diverse cast around them. Julian’s siblings, the institute’s tutor, and the magical beings in the book all have unique voices and backgrounds. Most importantly, the entire cast of characters is fleshed out in compelling and meaningful ways. The many identities, whether they be bisexual, Latina, or autistic, are never reduced to mere caricatures; each aspect of the characters is shown as deliberate, important, and real.

The connections that these characters feel, all the different kinds of love, create a powerful story, not just of magic and murder, but of family, revenge, and sacrifice. These people matter, and their love is real. And it’s never portrayed as easy, but it means all the more for it. We see heartbreaking self-sacrifice even between children and their family, as when Julian reflects: “It didn’t matter if anyone loved him. He was twelve. He was old enough . . . But the others still needed someone to kiss them good night, ward off the nightmares, bandage scraped knees, and sooth hurt feelings. Someone to teach them how to grow up.”

There are few YA series that put so much emphasis on love and unity between such a unique and widely varied cast, especially ones that aren’t conventional love stories. This novel shines with its focus on all forms of love, “Eros, Philia, Agape” as they say in the novel. Even when it focuses on the romantic and uses familiar and overused tropes, there’s so much else that’s fresh and unique that readers can forgive these moments. Only time (and the next novel in the series) will tell if this forgiveness will pay off.

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

Every Song Ever

everysongeverTwenty Ways To Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty
Ben Ratliff
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux ($26)

by Dylan Hicks

Those who came to love music as adolescent record buyers of the last century often claim that scarcity, limited means, and the nearly sexual anticipation resulting from those factors heightened their pleasure and engagement in the music itself. Pining for bygone patterns of consumption is one of nostalgia’s dustier and more tiresome corners, but it’s perhaps true that the procedures and expenditures involved in hearing and collecting music before the advent of MP3s, file sharing, social media, and the cloud moderately encouraged attentiveness and patience. Support for this claim tends to be anecdotal: the zine review, the long bus ride, the parting with nine dollars and sixty-two cents greasily earned preparing Whoppers, the clerk’s nodding approval . . . from all this one emerged primed to make the investment in time and money pay off through hopeful and repeated auditions of one’s new album. In my experience, this sometimes meant willing myself to enjoy music that didn’t merit the effort, but often it led me to uncover delights not immediately revealed. Probably this speaks more to youthful curiosity and social ambition than it does to how commercial recordings were bought and sold in the 1980s, but surely the distribution process played its part.

Mind you, a great recording will survive various indignities: it will sound capacious on the fading signal of an AM car radio, will cut through the demographically rational but aesthetically errant associations made by a Pandora station. And it’s a luxury—for aging record collectors killing time on laptops, for teenage beatmakers honing their craft in the provinces—to access so much previously elusive music. But recall what follows Orsino’s famous opening lines, “If music be the food of love, play on”:

Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.

If, in the face of unprecedented muchness, we manage not to retreat to our narrow playlists of down-at-heel favorites, we might find ourselves approaching music like an infinite Gong Show, a vast library of unheard recordings just waiting to be silenced halfway through the first chorus. In Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past, Simon Reynolds described this feeling of “glutted” indifference, “the aural equivalent of chronic-fatigue syndrome, where the auditory pleasure centre of the brain is fried after years of trying to process, absorb, feel too much music in too little time.”

Ben Ratliff’s Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty is a series of graceful music-appreciation essays designed for listeners transitioning from being part of “a species that needed to recognize only a few kinds of songs—because only a few kinds were readily available to us, through the radio, or through record stores, if we were lucky enough to live near one—to a species with direct and instant access to hundreds of kinds, thousands of kinds, across culture and region and history.” The adjustment Ratliff describes is profound for all, but it might be characterized as an amplification and acceleration of late-twentieth-century urban advantages diffused to everyone with a computer. Still an enormous change, but in some quarters felt more as part of a decades-long expansion of media and access than as a rapid digital liberation from musical Saharas—and indeed an expansion at the expense of community-building forces not easily replaced. In the ’80s, even in the midsized Twin Cities where I live, it was possible to hear jazz, punk, queer folk, R&B, reggae, blues, hip-hop, country, gospel, zydeco, and many other genres on the “left of the dial” community radio stations that now cling to life; to hear also a conservative range of classical and a dollop of jazz on the big public station; to find Fletcher Henderson and Merle Haggard and international music from the Nonesuch Explorer series at branch libraries whose hours are now often reduced; to share and tape records in defiance of the record industry’s nervous exhortations; and to be surrounded by the day’s pop hits. It was only a few gallons in today’s ocean, and it took some of the hunting and planning oldsters romanticize, but it was a lot of free or nearly free music, more than you could take in, much of it easy to come by. Most didn’t bother, of course, as they still don’t.

In any case, Ratliff, a music critic for the New York Times whose earlier books include Coltrane: The Story of a Sound and the useful Jazz: A Critic’s Guide to the 100 Most Important Recordings, is encouraging us to see “a situation of total, overwhelming, glorious plenty” as an opportunity to listen more widely, attentively, creatively, and idiosyncratically, to spend less time tracking influences or half-stepping from favorite artists to their closet kin, more time searching disparate sources for spiritual and philosophical affinities, ways of musical being that apply to—that are part of—everyday life. “Algorithms are listening to us,” he writes. “At the very least we should try to listen better than we are being listened to.”

His short chapters mostly treat broad qualities not restricted to music, such as slowness, speed, discrepancy, sadness, density, and closeness. For illustration, he looks in depth or in passing at far-flung recordings progressing as on a random-play program that isn’t random—Satie segues into a Ritchie Valens forty-five played at thirty-three; the rumba of Patato & Totico leads to the Rolling Stones. Ratliff is particularly steeped in jazz, but his tastes are catholic, and his listening remains acute and informed beyond the fences of his core expertise. If there’s such a thing a virtuoso listener, he must qualify.

Many of the book’s sentences begin with “I am listening to . . .,” an epistolary or diaristic situating device that shifts us to the eternal present tense in which plots and melodies unspool. Though Ratliff is interested in how history, sociology, and other strictly extramusical forces shape music and our perception of it, his methods here recall New Criticism. The emphasis is on close listening, the auditory experience described without much preamble or garden-variety contextualization. He tries to sidestep the limiting designations of genre, the possible misdirection of a composer’s program notes, and the mythology that overgrows around famous recordings. The effect for the reader is something like a good immersive language course or a simpatico jam session—you pick it up.

Not every music critic—including some of the best ones—are as equipped as Ratliff is to talk about the rhythmic, harmonic, melodic, dynamic, and structural devices through which music achieves its fundamental effects. In describing the Beatles’ headlong “When I Get Home,” for instance, he explains that the “whoa-oh-oh-eye” hook leaps out all the more urgently because Ringo’s crashing underline comes in a half-beat ahead of the one—the downbeat or first beat of a measure, that is, where one expects this particular emphasis to fall —and he parenthetically notes that the vocal harmony on “eye” is built around a minor sixth interval, the same interval that ascends in the two introductory notes of “In My Life.” (Every Song Ever often sent me to my record shelves or to YouTube; on the mono mix of “When I Get Home,” what sticks out most for me is that John’s high, go-for-broke A is quite unsteady; the stereo mix has a more pitch-precise vocal but is altogether less pressing.) The book is by no means dense with music theory, but if you have a scrap of two of training, Ratliff might help you imagine, recall, or understand a piece of music; if you don’t, confusion won’t be significant or prolonged.

He’s also at home in the realms of translation, metaphor, and reanimation where music criticism often thrives, adept at glinting analogies that bring music to the page about as effectively as notation. On “Ain’t It Funky Now,” the James Brown band, he observes, enters softly, “like the team of burglars penetrating the jewelry shop in the Jules Dassin movie Rififi.” The pianist Bud Powell plays “long lines ending with a single abrupt unresolved note, the slanted autograph of bebop.” Another pianist, Hildegard Kleeb performing Morton Feldman’s For Bunita Marcus, plays a two-note pattern “as an eater, holding a fork, breaks the surface of a buttery cake—with the understanding of it as a luxury.” A perfect musical moment “is the song blushing: an unplanned or perhaps only semiplanned occurrence in which the music suddenly embodies its own meaning.”

That buttery cake will feel overbaked to some, but Ratliff is a good stylist with a knack for forceful economy. His description of Tommy Duncan, the nonchalant singer for Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, seems to come out of Flannery O’Connor: “He had a flat face and small teeth and did not smile easily.” Overall his tone, here and there reminiscent of John Berger, is measured, meditative, sometimes grave to excess. He’s occasionally witty but far from jocular. He’s never sarcastic, never in a rush. It’s not surprising that he’s more sympathetic to slow tempos than he is to breakneck ones. Slowness in music “invites reciprocity,” he writes, and “can be the speed of summing up, of finding a way to see life in the long view, perhaps all chapters at once, with motion decreasing in order to be understood.” In contrast, “speed in music is like a sweater on a dog: mostly for show.” His tastes are hardly genteel—he writes often about extreme metal—but he’s drawn to different varieties of generosity, to musicians who draw in listeners through an independent but unselfish stewardship of their talent and of music itself. Respect is a key word. He writes vaguely that “people have been known to hear the foundational examples of slow funk and connote it with love and respect.” Emotive, devotional songs—by Andy Bey, by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan—are in the business of “respectfully acknowledging something more powerful and mysterious than the singer himself.” Thinking of the four descending notes with which John Lennon stretches out the name Julia in the titular song’s chorus, Ratliff writes that Lennon “is having less humble, more complicated thoughts in other darker places in the song, but he will not project this onto Julia. He will sing her name with a more neutral respect.”

As might already be clear, Ratliff is given to aphorism, confident with generalization. He’s interested in listening as an act of ontological exploration, and in delivering his findings without extended deliberation. His philosophical ventures don’t always resound with profundity, but they demonstrate how great music can coax rangy thoughts. In the book’s introduction he writes that the effect of repetition “depends not on one figure being repeated identically and unaccompanied, but on a relative change moving against a relative constant, which is really the key to life’s riddle of time and gratification.” I’m not sure that enhances our understanding of repetition or brings us closer to life’s riddle, but it gets at the clarity that can result from the gradual developments in Steve Reich or Chic.

The reader’s brow, though, should sometimes wrinkle. “With two notes you have structure,” Ratliff writes, “and you are already graduating into the possibility that someone else has played that structure before. But with a single note you have authenticity, because nobody else has played the single note exactly the same way.” It’s not a bad response to hearing Monk linger on a B flat in “Thelonious,” but it approaches mysticism. Elsewhere there’s too much sweep. An example from the chapter on speed: “Like nearly every popular musician before the 1980s, Jerry Lee Lewis played for dancers, which means he played for sex.” That asks too much of “nearly,” and dance, like rock ’n’ roll itself, is a manifold response, often expressive of sex but not its stand-in.

Such qualms weren’t frequent for me, but they intruded here and there, mostly as a result of Ratliff’s willingness to take on large material in small spaces. Stoutly but not grandly, he touches on some of the central debates that have troubled musical aesthetics over the centuries, such as whether emotion inheres in music or is only provoked by it. (In instrumental music, that is, or in the nonlinguistic properties of vocal music.) The former view—that the music itself is sad, happy, anxious, or what have you—is, of course, the popular one. It’s also, I understand, prevalent at various levels of acceptance in contemporary philosophy, even if the matter can never be resolved with the contented period of a closing major triad. In an overview piece called “Emotions in the Music,” Peter Kivy cites O. K. Bouwsma’s line that emotion in music is more like the redness to the apple than the burp to the cider. That squares with most intuitive responses to music and with the view Ratliff holds in the chapters “What If We Both Should Want More?” and “Blues Rules.” He favors a flexible responsiveness laid over skeptical foundations. In “Blues Rules” he writes, “What is sadness in sound per se? Nothing. It doesn’t exist. There is no note or kind of note that in and of itself is sad and only sad.” True enough; minor thirds, for instance, visit many cheery songs without disturbance and often sit out sad ones. “But the construct of sadness,” Ratliff goes on, “and the attendant contract that it helps build between musician and listener, has to do with how we might recognize it person-to-person: through silence and dissonant long tones, or through agitation and mania; through closed systems of harmony or phrasing, or through unnervingly open and dark ones.”

This is a sensitive application of the widely perceived correlation between musical expressiveness and expressive human behavior. We find, after all, that music understood to be sad is often, as Kivy writes, “in slow, halting tempo, subdued in dynamics, with drooping, faltering melodies,” and that sad people often manifest these same characteristics. Exceptions to such conventionally legible expressions are legion, however, and it might be said that musical expressiveness most closely resembles theatrical expressiveness. Interesting, too, to consider how much (or little) these perceptions have changed in average Western listeners over time. Certain historically dissonant, unresolved sounds—the tritone, diminished chords—remain edged or foreboding in some contexts, but by no means in all; we’ve had a long time to acclimate to such sounds, and to some modern ears there’s nothing more cloying and thus provoking of anxiety or alienation than music untouched by dissonance. I would have welcomed Ratliff tarrying longer with these questions. His chapter on sadness concludes with several pages on heavy metal, where, he holds, we find “no more variegated and better developed code of sadness and fatalism, and probably no better managed lie.” It’s a smart challenge to conventional ideas about what sadness sounds like (“subdued in dynamics . . . ”), and a reminder that emotional cues are filtered through cultural and subcultural codes. But the pages soon turn to more general (and cogent) thoughts on metal aesthetics and weltanschauungen. By chapter’s end one feels that the specifics of how sadness functions in and around music, while not abandoned, have been left somewhat suspended.

“I become a better listener when this Bizet speaks to me,” wrote Nietzsche a day after seeing Carmen for the twentieth time. “Also a better musician, a better listener.” Then with Nietzschean bravado: “Is it even possible to listen better?—I actually bury my ears under this music to hear its causes.” Ratliff doesn’t prescribe what to listen for; he demonstrates what that sort of ear-burying listening looks like from one person—careful, broad-minded, but with necessary dispositional leanings. Ratliff is more interested in composition, sound, performance, and affect than he is in songwriting, better at evoking musical gravity than levity. His contemplative open-mindedness can be equally recommended to people who still do most of their listening offline—Every Song Ever’s technological hook perhaps has more to do with how books are sold than with Ratliff’s essential aims. But the essays do seem meaningfully, at least optimistically, current—in their democratic eclecticism, in how they flout divisions of genre, geography, and era.

Because the book is a record of one critic’s deep, concentrated listening, the model it suggests might seem of a piece with the pleasure reading that happens in professorial studies: solitary, focused, a pen in readiness. That’s not the only model Ratliff intends. Needless to say, concentration is the best ally of musical enjoyment and understanding, but strained focus can lead to problems of the forest-for-the-trees type. Sometimes, such as after I’ve brought one of my singer-songwriter projects into a professional studio, my ears have become too anxiously attuned, so that even when I listen to favorite records at home, I’m nagged by every audio-technical flaw, every imbalance and unintended distortion, every surrounding sound: the constant low buzz of our ancient doorbell, the dishwasher hum. Finally, I realize that I need to spend a few days away from music.

And there’s the kind of potentially glorious listening that falls between concentration and distraction, listening summoned when Ratliff cuts to scenes of concertgoers and dancers. On the dance floor you drift between immersion in the music and self-consciousness, between syncing up with the snare and locking eyes with a partner, between wishing one song would last forever and wondering whether another demands the protest of hurried wallflowerdom. In listening with the body, sometimes you disappear—into the plural clouds, I guess—and sometimes the song does. But I’m approaching mysticism.

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

Histories of the Future Perfect

historiesfutureperfectEllen Kombiyil
The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective ($16.99)

by Samantak Bhadra

A normal day in a normal person’s life is extremely normal. There are no blips of exuberance or spontaneous spurts of sadness. Every action, every thought and every morsel of imagination is defined, eventually, by boundaries of different shades. The shades change, the distances increase and decrease as the boundaries heave and sigh, expanding and contracting. What if we let loose the knotted worn shoelaces and maddeningly zoomed in and out and swivelled across expansive distances? What if we stay static at a point and let ourselves radiate into obscurity?

Such are the questions (if they are to be questioned at all) that rear their head time and again in Ellen Kombiyil’s Histories of the Future Perfect. The poet uses boundaries as launch pads to careen from one galactic experience to the other, occasionally returning to the ground—a pit-stop sometimes, a sobering effect at other times, and a smattering of polaroid reminiscences in the gaps:

of me in another life. I am caught
mid-frame, frozen and spliced, this slice
of my life not mine but could be mine,
the heel of my high heel lifting

Kombiyil constantly attempts to fit fragments of disparate imaginations within the width of a uni-directional narrative; moments decked with rich elements shimmer through the layers and build a life of their own. As one starts moving through the poem, these moments come together to create conflicts in one moment while maddeningly rushing back and forth to create a tentative sense of euphoria in another:

Two girls
sweep past—one real, one remembered—each girl
a strong & weak force . . .

Even while collisions—real or unreal, intended or spontaneous, pleasurable or excruciating—are common incidents in Kombiyil’s poetry, there is a lingering sense of detachment, a sense of loss and a sense of attraction-that-detracts. We constantly yearn to hold onto intimate streams of thoughts and memories, and the more one nurtures them, the more they grow and create new canvases. Eventually, the colours and the patterns grow lives of their own and become unfamiliar. It is the same unfamiliarity that has been beautifully woven to expose different experiences of the past and create new experiences through this very act: “the knowledge / that fuchsia can look gray in photographs.”

The sense of incessant retrospection translates into a constant desire to be in transit. An incessant longing for the imagined translates into multidirectional movements that expose the relative ease with which static existence can be dissolved at will. Dissolution of one’s present surroundings leads to free movement that, in turn, leads to rapid mutation of sights and sounds. It is this very experience that is transferred to the third person and as the transfer happens, the very shape of the experience transforms so much so that the memory of the poet becomes a personal memory of the reader herself. The poem becomes a chameleon and creates different paintings for different eyes.

In between the images and incessant movements, one can find the poet imagining alternate experiences through the eyes of Mary Todd Lincoln or Ida Saxon McKinley or even Kurt Cobain. These accounts, too, are not always bereft of memories. An impressive interplay of memories and imagination also help in sending along messages that flow as undercurrents over a long period of time and spill over on the unsuspecting reader. The resulting effect is an instant connection with the raw message, followed by a realization that not much has changed and that a preserved gray memory/message created by a third person can re-incarnate at will whenever and wherever. Take, for instance, “Eliza Johnson’s Letter To Martha, May 1865,” where there is an instant connect with the political atmosphere of our times:

The nation has soured, brother turned against
brother, yet don’t burden him with grand visions.
Remind him, he is a plain man from Tennessee
and too much will not be expected

Kombiyil’s book is less a book and more of a companion to moments, or journeys. As you reach a point of time (or a destination of any kind), you look back at the path you traveled only to realize that there is a new one calling out to you—a new point to travel to, an incessant restlessness. Let this book be your faithful companion as you permeate and mutate and get lost along the way.

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

My Name is Lucy Barton

mynameislucybartonElizabeth Strout
Random House ($26)

by Emily Myers

For better or for worse, every person is connected to a family. This family may come in many forms and levels of functionality, but, as Elizabeth Strout writes, “No one in this world comes from nothing.” We each have people. We each have a story. That’s what Strout’s character, Lucy Barton, discovers through her memoirist writing and reflections on life.

Lucy Barton is a wife and mother of two young girls. A strange infection sidelines her in the hospital for weeks under the care of a kind doctor. Unexpectedly, Lucy’s mother, whom she has not seen in several years, shows up by her hospital bed one morning. The surprising nature of the visit leads to conversations that are awkward and hurtful, but also redemptive and uplifting. As Lucy reflects on this time in the hospital with her mother, she leaves anecdotal hints about her childhood experiences, always doused in grace and generosity for the people and places in her memory.

Because of her troubling past, Lucy writes about her attempts to differentiate herself from her family. Yet Lucy finds within her own marriage, her profession as a writer, and her role as a mother that she nonetheless extends the experiences of her childhood into her adult life. She later mournfully realizes, “this is my story . . . yet it is the story of many.” And her story is inextricably linked to the story of her family, the stories of each person in her life.

Strout structures this book in a modern way, taking advantage of our technology-induced shrinking attention spans: Each short chapter captures a moment in time and thought for Lucy. Eventually threads from each chapter are woven together into multi-colored fragments which, if thoughtfully considered, become an intricate tapestry. And isn’t that how life is—coming at us in bite-sized moments and weaving a complicated, and often beautiful, three-dimensional history? As Lucy says, “I saw then too how our roots were twisted so tenaciously around one another’s hearts. My husband said, ‘But you didn’t even like them.’ And I felt especially frightened after that.”

Themes of family and memory, poverty and superiority, loneliness and identity provide a down-to-earth reflection on real life grace, searching, and the irreversibility of life. Lucy’s daughter says to her, “Mom, when you write a novel you get to rewrite it, but when you live with someone for twenty years, that is the novel, and you can never write that novel with anyone again!” Each day we write our own novels, we tell our own stories. “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” according to essayist Annie Dillard. And whom we spend our days with also speaks to how our lives are.

This is a careful story, a subtle story, and a meditative story. As a novel written in memoir style, it allows us to experience Lucy’s self-interrogation, including desires to remember and speak of incidents and people charitably. “This is a story about a mother who loves her daughter. Imperfectly. Because we all love imperfectly.”

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

Satellites in the High Country: Searching for the Wild in the Age of Man

satellitesJason Mark
Island Press ($28)

by Eliza Murphy

Is the wild relevant? Given the evidence of humanity’s presence in layers of ice, tree bark, whale blubber, the night sky and the atmosphere, have we extinguished the wild while domesticating the planet with pollutants and surveillance systems?

Despite (or perhaps because of) the far-reaching extent of our toxic and interventionist legacy, journalist and back country explorer Jason Mark argues that not only is the wild relevant, we need it now more than ever. “In wildness resides mystery,” he writes, “and we need mystery in our lives like we need our daily bread. Mystery nourishes imagination; it is hope’s fuel.”

Saddened by the academic proclamation that we have entered the Anthropocene, or the Age of Man, Mark challenges this unsettling intellectual posture, which turns us into the “ruler of life on the planet” rather than inhabitants who have yet to figure out how to share the planet with one another and other species. It also sets a dangerous precedent that could be used to justify radical interventions engineered to counteract the ill effects of industrialization and sprawl, such as lowering the earth’s temperature by dousing the air with sulfate aerosols or spiking the oceans with iron filings.

Scientists and thinkers continually reinforce the uncomfortable truth that we live in a post wild, post pristine world. Instead of succumbing to the hopelessness this point of view can instill, Mark confronts this gloomy assessment of our current situation by instigating a deeper probe—on the ground, near fast-running water, within range of wolves and in intimate contact with tree trunks that can wedge splinters into a fleshy foot. The resulting book reads like a nonfiction picaresque. An affable, knowledgeable, clear-sighted guide, Mark takes readers to the heart of the matter, to the core of our planetary dilemma: how to live together on this “overheated and overcrowded planet.”

Not far from one of the nation’s largest urban areas, Mark illustrates the complexities of the wild while reporting on a conflict over the common oyster at Point Reyes National Seashore. Laying the groundwork for supporting evidence in defense of the wild, he offers a survey of conservation history in the United States. He heads into the Olympic Mountains to escape the “clatter of civilization” and asks, “Does a place still have value even if it is of no obvious use to humans?” He rhapsodizes on the “elegant economy of death” when contemplating the succession of life feeding on fallen trees in an ancient process that requires no human intervention.

Reporting from Alaska, “an emblem of the wild,” he spots a red fox well outside its ordinary range on the tundra of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and addresses the difficult decision of how and when to intervene on behalf of the “casualty of climate change.” As plants and animals migrate in response to a warming planet, some of them face extinction because they have nowhere to go.

And what about people—are we or are we not part of nature? Mark asks this very question while visiting Lakota country. He explores historical terrain while wandering the vast territory in western South Dakota, reminding us that we need “the stories of the people who lived here first” to understand where we fit in the scheme of things.

The North American continent is scarred by history—massacres, displacement, broken treaties, bombings. Humans roamed, gardened, built elaborate dwellings, made art, and hunted long before European settlers arrived. America, or the New World, was not the Eden settlers projected onto it. Ongoing discoveries about how first peoples transformed the land add to the threats that put the wild at risk. Why treat wilderness as if it were holy if wilderness never existed?

Mark seeks middle ground. He listens. He watches. He sifts through layers of human experience to enrich his understanding and ours, to transcend seeing the wild as aesthetically pleasing or useful. He does not lament the evaporation of romantic illusions perpetuated by his literary predecessors. This sort of inquiry can only lead to a deeper connection, which is something Marks seems to yearn for throughout the book. “To put the wild into a historical context is to evolve from scenery, to landscape, to arrive finally at place.”

Whether trekking in the California mountains celebrated by John Muir, seeking a place free of human intrusion only to find a banged-up cooler in the far north of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, reveling in the discovery of uncollared wolves ordinarily “held tightly on the leash of our laws” in New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness, or making futile attempts at starting a fire using primitive technologies while “going primal” in the Cascade Mountains, Mark stays true to the journalist’s duty to tell all sides of the story. He endures disappointment when his gear fails, a crew member gets injured, or the weather turns foul.

He tackles tough questions while demonstrating the moral integrity and compassion the wild can offer us. Seamlessly weaving past and current views on the value of the wild and importance of wilderness protection, interviews with members of his excursions and residents embroiled in controversial land use conflicts and personal observations and anecdotes, Mark clarifies the meaning of wild and argues convincingly for its defense.

There are no easy answers to the questions he raises. Wilderness, he says, “builds receptivity,” heightens our “moral obligations to other beings.” While observing a flurry of white moth wings in a dark forest, he invokes Edward Abbey’s appeal to consider the intrinsic value of species apart from human use. “For a being to live independently of humans is, in some ways, the essence of wildness.”

As we shrinkwrap the world with wireless connections, radio telemetry, drones, and satellites, the question of whether wild, untrammeled places are still relevant strikes me as irreverent. “Old-fashioned wonder outweighs irony,” Mark concludes. Few things elicit wonder as readily as wandering long distances in places with scant traces of humanity, as hard as they are to come by. Therein lies part of their allure.

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