Tag Archives: winter 2009

Reading ’til 3:00 am: An Interview with Anne Fadiman

by Kevin Smokler

The work of Anne Fadiman is one of the best rebukes in contemporary letters to the moldy myth that a subject’s size is the best measure of its importance. She first rose to prominence as a journalist via her first book, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, the story of an epileptic Hmong child and her family’s interactions with the health care system in Merced, California, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1997. She’s now equally well known for her two subsequent essay collections, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader and At Large and At Small, which came out in paperback earlier this year. Those books (compiled from Fadiman’s tenure as a columnist for the now defunct Civilization Magazine and as editor of The American Scholar) do for subjects like libraries, coffee, sleep, and ice cream what M.C. Escher did for the staircase: they take a pedestrian aspect of our lives and gently insist we have more to glean by seeing it in three dimensions.

Anne Fadiman is the inaugural Francis Writer in Residence at Yale University. I spoke with her at her home in Whately, Massachusetts, while her dog Typo dashed around our feet and her teenage son Henry practiced guitar in the next room.

Kevin Smokler: I had no idea you and Wendy Lesser were roommates at Harvard.

Anne Fadiman: We were roommates for two years, my sophomore/junior, her junior/senior. We’d met in the fall of 1970, when I was a freshman, in a very small dorm at Radcliffe that had just gone co-ed the year before. Benazir Bhutto and Kathleen Kennedy were in the same dorm. The housing office at Harvard must have been up to something that year.

Wendy and I had a lot in common. We were both literary. We were both from California. But unlike me, Wendy was a mixture of the keenest intellect and the most appealing verve. She had bright red hair and many freckles. She seemed fearless as she moved through the world. She was interested in urban planning and talked a lot about Louis Mumford. It wasn’t clear whether she was going to follow the literary path or the urban planning path.

KS: I have the sense from reading Threepenny Review that she’s the kind of reader who would be less inclined to leave muffin crumbs in her books, and you more.

AF: I think that that’s probably right. I remember that when she was a senior, on her one day off between final exams, she read Pale Fire for fun. She also went to graduate school in literature and I didn’t. So I remained a kind of dilettantish amateur and she became the real deal.

KS: Something I’ve always admired about your work is that it treats lighthearted subjects like ice cream and coffee seriously, and yet also treats serious subjects lightheartedly without being dismissive of them. Being someone whose career and public image has been shaped so much by being dedicated to literature, do you feel sometimes that you are called upon to defend a position that is not you—to speak to those bemoaning that literature is not taken more seriously?

AF: I don’t ever feel I have to defend anything. I don’t feel that literature has maintained the place in the world it once had, and I wish that would change, but I’m not sure that bemoaning that fact is the best way to make it change. The best thing you can do is just write as well as you can.

I’m not a polemicist. My first book, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, is the most serious thing I’ve written. The story of Lia Lee and the larger story of the Hmong are authentic tragedies, and I spent a lot of time in tears during the eight years I wrote about them. But despite what they’ve been through, the Hmong themselves have a wonderful sense of humor. Hmong folk tales, even though they’re full of violence and death, are very funny. Humor keeps on poking through like little green shoots coming up through the snow. The Hmong sensibility made me feel it was okay for parts of my book to be comic, even though most of it was sad.

That book ended up saying some pretty strong things—I guess you could call them political statements—about cross-cultural communication. But any good it has done has been more or less by accident, since I had no idea it would ever be read in medical schools and anthropology classes and so on. I was aiming at a general audience—a very small general audience—and I never imagined it would have any influence on anybody.

My essays have had even less lofty aspirations. They’re not written with any grand purpose in mind, they’re written to entertain me. They are a selfish pursuit. For example, I love the essays of Charles Lamb, the great early-19th-century English Romantic writer. A few years ago, I thought: “Wouldn’t it be great if I could spend a couple of weeks doing nothing but reading essays by Lamb and biographies of Lamb?” That wouldn’t feel like work, it would feel like a vacation. Was I thinking, “Charles Lamb is underappreciated and my essay about him will raise his status in the American academy?” Not on your life.

Not all the essays in At Large and At Small are lighthearted. The last essay in the book, about a drowning I witnessed when I was eighteen, could hardly be more serious. But most of the time, my own view of life eventually reasserts itself. And my view of life just isn’t very solemn.

KS: It sounds like a directed form of goofing off.

AF: That’s a very good way of putting it. Essays are a guilt-free way of spending time doing something I really enjoy that otherwise I’d feel bad about because it would take time away from my work. So I simply make it my work. Teaching is another form of play. When I became a teacher, my husband said, “You have such a naturally didactic personality, you might as well get paid for it!”

KS: There’s a wonderful tradition of turning goofing off into achievement in literature. The example that comes to mind for me is George Plimpton.

AF: Of course Plimpton did reportage, not essays. He’d go out and become a football player or professional golfer or whatever for a while, and then he’d write about it. He’d actually do it, whereas when I’m in essay mode, I just read about it.

My information-gathering method is more like making maple syrup. Up here in Western Massachusetts we tap our trees every March. To make one gallon of syrup, you have to gather 40 gallons of sap and boil off 39 of them. My essays are like that. I read and read and collect a ton of material. That’s my sap. Then I boil and boil, and the result is often a very brief piece.

Most of the essays in both Ex Libris and At Large and At Small started out as columns for magazines. Those have to be a set length. It’s like writing a sonnet: it can’t be 15 lines, only 14. I like that sense of constraint. The result is that the essays are dense—not dense as in hard to understand (I hope!), but dense in that a lot of stuff has been boiled out of them. What’s left is the stuff I consider the most fun.

KS: Do you think if you hadn’t had the opportunity to, say, write about ice cream for a magazine, you would have still written these essays and found a home for them afterward?

AF: No. I like to have a permanent, or at least semi-permanent, home. Before I write I like to know who the audience is, when I have to turn in the piece, and when it’s going to get published. Despite everything I’ve said about my work being my play and vice versa, I do find writing difficult in some ways. I’m not one of those people who can be galvanized to action without an external push.

My husband [George Howe Colt, author of The Big House] and I take turns writing. One of us does a book and the other has a job with health insurance. He’s currently writing, and I’m teaching. So during this phase of my life, my only time to write is the summer. By my own choice, though, my main project this summer has been editing the first few chapters of George’s current book. It’s terrific, so I’ve enjoyed that tremendously. We’ve always been each other’s first readers and edited each other’s work.

I consider my teaching, in a way, to be as creative as my writing, just as I considered my editing to be as creative as writing when I was at The American Scholar. During those seven years at the Scholar I wrote the essays that became At Large and At Small, but mostly I was editing. And people were always asking me, “Don’t you miss writing?” Well, no more than I missed editing when I was writing! And now that I’m teaching, that’s what interests me most. At this point, to write one more essay and see it published in a good magazine would be pleasant, but it wouldn’t steepen my learning curve. I’m still learning how to teach, so that learning curve hasn’t yet flattened out.

KS: I get the sense you like to focus on one thing at a time.

AF: I tend to get confused and unhappy when my mind has to focus on many things at once. I like to move in a deep, narrow track in which I can get really obsessed with something and do nothing else. Sometimes I’ll take a detour and look at something by the side of the road, but when I’m writing an essay, it pretty much fills my life.

It’s easiest for me to stay focused at night. All the essays in At Large and At Small—including “Night Owl,” which is about being a night owl—were written at night. When I’m writing an essay, I stay up a little later every night until I’m staying up all night, and then I’m in another zone where the phone never rings and nothing can distract me and all I’m thinking about is, say, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. When I was writing my essay on Coleridge, it was just me and him for a couple of weeks.

KS: Do you feel lucky that your body clock is such that you can work at night and not have it be disruptive to the rest of your life?

AF: I don’t feel lucky that my body clock is out of sync with the rest of the world and out of sync with my family. Life would be easier if I had a more conventional circadian rhythm. I don’t enjoy lying awake all night while my husband is peacefully sleeping.

KS: I’d like to revisit this idea from earlier that many of us who love books and literature walk around with: it’s this idea that there was a time when books were at the center of our culture and of popular consciousness. I’ve always felt like that period of time, despite the romanticism we might have about it, came with certain cultural liabilities which we forget when discussing why things are no longer that way.

AF: Such as?

KS: That those places at the center of our culture were largely occupied by white men of a single class. And the impetus to read a canonical set of books was largely based on a mid-century drive for upward mobility in a hierarchal society that thankfully no longer exists—at least not in the same way.

AF: When I was growing up and becoming a reader, I had no sense of what was going on in the wider culture. I had only a sense of what was going on in the mini-culture of the Fadiman family. Which was exactly what you just described—but in our family, I never viewed it as a downside.

My father was the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, and he was exactly the kind of upwardly mobile person that you just referred to pejoratively. One of his best-known books, still in print, was The Lifetime Reading Plan. Nothing could be more canonical. It was an annotated list of 100 or so classic books written by long-dead white males that you were supposed to read over the course of a lifetime in order to become an educated person. That sounds terribly narrow, but the fact is that if you read and thought about all those books, you would become a well-educated person. It might be nice to read some other books as well to add a bit of diversity to the pot, but it’s still a wonderful list.

I have an older brother who, if anything, is a better writer than I am. He chose not to become a writer and I did. My family’s emphasis on white males obviously didn’t cripple me. In fact, maybe it provided something useful to react against. In the preface to At Large and At Small I quote my father saying that there are few women essayists. Maybe I became an essayist in order to say, “Says who?”

But I always felt encouraged by both my parents to do whatever I wanted to do. And growing up in a house with zillions of books was absolutely great.

KS: I get the sense that, in that house, you were raised with the idea that reading was a tactile, lustful activity.

AF: Oh yes, lustful to the core! My father thought books were meant to be handled. He dog-eared the pages and wrote in the margins. After our parents died and my brother and I inherited their library, it was like hearing a voice from the other side to read the notes our father had written next to passages he particularly liked.

My parents were both professional writers, but they also did a ton of reading for pleasure. My father was a judge for the Book-of-the-Month Club for 60 years. And while I’m sure many people thought of that as a form of selling out, he was sometimes able to identify a great book like Catcher in the Rye or And the Band Played On before it was published, and to help it gain the success it deserved. He wasn’t a snob. He got just as excited about a good thriller or sci fi novel as about a literary biography.

Many people are still excited by reading. So I don’t count myself among those who think that literature is dying in the United States. Your own book [Bookmark Now: Writing in Unreaderly Times] is encouraging—it shows that there are young people out there who will take literature in new directions that I can’t even guess at, many of them Internet-based. This may not be the sort of thing that I would write myself, maybe not even read myself. But it’s going to be vital, it’s going to be exciting.

One example is the blog. At the moment, most blogs are terrible. Of course they’re terrible! The form is in its infancy. People who used to write in their journals are now writing in their blogs, and they haven’t yet learned the art of self-editing. But I think that in future, the blog may become what the personal essay was in the past. And I find that a hopeful prospect.

It’s fair to say that the average American is reading and writing more words a day now than he was twenty years ago. Things that used to be handled by phone are now handled by e-mail. Now everybody knows how to type. In the most basic sense, everybody is writing all day long. So it would be wrong to say that as a society we are sliding toward illiteracy—we’re simply sliding toward a different kind of literacy. I can’t say I like it as well as the old kind, but that’s not the same thing as saying that literacy is dying.

I concede that an electronic book might have certain advantages. The search function might be helpful if you were reading a book without an index. I might appreciate it if I were reading a Russian novel because I can never remember the characters’ names. That said, I love the physical book, and if it were replaced, I would mourn deeply. It’s not going to happen in my lifetime, but I may live long enough to see the writing on the wall, or on the screen. We’d lose a lot. For one thing, you can’t scribble in an electronic book. If I’d inherited a Kindle from my father, it wouldn’t contain his handwriting.

KS: You say in Ex Libris that the best place to read is in bed. I happen to agree, but my body also associates the bed with sleep. So I’m constantly caught between wanting to read more when I’m into a really good book and dropping off to sleep because I’m in bed.

AF: I never feel myself dropping off to sleep because I’m always in bed before I’m sleepy. If George is away and I don’t have to get up to take Henry to school, I’m likely to read until 3:00 in the morning. That’s what I call luxury. It’s the literary equivalent of being able to eat an entire pint of ice cream straight from the carton because there’s no one around to say you’re being a pig.

KS: I remember you saying that when both of your kids are in college, you could see yourself doing another heavily reported book like The Spirit Catches You. Do you keep that on the horizon?

AF: Yes, I’ve actually got a topic, which I won’t mention here, on which I’ve been collecting information in a desultory kind of way since 1991. There are also some shorter reporting projects that might take a summer.

I used to think I’d be a reporter forever. I started writing essays during a fragile pregnancy, when I was put on eight months of bedrest. They were the only thing I could write in bed. But even after Henry was born and I was vertical and ambulatory again, all I wanted was to keep on writing them. Essays felt comfortable and natural. I’m not a comfortable or natural reporter.

KS: How come?

AF: An essay is always about something I’m already interested in and already know at least a little about. The path of information-gathering is somewhat predictable. With reporting, the scary and fabulous thing is that you’re in the hands of another human being, and you can’t predict what she’s going to say or do. You don’t know whether she’s going to respond well to you or badly. You don’t know whether you’ve prepared enough, or whether you’ve over-prepared and the interaction is going to be stiff. You don’t know if she will be offended by what you write and if you’ll feel guilty afterward.

Reporting has all the excitement and mess of any human relationship. It could be an interaction as short as fifteen minutes, or it could last for years, as it did when I was reporting The Spirit Catches You. Reporting brings fresh air into my life, it expands me, it makes me a larger person. But for all those reasons, I also find it very challenging.

KS: In looking at your work, I get the sense that you enjoy a topic unveiling itself to you instead of saying, “My next six books will be as follows.” For instance, Spirit came about through a conversation with an old friend and Ex Libris was the product of your tenure at Civilization Magazine.

AF: You’re right, some of my projects have been serendipitous. I got the idea for Spirit from an old college friend who was a doctor in California. The editor of The New Yorker happened to pick that proposal—which was full of mistakes—from the six or seven story ideas I’d sent him. Before the piece could run, the editor was fired. I ended up turning the piece into a book so at least it would be publishedsomewhere. In other words, I didn’t plan that book—it happened to me.

But sometimes I do plan ahead. I have folders in my office in which I jot down ideas I want to write about. When I have a column or regular gig, I’m always filling those folders with ideas for future pieces. I clip things and print out stories from the Web. When a folder achieves a certain girth, I know its pregnancy is nearly full term. At that point all I need is ten or twelve days of reading and note-taking, and I’m ready to write.

I may plan ahead before I write, but when I’m writing I focus only on the present. Of course, since I’m a parent, I can never devote all my energy to what I’m writing—and thank heavens that’s the case! I had my first child at 35. I’d been writing for a lot of years before then. But when I reread the earlier stuff, it just doesn’t have as much depth or focus as what I’ve written since I became a parent. I learned that every minute counted. I had to stop procrastinating. A day I could devote to writing was a gift I wanted to be sure I used well.

KS: I read somewhere that William Carlos Williams used to scrawl his poems on prescription slips between visits with patients and remained a physician his whole life. There’s something about that pressure that compels us to a kind of greatness.

AF: “Greatness” is hardly the right noun in my case, but that everyday pressure has certainly compelled me to a higher level of intensity. That’s not the only thing that a family gives you. Falling in love, marrying, and having two children have shoved me more fully into the tide of humanity. That doesn’t mean you can’t write well if you’re single and childless, but I’m certain that in my case, marriage and children have made a better writer.

KS: In thinking about the role literature played to your father’s generation, it served not only as a tool for social advancement but also as an object of lust, of pleasure. It was both functional and hedonistic. Somehow, as a culture, we’ve split those two things: the pleasure we get from reading is somehow divorced from the good it might do us. The thing I admire about your work is it seems to bring those two things back together.

AF: It delights me to hear you say that because it’s an idea I introduce to my students on the first day of each of my classes. I tell them: “The purpose of this class is to erode the line between ‘Ought’ and ‘Want.’”

Here’s an example: One of my classes is called Writing about Oneself. Each week we read two first-person works on a given theme, and then the students write on that theme. In the Angst week we read a section from John Stuart Mill’s autobiography about the nervous breakdown he had at age 20, and then we read Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation about the breakdown she had at 20. Mill and Wurtzel sit together on my students’ bedside tables that week. They’re peers. I don’t want my students to think that Wurtzel is “Want” and Mill is “Ought.”

I emphasize this sort of thing in my classes because that’s the way I live. My bedside table is the strangest jumble of everything from crap magazines to Dickens.

KS: I think that portends a very bright future for the written word.

AF: As if I were in charge!

Click here to purchase Ex Libris at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Click here to purchase At Large and At Small at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Click here to purchase The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2008/2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008/2009

MASTERPIECE COMICS

R. Sikoryak
Drawn and Quarterly ($19.95)

by John Pistelli

If you go to a used bookstore on the lookout for cheap literary classics, you will inevitably run into 1950s and ‘60 mass-market paperback editions of such great books asCrime and PunishmentWuthering Heights, andMacbeth—pocket-sized, priced for the masses, and often with beautiful covers by illustrators like Milton Glaser or Edward Gorey. The epoch that produced these editions—the middle of the so-called “American Century”—was a time of upward class mobility, exploding university enrollments, Civil Rights struggles, experimentation in all the arts, and this country’s nearest approach to social democracy. It was also, of course, comics’ adolescent springtime, from the innocent Silver Age of DC and Marvel super-hero franchises to the vivid, censor-attracting nastiness of E.C. horror tales, from the heyday of Charles Schultz’s Peanuts to the continuing adventures of John Stanley’s Little Lulu.

R. Sikoryak suggests some vital and still-relevant connections between these seemingly unconnected phenomena in his Masterpiece Comics. This odd, oversized volume compiles several years’ worth of Sikoryak’s parodies between hard covers. Sikoryak’s procedure: he chooses a literary classic, usually one recognizably canonical to the average person, and retells it in a letter-perfect imitation of a classic comic book or strip. Like a monk to whom stern physical discipline is spiritual liberation, he carefully observes the rules of the comics he parodies, miming not just their manner, but their material strictures as well—he will, for instance, compress Crime and Punishment into the eight pages of a forties or fifties-era Batman story from Detective Comics, or hew, in recounting Dante’s Inferno, to the strict three-panels-and-an-advertisement format of Bazooka Joe bubblegum gags. This sometimes works in Sikoryak’s favor and sometimes does not; in general, his parodies succeed most when his chosen comics force him to be brief. Inferno Joe, the funniest parody in the whole book, extraordinarily captures in its quick succession of gum-wrapper reversals the mordant Dantean logic by which sinners’ sins redound upon them, while the adaptation of Wuthering Heights, done in the manner of an E.C. Comics horror title like Tales from the Crypt, goes on too long, unfortunately wedding the longueurs of the Victorian novel to those of a wordy ‘50s comic.

Masterpiece Comics also works best when Sikoryak intimates an essential similarity between the two disparate texts he works with. His Peanuts version of Kafka’s MetamorphosisGood Ol’ Gregor Brown, is an act of literary criticism in its own right, reminding us that Kafka was fundamentally a humorist and that Peanuts in its prime circled desperately around themes of loneliness, mediocrity, despair, suffering, and indifference. Not as funny as Inferno Joe and not meant to be, Good Ol’ Gregor Brown really does amount to a masterpiece. But Dostoevsky Comics presents Crime and Punishment works similarly, setting the Russian novelist’s delirious morality play in the garish colors, crazed angles, grotesque caricatures, and lantern-jawed simplicities of Jerry Robinson or Dick Sprang’s Gotham City. The tones complement each other, Sikoryak implies, and the values differ in degree, but not in kind. At other times, Masterpiece Comics elucidates compelling differences between comic and classic. Camus’s Stranger, for instance, hilariously appears as Wayne Boring’s barrel-chested Eisenhower-era Superman; a series of mock front covers for Action Camus clashes the French thinker’s nihilistic plot against sunny Silver Age super-hero iconography to evoke the discord between Existential Paris and a United States grown complacent in the certainties of its postwar dominance.

Sikoryak does occasionally poke fun at the classics themselves. In one of the ‘50s- and ‘60s-style ads that punctuate Masterpiece Comics, a model of the Pequod whaling ship is offered, promising “HOURS OF ADVENTURE, YEARS OF CONTEMPLATION”—a gentle dig at the ratio of narration to rumination in Herman Melville’s great novel. But Sikoryak’s interests and intentions seem to lie elsewhere than in yet another round of simplistic canon-demystifying. The letter columns that Sikoryak also includes inMasterpiece Comics provide a clue as to the ultimate meaning of this collection of affectionate parodies. Generally, the columns feature letters—written, of course, by Sikoryak himself—that ask about puzzling features of the comics we’ve just read, followed by an editorial answer patiently explaining the connection between the classic literary work and the comics adaptation. The paternalism of the old-fashioned letter column might dismay us ultramodern denizens of blog-world, where no authority can ever hope to explain anything once and for all to a permanently atomized audience of competing interests, attention spans, and maturity levels.

In many ways, this radical electronic democratization certainly represents a welcome change from the too-cozy postwar consensus that produced the Vietnam War, even as it gave us the Great Society and Edward Gorey-decorated mass-market paperbacks of the classics. Still, Masterpiece Comics recalls with some mockery but with greater wistfulness a world where a humanistic education was more easily accessible and more obviously relevant to a wider swath of the citizenry, where Charlie Brown and Gregor Samsa seemed to exist within the same order of significance. Later, of course, an all-consuming commodity culture leveled every value to what the market would bear, often in the facile name of progress or rebellion. Sikoryak deserves credit for having embedded, among his book’s many laughs, serious and difficult questions about what we have lost with the waning of a shared humanism, which—though often hypocritical and open to manipulation by elites—nevertheless held out fragile and perhaps even irreplaceable models for other, richer ways of life. Masterpiece Comics turns out, like Dostoevsky or Camus, to be a drama of ideas.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2009/2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009/2010

THE BOOK OF GENESIS

Illustrated by R. Crumb
W.W. Norton Company ($24.95)

by Britt Aamodt

As books sold to and packaged for the consumer market, Bibles have been around for centuries, but there’s never been a version like this. The iconoclastic cartooning genius R. Crumb's latest endeavor is a graphic adaptation of the first book of the Bible, which he set out to illustrate word for word. “Graphic,” however, can be interpreted two ways: not only are the biblical stories visually rendered, but their sexual content is explicitly realized, to the dismay of some religiously minded folk. Objections arose even before The Book of Genesis hit the stands. After all, Crumb is the creator behind the sexually adventurous Fritz the Cat and the con-man guru Mr. Natural—not the first person who comes to mind who might want to illustrate the good book.

If you haven't read Genesis in a while, you may have forgotten that the book is composed of several stories loosely tied together by genealogical recitations. Genesis begins with creation and ends with the story of Joseph, whose brothers, jealous of the favor their father bestows on him, sell Joseph into slavery. Eventually, Joseph becomes the pharaoh's chief minister after interpreting the pharaoh's dreams, which prefigure seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Ishmael, and Lot also make appearances.

Crumb is the Woody Allen of comics—obsessed and self-referential—but his style is unmistakably unique, and when paired with the right content, masterful in its form. Crumb also has the advantage of being able to interpret stories not of his own making. He famously collaborated with writer Harvey Pekar on American Splendor, and his work on The Book of Genesis is another collaboration—this time with a series of anonymous biblical writers or, depending on your outlook, God.

With The Book of Genesis, it appears that Crumb wanted to challenge himself, and what greater challenge is there than putting a fresh face on a text that has been envisioned, translated, explained, and reconfigured by countless scholars and creators throughout the ages? Crumb solves the dilemma by being himself. He brings his style to bear in the fat-legged women, the expressive and sometimes ugly faces, and the choice of how to interpret each sequence. When the Bible says, "Isaac brought [Rebekah] into the tent of Sarah, his mother, and took Rebekah as wife," Crumb makes it quite clear that “taking a wife” is a sexual act. Other illustrators would make other artistic decisions.

The one criticism that can be leveled at Crumb's rendition is the same one often cited about the book itself: the endless genealogical recitations. Some love the poetry of recited names; others quickly flip pages. True to his assignment to reproduce Genesis faithfully, Crumb includes every name and ends up with several pages that would resemble a biblical-era high school yearbook, if it weren't for his peculiar genius. He breaks up the monotony by occasionally creating a scene around the name, imaging a moment of life passing as one ancestor begets another.

It is highly unlikely that R. Crumb's take on the good book will convert anyone to the Christian faith. But as a visual representation of Genesis, Crumb's book unpacks the dense prose and allows readers to re-experience these oft-heard stories through a perspective that is uniquely his.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2009/2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009/2010

ACROPOLIS AND TRAM: POEMS 1938–1978

Nikos Engonopoulos
edited and translated by Martin McKinsey
Green Integer ($13.95)

by George Kalamaras

“He was a born orthodox, as charged by Surrealism as an electrical pole is by electricity. No one could touch him without agreeing to suffer a powerful discharge.”
—Odysseus Elytis, on Nikos Egonopoulos

Surrealism moved through Greece like a wildfire in the 1930s, a period in Greek history ripe for the transformative flames of destruction and renewal. Andreas Embirikos’s Blast Furnace (1935) is usually cited as the first realized Surrealist work by a Greek poet, and Embirikos’s poems were ridiculed, but they did not engender the uproar created by Nikos Engonopoulos. Prior to Engonopoulos, Surrealism in Greece remained largely clinical in its directive to liberate consciousness. However, as Kimon Friar notes in Modern Greek Poetry: From Cavafis to Elytis, Engonopoulos’s first two books were “explosive, daring and revolutionary, outrageously yoking together the most disparate objects as in obedience to Lautreamont’s notorious ‘beautiful as the chance encounter on a dissecting table of a sewing machine with an umbrella.’ A girl’s hair is likened to cardboard, her mouth to civil war, her neck to red horses, her buttocks to fish glue, her knees to Agamemnon.”

Perhaps more than any Greek poet, Engonopoulos took Surrealism furthest, largely because he practiced both writing and painting (devoting himself primarily to painting after 1948). He also leaned more heavily upon the anarchist roots of Dada than his contemporaries, even translating Tristan Tzara in 1938. The poems in his first two books, Do Not Speak to the Driver (1938) and The Clavichords of Silence(1939), fuse the provocation of Dada with Surrealist juxtapositions, exploding Greek poetry into the then unknown. In 1939 he also showed his first paintings, cementing his reputation, as his translator Martin McKinsey describes, “as the ‘bad boy’ of the Greek avant-garde.”

Born in 1910, Engonopoulos came of age during the cultural upheaval of Modernism (George Seferis introduced Modernism to Greece through his translations of T.S. Eliot and through his own poetry, and Embirikos brought the first books of Surrealism from France). He also confronted the dictatorship of the Metaxas regime of 1936–1941. In late 1940, Mussolini marched upon Greece, followed shortly thereafter by the Nazis. Like other Greek intellectuals considered “troublemakers” by General Metaxas, Engonopoulos was drafted and sent to the front. Following a particularly gruesome battle on 13 April 1941, he was taken prisoner by the Germans and held in a work camp until his escape, when he wandered “over half of Greece on foot.”

Upon his return, “a friend of the Socialist Resistance” asked Engonopoulos to compose some topical poems for the Resistance in the tradition of Greek folk songs, but knowing the poet’s reputation, he requested something “less ‘incomprehensible’ than his work to date.” Engonopoulos wrote a series of traditional poems as well as his great book-length poem, Bolivar (1944). Yet Engonopoulos is not best known for these poems of social resistance, and rightly so. While Bolivar exhibits skill in fusing Surrealist humor with the Greek folk tradition, and is cast in the democratized line of Whitman, it represents only a small period in Engonopoulos’s lifelong practice of Surrealism, to which he devoted himself for the next forty years in semi-seclusion.

This is not to suggest that Engonopoulos was not a poet of social conscience. His greatest contribution was to the Greek language, which had been caught in controversy for a century. His often baffling poems fused the common language of Greek (Dimotiki) with the written language of government and newspapers (Katharevousa), which emulated ancient grammar—the language of poetry and the academy. While Kostas Palamas had already liberated Greek poetry by writing in Dimotiki at the turn of the century, Engonopoulos took this further. He wrote anti-poetry, melding words, disregarding grammatical usage, even incorporating localisms and terms borrowed from Turkish. The result was a charged discourse that also complicated notions of class by allowing language to mirror the breakdown of a rigid class structure—reflected, obviously, in the markings of speech.

Engonopoulos’s middle period from the 1940s is perhaps his most accomplished. “First Light,” for example, is marked with humor:

that in me which people
always found so
affecting
—and still do—
is my
amazing
resemblance to
Abraham Lincoln

once indeed when they raised a bronze statue of me
in some square or other in Piraeus
something
was placed
silently
at my feet
resembling
—I couldn’t see much from up there on the pedestal—
a holy relic
or else a copper
brazier
burning with
live coals.

Like Tzara, Engonopoulos adopts self-deprecation in order to critique cultural idolatry. He moves well beyond humor in his prose poems of this period (his genre-bending, another strategy to interrogate poetic forms), in which writing intermingles with the concerns of visual art. In “Four and Ten Subjects for a Painting,” a prose poem dedicated to the Surrealist Raymond Roussel, Engonopoulos anticipates postmodernism, ingeniously presenting fourteen “subjects” for a painting, each of which revises earlier depictions, forcing a recursive reading of the text. Number 1 begins, “Three men. Two of them seated. The third, standing with his back turned to the room’s only window, lets his mild gaze stray across an infinite space,” while Number 2 says, “Three men. Two of them standing, the third is seated in the middle of the elegantly furnished interior, on an ancient marble capital in the Doric mode.” Number 4, simply reads, “Three men, seated,” and Number 5, also brief, extols, “Three men seated. One of them wears a beard; the look in his eyes is extraordinary.”

Modern Greek letters owes a tremendous debt to Nikos Engonopoulos for his daring and courage to push Greek poetry beyond its previous boundaries. As it has done with so many other “lost” writers, Green Integer has made another masterful poet available to our age.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2009/2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009/2010

LAST CALL AT THE TIN PALACE

Paul Pines
Marsh Hawk Press ($15)

by Jon Curley

“The future is only the past turned around to look at itself,” instructs Fanny Howe in her recent memoir The Winter Sun. Paul Pines’s poetry invokes this elegant truth with forceful, sometimes feverish pitch. His new volume, Last Call at the Tin Palace, projects and introspects, cultivating a memory-jogging archive of wondrous sweep. Acts of remembrance become studies in reclamation; the subjects and places these poems consider are summoned with a boundless faith in their preservation.

In the 1970s, Pines owned a jazz club in Manhattan called The Tin Palace, whose spirit is rooted deeply in the poems here. These poems sing, reveling, reckoning, and fondly recalling spaces for devotional reflection. Apart from his preoccupation with song, musicians, and the club atmosphere, Pines assembles lines of lyrical fortitude that vary tonal registers but retain flowing cadences and exclamatory bursts by “the player / playing // the player / being played.”

The book is partly dedicated “To my ghosts”; the revenants to which Pines pays homage are a slew of former friends, musical and poetic mentors, Vietnam vets, and associates from jazz dens, street corners, bar stools, and imaginary zones of contact. These remembrances are nothing so didactic as life lessons, but insist on framing their contents as aggregates of experience conjured to showcase their ongoing relevance to the poet. Exacting attentiveness is a signature feature, and with the candor comes an almost dialogic encounter, as if Pines wishes to beckon his subjects into the present as the reader delves into the past to greet them.

These votive chronicles of a poet’s life meander spiritedly and with almost journalistic flourish. If Pines is indebted to the local New York jazz scene he helped create, he is also indebted to his friend and mentor Paul Blackburn, whose posthumous The Journals is surely a touchstone for many of these poems. Generous use of exclamation points, zigzag pagination, rhetorical asides, dates, and historical allusions—all characteristic of Blackburn’s work—invite comparison but in no way denotes imitative reduction. Pines has taken the colloquial and encompassing vision of his forbear and charged it with his own.

Because Pines roves widely and noisily through the past, the poems jostle each other, upending any smoothness or drab continuity. Moreover, the illustrations by Wayne Atherton—dizzying collages that echo the poetic content with anarchic charm—tend to infuse the poems with a kind of grounded dissonance. Overall, Last Call at the Tin Palace venerates the micro and macro phenomena which crowd the poets’ lives—his and others—and demonstrates a pluralistic fullness that makes the collection entertaining. Yet for all the ecstasy there is also elegy, and the recorder of past lives must blaze a trail of tears as well as paths of illumination. Paul Pines, poet-archivist, manages to capture “a quicksilver tear / in its atmospheric gaze,” guaranteeing that the present looks back at itself truthfully, forcefully, and with appropriate sentiment.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2009/2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009/2010

DANCE DANCE REVOLUTION

Cathy Park Hong
W.W. Norton & Co. ($14.95)

by Dale Terasaki

When one thinks of the thematic territories explored by Asian American poets, it is reasonable to conjure up images of the common immigrant experience, of unique family dynamics, or of self-discovery amidst conflicting cultural pressures. Yet Cathy Park Hong proves that ethnic background is not simply a funnel that limits the scope of imagination. Rather, it is a lens through which the ever-shrinking world around the poet is clarified and magnified. In an interview withPoets & Writers, she aligns with this concept: “I’m not saying that my ethnic identity plays a scant role, but it's now more temperament rather than a subject matter.” Hong’s sophomore release, Dance Dance Revolution, employs an unapologetic linguistic energy and a grasp of recent Korean history to forge a story that is both light-hearted and worldly, both comically absurd and solemnly nostalgic.

The overarching narrative of the book takes place in 2016 in a city somewhat like Las Vegas, where tourists can enjoy material luxuries from all around the world at various themed hotels. The protagonist, referred to as “the historian,” arrives in this manufactured melting pot of cultures to interview her father’s ex-lover, known as “the guide.” But this book is perhaps most characterized by Hong’s invented language “Desert Creole” that is spoken by the guide and recorded as poem. In her first book, Translating Mo’um, Hong writes: “What are the objects that turn me on: words.” Desert Creole, then, embodies a form of hyper-indulgence as it draws from numerous languages: English, Spanish, Korean, and some form of Caribbean pidgin, to name a few. It is this complex, messy world that Dance Dance Revolutionbegins to dissect and expose to readers.

Ironically, the guide character is both assimilative and authoritative with language. In the past, she was considered the voice of a revolution:

. . . Dim call me voice o Kwangju
uprising’s danseur principal . . . but samsy, es funny,
I’s voice o Kwangju since dim multitudes who
Cryim fo acceptance shun mine presence . . .

. . . I’s lose me wig en passion o rally,
mine ball had nekked, mine oysta eyes
filla-up wit wadder, stommpim podium,
spout ricanery to rally crowd . . .

This powerful recollection of a political uprising suggests Hong’s conviction to keep the past alive through story. The reader focuses less on the language itself—which is rendered somewhat arbitrary by Hong—and more so on the image and “passion o rally.” Her nod to this event is dynamic. It is as though the historical incident is being projected into the future, where it can survive and teach a world that is growing but really shrinking due to globalization.

Despite the guide claiming “no relation / ta Hapanese dance game . . . ipso facto no dancing / eider in de revolution,” the title is a nod to the popular exercise-like video game in which players mimic the dance “moves” appearing on a screen. Is this simply a flippant attempt to attract a younger audience? On the contrary, it sets in motion various themes of mimicry and of disobedience. Poems such as “The Lineage of Yes-Men,” “Cholla Village of No,” and “New Town” give a glimpse into the challenges of liberty. In the latter, we read, “Law / is the sin of choice.” Hong complies with very few grammatical “laws” and remains free to invent, to choose a new world that suits her imaginative project.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2009/2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009/2010

BORN TO RUN: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen

Christopher McDougall
Knopf ($24.95)

by Scott F. Parker

The spur that starts Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run in motion is a pain that appears in his foot when he runs. McDougall’s search for a remedy leads him to the Tarahumara Indians of the Copper Canyons in Mexico, a legendary tribe whose members, even its elderly members, participate in ridiculously long races without suffering injury. In the course of his journeys, McDougall meets a number of interesting real-life characters, including the mysterious Caballo Blanco, an expat living with the Tarahumara, who introduces McDougall to the tribe. The narrative arc of the book involves McDougall and the “White Horse” organizing a race between select U.S. ultramarathoners and the Tarahumara. Alongside the narrative, McDougall presents startling evidence and reaches extraordinary conclusions about how much of our common sense about running is wrong.

Unfortunately, McDougall tries too hard to prove that the Tarahumara’s way of life is in all aspects better than the Western way. There’s an extra-textual reason that may vindicate him—the Tarahumara’s land is being encroached upon by roads built by the Mexican government in complicit assistance of drug cartels that McDougall and Caballo Blanco wish to thwart by calling positive attention to the Tarahumara—but the book suffers for it. McDougall forgoes his claims of objectivity when he moves from extolling Tarahumara-style running to pleading for Tarahumara-style living, saying that if we learn to live like the Tarahumara, not only will we enjoy running, be injury-free, and eliminate obesity, but we will also eliminate depression, heart disease, cancer, and crime. These hyperbolic claims risk undermining the real virtues of his book.

And these virtues are substantial. Too many running books encourage readers to awe over accomplished runners and only promote running insofar as the accomplished runners’ stories are inspirational. Born to Run does something different. It actively promotes running by underscoring its universality in two distinct but related ways. First of all, McDougall makes the joy of running palpable. The emphasis in his writing is not on training schedules or impressive times. Even when he’s writing about some of the best ultra-runners in the world, his focus remains on the intense and often rapturous subjective experiences running cultivates:

I got a shock of my own when I hit the river. I’d been concentrating so much on watching my footing in the dark and reviewing my mental checklist (bend those knees . . . bird steps . . . leave no trace) that when I started to wade through the knee-deep water, it suddenly hit me: I’d just run two miles and it felt like nothing. Better than nothing—I felt light and loose, even more springy and energized than I had before the start.

The second really brilliant thing about McDougall’s book is more complicated. One of the lessons that McDougall learns from the Tarahumara is that anyone can run long distances. The big picture story is this: Far back in our evolutionary past, one of the key attributes that allowed our species to excel was our ability to run; we evolved because we could run, and therefore we evolved to run. It follows that the average person should still be able to run long distances. The fact that the average person cannot do so without incurring injury forces us to ask why.

And so McDougall’s driving question: What makes the Tarahumara different? The answer is that the way the Tarahumara run is quite different from the way most Westerners run. The Tarahumara avoid injury because they’ve managed to stick to running the way humans evolved to run, and they’ve done this mostly by remaining low-tech. There’s a frightening correlation between the development of expensive, air-cushioning, arch-supporting shoes and running injuries. Born to Run is at its best when McDougall is investigating these sorts of concerns; McDougall writes these sections well and makes a rock-solid case for running as close as possible to how our ancestors ran.

The argument for running closer to our natural state is finding traction among runners. It’s an argument that will find sympathetic ears in Michael Pollan’s readership and other groups who see that who we’ve been has relevance for who are, and the longer we’ve lived a certain way the wiser we would be to trust there’s a reason for it.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2009/2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009/2010

HIDING MAN: A Biography of Donald Barthelme

Tracy Daugherty
St. Martin’s Press ($35)

by Jacob M. Appel

When hiring short story author Donald Barthelme (1931-1989) for the managing editorship of Location magazine in 1962, art critic Thomas Hess advised his new employee, “The only adequate criticism of a work of art is another work of art”—wisdom that became Barthelme’s own literary battle cry. So Barthelme would undoubtedly be pleased with his first full-scale biography, Hiding Man, a genuine literary masterpiece penned by his former student, Tracy Daugherty. The volume, which is both a narrative of the writer’s life and an effort to situate his work within a larger literary landscape, promises to do for the legacy of its underappreciated subject what Raymond Weaver’s Man, Mariner and Mystic did for Herman Melville and what Thomas Beer’s A Study in American Letters did for Stephen Crane. One cannot read this book without recognizing that Barthelme was the dominant writer of his generation or that Daugherty will be one of the leading literary biographers of his own.

From the publication of his first story collection, 1964’s Come Back, Dr. Caligari, to his premature death from poorly-treated throat cancer, Barthelme served as the iconic father of the literary movement now known as American post-modernism. In doing so, he relied heavily on his knowledge of avant-garde movements in other fields. His father was a leading modernist architect and he spent much of his youth in Houston’s “black” jazz clubs, listening to musical innovators such as Lionel Hampton and Peck Kelly. He reviewed movie for the Houston Post. Later, Barthelme served as director of Houston’s Contemporary Arts Museum, where he became an intimate of Elaine de Kooning. These non-literary forces played a significant role in the development of Barthelme’s own work, but it requires a scholar heavily versed in music, painting, and cinema to recognize the specific contributions. Daugherty, who clearly loves these creative forms as dearly as his mentor did, is an excellent tour guide for this cross-form journey. His reflections upon Barthelme’s influences, from Hemingway’s prose to Antonioni’s films, are gems of cultural criticism in their own right. Read alongside this biography, challenging Barthelme works likeThe Dead Father and “See the Moon” become readily accessible.

If his wide knowledge of the creative arts inflected Barthelme’s work, the other inescapable through-line of his life was his love of women. His four marriages, and numerous intermittent romances with such luminaries as author-activist Grace Paley and power agent Lynn Nesbit, form a compelling fugue that drives Daugherty’s tale. The personalities of his wives—the “imperious and inapproachable” Marilyn Marrs, “earth mother” Helen Moore, “ethereal” and “scary-fairy” Birgit Englund-Peterson, and “Goody Two-shoes” Marion Knox—make for vivid story-telling. What is most striking, however, is the tension between Barthelme’s conservative Catholic upbringing and his embrace of the liberated social and sexual mores of New York City’s Greenwich Village. Daugherty does a masterful job of evincing these tensions, and showing how they manifest themselves in such definitive Barthelme works as Snow White and “Me and Miss Mandible.” He also offers an insightful and even-handed assessment of the accusations of sexism leveled against the International PEN Congress in 1986, an event Barthelme helped to organize, and that ultimately led to his break with Paley.

Yet Daugherty’s work is as much concerned with his subject’s artistic legacy as it is with his complex and turbulent life. The most visible part of Barthelme’s influence upon today’s literary landscape is the relentless support he displayed toward a generation of aspiring writers—from Paley, who likely would never have published her second collection without Barthelme’s urging, to the young Thomas Pynchon, who penned Gravity’s Rainbow while living rent-free in the basement of Barthelme’s 11th Street walkup. Less recognized is the degree to which Barthelme influenced The New Yorker, itself the dominant literary publication of its era. Epic stylistic battles between Barthelme and his more conservative editors, Roger Angell and William Shawn, helped to open that magazine’s doors to a generation of writers whose sensibilities extended beyond Joseph Mitchell’s verbal portraits and John Cheever’s suburban send-ups. (Barthelme won many of these skirmishes, although not his perennial struggle against the mandatory “serial comma” that defined Shawn’s editorship.) In fact, Barthelme proved so influential at the peak of his career that pranksters published stories under Barthelme’s name in several leading literary journals, including The Georgia Review, forcing the befuddled author to pen a rebuttal to The New York Review of Books, in which he denied responsibility for these pastiches.

One of the major features of Barthelme’s prose was the unabashed use of time-sensitive materials in his writing, a choice that Daugherty recognizes as risky:

If a sculptor places a metal pipe in the center of his piece and then it tarnishes over time, darkening, flaking, the new hue and texture will alter the entire structure, and will change the viewer’s response. The trick is to choose materials that will change in interesting ways, but this is difficult to predict.

This grounding in a specific cultural moment adds to the emotional power of Barthelme’s work, but it also may explain why his reputation has waned. It has become something of a convention among scholars of the American short story to compare Barthelme’s legacy with that of Raymond Carver (1938-1988), the blue-collar realist who also died in his prime. Daugherty makes a concession to this mania, noting “Don had been the most imitated short story writer in the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Raymond Carver could now [in the 1980s] claim that distinction.” At the same time, the biographer does not devote much time to this rather fruitless comparison—which, considering the decidedly different artistic projects embraced by these authors, is no more productive than comparing the legacies of Robert Frost and Sylvia Plath. Daugherty takes us beyond this hollow paradigm of post-modernism versus minimalist realism. Moreover, he appears to believe that Barthelme’s reputation will see a resurgence, as the time is ripe for what Lois Zamora has called a “critical repositioning” of the Barthelme corpus.

During the late 1970s, critics Josephine Hendin and Gore Vidal spearheaded a determined rejection of Barthelme and his aesthetic, which John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction (1978) went on to describe as “enfeebled.” The reviews of Barthelme’s final collection published during his lifetime, Overnight to Many Distant Cities (1983), proved outright damning. Jonathan Penner’s Washington Post attack was all-too-representative. According to Penner, the volume “repels any understanding whatsoever” and “What this book says is that nothing can be said. . . . Life means nothing, art is false.” Yet Barthelme’s clever use of word play and lyrical rhythms, his emphasis on irony and humor, and his willingness to break rules for the sake of truth are the hallmarks of much of contemporary short fiction. Furthermore, his insistence that characters have rich internal lives, reflecting authentic patterns of psychological development, is as important a component of any 21st-century story as the vivid external panoramas drawn by the realists of the 1980s. Barthelme’s impact can be seen in the writings of such rising masters as Kevin Brockmeier, Dan Chaon, Roy Kesey, Karen Russell, and Wells Tower. Daugherty points out that, “Of the twenty-two pieces in the annual O. Henry Prize Stories published just before [Barthelme’s]Sixty Stories appeared [1981], all were ‘realistic’”—and most were defined by “minimalism.” In contrast, only a handful of the stories in this year’s O. Henry Prize collection could be described as pure realism, and none are even remotely minimalistic. This belies the widely-accepted historical narrative in which Barthelme’s post-modernism fought a word-to-word battle royal against the minimalist realism of Raymond Carver and Bobbie Ann Mason, and lost. Rather, today’s best short fiction is a hybrid of the post-modernism of the 1970s, the realism of the 1980s, and the magical realism of figures like Robert Olen Butler that dominated the form during the 1990s.

Daugherty’s treatment of Barthelme’s career is comprehensive and definitive. (The only item missing from the work is any discussion of the 1986 attack on news anchor Dan Rather, which—in one of cultural journalism’s stranger salvos—Harper’s writer Paul Limbert Allman has accused Barthelme of orchestrating.) One turns the final page of Hiding Man convinced that Donald Barthelme was the most important and distinctive writer of his age. Daugherty makes a compelling case that he is also the most influential unread author in United States history. Undoubtedly, when Barthelme assumes his rightful place at the forefront of the American literary canon, Daugherty’s beautifully crafted tribute will be remembered as the original source of this much-needed and long-deserved rehabilitation.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2009/2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009/2010

TEACHING CRITICAL THINKING : Practical Wisdom

bell hooks
Routledge ($24.95)

by Jay Besemer

Prominent African American feminist educator and cultural critic bell hooks continues her important "teaching trilogy" with Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom. This engaging and thought-provoking volume differs slightly from the previous two books in the series in that it consists of thirty-two mini-essays written from her rich dialogue with colleagues and students. Building on and refining themes from Teaching to Transgress and Teaching Community, hooks continues to think and write critically about the practice of education—and the often hostile, violent nature of the academic environment.

The violence hooks observes is not always or only a physical violence; here, her work is concerned primarily with a pervasive ideological, spiritual, and emotional kind of violence against which all learners and educators must struggle. Yet Teaching Critical Thinking is a book permeated with love and hope, not fear. Like its two siblings, this volume combines ideas from thinkers usually assumed to be unrelated to one another. For example, liberation pedagogy theorist Paulo Friere and Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh are two of hooks's own greatest teachers outside the classroom, and they are mentioned many times and in many contexts within the pages of Teaching Critical Thinking. As always in hooks's work, these fertile and occasionally surprising syntheses help readers jump-start their own ideas.

One prevalent theme throughout this book is the influence of corporate capitalism on the type and content of instruction in formal education. Here hooks focuses on the way corporate concerns shape higher education in particular, from student goals and motivations to the working environments and conditions of laborers at academic institutions. This discussion also helps clarify the importance of hooks's ideas beyond the college campuses on which students and educators struggle toward a nebulous and high-stakes future. When the unique human attribute of critical thinking—the ability to look beyond the surface of our life circumstances, our choices and actions, and the decisions of those we allow to take action on our behalf—is not developed, exercised, or even encouraged, the quality of our lives is adversely affected.

Writing personally about the impact of critical thinking outside of academic discourse, hooks shares how that practice works to enrich her life: "Seeking to know and understand fully gave me a way to create whole pictures in my mind's eye, pictures that were not simply formed through reaction to circumstances beyond my control." A page later, she adds,

There are many circumstances faced by ordinary folk that require them to examine reality beyond the surface, so that they can see the deep structure. These circumstances may lead them to ponder the question of who, what, where, when, how, and why and thereby start on the path of critical thought. When we accept that everyone has the ability to use the power of mind and integrate thinking and practice we acknowledge that critical thinking is a profoundly democratic way of knowing.

Framed in this way, critical thinking is not the abstract activity of some sort of privileged intellectual elite, and its application transcends the limits of the personal or national. Seeing and connecting both the "deep structure" and the broad view allows us to move more freely and more compassionately between the multiplicities of selves, cultures, and identities—between contexts, meanings, and languages—in a way that honors differences yet fosters unity.

A skill that enables people to ask themselves about the "who" and "why" of any situation is indeed democratic—and it is potentially deeply disruptive to the status quo. Yet in English and Humanities departments across the nation—departments in whose courses critical thinking skills are traditionally taught—we hear about business leaders decrying the lack of critical thinking and problem-solving skills in their employees. One need not be overly cynical to see that business leaders naturally prefer critical thinking that does not lead in a direction that irreconcilably contradicts the goals of global capitalism. But hooks has a much more holistic view of the place of engaged reflection in a global context. Acknowledging her own perspective as an educator, she writes, "We need education that addresses the world's diversity. . . . More than ever before, students and teachers need to fully understand differences of nationality, race, sex, class, and sexuality if we are to create ways of knowing that reinforce education as the practice of freedom."

The nature of education is changing. Students seek undergraduate and graduate degrees primarily as credentials for employment; at this moment, the overall joy of learning and the exploration of ideas seem to motivate students less than the need to appear attractive to potential employers. Although that need is certainly legitimate and has always molded higher education as an institution in the U.S. to some extent, many stakeholders in education—students, administrators, educators, student services staff, corporate-sector members of Boards of Regents and Trustees—now seem to be wary of learning, encouraging, or supporting any ways of knowing that are not directly accountable to employers' interests.

Positing education as the practice of freedom to balance against (or as an antidote to) the notion of education as credential-collecting, Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom seeks to help engaged educators navigate the contradictions and challenges of the academy so as to fulfill our mandate to be of compassionate service to students—as whole people, not simply as someone's future employees. To be of service in this context, hooks suggests, we must recognize that we are whole people ourselves, and let our students see that, like them, we struggle and learn and love, we fail and grieve and continue to try. Readers who do not see themselves as educators or students will still find many nourishing and challenging ideas on these pages.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2009/2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009/2010

THE POSSIBLE LIFE OF CHRISTIAN BOLTANSKI

Catherine Grenier and Christian Boltanski
translated by Marc Lowenthal
MFA Publications ($35)

by Mason Riddle

When Christian Boltanski describes his 2004 interview sessions with art historian Catherine Grenier as “psychoanalysis” or “confessions,” the French conceptual artist is spot on. Translated into a 200-plus-page Q & A memoir, The Possible Life of Christian Boltanski reads as part sober rumination and part look-at-me exposé covering all manner of topics, including the artist’s childhood, family, career, marriage, friendships, successes, failures, and ongoing cogitation on death. The roughly chronological, oral autobiography is divided into seventeen chapters with titles as straightforward as “Beautiful Photographs” and as evasive as “Tell the Truth?” According to Grenier, the weekly interviews “followed a strict guiding principle: to narrate his life as well as his work, and to avoid modifying or censoring anything that was said.”

The first chapter, “Childhood,” starts before Boltanski was born, and revealingly sets the stage for his later artistic explorations of childhood, memory, identity, absence, and death. We learn that the artist was the youngest of three boys born to a Jewish physician father and a Catholic writer-intellectual mother. Boltanski deftly constructs, often with humor, a portrait of an idiosyncratic family whose members never went outside alone, rarely bathed, and all slept in the same bedroom, even though they lived a bourgeois life in a large apartment in Paris. For instance, he says his father “was so detached from the world—no desires, no friends, nothing . . . I never knew him to have a friend, I never saw him go into a café. It just didn’t happen.”1 During the war his mother feigned divorce and hid her husband under the floorboards—although the artist concedes his father must have come up for air occasionally, as he was conceived in 1944—and Boltanski comments frequently how the Shoah was like a shroud over his youth.

At age thirteen Boltanski decided to be an artist. He had made a little object from modeling clay that his brother Luc told him was beautiful, and that was that. His career of mixed media installations, photographs, films, and performances had been launched by a lump of clay, even though he never went out alone until age eighteen, lived at home into his late twenties, and played with toy soldiers until he was thirty-five. He believes his “real work” began in 1969; by the mid-1980s Boltanski was an artist of international acclaim. Speaking of his career in the context of his family, Boltanski states, “I was really incredibly lucky to become an artist, because we lived in a general atmosphere of danger, a fear of life.”The Possible Life, in fact, riffs on the title of Boltanski’s first film, La Vie Impossible de Christian Boltanski, made in 1968.

In addition to getting a bead on his formative years, Boltanski provides a quirky, bird’s eye view of the Parisian and New York art scenes; he also discusses his many projects and their raisons d’être, candidly speaking about his successes and failures with both gallery and museum exhibitions. We are informed that his work draws on experiences of Communism, Nazism, and Christianity, the terrors of war and evil, and that Boltanski sees himself firmly lodged in the 20th century. “My forms change, but my preoccupations remain Existentialist, even if I was unaware of those ideas that the time. I’ve still read very little Camus . . . yet I belong to that current of thought.” He also labels himself an Expressionist and is interested in investing his work with “emotion.” The book provides valuable insight about his perceived aesthetic relationship to such artists as Gilbert & George, Beuys, Warhol, Fellini, Giacometti, Duchamp, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and the late Pina Bausch.

It may provoke art aficionados to learn that Boltanski feels his truly creative period began when he exhibited at the 1972 Documenta and ended in 1994, even though he continued to create and exhibit art. He now considers himself an “artist of space” and claims the notion of space is central to his work. Boltanski also views himself at odds with much of the contemporary art world. In the chapter “Artistic Affinities” he comments,

One thing that really irritates me is that a large portion of art today doesn’t talk about life, but instead talks about art . . . today, art that’s concerned with reflecting on art just goes in circles; it’s like kicking yourself. Moreover, I loathe the whole “little play on words” thing. Turning quotations into conceptual jokes seems rather rude to the artists who get looked down on, and I don’t see the point to it.

The Possible Life is a meandering but fascinating memoir that at times doubles back on itself—but then, perhaps, that’s the beauty of an endless, uncensored interview. There are also numerous contradictions. For example, early on Boltanski reflects on his happy childhood saying, “My parents would take me to school and come to pick me up.” Just a few pages later he describes his childhood as “one with lots of freedom: for instance, I didn’t have to go to school. Deep down, I think they [parents] were delighted that I didn’t go.”

Marc Lowenthal’s translation reads well except for some questionable word choices, such as when Boltanski says, “for an artist to do something, he or she must be surrounded by a whole compost of people.” The only real flaw in the book is the relative dearth of images. Even those familiar with Boltanski’s oeuvre can become lost in the in-depth discussion of his various series of works; for the uninitiated, the lack of visual reference might be cause to stop reading. At the very least, a chronology and an index would have helped the reader trace certain works, themes, and exhibitions across the text.

These minor flaws aside, The Possible Life is an inspired book that prompts the reader to ponder one’s own childhood and mortality. Boltanski’s thoughts on these topics are often unexpectedly enlightening, but in the end, it is important to keep a bit of “distance”—a quality Boltanski believes is critical to his art. On the first page he states, “What I love about memories is the mix of clarity and confusion. But as everybody knows, early memories are almost always invented . . . I think very early memories always correspond to a feeling: they’re visions.” On the final page Boltanski admits, “I am an incredible liar. I think lying is a positive thing. . . . and since no one knows what the truth is, it isn’t very important.” So Christian, is it or isn’t it? The Possible Life may very well be impossible, but it is still a provocative read embedded in the real.

1 Ironically, in spite of Boltanski’s father’s solitary behavior, as a youth he had been friends with the Dadaists Theódore Frankel and Andre Breton. Later, his father and Breton had both studied medicine, but lost track of each other during the war. When Boltanski began to paint as a teenager, his father wrote to Breton asking him to visit his son. Breton’s response to Boltanski’s paintings? “I advise you not to become a painter. It’s a very difficult trade, and a rotten milieu. You seem like a nice young man, you should do something else.”

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2009/2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009/2010