Tag Archives: Rain Taxi Rewind 2016

Our Writers, Our Alcoholics

Rewind-OurWritersIn nearly every context, being an alcoholic is considered a bad thing. This is not news. But when it comes to creative fields, especially writing, the term often starts to gather connotations that are far less negative; we can still look at it as “bad,” but there’s no question that we romanticize the alcoholic writer. In fact, with certain authors, their drinking problems become part of their lore, an essential part of what makes them the creative geniuses we believe them to be. And even on a more anonymous level: what amateur writer hasn’t tried sitting at the computer late at night with a stiff drink, hoping to channel the bravado of a Kerouac, Hemingway, or Dorothy Parker? (I know I’ve tried that experiment. Suffice to say I did not immediately begin producing my magnum opus.)

The link between alcohol and writing gets twisted and flipped around in this way. Your favorite author probably didn’t drink because he thought it made him a better writer. He or she probably drank to self-medicate, to cope with the same internal struggle or discontent that ended on display through their literary work. So maybe there is a link: writing, like drinking, can often serve as the coping mechanism, though it’s quite clear they exist on opposite sides of that coin. We like our alcoholic writers because, whether we admit or not, we often like to see authentic struggle from people who write about it. So yes, alcohol and writing will forever be linked. Just don’t expect to use one to make you better at the other . . . Trust me.

Rain Taxi’s best alcohol-themed pieces:

Review by Matthew Schneeman of What Did I Do Last Night? by Tom Sykes (Winter Online 2006/2007)

Review by Matthew Schneeman of The Trip to Echo Spring by Olivia Laing (Spring Online 2014)

Return to Rain Taxi Rewind

Back to Reality

Rewind-BacktoRealityWhen you make your living working with fiction, every now and then you start to crave something “real.” It’s a deeper feeling than one that’s fixed by a simple switch to reading nonfiction for a while; it’s got more to do with the task itself, the editing, the reading, the beginning with a story and the fact that no matter how well it’s constructed or fixed, that’s what it will be at the end too. There’s something to the idea of creation or discovery that exists only metaphorically in the world of literature but is thankfully quite real in other disciplines.

I always get envious of the scientists when I think like this, particularly cosmologists, the people so often coming up with the raw information that shapes our worldviews. They’re the ones telling us where the current limits of knowledge are, and then expanding them. It’s one thing to speculate in prose or poetry about how the world came to be, or what time actually is; it’s quite another to go out there and get your hands dirty trying to find answers. These are the people formulating from nothing the ideas worth writing the poems and the speculative novels about. Think of the difference between science and science fiction: when you put those terms next to each other, “fiction” becomes less a genre and more of a limiting modifier, doesn’t it? Too often those of us on the writer side forget that our muses usually come from the hard work of other fields.

Forays away from fiction can only serve to help one’s writing and editing. It’s easy to get enraptured in just the world of words, but that world only stands to be enhanced by making sure we’re seeing the boundaries being pushed by fields well beyond our training and experience.

Some of Rain Taxi’s best reviews of books on cosmology and scientific theory:

Review by Rudi Dornemann of Deep Time by Gregory Benford (Fall 1999, online)

Review by N. N. Hooker of Our Posthuman Future by Francis Fukuyama (Summer 2002, online)

Review by Patrick James Dunagan of The Night Sky by Richard Grossinger (Summer 2015, online)

Return to Rain Taxi Rewind

The Necessity of War Poems

Rewind-warpoemsFor most of us, war exists in our minds as something far away. We hear things, terrible things, but they’re always secondhand, diluted by geography and reporting and the simple fact that for over a decade now, our country has been vaguely and continually “at war.” It’s no longer new, to the point that it’s practically tedious to think about. War has shifted from a terrible finite event to a national state of being.

If hard-won facts, reported stories, and the grainy videos we sometimes get on CNN are losing their ability to move us, poetry still has something to offer. The war poem: it’s practically an oxymoron, isn’t it? It is not hard to imagine a spectrum of human experience in which the two terms exist on opposite ends. For a long while I felt that they should stay that way, far apart; it seemed wrong to fawn over the language or technique of a war poem, glossing over the fact that it arises from many people’s suffering. It felt like one more way to separate war from its own definition.

But then I read Brian Turner’s collection Here, Bullet. It’s graphic and tragic and at times hopeless and at others full of humanity, but more than any of those, it’s true. And so are many other beautifully written collections of war poetry, in the way they reinsert raw imagery and feeling into a term, war, to which we are currently far too desensitized. The poem can get us back to a place of pathos; it can resonate with us in ways that representations of fact never can. In this way, like the machinery and weaponry we too often choose to ignore, the poem built for war is a necessary instrument for these times.

Some of Rain Taxi’s best reviews of war poetry:

Review by Joel Turnipseed of Here, Bullet by Brian Turner (Winter 2005/2006, Online)

Review by Miguel Murphy of Warhorses by Yusef Komunyakaa (Fall 2009, Online)

Review by Jeffrey Alfier of Poets of World War II, edited by Harvey Shapiro (Winter 2003/2004, Online)

Return to Rain Taxi Rewind

Videogames: Art or Not?

Rewind-VideoGamesUnless you were on your ninth straight hour of bingeing the newest Harry Potter book your parents probably didn’t need to demand that you put a book down and do something worthwhile. Reading, we can all agree, is worthwhile; it’s a direct interaction with a piece of art, or an entry point to new ideas or perspectives, an expansion of our minds and imaginations, and often all of the above. It is “good for us.” Films and television shows occupy a similar cultural space, with obvious caveats regarding artistic quality. From these perceptions come the markets for reviews and academic criticism, and the whole bevy of ways we make art a part of our cultural conversation.

But what about videogames? I am far from the first person to say “videogames are art”; in fact, that statement probably conjures in your mind That Friend we all have who keeps saying that even though no one asked him. And without question, elements of world-building, narrative, character development, and visual art are clearly present in gaming; with advances in capabilities, game developers (the artists, here) have a fairly limitless creative frontier. We in the class of Smart People Who Consume Art acknowledge all this, but why do so few of us actually believe it?

The problem is one of stigma. Videogames are what your loser brother plays instead of going on dates; they’re childish and desensitize us to violence; they’re addictive and mindless; they turn your brain to mush. This is what the majority actually thinks, no matter how many beautifully rendered games with riveting writing, memorable characters, and scores composed by world-class musicians might be out there. And this is why your favorite literary review or culture source will rarely cover worthwhile artistic breakthroughs in videogames.

It’s not that those stigmas are entirely without truth. Each of those flaws can be true of videogames, depending on the game, its makers, and its players. But when we look at writing with a critical eye, we seem far more capable of distinguishing between pulp and art; we’re discerning enough to set aside books or movies we deem to be less worthwhile without taking that attitude toward the entire medium. We should learn to do the same for videogames, because the simple fact is, if we don’t, we’re missing out on some of the best artistic creations our culture produces.

Some of Rain Taxi’s best reviews of books related to gaming:

Review by James Ervin of Half-Real by Jesper Juul (Summer 2006, Online)

Review by Scott Newton of Gaming Matters by Judd Ethan Ruggill and Ken S. McAllister (Winter 2011/2012, Online)

Review by Alice Dodge of REAMDE by Neal Stephenson (Winter 2011/2012, Online)

Return to Rain Taxi Rewind

Bad Behavior

Rewind-BadBehaviorHere’s a question the public typically reserves for our pop artists and athletes: how do we expect our writers to behave? My initial answer would have been, well, nothing; I don’t look for anything from a writer outside of his or her work. But just as this isn’t true when Americans talk about rap stars and football players, it’s not quite true for our Great American Novelists and Poets, either. Readers love a good eccentric; we want our writers to act up a little bit, to display the unique mind that created a book we love—but not too much. It’s why we love a good artist biography: we can look at a writer’s life and roll all the weirdness and repellent behavior into a persona that becomes as noteworthy a contribution as any book the author writes. Think of what you love about Hemingway, or Virginia Woolf. How quickly does your mind turn from their books to the person? Same with Salinger or Harper Lee, both of whom are intriguing because of how little we saw of them.

Really, writers are no different from the musicians or artists whose life matters to us as much as their work. But our expectations shift with time: we want “normal” in the present, but enough interesting material to talk about once they’re gone. It’s the same goalpost we move on anyone who becomes publicly successful, and it seems to be an integral part of the way we engage with our artists. It also isn’t fair. Something tells me, though, that at the end of the day, most artists won’t mind this tradeoff too much. “Fair” and “normal” aren’t exactly what they signed up for in the first place.

Some of Rain Taxi’s best pieces on eccentric artists:

Review by Patrick James Dunagan of Chatting with Matisse by Pierre Courthion (Summer 2014, online)

Three Stories by J.D. Salinger: an essay by Shane Joaquin Jiminez (Summer 2014, online)

Review by Will Randick of Mr. West by Sarah Blake (Fall 2015, online)

Return to Rain Taxi Rewind

The Post-Racial Myth

Rewind-PostRacialMyth“When the president of the most powerful country in the world doesn’t need to care what the facts are, then we can be sure we have entered the Age of Empire.” This is Arundhati Roy, as quoted in a 2014 Rain Taxi review of Joseph Hutchison’s poetry collection Marked Men. The “facts,” as they relate to the Hutchison poems, concern the racial prejudice surrounding the infamous Sand Creek massacre, which Hutchison takes as his subject. This event took place in 1864, but the racial undertones of the tragedy and the concurrent ignoring of “facts” feel familiar enough to have happened this year.

Despite the fact that minorities are scapegoated for nearly every problem in the United States, including problems disproportionately endured by these groups themselves, this era is too often billed as “Post-Racial.” What this really means is that the country is trying more vigorously than usual to sweep its hatred under the rug. And, because this is an election year, the usual sleights of hand and coded rhetoric are ramped up and defended all the more passionately, in the name of “telling it like it is”—an idiom clung to by those who want to voice racist ideology without being stuck with the uncomfortable term “racist.” These candidates don’t need to care what the facts are; doing so would stand in the way of the empire they’re hoping to fortify. And the collateral damage of this practice will be felt, as always, by those identified as Other.

We’ve got poets, though. We’ve got writers showing the America experienced by far too many of us, collective pronoun. Read their work, because their work is true. In an age like this one, we should need no more reason than that.

Some of Rain Taxi’s best recent reviews of writing on racial inequality and injustice:

Review by Dale Jacobson of Marked Men by Joseph Hutchison (Winter 2014/2015, online)

Review by J.G. McClure of Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine (Spring 2015, online)

Review by George Longenecker of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson (Summer 2015, online)

Return to Rain Taxi Rewind

The Many Faces of Russia

Rewind-FacesofRussiaIt’s never been simple for Americans to picture Russia. One second we’re thinking of it warmly as a key ally in the Second World War, and an instant later it’s the frosty enemy in the Cold War. The Soviets are the opposing team in our country’s sports contest, the bad guys in our favorite spy movies; and yet Russia has also given us writers like Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Chekhov, authors American book lovers can’t get enough of. We cringe at images of Russian citizens waiting in line for goods; we simultaneously demonize their leaders and police. An episode of Family Guy once famously depicted the entirety of Russia’s citizens as bears in hats on unicycles.

Such stereotypes suggest that we should pay attention to nuanced writing that tackles Russia as its subject—and so much contemporary Russian literature comes with an equally noteworthy publishing story. Take one of the writers who’s reviewed at a link below, Ludmila Petrushevskaya: she spent two decades blacklisted by the Soviet government before Penguin published the English translation of There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby (that, friends, is a book title).

Books like the ones featured below, and many others, serve to shatter and remix the images of Russia we have swirling in our heads. Russia is difficult to understand, yes. But for American readers, that complexity means we’ve got a trove of memorable literature to work through.

Some of Rain Taxi’s best reviews of contemporary Russian literature:

There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself by Ludmila Petrushevskaya (Spring 2013, online), reviewed by Alta Ifland.

The Little Russian by Susan Sherman (Spring 2012, online), reviewed by Malcom Forbes.

Russian for Lovers by Marina Blitshteyn (Spring 2012, online), reviewed by Vladislav Davidzon.

Return to Rain Taxi Rewind

Keep the End Times Rollin’

Rewind-EndTimesRollinHere’s a word that’s both specific and open-ended at once: apocalypse. A vast majority of people from all walks of life agree that, at some point, the world as we know it will end. It’s a concept embedded into our religious imagery, our political hyperbole, and our art, and as we learn increasingly more about our natural environment and the effects humans are having on it, it’s become an all-too-real theme in our science too. Exactly how we will meet humanity’s collective “end,” though, is where the theories branch out to reflect the great diversity of our world. We’re all just guessing. And we’ve had a lot of time to think about it.

All this means that apocalyptic writing is one of the liveliest genres in all of literature. The spectrum encompasses anything from John Milton’s cosmic imagery to countless young-adult series about what the world might look like once The Event happens, whatever it may be. And those are aesthetically very different than some of the most thought-provoking nonfiction writing, from science writers, theologians, and others. It’s a topic for young and old audiences, “serious” readers and those looking for a good thriller.

The “when” fuels the genre, too. Things always tend to pick up when we have a date in the near future that enough people agree will surely be the end. In 1999, the incoming millennium was treated by many authors as the End of Days, as was the foreboding date in 2012 that aligned with the end of the Mayan calendar. The apocalypse is the ultimate renewable resource for speculative writing: we’re all certain that in one way or another it’s coming, providing the urgency our imaginations crave, and yet the canvas is wide open.

Perhaps most importantly, our apocalypse theories often represent the most striking way of talking about our worldviews, our insecurities, and our truths. What are we scared of? What, at our cores, gives us the most comfort? So naturally, this type of writing promises to be of interest: it’s based on writers asking themselves the toughest questions, and teasing out their answers in the most vibrant way possible.

Some of Rain Taxi’s best reviews of apocalypse literature:

The Apocalypse Reader edited by Justin Taylor (Spring 2008, Online) reviewed by Spencer Dew.

Serpent of Light by Drunvalo Melchizedek, Beyond 2012 by James Endredy, and 2012 by Daniel Pinchbeck (Spring 2008, Online) reviewed by Kelly Everding.

The Sea Came in at Midnight by Steve Erickson (Winter 1999, Online) reviewed by Aidan Baker.

Return to Rain Taxi Rewind

2010: A Midwest State of Mind

Rewind-MidweststateQuick: where do writers live?

Many people when faced with that question envision New York City. The thought conjures images of lofts on the Lower East Side, or some studio apartment in Brooklyn, or (as the writer you’re picturing gets richer) a desk in front of a window overlooking the Park. Another answer could be the pastoral South, or somewhere in California (for when that same successful writer has inevitably just had it with New York). With each of these places, we can also imagine the writing that comes from them; the Southern novel is as robust a genre as any in the American literary canon, and see how many of your favorite books don’t, at some point, take place in New York.

But this of course leaves out a giant chunk of the country, and when we do talk about the Midwest, it often gets slighted: Middle America. Flyover states. The prairie. America’s heartland. These terms aren’t necessarily insulting, but they do suggest a blanket, monolith simplicity to the Midwestern lifestyle that often gets contrasted with coastal dynamism. This extends to literature, where pinning down the hallmark traits of Midwestern authors or writing can take more than a moment’s thought.

At its crux, that same nondescript, unassuming quality of the Midwest may actually be what makes this region’s literature so alive and complex. Where else could Jonathan Franzen set The Corrections or Freedom, two explorations into the deepest recesses of American love and family? Or take Iowa’s Marilynne Robinson, whose writing contains a spiritual depth that pushes the very possibilities of words on a page; could the soulfulness of Gilead be heard against the noisy backdrop of Manhattan? The Midwest is where writers and their characters hear themselves think, whether they want to or not. It’s where they contend with their own anonymity, and are forced to forge voices and identity without the crutch of a world of distraction. The Midwest is a place for journeys, and for finding things out. It’s where you can’t get away with ignoring your interior self, because often, that’s all there is to pay attention to. The best Midwestern literature reflects all this; yes, that’s hard to put a finger on, but that’s exactly the point.

Rain Taxi’s best Midwestern-themed pieces from 2010:

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (Fall 2010, Online) reviewed by Tim Jacobs.

Not Normal, Illinois, edited by Michael Martone (Spring 2010, Online) reviewed by Stephanie Hlywak.

Empty the Sun by Joseph Mattson (Summer 2010, Online) reviewed by Andy Stewart.

Return to Rain Taxi Rewind

2002: The Everything Fight

Rewind-EverythingFightIn a presidential election cycle that has been wild and controversial, something really unexpected just happened, and in the window of time before candidates, parties, and pundits could come up with their practiced talking points on it, we got an unfiltered look at many of the true fears, motivations, and stances underpinning this election and our political system as a whole.

On February 13th, 2016, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was found dead at the age of 79. In the week after his death, the following debates have sprung up as a direct result: Should this president be allowed to nominate a new Justice? Should the senate consider that nominee? Is this president still the president? Is the “lame duck” concept a fallacy? Is this the death of American conservatism, or the beginning of its new era? Is the U.S. Constitution open to interpretation? Will this be a benchmark for “progress”? Do Americans even want progress, as defined by “Progressives”?

The point is that Scalia’s death has forced an examination of the American political id. The questions above reach such foundational depths that they combine together to ask: who are we, and who’s in charge? This is well past partisanship, though of course that’s present, despite the fact that the Supreme Court has always aimed to be beyond parties. There’s an opening on the Supreme Court, and through this opening we’re getting a glimpse of the true wires and gears within the American political machine. Do we like what we see? Does it matter if we do or not?

When a singular event has the ability to make everyone lose their minds, you learn where the power is. So pick your nearest and dearest cause; the person deciding its fate won’t be someone you’ve been seeing commercials for.

Rain Taxi’s best reviews of Supreme Court-themed books from 2002:

Review by Jane S. Van Ingen of Courting Justice: Gay Men and Lesbians V. The Supreme Court by Joyce Murdoch and Deb Price (Winter 2001/2002, Online)

Review by Felicia Parsons of Roe V. Wade: The Abortion Rights Controversy in American History by N. E. H. Hull and Peter Charles Hoffer (Winter 2002/2003, Online)

Return to Rain Taxi Rewind