Tag Archives: spring 2003

Priceless Children: American Photographs 1890-1925

Priceless ChildrenChild Labor and the Pictorialist Ideal
George Dimock, Tom Beck, Verna Posever Curtis, and Patricia J. Fanning
Weatherspoon Art Gallery ($22.50)

by Tim Peterson

This volume is the companion to an exhibit which featured photographs by Lewis Hine and by photographers associated with the Pictorialist movement (F. Holland Day, Gertrude Käsebier, Clarence H. White, and Alfred Steiglitz, among others). The book contains three essays: the introductory title piece by George Dimock, which compares Hine's depictions of children with Pictorialist ones; Tom Beck's sensitive essay "Duality in Lewis Hine's Child Labor Photographs," which tells an engaging and well-documented story about Hine's interests and conflicts; and "F. Holland Day: Beauty is Youth" by Verna Posever Curtis and Patricia J. Fanning, an essay which thoughtfully details the synthesis between the artist's work and his life.

Priceless Children may be most valuable and exciting in showcasing Lewis Hine's empathetic child labor photographs and their wonderfully humanizing captions. In a few short lines, Hine could give evocative sketches of workers' lives, and these details make the photographs more moving for contemporary viewers because they provide context for an otherwise anonymous image. In other words, the social rhetoric in Hine's photographs enhances their artistic effect.

But Dimock, the curator of Priceless Children, has chosen to tell a different story, one in which "the artistic" and "the social" suffer an a priori separation from one another, as if art were somehow decorative or useless, opposed to or separate from social action. This seems an odd strategy for examining the work of an artist such as Hine, whose photography pursued the goal of social change, or Pictorialists such as Day and White, whose work did not directly promote a cause but who were active in socialist circles. Dimock's essay uses the lens of an "ideologically powerful concept" called "the priceless child" and finds all the photographers in the show guilty of self-indulgent artmaking at the expense of their social ideals. According to Dimock, "The story of Lewis Hine and the National Child Labor Committee has been told most often as a romance of child rescue . . . but that was a story for a more optimistic and less embattled era than our own." It remains unclear, however, why this might be a necessary revision. Although Dimock's constellation of interests is evocative, important aspects of his argument remain obscure, and he neglects to explain why these different photographers have been gathered together for examination in the first place. This introduction leaves one with the impression that, for this exhibition, one really had to be there.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003

The House of Blackwood: Author-Publisher Relations in the Victorian Era

The House of Blackwood by David FinkelsteinDavid Finkelstein
Pennsylvania State University Press ($55)

by John Toren

During its heyday in the nineteenth century, William Blackwood & Sons was a major publisher of eminent British novelists and explorers. George Eliot, Joseph Conrad, E. M. Forster, and Anthony Trollope were included in its lists. In The House of Blackwood, David Finkelstein escorts us beyond Blackwood's role in the literary life of the age, however, to examine its fluctuating fortunes in detail, in the hope that this will tell us something of significance about the interplay of culture, taste, the author/publisher relationship, printing technology, and sheer economics during the era when bourgeois sensibilities gained the ascendancy once and for all in Great Britain. One of the main themes of the books, Finkelstein notes, is "to place the firm, its books, and its authors within appropriate social and cultural contexts." What he fails to establish is what makes William Blackwood & Sons, in particular, a compelling or even a representative subject for such a study. As a result we get the sense that a small amount of distinctive data—the Blackwood correspondence and financial records—is being called upon to tell a story that lies largely beyond its field of reference. Though written with a certain flair, it reads like a "trade" history, which the owners of the Blackwood firm, their descendents, and perhaps their employees might enjoy, while leaving the rest of us to wonder what the fuss is all about.

All the same, the book does have its moments. An entire chapter is devoted to the problems brought about by the fact that, after having offered the Nile explorer John Hanning Speke an unprecedented sum to publish an account of his great discovery, Blackwood finds that the man is barely literate. The firm is forced to hire a ghost writer, and as a result the book takes on a shape and tone in keeping with the Imperialist pretensions of the class who is likely to buy it, while losing much of the color and naivety of the man whose experiences it purports to describe. And yet, although the details of the process of preparing Speke's manuscript for publication are interesting, the underlying point is hardly revolutionary: publishers want their books to be lively and coherent because otherwise they won't sell. When Finkelstein suggests that the Blackwood firm "manipulated both text and author to serve ideological purposes," he pushes the point too far. Speke himself had no qualms about the rewrite, and Finkelstein provides no documentary evidence that the firm had any ideological purpose in mind except to produce a marketable book.

In the end The House of Blackwood leaves us with an impression other than what its author intended. We see the Blackwood firm as unexceptional, often complacent, and almost invariably less interesting than either the authors it published or the agents who represented them. It remained afloat largely on the strength of George Eliot reprints and military instruction manuals, and drifted toward oblivion after allowing writers like George Bernard Shaw, Arthur Conan Doyle, H. G. Wells, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Henry James to slip through its grasp.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003

Holocaust Girls: History, Memory & Other Obsessions

Holocaust Girls by S. L. WisenbergS. L. Wisenberg
University of Nebraska Press ($24.95)

by Lisa Lishman

“You don't have to be Jewish to be a Holocaust Girl," writes S.L. Wisenberg in her new essay collection, Holocaust Girls: History, Memory and Other Obsessions. "But it helps. . . .What matters most is that you must love suffering. You have to pick at wounds, must be encumbered by what you consider an affliction. You have to see your pain as a dark hole you could fall into."

It might be easy to characterize some of Wisenberg's writing, especially early in the book, as self-indulgent, or even sentimental ("You watch your tears make little dents, like tiny upturned rose petals, on the pages," she writes, describing turning through pages of Holocaust photographs in the library's World War II-Europe section). However, what emerges by the book's end is Wisenberg's enormous capacity for empathy, her deeply felt desire to locate herself in different places and times, in other peoples' skins. One senses that Wisenberg is writing to maintain connection between the past that haunts her and the present in which she struggles to understand her identity as a Jewish-American woman living in a post-Holocaust world.

Wisenberg grew up in Houston in the 1960s. Her parents were born in America, too, but Sandi and her older sister, Rosi, grew up acutely aware that "if our grandparents and great-grandparents hadn't immigrated in the beginning of the 20th century we probably would have ended up like the people who died in the Holocaust—or survived." Sandi and Rosi spent many hours playing a game not unlike Cowboys and Indians. In their version, Nazis and Jews, the two would hide in their bedroom closet and pretend they were hiding from the Nazis: "We liked playing in the closet," Wisenberg writes. "We liked the thrill of hiding. . . . The Nazis would take us to a concentration camp. They would take my glasses and asthma drugs and let death just come up and kill me, like that."

When she grows up, Wisenberg's obsession with the Holocaust becomes a metaphor for her urgent desire to connect her personal and private past with the larger, historical past in which millions of Jews were lost—or, perhaps even more urgently, for her fear of losing that connection. The inventive style of the essays, as well as their varied subject matter, reflects both this desire for connection and the fear of losing it: the writing is always associative and ruminative; often, Wisenberg doesn't bother to construct transitions between the disparate movements that make up her essays, as a more traditional essayist might. In "The Language of Heimatlos," Wisenberg moves between descriptions of her childhood in Houston, where the one kosher bakery in town was run by "short, sharp foreign bakers" who scared her "with their unfamiliarity," and a beautifully researched account of Herschel Grynszpan, the young German Jew who assassinated a German embassy official in Paris in 1936. (Hitler used Grynszpan's action to justify Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, in which "at least ten thousand Jews, including longstanding citizens of Germany and Austria, were sent to Buchenwald and tortured.")

In other essays, Wisenberg pairs her reflections on Kafka with her memories of her father; she imagines the diary entries that Anne Frank's sister, Margot, might have written; she reflects on race relations in her hometown of Chicago; she describes her parents' observance of Jewish rituals and writes somewhat regretfully of losing touch with her faith: "And you try but you can't remember when you stopped saying the Shema. And it's not their faith that you envy so much as their daily acceptance of the mystery of oneness—the oneness of unbroken repetition, the chain they are still a part of."

In "Monica and Hannah," perhaps one of the most unlikely and interesting pairings occurs, as Wisenberg riffs on Monica Lewinsky and Hannah Sennesh, the young Hungarian martyr to the Nazis: "These two young Jewish women, half a century apart, are as good examples as any of paths that privileged young Jewish women in the developed world can take, have open to them, make open to themselves. Is that a fair statement? Is it fair to lump them together?" Fair or not, Wisenberg makes a convincing case that Monica is a Holocaust Girl, too, a Jewish woman of her time, just as Sennesh was.

Ultimately, Holocaust Girls reflects Wisenberg's philosophy that in order to understand the past, you must lose yourself in it, and perhaps that kind of imaginative leap has its own risks. In "Plain Scared, Or: There is No Such Thing As Negative Space, the Art Teacher Said," Wisenberg writes:

This is the secret, the secret I have always known: that the bare open plain is my heart itself, my heart without connection; that the bare cinder block room is my soul, my soul without connection—the place I fear I will end up when the fear of loss of connection overrides everything else.

In order to find a place herself in the present, Wisenberg must lose herself in the past, and that irony is what makes Holocaust Girls such a poignant and urgent collection.

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003

A Convent Tale: A Century of Sisterhood in Spanish Milan

A Convent TaleP. Renée Baernstein
Routledge ($27.50)

by Charisse Gendron

In 1533, in the spirit of the Catholic Reformation, Countess Ludovica Torelli bought a house near Milan for a group of Barnabite monks and female devotees bent on improving morals by doing penance in public. Two years later, the women took nuns' vows and founded San Paolo Converso, with a papal exemption from enclosure within convent walls allowing them to carry out "spontaneous acts of public humiliation," showing their scorn for worldly folk with the occasional "cordial adoration of the Cross . . . in the middle of the piazza with arms open wide."

The Barnabites and Angelics, as the nuns were called, even adopted a spiritual leader or "living saint," Paola Antonia Negri, whose raptures confirmed the divine inspiration of her teachings and of her appointments to monastic offices. But residents of San Paolo were a mixed lot. Countess Torelli's widow friends squatted there indefinitely. Extra daughters of local aristocrats entered the convent to leave more dowry money for the daughter who would marry. At least during the convent's first two decades, poor women joined without being assigned to the community's hard labor.

In 1552, the Roman Inquisition tried the Barnabites and Angelics for heresy. The Inquisitors sent the living saint Paola Antonia Negri to prison and enclosed the nuns within the convent walls, no longer to be "missionaries, governors of charitable institutions, and penitential examples of religious zeal to the city." Founder Countess Torelli left in disgust, later to start a secular girls' college—but she was the only one. The others, under a new regime with traditional aristocratic values, strove to remain in the pope's good graces by embracing enclosure, meanwhile maintaining their ties to the powerful relatives who brought the world to them in visits and letters. Still, within a generation, girls brought up in the convent would never see the Milan cathedral, a fifteen-minute walk from their residence.

The author of A Convent Tale, P. Renée Baernstein, while disappointed with the Angelics' about-face, narrates their history with justice, style, and erudition. She maintains her composure even with the introduction of Carlo Borromeo, Archbishop of Milan from 1565 to 1584. Borromeo fostered the papal bull stating that nuns could leave the convent grounds only in cases of leprosy, epidemic, or fire. He walled up San Paolo's windows and the inner church so that nuns had to stick their tongues through a grille to receive communion from the priest saying public mass. To remain his favorites, San Paolo's nuns complied, but others rebelled. When the archbishop's agent reminded the nuns of one convent to stay back from the door, they "began to raise their voices" to him, and when he threatened them with excommunication they began "hurling insolent remarks." In Rome "it was said that some nuns committed suicide rather than suffer the privations imposed by two reformers of Borromean stripe."

So long as they paid him fulsome lip service, Borromeo squinted when wealthy Angelics disobeyed his domestic regulations. Girls came to the convent with monogrammed plates and tooled leather shoes. Their friends moved in during rough spots in their marriages. But to clamp down on such infractions would be to cross the nuns' families and friends, who governed the city, endowed the convent, and held office in the church itself.

What makes the enclosure of San Paolo almost tolerable is how some women flourished there, in particular those of the Sfondrati family. Following a widowed aunt, four Sfondrati girls entered the convent in the 1530s. (Their elder brother became "The Baron"; the younger became Pope Gregory XIV.) In 1572 the Angelic Paola Antonia Sfondrati, who had seen what happens to unruly nuns and preferred subversion to defiance of the rules for female religious, was elected prioress. She, her sisters, her niece, her grandnieces, and their puppets "dominated the convent's major offices and activities" almost continuously for nearly a century.

Unable to travel like her brothers, Paola Antonia corresponded extensively with them and with those who could abet their careers and fortunes—even though, technically, paper and pens were forbidden. To the consternation of senior nuns steeped in the "old-time rigor" of Countess Torelli's day, Paola Antonia commissioned emotive frescoes and introduced controversial polyphonic singing. The senior nuns complained of new vocal stars that "they can't come to spiritual exercises nor to mortifications because they mustn't be saddened. . . . In the old days, the singers washed the dishes. . . ." Paola Antonia also managed her family's money and pressed them into donating to the convent.

Under Paola Antonia's niece Agata Sfondrati's priorate, the nuns compensated for immurement by constructing inside the convent a replica of the shrine of Loreto, complete with a life-size wax Virgin. Agata would dress up the statue on feast days and command the nuns to process it around the convent on a "pilgrimage" to the shrine. As Baernstein reminds us, such theatrics show that "one response to the convent's enclosure was a particularly vivid and highly developed life of the mind." When a Sfondrati rival, none other than Carlo Borromeo's niece, briefly captured the priorate in 1623, she turned the shrine of Loreto into a linen closet.

The Angelics left no first-hand evidence that they suffered under enclosure; Paola Antonia Sfondrati, perhaps sincerely, praised "segregation" as an aid to contemplation. (That families forced some unwilling daughters into the convent is another issue.) "The convent was the world writ small," Baernstein concludes, but it was the world with an extra crimp in it, in which hundreds of women with worldly as well as spiritual concerns lived their entire lives within the space of a city block.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003

The Forest of Souls: A Walk Through the Tarot

The Forest of Souls by Rachel PollackRachel Pollack
Llewellyn Worldwide ($14.95)

by Kris Lawson

Rachel Pollack's The Forest of Souls is a metaphysical study detailing a new way of looking at Tarot cards and their use. Pollack—known for her fiction and comics work as well as for her expertise in Tarot—advocates a meditative, almost holistic method of divination. She's even drawn her own deck, using her knowledge of symbology, tribal mythologies, and art to produce the Shining Tribe Tarot. The Forest of Souls is not a guidebook, however; as Pollack herself says "all the thousands of pages that carefully lay out the meanings of the Major Arcana (yes, I include my own books here) cannot give you the true experience of Tarot unless you allow yourself to enter the pictures. I do not mean a formal guided meditation, but simply an openness to really look, to let the pictures go inside you by going inside them."

In the book, Pollack contrasts cards from her deck with cards from such decks as the Marseilles (a historical reproduction from the Renaissance), the Thoth deck of Aleister Crowley and Lady Frieda Harris, and the ubiquitous Rider-Waite deck of A.E. Waite and Pamela Rider, as well as more contemporary decks of Pagan, Wiccan and multicultural sources. Although Pollack appreciates and explains the history and method behind these decks, she's careful to point out that many of the historical decks have traditional, sometimes rigid rules laid down for their use. For her, however, using Tarot can be a more creative experience: "We analyze the cards, symbolize them, look them up in a reference book, all to make the Tarot rational and safe. We try to pin it down, to give it an origin . . . all to take it out of its dream state and land it safely in history . . . [but] we can use Tarot and its dream playfulness to remove the pins that hold down all those traditions."

The Forest of Souls thus combines a look at the history of Tarot with her own ideas of re-working the cards' traditional meanings. For example, Pollack discusses the Egyptian and Hebrew symbols on traditional cards, drawing a line of numerological coincidences between Egyptian mythology, the 72 names for God in the Kabbala, and the 12 signs of astrology. She compares the story of the Egyptian god Thoth, who "gambles with the Moon" to win five days (or 1/72 of an Egyptian year) not already present in the calendar, with the story of another god, Seth, who uses 72 "henchmen" to measure Osiris for a trap, a box constructed to his exact measurements, in which Osiris suffocates. "It is the same for us," she interprets. "Virtually from the moment of our birth, society measures us. . . . With every measurement the box becomes tighter, and more elaborate. Just like Osiris, we suffocate in a box that limits us to one degree of who we can become."

In another example, Pollack compares Tarot to quantum physics: by observing, the observer "creates" a reality from the infinite number of probabilities; by using Tarot, the questioner consciously or not selects the cards that convey the answers. "In any Tarot reading, the card itself is only half the answer to a question. The other half lies in the way we interpret it. This too involves the will, for we must will ourselves both to explore what the card can mean and then apply what we get from the card to the actual questions or situations."

Pollack's Tarot method involves thinking of the cards not as coded messages to decrypt by using a reference book, but as a collection of 78 images which one can use as "keys": "Maybe we can say that, rather than unlocking readymade secrets, the Tarot keys unlock us from all our definitions and limited conceptions of ourselves and the universe." She goes on to confess that "Something I've learned over the years I've worked with Tarot is to give myself permission to break the rules, even the ones I make up myself."

For Pollack, it's not which tradition is correct, it's that all of them can be linked together. Her examples demonstrate this imaging and layering method. For some readings, she uses her cards to construct questions instead of answers, and finds more inspiration when her questions are "answered" by other questions. In other readings, her simple, symbolic drawings suggest many traditional meanings, which link together to form a story. Pollack also suggests alternative "spreads" (the order in which the cards are displayed and read) that use a multi-directional relationship with the cards around them rather than the standard over/under/crossed traditional methods.

Perhaps the best thing about Pollack's book is her belief that the magical is rooted in stories:

The modern world has largely stripped away the sense of the miraculous from the patterns of the world. We break things down and study them in pieces, and steadfastly deny that anything connects to anything else. But there are ways to restore that sense of wonder. One of these is divination, for divination demonstrates that patterns really do exist, that the world really does fit together. . . . Fairy tales and myths and Tarot cards do not code wisdom in simple forms in order to keep it from the uninitiated. They do what they do because we can absorb wisdom best when it thrills and fascinates us.

As a storyteller herself, Pollack knows how to convey information; while not exactly thrilling, her book is indeed fascinating as it encompasses and twists the traditionalism behind Tarot readings into her own style. Absolute beginners may be confused, as Pollack assumes her readers will have already had some experience with traditional methods and are looking for a new way of conducting readings. For the dedicated dabbler or serious student, however, The Forest of Souls is a fresh and appealing work about a path much tread.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003

Songbook

Songbook by Nick HornbyNick Hornby
McSweeney's ($26)

by Francis Raven

Songbook is essentially a mix tape of novelist Nick Hornby's writings about his favorite pop songs—not albums, not bands, but songs. This is how Hornby parses music; as he writes, "Songs are what I listen to, almost to the exclusion of everything else." It sounds like an idea riding towards disaster, and yet it completely pans out: Hornby masterfully lays out the vast territory of experience that is the pop song. The inclusion of a CD containing many of the songs Hornby writes about also helps make this unusual book work.

Hornby informs the reader that when he began the book he had assumed the writings would focus on associations between the songs and the times and places where he had heard them, but luckily for the reader it didn't turn out that way because "if you love a song, love it enough for it to accompany you throughout the different stages of your life, then any specific memory is rubbed away by use." Hornby loves many songs this much—first and foremost Springsteen's "Thunder Road," which by the author's own count he has listened to some 1,500 times since 1975.

Of course, Hornby knows that most of the pop songs he is currently listening to will soon be discarded, but this does not diminish his present pleasure in them. "Maybe disposability is a sign of pop music's maturity, a recognition of its own limitations, rather than the converse," he muses. This said, Hornby proposes that "sometimes, very occasionally, songs and books and films and pictures express who you are, perfectly. . . . It's a process something like falling in love." The difficulty that these two theses present is one of the major problems of contemporary life: is the self really anything if even those moments of clarity about who we are are perfectly disposable? Hornby does not answer this question but seems hopeful on the subject, a hope that stems from his belief in the beauty of songs.

At $26, Songbook is expensive; Hornby quips it's an organic book and "with organic stuff, you always pay more for less." But all of the proceeds from the sale of the book are being donated to Treehouse, a U.K. charity that helps to educate children with autism and related communication disorders, and 826 Valencia, a non-profit writing lab based in the Mission District of San Francisco, so you can feel better about the purchase. The expense of the book is also justified by the CD that accompanies it. It's a pleasure to be able to read Hornby's essays and listen to some of the songs that they're about.

Perhaps what is most fantastic about Songbook isn't the general metaphysical map of the pop song it lays out but the fact that Hornby's descriptions, evaluations, and metaphors about the songs are so apt. One hopes it might spur a new golden age of the rock review by encouraging the phenomenological review of the single song, the likes of which haven't been fully realized since the 1970s.

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003

The Flâneur: A Stroll through the Paradoxes of Paris

The Flaneur by Edmund WhiteEdmund White
Bloomsbury Publishing ($16.95)

by Summer Block

In The Flâneur, Edmund White navigates a Paris that is increasingly stranded by history. A flâneur is someone who wanders a city, strolling, taking things in, with no preconceptions and no agenda. White is the perfect flaneur—intelligent, perceptive, interested in everything, open to everything. His idiosyncratic observations are the perfect antidote to the typically weary American tourist, guidebook in hand, on a forced march through culture. (For Americans, Paris is still a duty, but an increasingly tedious one, like a sixth-grade field trip to a state capitol.)

White is intimately acquainted with Paris, having wandered its streets lovingly for nearly twenty years. He is well versed with all the many things people love about Paris: the odd little stores, the eccentric museums, the many tucked-away places. But even he admits "the city's glory days are long in the past" and piquantly comments that "Paris is the one city left where the tyranny of Paris fashions still holds women in its thrall."

White goes on to launch some more serious assaults, though he is not the first writer to note that "Paris . . . has become a cultural backwater. There aren't more than two or three internationally known French painters living anywhere in France . . . the galleries look like amateur art fairs . . . few French novels are translated into other languages; since Foucault's death no philosopher has had a universal stature; the center of the city is too expensive to welcome young bohemians or wannabe novelists."

If French culture is now mainly an archive of things past, it is not surprising that White himself wanders back in time at least as often as he investigates Parisian life today. Whether discussing the life of the novelist Colette, the prominence of African-American entertainers in the 20s and 30s, or the persecution of homosexuals in the 19th century, White also wanders the side streets of history—appropriate since Paris is as much a construct of history and literature as bricks and cement. White succeeds admirably in tying these "historical" concerns to modern-day situations (e.g., French racism against Arabs, AIDS scandals and cover-ups), but in so doing, he only accentuates the point that for Paris, the future is only a rehashing of the same old things.

White's observations, though, offer far more than the same tired truisms about France or the Parisians. He chooses to focus much of his attention on people and places that escape the public notice—including Paris' racial minorities, its Jewish quarter, and its attitude towards AIDS and homosexuals—and these observations are often loosely connected, weaving between personal ruminations, interviews, anecdotes, and history. What ties these vignettes together is largely the concept of The Flâneur; this conceit of the wandering observer gives White some license to meander in his storytelling.

Perhaps the most memorable chapter in The Flâneur is on the Parisian royalists, a small but dedicated group working to re-institute the French monarchy and crown one of two warring aristocrats. Not only is the story original—and funny—but it does much to contrast the Paris that is progressive, modern, a shrine to fashion and ever-changing trends, with the Paris that is old-fashioned, traditional, and even backward-looking.

The chapter on the royalists nearly concludes The Flâneur, but for White's closing rhapsody. Half defense, half elegy, White looks at modern Paris: "the blue windows set in the doors of the boxes at the Opéra Comique . . . the drama with which waiters cluster around a table in a first-class restaurant . . . the pleasant shock of the klieg lights that suddenly turn night into day when a bâteau mouche glides by . . . " So much is passé, so much is a cliché, but there is still something to Paris. It doesn't reside in the tourist spots, in the museums, on the runway, but in the details of a daily life that is beautiful, orderly, and timeless.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003

Dreaming War: Blood for Oil and the Cheney-Bush Junta

Dreaming War by Gore VidalGore Vidal
Thunder's Mouth Press/Nation Books ($11.95)

by Mark Sorkin

In his paperback bestseller Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, published last spring as a belated response to 9/11, Gore Vidal peeled the "evil-doer" label off Osama bin Laden and Timothy McVeigh and pasted it onto the Bush administration. With Dreaming War, he continues to rail against what he considers America's evil empire with his characteristically acerbic verve, updating his arguments to address the impending conflict in Iraq. "Once Afghanistan looked to be within the fold," he writes, the administration "abruptly replaced Osama, the personification of evil, with Saddam Hussein. This has been hard to explain since there is nothing to connect Iraq with 9/11. Happily, 'evidence' is now being invented."

Vidal has relentlessly criticized American foreign policy for decades, and his recent harangues against the "Cheney-Bush junta," as he dubs it, are particularly damning. Published in an anxious climate where dissent and patriotism have been recast as polar opposites, Dreaming War makes good fodder for readers sympathetic to Vidal's iconoclastic politics and easy sport for those charged by rhetoric about anti-Americanism. But Vidal insists he's a patriot. In fact, he considers himself one of the last guardians of the republic, and he continually invokes the founding fathers to defend American ideals against their co-optation by lobbies and corporate interests.

In the past half century, Vidal argues, America transformed from a Jeffersonian republic to a "National Security State." Several of the essays collected here (more than half of which are recycled from The Last Empire) set out to debunk historical myths and "Received Opinions" about World War II and the Cold War, presenting alternative narratives that expose the machinations of an emerging superpower. According to Vidal, Roosevelt wasn't surprised by the Pearl Harbor attack; he provoked it because he needed public support for intervention in Europe. And even though Japan was ready to accept defeat in 1945, Truman dropped the atomic bombs to intimidate the Soviets. The ensuing Cold War required the creation of the "many-tentacled enemy" of Communism to justify the forty-year prosecution of wars for imperial gain.

Today, Vidal continues, a similar fog obfuscates public reception of the war on terrorism. The face of the enemy has changed, but the script is the same—along with the pointed questions Vidal poses. Was 9/11 a surprise attack, or was it provoked? What took the Air Force so long to respond once the hijacked planes deviated from their flight patterns? More generally, to what extent do the interests of the energy industry affect military strategy in oil-rich Afghanistan and Iraq?

It's not difficult to guess Vidal's answers. (Hint: "Blood for Oil" appears in the subtitle.) In that sense, Dreaming War amounts to a small stew of compelling but predictable arguments, with some witty barbs sprinkled throughout and just a dash of ego to spice things up. Ironically, most of Vidal's current responses to Received Opinion correspond to Received Counter-Opinion. Maybe that's because he's writing the official anti-script.

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003

Forever

Forever by Pete HamillPete Hamill
Little, Brown & Company ($25.95)

by S. Clayton Moore

Pete Hamill has reached a new zenith with his new novel, Forever. It is an epic chronicle not only of the life of a man but the birth of one of America's most vibrant and diverse cities—with all the blood, sacrifices, and human frailties that great cities require.

At its heart is Cormac O'Connor, who chases a dastardly Earl from Ireland to the teeming shores of Manhattan seeking revenge for the death of his father, a blacksmith who literally forged swords from plowshares. The story is rich with the myths of the world's primal cultures from Ireland, Africa, and Mexico, and Hamill tries to find a common foundation among them. The central theme involves the Irish story of Tir Na Nog, the land of eternal youth, which in legend is always found to the west of the old country.

In the course of his pursuit, he saves the life of an African shaman, who gives him a blessing and a curse; young Cormac is given life everlasting, but even eternity has rules. Cormac must live his long life on the island of Manhattan and glory in all that it has to offer:

To find work that you love, and work harder than the other men. To learn the languages of the earth and love the sounds of the words and the things they describe. To love food and music and drink. Fully love them. To love weather, and storms, and the smell of rain. To love heat. To love cold. To love sleep and dreams. To love the newness of each day.

It might be a tall order but Hamill does his best to put Cormac through his paces over the next 200 odd years, forcing him through cholera plagues, the burning of the Five Points, doomed love affairs, and all the other hazards that New York summons for him. Cormac is privy, too, to some of the defining moments in the city's history as he encounters such formidable historical luminaries as George Washington, Boss Tweed and Willie Mays.

Cormac obviously reflects many facets of the author's own life, including a career as a journalist, a sideline as a painter, and a distinct affection for things Mexican. Also like Hamill, he is a keen observer of the human condition. Hamill's years of practice as a reporter at the New York Post serve him well as he describes the phases of O'Connor's life, which run between cycles of terrific delight and sublime loneliness. After all, it is an extraordinary experience to watch everything you love die: neighborhoods, cultures, even all your friends and lovers.

Hamill finished Forever on September 10, 2001, but fate wasn't done with New York and so the author was forced back to the novel to rebuild his ending. While the tragedy had a profound impact on Hamill's world, he also had to present his protagonist in true form with the last 245 years that we as readers have spent with him. He succeeds in knitting together the tragedy and triumph of both Cormac and New York with only a minimal amount of manipulation.

Like the bits of metal that Cormac's father forged into a weapon of honor or the New Yorkers who rose out of the ashes of tragedy, Cormac himself is beaten and tempered on the anvil that is Manhattan. Despite the fire of adversity and through his quick wits and passion for the great city, Cormac finds the true metal of his character and makes a life in a hard New World.

Ultimately, Forever is a rich and ingenious marriage between genres. Adventure, mystery, fantasy and memoir are boiled into a rich, hardy, and ultimately palatable stew. Virtue is rewarded and evil is punished. What more could you want from a fairy tale?

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003

A Shortcut in Time

A Shortcut in Time by Charles DickinsonCharles Dickinson
Forge Books ($24.95)

by Rudi Dornemann

Every culture tells stories about fate. The word of an oracle, the decree of a god, represents either an irrevocable doom or an opportunity for some loophole-exploiting trickster to rewrite destiny. Our culture fills this niche with time-travel stories, and these tales generally offer two possible morals. Either we should accept that the present—and its surrogate, the future—is so fixed that all our attempts at change only make it more inevitable, or else we should be empowered by the hope that clever strategies and well-timed actions can rescue us from history's blind stumble. Charles Dickinson's novel, A Shortcut in Time gives us a time-travel tale that eludes both patterns, offering a world that can be shaped by its characters, even if they aren't always in complete control of that shaping.

Dickinson displays the mastery of cause and effect that any time-travel author needs, seeding small, seemingly inconsequential details throughout the narrative so that they can return in unexpected ways later. His characters, however, are not so adept. The novel's narrator, Josh Winkler, seems to have no more command over the repercussions of his actions—in either present or past—than any ordinary person would. As he sleepwalks through a sort of midlife slackerdom, an artist supported by his physician wife, Josh has less of a sense of having an impact on his world than most people; even his most urgent actions seem to unfold over the course of hours, if not days.

The roots of this ineffectualness can be seen in the novel's opening chapter, in which a teenaged Josh's eventual heroism is too late to avert a tragedy. The reader might expect this is the central moment which must be undone in order to right the future, but neither Josh's temperament, nor the workings of time travel as Dickinson develops it, lead events in that direction. The novel's characters are more occupied with getting to the place and time where they belong than with rigging the past in order to rearrange the present, and the "shortcuts" of the title are only vaguely amenable to conscious manipulation.

By de-emphasizing the mechanics of time-travel, A Shortcut in Time allows Dickinson the space to unfold Josh's story quietly, almost incidentally. Josh's low-key description of the aftermath of his first slip into the past is indicative: "A lot could happen in fifteen minutes, and at the same time, not much at all. I felt myself catching up to the present. Soon I would be living through time I hadn't lived through already." A few lines later, Josh uses the word "helpless" to describe how he feels while watching the predestined world pass him by.

Josh Winkler is not the only time traveler in the novel—among the others is a 15-year old girl from the turn of the century who displays a more hands-on approach to moving through time. Scenes between young Contance, with her resourcefulness and her drive to return home, and the ever-cautious Josh provide many of the novel's most compelling moments. In the end, however, it's through Josh's story that Dickinson rearranges a familiar story-pattern into something new, and perhaps appropriate to an age when the interconnections of cause and effect seem more chaotic and complex than a simple domino chain.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003

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