Tag Archives: spring 2004

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Caroline Kraus
Broadway Books ($23.95)

By Holly Chase Williams

Sometimes getting what you want is the worst thing that could happen to you. In this affecting memoir, San Francisco bookstore clerk Caroline Kraus wants more than anything to become important to a co-worker, the free-spirited and enchanting Jane. It's unfortunate that Caroline, bent on fleeing her mother's death from cancer, has weak boundaries. But far worse is the fact that she's about to hook up with a woman with no boundaries at all.

At first, Jane seems to fill Caroline's emptiness, offering her love and calling her "honey." But Jane quickly isolates Caroline from other friends and their relationship disintegrates into a pathological symbiosis. Soon Jane's hold over Caroline is such that she dresses her, punishes her for smoking, and even speaks for her in front of Caroline's own family.

As Jane squanders Caroline's inheritance and plunges her into debt, the author begins to experience a passivity common to victims of domestic violence, and perceives herself as powerless to leave. Even when Jane brings home other partners, Caroline stays. Eventually her desire for oblivion leads to hitting herself in the head with a baseball bat, or to scenes like this:

The door flew open, smashed into my face, and knocked me down. Jane came out swinging. She was on top of me before I could speak, hands around my neck and knees on my chest. Her expression was frozen in terror, eyes wide, teeth barred. The back of my head hit the floor and the skin split just enough to make me yelp.

With its raw, wry truth and sparse, clean prose, this book cuts to the bone. Bibliophiles will also enjoy Caroline's descriptions of the bookstores she worked for and the encounters with celebrities such as Joan Baez and Studs Terkel that resulted. While it's unclear if Caroline can truly escape the phenomenon that is Jane, we do re-enter the real world with her at the end of a long dark journey.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004

The Road to Santiago

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Kathryn Harrison
National Geographic Press ($20)

by John Toren

Walking long distances on foot isn't easy. Neither is writing about it. Even the most compelling landscapes can only hold the reader's attention for so long, and the barking dogs, the missed turns of the path, the constant fatigue, and the dwindling water supplies become monotonous through daily repetition. In the end, long-distance walking instills a mind-numbing simplicity in many trekkers, and this may be precisely the desired effect, but readers are looking for something more interesting. Some classic walking books—Camilo José Cela's Journey to the Alcarria, for example—benefit from the crusty personality of the narrator himself, whose brutal perceptions and cantankerous spirit fit the landscape, and involve him in plenty of adventures with the locals in towns and villages along the way. Kathryn Harrison, the young American memoirist and novelist, is less well suited to describe what it's like to walk the most venerable footpath in Western Europe.

The Compostela Trail runs for 440 miles from the pass at Roncesvalles through the hilly countryside of northern Spain on its way to the famous shrine at Santiago. To her credit, Harrison did walk portions of this trail on three occasions. Yet there is little in her recount of those experiences to suggest that she ever entered fully into the spirit of the endeavor. On her most recent trek, which is the first she describes, she's accompanied by her twelve-year-old daughter, and her attention is largely focused on the child's state of health, her attitude toward the hardships they're both undergoing, and Harrison's speculations about her relationships with her daughter, her own mother, about mothers and daughters generally, and so on. The mother-daughter dialog brings a degree of relief from the descriptions of field and forest, but it never really develops much, and in time it removes us unduly from the experience of actually being on the road. Meanwhile, the historical information Harrison inserts is perfunctory and frequently wrong. For example, she observes at one point that two million pilgrims walk the trail each year—a colossal exaggeration—and she relates a few of the myths associated with the pilgrimage tradition as if they were well-known fact, evidently oblivious to the countless vagaries and variations that have kept scholars busy for centuries. Similarly, her recount of the part played by Charlemagne in the lore of the shrine inexplicably leaves out the Basques, and has the roles of the Moors and Christians reversed.

All the same, there is pleasure to be gotten from experiencing, even at second-hand, the foibles that make foot travel both enticing and daunting. Harrison agonizes over the weight of the packs, while finding it impossible to discard a cumbersome manuscript (safely stored on disc back home) that she's not even working on; and her daughter, for her part, refuses to give up her large supply of glossy teen magazines. Harrison observes time and again, in an absurdist frenzy, that she's carrying too many maps, too many guides, yet also chides herself repeatedly for not knowing if the town up ahead will have food and supplies for sale (information that's available in even the slimmest guide.) The afternoon heat on the trail is sweltering, yet the two never seem to set out before the morning is well advanced. Descriptions of sights along the trail have a similar giddy, rhapsodic inconsequence, swinging from insight to exaggeration to cliché like a cathedral censer:

At Ciraqui, eight kilometers into our day, we walk a stretch of Roman road bordered by cypress; it's the kind of experience I find at once reassuring and terrifying. Here are stones set in place two thousand years before, a road that, inanimate, endures. And here am I, sentient, overfilled with hopes and longings, and evanescent. My life added to my daughter's is a minute fraction of the life of a stone, and I've spent so much of that morsel already.

Or this thumbnail sketch of Catholic doctrine:

Through the plastic film of the grocery bag I touch what I've bought at the market: water, half a baguette, a container of yogurt, an apple. I wanted chocolate, weighed a bar in my hands, considered it, and then replaced it on the shelf. How many centuries has it been that the church has equated the sacrifice of the body's demands, its pleasures, with the growth of the spirit?

Yet we also come upon fine passages that make us wish Harrison had put more of the trail into her book, and less of herself:

Just beyond the town of Barbadelo a man is burning scrub to clear a patch of land. Wind carries ash far from his fire, and I watch the black fragments drift across the blue sky, a few falling on the path before me. Roosters crow; I've been hearing them all morning. And the way is peppered with old women, ubiquitous and emblematic old women moving slowly among the oak trees, the green fields. It seems as if the process of aging has stripped away whatever modernity they might once have possessed, that the present with its cars and computers has peeled off these women like a second skin, to reveal crones the same as those pictured in books of fairy tales.

The best part of the book is the last one, detailing a solo trip Harrison took as a young woman along the final segment of the trail. She experiences the same hardships, suffers the same dangerous lapses in judgment, and serves up the same rhetorical questions and specious asides—"Why does bathing, washing, folding, cleaning have such a profoundly calming effect?"—but with no one to talk to, Harrison finds herself more doggedly bent on the pilgrimage experience itself, and the patchy character of her remarks leave us with the tantalizing thought that the best thing, perhaps, would be for us simply to hike the trail ourselves.

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004

The Fab One (in One Dimension and One Hundred)

Buy this book at Amazon.comThe Lennon Companion: Twenty Five Years of Comment
edited by Elizabeth Thomson and David Gutman
Da Capo Press ($18.95)

Lennon Legend: An Illustrated Life of John Lennon
James Henke
Chronicle Books ($40)

by Steven Lee Beeber

Joyce-inspired writer; heroin-drenched, black-cloaked troublemaker; self-appointed imaginary saint—John Lennon was all these things and more. Like Whitman's America, he contained multitudes. Yet, if we compare two recent books on the man, we can see how his legacy, for the most part, has been flattened into a one-dimensional commercial for complacence.

Let's begin with the good news.

In The Lennon Companion, originally published in 1987, the "literary Beatle" is presented in all his inspiring contradictions. A compilation of essays, diary entries, poems and more by some of the best writers of the second half of the 20th century, this is a fitting tribute to the man who introduced "yellow matter custard" to the rock lexicon.

On page 31 you can spy along with a pre-Ms Gloria Steinem as she peeks behind the scenes at the wit of a not-yet-sexually-liberated Lennon ("women should be obscene and not heard"). Or flip to page 20 for a martini-dry exploration of mother love and loss amongst the triad of manager Epstein, Lennon, and Lennon's friend Stuart Sutcliffe (the original Beatle artiste). Now hop forward to page 99 for hip classical composer (and Paul Bowles associate) Ned Rorem's dissection of The Beatles's more Lennonesque music. Or better yet, just read the whole damn 200-odd pages; you'll enjoy Philip Larkin on how fame and fortune fucked up The Beatles, Mike Evans on the surreal-mystic experiences of the pre-teen Lennon (he saw the face of God in the fireplace), Martin Amis on the meaning of his death (a simulacrum of our desires), and the working class hero himself on revolution and the need for political violence.

In short, these pieces, and dozens of others, offer a fascinating, multi-faceted portrait of Lennon that should hold a few surprises for even obsessive fans.

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If only the same thing could be said for the all-too-aptly titled Lennon Legend. Here, rather than the real John (or Johns), you get the post-mortem, pre-fabricated, polythene-perfect icon so often seen on T-shirts, coffee mugs, and mouse pads. This Lennon—wearing his trademark granny glasses and spouting abstract messages of peace and love—is the preferred representative for the Starbucks generation. Easygoing, passive, hiding in his well-furnished home, he's the worst sort of secular saint, a legend who lives on because he threatens nothing—least of all the ability to "imagine all the people living life in peace" though the papers each morning tell you otherwise.

Still, before you discount the Lennon Legend completely, bear in mind that as a compliment to Companion, this box-set-like extravaganza of a coffee table book is in some ways perfect. What it lacks in depth, it makes up for in hyper-stimulation: there are numerous inserts that turn flipping the pages into a kind of multimedia experience.

Ever wonder what it would have been like to attend a Beatles concert? Here, you can remove a facsimile of a Beatlemania-era ticket from a flap and pretend you're on your way to scream your lungs out. If you're a bit more avant-garde and want to relive John's introduction to the artwork of Yoko Ono, remove a duplicate of the card the Fluxus artist gave her man-to-be on their first meeting—the one inscribed with the simple instruction "breathe." Other inserts include three pen and ink drawings from the "househusband" period; handwritten lyrics from "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds"; Lennon's report cards (complete with teachers comments!); and, perhaps best of all, numerous examples of his self-published high school newspaper "The Daily Howl," each filled with mocking caricatures and mad wordplay. There's also a CD containing interviews from throughout the post-Beatles years—the track in which John hijacks a DJ's mike and begins delivering his own special station identifications and weather announcements is alone almost worth the price of admission.

So if you've got the cash, get both books and switch back and forth. A splendid time is guaranteed for all.

Click here to purchase The Lennon Companion at your local independent bookstore
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Click here to purchase Lennon Legend at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004

Feminine Persuasion: Art and Essays on Sexuality

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Indiana University Press ($35)

by Stacy Brix

In 1953, the noted sexologist Alfred Kinsey published Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. The book confronted a culture that had centered its marketing on homemaking, marriage, and motherhood—all making way for the returning soldier—and revealed the realities of the feminine experience, which were dramatically different than previously thought. Kinsey interviewed almost 6,000 women asking for their observations, and the results of his research sparked an unprecedented discussion of sex, as well as an academic debate concerning such matters as gender roles and sexual identity. His process assumes that the women's voice has value and that it must be heard.

Feminine Persuasion: Art and Essays on Sexuality is the catalogue for an exhibition that celebrated the 50th anniversary of Kinsey's landmark publication. In two essays and 45 plates of visual artworks, we re-encounter the feminine world that Kinsey sought so genuinely to understand, complete with the contemporary and increasingly problematic milieu that developed in the decades following his career. The catalogue thus re-presents many of the ideas that Kinsey offered us, but goes further in celebrating this information in light of recent developments and reconsiderations of the feminine ideal.

The first essay, June Machover Reinsisch's "Ideal Images and Kinsey's Women," asks how women perceived themselves historically, what ideals they had, and how they attempted to reach those ideals. Machover Reinsisch looks to the past 500 years and concludes that the goals regarding the alluring female have not changed: "Most women across the centuries have aspired to be desirable and have been willing to work and suffer toward that end." She reviews the constant shifting in conceptions of beauty and the often-gruesome modes for pursuing them.

In the second essay, "Artistic Behavior in the Human Female," Jean Robertson develops a response to the patriarchal culture and expectations that Machover Reinsisch describes by exploring how such structures were reflected and rejected in art. "Artistic explorations of sexuality are closely connected to the sexual politics of the wider culture," says Robertson. Depictions of female sexuality are present throughout the history of Western art, but only in the last century have there been specific attempts to subvert female representation from its grounding in male-centered ideologies—especially as female artists began in the 1960s to assert subjective authority. It is in this arena that we witness the surfacing of deep-seated feelings towards sex, violence, body image, appearance, identity, diversity, pleasure and desire. Robertson points to the Womanhouse exhibition of 1972, organized by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro: these powerful art historical figures also exemplify the extensive counteractions against unfavorable historical conditions uniquely faced by women. Today artists are creating more artwork about sexuality than ever before.

The Feminine Persuasion exhibition was divided into three parts, and plates featured in the book are organized likewise. The first section concerns itself with works by women in the Kinsey collection, though few of these early works focus their attention overtly on sexual subject matter; as the editors point out, full freedom of expression involved risks that most women were unwilling to take. The second component of the exhibition discusses the male perspective of the feminine. These selections reach further back in time, as men were freer to deal with matters of sex in arts. Some are pornographic in nature while others reflect a more egalitarian understanding of male and female relationships. Works by Otto Dix, Douglas Kirkland, and Marcantonio Raimondi are a few among the many male artists who contribute to the development of this part of the exhibition.

Bolstered by the framework and understanding of relevant complexities that the book's essays provide, the first two sections of visual artworks lead us emotionally and logically to the third component of the exhibition, which deals with the feminine as seen by the contemporary female. Dramatic tensions and commonalities lie not only in how widely the experiences of women vary, but also in how women choose to reflect those experiences: Ghada Amer uses embroidery in a way that eroticizes the medium; Patty Chang's videos play on the ambiguity between pleasure and disgust; Nancy Davidson takes a lighter approach as she alludes to body parts with an irresistible humor.

Feminine Persuasion reveals layers of the female experience to us, just as Kinsey's book did 50 years ago. What Kinsey boldly held a mirror to in 1953 is echoed beautifully, elegantly, and powerfully in the book that celebrates it. It is likely that in this revelry we will turn our eyes once more to the complexity of the feminine, and its enduring persuasion.

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004

Listen Here: Women Writing in Appalachia

Buy this book from Amazon.comEdited by Sandra L. Ballard and Patricia L. Hudson
University of Kentucky Press ($45)

by Lynnell Edwards

If they had listened a little more closely, the folks at CBS might have not been so surprised last year at the outrage and bad publicity surrounding their proposed reality show "The Real Beverly Hillbillies." Frequently cited as the last American minority it's acceptable to make fun of, the people of Appalachia had something to say about their culture and how it was represented. Listen Here: Women Writing in Appalachia demands that we do just that. Listen to the women who have been writing and recording their lives for over a hundred years; listen to the women who have carved a life and art out of the rough beauty of the Appalachian territory; listen to this sustained, authentic chorus—105 women strong—singing a song that is at once very old and strikingly new to our national identity. According to the editors, "we set out to create a collection of creative writings by women whose identities have been marked by life in the Appalachian mountains, because we discovered that their voices are missing from our national literature." This anthology will ensure that their voices will persist and even soar as part of our literary heritage.

Appalachian studies have always enjoyed a modest success, notably in the region itself. Sometimes considered part of Southern literature, sometime part of labor or political literature, the best known works address the hardships of coal mining communities or the politics of poverty. This collection is a valuable addition to works by authors such as James Still (River of Earth) and Harry Caudill (Night Comes to the Cumberlands), and it provides necessary context and scholarship for the interest generated by Joyce Dyer's anthology Bloodroot: Reflections on Place by Appalachian Women Writers.

Perhaps primarily important as an archival resource, Listen Here compiles brief selections, authoritative biography, and a comprehensive list of primary and secondary materials. Organized alphabetically, with an alternate table of contents that lists works in order of publication date, it also includes appendices of "More Women Writing in Appalachia: Other Voices to Study" and a selected bibliography, all critical tools for a scholarly resource.

Though the greatest activity is from the mid and late 20th century, the earliest work—a travel narrative by Anne Newport Royall, whom some identify "as the first female American newspaper journalist"—dates from 1826. The vast majority of the selections are either poetry or excerpts from short fiction or novels, but there are also polemics, memoirs, and no small amount of children's and young adult literature.

Occasionally, the life stories are nearly as long as the selections themselves, and sometimes nearly as interesting. What is remarkable is how often writing was just one part of a woman's total creative work. The "day jobs" of many of these women include nurse, teacher, journalist, musician, homemaker. Not a few of them were activists for labor causes surrounding the coal mining communities of southern Appalachia or, later, cultural preservation movements in the '60s and '70s.

Because the editors have selected writings that speak to the author's Appalachian heritage, there does seem to be a preponderance of grandmas cooking and babies being birthed and mountain laurel flowering and quilts being patched and earnest praying to a literal Lord. Not that this is bad—insofar as a central project of women's studies has been to recover and posit as authoritative the domestic experience, this collection deepens our understanding of how multi-faceted that domestic experience might be. While better-known women writers of the '50s and '60s were writing about a particular kind of urban and suburban-induced anxiety, an entirely different landscape unfurled for Jane Merchant in 1954:

You understand,
Of course, it's hard work plowing on a hill,
And bottom lands grow better crops, but still
There's something useful to the heart and eye
In men who plow the earth, against the sky.

In fact, the strong religiosity throughout this collection is an important counterpoint to those now-canonical post-war writers who abandoned the spiritual as a legitimate source of identity and agency. And though not as explicitly themed as Bloodroot, there is also a profound sense of rootedness and place. Consider, George Ella Lyon's "Where I'm From":

I'm from Artemus and Billie's Branch,
fried corn and strong coffee.
From the finger my grandfather lost
to the auger,
the eye my father shut to keep his sight.

Or the opening declarations from Lee Smith's novel Saving Grace:

My name is Florida Grace Shepherd, Florida for the state I was born in, Grace for the grace of God. I am the eleventh child of the Reverend Virgil Shepherd, born to him and his third wife, Fannie Flowers. They say I take after her, and I am proud of this, for she was lovely as the day is long, in spirit as well as flesh.

It is also interesting to consider nationally known writers—Barbara Kingsolver, Annie Dillard, Nikki Giovanni, Lee Smith—in their Appalachian context. Though arguably these women have "transcended" their regional status, positioning them among their Appalachian sisters suggests opportunities for future scholarship exploring their regional roots.

As with any comprehensive collection, there are jewels as well as less distinguished entries. A casual reader will be delighted by the hard, spare beauty of home birth in the opening scene of Grace Lumpkin's 1932 novel To Make My Bread, for which she won the Maxim Gorky Award for labor novel of the year, or the striking imagery in Irene McKinney's 1989 book of poetry Six O'Clock Mine Report:

At Hardtack and Amity the grit
abrades the skin. The air is thick
above the black leaves, the open mouth
of the shaft. A man with a burning

carbide lamp on his forehead
swings a pick in a narrow corridor
beneath the earth. His eyes flare
white like a horse's, his teeth glint.

In the older entries, a lost way of speaking is preserved. In Will Allen Dromgoogle's The Heart of Old Hickory and Other Stories of Tennessee (1895), the mountain man in the short story "Fiddling His Way to Fame," introduces himself and we are privileged to hear the cadences of a lost time and place:

"I war born," he said, "on the banks o' the Wataugy, in the country uv Cartir,—in a cabin whose winders opened ter the East, an' to'des the sunrise. That war my old mother's notion an' bekase it war her notion it war allus right ter me. Fur she was not one given ter wrong ideas."

The whole of the syntax suggests a far more archaic way of speaking, the traces of which still grace the colloquial talk of Appalachian folk. This anthology is supremely important in its archival role to preserve such language. In its scope, its variety, and its literary urgency, it demands that we all listen more closely, that we all listen here, to understand more fully who we are and what we are saying.

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004

The Soft Cage: Surveillance in America: From Slave Passes to The War on Terror

Buy this book from Amazon.comChristian Parenti
Basic Books ($24.95)

by Jim Feast

The pass that Brother Ezekiel had written read, This nigger is my slave. He has my consent to go to town. John Morris Dutton. — Margaret Walker, Jubilee

In Margaret Walker's novel Jubilee, a tracing of Gone with the Wind themes from a subaltern perspective, the Georgia slaves have a very dicey notion of the outside world. They know nothing of politics or abolitionists. But they do know on what side their bread is buttered (or, more often, not buttered), and have developed strategies, including forging passes, to undermine the peculiar institution.

This general point also comes up in Christian Parenti's The Soft Cage, a near panoptic survey of the place of surveillance techniques in American life (and the fight against them), which he ingeniously and plausibly finds to have originated in attempts to keep tabs on the Antebellum work force. What he describes in this early chapter on the old South does not resemble a forced march, though the masters employ pattie rollers (roving patrols that apprehended slaves violating curfew), passes, and even slave hire badges (dog tags worn by urban workers). Rather, the system resembles a ballet, in which attempts to spy on and police the slaves were met and countermanded by the slaves' resistance. Parenti chronicles such subversive activities as "re-expropriation of the master's stores, fencing pilfered goods, trading produce, and fraternizing with Native Americans, poor whites, and the fugitive slaves who lived as social bandits on the edge of the plantation world." Naturally, all of this had to be done by getting around the owners' spies.

Such fighting back was no historical exception, which can be shown simply by turning to The Soft Cage's powerful chapter on 19th-century Chinese immigration. This section begins with a paradox: by 1882, almost all Chinese were barred from entrance to the U.S., yet nonetheless, they kept flooding in. Parenti points out the Chinese already had practice back home dealing with a corrupt bureaucracy, and so quickly evolved methods to reach the gold mountain. For example, since Chinese merchants were allowed visas, mercantile firms would develop a side trade in adding (for a fee) new business partners to their papers of incorporation. Even more outrageously, when a legal Chinese immigrant decided to retire back to China, an enterprising Chinese merchant in San Francisco would pay a customs agent to steal that immigrant's file and "replace the existing identification photo with the image of the alleged 'returnee,'" actually a picture sent from China of a new immigrant. The picture was even suitably weathered to make it look old.

Ultimately, this book provides a cautionary tale, with Parenti warning against the step-by-step infringement on public and private life by the interrogatory machinery of the state and businesses. On this note, some of his most unsettling pages are those where he examines prying at the workplace. Here he looks not only at such well-known ways of monitoring productivity as counting the key-strokes of supermarket cashiers and typists, but also at newer developments such as the Pokky System, by which restaurant wait staff take orders on mini-computers and then electronically transmit them to the kitchen, saving time and barring them from fraternizing with the cooks. Also mentioned is the use of global positioning system hardware in UPS trucks, useful in "controlling drivers and getting them to work harder," since they realize their locations and speeds are continually broadcast to management. Parenti underlines that these last systems have not only been used to nail goof-offs, but to harass union activists who can be pestered about petty errors.

If this isn't frightening enough, Parenti's conclusion about the threat growing surveillance makes on our civil liberties is downright chilling, for he argues that the upshot of all this watching and being watched will be a stifling of dissent. After all, giving these institutions the right to monitor us makes sense only if they are benevolent, only if their surveillance is not used to harass union organizers or break up groups involved in legitimate protest. I think most will agree that relying on the state and corporations' good intentions is not a happy prospect.

Likewise, comparing Parenti's historical and contemporary sections, one notes a disturbing difference: where the slaves, Chinese immigrants, and other dispossessed groups elaborated a subculture-wide, underground, anti-surveillance technology to evade attempts to monitor them, present day crusaders against the soft cage seem to work alone or in small progressive groups, without being able to inculcate any section of the disadvantaged with an anti-snooping ethic and practice. If a book can be an activist tool, then The Soft Cage would certainly be a good one for alerting and mobilizing a desperately-needed resistance to the current promulgation and acceptance of omnipresent institutional eyes and ears.

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004

Lost Splendor: The Amazing Memoirs of the Man Who Killed Rasputin

Buy this book at Amazon.comPrince Felix Youssoupoff
Helen Marx Books ($21.95)

by Rod Smith

Let's be realistic. We're all born assassins—in our heads, at least. Who among us has never dreamt of sending some tyrannical mayor, mullah, president, or lifeguard to his or her grave, whether with bomb, bullet, blade or pure malevolent intent? Most of us, thank goodness, never get around to actually doing anything along those lines. Assassination attempts—even ones that end in success as regards the killing part—tend to generate pesky legal complications and often lead to lifelong incarceration or death. Rare indeed is the assassin who walks away scot-free.

Prince Felix Youssoupoff is one such exception—and a damned interesting one. In his perennially popular Lost Splendor: The Amazing Memoirs of the Man Who Killed Rasputin (first published in 1953 by G. P. Putnam), the prince provides an exciting and detailed account of how, with the help of a few close friends, he put an end to none other than Grigory Efimovich Rasputin, the infamous peasant and petty criminal turned erstwhile holy man who wielded a frightful and prodigious power over Russia's royal family in the years preceding the Bolshevik Revolution.

Lost Splendor covers a lot of other turf as well: The genesis of the fabulously wealthy Youssoupoff family, the prince's pre-adolescent adventures as a cross-dressing nightclub entertainer, his tumultuous courtship of and eventual marriage to one of the Czar's nieces, the chaos that gripped his country during the revolution—Youssoupoff tells all in lively, often intimate, prose. But, like many good writers, he's a chump—24-carat proof of the fact that "noble" doesn't necessarily equal "smart."

In stating the case against Rasputin, Yousoupoff portrays him as a fascinating, compelling character, more rogue than villain, given to great excesses but also possessed of enormous powers. After he wins the confidence of the starets ("religious advisor;" Rasputin spent a lot of time in monasteries doing monastic things but never received Holy Orders), the fledgling assassin nearly succumbs to Rasputin's ultra-magnetic gaze, when, having conned the mock monk into believing that he suffered from an intense fatigue which no doctor had been able to ameliorate, Youssoupoff gets a taste of the cure:

I felt as if some active energy were pouring heat, like a warm current, into my whole being. I fell into a torpor and my body grew numb; I tried to speak, but my tongue no longer obeyed me and I gradually slipped into a drowsy state, as though a powerful narcotic had been administered to me. All I could see was Rasputin's glittering eyes.

Though Youssoupoff and company kill Rasputin in the hope of saving the Romanov dynasty, they accomplish just the opposite. The revolution starts shortly after the starets's death; had he lived, the wily peasant almost certainly could have led the Czar, Czarina, and Czarevitch to safety. Instead, they get captured and, eventually, executed by the Bolsheviks. Meanwhile, half the country knows that Youssoupoff killed Rasputin, rendering him considerably more popular than the average Russian nobleman at the time. He and his family escape with relative ease to Paris, where he remained until his death in 1967. Youssoupoff himself wonders whether, as many suggest, his deed sparked the revolution and the end of his world, and never arrives at a satisfactory conclusion. Still, Lost Splendor makes for a inspiring romp—even if you're not planning an assassination.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004

Paul Bowles on Music

Buy this book at Amazon.comEdited by Timothy Mangan and Irene Herrmann
University of California Press ($34.95)

by Mark Terrill

Though known primarily for his novels, stories and translations, Paul Bowles was also an accomplished composer and widely published music critic. An intimate of Aaron Copland and protégé of Virgil Thomson, Bowles first met Thomson in Paris in 1931, when both were members of Gertrude Stein's circle. Then only 20, Bowles was vacillating between music and writing, still unsure as to which direction his artistic career was going to take him. After his experimental poetry received some harsh criticism at the hands of Stein, Bowles concentrated on polishing his skills as a composer. But he didn't abandon writing altogether and had soon written his first article for Modern Music, where Copland had been publishing articles for some time. In a letter to his mother from Paris while recovering from typhoid in 1932, Bowles wrote:

I became ambitious the other day, and wrote an article for Modern Music. They used to pay $20. What it is now, I don't know. Probably the same. The editor, as you know, has asked me two or three times to do some articles, and I have always shunned the task. It's an easy enough job if one has something to say, I discovered.

Published from 1924 to 1946 by the League of Composers, Modern Music was among the most important music journals of its day, and still makes lively reading. Edited by Minna Lederman for its entire lifespan, Modern Music was academic by nature but also intended for a broader audience than just composers. This was achieved in part by Lederman's insistence on clear, straightforward prose and plain English. Copland, Thomson and Roger Sessions were all regular contributors, as well as many other luminaries of the time, including Arnold Schoenberg, Colin McPhee, Henry Cowell, Elliot Carter, Marc Blitzstein, Lou Harrison, and others, earning Lederman a reputation for having nurtured a generation of composer-critics.

From 1931 on, Bowles contributed translations of articles on music, then his own criticism, to Modern Music. Then, from 1942 through early 1946, he served on the music reviewing staff of the New York Herald Tribune, where Thomson reigned as chief critic. In his few years at the Herald Tribune, Bowles wrote more than 400 music reviews and columns. From 1939 through the first part of 1945, he published nothing in prose but music criticism.

Paul Bowles on Music collects the music criticism Bowles published between 1935 and 1946, and includes an interview (the last) conducted by Irene Herrmann just five months prior to Bowles's death in 1999. Bowles wrote on an incredibly wide range of subjects—jazz, film music, classical music, popular music, avant-garde music, ethnic music—in a lucid, straightforward style that revealed both his incredible musical knowledge and his dry, understated humor. Apparently Bowles made a point of following Thomson's editorial edict on writing about music, which Bowles partly paraphrased in his last interview:

[Thomson] always said you must consider what you're doing is reporting on an event, like a fire in the Bronx or something. You go, he says, tell what you see, you don't say, "I didn't like the color of the fire. I don't like the smell of the burning rubber." Don't tell what you like or what you don't like because no one cares. That was always very important, not to push your person into the review by complaining. It's always considered that you were simply reporting on an event, which is what you were doing—a recital at Town Hall or Carnegie Hall was an event. What happened. And that was the important thing. He always stressed that: What happened?

Whether reviewing Frank Sinatra, John Cage, the Trapp Family Singers, Shostakovich, a child accordionist, or a theremist, Bowles's style remained for the most part austere and dispassionate, foreshadowing the same stylistic approach he later employed in his fiction. There are brief glimpses of enthusiasm, both positive and negative, but Bowles's criticism is primarily level-headed and analytical. And while he made no attempt to hide his preference for American music of the Boulanger school, as well as for non-German European moderns, he always managed to remain objective and open-minded, the final criterion being whether or not the piece "worked."

In the interstice created where the divergent spheres of music and writing overlapped, Bowles was, consciously or not, forming a bridge from one art form to another. As Gena Dagel Caponi wrote in Paul Bowles: Romantic Savage: "The work gave Bowles invaluable experience in producing a straightforward narration of events and in putting nonverbal experiences into verbal expression." Or as Bowles said later in a 1953 interview: "I only returned to writing through music criticism."

Bowles's extensive travels were put to use as well, and he wrote several in-depth articles on indigenous folk music in Mexico, Morocco, Cuba and elsewhere. He also wrote extensively on film and theatre music. In 1943 and 1944, two of his most prolific years as a music critic, he wrote some 280 articles for the Herald Tribune, most of them concert reviews. These pieces give the collection an autobiographical aspect as well, painting a portrait of the young composer-critic hustling through the streets of Manhattan to the next concert, recital, film or theater premiere—producing an image quite at odds with the reticent, sphinx-like inveterate outsider and expatriate writer who disappeared into the Sahara in 1947 to write The Sheltering Sky, and later such sinister works as "The Delicate Prey" and "A Distant Episode."

After a falling out with Minna Lederman, Bowles's critical writing began to dwindle. As guest editor of the May 1945 issue of Charles Henri Ford's surrealist magazine View, Bowles translated a number of mythical stories and anthropological texts, paving the way for his own return to fiction writing and translations, which would soon be appearing in such magazines as Harper's Bazaar, Horizon, and Partisan Review. As Bowles wrote in his autobiography, Without Stopping:

Little by little the desire came to me to invent my own myths, adopting the point of view of the primitive mind. The only way I could devise for simulating that state was the old Surrealist method of abandoning conscious control and writing whatever words came from the pen . . . It was through this unexpected little gate that I crept back into the land of fiction.

The words that then came from his pen formed the story "The Scorpion," a disturbing and exemplary work of fiction that set the style for much of Bowles's later work, an oeuvre which would establish him as one of the preeminent authors of the 20th century. Besides documenting over a decade of cultural history, Paul Bowles on Music greatly enhances our picture of a composer/writer otherwise draped in obscurity, and sheds much new light on his own artistic development, expanding and buttressing his already voluminous artistic legacy.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004

Juniper Fuse: Upper Paleolithic Imagination & The Construction of the Underworld

Buy this book from Amazon.comClayton Eshleman
Wesleyan University Press ($29.95)

by Sarah Fox

In his 1981 collection of poems Our Lady of the Three Pronged Devil, Clayton Eshleman concludes his introduction with the following:

As species disappear, the Paleolithic grows more vivid. As living animals disappear, the first outlines become dear, not as reflections of a day world, but as the primal contours of psyche, the shaping of the underworld, the point at which Hades was an animal. The new wilderness (Jerome Rothenberg's phrase) is thus, to give it my own turn, the spectral realm created by the going out of animal life and the coming in, in our time, of these primary outlines. Our tragedy is to search further and further back for a common non-racial trunk in which the animal is not separated out of the human while we destroy the turf on which we actually stand.

This introduction and many of the poems which follow it reappear in Juniper Fuse, the passionate and visionary summit of an unusual creative project: translating and reintegrating the narrative of awakening humanity as depicted within psychic wombs on the cave walls of southwestern Europe. Artfully traveling along the faultlines of a burgeoning consciousness, at every opportunity submerging himself in the abyss of extrasensory and intra-millennial realities, Eshleman fuses his imagination to the plight of the Cro-Magnon and locates the birth of metaphor at the parallax Fall, when awareness of separation from both animal and mother lit the mind and delivered art. In “Placements I: ‘The New Wilderness,’” Eshleman writes: "At arm's length the image, my focus the extent of my reach. Where I end the other begins. And is not all art which genuinely moves us done in the 'dark' against a 'wall'? Olson's whisper (a prayer), '(boundary) / Disappear.'"

Eshleman, as his devotees are well aware, has been immersed in this source for over 25 years, and Juniper Fuse, his "saturation job" á la Charles Olson, is indeed a unique achievement. Inspired by the work of a vast array of thinkers—Rimbaud, Norman O. Brown, Mikhail Bakhtin, Wallace Stevens, James Hillman, Sandor Ferenczi—Eshleman has constructed the book on hinges that join poetry to prose to epistle to image to dream to myth. He aims to "make use of a pluralistic approach that may result in a fuller 'reading' of Upper Paleolithic imagination than archeological or literary approaches alone might yield," and further notes that "as a poet's book, Juniper Fuse is an attempt to reclaim the caves of the Dordogne and the Pyrénées for poets as geo-mythical sites in which early intimations of what we call 'muse' may have been experienced." As poet, scholar, and explorer, Eshleman interviews poetry's potential throughout, and in both prose and verse accomplishes a rare lyric force. His "Notes on a Visit to Le Tuc D'Audoubert," for example, incorporates drawn images copied from cave walls with projective verse and linguistic equations—language as symbol, as mark.

A core essay, "Placements II: 'The Aranea Constellation'" (originally published by Rain Taxi as part of their Brainstorm Series of chapbooks) saturates its prose with poetry ("An Aranea centered in her web, afloat yet anchored between ground and sky. The natural mind of the earth always spinning"), poets (Vallejo, Rimbaud, Artaud, Whitman, Ginsberg), and scholarship ("I see in the Cretan labyrinth not only the ancient ghost of a spider-centered web but Paleolithic man leaving a living site and becoming a hunter following the herds, thus entering the mythos of killing and sacrifice.") In this essay, Eshleman reimagines the myth of the labyrinth, placing the artist in Ariadne's stead: "The transformation of the 'given life' to a 'creative' one not only involves entering a dark or 'inner' life, but generating as well a resistance substantial enough to test oneself against and to shape the focus of one's work." Much archeological examination is referenced throughout with generous quotations riffing off Eshleman's lyrical musings.

A refreshing, and even loving, reinterpretation of the Feminine as source and power ("The Mothers of Lascaux flayed the penises of the Fathers") finds its advocate in Eshleman's voice. Pondering Sandor Ferenczi's Thalassa: A Theory of Genitality, he provides an alteration on an "essentially masculine viewpoint" with his "Thalassa Variations," an erotic and ambitious poem-as-vulva. The entire book probes womb/wound as symbolic naissance of metaphor, thus thought. One considers the illiterate María Sabina chanting from ground zero of Language. Her source—literally the mushroom, spiritually "The Source" (earth, memory, imagination)—is Eshleman's, Cro-Magnon's, and ours. An especially arresting narrative in the book involves the author attempting to "nurse" from his analyst's finger, a memory he encounters after breaking his ankle in an accident and spending the night spontaneously hallucinating in his ditch-bound car. He likens this experience to the eating of amanita muscaria mushrooms, having seen slugs writhing postprandially near a patch of the red and white fungi earlier in the day, and describes how he symbolically "crawled to the bottom of a 'wild' cave, which clawed out at me as I attempted to emerge." Birth imagery is hardly avoidable, but Eshleman handles it with kaleidoscopic exuberance and grace. Fond references are frequently made to his wife Caryl—an obvious comrade in this adventure—and to prominent feminist thinkers such as Adrienne Rich and Barbara Walker.

In fact, every piece in the book works in collaboration with the facts and imaginings Eshleman has encountered on his journey (e.g. "I felt the broken horse rear in agony in the cave-like stage of Picasso's Guernica . . . ")—the breadcrumb trail leading from Cro-Magnon to Microchip. It is this sense of collaboration which gives the book its grand scope and spirit of generosity. Eshleman avoids staking personal claim on his findings but rather allows them to ignite and to direct his readers' imaginations as he connects the dots from cave wall to mind to page. The book is abundantly useful, as I believe it is meant to be—a rich, brilliant, exalted source for the artist, the thinker, the human.

An attempt to "analyze" this work seems antithetical to its purposes, for to enter the book is to enter the cave: it is altering and singular, hallucinatory, tragic, ecstatic. The scholarship is exhaustive and painstakingly elaborated in the "Notes and Commentary" section at book's end, while a quick glance at the bibliography provides an ample syllabus for at least a decade's worth of "saturation." Cave images, diagrams, and photographs accompany both prose and poetry, and are nicely showcased in a full-color section in the book's middle. As a life's work, the volume is unusual for a poet and therefore especially valuable: its form—essay, verse, image, scholarship—is "multifolate" and entirely unpredictable. Juniper Fuse is pan-poetic spelunksmanship, alchemical book of shadows, psychic journey extraordinaire. From inside the womb of the human mind, Eshleman has traced an archetypal (and, according to Eliot Weinberger, "Post-Darwinian") evolution, delivering from it his own lyrical documentation of origin's myth.

With such a rare and important work at stake, one only wishes that its prominent university press publisher had laid out the text with more reasonable margins (the left margin, occasionally used for photographs or drawings, is a generous two inches, while the right almost flows into the spine, making the task of reading occasionally arduous). That aside, the overall design is beautiful, and the inclusion of color reproductions essential to the book's gravity as a contribution to American poetry, art history, human psychology, and archeological investigation. Juniper Fuse is an indispensable guide to the human imagination, and can't be recommended highly enough.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004

Detroit Tales

Buy this book at Amazon.comJim Ray Daniels
Michigan State University Press ($22.95)

by Dustin Michael

Close to the beginning of "A Fistful of Yen," the sprawling goofball chop-socky spoof in the messy 1977 cult favorite The Kentucky Fried Movie, the evil kung-fu warlord is doling out punishments to his captives. A ragged man in chains is dragged from the dungeon. Unrepentant, he spits on the warlord's feet. "Send him to... Detroit!" commands the warlord sadistically, having sentenced another prisoner to death for a lesser offense only seconds before.

Jim Ray Daniels's Detroit Tales is a collection of short stories that does everything it can to confirm all of our greatest fears regarding the Motor City. It is a book that makes you uneasy, especially if you live in the Midwest; with each piece, the city becomes a little darker, a little more ominous, until it seems perched at the top of the country like a dilapidated gargoyle ready to fall on your car (which, ironically, probably rolled off an assembly line there). Each story leaves you feeling like you've just learned something nasty about the people in the house up the block.

These are stories of grime and metal, of characters whose sparks burn out in dingy corners like the fiery shards of steel that have been power-sanded off formless automotive parts by cold mechanical arms. They are stories of the Factory—of its slaves, its victims, and the people who exist beneath its shadow and lead leery lives. In short, these are modern tales of the dragon and the villagers.

Gerry, who narrates the opening story, "Islands," manages to do what almost every other character in the book only thinks about doing: He packs up and gets the hell out of Motor City before it guzzles up all his fuel. A reformed drug user turned civic-minded father figure, Gerry now picks crack vials out of the flowers he and his wife have planted on a traffic island. But once we've met Gerry—a man semi-devoted to turning his sketchy neighborhood around—Daniels bombards us with a menagerie of burn-outs, a line-up of suspects hauled in to answer the accusation, "Whose fault is it the neighborhood turned to crud in the first place?" There's Carl, the Mad Dog-swilling street tough who terrorizes the corner candy/liquor store; Kenny, the pot-bellied, Hog-riding 'Nam vet who crashes his high school-aged brother's block party and beats up his friends; and Ed, the dopey teenager who's too stoned on Christmas Eve to realize he's breaking his infirm mother's heart. The list of culprits goes on, each guilty of what seems to be Detroit's most common crime: being not bad enough to be incarcerated or chased out of town, but not good enough to make the city even a slightly better place to live.

There are no bold heroes in Detroit Tales, no steel-eyed archers to rise up, draw back, and shoot arrows to jam the grinding cogs of the motor dragon; these are tales of coping, of making do under the looming fog fists of the factories. The triumphs in them are subtle ones: The church deposes a minister for questionable sexual conduct with a minor but the minor's family stands behind him; a sullen loser gets over the crush he had on his dead cousin and brings himself to toss out her old album collection; a likeable gal who won't have sex with her slob boyfriend has a party and invites him and her promiscuous friend, and... well, that one's only a fleeting triumph. Often victory amounts to things staying the same as opposed to getting worse, but in Detroit, that's cause enough for celebration—so crack open a Pabst, call whatever relatives and friends haven't died horribly in factory accidents or drug overdoses, and count yourself lucky to have clocked out another day.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004

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