Tag Archives: spring 2010


Tariq Ramadan
Oxford University Press ($12.95)

by Spencer Dew

In a 2003 television exchange with then French interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy, the controversial theologian Tariq Ramadan called for a moratorium on the Islamic practice of stoning adulterous women to death. “Are you serious?” Sarkozy responded, “A moratorium, that is to say, we should, for a while, hold back from stoning women?” While Sarkozy quickly turned the issue into a moral indictment of Ramadan (“Mr. Ramadan, if it is regressive not to want to stone women, I avow that I am regressive,” said the polished-for-television politico), Ramadan’s comments deserve close reading. Debating the future president of France on national television, Ramadan argued not for a given position on stoning (he opposes it), but, rather, emphasized the need for change in Islamic legal practices to come from within the Islamic community:

I can please the French people who are watching by saying, “Me, my own position.” But my own position doesn’t count. What matters is to bring about an evolution in Muslim mentalities . . . today, I speak to Muslims around the world, and I take part, even in the United States, in the Muslim world . . . You should have a pedagogical posture that makes people discuss things.

Later, in one of the many interviews in which this now infamous exchange was mentioned, Ramadan attempted to clarify. “Personally, I’m against capital punishment,” he told Ian Buruma of the New York Times. “But when you want to be heard in Muslim countries, when you are addressing religious issues, you can’t just say it has to stop. I think it has to stop. But you have to discuss it within the religious context. There are texts involved.”

Much is made of how difficult it is to get a bead on Ramadan’s thought, to sift through his statements and make sense of what he really means; yet he is as rightly famous for the lucid quality of his writing and speaking as he is for the shadowy innuendo which supposedly haunts his statements. Ramadan’s most recent book, What I Believe, is essentially another attempt to clarify his method and stance. A figure of notoriety because he is believed to straddle the “Western world” and the “Muslim world,” Ramadan unceasingly seeks to prove this division false. Not only are there no “closed, monolithic entities” such as these supposedly clashing “civilizations,” but human identity is also not an either/or issue. Ramadan, like all of us, is simultaneously one thing and another—a Muslim and a European, for instance. (In What I Believe, Ramadan cites an example offered by Amartya Sen, that one can be both a poet and a vegetarian, and no confusion will result at dinner.)

Alas, when it comes to Muslim identity in contemporary Europe and America, suspicions run deep. As Ramadan writes, “I fully accepted both my Muslim faith and my Western culture and I claimed that this is possible and that common values and hopes are more essential and more numerous than differences. Conveying that message is difficult in this time of impassioned debates dominated by confusion and mutual deafness”—not to mention distortions of facts and outright anti-Islamic sentiments, aspects Ramadan addresses as well.

The television debate with Sarkozy offers a prime example of Ramadan’s role as a voice of reform within the Islamic tradition. As he explains in What I Believe,

My approach has constantly been to develop themes in three distinct steps. First, I quote the sources: here is a verse or a Prophetic tradition (hadîth) and this is the literal meaning. Second, I explain the different readings offered by scholars in the course of history as well as the possibilities available for interpreting the said verse or hadîth, because of its formulation or in light of Islam’s message. Third, starting from the verse (or hadîth) and its various possible interpretations, I suggest an understanding and implementation that take into account the context in which we live.

Ramadan gives concrete examples in this text as well as in his many other books, including In the Footsteps of the Prophet: Lessons from the Life of Muhammad (Oxford, 2007), likewise geared toward a popular audience of Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Put even more simply, for Ramadan, claims advanced within Islam—be they social or legal, ethical or metaphysical—must emerge from the matrix of Islam itself, specifically the texts that represent divinely revealed tradition. For Ramadan, the Quran is the direct word of God, and the life of the Prophet is an exemplary template for human action. This is what he means when he says, “there are texts involved.” When he notes that to address beliefs held by Muslim communities one cannot merely impose another belief, from outside, without reference to Islamic tradition, he is reiterating the basic claim that religious beliefs are not merely adopted on a whim but emerge out of a deep lineage of interpretation. For Sarkozy, such a situation is shocking—“Are you serious?”—because he reads it as implying a dichotomy of commitments, putting two communities, French and Muslim, in conflict.

Ramadan insists not only that one can have simultaneous allegiance to God and country, religious tradition and citizenship, but also that the ideals of pluralistic democracy align with the ideals of Islam. He nonetheless espouses a revolutionary agenda in the sense that he longs for a complete ethical overhaul of the world. The ideals of pluralistic democracy are not the same as the lived practice of today’s supposedly pluralistic democracies, after all. Yet Ramadan’s revolutionary vision is precisely that of a theologian addressing specific issues (environmental degradation, a culture of consumerism, worker oppression, gender inequalities), articulating moral critique, and working toward a renovation of real human relations rather than some petty theocracy.

This larger agenda and its roots in interpretive tradition are outlined in the masterful but more academicRadical Reform: Islamic Ethics and Liberation (Oxford, 2008). In What I Believe, Ramadan offers a more intimate, autobiographical expression of his goals and methods, dwelling in particular on the “pedagogy of solidarity” that motivated his comments on French TV. Rather than speak from outside (people who believe in stoning are wrong!), Ramadan engages the texts and logic of the Islamic tradition that he shares with all Muslims. At the same time, he speaks to non-Muslims, parsing out the Islamic tradition and its logic while emphasizing the necessity of authentic human engagement by all parties—not reductionism, not polemic, not hysteria or hatred. In a time of hostility, suspicion, even paranoia about Islam and Muslims, what Ramadan says (or doesn’t say) is sure to be much debated. What I Believeoffers an accessible and at times quite moving entrée into the thought of this important figure.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010


Michel Sanouillet
revised and expanded by Anne Sanouillet
translated by Sharmila Ganguly
MIT Press ($39.95)

by Jay Besemer

Anyone would think that the English-speaking world had just discovered Dada. A carnival of attention—both scholarly and otherwise—has been pitched around the international Dada movement over the past decade, resulting in an apparently accelerating Tilt-a-Whirl of Dada-oriented conferences, traveling exhibitions, anthologies and quality critical works. Fresh scholarly studies have emerged as a result of recent opportunities to access previously unavailable archival and other primary material of the movement. And classic critical and historical monographs on Dada, whose language of publication made them off-limits to many readers, are now appearing in English translation.

The most thrilling new arrival in the latter category is Dada in Paris, Michel Sanouillet's unique and lively history of the movement's French manifestation. Despite its longtime unavailability in English, the book has been tremendously influential—even fecund—since its first French edition of 1965, spawning a continent-hopping family of citations and references in diverse texts and media. The 2005 release of an updated and expanded French edition provided the source text of the new translated volume, giving both French and English audiences a chance to broaden Dada's chronological context and connect past scholarship with present new perspectives.

Dada in Paris is so valuable because Sanouillet's careful and devoted research leads him to clarify and correct some popular and powerful critical misconceptions about the movement, ideas that had led to widespread misinterpretation as they were repeated (often in condensed form and without further analysis) in commentary on Dada. Many of these misconceptions have been perpetuated in English-language scholarship on Dada in the last few decades, so Sanouillet's volume works to break the grip of these notions. Specifically, Dada in Paris addresses these common assumptions: that Dada was really just a sort of foreplay for Surrealism; that the movement was always and only nihilistic and destructive in nature; that French Dada was the most “real” or “complete” form of the movement; that in fact any quick critical summation of Dada using standard, reductive methods of analysis was even possible.

In his Preamble, Sanouillet readily admits that the problems inherent in making an accurate, meaningful study of Dada are not only to be ascribed to the waspishness or superficiality of critics. By its nature, the movement itself seems designed to toss caltrops in the path of all interpreters, and Sanouillet acknowledges “the impossibility of narration alone reviving the Dadaist gesture . . . How were we to bring to our dry laboratory studies that enthusiasm, exuberance, spontaneity, insolent laughter, and human touch, without which Dada is no longer Dada?”

Gaining access to the far-flung and fragile epistolary and ephemeral primary material of the movement is another challenge faced by scholars of Dada, and Sanouillet not only confronts that giant bravely, he also lessens the burden for others who choose to take the same path. Here is another reason for the excellence of Dada in Paris; fully half the book is devoted to inclusive appendices containing English translations of correspondence between the key players in the study, especially Tristan Tzara, Francis Picabia, and André Breton. Most of the exchanges included are between these three men, and the letters are presented in sections focusing on the Tzara-Picabia relationship, the Tzara-Breton relationship, and the Picabia-Breton relationship. Selected correspondence between these men and others involved in or peripheral to the movement is also offered, as well as exchanges related to particular elements of Dada history. This section also contains useful and informative annotations and notes on provenance. The appendices are marvelously valuable and almost compulsively readable, allowing us to conceptualize more accurately the influence of these personal relationships on the evolution of the movement. We are shown some of the same source material upon which Sanouillet bases his counter-arguments, and can judge for ourselves if they are sound.

In the volume's appropriately titled “Conclusion?” we are presented with a detailed exegesis of the six proposals comprising Sanouillet's overall argument. It seems useful to present these important concepts fully, albeit in paraphrase. He proposes that:

1. Dada definitely chronologically predates Surrealism;
2. Concepts and techniques later used or made known by Surrealism were already in existence and used among Dadaists;
3. The above concepts and techniques were present in Parisian surrealist activity, before contact with Dadaists, only in a “diffuse state”;
4. Relations between the future Surrealists in Paris and the Dadaists of Zurich far predated Dada activity in Paris;
5. Dada and Surrealist written works come from different and dissonant traditions and are different in spirit from one another;
6. Dada temporarily occupied conceptual territory that also included Surrealism, but its full depth and breadth actually spread beyond what would come to define surrealist activity.

Dada came to Paris from Zurich, was transformed and limited by the kairos at work in its new setting, found matters untenable, and eventually ceased to be Dada. But this, Sanouillet insists, does not mean that “real” Dada was born in France and, after being “tamed” by Breton, grew up and became Surrealism. Sanouillet's passionate research has shown why such a simplistic (and, dare we say, chauvinistic) interpretation is both inaccurate and disappointing. The truer story is the more satisfying because it is the richer one; now we can see for ourselves all the complex, contradictory, and fascinating developments in the Parisian chapter of the Dada story.

Although French-reading Dada scholars can obviously consult the latest Pauvert edition of DADA à Paris, they might also consider purchasing the English volume, simply for the joy of admiring Sharmila Ganguly's deft translation. She not only conveys the content of Sanouillet's prose, she also somehow manages to capture both the spirit of his analysis and the unique quality of his voice. Ganguly's version renders Sanouillet's occasionally acrobatic French into a fresh, accessible English, sacrificing neither the meaning nor the intent of the original. This is no small task; the book is over 600 pages long, and Ganguly faithfully holds Sanouillet's voice, as well as those of all the correspondents in the appendices, through each and every page.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010


Ted Gioia
Speck Press ($25)

by Rebecca Morales

In The Birth and Death of the Cool, Ted Gioia claims that the social aesthetic of “cool” is going out of style. Gioia, primarily a jazz historian and cultural observer, brings his experience to this theory. The book is conversational and simple, but packed with history and business statistics. It’s not overly music-heavy or technical, but based largely on the author’s careful observations of the culture we can all see.

Gioia says in the introduction that his original intention was to define the cool and trace it through history and society. During this process, however, he identified a major cultural shift away from cool in the last few years, one that he predicts will continue until the formerly ruling aesthetic is completely dead. He covers both the cool and its decline adeptly, entertaining the audience while educating them on jazz history, cultural studies, and consumer profiling.

The book is structured in semi-chronological themed segments that progress logically. Gioia first attempts to define cool, describing its modern and historical implications, then takes us through its history before detailing its decline and predicting what will come next. His “cool” comes mostly from jazz culture—introduced by Bix Beiderbecke, Lester Young, and Miles Davis—but is heavily influenced by other popular media figures, including the Beats, Bugs Bunny, and James Dean. It’s a lifestyle and a fashion style, a pretense that we enact with sarcasm and nonchalance. It’s what ads use to draw in customers, and what every fashion and entertainment company claims they can provide.

This very commandeering of cool to manipulate consumers, Gioia argues, has led to its downfall. Customers raised in the system of purchasing cool have become disillusioned and increasingly wary of advertising; they no longer believe that they can be cool for the price of a new shirt. Corporations are beginning to realize that the public’s attention can no longer be bought, and must turn to the word-of-mouth paradigms that have led companies like Amazon and Google to flourish.

Gioia writes extensively on the effects of this post-cooling of society. The same generation that is unimpressed by the cool is shopping at Whole Foods, listening to folk music, and voting for Obama (Gioia’s pick for the most nerdy president in recent history). With the comeback of an honest and straightforward sensibility, students are openly applying themselves in school, natural foods and healthy lifestyles are on the rise, and consumers are striving to be individuals rather than following the pack.

Besides providing an interesting history of the cool and a keen observation of modern culture, Gioia also warns the reader about the negative ways in which our society is changing. As we lose our pretense, he argues, we also give up our basic politeness. Road rage and angry rappers have become commonplace, political debates engage in aggressive ugliness, and “keeping your cool” is no longer a social virtue.

After reading Gioia’s book, it’s easy to believe that a change of cultural priorities could cause such a large shift in behavior. Whether you ultimately agree with Gioia or not, The Birth and Death of the Coolis a fascinating look at modern culture.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010

TECHNOLOGIZED DESIRE: Selfhood and the Body in Postcapitalist Science Fiction

D. Harlan Wilson
Guide Dog Books ($14.95)

by Andy Stewart

As a self-proclaimed irrealist, a pioneer of critifiction, and an author of “ultraviolent” tendency, D. Harlan Wilson is an entrenched participant in the postmodern (or post-postmodern) science-fiction milieu. He situates himself as no stranger to the narratives explicated in his first book of critical theory, Technologized Desire: Selfhood and the Body in Postcapitalist Science Fiction. Wilson’s new volume offers evocative, adroit analyses of the self (or the “terminal self”) in a variety of science-fictional speculations that explore the role of technology and media in relation to the future of late capitalism.

Wilson finds his specialized niche in Technologized Desire and makes bold assertions in regard to the future of the present media-driven “commoditocracy.” But, more importantly, he contributes a valuable voice to the discussion of postmodernity in relation to media, technology, society, and where the self fits in the thick of it all.

The author posits his thesis upon a slew of pre-existing postmodern philosophies, invoking such heavy-hitters as Frederick Jameson, Jacques Lacan, and Jean Baudrillard, to name a few. First aligning with Scott Bukatman’s notion that “cyberpunk texts contain the most effective representations of terminal identity,” he further defines the condition of terminal identity as subjects “compelled to mediate ‘a complex trajectory between the forces of instrumental reason and the abandon of a sacrificial excess.’”

Wilson explores this thesis by analyzing an array of entertainment media: books, short fiction, cultural studies, and most importantly, modern cinema. He states that “as we drown in the torrent of media that floods our daily experience . . . cinema becomes the dominant artistic and cultural medium.” Further, Wilson describes modern film as the “dominant postmodern medium” as well as “one of the largest global late capitalist enterprises.” Here, one notes the inextricable link between the roles of capitalism and “mediatization” in society, which Wilson aptly identifies as a “commoditocracy.” These elements are the foundation of Technologized Desire’s discussion of the terminal self: the “blip subject, a conflation of the human and the technological distinguished by a new, oppositional subjectivity.”

To understand the essence of Wilson’s text, one must also understand the definition of postcapitalism within the context of Technologized Desire. He differentiates between two schools of thought: “Some have associated [postcapitalism] with a reversion to a primitive society in the wake of global cataclysm. . . . More commonly it denotes an amplification or extrapolation of capitalism in its current form.” Wilson takes the latter stance and argues that the progression of today’s late capitalistic society to a postcapitalistic one is an inevitability—a natural evolution of the overly technologized world. The terminal self is the product of this world, a “desiring-machine whose contours are defined by the technetronic mediascape of late capitalism, which equates adequacy with excess.”

Technologized Desire’s appeal stems from Wilson’s unique critical approach. His use of popular cinema and fiction as crucibles for analysis engages readers on their own playing field. He tackles the issue of the self and the mediatized body by analyzing Cameron Crowe’s popular film Vanilla Sky. Wilson asserts that “in postmodernity there is only one self: the capitalist self.” To be terminal is to lose the freedom of choice, and “technology imperils individual choice by surrendering it exclusively to the wiles of capitalist enterprise.” Vanilla Sky’s protagonist, David Aames, is the perfect example a man who thinks he has a choice, but, by Wilson’s interpretation, does not.

Perhaps the most interesting (and humorous) analysis of science fiction here occurs in Wilson’s reading of Sam Raimi’s cult classic Army of Darkness as a schizophrenic narrative. He identifies the film as a “pathological wish-fulfillment invoked by the powers of late capitalism.” Ash, the protagonist in Army of Darkness, cannot separate himself from the consumerist, capitalistic mindset, even in a dislocated time. He is a “psychic cyborg . . . subject to the machinery of late capitalism.” Ash is also what Wilson defines as a postmodern slave, where “freedom is an intricate mythology that penetrates and produces the subject/slave on multiple levels.” The slave master: late capitalism. Army of Darkness provides an excellent vehicle for further investigation of “advanced capitalism and its pathological effects.”

If Technologized Desire bears any real flaw, that flaw rests in the paradoxical nature and density of postmodern analysis itself. Wilson participates in an ongoing conversation with the fathers of modern and postmodern philosophical thought, and he utilizes these various philosophies as building blocks to establish his own logical and philosophical assertions; Wilson’s primary talking points—terminal selfhood, media, technology, the evolution of late capitalism—are all concepts dependent upon the philosophical ideas that have preceded them. A reader not well versed in Lacan or Baudrillard may, then, find some barrier to comprehending the minutiae of the book.

Nevertheless, this complexity does not hinder the overall success of the work. Technologized Desire is designed to appeal to a larger, more mainstream readership than just those drawn to literary criticism or post-postmodern theory, and relies upon popular media, specifically film, to ensure a greater accessibility to readers. And, regardless of the intimidating list of philosophers and philosophies therein, Wilson does a commendable job of defining the complex critical theories and terms discussed and presented. While the ideal reader would already possess a sense of what postmodernism is in the context of social and cultural discourse, any reader ready for the intellectual challenge can fully appreciate the gravity of this text.

Technologized Desire proves itself to be a rich addition to the growing canon of 21st-century critical theory and literary criticism. Wilson is an author who expresses a clear concern for the future; his book is an urgent text of keen observation and wide-reaching social commentary that warrants nothing less than a careful, thoughtful read.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010


Rebecca K. O’Connor
Red Hen Press ($18.95)

by Jessica Handler

When I was young, I drew figures that combined girls with birds. I couldn’t manage humans; wings and beaks were simpler than bodies and faces. In her memoir Lift, Rebecca O’Connor proves that both are complicated, as she deftly defines one woman—herself—through her bond with a peregrine falcon.

In this memoir of literal and figurative flight, O’Connor, an animal trainer and parrot behaviorist, weaves her growing faith in her falcon, Anakin, with her history of wounded trust. Her mother temporarily vacated O’Connor’s childhood, there were sexual overtures by her stepfather, and an episode with a stalker. At twenty-one, she was a strip-club dancer. Eventually she became a licensed master falconer, but O’Connor had never trained a “perfect” bird like a peregrine. “I’m just afraid, afraid to fail,” she writes, “but this year I’m flying a peregrine anyway.”

Falconry, it seems, is a male preserve, as is the liberty of flight, and O’Connor’s life with and without birds is defined by difficult relationships with men. Fascinated by flight since childhood, O’Connor reminisces, in one of the italicized flashbacks that bind past and present in Lift, about attempting to catch a sparrow by salting its tail, a promise made by her grandfather. Failing, five-year-old Rebecca wails in disappointment. Nearly falling from her stepfather’s Cessna mid-flight thrills teenage Rebecca. “My view is suddenly unobstructed, endless and I want to learn out farther to see more.”

Bal-chatri traps, feaking, gram weights and falconry licenses define O’Connor’s life, and in Lift, she uses falconry lingo unapologetically. It’s a grueling life of pre-dawn training, frantic transmitter-guided tracking of fugitive birds, and long drives to wilderness training grounds. O’Connor also draws clever parallels between humans and birds, recalling her mother “perched” on her bed and comparing men’s aggressive table manners to mantling, a bird’s crouch over prey. But it’s Anakin who’s the only “predictable” relationship in her life.

O’Connor wants to be a predator, and it’s here that Lift briefly loses altitude, as the author deduces that, “predator worship is . . . perhaps not so odd for a woman.” Conversing with her mother, she realizes, “we like men that are braver and stronger than us.” Learned behavior clearly applies to birds and humans. Just as captive falcons are tethered by leather jesses, O’Connor and her mother are tethered by the telephone cord. In late-night calls, they drink wine, chat, and like flightless birds, make tentative steps toward discussing O’Connor’s childhood.

But it’s writing about velocity where O’Connor soars. Her love of flight conjures pure joy, as we witness her falcon in the sky. “Anakin is a tiny flashing speck no less than fifteen hundred feet and still climbing. The sight makes my heart constrict.” Seeing through O’Connor’s eyes, we are elated. In Lift, a true picture takes shape as she trains her falcon “to trust me and then to set him free again.” Like Anakin, both reader and author begin to recognize the strength in her heart.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010


Mekkawi Said
translated by Adam Talib
American University in Cairo Press ($22.95)

by M. Lynx Qualey

Author Nicholas Delbanco has said that one could precisely sculpt a friend in prose—describing her personal tics, her physical features, her history—and chances are she’d never notice. Give a character your friend’s name, however, and she’ll be sure to see her life reflected in your words.

A similar thing happens when an American character appears in a foreign setting: it can startle the American reader into self-recognition. Sure, that whiskey-swilling, angry imperialist is not exactly you, but he nevertheless functions as a mirror and critique. He shares a part of your name.

So it is with Mekkawi Said’s novel Cairo Swan Song, in which an Egyptian narrator and his overbearing American girlfriend struggle to make a documentary film about his country’s homeless children. This core story of love and exploitation is hung with numerous tangents: the narrator’s childhood sweetheart is reincarnated as a naïve university activist; a sex-crazed Egyptian authoress wants sex from the narrator, but then moves to Mexico; old friends become Marxists or Islamists, or go crazy.

These scattered threads take Cairo Swan Song far from the mirror it might otherwise hold up to traveling Americans and privileged Egyptians. The prose is also at times bombastic, full of sweeping generalizations. It tries to tackle Egypt and Dubai, colonialism and homelessness, Palestine and America and women.

Said’s novel has been very popular in Egypt, and made the shortlist for the inaugural “Arabic Booker” prize. It’s easy to see the book’s appeal. Sentences like “every one of us knows a ‘Khalil’ who’s ruined our lives and made them an unbearable hell” and “American civilization . . . [is] mostly the creation of robots, which do everything with precision and reject all error” might not show literary depth, but they can nevertheless be enjoyable to read. And hearing about the downtown Cairo elites is fun, like hearing tales of the rich and influential anywhere.

At its best, Cairo Swan Song does hold up a mirror to something very real about the line between art, charity, and profiting off other people’s exotic misery. Unfortunately, the book misses its chance to explore this line more deeply.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010


Karen Maitland
Delacorte Press ($26)

by Spencer Dew

That certain British and Irish churches have Sheela na Gigs carved above their doors—so-called Divine Hags crouching so as to spread the lips of their exaggerated, massive labia—is, as with much of such history, a mystery, and one into which no end of theories has been thrust. Does the figure signify a warning against Christian notions of sexual sin, or is it a symbol of an agricultural society’s desire for fecund fields? Was this grotesque carved as some kind of magical protection, a bawdy reminder of the human spirit, or is it a trace of a preexisting (or simultaneous, yet covert) religious system?

The idea of such a religion—one that locates the power of women not merely in sexuality but also in wisdom, thus offering women the very sort of earthly authority and respect Christianity stripped away—appeals, of course, to a wide variety of neo-pagans as well as those secular folks interested in historic precursors to contemporary feminism. As pagans and Christians shared certain rites and festivals in medieval times, so today do Wiccan theologians and Catholic reformers turn to the same speculations about history to bolster their respective claims.

Karen Maitland’s The Owl Killers will be of interest to both camps, for the fictional village in which she sets her scene, near the coast of west Norfolk in the year 1321, sports both a Sheela na Gig above the church door and a Beguinage in the nearby woods. The Beguines were not a religious order but, rather, laywomen who lived together, working to support themselves and controlling their own money and time, praying and writing. Responding to another historical mystery—the notable lack of such communities in the British Isles—Maitland makes the Beguinage in her novel the first outpost of the Beguine movement in England, sent from the sizeable and famous community in Bruges. She even has one of the most famous Beguine-written books make a cameo: “‘This isn’t a Jewish book,’ I told Ralph. ‘It’s not written in their tongue. If it was I wouldn’t be able to read it, but I can read this. It’s in French. It means The Mirror . . . of Simple Souls,’” a manuscript that would later be attributed to Marguerite Porete, burned at the stake in 1310.

Maitland’s contrast of the horrible, toothy hag Black Anu and the city of women the Beguines set up in the woods—where, as one character explains, “you had the freedom to be yourself, do what you thought was right, not what others told you to do”—highlights two ways in which the feminine was (and still is) feared. Fantasies of monstrous vaginas can be contained, kept in their place. These women in the woods are a different matter. Or, as a character argues in the book: “Beguines are pernicious tares sown by the Devil to destroy the order of man and God. It was women that destroyed the order in the Garden of Eden—Lilith, Adam’s first wife, refusing to lie beneath her husband, and Eve seducing Adam into forbidden knowledge. Now they are hell-bent on destroying the very priesthood itself, and with it the Holy Church and all Christendom.”

The plot hinges upon this conflict between women and the priesthood, a popular and barely less incendiary topic today. There’s an anchoress subsisting wholly on Holy Communion, and when she’s deposited at the Beguinage, the women are presented with a riddle as to what she will eat. Does a woman have the right to stand “unshielded in the terrible light of God” if “no bishop had laid his hand upon” her? And, for that matter, are the sacraments even necessary; is the priesthood really nothing more than “a guard barring the way,” controlling “who will eat and be saved and who will be refused and damned”? But lest it seem like this novel is all a matter of theological debate, there are also those Owl Masters to which the title alludes, beast-whisperers and demon-conjurers who do creepy things in the woods involving wicker figures, masks, and flayed human skins.

Amidst the assorted lepers, philandering priests, and incestuous rapists of the period, Maitland scatters tidbits of historical data—on the manufacture of salt cats and the uses of dog dung, for instance. In a pleasant method of dividing chapters and tracking chronology, she also gives a sense of the medieval calendar, from the threats and pranks of Plough Monday through the parodic inversion of Feast of Fools or Saint Thomas’s day, when “all liquids in the home have to be kept covered” because the menstrual discharge of Lilith was believed to fall from the sky.

While not exactly a thriller, The Owl Killers is not without its thrills, and while the prose can clunk at times and the multiple points of view can get a little fuzzy, Maitland effectively renders the familiar strange and the strange familiar, offering a new imagining of both Christian and pagan history. She also sets herself up for a sequel, having one of her Beguines (a giantess) say: “I’ve a hankering to see more than this poxy village before I die. We might not make it, and if they catch us, we’ll likely burn together. But they’ll have to catch us first and we’ll give them a run for their money. . . . You and me together, lass. I reckon with your learning and my brawn, together we could take on the world.” This will be a sentiment shared by those who most enjoy this book, for the struggle of its early 14th-century heroines continues into the present day.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010


Orhan Pamuk
translated by Maureen Freely
Knopf ($28.95)
by Joshua Willey

“Real museums are places where Time is transformed into Space.” So Kemel, the narrator of Orhan Pamuk’s new novel The Museum of Innocence, tells the author, who characteristically shows up in the work’s final sequence to explain his own relationship to his subjects. Kemel’s sentiment strikes at the heart of Pamuk’s project. We need not feel enslaved to the clock or the calendar, because with the assistance of a few carefully chosen objects and a clean, well-lighted place, we can indeed time travel.

Pamuk gained international stardom and a Nobel Prize for articulating the dissonance between traditional Islamic society and the pluralism of the modern West in terms both more accessible and more intimate than most readers had encountered. Istanbul, his axis mundi, is indeed an appropriate setting for such endeavors, as it has witnessed, perhaps more than any city, the simultaneous inextricability and incompatibility of the divergent forms of life. In this novel, however, Pamuk leaves behind the overtly political content of works like Snow and the historicism of The White Castle in favor of something Proustian, psychological, and even romantic.

Kemel’s city is one in which streets, buildings, kitchenware, toys, jewelry, even cigarette butts possess a nearly numinous transcendental power. Objects are so deeply invested with pathos because they have been touched by a love so powerful it shines with a light brighter than any other in the world: Kemel’s love for Füsun. It is a love story, at least structurally, but only to the extent that, say, the Chinese classicDream of the Red Chamber is a love story. In truth it is an elegy to the power of things, to the potential for even the most mundane minutia to be imbued with an otherworldly significance if regarded in the proper light.

For Kemel, that light is the light of leisure. Kemel is one of the richest men in Istanbul, and at times The Museum of Innocence takes the tone of a novel of manners. Though it will likely not be considered as important as Snow because of its esoteric subject and socio-economic setting, it is perhaps Pamuk’s finest work to date; much praise is also due to Maureen Freely, who translates the Turkish into an English as readable as it is lyrical. The novel has something in common with Nabokov’s Ada in its emphasis on lyricism, forbidden love, and characters for whom money grows on trees. Political arguments aside, what Nabokov and Pamuk manage to do by creating hyper-romantic worlds without economic concern is to formulate a realm of pure sentiment, in which detail is allowed the space to flourish until it morphs into something deeply meaningful and transcendental.

The novel is a stunning depiction of one of the world’s great cities through the eyes of excess, but by unleashing the mystical power of the commonplace as Pamuk does, he expands his message to be as readily understandable to street sweepers as sultans. It is as though he unveils a secret life we can live if only we pay enough attention. At times, this life is heartbreakingly sad; its story is one of being good, and doing right, but existing outside of God’s way, or against the tide of circumstance, and thus failing. But ultimately, Kemel’s world is one possessed of infinite portals to the sweep and grandeur of the ages—so ultimately he, like us, must rejoice.

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010


Wang Gang
translated by Martin Merz
and Jane Weizhen Pan
Penguin ($15)

by Lucas Klein

English is a coming-of-age novel. As such, it hits many of the notes familiar to this most English of literary forms (its precursor, thebildungsroman, has more stringently German requirements): a boy grows up, learns about love, separates from his parents, takes on a new father figure, and eventually reaches manhood through admitting to and atoning for his transgressions. And yet, in its setting, the novel is unwaveringly Chinese, not only in taking place during the Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976), but in being situated in the city of Ürümchi—the capital of Xinjiang Province, in China’s far northwest—a land that has often seemed almost as distant and distanced from Beijing and Shanghai as China in the 1960s would have felt from the capitalist West.

Wang Gang’s mixture of these elements has produced a novel whose most interesting tensions are not between the protagonist, Love Liu, and either his English teacher Second Prize Wang or his classmate Sunrise Huang, but rather between the symbolic worlds represented by, and through, English and Chinese as languages. In Chinese, for instance, a principal tries to root out the vandal who slandered a school wall by scrawling “Down with Chairman Mao” on it, but cannot repeat the offending phrase; instead, he demands of the students: “Write ‘Down with’ on the front and ‘Chairman Mao’ on the back. You must not write all the words on the same side of the paper. Anyone who does is a counterrevolutionary.” On the other hand, English, as depicted by the teacher, is a language of bourgeois virility but also suspicious morality. Love Liu describes his first encounter with his English teacher: “Suddenly I heard footsteps and knew that Second Prize Wang was coming back to use the bathroom . . . I couldn’t help peering over. I cringed in shock—it was enormous. I’d never seen such a big one.”

The significance of the different languages and how they interact in the novel presents particular challenges for the translators, and overall their English—and their English—is as fluid and conversational as Wang Gang’s Chinese. At times, however, more creativity would have sharpened the reading: given the centrality of the dictionary as a plot device, a more imaginative rendering of the phonetic transliteration of “English” in the title—something like “Eng´·lish,” for instance—would have drawn this out. Likewise, the name of the English teacher is a pun that means both “second prize” and “Asian Military,” a common name for Chinese people born soon after the Communist Revolution; some kind of accommodation of the double meaning would no doubt be of interest to readers. A close comparison of the English and the Chinese reveals that many cuts were made for the sake of an Anglophone readership, a common but needless misstep on the part of publishers, who seem to have quite low expectations of American readers.

For a novel as invested in the richness of language as English, however, Wang Gang’s writing tends to shy away from lyricism and indulgent delight in language for its own sake. Its story-telling and its narrative are both straightforward and clear, as it spends more of its energy on plotlines and, especially, external depictions of characters’ interior development. This allows the drama of the story to open up naturally, unpretentiously—a significant trait given the narrator’s attempts to model himself after the English teacher gentleman—and yet also to crescendo into a tour de force of a conclusion. In that, too, by the end the novel’s childlike guilelessness has come of age and developed its own mature, sophisticated style.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010


Stacia Saint Owens
Livingston Press ($15.95)

by Charles Dodd White

There’s blood and bile but also weird beauty in Stacia Saint Owens's debut collection of short stories, Auto-Erotica. In stark, surreal evocations of the damaged and rapidly imploding dystopia commonly called Southern California, Saint Owens reveals the macabre through narrative dream states in which the grotesque becomes distressingly commonplace. Her acrobatic telling mimics the antic conflicts and dimensions of the characters themselves, making this an eminently stylized and accomplished collection.

The great excitement of these stories is in their daring structures. While it may be fair to characterize many of them as experimental, what really stands out is in their magnificent difference from one another. A strong thematic current unifies the book, though, invoking a violent brand of contemporary isolationism and the sometimes perverse sense of hope people create in order to deal with existing in an urban wasteland.

Saint Owens is selective in her portrayal of the kinds of people that inhabit Hollywood and its surroundings. Like Nathaniel West in The Day of the Locust, she does not attempt to crawl inside the machinery of the dream-killing movie industry, but instead tells of the shockwaves surrounding it. Her characters haunt the dangerous fringes of an illusory world, often putting themselves in great physical risk or pain. Perhaps the most horrifying example of this is in “Somewhat Funny,” where a beautiful young woman in love with an alternately indifferent and hostile recluse seeks a state of complete abjection in order to win his approval, only to be even more thoroughly rejected. Yet, the state of denial is not an end for the protagonist, Misty, who realizes an entirely new level of isolationism and basic malevolence seemingly connected to the earth itself:

There was a low, vast rumble and an insistent, tinkling little shake. It could have been a minor earthquake, but to Misty it was a jet airplane taking off from Dallas Love Field. She saw herself steering the plane with one finger, and if she wanted to crash it, she could.

This kind of radical shift in character perspective informs the best of the stories in the collection, including the stellar “Viv Thraves Goes Missing,” an account of a surviving member of a sex worker team who may be responsible for the disappearance of her former partner. Here, the performance of entertainment and the construction of time compete with one another to enclose a mystery that may not be a mystery at all. The really compelling truth, of course, has less to do with a missing persons case than with the nature of innocence, desire, and belief.

Auto-Erotica proves Saint Owens to be a writer with fire in her fingers and a dark weather in her heart. Her stories push beyond the limits of what we expect, but carry us with them to their final destinations. In the end we should be quite grateful for it.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010