Tag Archives: summer 2011


Keith Donohue
Crown Publishers ($24)

by Andrew Cleary

In the opening scene of Keith Donohue's novel Centuries of June, we see the bloody collision of the narrator’s head against the bathroom floor. "In that instant," Jack says, "the blood became a secondary concern to the hole in the back of my head." When Jack rises from the bathroom floor, his head wound already healing, he returns to his bedroom to find eight unfamiliar women in his bed, any of whom may have delivered the knock to his noggin. To help sort out this mystery, a man appears who may or may not be Jack's long-departed father, though he also bears a likeness to playwright Samuel Beckett.

With every clock in the house stopped at the same early-morning moment, Jack wanders through a bemused fog, struggling to remember how he came to his present predicament. In between stretches of clock checking, Jack repairs to the bathroom, where he is visited one-by-one by the women in his bed. Each of them, ravishing and ravaging, harbors an ancient grudge against Jack, who is unable, we are reminded more than once, to remember who each is or how she arrived in his bed.

To jog his memory, each woman takes her turn recounting her history, and here Donohue's novel exults in languorous sensuality. The recursive mystery of Jack's death recedes before the brazenness of each woman's story. Bawdy and erudite, their tales range deep into history and swirl with sorcery. Dolly, a pre-Columbian Tlingit girl, marries a shape-shifting bear; Alice, a housewife in colonial Salem, may indeed practice the witchcraft she is accused of. Each tale is united by a plot of a wronged woman and a delight in the textural beauty of language. Long Lane Long's story of 17th-century Bermudan colonists scatters "tho"s and "whene'er"s wherever it can, and Flo Worth's tale of the California Gold Rush glisters with varmints and jackanapes.

In an important sense, then, Centuries of June is a romp, and though Jack stumbles through it addled with incomprehension, the humor of its suspended animation echoes indeed Beckett's dark comedy; likewise, the fanciful tales, happy violence, and sensuous, twining language recall the gaiety of Tristram Shandy's endless diversions, and that earlier novel's happy, delaying struggle with death's specter. Unfortunately, Jack seems too slow to keep up with the tales and their allusions. In each interlude between tales he wanders through his house, wondering the same questions about what time it must be, where the cat may have gone, and why, once more, did he find himself brained and dying on the bathroom floor?

Meanwhile, the eternal moment of Jack's morning exerts a captivating pull that trivializes the mere mystery of his death. With each tale through the centuries, the moment is stretched to its limits with infectious brio. Jack comes up with his own modest solution to the mystery, but by then it's too late for him to join us in treasuring the insistent, spellbinding tales of his visitors.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011


Henning Mankell
Translated by Steven T. Murray
The New Press ($26.95)

by Jens Tamang

A story about a white man who brings a black child back to 19th-century Sweden against his will, Henning Mankell’s ethically complex and disturbing novel Daniel has tremendous potential for offense. YetDaniel is a surprisingly delicate meditation on the failures of colonial power, providing a drastic departure from the desiccate Kurt Wallander mysteries for which Mankell became internationally renowned.

Originally published in Swedish in 2000, Daniel begins with a disparaging portrait of twenty-nine-year-old Hans Bengler, an extremely bizarre entomologist bent on discovering an unknown species of beetle. It quickly becomes clear that Bengler—a lonely, drunk, academic failure—isn’t really searching for a beetle, but unattainable dominance: “The world was full of insects which didn’t have names and had not been catalogued. Insects that were waiting for him.” For Bengler, the prospect of finding such a specimen leads him to fantasize about reversing his failure at school, restoring his family’s wealth, bringing his mother back to life, and curing his all-consuming impotency (figurative and otherwise).

When he finally finds his beetle, Bengler’s fantasies prove to be lofty, and in this state of disappointment Bengler adopts a “specimen” of a very different kind. He discovers Molo, a young orphaned boy of the San tribe. Ironically, Bengler—a certified observer of nature—cannot see the trauma registered in Molo’s body, the trauma of having witnessed the slaughtering of his family. Bengler names the boy “Daniel,” hubristically satisfied about having “liberated” him from the savage abuse of his former owner.

Mankell does well to foreground the novel with a portrait of Bengler as a white man whose masculinity is in crisis, a man seized by illusions of his own prowess. Throughout the course of the narrative Bengler comes to represent the failure of benevolence to act as a comprehensive solution to the multifaceted problems with which we come in contact. And Molo’s “liberation” provides an excellent example of Mankell’s ability to illustrate scenes with layers upon layers of ethical complexity.

In Daniel, those who mean to do well can do evil, those who mean to do evil can do well, and everyone is to blame but the child caught in the crosshairs of white supremacy and colonial arrogance. Such ethical complexity shrouds the novel in mystery and the effect is gripping. Coupled with the stark prose that evokes the style of Cormac McCarthy and harks back to Mankell’s roots in the detective genre, it’s definitely hard to put the book down.

Perhaps the most questionable aspect of the book is that, a third of the way through, the narrative switches away from Bengler’s point of view and begins to narrate from Molo’s perspective. Here Mankell navigates dangerous territory, having to face head on the temptation to exoticize the “purity” of Molo’s psychology. Mankell’s handling does, more than once, submit Molo’s narration as a stand in for a half-baked concept of spirituality, one that romanticizes the African body in ways that seem sappy and out of touch. Mankell’s depiction of Molo succeeds, however, when it presents a kind of childlike bewilderment with the arch poise of a masterful writer. When Molo first arrives in Lund, a housekeeper finds him urinating on a potted plant, and Mankell portrays the confusion that arises from the collision of the two worlds with humor, tenderness, and a kind of honesty that reaches a paradigmatic realm of human experience.

At the end of the day, Molo’s narration is not the greatest accomplishment of the entire novel. Rather, the novel is at its best when it succinctly depicts scenes with a blunt realism that still seems intimately woven into the fabric of colonial symbolism. In Daniel, the twin poles of Mankell’s native Sweden and his adopted region of southern Africa come together; when Bengler describes the “viscous mess” of an infected boil running down another Swedish character’s back, one cannot help but wonder if it is just that, or if the boil comes to stand for the infection of colonial power sweeping the globe in the 19th century.

There’s no question about the kind of politics Mankell espouses in Daniel. A radical leftist and a life-long opponent of Israeli politics, Mankell provides an important voice in the burgeoning canon of contemporary anti-colonial literature. Furthermore, the fact that a novel with such potential for problematic material can run through the wringer of critical race theory and come out largely unscathed makes it a must-read for anyone who desires to take a long, hard look at a particular racial dynamic and the bloody history that has stained it.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011

FLASH: a novel

Jim Miller
AK Press ($13.95)

by Susan Solomon

Who are the Wobblies? If you know, if you care, then Jim Miller’s novel Flash may light a spark inside you, driving you deeper into the realm of hellish history heaven. And if you are not familiar with the Wobblies and the Industrial Workers of the World, be prepared for an exciting excursion into the early 1900s and some dark and essential knowledge of America’s brutal West Coast labor history movement.

Miller is a professor of American Labor Movements at San Diego City College, and his love for these topics is evident. Flash chronicles reporter Jack Wilson’s discovery of, and fascination with, an old wanted poster in a San Diego library’s archives. Who was Bobby Flash? The face and the “defiant half smile” on the poster haunt Wilson:

What drew me to him? Perhaps it was the vague stories about my “crazy commie great grandfather” that my mom would toss off when she was assailing my father’s side of the family. They had always resonated with me—just not in the way she had intended. And, perhaps it was just a flight of fancy, but I thought Flash looked a bit like my son Hank thrust back in time (minus the gold tooth). OK. Enough already. Maybe it was just the name, Flash.

Wilson soon becomes involved in a search for Bobby Flash, a revolutionary Wobbly and labor leader. The novel jumps time, detailing the ageless human struggle for justice at its best, while hammering home the lessons that continually need to be learned and relearned. Always the same story, it is at once hopeful and positive and timely, even as it forever plays out in reruns. “We’re all just humans and the divisions between us have all been created to serve the interests of those at the top who benefit from a divided working class.”

This book delves into personal relationships, misunderstandings, blood ties, and the age-old quest for love and finding one’s place in the world. As Wilson gets historically and psychologically involved with the enigmatic and well-named Bobby Flash, readers see similarities in the two men’s lives—in reflections and similarities, as well as screams and warnings from generation to generation. In addition, through Wilson, readers are taken on a trip through some more recent California history: “A Raiders game is like a Dead show with carne asada instead of veggie burritos, beer instead of acid, and, of course, bloodlust for football rather than psychedelic music.”

Flash tries so hard to be loved. It is earnest; it pleads in a way, to listen to its message. Besides just labor history, we get a taste of Whitman and Thoreau and their political leanings at the time. And yet, how does an author make readers believe and care? How does a writer move from telling a stacked bunch of facts to placing real characters into a spellbinding story? In the current American political environment, labor rights are in the forefront; a book like Flash could not be more on point. And yet there is a feeling of being lectured to that cannot be shaken.

For lovers of American history, California history in particular, this book could be a dream come true. While Flash may have less than perfect prose, it delivers a tell-all account of America’s brutal labor past for readers who are interested in a serious and crucial history lesson, and who can be forgiving of its form—historical facts valiantly in search of a novel.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011

SANTA: A Novel of Mexico City

Federico Gamboa
Translated by John Charles Chasteen
The University of North Carolina Press ($22.95)

by Kristin Thiel

This book’s English translator, professor of history John Charles Chasteen, provides a brief but extremely useful introduction to the 110-year-old novel Santa, offering readers some depth only scholars might already have. Santa—which describes turn-of-the-twentieth-century Mexico through the life of the inexplicably named Santa, a country girl turned urban prostitute—reads like a television soap opera. It has outlandish content, flowery, enthusiastic language, and even a liberal usage of images trailing off into ellipses. Indeed, in the late 1970s, it became a telenovela.

“Cared for by our eternally affectionate mother earth, with wild birds for their friends, and with dreams as simple and pure as the violets that grow hidden along the banks of a river”, Santa still manages to get pregnant out of wedlock. Her heartbroken mother and angry, disgusted brothers throw her out. Having once been approached by a brothel madam, Santa travels to Mexico City to seek that woman out. While Santa suffers some internal conflict once settled into the brothel—“she cried a torrent of tears from varying origins . . . a secret mourning for her lost purity”—what can she do?

Blessed with a stunning physical beauty, Santa quickly becomes the highest earner. Over the course of this slim novel she moves in with a matador, who almost stabs her to death for her infidelity; she returns to the brothel, where she is swept away by another customer; and she is struck with cancer and plummets to the most frightening depths of Mexico City—her final madam has forearms that “could have belonged to an Egyptian mummy” and hands that “unfolded themselves like trained tarantulas to explore Santa’s hips, thighs, and breasts through her dress”. Finally, she finds bittersweet redemption through the love of a shabby, ugly, blind old man.

Beyond being a fun escapist soap opera, Santa was adapted into Mexico’s first film that included audio; indeed, as Chasteen informs us, “some young Mexican prostitutes in the 1930s told their life stories to social workers in terms that sounded much like Santa’s . . . in doing so, they often mentioned the 1932 film version.” A naturalist by profession, author Federico Gamboa kept a “detailed journal” with his observations of people and city places, as he might have with animals and their natural habitats.

Of course, this isn’t to say that Santa is some magically objective history. Other things Chasteen shares about Gamboa—that he was born a socialite and maintained his conservative, Catholic, and pro-authoritarian-rule beliefs throughout life—shows that Santa is not an underdog story told by underdogs. It’s by someone looking in, and down. Late in the novel, Gamboa’s narration—which shifts without warning from past-tense specifics following Santa’s life into present-tense omniscience—describes the “slumming” rich boys do with uncanny accuracy. The owner of a popular dive “truly feels sorry for them, but since he can do nothing about these characteristics of theirs, he has resolved to exploit them quietly and systematically”.

Regardless of any bias, Gamboa does display in Santa his skill at describing human detail—from the gentle glimpses of the blind man’s fumbling hands to the strange fact that in a crowd where someone is ill, someone else will become an amateur doctor and make things just a little worse. Ultimately, in its quiet moments, Santa is a soap opera a reader can’t forget immediately because its author never forgot it, never hung Santa out as one dimensional, as a mere triviality:

Without thinking about what she was doing, she entered the pastry shop next door to the hotel, where the employees were clean, pretty, and friendly, and wore light-colored aprons:
“What do you want, señora?”
What did she want? She wanted to be just like them, or at least, the way that she imagined them to be: decent girls who worked long hours, lived at home, and loved their faithful boyfriends . . . Blushing, she bought candy because she thought she should buy something, and nothing else occurred to her”.

A reader suspects that, like any good scientist, this author learned something from his own research, too.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011


Jennifer Egan
Anchor Books ($14.95)

by Sharon Harrigan

“It is in ourselves that we should seek to find those fixed places, contemporaneous with different years.” This epigraph, from In Search of Lost Time, is well chosen, because A Visit from the Goon Squad is Proustian in its ambitions—not just in its themes of capturing the essence of time, memory, and the slippery concept of self, but in its innovation of language and form.

Jennifer Egan set herself this challenge: To make each chapter self-sufficient and from a different point of view. The chapter written exclusively in PowerPoint is perhaps the most original, but there are also chapters in close third person, first person omniscient, and second person, plus flashbacks and flash forwards into both the present and into a future that hasn’t happened yet. Chapters that move forward in time, then back, then forward again, seamlessly, like a tape loop turned into a time loop. Near future dystopia, 1970s punk-rock nostalgia. A page full of footnotes. A celebrity magazine profile written from jail. Novel as concept album.

But Egan is not just a piano player showing off how many keys she can nail at the same time; the most technically innovative chapters are also the most moving. Furthermore, A Visit from the Goon Squad is witty, fresh, and even laugh-out-loud funny. Sasha wonders if her therapist is “one of those escaped cons who impersonate surgeons and wind up leaving their operating tools inside people’s skulls.” Bennie, Sasha’s boss, loves old songs for “the rapturous surges of sixteen-year-old-ness they induced.”

The tone varies widely, including broad satire; a quartet of chapters that form a mini coming-of-age novel-within-a-novel; and a tale of regret, told by Jocelyn after losing twenty years of her life to heroin. The satirical pieces are not the most moving parts of the book, but they are some of the funniest. Who can resist banter like this: “How was it that of all the names considered—Xanadou, Peek-a-boo, Renaldo, Cricket—they’d ended up choosing the single one that melded flawlessly with the innocuous Crandale namescape?”

A Visit from the Goon Squad could keep a squadron of graduate students busy deciphering its literary and cultural references, but it is also a fast, glittering read, littered with cocaine sniffed from a young woman’s naked bottom; a record producer speckling his coffee with gold flakes as an aphrodisiac and spraying mosquito repellent in his armpits; near-fatal mauling by lions on an African safari; a kleptomaniac former prostitute looking for a “fake boyfriend” to fool her father’s spies; an unnamed dictator coaxed to smile for the camera for the first time by a B-list actress who turns predatory; boiling oil accidentally dripping from party decor and marring the beauty of every “it” celebrity; and a former rock star turned has-been launching a “suicide tour” for the publicity. Both intellectual and rollicking, wicked fun, this collection of self-contained stories becomes a novel with the fireworks of a grand finale.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011


Michael Crummey
Other Press ($15.95)

by Marjorie Hakala

It’s common to say that a book paints a vivid picture, or to remark on the sound of its prose, but somewhat more rare to claim that a book has a distinctive smell. Galore is an exception, carrying a pervasive odor of fish and the sea that’s both distinctive and unforgettable.

The fourth book and third novel by Canadian author Michael Crummey, Galore is set on an isolated scrap of shoreline in Newfoundland, where villagers make a meager living from cod fishing. The story begins sometime in the very early 19th century when a whale is beached on the shore and the villagers, hacking up the corpse for meat and oil, find a man in its stomach.

Against all odds, he proves to be alive. Mute, albino, and emitting “an astonishing stink of dead fish” no matter how many times he is bathed, he is given the name Judah—a compromise between Judas and Jonah, because the illiterate villagers can’t agree which one was swallowed by a whale. He soon becomes the center of this winding saga of life in a place usually just called “the shore.”

The community where Judah arrives is split in two. Paradise Deep is a predominantly Protestant and English settlement, lorded over by its founder, King-Me Sellers, a merchant who controls the price of cod. The Gut, which lies on the other side of a windy and treacherous point, is mostly Catholic and Irish. Here, the novel focuses on the Devine family, led by a matriarch everyone calls Devine’s Widow. She may or may not have some supernatural capabilities; either way, her leadership of the family has effects that echo over the hundred-year span of this book.

Judah is the most original figure in the story, but the most important point-of-view character is the widow’s granddaughter, the sharp and slightly witchy Mary Tryphena. It’s from her perspective as a young girl that we see Judah emerging from the guts of the whale. In fact she appears earlier than that, in the first paragraph of the novel: “He ended his time on the shore in a makeshift asylum cell, shut away with the profligate stink of fish that clung to him all his days . . . He seemed more or less content there, gnawing at the walls with a nail. Mary Tryphena Devine brought him bread and dried capelin that he left to gather bluebottles and mold on the floor.” A second glance reveals this to be not the beginning of the story but the end, and it’s just the first example of the book’s chronological slipperiness. Things that have not yet happened are presented as foregone conclusions: we are only three pages in when we’re informed that Mary Tryphena and Judah will marry, and for readers who pay attention to front matter, a family tree at the beginning lays out six generations’ worth of marriages and births.

The past, too, intrudes itself on the story. Things that have already happened are glossed over only to appear as narrative surprises later on. There is a ghost in this novel who gets introduced two or three times before the reader learns he is dead. Between episodes in Mary Tryphena’s life, the narrative slips back in time to tell us about her grandmother’s feud with King-Me Sellers, and how her parents fell in love and married.

Late in the novel, an American doctor who has settled in Paradise Deep muses on the local term “now the once”: “It was the oddest expression he’d learned on the shore. Now the once. The present twined with the past to mean soon, a bit later, some unspecified point in the future. As if it was all the same finally, as if time was a single moment endlessly circling on itself.” It’s almost too on-the-nose, like an author’s note that alerts us to what he was thinking when he conceived of this story. Time passes in this book—and it grows more chronological as the story progresses and runs out of past it hasn’t told us about already—but change happens slowly in this remote outpost. It’s easy to believe, in this context, that time is just one moment turning around and around.

Despite this changelessness, the novel is filled with events. There are a great many marriages and births, but Crummey keeps things interesting with profoundly odd characters and a language as distinctive as Judah’s odor. The narrative voice here incorporates broken sentence fragments, colloquial curses, and dialogue without quotation marks into a sharp, idiosyncratic style. It’s well suited to describing harsh things, like the Newfoundland winter, or the summer when fishing is bad:

Most were in arrears from one failed season aboard another and King-me forced the most desperate to grant him a mortgage on their land estates as a surety. He’d already taken possession of half a dozen fishing rooms and seemed determined to own both harbors entire. The spring’s whale meat was long gone and some families were surviving on winkles and mussels dug up on the beaches or the same meal of herring served morning, noon and night until a body could barely keep the fish down. The summer not half over and already there was talk of winter and how many would starve without help from God.

Galore has an epigraph from Gabriel García Márquez, and it owes a significant debt to his magic realism. The supernatural elements in this novel can be spotty—one is never sure how realistic the world of the shore is meant to be, and old curses and rituals sometimes disappear for generations at a time before appearing again—but these, along with the figure of Judah, provide unifying threads for what could otherwise have been a story with no natural stopping or starting point. It’s a compelling, haunting portrait of hard lives in a hard place, and for American readers in particular, Crummey’s Newfoundland may prove the definitive version.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011


Kevin Brockmeier
Pantheon ($24.95)

by Kelly Everding

Kevin Brockmeier’s The Illumination takes on a juggernaut of philosophical conundrums: the problem and purpose of suffering. In the world he creates, every person’s source of pain, from paper cuts to pancreatic cancer, suddenly begins to emit light. There is no fanfare to it—it just happens, and people are left with questions of provenance and etiquette and how to incorporate this new information into their reality. However, in true Brockmeier form, this fantastical occurrence is merely the backdrop to the stories of six complex characters who must assimilate the new paradigm into their already pain-ridden lives. These characters don’t know each other, but they are connected by their temporary ownership of a book, a journal of love notes. While light may illuminate their suffering for all to see—and it’s scary how quickly this miracle gets subsumed and commodified into the culture—it is the book that truly illuminates them.

A mixture of observations and insider jokes or stories, the journal is a transcription of daily love notes from husband to wife, diligently transcribed into seven volumes. Patricia Williford has her latest volume with her when she is mortally injured in a car accident with her husband, Jason, but before she dies (believing Jason is already dead), she gives this book to her hospital roommate, Carol Ann Page. From there the book changes hands six times on a circuitous route to its own destruction.

The Willifords’ journal is a strange time capsule, an extremely personal expression that somehow becomes a universal articulation of love, one that is seemingly eternal in its written form and therefore alien to this world. It is a sham, but a sweet, beautiful sham that seduces its readers with an unreal but somehow believable notion of perfect love, a love that none of the other characters have experienced. All of the entries begin the same way, with “I love . . .”:

I love how quietly you speak when you’re catching a cold. I love hearing you tell the cockatoo story to people who don’t know it yet. I love watching you step so carefully inside your footprints when it snows. I love the way you hunt for our names as the movie credits scroll by—“thirteen Jasons and not one Patricia.”

While one might easily expect a religious slant to the illumination of wounds, Brockmeier uses this trope to highlight an entirely different aspect of human nature: our deep attraction to pain. Carol Ann Page’s severed thumb tip starts off the litany of wounds, and the light emanating from it serves to highlight her fascination, “testing it a dozen times a day.” Jason Williford, Patricia’s husband and survivor of the car wreck, also grew intimate with his pain: “Whenever he felt it diminishing, a brief feeling of regret settled over him.” The pain is a way to escape the devastation of losing his wife. “The agony was nearly indistinguishable from bliss,” he says of provoking his wounds. Physical pain becomes inextricably mired in memory and nostalgia; any mercurial moments of happiness is a gateway to self pity. “The world was unreliable. The world could turn on a dime. It was a joy to be alive when it was a joy to be alive, and it was a terror to be alive when it wasn’t,” thinks Carol.

For Chuck Carter, the third owner of the book, “the strangeness of people went on and on and on.” Chuck is a young boy who suffers abuse at the hand of his father (or “pretend dad” as Chuck refers to him) and bullies at school, and he can see and empathize with the illuminating pain of objects. He steals the book because it is shining bright with pain, and he wants to “heal” it, however he fails miserably and decides to pass it on to Ryan Shifrin, a door-to-door evangelist passing out leaflets in the neighborhood. Shifrin invites religious speculation about the Illumination; fortunately he is not a fundamentalist, but his mission work has taken him all over the world and allowed him to experience incredible suffering and loss. “Was it possible for God to sin?” he wonders near the end of his life. Shifrin leaves the book in a hotel nightstand for Nina Poggione to find, an author on a book tour whose mouth sores make it excruciating for her to talk. Nina incorporates the find into her own work, a short story she reads entitled “A Fable for the Living” (which Brockmeier later published in the literary journal Electric Literature). The fated book finally winds up with a homeless man, Morse Putnam Strawbridge, who is “fascinated yet vexed by the book. . . . He did not understand how something so sweet, so earnest and candid, could also be so wayward and enigmatic.”

There are no answers really. In a sense, The Illumination could go on and on, from story to story, following trajectories of the pain that we inflict on ourselves and others, with no end in sight. “Everyone had his own portion of pain to carry. At first, when you were young, you imposed it on yourself. Then, when you were older, the world stepped in to impose it for you. You might be given a few years of rest between the pain you caused yourself and the pain the world made you suffer, but only a few, and only if you were lucky.” However grim this assessment is, made by the grieving Jason Williford, the philosophical paradox of pain may be likened to Wallace Stevens’s lines from “Sunday Morning”: “Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her, / Alone, shall come fulfillment to our dreams / And our desires.” Pain is the condition of living in this flawed but beautiful world. In compassionate and candid prose, Brockmeier provides a lyrical entrée to these profound and complex questions of human existence.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011


Anne Wiazemsky
Translated by Alison Anderson
Europa Editions ($15)

by Derek M. Jackson

Each story has its appropriate storyteller. When it came time to tell the story of Claire Mauriac, the task fell to her daughter, Anne Wiazemsky, and the result is My Berlin Child. Focusing on a turbulent, pivotal time in Claire's life, the book spans from 1944 to 1947, from the closing years of World War II to the birth of her first child in post-war Berlin.

Wiazemsky wastes no time in setting the stage. Immediately we are told Claire is an ambulance driver who has courageously served the French Red Cross for the past year and a half, and who just happens to be the daughter of award-winning author Francois Mauriac. By way of subtle implication, there is an element of tension established between Claire and her affluent, traditional Parisian family. She feels passionately that what she is doing is right, but her family feels otherwise. Early on, as Claire weighs a decision to continue her service after the war, Wiazemsky introduces narrative devices that will be appear again and again: Claire's diary entries and written correspondence.

This skillful blend of modes helps My Berlin Child develop into a rich, compelling story. Each narrative device serves as a different lens through which to view the unfolding drama (and there is drama, to be sure), and the alternation between them propels the story forward.

In the diary entries, Claire expresses what cannot be said outright to her parents, co-workers, and lovers. Each entry sheds light on the complexities of relationships and communication—on what is said versus what is felt or thought but left unsaid. Reflexive readers will find themselves pondering this issue, questioning themselves in their own lives. That a fictionalized World War II memoir can evoke this universal issue is certainly a feather in Wiazemsky's cap.

Claire's personal growth and development seems most evident in her letters to her parents, which she copies for posterity into her diary. Though always feeling the need to justify her choices, she becomes increasingly confident—more assertive and direct, less censorial—as she writes of the hazards of her chosen occupation and relates the trying events of her days and nights to her reserved, bourgeois family.

The present narrative, essentially Wiazemsky's voice in the matter, inserts what even Claire does not or cannot write herself in her diary. It illuminates her life as it is lived, what Wiazemsky dubs “a life in the present,” and documents Claire's search for a meaningful life, away from the comfort and complacency of her past Parisian existence.

Wiazemsky may be the titular “Berlin child,” but this is not the only reason the book is so successful. Add to the mix Wiazemsky's experience as a professional actress, responsible for understanding and interpreting the nuances of human behavior and the subtleties of the human psyche. In addition, she was married to prominent French filmmaker and intellectual Jean-Luc Godard, and experienced first-hand both the benefits and the trials of living in the shadow of notoriety. Lastly, and arguably most importantly, since 1988, Wiazemsky has written four award-winning novels.

It is not Wiazemsky's “credentials,” though, that make the book a success, but her approach to telling the story of My Berlin Child. What could have easily been presented in conventionally dry, chronological reportage, Wiazemsky brings to life by approaching her family history in an effectively nuanced, layered way. Not only a story written by the appropriate storyteller, My Berlin Child is a story appropriately told.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011


Alexander MacLeod
Biblioasis ($16.95)

by Benjamin Woodard

The Canada found in Alexander MacLeod’s impressive debut story collection, Light Lifting, is full of anxiety and obsession: a land where man masters the ins and outs of minivan combustion engines, parents fixate on the origin of lice, and the powerless struggle to overcome childhood fears. Across seven wide-ranging tales, lives are saved, others are lost, and redemption, both physical and spiritual, is occasionally found. Nevertheless, the world harnessed by MacLeod is also one that bursts with wonder and nostalgia, and the author lets his subjects shine with both raw power and supple beauty throughout. Each story in Light Lifting is a true marvel—there are no fillers here—and with every passing page MacLeod firmly establishes himself as a bright new talent in literary fiction.

“Miracle Mile,” which chronicles two elite runners as they vie for a spot on the national track team, kicks the collection off with a muscular bang:

This was the day after Mike Tyson bit off Evander Holyfield’s ear. You remember that. It was a moment in history—not like Kennedy or the planes flying into the World Trade Center—not up to that level. This was something lower, more like Ben Johnson, back when his eyes were that thick, yellow colour and he tested positive in Seoul after breaking the world record in the hundred.

These lines are spoken by Mikey, the story’s narrator. In a comfortable, conversational voice, he lulls the reader into the trenches, offering up detailed portraits of an athlete’s life. The particularity of these facets—be they motel rooms, train tunnels, or rituals—is what makes “Miracle Mile” so incredibly engaging. From the start, MacLeod is committed to immersing his audience into the environments and mindsets of his characters. Yet, unlike many of his contemporaries, he is able to accomplish this encapsulation without sacrificing fluidity. Not once does “Miracle Mile” drag. Instead, it unfolds with such skill and proficiency that one forgets on occasion that the story is a work of fiction, and that MacLeod didn’t conduct interviews with a series of men and women and transcribe their lives onto paper.

This sense of engagement is a thread that keeps Light Lifting consistently admirable. Whether describing sunburns (“Like grease coming through waxed paper”) or a mysterious neighborhood house that “seemed like one of those doomed store locations that can’t support any kind of business”, MacLeod maintains a firm grasp on his audience’s attention. Of course, on occasion these vivid details might be a bit too much—in “The Loop,” for example, a character mentions looking at shelves and walls of family photographs, and instead of leaving anything to the reader’s imagination, he lists the reasons they are “all pretty much the same”—but these quibbles are minor at best. More often than not, MacLeod is spot on in his craft and confident in his talent.

Though the “light lifting” mentioned in the collection’s title story is a reference to the daily toll that comes from laying brick for a living, it can also be used to describe the craft of short fiction. “Any kid can pick up a hundred pounds if they only have to do it one or two times,” a nameless narrator says. “But it’s the light lifting that does the real damage. Maybe it’s just thirty pounds and it starts off slow, but it stays with you all day and then it hangs around in your arms and your legs even after you leave.” Like this small load, a timeless short story should stick and hang like a phantom weight and be carried by the reader for weeks, months, even years. With Light Lifting, Alexander MacLeod has given us all a new set of figurative bricks to haul around in our memories.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011


Tahar Ben Jelloun
Translated by Linda Coverdale
Penguin ($15)

by Brooke Horvath

Although Tahar Ben Jelloun left Morocco for France in 1971, his imagination continues to haunt its villages and conjure its dusty beauty. His most recent novels, The Last Friend and Leaving Tangier, have explored the life of the immigrant, but with A Palace in the Old Village, the sixty-five-year-old Ben Jelloun has turned from young Moroccans trying to find new lives elsewhere to the older character of Mohammed, who has retired after forty years on an assembly line in an automobile plant in Yvelines. Just west of Paris, and once home to Émile Zola and Maurice Ravel, Yvelines is now a tourist destination boasting one of France’s better golf courses. Mohammed gives no indication of knowing any of this, though; how could such things matter to him, whose world extends no further than his now-gone job, his children, Islam, and the Moroccan village he returns to visit each year?

Mohammed has always considered himself an indispensible employee and conscientious parent. Job and children gave purpose his days, but now the job is gone and the children, leaving one by one for lives of their own, now largely ignore him (similarly, Mohammed mostly ignores his wife, who has little to offer that he needs). Worse, les enfants are thoroughly Frenchified, lost to the enticements of the West and absolutely indifferent to Morocco, the land from which they never came. Morocco, however, comes to obsess their father as his emptying house and emptier days leave him adrift. Wondering whether life in France has been worth what he lost by leaving Morocco, Mohammed begins to dream of returning to his old village and building there a house seductive enough to woo his children back to him. Back home, Mohammed will also be able to free himself of the émigré’s timidity and the abrasiveness of French culture, something to which forty years’ residence have neither reconciled nor accustomed him.

Throughout much of the novel, this comparison of life in France to life in Morocco holds center stage, and Mohammed seems a bit of a Saul Bellow character as, chapter by chapter, Ben Jelloun advances the plot just enough to provide Mohammed the opportunity to mull over some new cultural conundrum or disappointment. “LaFrance is a wonderful country,” Mohammed muses toward the end of his story, “because it takes good care of its sick. Here [in Morocco] you’re better off never setting foot in a hospital.” On the other hand, Mohammed recalls the thousands of elderly French left at home to die during the heat wave of 2003 while their children were off on vacation: “Why? I don’t understand! It was just because.” As may be inevitable for a novelist more or less at home in two cultures, each of which at times leaves him uneasy, Ben Jelloun can find fault in both. The French may have loosened family ties to the point of abandoning one another, but in Morocco the importance of those ties is not given voice: “I’ve never complimented my girls,” Mohammed confesses, “No, that we don’t do.”

When Mohammed finally returns to Morocco to build his “palace,” the realism that has governed the narrative transforms into the magical as Mohammed learns in what ways one can and cannot go home again. The house he builds—wired for unavailable electricity, fully plumbed in case running water ever finds its way to the village—is a fiasco. As Mohammed perseveres, hoping that if he builds it his children will come, what comes instead is some “black thing” circling the house at night, fissures in the walls, portentous dreams, and death. The house, Ben Jelloun writes, “was as big as Mohammed’s heart,” but it ultimately leaves him in tears.

These stories of filial indifference, of the fate of dreams deferred, are familiar. However, Linda Coverdale’s translation, as fine as any she has produced, makes them seem fresh and new. She ably conveys Ben Jelloun’s desire not only to speak to western readers about what we have in common with Mohammed (his affection for a nephew with Down Syndrome, his frustration with his car insurance) but also to reveal to us the extent to which Mohammed’s story—even if we are aging and awkward and fresh off the boat—is inevitably different from our own.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011