Tag Archives: winter 2001

Havana

Havana by Robert PolidoriRobert Polidori
edited by Elizabeth Culbert
Steidl ($75.00)

by David Taylor

Many viewers will have seen Robert Polidori's photographs in magazines such as The New Yorker, and may remember them as sharp illustrations of urban landscapes, artistic documents of the incontrovertibly real. Those fortunate enough to have seen his work in a gallery setting may have felt—given the photographs' large scale and pristine detail—that they could walk right into the pictures as if they were a sort of virtual reality. Both views are encouraged in the happy medium of Havana, the award-winning photographer's first book.

The power of photography to show us "reality" will be much on the viewer's mind as they regard these images of the one of the world's most mythic cities. As Eduardo Luis Rodriguez puts it in his essay "The Other Havana," Polidori has captured "the citadel in ruins," a once-opulent capitol that chose, through revolution, another path. In Havana, ornate chandeliers coexist with rotting plaster, laundry is strung in former ballrooms, and dust settles over everything. Dali's famous painting of clocks melting on the landscape may be called "The Persistence of Memory" but here is a real (rather than surreal) depiction of the theme—the old Habanero landscape melting onto/over/beneath the new, with each arguing for a foothold in reality. Rather than the erasure of time past—the prevalent (and practically required) mode of Western capitalism—we see here the mere stoppage of time, which paradoxically allows it to persist.

A land that time didn't forget is likely a photographer's dream, and Polidori has made the most of it, capturing the aura of decay on film. Even more delightfully, his insight seems inextricably wedded to his technique. While the wide-angle exterior shots, most of building facades, are impressive, the interior shots, which eerily convey the totality of the seen space are truly awe-inspiring. In his expansive take on the frontal shot, Polidori lays bare these rooms to the viewer's peripheral (not to mention microscopic and x-ray) vision. Bathed in an impossible light, surely not the fluorescent light that is practically a character in so many of these pictures, each contradictory detail—the electric fan in a dusty room, the gleaming bicycle next to molding books—is literally exposed. But the impossible seems part of daily life in this time-ridden place. In one arresting image, an abandoned car—rusted, nearly stripped, missing a front tire–sits in line with newer vehicles, seemingly ready to pull away.

In Havana, apparently, to see all of a place is to see all of its time, and Polidori has done just that. Smoothly edited by Elizabeth Culbert, Havana tours us through the city with eyes wide open, ready to take it all in.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2001/2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001/2002

One Hundred Paintings Series

Federico Zeri & Marco Dolcetta
translated by Diana Sears|
NDE Publishing ($14.95 each)

by Kelly Everding

Redon

It seems a basic human need to glean the greatest achievements in any given medium into a tidy list, usually the round figure of one hundred, especially at the end of a century. We like to mop up the untidy creativity that bursts out everywhere and make it more manageable, more accessible. In the last few years we've been inundated with lists of the top one hundred books, movies, music videos, and various other top one hundred lists. If I've seen every movie on that list, then I've experienced the best that actors and directors can provide and needn't stray to other films. It saves me time at the rental store, trying to decide what to get. I don't have time to read every book written, so I'll turn to the list of great books and thereby join the literati. There's a problem with this, of course: many great works of art are lost in the margins. But if we take those lists with a grain of salt, knowing they exclude worthy works, they can be useful tools with which to further our education.

Vermeer

Take the series of One Hundred Paintings. It is not called One Hundred Greatest Paintings of All Time, so there are no false claims here. It is merely called One Hundred Paintings, selected and explicated by the late Federico Zeri, "eminent art historian and critic." Each slim volume takes as its subject a single canvas by a famous artist, and from there explores that artist's work and life in no more than 48 pages. These books are great introductions, ideal for anyone who wants to enter the world of the artist and decipher the symbols and iconography he uses in his interpretation of inner and outer worlds. The books follow roughly the same structure by 1) presenting the painting in question; 2) delving into an analysis with highlighted details of the painting that explore style and technique; 3) discussing the production of the artist, other paintings that further develop an understanding of the artist and his predilection for certain subject matter; 4) giving the historical context in which the artist thrived; 5) showing the legacy of the artist and how his work influenced subsequent artists; 6) offering a catalogue of principal works, documents and testimonies by other artists, a brief biography and bibliography of books, and a list of museums in which you can find the artist's work. There's quite a lot of information packed into these books, along with dozens of color reproductions and photographs that help illustrate the artist's world.

Some volumes work better than others. Among the best is The Cyclops—an excellent introduction to the fantastical imagination of Odilon Redon. The singular artistic eye provides the thematic glue which holds the entire volume together quite profoundly. We follow the detailed description of The Cyclops looking fondly over a crag down at the sleeping nymph below, who appears to have emerged from the rock and flowers. There is no sense of menace, just a rich proliferation of color and organic, impressionistic brushstroke. Zeri shows how Redon flattens his perspective by putting the nymph and the Cyclops on the same plane. Later in the volume, we are again shown this flattening effect of a profiled woman facing a richly colored burgeoning explosion of flora and micro-organisms. Redon's bizarre images were reflections of his artistic research into "improbable beings according to the laws of probability, placing, insofar as possible, the logic of the visible at the service of the invisible." His work was greatly influenced by literature, music, and science more than by other paintings, as he gave form to the phantasmagoria of Edgar Allan Poe, among others.

The volume on Vermeer's The Astronomer—a possible self-portrait—doesn't provide as much clarity on the subject matter of this painting. We leave the astronomer gently touching his celestial globe behind too quickly in favor of exploring the use of Vermeer's pointillist technique that enhanced the depiction of light in his paintings. Unlike the other volumes, many of the reproductions here are poor and congest the page so much that paintings overlap each other and degrade and confuse the points the text make. Some of the pictures are cut in half by the binding, a grave layout mistake, leaving much of the fine detail lost in the fold of a page. Even so, I enjoyed seeing the recurring objects in his paintings: the jug and the ermine lined jacket pop up quite a lot. Perhaps some artists just don't fit very well into this prescribed structure, their oeuvre proving too multifaceted for a single painting to exemplify.

Arcimboldo

Arcimboldo's Spring, on the other hand, proves to be a fun painting to explore in this format since the artist mostly stuck to one trick: composite portraiture. And luckily, the symmetrical pairs of the series of paintings called Seasons and Elements are all represented in brilliant color. One could spend hours studying the profiled faces. In Spring, the face is made up of flowers and foliage, with a tulip for an ear and rosy buds for lips. In Air, Spring's pair, the face is made up of birds—every bird different. The other pairs are Summer and Fire, Earth and Autumn, and Winter and Water. Arcimboldo worked for the imperial family of Ferdinand I, and later for his heirs, Maximillian and Ferdinand II. These monarchs collected exotic and strange objects from all over the world in their extensive Kunst und Wunderkammern as well as rare plants and flowers in their gardens, from which Arcimboldo sketched his fantastical paintings. As Zeri puts it: "The artist's utopian search consisted of a pursuit of the dream of grasping, in the fleeting multiplicity of things, the unity of the divine, and of reconstructing the One from its fragmentation into what is visible."

The text of these books was based on interviews between Federico Zeri and Marco Dolcetta, and for the most part it flows quite beautifully and gives a lot of information—maybe even too much—within the constrictions of structure. It feels as if you are being guided through a museum of the one artist, with the guide pointing out a brushstroke here, a color there. The text is always constrained to the page at hand so you can linger over the pictures instead of being rushed to the next page to finish the sentence. These are smart and affordable books that can appeal to any person, no matter what age, who wants to learn more about a particular artist. Among the artists I already mentioned, One Hundred Paintings also has books on Schiele's Self-Portrait with Hand on Cheek, Degas' The Dance Class, Rembrandt's Supper of Emmous, Kandinsky's The First Abstract Watercolour Painting, Van Gogh's Starry Night, and Bocklin's The Isle of the Dead. Thirty volumes have already hit the stores, so 70 more are on the way. I can't wait to see who else gets selected for this unusual and fun treatment.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2001/2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001/2002

The Body and the Book: Writing from a Mennonite Life

The Body and the Book by Julia KasdorfJulia Kasdorf
Johns Hopkins ($26)

by Sarah Fox

Julia Kasdorf is the author of two collections of poems, The Sleeping Preacher, published in 1992 and Eve's Striptease, published in 1998. This new book—a more literal "collection" of essays, poems, photographs, and other illustrations—ostensibly attempts to examine aspects of Mennonite life from her personal experience as well as from family stories, historical documentation, and other more contemporary references.

Kasdorf grew up near Pittsburgh with her Mennonite parents on the periphery of Mennonite culture. But when, as a child, she had occasion to be in the company of her grandmother and other more devout family members, she made brave and passionate attempts to assert her place as a Mennonite, a tradition defined by its ancestral lines as much as by its exclusion from conventional society. Her struggle as a woman still trying to locate her place within varying communities—American, academic, literary, Mennonite—informs the bulk of her work.

And it is from this struggle that Kasdorf can write from, and toward, her own "aesthetic of the body." The title of the book wants to embrace the cohesion of these essays, but its vagueness provides evidence for the opposite. The "body" referred to is described in the book symbolically as an actual lack of clear delineation: is it contained within the individual physical body, or within the body of a religious community, an ethnic community, a national community? Can the metaphorical Book—for Mennonites belief is based upon the primacy of the Bible and in collective, rather than individual, expression—or the book one makes out of one's personal experience to represent one's identity—be considered bodies whose boundaries often blur but can also be painful to cross? How does gender, work, landscape, and cultural progression, fit into the growth of an individual artist? These are questions Kasdorf addresses with candor and poignancy.

Certainly there is little in the way of mainstream literature by or about women in the Amish and Mennonite communities, and if nothing else this book provides a touchstone on the topic for the general reader. One familiar with Kasdorf's previous poetry collections, however, may see this book as a kind of extension of, if not outright exposition on, the poems themselves. The first third of the book seems to vacillate between a mea culpa for disclosing in her poetry—against Anabaptist code—information about specific activities and characters from her Mennonite childhood, and a poetry primer for those readers who may not have fully appreciated the poems the first time around. In fact, several poems from both collections are reprinted here, not in conjunction with the text of a particular essay but as illustrations in the sense of a photograph or painting. Most of the time the poems are not referred to specifically at all.

One early essay deconstructs the painting on the cover of Sleeping Preacher, done by Kasdorf's husband, with the sort of indulgence probably best reserved for diaries or an analyst. In this essay, titled "Preacher's Striptease," Kasdorf lists for the reader excerpts from the many positive reviews of Sleeping Preacher, confesses "I have been unable to avoid situations in which I must account for myself and my work" (I struggle to understand the uniqueness, for a writer, of this dilemma), presents a Titian painting which, like the poems, remains an unacknowledged illustration, and proceeds to reflect on the image of the woman in the painting as being representative of Kasdorf herself. The essay also investigates Kasdorf's personal battles with both male and Mennonite authority, and how this authority has cast its shadow over her work as a poet. She ends "Preacher's Striptease" with a statement that could be taken as the book's primary intention: "Writing essays has helped me to climb outside the frame of this painting, to try to make meaning of the sight. Out here with you, dear reader, I find that I worry less about how I can be myself and inhabit these two communities [Mennonite & literary], because this vantage point allows me to see and consider many things beyond this picture." An irritation persists throughout the book that Kasdorf has indeed written these essays to help herself more than to enlighten her readers.

There are moments of surprise and transcendence from mere autobiography; unfortunately the reader won't arrive at them until about halfway through the book. The essay "Bodies and Boundaries" displays an often lyrical and intelligent exploration of "the body—specifically in terms of religion (both general Christianity and the Anabaptist tradition) and in terms of Woman. Anecdotes about hymn-songs in Amish and Mennonite spiritual services—as a cappella choruses representing, through sound, the one spiritual body (or, as Kasdorf remarks, "Singing enables a person to feel deeply connected to others and also to transcend one's own body as well as the mass of the collective group")—along with thoughtful interpretations of early essays by Mikhail Bakhtin, increase the book's general appeal. She may rely too heavily on titles and sub-titles—which signify book sections, essays themselves, and sections within the essays—to make transitions for her, and their monotony denudes any potential effectiveness. To call, for example, Section I of the book "A Place to Begin" seems merely gratuitous.

Anyone unfamiliar with Anabaptist history in the United States, the distinctions between Mennonites and the Amish, and intimate details about the lives of individuals within these groups and their religious practices, will learn many new and very interesting things through Kasdorf, especially in the essays "Work and Hope" and "Writing Like a Mennonite." And fans of her poetry, along with members of her family and Mennonite community, will surely find deep pleasures in The Body and the Book, not least because of its emotional honesty and its overall honoring of the Mennonite tradition.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2001/2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001/2002

Strange Good Fortune: Essays on Contemporary Poetry

Strange Good Fortune by David WojahnDavid Wojahn
University of Arkansas Press ($21.95)

by Susan Smith Nash

David Wojahn has to be one of the crankiest poet-critics alive. Even at his most glowing, he counterbalances his observations with the occasional barb or wry comment. This is not to say his arguments are unfounded, although he is fairly clunky in hinting that Marjorie Perloff could be the creator of the hoax-poet "Yasusada" after he himself begins his essay on literary hoaxes by faux-perpetrating his own about Sylvia Plath/Ted Hughes. But, in a decade more characterized by oblique theoretics or tendentious apologies for one literary camp or another, Wojahn's direct writing is a relief. Further, in choosing to write primarily on poets whose work lends itself to the consideration of larger issues, Wojahn does not hesitate to approach controversial events or reveal juicy tidbits from the poet's life and times.

Drawn to writers whose lives were marked by scandal, controversy, or unremitting bad luck, and driven to explain the phenomenon of their work given their contexts, Wojahn extends the genre of the literary review. His essays are as much investigations of cultural anthropology as careful and well-researched works of criticism. He provides the reader biographical background and places the author's individual poems within a larger chronology.

Perhaps what makes these remarkably intelligent essays most compelling is Wojahn's willingness to incorporate personal, even confessional dynamics. He speaks with courage and candor about the often-romanticized underbelly of poetry: mental illness ("madness") coupled with extreme poverty and isolation. Not stopping with the usual suspects, Plath, Roethke, etc., he speaks of his own family and the terrible impact on the individual psyche. In other parts of the book as he examines poetry through the lens of larger issues (such as representation in poetics, or how certain poets were influenced by photography), Wojahn's analysis is technically proficient, but not as riveting. In the 15 essays contained in this collection, he deals with an impressive array of poets and their words, including Robert Lowell, Carolyn Forche, Lynda Hull, Anne Sexton, James Wright, David St. John, Weldon Kees, W. D. Snodgrass, "Yasusada," Jeff Clark, and others.

If I had any complaint about this collection, it would be that Wojahn seems to slavishly adhere to the notion of "canon," and he regularly positions writers within a hierarchy as though there were some sort of agreed-upon absolute standard. While academic publishers and anthology editors would like this to be so, I found myself arguing with Wojahn's designations, and rebelling against his bias in favor of realism. Of course, that is not a bad thing—any writer who makes you think or "talk back" has earned the ultimate reward: a reader who wants to discuss his or her book.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2001/2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001/2002

Courting Justice: Gay Men and Lesbians v. the Supreme Court

Courting Justice by Joyce Murdoch and Deb PriceJoyce Murdoch and Deb Price
Basic Books ($32.50)

by Jane S. Van Ingen

After Frank Kameny lost his federal government job in 1957 and the Supreme Court sided with the feds, he fought back and became one of the first gay rights advocates. But working tirelessly on behalf of gay and lesbian issues for 40 years has taken its toll—at the age of 72, Kameny lives in his deceased mother's home and the shirt on his back is barely wearable.

Kameny's story is one of the numerous meticulously detailed Supreme Court cases, and the lower court proceedings that led to them, that this 530-page tome explores. Murdoch, a managing editor at the National Journal, and Price, a columnist at the Detroit News, have combed through numerous court documents, many of which are incomplete, and talked to dozens of clerks, lawyers, advocates, and friends and family members of the justices.

What they found is that the Supreme Court is consistently hostile to gays. The Court protected the gay press early on in the 1950s when it defended the distribution of One, one of the first gay American publications, but it otherwise has a lousy track record right up to the present day—the justices upheld the Georgia sodomy law in 1986, and just last year defended the Boy Scouts' exclusion of gay scoutmasters.

In order to better understand these cases, the authors describe the justices behind them—not just their ideological stances but their history, background, relationship with clerks (Lewis Powell, a justice in the '80s, had many gay clerks yet remained oblivious to the outside world) and how their perspectives on the issues changed the longer they sat on the bench. For example, William Douglas, a justice in the '50s and '60s, spent his youth hopping freight trains because he was too poor to buy a ticket; he grew up to be a die-hard individualist who became close friends with a lesbian couple. Ruth Bader Ginsburg always remembers that she was confirmed to the Supreme Court with the assistance of one of her former clerks, Barbara Flagg, a lesbian who, along with her partner, deflected criticism from feminist groups.

Though Price and Murdoch are unapologetic in their passion for gay, lesbian, and bisexual rights (the authors note that AIDS and transgendered issues are possible subjects for another book), the book is not one-sided. They take pains to dig up whatever court documents they can find and talk to the spouses and children—if that's what it takes—of present and former justices to figure out how and why they reached a certain decision. Tom Clark, a justice during the '60s and '70s, coined the phrase "afflicted with homosexuality" in a 1967 case, giving the INS a free ride to deport gay immigrants. Yet Clark had a beloved gay nephew who moved to France to be with the man he loved. Clark was a prudish but compassionate man, according to his two adult children, who didn't have any direct, deep animosity toward homosexuals. Justices are in general cut off from the rest of society, so it's not surprising that Clark's daughter notes that the cases he ruled on were simply impersonal to him.

The authors also excel in their ability to follow up with the hundreds of people who have gone to the Supreme Court. Sharon Kowalski became severely disabled in a car accident, and her parents prevented her partner, Karen Thompson, from taking her home. Kowalski became a cause celebré in the gay and disability communities; after an eight-year struggle, Thompson was finally able to bring her lover home in 1992. When the authors caught up with the duo seven years later, they saw that Thompson still shows extraordinary devotion to Kowalski, who spends her days in an adult day care center and lives with Thompson and her new partner.

Despite the subject matter's overriding heaviness, there are moments of lightness. In 1986, while the Supreme Court was listening to Georgia officials' reasons for arresting Michael Hardwick, a bartender in Atlanta, for having sex in his own bedroom, Hardwick was spending "an unbelievably romantic day" in Washington D.C. with Evan Wolfson, a young gay-rights attorney at the time.

An obvious must-read for gay and lesbian lawyers and law students, who will find much value in the justice's interpretations of the Constitution, Courting Justice also provides the layperson with a concrete sense of the people behind the Supreme Court and its cases. Even readers not especially interested in gay and lesbian civil rights will gain a clearer understanding of how the Supreme Court and lower courts operate.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2001/2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001/2002

Canaries in the Mineshaft: Essays on Politics and Media

Canaries in the Mineshaft by Renata AdlerRenata Adler
St. Martin's Press ($26.95)

by Rumaan Alam

It's never a particularly illuminating strategy to open a review of a book by quoting another review. Still, it's worth noting that in his New York Times Book Review essay on Renata Adler's most recent book, Canaries in the Mineshaft: Essays on Politics and Media, Bill Kovach calls Adler—or the substance of her message—"shrill." It's easy to paint Adler as a Cassandra, as Kovach does. In fact, given the relationship between Adler and the Times—her onetime employer, of which she is very critical—it's no surprise to see her book summarily dismissed as hysterical.

With a handful of erudite nonfiction and fiction works to her credit, Renata Adler is a cultural voice of some distinction, influential enough to have been name-checked in David Leavitt's lamentable roman a clef, Martin Bauman; or, A Sure Thing (interesting to note, as Leavitt plays coy about naming, say, George Plimpton). She's a gifted writer and fierce intellect, but her contentiousness and unwillingness to accept the state of contemporary media—to which equally brilliant contemporaries like Joan Didion seem more resigned—have consigned her to a niche in the ongoing cultural debate, the place where you'd find Buckley and Limbaugh and the rest of the cranks. But the thing to remember about Cassandra is, of course, that she was right.

Kovach is dismissive of Adler's assertion that the use of a byline—standard operating procedure at every newspaper of record in this country—has given rise to the celebrity journalist. She disdains the chief practitioner of celebrity journalism, Bob Woodward, dissecting the man's body of work, to some surprising results. In "The Justices and the Journalists," originally published in, ironically, the New York Times Book Review, Adler tackles Woodward's The Brethren: Inside the Supreme Court. Her close reading uncovers factual inconsistencies and errors, as well as a lot of murkiness about hearsay and anonymous sources. This reading helps illuminate one way in which contemporary journalism has, indeed, gone wrong: Woodward's reputation as a reporter lends credence to the claims of his unspecified sources. Rather than entering into the record verifiable statements from a specific source, Woodward simply asserts that a thing has been deemed true enough by his standard. Clearly, that is a lapse of integrity.

Unfortunately for Adler, her suggestion that the media is not to be trusted is the sort of idea espoused by the fringe. A collection of essays such as these, published in outlets such as the New Yorker (which Adler famously excoriated in her previous book Gone: The Last Days of the New Yorker), Harper's, the Los Angeles Times and Vanity Fair, has a specific value. This value is not derived from the subjects explored, such as Robert Bork's nomination to the Supreme Court, as they are no longer newsworthy. The value is, rather, in reading one consistent viewpoint on various aspects of the culture. And Adler is nothing if not consistent. Her willingness to offer a close reading of the news, rather than a thumbnail sketch of it, is impressive in an era of short attention spans. Adler's reading of the Starr Report is a perfect example of her strengths as a news analyst and reporter: well-versed in matters of law, she is able to point to several specific transgressions committed by the Office of the Independent Counsel. It's refreshing to read, rather than partisan snipes at Starr or Clinton, a fact-based argument that one of the two parties was actually, demonstrably, wrong. Of course, objectivity is an ideal to which one might aspire, but which one can never rightfully claim; it's an ideal, almost impossible to achieve, for reporters or judges, police or parents.

Adler's ideas about contemporary journalism and culture are far too elegant and complex to be explored in one book review, which might explain why Adler has not managed to cultivate her own cult of personality the way so many commentators have: one must actually have read her work, and the work is demanding enough to test the mettle even of willing devotees. Canaries in the Mineshaft is not the sort of book to be read at night, in bed: it agitates and it demands far too much. Rather, it's a book to be read the next morning, before tackling that day's newspaper. It will make the truth seem, suddenly, sadly, a very complicated thing indeed.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2001/2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001/2002

Free Flight | Air Rage

Free Flight by James FallowsFree Flight: From Airline Hell to a New Age of Travel
James Fallows
Public Affairs ($25)

Air Rage: Crisis in the Skies
Anonymous and Andrew R. Thomas
Prometheus Books ($20)

by Peter Ritter

James Fallows, the Atlantic Monthly's national correspondent, is flying his private airplane on a transcontinental jaunt when he's hit by a revelation: Why on earth doesn't everyone just get their own jet? Surely it would cut down on congestion at the nation's airports, wean America from its reliance on foreign-grown peanuts, and usher our great Republic into a golden age of robot maids and self-tying sneakers. This fleet of personal planes, Fallows excitedly predicts in his new book, Free Flight, will allow the hoi polloi to travel in the manner to which only the loftiest CEOs are now accustomed, "in greater comfort, without fighting their way to and from the crowded hubs, leaving from the small airport that's closest to their home or office and flying direct to the small airport closest to where they really want to go."

One can't really fault Fallows for his timing; he had no way of knowing that, by the time his book was published, a good percentage of the American population would have sworn off flying altogether. Nor could he have known that the New Economy, which tended to support such pie-in-the-sky schema, would be Old News. Still, Fallows's book already seems weirdly dated: It reads as the relic of another age, like one of those "Fast Company" articles explaining how www.socksbymail.com was going to revolutionize business. Fallows may be heralding a revolution in transportation on par with the advent of the automobile, but, at least for now, history seems to have dumped him on the curb.

The sea change Fallows prescribes in Free Flight comes in two waves. First, in response to increasing air congestion, companies will begin to build cheaper, more reliable small airplanes. These planes will then become the basis of an air-taxi network operating out of the nation's underutilized small airports. This, in Fallows's estimation, ought to correct some of the blunders of airline industry deregulation—particularly the disastrous hub-and-spoke system, that triumph of human logic wherein flights from Chicago to Boston are routed through Atlanta.

As an example of this new breed of plane manufacturer, Fallows makes a close study of Duluth, Minnesota-based Cirrus Design. (The company also happens to have built Fallows's shiny new plane, a fact which, in the days before New Economy synergy, might have been considered a journalistic no-no). Cirrus's particular innovation is the SR20, a small airplane with an emergency parachute built in—certainly a handy convenience if every idiot and his brother is going to be using one for the morning commute.

Meanwhile, rich people—Fallows uses the more democratic term "enthusiast"—will have access to the fabulous new jets built by New Mexico's Eclipse Aviation, a spin-off of the defense contractor Williams International with close ties to NASA. (The fact that Williams is also the company responsible for the motors that fly cruise missiles is not a very exciting synergy from the perspective of the prospective passenger). Fallows gets considerably less access to Eclipse than he does to Cirrus: The company will, in fact, only allow him into their factory on the condition that he does not describe what he sees there. It hardly matters, of course: Unless Eclipse is reverse-engineering flying saucers, there's no reason for anyone outside the industry to care what goes on in their factory. And Fallows seems to have dropped the pretense of investigative journalism by this point anyway; even if Eclipse was churning out saucers, one suspects he would be fawning over the potential of the company's "disruptive technology [to] change the way we travel."

In the same way that New Economy boosters seemed to willfully disregard the verities of business—particularly the fact that companies have to make money to keep from going bankrupt—Fallows often seems to turn a blind eye to the realities of airline travel. He does not take into account, for instance, that airlines—many of which have been periodically bailed out by taxpayers throughout their existence--are notoriously low-margin concerns. If American and United can't break even stuffing their 757s like cattle cars, how is a start-up carrier going to make a go of it shuttling four people between Sioux Falls and Wichita? Nor does Free Flight propose solutions for the massive pollution and congestion a fleet of small planes would engender. Only on the last page of the book does Fallows even acknowledge that planes guzzle fossil fuels and make lots of noise. The 2R20 may be a sophisticated cart, but it's still not going anywhere without the horse.

Free Flight by Anonymous and Andrew R. Thomas

The problems with Free Flight are those endemic to a lot of American utopian thinking: It's so impressed with the possibility of technology to solve problems that it ignores simpler solutions. Might some measure of federal regulation not be the best way to ease airport congestion, for instance? And the easiest way to cut economic inefficiencies in air travel is not to build thousands of small planes, but to travel less: Instead of buying faster corporate jets, perhaps American businesses should simply reconsider the wasteful habit of buzzing across the continent for lunch meetings. In any case, Fallows's point may be moot: At this point, with the large carriers foundering, a transportation renaissance is further off than ever. Like the New Economy's free-fall, Free Flight offers an instructive lesson in utopianism: When your head is in the clouds, you're less likely to notice that you're about to walk off a cliff.

However, on this point, Fallows's book is irrefutable: Even before we had to worry about some hijacker purposely crashing our planes, air travel was a pretty unpleasant experience. Since coach-class seats are designed for teenage Russian gymnasts and airline food is mostly unidentifiable muck, flying is, for the average passenger, an ordeal to be endured rather than a rare pleasure. For those with expense accounts, of course, there is business class, an Elysium of dry martinis and wet towels. Airplanes are perhaps the most stratified spaces left in our democratic society. The haves are even spared the sight of the have-nots by that little blue curtain.

One might suspect that a revolt of the unwashed masses in steerage would therefore account for many of the incidents reported in Air Rage: Crisis in the Skies, the Cassandra to Fallows's Pollyanna, by journalist Andrew Thomas and Anonymous, "an expert in a top-level aviation-oversight organization." In fact, most air rage outbursts seem to happen in the rarefied confines of first-class: Rock stars biting flight attendants; businessmen drinking too much comp champagne and deciding it would be a good idea to open the cabin doors at 30,000 feet. We of the proletariat ought to take some perverse pride in the fact that rich people seem to do the lion's share of the misbehaving.

The problem, according to the authors of Air Rage, is that they also tend to get away with it: Because air-rage incidents are generally prosecuted under civil rather than criminal law, the fines for throwing a tantrum are often perfunctory. Their point might be better received, though, if they weren't publishing the written equivalent of a "20/20 Downtown" segment. Hyperbole reigns—"The din of complaints about airline service is becoming deafening." Generalization dominates—"Public expressions of discontent, despair, and detachment have seemingly become everyday occurrences in our stressed-out and overloaded lives." Language suffers—"too" becomes "to", and "they're" is miraculously transformed into "their." That Anonymous, a top-level expert in airline safety, neglected to use spell-check before publishing his book is maybe the most distressing thing about Air Rage.

Nor, unfortunately, are Anonymous's solutions anywhere near as creative as his grammar. Even before our current troubles, Air Rage's prescription would have seemed laughably self-evident: Malefactors ought to be prosecuted under criminal statues; the FAA and airlines should keep better track of incidents; people shouldn't drink so much during flights; and non-pilots shouldn't be allowed into airplane cockpits. Well, duh. Still, it's cause for some terrestrial indignation that it takes a tragedy to get even such basic ideas off the ground.

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Click here to purchase Air Rage at your local independent bookstore
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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2001/2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001/2002

I Thought My Father Was God: And Other True Tales from NPR's National Story Project

I Thought My Father Was God by Paul Austeredited by Paul Auster
Henry Holt ($25)

by Sarah Fox

I Thought My Father Was God anthologizes 179 stories (plus one story quoted in its entirety in the Introduction) culled from the 4,000 Paul Auster received after inviting listeners of National Public Radio to participate in the "National Story Project" by sending "true stories that sounded like fiction." It was Auster's wife, the novelist Siri Hustvedt, who encouraged him to reimagine the project after his initial trepidation at the thought of becoming a regular contributor to the program. She suggested, instead, that he "Get people to sit down and write their own stories." A grand idea, and it worked.

In an interview last fall on NPR, Auster launched the idea on the air. He offered the following guidelines:

The stories had to be true, and they had to be short, but there would be no restrictions as to subject matter or style. What interested me most . . . were stories that defied our expectations about the world, anecdotes that revealed the mysterious and unknowable forces at work in our lives, in our family histories, in our minds and bodies, in our souls. . . . All listeners were welcome to contribute, and I promised to read every story that came in. People would be exploring their own lives and experiences, but at the same time they would be part of a collective effort, something bigger than just themselves. With their help, I said, I was hoping to put together an archive of facts, a museum of American reality.

I quote at length here because what he asked for is precisely what he got, and then some–this initial request was an exact premonition of what the project would become. Every month Auster chose the best five or six stories to read on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered. Of this task, he claims, "It has been singularly rewarding work, one of the most inspiring tasks I have ever undertaken." At the same time, reading close to 100 stories at a single sitting was often disquieting, occasions when Auster "felt that the entire population of America [had] walked into my house."

He also declares that of the 4,000 stories he read, "most have been compelling enough to hold me until the last word." Reading this collection, you don't doubt him for a moment. You may, in fact, wish you could get your hands on the whole pile yourself.

In a typically eloquent introduction to this collection, Auster reports on how his own beliefs about the elusive nature of fate, the passions and coincidences overwhelming our lives, the inevitable and lasting connections made between human beings—whether family members or complete strangers—all have been enriched and confirmed by the stories he's read and collected. It was his idea to develop a book, which he felt would "be necessary to do justice to the project." And for those of us who missed most of the weekend broadcasts, we owe him our deep appreciation. As great as it would be to hear the sepulchral resonance of Paul Auster's voice reading your very own words over the radio, part of the book's magic is its insistence that the reader imagine the voice of the story herself, or that she even occasionally fashion her own voice to it.

The democracy of the book is admirable, but doesn't feel brassy or obligatory. "I never once gave a thought to demographic balance," Auster writes. "I selected the stories solely on the basis of merit. . . . The numbers just fell out that way, and the results were determined by blind chance." If we know even a little about Paul Auster, we know how much of his own work is inspired by, or assembled around, blind chance.

And to know (even if only a little) the work of Paul Auster is to love him. His generosity as a writer of fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and his finesse with the English language as well as the French from which he's translated volumes of poetry and prose, have already earned him a seat in the pantheon of Great American Writers. Whether he's writing a novel, an essay, or memoir heightened to philosophical inquiry, you'd be hard put to find a writer whose sentences so consistently and effortlessly unfold down the page. I'd pay good money for his grocery lists. (Here's my story: the first time I saw Paul Auster was at a book convention in Chicago. He was smoking a cigarillo, and his eyes penetrated his surroundings utterly. I thought Paul Auster was God.)

We know Paul Auster writes "literature," that he is a scholar and advocate of often under-represented, always challenging literary works and writers. His introduction to The Random House Anthology of 20th Century French Poetry is among the finest essays you'll read about these poets and their development in relation to modern and post-modern American—and World—poetry. Auster began his career as a poet, and his five poetry collections distinguish him in this field as well. His numerous collections of translations—of Jacques Dupin, Mallarmé, Joubert, and others—are highly regarded and further express his magnanimity as both gatekeeper of and contributor to world literature. As a fiction writer, for which he is best known, Auster's novels frequently defy the boundaries of genre, with stylized sentences that come from a sensitive, poetic imagination tuned to the round nuances of thought and inquiry more than speech. As if this weren't enough, Auster has also sallied forth into filmmaking, co-directing and writing scripts for the successful "Smoke" and "Blue in the Face" as well as writing and directing, more recently, "Lulu on the Bridge." You'd think Paul Auster was God.

Having thus established himself at the very pinnacle of literary excellence, we can forgive him for branding most of the stories collected in I Thought My Father Was God "crude and awkward. Only a small portion of it could qualify as 'literature.'" He goes on to try to define the stories in general as "dispatches, reports from the front lines of personal experience." But reading these stories I found myself disagreeing with Auster's assessment, for I was frequently surprised by the literary savvy, even if unintentional, in evidence here: an instinct for building suspense and narrative arc, for illuminating sometimes small but significant details, for discovering—in the telling—effective metaphors, for the subtlety with which these metaphors became realized and the gentleness with which the symbolism of certain objects or events was given up to the reader. Emily Dickinson famously proclaimed that she knew she was reading "great" literature when she felt as if the top of her head was coming off. I advise you to hold onto your hats as you delve into this collection. It's an emotional—even physical—response Dickinson alludes to, clearly not a cerebral one, and Auster himself confesses "It is difficult for me to imagine that anyone could read through this book from beginning to end without once shedding a tear; without once laughing out loud."

The "literature" question is, ultimately, unimportant in light of the book's ultimate accomplishment. Is Studs Terkel's American Dreams literature? In many ways this book recalls Terkel and his own egalitarian pursuit of the real stories of the American people. In other ways, the stories here—all written long before September 11, 2001—will reinforce our present craving for solidarity, and our attention to the plights and miracles of the individual. The book is divided into ten sections, and one of them is devoted entirely to "War." Astonishing stories of near-death, first-hand recollections from the trenches, the killing fields themselves; devastating loss, miraculous recovery—in sum, a visceral depiction of how life alters, how consciousness shifts and sharpens, how surreal everything becomes inside the landscape of war. And as Auster says, all of the stories—whether about World War II, Vietnam, fighting cancer, seeing ghosts, lost love, loneliness—seem to come from "the front lines," the battle zones of life on earth.

Ironically, however, the majority of the stories here are not focused on the narrator, but rather on someone else, a person who has impressed or changed or inspired the narrator. One outstanding example is "A Shot in the Light," by Lion Goodman—among the longest stories in the book. Goodman's narrative revolves around the 24 hours or so during which he was shot four times in the head by a man he had picked up hitchhiking, how he struggled to accept his fate while simultaneously trying to sustain his life, and the dialogue he was eventually able to arouse between himself and his attacker, a man named Ray. Through the recounting of this bizarre conversation—during which Goodman attempts both to calm Ray and convince him to head toward a hospital—we learn more biographical information about Ray himself than we ever learn about Goodman: his upbringing in East L.A., his alcoholic and abusive father, his stint in the army, his drug dealing, time spent in jail, the events leading up to his decision to rob and kill Goodman. This story sheds light, in its generosity and through personal experience, on the whole cycle of human oppression and criminal behavior better than any statistic or media analysis possibly could. And what fiction writer would dare name a character who survived such an ordeal Lion Goodman? Is truth stranger than fiction? Of course it is.

Contributors range in age from 20 to 90, and their stories cover the entire spectrum of 20th-century American life. Some of the stories are grandiose while others are more quiet but no less extraordinary. Whether recalling—decades later and still reeling—a father's unexpected slap; or musing on the significance of a Christmas tree ornament; or praising the service of an old Ford; or detailing continued remorse over a twenty-year-old act of racial cruelty; or describing outrageous encounters with strangers, spirits, animals, God (once in the guise of George Burns), or simply engagements with memory, joy, grief, fear, amazement, the book touches on the entire gamut of human experience from people of all walks of life.

What provoked people to write these stories? What provokes us to read them? I think it's not terribly different from what provoked us to remain glued to our television sets in the aftermath of the events of September 11th; or what has made memoir the best-selling literary genre of recent times. When we tell our stories, share them, and in turn confront the stories of others, we validate our existence and its meaning. We attempt to define ourselves, give edge to our experiences, by being witnessed and by bearing witness. This book has urged me to sift through my own inventory, try to select which story I might have sent and how I might have presented it. Undoubtedly, it will do this to all of its readers. Perhaps it will inspire us to recall a story that's been buried for years, and to tell it, or write it down, to learn about ourselves through it, to discover how we are connected by our experience to everyone else on the planet. We all have stories—they are what make up a life.

The intimacy these particular storytellers grant us makes the book all the more inviting. One writer, for example, begins her piece with the following statement: "Here is my story, the story I tell you when I know you well enough." In fact many authors begin with such flourish it becomes impossible to turn away. "Pork Chop" by Eric Wynn, starts, "Early in my career as a crime-scene cleaner" and ends with "'Well hell! . . . Ya smell just like a pork chop!'" Here's another one, from "The Anonymous Deciding Factor," by Holly Caldwell Campanella, "I come from a family of morticians." Bruce Edward Hall ("$1,380 Per Night, Double Occupancy") includes in his story a detail worthy of Don DeLillo: "She likes to chew on fingernails but doesn't want to ruin her own…so I give her mine." Among my favorite pieces is "Taking Leave" by Joe Miceli, in which the author--a Muslim prisoner whose father had only recently been released from jail himself--describes his mixed feelings about being "freed" for a day to attend the funeral of his beloved grandmother. His poignant conclusion--that nobody, even if uncuffed for a brief ride back to the jail, is free from grief and loss--demonstrates a deeply spiritual and insightful mind at work.

There are so many stories, so many incredible narratives, and there isn't a single one that elicits doubt from the reader as to the veracity of its author's telling. This is one of those books you simply can't check out of the library because it'll end up long overdue, you may even be willing to lose your library card to keep it, and so everybody—not least the librarians who've been hiding it under their table for surreptitious glimpses—will be terribly upset with you. It's one of those books you simply have to own, and one—despite its bulk—you'll never be tempted to part with. It will sit on your shelf alongside Vasari's Lives of the Artists and The Golden Bough and Alan Lomax's Folk Songs of North America, the big-time keepers you occasionally pick up on your way to the bathroom, and end up hours later still holding open in your lap. This is the book you can buy for every single person on your gift list, from the highest to the lowest brow. It is, at last, a genuine People's History of the United States, written by the people themselves, a 180-voiced chorus of women and men, young and old, rural and urban and everything in between, singing the body electric.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2001/2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001/2002

The Angelus Bell

UnknownEdward Foster
Spuyten Duyvil ($12)

by John Olson

I knew a witty physician who found theology in the biliary duct, and used to affirm that if there was disease in the liver, the man became a Calvinist, and if that organ was sound, he became a Unitarian.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson

I do not pretend to know the state of Ed Foster's liver, but I do know his heart belongs to poetry. It may sound ludicrously redundant to say there is poetry in his poetry, but considering the prevalence of conversational and confessional free verse that has passed for poetry since at least the ‘50s, it is nothing less than revelatory to champion that remark.

What distinguishes poetry from prose is sound: assonance, rhyme, alliteration, vocalic and consonantal echo. It is significant that Foster has chosen for the title of his book not merely an implement for producing sound (a bell) but a religious one at that. This device alerts our attention immediately, before we've even taken the book from the shelf, that there are religious overtones to the work contained in this volume, a sense that there is a numinous value inhering in the musicality of language.

The Angelus is a short practice of devotion repeated three times each day, morning, noon, and evening, traditionally at the sound of a bell. It consists essentially in the triple repetition of the Hail Mary and commemorates the Incarnation of the Word of God within Mary's sacred womb, thus fulfilling the Old Testament figure of the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark carried the word of God in stone; Mary carried the word of God made flesh. This then is the central trope of Foster's collection, although Foster's spiritual underpinnings are far more Transcendentalist than Catholic.

Transcendentalist writers such as Henry Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson and especially the late William Bronk are of tremendous consequence to Foster's thought and style. The Transcendentalist emphasis on solitude and private communion to know God and reality, its urge to reintegrate spirit and matter (again, the central trope of the word of God made flesh), and its advocacy of intuition over reason as a way to know the Real underlie Foster's thinking and gel in certain stylistic features. Foster, like Bronk, tends toward gnomic, epigrammatic lines that tease the reader into a more intimate communion with the processes of sound and inner revelation—a grammar of the soul, if you will, whose tenses and moods occur as testimony to "the ecstasies of solitude" and "angels tipping heads / from side to side."

Edgar Allan Poe instructed a young author to write the Tone Transcendental by using small words but turning them upside down. In our more postmodern literary vernacular, we would say by "defamiliarizing them," but I like Poe's image far better: I see them as bells. Words turned right side up so that we can jingle them. Foster achieves great affect by packing his lines with dense iambs ("Stephen is the saint who has us say the things," "clothes are uniforms without their cause," "setting sound by sound/ with shifting feet"), creating rhythmic expectations, then—abruptly–disrupting them, bringing intense focus on a word, or cluster of words. In the first two stanzas of "Beggers After Sound," for instance, note the way Foster puts a tremendous weight on the last line of the second stanza, contrasting the more melodic rhythms ("like beauty on a winter street") with the leaden spondees of "to hold them down," giving the last line's significance a visceral force and density:

Know first that objects and their laws
have weight, at least to me and you.
They also know that mind,
like beauty on a winter street,
is what we're taught to see.

Laws always weigh
the mind, and partial
to an angel's hand,
there's no real secret in
the objects and the laws.
They are your mind,
and hands are only things
to hold them down.

Like Bronk, Foster favors abstraction and dense, syntactical constructions over richness of imagery. But where Bronk remains stark and stunning as the winter light he preferred, in Foster there is a disciplined severity that contrasts more piquantly with occasional flourishes of playful lyricism, as in the eighth stanza of the wonderful poem "The Dark in Caravaggio's Light":

You'd know enough
to keep a space apart
and wait with dream pipes,
reimagine arpeggio,
cantabile,
as sound.

Here we find resonating in the musical terms "arpeggio" and "cantabile" Poe's Tone Transcendental: words like clappers in an angelus of sonic dispersal.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2001/2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001/2002

With The First Dream Of Fire They Hunt The Cold

With The First Dream Of Fire They Hunt The Cold by Trevor JoyceTrevor Joyce
Shearsman Books ($15)

by Harriet Zinnes

To consider the poetry of the contemporary Irish poet Trevor Joyce one must start with a biographical fact: Joyce stopped writing poetry for about 20 years. And the reason was not biological: he did not have a strange disease, a fever, a loss of memory or a loss of intellectual rigor. Indeed, the silence was the result of a distinctive intellectual rigor. He could no longer write poems where, as he has noted, "all that is significant crystallizes in a perfection of plot and motivation, and all the rest, wanting any real brush with language, retreats once more to ground." His attack of a perfect plot and motivation was the consequence, he is saying, of a reluctance to come to grips with language. Just as American poets, and certainly not only the Language poets, emphasize language today, so does this Irish poet maximizes its importance.

As a result of the emphasis on language in the later work of Joyce, there is an avoidance of the Irish lilt, its more obvious lyricism, and a dominance of linguistic texture, a texture of sound, not easily comprehensible, filled with ambiguity and with the dexterity consequent of an admirer of John Cage, Samuel Beckett, Adorno, and Benjamin. Yet when John Cage wrote, for example, such a line as "A piece of string, a sunset, each acts," that successive juxtaposition, because of a musical coordination somehow pleases the ear and the poetry does not perplex. But this is another century. Globalization has taken hold. The old substance of poetry is gone. Love, loss, friendship, nature may still be written about by some poets but poets who see a world on the edge of chaos and disaster must break for it, must take language and pull it apart, render it with distortion, assemble its syllables from texts rarely before the matter of poetry. And here is a poet who wishes "to work comprehensively with the world which I inhabit." He must therefore pull his sentences together from regions remote from poetry, regions that are explaining the new world. Hardly a Billy Collins, more like a Bruce Andrews, he writes, "Damaged, we bleed time." Time is no longer floating. It does not flow. We are its warriors: "We bleed time." Even the mouth of the innocent "is like a bowl of blood."

American readers can now read Trevor Joyce's work in an edition collecting work from 1966 through 2000. The title is provocative: With the First Dream of Fire They Hunt the Cold. A bit perverse? Yes, Joyce is hunting the cold, namely, paralysis, death, not fire, passion, life. This is no Romantic writer. And we are all living in 2001, where fire is not passion but bombs, war, and hate. Even the poet's early poetry reveals a poet who though he observed nature closely he cared little for the material world, for he saw it as cruel and strange, a world that made the human observer uneasy because all was unfolding toward death. Even speech he saw as "a broken bird on stunned wings."

His recent poems, for example, the 1999 long poem called Trem Neul (meaning "through my dream") contains what the English poet Douglas Clark notes as "vaguely impersonal voices emerging from a Galway landscape." The poem mixes prose and verse facing each other but not in any way complementing or explaining each other. Its language is as in Joyce's poetry frequently difficult, leading to a seeming nowhere or to an incomprehensibility that seems part of the very meaning of the poem. The poet's dream is filled with the illogicality of today's world. How could the syntax, the flow of language be anything but a blur of sound, of a sound of unknown or at least of unusual meanings? Here is a page that is characteristic:

I sat there, my heart beating                             If you be not wise
shaken by what had happened, for                                then have
are we not all prone to error, all                                                (bitter)
strangers at home? As the language                              memories
changes course through time, a pla-
cemame gets stranded, parched, cut                  May you not have
off from the stream of meaning, until                            the memory
another inundation reach, reinter-                                   of the deer
pret and reanimate. The sound may
have to be bent for this to happen,                     It is my earliest
and the first sense left for ever irre-                       recollection
coverable, or the stuff of books,                                 Quite unexpectedly
though locally, as stuff of lives, it
stays a name, a pointer (maybe mis-
leading) to the place.

Yes, quite unexpectedly, there is another Joyce of importance.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2001/2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001/2002

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