Tag Archives: winter 2004


Chopin's Move
Dalkey Archive ($12.95)

New Press ($21.95)
Jean Echenoz

by Andrew Palmer

French writer Jean Echenoz is the author of ten acclaimed novels, seven of which have been translated into English. He was already a popular novelist in his homeland before I'm Gone came out in 1999, but when that novel won the Prix Goncourt—roughly the equivalent of the National Book Award—he became a household name. Now, with the recent publication of two more English translations of his work by the estimable Mark Polizzotti, Echenoz stands ripe for further recognition in this country.

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Chopin's Move, originally published in 1989, is a slim, crackling, refraction of a spy novel which both participates in and perverts the genre. Its cast of characters includes Franck Chopin, the protagonist, an entomologist turned spy whose signature method is to attach "bugs" to living flies; Vito Piranese, a one-legged spy who trails Chopin and seems to be the protagonist until he's dropped from the novel for good after chapter two; Colonel Seck, an upper-level agent who we don't discover is black until two-thirds of the way through the novel; and sundry other shadowy players who tend to fulfill neither their personal and professional expectations nor the reader's expectations of them as characters in a novel. The story involves Chopin getting mixed up with a high-roller economist and his chess-aficionado thugs, as well as with a lonely seductress whose husband disappeared six years ago. We're tossed back and forth from the not-so-gay north side of Paris to a posh hotel and wooded resort in the country (with plenty of deserted warehouses and suburban wastelands in between), trying to keep up with the constant realignment of affections and allegiances. That Echenoz manages to keep us interested, despite the unapologetically flat characters and the most oblique of plots, is no small feat.

His main weapon in this struggle is his measured, articulate, meticulous prose, infused with sly, playful humor. He shuns extended psychological explorations in favor of elaborate, high-definition descriptions of surface phenomena—clothes, building exteriors, wall paper, peripheral figures, and the like—with a sharp eye for the odd or off-kilter:

The overripe pianist from teatime had been replaced by an organist of similar age, whose russet toupee slipped a notch and in the same direction as his spirited movements, and one of his contact lenses sometimes fell on the keyboard of the Hammond organ: without skipping a kneaded beat, he sought his missing lens between two black keys, quickly spat on it, and glued it back to his cornea.

Passages like this, seemingly divorced from all plot considerations and character development, are sprinkled liberally throughout the novel, hovering just outside the edges of symbol or clue. Often they seem to be there simply for the reader to delight in their photographic specificity.

Such distracted freeze-frames also provide an ironic counterbalance to the madcap, spy game plot, which hops along in spite of itself. Chapters are short; perspectives shift; things happen quickly. Chopin's Move is a breezy book filled with studied prose, but what ultimately keeps the pages turning are not the story or characters, but the sentences.

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Piano, published in France last year, walks a similar razor's edge between story and playfully descriptive asides. Here, though, it's a single, strong protagonist who carries us through from beginning to end. Max Delmarc is a world-class Parisian concert-pianist with a horrible case of stage fright, which he treats with large doses of pre-performance alcohol. He lives with his sister and dreams of meeting a woman whom he saw but never spoke to more than twenty years ago. The narrator tells us on the first page, "He is going to die a violent death in twenty-two days but, as he is yet unaware of this, that is not what he is afraid of," and, indeed, before the end of part one of this short, three-part novel, he's stabbed to death by a mugger. Part two takes place in purgatory, a surreal hospital/hostel/prison called the "Orientation Center." Max is nursed to health and then seduced by Doris Day, and another employee there just might be Dean Martin. The director of the center informs Max that at the end of a week-long stay he will be sent either to an idyllic park or to the "urban zone," a city very much resembling the Paris he has just left. Part three is a sharply satiric and often hilarious account of the beginning of Max's eternity in this city.

Because we're attached to Max for the length of the novel, and because he's such a sad and sympathetic character, Piano works on an emotional level that is largely absent from Chopin's Move. We feel for Max, even as he makes his way through Echenoz's funhouse world. If the ending feels too much like a punch line to a very elaborate joke rather than the pathos at which Echenoz seems to be aiming, we can forgive him: the joke's telling was worth it in itself.

Both Chopin's Move and Piano are evocations of loneliness, taking place in a world where even telephones can ring "in a state of solitary exasperation" and cars "(echo) plaintively against the stone facades, the way a man moans in solitary between four bare walls." The main characters are men who lead highly successful professional lives, but whose personal lives are characterized by ineptitude and disappointment. Echenoz's great trick, as Max and Chopin float through absurd, barely comprehensible tableaux in which they are bit players at best, is to shift the focus off of the characters and onto the scenery. It makes them seem all the more lonely (even their creator's not giving them much attention), while at the same time revealing the humor and beauty of the space that surrounds and reflects their loneliness.

At one point in Chopin's Move, Chopin sits in a car with his boss, Colonel Seck. The microscopic brilliance of the following description is typical, and the final sentence could be Echenoz summing up his own work:

Outside the light precipitation continued. Droplets of rain hunched on the glass, sparse and immobile. They had to band together, get unionized in one fat drop before they could hurtle gaily down the windshield, on whose verso, inside the car, droplets of fog clustered toward the same end. It sometimes happened that two drops of different nature rolled down at the same time, united on opposite sides of the windshield, appearing to slice it down the middle. Interesting, all right.

It's hard not to agree with that assessment.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2004/2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004/2005

DEVIL IN THE DETAILS: Scenes from an Obsessive Girlhood

Buy this book from Amazon.comJennifer Traig
Little, Brown & Co. ($22.95)

by Anitra Budd

Americans have many national pastimes, and high among them is hypochondria. You can call it narcissism at its creepiest, or blame it on our unparalleled access to information. Whatever the illness's source, you'll find its manifestations in every urgent care clinic in the country, where armchair physicians happily self-diagnose to anyone who'll listen. Combine this with our lust for perfection, and you'll find many people already have mild forms of OCD. Some might even secretly feel proud of their Type A tendencies. But at its strongest, Jennifer Traig's version of OCD, detailed in her compelling new memoir Devil in the Details, didn't just consist of the constant checking and hand washing Jack Nicholson aped in As Good As It Gets for laughs. Augmented by her childhood Hebrew classes, it eventually became a deep religious fervor known as scrupulosity.

What's termed scrupulosity now might easily have been admired as religious devotion in other eras. The main difference seems to be in the trappings: Traig had no ritual basins, but a washing machine was sufficient. Kleenex stood in for head coverings and helpless pets became livestock, ripe for stewardship. And by repeatedly starving herself over years of anorexia, Traig scourged her body as effectively as any whip could've.

Born to a Jewish father and Catholic mother, who both take a fairly relaxed approach to religion, Traig dabbles in various forms of OCD from an early age. While she refuses to foist the blame for her scrupulosity on her family's hodgepodge spirituality, readers might theorize that her fierce but scattered devotion to obscure Jewish law came from a wish for religious stability. But without any regular instruction, Traig's makes up her own rules and consequences. Her version of Jewish ritual thus becomes a strange beast, at once bastardized and completely inviolate. This inconsistency makes it hard for her to receive any peace from her actions, one of the main benefits of religious involvement; each fabricated ritual only brings up fresh worries about blasphemy and a resulting need for more purification.

Devil itself follows a similar circuitous route, avoiding the typical memoir's linear path from child to adult. Instead it catalogs Traig's life through its shifting array of obsessive predilections, creating a kind of "Obsession's Greatest Hits" album. This is a necessary device, since recounting the peak years of her disorder chronologically would be nearly impossible. As Traig writes, "OCD is a closed circuit." Since every action and thought triggers a series of compulsions and paranoia, it's hard to discern a clear beginning or ending to any event.

From an outsider's perspective, and with the blessing of Traig's hindsight, it stretches the imagination to believe anyone in her community, much less her family, managed to gloss over the signs of her illness. From the work itself, it's difficult to tell how much of this is due to Traig's intense naval-gazing (another byproduct of OCD), how much to a past lack of medical knowledge, and how much to her masterful ability to hide her symptoms. Whatever the reason for her family's strange oversight, it serves to bind the reader to the author, making us complicit in her actions as both silent partner and audience.

Another of the book's assets comes from Traig's understandable eye for details. The vivid images she creates of her late '70s family and Northern California town are almost digitally perfect. But the most moving theme unearthed from her mountain of rituals and habits is the undeniable connection between OCD and faith. Traig's years of religious devotion were supported by a perfect belief that soap and prayer, in the right order, could ward off Armageddon, not to mention save her family from being murdered in their beds. Just because this faith arose from an unusual brain chemistry instead of years in seminary doesn't diminish its intensity, or make it any less fascinating. Pondering the question of how faith begets paranoia (and vice versa) offers the most satisfying pleasure in reading this work.

Memoir enthusiasts may consider Traig's determinedly flippant tone a drawback. When she recounts the horrified look on her mother's face when Traig, as an adult, tries to insist on a low-carb Thanksgiving dinner, it's hard not to wonder how many other genuine moments of concern might've passed by unaccounted for, drowned in a sea of sarcasm. Dropping the Sedaris act more often would've gone a long way toward making her family more human and less "Everybody Loves Raymond." But even the most somber of memoir and self-help fans would have to admit that for most of her life, Traig didn't suffer from any lack of seriousness. Taken in context, humor seems like the most effective shield she, or any other human, has against an overwhelming fear of damnation.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2004/2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004/2005

SOME OF MY BEST FRIENDS: Writings on Interracial Friendships

Buy this book from Amazon.comEdited by Emily Bernard
HarperCollins ($23.95)

by Shannon Gibney

In a world where the dominant narrative on interracial friendships looks like something out of Ally McBeal (high-powered, beautiful white girl, hangs with high-powered, beautiful, and sassy black girl and thus obtains extra "cool" points), the prospect of an entire book on the topic is a bit terrifying. Far from being yet another vapid and familiar exploration of the power of friendship to "transcend all," however, Some of My Best Friends acknowledges the many racial and cultural differences that weigh upon and sometimes break interracial friendships—while arguing that such difficulties often make these friendships worthwhile in the first place.

Pam Houston locates the primary difficulty as internal in "On The Possibility-Filled Edge of the Continent," claiming "the reason I have never acted on my attraction to black men, why I am only just now beginning to develop friendships with black women, is a . . . kind of self-loathing." In a refreshing if somewhat unfocused essay, Houston reveals that she approached an interview with Nobel laureate Toni Morrison more fearfully than she did mountain expeditions in Tibet and Kenya. After her hourly interview turns into a day-long visit between just-met old friends, Houston realizes that it is her own feelings of inadequacy that have kept her from truly connecting with those outside her immediate circle.

In "Crossing the Line: An Introduction," editor Emily Bernard presents a mother-daughter conflict that few black families want to discuss: black daughters with white-girl best friends that their mothers dislike. Bernard writes that her mother "wanted us to meet and befriend black children who were like us. I appreciated and sympathized with her conflict, but only up to a point. Because for me there was no choice. I preferred the white girls, hands down." Bold words indeed for any black woman to write in the post-Black Power era. But Bernard's honesty about the isolation she felt as the sole black girl in advanced placement classes at her school, and the tyranny of having to embrace a certain kind of blackness in order to claim authenticity, strikes a chord. She feels little or no connection to the other black girls at school, and is more interested in exploring a different, and in some ways more dangerous kind of intimacy with white girls.

The essays that occur outside of a white, normative gaze are what make Some of My Best Friends such a good read. Jee Kim's "Bi-Bim-Bap" stands out for its depiction of the nexus of urban Korean American and African American cultures and for its gripping, scenic structure. And the closing essay, Somini Sengupta's "With Me Where I Go," sears itself into the brain, never to be forgotten. Told in expository form as a letter from an Indian American reporter to a lost African American lover, the beauty of Sengupta's piece is only surpassed by its execution:

Our clans needed each other. Yours needed mine to remind themselves they belonged on this soil. Mine needed yours to know who was on top and who was at bottom. It's the immigrant's rite of passage. And then, under the epidermis of our public identities, there was you and me. Somewhere in the foul brown muck of our antagonism was a more primal longing. Did you hear me trying to tell you, "Tell me about, show me, who am I?"

Sengupta's uncompromising embrace of the demands and rewards that true intimacy yields is breathtaking. One hopes that her essay, as well as others in this fine anthology, will inspire a more honest and inspiring discussion about race, culture and love in this country—both on the page and off of it. As James Baldwin pointed out 40 years ago in The Fire Next Time, we are long overdue.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2004/2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004/2005


Buy this book from Amazon.comDavid Rumsey and Edith M. Punt
Esri Press ($79.95)

by John Toren

David Rumsey—not the sort to balk at career change—earned two degrees in Art History from Yale, fell into a small fortune buying and selling real estate in the San Francisco area, and went on to develop one of the most extensive collections of antique maps in the world. Eager to share his collections with others, Rumsey explored, and occasionally pioneered, the technology required to digitalize his maps and display them on the web for collectors, historians, and students of cartography. Cartographica Extraordinaire, a handsome volume almost fourteen inches square, provides a glimpse into the many treasures of the Rumsey Library for those of us who lack the time or the wherewithal to view these colorful and intriguing documents online, or to print them out on the scale they deserve. Along the way, Rumsey and co-author Edith M. Punt offer us a brief overview of the development of maps, and the continuing role they play in the modern world of geographic information systems (GIS).

To judge from the text of Cartographica Extraordinaire, Rumsey's appreciation of maps owes more to his feel for art than his grasp of history. While there are things to be learned on every page of the book about the relations between the development of cities, nations, and continents and the drawing of maps, Rumsey has made no attempt to chart the development of map-making techniques into the digital age—only two maps in the book were created more recently than 1922—and we learn little about the impact of satellites on mapping techniques, dramatic though they have been. Rumsey's interest lies primarily in the beauty and historical preciousness of individual maps, the development of lithographic techniques, the changing role of maps in "taking control" of a landscape, and the fascinating archaisms that old maps almost invariably contain.

Even in this regard we might occasionally wish for more astuteness than Rumsey provides. For example, on one two-page spread) we're given the opportunity to compare two maps of the Vancouver area, one published by George Vancouver himself in 1798, and the other by the Spaniard Espinosa y Tello in 1802. In the text Rumsey describes the controversy concerning who had the rights to America's northwest coast. In the caption to the Spanish map we read:

Vancouver's maps show the English obsession with taking and claiming land by mapping publicly its every detail—they almost saw maps as deeds. Espinosa's approach reflects Spain's view of maps as intellectual property to be hoarded, establishing land ownership by controlling the knowledge of where places were located.

Aside from the solecism of "mapping publicly," the underlying point is questionable in itself: Spain had already relinquished control of America's northwest coast to England in 1790, and Vancouver's map of 1798 was obviously superior in every way to Espinosa's edition of four years later—so the contrasting strategies of disseminating or hoarding knowledge has no relevance to either the control of the area depicted or the date of publication of either map.

Yet the maps themselves remain beautiful to look at. And this sheer variety of eras, styles, and functions brings interest to almost every page of the book. We have exploratory maps, land grant maps, township plot maps, state county maps, relief maps. There is a wonderfully stylized map depicting the migration of the Aztec Indians from Aztlan to the Valley of Mexico which, beautiful though it is, looks more like a child's board game than a scientific depiction of anything. There are maps of rivers, arranged in long thin strips, maps of mail routes, train routes, urban grids. It's interesting to compare the quaint pages from a road atlas published in 1802, showing only a few miles of countryside at a time—but with what seems to be every creek and hill and tree depicted—to the scale and clutter of today's Rand McNally version.

Rumsey has focused his collecting effort on the Western hemisphere, and it's a little disappointing to see so few maps of South America included in the mix. On the other hand, the inordinate presence of the American West among Rumsey's selections may be justified on two counts: the terrain is spectacular, but challenging to render effectively on a flat surface; and the exploration and mapping of the American West played a crucial role in the development of both the area and the modern map. Readers may also be disappointed to find the detail of some of the early maps a bit muddy, but greater detail would presumably have required a narrower field of view, and there are plenty of "close-ups" to balance the beautiful but less than perfectly sharp full-map views occasionally exhibited here. Thus, despite its occasional shortcomings, Cartographica Extraordinaire is likely to bring genuine delight to all non-specialist map-lovers, travelers, and arm-chair historians.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2004/2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004/2005

AMERICAN ASSASSINATION: The Strange Death Of Senator Paul Wellstone

Buy this book at Amazon.comFour Arrows and Jim Fetzer
Vox Pop ($14)

by Bradley E. Ayers

American Assassination challenges the reader to render careful, critical judgment about the causation of Paul Wellstone's death, when his chartered plane went down in a remote area of northeastern Minnesota in October 2002. Was the crash an accident, a bizarre twist of fate on the eve of the fiery, outspoken liberal Democrat's predicted reelection to the narrowly divided U.S. Senate? Or was the plane's destruction the work of threatened right-wing forces determined to sabotage our country's elective process for political gain?

Authors Four Arrows (aka Donald Trent Jacobs) and Jim Fetzer passionately assume the latter, but not without making a powerful case. Their thesis is structured around the fundamental, time-honored considerations when appraising any crime: did a potential perpetrator have the means, motive, and opportunity to commit the act, and is there human testimony or physical and circumstantial evidence to support each of these criteria?

The initial chapters of the book are devoted to building the evidentiary case. Fetzer and Jacobs meticulously piece together the events and identify personalities involved preceding the tragedy, as well as those actions and developments, both official and unofficial, following the crash. The authors' reach for information is extensive and goes well beyond that of the authorities. Many contradictions and inconsistencies in the reactions and pronouncements of first responders to the crash site are examined, all suggesting a deliberate effort to tamper with or remove critical evidence from the scene.

It's primarily on the basis of this factual data, which includes verbatim quotations from local authorities, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as well as regional and national media reportage, that an impressive scenario of a possible conspiracy and cover-up emerges. The accusative finger points to the Bush White House and the most powerful in the Administration, with the complicity of key federal agencies. Brief early digressions comparing a possible Wellstone murder conspiracy with other controversial high-profile deaths are a minor distraction; all in all, this is goosebump-producing reading for anyone with lingering suspicions about the crash scene investigation by officials of the U.S. Government.

Having quite effectively made the evidentiary argument for post-crash concealment and deliberate spoilage of the scene, the authors' turn to the motive issue. These enlightening chapters are absolutely essential to appreciating the breadth and intensity of the Bush cabal's animosity that may have led to Wellstone's elimination. American Assassination brings together in its central chapters an extensive list of factors, some fairly obscure in the public view, clearly identifying the Minnesota Senator as a persistent and even greater future threat to the conservative Republican agenda.

With the actual events, initial reactions and reports, documented physical aspects of the wreckage and crash scene observation and the possible motive for assassination and cover-up now before the reader, Fetzer and Jacobs offer a detailed retrospection of alleged "accidental" and "lone-gunmen" fatalities of key or high-profile political figures in the U.S. over the past forty years. Comparison and parallels are drawn between these and the possible murder of Senator Wellstone, buttressing the assassination conspiracy premise.

At this point in the book, in their capacity as educators, the authors step away from the specifics of the case and engage in serious tutoring. Several chapters of the book are devoted to a rather expansive, academic and slightly complex theoretical discussion of critical thinking. This is the methodology professors Fetzer and Jacobs applied in investigating the fatal Wellstone plane crash and analyzing the events, circumstances, evidence and other factors surrounding it. While sometimes a little heavy on classical logic process, the effort is well intentioned and encourages the reader's appreciation for the authors' intellectual effort in researching the Wellstone tragedy.

The truly interested reader is now, hopefully, versed in the discipline by which Fetzer and Jacobs build their case for an assassination conspiracy in the downing of the Wellstone plane. The authors' dissect, item by item, the government's handling of the event, from crash site response and investigation to the suspected manipulation of public information—essentially illustrating how the official system either failed or was perverted to facilitate a manufactured explanation for the crash.

The authors thoroughly document a pattern of procrastination, obfuscation, buck-passing, unanswered inquires, procedural anomalies, policy circumventions, apparent incompetence, discrediting of witnesses and sources, ignorance and degradation of physical evidence value. Most disturbing is the assertion the FBI played a key part in the initial phases of the crash investigation, usurping the established role of NTSB as the responsible action agency in any fatal aircraft incident. The authors' offer a compilation of peripheral testimony, qualified sources familiar with airplane crashes and standards for investigating them.

Furthermore, the authors' point out the Wellstone crash investigation was never subject to public hearing as mandated by NTSB regulation in any high profile case. Staunchly defending the assassination conspiracy argument, Fetzer and Jacobs, in full attack mode, rebut the final NTSB "accident" report with a vengeance. Sentence by sentence, they catalogue the reports' contradictions, lapses, selective use of evidence and testimony, manipulated phraseology, and ignorance of available information that might undermine the government's finding that the crash resulted from pilot error. The authors' conclusion is that the NTSB report is a transparent effort to establish plausible denial and is bogus.

Finally, American Assassination presents the reader with a variety of alternative explanations for the plane crash. Some tend toward the exotic, but are technically substantiated to a reasonable degree. Other, more conventional explanations are also posed for the reader's consideration. Expert opinion is offered and expanded upon. The book concludes with a summary of the major points of argument, set forth in easily understood fashion.

The authors' conviction and ardency are apparent in their work, as is the thoroughness of their research. If the book has any weaknesses from a literary standpoint it's the indulgent, redundant comparison of the postulated Wellstone assassination conspiracy with the murder of John F. Kennedy and the questionable deaths of other major political figures in America in recent years. There is also repetitive overkill in citing the potentially compromising backgrounds of some of the key officials involved in the investigation and reporting of the Wellstone crash. And the astute reader will note a certain editing unevenness of the text, something that's hard to avoid when combining the independent work of co-authors. The book also lacks a bibliography and index.

These shortcomings in no way detract from the substance and essential message of the book. Fetzer and Jacobs have produced an enormously provocative piece of work that should be of interest to anyone concerned that our Constitutional political process, our very lives, can be manipulated by evil forces hiding behind a façade of moral and ideological righteousness in America today. American Assassination, if widely read, could well prompt a public outcry that might ultimately lead to a full exposition of the facts surrounding the strange death of Senator Paul Wellstone. The book is a must read for all who search for the truth.

Editor's Note: Bradley E. Ayers is a former Army special operations officer and author of The War That Never Was: An Insider's Account of CIA Covert Operations Against Cuba (Bobbs-Merrill, 1976). As a former commercial air charter bush pilot, he has flown into Eveleth, Minnesota, the site of the Wellstone plane crash, many times under all varieties of weather conditions.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2004/2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004/2005

DJANGO: The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend

Buy this book at Amazon.comMichael Dregni
Oxford University Press ($35)

by Rick Canning

The great jazz critic Whitney Balliett once pointed out that virtuosity has always been a problem for jazz. That sounds wrong at first, especially to people who don't listen to much jazz, because every famous jazz musician, it seems, is a virtuoso. But Balliett's point is that technique is less important to jazz improvisation than it might seem to be. Jazz musicians don't need to be able to play flawlessly; they just need to be able to communicate. The larger a musician's technique, the stronger the temptation he faces to hide inside it—to play more rather than better. And listeners can hardly help but be dazzled by the fireworks: the scales and arpeggios, the augmented and diminished and inside-out chords, the glissandos, the lightning runs, the oddball intervals. It is dazzling, no question—if also, finally, a little wearisome.

Django Reinhardt, the jazz guitarist who died in 1953, was as dazzling a player as could be imagined, and his life and work is amply celebrated in this new biography by Michael Dregni. Reinhardt had technique enough for two guitarists, maybe three; everywhere he played, jaws dropped. And they're still dropping. To put on one of Reinhardt's recordings today is to be bowled over—but not by technique alone, or even primarily. What strikes the listener with greatest force is joy. Django loved to play, and that love is there in every bar. He amazed himself over and over. The recordings sometimes capture him whooping or laughing as he played, and it's no wonder: he made exuberant, amazing music.

With full use of only two fingers on his left hand (he was injured in fire at the age of 18), Reinhardt could nevertheless do anything he wanted to with a guitar. He was a natural, one of those musicians who seem to play as easily as they breathe. As an accompanist, he was brilliant and probably a little intimidating, with an unerring sense of rhythm, a driving, Gypsy-style tremolo, and a habit of lying low for several bars, then jumping out to hammer four or five passing chords. The impression is of a great vitality only barely restrained.

He was famous, however, for his solos, when the restraints came off and the personality and invention poured out. He had four speeds: slow, medium, fast, and super fast—so fast that sometimes his guitar seemed to buzz like a bee. Speed alone, of course, won't make a good solo, or a good soloist, but it will get a musician noticed; it's a sign of technical proficiency, after all. (According to Dregni, when Reinhardt first heard Gillespie and Parker he shook his head and said, "They play so fast, so fast.") Reinhardt's speed was all the more astounding because of his impaired hand.

But it's perhaps even more impressive that, with so much technique at his disposal, he was able to resist the temptation to rest on it. In Reinhardt's music, the dog almost always wags the tail. He had a superabundant musical imagination. He may or may not have been able to outplay all of his contemporaries, but he could definitely outthink them. Dregni quotes Baro Ferret, "the second best guitarist in Paris," on that point: "Technically, Django did not scare me. It was his mind. He had ideas that I would never have, and that's what killed me."

The result is a music that jumps, like Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, right out of the speakers. It's lively and rollicking, especially when Reinhardt is trading solos with violinist Stéphane Grappelli. Together, they formed a string quintet in 1934—violin, bass, and three guitars. The group was christened the Quintet of the Hot Club of France in early 1935, and the music they recorded over the next few years (Grappelli stayed in England during the war) sounds today at once old-timey and fresh. Swing was king in those days, and both Reinhardt and Grappelli swung so effortlessly that it's easy not to miss the drums and piano.

Django's story is a romantic one, and Dregni covers it thoroughly: his Gypsy childhood, living in a caravan, traveling with the seasons, stealing chickens, catching trout with his bare hands; his early years playing the banjo-guitar; his adventures down the seedier streets of Paris; his extravagant improvidence, gambling away his money or blowing it on big cars and white Stetson hats; his fear of flying, of dentists, of ghosts; his whimsical attitude toward commitments, especially gigs. The book is punctuated with backstage scenes of exasperated band members, ready to perform, asking each other "Where's Django!?" He's usually in a bar, or playing billiards, or just home in bed.

One of the most interesting chapters treats Reinhardt's happy days during the Occupation. Across Europe, tens of thousands of Gypsies were rounded up and killed, eighteen thousand in France alone. Jazz, too, was outlawed; it was degenerate, modernistique, mongrel. Yet Django, the Gypsy jazzman, flourished. He formed his Nouveau Quintette and played everywhere, for everyone—including Nazi officials, many of whom, it turned out, loved jazz.

After the war, the first new 78s to arrive from America brought bebop to France, and that meant the end of swing. Django was ready to move on musically, and he had long dreamed of going to the United States. In 1946-1947, he got the chance, touring the country with Duke Ellington, but apparently Reinhardt came with a few misconceptions. For one thing, he didn't bother to bring his guitar, assuming he would be presented with new ones. The music he made with Ellington, playing an electric guitar, was by most accounts excellent, but Reinhardt was disappointed with the experience, and homesick, too. Success or failure, however, the tour exposed him to the latest American jazz, and it helped to modernize his sound, as Dregni points out. His later recordings clearly show him moving in new directions, mastering bebop idioms and the electric guitar and sounding very different from the prewar Django.

According to the jacket copy, Dregni's book is the "first major critical biography" of Reinhardt, which means that fans have been waiting a long time. Unfortunately, unless they have a particular relish for alliteration and punchy writing, they probably won't feel the wait has been worth it. Dregni has clearly done his homework; his bibliography is impressive, and he appears to know everything about anyone who ever played music in prewar Paris. But his writing frequently gets in the way. One of his favorite, and most distracting, devices is the melodramatic sentence, usually isolated at the beginning or the end of section, the better to stop the reader dead in his tracks: "Django was haunted by nightmares of flames"; "It began with a broken string"; "Inside, was a simple 78 that went off like a bomb."

Still, though the writing isn't as strong as it might be, this book tells the whole story, and is full of insight about the man, his times, and his music. And in the end, it's the music that matters. If this biography spurs readers to discover or rediscover Django Reinhardt, it will earn its place on the bookshelf.

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2004/2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004/2005

RESTLESS WAVE: My Life in Two Worlds

Buy this book at Amazon.comAyako Ishigaki
The Feminist Press ($16.95)

by Sun Yung Shin

In the rediscovered memoir Restless Wave, Ayako Ishigaki, writing as Haru Matsui, patiently narrates a mesmerizing bildungsroman, a quest to live a life of conscience where idealism and meaningful action unite. Ishigaki (the author)/Matsui (the narrator) comes of age at a time of great change for Japan: "I was born in Tokyo, in the last stage of the Meiji period. Japan was no longer the dreamland of Hiroshige's beautiful prints. Smoky cities had sprung up all over the country . . . Feudal Japan had jumped with a single bound into a new age." As Ishigaki takes us patiently through her life's journey from sheltered Japanese girl to struggling American political activist, her prose is elegant, perceptive, and courageous—she has the eye of a painter and the aim of an archer.

The quest-narrative is divided into four parts; the first takes us in deft strokes through her childhood, which includes the sudden death of her beloved mother, and which ends in 1916 when she begins to understand the narrowly proscribed fate awaiting her. As Matsui's grandmother advises:

"It is well…for a maiden to spend the years of her girlhood preparing for her station as wife. To know her destiny gives her an opportunity to become familiar with the habits of her future family and learn to conform to them. It . . . centers her thoughts where they should be—on making ready for her husband's position."

Ishigaki skillfully interjects her future knowledge back into these richly detailed scenes of the past:

We did not know that last year China had become incensed at Japan's twenty-one demands; or that a law passed in 1912 had just gone into effect, limiting the workday of children to twelve hours; or that a cry for minseiminken, and jiyu—popular government, justice, and liberty—was just beginning among the populace.

Matsui's father believed that "only the educated few were qualified to interpret a changing world and to know which were the harmful customs."

In the second section, Matsui's quest begins to take flight as Ishigaki details her continuing rebellions against Japan's repressive feminine scripts and the friction it creates for her family. Again and again her romantic feelings of heroism are shattered by the grim reality lived by others, and her own arrogance, ignorance, and uselessness. On a class field trip to inspect a factory and visit "the slums" she realizes:

We were not prepared for them. There was no discussion of them beforehand. We were not to have any opinions. We were not to analyze. We were not to draw any conclusions. We were merely to observe.

At the factory, Ishigaki relates the working girls' conditions and includes future knowledge to illuminate her ignorance at the time:

They were about the same age as we. Some were panting and limping. We did not know then that 20 per cent of these girls had beriberi; that their feet were so swollen that the least unevenness in the floor caused them to fall. We looked at them as though we were watching a play—and thought we were bringing a certain amount of gaiety and pleasure by our presence.

Ishigaki skillfully begins the next chapter with a very different scene, her elder sister sewing fine red silk:

The sound of silken thread dawn through her fingers flowed softly into the autumn evening. . . . To me, Elder Sister with the Nihon haircomb, absorbedly moving her hands, was like a woman in a picture book of a long, long time ago. . . . We were living in different mental worlds.

Matsui lives in a world of tenuously held contrasts, and the seam between the two begins to come apart. She begins to make friends with leftists and activists and re-visits the slums ("nests of paupers, former criminals, beggars, prostitutes, drug and alcohol addicts—the wrecks and dregs of society") in order to break through the veil of her class position and understand the nature of the world as it is, not as it is presented to her through the propaganda of others.

Ishigaki has a cinematic technique and uses small moments to illuminate her class-conscious moral and political awakening. In Part Three, she realizes that the job she has struggled to find in order to maintain her independence from her traditional father is not even close to being able to support her. She quickly grasps that if it is impossible for someone like her, with education and refinement, it is that much more crushing a life for the ordinary woman: "Looking at the torn and tattered edge of her sleeve, I felt that for the first time I was learning about the world. The pupils of my mind were opened, and suffering and sorrow and struggle vibrated into my heart." After attending Farmer-Labor Party pre-election meetings, she is harassed and eventually arrested by intelligence officers, and spends a lonely and frightening night in jail that alters her sense of reality and freedom.

Part Four opens abruptly as she arrives in America. The reason for the significant narrative blackout—how and why she decided to leave Japan—is told more fully in the Afterword, where scholars Yi-Chun Tricia Lin and Greg Robinson explain how the memoir, originally published in 1940, veiled much of Ishigaki's political activity and personal tumult in order to protect her family at the time. As in many other immigrant narratives, Ishigaki lyrically relates her melancholy alienation upon arrival in the U.S.:

When my Uncle and Aunt and I were inside a train crossing the American continent to Washington, I felt myself shrinking smaller and smaller. I felt like a lost child thrown out into this wide country. . . . Even at nightfall, after the train had rushed and rushed all day, the country without even man's house or man's shadow did not come to an end; the limitless plain crouching in darkness seemed to gulp me down.

The rest of Part Four tells of her years in Washington D.C., New York, and Los Angeles, where she involves herself with peace activism, in particular speaking out against both U.S. and Japanese militarism/nationalism during the Sino-Japanese war. In her Epilogue, the bildungsroman comes to completion as she has finally made a transnational place for herself in society:

Today there is a self inside me which is no longer drifting, no longer wandering, though in the past it often stumbled and many times was loft. This self has been born from the suffering and pain which I have seen on the earth, and which has rocked my heart on the traveled pathway of my life.

Restless Wave is really two narratives: the available surface and the darker, shadow memoir that could not be written at the time. The shadow story enriches much of the printed memoir, giving the reader some background on the nature of Ishigaki's condition and her risk of detention or deportation. The surface narrative leaves out other important aspects of Ishigaki's life, such as her struggle to support herself and her husband, an artist; in the Afterword, Lin and Robinson tell us that "Ayako took a number of jobs to support them, working variously as a lampshade factory worker, waitress, sales clerk, and cashier. She later stated that the intergroup and interracial camaraderie she experienced among the workers in these jobs inspired her vision of social justice." Restless Wave also elides Ishigaki's more radical associations—her husband founded the John Reed Club, the American Communist Party's artistic wing; she joined him in the "Nihonjin Rodosha Kurabu (Japanese workers' club), a Japanese Communist organization"; and she was an active organizer for many other anti-war/pro-democracy groups. Still, as the editors affirm, this book "clearly charts the path of humanitarianism." Ishigaki's story is a brilliant and valuable first-hand account demonstrating that one can move from protected ignorance to a life of conscience.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2004/2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004/2005


by Richard Deming

Dennis Barone is the author of numerous books of prose and poetry. His collection of prose pieces, Echoes (Potes & Poets, 1997) received the America Award for most outstanding work of fiction by a living American author. Some of his other works include The Returns (Sun & Moon, 1996), Forms/Froms (Poets & Poets, 1988), and the newly released collection The Walls of Circumstance (Avec Books, 2004). He has also edited two important works: a poetry anthology entitled The Art of Practice (Potes & Poets, 1994), and Beyond the Red Notebook (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995), the first collection of critical essays about the novelist Paul Auster. One novella, Temple of the Rat ( Left Hand Books, 2000), has already appeared and two more are forthcoming: North Arrow (from Green Integer) and God's Whisper (from Spuyten Duyvil). Barone lives in Hartford, Connecticut, where he teaches at St. Joseph College and runs over 60 miles a week.

Richard Deming: In the introduction to The Art of Practice, which you edited with Peter Ganick, you describe the literary work as "a way of research for what will come next." This echoes, and I'm not sure if this is conscious or not, Emerson's claim in his essay "The Poet" that "Art is the path of the creator to his work." I'm wondering if you would say more about your thinking on this because it might be taken as a claim for reading literary texts as procedural, yet that isn't how I would characterize your work, generally speaking. Additionally, there's an interesting tension to your use of "research," which implies a belatedness, since research means going back over texts and archives, and yet you suggest this belatedness is the means of discovering rather than the more expected "uncovering" or "recovering" research usually implies. Do you mean this as revelation (for the reader and the writer) or as innovation, in terms of form and genre?

Dennis Barone: Although the initial idea for the anthology came from Peter, I wrote most of the introduction. I'm taking responsibility here for that sentence you quote partly because I don't know if it was right of me to attach it to all the contributors in the anthology. I guess this is one of the dangers of an introduction. I think it has been and is still true for me. And I do believe it is true for contributors in the anthology, too. I just don't like dictating rules for the group precisely because I do see the work as discovery. Growing up in northern New Jersey, I became interested in William Carlos Williams. As I read more of his work during college years, what attracted me was his urge to try to do something new with each new work. I did become aware of Stevens's comment on Williams regarding "the sterility of constant new beginnings," but recall that in "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction" the poet lists as one of his three principles: "It must change." There is a sense, too, of the centrality of the art in one's life (if one chooses this path) and therefore the Emerson quotation makes complete sense to me. How could it be otherwise?

I wouldn't, however, make the same distinction between research and procedure that you do. Research is procedural and both research and procedure can lead—probably always do—to surprise. One enters into research with some sort of plan but the uncertainty of the task is always there and hence so too is discovery. Discovery is uncertainty's outcome. Composition as procedural, too, tends ever toward the unexpected. One can't be sure until completion and then that sureness is little better than an opinion. For example, my working procedure for "Biography," the longest piece in Echoes, was to write as soon as I got up in the morning until I filled a page in a composition notebook, with the page size determining the unit of composition. Additional rules were to accentuate the negative and to write in the second person: "you." I thought of so many poems in the American Poetry Review where some "you" does this and some "you" does that and I thought I would just push that as far as I could. As in other works that begin with such rules in rewriting, in revising I alter the general frame a little bit and particular lines, sentences, and words a lot. Some pages that I wrote at the end I moved to the front. Some pages I cut entirely and some I edited and then combined with others. On one or two occasions I added in an "I" and I ended it with two paragraphs that develop the same sub-narrative rather than continue with the abrupt juxtaposition that runs throughout the rest of the work.

RD: In your introduction to Beyond the Red Notebook, you cite Auster's essay on Celan, where he writes: "The poem then is not a transcription of an already known world, but a process of discovery, and the act of writing for Celan is one that demands personal risks. Celan did not write solely in order to express himself, but to orient himself within his own life . . . ." Because this is a way of thinking about writing that seems akin to what you say in The Art of Practice, I'm wondering if it might be how you characterize your own stance about writing and risk.

DB: Just this morning while reading a contemporary book of poetry I put it down for a moment and in reaction took up a pen, grabbed my notebook, and wrote: "What are the terms of its challenge, its risk?" In addition to an art of practice, of continuation and commitment, I also have been concerned with writing that takes on large terms—or tries to. I am reminded of the oft-cited Creeley quotation about writing from deep necessity. Now, one can't take risks and go off in another direction at every moment. Perhaps the whirling dervish can, but I think I am trying for communication of some sort, too. So every couple of works maybe are different.

When I write, I think that I think first off of a central problem. Here is research of a sort again. So art is a problem-solving activity. In considering the problem to be solved, any possible reader is not in my thoughts. Later on, though, I do think of readers; try to orient myself to a possible listener and think of what he or she might hear—and the emphasis is very much on ear, on sound. My writing, in its centrality to my life, does orient me to this life, but so does my reading. I think someone who read something of mine may have its words become as a directional signal, but I am not in charge of the direction or the volume.

RD: We should talk specifically about form since your writing generally occupies liminal spaces. Although you've certainly written poems in verse, your work predominantly falls along the lines of either flash fiction or prose poetry. You've also written novellas, which are also hard to think about in terms of conventions. Yet the prose poem is perhaps the most fraught. Charles Simic, who writes prose poems himself, has remarked, "The prose poem has the unusual distinction of being regarded with suspicion not only by the usual haters of poetry, but also by many poets themselves." What is behind this suspicion, and why are you compelled to write this way? In fact, can we also establish whether the prose poem is a form or a genre? Is this something you consider when sitting down to work on verse or a prose piece?

DB: I would say that the prose poem is both a form and a genre, and yet I am most interested in it when it is neither. I came to prose poetry through the essays of Emerson. Emerson's sentences dazzled me in college and in graduate school. That is what I'm after, partly, when I write these things: plural, indeed, yes. For example, the long piece "Biography" in the book Echoes is very different from the short pieces that make up the chapbook The Disguise of Events. For "Biography" I did set some procedural terms and after the notebook was full and the time for the generation of a draft had finished, I then revised it a lot. So, I'm not sure if "Biography" is a form or a genre or a kind of resistance to both. What I don't like is the sense of the prose poem as one short paragraph of surreal incident that comes to a clever close. My new book does have, I think, what would be considered some pieces that typify the present style of the prose poem, but I hope it has more than this and that it does things to draw out that form, to make it so very explicit, and to undercut it in someway so that other work can come forth.

RD: The prose poem, of course, has a history and a tradition and yet it feels like its tradition needs to be asserted anew by each prose poet. In essence, its foundation seems always to be recapitulated. What do you see as a genealogy that, as Robert Duncan might say, "gives you permission" to write prose poems, or gives a sense of continuity? Are there other poets you look to as guides or interlocutors in terms of negotiating its protean form and genre?

DB: Duncan also said that responsibility means to respond. So if the prose poem is an important form in our time, then it is my responsibility if I am to be poet in this time to respond to that form in some way that is my way. Forms / Froms is a response to that formalistic urge and to others as well and out of the odd mix that is the Forms/ Froms combination there comes a rather unique, I think, result.

The other way to think of it is this: I have been interested in a prose that is poetic, never a poetry that is prosaic. As Stevens put it: "a prose that wears the poem's guise at last." I think I said that right. Aaron Shurin's writing, for example, or Lyn Hejinian's My Life. Some of Brian Evenson, who I think is an extraordinary writer. I have never written a long work of prose, a novel. I'm not sure I ever will. In fact, I doubt it very much. And a shorter work, it seems to me, must maintain a poetic intensity. Every sentence has to be good enough to exist on its own. I don't think this is the case in a novel. In a novel, the author must be skilled at modulation, sometimes moving the story along and at other times elevating the language. I think one example that does this so well is John Fante's great Los Angeles novel Ask the Dust.

RD: You also often blur together different modes within one book. For instance, Echoes has prose poems and flash fiction; Separate Objects combines verse and prose poems. Of course, others have done this, notably Elaine Equi's most recent book The Cloud of Knowable Things, a book I know that you admire. Could you speak about the kinds of formal issues this blurring of modes and forms offers?

DB: Well, I think The Walls of Circumstance is a work, to use Robert Venturi's phrase, of "messy vitality" rather than "easy unity." In a sense, beginning with a problem to be solved provides an "easy unity" at least to start with—except that it's never so easy to solve. For example, in the sequence of forty-nine sonnets that make up the bulk of Forms / Froms, I began with various rules outlined in the back of the book. My execution of those rules necessitated more thinking and a willingness to bend those rules in some way.

At first, I hesitated to include the rules for the sonnets and the other compositions, but Peter Ganick, my friend and the book's publisher, thought it would be a good idea. I think part of the bending of rules or their change and growth comes out of friendship. I have an idea. I discuss it with someone. I change it a little bit. I originally wrote just seven, the first seven of those forty-nine sonnets. At that time, James Sherry was publishing chapbooks and I sent them to him. He said he liked them and suggested that I should write more. So, I had a question posed for me then. I do believe that art is like science in this way. As I mentioned before, I see art as a problem solving activity. In this case, how could I take this series of seven and make it a long series? I came up with my answer, but since I'm not a photocopier, the result had to wander and the revising and the reworking had to wander, too. Here's where I can fit in a lesson from Charles Olson: "curious wandering animal." That's me.

RD: What different kinds of problems do you take on with the longer fiction?

DB: In the two forthcoming novellas, I began with specific questions or challenges. For North Arrow, I wanted to try to write a story about something I knew nothing about—veterinarian medicine. Now I had my knowledge of the Netherlands to hang this inquiry on. In addition, I wanted to write a story of sweet seriousness with very traditional themes or oppositions: youth/age, city/country, and male/female. Lastly, I knew from the very beginning of writing that I would not explain the title until the very end. With God's Whisper the question was can I write a story about something I know very deeply, something from which I have no distance? And so this fiction is about road racing, distance running. It is the opposite of much that comprises the other novella. In God's Whisper the explanation of the title appears often. This story is silly, funny, I hope. Whereas North Arrow is one continuous narrative, God's Whisper has brief scenes separated by quotations from Emerson's essay on friendship, for I also mean this work to be a story of friendship and what that means.

In a new story called "And Also With You" I wanted to write a personal family saga of a sort, but one that would be larger than just any single family. I wanted to cross centuries in mere pages. The title, of course, comes from the Catholic mass. Here, though, it is not the glory of God that may also be with you, but curses, the dark side, a perennial favorite of authors. One ancestor, Domenico Barone, was the founder of the Naples opera house. But at the time I started writing this story I was reading about the painter Guido Reni and so that's how the protagonist of the first part emerged and this returns us to the first question about writing and research. My great-grandfather was a Protestant missionary and the protagonist of the second part of the story comes out of that inheritance. Heredity in this story is more a matter of twitches than of traits. For me, there has been a fortunate relationship between historical study and innovative writing.

RD: Over your career, editing has been a constant or at least recurring activity for you—from the journal Tamerisk to the collection of essays on Auster, two half-issues of The Review of Contemporary Fiction (one on Toby Olson and the other on Auster) and, of course, The Art of Practice. You have even edited William Smith's 1760 lectures on rhetoric. How is editing a part of that "research for what will come next?" What is the motivation for you in these various editing projects and what discernible effects come from it? I'm wondering how editing has shaped or informed your understanding of possibilities available within or as the process of writing. Has it shaped a sense of community for you?

DB: One editing project in a sense led to another, although they tend to be very different. Tamarisk came about while I was studying American literary magazines for a project that became my senior project at Bard College. When I began that journal, I wanted to know what the possibilities for a magazine could be. What was the tradition and how might I fit into it? I did like the idea of magazine and press as adding to the formation of community. After Bard, when my wife and I lived in Philadelphia while attending graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, I knew a literary community like I never have since. Gil Ott was, of course, instrumental in this, but there were so many others as well. Additionally, some of these others may not have been physically present in that geographical space but were located by way of our currents of interest. For instance, Gil and I both had lengthy correspondence with Cid Corman and John Taggart, although I'm sure the nature of our correspondence differed. We had community, but also space and encouragement to find whatever it was we were about to find. I think I like the William Dean Howells model of a writer: that a writer should contribute to the world of letters in many different ways. I do hope that this kind of work keeps words well in a time when some seem to want to lock words up or infest them with various ailments such as Patriot Acts.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2004/2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004/2005