Tag Archives: winter 2007

GHOST STORIES: Essex County Volume 2

Jeff Lemire
Top Shelf Productions ($14.95)

by Donald Lemke

Ghost Stories is the second volume in Jeff Lemire’s graphic novel trilogy Essex County, but simply to label the book “part two” would diminish the satisfying completeness of this distinctive work. Although delicately connected to the first volume, Ghost Stories stands alone and stands out among recent publications in this ever-growing medium.

Set within the fictionalized version of Lemire’s hometown, Ghost Stories follows the relationship of brothers Lou and Vince Lebouf. The oldest, Lou, suffers from a form of dementia in the final days of his life. Through his diseased hallucinations, Lou drifts from present to past, forced to relive a lifetime of regret and self-inflicted isolation. He first returns to his youth, skating on an icy creek with Vince near their childhood farm in Essex County, Ontario. Then he’s a middle-aged man living in Toronto, playing semi-professional hockey for a struggling team called the Grizzlies. One day, Lou welcomes his kid brother to the big city and to the team. Soon, the young rookie propels the Grizzlies into the playoffs, and Lou’s fading dreams of NHL superstardom are reborn in his brother’s skates.

Unfortunately, Vince’s plans don’t include the NHL. He wants to return to Essex County, inherit their childhood farm, and start a family with his girlfriend, Beth. Perhaps Lou feels a sense of contempt for Vince’s seemingly naïve decision, or maybe he longs for his brother’s sense of purpose and direction. Whatever the reason, Lou finds himself alone on a snowy rooftop with Beth late one night in Toronto, and they become intimate. Moments after, Lou stares up into the darkened sky and recalls, “That was the last time I would ever touch her.” On the next page, he’s an old man, looking up into the sky again, stating, “And then I was alone.”

These two lines typify Lemire’s spare yet wonderfully effective narrative skill; each concise sentence teems with human complexity. In one moment, Lou is a selfish young man, considering only his physical desires; in the next, he’s filled with regret and wanting nothing more than to take back his mistaken actions. At times, these polarized emotions happen simultaneously—the characters are often perfectly confused and undecided in their actions—and Lou’s own inner conflict becomes more apparent as the story continues. Soon after the one-night affair, Beth becomes pregnant. She and Vince get married and they move back to Essex County as planned, leaving Lou alone in Toronto. After a career-ending injury, Lou finds a typical blue-collar job and becomes another nameless soul, absorbed in the vastness of the city. Without hockey or a family, he realizes, “There are only two ways to be completely alone in this world…lost in a crowd…or in total isolation.” Coming from another author, this statement might feel blunt and contrived, but Lemire entangles the words in the complexity of his characters. From Lou’s delusional remembrances, the statement is not an insightful musing but a regretful deliberation with his own mistaken past.

Lemire’s black and white illustrations echo this simple and effective narrative tone. The lines are loose, ragged, and often delicately thin; at times, they feel like casual wisps of a brush. The style, however, is undoubtedly purposeful and refined. The delicate strokes are most effective in the face of each character: when Lou returns to Essex County for his mother’s funeral after decades of loneliness in Toronto, his eyes, once dark vessels of optimism, have become tired, weary circles. After the service, Lou meets his niece, faces Beth for the first time since their affair, and confronts Vince; during this climatic moment, the lines in each of their aging faces appear as fragile as the threads holding the relationship together.

Although the moment is highly emotional, Lemire avoids sentimentalism. Instead, the reunion is tragically ironic, like the rest of Lou’s remembrances; he carries a disease that forces him to revisit these haunting moments, only to discover that he can never truly return. This beautifully crafted story secures Lemire’s place among the best young cartoonists in the Americas.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2007/2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007/2008


Jim Munroe and Salgood Sam
Idea and Design Works ($14.99)

by Spencer Dew

Everyone loves an apocalypse: most human cultures tell stories about them to suit their particular desires. Apocalyptic literature, moreover, is never really about an end, just climactic and cataclysmic events, world-changing in a radical, fantastic, way. In his first graphic novel, writer Jim Munroe tweaks one prominent strand of contemporary politico-religious imagination—Therefore Repent! is like Left Behind without the sense of doom or smug dogma. Certain believers have been raptured into the sky, but the tribulation through which the survivors must now struggle has hardly been prophesied.

For starters, magical abilities suddenly become possible. A dog gnaws off a dead man’s throat and can, therefore, speak. A bar manager sees the future by hole-punching the pyramid eyes off of one dollar bills and tossing them into water. A particularly pierced lesbian can, by wiring up her metal-studded body and going into a trance, send and receive she-mail. This takes an edge off any sense of impending doom, and while parts of the infrastructure have collapsed (no one is picking up trash in Chicago, for instance), the sense of local community seems stronger than ever. People look out for you, even if you have the head of a bird.

Where Munroe’s vision gets most inventive is in turning the whole plot device of the Rapture on its head. Maybe these winged white guys in Vietnam-era military gear are only pretending to be angels. Maybe the earth has been studied for some time by eyes other than God’s, some force only too happy to exploit our mythologies and fears. This is the rabbit hole of narrative needed to free the story from cheap parody or reductive Manichean logic and, perhaps most importantly, to recast the events as mysteries needing to be solved. The grimy shading and soft-edged realism of Salgood Sam’s art conveys much of the narrative silently, building suspense in the threatening, post-catastrophe landscape while simultaneously emphasizing the dignity and innocence of the characters who come together, first as survivors and then as a resistance movement.

It’s hard not to be enthralled by the set-up here, though the book stumbles due to a structural shift: the first five chapters lushly build up the situation via suspenseful day-to-day actions, but the sixth skips ahead a month, speeding through explanations as if to wrap up the text. There is no resolution, though, and while we don’t learn enough about the characters to feel for them, we certainly experience enough to want more. Hopefully Therefore Repent! is the first of a series, and hopefully subsequent volumes will take their time and pace carefully through this magical and dangerous apocalyptic world.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2007/2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007/2008


Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill
America’s Best Comics ($29.99)

by Rudi Dornemann

Alan Moore has been widely touted for bringing the depth of a literary novel to his comics. In The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, he turns the tables, blending all of literature into a comics-style crossover event to dwarf anything dreamt of in the marketing departments of mainstream comics publishers. Captain Nemo! James Bond! Don Quixote! Gulliver! And many, many, many more. In Black Dossier, Moore and artist Kevin O’Neill return to characters whose adventures they chronicled in two previous graphic novels, but they also expand their vision to encompass the whole history of this world and the doings of the extraordinary individuals in it.

Black Dossier’s frame story has Mina Harker and Allan Quartermain of the Victorian-era league stealing a copy of the British government’s file on the group’s activities through its many incarnations. The contents of this dossier are intercut with Mina and Allan’s traveling through 1950s Britain, pursued by their former employers. While the framing story is perhaps a bit basic, it gives us closure on the Harker/Quartermain relationship that was only just beginning when we last saw them.

The inset pieces, however, are the book’s real appeal, even if they’re just short tastes that leave us wanting more. They give Moore free rein to impersonate William Shakespeare, P. G. Wodehouse, and Jack Kerouac, and to write in the simplified official vocabulary of Orwell’s 1984—all of which he pulls off with his usual aplomb. And although many of the insets are prose pieces, O’Neill gets to try the styles of comics from the 1940s and 1790s, “Tijuana Bible”-inflected pornography, and a 3-D phantasmagoria (the glasses are included on the volume’s back flap).

In prose stories included in the original issues of the League comic, Moore began to show the vast reach of his syncretic project. Black Dossier continues in a similar vein, although thankfully it’s far less dense. Still, for any reader who’s less of a polymath than Moore himself—i.e., just about all of us—this means that for every moment of recognition (“Hey, that’s George Smiley from the John LeCarre books!”) there’s bound to be a moment of incomprehension (“Who the heck is that odd blackface character with the flying ship and the Dutch-speaking puppet women?”).

This capstone volume, however, does more than just give Moore a chance to indulge his love of complexity, or let him dip here and there into the historical, erotic, and occult themes that have been recurring elements in his work. He also gets to introduce the idea of these extraordinary literary characters being demigods, whose lineage comes from both the world of the imagination and the world of the real. In this, Black Dossier celebrates the primordial impulse behind all literature, no matter what form it takes.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2007/2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007/2008


Shaun Tan
Arthur A. Levine Books ($19.95)

by David A. Beronä

Those who have had the experience of listening to their grandparents talk about their immigration experiences will recognize the spirit of The Arrival, Shaun Tan’s stunning wordless graphic novel. The story involves a young man who leaves his wife and daughter in their hostile homeland and embarks on a journey to a new country, where the language, food, clothing, and customs are bewildering. The young man receives directions and assistance from various people on the street, who also tell him stories about the slavery, genocide, war, and destruction they escaped from. Through a series of events, the young man slowly assimilates into the new world, finds a job, and eventually arranges travel for his wife and daughter to join him.

Every aspect of The Arrival, told in skillful pencil drawings, extends this story into a visceral experience. Picking up this book is like discovering a diary in a dusty attic: the cover recalls a tattered, leather-bound journal; the inside covers display numerous passport snapshot drawings of every race, color, age, and gender of refugee; even the blank pages between chapters are foxed with brown specks, wrinkled, and watermarked. Furthermore, the inconsistency of the page design enhances the dramatic unfolding of the narrative: various displays of small square panels suddenly open into a stunning, and sometimes frightful, full-page or two-page spread. And Tan’s use of symbols and metaphors is visually arresting, like the barbed tentacles that loom around the town the immigrant leaves, or the odd geometric shapes and peculiar objects he discovers after his arrival in the new land.

Tan, in fact, consistently blends rich naturalism with surrealistic images to heighten the visual impact of the immigration experience. Even everyday activities that seem commonplace to the other characters, like sending a letter or cooking, are displayed as off-kilter and strange to the young man. By presenting these actions and objects in this bizarre manner, Tan ingeniously places us in the shoes of his protagonist; we see through the eyes of an immigrant who eventually makes the grotesque customary and discovers the significance of family and fellowship with his neighbors.

Today, with vast numbers of refugees fleeing their homelands to places not always as inviting as the country in this book, works like The Arrival are desperately needed. Tan puts a face to the faceless immigrants and deepens our understanding of how people feel upon arriving in a land of strange new customs and habits.

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2007/2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007/2008

FAINT PRAISE: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America

Gail Pool
University of Missouri Press ($19.95)

by Marcus A. Banks

Gail Pool cares about book reviews. She wants them to be critical and incisive, not tentative and formulaic, and she believes they can make a difference in reader’s lives, or at least provide meaningful guidance about what’s worth reading among the nearly 200,000 books published annually in the United States.

As an experienced reviewer and editor, Pool understands why reviews almost always falter, and she exhaustively catalogs the challenges facing book reviewers before offering remedies. A sampling of the difficulties: the pay for reviewers is low or non-existent; most reviews are written on tight deadlines, causing reviewers to resort to clichés and generalities; famous novelists snag plum assignments even if they have no talent for criticism.

These difficulties are symptomatic of a larger problem: most people consider book reviewing to be something anyone can do. What can be so hard about reading a book and writing about it? This is definitely the viewpoint of the reading public, but—as Pool attests—it is also what review editors (and implicitly, reviewers themselves) believe. Why else would editors assign books on any topic to any reviewer, rather than attempting to match book to critic? Why would reviewers accept poor assignments? Pool persuasively argues that reader review systems like Amazon’s—which reward quantity rather than quality—have further devalued the prestige of reviews.

Pool’s most trenchant passages are about the subtle pressure on novice reviewers to present unwarranted encomiums. The American tendency to equate criticism with nastiness also discourages honest reflection. While Pool also wants to read reviews of the books “we want and need to know about,” she longs for critical acumen rather than faint praise. To that end, she offers several suggestions designed to increase critical rigor, including employing columnists to cover book beats rather than assigning reviewers random books, and allowing reviewers to return a book they do not deem worthy of review without incurring an editor’s wrath.

These suggestions are all designed to enhance the casual review, so that it is closer to the standard set by leading intellectual publications. The cold truth, though, is that most readers do not prize intellectualism as much as Pool, and as she acknowledges from the beginning, lamentations about the poor state of American book reviewing are more than 200 years old (“If book reviewing in America has declined, it is hard to say from what glorious pinnacle it has descended”). Still, better reviews make for better readers, and that is always a worthy goal.

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2007/2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007/2008


Shalom Auslander
Riverhead ($24.95)

by Jessica Bennett

When—while browsing your local bookstore, clicking your way through some online bookseller, or perhaps reading this review—you first encounter Shalom Auslander’s memoir of escaping his Orthodox Jewish upbringing, you may find the title intriguing, amusing, or kind of repulsive. If your reaction closely matches the last of these, please don’t pick it up and read it, for G-d’s sake. There’s no better example of truth-in-titling to hit the shelves this year. What’s contained between the covers is every bit as frank, honest, and darkly humorous as Foreskin’s Lament implies. From self-abuse to embarrassing encounters with junk food to sexual hang-ups to ritual circumcision, it seems there’s nothing Auslander won’t share.

If your inclination is to snort, chuckle, and read on, what you’ll find is the best bit of painfully so-not-funny-it’s-funny writing since David Sedaris’s transcendent Naked. Growing up in a household marked by the double whammy of alcoholism and orthodoxy forged neuroses and guilt that make Woody Allen’s nebbish-y kvetching sound like a John Denver song. Fortunately for us, the writing here is so sharp, so take-no-prisoners and show-no-mercy—least of all to the writer himself—that what could have been unbearably maudlin is instead a page-flipping, guiltily entertaining ride.

Orthodox Judaism can make old-time religions look like young whippersnappers. Auslander, in a slight rewrite of Deuteronomy that forms the epigraph for the book, illustrates the dark, vengeful side of the Biblical teachings that became the basis of three major world religions:

4. And the Lord said unto Moses,
“This is the land I promised you,
but you shall not enter. Psych.”
5. And Moses died.

What Auslander goes on to do in the pages that follow is introduce us to the particular craziness that is the religion of his youth. A religion that dictates that since his name, “Shalom,” is one of the names of God, any paper on which he writes his full name—be it a sacred scroll or a math test—can never be destroyed or thrown away. (No word on what would happen if he named a teddy bear after himself). A religion that dictates specific blessings to be said for every kind of food, and has “blessing bees,” akin to spelling bees, to teach kids which one to say in a tricky situation, like a Chunky bar with Raisins (“shehakol, then ha-eitz”). Of course, there are no blessings for those foods which are traif, or non-Kosher and thus forbidden—like Slim Jims, with which Auslander had a secret affair at nine years old. These rules may not be bad in and of themselves, but the ways in which they become internalized in young Shalom, through a steady diet of fear and intimidation, are what leave such deep scars in the adult man.

As Auslander sees it, the deity of this religion is an unforgiving bastard, waiting for one screw-up so that He can rain down almighty vengeance on everyone little Shalom holds dear. He’s such a bastard, in fact, that he makes Auslander’s abusive, alcoholic, prick of a father seem at least a little pitiable by comparison. He’s such a bastard that Shalom is compelled to rebel in increasingly outlandish ways, and just as ferociously compelled to repent with giant pyres of porn in his back yard, and ultimately with a last-ditch effort at religious observance in Israel, complete with black hat and forelocks.

In the end, Foreskin’s Lament is as much an exorcism as a memoir, a big middle-finger-in-the-air to the man upstairs. Throughout the book, Auslander documents his struggle with writing something so blasphemous that it led to countless drafts dragged to the trash and deleted forever when the fear of punishment became too much to bear. Thank G-d he let this one see the light of day.

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2007/2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007/2008

HIDDEN DIMENSIONS: The Unification of Physics and Consciousness

B. Alan Wallace
Columbia University Press ($24.50)

by Kelly Everding

Discoveries in quantum physics have underlined the vast chasm between our day-to-day world and the workings of subatomic particles, and the quest for a unification theory—one that may bridge this chasm—has been the holy grail for physicists for decades. Many assume the key may lie in our very own noggins, however, we haven’t yet even discovered what consciousness is or where exactly it resides. B. Alan Wallace challenges age-old scientific assumptions and idolatries in his new book Hidden Dimensions, and he reveals the importance of consciousness as an integral factor in the evolution and workings of our objective world. As Wallace puts it, “a central premise of this book is that the lack of a major revolution in the cognitive sciences is due in part to the antiquated notions of physics that underlie most contemporary theorizing about the nature of consciousness.”

Wallace earned an undergraduate degree in physics and philosophy and spent fourteen years as a Buddhist monk; he is currently the president (and founder) of the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies. From this unique perspective, Wallace shows the congruity of quantum physics research and the centuries-old study of Buddhist meditation. In quantum physics, the observer plays a role in the outcome of experiments, where the very act of observing serves to create a result by collapsing the probability of outcome, illustrating the deep connectedness of the observer with the subatomic particles that make up our physical world. In Buddhist meditation, the person achieves a meditative quiescence, “settling the mind in its natural state,” and causing the observer to realize “that things have no independent existence, in the outer world, the inner world, or anywhere in between.”

Hidden Dimensions carefully walks us through a compressed history of science, showing the development of theories and prejudices over the centuries that have favored physical phenomena over mental ones. The dual approaches of Baconian and Cartesian sciences balanced out these two seemingly disparate worlds, however Wallace “in this secular age, Cartesian scientists no longer invoke the perfection of God to explain the orderly world. Instead they invoke the perfection of the principles of scientific materialism, which are firmly rooted in nineteenth-century classical physics.” He goes on to discuss theories and research that attempts to delve into the nature of consciousness by such scientists as John Wheeler and Michael B. Mensky, research that takes into account the integral necessity of consciousness when discussing theories of physics. The more we learn about the universe, this world, and our minds, the more we realize we don’t know much, and all is illusory. In his chapter “A Special Theory of Ontological Relativity,” Wallace brings home the illusory nature of the world around us by using the example of the color red, which most people take for granted as a real quality:

Philosophers and scientists have long recognized the illusory nature of perceptual appearances. When we observe the world around us, we see images, such as shapes and colors, that lack physical attributes. The visual image of the color red, for instance, doesn’t have any mass or atomic structure. It isn’t located in the external world, for it arises partly in dependence upon our visual sense faculty, including the eye, the optic nerve, and the visual cortex. There are clearly brain functions that contribute to the generation of red images, but no evidence that those neural correlates of perception are actually identical to those images. So there is no compelling reason to believe that the images are located inside our heads. Since visual images, or qualia, are not located either outside or inside our heads, they don’t seem to have any spatial location at all. The same is true of all other kinds of sensory qualia, including sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile sensations.

By bringing into question the very substance of things, Wallace points out the necessity of trying to understand what role consciousness plays in the creation of the world around us. In subsequent chapters that discuss experiments in consciousness and quantum consciousness, fascinating possibilities open up involving the nature of time, matter, and energy. Wallace calls for rigorous testing on consciousness, analyzing and applying measurements to what Buddhist monks have been doing for centuries to discover the quantum reality that makes up who we are and what the world is. “Meaningful information exists only relative to the act of informing and a conscious being that is informed.”

Although occasionally a bit dry, Hidden Dimensions will appeal to even the least tutored quantum physics enthusiast; Wallace very cogently and clearly shows his process of thinking. He is careful to attribute theories to their rightful owners, and he culls the most interesting research that applies to these theories. And he is the first to admit that while Buddhism has its merits, it has “failed to produce vast knowledge of the natural sciences and has contributed nothing to technology.” However, this calls into question what our society values—religion plays its role in the development of spiritual knowledge which informs how we view the world to its benefit and detriment, just as science does with material knowledge. Many may find these concepts alarming and prefer to believe their senses as they look out upon the seemingly solid world, but it’s clear our ways of thinking and perceiving are in flux and evolving, adapting to the swiftly expanding globalization of information, commerce, climate change, and war. It’s a tumultuous time that requires new ways of thinking, and the next brave frontier to explore may be our own minds and the mysterious inner workings of consciousness.

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2007/2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007/2008

VANISHING AMERICA: In Pursuit of Our Elusive Landscapes

James Conaway
Shoemaker & Hoard ($24.95)

by Spencer Dew

A collection of vignettes about “exceptional American places” that “serve as physical and spiritual barometers” to the declining state of the country, Vanishing America laments the cancerous spread of development, of “nihilistic, temporarily enriching transformations” that destroy public land and wreck the cultural heritage of unique places. James Conaway’s America is defined by “a deep sense of loss,” and, indeed, the book is motivated by nostalgia for an imagined time before values were so quickly swept aside in favor of malignant “market forces.” The National Park Service, for instance, once “stood not just for the preservation of parks and historic structures but also for a certain old-fashioned ethic,” writes Conaway, who sits in with horror on a board meeting where administrators debate corporate sponsorship and whether a license should be granted for Park Service Barbie dolls. In Conaway’s ideal vision of “time past” there were “no isolated strip malls in the countryside or dinky housing developments beyond community limits.” The “more or less neat divide between urban and rural” that once existed is “at odds with America’s sprawling development ethic,” an ethic conceivably as monolithic as those old-time values that the Park Service once represented.

Conaway has previously expressed his dismay about development in two books on the Napa Valley. Napa: The Story of an American Eden, which appeared at the end of the ’80s, pleads with those in power to preserve the unique interrelatedness of winemaking and community that made Napa something of a land-use utopia. The follow-up, The Far Side of Eden, focuses on the change: “The pioneering spirit of the 1960s has been replaced by a desire for notoriety and a style of life unrelated to the land as anything more than a backdrop, and in many cases, the architecture is clearly more important than the wine.” He cites a Frank Gehry building that dwarfs an “historic stone winery built in 1885 by a New England sea captain,” saying this “highly visible, contemporary structure reflective of fashion, not function, reduces the authentic and historically resonant to an ornament.”

Such nostalgia makes odd bedfellows. Following the money behind successful preservation attempts, Conaway ends up rubbing shoulders with wealthy fox hunters in Virginia, itemizing their elaborate codes of dress and behavior. Yet these aristocratic relics, like the insular owners of mansions on Nantucket, can’t really offer a model for a solution. The book desperately needs clear, critical, and forward-thinking engagement with the causes of urban expansion and wilderness destruction, with consideration of policy and planning factors and the needs of populations—including the poor—to counterbalance Conaway’s reiteration of the need for vast tracts of wilderness and his appreciation for the aesthetics of earlier times.

Instead, Conaway offers a collection of obituaries. New Orleans, we learn, will never be the same post-Katrina (though the essay, which details the author’s first morning in that city just after Betsy blew through, is nicely written), nor will the Maine woods ever be as Thoreau saw them (though, again, recounting the calls of loons and mergansers, Conaway gives us a vivid taste of the last drinkable river along the eastern seaboard). These examples illustrate the scope of Conaway’s project: the problems of the Crescent City are tied to institutionalized racism and governmental incompetence, while in Maine, poorly regulated, short-sighted greed for timber is to blame. Conaway could be clearer on the categories here, rather than subsuming them together in a nostalgic narrative of lapsed principles and lost particularity.

Conaway’s zeal is also blunted by flailing indignation. When he fantasizes, paranoid, that the old man admiring his 1954 Ford is secretly nursing a sense of affront over desegregation, Betty Friedan, “and, of course, Bill Clinton,” readers will surely be put at a suspicious distance. Yet Conaway himself speaks lovingly of the truck, admiring that “oblations performed upon it were simple and satisfying,” like adding polenta meal to the transmission oil to help plug a leak. “No megabytes hidden in this beast,” he writes, “no binary math or electronic fluting in microscopic silicon bowels, just explosion and venting.” All of which is very much Conaway’s ideal, regardless of what he might think of busing or Betty Friedan.

Vanishing America is not a visionary work, but its value is much like that of a naturalist’s notebook, offering sketches of scenes that, in today’s world, are increasingly rare. Conaway savoring cabernet and borscht with a hermit in Big Sur or watching a heron drop “like a collapsing card table” down to prey are refreshing reminders of the ecstasy of being truly present in, and aware of, a place. The storm-lashed beach fortifications on Dry Tortugas, no matter that tourists’ lack of appreciation and public lack of funds will lead to their eventual demise, remain here, on the page, as an emblem of those elusive landscapes worth experiencing and fighting to save.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2007/2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007/2008

BEAUTIFUL ENEMIES: Friendship and Postwar American Poetry

Andrew Epstein
Oxford University Press ($45)

by Elizabeth Robinson

Andrew Epstein’s Beautiful Enemies offers a study of friendship and postwar American poetry by focusing on three poets, Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, and Amiri Baraka. In his introduction, Epstein states that the intention of the book is to investigate the peculiar dynamics of American avant-garde poetic communities and the uneasy role of the individual within them. It takes as its starting point a fundamental paradox: that at the heart of experimental American poetry pulses a commitment to both radical individualism and dynamic movement that is sharply at odds with an equally profound devotion to avant-garde collaboration and community.

Epstein proposes that scrutinizing the role of friendship among poets in general, and among this trio of postwar New York poets in particular, will yield valuable insights into how poets negotiate literary friendships, and the ways that “the mixture of angst and inspiration [friendships] provide become intertwined with the subject, form, rhetoric, and imagery of actual poems.” This scholarly book is likely to be read by practicing poets; it speaks to issues that are familiar and perplexing to all such practitioners. How does one preserve one’s distinctiveness and elasticity as a writer while also making meaningful connections with peers whose own efforts can provide useful provocation and inspiration? At its best, Beautiful Enemies delves into the messy world of friendships without diminishing their complexity, ambivalence, or pleasures.

Epstein employs two central interpretive grids to develop his portrait of friendship among the three poets. He argues, first, that the postwar pressures toward conformity and containment helped create a context in which avant-garde writers opted for diametrically opposed values: “motion, disorder, flux, speed, change, and action.” Avant-garde art of this period turned toward a more individualistic practice that was skeptical of any herd mentality, and Epstein demonstrates how issues of race and sexual orientation were relevant to O’Hara, Ashbery, and Baraka as they resisted prevailing cultural mores.

Secondly, Epstein looks to the philosophical tradition of American pragmatism and how that informed the work of the three poets. Through extensive citations of Emerson and William James, Epstein builds a compelling argument that pragmatism has shaped modernist poetics and is, indeed, an “American idiom.” In short, a pragmatist approach is constituted by a skepticism toward any knowledge that claims to be immutable. Selfhood, too, is socially constructed and protean, where “the inevitable presence of another person is what forces the original individual to re-invent, to change, and to go beyond.” Thus, pragmatism functions with a thorough-going awareness of the contingency of all experience.

Epstein goes on to discuss each of his subject poets individually, while filling out their friendships with each other. His chapter on Frank O’Hara is perhaps the most successful because O’Hara wrote the kind of occasional poems that directly disclose autobiographical information about his friendships. Further, O’Hara is also the only poet of the trio who is deceased, and so Epstein can reasonably generalize about a body of work that is complete.

By contrast, the chapter devoted to Ashbery seems weak, as Epstein attempts to position Ashbery’s poems as coded confessional writings. For instance, he reads Ashbery’s poem “Lithuanian Dance Band” as an elegy directly addressed to O’Hara, reframing the lines “And everywhere the truth rushes in to fill the gaps left by / Its sudden demise so that a fairly accurate record of its activity / is possible” by saying that the poem “has the tone of a casual, intimate letter to a friend who has now departed, after a ‘sudden demise.’” Epstein goes on to claim that the lines “You know not just the scarecrow but the whole landscape / And the crows peacefully pecking where the harrow has passed” is Ashbery’s self-characterization of himself as a crow picking up poetic style from O’Hara: “Ashbery suggests that by adopting O’Hara’s form and voice in this poem (and perhaps others), he is paying tribute to his friend’s artistic innovations—but perhaps even to the point of jeopardizing his own.” This is a reading that cannot stand on the basis of the poem itself. Having allowed that Ashbery’s writings are best described as “vague allegories,” Epstein ought not to have forced so biographical a reading on the work.

Epstein’s interaction with Amiri Baraka’s work is far more persuasive, and his depiction of the Baraka-O’Hara friendship is lively and revealing. Whether or not Baraka and O’Hara were ever lovers, their intimacy clearly galvanized strong writing from both. Epstein’s chapter on Baraka’s break with his mostly white, middle-class, apolitical (and frequently gay) writing community is revelatory and often wrenching to read, evoking as it does the painful self-division that Baraka experienced. Epstein is sharply critical of Baraka’s later homophobic and anti-semitic remarks, yet he attends to the ambivalence of Baraka’s early work with considerable sympathy and admiration. About Baraka’s play, The Toilet, he notes that it is “powerful because of its author’s confusion and ambivalence.”

Taken as a whole, this is an intriguing book, but a number of issues hamper its effectiveness. Epstein tends to fix on a few quotations from the authors he studies and repeat each multiple times. Further, the ubiquity of Emerson and James citations begins to efface the nuances of writing between very distinct poets whose writings are forced into a one-size-fits-all philosophy. Some of Epstein’s readings psychologize in a manner that is speculative and overreaching, as when he cites Ashbery’s recollection that his (physical) voice sounded very much like O’Hara’s; Epstein says that this “suggests [a fear on Ashbery’s part of] a perhaps submerged sense that the two poets, in their poetry, had ‘both inherited the same’ literary voice and ‘were all but indistinguishable’ as poets.” Any reader who knows even the earliest poems of these two poets will find this implausible.

Despite these missteps, Epstein helpfully considers the role friendship plays in shaping art-making within the “American idiom” of pragmatism. The temptation to extrapolate from Epstein’s study and apply it to contemporary communities of writers is irresistible—and this is entirely pertinent to the project of Beautiful Enemies. When Epstein addresses the problem of “how to avoid appropriation, how to ward off absorption by groups, institutions, and other forces that might reduce one’s ability to change, move, or create freely, while at the same time navigating and feeding off of literary communities and friendships,” his description is hauntingly trans-historical: he seems to be talking about you and me.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2007/2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007/2008

MERTON & BUDDHISM: Realizing the Self

edited by Bonnie Bowman Thurston
Fons Vitae ($26.95)

by Joel Weishaus

Thomas Feverel Merton was born in Prades, France, on January 31, 1915. In 1941, a Masters Degree from Columbia University in hand, he entered the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, a Trappist monastery in Kentucky. One would think, as Merton’s friends did, that a medieval monastery would be the wrong place for a young man with a thirst to write, but after an unstable adolescence, the newly converted Catholic had a calling to the silence and discipline of monastic life. Seven years later Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, it’s title gleaned from Dante’s Purgatorio, was published and became a best-seller. Over the decades, Merton blossomed into a poet, photographer, and literary critic—along with, to the chagrin of the Church, a voice in the Civil Rights and Anti-Vietnam War movements of the 1960s, and a supporter of Liberation Theology in Latin America. At the same time, his spiritual quest, always the crux of his life, expanded to include not only the study of other religions, but the practice of Zen Buddhist meditation.

The story of this amazing man—whose life ended prematurely on December 10, 1968, when at a conference in Bangkok he touched a faulty electric fan—has been told in many books and from many angles. Indeed, Merton & Buddhism, a collection of essays, is one in a series of such books published by Fons Vitae. This one, however, is a particularly valuable contribution to the blossoming field of Merton Studies because atheistic Buddhism, a world religion with philosophically sophisticated texts and meditation practices that center on the nature of reality, has for centuries posed a particular challenge to the supernatural beliefs of Christians.

In 1955, Merton wrote to his friend and publisher, James Laughlin, “Have you ever run across any books by D. Suzuki (I think that is how you spell him) on Zen Buddhism? I am anxious to track some of them down and have them.” D. T. Suzuki, who had had some formal Zen training before arriving in the U.S. as a translator, became the first philosopher of Zen Buddhism to write in English. His books rang with authority, mysticism, and spiritual adventure. In Suzuki’s entertaining stories, monks often become suddenly enlightened; while, in reality, most go through many years of arduous training and only rarely did Suzuki refer to zazen, the sitting meditation around which a Zen monk’s days revolve. Could it be that Suzuki, like many Japanese Buddhist teachers of the time, thought that Westerners weren’t mentally and physically tough enough for Zen’s demanding practice? If so, he made an exception with Merton, who was already used to monastic life. Suzuki and Merton exchanged letters, and in 1964 Merton obtained permission from his abbot to visit Suzuki, who was in New York to lecture at Merton’s alma mater. For Merton, this was an momentous occasion.

Suzuki was familiar with Christianity, especially the apophatic, “mysticism of midnight illumination,” tradition exemplified by Meister Eckhart and St. John of the Cross, which was the path Merton had chosen. In addition, the Zen which Suzuki popularized was made for a Judeo-Christian audience: the stories of sudden enlightenment were his version of Christian grace. In his essay, “The Limits of Thomas Merton’s Understanding of Buddhism,” John P. Keenan writes, “Although Zen was indeed a tried and tattered school of Chinese and Japanese Buddhism, Suzuki and others began to characterize it as transcending sectarian boundaries.” One result of the misunderstanding that Zen can be separated from Buddhism is the voluminous publication of books on everything from business to cooking that use Zen in their title. Even more pernicious is that there is now at least one Catholic priest (Robert Kennedy, S. J., Roshi) who calls himself a Zen Master. Doing zazen, or other Buddhist mediation practices, differs from living the life of a Buddhist, with its insight into the interdependency of all phenomena without Divine intervention.

Merton was a man who made creative leaps and his relationship with Catholicism was as poet as well as priest. Although Christian commentators quote him saying that he would never leave the Church, in truth, we will never know. The beginning of this book quotes him: “I am just beginning to awaken and to realize how much more awakening is to come.” During the last months of his life, he met the Dalai Lama and several Tibetan meditation masters. In his long essay, “Merton, Suzuki, Zen, Ink: Thomas Merton’s Calligraphic Drawings in Context,” Roger Lipsky writes that when he met the Tibetans, Merton “knew that he was among brothers.” Living in the world again, even his preference in Buddhist sects was mutable. The simplicity of Japanese Zen Buddhism, which reflected how he lived his life in the monastery and subsequent hermitage, was morphing into Tibetan Buddhism’s intricate visualizations.

In a book that contributes many essays important to Merton Studies, the section titled “Footnotes to the Asian Journey of Thomas Merton” brings us up to date. For this, Roger Lipsky recently interviewed James George, who was Canada’s High Commissioner in India when he met Merton shortly before his death. George remembers Merton as being “so alive that one felt his humanness and at the same time his sensibility.” He goes on to say: “The breadth of his view was not contained within any cloister or any one tradition. The search probing what it means to be a real human being is beyond that.”

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2007/2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007/2008