Tag Archives: winter 2010


Amitava Kumar
Duke University Press ($21.95)

by Mukund Belliappa

The title of this book is derived from A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Book, a book of poetry by Edmond Jabes—the prolific Egyptian-Jewish writer who was exiled from Cairo to Paris during the period of tense Arab-nationalism in the 1950s. Some aspect of Jabes’s predicament, in ways that are not completely clear, continues to affect Indian author Amitava Kumar. A little less cloudy is the influence of Jabes’s staccato eclectic prose on Kumar’s style, which readily sacrifices coherence, focus, and linearity in its often admirable attempts to jolt the reader with a more explosive and lasting impression.

Over several books during the past decade, Kumar has brought this style to bear on his long-lived preoccupation—one virtually bordering on an activist’s crusade—of measuring India and the United States (the two societies he knows best) by his own stringent standards of secular humanism. These standards are suggested by his personal condition as a Hindu Indian married to a Pakistani Muslim and by his deep absorption with all flavors of prejudice—racial, religious, cultural, national, and ethnic.

The results of these projects have been mixed. In Passport Photos (University of California Press, 2000), the impression left is of a collection of snippets from several NPR shows put together into a well-meaning but incoherent volume of images and platitudes: it was a difficult book to read in spite of the writer’s politics and concerns.

In a later book, Husband of a Fanatic (The New Press, 2005), Kumar explored, among other things, how insular and parochial Hindu communities in the United States were financing a bloodthirsty fundamentalism in India. The violence of the Hindu Fundamentalists in India during these years, especially in the state of Gujarat, gave this book a sharper focus. And who better told us what anti-Muslim hatreds simmer with the jilebis and pakodas in those colorful Indian lanes all around North America?

The meandering narrative of A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb tries to stay focused on the criminal trials and personal histories of two men convicted of “aiding and abetting” terrorists. One of them is Hemant Lakhani, a Indian-British “businessman” arrested in Newark in a FBI sting in which he had accepted large sums of money to supply a terrorist network with Stinger missiles. In actuality, Lakhani had no missiles, and no plan: he just wanted the money. Lakhani, however, appears a genius next to Kumar’s second study, Shahawar Matin Siraj—a twenty-four year-old Pakistani immigrant living in Queens who participated in plans to bomb Herald Square in mid-Manhattan. If stupidity were a defense, these men would not have been charged. But they were, and they are now serving long prison terms for, as Kumar puts it, having “trouble distinguishing between the world and the womb.”

Much of the success of this book comes from the honing of this mercurial style and voice; gaining authority over these many books, this voice is now recognizable as Kumar’s own. And here, the meandering—through almost every aspect of the domestic “war on terror,” and to moribund destinations ranging from Srinagar (the capital of battered and besieged Kashmir) to the federal penitentiary in Springfield, Missouri—is wonderful and thought provoking.

If there is an element that weakens the narrative and takes away from its passionate seriousness, it is exemplified in a standalone two-page section toward the end of this small book. After he has returned from Srinagar, Kumar offers some meditative thoughts on Nobel prize-winning writer Orhan Pamuk’s memoirs Istanbul, a book he is teaching in a class “on writing about cities” at Vassar College. The image of Liberal Arts students on a pristine campus being taught from the latest literary bestseller introduces a mildly discouraging whiff of fraudulence, even as one prepares for a thought-provoking interlude. Considering “the melancholy [Istanbul’s] inhabitants have embraced as their common fate”—melancholy conveyed to Pamuk by their “pale, drab, shadowy clothes”—leads to a commentary on the provocative use of color in Jashn-e Azadi (How We Celebrate Freedom), a contemporary documentary film on the Indian military’s atrocities in Kashmir. From here we are taken to V. S. Naipaul’s forty-five-year-old travelogue, An Area of Darkness; from there to Director Hany Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now, a movie about a suicide bomber in the West Bank town of Nablus. The conclusion of the suicide bomber’s farewell message (“A life without dignity is worthless. Especially when it reminds you day after day of humiliation and weakness. And the world watches, cowardly and indifferent”) brings order quite powerfully, having described an axis (to borrow Kumar’s riff) from a Book to a Bomb.

This is the kind of sophisticated synthesis that only a talented writer immersed in the many facets of his subject can pull off. But even admirers of such craft, and admirers of Kumar’s depths of compassion, would wish that these skillful interludes could be detached from the background that is the cultural life of the Liberal Arts college. The classes and book readings, the “protest art" shows, the fringe movie screenings, the campus lectures and visitors—they are everywhere in this book. The culture of the idyllic and manicured college campus is sometimes too jarringly dissonant from the places—Nablus, Srinagar, the federal penitentiaries—where Kumar takes us.

Kumar saves his most soulful and chilling thoughts for the last chapter of this stirring guide to the domestic “war on terror.” The new regime of FBI wiretaps and informants leading to the entrapment of a crooked Indian businessman and of an illiterate Muslim immigrant, are, in the final reckoning, indeed very small things. In his final reminder, framed around a particularly heinous episode of “collateral damage” in Iraq, Kumar points out that the “the war on terror” and all of its often dubious paraphernalia of arrests, charges, rhetorical and factual exaggerations, judicial tomfoolery and FBI stings, Fox News style headlines, tests to the limits of civil liberties, and bombast leveled upon jittery societies everywhere—all of it serves one purpose more than any other: it hides “from our view the brutality of the state and the horror of war.” All of it is “an elaborate and expensive distraction that hides from us the real crime.”

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2010/2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010/2011

INFIDEL POETICS: Riddles, Nightlife, Substance

Daniel Tiffany
University of Chicago Press ($24)

by Michael Snediker

We have known for some time that many forms of literary difficulty—Mallarme’s “L'après-midi d'un faune,” Hart Crane’s logic of metaphor, Dickinson’s punctiliously precarious similetic dilations—ask to be inhabited as such. Daniel Tiffany’s new critical book not only returns us to the scene of lyric obscurity, but provides a rich genealogy of adjacent and atavistic literary forms (the ancient Greek rhapsode, the Anglo-Saxon riddle) that advances a phenomenologically textured and theoretically persuasive account of such obscurity. The ambitiousness of Tiffany’s argument is exceeded only by the dazzling success of it. To simplify the logic of Infidel Poetics risks recapitulating the exegetical critical moves it so eloquently abjures, but for the sake of this review, I’ll attempt precis, with the wish that readers provoked, inspired, or suspicious of the precis will turn to Tiffany’s own nuanced words for further provocation.

Infidel Poetics—at once meditative, exhaustive, and elegant—arises from its own reorientation toward different objects. We are used to thinking about the materiality of writing in certain ways, with textual opacity too often taken as an impediment to the givenness of the empirical, as though lyric lucidity were more immanent and therefore more materially available than the intangible withdrawing of obscurity, whether in the form of riddles, thorny dialect poems, or the oxygenated fragments of contemporary poetry: of Jorie Graham’s “rhapsodic materialism,” Tiffany writes that “elements of lyric substance (air, light, dust, moisture) achieve their most comprehensive form in the nebulous and dynamic bodies of the weather.” Following the likes of Leibniz and Lessing, Tiffany rescues poetry (and by extension,everything) from the reductiveness of materialism in formulating the latter more specifically as a metaphysics of materialism. Materiality, from this vantage, becomes as vexed a category as Jamesian fiction, in which “psychological realism” less describes a resemblance between characterology and subjectivity than the dubious ground from which flowers James’s own most extravagant lyric productions. It isn’t that a character’s psyche is mimetically discernible, per se, but rather that psychical hap enables figurative flourish and transformation. To move from the Jamesian novel back to lyric poetry, Tiffany’s suspension of materiality recalls Allen Grossman’s brilliant account of Hart Crane’s particular realism. Echoing Grossman, Tiffany suggests that “the modern fragment is not a property of the verbal artifact but rather the product of a state of mind, a form conferred upon language (which is itself a medium) by reflection.”

Obscurity makes writing (whether lines by Wyclef Jean or Baudelaire) seem more material, to the extent that the unavailability of easy transparency forecloses our relation to what the writing is (which is to say, normatively speaking, what the writing would be saying were it clearer). At the same time, as the above already suggests, obscurity makes writing seem less material, insofar as occlusion means we feel so much less substantively what we are holding. This simultaneity of saturation and evanescence—more simply of substance and insubtantiality—is perhaps most heuristically evident (as it were) in G. E. Lessing’s account of invisibility in The Iliad. When Homer’s gods rescue their favorite warriors from battle, they often do so by rendering the warriors invisible. If invisibility itself were textually viable, however, there would be nothing to see—we wouldn’t be able to see invisibility. Homer thus describes invisibility in terms of being shrouded in mists, clouds, darkness. “Hence,” Tiffany writes,

the reader comprehends the effects of the verbal emblem of darkness. . . . Since the substances—air and obscurity—enveloping the endangered mortal in the trope of disappearance may be understood as figures for the meteoric phenomenon of the poem itself—for the rhapsodic “air” and its rhetorical darkness—one must conclude that the obscurity of poetry in general is likewise a “hieroglyphic,” a substance, to be deciphered (not for its content, but for its expressive and pragmatic effects).

Recourse to Lessing and to Homer might suggest that Tiffany’s philosophical and classical spelunking further shores up what we thought we knew about the esoteric origins of textual impediment: our subliminal but abiding sense that a poem’s epistemological (rather than material) hardness surfaces as a certain modernist elitism, in calling attention to what we do not know. Tiffany’s turn to Ancient Greece (and early modern England), however, overturns this narrative of scholastic cliché by locating the epistemological peripherality of difficult writing in the cultural purlieus of the vernacular. To think of textual aloofness in terms of ghettos rather than ivory towers recalibrates our estimation of both subculture and literary commodification alike. In the case of medieval England and France, cant ballads are obscure not for the sake of some baroque aspiration unto itself, but logistically, because these texts aim to safe-guard the communications of beggars, thieves, spies. The legal and more broadly sociological implications of textual aloofness turn recent critical notions of cultural context on their head. Obscurity, that is, doesn’t prevent our understanding of a poem’s context: it is context.

Again, Infidel Poetics achieves this intervention in historicism in its particular orientation to the ostensible problematics of poetic fatality—specifically, that which is evinced in that early minor literature of textual obscurity, the Sphinx’s riddle. Tiffany’s interest in the riddle lies on the side of the Sphinx herself, rather than the ambivalent but ineluctably civilization-making side of Oedipus, the riddle’s “solver.” Like other ancient rhapsodists for whom vagrancy describes the errant wander of riddle and riddler alike—Tiffany notes that Odysseus’s nostos refers to both return and the song of return—the Sphinx potentially reminds us of an enigma in modern art which for Adorno is nothing less than constitutive.

Indeed, there can be little doubt that the citizens of Thebes, plagued by the “glaring,” random minstrelsy of the Sphinx, existed in a state of terror prior to the achievement of Oedipus—not unlike the citizens of a modern city terrorized by a serial killer before his (or her) capture. As a poet, the ancient Sphinx may thus be compared to the riddling serial killers and cryptographers of modernity (the Zodiac Killer or the Unabomber), each producing a vernacular strain of “poetry” (in their cryptic letters to the public) recalling the apotropaic allure of the Sphinx and her single, compulsively reiterated poem (akin perhaps to birdsong).

Tiffany’s closing parenthetical—like Lessing’s Homeric mist, a shrouding which at once calls attention to and from itself—recalls, again, Grossman’s distinction between poets who aspire to tell of a bird’s song, and poets (for instance, Crane) who aspire to be the bird’s song. The Sphinx’s siren-song illuminates [sic], which is to say literalizes [sic], Mallarme’s sense of a crisis in poetry, a crisis as beneficently urgent as it is unmooring. Reading Tiffany alongside Mallarme suggests that crisis is where poetry not only ends, but where it begins, as though a storm wind could leave poetry panting on its own original shore. History, here, feels vertiginously implosive; objects serve as their own context and context only leaves us feeling further stranded in there being no more stable exterior for reaching. The Sphinx’s heir is less T. S. Eliot’s macaronic than a homeless person’s can you spare any change, to which we respond, as non-response to the Mallarmean question, I’m sorry.

Over and against the tidal ubiquity of newly published books, the event of a truly new book occurs only rarely, and the newness of the latter’s thought necessarily risks being misapprehended or underestimated, if not altogether lost in the lees of what otherwise counts as new. So new a book would by its own terms strike readers at outset as utterly unfamiliar, willfully tendentious, or beleagueringly tenuous, to the extent that tenuousness marks a reader’s inability to trust ligature and logic that may well exist beyond the reader’s abilities. The delight in discovering, across the time of reading, that perceived tenuity patiently could await its being reassessed as a new and significant lucidity—that an infrastructure already had been in place without one’s registration of it—describes the good fortune of a new book so self-abiding in its convictions that we learn to trust it, such that an earlier sense of unfamiliarity alchemizes into the gratitude of learning where we least expected it. Such is the delight of Tiffany’s truly new Infidel Poetics.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2010/2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010/2011

DROPPERS: America’s First Hippie Commune, Drop City

Mark Matthews
University of Oklahoma Press ($19.95)

by Scott F. Parker

Drop City was an artist’s commune outside Trinidad, Colorado, founded by a group of friends from the University of Kansas who lived in domes they built from found, donated, and cheaply purchased car tops and other materials. This much is clear. Also clear is why the inhabitants of Drop City referred to themselves as “droppers.” Eugene Victor Debs Bernofsky, the group’s early leader, and his cohort Clark Richert used to drop painted pebbles from rooftops in Lawrence, Kansas, and took their name from this activity.

Somewhat more difficult to describe is the utopian vision behind Drop City. Bernofsky points to frustration with the Vietnam War and a desire to “let humanity evolve through a process of satisfying wholesome creative drives.” Bernofsky also said it was “based on the ideals of brotherly love and the rejection of capitalistic materialism.” While vague enough to be accurate, these definitions are awfully clinical for what Drop City was like for those who were there. Bernofsky’s eventual rival for unofficial leadership, Peter Douthit, did a better job of evoking the place when he said “it fell out a window in Kansas . . . with a mattress and a balloon full of water and landed in a goat pasture.” Another stalwart attempt comes from William Hedgepeth: “Drop City is a half-forbidding netherworld where idealistic troglodytes lurk and live in fields of giant candy-colored toadstools.”

If at this point you’re not sure exactly what Drop City was, neither it seems were its members. The lack of a specific definition was both cause and effect of the fact that “from the inception of Drop City, the core of founding droppers had decided they would make no rules, nor devise any standards by which to judge anyone who wished to join the community.” Of course, that’s part of the point. Drop City couldn’t have been whatever it was if it had come with a focused mission. But the lack of structure to guide the sincere idealism of the movement led to its eventual downfall, as it arguably did to the larger hippie movements of the ‘60s.

The seduction of rebelling against the strictures of society by self-indulgence eventually came to dominate the intention of rebelling against the strictures of society by practicing an intentionally idealistic lifestyleat Drop City. In the first two relatively successful years, drug use centered around light marijuana use in concord with the artistic lifestyle. Sex in these years was conservative too, taking place almost exclusively in monogamous relationships. This isn’t the “first hippie commune” you might imagine. But the casual sex and heavy drug use did come in 1967 when Douthit, whose influence was on the ascent, announced Drop City’s Joy Festival and brought in hundreds of people from around the country who were not invested in the commune, except insofar as it was briefly the place to be.

Bernofsky said, “At that time no essence or soul had been built into the community that could withstand anything like the Joy Festival.” Seeing human nature once again spoil human idealism, Bernofsky left Drop City immediately after the festival. Other early members left soon after, and the commune began its slow fizzling out.

Mark Matthews captures this whole saga in his book, Droppers. Following up on an article Matthews wrote about Bernofsky for Audubon magazine and a review he read of T. C. Boyle’s novel Drop City(which Bernofsky claims was based on the commune), Matthews wanted to write a biography of Bernofsky. But this project was stalled when Bernofsky’s wife refused to cooperate, claiming to be too private for that sort of thing. “As an alternative,” Matthews writes, “I offered to amend the parameters of the story—back to Bernofsky’s original suggestion that I write a social history about Drop City.” Reading along, it’s impossible not to suspect Bernofsky and his wife of conspiring to get Matthews to write the book they wanted. The extent to which Matthews is forced to rely on Bernofsky as a source gives the Drop City founder a strong voice in shaping the story. And considering how often in the book Bernofsky tricks those around him to get what he wants, it’s likely this book is just what Bernofsky had in mind. The idea that his wife is “too private” to be quoted in a book is further challenged by the fact she appears on screen in a documentary, Drop City, discussing the commune. (The film hasn’t been released yet, but a trailer can be found online.)

But Matthews is a willing mark, happy to play along with Bernofsky’s games for the sake of a good story. In the book Matthews also does what he didn’t do in his Audubon article and fact-checks everything Bernofsky tells him, so Matthews ultimately has a grip on his slippery subject, providing an historical and social context for Drop City that opens the book up from Bernofsky’s retelling. The interspersions of excerpts from Time magazine issues from the era (e.g., “To keep the state moving ahead and at the same time in the black, Reagan proposed a budget of $5 billion and called for $946 million in increased taxes”) are particularly helpful for understanding the background for Drop City. It’s an informative read, simultaneously inspiring and realistic—and one any young idealist should be sure to note.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2010/2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010/2011

THE CROSS OF REDEMPTION: Uncollected Writings

James Baldwin
Edited by Randall Kenan
Pantheon Books ($26.95)

by Spencer Dew

Novelist, essayist, and public intellectual James Baldwin focused his career on diagnosing the sickness underlying American racism and advancing a solution rooted in a notion of radical love. For the American republic to survive its “present crisis” of race relations—exemplified in the horror of church bombs killing children, fire hoses and police dogs turned loose on students—Baldwin argues

White people will have to ask themselves precisely why they found it necessary to invent the nigger; for the nigger is a white invention . . . And every white citizen of this country will have to accept the fact that he is not innocent. . . . Black people will have to do something very hard, too, which is to allow the white citizen his first awkward steps toward maturity.

This passage, from one of the essays collected in this volume of heretofore “uncollected” miscellany—one short story, several reviews, some speeches, assorted forewords and afterwords, a useful reflection on the 1963 summit of Baldwin and friends with Robert Kennedy, and an urgent plea for challenging bicentennial Presidential candidates “to walk, not ride, through the black streets”—lays out the claims Baldwin reiterated throughout his life.

The base problem is one of categorization, of humans imposing labels on other humans (and, likewise, on themselves); the roots of the American crisis of race relations thus go deeper even than slavery and the fact that America is essentially “a criminal nation, built on a lie.” The deeper source is the fact that humans are unwilling to accept other humans as both other and human. This is a moral problem, located on the level of each and every individual who opts for the use of labels to replace the other (and, indeed, the self) with fantasies and projections rather than facing the ineluctable condition of otherness and simultaneous fellow-humanity that, in truth, define human beings.

Nowhere in American society has the devastating possibility of this impulse toward categorization been as apparent as in relations between “white” and “black” people. “The Negro face, because it is so visible,” becomes the site for projection of the collected “guilts and aggressions and desires” of white America. Most white Americans seem “beyond any conceivable hope of moral rehabilitation” precisely because “they have been white . . . too long,” and this whiteness is a moral choice rather than an immutable, biological condition, Baldwin writes. Likewise, he insists, “you cannot tell a black man by the color of his skin.” For America to survive “the country will have to turn and take me in its arms,” Baldwin writes, meaning embrace all of the black population as fellow humans, in their full human reality, rather than as reductive, destructive labels. As Baldwin frequently says, nodding toward the poetry of his phrasing while emphasizing its practical, political necessity, “this may sound mystical, but at bottom that is what has got to happen.”

It is in regard to the wider ramifications of Baldwin’s basic claims about categorization and its risks thatThe Cross of Redemption has value as something other than a supplement for the shelves of Baldwin scholars or admirers. While this is certainly not a volume for anyone to start experiencing Baldwin (one should begin with one of his collections of essays, or one of his novels, or, for a secondary source, the Standley and Pratt collection of interviews, Conversations with James Baldwin), this gathering of “uncollected” items nonetheless highlights—seemingly by default—Baldwin’s interests in a new and valuable way through repeated engagement with the issue of Jews, Judaism, and Israel.

Jews in Baldwin’s work are presented as existing on three levels of immediate reality in relation to his childhood—Jews as economic oppressors and Jews as a mythological trope, “the Jewish pawnbrokers and landlords of my childhood,” as he writes here, “and my friends,” and—always primary in his understanding, as he frequently admits—the Jews “in the Bible.” This issue of the Jew as economic oppressor is addressed explicitly here, where Baldwin’s basic thesis is “I think it is most distinctly unhelpful, and I think it is immoral, to blame Harlem on the Jew.” There is blame, however, and bitterness, as Baldwin explains it; his personal problem with “American Jews” is that they “have opted to become white.” White identity has been and continues to be an active choice, one that Baldwin claims accounts for wider animosity from blacks, as is discussed in a college question-and-answer session, included here, held as Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign attempted to respond to Jackson’s “Hymietown” comment. Baldwin is adamant: “A black man does not expect from an American white man what he expects from an American Jew, and when that expectation is defeated, a certain bitterness ensues.” Underlying this expectation is not merely the straightforward logic that Jews have the option of identifying as other than white; religious mythology matters here, too. As Baldwin lays it out, blacks have long associated themselves with Jews through a shared connection with the Jewish Bible, particularly such central narratives (to both peoples) as the Exodus from slavery in Egypt. “‘Let my people go,’” as Baldwin says, “all of those legends black people have lived with and made real up until this hour—and that means that unconsciously a black person tends to expect more from a Jewish person than he expects from anybody else.”

Israel, meanwhile, supplies arms to Apartheid South Africa and “is sustained by a blank check from Washington” while hypocritically—so Baldwin says—claiming allegiance to God. Baldwin nonetheless insists that he is “ambivalent concerning the physical purposes of the state of Israel,” though he makes it clear that he “would not like to be an Arab in Jerusalem.” Despite the key role that Holocaust metaphors play in Baldwin’s rhetoric—included in this volume is a letter to an imprisoned Angela Davis, who he compares to “the Jewish housewife in the boxcar headed for Dachau, or as any one of our ancestors chained together in the name of Jesus, headed for a Christian land,” and he frequently compares the state of blacks in racist America with that of Jews under the Nazis, citing concentration camps and gas chambers and ovens as he does—he advances an argument in these pages that the Jewish state is predicated on a doubly false claim. First, the very category of “Jew” is a problem, just as “white” or “black” is a problem, differentiating humans, in their infinite otherness, from each other and thus erasing the very real otherness with a false claim of solidarity and group identity. Second, however, Baldwin claims that Judaism, as a religion, no longer exists. “I mean, the Jews themselves do not believe in it anymore: it was simply one of the techniques of their survival—in the desert.” While it is fair—or at least in accord with his broader logic—to claim that Zionism is rooted in “tribal” logic, and to insist that we must all “transcend the tribe,” this claim about Judaism as an extinct religion is, to say the least, strange—a product, likely, of a kind of Christian naïveté.

After a stint as a child preacher, Baldwin famously abandoned the church and denied belief in the religion in which he was raised, yet as he repeatedly notes, he remains a product of that religion, rooted in its rhetoric, dependent upon Christian concepts and symbols as well as church preaching styles and a prophetic mode of presentation. His career as a writer and public figure is explicitly undertaken in the hope that “an immense metamorphosis” can occur in society, within the heart of each individual—a moral metamorphosis, predicated first on white self awareness and then on a new form of relation between all peoples. In conveying the elements of the ethical problem at the root of racism, as well as the human solution he conceived for this problem, Baldwin employs the language of Christianity. The necessary apprehension that “the other is oneself,” is, as Baldwin describes it, the “recognition of what it means to love one another, which defines freedom, which brings it to being, which makes it as real as the Word become flesh, to dwell among us.” Likewise, the basic dynamic of racism—teaching some children “that their lives are worth less than other lives, and that they can live only on terms dictated to them by other people, by people who despise them”—is described by Baldwin, repeatedly, as a “sin against the Holy Ghost,” that sin which cannot be forgiven.

While Baldwin finds the reality of American Jewish existence in jarring contrast to his image of the Jew as a Christian biblical trope, his denial of the reality of Judaism as a living religion seems rooted in its own contrast with his adaptation of Christianity, the language and symbolism from his religious upbringing that he uses to frame his moral mission. Religion, viewed through the lens of Christianity, becomes for Baldwin entirely about that act of embracing the other, offering love in excess and without reserve, while adopting a prophetic tone of mourning and condemnation through which to educate the citizenry on their failing to love in this way. Judaism, rooted in the sense of responsibility to God to offer hospitality to the stranger, is also a religion centered, ethically, on the other, but it does not use the Christian mystical language of love—and for Baldwin’s understanding of the world, this mystical language constructs the only religion that can matter, the only religion that can be real.

Thus, Judaism is jettisoned, in what may well be offhand moments for a writer who, while coming back again and again to the Jews as a subject, frequently prefaces his pronouncements with the claim that “I have never really written about Jews” precisely because he has been “too close” to Jews on all three levels—as actual individuals and friends, as collective stereotypes, and as mythic model or trope. This excessive visibility of the Jew is an inheritance of the black church, where, rhetorically, the Jew is displaced. In short, the “my people” to be let out of bondage become the black audience; the narrative of the Exodus is re-written as it is re-read, claimed by black Christians who use the metaphor of the Jew to understand their own location, leaving all those real flesh and blood Jews torn free from the mythological grounding of their self-chosen category and looking—all the more in contrast with those Jews in the Exodus narrative—like so many Shylocks preying on the poor blacks. “Israel” as a trope becomes those blacks in the ghetto held down in bondage, while Israel the state becomes another white political entity holding down other, darker peoples, who could themselves be lined up with the metaphorical “Jews” of the Exodus narrative.

Baldwin engages in this move by reflex, yet he does not do so without some understanding of what he is doing. Had he decided to “write about the Jews” in earnest, he would have found, in this entanglement of trope and reality, a dynamic of replacement by “label” easily as complicated as those he explores in relation to white/black racism or the constructed categories of homosexuality/heterosexuality and, as he also argues in his oeuvre, male/female. Despite, then, a grab-bag approach to the “uncollected” James Baldwin, The Cross of Redemption highlights Baldwin’s wider theories via the leitmotif that emerges around Jews, Judaism, and Israel.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2010/2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010/2011

LESS IS MORE: Embracing Simplicity for a Healthy Planet, a Caring Economy and Lasting Happiness

Edited by Cecile Andrews and Wanda Urbanska
New Society Publishers ($16.95)

by Amy Groshek

Given what inequality does to a society, and particularly how it heightens competitive consumption, it looks not only as if the two are complementary, but also that governments may be unable to make big enough cuts in carbon emissions without also reducing inequality. — Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, from The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, 2009

What will you answer? "We all dwell together To make money from each other"? or "This is a community"? —T. S. Eliot, from The Rock, 1934

“Getting and spending,” Wordsworth wrote two centuries ago, “we lay waste our powers.” He could not have foreseen the ways in which technological advancement would both facilitate materialism and exacerbate loneliness, such that our relationship with the interface of our cell phones is more intimate than our relationship with the very people to whom we furiously text and “tweet.” Too often luddites use “technology” as pharmakon for the lack of social cohesion in our communities. But cell phones are only the latest manifestation of the market’s centuries-old ability to prey on social insecurities. What’s really askew, that is, is getting and spending.

Or so the authors featured in Less is More assert. And taken as a whole, they make a solid case, citing quantitative evidence from the fields of psychology, sociology, and social epidemiology to posit essential critiques of earning, socialization, and the social safety net. The question is not whether these issues are pressing, or the proposed solutions necessary, but whether a general population caught on the gerbil wheel of economic meltdown could ever acquire the leisure and presence of mind within which to consider such ideas, much less mobilize to effect legislative change.

“We elected Barack Obama,” editor Cecile Andrews sallies, as a way of demonstrating that, beleaguered as we are, Americans are capable of positive change. But late in 2010, with the passage of health care legislation lacking even a paltry “public option,” the nation engaged in two wars, and our drones buzzing into Pakistani airspace like perverse, C-4-bloated mosquitoes, Andrews’s willingness to evoke the 2008 election looks less like optimism than naiveté.

Over and over, the authors illustrate how unchecked market forces rob us of both time and peace of mind, undermine our relationships, and threaten the environment. “The rich person in this country,” writes Andrews, “doesn’t have the longevity the middle-class person has in Norway, a country committed to a small wealth gap. . . . Citizens need to know that we work longer than any developed nation and that happiness is declining.”

Rebecca Kneale Gould lists the side effects of the North American “time famine” as “overconsumption, the unraveling of family life, environmental degradation and a sharp decline in human health.” “Renewable energies like solar, wind and geothermal,” adds David Wann, “can meet the needs of a moderate, no-waste economy, but not a careless, hyper-consumptive economy.” According to Tim Kasser, “the ecological footprint of an individual . . . increases steadily in proportion to number of hours worked per week, and rises dramatically for those working more than 35 hours per week.” Without a doubt, we’re in a pickle.

Yet we lack precisely the conditions in which we might change our conditions. Most essentially, we have no true alternative to full-time employment. In the words of Dr. Suzanne Schweikert, “our desire to keep our health insurance benefits . . . ties us to jobs that are bad for our health.” How do you mobilize a population that’s worked half to death? Andrews recommends local “Simplicity Conversation Circles,” which seems rather like recommending pixie dust to a Stage IV cancer patient.

The policy recommendations of David Wann and Juliet Schor are more substantial, though far less plausible. “Consumer cultures like ours,” writes Wann, “urgently need value-directed policies that reward efficiency and durability and penalize overconsumption.” Schor concurs: “the key to achieving a more sustainable path for consumption is to translate productivity growth into shorter hours of work instead of more income.” Top three in Wann’s list: tax carbon more heavily than income, guarantee equal per-hour pay for part-time work, and implement universal healthcare. One can almost hear the laughter such proposals would evoke on the floor of the post-midterm Senate.

And yet, every week, however busy, we empty the compost and take out the recycling. We savor our precious free time. We strain to connect with friends. If Less is More fails in realism or radicalism, read it anyway. Read it out of your own grave need. Then continue to do what you can.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2010/2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010/2011

STALLING FOR TIME: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator

Gary Noesner
Random House ($26)

by Weston Cutter

Given that the word terrorist for most people conjures “middle-easterner,” and the Tea Party movement seems built on ideas remarkably similar to those held by rural militias, Gary Noesner's Stalling for Time is a strangely nostalgic book—one that, for anyone who was alive in the 1990s, will make the last decade's political shifts seem abundantly strange indeed.

Subtitled My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator, Noesner's book could've quite easily been some ghosted boilerplate page turner pushed hard by publishers as “the real deal” for folks who love Robert Harris, Tom Clancy, or James Patterson. Instead, Stalling for Time is a book-length reflection and meditation on the most critical word gracing its cover: negotiate.

"Listening is the cheapest concession we can ever make," Noesner writes to close his brief preface, and nestled in that pithy nugget is what you need to know about the book to come. Noesner's job requires him to be a dispassionate economist of emotional situations, arriving on-scene to keep the ledger from going literally or figuratively red. He walks the reader through the biggest stand-offs of the ‘90s—Waco, Ruby Ridge, the Freemen in Montana—and through lucid writing, allows how simply listening to these men drastically lowered temperatures, time and again.

Here's his account of meeting with members of the Montana Militia in Hell Creek Bar in Jordan, Montana: "I figured we had nothing to hide from these guys, so instead of playing tough or arguing, which evidently was what they'd expected, Tom and I tried to disarm them with openness and candor. . . . I told them that we were trying to avoid the kind of outcome that had happened at Waco and Ruby Ridge, and that we planned to negotiate in good faith with the Freemen." After the meeting, "these men shook our hands much more vigorously than they had coming in, nodded, and made eye contact." Noesner even brings food and medicine to hostage-takers—not to placate them but, in good economic fashion, to keep their focus on the issue at hand.

In hostage situations, there are those who have initiated a dangerous scenario with specific ends in mind and those who have not—people who have simply found themselves in a situation of escalated chaos and danger. This distinction, a civilian may hope, would be obvious in hostage negotiation, but here Noesner's other agenda comes into play: he discusses the clash between intelligence and enforcement agencies, and shows how the mentality of machismo—of giving no quarter to terrorists, of treating all stand-offs as completely oppositional—is horrifically, fatally flawed. "As I watched the television pictures of the [Branch Davidian] compound going up in flames, I felt sick to the pit of my stomach. I was as angry as I have ever been in my life. How could this have ended so badly? I was mostly angry at Koresh and the senseless waste of life he had ordered, but I was also mad that the FBI had not handled this as well as I knew we could have."

In the years since that confrontation, the rhetoric of conflict has been torqued to bleak levels. Though Noesner's book is not fundamentally political, it's next to impossible to read Stalling For Time as anything other than a measured, levelheaded plea to respect the space between opinions. All of the crises that transform from speech into weapons-based arguments come as a result of one of the sides deciding to give up on words, on compromise. "I am not opposed to the use of force when necessary," Noesner writes in the book's epilogue, "I also happen to be the very proud father of a Navy SEAL. Yet, I know that it's absolutely vital that government leaders not use these brave soldiers and sailors, and the tremendous capabilities they represent, unless it's absolutely necessary."

Stalling For Time is thus that rarest of items in these us-against-everyone times: a reasonable book which, couching its arguments in the economic language of results, argues for listening to those with whom we disagree—not out of any bleeding-heart goodness, but out of square-jawed utility.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2010/2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010/2011


Edited by Diana M. Raab
University of South Carolina Press ($24.95)

by Brigitte Frase

First, a curmudgeonly observation to get out of the way: I do not “journal,” nor am I ever to be found “journaling.” Diana Raab and the essayists she has assembled in Writers and Their Notebooks are fond of these ungainly words. I recognize that language is an art, not a science, and new terms arise to fill a need, but behind the new jargon I smell the commerce of the creative writing industry, which now offers classes in journal-writing—an absurd appropriation of the most free-form, experimental genre there is.

I keep a journal and have for most of my life. I began, as a number of the female contributors to this book have, by filling a little lockable volume with ruled pages, one per day. At first I found it silly to be talking to myself, so I addressed my entries as letters to “Dear Anne”—invoking the presence of the tragic and iconic journal-keeper, Anne Frank, who herself confided in “Dear Kitty.” Eventually, I graduated from that wholly self-involved diary to what I considered the mature medium of the journal. Since then, I have amassed a shelf full of spiral-bound notebooks in which I could record a paragraph or five pages at a time, skip entire weeks or write at a furious daily pace (with fountain pen only.)

The capacious, all-welcoming journal invites metaphor. Phillip Lopate, in his foreword here, gathers up a rag-tag assortment. The journal is “a laboratory, . . . a wailing wall, a junk drawer, a confessional, . . . singing in the shower, . . . a jump-start cable, . . . a warehouse, a tourist’s camera, a snooping device, . . . a meditation practice, masturbation, a witness stand, . . . a housekeeper, a spiritual advisor, a compost bin” and much more. Within its unruly pages, its wild or soberly quiet words, it contains the seeds of every literary form, hence its attraction for writers. The diary is a navel-gazer; the journal looks outward as well as severely within. It passes from memory to observation to free association to analysis. What matters is not what it looks at but what it sees, as Thoreau opined. Maureen Stanton disagrees with these definitions. She thinks of diaries as mere records of the day while “journals lend themselves to brooding, to complaining, to confessions of fear and desire.” I’m willing to grant her that distinction, but not the conclusion she draws: “Diaries are a feminine form, journals seem masculine.” Isn’t it the other way around?

Many of the writers in this collection keep two or three journals: one for jotting down and playing with story or poem ideas, another for recording life, sometimes a third for recording dreams. The latter is an attempt for a writer to get behind the screen or official narrative of the self to see what demons and dragons lie in the dark inner ocean. I myself keep a life journal, a commonplace book, and a succinct reading journal (name, author, date finished, one or two word commentary: “very good,” “utter trash,” etc.)

Only one of the contributors, Kim Stafford, transfers and expands on his walking-around notebook on a computer. Writing on a computer suggests, to me anyway, that you are potentially addressing an audience of more than one. Tony Trigilio elaborates my suspicion with the observation that “blogs were public versions of private journals. . . . Blogs seemed to combine the potential for both private, undomesticated journaling and public performance.” Whatever nonsense or profundity a writer scribbles into a journal performs for everyone an essential function: it keeps writers lubricated, exercised, warding off the dreaded “writer’s block.” It becomes harder to fear the blank page when you’ve gotten so used to noodling around on one. It is also the best way I know of developing a rhythm and attitude, what we call a writer’s distinctive, unique “voice.”

Journal-keeping, benign as it mostly is, has a detractor in Peter Selgin, who describes his habit as an addiction, a case of hypergraphia. He had no memories independent of what he had written down. “My diary became not the place where I kept track of my existence, but where I lost it in a flurry of words, my spiritual garden choked with verbal weeds.” He also points out that, according to a recent study in Great Britain, “people who keep diaries are more likely to suffer from headaches, sleeplessness, digestive disorders, and ‘social awkwardness.’” Let’s hope the British are just whinier than we are, though I can certainly believe that working over life traumas on the page can keep one from getting over them.

The one theme that pops up in almost every essay here is the question of honesty. Wendy Call maintains that “the sentences in my journal are those laid down fresh, unencumbered, and undamaged by the internal and external censors that buzz around our words as we polish them for public display.” Diana Raab is sure that, “in time, your natural, authentic voice will emerge on the pages of your journal—a voice free from societal restrictions and inhibitions.” But as anyone who has read the diaries of Anais Nin can see, self-making and revelation can be highly narcissistic and manipulative.

Writing is hardly a natural act. We’ve been doing it for only five thousand years, give or take. And when you keep a journal, you are dividing yourself into two people: the writer and her reader, who may be more critical than neutrally receptive. A double consciousness is a refined state of mind. It is certainly good training for creating fictional and poetic personas and characters who don’t come trailing the swampy dregs of sentimentality. Still, though less inhibited, I don’t think a journal writer can ever be wholly “free.” As for honesty, we do the best we can, but can we ever be sure of the reasons why some thoughts and experiences don’t make it into our journals? I’ll give the last word to Reginald Gibbons. “The keeping of a journal is a peculiar form of writing practice; whether deliberate or hasty, formal or casual, whether more or less honest (depending on one’s mood and motives), it seems not quite fully meant to be private, even at its most private.”

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2010/2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010/2011


Patrick Dougherty
Princeton Architectural Press ($34.95)

by Eliza Murphy

Entering one of Patrick Dougherty’s ephemeral twig wonders is to plunge into daydream—a sinuous, lyrical enfolding of pleasurable, vegetable tangles. Looping, swaying, leaning volumes made of saplings woven in seemingly effortless and wild abandon, Dougherty’s sculptures appear to emerge and grow from their surroundings—sometimes as fancy turrets or teapots, sometimes as clusters of colossal figures. Others erupt inside buildings in spontaneous, euphoric conglomerations of intertwined branches that spiral through the air, twist up banisters, grow through windows or cling to walls.

Monuments to transience, none of Dougherty’s works are built of archival materials to last for eons. Instead, these playful, impermanent objects testify to the organic process of decay and eventual regeneration. Must something live on in perpetuity simply because it was made by a human being? Built on site, where the artist and a crew of volunteers orchestrate a careful hunting and gathering of suitable tree branches and the elaborate process of weaving the sticks, these large-scale creations, first offered to the community where they originate, ultimately succumb to the elements over time. They are built to decompose.

After building his house out of vernacular materials found near his North Carolina home, Dougherty started fashioning his beloved sticks into sculptures. That led him to graduate school to study art. It wasn’t long before he was invited to show in galleries, which led to commissions to make these marvels on location, enabling him to leave behind his career in hospital administration for the life of an itinerant artist.

Far from comprehensive, this monograph offers a tantalizing sample of the more than 200 site-specific stick sculptures Dougherty has erected around the world. An essay by Jennifer Thompson introduces the artist, placing his work in the context of the primal human bond and fascination with trees and sticks. Lovely photographs show each sculpture from various angles, and each work is accompanied by an entry Dougherty wrote, describing in a conversational tone the challenges he faced with things like finding space in an urban area for truckloads of bunched sticks, or the pleasure it gives him to accept that his art “will degrade and become the mulch to nourish new growth.”

Brief and candid, Daugherty’s observations invite the reader to glimpse his artistic process. He divulges his fears and unforeseen obstacles that he deftly transformed into opportunities. After trying to get a large sculpture he built at home through a gallery door, it dawned on him that it might be better to build on location, a revelation that inspired him to make “custom-fit” sculptures. This spawned his practice of gathering local materials to use in his work, another element that gives each sculpture the illusion that it emerged from the spot spontaneously.

Times have changed since he started making stick works, and he acknowledges that there was a gradual shift in how his work was perceived. Writing about Simple Pleasures, a sculpture he built at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick, Maine, he notes that twenty years after the “the sticks were interpreted by the art world as found objects with little connection to nature” he “was billed with much fanfare as an environmental sculptor.” Entering one of Dougherty’s architectural feats (how does he keep this thing that feels as if it is about to topple over from doing just that, without any cables or wires?) feels like the closest a human being can get to climbing inside a nest.

An affable narrator and natural builder, Dougherty’s creations are not chance operations. A fraction of his process might be left open to chance, but he knows his sticks and he likes to “emphasize the visual power of the diagonal line,” often instructing his volunteers to weave sticks in randomly and to give just the right tension to distort the appearance of regularity. Dougherty lets on how difficult it is to create the illusion of spontaneity. Sticks might be pliable, but they’re also tricky to maneuver. He seems to revel in tension of various sorts. With characteristic brevity, he discloses the necessity to overcome some public skepticism he has encountered along the way. Part of the illusion of high art is the appearance of effortlessness, is it not?

Yet Dougherty’s art is accomplished with hard work, without gimmicks. Each project is completed in three weeks. This is the magic number that he applies to carry out each project, including choosing the exact location at the site, reading the site to decide on the form the sculpture will take, finding volunteers, collecting the materials, and finally joining the materials in what he calls a “haphazard snagging.” After close reading of the landscape and consideration of the spirit of the people who commission him, he sets to work expressing his vision using wood in its raw state to create elegant forms that are anything but haphazard.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2010/2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010/2011


The Knife of Never Letting Go ($9.99)
The Ask and the Answer ($9.99)
Monsters of Men ($18.99)
Patrick Ness
Candlewick Press

by Kelly Everding

The Chaos Walking Trilogy is a breathless ride, a mind-bending cautionary tale that challenges our ideas of power politics between ruler and subjects, men and women, and settlers and indigenous peoples. The New World is the promised land for these settlers from Earth who travelled so far on this one-way trip to seek a better life. They didn’t expect it to be easy, of course, but nobody expected such an enormous shift in how they perceive themselves and their fellow creatures. For the New World thrives on the free flow of information of its sentient beings, and that includes anyone who happens to touch down on its strange but promising shores.

The first book in the trilogy, The Knife of Never Letting Go, begins in the settlement of Prentisstown where we meet twelve-year-old Todd Hewitt and his dog Manchee, who discover, in the swamp, a hole in the Noise. Although Todd has never known any different way to live, he suffers under the constant barrage of Noise from all the men in Prentisstown—there are only men in Prentisstown. As far as Todd knows, this is how it’s always been since they landed on the planet and fought the Spackle, the indigenous creatures of the planet, and all the women died, his mother among them. Since then everyone could hear each other’s thoughts, as well as the less complicated thoughts of the animals—dogs, horses, and other strange beasts of the land. And it isn’t pleasant hearing all these thoughts. “Their Noise washes down the hill like a flood let loose right at me, like a fire, like a monster the size of the sky come to get you cuz there’s nowhere to run.” The roar of tangled, raging, sorrowful, messy Noise fills the pages of the book in scratchy, scribbled, and scrawled letters, graphically creating a sense of claustrophobic, oppressive thought.

While one would think that there would be no secrets in this kind of world, they would be wrong. As Todd eloquently explains in his unlearned speech:

Cuz you can lie in the Noise, even when everyone knows what yer thinking, you can bury stuff under other stuff, you can hide it in plain sight, you just don’t think it clearly or you can convince yerself that the opposite of what yer hiding is true and then who’s going to be able to pick out from the flood what’s real water and what’s not going to get you wet?

The problem of trust is key to the dynamic of the whole trilogy, especially in a town like Prentisstown, whose mayor has developed a way to hide his Noise behind a disciplined mantra—“I am the Circle and the Circle is me,” spelled out in militaristic majuscules—a circuitous thought that buries deep his true intentions, and the true history of Prentisstown. However, when Todd and Manchee discover the hole in the Noise, it begins a chase that runs physically through the first novel and into the second, where the chase turns psychological.

The hole that Todd discovers is a girl, a girl with no Noise. Viola Eade is the second hero of the Trilogy, a young girl whose small scout ship crashed in the swamp killing her parents. Todd and Viola reluctantly join together as they escape Prentisstown and the Mayor, who wants to kidnap Viola and initiate young Todd into manhood in a particularly violently way. As Todd leaves Prentisstown and follows the river toward the rumors of other settlements and the final goal of Haven near the sea, he soon discovers that all the women didn’t die in the Spackle war, and that the unraveling of the lie he’d been living would change his life in ways he could never imagine. But there’s no chance to think about anything for very long, for the Mayor and all the men of Prentisstown are at his heels, destroying everything in their path, picking up malcontents and soldiers along the way. This first novel might also be called The Book of Never Putting Down.

The true power behind these books, especially becoming more evident in the second book The Ask and the Answer, is their exploration of the dynamics of power in light of the telepathic qualities of the planet and its inhabitants. We soon find out that women can hear the thoughts of men, but the men cannot hear women’s thoughts. Todd and Viola discover that the settlements they pass through handle this dynamic differently. While Prentisstown got rid of their women—not a sustainable model—other settlements put the women in charge. But however the settlers manage or don’t manage this unforeseen glitch in the New World, this inequality wears on everyone and finally leads to another big battle. The indigenous people, dubbed the Spackle by the settlers, are all connected together in one hive mind, in harmony with the planet. Of course, this is as alien as can be to the settlers, and their response is to kill or enslave the Spackle. Meanwhile Todd discovers that his hope for finding peace in Haven is shattered by the very man he tried to escape—the Mayor and now self-proclaimed and conquering President Prentiss of New Prentisstown. Todd and Viola are split up and the President begins to cultivate young Todd, trying to brainwash him with subtle but insidious mind games.

The Ask and the Answer is perhaps the most unsettling and demoralizing of the three books as Todd battles his own inner demons and the Mayor masters the powers of the mind, amazing powers of control that are possible only in this New World. We discover The Answer is the name of a terrorist rebel group made up of mostly women, but also some men, living in the hills and plotting devastating attacks on the soldiers now in control of Haven or New Prentisstown. In response to the Answer, the President creates the Ask, a form of torture for those who don’t provide him with the information he wants. The escalation of atrocities mounts alarmingly, and meanwhile we see Todd and Viola on opposing sides, beginning to question each other’s actions and motives.

Ness deftly handles these nuances of thought as he moves seamlessly between points of view—we hear directly from Todd and then Viola, each with their own font to distinguish their voices. And there’s the use of a more emphatic, scribbled font to indicate thoughts of animals, like their loyal horses (one calls Todd her “boy colt” and other creatures they encounter (like the wonderful herd of “creachers” who sing only the soothing song of “Here”). Ness also handles the inner battle each of these intrepid teenagers face through the use of parenthetical statements, as when Todd tells himself to “(shut up)” when he doesn’t want to admit his true feelings to himself or anyone who is listening in. The narrative moves at a fast clip, often resembling a poem with lines ending in dashes as the story breathlessly rushes on. And when we face the wrath of the Spackle in Monsters of Men, another voice joins the telling—that of an escaped Spackle slave who seeks revenge for the genocide of his people, his voice represented by an unregimented sans serif font.

The final book in the trilogy takes its title from the saying that war makes monsters of men, and if this book is any indication, there isn’t a truer insight. Even Todd and Viola are not immune as they get swept up in the violence and betrayals that rain down upon them, forcing them into decisions they don’t want to make and actions that later sicken them with bitter regret. But ultimately they come back to each other no matter what, though Ness certainly sets up some treacherous hurdles and incredible plot twists for the two to overcome. Despite all the action—the bombs and armies and cruel torture—the characters remain complex in these books as they grow and change, adapting to the increasingly extreme circumstances. Ness has created some gut-wrenching storytelling as a powerful reminder that no one is exempt from responsibility for his or her actions, and it takes a strong character to face up to one’s mistakes, try to correct them, and move on to a forge better future.

Ness has written a prequel to the Chaos Walking Trilogy, The New World, which is more of a short story setting the stage for this tumultuous tale. This prequel is offered as a free download, and is a great way to get introduced to the excellent writing of this young British storyteller.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2010/2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010/2011


Pittacus Lore
HarperCollins ($12.40)

by Shawn Patrick Doyle

James Frey knows how to get people talking. In 2005, his memoir A Million Little Pieces was on everyone’s nightstand, including Oprah’s. After revelations that parts of the book had been fictionalized, Oprah had Frey on her show to face her wrath and public condemnation. Frey’s latest venture, the content production company Full Fathom Five, has generated more publicity and controversy, as it looks to tap into the young adult fiction market that turned Harry Potter andTwilight into international crazes.

The company’s most successful project so far is the novel I Am Number Four, part of the Lorien Legacies series. Published last August, the novel has spent eight weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list for Children’s Chapter Books, and a film version is set to be released by Dreamworks. Frey’s concept for the series imagines alien teenagers with special powers living on Earth after fleeing a hostile invasion of their home planet, Lorien, by the Mogadorians. Each teen is identified by a number given to them by a Loric elder, who cast a charm dictating that they must be killed in sequence. I Am Number Four opens a decade after the Lorien ship lands. In the novel’s prologue, the Mogadorians find and kill Number Three. Number Four, now a fifteen-year-old boy, learns of the death when a scar forms on his ankle while sitting with friends on a pontoon boat in the Gulf of Mexico. Knowing he is next in line to be killed, he jumps into the water and swims the half-mile to shore, underwater most of the way.

Number Four and his guardian Henri pack up and leave their house in Florida to move to Paradise, Ohio. On their drive, Number Four chooses a new name, John Smith, and Henri forges new documents for them both. The remainder of the novel covers John’s attempts to fit in at school and avoid doing anything that will alert the Mogadorians of his location. In Paradise, John meets and immediately falls for Sarah Hart. As Sarah begins to spend more time with John, her ex-boyfriend, Mark James, the school’s football star, becomes jealous and the conflict between Mark and John drives the action in the first half of the novel. The attachment to Sarah holds another danger for John, however; finally connecting with friends, he no longer wishes to live on the run. That attachment leads John to use his powers to rescue Sarah from a fire, alerting the Mogadorians to his location and setting up for the climactic finale.

Officially, Harper Collins promotes I Am Number Four as written by Pittacus Lore, Lorien’s ruling elder. Unofficially, the novel is the product of two authors, Frey and Jobie Hughes, who was still an MFA student when Frey offered to work with him. Although Hughes’s website identifies him as a “#1 New York Times Bestselling Author,” his contract with Frey subjects him to a hefty penalty if he takes public credit for the book that put him on the Best Seller list. The controversies surrounding the contracts Frey has his authors sign have dominated the articles about I Am Number Four. In her New York magazine piece about Full Fathom Five, Suzanne Mozes criticizes Frey’s practice of recruiting MFA students to write content as exploitive because of the lack of control it offers to collaborating authors. She makes it clear that Frey is a more interested in reaping the revenues of the next Twilight than he is in launching the career of the next Stephanie Meyers. Mozes seems to be insulted by Frey’s unapologetic commercialism, but the idea that a content production company is interested in selling content shouldn’t surprise. Rather, it’s other young adult authors who have a right to feel insulted; implicit in Mozes’s comment that “Hughes didn’t go to get an MFA to become a genre writer” is the idea that young adult fiction is an inferior form of writing.

Perhaps Mozes’s beef actually lies with Twilight; critics pan the series’ characters as self-absorbed, and its tendency to delve into melodrama as pandering. Yet, teenagers are prone to both melodrama and self-absorption, and the best writers recognize and use that. Reading I Am Number Four, one gets the sense that Frey and Hughes wanted the replicate the success of Twilight while avoiding its “non-literary” shortcomings. Like Twilight, their novel crosses two highly marketable genres, high concept sci-fi and teenage romance. But missing from the formula is the melodrama—or for that matter, any drama at all.

This absence stems from another: the novel’s lack of character building, which fails to create any real tension. Nearly all of the characters feel like wooden stereotypes. Mark James is the same flat bully character seen in sitcoms. When the novel attempts to flesh out some characters, like telling readers about the wife Henri left on Lorien, it fails to make these characters’ growth a priority. Only Sam, John’s best friend in Paradise, has a backstory that relates to and explains his journey in the novel.

The shallowness of the characters hinders the development of the central relationship in the book, the romance between John and Sarah. Sarah comes off as angelic, capable of elevating herself above the petty drama of her classmates while still remaining popular with all of them. Perhaps she is supposed to be contrasted with Twilight’s protagonist Bella Swan, but while Bella can be frustratingly inept in ways that I’d never want my own daughter to be, she still feel as if she is someone’s daughter. That’s not the case with Sarah Hart: in a book filled with aliens pretending to be humans, she reads like a human pretending to be an alien.

The authors don’t tap into what makes great recent young adult novels worth reading. The characters in Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why and John Green’s award-winning novels have shown the genuine pathos that teenagers can bring to a novel. Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, a beautifully crafted and searching novel about a young girl living in Germany during the Holocaust, reveals the heights to which high concept novels can aspire. Unfortunately, I Am Number Four reads as if its authors have fallen into the very trap they wanted to avoid: thinking young adult fiction is a teenage wasteland and serving up reheated tropes to match.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2010/2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010/2011