Google Search

Friday, September 30, 2011

Review-a-Day for Mon, Aug 29: Universe of Things: Short Fiction

by Gwyneth Jones A review by Matthew Cheney

The Universe of Things collects fifteen short stories published between 1985 and 2009, and one of the most remarkable qualities of the collection is the consistency of Gwyneth Jones's style over that time. With only a few exceptions, the stories, regardless of their point of view, are narrated in an objective, almost affectless tone, the sort of tone that attracts such adjectives as cold, hard, clear, emotionless.

The stories are not emotionless, though; readers' connections to them will depend very much on how well they respond to Jones's style, but the characters often face emotionally wrought situations. In "Grandmother's Footsteps", a woman perceives the house she is renovating to be haunted and a threat to herself and her family. It is a tale of ghosts and madness and maybe something in between, a cousin to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" and James Tiptree, Jr.'s "Your Faces O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light" -- but different from those masterpieces because the narrator's perception of the madness-haunting is restrained, almost reasonable, more like a scientist weighing observations than a person in the midst of deeply disturbing phenomena.

Which may, of course, be part of the point: Life is shell shocking. One of the stories that is most stylistically different from the others in the book, "The Thief, the Princess, and the Cartesian Circle," presents a woman who is a bit more thoroughly mad than the narrator of "Grandmother's Footsteps," and who escapes (or does she?) the realities of her life by imagining herself to be a princess. Jones deftly shifts between the diction of a fairy tale and a tale of contemporary realism, and when the tones shadow each other, what had previously been amusing in the story becomes unsettling:

Jennifer would walk away from this meeting alone and Ralph suspected what his life would be like, after today. He couldn't think of it. He wasn't brave enough. He wanted to stay forever in this steamy café, with this crazy woman; neither of them anywhere else to go.

The magician's staff described a circle in the air. Where it had passed, a white line stayed. The circle enclosed nothing.

Many of the tales in The Universe of Things depict family relationships, the sometimes-fraught power negotiations of husbands and wives, or the complexities of parenthood. "La Cenerentola" explores the landscape of motherhood and desire, hopes and dreams, in a near-future world of cloning and gene therapy where two women and their daughter encounter a widow with perfect twins and one other, less perfect, daughter (La Cenerentola is an opera by Rossini; the title translates as Cinderella). The story is nearly ruined by an over-explicit final paragraph, but until that point it is a model of how evocative Jones's restrained style can be.

"Blue Clay Blues" is among the most vivid and complete stories in the collection, and it, too, fuses the commonalities of parenthood to more extraordinary experiences. The setting is a future world ravaged by plague, where rich elites have holed up in self-contained environments and left the less fortunate masses to suffer. A reporter has gone out to investigate a source of almost magic energy known as "blue clay," and he's had to bring his young daughter with him, because it's his day to look after her. "Blue Clay Blues" is admirable for the fullness of its vision; Jones is aware of the ways technological change overlaps with social change, and even in a story under thirty pages long, she is able to suggest particularities of place and trends of race, class, and gender, giving the tale a stronger sense of verisimilitude than is available in many much longer works.

Quite a few of the stories in The Universe of Things are set in the worlds of some of Jones's novels, and readers' pleasure with most of these tales will likely be determined by their knowledge of the novels, mainly the Aleutian Trilogy (White Queen, North Wind, Phoenix Cafe), as some of the stories' depths are inaccessible without knowing how they fit into the larger context. The title story, though an Aleutian story, is one that stands well on its own, because at heart it is about a simple encounter between a mechanic and an alien's automobile. The implications are anything but simple, though, for Jones offers readers much to think about craft and value and self-respect, about alienness and empathy.

The narrator of The Universe of Things tells us that the mechanic "had been touched by the world of the other, and he simply had to bring away something: some kind of proof." Jones's best stories are that kind of proof for readers -- we glimpse a world of otherness, and when our eyes turn back to look at the ordinary, the invisibly everyday, it no longer looks the same. Click here to subscribe

Get a year of Rain Taxi for only $15!

Rain Taxi, a winner of the Alternative Press Award for Best Arts & Literature Coverage, is a quarterly publication that publishes reviews of literary fiction, poetry, and nonfiction with an emphasis on works that push the boundaries of language, narrative, and genre. Essays, interviews, and in-depth reviews reflect Rain Taxi's commitment to innovative publishing.

Click here to subscribe to Rain Taxi, ride of choice for the Lit Fiend! .


View the original article here

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Review-a-Day for Mon, Aug 22: Open City

by Teju Cole A review by Laird Hunt

Teju Cole's second novel builds on the promise of his first (Every Day is for the Thief, Cassava Republic, 2007). Here, as in his elegant debut, which was set largely in Lagos, Nigeria, a circumspect walker explores both the visible and invisible aspects of the cities he is drawn to. The scale of Open City, which moves from New York to Brussels to Lagos (and a Nigerian military boarding school), is greater than its more compressed predecessor though, and the central questions of what it means to live strung between past and present, geography and desire, the known and the unknowable are more richly and complicatedly posed.

Julius, the narrator, is a Nigerian-German psychiatrist finishing his residency in New York. In his spare time, he walks the city. Sometimes he visits an old Japanese-American professor, or meets with friends, or chats with a fellow immigrant cab driver, but mostly he is alone and in motion. Or, rather, Julius is alone and in the curious non-motion of the reflective wanderer, whose wide-ranging thoughts, deepened and developed after the fact, would seem to undercut any reasonable ambulation. So it is that a walk past Trinity Church in lower Manhattan leads to an inventory of the famous people interned there and, later, a visit to "ground zero" prompts a meditation on the long history of violence on that ground and the observation that the events of September 11 were not the site's first obliteration: "And, before that? What Lenape paths lay buried beneath the rubble? The site was a palimpsest, as was all the city, written, erased, rewritten."

Perhaps not surprisingly, Julius is more interesting, and Cole more original, in his observations that look away from heavily historicized and mediatized events and locales. What he has to say about Manhattan and its current denizens, for example, is often extraordinary:

This strangest of islands, I thought, as I looked out to the sea, this island that turned in on itself, and from which water had been banished. The shore was a carapace, permeable only at certain selected points. Where in this riverine city could one fully sense a riverbank? Everything was built up, in concrete and stone, and the millions who lived on the tiny interior had scant sense about what flowed around them.
What makes this and the many other compound observations found throughout the book work so effectively is Cole's ability to pay his thought forward, often to considerable length, without letting go of the light, almost delicate touch that infuses it. Julius doesn't belabor his observations, he patiently invites them to unfurl:
Perhaps this is what we mean by sanity: that, whatever our self-admitted eccentricities might be, we are not the villains of our own stories. In fact, it is quite the contrary: we play, and only play, the hero, and in the swirl of other people's stories, insofar as those stories concern us at all, we are never less than heroic.
The past, which serves as both hook to pull Julius back and goad to move him forward, is kept safely at bay during Julius' mental and physical wanderings. This suits Julius, who feels equally drawn to his memories and vaguely repelled by them, just fine. His peculiar dilemma, one shared in various ways by the immigrants and exiles that everywhere surround him, is that in the meantime the present sits on its own troubling set of tenterhooks. His uneasiness is amplified by the parts of his past, fully embodied as it turns out in his present, that he is unable or unwilling to confront.

Cole's writing, it has to be said, is profoundly influenced by the work of W. G. Sebald. Cole seems quite comfortable in acknowledging the debt, and even if he here forgoes the grainy uncaptioned photographs he used in Every Day is for the Thief, he nevertheless includes references to Sebald's favorite themes -- emigrants, the Congo, traces of atrocity reaching deep into the past, doppelgangers, paintings and photographs that replace actual memories, easily and constantly available erudition, etc. -- all the way through Open City. I draw attention to this not as a reproach, but because unlike the flood of merely Sebaldesque works currently in circulation, Cole's is authentically Sebaldian -- and, because the influence has been so powerfully and openly metabolized, very much his own. Click here to subscribe

Get a year of Rain Taxi for only $15!

Rain Taxi, a winner of the Alternative Press Award for Best Arts & Literature Coverage, is a quarterly publication that publishes reviews of literary fiction, poetry, and nonfiction with an emphasis on works that push the boundaries of language, narrative, and genre. Essays, interviews, and in-depth reviews reflect Rain Taxi's commitment to innovative publishing.

Click here to subscribe to Rain Taxi, ride of choice for the Lit Fiend! .


View the original article here

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Review-a-Day for Mon, Sep 5: Big Sex Little Death: A Memoir

by Susie Bright A review by Peter S. Scholtes

How many erotic minds did Susie Bright open? Her influence on the happiest cultural sea change of the past quarter-century -- the broadening American attitude toward sex, sexuality, and homosexuality -- was profound, if indirect. After editing the pioneering lesbian erotic magazine On Our Backs in the 1980s, she published a collection of carnal advice columns in 1990, Susie Sexpert's Lesbian Sex World (Cleis Press), which established her as an uncommon voice of reason on a subject -- sex -- that causes so many thoughtful people to lose their heads.

Bright rejected shame and timidity posing as egalitarian enlightenment. She wrote candidly about fisting, butch-femme role-playing, and kink. She said she aspired to be the Pauline Kael of porn, and you can hear in her writing some of that other Californian's provocative, hip-motherly tone. She became bohemia's great sex educator instead: radical and feminist in the tradition of Ellen Willis, defending dirty fantasy for its own sake, but in blunt, cheerful prose. Four more collections of essays followed in the '90s alone, joining two erotic anthology series she launched and edited. If her attitude is tough to distinguish now from the prevailing sensibility on campus, that's a measure of how much the margins define thought in America.

Not that Bright takes credit for any of that in Big Sex Little Death, her new memoir, which ends in the '90s with her moving to Santa Cruz (with her male partner and daughter) to teach a university course on pornography. The book is an intimate account of the history she helped make, but it's like an epic shot entirely in close-up, skimping on context, and without any pretension that her story matters to anyone but her. The mind changing she takes pride in is all individual, like her one-on-one interactions with customers walking into Good Vibrations, the San Francisco vibrator store where she worked in the '80s. "One little chat," she writes, "and they wouldn't think they needed to rely on someone else for their orgasm."

Bright had been a revolutionary before she was a sexual revolutionary. Leaving an abusive mother in Canada who once threatened her with murder-suicide ("I'm driving us into the river"), she moved to live with her father in Los Angeles in the early '70s and attended University High School, where she became a "score girl" for the swim team and joined the socialist newspaper The Red Tide. She started having sex with men and women -- one of each, together, her first time. Before a swim banquet at the Playboy club, she had never been on a date: "I just went to meetings and demos and ended up in bed with my friends."

In this radical milieu, where "everyone was down with women's liberation and nonmonogamy," Bright saw utopia. "No one would bother to be jealous. Who would have the time? Sex would be friendly and kind and fun. You'd get to see what everyone was like in bed."

Bright found kindness, at first, in the International Socialists, a small but national Trotskyist organization that emphasized forming industrial unions where there were none and reforming existing ones, such as the then-notorious Teamsters. Bright's labor organizing brought her to African American communities in Detroit and Louisville. But she doesn't shape her story enough to say exactly how she got "an FBI file three inches thick" there. Her most vivid descriptions are emotional. Expelled in the mid-'70s, along with half of the group's membership, she writes, "I was accused of joining or leading a cult of personality. Which one? I didn't know what my personality was anymore."

Easing other people's minds about sex became Bright's mission. She remembered a fellow student in one of her women's studies classes who raised her hand and confessed to "rape fantasies" only to be told by classmates that she'd been brainwashed by the patriarchy. Bright kept quiet about her own taboo daydreams, and her sense that the term her fellow students used was something of a misnomer by definition: "In fantasy, I got only as scared as I wanted to be. I was only as subservient or sadistic as I cared to conjure. It started and ended with my trigger finger. Contrary to my real life, fantasies were...mine."

Yet this battle with the literal-minded strain of anti-sexism took on the anguish of a sectarian split in feminism, particularly as On Our Backs -- its very title a tweak of the anti-porn women's publication off our backs -- forced the issue. Bright writes that some women's bookstores, such as A Room of One's Own in Madison, Wisconsin, "issued press releases in which they accused us of being virulent racists and anti-Semitists, of practicing female genocide, of endorsing white slavery, of being pimps masquerading as women." Death threats and protests came, eventually followed by curiosity over what all the fuss had been about.

In the end, as Bright writes, "Madison Avenue took the sizzle of the lesbian feminist sex wars and put it in their own steak. How do you get from Patti Smith to Girls Gone Wild?" (Short version: Nobody and the Internet won.)

Yet there was more in those dirty pictures. Bright writes that "male magazines' centerfolds of female models were about: Am I pretty? Am I darling?" By contrast, "the great relief of dyke porn was that all that went out the window. We had an objective on our minds; we didn't need to be reassured that we were 'hot.' We had a sexual story to tell. We asked each participant, 'What's yours?'"

Bright must sense that this epiphany is the heart of her story, the point of her musical, but she has so many other passions and loves to honor: her parents, who get many, many chapters before our main character enters the picture, plus numerous lovers, friends, and benefactors to whom she owes a debt of description. This cascade of personal history becomes sprawling -- there still seems to be something of the young Susie pleasing everyone here. But her story is far from over, and it's too good to pass up for being less than perfect.

Click here to subscribe

Get a year of Rain Taxi for only $15!

Rain Taxi, a winner of the Alternative Press Award for Best Arts & Literature Coverage, is a quarterly publication that publishes reviews of literary fiction, poetry, and nonfiction with an emphasis on works that push the boundaries of language, narrative, and genre. Essays, interviews, and in-depth reviews reflect Rain Taxi's commitment to innovative publishing.

Click here to subscribe to Rain Taxi, ride of choice for the Lit Fiend! .


View the original article here

Monday, September 26, 2011

Review-a-Day for Thu, Sep 1: Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness Signed Edition

by Alexandra Fuller A review by Sarah Cypher

Alexandra Fuller returns to the African landscape in her memoir, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness. It accepts the curious task of being both a prequel and a sequel to her 2001 debut, Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood. With a love of landscape, a historian's lens and a knack for laugh-out-loud satire aimed at her mother's narcissism, Fuller tells the broader story of her family's participation in the Rhodesian civil war.

Fuller's mother is a "one million percent Scottish" descendant of ancestors to whom "land is good; blood-soaked land is better; and land soaked in the blood of one's ancestors is best." The sentiment seems odd, though, when we see the fervor with which Nicola embraces Africa, and later defends her part of it with an Uzi. She thinks of herself as "Nicola Fuller of Central Africa," a designation repeated so often that it becomes a humorous refrain. It is typical of the memoir's humor, in fact, rising from the author's sustained shock at her mother's gauche, imperial attitudes: Nicola behaves "as if she were a third-person participant in a movie starring herself, a perfect horse and a flawless equatorial light. The violence and the injustices that came with colonialism seem -- in my mother's version of events -- to have happened in some other unwatched movie, to some other unwatched people."

In widening its angle, Cocktail Hour transcends a criticism that Dogs, by being limited to a child's perspective, went too soft on colonial racism. Fuller tackles the curious tension between the two narratives: Nicola's skewed version of her place in history, and the self-aware memoir that encompasses Nicola and the simmering conflicts that erupted across Africa as colonies became nations. What unites the two narratives is a fierce love of land. Neither succumbing to white self-hatred nor stooping to colonial apologia, Fuller begins to explore the crumbly moral ground of being attached to a place that does not belong to you. She writes about the inevitable negotiation of belonging, the claims and counterclaims on land, the cultural and personal memories at stake, and the debts paid in work and blood.

Like the rest of Rhodesians, the Fuller family found itself on the wrong side of history, but in losing the war, a series of farms and three of five children, they tell a complex story of adaptation and reconciliation. Fuller reminds us what peace actually looks like. It is not the silent peace of an absolute victory, but the humble and constant negotiation of one existence among others.

The Oregonian The Oregonian is the online source for comprehensive coverage of the Northwest literary scene. Its daily books report includes news, reviews, and poetry, as well as essays and opinions from local authors.

Plus: The paper's award-winning books section, published on Sundays, strips the buzz from national bestsellers and directs readers to little-known regional gems in a concise package.

New subscribers can receive four weeks of home delivery free as part of a trial offer.


View the original article here

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Review-a-Day for Fri, Aug 26: Intellectuals Incorporated: Politics, Art, and Ideas Inside Henry Luce's Media Empire (Politics and Culture in Modern America)

Review-a-Day for Sat, Sep 3: Robinson Crusoe (Modern Library Classics)

by Daniel Defoe A review by Doug Brown

The first thing that surprised me upon picking up a copy of Robinson Crusoe is how long ago it was written. It was published in 1721, when the American colonies were just that. Slavery was the unquestioned institution of the day, even in England; William Wilberforce wouldn't be born for another 40 years. Sailing ships from one place to another was still a very risky proposition; before finally being cast away on a Caribbean island for almost 30 years, Crusoe survives two other shipwrecks. Many scholars assume Defoe was influenced by the popular account of Alexander Selkirk, who was marooned on an island for four years the decade before.

Much of the book is a meditation on a person alone, and how isolation might affect a man. Crusoe first builds barricades around his tents to keep animals out (his island is well populated with goats and wild cats). He doesn't make a gate; he gets over the barricade with a ladder that he pulls in after himself, in case other people might be about. He throws himself into industrious labor; growing crops, teaching himself pottery to make cooking pots and containers, and becoming quite the basket weaver. He also learns to make clothing from the skins of animals he has caught and killed; I had never spotted that the last name Taylor is an alternate spelling of tailor (Defoe spells it taylor throughout).

Midway through the book, when Crusoe famously sees that single bare footprint in the sand, you might expect him to be ecstatic at not being alone. Instead, he spends the next two years beefing up his fortifications, setting up rifles ready to be fired through windows in his barricade. He is more cautious about setting fires or using his firearms, for fear of being found. His fear isn't just isolationist paranoia; cannibals are foremost in his mind, and every whisper of the wind becomes their footsteps. And sure enough (spoiler alert!), that is who it turns out to be. Canoes of people come from the mainland -- oh, yeah, here are a few surprising details -- which is only 40 miles away, visible from the island, and Crusoe has a boat. And, yet, he never thinks of heading to the mainland, for fear of being invited to dinner in the wrong sense of the word. For when people come to the island, they are indeed cannibals, coming to eat some captives and then go back home.

After witnessing this, Crusoe has a dark night of the soul where first he plans to murder the cannibals, next time they come, then questions whether that would make him no better than them. But on their next visit, a man they are planning to eat runs away, and Crusoe springs into action, killing the cannibals along with the man's help. There is no question whatsoever that this man will now become Crusoe's de facto slave. Indeed, for the rest of the book he is usually not referred to as Friday, the day that Crusoe saved him, but most commonly by the now famous phrase "my Man Friday."

Having written a thoughtful story up to the point that Crusoe gets back to Europe, Defoe unfortunately stumbles at the finish line. At the very end of the book there are some battles with wolves and bears in the Alps that are just plain absurd. At one point his small band fights off what Crusoe estimates to be three hundred wolves (hmm, okay). After 250 pages of intelligently looking at how much a single man needs in order to subsist on an island, Defoe doesn't bother to consider how a pack of 300 wolves could possibly subsist anywhere. If a major studio made an accurate film of the book, everyone would accuse Hollywood of tacking on an unrealistic action scene at the end, just to end with a bang (or, rather, a whole bunch of bangs).

Despite the ending and the datedness of the language, this is one of those books that deserves the appellation "a classic for all ages." I assume most children's versions of the book are set in a more readable fashion than the more accurate Modern Library edition, which preserves Defoe's capitalizations. This was a Time when all Nouns were capitalized, and Proper Nouns italicized, which takes the Eye some getting used to. Defoe also rarely uses periods; his paragraphs are like this: concatenations of sentences separated; by colons: and semicolons. After a while you don't notice it, though. The Modern Library edition also has the obligate introduction that all classics must have; this one is written by some woman named Virginia Woolf (who'd a thunk she'd be a big Robinson Crusoe fan?). The laudatory cover quote comes from a review written by a guy called Edgar Allan Poe; in an appendix, we get his full review (unlike Woolf, I fully get Poe being a fan of this book). A meditative and (mostly) realistic book, Robinson Crusoe isn't as rollicking as its successor Treasure Island; however, there are still gun battles aplenty, shipwrecks, cannibals, and battles with wild beasts. Think of the difference between the films Pirates of the Caribbean and Master and Commander; the first is more fun, but the latter is a better film that more honestly portrays its time. Likewise, Treasure Island is more fun, but I feel that Robinson Crusoe is the better book.


View the original article here

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Review-a-Day for Tue, Aug 30: Juvenilia (Yale Series of Younger Poets #104)

by Ken Chen A review by William La Ganza

The photo on the cover of Juvenilia is a still from a movie directed by Wong Kar-Wai. It shows a man with his back to the viewer, walking away down a muddy road lined with palm trees. The man in his tropical Chinese landscape stands in contrast to the title, Juvenilia, which evokes childhood toys, as well as Yale, with its clipped lawns. Yet the man's clothes are Western; in Juvenilia, Ken Chen looks at the past as a contemporary American inhabited by ancestors and images from China and Taiwan, by moods and voices, and their expression both free and constrained.

On the surface there is play, like the title of the first poem, "My Father and My Mother Decide My Future and How Could We Forget Wang Wei?" This title is ironical and cheeky: Wang Wei, an ancestral patriarch, can never be forgotten. Humour seems to be a way of coping with the obligations toward parents and grandparents: "My grandfather is packing up his organs" we are told, invited to laugh at the dead old man's expense. The ghost then takes a taxi. We laugh again -- then are calmed by the grip of patriarchs on the poet's destiny:

So did you listen to him, my Father says taking his keys out of the ignition. You should
become a lawyer but your grandfather says anything is fine. As long as you're the best.

-- p. 3

The mother, complicit, "stays silent." The poet, belittled, regresses, "I sit and suck my thumb." Mother, who is "like the moon which rents light from its past," is sycophantic to her husband's dead father. She tells him his "painting... was beautiful," to which old Wang Wei replies in the style of five-character Tang verse complete with sibilant assonance:

In the silent bamboo woods, sitting along
Playing strings and bellowing long.

-- p. 4

Chen the poet is playing and seems to be enjoying himself. He moves in this poem from the outrageously long and ironic title, to a movie-script style shot description with the sentence "Dissolve." And to fantastic narrative, to ancient Chinese pastoral, and personal narratives, among others. The venerated Wang Wei's verse is immediately followed by words iconoclastical to both Tang poetic conceits and the new culture they have adopted:

But America is allergic to bamboo, my father says to Wang Wei. They
love skill sets, cash and the first person singular,
the language of C++ not our English.

-- p. 4

Underneath the play, however, is the pain of being rejected for not being of either the old culture or the new: for having imperfect English and "forget[ting] Chinese he never remembered," like what he listened to when his mother played "the Peking opera" on the radio. There is his parents' divorce, and the disillusionment that his wise and patronizing father is perhaps not as sure-footed and well-orientated as he seemed:

My father unlocks the door and says, Dropped the keys in the toilet. But that's what
life is like. You're young... you don't understand the world

-- p. 4

There is also the threat that patriarchs might invest the self to the extent of annihilating all agency. A dead patriarch can seem real, "as though a ghost could die into a man." This ghost-man can then decide one's life:

And Wang Wei asks Who are
And my Father says, Decide.

-- p. 5

Death and its inevitability, the vicissitudes of love, adapting to the American culture, and the aliveness of dead ancestors are themes throughout this collection. These concerns are engendered in childhood and their persistence underpins an ongoing dialectic between the adult and the child. All these themes are present in "At Taipei station, I saw this city undress!": the dead grandfather "manages to crawl into / a glass jar that we slide into a birch box." The undertaker remarks, "This is only what will happen to everyone," and the poet warns, "Adjust your eyes to the unlit room." The portent of death and the pain or mourning appears in the form of "Graffiti... Who kill my soul?" in which the grammatical transgression reflects challenges of literacy in their new country, the U.S.A.

In "There are two types of trees in winter," the legacy a family elder leaves the family before and after death is difficult for family members to deal with. It is "as if merely by existing, we erect a history of regret ready to be lived ahead of us." While the poet's father is "on the phone with his girlfriend" and suffering from ailments "[w]e never talked about," the unspoken family, ill at ease, seems to be expressing itself via the poet's skin, in the form of an "ineffable pox across my arms and torso." "Taipei novel" appears to be about the meeting of the poet's father and his lover. A woman who has "cheated on her husband" is physically but not morally attractive, being "lonely and perfect, if we do not count her self." The glorified individualism of the US is also unattractive to the immigrant lovers, whose "hatred for Top Gun was commensurate with their hatred of humidity." In contrast, the woman admires the man's "humourless joy and his earnestness", and when she "touched his knee... they both felt guilty." Away from her, the father lives in regret, as the poetry contains a vivid, tactile image:

When I am alone, I feel pentinent, my heart damp like cold metal

This line recalls the autopsy in "At Taipei station, I saw this city undress!" during which "they have some problems stripping the veins from [grandfather's] chest."

Juvenilia presents an unsentimental view of childhood. In "The Mansions of the Moon," the poet-child sees adults "together, growing alone"; in "Yes, No, Yes, The Future, Gone, Happy, Yes, No, Yes, Cut, You" the poet's sense of humour as seen in the title dwindles at the line "You are so good at being happy," pointing to the sadness that can underlie joy, and at the ruthlessness that can underlie communications with those we love. The poet asks, "Are questions like relationships?" and the answer:

One can use a question mark for many things. For example: as a
sickle for cutting people's hearts off.

-- p. 34

Finally, the poet turns to sarcasm to comment on family elders who, despite their life experience, have disillusioned those who are supposed to esteem them.

The earth is a millstone that sharpens us into saint

-- p. 58

Disillusionment leads to nihilism, as when his parents separated and denied all promise of reunion:

Since the separation was irrevocable, the enemy was hope.

Which left him with a nihilistic joy.

-- p. 57

In "The Invisible Memoir," the narrator seems to find some peace in nostalgia for his "Uncle's house -- the happiest time of my life," just when all seems lost:

My gold sword sunk into the ground.
My spirit lost among the long weeds.
Then in the cool night. Then in the quiet sky. Then the moon
blossoming open.
My mind goes back to those old hallways, but now only
the light glows hollow on the waters of Ch'in-huai.

-- p. 65

The poet's mother is "homesick," the family no longer understands the Chinese language, which is like a "white space" in the mind. The exiled person is like a headless body. We are told that "decapitation" carries a "great sorrow" because after death "the body will appear in the realms below without a head." Memory can be cruel when the longing for and absence from one's country of birth is revived: "I had forgotten about all of this -- my self, this exile." One needs to look away from the pain, and in this mood the poet reaches to the lyrical traditions of Tang verse, particularly to Li Lu, the "inventor of the confessional voice in Chinese lyric poetry." In his contemporary conceit, however, there exists a background of poisoned beauty, as suggested in "the smog moist over weeping willows," and of inevitability, as in "This is the sorrow of leaving no other taste in my heart." In pathos, the poet reaches for his optimism, for a moment of happiness as he contemplates his place in the universe:

Again in pleasure.
I am starting to think -- that when the sun
is setting and you are resting alone, it's better not
to look south to those streams and hills. Leaving
them was easy -- but going back last night
was hard. The waters flowing away. The flowers
breaking the ground. Spring has also left.
That heaven, this earth.

-- p. 69

William La Ganza, , a contributing editor of Cerise Press, currently lives in Paris, France. An Honorary Associate at Macquarie University in Sydney, he specialises in language pedagogy. He has authored a chapbook of poetry, Meeting Her in Paris (La Petite Maison, 1998), and regularly reads short stories and poetry in Parisian bookshops.

This review was first published in Cerise Press. Click here to subscribe Cerise Press, an international online journal based in the United States and France, builds cross-cultural bridges by featuring artists and writers in English and translations, with an emphasis on French and Francophone works.

Co-founded by Sally Molini, Karen Rigby, and Fiona Sze-Lorrain in 2009, Cerise Press hopes to serve as a gathering force where imagination, insight, and conversation express the evolving and shifting forms of human experience.

To contact Cerise Press, please email

The Summer 2011, Vol. 3 Issue 7 of Cerise Press features Railway Shed 1895, Dunston, a photograph by Tina Carr & Annemarie Schöne.


View the original article here

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Review-a-Day for Tue, Aug 23: French Cinema

by Charles Drazin A review by Jose-Luis Moctezuma

When one thinks of "French cinema" a certain tendency is evoked by the residue of classic francophone films that were, from the perspective of those who loved cinema but who did not grow up speaking French, considerably quieter and, perhaps, subtler than the mainstream Hollywood films. This presumed tendency in French cinema to come across as intellectual and "mature" in comparison with its American counterpart is one bound up with a kind of traveler's nostalgia for crisp black-and-white images that crackled like old newspaper and lovesick, chatty movies that brought attention to themselves as extraordinary metafictions, "a cinema in love with cinema." For me, at least, my first meaningful encounter with French cinema was Jules et Jim, and its indexical image was that of Jeanne Moreau blithely singing "Le Tourbillon de la vie," an iconic scene which always struck me as unavoidably, even obstinately, French, as if Francois Truffaut -- its realisateur -- had secretly attempted to integrate the elliptical, New Wave-soaked rhythm of Jules et Jim within the illustrious continuity of France's tradition de la qualitye. Truffaut's insertion of a chanson whose charm and cadence seemed to evoke a nostalgia for the Golden Age romanticism of directors like Julien Duvivier and Marcel Carne is an irony Charles Drazin picks up on in his book French Cinema. That Truffaut and other members of the French New Wave are now as canonical as the old school predecessors they theorized and rallied against punctuates the strange capacity of French cinema to remain a unified genealogy of film even after a century of cultural ruptures and technologic revolutions.

For the audience of today, the current ethos of French cinema began with the Nouvelle Vague of the late 1950s/early 1960s, when the (now august) names of Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Alain Resnais, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, Louis Malle and others arrived on the international scene. French cinema obviously has a history stretching as far back to the Lumiere brothers and the invention of the cinematographe, but its conceptualization as a cinema which resisted the straightforward avenues of entertainment and spectacle could be blamed more or less on the free-verse style of those directors. Though it is possible to partition the Nouvelle Vague, on the one hand, into those auteurs who were accessible narrative-wise, such as Truffaut, Chabrol, and Malle, and those, on the other hand, who doggedly resisted the mainstream and/or became increasingly hermetic as they grew older, i.e. Godard, Resnais, and Rivette, the cumulative effect of their organized effort to shake up the cultural stagnation of a depoliticized, conformist, post-war French cinema resulted not only in a complete reevaluation of French cultural tradition, but also helped establish the historicity of the cinema as an art form in league with the storied legacies of literature and the plastic arts.

When Truffaut railed against the moral and aesthetic complacency of French traditionalist filmmaking in his landmark essay, "Une certaine tendance du cinema francais" (1954), he excoriated the scenario-focused "literary" cinema of directors like Claude Autant-Lara and Jean Delannoy for relying too much on the artifices of time-worn adaptations and less on the cinematic potential of the auteur's powers of personal expression. For one thing, as Drazin points out, the increased accessibility and affordability of film technology in the 1950s -- most importantly in the introduction of the Kodak Tri-X film, which made it possible to shoot almost anywhere cheaply and with minimal light -- promoted a culture of self-initiative that allowed critics like Truffaut, Godard, and Rohmer to produce and direct their own films. These films functioned as critiques-on-celluloid which demonstrated the manner in which a revolution in film aesthetics could occur and the historiographic material on which they could base a simultaneously retrospective and forward-thinking renovation of French cinema. Truffaut et al found themselves directly quoting the movies they meant to praise or satirize within the rhetoric of their own work, enthralled as they were by a spirit of cinematic bricolage that strove to assemble a transnational canon in the name of a politique des auteurs. One had to build up a tower of assorted histories and counter-histories, as it were, in order to raze (or reform) it from inside its walls.

Drazin makes the claim that a lot of the revolutionary pursuits undertaken by "the children of Tri-X" carried an ideological bias which blinded them to the exemplary value of classical realisateurs like Duvivier and Carne. Precisely because these Golden Age directors were able to thrive in a collaboration-dependent studio system similar to the mogul-led closed networks of Hollywood, they were essentially no different from the American and British "auteurs" (like John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Alfred Hitchcock) who were unanimously championed by the New Wave theorists. While the inception of the French New Wave momentarily helped reinvigorate international interest in French cinema as a whole (after a post-war period of diminished returns), the movement paradoxically stifled the long term reach of its own commercial interests, while at the same time inspiring a cinematic renaissance in the American film market of the late 1960s and 1970s (such as was witnessed in the critical and/or fiscal success of the films of Coppola, Scorsese, and Cassavetes). For the average movie goer, the idea of the French cinema came to languish yet again, only this time invoking either the abstruse meta-critical constructions of a theorist like Godard or the muted moral inquiries of a thinker like Rohmer. French cinema could not kick its reputation of being a cinema defined by the permanent quality of difference: "A means of achieving differentiation from the Hollywood product, the New Wave was a powerful brand that established the cinema d'auteur as the standard for the way in which French cinema was perceived outside France. But built as it was around an elitist film-making that was of minority appeal even within France, the movement served to encourage the French cinema's marginalisation" (p. 354).

Though Drazin's French Cinema, as the title suggests, serves as a general introduction to the labyrinthine corridors of the medium's other great parent, part of its implicit design is to restore the prestige of the under-watched Golden Age of French cinema by reexamining how the Nouvelle Vague -- which by our time has become synonymous with the contemporary notion of "French cinema" by virtue of its recalcitrant self-reflexivity -- owes a great deal to the past masters it ignored or never bothered to salute. Along with the singular examples of Jean Vigo, Jean Renoir, Jean Cocteau, Jean-Pierre Melville, and Robert Bresson (all of whom were proto-New Wave models who received their share of recognition), less appreciated directors like Sacha Guitry, Julien Duvivier, and Marcel Carne, and screenwriters like Charles Spaak, Jacques Prevert, Pierre Bost, and Jean Aurenche, are given deeper consideration by Drazin. One noteworthy example of Drazin's ability to unveil the subconscious influence which the Golden Age still wielded on the New Wave is in his analysis of how the iconic final scene of Truffaut's Les Quatre cents coups -- in which the boy-hero Antoine Doinel runs away at full pace from a reformatory until he reaches the sea, a scene which ends with an archetypal final freeze-frame -- uncannily resembles the ending of Duvivier's Poil de Carotte, in which the titular character, also a boy who endures a hard childhood, runs furiously away from a party at which he suffers humiliation, as a way of escaping the emotional burden which drives him past open fields and country roads in a velocity of images that undoubtedly had been imprinted in Truffaut's mind.

Drazin also specializes in British cinema (he has written a book on "Britian's only movie mogul," Alexander Korda) and he finds several occasions to create analogues for French and British filmmakers. The work of Lindsay Anderson and the British New Wave of the 1960s are likened to the cinema of Jean Vigo, to the extent that they were "even more true to Vigo's concept of the 'social cinema' than the French New Wave, which in the tendency to make a fetish of the cinema...risked losing sight of the actual world that Vigo believed the cinema should reflect" (p. 85). Robert Hamer's Kind Hearts and Coronets, which uses devices of memoir, epigrammatic wit, and paradoxical situations to darkly comedic effect, finds a perfect correlative in Sacha Guitry's picaresque films. Graham Greene turns out to serve as a useful introduction to Julien Duvivier, a director the English writer highly admired, and whose own forays into screenwriting would reflect a Duvivier-style romantic fatalism. The director-screenwriter team of Marcel Carne and Jacques Prevert finds its parallel across the Channel in the equally legendary partnership of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

rapprochements on which its divisive history predicated itself: "Running through the French cinema lay a polarity between chaos and order; flair and convention; art and commerce" (p. 343). As a film historian, Drazin specializes in examining the commercial development of the cinema as an art form that was immediately compromised by its potential for rapid industrialization. In the case of French cinema, it was forced by the monopoly interests of Hollywood to acknowledge that a large part of its survival would depend as much on its international reach and appeal as it would on domestic resonance and success. Indeed, from its very beginning, cinema was the product of highly competitive capitalist interests that grew out of its technological origin.

When Thomas Edison's Kinetoscope premiered in Europe in 1894, August and Louis Lumiere, the sons of Antoine Lumiere and heirs of the family photography business, were instantly motivated to find a better and more efficient means of recording and projecting moving images. Whereas the images of the Kinetoscope could only be seen through a peephole, the Lumiere brothers conceived a way of projecting images onto a screen, an improvement which would increase the size of the audience, boost ticket sales, and even augment the social experience of the spectator. Another amelioration the Lumière brothers enacted was to reduce the cost and weight of Edison's fairly laborious mechanism: "Edison's Kinetograph -- the machine that recorded the images the Kinetoscope showed -- was a heavy, immobile, battery-powered contraption that required a horse-drawn wagon to move it out of the 'Black Maria,' the crude studio in which Edison's early films were shot. By contrast, the cinematographe was light enough to be carried about outdoors by a single operator. It did not require electricity to use and...was able to carry out all three operations of motion-picture making: 'It was at once a camera, printer, and a projector'" (pp. 3-4).

Interestingly, the Lumiee brothers chose not to capitalize on their machine; instead, they trained and sent a team of cameramen to travel around the world with the purpose of demonstrating the wonders of the cinematographe for public exhibition and filming the faraway places to where they traveled: "This enterprise amounted to the first coherent documentation of the world -- the first opportunity for a film audience to see gondolas floating down the Grand Canal, omnibuses crossing Westminster Bridge, camels strolling past the pyramids and Sphinx in Egypt." There is perhaps no better polarity in the relationship of French cinema to its American counterpart than in the fact that the Lumiere brothers devoted the use of their Cinematographe to the documentation of real scenes, real people, and real locations, while Edison's company necessarily restricted the use of their peephole camera, which could not move beyond the Black Maria theater without incurring great cost and labor, to the showcase of "dancers, acrobats, and contortionists," a gimmick that would "struggle to escape the amusement arcades." Almost at once, the French cinema would be distinguished by its valuation of the "real" in lieu of the fantastic or artificially strange, a polarity which may have diminished over the years, but which nonetheless reflects the distinctly French fascination for realism, whether in the guise of the social, the poetic or the psychological.

Returning to our discussion of the politique des auteurs, one final example may suffice to show how the theory of the auteur had not begun with Truffaut and co. after all. If the Lumiere brothers, along with Edison, shared dual parentage over the technological realization of the cinema, then Georges Melies may be said to have been the first film auteur the world had ever seen. Melies not only built his own film camera by modeling it on a projector he bought from English film pioneer Robert Paul, he even developed his own way of sprocketing and processing raw film stock without any prior training or experience. A born showman who owned, managed, and starred in the Theatre Robert-Houdin (in which Melies frequently used the magic lantern, the direct predecessor of the cinema, as a star attraction), Melies instinctually began to record card tricks and feats of magic on camera. It wasn't until he accidentally discovered how to employ the "stop-trick" (in which objects and people "disappear" or change into other objects and people, merely by stopping the camera, rearranging the scene, and recording again) that Melies effectively became an auteur: with the creation of the first special effect, Melies stumbled on a means of cinematic manipulation that would stand in for his signature technique. Melies' short film L'Homme d'orchestre, which Drazin describes with particular relish, is probably the most succinct expression of auteur theory available, made more than fifty years before the concept would be articulated. Melies' film is only sixty seconds and its action is direct and simple: Melies walks into a room of empty chairs, proceeds to sit down in one of them, then, by using a single special effect repeatedly, he manages to rise up from the chair leaving a ghostly double behind him, only for this second Melies to leave a third, and the third to leave a fourth Melies, and so forth, until all seven chairs are filled with multiple versions of himself holding and playing different musical instruments, and the "orchestra" is completed. Melies conducts himself with great aplomb, and while all the different ghostly versions of him play and chatter independently, it is always Melies at the forefront, Melies who directs himself and who plays himself, whose imagination makes full use of the camera-stylo he constructed himself.

When Gaumont and Pathe, the first French movie studios, respectively consolidated their talent and resources in the attempt of competing with the American studios, they advanced the state and production of filmmaking so quickly that Melies' cinema of primitive special effects became suddenly anachronistic. Melies, who was nevertheless respected and admired by his peers and by the heads of Gaumont and Pathe for his workhorse qualities, was offered multiple chances of working for the big studios, who promised to provide him with solid financial backing and creative freedom. Melies declined repeatedly to work under them (giving in only once toward the end of his career), so stubbornly was he committed to his own private vision of the world, a world which was formed by his personal conception of the cinema, and to which he would remain as committed as Jean-Pierre Melville and Jean-Luc Godard would later prove to be to their sense of craft. Drazin observes that "Melies may have brought his filmmaking career to a premature close, but it is a reason why today his films still live, while those of his more commercially minded contemporaries belong in a museum," a point which Drazin makes again in the last pages of his book, only this time in reminiscence of the career of Eric Rohmer (whose death in January 2010 situates the opening and closing of the book):

"Among English-language audiences, the French cinema will continue to remain an acquired taste. Through its history, the most consistently reliable market beyond its own shores has been that of the connoisseur rather than the consumer. It provides best not the mass entertainment that Hollywood already makes with such efficiency, but a standard of quality and ambition. Its appeal is that of the timeless over the ephemeral." -- p. 396

Jose-Luis Moctezuma is an author, poet, editor, translator, historian, cinéphile and student. He edits and writes for Hydra Magazine, and is currently at work on a PhD in English at the University of Chicago. His studies focus on the intersections and proximities shared by poetry and the image.

This review was first published in Cerise Press. Click here to subscribe Cerise Press, an international online journal based in the United States and France, builds cross-cultural bridges by featuring artists and writers in English and translations, with an emphasis on French and Francophone works.

Co-founded by Sally Molini, Karen Rigby, and Fiona Sze-Lorrain in 2009, Cerise Press hopes to serve as a gathering force where imagination, insight, and conversation express the evolving and shifting forms of human experience.

To contact Cerise Press, please email

The Summer 2011, Vol. 3 Issue 7 of Cerise Press features Railway Shed 1895, Dunston, a photograph by Tina Carr & Annemarie Schöne.


View the original article here

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Review-a-Day for Fri, Sep 2: Retromania Signed Edition

by Simon Reynolds A review by Nicholas Carr

"Who wants yesterday's papers?" sang Mick Jagger in 1967. "Who wants yesterday's girl?" The answer, in the Swinging 60s, was obvious: "Nobody in the world." That was then. Now we seem to want nothing more than to read yesterday's papers and carry on with yesterday's girl. Popular culture has become obsessed with the past -- with recycling it, rehashing it, replaying it. Though we live in a fast-forward age, we cannot take our finger off the rewind button.

Nowhere is the past's grip so tight as in the world of music, as the rock critic Simon Reynolds meticulously documents in Retromania. Over the last two decades, he argues, the "exploratory impulse" that once powered pop music forward has shifted its focus from Now to Then. Fans and musicians alike have turned into archeologists. The evidence is everywhere. There are the reunion tours and the reissues, the box sets and the tribute albums. There are the R&B museums, the rock halls of fame, the punk libraries. There are the collectors of vinyl and cassettes and -- God help us -- eight-tracks. There are the remixes, the mash-ups, the samples. There are the "curated" playlists. When pop shakes its moneymaker today, what rises is the dust of the archive.

Nostalgia is nothing new. It has been a refrain of art and literature at least since Homer set Odysseus on Calypso's island and had him yearn to turn back time. And popular music has always had a strong revivalist streak, particularly in Reynolds's native Britain. But retromania is not just about nostalgia. It goes deeper than the tie-dyed dreams of Baby Boomers or the gray-flecked mohawks of Gen X punks. Whereas nostalgia is rooted in a sense of the past as past, retromania stems from a sense of the past as present. Yesterday's music, in all its forms, has become the atmosphere of contemporary culture. We live, Reynolds remarks, in "a simultaneity of pop time that abolishes history while nibbling away at the present's own sense of itself as an era with a distinct identity and feel."

One reason is the sheer quantity of pop music that has accumulated over the past half century. Whether it is rock, funk, country, or electronica, we have heard it all before. Even the edgiest musicians have little choice but to produce pastiche. Greatly amplifying the effect is the recent shift to producing and distributing songs as digital files. When kids had to fork out cash for records or CDs, they had to make hard choices about what they listened to and what they let pass by. Usually, they would choose the new over the old, which served to keep the past at bay. Now, thanks to freely traded MP3s and all-you-can-eat music services such as Spotify, there is no need to make choices. Pretty much any song ever recorded is just a click away. With the economic barrier removed, the old floods in, swamping the new.

Reynolds argues that the glut of tunes has not just changed what we listen to; it has also changed how we listen. The rapt fan who knew every hook, lyric, and lead by heart has been replaced by the fickle dabbler who cannot stop hitting 'Next'. Reynolds presents himself as a case in point, and his experience will sound familiar to anyone with a hard drive packed with music files. He was initially "captivated" by the ability to use a computer to navigate an ocean of tunes. But in short order he found himself more interested in "the mechanism" than the music: "Soon I was listening to just the first fifteen seconds of every track; then, not listening at all." The logical culmination, he writes, "would have been for me to remove the headphones and just look at the track display."

Given a choice between more and less, we all choose more, even if it means a loss of sensory and emotional engagement. Though we don't like to admit it, the digital music revolution has merely confirmed what we have always known: we cherish what is scarce, and what is abundant we view as disposable. Reynolds quotes another music writer, Karla Starr: "I find myself getting bored even in the middle of songs simply because I can."

As all time is compressed into the present moment, our recycling becomes ever more compulsive. We begin to plunder not just bygone eras but also the immediate past. Over the course of the last decade, writes Reynolds, "the interval between something happening and its being revisited seemed to shrink insidiously." Not only did we have 1960s revivals and 70s revivals and 80s revivals, but we even began to see revivals of musical fashions from the 90s, such as shoegaze and Britpop. It sometimes seems that the reason things go out of fashion so quickly these days is because we cannot wait for them to come back into fashion. Displaying enthusiasm for something new is socially risky, particularly in an ironical time. It is safer to wait for it to come around again, preferably bearing the "vintage" label.

For musicians themselves, the danger is that their art becomes disconnected from the present -- "timeless" in a bad sense. The eras of greatest ferment and creativity in popular music, such as the mid-60s and the late 70s, were times of social discontent, when the young rejected the past and its stifling traditions. Providing the soundtrack for rebellion, rock musicians felt compelled to slay their fathers rather than pay tribute to them. Even if their lyrics were about getting laid or getting high -- as they frequently were -- their songs were filled with political force. Those not busy being born, as Dylan put it shortly after taking an axe to his folkie roots, are busy dying.

Now, youth culture is largely apolitical, and pop's soundtrack is just a soundtrack. Those not busy being born are busy listening to their iPods. Whether it's Fleet Foxes or Friendly Fires, Black Angels or Beach House, today's bands are less likely to battle the past than to luxuriate in it. This is not to say they aren't good bands. As Reynolds is careful to note, there is plenty of fine pop music being made today, in an ear-boggling array of styles. But drained of its subversive energies, none of it matters much. It just streams by.

Retromania is an important and often compelling work, but it is also a sprawling one. Its aesthetic is more Sandinista! than "Hey Ya!" But Reynolds is sharp, and he knows his stuff. Even when his narrative gets lost in the details, the details remain interesting. (I didn't know, for instance, that the rave scene of the early 90s had its origins in the trad-jazz fad that preceded Beatlemania in England.) Reynolds might also be accused of being something of a retromaniac himself. After all, in worrying about the enervating influence of the past, he echoes the complaints of earlier cultural critics. "Our age is retrospective," grumbled Emerson in 1836. "Why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe?" Longing for a less nostalgic time is itself a form of nostalgia.

But Reynolds makes a convincing case that today's retromania is different in degree and in kind from anything we've experienced before. And it is not just an affliction of the mainstream. It has also warped the perspective of the avant-garde, dulling culture's cutting edge. It's one thing for old folks to look backwards. It's another thing -- and a far more lamentable one -- for young people to feed on the past. Somebody needs to figure out a new way to smash a guitar.

Nicholas Carr is the author, most recently, of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.

Since 1914, The New Republic has provided its readers with an intelligent and rigorous examination of American culture and politics. At TNR, books, art, film, architecture, theater, dance, and poetry all invite the reader to indulge in the highest levels of aesthetic experience. Subscribe to TNR today for access to literary reviews, pop-culture essays, and nearly a century of writing from the best minds in culture and the arts. Powell's Books customers can save 70% off the newsstand price! spacer

View the original article here

Monday, September 19, 2011

Review-a-Day for Thu, Aug 25: Sweet Heaven When I Die: Faith, Faithlessness, and the Country in Between

by Jeff Sharlet A review by Steve Yarbrough

I used to live in Fresno, Calif., a red city in a blue state, and during my years there I belonged to a gym where I once overheard a conversation between two young people about whether or not "intervention" was in order when you learned that a Christian brother or sister had out-of-wedlock sex. I found myself thinking of that conversation while reading "The Best Minds of My Generation," a piece about youth minister Ron Luce in Jeff Sharlet's superb new essay collection Sweet Heaven When I Die: Faith, Faithlessness, and the Country In Between.

Luce's intention, Sharlet argues persuasively, is to "immunize" the young from the enticements of secularism. His most devoted followers cough up $7,800 per year to become students at his Honor Academy. "'Turn and burn,' goes a popular saying there. That is, look away from Jesus for even an instant -- at, say, a hot girl in Potter's Desire, the academy's evangelical dance team -- and you might find yourself in hell instead of Texas. Which is why every student must pledge to confront other students if their behavior is ungodly, or simply too arousing."

Luce puts his recruits though such ordeals as a 2 1/2-day endurance trial in which they are forced to remain awake at all times and carry enormous wooden crosses. They take "gender-divided purity classes" taught by such experts as Shannon Etheridge, who has written volumes for an "antimasturbation" series. Etheridge, Sharlet notes, developed a "passion for sexual purity ... in mortuary college." If all of this sounds comic, it is. But it's also profoundly disturbing. Luce, Sharlet says, has created for his followers "a cramped little country in which there is not enough room to be lost or found, only 'saved' as a static condition."

Many of these essays isolate figures who operate on the fringes of extreme belief or extreme skepticism. One of the most compelling pieces concerns philosopher Cornel West, who describes himself as "a bluesman in the life of the mind. ... A jazzman in the world of ideas." In order to live, West believes, one must constantly remain ready to die. "In the end," he tells the author, "we're beings headed toward death ... for the most part we don't have any control ... you have to acknowledge the magnitude of the mystery."

The musical motif resounds most memorably in the stunning concluding essay, which focuses on the life of the great banjo player Dock Boggs, who recorded eight sides in 1927, got rid of his banjo during the Great Depression and, as far as we know, didn't play the instrument again for 30 years. Thinking about Boggs and recent setbacks in his own life and that of a friend, Sharlet considers what it means to quit.

"Quitting," he writes, "is a place, free not just of ambition but of bitterness, too. A place where what could have been is simply not, neither forgotten nor clung to. At most just observed. Like the sparks that didn't sizzle when they hit the pond."

From what people in the publishing business tell me, collections of essays are not easy to sell these days. I hope Sharlet proves conventional wisdom wrong. This is a fine book, by a deeply thoughtful writer, one with the wisdom to observe that "we are none of us human yet, only trying and quitting and trying and tiptoeing out the back door. We recorded our eight sides and went home, singing the 'Down South Blues.'"

The Oregonian The Oregonian is the online source for comprehensive coverage of the Northwest literary scene. Its daily books report includes news, reviews, and poetry, as well as essays and opinions from local authors.

Plus: The paper's award-winning books section, published on Sundays, strips the buzz from national bestsellers and directs readers to little-known regional gems in a concise package.

New subscribers can receive four weeks of home delivery free as part of a trial offer.


View the original article here

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Review-a-Day for Wed, Aug 31: Ethan Allen: His Life and Times

by Willard Sterne Randall A review by Robert K. Landers

By 1771, a conflict over frontier settlements in what is today Vermont had begun to turn violent. Colonial officials in New York, eager to profit from making land grants in the territory between Lake Champlain and the Connecticut River, refused to recognize grants already made there by the New Hampshire colony. The Hampshire settlers themselves, meanwhile, were determined to hold on to their property and not pay twice for it. Ethan Allen, a major property owner in the region known as the New Hampshire Grants, emerged as the leader of the opposition to New York's efforts.

In June 1771, getting word that a New York surveyor was running lines in the woods 20 miles away, Allen and some of his followers went to the scene. Dressed as Indians, with soot-blackened faces, they threatened to kill the "Yorker" -- who fled with his crew. Later that year, Allen formally organized the "Green Mountain Boys" to defend the Hampshire settlements and scotch any New York-backed settlements. He and his "boys" torched fences and haystacks as warnings to New York settlers reluctant to leave; in October, the Green Mountain Boys burned down the cabin of a Yorker who refused to depart.

In Ethan Allen, historian Willard Sterne Randall cites the behavior by the nascent folk hero and his men -- who in extreme cases flogged defiant Yorkers -- and links it with "the tactics of intimidation used by ten thousand Sons of Liberty in the period before the Revolution" to raise "an unsettling question: was America founded, at least in part, on terrorism?" Mr. Randall does not attempt an answer, however.

The author and his publisher call Ethan Allen a "founding father," presumably to appeal to all those readers with a seemingly insatiable appetite for books about those so designated, but if Allen was a founding father, it was of Vermont, not of the United States. Still, by my reading of Mr. Randall's exhaustively researched and insightful (but overly long) biography, Allen did make two significant contributions to the war for independence, each the result, directly or indirectly, of his recklessness.

The first was what many considered a premature attack on Britain's Fort Ticonderoga in May 1775. Even after the battles at Lexington and Concord the preceding month, most delegates to the Second Continental Congress were not ready to cut America loose from Britain, continuing to express hope for reconciliation with the mother country. But after years of armed struggle against New York's royal governors and sheriffs over the New Hampshire Grants, 37-year-old Ethan Allen -- tall, muscular and "a commanding figure in his forest green greatcoat and sheared beaver tricorn hat" -- and his Green Mountain Boys were ready to fight for independence.

Thinking that if Fort Ticonderoga at Lake Champlain were wrested from the British, it could serve as a base for a rapid invasion and capture of Quebec, Allen was glad to accept the request of "patriots" in the Connecticut and Massachusetts colonies that he (and Benedict Arnold) lead a surprise attack on the huge but lightly defended facility. With only 83 frontiersmen, Allen took the fort without a shot being fired. Ticonderoga's real value proved to be its cannon and mortars, which in the coming winter Gen. George Washington's artillery commander, Henry Knox, would famously transport to Boston, overcoming the many formidable obstacles presented by terrain and weather.

Thanks to the bloodless fort seizure, Ethan Allen became the first American hero of the war, appearing in triumph before the Continental Congress in June 1775. Even the conservative delegates from New York, whose royal officials had branded him an outlaw and put a price on his head, joined the unanimous vote urging that the Green Mountain Boys be transformed into the Green Mountain Regiment, with Allen to be made a colonel in the Continental Army.

Allen's other important contribution to the Revolution was his best-selling wartime memoir of the harsh treatment he'd endured as a British prisoner for 32 months. In September 1775, while serving as a scout inside Canada, he joined in a rash plan to attack Montreal; counting on support that never materialized, Allen wound up a captive. If he expected to be treated as an officer and a gentleman, he was soon disappointed, for the British looked on him as a common criminal. A Narrative of the Captivity of Colonel Ethan Allen, published in 1779, "riveted a populace still at war and instilled a patriotic feeling into a beleaguered people," Mr. Randall writes.

As a deist who had rejected Christianity, Allen felt no obligation to love his enemies. After his release in a prisoner exchange and return home to the new republic of Vermont in 1778, he led an official drive to ferret out loyalists (including his own brother Levi, even though Levi had tried to aid him when he was held captive), drive them away and confiscate their property. Allen went after Yorkers as well as loyalists. Mr. Randall notes: "To Allen, it was all the same."

A loose cannon if ever there was one, Allen during the war also engaged in secret talks with the British in Canada to obtain an agreement on prisoner exchanges with Vermont, arranging a ceasefire that averted British attacks on the shores of Lake Champlain. In those talks he explored the possibility of a separate peace for Vermont, using the threat of that to try to get Congress, despite New York's opposition, to admit Vermont into the Union. Allen strung the British along for nearly two years, and even after Yorktown, frustrated by Congress's latest refusal to admit Vermont to the Union, he wrote to British commander Frederick Haldimand: "I Shall do Every thing in my Power to render this State a British province." But by then, Mr. Randall relates, Haldimand had begun to grasp "that he had been duped." Vermont finally became a state in 1791, two years after Allen's death.

Mr. Landers, a former reporter at Congressional Quarterly's Editorial Research Reports, is the author of An Honest Writer: The Life and Times of James T. Farrell.

This review was originally published by The Wall Street Journal.

More Than Three Decades of Quality Writing and Criticism

The National Book Critics Circle, founded in 1974, honors outstanding writing and fosters a national conversation about reading, criticism, and literature. To learn about how to join, click here.


View the original article here

Friday, September 16, 2011


Subscribe to Washington Post Book Reviews newsletter ( Privacy Policy )

Thursday, September 15, 2011

IN MY TIME: A Personal and Political Memoir

Subscribe to Washington Post Book Reviews newsletter ( Privacy Policy )

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


Subscribe to Washington Post Book Reviews newsletter ( Privacy Policy )

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

GHOST IN THE WIRES: My Adventures as the World's Most Wanted Hacker

Subscribe to Washington Post Book Reviews newsletter ( Privacy Policy )