Tag Archives: summer 2005

DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE: An Echo Falls Mystery

Buy this book at Amazon.comPeter Abrahams
Laura Geringer ($15.99)

by Kris Lawson

In Down the Rabbit Hole, 13-year-old heroine Ingrid Levin-Hill demonstrates the genius of an intelligent young girl as well as the glitches. She tends to think faster with her feet than her brain—not a bad trait in a soccer player, but one that has mixed results when she investigates the murder of Echo Falls' local crazy woman, Cracked-Up Katie.

Ingrid unwittingly involves herself in Katie's murder by leaving her unique soccer shoes in what later becomes a crime scene. Desperate to retrieve them so she won't get in trouble with her parents, Ingrid witnesses someone else altering evidence. When two innocent people are arrested, Ingrid, a Sherlock Holmes fan, tries to ease her nagging conscience by finding evidence that will clear them.

Crime-solving is one more burden to add to Ingrid's complicated life: she's in rehearsals as the lead in a stage production of Alice in Wonderland, her algebra grades are slipping, and her parents are fighting about money. Vincent Dunn, selected to play the Mad Hatter, forms a connection with Ingrid but, true to his role, is just as confusing as he is helpful. Meanwhile, her grandfather needs her help with a mysterious project that will keep developers off his land; her father's boss has a daughter who wants to play Alice and will stop at nothing to get the part; and the cute son of the police chief (whom she's dodging) suddenly asks her out.

Although the mystery is not complicated, Peter Abrahams's book is light-hearted and fun, with just enough depth to keep it from flying completely away. Ingrid's crime-solving may be a tad improbable, but her unique voice and textured life are resonant and memorable.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005


Buy Drama City at Amazon.comGeorge Pelecanos
Little, Brown and Company ($24.95)

by Jeff Charis-Carlson

After twelve novels that transform the U.S. capital into an urban version of Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, readers have learned what to expect from George Pelecanos: well-crafted, geographically aware tales in which scenes of urban violence reflect the morally compromised choices of even the most stone-cold characters. In his 13th novel, Drama City, Pelecanos continues to explore his well-staked fictional territory.

As the intertwined story of dual protagonists, Humane Officer Lorenzo Brown and Parole Officer Rachel Lopez, the novel continues Pelecanos's fascination with the thin line between legitimate and illegitimate authority in Washington. It features the expected blend of hard working families, imperfect law enforcement officials, and various reformed, reforming, and recidivistic ex-cons. Directly following 2004's Hard Revolution—a historical novel of the 1950s and 1960s packed with an overabundance of Washingtoniana—it would seem to offer another account of just how far the national capital is from "the Game" on the D.C. street.

But if Pelecanos's earlier novels were designed to depict Washington as more human—less politically abstract, less violently caricatured—his new protagonists take the action into hitherto unexplored areas of the city. In fact, the novel humanizes the city by describing how Washingtonians treat their animals. Where the earlier novels expanded readers' image of the city to include ethnic neighborhoods seldom depicted in mainstream D.C. novels, the city revealed by Lorenzo Brown's canine investigations includes the District's most "country" neighborhood, Deanwood, in which second and third-generation migrants continue to raise chicken and goats in their yards and speak with Deep Southern accents.

Brown is typical of Pelecanos's main characters—an African American ex-con who has returned to D.C. with the hope of going straight. His involvement with animal protection gives him a hybrid status in which he is forced to wear a uniform but not allowed to carry a gun, and his bureaucratic authority, coupled with a genuine fondness for dogs, grounds his character in authenticity. Even when he begins to consider lethal revenge against the enemy of a friend, it is his ability to play both sides of "the Game" that illustrates how his Washington is far larger than any single game.

The perspectives on Washington provided by Officer Lopez aren't as startlingly new as those offered by Brown. As a parole officer, the majority of her daytime activities deal with the same "offenders" who populate each of Pelecanos's novels, and her nocturnal drinking binges—in which she transforms from a sexless Jekyll into a sex-kitten Hyde—offer little more than a chance to visit Washington's hotel bars. But her Narcotics Anonymous meetings allow Pelecanos to add success and failure stories from ever more Washingtonians who live and work beyond the gaze of the Capitol dome in their midst.

With this expanded vision of Washington, Drama City also lives up to the fact that it is Pelecanos's first novel whose title refers directly to the D.C. setting—one of the characters offers the name "Drama City" as a contrast to Washington's "Dodge City" reputation. "It was a city of masks, the kind Nigel had said hung in theaters. Smiling faces and sad, and all kinds of faces in between" (283). It is this tragic-comic perspective that transforms Pelecanos' D.C. into the all-too-human city worthy of its title.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005


Buy Hymns to Millionaires from Amazon.comSoren A. Gauger
Twisted Spoon Press ($13.50)

by Kathleen Andersen

In this debut collection, Soren A. Gauger uses the language of an earlier century to create eleven entertaining stories that—in their presentation of a world in which cause and effect have been unlinked, in which narratives loop or spool forth continuously—could only be contemporary.

Taking full advantage of the pulpy pleasures offered by stock characters and situations, Gauger gives us madmen raving against their nemeses in decrepit castles, bumbling academics, psychiatrists undergoing their own breakdowns. Solitary creatures, one might write himself notes to remember his identity, be hospitalized in a ward for "miscellaneous" cases, bet the deed to his property on a single hand of cards, or act blithely on a murderous impulse.

Their lives are described with detachment, in precise, highly mannered sentences, which sound as if composed to a metronome. Each line conveys the ironic distance with which these narrators witness themselves, no matter how visceral their experiences are. On ordering a meal in a foreign language and being served a "very large portion of hot oily tripes," one notes fastidiously: "The very smell was enough to make my sensitive throat go into convulsions." When following a female companion through a crowded fairground, another comments, "I kept up for a few minutes but then from the corner of my eye I saw what looked like a beheading taking place on a stage to my left." Looking back, he finds something apparently almost as disturbing- a carnival game "encircled by young men whose wolfish grins exposed rows and rows of sturdy teeth masticating bread and meat."

Gauger's detached style lends itself to a humorous leveling of events of extremely different magnitudes, as well as to a passion that seems to follow logically: prose driven to probe the nature and limits of narrative, of "story." This questioning, taken up with utmost seriousness and great imagination, leads to a wealth of action and details, yet to few conclusions. Although the reader—having read many pieces about, say, insane gentry, before—may assume certain knowledge of these stories, any expectations are sure to be frustrated. The narrators reveal that, while their experiences can be expressed with perfect clarity, it is impossible to force them to cohere, to pull significant moments out from any others.

This can at times be seen quite literally, as in "Mr. Delfour's Other File," in which asking a man a question, no matter how simple, leads to an endless search for the sources of an answer. Other stories are more conceptually complex. In "The Unusual Narrative of the Odessa Conference," a Canadian professor traveling to Eastern Europe to attend a conference of the International Society for the Promotion of Educated Discourse finds himself again and again on the same flight to Odessa, despite arriving and having a series of increasingly intricate adventures involving repetition and metamorphoses: each narrative line suddenly ends when he hears certain words or falls asleep, returning him to the airplane. This journey, in which he becomes more and more confused about his own identity and even humanity, has apparently lasted for five years, and ends with the speaker finding solace in whatever resolution sleep offers.

The collection's intense self-consciousness can at times be wearing—who is interested in a character who reads a book on Applied Narratology, knowing that he is caught in a convoluted plot? At its best, however, Gauger's concern with form moves beyond cleverness, and illuminates.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005

CALIFORNIA UNCOVERED: Stories for the 21st Century

Buy California Uncovered from Amazon.com

Edited by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, William Justice, and James Quay
Heyday Books ($15.95)

by Ryder W. Miller

In California Uncovered, an array of authors explore one of the most mythic areas of our country. Created by the California Council for the Humanities, which hopes to share the "reality beneath the headlines, statistics, and stereotypes about the state and its people," this collection of stories is a multicultural People's History of the California Dream, an anthology that warns people not to romanticize the Golden State.

According to James Quay, the Council's Executive Director, "No other region in the modern world has undergone the population change California has experienced in recent decades. Only half of the people now living in California were born here. Of the rest, half came here from another state, half from another country. As a result of this immigration, California is the most populous and most ethnically diverse state in the nation." Indeed, one might say there are many Californias—not only Northern and Southern, but also rich and poor, white and non-white, urban and rural and suburban, gay and straight, and Republican and Democrat.

Quay finds a hopeful note amidst this diversity, but the anthology makes one pause about relocating to the Golden State. Included are writings about being poor, working the agricultural fields, life in the inner city, illegal immigrants who are sent home, gang violence, difficult childhood experiences, and alienation. One does not find many Utopian visions, and also not explored in depth is California's diversity of natural environments—the coast, mountains, hills, valleys, forests, and desert shared by residents and tourists alike.

While there are a number of collections of writings about California, California Uncovered seeks to interpret the Golden State in a more postmodern way. Quay, in an excellent section of interviews with a variety of citizens that nicely offsets the stories by professional writers, clarifies the issues when he asks people to respond to a riff on Samuel Huntington's comment about the United States: "Critics say that California is a lie because its reality falls so far short of its ideals. They are wrong. California is not a lie; it is a disappointment. But it can be a disappointment only because it is also a hope."

Filled with fine and engaging writing, the anthology includes selections by canonical writers such as Maxine Hong Kingston, John Steinbeck, Joan Didion, Robert Hass, Robinson Jeffers, Richard Rodriguez, and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, in addition to younger and lesser-known voices. "Becoming Californian" is one of the anthology's major themes; Rodriguez writes that leaving home is "almost an imperative for writers and other misfits. The subordinate theme was that impossibility of return—you can't go home again." An excerpt from Steinbeck's Travels with Charley confirms this. Steinbeck had a complicated relationship with California during his life; he resented newcomers to the state, which is especially evident in East of Eden, yet he took their side in The Grapes of Wrath, and was loathed in his hometown of Salinas because he criticized rural California.

If you are thinking of coming to California, one can gather from this book that there are certain things you should not do upon arriving. Think twice about kissing the pavement, it was likely spit upon. Those good jobs, well, there are residents and their children waiting for them. Those beautiful people, there are residents waiting for them too. Not everybody, even in San Francisco, is liberal; there is no longer plenty of room; and you may not like your neighbors. California is beautiful, but as this anthology reminds, it is also perilous. California does not open everyone with open arms.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005


Buy Distant Star from Amazon.comRoberto Bolaño
Translated by Chris Andrews
New Directions ($14.95)

by Daniel Borzutzky

Roberto Bolaño died at the age of 50 in 2003, the year his first book appeared in English translation. Thirty years earlier, just as the Socialist government of Salvador Allende was overthrown, Bolaño was imprisoned. On being released he moved to Mexico, traveled through Central America and Europe, and ended up in a small town outside of Barcelona, where he wrote about Pinochet's fascists with a directness that perhaps could only come with the distance of exile.

Bolaño was not afraid of realism, though he is certainly not a realist; his work in translation, even at its most bizarre, is rooted in the day-to-day existence of characters whose lives have been turned upside down by politics. We can see the influence of Cortazar in Bolaño's digressive narratives; and Borges's encyclopedic urges are certainly present in Bolaño's untranslated Nazi Literature in America, a novel written in the form of an imaginary catalogue of the many types of Nazi writers (e.g. science fiction writers, poets, prison writers) living in South, Central, and North America. But Bolaño sought to make a conscious break from the magical realist writers who dominated Latin American fiction for so many years. His historical scope, among other things, is much narrower; his language, especially in Distant Star, more commonplace. With his focus on exile and on the lingering effects of fascism, and with his ability to meld several stories into one, Bolaño is reminiscent of W. G. Sebald, whose premature death also occurred just a few years ago. Bolaño's writing is angrier and more violent than Sebald's, his tone less consistent from book to book; nevertheless, like Sebald, Bolaño's approach to history seems new. And like Sebald, whose essays in particular offer a sharp indictment of German writers, Bolaño's fiction is also concerned with the public role of the Chilean literati, who appear in his novels as complicit participants in evil.

Distant Star, we learn in the preface, is an extension of a chapter from Nazi Literature in America. It introduces Carlos Wieder, a fascist poet whose work, we are told, "is going to revolutionize Chilean poetry." Weider writes not with pen on paper but with airplane on sky (as did the avant-garde Chilean poet Raúl Zurita, who in 1982 wrote "The New Life" in the sky over New York City).

Our unnamed narrator is an insignificant poet who first meets Wieder in 1971 at a writing workshop in the Southern Chilean town of Concepciión. At this point the narrator is a college student, and Wieder, who has taken one of his many false names, is writing traditional verses that are bland and unremarkable. The milieu of the narrator and his poet-buddies is one of idealistic Socialism, but within the space of one drab sentence on page 16, "the army seized power, and the government collapsed." Our narrator is then arrested on trumped-up charges, and it is in the prison yard that he sees Wieder's first important poetic act: a string of prophetic Latin words skillfully drawn in the sky. But with the onset of the new regime, Wieder takes up a new artistic practice, murder: he kills the cutest girls in the Concepción writing workshop, the Garmendia twins, the objects of our narrator's desire.

When the narrator is released from prison without charges, he discovers that most of his friends have disappeared and he decides to leave the country. Meanwhile, Wieder is slowly becoming a national hero, known for his patriotic sky-verses, and for the aphorisms he offers to interviewing journalists: "Silence is like leprosy . . . Silence is like communism; silence is like a blank screen that must be filled. If you fill it, nothing bad can happen to you. If you are pure, nothing bad can happen to you."

Of course, bad things are happening all over the country, and thus our narrator relates the stories of poet-friends forced into exile. These chapters, in which Bolaño writes of exile's power to level and destabilize, provide some of the finest moments of the novel. Most compelling is our narrator's portrait of his former mentor in Concepción, Juan Stein, who becomes a full-time revolutionary, fighting with the Sandanistas in Nicaragua, with the Cubans in Angola, and with guerillas in Guatemala, Paraguay, Columbia, Mozambique and Namibia. Stein eventually dies in El Salvador, in the end a casualty of all of Latin America's and the third world's failed revolutions.

The narrator, now in Europe, remains informed of Carlos Wieder through letters he receives from his friend Bibiano O'Ryan—who, like Bolaño himself, plans to assemble an anthology of Nazi literature of the Americas. Wieder, in his role as ombudsman between government and culture, "is called upon to undertake something spectacular to show the world that the new regime and avant-garde art were not at odds." What he comes up with is a two-pronged tribute to state-sponsored murder: poems in the sky that say ". . . Death is friendship . . . Death is responsibility . . . Death is love . . . growth . . . communion . . . Death is cleansing " along with an exhibition of photographs of mutilated bodies, presumably people he has killed.

By the end of the book, Wieder has faded into obscurity, and our narrator is now in Spain, living a lonely, uneventful life—until he is approached by a private investigator hired to track down Wieder, who has supposedly been living and writing under various pseudonyms in Europe. The novel now becomes a detective story, and soon Wieder turns up amongst the "The Barbaric Writers," who commune with master works "by defecating on the pages of Stendhal, blowing one's nose on the pages of Victor Hugo, masturbating and spreading one's semen over the pages of Gautier or Banville . . . cutting oneself with a razor blade and spattering blood over the pages of Balzac or Maupassant."

Distant Star is an amazing book, not simply for its depiction of Wieder, the outrageous star of this "literary grotesque," but for the subtle way in which our narrator drifts into the anonymity of exile. He is alone on the wrong side of the world, and his story is quietly heartbreaking.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005

An Interview with Jeanette Winterson

photo by Lorena Ornelas

by Vincent Francone

Achieving recognition early as a writer of wild invention—Gore Vidal once called her "the most interesting young writer I've read in twenty years"—Jeanette Winterson earned the respect of many with her novels Oranges are Not the Only FruitThe Passion, and Sexing the Cherry. Later books divided readers, but her fanatics have become fiercely loyal, especially as she wrapped up her self-proclaimed cycle of unconventional novels with 2001's astonishing The Powerbook. A culmination of the themes (love, gender roles, mutability, longing) that span six previous books, The Powerbook embraced the 21st century without alienating the past, resulting in a creation of rare vision.

Like all visionaries, Winterson continues to evolve. This year's Lighthousekeeping (Harcourt, $23) travels in a new direction, incorporating myth and whimsy, loss and laughter. Using an orphan girl, Silver, and her blind lighthouse-keeping mentor, Pew—a teller of impossible tales—to convey the story, Winterson tones down her usual metaphysical narrative play without compromising her creation. Less of a tinkering with convention than her previous novels are, Lighthousekeeping represents a logical step in Winterson's career as an artist and is perhaps this millennium's first great love letter to the art of storytelling.

Vincent Francone: I hate to start this off politically, but back in November when Bush got reelected, you wrote something on your website (www.jeanettewinterson.com) about America being in a state of civil war. Now that you're here touring the country, do you have any more thoughts on this?

Jeanette Winterson: I haven't seen enough yet. I think by the end of the tour I'll have certainly formed a view, and it'll be on my website next month. But it's the same dividing. The kind of people that I like, that I'm drawn to—of course they're appalled at George Bush, and they didn't vote for him. Then you've got these twenty million people who call themselves the Evangelical Christians who will put their hand up and say, I believe in the devil, I'm against abortion and gay rights, and we have to blow up the world. It's frightening.

VF: A lot of us couldn't believe he won.

JW: I think it's bad for Americans because it makes them paranoid. They start to think, was the election rigged in some sinister fashion? Is it as bad as Zimbabwe? So I think there's a nervousness which is new to the America I know, which is making people feel uncomfortable on both sides. The good guys don't want to appear anti-European and the bad guys just want to say, it's our country and we'll blow up what we like. There's a new attitude, I feel, coming from Europe.

VF: Speaking of the differences between Europe and America, do you notice a difference in readers? Your books seem very European inasmuch as they're somewhat modernist, but a lot of the people I know who are new to your work sometimes have problems with the broken narration and so forth.

JW: I think the Anglo-American tradition is much more linear than the European tradition. If you think about writers like Borges, Calvino, Perec or Marquez, they're not bound in the same sort of way. They don't come out of the classic 19th-century novel, which is where all the problems start. We should all read 19th-century novels, but we shouldn't write them. I think that's the important point. People are obsessed with narrative, which has had its day. I used to think that the movies would mop up all of that need for straightforward narrative and allow fiction to find a whole different path, rather in the way that photography freed up portraiture from the necessity of realism. All the bad portrait painters immediately went out of business when photography came along. The really interesting people like Picasso thought, This is fantastic. I don't have to make it look like anybody ever again. I will do something which is much more of a psychological drama.

It seems to me that all those early experiments with novels were really trying to find a way of constructing narrative which is in fact truer to our own experience. There's nobody on this planet, even the stupidest person, who lives in one time anyway. You're walking down the street and at the same time you're thinking of something that happened to you a couple of years ago and you're wondering about something that is going to happen the day after tomorrow, and you hold these realities in your head simultaneously. It's not a problem. So for a fiction writer to try and reproduce that seems to me to be more authentic than somebody who says, No, we all live in this monolithic reality. The same with the idea of progress or of our lives being this straight line. I think most of us have experienced these strange loops and curves and whirls, and we see patterns repeating over and over again in our lives. That's not a straight line. That's about a journey which is much more contoured—the recognition that space-time is curved, not straight, there's nothing in this universe which is straight—which is good if you're gay. [laughs]

VF: Of course.

JW: And why try and impose a straightforward narrative on something when all of our discoveries, scientific and creative, have been showing us that the world simply does not run like that, and our own mental processes do not run like that? We're much more of a maze than we are a motorway. Things are always in flux, they're always in movement, they're always twisting back on each other. I think the straight line is such a lie. The critics say, This is artificial, this isn't good storytelling . . . and I think, Well, let's look at the way people think and the way they live and let's find a narrative which really embraces that. Because life is fragmentary, and the pattern that creativity can offer is not one that is imposed, not something rigid, but rather something which can reveal the intrinsic patterns of that fragmentation. Things are in a perpetual dance, but there is an order. It's not really random at all. When you look into the world of the very small, the microscopic world of how we're made up, it's beautiful, it's strange, and we don't understand it. But it's certainly not rigidly formed.

VF: Never.

JW: Never. I love the idea of a dynamic universe where nothing is static and everything is changing at every moment. You know every cell in our bodies is completely renewed every seven years, so how can we talk about being the same person? We're absolutely not. I really believe in the power of art to show us this, to hold up a real mirror to reality and to say, This is how it is: much wilder, much stranger, much more chaotic and exciting than you could ever dream.

As people get older they have these rigid patterns that they impose on themselves, and it kills them. They become dull, they become dead to new experience, they become afraid, biased, and bigoted. It's really simply to do with refusing new experience. I think art is always challenging you out of that refusal, challenging you towards the new, towards confrontations with the self and the world and with other ways of seeing. And that's got to be completely good. I mean, I love going to things that drive me mad. I think, why is this driving me crazy? And then I'm forced to assess my own position because all of us, even the best of us, the most broad-minded, all have assumptions, prejudices, biases which stop us from engaging in the world. When you have a very strong reaction to something and you say, I really hate that, it's a good moment to wonder why. You might be completely right because it's absolute trash and it offends every finer sensibility. But you might be wrong. When the Turner Prize [for visual arts] is given, it's Britain's biggest honor and it's always given to something which is really controversial. It's the polar opposite of the literary world, where prizes tend to be given to things that are quite safe. In the art world in Britain it's really wild.

VF: Really?

JW: Yes! It's fantastic. And they just give this amazing prize and every artist wants to win. And I think these things are very good and I like the heated debates that art offers. It really does force people to rethink every situation. So I just go to everything. I don't have to like it, I don't care. I want to be involved and I want to be exposed to that kind of assault. Sometimes it's fabulous and sometimes it really is hard to take, but at least I'm there engaging in it.

VF: I remember reading reviews of Umberto Eco's The Island of the Day Before—I don't know if I've ever seen reviews that were that split. People loved it or hated it, and more than anything it really made me want to find out why.

JW: People being encouraged to make up their own minds and think for themselves is so important. This world talks endlessly about freedom of choice, but we've never been more of a nation of robots. Everybody is seduced by corporate culture. They more or less do what the big sinister, faceless companies want them to do: spend money, buy stuff, don't think about anything, don't question anything. It's a crazy way to live. If you're involved in art at any level you're always questioning the status quo because that's what art does. And it's absolutely not a luxury. It's essential. It's one of the things which makes a tolerable life possible. Otherwise it would all be Wal-Mart and shopping malls, wouldn't it? [laughs]

VF: In the "Virginia Woolf Intro" on your website, you talk about critical theory and how convoluted it can be; you also say that art is communication. I was wondering if you could elaborate on that.

JW: Yes, I believe that absolutely. It's about the connection, not just that one human being makes to another but that we make across time with each other. Science is always updating itself with discoveries. But art doesn't live in that kind of perpetual updating. It lives in a present tense, so we still want to read Shakespeare, we still want to read Dante, and we still even read the Bible, not just because we're fundamental nutcases but because it's interesting to us. It goes on existing and therefore it gives you the most astonishing connection across time. You don't feel that you are isolated in your own moment in history. You can recognize all those other voices, all those other expressions through painting, through music, through books . . . it doesn't matter. They're still absolutely relevant because they tap into those permanent truths about the human condition which go on no matter how society changes around them. And that's why we still go back to great art, whether it's text or pictures or music, because it's still working, it's still speaking to us.

I think that connectedness is really important at a time when people have very little sense of how they've arrived here and what the past is, apart from wars and disputes of what the future might bring. One of the strongest threads connecting the past, present, and future is art—and I think that is a huge achievement. Even if people make the mistake of forcing art into a kind of glorified documentary. But yet, when we think about the works of art that last, we see at once that they go on speaking to us long after any contemporary interest in their subject matter is dead. I mean, nobody goes to Shakespeare to find out about life in Elizabethan England. You go to Shakespeare to find out about yourself now. When you look at a Caravaggio you don't think that you're in the 1600s in Rome; you go there because there's something compelling about that dark and light and that vision and strangeness that still moves us. That's why there are art galleries, that's why we still listen to classical music, why we still read books. It doesn't matter that they are not of the moment, it matters that they speak to something very deep in us which isn't of the moment either. We talked earlier about the cells in our body being renewed, but the fact is that every atom that we're made of is part of that first explosion of a nuclear star billions of years ago. We're connected to the entire universe. That's the way that we're made. It's a wonderful thing and I think that's part of the connectedness that art offers.

My godchildren are just starting Dickens—they're eleven and nine—and they don't know anything about Victorian society in England in the 19th century. And they don't care. They just love the characters, they love the stories, and they're excited by the language, and so already we're creating a common ground between us—me in my generation and them in their generation, and we're doing it through the shared space of literature, which is fantastic.

VF: You've written a kid's book and you are working on another . . .

JW: It's finished.

VF: Do you write these with your godchildren in mind?

JW: Yeah, stories is what we do. They're language-based children, they don't have any choice [laughs]. We played word games and learned poetry since they were tiny. We tell each other stories; I'll start off a story and one of them will pick it up. I want to keep their imaginations elastic—that's one of things I can give them. I can give them language and I can keep their minds free so that they love the power of wordplay and they love their own creativity and they take delight in it.

VF: It sounds wonderful. I think a lot of people would kill for a childhood like that.

JW: I didn't grow up with any books at all but I did grow up in an oral tradition, where people were telling stories all the time because they couldn't read. Books for them weren't containers of wisdom, they were closed books, nobody knew what was in there, nobody cared. But what they did do was talk. So I had that and I value it, and I suppose in a way what I am doing now is passing on to the kids the value of the spoken word, because language is in the mouth first and foremost. And then they find the pleasure of that in the written word as well.

VF: Regarding your own creative process, do you keep anything around you when you work? Favorite pictures or anything like that?

JW: No, I always work in a separate space than my domestic space—always have, always will. My studio is completely separate from my house and it has nothing in it at all, except a desk, a lamp, and a wood burning stove, and I take my dinky little Powerbook G4 in there and that's it. The cats come in, the dog comes in, I make coffee; I light the fire when it's cold and look out the window down onto the river and that's it.

VF: It reminds me of how Dylan Thomas had to work in an empty shed in the back of his property with just a desk and his typewriter.

JW: Yeah, and I understand that. I just found that the rest of the stuff doesn't help at the moment of work. I have lovely things in my house, lovely furniture and pictures and books, it's a soothing and a creative place to be in my everyday environment but I don't want to work in it. I have to work with nothing.

VF: It makes sense. I don't want to bring my work home with me.

JW: No. But at the same time, if I'm in an anonymous place I can work anywhere. I'm very good at working on flights, on trains, in tunnels. I don't get distracted by the outside noise. I can switch it out very easily.

VF: We talked earlier about your upbringing. I know you were raised by Pentecostal Evangelical parents, so I would be interested to know what your spiritual beliefs are now, if any?

JW: Well, I'm certainly not interested in organized religion, which I think is a very bad way of passing on spiritual values because it becomes so corrupted with political and repressive agendas which don't help anybody to develop their spirituality. You can't tell a woman in Africa who's giving birth to her eighteenth child that it's good for her soul that she doesn't use a condom. The Catholic Church has a lot to answer for. But at the same time I do believe that there are spiritual values, that life has an inside as well as an outside, and the church was one of the few places or institutions that would really recognize that. The problem with rampant capitalism and our loss of religious faith is that the outside now has assumed a grotesque dominance. People have forgotten about the inner life all together. They're almost embarrassed by it because there's nothing there protecting it. Even at their worst, true believers—Muslim, Christian, even Evangelicals—recognize that there is something inside which is not bound by shopping or television. And we need that.

I do think that art is one of the latter-day protectors of life's inside against the endless pressures of the outside, because art itself has very different values. Genuinely alternative values about what matters and what's worthwhile and where you should put your energies. All of those things are very different in the world of art than they are in the world of politics and commercialism. The church used to be good at that. Time to pray is really just withdrawing from the world, which everybody needs to do. Some of us have tried to do it through Eastern religions, through Buddhism, but it doesn't often fit the Western way. People feel slightly uncomfortable that they have a Western outside and an Eastern inside, and there's a tension there. But it's something that we're really going to have to resolve. The 21st century is bringing up a lot of interesting problems and if we don't resolve them in the next fifty years than we won't be around to resolve them in fifty years after that. One of these questions is, How will we nourish our inner life, our spiritual life? You can make brave and strong decisions that say to the rampant outside, We've got to stop; we're not going to buy every blade of grass on the planet; we are going to start feeding the world's poor.

These aren't just political decisions, they come from a place of real compassion, and I think that's part of the inner life not the outer life. Do-gooding is never enough, political will is never enough. You have to feel deep compassion for other people and for the planet, otherwise it's superficial and it doesn't hold. Things happen for a few years and then we go back to the old ways. Whereas if it comes from a deep place and deeply held belief, then we really can change things in the long term. But most people now don't have any deeply held beliefs, which makes them uncertain, fearful, and prey to all kinds of outside forces. It also makes them feel powerless to affect change. You always hear people say, There's nothing I can do. But anybody with a strong inner belief never believes that. Look at Mother Teresa. We may not like her belief system, but she believes in something so strongly that she goes out and does something. And you see that in every remarkable individual; they have a deep inner conviction which the outside world didn't give them and can't take away. So, one of the things I would like to see is more people with that deep inner conviction, but stripped of all its awful religious connotations. We don't want missionaries [laughs], not in the old-fashioned sense. We do want people who will go out there and care passionately.

VF: It's interesting that you speak of conviction. In November of 2004 you put Yeats's "The Second Coming" on your website, asking people, especially in America, to find the conviction . . . I love the website, by the way. I know you had to battle to get the rights to your name back for the domain.

JW: I did, the creep [laughs]. It was that Wild West moment there, wasn't it? When the rest of us were all a bit sleepy, these techno-maniacs thought they could make a fortune.

VF: Selling the rights to your names back to you?

JW: Right. But I spent considerable sums and a lot of time winning the case . . . in fact it's gone down on the law books as a landmark case, which is great. The next day Julia Roberts got hers back, the next day Madonna got hers back, and I thought, Listen girls, you could send a few pounds . . . [laughs].

VF: Julia Alvarez refused to pay someone for the rights to her own name so she named her website her own name backwards...

JW: Well, I was furious. It felt morally wrong, I thought, You can't steal my name. I felt like I was in a fairy tale. Somebody was stealing my name!

VF: Like out of one of your books... someone gambled your heart.

JW: Yeah. I told him at the beginning, I said if you give me my name now back you'll save yourself a lot of trouble in the long run. He took no notice. [laughs] But I love doing the website. It's going to be five years this September since we started it. And it's grown and grown; it's got 250 pages on it with an internal search engine so it's quite easy to find things, and we'll keep adding things. There's really good feedback on it. People seem to like the message board.

VF: It's a useful tool. Reading The Powerbook was interesting in that regard; I love the way so much of it takes place in cyberspace. I was wondering what you thought about technology as either a subject or a tool for art.

JW: Well, we talked about it a bit at the beginning when we discussed photography and how these things have the potential to free up art forms, and then they don't. I don't think technology will alter the way creative artists do business. It might alter some methods or some means or media, but it will never alter the essential spirit of people sitting down and creating something from themselves, no matter how many fancy tools they've got. They still have to have something. It's like those ridiculous screenwriter programs, isn't it? "This is all you need to become a professional—just add the words." But the Internet, I think, is fascinating creatively because it allows people to do what's always been the pursuit of artists, which is to disguise and distort or obscure their identity or invent a completely different role. Orlando is perfect Internet material as someone who pushes time in different genders, different guises. And that's exactly what happens on the Internet. People go into those chat rooms and they feel they can be anybody, which is great. It's sort of virtual transvestitism—all these guys who would never wear knickers going into chat rooms calling themselves "Jennifer." [laughs] It's crazy.

VF: And liberating.

JW: And I like that. I partly think that might free up people's minds to understand a bit more about the freedom and playfulness of art itself, that you don't have to be bound by the facts or any straight narrative. You can be who you like in that virtual world.

VF: You've mentioned in the past that your first seven novels represent a cycle of recurring stories, and that The Powerbook is the culmination of that cycle. If so, how does your new book, Lighthousekeeping, fit in with the rest of your work?

Buy Lighthousekeeping at Amazon.com

JW: With The Powerbook, I do feel it was the end of a cycle—not as a theory or an intellectual conceit but as something instinctively understood. The Powerbook is an extravaganza; I threw in everything that I could. I wanted it to be as wild and audacious as I could make it, to work with all the things that I'd been thinking of and playing with for the last however many years . . . And I did do that and I was pleased with it, so I knew that whatever happened next would have to be far away from that territory. You have to keep away from the book that you've just written because the thing that was so difficult for you then becomes the thing that is familiar to you. I was reluctant at first to go back to character-based fiction, but as it began to come together as an imaginative idea I realized I should just follow it. It was difficult because I was tempted to just go back to a Powerbook shape. I had to consciously stop yourself.

VF: Well, mission accomplished, because Lighthousekeeping is very different.

JW: It may be that doing the kid's stuff has helped with breaking certain patterns that might have formed. As you get older, you know it's a double-edged sword: you have enormous experience and you know a lot about your own process, but you can fall into the habit of becoming a parody of yourself, which would be awful. I want people to be able to pick out a page of any of my books and know that it's me, to recognize it because of the way the language is used, otherwise all is lost from my point of view. But it also has to be a different book.

VF: I once read that Italo Calvino felt that he never had a singular voice or style that was immediately recognizable. He was more known for his really great concepts, not the language.

JW: But you might know him just from the concepts. [Calvino's] Invisible Cities is a perfect book. He just plowed through and did his own thing in spite of everybody else and he was a great inspiration for me.

VF: Not to change the subject, but how is your new business, Verde?

JW: My shop? Oh, I love my shop. It's a continental deli that's fair on labor, fair on the land. Everything is either organically farmed or well fed farmed—no additives—and it has got to come from either small producers or single producers, no shady corporate deals. Fresh vegetables, organic olives, all of that; our pasta is made fresh every day by a family up the road. We're not going to give Wal-Mart a run for their money, but it's this question of everybody doing whatever they can to make things a bit better. And we can all do something. I had the space in the house that I own and I thought it would be great to have a shop there. I was offered a huge amount of money, 60,000 pounds a year, from an American coffee company [for her retail space] and I was very pleased to say no.

VF: Please tell me that was Starbucks.

JW: I can't tell you who it is. When they made the offer I had to sign a bit of paper saying, if she turns it down, which she won't, she can't tell anyone . . . if I had taken it I wasn't allowed to say for how much, but I reckon as I'm not saying who, I can say how much. Miserable bastards [laughs]. I don't want these people in my life. I don't like their politics, I don't like their coffee, and I don't want to come down the street to my apartment in London every week and see this. So I thought the best thing would be to open a shop myself. I went into partnership with somebody who's a chef and has a lot of experience, and we're making a go of it.

VF: Is it more of a local thing or do you have people coming in from all over?

JW: Oh, people are coming in all the time because it got a lot of publicity when it opened. It looks gorgeous: wooden floorboards, wooden shelves, there's a little fire going in the corner and you can have an espresso while you're choosing things. And we do nice bouquets of flowers as well that you can take to your girlfriend. So you can buy something to cook for her, get her a bouquet of flowers and a nice bottle of Italian wine . . .

VF: Sounds amazing.

JW: Well, it's how you can exercise power. Organic food is expensive, but if you can afford to buy it, buy it. You might not be able to afford to buy it every day, but the day you can, do. That makes a difference. I really believe in cumulative and collected little gestures toward a better world.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005

Litblogs Provide a New Alternative for Readers

by Scott Esposito

In an age where more poetry, novels, and short stories are being published than at any time in history, it is a bitter irony that a good bookish conversation can be hard to come by. “Reading at Risk,” a study performed by The National Endowment for the Arts, reported that the overall number of readers in America is in decline, and those that do read seem to only be interested in the latest Oprah pick or the new work by Stephen King. Many periodicals still provide strong literary coverage, but waiting month after month for the drip drip drip of substantial articles and news is both frustrating and unsatisfying. It is no wonder that in a 1990s lecture on the decline of literature (republished in The Gutenberg Elegies), Sven Birkerts said that reading had become a “dead-end proposition.”

The Internet appears to be changing that. It has proven to be an extremely versatile tool for linking people in need with others who can fulfill that need. For instance, sites like eBay offer venues for anyone to sell their junk, and more often than not buyers from around the world snap it right up. Air travelers can now easily compare numerous fares to find the one that best serves their needs. Political campaigns have discovered unprecedented internet tools to recruit volunteers and accumulate donations. And, of course, it is well known how many lovelorn singles visit match-making websites to discover potential mates.

If the Internet is so useful for connecting people with junk, air fares, politicians, and dating partners, then why should it not be able to link literary enthusiasts with each other? If people can discuss politics on the Internet, why should it not provide a stimulating forum for discussing literature? In fact, it can, and it has been doing so for at least a year now.

Consider literary weblogs, or litblogs for short, the Match.com for the lover of literature. They are for those bewildered by the tens of thousands of novels published each year. They are for those who think the quality of book coverage in the mainstream media could be much better, could offer insightful reviews instead of mere plot summary. For those who are interested in lively discussions debating the definition of poetry's avant-garde versus its post avant-garde. For the person who wants equal space given to Steven Dixon and David Foster Wallace. For someone who wants angles on the graphic novel fresher than “comic books aren't just for kids anymore!” The litblogosphere has all of these things and more.

Of course, all of these strengths were already present in the alternative literary media that has thrived both in print and in cyberspace. Litblogs owe much to carefully edited publications ranging from Poets & Writers to Jacket to, well, Rain Taxi, not to mention the thousands of literary journals and small presses, as well as distributors like Small Press Distribution and Consortium. For decades, these entities have fostered a legitimate alternative space in publishing, and they continue to provide excellent, regular writing about literature. By comparison, blogs are a teeming upstart, with daily postings that are more plentiful and generally more personal than those in magazines, but also less edited and fact-checked.

What litblogs arguably add to the scene is the chance for readers to enter into the discussion and talk books with other intelligent readers; it is by posting daily and by opening interactivity to not just bloggers, but also their readers, that litblogs have taken the tradition of an alternative literary community in a new direction. With so many bloggers posting every day and so many readers leaving comments, chances are if something important is happening in the world of literature, litblogs are both covering it and critiquing it. A great example of this was when a couple of Iowa Writers' Workshop graduates reported via blogs on the search for a new program head, posting commentary and accounts of each applicant's public audition and lecture. The reportage of that event (an event which was barely covered at all in the mainstream media), snaked its way from blog to blog until it had become well diffused and each applicant’s credentials had been parsed.

More recently, several poetry litblogs have taken up a series of fundamental questions about poetry, including “Does the fundamental nature of poetry change over time?” And “What is the most important poetry?” Several poetry litblogs parsed these questions, and readers commented, making for a strong discussion. This potential for almost immediate reportage, quick viral movement of a story, and conversation on demand adds a dimension that is not found in magazines or even newspapers.

The majority of the most popular litblogs were started only 12-18 months ago. Some of the oldest litblogs out there—Beatrice and Maud Newton among them—started considerably earlier, but others like Return of the Reluctant and Bookdwarf have celebrated their one-year anniversary in the past six months. Over the past year, a sort of community has sprung up among litblogs, with bloggers responding to each other's remarks, notifying readers to particularly good posts, and occasionally collaborating to promote literature and litblogs.

Since I started my own litblog, Conversational Reading, in August of 2004, I've discovered roughly 50 litblogs that I visit regularly. On any weekday (generally, bloggers don't post on weekends), I can count on most of these blogs to have fresh material up. In fact, there is so much material posted every day that it is impossible to read it all. Sometimes postings are as simple as a heads-up to a good article that I should read (quite useful since there are hundreds of periodicals that publish regularly on the web). Other times, a recent article will be excerpted and the blogger will include some commentary. A post may discuss a novel that the blogger is currently reading, or it may be a book review of a recently read book. There are also often write-ups of author events such as lectures or in-store appearances, interviews with novelists, book agents, publishers and others, and even long-form essays.

One trait shared by virtually all litbloggers is their enthusiasm for defying mainstream opinion, and because of this willingness to offer a countervailing point of view the litblogging community has managed to attract a substantial audience in a relatively short period of time. The highest-trafficked blogs get thousands of hits per day (sometimes tens of thousands if they’re in the news), and the publishing industry has taken note. Many litbloggers regularly get galleys from publishers ranging from Random House to Copper Canyon Press to the Dalkey Archive, and anecdotal evidence indicates that their coverage has helped sell books and prop up emerging authors such as Sam Lipsyte and Elizabeth McKenzie. Several well-regarded midlist authors—Cynthia Ozick, David Mitchell, and Lydia Miller among them—have done interviews with litbloggers, and some publicists are beginning to develop lasting relationships with favored litbloggers.

This alternative aspect of litblogs is good in that it creates the feel of a cohesive network open for discussion, but it also presents the threat of insularity. An alternative opinion is not necessarily a correct one and litbloggers' attempts to police themselves have often yielded mixed results. Just recently, the Lit Blog Co-Op, a collaborative venture of 21 litbloggers (Full Disclosure: I am a member of the LBC) to promote a book struggling to get noticed, picked Kate Atkinson's Case Histories as its first title. Controversy ensued over whether the title was too mainstream, with some savage remarks coming from both sides. As of this writing, it remains to be seen how or whether the LBC will respond to this charge. It also remains to be seen whether future skirmishes within the litblogosphere—over being “too mainstream” and otherwise—will be to bloggers' betterment or detriment.

These disagreements over the mainstream are especially consequential, because most bloggers are delighted with mainstream approval, be it from Simon & Schuster or The New York Times. Put another way, litblogs are still new enough that they feel like upstarts, and recognition from the mainstream offers validation, putting litbloggers in the strange position of receiving validation from those they critique.

Lately the mainstream media seems to be treating litblogs less like a fad and more like a permanent counterpart, but it is clear that the mainstream is far from willing to extend complete respect to litblogs, or even blogs in general, quite yet. (Still, some newspapers have given their reporters and columnists blogs of their own.) Several pieces, in fact, have issued stinging rebukes to litbloggers. Writing in The New York Times about litbloggers’ tendency to discuss Sunday book reviews, Sarah Boxer opined “Most book-review reviews are summary, to say the least. Their main purpose, it seems is to get noticed and linked to by more popular blogs.” Charlotte News and Observer book critic J. Peder Zane has said “Some of the best blogs exhibit flashes of brilliance, but none can match the best print publications in the breadth and depth of their writing.” And in a piece on litblogs, the Village Voice compared them to “parasites” feeding off the mainstream media.

While harsh, this criticism is not wholly unjustified. Many posts are unedited or dashed off at a moment’s notice, and it can show. Even the best litblogs sometimes feature typos or half-formed thoughts. Also, although litblogs do come up with a significant amount of original content, it would be difficult to imagine the litblogosphere as it exists currently without the mainstream media both as a generator of news and as the gatekeeper for the work of the most prestigious writers and critics. Lastly, as long as litblogs retain low expectation of journalistic ethics, questions as to their legitimacy will be difficult to dismiss.

Despite these criticisms, it remains true that litblogs are carrying on in the footsteps of alternative presses and magazines and are taking notions of “alternative” in exciting new directions. At their best, litbloggers' daily chatter enlivens and animates books, changing them from Sven Birkerts' “dead-end proposition” to a portal into an online discussion. Blogs have already inspired many, many trips to the bookstore on my part, and readers of other blogs have echoed these sentiments. Hopefully litblogs will find a way to coexist with the mainstream and continue to improve while staying true to their alternative roots and receptive to criticism. If so, literature will be better off for their presence.


These are a few of the many litblogs I visit regularly. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but rather a good starting point. I have tried to demonstrate some of the litblogosphere's diversity, and further explorations of the litblogosphere can easily be made through each of these blogs' blogroll.

if:book—Sponsored by The Institute for the Future of the Book, if:book tends to be on the cutting edge of the intersection between books and the Internet. The site covers ways that hypertext, blogs, and other internet tools can be used to distribute information in new and exciting ways. It also considers the potential of e-books and where the future of paper books lies.

The Literary Saloon—The blog from the popular book review website the Complete Review, the Literary Saloon is blogged from England and features a large amount of news from that country and around the world. Posts tend to be short and newsy, with several each day, making it one of the more concentrated litblogs around.

The Mumpsimus—Matthew Cheney blogs on The Mumpsimus with a definite SF slant, although he also writes about other literary genres. He writes a lot about books he's been reading, in addition to responding to news and articles and keeping readers appraised of new developments in the world of SF.

Rake's Progress—Posts at Rake's Progress are often witty and irreverent. One will be flogging the latest book culture satire from The Onion while the next will be a serious consideration of Haruki Murakami’s newest novel. A fun blog to read with lots of entertaining and thought-provoking links.

The Reading Experience—The Reading Experience typically features longer, well-considered posts on fiction or some aspect of the book industry. Dan Green, the man behind The Reading Experience, is a former professor who has left academia to pursue his fiction and non-fiction writing, and his posts reflect his considerable knowledge of literature. Dan also posts, enthusiastically, on the potential of the internet and electronic publishing to change books and the book industry.

Silliman's Blog—Well-known poet Ron Silliman has been blogging since 2002 at Silliman's Blog and he has built a sizable audience in the process. Ron's voice is notable for it's even keel and stateliness, and his posts tend to be among the longer and most personal in the blogosphere. They often generate a substantial number of comments from readers. Ron also has one of the most exhaustive list of links to literary bloggers on the Internet.

The Valve—One of the few group litblogs, The Valve takes its cue from literary journals. It’s the brainchild of John Holbo, a philosophy professor and blogger at the popular culture blog Crooked Timber, and several of the contributors are academics. The posts tend to be meatier and longer than most other blog fare, and although The Valve is new, it gets lots of comments, indicating that it’s succeeding in its goal of fostering good literary discussion.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005