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Skin, Inc. Identity Repair Poems

by Thomas Sayers Ellis

Graywolf Press | 2011


Reviewed by James Petcoff

It has taken me several weeks reading and rereading the poems of Thomas Sayer Ellis and I am now beginning to see the light.  Poetry, like music, must be heard to have its fullest impact. Words on a piece of paper, just like musical notation, are nothing without a delivery system.  It is the immediate connection between the poet reading aloud to an audience that gives poetry life, and it is in the response of the audience from the delivery system that creates the poetic experience.


The old style of representing “likeness” is over
and perform-a-formers, though appreciative of
metaphor and simile, no longer need either to
express nuance in poetry. The matrimony of page
and stage insists on eliminating the false functions
between the line and the limb. All rhyme schemes
reborn as gesture, all gestures as sculptural

The New Perform-A-Form
(A Page Verses Stage Alliance)

In our western culture there is a tendency to compartmentalize fields of learning as opposed to seeing and experiencing their interaction. This can also be said of the arts.  In Afro-American art things are not so boxed in. Dance, words and music all come together in a kaleidoscope of meaning and interpretation. Listen to the call and response of a Muddy Waters or Ray Charles tune and you might get the picture – a picture of sound wrapped up in rhythm causing the listener to dance, and by so doing take part in the experience.

I got to experience this “thang” first hand seeing James Brown perform in Battery Park (NYC) on a summer’s day back in 2003. This was a tribal gathering of black, white, yellow, mocha and all the colors of the rainbow. Every time you made eye contact with a stranger it brought out a smile. We were all part of an artistic endeavor and we knew it! We were JB and he was us for a moment in time.

With the advent of poetry slams and rap, the spoken word art form can take from and integrate itself with all forms of artistic endeavor and this I believe is where Thomas Sayers Ellis is going – creating a cross cultural and cross artistic gumbo engendered by the spoken word of poetry. He is outside the box but at the same time he has the ability to look into the cubicle and take what he needs. He is not denying tradition but rather furthering its boundaries.  He invites us all to be Perform-A-Formers in our chosen fields. I look forward to hearing and seeing him do his thing, live, in the near future.

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One Page at a Time: On a Writing Life

by Pat Carr

Texas Tech University Press | 2010 | 259 pages | $25.95

Reviewed by Sarah Vogelsong

Pat Carr’s One Page at a Time: On a Writing Life is an odd book. Framed as a memoir of a woman writer, I wanted to like it—even today, there is a dearth of major women writers in American letters, and so a book that promised to look thoughtfully at the development of one sparked both my interest and hope. The first page seemed to fulfill my expectations. Broaching the question of “why I became a writer,” Carr offers an intriguing explanation: “I may have come to stories simply through the lies the adults in my life told.”

Right away, I folded down the corner of the page to mark it as a potent idea deserving further attention, and then moved, with growing excitement, to page two. And then three, and four, and on until I reached 259 and realized that the only page I had dog-eared was the first.

The book is strangely devoid of any real insight. Focus is a major issue: Is the intent to delve into the life of a writer or the life of a woman? I have the feeling that Carr would smugly return (smugness being perhaps her most distinguishing characteristic): “The life of a woman writer.” Well and good—but the entire book so lacks depth that the reader gains no fuller understanding of either, much less a combination of the two.

The narrative is easy to grasp, following the general trajectory of all memoirs. Carr begins with her early years in the oil camp of Grass Creek, Wyoming, dips back into family history, and then unfolds the story chronologically to the present day. Along the way, she attends Emory University, marries an alcoholic, gives birth to two children, spends a brief period in Colombia, embarks on her own academic career as a professor of literature and creative writing, divorces the alcoholic, and remarries. She consorts with a number of literary “celebrities” over the years, gleefully recounting episodes with James Dickey and Toni Morrison, the latter of whom disappoints Carr for various narrow and dogmatic reasons that are hardly worth discussing. (In short, Carr avidly believes that a writer can never assume a different point of view than he or she actually possesses—men can never write as women, gay people cannot write as straight people, and so on—which would dismiss a good portion of the Western canon, including Madame Bovary, Portrait of a Lady, and the aforementioned Morrison’s Beloved, to list only the tiniest fraction. We would at least still have Shakespeare—drama, Carr airily assures us, is “different.”)

The most unique characteristic of this memoir is how Carr chooses to structure it. The book is composed of a series of vignettes, each exactly one page long and numbered. It is an interesting concept but, like much else in One Page at a Time, its promise is never fulfilled. Breaks between the episodes seem arbitrary or forced, with different anecdotes bleeding from one page to the next. Often, Carr seems to conclude a particular scene solely for the purpose of tying off a paragraph with a dramatic final line or question—a flourish that she executes as skillfully as an utterly sincere adolescent girl.

The choice of the vignette as the structural form for a memoir could have been a brilliant stroke. The beauty and utility of the vignette lies in its ability to pack a large punch into a small set of words, and it operates best in two ways: either by framing a moment of epiphany by refining a scene down to its essence, or else by juxtaposing the many puzzling and disparate elements of an episode in such a way as to heighten the sense of vitality or tension.

The key element of the form is its compression—like poetry, it is inherently dramatic. It is therefore keenly disappointing to see Carr fail to capitalize on this promise. Episode 91 is perhaps most illustrative of these wasted opportunities: in this scene, Carr is giving birth to her third child in Colombia, and the doctor, preoccupied with the upcoming bullfights, forgets to give her an anesthetic. The possibilities of this scene are plentiful, given the tension between the bloody, painful death of the bull and the bloody and painful birth, but Carr hardly seems to notice.

On the whole, One Page at a Time is less a book on writing and more a platform for Carr to air her manifold grievances and establish the particular image she has of herself. One hallmark of a sensitive writer is the depth he or she allows characters, but Carr paints all individuals with a broad brush in strokes of black or white. Her sketches of her first husband, the “noncreative” alcoholic Jack, are absent of any emotion or attempt to penetrate the surface of how his alcoholism affected their perception of the world or marriage or other people. Nor is this lack of curiosity or sympathy confined to Jack. On the whole, because most of the characters only serve as foils to Carr’s own ego, it is hard to keep them straight.

Coming mercifully to the end of this tiresome book, I had trouble figuring out why Carr was motivated to pen such a story and what she hoped to reveal by it. Clearly, she wished to say something about women writers in today’s world of creative writing, how they come to that small sphere, what they have to say, and what challenges they face.

These questions brought to my mind Joan Didion’s masterful 1976 essay, a sort of response to Orwell’s earlier essay of the same name, “Why I Write.” Going back through the few short pages of this piece, I came to the passage in which she answers this “why.” Didion says, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear. . . What is going on in these pictures in my mind.

I was stopped in my tracks. There are many reasons for writing, and this is only one, but it is a great one that touches on something elemental about literature: its driving need to address the great questions of what it means to view and live in the world as one particular human being. Carr would have done well to have questioned herself as much as she condemns everyone with whom she has crossed paths. As the book stands, it is hard not to feel that One Page at a Time is simply replicating the lies that as a child, Carr lamented hearing from adults.

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by Frank Brady

Crown Publishing | 2011 } 328 pages, } $25.99

Reviewed by Michael Carey

“What do you know about Bobby Fischer?” I was asked before starting Frank Brady’s Fischer biography, Endgame. I knew he played chess and was a young prodigy.  Moreover, I thought that he was “gone,” something I learned from a SNL skit from the mid-90s that involved the Spartan cheerleaders at a chess match chanting, “Bobby Fischer, where is he?  I don’t know!  I don’t know!  He’s gone!” 

Brady’s Endgame informed me that although the chess great was a fugitive from the U.S. government and an elusive subject for the press, he did not pass from this life until 2008.  But he left his legacy (both good and bad) for the world to learn from and debate.

Brady’s attempt to answer the question, “What was Bobby Fischer really like?” creates an image of the whole person.  His valiant efforts to solve the enigma of possibly the greatest chess player of all time, leads the reader through a maze (moments of shared joy, sympathy, frustration, and spite) to a locked door to which only Bobby, himself, held the key.  Brady succeeds in presenting an unbiased (often awestruck, but always respectful) account of chess’ most famous and infamous World Champion. 

Raised with his sister by their single mother, Bobby’s upbringing was littered with financial struggles and time alone.  The reader meets Fischer as an awkward, but normal enough boy, who finds companionship in the intellectual challenge of chess: the pieces, the squares, the moves, the competition, and the sweet victory.  The game became his sole passion. 

Through a progression of chess-benefactors, Fischer learned the game quickly, and learned it well.

With the encouragement of a few interested chess enthusiasts, he joined the most prominent chess clubs in New York City.  His learning curve boosted his level of play above other young chess masters, as well as those who were many years his senior.

More than the way he played, his opponents and onlookers were amazed by his focus and total involvement in the game.  Soon Bobby Fischer was able to play against many worthy opponents. His chess prowess continued to grow, and at a young age he was winning numerous tournaments, becoming the youngest U.S. Champion at the age of 14, and the youngest International Grandmaster at 15.

His dream of being World Chess Champion was accomplished at 29.

What happened to Bobby Fischer after his victory would, to most people, be considered tragic.  But for Fischer it was how he would choose to live -- uncompromising and distrustful, for the rest of his life.  Fear involving money, the press, defeat, and the Russians would be his companions.  He resigned his official World Chess Champion title (he would continue to claim it was his) by refusing to defend his title in 1975.  He nearly disappeared for the better part of two decades, hiding from perceived threats.

He stopped paying taxes in 1977 and would become a man without a country in 1992 when, against an embargo, he played a rematch of the 1972 World Championship in Yugoslavia.  If he returned to the U.S., he would face fines and possible jail time, and so Fischer never touched foot (officially) in the U.S. again. 

With his earnings, he lived financially secure, pushing his own variation of chess, Fischer Random, and connecting with old chess friends, making new chess friends, and always spreading his distrust of the Jews and ideas of Russian conspiracy.

Bobby Fischer’s life out of the spotlight is also examined in Endgame.  His extraordinary level of devotion to studying chess is displayed as a constant throughout his life.  Although a high school dropout, Bobby thrived on knowledge and was an avid reader throughout his life, not only books about chess, but a wealth of diverse topics as he aged. 

His involvement with the Worldwide Church of God, his growing hatred of Jews, and his years of quiet hermitic living are investigated with a speculative eye.  Fischer’s search for love and his trying relationships with friends show his humanity to be as dynamic as his knowledge of chess. 

The chapters of Endgame stream along the life of the chess great in chronological order.  However, the sections of the chapters are thematic, allowing a more coherent picture of Bobby Fischer to be drawn, while causing the reader to jump thoughts and pages, to create a complete timeline of his life.  Brady is very good about introducing and reintroducing people to create, as much as possible, self-contained stories of Bobby’s life and experiences.  This device makes the reading easier and ties the whole story together.

This book is not necessarily a pleasure read (guilty pleasure maybe), but rather, it is an excellent account of a man who impacted the world greatly with his genius and his eccentricity.  It is satisfying for the reader with an interest in chess, Bobby Fischer, or simply for those curious to learn the truth behind the misconceptions surrounding his life.

I enjoyed this book for the history, the easy and exciting introduction to chess, and for the window it opened to shed light on who Bobby Fischer really was. 

Being in New York while reading Endgame, was also a real treat due to the deep and rich history of the city’s chess scene (a good deal of which is referenced in or is a part of Bobby’s story).  I was able to walk by the Marshall Chess Club where Fischer played the “game of the century” against international master Donald Byrne.  I stopped in Union Square to watch the trash talking of a friendly chess match that ended in a draw.  I gained a greater respect for the game and my eyes have been opened a little more to the world of chess that is given so little notice in our day.  I believe that was the legacy of Bobby Fischer all along, even when he fought against it.

It was chess, and his struggle to be the absolute best at it, that dominated his relationships and ultimately his life.

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Padre Pio—Miracles and Politics in a Secular Age

by Sergio Luzzatto

Translated by Fredrika Randall
Metropolitan Books

Henry Holt & Company, New York | 2010

Reviewed by Jane M McCabe

sergio lazzatto

For a Capuchin friar hidden away in the half-empty San Giovanni Rotondo monastery on the remote Gargano Peninsula in southern Italy, September 20, 1918, was fateful day. Around nine that morning, while Padre Pio of Pietrelcina was praying before a crucifix in the monastery chapel ‘a mysterious personage’ materialized before him, a figure bleeding from his hands, feet and his side. Alarmed, the thirty-one-year-old priest begged for God’s assistance. The figure disappeared immediately, but Padre Pio’s alarm only grew when he saw that Jesus’ stigmata were now visible on his own body. ‘I look at my hands, feet and side and see they are wounded and blood is pouring out,’ he wrote to his spiritual adviser. ‘All my innards are bloody and my eye must resign itself to watch the blood gushing out,’ so much of it that ‘I fear I will bleed to death.’”

From what Mr. Luzzatto tells us, Padre Pio was a mild-mannered, simple man, not clever enough to have self-mutilated himself to make as though he had received the stigmata. If it were a hoax, it was one perpetrated for fifty years. Since the friar bled profusely from his wounds, if it a hoax he would have soon grown anemic and probably would have bled to death within a few months of receiving them.

For almost exactly fifty years, Padre Pio, the simple Capuchin monk, who died on September 23, 1968, was the object of veneration, ridicule, and contention. As Mr. Luzzatto points out, the autumn of 1918 was “a special moment in the collective awareness, a time heavily in need of the sacred.” The immense trauma of the First World War had ripened the conviction that it had been one never ending crucifixion in which the soldiers’ suffering would redeem mankind.

“Let me be clear right way,” the author writes, “that this study does not intend to establish once and for all whether Padre Pio’s wounds were genuine stigmata, or whether the works he did were genuine miracles. All those seeking answers—affirmative or negative—as to whether the stigmata or the miracles were ‘real’ had better close this book right now. Padre Pio’s stigmata and his miracles interest us less for what they tell us about him than for what they tell us about the world around him: the many-colored world of priests and friars, of clerics and laymen, of the good and the bad and the shrewd and the simple, of those who believed in the stigmata and the miracles and those who refused to believe. Sainthood is a social custom made up of rite of inaction; saints matter as much for how they appear as for what they are.”

At the close of the nineteenth century, secular intellectuals hurriedly proclaimed the end of religion and disenchantment with belief in miraculous happenings. So, for the hierocracy of the Roman Catholic Church to have a friar with stigmata was almost an embarrassment. 

For some fifty years until his death in 1968, Padre Pio never moved from San Giovanni Rotondo in southern Italy. But all around him the men of the church and events in the world moved at a rapid pace.

The lowly status of Italy in the 20th Century would be less pathetic had it never been great, but of course, from the last century BC to the Fifth Century AD Italy was the seat of the Roman Empire and the most powerful and influential realm on earth. How then could a civilization that had risen to such heights have fallen into such disrepute?

Like people, civilizations grow old and lose their vitality. Such as been the fate of many. The Roman Empire lasted for over 500 years, the Byzantine for 1,000, the Spanish and British Empires about two hundred years; all long enough to dramatically change the face of the world. By this rule, the United States is still relatively young, less than 250 years if you count from 1776, but things have so speeded up in the last few decades that we’ve lived through more extreme changes in 50 years than our ancestors lived through in 250, and therefore our country has aged more quickly than it would have had not the pace of things so quickened. The Roman Empire is the prototype by which we measure the decline of civilizations.

By 410 AD, the magnificent Roman civilization that came into its prime under Caesar Augustus in the first century AD was overrun by hordes of barbarians, who, finding the Italian peninsula to their liking, settled and became part of its culture.

Still, we wonder how it is that a once powerful civilization that set the standards for culture and innovation could have fallen so low.

Italy, in the first part of the 20th Century, before Mussolini’s rise to power, was divided not only geographically between north and south, but culturally, as well; the people in the north tended to be more prosperous, better educated and more secular in their views. They had internalized the scientific, rational attitudes from the Enlightenment, while those in the south clung to Catholicism and tended to be more poor, primitive and superstitious.

The Roman Catholic Church dominated the political life and had grown into a baroque and labyrinthine institution. Its attitude towards a simple friar in the south who had the stigmata was ambivalent, sometimes hostile and sometimes tolerant, more often a cause for embarrassment than pride.  

The story of Padre Pio would make good fodder for a satire by Moliere, as he served as a foil to surrounding forces. In the 1920’s there were Italians who, aware of Italy’s former glory, yearned for a leader and government who would help restore her to her former glory. A similar situation existed in Germany, which was yoked with the humiliation of having been defeated in World War I and with the retributions levied in the Versailles Treaty, all which made these countries ripe for strong, if misguided, leaders. Enter Mussolini and Hitler.

Mussolini and his Fascist party believed that extreme measures were needed to redeem Italy, like a boxer whose time was spent, but nevertheless underwent a vigorous, disciplined regime of exercise in the belief that in so doing he could recover his previous strength. 

I have taken the following paragraph on Mussolini’s religious beliefs from Wikipedia:

“Mussolini was raised by a devoutly Catholic mother and an anti-clerical father. His mother Rosa had him baptized into the Roman Catholic Church and took her children to services every Sunday. His father never attended. Mussolini regarded his time at a religious boarding school as punishment, compared the experience to hell, and once refused to go to morning mass and had to be dragged there by force’. Mussolini would become anti-clerical like his father. As a young man, he ‘proclaimed himself to be an atheist and several times tried to shock an audience by calling on God to strike him dead.’ He denounced socialists who were tolerant of religion or who had their children baptized. He believed that science had proven there was no God, and that the historical Jesus was ignorant and mad. He considered religion a disease of the psyche and accused Christianity of promoting resignation and cowardice.

Mussolini was an admirer of Friedrich Nietzsche. According to Denis Mack Smith, ‘In Nietzsche he found justification for his crusade against the Christian virtues of humility, resignation, charity, and goodness.’ He valued Nietzsche's concept of the superman, ‘The supreme egoist who defied both God and the masses, who despised egalitarianism and democracy, who believed in the weakest going to the wall and pushing them if they did not go fast enough.’ Mussolini made vitriolic attacks against Christianity and the Catholic Church, ‘which he accompanied with provocative and blasphemous remarks about the consecrated host and about a love affair between Christ and Mary Magdalena.’ He believed that socialists who were Christian or who accepted religious marriage should be expelled from the party. He denounced the Catholic Church for ‘its authoritarianism and refusal to allow freedom of thought...’ Mussolini's newspaper, La Lotta di Classe, reportedly had an anti-Christian editorial stance.

Despite making such attacks, Mussolini would try to win popular support by appeasing the Catholic majority in Italy. In 1924, Mussolini saw that three of his children were given communion. In 1925, he had a priest perform a religious marriage ceremony for himself and his wife Rachel, whom he had married in a civil ceremony 10 years earlier. On February 11, 1929, he signed a concordat and treaty with the Roman Catholic Church. Under the Lateran Pact, Vatican City was granted independent statehood and placed under Church law—rather than Italian law—and the Catholic religion was recognized as Italy's state religion. The Church also regained authority over marriage, Catholicism could be taught in all secondary schools, birth control and freemasonry were banned, and the clergy received subsidies from the state, and was exempted from taxation. Pope Pius XI praised Mussolini, and the official Catholic newspaper pronounced ‘Italy has been given back to God and God to Italy.’ However, after this conciliation, he claimed the Church was subordinate to the State, and ‘referred to Catholicism as, in origin, a minor sect that had spread beyond Palestine only because it was grafted onto the organization of the Roman Empire.’ After the concordat, ‘he confiscated more issues of Catholic newspapers in the next three months than in the previous seven years.’ Mussolini reportedly came close to being excommunicated from the Catholic Church around this time.’”

The Fascists, coming to power under Mussolini’s direction, believed that extreme measures were needed to restore Italy.

I did not find Padre Pio to be very legible, perhaps because I wasn’t interested in the details surrounding his life. What interested me was, apart from his stigmata and relatively uneventful life, the events and culture that surrounded him, the larger picture of what happened in Italy during the first part of the 20th Century.

The rest is history. Mussolini aligned himself with Hitler and Nazism, and Italy became part of the Axis powers, which were defeated by the Allied forces, precipitating his downfall, execution and Italy’s subsequent humiliation.

When in high school, we had an Italian foreign exchange student named Bruno. Mind you, I really didn’t know a thing about history then, but when I asked him about Mussolini (I was a smart-ass then) he grimaced, looked at the ground and said, “Mussolini is dead.”

As far as Padre Pio was concerned, he lived quietly and breathed his last on September 23, 1968, well after Mussolini’s time and the Fascists’ fall from grace. His body showed no marks of the wounds he once bore—they were completely healed and showed no scars. On Sunday, May 2, 1999, with more than a million of the faithful from all over the world gathered before him, Pope John Paul II celebrated the beatification of Padre Pio. No longer a threat to the Roman Catholic Church, he was canonized and recognized as a saint.

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The Other Life

by Ellen Meister

G.P. Putnam's Sons | 2011 | 312 pages

Reviewed by Janet Garber

Port Me No Portals

Life may be going on right this instant in another dimension, mirroring our own, while diverging in some unsuspected particulars.  Of course there are the scientific speculations (Many-Worlds theory), religious interpretations (Hinduism and Islam) and legions of sci-fi renditions.

In the 90’s TV show, Sliders, teenager Quinn Mallory (Jerry O’Connell) and his buddies went “sliding” into a different alternate universe every week.  Sometimes the new world looked like a perfect replica until they found that penicillin had never been discovered, or dinosaurs still strutted their stuff, or red-lipped vampires were fronting rock bands.  Always the crew decided to try to get home one more time, nothing being quite as alluring to them as the life they left in “Kansas.”

Ellen Meister puts this time-honored device in the service of one young mother, Quinn Braverman, who, from a young age, senses that she has the ability to move into another world via portals which appear as fissures in the foundation of her house, holes in a coral reef in the bottom of the ocean, and recesses in a fireplace in an old church.

Quinn has often wondered whether she married the right guy, stable, loving, sexy Lewis, and when life in the here and now suddenly takes a turn for the worse, she can no longer resist the temptation to see what’s on the other side.

She finds her old boyfriend, needy and narcissistic as ever, and learns that in this second world, she has been living with him for ten years, they’ve never married, and she has no children.

He is a minor celebrity radio shock-jock, who hobnobs with exciting people and goes to the best parties.  And they have the nicest apartment in Manhattan.  How can her life on Long Island, as the pregnant mother of a 6 year old, married to the owner of a fleet of taxis begin to compare?  Add to this the fact that she still finds herself sexually attracted to her old love and ready to act on that impulse.

For this concept to work in this novel, there would have to be some tension about which life Quinn will ultimately choose for herself.  But look at the book jacket and learn that Meister herself lives on L.I., married and mother of three, and do you really think you can’t guess what her character will decide?  Meister undoubtedly suspected that the boyfriend was not enough of a pull and gave the other life a better draw.

Quinn’s mother, who committed suicide years earlier in this world, is still alive over there and Quinn has questions for her that she absolutely needs to have answered.

ch other.  This is a more compelling subject than the usual love triangle, and Meister does a good job in conveying the love and closeness of Quinn and her mother, and Quinn’s relationship with her son and unborn daughter.

In my estimation, Meister should have dropped the idea of portals to the unknown, and recounted a straightforward story of love, family, and relationships.  The “science” of these portals is never quite worked out – Quinn just “senses” when a portal is near and “senses” what is going on on the other side before she takes her leap.  She intuits that she must immerse herself in ice water to reverse the trip. 

She doesn’t explain why there is a Quinn in the second world who vanishes when she appears for a visit, with no one in her world to pick up her son from the bus stop when she’s stuck in the portal.  At a crucial point, she manages to find the exact spot in the ocean (!) where the portal spewed her out and jumps back in for the return trip.  C’mon people, this is all a bit too silly.

As long as I’m griping, what kind of a name is Quinn for a Jewish woman?  Until I discovered the connection to Sliders, I found this name to be rather jarring.  Contemporary issues (abortion, gay marriage) figure prominently in the story but I’m not sure realistically.  On the positive side, though, Meister writes well, and gets us to care about Quinn, her men, her gay brother and his partner, and of course, her mother. 

Her husband is a paragon of virtue, her little boy is precious, her brother is loving and supportive, and her old boyfriend still loves and misses her – what a life!  But of course, there’s a rub and an imposing and terrible one that keeps her jumping from one world to the other, finally choosing the one where she is needed the most.

If you’ve ever felt like checking out of reality when the going gets rough (and who hasn’t?), then you will side with Quinn’s squeezing into fissures behind the ironing board in her cellar to slide into her other life.  It’s patently not a better life, but she learns what she learns, and gets back in time to confront her (and our) worst demons and make some very brave decisions about going forward.

The rest of us, Piaf-style (“Non, rien de rien, non, je ne regrette rien”), will be happy to only occasionally visit the fork in the road when we decided not to move to New York from Kansas, drop out of the PhD program, or give up our dream of being a trapeze artist.  We’ve made our peace with our destinies and, gratefully  have no need to run off and rejoin the circus now.  The only sliding we’re ever going to do is at the neighborhood playground, right behind all our happy little boys and girls.

Book Club Aficionados: check out Meister’s website – she provides some thought-provoking questions for group discussions.

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Shadow Tag

by Louise Erdrich

Harper Collins | 2010 { 255 pages } $25.99

Reviewed by Sally Cobau

In Louise Erdrich’s newest book, Shadow Tag, the reader is privy to a fictional diary (actually two fictional diaries, but I’ll get to that in a moment); what we are not privy to in real life are court documents relating to the accusations that Michael Dorris, Erdrich’s estranged husband at the time, sexually abused one of their children.

This book is primarily about two things—escape and possession.  It circles around the characters of Irene and Gil, a married couple, but also shines its lens on the couple’s children—Florian, Riel, and Stoney.  The children are essential here, for without them Irene would leave.  It is for their well-being that she stays in a relationship that is destructive and floundering, putting on a face of “normalcy.”  Yet the relationship is not wholly one-sided—Irene is ambivalent about escaping and is caught in a narcissistic web, fueled by her own dark impulses.  It might seem reductive to compare the muse-artist relationship here to any other abusive relationship, but all the “red flags” are present in the story—the verbal jags, the violence, and the abuser’s hyperbolic idea of redemption.  In this case, Gil wants to grant one wish—any wish—to all four of his beloved family.  The six-year-old wants a cloud, the idealistic daughter wants “world peace,” and the eldest, Florian, wants to play hockey.  All these wishes are granted—an artist is commissioned to paint clouds; father and daughter go to peace rallies; and expensive hockey equipment is purchased.  But what does the wife want?

“I want you to leave,” says Irene.

This is one wish—the ultimate wish—that Gil refuses to grant.  Instead he thinks that perhaps what Irene needs is a surprise party!  She accepts the party with a shrug and a glass of wine.  Throughout the book, alcohol is a constant companion, easing the impossible restraints Irene feels.  In fact, her wine glass is so omnipresent that when Stoney, her six-year-old, draws a portrait of his mother, he attaches a half-moon (or wine glass) to her hand.

Gil is a famous painter—as a Native American he uses his Native American wife, Irene America, as his muse and model.  At first flattered by his obsession with her (he paints her before they are married), by the time of the story, Irene has a more complicated relationship to the paintings.  It seems that she is the only subject of his paintings and although he captures the tenderness of love in his work, he also depicts Irene with frank brutality: “Irene America was over a decade his junior and had been the subject of his paintings in all of her incarnations—thin and virginal, a girl, then womanly pregnant, naked, demurely posed or frankly pornographic.  He’d named each portrait after her.  America 1.  America 2.  America 3.  America 4 had just sold in six figures.”

I don’t know if Erdrich was Michaels Dorris’ muse, but she was certainly his collaborator, and they wrote several books together.  Before meeting Erdrich, Dorris was a successful writer on his own.  He was also famous for being the first man in the United States to adopt a baby as a single father, a fetal alcohol-inflicted son, who became the subject of Dorris’ much-lauded book, The Broken Cord.

Dorris was Erdrich’s teacher and encouraged her to get published.  They had children together, adopted others, and had extremely successful careers.  But then, in the end, their relationship imploded.  Accused of molesting his daughter(s), Dorris ended up committing suicide after separating from Erdrich.  Perhaps the weight of being “The Native American literary couple” and “spokespeople” for a generation was more than he could handle, or maybe Dorris was jealous of Erdrich’s career, whose ascent seemed limitless (her recent book The Plague of Doves was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize).  Erdrich’s gifts are rare and her ability to reach a large audience remarkable.  Her stories are complex, multi-generational, and highly unpredictable.

The structure of Shadow Tag is simpler than her previous work, though she still tells stories-within-stories.  This novel seems distilled, pure at its core, with achingly precise language.  One structural device is her use of diaries.  In the story, Irene has two—one “real” diary, the blue diary that contains the truth and another diary, the red diary, which is full of innuendo and red herrings and is purposely left out for Gil to read.  Irene leaves clues in her imagined red diary, teasing and manipulating Gil, who feels tortured by the made-up confessions.  At one point, Irene writes in the red diary, amidst the banality of colds and children’s homework, “I think I’m going to lose my mind over what I’m doing.”  Gil reads this and practically goes mad.  He has no idea what his wife is supposedly doing, but imagines the worst: “He actually thought he could feel the blood drain from his heart when he read those words.  I think I’m going to lose my mind over what I’m doing.”  He imagines an affair, but what she is doing is trying to hurt him.  There is no other man; in fact Irene seems frozen, cut off from everyone outside her family. 

The claustrophobia of family life is captured here as well as simple, ritualistic details—dinners are made (healthful concoctions with walnut-pear salads) and popcorn is eaten in front of the TV, but underlying the fecund beauty of family life lurks tragedy and violence.  Erdrich writes, “Gil loved his family with a sort of despairing devotion, for he knew that on a fundamental level they shrank away from him.  Their petting smiles, their compliments, their contrived laughter.  Sometimes he believed they meant these things.  Sometimes he knew they were afraid of him.”  Indeed, his rage turns to violence.  He hurls an empty vodka bottle out of his studio window at Irene, he hits his eldest (Irene takes a photo to document this), and Irene even imagines him murdering her when she’s lying on the tub and he knocks on the door.  This passage is so eerie and frightening, almost propelling the book into a psychological thriller (and indeed, Erdrich said of Shadow Tag that she intended to write a suspense novel).

Is it fair to look into a book, searching for clues to the author’s psyche or autobiography?  In most cases I would say no, let the book stand on its own.  But this book begs itself for interpretation and guess work.  Just as Gil tries to interpret what the line, I think I’m going to lose my mind over what I’m doing means, I found myself reading between the lines, trying to sort out Erdrich from Irene and Dorris from Gil.  The doubling in the book is maddening, complex, and ultimately satisfying.  There is also the tease in the book of having a character called “Louise,” like Louise Erdrich herself.  This Louise ends up being Irene’s half-sister.  She is portrayed as the only person who can save Irene.  Is Erdrich whispering to herself, Save me?  As I read along, I thought of other literary couples with entangled, messy relationships, but none stuck out more in my mind than Fitzgerald and Zelda.  I was surprised, but not overly so, it just seemed right, when Erdrich nods to them and their tragedy in her book.

Although perspectives shift in Shadow Tag, I felt my full alliance fall with Irene and felt little sympathy for Gil.  In the end, one of the children has the last word, making the story seem all the more fractured, as if the story we are told is just one version of many, a glittering shard of a broken mirror.

Recently, I listened to an interview with Louise Erdrich by Bill Moyers.  She talks about being both a mother and writer and how she steals away whenever she can to write.  She says, “I live on the margin of just about everything.”  Sadly, in Shadow Tag, Irene does not escape the fractured, toxic relationship that is slowly strangling her; thank God in real life, one of our national treasures, Louise Erdrich, does.

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