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Fall 1996, Volume 13.3

Book Reviews

 

Living In America: Poetry and Fiction, Reviewed by Balaji Venkateswarn
Aspen Marooney, Reviewed by Benson Y. Parkinson
A World We Thought We Knew: Readings in Utah History,
Reviewed by William E. Fischer, Jr.
Done into Dance: Isadora Duncan in America, Reviewed by Rena Sanderson
My Town: poems by David Lee, Reviewed by Kevin Cantwell

 

 

Living In America: Poetry and Fiction by South Asian American Writers, edited by Roshni Rustomji-Kerns. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995, 277 pp., $59.95 (cloth); $17.95 (paper).

Reviewed by Balaji Venkateswarn, Contributing Editor (Book Reviews). India West, Emeryville, CA.

Although immigration to North America from the geographical region of South Asia is not a recent phenomenon, South Asian American culture is still, for the most part, in its nascent stage, perhaps largely because it is only recently that South Asian Americans have become more visible in mainstream America in larger numbers and have been undertaking concerted efforts as a community to forge their own identity within the myriad cultural strands of their adopted countries in North America.

Thus this anthology of South Asian American writing appears at a crucial stage in the community's efforts at identifying itself as part of the diverse cultural milieu. Not only do the poems and short-stories introduce the hitherto largely unheard voices of South Asian American immigrants, but they also help take a very bold step towards encouraging and developing a whole new genre evolving out of the re-application of South Asia's rich literary traditions that view life in modern America from the immigrant's perspective.

The stories and poems depict a range of emotions and experiences: from the immigrant's first wonderstruct and joyful observations of the "Promised Land" to the mixed emotions of people who have lived in North America for several years and who now look back nostalgically at the life they left behind when they crossed the proverbial dark waters that separate the two worlds. And in between these is a spectrum of emotions: joy and sorrow, chance meetings and inevitable partings, loss of cultural roots and discovery of new ones, loneliness and belonging.

The anthology contains the works of a few well-known writers of South Asian descent, such as Meena Alexander, Agha Shahid Ali, Boman Desai, Chitra Divakaruni, Kirin Narayan, Ved Mehta, G.S. Sharat Chandra, and Bapsi Sidhwa. But it also includes numerous new or relatively little-known voices for whom this anthology provides an excellent and long-overdue platform.

The works in this anthology are predominantly concerned with the lives of South Asians facing, and trying to come to terms with, life in a foreign land they voluntarily chose to come to. There is Boman Desai's short, but intense, narrative of a young man who's trying to come to terms with the racism in his family in relation to his marriage to an American. Another notable story on the subject of cross-cultural marriages is "Yuba City Wedding" by Chitra Divakaruni, in which the author describes in vivid, poetic language the impending marriage of a South Asian immigrant in Yuba City to a Hispanic woman.

A frequent concern within the South Asian American community of South Asian women marrying expatriate men and some of the problems associated with it is voiced in the stories by Neila C. Seshachari and Naseem Hines, while the converse issue of a wife's infidelity is portrayed in Usha Nilsson's story "What a Big Lie."

The theme of tragic loss, accentuated by loneliness in a strange land, is explored in Rajini Srikanth's poignant story of a mother whose grief at the loss of a son is so intense it leads to insanity. Sarita Sarvate's stark and disturbing story of a woman who has lost her child explores a similar theme, but has a very different resolution.

As in any expatriate community, the need to pass on memories and cultural legacies to subsequent generations is best tackled in a selection from Meena Alexander's memoir "Fault Lines," Darius Cooper's poem "I Have Been Offered My Country's Begging Bowl Again," and Ranbir Sidhu's story "Border Song."

Considering the well-defined focus of including only works that deal with South Asian immigrant experiences in America, the biggest contribution this anthology makes is in bringing some new, exciting writers to the forefront. It is precisely publications like this one that will encourage the artistic community of South Asian American writers to attain such a level of excellence that its future contributions to the culture of its adopted country will not go unnoticed

 

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Aspen Marooney by Levi Peterson. Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1995, 216 pp., $15.95 (paper).

Reviewed by Benson Y. Parkinson, Writer, South Ogden

Those who know Utah grant that the most dominant forces in the state are Mormonism and landscape. From that point of view, Levi Peterson, whose protagonists are invariably torn between the two, may be Utah's premier writer. Characters in his story collections, Canyons of Grace and Night Soil, and his previous novel, The Blackslider, are often young, making life decisions, vacillating between the Christian promise of salvation from death and sin, and the tug of their own wild natures. In his new novel, Aspen Marooney, Peterson carries his theme into late middle age, as Aspen, the title character, and Durfey Haslam head home to Richfield for their forty-year high school reunion.

Durfey and Aspen lead comfortable lives. Both subsist in less-than-satisfying marriages, mainly because they still pine for each other, though they have had no contact in forty years. Durfey and Aspen were lovers in high school, seeing each other in secret because Aspen's parents did not approve. Aspen slept with him largely to force the issue of their marriage; though pregnant, she found she could not face her parents and married the unsuspecting Roger Sheffield instead. The book follows Durfey and Aspen through Pioneer Day and the reunion, introducing a bevy of rural characters—colorful, rambunctious, and profane. During a chance encounter in a drugstore, Aspen reveals to Durfey that he has a son by her. In forty years she has told no one.

During all that time she has borne her guilt. "Aspen [had] hoped she would die in childbirth or a car accident so Roger could marry a proper wife. That failing, she hoped God would let him choose a better wife in the Millennium" (127). Durfey spends considerable time brooding on "the inevitability of sin" (210). "Innate depravity," he announces. "There's no other explanation" (139). The Fall comes up repeatedly in this novel, sometimes explicitly, as when Durfey says to Aspen, "At the end of our summer [together], God paid us a visit and, hearing his voice, we hid and put on our fig leaves" (167).

Peterson's characters have always been drawn from the fringes of Mormonism, which makes his sympathetic treatment of Roger, a man wholly in the Mormon Church, refreshing. Here is an LDS patriarchal figure who is not in any way hypocritical or overbearing, who is intelligent and diligent in his concern for those in his charge, who seeks to move them only through persuasion and longsuffering. But Roger lacks strong passion. Durfey grows tame because he wants what the Church can give him. Roger is just naturally tame. If there exists a Mormon male who is both passionate and unconflicted in his beliefs, he does not show his face in Peterson's fiction. The hope Peterson holds out for passionate men is that age will smother their flame, make them more like women. "All men" Durfey muses, "if they live long enough, come to a symbolic amputation under the scalpel of a surgeon called Time" (147). In another place he reflects that "men were less and less masculine and more and more human as they got older" (192).

Aspen and Durfey have spent a lifetime nursing their guilt. At the close of the reunion, they climb a hill to a grove and lay out their clothes on the ground (166). Durfey recognizes such a reckless act is "not for erotic pleasure. Rather it is for the perfection of [one's] guilt, which is self-initiated punishment, a mode of self-replicating pain (189). Aspen, who has never confessed her affair, "cherished her unworthiness.… Her secret had long ago become as indispensable as breathing.… Without it there was no such person as Aspen Marooney" (210-11). Unlike the unfocused guilt that afflicts so much intellectual Mormon fiction, this is guilt for actual sin, though still not the sort that will do the sufferer any good. In poeticizing it, Peterson can be accused of ennobling their adultery. In their minds, Aspen and Durfey are willing to sacrifice their integrity and their hope of salvation for the good of others, continuing to go to the temple rather than arouse suspicion, refusing to confess and have it wreck their homes. This is a Mormon novel, yet there is no evidence in it that there might exist a repentance capable of healing them and their families. But Peterson shows his characters' basic worth and goodness and acquaints us with their pain. It is difficult not to see the writing of a novel like this as moral. Peterson increased our empathy with our understanding.

 

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A World We Thought We Knew: Readings in Utah History edited by John S. McCormick and John R. Sillito. Salt Lake City, UT: University of Utah Press, 1995, 493 pp., $65.00 (cloth); $24.95 (paper).


Reviewed by William E. Fischer, Jr. Historian, Seoul, Korea

Perhaps nowhere in North America are place and people so inextricably intertwined as are Utah and the Mormons. Whether the mystique has resulted from the saga of persecution and flight, the practices and personalities of the early church, or the epic struggle to overcome the harsh realities of the Great Basin, Mormon and non-Mormon alike perceive Utah as unique. To the mid-nineteenth century believer, it was Zion; to contemporary non-believer it was little more that God-forsaken wasteland. Regardless of one's personal interest in the Mormons, the linkage of place and people cannot, and should not, be denied. Yet John McCormick, of Salt Lake Community College, and John Sillito, of Weber State University, argue that such a narrow focus has resulted in Utah's published legacy being "essentially ethnocentric history [leaving] out much as inappropriate, irrelevant, or dangerous" (5).

The thirty essays contained within A World We Thought We Knew partially redress that imbalance of perspective and serve as the "beginning of a project in rethinking Utah history" (7). McCormick and Sillito follow a chronological approach in organizing the previously published selections, with emphasis placed on the diverse twentieth-century Utah experience. Not only are race, class, and gender issues examined, but environment, agriculture, and other topics as well. The authors represent a broad cross-section of regional expertise. Succinct introductions precede the essays and enhance reader understanding by placing the topics in their historical context. Rounding out the volume is a useful narrative bibliography that provides additional references for further study.

Such an undertaking is not without risks. The editors readily acknowledge their need to be selective in preparing a single-volume reader, and have included essays that they believe impart a new emphasis for examining Utah's past. Given publisher constraints, personal bias inevitably enters into editorial decisions to include or discard a useful essay. Unable to offer a comprehensive examination of the issues, critics can then argue that significant events are either omitted, obscured, or overemphasized. Revisionist history invokes controversy.

Three thought-provoking essays demonstrate such a debate. David B. Madsen and Brigham D. Madsen argue, in "One Man's Meat is Another Man's Poison," that the Salt Lake Valley cricket plague of 1848 should have been a welcomed boon for newly-arrived Mormon immigrants facing the prospect of winter starvation. Typically roasted, ground, and mixed with other foodstuffs, insects had long been an important energy source for peoples living a marginal existence in the Great Basin. While the Saints rejoiced when seagulls arrived to save Zion's crops, Madsen and Madsen contend that "a much more appropriate behavior, and one that would most certainly have been followed by native peoples, would have been to eat the crickets and kill the seagulls" (67).

Efforts to enhance development through reclamation in turn-of-the-century Utah are examined by Kathryn L. MacKay in "The Strawberry Valley Reclamation Project and the Opening of the Uintah Indian Reservation." Electrification, recreation, and agricultural and industrial expansion were


achieved in part for the slight cost of $1.25 per acre for former Uintah reservation lands. Unfortunately, the author notes, the lands were expropriated without owner consent. As such, the project remains "part of the legacy of ignoble dealings with the American Indians" (266).

Acclaimed environmental historian Donald Worster asserts that Utah and the planet face an impending environmental crisis that will require, as the interview is aptly entitled, "Expanding Our Moral Vision Beyond the Human Community." Nonsustainable use of natural resources has resulted from a greed inherent to the capitalistic economic system. Neither technological innovation nor religious bellicosity can change the fact that Utah is a desert and has a limited capacity to sustain life. What is required, Worster argues, is a holistic approach—an environmental ethic—that places humanity within nature. Otherwise, we but continue "an old pattern in American society—ruining, spoiling, and killing what we most cherish" (413).

Perhaps the most poignant, though no less provocative, essay is by Helen Zeese Papanikolas: "Utah's Ethnic Legacy" was her 1984 commencement address at the University of Utah. Papanikolas made Utah's diverse history relevant to the assembled graduates because she declared that it was self-evident in their physical features. Though Utahans had made great strides in reconciling differences, she insisted that there were yet more "promises to keep for coming generations" (248).

While the Mormon experience will likely continue to dominate Utah's lore, readers nonetheless come away from this volume with a greater appreciation for the region's social and cultural diversity. Natives and immigrants, buffalo soldiers and bootleggers, working women and wobblies, conservatives and radicals—they are all part of a Utah we thought we knew. No longer hidden in the shadow of a religious utopia, they enhance Utah's uniqueness while confirming the state as uniquely American. A World We Thought We Knew will not please everyone—that's beyond the ken of any survey reader. Yet, such debate only enhances the editors' purpose because it focuses the discussion on continued inquiry into the new Utah history. Its broad scope should attract an interdisciplinary following as well as proving worthwhile for local and regional programs of study.

 

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Done into Dance: Isadora Duncan in America by Ann Daly. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995, 267 pp., $39.95 (cloth); $18.95 (paper).

Reviewed by Rena Sanderson, Dept. of English, Boise State University, Boise, ID

There have been numerous books on Isadora Duncan's life and career, including Frederika Blair's definitive biography Isadora: Portrait of the Artist As a Woman and the more recent Life Into Art: Isadora Duncan and Her World, edited by Dorée Duncan, Carol Pratl, and Cynthia Splatt. The book under review, however, is the first study that fully explores the American dancer as a rich cultural signifier. Both a dance study and a cultural history, Daly's informative book offers a fascinating picture of the interaction between Duncan and related contexts of American modernity.

The carefully organized book contains the threatening unruliness of Duncan's many dimensions. A prologue introduces the main points of the argument that Duncan's dancing body functioned as "a conspicuous participant in America's social, cultural, and political life" in the early twentieth century when contested concepts of "nation, Woman, culture, self, race, art" were negotiated (5). Although Duncan left for Europe in May 1899 and returned to her homeland only for visits, Daly asserts that Duncan's self-exile enhanced rather than diminished her importance to Americans. The dancer's well-publicized visits and performances in America assured her a wide audience here. Her rise to fame between 1899 and her death in 1927 coincided with a time when Americans were eager to discover modern definitions of personal, national, and cultural identity. Daly identifies the most important intersections of Duncan's changing self-fashioning and the changing American climate.

Like Frederika Blair, Daly recognizes distinctly different stages in the dancer's development. The first period (through 1911) established "the Duncan who has persisted in history: the young, gamboling nymph, joyful and graceful," who appealed both to "modernists who wanted to overthrow the old genteel tradition" and to "anti-modernists longing for a return to something authentic, simple, and pure" (14-15). During the second period (of the 1910s) emerged "a more mature Duncan, taking on more heroic, even patriotic, postures" (15). In the third period, Duncan's final American tour of 1922-23, "a monumental Duncan who barely moved" found herself attacked for her communist sympathies and out of step with developing mass culture (15).

Following this prologue (numbered as chapter 1), Daly devotes a chapter to each of five key facets enacted by Duncan's dance: "the dancing body, the natural body, the expressive body, the female body, and the body politic" (5). After a helpful chapter enumerating the aesthetic and social tenets of Duncan's art, a fascinating third chapter explains that Duncan's "'Natural' body was an artistic invention as well as a rhetorical strategy—a conceptual cipher that embraced the Greeks and rejected the 'African savages'" (89). Daly suggests that such a configuration "provided not only a blueprint for social order and harmony but also a template of social control" at a time when a backlash against immigrants and African Americans pervaded early twentieth-century America (90).

Duncan's fundamental strategy was to distinguish her dance by elevating it "from low to high, from sexual to spiritual, from black to white, from profane to sacred, from woman to goddess, from entertainment to 'Art'" (16-17). In addition to offering cultural legitimacy to an insecure American audience, Duncan also appealed (as Daly shows in her excellent fourth chapter) to "the middle- and upper-class preoccupation with 'expression'" (122). Duncan both exploited and perpetuated contemporary trends toward greater "self-realization" and current ideas about the increasing importance of "physical culture."

The fifth chapter, which seeks to contextualize Duncan's "female body," is less successful than the others. Discussing Duncan in feminist terms, Daly undertakes two virtually impossible tasks: analyzing in a systematic way Duncan's inconsistent actions and claims, and explaining the intricacies of the feminist contexts in a single chapter. The result is a superficial treatment of American feminism, Duncan's neurasthenia, her maternal role and image, and the effect of her work in feminist terms.

Following a sixth chapter ("The Body Politic") that informatively explores the political shifts in Duncan's performance and reception while offering fresh insights into the arc of her career, the book reaches its epilogue. Here Duncan is shown, by the 1920s, as an anachronism. Daly concludes by viewing her as a transitional figure between late nineteenth-century Victorianism and early twentieth-century modernism (209).

A general weakness in this otherwise impressive study—arguably a weakness typical of cultural criticism—is its failure to synthesize fully the overwhelming amount of information provided. This shortcoming, however, should not detract from the considerable accomplishment and the many strengths of Daly's difficult project. Richly informative and beautifully written, her book will be of interest to all students of American culture.

 

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My Town: poems by David Lee. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 1995, 137 pp., $12.00 (paper).

Reviewed by Kevin Cantwell, Div. of Humanities, Macon College, Macon, GA

Writing now his fourth book of poems, winner of the Western States Book Award, David Lee continues to explore an American vernacular that speaks for both the mean violence of rural life and the comic range of the grotesque. His country people seem as touched as the speakers of Edgar Lee Masters and as pathetic as the characters of Flannery O'Connor and Harry Crews. Because Lee has imagined his material so thoroughly, a novelistic development beckons at times; nevertheless, an old sense of the lyric makes Lee's speakers seem familiar within the classic themes of time, loneliness, death, and love. Add to this list the small town specialty of the grudge, and we have My Town.

When Lee invokes Thomas Wolf's "You-can't-go-home-again" dictum in his poem "Prelude," he has a belligerent speaker say, "I go home ever day…." Part of Lee's accomplishment as an observer of people is how he shows the resolute unawareness most of them have for a world beyond their immediate voices, of what the speaker of "Prelude" calls "right here talking to you.…" These poems also insist upon distraction as perhaps the essential form of the lyric as speakers are so often unable to maintain what it is they want to say, or even give directions; in "Terrace Mounds," when the speaker ticks off directions to a visitor, she is also giving breathless asides, as if she will never meet another stranger, and finishes by saying," and acrost that street/right down there, see?/was a man I loved/that's Mr. Cumming's place/and up from him.…" 

Lee's poems depend also upon the oral traditions of hyperbole and the comic pause, somehow finding a breath in his racing and unpunctuated (generally speaking) lines. When one character tries to kill himself, he is able only to shoot "off half his ear;" then he tries to knife himself to death, but succeeds only in breaking "the knifeblade off…in the bone…;" then he throws "hisself in the fire/sed that hurt too bad to stay;" then he tries to starve himself; when that doesn't work, he ties himself to a mule. Then he gets cancer. Meant to be read aloud, "Ugly" is a wonderful celebration of outrageous dimension, which gets its pace form its relentless adding-on effect so that nothing can be believed, and, therefore, is funny to a rural audience used to weather and hardships of biblical proportion. Even when the entire poem is not funny, Lee has the perfect ear for the silly mistakes of language, as when a stupid and greedy preacher asks a storekeeper, "[H]ow much s your menstral discount ("Preacher").

I have to ask, however, what this wonderful book of poems gains by concluding with "Benediction," whose title comes from the definition of a closing prayer. The hatred spoken by one character is unrelieved. When a new preacher tries to find something nice to say to him, the other man turns that remark into an opportunity to make insulting remarks about the preacher's wife. The preacher learns the hard way to avoid that man completely on further occasion. It's true that Lee renders this scene perfectly, so that what is violent verges in the hilarious. But why end the book on it, except to say something about the nature of outsiders, even a local one who will never leave, but one who maintains himself on the edge of society? But what feels like an aesthetic failure at the conclusion of Lee's book may in fact be the kind of hard-lesson shrewdness that this enquiry into ugliness desires. What I love about this strange finish is how the poem takes place in the street between two churches, neither of which will have the man, and yet there he lingers, washed over by the competing sermons of two congregations. For any aesthetic question the poem's placement might raise, the unwillingness of the book to stoop to mere aesthetics signals the intelligence of these poems.

My favorite poem is "Barbed Wire," which is about a man trying to talk and untangle wire at the same time, an apt metaphor for the loopy turns of speech and comic knots we come across in Lee. "It isn't no easy way/to find the endpiece of wore/oncet it's in the roll." Then the poem talks about someone who set out to invent a device to find the end of the wire, and about that man's brother who turned preacher after getting struck by lightning, and about the inventor who never got his patent from "Warshington" for his invention, about which the speaker concludes:

I wishd I had one now
I've wasted more damn time on wore today
than I have to lose
bring them pliers here
let's cut this sonofabitch it don't matter where
we gone set out here all day
won't never get this damn fence done.

I like to think of Lee's lack of punctuation as commentary on how things get in and out of poems, or into conversation, which reminds me of another American poem about fences and neighbors and work.

 

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