“Ae Fond Farewell”: Looking back at reading in 2017

Ae fond kiss, and then we sever;
Ae fareweel, alas, for ever!
                                           Robert Burns

I cannot think of a year to which I am more ready to say “fareweel.” As I wrote to a friend recently, it has been a bizarre and exhausting twelve months. And too often, it seemed that the constant barrage of news and reactions took time away from the pleasure of reading–so much of my reading was taking the form of newspapers and blogs, tweets and news crawls.

And yet, it ended up being a relatively good year. Not counting the books I need to read for work–things like Shakespeare, Huxley,  Atwood, and Ellison–it has been productive.

In breaking down my “for pleasure” reading, I completed

22 works of fiction
15 works of nonfiction
7 collections of poetry.

I have read 22 male authors and 22 female authors. And more than half of what I read was by non-American writers.

It was a good year for writing. Among the fiction, there were many, many memorable works: from veterans like Ali Smith and Michael Chabon to new discoveries like the Irish writers Catriona Lally (Eggshells) and Jess Kidd (Himself); new discoveries in poetry included Dylan Krieger (Giving Godhead) and Rebecca Lindenberg (Love, An Index); and the range of subjects in non-fiction is inexhaustible and enlightening.

FICTION

If I had to choose three (which I don’t, but … )

Laurent Binet’s The 7th Function of Language is a fun “murder mystery” involving the philosophical stars of the late 20th  century. (Many of whom are still living.) The 7th function of languageactual death of Roland Barthes, who was killed by a laundry van, is determined to be NOT AN ACCIDENT and the suspects include everyone from Mitterrand to Foucault, from Umberto Eco to Noam Chomsky. It is a bold and nervy novel that merges the modern detective story with outrageous flights into semiotics.

George Saunders’ experimental novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, features over a hundred characters, all but one of them who are dead. Lincoln’s son has died and the residents of the cemetery where he rests try to ease his transition to the other lincolnside and compete with each other for the boy’s favor. Meanwhile, the grieving president continues to visit. It is an extraordinary, emotional and satisfying read.

And finally, The Nix by Nathan Hill. I don’t remember how I found this novel, but I am glad I did. Hill is like a Zelig in his uncanny ability to capture the reality of certain, disparate scenes: the riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention; patrol duty during the second Iraq War; teaching college in the 2010s; the brain functions of an addicted gamer.  These set pieces are mesmerizing and propel the story to its complicated and enlightening ending. Dealing with self-realization, maternal bonds, political the nixmanipulation, war, the classical musical world, gaming, and academic integrity, Hill seems to have bitten off far too much. But he brings it all together to serve up one extraordinary and satisfying novel.

 

Non-Fiction

My readings in non-fiction were not purposeful, but often connected in a string of related ideas. Early in the year I read the wonderful, The Only Street in Paris: Life on the Rue des Martyrs by Elaine Scillonian. What started out as a food piece for the New York only streetTimes ended up to be much, much more–a wonderful peek into a Parisian street and neighborhood that has resisted progress and gentrification and tourism, and which continues in much of its uniqueness and tradition.
Scillonian’s book then led me to Lauren Elkin’s FLÂNEUSE: Women Walk the City. It is an entertaining and erudite discussion of women flaneuse–particularly writers and artists and herself– walking in world cities, though with a concentration in Paris. I am grateful for its  introducing me to the marvelous artist Sophia Calle, whose one amusing art work involved walking around Venice while following a strange man. (It also introduced me to Georges Sand, of whom I knew  very little. Two of her enormous novels sit next to my bed, waiting for 2018.)

It is only natural to go from the  “entertaining and erudite” musings of The Flaneuse to perhaps America’s finest intellect, a-field-guide-to-getting-lost-paperback-cover-9781786890511.1200x1200nRebecca Solnit, whose “invisible cities” books have given me much enjoyment in the past. This year I turned to her Field Guide to Getting Lost, a wonderful meditation on the usefulness and growth achieved in being lost somewhere. Like all of Solnit’s work, the main thesis is simply a jumping off point for all sorts of insights and reflections.

 

Undoubtedly, it’s been a tough year around the world. But at least there was a raft of books–too many to list here–to help me navigate the rough seas.  I am looking forward to 2018.

Happy New Year to all!

 

 

Book Review: Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit

At the end of last year or the beginning of this, before my focus and attention were hijacked by the circus that is American politics, The New York Times did a piece on what books people had read the previous year. There were about fifty panelists, mostly writers, but mixed with a sampling of actors, scientists, business people, and politicians. What I could not help but notice is that every third person or so listed two books by Rebecca Solnit. Not the same two books, but two books. No one, it seemed read one Rebecca Solnit book; they had always gone on to a second or a third.

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Rebecca Solnit  (photograph by John Lee for The Guardian)

I had done the same a few years earlier. A friend had lent me a copy of Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas, Solnit’s whimsical collection of “should-be” maps of San Francisco neighborhoods, which had, of course, immediately led me to another title Wanderlust: A History of Walking, which is much more fascinating than it sounds; as the blurb says, it is a history of walking as a political and cultural activity. (Solnit has also done atlases of New York and New Orleans.)

But then I moved on to other books, to other writers, although I did not forget about her. One couldn’t; she was everywhere: her essays appearing in journals, her pieces in major newspapers, her name cited in political commentary, her books brought up in serious conversation.

This year, after reading the NYTimes piece, I realized it had been a while since I last read her, so I bought and read A Field Guide to Getting Lost in January. However, I did not immediately read another. Instead, I fell down a rabbit hole of books about walking and cities and travel: Flanneuse by Lauren Elkin, The Only Street in Paris by Elaine Scillonian, Sidewalks by Valeria Luiselli and Time Travel: A History by James Gleick. This is what a good book can do.

So now in early autumn I return to Solnit once more.

Men Explain Things to Me is a menexplaincollection of seven essays, mostly first-published on the web-site TomDispatch, that focus on the reality and the dangers (and some of the absurdity) found in the patriarchy of modern civilization, dangers that include murder, violence, and rape, as well as condescension and subordination.

The opening essay, “Men Explain Things to Me,” begins with the humorous anecdote where at a party a man says he heard she was a writer and asks her what she has written. She mentions the last book she has written–a study of Eadweard Muybridge and the technology of the west–and he says what a shame that it was published the same year that another book on the same subject came out. He then goes on to explain the substance of this “other book.” As he continues with his description of the book that she should read, Solnit recognizes that he is talking about her book.

Talk about mansplaining!

In an article for The Guardian this past August, Solnit wrote:

There are no signs that mansplaining is going away. An acquaintance recently told me, “A man once asked me if I knew of the Bracero program [for Mexican farmworkers in the US], and when I said, ‘Why yes, I wrote my undergrad thesis about it,’ he replied, ‘Well, I’ll tell you about it.’ I said, ‘No, I’ll tell you, fucker!’ And then the dinner party got weird.”

But the humor of such situations is more than tempered by the grisly facts that anchor these essays. For instance, in the U.S. more women have been killed by domestic violence between 9/11 and the year 2012 than the total number of people who died in the towers AND in the two wars fought afterwards

We have a war on terror…but it seems we’re concentrating on the wrong terror.

And if domestic homocide is rampant, rape is epidemic and systematic. (Just read this month’s headlines.) There is a reported rape in the United States once every 6.2 minutes.

In one essay, Solnit reports the details of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn rape. (He, the French head of the International Monetary Fund; she the African immigrant maid at the luxury hotel he was staying in.) It was more than just rape, Solnit states. It was a political analogy come to life. As she writes:

Her name was Africa. His was France. He colonized her, exploited her, silenced her and even decades after it was supposed to have ended, still acted with a high hand in resolving her affairs…Her name was silence. His was power. Her name was poverty. His was wealth.

For Solnit, the Strauss-Kahn rape was more than a rape of a single woman. It was indicative of an entire system built on intimidation, colonization, and entitlement.

The final essay, “#YesAllWomen,” anticipates the current trending hashtag #MeToo that has grown out of the Harvey Weinstein episode, while her essay, “Cassandra among the Creeps,” indicts a world where countless women report abuse, assault, and violence only to have those reports too often fall on deaf ears.  Again, it is the very situation that allowed the Weinstein abuses to go on for so long.

In a world where intellectual thought has become rare–where it’s very opposite is the norm–Rebeccca Solnit is an American treasure. Her breadth of interests seems inexhaustible and her thinking is clear and logical (another sadly missing aspect of our current times.) Her writing is both entertaining and provocative, and in many cases unforgettable.

I would recommend for all to pick up any one of her books. You will be enthralled and enchanted and awed. And you will certainly learn something that you didn’t know you didn’t know.

And I encourage all men to read Men Explain Things to Me. In the end, we are all in this together.

 

Book Review: Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas by Rebecca Solnit

Phrenological San Francisco (page 128-129)

Phrenological San Francisco (page 128-129)

Rebecca Solnit begins her book with this quotation from Thoreau:

“I have traveled widely in Concord.”

Concord really isn’t that big a place to “travel widely” in, but that is the argument of Solnit’s Infinite City: every place contains an infinite number of “maps” with which we travel, and within her book Solnit creates a unique, intriguing, and entertaining series of maps of her city, San Francisco.

Now, you know you are in heady territory when in the first three paragraphs Solnit makes multiple references to Borges and Calvino, both fantastic cartographers and creators of worlds that have never existed. Yet, Solnit is every bit as imaginative and perceptive. She reveals a given place (San Francisco) in ways that had never been categorized before and introduces new perspectives on the city that have never before been imagined.

In her introduction, Solnit explains her method thus:

Every place is if not infinite then practically inexhaustible, and no quantity of maps will allow the distance to be completely traversed. Any single map can depict only an arbitrary selection of the facts on its two-dimensional surface… . For Infinite City, this selection has been a pleasure, an invitation to map death and beauty, butterflies and queer histories, together, with the intention not of comprehensively describing the city but rather of suggesting through these pairings the countless further ways it could be described. (I also chose pairs in order to use the space more effectively to play up this arbitrariness, and because this city is, as all good cities are, a compilation of coexisting differences, of the Baptist church next to the Dim Sum dispensary, the homeless outside the Opera House.)

And this is how the book works. The “arbitrary selection of facts” are surprising and unconventional. There are maps of industries and bee migrations and “tribal neighborhoods” and gang-lands and right-wing bastions and bygone areas of entertainment and carousal.  And the pairings are both startling and sensible. For instance, the map entitled “Poison/Palate: The Bay Area in your Body” is accompanied by Solnit’s essay “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Gourmet.” In both, the reader is given a map of the major dumpers of toxins into the environment (often food and wine growers) and the sites of delicious, food providers. (Often the two overlap.) The key to the map gives symbols for EPA SUPERFUNDS, Poison Sites, Palate Sites, Poison/Palate Sites and Wineries.

Poson/Palate: The Bay Area in your Body

Poson/Palate: The Bay Area in your Body

The population map–the current population not the map of those who have left and those who are arriving–is set up as a “tribal” map.  The expected ethnicities are cited–the Chinese, the Irish, the Korean, the Mexican–but they are accompanied by neighborhoods where the “tribes” include skateboarders, people with ties, transgender people, etc.  Again, this is accompanied by a moving essay by Solnit about the ever changing population shifts of her city.

Tribes of San Francisco

Tribes of San Francisco

But it is the pairings that are the most intriguing. One map, entitled Death and Beauty,  tracks the murders in the city during the year 2008 and the locations of Monterey cyprus trees throughout the city; another entitled Dharma Wheels and Fish Ladders lists salmon streams, hatcheries and viewing sites along with the location of Zen monasteries, schools, and core sites; and still another, entitled Monarchs and Queens, reveals the locations of various butterfly locations and queer public spaces.

Monarchs and Queens

Monarchs and Queens

Each of the twenty-two maps are jewels of color, design, and information.  They are beautiful, as are all of the illustrations throughout.

While Solnit did not write all of the essays that accompany the maps, she did write the majority and her fellow essayists are similar in spirit, similar in the way they look at their ever-changing city. In a recent piece for the London Review of Books entitled “Google Invades” (February 2013), Solnit bemoaned the changes that have occurred in her city with the influx of Silicon Valley money.  She felt that the variety in the city’s fabric–in its economics, its life styles, its ethnicities, its politics, and its arts– was being leveled and watered-down with the influx of cyber-millionaires. The city–not just a neighborhood– was being gentrified.

Solnit sees her city, San Francisco, in many, various ways, in multiple perspectives that have accrued layer after layer through the years that she has lived there. These views are both nostalgic and forward-looking, while still very much ensconced in the present, no matter how ethereal that might be.  And while some of these layers may now have physically vanished, they remain in her memory, in her view of the city.

And they remain in this amazing, attractive, and addictive book.