Tag Archives: Rebecca Solnit

A Mighty River to Cross

20 Jan

These occasional bibliographical reports of what publishers have seen fit to send my way are spurred by both a need to widen the scope of literary conversation and to make up for the narrowing coverage of literature (or at least book publishing part of it). Humble ambitions, I must acknowledge but fueled by my sense that I now read the few remaining newspaper book review pages to discover what is not being noticed more than to once again recognize that pretty much the same few books are being publicized.

Collected Essays & Other Prose by Robert Duncan

Collected Essays & Other Prose by Robert Duncan

Robert Duncan: Collected Essays and Other Prose by Robert Duncan , James Maynard (University of California Press)

The Hole  by Oyvind Torseter

The Hole by Oyvind Torseter

The Hole by Oyvind Torseter (Enchanted Lion Books)

Enchanted Lion Books are guided by a wonderful sensibility and I have all the titles I have had in my hands wonderful in everu way a book can be. The Hole is no exception.

Natural Takeover of Small Things  by Tim Z. Hernandez

Natural Takeover of Small Things by Tim Z. Hernandez

Natural Takeover of Small Thingsby Tim Z. Hernandez (University of Arizona Press)

Room 1219   by Greg Merritt

Room 1219 by Greg Merritt

Room 1219: The Life of Fatty Arbuckle, the Mysterious Death of Virginia Rappe and the Scandal That Changed Hollywood by Greg Merritt (Chicago Review Press)

The original Hollywood Scandal—surprising that there has been no movie version.

R

Red Sky in Morning by Paul Lynch

Red Sky in Morning by Paul Lynch

Red Sky in Morning by Paul Lynch (Little, Brown and Company)

Furious Cool   by David Henry  &   Joe Henry

Furious Cool by David Henry & Joe Henry

Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him by David Henry & Joe Henry (Algonquin Books)

Pound for pound Richard Pryor was the funniest man alive. I love his Mudball character an elderly black man who, in one routine intoned, “There are no old fools. You don’t grow old bein’ a fool.” Which, if understood correctly is a statement about survival.

Unfathomable City  by Rebecca Solnit  &  Rebecca Snedeker

Unfathomable City by Rebecca Solnit & Rebecca Snedeker

Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas by Rebecca Solnit & Rebecca Snedeker (University of California Press)

If you are not aware of Rebecca Solnit and her expansive ouevre now is the time to correct that deficiency.I was enthralled by A Paradise Built in Hell. And her righteouness was wonderfully expressed at the notion that Haitians, after another devastating natural disaster were described as “looters” as they were on the cusp of starvation and malnutrition. A rich sampling of her poltical essays can be found at Tom Dispatch

George Orwell  by Robert Colls

George Orwell by Robert Colls

George Orwell: English Rebel by Robert Colls (Oxford University Press)

A paradigm of journalistic integrity, George Orwell continues to fascinate biographers. Robert Colls is latest and one review points out

Bringing his expertise as a cultural historian to bear on Orwell’s early books on tramps in Paris and London and workers in the North of England, Colls details how middle-class leftists, literary, anthropological and photographic, were tumbling over one another in Lancashire and Yorkshire in a rush to document an “authentic” working class. He shows how Orwell wanted to get under the skin of the Northerners, but they spotted Eton a mile off and clammed up tight. Burma and the North discomfited Orwell, but he learned from both places.

David Aaronovitch credits Colls with pointing out

George Orwell was…“deracinated”. He went to Eton but he was not of the ruling class. He served as a colonial policeman in Burma but he was alienated from the Raj. He became an intellectual who disliked intellectuals, and a socialist who distrusted almost all forms of socialism. He belonged nowhere.

Mira Corpora   by Jeff Jackson

Mira Corpora by Jeff Jackson

Mira Corpora by Jeff Jackson (Two Dollar Radio)

Freedom Now!: Forgotten Photographs of the Civil Rights Struggle by Martin A. Berger

Freedom Now!: Forgotten Photographs of the Civil Rights Struggle by Martin A. Berger

Freedom Now!: Forgotten Photographs of the Civil Rights Struggleby Martin A. Berger(University of California Press)

Not quite forgotten as many people never paid attention to the Movement at the time. It’s doubtful whether public school systems have history texts with images of people being lambasted with water cannons or attacked by snarling German Shepards which makes this tome doubly
useful It is a hopeful sign that in recent years the photos of Charles Moore and Ernest Withers have landed in mainstream public view.

The Errand of the Eye: Photographs  by Rose Mandel,

The Errand of the Eye: Photographs by Rose Mandel,

The Errand of the Eye: Photographs by Rose Mandel, Susan Ehrens, Julian Cox (Introduction) (Prestel)

Orchard Beach: The Bronx Riviera by Wayne Lawrence

Orchard Beach: The Bronx Riviera by Wayne Lawrence

Orchard Beach: The Bronx Riviera by Wayne Lawrence, David Gonzalez (Foreword)(Prestel)

Will You Be Alive 10 Years from Now?: And Numerous Other Curious Questions in Probability  by Paul J. Nahin

Will You Be Alive 10 Years from Now?: And Numerous Other Curious Questions in Probability by Paul J. Nahin

Will You Be Alive 10 Years from Now?: And Numerous Other Curious Questions in Probability by Paul J. Nahin (Princeton University Press)

Dickens and the Workhouse    by Ruth Richardson

Dickens and the Workhouse by Ruth Richardson

Dickens and the Workhouse: Oliver Twist and the London Poor by Ruth Richardson (Oxford University Press)

The Metamorphosis  by Franz Kafka,

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka,

The MetamorphosisbyFranz Kafka, Stanley Corngold (Translator)(Modern Library)

The Metamorphosis: A New Translation by Franz Kafka, Susan Bernofsky (Translator), David Cronenberg (Introduction)( W. W. Norton)

Forgiving the Angel: Four Stories for Franz Kafka by Jay Cantor (Knopf)

Two new edition’s of Kafka’s most well known story—one a new translation which is only noteworthy because of a new tome by Jay Cantor which fictionalizes four people who were close to Franz Kafka. Is this effort Kafkaesque?

Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago's 99%

Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%

Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%by Kari Lydersen (Haymarket Books)

The feisty (or as some have said, profane)former chief of staff of the Obama White House carries on the tradition of craven power occupying the mayoral swat of the great city of Chicago. Mike Royko’s Boss is a wonderful background for this unsparing portrait of Rahm Emmanual

The Beast by Oscar Martinez

The Beast by Oscar Martinez

The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail by Oscar Martinez , Daniela Maria Ugaz (Translator) , John Washington (Translator) , Francisco Goldman (Introduction) (Verso)

The Taste of America   by Colman Andrews

The Taste of America by Colman Andrews

The Taste of America by Colman Andrews (Phaidon Press)

White Girls by Hilton Als

White Girls by Hilton Als

White Girls by Hilton Als (McSweeney’s)

Moments That Made the Movies  by David Thomson

Moments That Made the Movies by David Thomson

Moments That Made the Movies by David Thomson (Thames & Hudson)

David Thomson is the gold standard of film historians and scholars.Which plays out in his sure handed grasp of cultural history of the last hundred years or so. i spoken with him a few times here and here.

Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview by Jonathan Cott

Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview by Jonathan Cott

Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview by Jonathan Cott (Yale University Press)

I was surprised that I found this conversation with Susan Sontag, a reigning intellectual diva of the fin de siecle western culture, the likes of which we may never see again, boring and jejune.

New Concise World Atlas by Oxford University Press

New Concise World Atlas by Oxford University Press

New Concise World Atlas (Oxford University Press)

My favorite annual is the Oxford University Press’s Atlas of the world and this volume as it states is a concise version of the majestic complete edition

Around the World by Andrew Losowsky

Around the World by Andrew Losowsky

Around the World: The Atlas for Today by Andrew Losowsky (Editor) , S. Ehmann (Editor) , R. Klanten (Editor)( Gestalten)

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood   by Juliette Michaud

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood by Juliette Michaud

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood by Juliette Michaud , Michel Hazanavicius (Foreword)(Flammarion)

The Spectre of Alexander Wolf  by Gaito Gazdanov

The Spectre of Alexander Wolf by Gaito Gazdanov


The Spectre of Alexander Wolf ( by , Bryan Karetnyk (Translator) (Pushkin Press)

 The Big Book by Eugene Smith

The Big Book by Eugene Smith

The Big Book: Volumes One and Two [Facsimile] W by Eugene Smith, John Berger, William S. Johnson (Introduction), Katharine Martinez (Foreword) (University of Texas Press)

Eugene Smith was a master photographer during a period when photography was more thoughtful and deliberate.

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em>The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform)

I don’t quite see the point of this iteration of Ambrose Bierce’s magnum opus. Its a lackluster paperback with not even the basic gestures of a dictionary. You’d be better served by looking at Library of America’s Bierce volume.

Respect Yourself by Robert Gordon

Respect Yourself by Robert Gordon

Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion by Robert Gordon ((Bloomsbury USA)

I am a fan of musical history books and biography that contexualize the music—Nick Tosches,Peter Guralnick and Arthur Kempton being writers particularly adept at cultural commentary. Last year Mark Kurlansky’s Ready For a Brand New Beat: How “Dancing in the Street” Became the Anthem for a Changing America (Riverhead) showcased Berry Gordy’s Motown plantation and now Robert Gordon’s new opus surveys the Memphis based Stax record label and the diverse characters that contributed to its success. Now that two major centers of late 20th century race music Detroit and Memphis have been spotlighted its time that Chicago’s rich scene have its day.

Currently reading Lost for Words by Edward St Aubyn (FSG)

Me and Allan (Gurganus) Part I (Local Souls)

12 Nov

I am going to assume that if your gaze has landed on this page, you know something about novelist Allan Gurganus (Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All).Thusly relieved of the task of introducing this fine writer I need only add that this is my third conversation with him, a skein that commenced in 1997 with his second published novel Plays Well With Others and has continued now with his recently published litter of novellas, Local Souls.

Chatting with Allan, a warm and courtly North Carolingian, has all the feel and ambience of the kind of thing one enjoys passing a leisurely afternoon on his front porch—which is to say his joyfulness in conversation matches that found in his prose.

Local Souls by Allan Gurganus

Local Souls by Allan Gurganus

RB: How are you?

AG: I’m pretty good. Being with readers is very reassuring. You forget that they still exist.

RB: This is early in the publication life of Local Souls; you assume that the readers that show up at events know your work?

AG: Many of them do, because they bring their copies and see they are dog-eared and with pieces post it attached—

RB: —coffee circles on the cover.

AG: I love that. And sun tan lotion makes me very happy.

RB: In the book collecting world that’s frowned upon. I guess in the 19th century the most valuable books were those that hasn’t had the plats split apart

AG: Exactly, that right. The uncut pages. Premiums on virgins. Virginity is highly overrated.

RB: I have vast multitudes of signed 1st editions and they are besmirched with all sorts of substances.
AG: I love that. People apologize. You must have an amazing collection by now.

RB: Well yeah, it’s pretty good.

AG: Isn’t it thrilling about Alice Munro winning the Nobel? I am so happy about that.

RB: Every laureate makes a speech but she is not going to the ceremony. I wonder if she will provide some kind of valedictory.

AG: Oh, is she not going? She has cancer, apparently. Such a shame. It happened maybe 2 years too late. Her lover is dead. I can’t believe it when writers say they’ve stopped writing. Philip Roth and Alice Munro.

RB: Well, we’ll see. Vonnegut announced he would stop writing and didn’t.

AG: I think it’s an impossible habit to break. Even if you know you are writing stuff that you know is not your very best. It’s an irresistible habit. I find not writing on tour excruciating.

RB: Early in Local Souls (the 1st novella) you say a writer is always writing.

AG: Yeah, exactly. You are always gathering and eavesdropping and spying. And formulating.

RB: Is that true of all writers? Or is that your definition of a writer?

AG: That’s what draws you to the occupation.

RB: An excuse to be nosey? (laughs)

AG: Absolutely. I saw a thing in Memphis —I saw 2 things is Memphis that were exciting to me fictionally. One was a bail bondsman whose company was “Free At Last Bail Bonds”. I don’t think Dr. King had that in mind when he said that.

RB: It was put to good use

AG: That’s right. The other thing was I saw a very well dressed 68-year-old society lady in patent leather pumps at an ATM machine being trained by a man who was about 70, in how to use her 1st ATM cash card. And it was clear that she was terrified. She was putting it in the wrong way. It’s a wonderful beginning of a story.

RB: What do you imagine her life was like? Did she know how to operate a vacuum cleaner?

AG: Oh, never. I don’t think she knew how to write a check to t he maid who ran the vacuum cleaner. But the man with her seemed to me to be the brother of her husband who just died. And she’d been one of these coddled impeded people. And was terrified—

RB: What do you mean by impeded?

AG: By making people helpless you foot bind them.

RB: Infantilize them?

AG: Absolutely.

RB: That reminds me, did you make up the word ‘sogged’ [to describe a rain soaked coat]?

AG: I did, yeah; it seemed the only word that I could think of.

RB: What’s a novella?

AG: It’s a work of a certain length that has something wrong with it.

RB: (laughs)

AG: Ideally it’s a unit that you can pick up after dinner and finish by bedtime. That’s Peter Taylor’s definition.

RB: Kind of an ad hoc description—it depends on how long you stay up after dinner.

AG: I think it means that you leave out the secondary characters. It’s ideally suited for stories about obsessions—single-minded quests—“I love my child too much.” “I made a fatal mistake and spent my life trying to recapture what I gave away.”

RB: Jim Harrison is the only author I can think of who regularly writes novellas.

AG: Steven Millhauser does a lot—he’s really good.

RB: Andre Dubus just published a volume [Dirty Love] with a novella.

AG: My friend Lee Smith was a t a 5th grade school session as a visiting writer. And her 1st question came from a little girl, “Is a novella a novel written by a girl?”
Lee said it would have been too cruel to say,”No.” The girl was so game to ask the 1st question.

RB: I like the definition that says there is something wrong with a novella. Had the stories in Local Souls gone right they would have been novels?

AG: I think it’s a service to the reader to gut out the carbs and give you pure protein—like eating tuna fish out of a can at the kitchen sink.

RB: That sounds like one of Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules for writing

AG: Oh does it, good?

Allan Gurgnaus (photo by Robert Birnbaum)

Allan Gurgnaus (photo by Robert Birnbaum)

RB: Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

AG: That’s great. A lot of green scenery needs to go. I am not really interested in purple mountains majesty on the page. It aerates too much the interior obsessions and struggles of the writer. I want people to be completely in the reality of the character.

Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All by Allan Gurganus

Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All by Allan Gurganus

RB: In the first story, you are the narrator/character.

AG: Oh absolutely. There is no question .Its an invitation to the reader to participate in the construction of the piece. And that piece was fascinating to write. It was an attempt to simulate a documentary by gathering the clues; you are with him as he makes it all up out of bare- boned reality. I am very interested in Jim Thomson. He’s an underestimated crime writer and really a great writer in his best book. The Killer Inside Me is a terrifying —a beautiful book. And in a way the whodunit still has tremendous vitality as a pattern for how me move through fiction. A crime is created on the first page and resolved on the last page.

RB: I really enjoy crime stories. There is the tendency of crime writers to create series —which lost their vitality more or less quickly. And by the way, in Elmore Leonard, the crime is not important to his stories.

AG: In a way the crime is the fillip, the sorry excuse— so you can hear those guys who are so stupid and so smart at the same time, talk. It’s so thrilling to see on the page.Since Flannery O’Connor he has best ear in American fiction—maybe with Grace Paley. I love reading that dialogue.

RB: And Leonard makes it easy for screen adaptation—the dialogue doesn’t need to be tampered with. Getting back to ‘sogged’ when I went back to reread your stories I was struck by the wonderful solecisms.

AG: Shakespeare was always turning nouns into verbs.

RB: That would be the beauty of the English language.

AG: Exactly, that’s how it happens —the regeneration, the resurrection. There are instances where there is no legal verb. In White People I have an angel falling out of the sky on to green grass. And I used the word ‘twunk’, I had a dream in which an angel fell and that was exactly the sound. I think what we are trying to do as writers, in a way, is develop an idiomatic language that’s separate from conventional Strunk & White language. That’s a kind of emotional short hand for the characters and should vary from piece to piece but it takes a while for the reader to learn this news language. But once they have got it they are that much closer to the center of the character.

RB: Is there a conscious effort?

AG: In the heat of the moment you develop—

RB: For the reader?

AG: It shouldn’t be too conscious. It shouldn’t be like reading Finnegan’s Wake. You have to meet people half way.

RB: I didn’t catch some of this on my first reading. What’s mind set when you are reading something for the 2nd time?

AG: You see the construction much more consciously. I am always doing battle with copy editors —you know, in Saints Have Mothers, the self reported IQ of Jean Mulray keeps rising by 22 points by the end. The copyeditors were having an orgasm having caught me in this mistake. I told them there may be accidents in my work but there are no mistakes. I really meant that. I had to right a whole new chapter to justify myself to this anonymous lady.

RB: You could have simply pointed out that this was a novel, a fiction.

AG: I tried to do that but those distinctions are breaking down. Americans are so fact loving as a people that most of the questions you get at readings are, “This is pretty much what happened, right?” No, this is not. The very phrase ‘fiction’ is based on the word ‘fashioned’ meaning forged or created, hand made. The question is what of the inventions that you have put in this book, is the craziest and the most successful to you? That would be the question I ‘d like asked. I have handy example, which for me was mind-boggling. In Decoy, I needed a disease—this is what I do to my poor characters. Drowning, mortification of the flesh is not enough. N-n-n-n-n-no, they have to have a fated inherited disease. So I made up a disease. Exercising all rights of fiction. The disease was patrilineal —you got it form your dad, from male to male. It’s a heart disease that retains all the cholesterol you have ever eaten, in your body. It turns you into a crystal palace of cholesterol. And I had a great Gothic Edgar Alan Poe time imagining this. I actually had dates when the body began to be impeded—about 30-35. Then dead, conventionally by 50-51, something like that. I have a next-door neighbor who is a retired famous cardiologist. He is entering his 80’s. He is so famous he did a triple by pass on the Sultan of Brunei. When he came to Duke University, he brought his wives, his children his rugs and his security force. And he rented the university hotel. The rugs were stacked so high that you had to crawl into the rooms (that’s his wealth). It’s like traveling with Metropolitan Museum. And they have to use them to make them better. Anyway, —

RB: Anyway—

AG: Moving right along—you see, you thought I lost the thread. You thought I had, but n-o-o-o-o I hadn’t.

RB: No, I was thinking there’s a story.

AG: Exactly. So I decided I have the world’s leading cardiologist living next door, idled. I take advantage of his expertise and humor him and build bridges as father used to say, by asking him if such a thing could be possible. So went over with my little note pad and laid out this fictitious disease. It took me about 10 minutes to lay out all the specs of the disease. So I asked is such a thing possible. And he said is such a thing possible along side familial chloresterolemia? And I said, “What’s familial chloresterolemia?” “The disease you just described for the last 10 minutes.” To the day, I had described a disease that preexisted me. I never read about it. Or known anyone who had it. I made it up. Its real.

RB: But rare.

AG: It’s rare, thank god for the poor sufferers. But even the name chloresterolemia, to put the Latin up front like that—I couldn’t have done better in my wildest dreams. So when people say, “This story is real, you read in a newspaper, right? Right! Wrong! The mystical stuff is the stuff that you invent most fancifully and that somehow comes to validate you and the fiction.

RB: I hear from writers that readers seem to have an expectation that everything is factual.

AG: Oh god, its tedious. I think it’s a great age for non-fiction but I also think it’s a great age for fiction. But in the horserace —

RB: May be not a great age for reading.

AG: Its not. I have seen in the —I read in Seattle 12 years ago, I had 120 people. I read in Seattle, that if anything has gotten more praise than the last book, 11 people turn up. I flew 3000 miles to Seattle, which is supposed to be one of the great book towns —

RB: At Elliot Bay?

AG: At Elliot Bay.

RB: What explains that?

AG: I don’t know but I see that the promise of the book has receded. For instance, I have never not been on All Things Considered. For every book I have written since ’89. They don’t really do books anymore. Only books about the burning of the Koran. Or something sensational.

RB: Tiger mothers?

AG: Yeah, exactly. And Terry Gross is retired. So now we have to do things like writing essays for the Times and the Wall St Journal.

RB: Like “On Collecting”[written for the NY Times].

AG: Like that and inventing diseases and whatever else, in order to see your name in the paper. It’s changed. Unfortunately it’s too late for me to retool. All I ever wanted to do was write a great book. And I’m not changing.

RB: Are you going take in boarders or something?

AG: I guess so. Or become a callboy. Except nobody called—I hate when that happens.

RB: We have it wrong. Its not about the decline of reading its about the decline of education.

AG: Well, it’s true.

RB: As long as the emphasis radically shifts from creating the whole person and the humanities to vocational guidance and training what is in it for students to read?

AG: It’s great to put it in that context. That’s what the Republican majority is doing by cutting education

RB: Everyone is doing it—the great majority of policy makers see education as a career strategy, there is no learning for learning’s sake. Nicholson Baker wrote in Harpers that Algebra shouldn’t be required as part of the Core. Which is considered a gateway course (but mostly and obstacle) to college. How much do you use Algebra in your life?

AG: I couldn’t use it. That’s a great point. Talk about the dumbing down of America as something in the future—that happened decades ago and we are reaping the benefit. Its scary it really is. And the absolute passivity of whatever comes down it’s a scary time. Those 40 representatives, so-called, could have just pushed right on into full coup. That was the idea. Its spooky and we are entranced and narcotized with our gizmos and I am as guilty as the next person. I never had an IPhone until I went on this tour and now I feel like I have a little white kitten upstairs and I leave milk and cookies for it in a shoe box by the bed. That’s my favorite little thing.

RB: I just realized I hate football. My son plays for his high school.

AG: Oh god.

RB: And I can’t stop watching it because I have been watching it since childhood. But I hate it.

AG: Its horrible. It’s gladiatorial. Its white people in the stands watching under cashmere blankets watching the underclass kill each other. Its bear baiting, is what it is.

RB: Daniel Woodrell in The Bayou Trilogy has a funny take on college football —essentially characterizing the games as between Alabama’s felons and Florida States’ criminals.

AG: I was just in Oxford, Mississippi before the LSU game. LSU fans are notorious for coming with broken coca cola bottles and throwing them into the stands. People are afraid to go out on the street. The marauding hordes have arrived.

RB: Wow, sounds like English soccer fans.

AG: The thugs. Its inevitable that they imitate on the street what they see on the field.

RB: Wasn’t there some incident where an opposing fan chopped down a tree on the Auburn Campus?

AG: That was horrible.

RB: You wrote somewhere you liked to find humor in the most horrible circumstances

AG: Yeah. I want to write the funniest books possible about the worst things that can happen.

RB: Why is that?

AG: There’s where the energy is and redemption is and that’s where the truth is. We are all in for a terrible row of disasters. The flood that I described in Decoy is predicated on flood that took out 30% of the houses in my hometown overnight. 17 feet of water hit the town. Essentially the Atlantic Ocean came 150 miles inland in 1999. It preceded Katrina—by the time Katrina hit everybody in my town had been there and done that. They will never get back into their houses. We just move on.

RB: I just read Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly’s The Tilted World. Its about the 1927 flood of the Mississippi River. And in the last chapter one of the characters talks about what he will tell his children and mentions that this greatest of natural disasters was very much ignored around the country and would have been dealt with differently had it taken place in New England.

RB: What struck me living through this real flood—I was not living in the town at the time. My brother got on the phone and said, ”Come now.” And I said, “Well I have a dentist appointment.” “Cancel. Come now.” [He] Being a man of few words, I got in the car and went. And instances of such heroism from the least likely people. And like Doc in the novella [Decoy], the person who seems the most set up and most revered can bear anything but to lose what he’s hand made. He can’t sacrifice his art. And its sort of way of subjecting your art work to difficulty. It has to float—I mean, you carve a decoy so it can float away on a flood. And it floats away; a highly successful and you’re devastated because you have lost your beauty—

RB: Do you know Rebecca Solnit’s book, A Paradise Built in Hell?

AG: I know her name but I don’t know the book.

RB: She chose 6 historic natural disasters from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to Katrina and pointed out that in those calamities, that people banded together and formed communities of aid and comfort.

AG: Think about 9/11—people carrying wheelchair victims 90 floors down the stairs. We forget that. Those instances of beauty and of community inspire me. Its what I have instead of god. Community is real, god is fiction. It’s thrilling to see how imaginative people can be. I lived through a lot of hurricanes growing up in North Carolina. One of the most recent, Fran, took out all of the electricity for 8 or 9 days. Which in and of itself is a huge cataclysm for most of us. But I had a gas range and a lot of coffee, which I had ground up in advance, very cleverly.

RB: You could have used a hammer.

AG: That takes a long time—like a mortar and pestle. I had filled the bathtub, so I had a lot of water. And I made coffee for my neighbors. I am a total coffee addict. And I learned when they need their coffee and what they took in their coffee. And I have never had such gratitude. It was like doing a sexual favor for old lady next door.

RB: That’s pretty thoughtful. Do you use a burr grinder or a blade [grinder]? Or the old hand burr grinder?

AG: Exactly. It was so simple top do and so powerful. And I felt closer to the people and we also did the thing that we did in Decoy of pooling all our frozen food, delicacies, and putting them in a giant pot. It was one the best things I have eaten I my life. Sitting outside behind a darkened house-

RB: A peasant meal.

AG: Right, whatever you have, squirrel, okra, weeds, what the hell—it was thrilling

RB: People get great pleasure from doing acts of kindness.

AG: I love the most basic definition —which kin and kindness are from the same root. So to the extent that you are kind to somebody you are demonstrating how like them you are. And that lines up the pheromones like nothing else in the world—to know that you are part of a huge tribe.

RB: That’s what makes the Dalai Llama so attractive —preaching kindness.

AG: Absolutely. It’s a profound concept. And it’s difficult to practice. I swear this is my mantra, my daily activity, to try to make everybody you contact in a course of a day, incrementally better about themselves for having seen you. It’s incredible—

RB: A lesson often learned later in life.

AG: It does come later. The slash and burn days are gone, yeah.

Waiter tries to take our stuff—we humorously protest.

RB: We were somewhere

AG: —before they took our food away. We were talking about kindness
RB: There is that old saw about having two lives, one is the life you learn with and one is the life you live what you have learned.

AG: I am 66. I love this age. I love it.

RB: I am older than you. So remember that.

AG: All right sir, I can take lessons. Can I sit in your lap and get counsel, Santa?

RB: How often do you run into people that you don’t know?

AG: Not all the time. I live in a village of 6 thousand and when I walk around town the bookstore has my books in the window. It’s a Jimmy Stewart kind of reality.

RB: Is there a street named for you?

AG: Not yet.

Allan Gurganus (photo by Robert Birnbaum)

Allan Gurganus (photo by Robert Birnbaum)


RB: Anything that commemorates your existence?

AG: Yes, my hometown library has a life size portrait of me. I should say that with shame—its actually quite a good painting apart from its likeness to me.

RB: And the bronze statue?

AG: That comes later. I don’t care about post humus; I want it now, baby. You know that Thomas Wolfe says you can’t go home again. The reason he has to say that is because he used every secret about Ashville in his trashy book. He was so mean to the people who helped him. I work from an opposite principle—kin and kindness have their rewards. Not just on the page but in reality and community.

RB: Did you think this was what you were going to when you were a young pup in NYC?

AG: I though I was going to be a painter until I was inducted into the US Navy.

RB: I meant did you think you were going to return to rustic North Carolina?

AG: I didn’t think that until the AIDS pandemic. Until I lost 30 of the most adorable people that I had known. You reach a point where you have to start over. You are lucky of you can start over—if you are one of the survivors who can say I will remember all these people and I will take these memories into my new friends. But I couldn’t do it on the same streets where all this terrible stuff had happened.

RB: And now when you are in New York?

AG: I enjoy it. I love it. I feel very quickened by it. It sis much more congested and expensive, needless to say. But every block has associations for me. There is a kind of default setting. I think we all have. The people who go back to Ireland to die, and they haven’t seen it in 60 years. The minute they get to the dock they are like, ”Hah! Bye bye.” For me the course of least resistance was to know all the sounds and smells of this particular landscape. And it’s been extremely consoling. I have a garden and old house that I fixed up. I love it. I love being there. And I learn a lot. Its almost the narrative inspiration is permeable. You get through the skin.

RB: Well, North Carolina has a lot of writers living there

AG: Well, in my little town it could be 30 %. When I moved there 21 years ago it was me and the hardware store. I like living where I do and then going from there. The book is being translated into a lot of languages. I’ll go to countries, each in turn—there is no way like getting to know a country like having a book in their language. Its exciting dealing with translators and the questions that they ask.

RB: Any non-traditional languages?

AG: Mostly French, German, And Italian. I have things in Japanese. I just love to look at the text though I have no idea what I am seeing. The questions that come are fascinating. Word choices and—

RB: You’ll get questions about ‘sogged’.

AG: I’m ready. I am prepared to defend it in any language. It’s an underpaid and under appreciated occupation. Astonishing artistry.

Allan Gurganus circa 1991 (photo, Robert Birnbaum)

Allan Gurganus circa 1991 (photo, Robert Birnbaum)

Note to you: I am suspending my customary practice of publishing an interview in totality. In this case my conversation with Allan Gurganus was about 90 minutes in duration (which flew by as we were engaged in it) and I fear that a complete transcript would tax all but the most devoted readers. Thus, you can, if you made it this far, in the fullness of time, look forward to a Part II.

Currently reading The Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig
by Stefan Zweig translated by Anthea Bell (Pushkin Press)

Pre-Occupied

12 Dec

For obvious reasons you will probably not read Occupy! Scenes from Occupied America (Verso) edited by y Keith Gessen, Astra Taylor, Eli Schmitt, Nikil Saval, Sarah Resnick, Sarah Leonard, Mark Greif, and Carla Blumenkranz. In fact I would be shocked to see any Verso Books reviewed in the likes of the Boston Globe or the New York Times.

Occupy! is a heart warming anthology of the voices involved in this surprising grass roots movement—some known Slavov Zizekl Rebecca Sonit, Keith Geisen most unknown.

Here’s the conclusion Zizek’s speech Don’t Fall in Love with Yourselves:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-nruxMu8Apg

Communism failed absolutely, but the problems of the commons are here. They are telling you we are not American here. But the conservative fundamentalists who claim they really are Americans have to be reminded of something: What is Christianity? It is the Holy Spirit. What is the Holy Spirit? It’s an egalitarian community of believers who are linked by love for each other, and who only have their own freedom and responsibility to do it. In this sense the Holy Spirit is here now. And down on Wall Street, there are pagans who are worshipping blasphemous idols.So all we need is patience. The only thing I am afraid of is that we some day will just go home and then meet once a year, drinking beer and nostalgically remembering “what a nice time we had here.” Promise yourselves that this will not be the case. We know that people often desire something but do not really want it. Don’t be afraid to want what you desire.

Another name you may recognize— Thomas Paine concludes this volume, from an address (which ended up being published as the American Crisis) that George Washiungton had read to his men at Valley Forge , 235 years ago:

I once felt all kind of anger , which a man ought to feel against the mean principles that are held by the Tories: A noted one , who kept a tavern at Amboy, was standing at his door, with a pretty child in his hand. about noon rod ten years old, as most I ever saw, and after finished speaking his mind as much as he felt prudent, finished with this unfatherly expression, “Well! give me peace in my day.”Not a man lives on the Continent but fully believes that a separation must som time or other finally take place and a generous parent would have said,” If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace” and this single reflection, well applied, is sufficient to awaken every man to duty.”

Currently reading Blueprints of the Afterlife by Ryan Boudinot (Black Cat)

Left Coast Beasties

2 Feb

Rebecca Solnit is no one-trick pony. Even a cursory look at her bibliography makes clear her wide range of interests and from which you may correctly surmise her originality—I mean, A History Of Walking? A Field Guide to Getting Lost? ( since she her web site doesn’t list them all— I will):

Secret Exhibition: Six California Artists of the Cold War Era (City Lights Books)
Savage Dreams: A Journey Into the Landscape Wars of the American West (Sierra Club Books)
A Book of Migrations: Some Passages in Ireland (Verso)
Wanderlust: A History of Walking (Viking)
Hollow City: The Siege of San Francisco and the Crisis of American Urbanism co-authored and photographed by Susan Schwartzenberg (Verso)
As Eve Said to the Serpent: On Landscape, Gender, and Art (University of Georgia Press)
River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West (Viking)
Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (Nation Books,)
A Field Guide to Getting Lost (Penguin)
Yosemite in Time: Ice Ages, Tree Clocks, Ghost Rivers, with Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe, (Trinity University Press)
After the Ruins, 1906 and 2006: Rephotographing the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire co-authored by Philip L. Fradkin, Mark Klett, and Michael Lundgren (University of California Press)
Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics (University of California Press)
A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disasterr (Viking)
Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas (University of California Press)

Her latest effort is a collaboration with illustrator Mona Caron, A California Bestiary (Heyday Books, 2010) spurred by a partnership project between Heyday and the Oakland Zoo which was developing an educational exhibit called “California!” (exclamation point theirs) “celebrating native California flora and fauna by focusing on conservation and cultural importance.”

Solnit and Caron reportedly spent countless hours at the Zoo involved in all manner of interactions and activities, even ( we are told) witnessing a hedge hog dental extraction. And, as to the contents of this handsome well-printed tome:

The animals in this book were chosen to reflect the enormous diversity of California’s many ecological zones, the broad range of survival status, from severely threatened to thriving:and the pure glorious presence of so many kinds of extraordinary other Californians—though picking twelve meant leaving out pipevine swallowtails, Steller’s jays, kangaroo rats, coyotes, red tailed hawks snowy plovers and other creatures dear to the author’s hearts. The medieval bestiaries were books about animals seen through a window of wonder, and A California Bestiary is a twenty-first century endeavor to work in that vein.

Power to the Peaceful

26 Jan

Watching the State of the Union did not put me in a good frame of mind —but at least watching on (unnarrated) C SPAN was palatable, without the mediating and smarmy gibberish of a network anchor like Diane Sawyer (am I the only person in America who finds her inept?). I actually found it interesting watching the millionaires club AKA as the US Senate walk from their chamber to the House’s house where the President gladhands a gaggle of apparatchiks and then delivers his oration. Can I say that I would be hard put to find a a more unappealing and unlikable cohort? Watching John McCain and John Kerry walking together was an unsettling reminder that these two poppinjays were actually presidential candidates—oh my.

Speaking of matters of governance and politics, Josh MacPhee’s wonderful anthology Celebrate People’s History: The Poster Book of Resistance and Revolution (Feminist Press) was (and is) a splendid antidote to the annual pantomime of democracy I viewed last night. Macphee has been commissioning and collecting posters that salute social justice in all its manifold modes since 1998. This anthology of about 100 of such by over 80 engaged artists like Cristy Road, Swoon, Nicole Schulman, Christopher Cardinale, Sabrina Jones, Eric Drooker, Klutch, Carrie Moyer, Laura Whitehorn, Dan Berger, Ricardo Levins Morales and Chris Stain is a stirring visual reminder of some vital moments in American history. Rebecca Solnit comments in the book’s foreword:

Josh MacPhee’s long campaign of putting his series of radical history posters up around the country matter. They are a small gesture perhaps, but small gestures accrue, and democracies and revolutions are made up of the myriad gestures of the small. I have long thought of pedestrians, of people who walk their cities and know them, as keeping alive a confidence and familiarity that has great potential in crisis and revolution. These posters do for the walls what the walkers do for the streets:keep alive some power and some hope in the public sphere. Just as the individuals accrue into civil society,so these individual commemorations of bygone heroines and moments cohere into the radical past on which a radical future can be built.

Also, note that tomorrow is the anniversary of People’s Historian Howard Zinn’s passing and in the spirit of activism (“Don’t mourn. Organize”) of which he was a champion , friends and comrades of Zinn are encouraging various community activities around his last major project, The People Speak http://www.thepeoplespeak.com/dont-mourn-organize which is a brilliant complement to his magnum opus, The People’s History of the United States.

A National Treasure

22 Dec

In some correspondence or other with Paul Slovak, Rebecca Sonit’s editor at Viking, he referred to her as a “national treasure”. Lacking(at the moment) a more apt designation for Solnit ( Utne Reader magazine named Solnit as one of the “25 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World.”) let me just refer to her recent contribution at Tomdispatch, “A Shadow Government of Kindness“:

…The world could be much better if more of us were more active on behalf of what we believe in and love; it would be much worse if countless activists weren’t already at work from Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma and the climate activists in Tuvalu to the homeless activists around the corner from me. When I studied disasters past, what amazed me was not just that people behaved so beautifully, but that, in doing so, they found such joy. It seems that something in their natures, starved in ordinary times, was fed by the opportunity, under the worst of conditions, to be generous, brave, idealistic, and connected; and when this appetite was fulfilled, the joy shone out, even amid the ruins.

This is a sentiment convincingly demonstrated in her recent opus A Paradise Built in Hell (Viking)which examines six disasters and the surprising community response to them. Also worth looking at is Solnit’s very original Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas (University of California Press).

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