This is the second part of my (former) post of reviews of what was to be 5 books of essays….3 by writers now dead (already covered in an earlier post) and this is a review of the remaining 2 books by writers still very much alive – plus another live writer thrown in for good measure.
OK, so now I have managed to confuse you….the books being covered are TEJU COLE – Known and Strange Things, PAUL KINGSNORTH – Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist and other essays, and REBECCA SOLNIT – The Faraway Nearby. I’ll work my way from left to right on the photo.
Teju Cole’s book Known and Strange Things….To be perfectly honest with you, despite the endorsement on the cover of this book, by fellow essayist Rebecca Solnit, I struggled initially to connect with Teju Cole’s writing. That was until I found the essay titled Shadows in Sao Paulo, which is about the writers attempt to locate the exact spot that Magnum photographer Rene Burri took his famous photo of “Men on a Rooftop”.
It’s a black and white photo of 4 men on a rooftop of one of the many skyscrapers in Sao Paulo, casting long shadows as they walk toward the camera. To the left of them and far down below the street scene unfolds….the cars and trams also throwing long shadows down the street. The tram lines adding to the series of straight lines provided by the street, the walls of the buildings, the lines created by the many windows, and the edges of the rooftop. The photo taken in 1960 is from a higher vantage point and it’s this building that Teju Cole tries to locate. Being as I am, a huge fan of most, if not all, of the photographers who have worked for the Magnum Photo Agency – this essay is the one in which Cole and I hit on common ground, a common interest. From here on in I was able to enjoy his writing more (strange as it may seem).
The essays in this book were originally published mainly in the New Yorker, and elsewhere and, once I got connected with Cole via the Rene Burri essay I quite enjoyed the majority of his essays. However the “white saviour industrial complex” essay left a kind of nasty taste in my mouth….if that’s possible from reading something? It just seemed to be much of a rant rather than a serious piece of writing. I guess reading essays, just like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder…..what suits me may not suit you, your reaction may not be the same as mine.
Petina Gappah of the Guardian newspaper – obviously a fan of Cole’s – writes… He ranges over his interests with voracious keenness, laser-sharp prose, an open heart and a clear eye. His subjects are diverse and disparate. Readers are certain to find a personal favourite: I loved Always Returning, an affecting meditation on the death of WG Sebald in which Cole wanders through the cemetery of St Andrew’s in Framingham Earl, Norfolk, looking for Sebald’s grave and trying, at the same time, to have a coherent conversation about his pilgrimage with Jason, the taxi driver who got him there. The interplay between the externals of conversations with Jason and the deep interiority of Cole’s response to seeing Sebald’s grave is masterfully written, with Cole straining to act as a mediator between the worlds inhabited by these two very different men.
By contrast I found Paul Kingsnorth’s Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist to be a very easy, entertaining and interesting read. Kingsnorth was one of those crazy environmentalists (and I use crazy by way of admiration rather than criticism), who used to chain himself to bulldozers and other machinery to try to stop developers from levelling another of natures hilly places – to put a motorway through….or wiping out old growth forest, so that Ikea and similar businesses can make more kitset furniture. I say WAS because now he’s taken a step back physically, if not spiritually from the “war against environmental destruction”. He sees the entire environmental movement as having been hijacked and watered down by factions of the Green movement, who in a bid to communicate natures value to society have now put a dollar value on it. Of course the problem with that, as Kingsnorth points out, is that once nature is given a dollar value, a businessman will justify buying and destroying it based on that valuation.
The essays in this book first appeared in various newspapers and on the website co-founded by Kingsnorth, called The Dark Mountain Project. Each one will provide an insight to the problems the world faces daily as our natural world shrinks past crisis point and consumerist growth economies grow and grow to unsustainable size, until their inevitable collapse and chaos that are surely just around the corner.
Although Kingsnorth has pulled back from being a placard waving demonstrator, his passion for nature and his attempts to convince us, the readers, that nature is worth fighting for…..even if we may be already too late to save it….is as strong as ever. He and his family have retreated to a smallholding in the west of Ireland where they practice what they preach and are as gentle with nature as possible in an attempt to become part of nature again…as mankind used to be….and to help the natural world regenerate. It’s a book that I believe should be mandatory reading in all schools AND for all politicians.
In the book Kingsnorth rejoices in the small wins that the family achieve in their bid to help nature fight back….and in helping his children to understand the magical natural world….how everything is inter-dependent, so that he knows that the next generation will be there on natures side.
In the essay A Short History of Loss, Kingsnorth looks at the problem that beekeepers are having with colony collapse and how a Harvard study linked the death of bees to certain insecticides used on farms – then continues to say that another Harvard group of scientists are working on designing robotic bees. A typical science response – rather than stop using insecticide and saving the lives of real bees, we’ll just make artificial bees and try to program them to act like real bees. It’s like the idea of colonising Mars because we’re destroying the environment here on Earth. Wouldn’t it be more sensible to stop the destruction here?
Kingsnorth then goes on to say that mankind…(or is it more PC these days to call it Humankind?) has experienced a Fall – just like the Bible story of Adam and Eve’s experience of a fall in their eviction from the Garden of Eden. He then tries to identify where the Fall happened….where and when… giving several possible examples. It makes interesting and thought provoking reading.
Another very down to earth and slightly stinky essay about composting human manure in Learning What to Make of It – is a more hands on approach to conserving the environment. It’s a fact that we, as humans, produce waste….so what’s the best way of dealing with it? We can’t continue to pour raw sewage into the rivers, lakes and oceans. So what’s the answer? Read this essay to find out.
Another essay The Barcode Moment – touches on conspiracy theory and the possible future of the monetary system. That at some point we may end up wearing a barcode on the skin, (or possibly a chip under the skin…in my own opinion), to use when making purchases, rather than a bank card or actual money. Thought provoking again.
In other essays he tells us about writers who’s works have formed him as a writer, revolutionaries and the ethics involved in fighting for what we believe in.
I’ll finish with a couple of quotes from the back cover of the book, and to urge you all to please read this book and try to understand where we are in the race against time.
Paul Kingsnorth reads carefully from the book of nature, and also from the great literature of the natural world; they give him, and the reader, one path out of the despair that comes from knowing a bit too much about our condition. – Bill McKibben
…as the environmental movement began to focus on “sustainability” rather than the defence of wild places for their own sake, and as global conditions worsened, he grew disenchanted with the movement that he once embraced. He gave up what he saw as false hope that the residents of the first world would ever make the kind of sacrifices that might avert the severe consequences of climate change…..Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist gathers the wave-making essays that have charted the change in Kingsnorth’s thinking. In them he articulates a new vision, one that stands firmly in opposition to the belief that technology can save us, and he argues for a renewed balance between the human and the non-human worlds.
And so to the final of the three books – Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby – published in 2013.
I’ll jump straight to the back cover blurb to begin with….Gifts come in many guises. One summer Rebecca Solnit was given a box of ripening apricots, fruit from a neglected tree that her mother, gradually succumbing to memory loss, could no longer tend to. From this unexpected inheritance Solnit weaves together memoir, fairytales and the lives of others into a meditation of the art of storytelling. Encompassing explorers and monsters, the Marquis de Sade and Mary Shelley, a library of water in Iceland and the depths of the Grand Canyon, the result is a literary treasure trove from a writer of limitless talent and imagination.
Wow….some build up. Lets hope the book lives up to it. Back soon….
I may end up writing this piecemeal – as I find essays that I connect with, that resonate with me. The first of which is the first essay in the book…essay 1 titled Apricots. In this essay Solnit becomes the owner of a huge box of apricots….from her mothers tree, after her mother who is suffering from dementia, can’t cope with them. She writes about the trials and tribulations, sadness and confusion of having a parent who is losing their faculties. It’s a heartfelt piece and something that I am more than familiar with having lost my own mother to Alzheimer’s over 4 years ago and my dad 6 months earlier who had another dementia related illness. She writes very well about the various stages of confusion and frustration that her mother went through as she slowly but surely lost her mind and her identity. In reading Apricots, it opened up some old wounds that I thought were forgotten. Which I guess shows what a good writer Solnit is. I’m now wondering if writing my own essay as another blog post about my experience with my own parents would help to heal those freshly opened wounds? I’ll think on it. If I do, I’ll call it “An evil Bastard called Al” (as in AL-zheimers), as it is an evil and vicious illness. Meantime, back to the next essay from the book.
In my younger years I used to love watching the old black and white “Hammer House of Horror” movies on TV. The classic stories were the best….the ones about the Wolf-man, or Dracula…or Frankenstein. So Solnit’s 3rd essay in the book, entitled simply Ice is my next port of call. This essay is for the most part about Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, the writing of the book, and her life and marriage to the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley….Solnit also touches on the life of Mary Shelley’s mother Mary Wollstonecraft, who died giving birth to her daughter. As one would expect of Solnit’s writing, it’s a well researched and well crafted piece. Quite fascinating to read. I don’t want to say anymore…please read it yourself.
The 5th Essay titled Breath begins briefly about the Marquis de Sade, but is about life and death, degeneration and regeneration and how everything is in a constant state of change. It brings together The Marquis de Sade, Zen Buddhism, the god Apollo and even the joys of cooking. Art as life, life as art, artists and philosophers, travel and cancer detection…and of course life as a journey from birth to death and everything in between.. are all woven into an intricate, almost spellbinding essay.
I could summarise every essay, as they are all well worth reading, but we’d be here all day so I’ll slide along to the end of the book instead. The final, and 13th essay of the book is titled Apricots (as was essay number 1) and we come full circle as Solnit compares the apricots and the things she made from them, thus preserving them, to life and a number of incidents either in her life or the lives of others. She includes many stories – one particular story about a young girl who fell into and became trapped down a well, deep underground, and had to be rescued by drilling a parallel tunnel and lowering a man, face down, down the tunnel to free the girl. It was a long and dangerous mission. Happily she lived and the publicity her rescue generated brought in donations of over a million dollars to give her and her parents an easier life than they would have otherwise had. Her rescuer became famous. BUT there are two sides to every coin and where a story brings good news, it can also bring bad. The man who rescued her, was so traumatised by the experience that he later took his own life. In effect trading his life for hers. The Grim Reaper’s way of balancing the books perhaps? Thus emphasizing how both fame and life are transitory. Life is an adventure and an unpredictable adventure at that. It tosses you a ball to hit out of the park one day and throws you a curve ball, that hit’s you right on the bridge of the nose, the next. One of Solnit’s mantras is “Never turn down an adventure without a really good reason”. If you have to have a mantra I reckon that’s a pretty good one to have.
I have said in an earlier post that I am an admirer of Solnit’s work, having bought one of her books on a visit to San Francisco earlier this year. This book of essays goes a long way in confirming my earlier opinion.
And that brings to an end my round up of books by three living essayists to counter balance my earlier post about the three dead ones. Again, thank you for reading and I am always grateful for any likes, shares, comments, or recommendations of other essayists worth reading.