3 Essayists – review (continued)

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.

The books selected of 3 living essayists.

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”.

See the source image

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.

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Paterson….movie, poem, place.

At the beginning of this week I had never heard of the city, the poem, or the movie called Paterson. Nor had I heard the name William Carlos Williams. A couple of photos on a friends Facebook page changed all that.

The photos were of a building with a bridge behind it and a waterfall beyond that. The resulting river flowing toward the viewer and in the foreground a couple of green painted benches. The second photo was of rubbish bin with the words “City of Paterson” on it. And in the comments under the post it said “It was William Carlos Williams or Carlos Williams Carlos? Well it is Paterson one of the best movies from Jarmusch…”

And so a Google and a visit to the local library later finds me reading the poetry of William Carlos Williams – who was not only a poet of some renown, but also a doctor of pediatrics and general medicine. His epic poem Paterson began life as a 85 line poem but morphed over the years into 5 volumes of books.

The poem was published between 1946 and 1958 and was an account of the history, people, and the place – Paterson, New Jersey. Williams examined the role of the poet in American society and summarized his poetic method in the phrase “No ideas but in things” – originally a line from his poem “A Sort of a Song” but also used as a recurring theme in Paterson.

As I said earlier I had no idea who Williams was until this week, which is surprising as he mentored several other poets including ‘Beat’ poet Allen Ginsberg – who’s work I know well. He even wrote the forward/intro to Ginsberg’s first and probably most famous (or infamous) book “Howl and other poems” (1956).

Anyhow….back to Paterson. Now a movie, inspired by the poem. Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch and released at the end of December 2016. Rotten Tomatoes rates it at a staggering 96% – and frankly I must agree.

The blurb on the Rotten Tomatoes website reads ” Paterson is a bus driver in the city of Paterson, New Jersey–they share the name. Every day, Paterson adheres to a simple routine: he drives his daily route, observing the city as it drifts across his windshield and overhearing fragments of conversation swirling around him; he writes poetry into a notebook; he walks his dog; he stops in a bar and drinks exactly one beer; he goes home to his wife, Laura. By contrast, Laura’s world is ever changing. New dreams come to her almost daily. Paterson loves Laura and she loves him. He supports her newfound ambitions; she champions his gift for poetry. The film quietly observes the triumphs and defeats of daily life, along with the poetry evident in its smallest details.

There are numerous scenes in the movie shot beside the waterfall shown in my friends photo. It’s the place that Paterson, the bus driving poet, likes to sit and contemplate life. He cares about the city and he cares about the people who live there. It’s a beautiful and a quietly inspirational movie. It moves you in a subtle way…like all good poetry and good movies should.

Paterson – official trailer

A year of blogging and several thank-you’s.

I can’t believe it, but this weekend brings up one year of blogging on WordPress. Thank you so much for the “like’s, comments and follows”. It’s especially nice when people take time out of their full and busy lives to comment on something as trivial as my blog posts and I honestly am most appreciative. This first year on WordPress has been an interesting experience, and something that I am growing into. Yes, even at almost 60 years of age I am still learning and growing….even if my hair isn’t. The most important thing is that I am enjoying the writing experience even more than I hoped I would. Being able to read and comment on other peoples blogs has also been a new and rewarding experience, and I’d like to say thank you to all the bloggers out there who’s articles I have read, liked, or commented on. I’ve been entertained, educated and in some cases amazed.

A very quick recap of the last year of blogging shows that my first ever blog post attracted a grand total of 1 like – thank you Chris from https://gnashingblog.com/ – (If anyone hasn’t come across Chris’s blog, please take a look. He has some great book and movie reviews and the occasional spectacular rant).

So you’d think from only 1 like, things could only improve. Right?…..sadly no. My 5th, 6th and 7th posts received no response at all….not even a”is that all you’ve got?” comment, only the buzz…(or is it chirp?) of crickets. BUT, I didn’t start off writing my blog in search of likes, comments or followers – I was writing because I wanted to, and I wanted to know if I had the ability to string more than a couple of sentences together in a coherent manner…..and most importantly I was doing it for the pleasure of writing. Likes, comments and followers are a wonderful by-product.

I was inspired enough by reading other bloggers poetry to have a go myself and have been pleasantly surprised at the response. A very surprised “thank you” from me for all the nice comments. However, the down side – for you – is that I will be inflicting more of said poetry on you in up coming posts. I’m enjoying the process and the peace that writing poetry brings to the soul. You have been warned!

Other well received subjects have been some, but not all, book reviews, most of my travel/photography pieces especially the ones on Paris seem to go down well, but politics and environmentalism don’t receive the same response. Perhaps the reality of the mess we find ourselves in both politically and more importantly environmentally is too distressing for many of you. I totally get that. Sometimes I’d rather hide away and hope that it’s all been a bad dream. Sadly neither problem will go away. I don’t mean to cause distress in pointing out how sadly we’ve lost our way as a species, or how bad we’ve screwed up, but sometimes I feel compelled to let it all out in a jumble of words on paper…otherwise my head may well explode.

My most successful piece so far, with regard to likes and comments, was my post about children’s writer Enid Blyton – which is kind of fitting as it was dear old Enid’s books that opened up a world of reading and wonder for me when I was about 7 or 8 years old….and I’ve been addicted to books ever since. Thank you Enid – I am for ever in your debt.

So, one year passes….101 blog posts published (this will be 102), so that’s one post on average every 3.5 days….126 followers – I know that some bloggers have thousands of followers, but frankly, hitting that hundred follower mark felt great, so thank you guys and girls. I value every one of you and I’ll do my best to keep you entertained for another year….and to keep up with reading and commenting on your blogs too.

As Woody Allen once said “70 percent of success in life is in just turning up”….so for now I’ll keep turning up approximately every 3.5 days.

So far so good. What next?

Hi all. I am really enjoying my blogging experience, both from a writing perspective and also from reading other writers posts. As 2018 comes into it’s final days, it almost brings to an end my first 3 months of blogging.

It’s been difficult as a beginner to know what to write about. What do people want to read about? – was my first thought. Then I threw caution to the wind and I simply wrote about anything that came to mind, relating to my passions of writing, books, writers….anything book-ish or book related…travel and photography. Also there was a question of how often I should write? Should I write every day, or once a week – how often is too much and how often is not enough? That question sort of solved its self as I have other things to fit in between my writing….like living. It’s been an interesting first 3 months and this being my 33rd blog post means that I am averaging 11 posts per month or around 2.5 posts per week – which, due to other commitments is about as much as I can manage at this point, although I would love to dedicate more time to writing.

I probably need to rearrange my life to allow more writing time. Not only for my blog, but also for other writing and photography projects – present and future.

I started to write a book about how it was to be a child of the 1960’s, growing up in a Yorkshire village – with my younger brother and about some of the scrapes we used to get ourselves in. After school or in the school holidays we’d spend most of our time with our friends playing in the local woods. This was of course before child molesting became a national sport and the “stranger, danger” programme convinced most parents that the world is no longer a safe place for kids to play unsupervised. That, combined with the internet and virtual reality/on-line gaming is going to rob most kids in the future of the fun of playing in the woods and getting dirty, bruised and scratched – building tree houses, rope swings and just being out in the fresh air.

I had intended it to be more of a family history type book so my children and their children (if and when they have them) have some idea of where their ancestors came from, since we now live on the other side of the planet. BUT once I started writing and the words started to flow it soon became a more anecdotal collection of amusing (I like to think) stories of some of the crazy things we did and lived through as kids.

I hit the 40,000 word mark just before starting my WordPress blog in early October and the book has been put on the back burner for now. My New Year resolution will be to get back to it and finally get it finished.

Another project languishing on the back burner is a photo book of a six month backpacking trip around the UK and Europe undertaken during 2016. I was meant to be getting right onto it as soon as we returned home. Almost 2 years later…..it seems I am still the king of procrastination.

Yet another project is to combine some of my photographs with poetry. Again, this is something that is partly under way with about a dozen poems under my belt so far.

BUT the main purpose of this post was to look at which of my posts have been best received from readers/followers so far – in order to guide me in the direction that my blog needs to take in the future. It would appear that you folks tend to like my travel related posts the best. Of the posts to attract “likes” reaching into the double digits, my posts about Paris and Barcelona scored the highest, followed by a review of Richard Laymon books, closely followed by a piece about beat writer William S Burroughs and another piece about Christmas. The next best liked was a couple of attempts at poetry. So I guess that gives me some guidance of what I should concentrate on in the future.

I’d love to hear about your writing projects destined for 2019. Please feel free to comment below.