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Book Review: Mr. Green Jeans

In today's fast-paced world, many people feel disconnectedMr. Green Jeans from those around us, as well as from the earth and Mother Nature. Many of us are learning to reconnect with the planet, teaching others as we go along our journeys after catching glimpses of a not-so-wonderful future on a possibly dying planet.

In his debut novel Mr Green Jeans, Chris McGee offers a different take on the fight to save the world, introducing Jack and Lake Creek in this cli-fi (climate fiction, a term coined in the last decade for fiction focused on climate change and the resulting natural disasters) eco-novel. In what may be termed a mid-life crisis, Jack – teacher by day, eco-warrior by night – begins his journey to save Mother Earth by toppling a few billboards along an interstate highway in Missouri, leaving the signature "Mr Green Jeans." After a close call, he tells his wife, Lake, about his nocturnal adventures, and learns she's eager to join the fray. After strategizing, the couple hops into a van (painted green, of course) and take their message on the road.

Instead of continuing the fight against eyesore billboards, they go a more positive route by hanging canvas banners from billboards, buildings and highway bridges – banners containing messages from Mother Earth urging all to take action against climate change and a variety of institutions and beliefs threatening the Earth's well-being.

While the couple believes they are on this journey alone, they are, in fact, supported by family, friends, fellow eco-stewards, and even a few members of the media. Their travels take them from their home in Missouri throughout the Midwest and Great Plains and finally into an embattled Southwest region near Phoenix.

Mr Green Jeans allows one to go along for the ride as Jack and Lake spread the word that the planet is in pain and, while we humans are undoubtedly the cause of that pain, we are also the only possible solution. The novel is well-written, keeping one's attention as Jack and Lake struggle to outrun their opposition, all the while attempting to remain anonymous as their message goes viral on social media platforms.

The ups and downs and close calls experienced by these dedicated and likeable eco-stewards bring the reader to the edge of the seat, as we feel Jack and Lake's sense of urgency and accomplishment, and the hope they are helping the planet and making a difference in the larger picture of today's standoffs between environmental activists and those urging growth at any cost. At the end of the novel, the Creeks see their lives change forever; that may also hold true for the reader.

As an aside, this is the first in a series of books planned by the author to feature Jack, Lake and friends. I, for one, look forward to reading the continuing journey of these eco-stewards.

Whether you are among those taking a more involved approach to helping the environment, or you are contemplating a plan of action, or you simply remember the activism of your youth, you will appreciate the message and the characters of Mr Green Jeans. And you'll have a fine time reading this thrilling and enthralling example of the cli-fi genre.

Coping with Climate Change

Josh Fox, who made Gasland, joins Pacific Island activists in handmade canoes surrounded by sharks below and police boats above in one scene of his new documentary, How To Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change. As they try to obstruct a ship carrying coal, a major source of greenhouse gases, Fox’s canoe capsizes. He tosses his camera to a comrade who catches it, saving the day’s video footage and typifying the film’s motif of hope, defiance, and humor amid gloom: The island is being submerged in water as the ocean rises because of climate change. But Fox joins the activists in singing and dancing as they celebrate delaying a coal delivery for one more day.

The film follows Fox to activist enclaves from the Amazon to the Arctic, places where environmental destruction is rampant and insidious. In China, metropolitan areas look perpetually foggy with smog, and industrial spills poison the Amazon River around which forests are denuded. Fox also tours global warming disasters close to home, as coastal cities become vulnerable. He points to a house where a woman drowned when the Atlantic Ocean overwhelmed her in her living room in Queens during Hurricane Sandy.  He interviews a man in whose house the only item left intact was his Santa Claus suit. 

However, Fox also interviews Aria Doe at the Action Center nearby, a grass roots organization to assist the low income community with food, education, and other support. She was there, she said, “Because I knew no one else was coming.” 

In a post-apocalyptic scene, Fox showed her alone in a large empty space at the Action Center, and then, in a similarly vacuous space, a man singing.

Activists singing and dancing recur in the film, signaling the value and vitality of community organizing despite grim forecasts. Fox notes his own despair in response to predictions that 30-50 percent of species will be lost along with disappearing forests. “What will climate change not destroy?” Fox asks. “People who got back up from despair.”

Josh Fox

Those are the people whose efforts Fox documents in the film’s international tour of global warming damage, and those are the kinds of people for whom he will hold screenings across the U.S., he said at the East Coast premiere in Sugar Loaf in March. The auditorium was full of ardent anti-fracking activists, who allied themselves with Fox when he made Gasland.

Fox recalled Gasland’s beginnings near his Pennsylvania home at a meeting of seven activists in Damascus, trying to prevent gas drilling there. Barbara Arrindell, cofounder of Damascus Citizens for Sustainability was well informed, but he realized she needed help informing the public.

“So I did a YouTube video,” Fox said, “and now here I am, three movies later.”

As for being an organizer, Fox said, “I can’t organize a sock drawer. I don’t have one. You need to do what you love and do best that’s needed. When I started making films, fracking was at my door, and I didn’t know what to do.”

At the screening he announced an online kickstarter campaign that would fund showings of How To Let Go in dozens of places on the East Coast and then across the country, where groups of environmental activists invited him. He would be touring until the end of 2016, bringing along activists from the film, such as Aria Doe.

In Sugar Loaf and elsewhere, cards were passed out that audience members could fill out to request an evaluation of their homes.for renewable energy. He encouraged activists to set up home showings of How To Let Go.

Everywhere he went, he said, “I saw a huge build-out of pipelines and power plants. It’s an enormous crisis how much the U.S. has sold out to oil and gas. It’s an unintended consequence of Obama’s energy policies. But we have plans for renewable energy for every state in the nation.”

He noted the way persistence can pan out.

“I knew a guy who talked to everyone he knew about a film he wanted to make,” said Fox. The result was Red Violin, an ambitious, award-winning film.

He announced a dance marathon protest of the nearby CPV gas power plant construction in Wawayanda, and local activists took the stage with him. They decried losses, celebrated wins and pointed out opportunities. Some of those avenues, pursued, would be fruitful.

“Fifteen of us picketing the CPV power plant seemed uphill,” said actor James Cromwell, referring to regular Saturday morning protests there. “But now there’s a full audit spreading exponentially,”

“There’s a federal investigation of undue influence in power plant approvals.We need to make noise over the next two months,” said Pramilla Malick, Cromwell’s cohort activist and picketer at CPV.

Malick had publicized findings about problematic health effects for miles around gas infrastructure, including pipelines, power plants, and compressors, as well as drilling sites.

By May, the federal investigation would appear on the front page of the New York Times.

An Interview with Dubravka Ugrešić

Dubravka Ugrešić is the 2016 winner of “America’s Nobel,” the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. Born and raised in the former Yugoslavia, Ms. Ugrešić was a prominent critic of the Yugoslav Wars and the nationalist, anti-Serbian political sentiments that were popular in her homeland of Croatia. Her politically-charged writings eventually led to her exile in the Netherlands in 1993, where she has continued to live and write to this day. Her fiction and essay works frequently focus on themes of war and refugee, analyzing both the trauma and freedom experienced by those displaced. Her representative text for the Neustadt Prize, ‘The Museum of Unconditional Surrender,’ is one such work that reflects upon the shattered life of an exile. She is based in Amsterdam.

This interview was conducted by World Literature Today.

Dubravka Ugrešić

Q: Thank you so much for speaking with us, and congratulations on your winning the 2016 Neustadt International prize for Literature. How did it feel when you got the news?

DU: Thank you. To be honest, the experience of being a finalist for a big literary prize is pretty complicated. Writers are not proud to admit their vulnerability in such situations, often ashamed of the childishness of hidden hopes. That’s why I disconnected myself from both phone and internet. I wanted to avoid the “bad news” when told that I did not win. As such, when I heard the jury’s decision, I got very happily confused.

 

Can you speak about your background, namely wartime in the former Yugoslavia? From your current perspective, how you do view the way that you were treated when you took a public antiwar stance and how does that experience apply to today’s world?

That time changed me a lot. It was a unique experience that shattered my old political and moral beliefs, views and references, and my current perspective those events remains the same as it was then.

Some of my former contemporaries remain dedicated fascists, and others are just a little bit fascist as it suits them. It turns out that nationalism benefits some people very well, which I think is an insight into some of the political rhetoric we’re seeing on the rise again now.

Given this, I would not alter a word in my book of essays “The Culture of Lies” – the book I published twenty years ago about the dismantling of Yugoslavia, nationalism, and the war. Today’s reality just proves that I was right back then. Very little has changed. 

 

What is the greatest challenge you have faced in writing narratives about that time?

My greatest challenge as a writer has been to find the proper words to reach not only those who share similar experiences, but to have those who do not also come to identify with my work.

My concerns are often “aesthetic” it seems: how to write about such dark times while avoiding the traps of journalistic pamphleteerism – of false moralism and false emotions – as well as simplifications. I want my readers to understand what I am talking about in a real way, with all the complexities of the issue good and bad.

 

The stories you tell about refugees is one that is currently timely. What reflections do you have about people being uprooted and living in exile?

The story of refugees is a basic story of the human condition. It’s the oldest tale of mankind that constantly repeats itself throughout history, the tale that has been told and retold zillions of times. In a world structured by Christianity, the very first story is that of Adam and Eve – man’s first exiles.

Mankind has always been on the move, traversing far and wide in a search of a more secure shelter, a better life. They say that being uprooted is an exceptional condition, but I dare to claim the opposite. From an historical point of view, being “rooted” is, in fact, the exceptional condition. The sad thing is that many Europeans today, stricken by the “refugee crises,” are not in a position to accept that fact. And so the stories repeat themselves again.

 

For readers who are exposed to your work for the first time, what do you hope they will take away from your work?

Remembrance. I hope to be remembered by readers because I wrote something powerful but also pleasurable, and it connected with the reader.

In fact, this is the secret ambition of every writer. The writers I remember are my “family.” They go where I go and are always with me. To be remembered, to be a part of a reader’s personal “spiritual” baggage, to be part of her/his literary family – this is the biggest achievement of a writer.

 

What books are you reading, or have you read recently, that are making a connection with you?

I’ve recently read Japanese writer Jun'ichirō Tanizaki, who I discovered though something I am working on myself at the moment. His works explore cultural identity and traditional vs. changing modern culture in Japan, and it is a thrilling literary discovery for me. I am enjoying his third book at the moment.

 

I imagine that exploring cultural identity is of strong interest to you, especially given what that means to an exile or refugee in a new land.

Oh yes, and the idea can be explored in many ways. For instance, I am looking forward to visiting Oklahoma (to serve as the guest of honor at the 2016 Neustadt Festival.)

“Oklahoma” stands in my imagination as a piece of “Americana,” this huge American cultural narrative constructed by media, literature, films, and TV. It will be interesting, as it always is, to compare reality with this pre-formed “cultural text.”

 

Speaking of the Neustadt Prize, you are the first European female to win the award. Does the fact that you are a woman winning the prize, as well as a non-native English speaker winning a U.S.-based prize, hold special significance?

I think that the Neustadt Prize has an incredible record: 23 recipients over 45 years covering pretty much the whole world. The nomination process is very good, where writers nominate fellow writers. It results in winners who are consistently among the most impactful and respected writers of their era.

This year has been particularly noteworthy because the majority of finalists were women writers from different parts of the world (Croatia/Netherlands, Canada, China, Mexico, Scotland/Sierra Leone, the UK, and USA). I’d like to note that there is a nice addendum to add to this: women writers on the jury nominated other women writers, which is not often the case. I am glad to see this and believe it is worth celebrating.

 

So do we. Thank you so much for speaking with us today.

It was a pleasure.


This interview was conducted by World Literature Today, which is associated with the Neustadt Prize for Literature.

Video Premiere: Atoms and Void – “Waves of Blood”

Atoms and Void

Utne Reader is proud to premiere the music video for “Waves of Blood” from the adventure-prone Atoms and Void.

Inspired by the late 80’s and early 90’s Talk Talk albums Sprit of Eden and Laughing Stock, Arlie Carstens long dreamed of creating music “that has a distinct sound and vision but that is not the work of a specific group of musicians; something that’s not a ‘band’ necessarily.” To help actualize this dream, Carstens invited his friend Eric Fisher to join as his songwriting and production partner. Over the course of several years and locations, from Seattle to Santa Monica, from Mexico City to New York, the duo recorded songs onto any device they could get their hands on.

In keeping with the spirit of Carstens’ original vision, the pair enlisted the help of additional instrumentalists including Nate Mendel (Foo Fighters), Morgan Henderson (Fleet Foxes), Rosie Thomas (Sufjan Stevens), among others, to record their debut album And Nothing Else. Despite having their laptop stolen in Toronto and another’s hard drive crashing in Seattle, Atoms and Void pressed on to see their ambitious project through. And Nothing Else will be released on May 20th available in limited edition pink and marsh blue-green vinyl. Preorder the album here.

And now, enjoy the black-and-white, slowmo spilling of milk in the music video for “Waves of Blood.”


Every month, Utne Reader presents free, downloadable music gleaned from current and upcoming releases on independent music labels. Check out this month's Music Sampler.

Film Review: A Poem Is a Naked Person

In 1972, documentarian Les Blank (Burden of Dreams) was hired by rock musician Leon Russell and producer Denny Cordell to film Russell and his band on tour, and in his recording studio in Northeast Oklahoma. Over the course of the next two years, Blank recorded Russell, his entourage and surroundings, resulting in A Poem is a Naked Person, which Blank considered to be one of his best films.

Russell, however, wasn’t happy with the finished product. That, coupled with a falling out between Russell and Cordell, kept Blank’s film from being shown, with the exception of non-commercial screenings, at which the director was required to be present. Between 1974 and Blank’s death in 2013, underground screenings hosted by the director were the only way to see the film, an impediment that only added to its cult reputation. Thanks to Blank’s son, Harrod, and the Criterion Collection, A Poem is a Naked Person has finally received a wide release on DVD and Blu-ray.

A Poem is a Naked Person truly lives up to its poetic name. It’s a free-flowing film that cuts between concert recordings, interviews with Russell, his bandmates and friends, and slices of life from Russell’s neighbors in and around Tulsa, Oklahoma. Watching it feels a bit like discovering a pressurized vault, filled with perfectly-preserved historical artifacts. While Blank certainly captured a particular moment in Russell’s career, he was clearly more interested in capturing the spirit of a time and a place. The director manages to do so perfectly — shifting from ecstatic concertgoers on the road to pretentious hippie artists to the catfish noodlers in Russell’s backyard.

But these shifts aren’t arbitrary. Each one draws a parallel between subcultures. In one section, Blank shows a service at an African-American church, where congregation members dance and jump and hug each other much like the fans in Russell’s audience. Another scene documents a bad acid trip, followed a few minutes later by a middle-aged skydiving instructor nonchalantly chomping a beer glass — each sequence positing that perhaps these groups might not be that different from each other, despite what they might think.

A fascinating mix of 70s style, drug-culture weirdness and old-fashioned country charm, A Poem is a Naked Person wasn’t the concert film that Leon Russell wanted. Fortunately for us, it’s something much better: a sort of video photo album, a wild and fun exploration of the contradictions and overlaps of influence contained in Russell’s music, and the musical culture he was part of. Criterion’s edition of the film is filled with updated interviews and Q&A sessions with Blank, Russell and other players in the film, which provide valuable context on the documentary’s creation, and subsequent legal woes.

Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock and Roll

Cultural historian Peter Guralnick’s latest music biography, Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock and Roll (How One Man Discovered Howlin’ Wolf, Ike Turner, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley and How His Tiny Label, Sun Records of Memphis, Revolutionized the World!) has a cumbersome and author-admitted hyperbolic title, but it tells a riveting story. Phillips is remembered today as the man who launched the legendary Sun Records and careers of the aforementioned artists and many others not named in the title. But Guralnick has gone beyond simply recounting names and hits to tell the life story of the musical icon.

Born in Florence, Alabama, Phillips saw firsthand the racial injustices of the Depression-era South. The black kids he played with and worked with in the fields were not afforded the same opportunities he and his white friends and family were. Yet from a very young age, Phillips recognized the power, the true majesty of the songs his community mates sang in the fields and in their churches.

Guralnick tells the full story of Phillips’ childhood, including his numerous health problems, dedication to his deaf and mute aunt, and early jobs including working at a funeral home, blessed with the gift of convincing grieving family members to trust him with the care of their recently deceased loved ones.

But it is when Phillips moved to his adopted hometown of Memphis that the story picks up steam for those craving details on the formative years of rock and roll and rhythm and blues. As a young man he began a career in radio and married his sweetheart Becky, also an up-and-comer in the radio business. Guralnick shares stories of Phillips’ struggles financially and with mental health before he decided to take a risk and open the famed Memphis Recording Service.

In the musical mecca of Memphis, he continued to hear music that moved him. Blues artists including B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf—the musician Phillips always claimed moved him more than any other—were among the first to record in the new studio. When Elvis Presley first showed up at Sun in 1954 to make a record, Phillips knew he had something special on his hands.

Guralnick points out how Phillips was originally dedicated to recording black musicians and had some fleeting success with Ike Turner and Jackie Brenston’s Delta Cats. But when one “hillbilly” after another showed up at Sun, he had many more hits and experienced much more financial success. That didn’t sit well with everyone, as Guralnick illustrates, including the artists and people who criticized him for having the gall to associate with black musicians.

The book’s most moving chapters are those that tell the stories of Sun’s heyday. Phillips saw the writing on the wall and realized the days for independent labels were numbered and sold the label as a young man. But Guralnick tells Phillips’ story to the end, including his years continuing to launch and expand radio stations and involvement in later years in telling his own story, through documentaries and plans for an autobiography that never materialized. Guralnick states in the intro that he was friends with Phillips for 25 years. The book’s few weak points include somewhat clunky transitions from first to third person narration when Guralnick decides to share his own perspective. And later chapters about his friendship and dealings with Phillips sap some momentum from the narrative.  But to his credit, the author doesn’t let his friendship turn the work into a hagiography, and includes Phillips’ faults, infidelities, and rocky personal and business relationship with his older brother Jud.

Overall, Guralnick has masterfully captured and documented the life of a true American legend, a man whose passion for music and love of life has touched the lives of people the world over.

Cover courtesy Little, Brown and Co.

Song Premiere: Jacob Metcalf — "One Three Nine"

Jacob Metcalf

Utne Reader is proud to premiere the song "One Three Nine" by North Texas-based folk artist Jacob Metcalf, from his debut album Fjord.

Venturing out from the confines of his two longtime bands, Fox and the Bird and Dallas Family Band, Jacob Metcalf offers a collection of ornate, cinematic folk songs on his debut full-length solo album, Fjord. Fans of The Low Anthem, Andrew Bird, and Sufjan Stevens should find a lot to like in Metcalf’s reflective and textured songs.

Metcalf sums up his take on the song “One Three Nine”: “[It’s] my account of an isolated night and day in a foreign airport. It plays out kind of like a sitcom. There's a scene of slapstick at the top, centered around my western fascination with the east, but the personal comedy subtly shifts focus onto a broader tragedy that hints at our fundamental inability to connect with each other. The song ends with a crash after a jaded and self-protective refrain, ‘Sometimes we hit; sometimes we miss; it's all the same.’" Fjord will be out via self-release on limited vinyl and digital formats January 2016.

For more new music that piques our interest, visit the Utne Reader Music Sampler.