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9/4/2014

Rebecca Solnit's Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness is filled with insights that are both acute and meaningful.

The 30 essays that span Rebecca Solnit's Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness range from an Arctic expedition off the Norwegian coast to the Zapatista communities in southern Mexico. In between, everything from the contradictions internet connectivity has brought us to Henry David Thoreau's laundry to urban gardening is explored with insights that are both acute and meaningful. RS

Though readers may connect with some parts more than others (perhaps based on where they've been or what they've been involved in), the stories become relevant because of the broader symbolism that is brought to light. In “The Google Bus,” Solnit critiques the affects of private transportation in San Francisco. Not only does such an enterprise undermine public transportation services, she argues, but it also contributes to carbon emissions, longer working hours (the commute from San Francisco to Silicon Valley is 3.5 hours), and higher rental and property prices. These have all changed the face of the city and Solnit likens it to the Gold Rush which brought to California great wealth along with displacement of indigenous communities, disease, child labor, and inflation. 

In “The Visibility Wars” she looks at “warscapes” and here, a myriad of topics are broached from nuclear testing in Nevada to government spying to the importance of photography, all of which are linked together in an examination of secrecy and transparency. 

Also included are two letters (one to a dead man and one to an entire country) as well as the commencement address Solnit gave to Berkeley’s graduating English majors in which she tells the audience, "The universe is made out of stories—go change them, tell them, bury them, and give birth to them." Storytelling along with darkness, hope, and exploration are common themes from her previous works that appear throughout these essays. What unites them are the various interpretations of trouble and spaciousness that are thread throughout. Trouble, we learn, can be anything from ghosts to rebellion to language. Spaciousness is not just place— Detroit, Haiti or New Orleans—but reaches from the alternative worlds that are being built if only we would notice the labyrinths we travel through in order to find home. 

This read will lead to a different, more layered understanding of the world around and in us. Though Solnit’s ideas dig deep and her writing is often poetic, the essays still come across as accessible, forming an encyclopedia that is ready to be thoughtfully absorbed, questioned, and reflected upon.



8/22/2014

prison

In Mass Incarceration on Trial author Jonathan Simon presents the evolution of how mass incarceration has been dealt with in the courts, specifically through cases brought in California.

While California had been one of the most progressive states in terms of prison rehabilitation, views of the incarcerated shifted in the 1970's. As crime became more of a problem nationwide, the perception of prisoners went from characters in movies like Cool Hand Luke to The Silence of the Lambs. This population was deemed a threat to society that could not be rehabilitated. And prisons themselves were structured as such. Instead of programs and services for the incarcerated, the focus became security and control. 

The first case Simon examines is Madrid v. Gomez in which mental health care in supermax-style prisons (facilities with security housing units or SHUs where prisoners are typically left in their cell for 23 hours a day) comes into question. In Coleman v. Wilson, the mental health inquiry is expanded to include the general prison population in California (not just those in solitary confinement). The third case, Plata v. Davis, broadens the scope further to the health care system within California prisons. Lastly, Simon looks at Brown v. Plata which questions the very legitimacy of the system of mass incarceration and resulted in an order to reduce the California prison population to 137 percent (in some facilities the rate was 200-300 percent over design capacity).

cover

An important point that Simon makes is that mass incarceration is not just a problem of quantity, but also quality. Because numbers had swelled to such great numbers, the resources for and quality of treatment was greatly reduced. This was exacerbated by the care needed for chronic health problems which an aging population (due to longer sentences) requires and overcrowding which can increase the spread of communicable diseases. The rising number of people also meant that corrections officers felt more violent methods of control, such as "cell extractions," were necessary in order to manage inmates. 

Rooted at the heart of the cases is the 8th Amendment, which is intended to prevent cruel and unusual punishment. Getting to a definition of what that phrase actually entails has been a historical challenge. What each case accomplished was the expansion of prisoners who were seen as having been subjected to cruel conditions from the small minority of mentally ill in solitary confinement to the general population.

While the overall points that Simon makes are strong, he overlooks a couple of issues which are important. The first is the role that privatization has played in contributing to mass incarceration. With private companies profiting off of each person imprisoned, it seems like this would be a relevant consideration to touch on. Additionally, the plight of prisoners is at times framed as an issue pertaining to men. This ignores the fact that between 1980 and 2010, the number of female prisoners increased by 646 percent, and that the health care that incarcerated women need is often not provided or improper. Although many examples of human rights abuses against male prisoners are mentioned, none pertaining to women are cited (such as the forced sterilization of women prisoners in California between 2006 and 2010 which was attributed to overcrowding and medical negligence). Despite these omissions, this is an important book to read in order to understand how incarceration has become a human rights issue in the U.S. and the steps court decisions have made towards bringing dignity to prisoners. system itself. Furthermore the Brown v. Plata ruling, which reached the Supreme Court, advanced an important idea: not only must prison officials refrain from utilizing degrading treatment, but prisoners, despite losing their freedom, retain their dignity and should be treated as such.

Photo courtesy Henry Hagnas, licensed under Creative Commons



8/13/2014

After the man she loves goes missing while hiking a volcano in Japan, Rebecca Lindenberg is left alone and still loving him. When Lindenberg’s relationship with poet Craig Arnold ended in 2009, her sorrow and joy became a means of navigating the landscape of her emotions. Love, An Index is a collection of poems that tell their story.

Love, An Index by Rebecca Lindenberg

Lindenberg began writing the poems that appear within in 2006 while living abroad, in Rome, with Arnold and his son. Completed in 2009, shortly after his disappearance, there is a beautiful juxtaposition of life and death. In “Catalogue of Ephemera” the present tense give signifies that with death, not all is lost. Yet, three pages later Arnold is referenced in past tense. This past-present oscillation continues lending the colleciton a sense of history and hope.

One of the things I found most appealing about Lindenberg’s poems, aside from her honest portrayal of emotion, was the vividness she presents. In “What Rings but Can’t Be Answered,” striking use of color is introduced—colors of bone—and carries through the next two poems with ivory exclamation mark and freshwater pearls, only to reappear again in varying forms throughout the title poem, and many others.

Red is ever present and opposing the lightness and purity of white. Often associated with the feelings of love, passion, energy and strength, red can also illicit anger, fear, or caution. “Love, a Footnote” embodies these dualities best and explicitly when Lindenberg writes: 7. I love words that can inhabit more than one part of speech, as in a match or to match. The phosphorus smell of a just-lit match. Enough light for two faces to share.

Throughout this poem, present are the Communist Party, wine, blood, heat, cherry, sex, and rust. All physical embodiments of red, but also potential depictions of need or desire, which is where the poem ends: 14. Feeling is a way of knowing what you’re going to think about something. Example: I felt the thought, I could want you. Emotion as premonition. It is a mystery. It is the ideal form of beauty.

Not all of the poems impressed me in such a precise, particular way. Pieces like “Status Update” weren't exactly on par with the rest of the work, most of which contain vivid color and physicalities—two things I really love in a poem. However, the stories within these poems were compelling in their honesty. As such, they contain the seemingly unnecessary things like, “Has high blood sugars” or “Rebecca Lindenberg has high hopes.” These could mean nothing or exactly what they say, yet within the poem and collection we know that there is a story being told, so these minor details probably play a much larger part than they seem.

“Rebecca Lindenberg thinks of poetry as the practice of overhearing yourself,” and she couldn't be more right! As readers make their way through the title poem “Love, An Index,” and collection as a whole, it becomes clear that even when the poems don’t make sense or mean anything to the reader there is an underlying need being met. Lindenberg is telling her story, and there is an overhearing, eavesdropping quality to being part of the intricacies of the journey. A sense of hope and sorrow permeate each poem which allows the emotional immediacy and vivid language of Love, An Index to combine to create the soundtrack that is Rebecca Lindenberg’s loss and continued life.

YouTube video posted by Evan Karp


Ashley Houk is an Online Editorial Assistant for Ogden Publications, the parent company of Utne Reader. When she’s not reviewing books and producing online content for Ogden, she’s probably still reading and vigorously scribbling poems, or blog posts of her own. Find her on , , and .



7/24/2014

It took seven years and interviews with over a hundred people for Joshua Horwitz to write War of the Whales. However his dedication to the story is apparent as the book covers the political, historical, environmental, and legal struggles that developed as the connection between mass whale strandings and Navy sonar was uncovered. war of the whales

The book opens on March 15, 2000, when a mass stranding occurred in the Bahamas. Marine Biologist Ken Balcomb was on hand to help the whales as much as possible (most of them didn't make it) and to document the situation. What follows is an extensive look at how researchers figure out the cause of the stranding and how such incidents can be prevented. Horwitz employs a non-linear approach which gives the book a bit of suspense as do a few twists that unfold. He goes back in time to look at Balcomb’s upbringing and early career, the evolution of whales and their elaborate communication and hearing systems, and the domestication of whales for entertainment and research. 

Throughout the chapters we’re introduced to a slew of Naval officers, marine scientists, and lawyers, which gets a bit overwhelming. However the story’s trajectory eventually turns to Joel Reynolds, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council who takes on the Navy in multiple lawsuits all the way up the Supreme Court. What’s most apparent in Balcomb’s research quests and Reynolds’ legal work is the ineffectiveness of the Navy to self-police its actions in regards to the welfare of marine wildlife. The Navy encompasses combat divisions as well as research programs (which grant civilian researchers with funding depending on their relationship with the Navy). With one arm of the Navy responsible for drafting Environmental Impact reports, it’s often to another naval department’s direct advantage (and made easier by fallout from 9/11 when invoking national security for ocean exercises became more common). 

What makes the 448-page book accessible is that it explains complicated systems like biosonar and the bureaucracy of the Navy but it doesn’t get bogged down. Readers are introduced to the personal tribulations of many of the people and the pages are dotted with illustrations of whales and photographs. What results is an engrossing, and relatively neutral, tale of the scientific and legal expeditions that have unfolded to save the whales.



7/15/2014

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl StrayedWith talk of a film adaptation coming soon, I knew I was running out of time to read Cheryl Strayed's Wild. As someone who believes that the book is always better than the movie, I knew it was time to break the self-imposed book-buying ban.

After several life-changing events Strayed saves every cent earned at her waitressing job to buy everything she'll need to spend three months, alone, hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) from southern California to the Oregon-Washington border. She's not an experienced hiker, but the trail calls to her from her trusty guidebook The Pacific Crest Trail Volume 1: California. The journey doesn't start without a hitch. Instead, Strayed struggles with her pack in the hotel room and once on the trail through the Mojave Desert she realizes that hiking is not just like walking.

Faced with blistered and battered feet, raw shoulders and hips, and relentless weather variations, Strayed's journey is anything but easy. The PCT doesn't just come with the dangers of bears, mountains, snow, and relentless heat. It's a lonely place that forces Strayed to look closely at herself, her emotions and regardless of the despair she may feel, forces her to keeping moving forward.

Easy to read, engaging and emotional in a way that wasn't expected, Cheryl Strayed gave more than I asked for. The movie trailer, which you can watch below,  made it clear that Strayed's honesty will translate beautifully to the silver screen. A physical and spiritual journey, Wild is heartbreaking, harrowing, and inspirational.


Ashley Houk is an Online Editorial Assistant for Ogden Publications, the parent company of Utne Reader. When she’s not reviewing books and producing online content for Ogden, she’s probably still reading and vigorously scribbling poems, or blog posts of her own. Find her on , , and .



6/12/2014

Written by survivors to, and for, other survivors, Dear Sister: Letters from Survivors of Sexual Violence from Lisa Factora-Borchers brings a new face to healing. A multi-generational and multi-ethnic compilation of letters and essays, Factora-Borchers has created an exceptional glimpse into the hearts and minds of survivors.

Dear Sister by Lisa Factora-BorchersThe authors featured come from all walks of life, and the fact that they’re all considered “women of color” wasn’t something I found relevant to their experiences and/or words. Dear Sister is filled with letters, poems, and essays that focus on the topic of sexual abuse and violence. Yet, outside of that context there’s still a relevance to the wisdom, advice, and encouragement that this group of women extends to other women, men, and humanity.

They recognize that we've all faced hard times, ups and downs, trials and tribulations. However you look at it, we all need to heal from something, at some point in our lives. Whether it is grief, depression, abuse, addiction, or any number of things that break our spirit, the same rules still apply. The hope and pain these women feel, are felt by everyone (in some context), and their openness to share these things with the world at large is inspiring and brave.

This is not a book I would typically choose for myself, but I come across a wide array of genres, authors, and topics when working on excerpts or with publishers here at Ogden. It’s one of the best things about my job! An unlikely addition to my TBR list came with a lovely surprise. Dear Sister is a reminder that I, too, am strong and brave and a survivor. We all are.

Take a look for yourself. Read Childbearing 101 for Sexual Abuse Survivors to see what Dear Sister can bring to light.


Ashley Houk is an Online Editorial Assistant for Ogden Publications, the parent company of Utne Reader. When she’s not reviewing books and producing online content for Ogden, she’s probably still reading and vigorously scribbling poems, or blog posts of her own. Find her on , , and .



6/10/2014

Men Explain Things to Me

In Rebecca Solnit’s latest book, seven essays lead us through what it means when half of the world’s population is silenced, ignored, and debased.

Men Explain Things to Me opens with Solnit’s essay of the same name, which recounts her experience at a dinner party where the host chatters on and on about a book, one which he has not read, and she in fact wrote. It takes several attempts by a friend until the host finally gets it. While this may seem like an innocuous story, it speaks to a larger societal issue—one in which women are silenced. This silencing has dark implications: in the U.S. a woman is raped every 6.2 minutes. And that only takes into account reported cases.  

Throughout the book, Solnit is quick to point out that such instances do not apply to all men—many are even proud to call themselves feminists. And, as importantly, that she comes from a place of privilege, where her voice has been heard more loudly than the average woman. However she does see these misogynistic tendencies to be part of a national and global mentality—except that they are passed off as rare anomalies. She touches on the commonality of sexual assaults in the military, at work, throughout college campuses and most of all, in the home. One staggering statistic she points out is this: more women have been murdered as a result of domestic violence between 9/11 and 2012 than all of the victims of 9/11 and American soldiers killed during that time, combined.

Punctuating each section is a painting by artist Ana Teresa Fernandez. They are mysterious and symbolic, and complementary to the text. Preceding the essay “Worlds Collide in a Luxury Suite” we see a woman mid-stroke with a mop at the edge of the ocean. The chapter continues with Solnit’s keen use of Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Nafissatou Diallo as metaphors for the global north and south, and how that relates to colonization and globalization. In another, she explores the term “marriage equality” as well as how same-sex couples may inherently have more equal footing in their relationships. In “Woolf’s Darkness,” Solnit delves into the life and ideas of Virginia Woolf as well as Susan Sontag. Here, some of the paragraphs turn too abstract—a discussion of “Negative Capability” doesn’t seem to fit in the middle of the other essays. However I can understand the inclination to include words on Woolf, a woman who strode for empowered imagination and freedom.

At 124 pages, this collection is both an easy read and a difficult one. Easy because Solnit’s writing is so eloquently full of both grace and fury—not something many writers can pull off; difficult because of the storm of appalling facts. However it is definitely a book for both genders. As she points out, acts of silencing and sexual assault shouldn’t be framed as just a problem for women, but one that should be recognized and addressed by all.



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