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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.



4/16/2014

Slip of the Tongue is an exploration of linguistics, but not the linguistics you’re probably thinking of with gutturals and palatization. Katie Haegele’s version is presented through her life experiences and surroundings, along with some serious linguistics education. The book is short, broken into two sections: Essays (the longer of the two) and Journalism. In both sections, however, we see how Haegele uses language to make sense of the world and her place in it.

Slip of the Tongue

What Haegele does well is being herself. She writes with honesty and fondness for her family, memories, and relationship with language. If language is what makes us human, Katie Haegele is one human I wouldn’t hate to know.

Her essays revolve around varied and relatable personal experiences that bring a smile to the face—even when they’re a bit sad. In one essay, Haegele acknowledges that we all probably hate our handwriting, yet assures us that she loves it, for what it says about who we are. As someone who doesn’t hate her handwriting, I still find it odd when others rave about it. But what really struck me, as a writer and bit of a word-nerd, is the research and science behind how handwriting affects language. After thinking about it, I can attest that I do create differently and find a wider array of words when writing by hand than, say, pounding it out on a keyboard. These themes of word use and changes in language culture carry into her journalism as well.

While I wasn’t as struck and “in love” with the journalism section, Haegele still manages to present her subjects with a tenderness and warmth that I would assume is not often associated with graffiti, Noah Webster’s first American dictionary, or the word “ye.” Yet, she manages to spread the same clever wit and jovial spirit through all of her observations.

Haegele’s voice is fresh and distinctive, and she covers everything from how a single word can encompass an entire being, to obsolete words and regionalisms, to how different languages offer us things that English simply cannot. Haegele’s presence and language subtly invites the reader into her life and to become a part of it. Part memoir and part intellectual ruminations on language, how we use it, and how it has changed, Slip of the Tongue will please anyone who fancies themselves a logophile or linguistics genius, or even just someone looking for a good, fun book.

Still not sure? Read an excerpt from Slip of the Tongue.


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.



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 .



8/6/2008

The War NerdGary Brecher is the War Nerd—a pseudonymous columnist for the English-language Moscow-based publication, the eXile. (The print-edition eXile was shutdown this spring, but the feisty periodical has found a new home online.) Soft Skull recently published a compilation of Brecher’s columns, which we reviewed in our July-August 2008 issue.

Brecher’s eponymous War Nerd is a curious, in-your-face book, as Utne associate editor Hannah Lobel points out in her review, calling the tome a “raucous, offensive, and sometimes amusing CliffsNotes compilation of wars both well-known and ignored.” Lately, the man who produced such a volume has attracted some curiosity himself.

War Nerd netted a review in Mother Jones that expresses skepticism regarding Brecher’s authority, given that he makes “continual narrative detours,” many about how he “is overweight, underpaid, and has a hard time getting a date.” Brecher offered explanation for those digressions on the public radio show To the Best of Our Knowledge. The nerd moniker was a “defensive move,” Brecher says. “Look, I understand that you can do all kinds of psychoanalysis about why I like war, so let me say up front, ‘Yeah, I’m a fat loser and I flunked puberty.’ And you can link that up with me liking war all you want, but I’m the statistical norm, and there are a lot of me out there.”

Far from shooting himself in the foot—a little war metaphor for you there—Brecher demonstrates his knack for the “surprising analysis” of which Lobel wrote.

You can listen to the seven-minute segment here:

(Thanks, Richard Eoin Nash.)



10/2/2008

cell phone womanWhat begins as a snarky takedown of cell phone culture evolves into a meditation on love in Jonathan Franzen’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You” from Technology Review (free registration required). Moving from a discussion of the technological developments that have shaped the past decade—most notably, the cell phone—to a careful consideration of the various ways people say, “I love you,” Franzen begins to wonder whether the person bellowing those three magic words into their cell phone in the checkout lane at the grocery store might not be honoring the sentiment’s spirit.

Having garnered plenty of acclaim for his 2001 novel The Corrections—and plenty of scorn after turning down Oprah’s book club invitation—Franzen has since evolved into a prolific writer of nonfiction, navigating his personal essays through moving, humorous territory in two collections, How to Be Alone and The Discomfort Zone. “I Just Called to Say I Love You” is no different, winding from stand-up comedy-style observations on the annoyances of cell phones to 9/11, then taking an unexpected turn into his parents’ marriage and a funny passage where a teenaged Franzen does everything in his power to avoid having to explicity reciprocate his mother’s affection:

The one thing that was vital was never, ever to say “I love you” or “I love you, Mom.” The least painful alternative was a muttered, essentially inaudible “Love you.” But “I love you, too,” if pronounced rapidly enough and with enough emphasis on the “too,” which implied rote responsiveness, could carry me through many an awkward moment. ... She also never told me that saying “I love you” was simply something she enjoyed doing because her heart was full of feeling, and that I shouldn’t feel I had to say “I love you” in return every time. And so, to this day, when I’m assaulted by the shouting of “I love you” into a cell phone, I hear coercion.

It’s this blend of the personal and the universal that draws me to Franzen’s essays. His observations on technological annoyances are astute and just this side of cantankerous, but he injects his arguments with enough personal matter to remind us of his—and by extension, our—humanity.

Image by Ed Yourdon, licensed by Creative Commons.

 



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