Sunday, December 6, 2009

Copenhagen Reads

As leaders and experts assemble in Copenhagen to talk about the overarching issue all earthlings face, our changing climate, I want to share with you two BOOKLIST reviews of two books that provide deep background for this gathering. Hard-hitting books that decry the politics of the crisis, explain the science, and provide plans for a smarter future. Be informed. Ignorance is dangerous.

*Starred Review* Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis.By Al Gore. 2009. 415p. illus. Rodale, $26.99 (9781594867347).
First published November 23, 2009 (Booklist Online).

Nobel laureate Gore is dedicated to the most important mission on the planet: educating humankind about the causes and consequences of global warming, and offering solutions to the looming crises implicit in the changes to Earth’s climate and habitability that are already well underway. No one is more qualified than Gore to lead the collective movement beyond fossil fuels, given his command of the science and politics involved, his invaluable global connections and resources, and his sensitivity to our reluctance to face “the magnitude and gravity of the climate crisis.” As he did in An Inconvenient Truth (2006), Gore matches clear and ringing explanations and commentary with superb supporting diagrams and illustrations and striking photographs from around the world, documenting the dramatic impacts of human industry and climate change. He begins by providing the straight facts about the sources of the pollutants causing global warming and the disastrous energy inefficiency of our buildings, vehicles, appliances, and industrialized agriculture. Here, too, is the searing truth about the campaign of climate change denial via disinformation and ridicule orchestrated and paid for by oil and coal corporations. But after spending three years convening “Solution Summits” and assessing the fruits of those productive discussions, Gore’s trajectory is away from blame and despair and towards answers and encouragement. The result is a veritable catalog for a better world. A practical guide to solar, wind, and geothermal power and smart “super grids,” endeavors China is already pursuing. Gore also eloquently explains how the harnessing of renewable energy sources will solve an entire matrix of global traumas. Our Choice is an inviting and momentous compendium of environmental discovery (with 100 percent of its earnings going to the Alliance for Climate Protection) that addresses the greatest threat our species has yet encountered with intelligence, knowledge, wisdom, and faith in human empowerment. This is a book that should be displayed and talked about everywhere. —Donna Seaman

*Starred Review* Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth about the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity.By James Hansen. 2009. 320p. illus. Bloomsbury, $25 (9781608192007).
First published BOOKLIST, December 1, 2009.

Climatologist Hansen, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and an internationally renowned global-warming expert, became even more famous when he was censored by the Bush administration. After decades of studying the role fossil fuels play in global warming and witnessing the federal government’s failure to take action to lower carbon emissions, he felt compelled to write his first book out of concern about the potentially catastrophic future facing his grandchildren. Hansen condemns governmental “greenwashing” and the undue influence of more than 2,300 energy lobbyists, and attempts to close the gap “between public perception and scientific reality” by lucidly explaining the dynamics of global warming, its acceleration, and how a slight rise in temperature can lead to disastrous consequences. He then boldly declares that the way to solve the climate crisis is to “rapidly phase out coal emissions.” How will we meet our energy needs without coal? Hansen tells the “secret story” of the jettisoned “fast” nuclear reactor, a safer and more efficient reactor than those currently in use, and advocates for its resurrection. Rich in invaluable insights into the geopolitics as well as the geophysics of climate change, Hansen’s guaranteed-to-be-controversial manifesto is the most comprehensible, realistic, and courageous call to prevent climate change yet. It belongs in every library. —Donna Seaman

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Review news

Click here: Kansas City Star to read my review of two new books by the versatile and sharp Kelly Cherry.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Heartland gal does good

The houses are ramshackle, the trucks old, the weather extreme. The men, wearing shabby camouflage and stained feed company caps, are battered and scarred. They drink too much and work too hard with metal molten and stone-cold. They stand by their women no matter how ornery, destructive, or flat-out crazy they are. Or they think about killing them. And the women do the same for the men. Money is tight; jobs are disappearing, as is the wildlife; loneliness is a plague, and folks keep burning down houses while cooking meth. Welcome to rural Michigan, Bonnie Jo Campbell’s home ground, and welcome to American Salvage, a short story collection of rare impact. These are fine-tuned stories of metaphorical glory shaped by stealthy wit, stunning turns of event, and breath-taking insights. This is America, all right, and salvage is a concept Campbell illuminates in so many ways, readers will themselves feel saved, reborn, transformed.

I’ve been a raving Bonnie Jo Campbell fan for 10 years, even since I was knocked down in bliss and wonder by her first book, Women and Other Animals, and oh yes, what a title. Bonnie Jo’s novel is Q, The Road. She is the winner of a Pushcart Prize, the AWP Award for Short Fiction, and the Southern Review’s Eudora Welty Prize. I had the great pleasure of including a story by Bonnie Jo, "Septmeber News from Susanna's Farm," in the issue of TriQuarterly I guest-edited. Campbell is a sizzling writer. American Salvage is a brilliant, brave, unforgettable book. And it is a finalist for the National Book Award, a tremendous feat for a book of short stories from a small university press.

Here's my starred BOOKLIST review (yes, I know, I've already looted it above):

*Starred BOOKLIST Review* American Salvage.
By Bonnie Jo Campbell.
2009. 184p. Wayne State Univ., paper, $18.95 (9780814334126)

The houses are ramshackle, the trucks hard-used, the weather extreme. The men, clad in shabby camouflage, are battered and scarred. They labor at dangerous, soul-killing jobs; hunt; drink too much; and stand by their loved ones no matter how flat-out crazy they are (or they think about killing them). Ditto for the women. Money is tight; the old ways and the precious wildlife are disappearing; loneliness is a plague; and the meth-cookers keep burning down the house. Welcome to rural Michigan, Campbell’s home ground, and a story collection of rare impact. These fine-tuned stories are shaped by stealthy wit, stunning turns of events, and breathtaking insights. Terrible injuries, accidental and otherwise, leave people and animals in misery, but they are salvaged, maybe even healed. Against all odds, salvation counterbalances loss and despair in unexpected ways in this small place of big feelings, where everyone is yoked together for better and worse, and where, as one persistent survivor observes, “what looked like junk to most people could be worth real money.” Campbell’s busted-broke, damaged, and discarded people are rich in longing, valor, forgiveness, and love, and readers themselves will feel salvaged and transformed by this gutsy book’s fierce compassion.

And watch for my interview with Bonnie Jo Campell on Chicago Public Radio.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

On the cusp of autumn, Diane Ackerman looks to the cusp of day

“The lamp of art allows one to shine light into dark corners.” ––Diane Ackerman

I love that Diane Ackerman’s new book is titled Dawn Light, because she’s been a guiding light in my life.

In Dawn Light, Ackerman contemplates many facets of “dawn” as both noun and verb. As in all her graceful, metaphor-lush, and, by turns, whimsical and deeply affecting books, from the genre-defining A Natural History of the Senses (1990) to the bestselling The Zookeeper’s Wife (2007), Ackerman deftly interleaves science with art, and the personal with the historical to created a verdant word garden rich in observations, stories, and musings.

She begins by noting that “dawn is always a rebirth, a fresh start,” then takes great pleasure in describing all that the first light of day delivers, stirs up, and transforms. In her naturalist mode, Ackerman witnesses the arrival and impact of dawn season by season from a balcony in Palm Beach, Florida, and in her home in Ithaca, New York. Birds get top-billing in tales of doves, cranes, wrens, and a very smart, funny, and grammatically precise starling, but, as always, Ackerman casts her net wide to embrace spiders, honeybees, and snails, as well as milkweed and lotuses. Natural phenomena of all kinds fascinate her, so we learn, too, about rust (“a very slow fire”), the dynamics of a “cloud glory,” and the shapes of rain.

No species is as urgently interesting to Ackerman then our own, and her roaming meditation on dawn includes reflections on diverse dawn rituals and goddesses, and on artists inspired by “dawn’s half-open doorway between dream and wakefulness,” especially the Japanese printmaker Hokusai and impressionist Monet.

Cascading detail, sensuous celebrations, hard-won insights into the human psyche, all is rendered in a glorious spectrum of dark and “dawn light,” as Ackerman, a gentle but resonant teacher, awakens us to the exquisite interconnectivity of life, and to the worlds within and without, to sorrow and joy.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

A beautiful novel and homage to literature

A month has gone by since my last post, I'm ashamed to note. My excuse, well, you know, I've been devoting keyboard time to other things. But today I want to rave about an August novel:

Once on a Moonless Night by Dai Sijie. Tr. by Adriana Hunter.
Knopf, 288p. 24.95 (9780307271587).

The spell cast by Dai Sijie’s novels, beginning with his bestselling Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
(2001), is attributable, in part, to his work as a filmmaker—his fiction is strikingly visual, and most certainly to his bicultural and bilingual experiences. Born in China, where he underwent “re-education” as a boy, Dai came to France at age 30 in 1984. The unnamed narrator in his third bewitching and suspenseful novel about the power of literature makes the reverse trip.

A French college student inspired by the extraordinary work of Paul D’Ampere, a gifted Frenchman linguist who retraced the steps of Marco Polo and then disappeared, she is studying Chinese in Peking in 1978 when she hears the story of a missing ancient Buddhist scroll while riding a train—the first of many journeys of inquiry. She also falls in love with a Peking greengrocer, a young man named Tumchooq after “the language in which Buddha preached.” Through a finely embroidered series of flashbacks, Dai reveals Tumchooq’s connection to D’Ampere and the long lost Buddhist sutra, which begins with the phrase, “Once on a moonless night.”

Dai’s darkly beautiful, suspenseful, and cosmic novel, as richly historical as it is imaginative, is set in the Forbidden City, a Chinese prison camp, Paris, Mali, and Burma, and structured so exquisitely it illuminates “Hell, the earthly world, and Paradise.” Dai’s dazzling and poetic tale of epic quests, martyred scholars and artists, the courage of one’s convictions, and love put to the test tells us that language is transcendent; books are sacred; translation is a noble art; stories are the key to freedom, and truth will be found.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Writers on stage

July is getting away from me. I spent last weekend at the American Library Association's Annual Conference here in Chicago, where I had a lot of fun introducing eight writers at a marathon "Live" reading. First up was poet Ed Lee Bok, who has a galvanizing stage presence to match his powerful poems. Check out his book, Real Karaoke People. published by New Rivers Press. Here's the opening stanza in his poem, "The Secret to Life in America":

My brother sits me down and tells me
the secret to life in America.
I'm twelve years old when this happens.
He grabs my shoulders and says:
No one likes an immigrant.
It reminds them of when they fell down
and no one was around to help them.
When they couldn't talk.
As children when they got lost in public.
Cold and wet, everyone hates an immigrant.

More "Live" authors to follow.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Lit Radio

First of all, I'm going to appear on Rick Kogan's The Sunday Papers, a lively live radio show on WGN 720AM which has a huge reach both in the air on the Internet. We begin at what is for me an impossibly early hour, 6:30 am Central time. I'm going to be talking about the issue of TriQuarterly I guest-edited, and making some summer reading recommendations. Rick is a great guy. Knowledgeable and insightful, and intense yet relaxed. Warm, baby. Passionate and funny and caring.

And speaking of good guys, I reviewed Chicago writer Billy Lombardo's new book, How to Hold a Woman for Chicago Public Radio, on Eight-Forty-Eight. What joy. Here's the audio link:

And here's the review for you readers. But I have to say, the audio is splendid.

How to Hold a Woman by Billy Lombardo.

Reviewed for Eight-Forty-Eight on Chicago Public Radio by Donna Seaman

Broadcast June 19, 2009

Give it to me slant, say some. While many readers prefer straight-ahead, point A to point B plots, other are bored by linear storylines and search for fiction that takes a more covert approach. It’s a curious thing that nearly everyone accepts all kinds of fractured timelines, abrupt relocations, and narrative gaps in movies, but when fiction is structured this way, objections are raised, and the dreaded word “experimental” is waved about like a cautionary flag. Personally, I love fiction that rides like a car on a winding road. One that passes through deep shadows into the crystal light, then back into the cool, mysterious dark, and out again into the warm sun, each emergence revealing a new vista. This is why I love the hybrid literary form known rather clumsily as a novel-in-stories.

Some examples of this form: Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge. Chicago writer Stuart Dybek is a seminal artist in the novel-in-stories mode. He is also a clear influence on Chicago writer Billy Lombardo. Like his first book, Lombardo’s second, How to Hold a Woman, delivers scenes that involve young characters: precocious 12-year-old Isabel and her symbiotically entwined brothers, Dex, 8, and Sammy, 4. But How to Hold a Woman is about a marriage under siege.

It begins with a charming, if loaded story, or chapter, titled “At Khyber Pass (August 2002).” Alan Taylor has just landed at O’Hare Airport, home from observing ring-tailed lemurs in Madagascar, and he’s looking for his wife, Audrey, and their three children. But only two kids are in the car, and the thing is, we never see the family whole. Sammy jabbers about baseball; sexual tension builds between the too-long-apart adults as they stop at a restaurant for dinner; they all tell Alan about how the kids got lost at a festival in Evanston, and Isabel reveals her utter enthrallment to The Great Gatsby. The curtain closes. The next story takes place two years later. Things have changed. Its breakfast time and Alan is trying to make light of Audrey’s silent rage.

The third story, set two years later, is told from Audrey’s point of view. She still teaches English, but Alan is no longer an animal behavior research scientist. He’s a lawyer working for the Chicago Police. Why did he change careers? Audrey takes measure of her body, as though neither she nor anyone else has appreciated it in a long time. This is when we learn that the family has suffered a tragedy. Audrey is grieving.

Lombardo’s novel-in-stories is breathtakingly concise. A book in which what isn’t said exerts a powerful pressure, like the dark matter of the universe. The dialogue is crisp, combative. The body language is almost ritualized in its gestures. One day, Audrey and Dex stop to peer through the window of a dance studio, where children spin like perfect little automatons, a perfect embodiment of the family’s mode of survival, while on the streets menace pervades. A backpack is stolen. A man falls from a building. Danger and death lurk around every corner.

But this is not a grim book, nor is it a soaper. There is humor here, especially in scenes featuring Sammy and Dex, who crack each other up and drive each other crazy over swearing and the misheard words of a Jethro Tull song. This is a sexy book about married love, about sex as an affirmation of life. Billy Lombardo’s How to Hold a Woman also conveys an exquisitely sensitive vision of unexpected beauty and connection, most remarkably in the story “The White Rose of Chicago,” in which an entire world of pain, sympathy, strength, and grace unfolds within the confines of a Clark Street bus. It’s amazing how many insights into the dynamics of marriage and family Lombardo fits into this supple novel-in-stories, this nuanced mosaic of shattered lives gently reassembled, and newly treasured.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Kudos to 'lit fest' panelists and a radio interview

Terrific fiction panels last weekend at the Printers Row Lit Fest here in cold and rainy Chicago. Big thanks to three tremendous Chicago writers: Joe Meno, Billy Lombardo, and Peter Ferry. Read their books: Peter's marvelous puzzle-box novel, Travel Writing. Joe's latest and most profound and beautiful yet, The Great Perhaps, and Billy's exquisite second book, How to Hold a Woman. I also had the thrill of speaking with bestselling novelist Arthur Phillips and the literary provocateur turned novelist Ben Greenman. The theme? Music. Arthur's love story, The Song is You , is elegant and full of feeling and keen observations about image versus content. Ben Greenman's Please Step Back is an electrifying fictional riff on the life and music of Sly Stone, fun and incisive, and spiked with playful language.

And here's my latest Chicago Public Radio interview. I'm speaking wtih artist and novelist Brian D'Amato about his highly imaginative, time-traveling Maya novel, In the Courts of the Sun.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Radio Review

Steve Amick's novel, Nothing But a Smile, is unusual in subject, tone, and perspective. I had great fun reviewing it concisely for Booklist, and then at length for Chicago Public Radio, where music enhances the ambiance. Take a listen:

And if you would like to read along:

Nothing But a Smile, a novel by Steve Amick (Pantheon Books). Review for Eight-Forty-Eight by Donna Seaman. Air date: May 20, 2009.

During hard times when jobs are scarce, the more creative and intrepid among us draw on their entrepreneurial instinct and willingness to gamble, and put to use what they’ve been given, be it brains or beauty. Or both if you’re Sal Chesterton, the guiding light in Steve Amick’s naughty-but-nice novel Nothing But a Smile. Nothing But a Smile is a tale of good-old American ingenuity and self-reliance, and a spicy and sly novel about sex, hypocrisy, extortion, censorship, and sleaze. Nothing But a Smile is nothing if not fun and tantalizing.

It’s 1944 and Wink Dutton, an artist who got lucky and landed a spot as an illustrator for Stars and Stripes while serving in the Pacific, badly mangles his drawing hand in an absurd and demoralizing accident. He doesn’t know what sort of work he can do now that he can’t hold a pencil or pen, but at least he can fulfill his promise to his photographer buddy, Bill Chesterton, and look up his wife Sal when he gets to Chicago. She’s been managing their family camera shop all by herself. A shop in the Loop that Chicagoans may well picture as Central Photo on Wabash Avenue between Adams and Jackson––the city’s oldest camera shop, and a Chicago landmark with its classic old sign facing the shadow-casting el tracks.

Sal is happy to meet Wink, maybe a little too happy, but she doesn’t let on that she is struggling to keep the shop in business. Folks are broke and not inclined to spend their few precious dollars on cameras or film, and her bills are piling up. Plucky and resourceful, she’s been moonlighting at the Chicago Tribune as a darkroom technician. Hoping to earn more money and make better use of her skills, she asks an editor about working as a photographer. He tells her, “We’re not quite there, yet,” and suggests a secretarial job instead. Infuriated by such blatant sexism, Sal decides to capitalize on her know-how and good looks and sets to work shooting her first roll of girlie pictures, using herself as the model. She also decides to rent Wink the empty apartment above the shop, across from her own. Why not? She can use some help, and, given the spate of break-ins in the neighborhood, some protection. Wink doesn’t have to know about her little sideline.

But of course he finds out. And while Wink’s hand is damaged, his artist’s eye couldn’t be keener, and soon he’s behind the camera while Sal and her friend Reenie, a living, breathing pinup with a cheerfully risqué imagination, vamp it up, “exposing parts of themselves in ridiculous predicaments,” as Sal puts it. After some experimentation, the three hit the jackpot with their cleverly staged, cute-pie sexy photos, described in, let us say, lingering, if not loving detail. Clearly, Steve Amick conducted exhaustive research into classic 1940s pinups, suffering mightily in pursuit of historic accuracy. And if their peek-a-boo slapstick seems familiar, it’s because Amick is paying homage to a real-life Chicago-based illustrator renowned for his antic portraits of leggy, disarrayed beauties, Glen Elvgren, called the “Norman Rockwell of cheesecake.” Elvgren appears in Nothing But a Smile (does the title make more sense now?) as does a “hatchet-faced young guy named Hef,” a nod to another bit of Chicago skin-trade history as the home of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy.

If it sounds like Amick makes girlie pictures seem wholesome and harmless, rest assured the novel does not fail to address the darker side of the industry. Sal, Reenie, and Wink are threatened by mobsters, insulted by outraged neighbors and family, and arrested during a shoot on a North Side beach. The trio also contends with a shocking tragedy, a military cover-up, and trouble with the feds at the onset of the McCarthy-era Red Scare. When the Tribune publishes one of Wink’s serious photographs, a powerful portrait of a wounded G.I. reading the want ads, he’s tagged as a communist.

Steve Amick’s novel, Nothing But A Smile, is an unusual mix of literary and pulp fiction, a bawdy romp and a true romance. A wily work satire that asks, What is actually obscene? Nudity or war? Sex or sexism? Titillation or poverty? Amick’s artful and affecting novel of pinups and put-downs is a zesty inquiry into fairness and decency, free speech and justice, and the value of work and creativity. Nothing But a Smile is fresh, witty, immensely entertaining, and provocative in every sense of the word.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A review

My latest review for the Chicago Tribune:

Housewife finds her wings watching the world's birds

By Donna Seaman | Special to the Tribune

May 23, 2009

"Life List: A Woman's Quest for the World's Most Amazing Birds"

By Olivia Gentile

Bloomsbury, 345 pages, $26

Her mother said it best, "Phoebe is a bird, afraid of being caged." Crowned "the world's leading bird-watcher" by the Guinness Book of World Records in 1994, Phoebe Snetsinger described her devotion to birding as "emotional salvation." In her quest to see more bird species than anyone had ever imagined possible, she traveled the seven continents many times over, surpassed many ornithologists in expertise, published zesty birding articles and became a legend. She also skipped her mother's funeral, missed her eldest daughter's wedding and left her husband alone for months at a time.

The daughter of Naomi and Leo Burnett, founder of the renowned, Chicago-based advertising agency, Leo Burnett Co., tomboy Phoebe dreamed of becoming a scientist while growing up in Glencoe and Lake Zurich. But she graduated from college during the 1950s, and, as journalist and first-time biographer Olivia Gentile so astutely observes, not even a brainy and ambitious gal like Snetsinger was immune to society's husband-and-children-first directive for women. Accordingly, Snetsinger married, assumed the role of a suburban, stay-at-home mother of four and became so depressed "she felt like she was inside a tomb." Until the day a friend handed Snetsinger a pair of binoculars and pointed out a Blackburnian warbler.
An eagle-eyed stoic with a steely memory, Snetsinger was a natural in the field, and her "life list" of the bird species she saw and identified grew at a dizzying pace. As the first woman to tally 5,000 birds, she was exultant. Informed just before her 50th birthday that she had advanced melanoma and less than a year to live, she was devastated. Did she hang up her binoculars and cease circling the globe like a migrating bird? Certainly not. Time was short, so she planned even more arduous expeditions. Gentile wonders if perhaps Snetsinger hoped that perpetual motion and a fierce concentration on birds would enable her to outrun and outsmart the disease.
What astounding birds Snetsinger saw, the most exotic vividly described by Gentile, a bird convert under the influence of her compelling subject. Here are striking word sketches of the gray crowned-crane, lilac-breasted roller, harpy eagle, red bird-of-paradise, shoebill, Ceylon frogmouth and rufus-necked wood-rail. Snetsinger was blessed with enough time and money to be able to follow guides into swamps, jungles and deserts, up mountains and across rivers and oceans, often under the most grueling conditions. Over time, her journeys grew increasingly urgent. Not only because she was racing against death, but also because the planet's birds, "mostly as a result of habitat destruction and other human blunders," are facing extinction. Snetsinger experienced ecstasy in the presence of magnificent birds, but also faced despair, peril and terror.

Gentile chronicles Snetsinger's miraculous survival of treacherous trails, a lethal strain of malaria, a brush with tribal warfare, a potentially fatal boat accident, a sprained ankle and a broken wrist. She was taken hostage in Ethiopia, and, most horrifically, gang-raped in Papua New Guinea. But nothing stopped her. Each trauma toughened her resolve and intensified her sense of mission. Snetsinger's life list was her lifeline, and no one saw as many species as she did. She reached 8,398. Death claimed her in Madagascar at 68 in 1999. And no, it wasn't cancer (a vehicle accident on a birding tour).

Gentile tells Snetsinger's staggering story with clarity and verve. She reflects incisively on the shadow side of Snetsinger's quest¿¿the perverse metamorphosis that turned a liberating passion into a devouring addiction, and perceptively elucidates and celebrates her accomplishments. A remarkable woman of tenacity, courage and transcendence, Snetsinger leaves a profound legacy, which will now be more fully appreciated and treasured thanks to Gentile's enthralling, provocative and inspiring biography.

Donna Seaman is an associate editor for Booklist and a book critic for Chicago Public Radio. Her author interviews are collected in Writers on the Air.

"Life List: A Woman's Quest for the World's Most Amazing Birds"

By Olivia Gentile

Bloomsbury, 345 pages, $26

Monday, May 11, 2009

Hot off the press

I'm thrilled to announce that the issue of TriQuarterly I had the great good amazing fortune to guest edit is now available.

#133 is a big, juicy issue full of poems, fiction, essays, and photographs by writers of phenomenal powers. Not to mention the beautiful and provoking drawing, "Snapdragon," on the cover by Chicago artist Jayne Hileman. The theme of the issue is "Strong Medicine," and here's a bit of my introduction:

My respect for the mystery implicit in creativity runs high, so I decided not to interfere with the process in my role as guest editor for this brimming issue of TriQuarterly. I did not name a theme, or assign a topic. Instead, I sought out writers who see life whole, who are curious about the interconnectivity and complexity of existence, and who care, deeply and unabashedly, about the world. When asked what I was looking for, I simply said, “strong medicine.”

Medicine, the dictionary tells us, is not only “a substance or preparation used in treating disease.” It is also “something that affects well-being,” and “magical power or a magical rite.” Reading and looking at art are not only intellectual and emotional pursuits. We read with our entire body; we take in a painting or sculpture with every cell. We feel the impact of stories, images, and music in our very bones. There are, after all, no divides between body, mind, and spirit, and many of us rely on literature and art to keep us alive and well, just as we need food, air, and water, sleep and touch. Good writing is a tonic. The work of inquisitive, imaginative, unfettered, and courageous observers, thinkers, and dreamers provides succor. Heat and light. Food for thought and balm for pain. Lucid and compassionate literature breaks the isolating fever of the self.

Clarion writing is strong medicine for what ails us, and the list of our disorders, our follies and crimes, is long and harrowing. The suffering we cause and endure is beyond diagnosis; our destruction of the living world is suicidal, malignant, terminal, evil. Yet we do try to make sense of our perversity, our brutality. We do learn; we do change. And it is the stories we tell that alert us to our maladies and suggest modes of healing. Without stories, chronicles, and poems, we would have no clue to what goes on in the minds of others, no insight into how other people live and define life. Right and wrong are embedded in stories; the great, glimmering web of life is best traced with words; the symbiotic relationships that make possible this planet’s mantle of green and intersecting family trees of creatures great and small, marine and legged, are best revealed by those who have a gift for precision and metaphor, for finding words for the beauty and wonder they discern everywhere they look and listen.

I treat my own afflictions of the spirit with art and writing that is revelatory, insurgent, and transforming. I imbibe images and language electric with that green force that through art’s alchemy reorients and recalibrates our perceptions, affirms our belonging. That essential radiance is present in each of the poems, essays, stories, and photographs that follow. Here is serenity and anger. Tragedy shocking and ordinary. Satire and suspense, lyricism and irony, desire and elegy. The brazen and the enigmatic. The absurd and the dire. Writers cross borders between the past and the present, the wild and the cultivated, the personal and the universal, the actual and the imagined, the rational and the incomprehensible, the horrific and the sublime. The creators take risks, and we the readers take chances as we accept each infusion, elixir, shock, or shot.

For a table of contents, look here:

Thank you to everyone who contributed to TriQuarterly#133. And thank you to the wonderful TriQuarterly staff, Susan Hahn and Ian Morris.

Let me know what you think.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Remembering a Chicago Writer

In thinking about a forthcoming tribute to Studs Terkel here in Chicago at a great club called Metro, I returned to this piece about Nelson Algren. A shorter version appeared in BOOKLIST last month on the 100th anniversary of Algren's birth.

Another Look At: Nelson Algren

Nelson Algren, champion of the underdogs of the underworld, is a great underrated American writer. In spite of receiving the first National Book Award for fiction––presented to him by Eleanor Roosevelt in 1950 for The Man with The Golden Arm, a novel of poverty, drugs, and desperation––he was maligned as vulgar and sensational, dismissed by Leslie Fielder as “the bard of the stumblebum.” Briskly forgotten after his death in 1981, his unnerving books promptly went out-of-print. Yet readers the world over recognized the power of his gritty, unflinching tales, books akin to those of Theodore Dreiser, Richard Wright, and John Steinbeck. Thanks to the efforts of writers and critics, his books have been republished. And now, at the centennial of his birth, Nelson Algren is resurgent when we need him the most.

Of Swedish, German, and Jewish descent, he was born Nelson Ahlgren Abraham in Detroit on March 28, 1909, and grew up in Chicago, where his father worked as a machinist. Algren graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree in journalism during the Great Depression, and hit the road in search of work in Louisiana and Texas. Inspired by Baudelaire, Tolstoy, and Dostovesky, Algren began writing short stories, later collected in The Neon Wilderness (1946) and The Last Carousel (1973). His first novel, Somebody in Boots, came out in 1935. Algren remained immersed in Chicago’s poor neighborhoods. The streets, bars, backrooms, and courts were his theater, the jails and police stations his libraries. And then his second novel, Never Come Morning (1942), hit like a bomb.

Set on the meanest streets of Chicago’s Polish American community, Never Come Morning is the brutally intense story of Bruno “Lefty” Bicek, a poor, bewildered bruiser trapped in a net of lies, violence, crime, and gangs. Grim and disturbing, the novel is nonetheless alight with radioactive lyricism and caustic humor. It also evinces a startling intimacy with thugs, con artists, and the cramped, filthy bars and jail cells they frequent. A self-described “up close” writer, Algren wrote from direct experience. He was a compulsive gambler, a regular at various dives, and had done time. For stealing a typewriter.

Never Come Morning infuriated that powers-that-be in Chicago, resulting in a call to ban the novel from public libraries. Algren eventually addressed Chis hometown’s rabid disapproval in Chicago: City on the Make (1951), a heady and lacerating prose-poem condemning his two-faced, hustlers’ town. But first, radical and irreverent Algren bucked the button-up mode of the McCarthy era and fed his fat FBI dossier as he persisted in revealing the truth about humankind’s inhumanity in his next unforgettable Chicago novel, The Man with the Golden Arm.

Everything goes wrong for Frankie Machine, a poker dealer, a junkie, and a slum Job. He lives wretchedly with wheelchair-bound Sophie, her plight his fault. Theirs is a “world of petty cheats, phony braggarts, double clockers, elbow sneaks, small-time chiselers, touts and stooges and glad-hand-shakers,” and all the down-and-outers suffer from the “great, secret and special American guilt of owning nothing, nothing at all, in the one land where ownership and virtue are one. . .Their very lives gave off a certain jailhouse odor: it trailed down the streets of Skid Row behind them till the city itself seemed some sort of open-roofed jail.”

In the posthumously published Nonconformity: Writing on Writing, Algren states, “A certain ruthlessness and a sense of alienation from society is as essential to creative writing as it is to armed robbery.” Self-deprecating and ironic, an avid listener and a stalwart witness, Algren was of the underworld, yet separate from it. His balancing act is evocatively captured in Art Shay’s Chicago’s Nelson Algren (2007), a book of striking photographs and candid reminiscences. A buddy of Algren’s, Shay carried a concealed camera on their peregrinations and caught the writer, his brow speared by a widow’s peak, his eyes protected by glasses and bright with sadness, intently watching moments of mayhem, respectful and rueful. Algren stored it all up and wrote it all down in a feverish torrent of compassion and outrage, bemusement and sorrow.

A Walk on the Wild Side (1956), the novel he was most proud of, is set in Texas and New Orleans, in boxcars and brothels. A brilliantly crafted anti-bildungsroman, it stars Dove Linkhorn, first seen in Somebody in Boots. Here Dove is a rambling, illiterate country boy looking to earn a living among pimps and prostitutes. Expansive, poetic, ribald, and roguishly funny, Algren’s darkly picaresque tale grapples with issues of race, sex, and class.

A night owl, Algren loved cats, and kept in shape by pounding on a boxing bag. Ripped off when he sold the film rights, he despised the movie version of The Man with the Golden Arm, which won Frank Sinatra an Oscar. The women in his edgy fiction are as tough as the men, and usually smarter. Algren was married three times, twice to the same gal. He was deeply in love with trailblazing French philosopher, writer, and feminist Simone de Beauvoir, who broke his heart.

Increasingly embittered and destructive, Algren wrote poisonous satire about New York’s literary establishment and devilishly outlandish and critical travel pieces. He left Chicago for New Jersey to work on his last novel, The Devil’s Stocking (1983), based on the murder trial of the boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, and made new enemies. He found sanctuary in Sag Harbor, and after he was finally elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, he planned a cocktail party to celebrate on May 9, 1981. Kurt Vonnegut hoped to bring Salmon Rushdie along, since Algren had reviewed Midnight’s Children. But when Vonnegut called Algren’s house, a police officer answered. Algren was dead, done in by a massive heart attack in a house full of unopened bottles of booze.

Algren was angry at being misunderstood and angry at being unable to help the people he wrote about. He was burdened with his knowledge of lost innocence and endless guilt, unredeemed trust and secret fear, strangled hopes and cancelled joy, beauty twisted and tattered, life bought and sold. We mark the 100th anniversary of Algren’s birth while experiencing the worst loss of jobs and homes since the Great Depression, during an economic collapse driven by the very greed, lies, and corruption he condemned, a crisis delivering the same soul-killing suffering he railed against. Nelson Algren’s electrifying prose, steely-eyed vision, marksman humor, and tough compassion speak today with renewed vigor and resonance.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Upcoming appearance

In Chicago. I'm honored to be speaking about a unique and wonderful book, Home Ground. See below for details.

Donna Seaman
Date: Wed. April 22, 2009

Time: 6:00 pm

Harold Washington Library Center
Authors Room
400 S. State Street

About this event:

Celebrate Earth Day with Donna Seaman, Booklist associate editor, Open Books host and WBEZ 848 book contributor, as she discusses, reads from and signs the book, Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape. This book brings together 45 poets and writers to create more than 850 original definitions for words that describe our lands and waters. The writers, including Barbara Kingsolver, Luis Alberto Urrea, Jon Krakauer, Charles Frazier and Antonya Nelson, draw from careful research as well as on their own distinctive personal and regional diversity to portray in vivid prose the striking complexity of the landscapes we inhabit, from Missouri’s woody draws to Virginia’s runs, from California’s bajadas to Alaska’s pingos and Hawaii’s shield volcanoes. At the heart of Home Ground is a community of writers reviving a language that exemplifies the variety and vastness of the American landscape.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

April books

Charles Bowden is one of my go-to writers. Here's my BOOKLIST starred review of his new book:

Some of the Dead Are Still Breathing: Living in the Future.Bowden, Charles (author).
Apr. 2009. 256p. Houghton, hardcover, $24 (9780151013951). 917.904.
REVIEW. First published March 15, 2009 (Booklist).

Bowden is a blood-and-guts journalist with a poet’s sensibility, a noirish naturalist, a ferociously inquisitive witness to life’s glory and horror torn between the desire to embrace the world and the need to hole up in a drapes-drawn motel room. Bowden covers the borderland drug culture in such high-voltage dispatches as Down by the River (2002), while also writing darkly rhapsodic works of memory and reflection. This ravishing chronicle follows Blood Orchid (1995) and Blues for Cannibals (2002) to complete an “accidental trilogy” of books that flow from a single question and a single hunger: how can a person live a moral life in a culture of death—the deaths of people and animals, forests and oceans, clean air and water. Writing with molten urgency, confessional magnetism, and piercing detail, Bowden chronicles his unlikely friendships with a rattlesnake and a desert tortoise, enigmatic encounters with women, the psychic repercussions of his murder investigations, and his part in a terrifying Greenpeace mission. Red wine, Moby-Dick, human brutality, the suffering of other species, the obdurateness of paradox, the ambush of love, beauty beyond comprehension, the immensity of loss implicit in our planetary crimes—Bowden, singing in chains, says yes to all of life.

Donna Seaman

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Green books in spring

Not that spring is evident today. We're having a full-scale, impudent, and aggravating March snow storm here in Chicago. All right, it's pretty. The fluffy sort of snow, clinging creamily to tree branches and all the cables and wires that make things such as this blog possible. But we were so much happier to see crocuses and robins.

The stubborn hold of winter does not impede the blossoming of books. April, May, and June will bring many works of tremendous insight and beauty our way. And this month has delivered the third annual Orion Book Award.

I had an excellent time serving as judge along with Roger D. Hodge, editor for Harper's magazine; Scott Russell Sanders, the author, most recently, of A Conservationist Manifesto, Susan Straight, whose novel Highwire Moon is always playing somewhere in my mind, and H. Emerson Blake, Orion magazine editor-in-chief.

Here's the deal: The Orion Book Award was founded in 2007 to recognize books that deepen our connection to the natural world, present new ideas about our relationship with nature, and achieve excellence in writing. It is made possible in part by a grant from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

Here are the finalists:

Trespass, Amy Irvine (North Point Press)
The Wild Places, Robert Macfarlane (Penguin Books)
The Bridge at the End of the World, James Gustave Speth (Yale University Press)
Inventing Niagara, Ginger Strand (Simon & Schuster)
Finding Beauty in a Broken World, Terry Tempest Williams (Pantheon Books)

And the winner is Amy Irvine's Trespass. A book I raved about in the Chicago Tribune, nearly a year ago:

Memoir of sadness
A wilderness activist mourns the damage to Utah's desert landscape and her own personal tragedies

By Donna Seaman

February 23, 2008

Trespass: Living at the Edge of the Promised Land

By Amy Irvine

North Point/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 363 pages, $25

Amy Irvine's family tree reaches back to one of the original Mormon saints, but it also bears the sharp, sometimes bitter fruit of nonconformists. Her paternal grandmother, Ada, was an atheist and an artist enthralled by the dramatic beauty of southern Utah's red-rock desert. Irvine's father had the pedigree and demeanor of a good Mormon, but he could not abide the strictures of Salt Lake City life and took off hunting every chance he got. Add to that his alcoholism in an aggressively teetotaling world, and you get a sense of the misery that induced him to turn his gun on himself. As Irvine tries to come to terms with her father's death, she ponders her inherited apostate and "peripatetic ways."

A loner and wanderer who yearns for acceptance, Irvine explores the red-rock canyons, observing that "the mark of the ancients is everywhere," even though pueblo ruins have long been stripped of every artifact, with the exception of rock art visible only in certain slants of light. As she tries to imagine the lives of the hunter-gatherers who once lived in this arid, sculptured place, she braids together threads of Mormon history, her own family's stories and her quest for illumination, creating a singularly elegiac and astringent memoir of dissent.

Not long after her father's death, Irvine is working for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and madly in love with Herb McHarg, a longhaired, Catholic, wilderness-defending attorney. She tries to fit into her small, high-desert town near a Superfund site, even though her neighbors' pickup trucks sport "a window sticker displaying the cartoon character Calvin, pants down. He is urinating on the acronym" of the wilderness alliance.

Seeking a fuller immersion in the glorious place they are working so hard to protect, and more privacy, the couple buys 10 acres and a dilapidated, off-the-grid cabin in spectacular and xenophobic San Juan County. The four-state panorama is thrilling - - the vista embraces swathes of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado - - but the risks associated with their advocacy work remain high.

Irvine staves off her fears by hiking and pondering the past. And the conclusions she reaches are startling. Take her bold paralleling of the natural histories of coyotes and Mormons, sworn enemies. Both have been despised and hunted, yet both have thrived, even though the Mormon modes of survival are proving environmentally deleterious. Irvine acidly critiques the damage done by cattle ranching, the razing of foothills to build golf courses (guzzlers of precious water) and, widening her view to encompass the entire problematic development of the West, the damming of the Colorado River. Her environmental survey also covers a rarely examined consequence of 9/11: the federal government's loosening of restrictions on oil and gas leases on public lands, including Utah's most-scenic places.

Readers versed in the fiery eloquence of Irvine's kindred red-rock defenders Edward Abbey, Terry Tempest Williams and Ellen Meloy will have a ready context for her probing critiques of the exploitation of this sacred yet much-sinned-against land, but her views on the demise of hunter-gatherer societies and the rise of agriculture are unique and provocative. Irvine suggests that men and women foragers were equals, and that their roaming way of life was active, varied and healthy. With the advent of farming came punishing labor and a sedentary existence. Women had too many children too close together, and a divide opened between the sexes. Inevitably, the impact on the overused land was equally depleting.

In her sorrow, anger and feelings of helplessness, Irvine seems to be channeling six generations of outraged and lonely Mormon women restricted to obedient lives as wives and mothers in polygamous marriages. Outsider Irvine preserves her freedom but still suffers wrenching losses. Her first child dies in utero, and during her second pregnancy she endures a harrowing health crisis, tragedies of the body she can't help but equate with the accelerating destruction of the living world all around her.

To trespass is to violate, to infringe, to unlawfully enter, to err or sin. Irvine composes a staggering litany of trespasses great and small that ultimately reveals the interconnectivity of life; the fact that everything matters: every cow, every blade of invasive cheat grass, every dam, every hole drilled into the desert, every life-crushing off-road vehicle, every betrayal. For Irvine - - passionate, imaginative, furious and visionary - - language is a ladder out of the silencing cave of despair. And what, after all, is a voice for if not to praise life? Of what use is a gift for metaphor and argument if not to provoke, entrance, persuade? After her steeling trials of body and soul, Irvine turns away from the rigors of advocacy to take up the more radiant and fluent defense of life that is art. Beauty and truth, she hopes, will speak to everyone.

Copyright © 2008, Chicago Tribune

Amy Irvine will receive a cash prize of $3,000, and the finalists will each receive $500 each. You'll welcome to honor them and celebrate green books at a public event on April 15, 2009 at the CYNTHIA-REEVES gallery in New York City. I'll be there.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

For the love of books on Valentine's Day

The AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) annual conference is here in Chicago: 8,000 writers, readers, teachers, publishers. It's quite a party. Today I'm speaking with Chicago writer Stuart Dybek in the Grand Ballroom at the grand old Chicago Hilton. I wanted to revisit my Chicago Tribune review of his magnificent book, I Sailed with Magellan:

A young man and a young woman squeeze into the conductor's compartment in the first car of an express El train and kiss passionately as they rock past crowded station platforms. This is a much loved scene from "Pet Milk," a short story in Stuart Dybek's The Coast of Chicago, and a moment exquisitely emblematic of Dybek's stereoscopic vision of the city's steely reality and penchant for risk-all romance. Published in 1990, The Coast of Chicago followed Dybek's first collection, Childhood and Other Neighborhoods, by a decade. A book as essential to understanding life in the prairie metropolis as works by Algren, Brooks, Bellow, and Cisneros, The Coast of Chicago was resoundingly praised by critics, treasured by readers, yet woefully neglected by publishers. Meanwhile, Dybek, a true artist, continued to work slowly and intensely for another dozen years until his third cycle of interconnected short stories took shape, making publication of I Sailed with Magellan, an eleven-part saga about the evolution of a young man's sense and sensibility within the bricked grip of a big city on a great lake, a true literary event.

The meshed short stories in I Sailed with Magellan spotlight transformational moments in the lives of Perry Katzek and his family, friends, and neighbors over the course of his rough-and-ready boyhood on through and beyond high school. Perry, his younger brother Mick, their good-deal-loving, junk-collecting, Harvester plant-worker father, called Sir, and their nervous mother, called Moms, live in Chicago's Little Village neighborhood during the 1950s and 1960s. An amalgam of Polish and Mexican communities, it, like all of Chicago's ethnically defined neighborhoods, truly is a village in that everyone knows everyone else and considers everyone's business their own. Not only does Dybek masterfully evoke the intricate, singing web of urban life--the crossing paths and tangled destinies of intimates and strangers; the percussive energy generated by people at work and play; the contrapuntal mix of street action, classroom exchanges, bar talk, domestic banter and confrontation, the confessions of friends, and lovers' duets--he also aligns the longings and aspirations of his empathically rendered characters with Chicago's often forbidding, sometimes radiantly beautiful cityscape.

The ability to elucidate the complex symbiotic relationship between people and place is part of what makes the fiction of select writers so rich and resonant, so authentic and true. Dybek accomplishes this crucial feat by using music as the connecting tissue between the inner and outer lives of his characters. Music is built into the Katzek DNA and consequently plays a role in each story, whether the focus is on Perry's beloved Uncle Lefty, a derailed musician, or on Perry's brother when he falls in love with a Puerto Rican exotic dancer who performs to John Coltrane's masterpiece, "A Love Supreme."

Saxophonist Lefty, bedeviled by his combat experiences in Korea, is the book's touchstone and tragic hero. He loves to bet on the ponies at Sportsman's Park and take his young nephew around to the neighborhood taverns, of which there are way too many to get to in a day, where plucky Perry, a real ham, sings for their drinks (the boy gets root beer). Lefty also likes to play his sax on the roof of his Blue Island Avenue apartment building. When he takes his nephew up through the trap door to see the view and his neighbor's rooftop pigeon coop, he says, "Welcome to Dreamsville," and Dreamsville is, indeed, the perfect name for the city of unrequited desires Dybek so tenderly and knowingly conjures. Lefty, an artist and gambler who plays with all his heart even though he's been dealt a losing hand, initiates Perry into the holy realm of music, and, inadvertently, teaches him about the abyss into which sensitive souls can so easily fall.

In "Song," the opening story--a tale frank and edgy in its revelations of the grittiness of Chicago life, and funny and charming in its delight in our capacity for casting caution to the wind and giving in to sheer pleasure--a ragtag school marching band is so caught up in pounding out their kick-ass version of "Rock Around the Clock," they blissfully follow their unsavory, boozy, but well-connected band leader out of their Little Village enclave into forbidden territory, Douglas Park, a primarily African American neighborhood. "The El station was the kind of boundary that doesn't show up on street maps," (20) muses Perry, and sure enough he and his fellow band members are rudely awakened from their trance. Clutching his clarinet, Perry runs like crazy until he finds himself on a block where every hydrant has been opened. As great torrents of water pour into the street, a "prismatic mist of phantom rainbows" hovers in this "strange neighborhood that expressed its anarchy in water." (24) Suddenly, turf warfare and racial tension are washed away, and Perry is cleansed and redeemed. The city is full of surprises, and as Dybek summons up the wonder of the unexpected and the improbable, he achieves a low-key form of magical realism that places him in a constellation of writers that includes Joyce in The Dubliners, Italo Calvino, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Chicago's own Leon Forrest.

Water is one of the collection's reigning metaphors, along with music, birds, and flowers (especially morning glory-festooned alley fences). In the sweetly dreamy story "Undertow," immersion in Lake Michigan reveals a secret dimension of the cosmos we call Chicago, while in "We Didn't," the lake delivers a haunting icon. Early on in the book, young Perry and Mick are supposed to be sleeping, but instead they're listening to the gruff entreaties of their beefy neighbors across the gangway. Once coitus ensues, Perry thinks that the house is creaking "as if a galleon was anchored beside our window," (27) a curious image for a young boy to concoct, but it turns out the Katzek brothers are obsessed with the stories of explorers. Mick has even made up a rambling, dirgelike song about the trials and tribulations of those who first circumnavigated the globe, an epic poem that begins, "I sailed with Magellan, . . .) (38) The brothers themselves become intrepid explorers as they embark on the arduous journey into adulthood and roam the urban wilderness, encountering new and mysterious people and places wherever they land.

Sometimes Perry is at the center of a story, sometimes he's off to the side as a sympathetic observer, a narrative fluidity that grants Dybek the liberty to invent and orchestrate a compelling cast of intriguing characters. There's Zip, the one-armed World War II vet and proprietor of the Zip Inn, who, dismayed by the "crazy, private war" in which the neighborhood gangbangers are embroiled, and angered by the intrusion of "goombahs" demanding protection money, dreams of a Wisconsin refuge in the "land of the sky blue waters," (62) just as the slogan for Hamm's beer (then the official beer of the Chicago Cubs) promises. A regular at the Zip Inn, Teo, ruined his career as a professional wrestler in Mexico for love. Joey Ditto is the feckless hit man in "Breasts," a long, sardonic, surreal, and deeply unnerving tale in which eroticism and death are inexorably entwined, an endlessly compelling paradox that Dybek frequently improvises on to profound affect.

Mick turns out to be an enigmatic and compelling character. And no one will be able to forget young, doomed Ralphie Poskozim and brainy and budding Camille Estrada, who tries to make sense of Ralphie's life in a school composition, the stars of "Blue Boy," a stealthily powerful, many faceted story about faith, the vagaries of memory, and the need to transmute life into story. The misadventures and revelations of Dybek's get-under-your-skin characters yield bittersweet tales brilliantly attuned to the confluence of inevitability and chance, natural forces and human folly.

Anger, deprivation, and the unrelenting threat of violence drive Dybek's incandescent stories, as does a rogue eroticism. The women Dybek portrays are at once tough and vulnerable, lusty and pragmatic, witty and elusive. Given the chaos and bloodshed that punctuate the lives of the men in their world, these capricious, ambivalent, and evanescent women are wise to avoid entanglement. They call the shots whenever possible, and men wait helplessly for them to bestow their favors. Joey pines for Capri, a woman he adores for her unpredictability. And Perry, a hard-knocks romantic who has witnessed more fistfights than kisses, is repeatedly thwarted in his pursuit of smart, skeptical, and independent women.

Dybek's entrancing stories replicate with piquant accuracy the social, cultural, and ethnic dynamics of one quintessential Chicago neighborhood at one particular time, and this is a tremendous achievement. But Dybek is also looking beyond the specifics of the world he so vividly evokes in an attempt to illuminate the fundamental connection between people and place, and between humankind and the earth. The word ecotone comes to mind, a term used to denote a place of transition where opposites meet, such as land and water, grasslands and forest, city and country, the border between two ethnic neighborhoods, even the plexus of reality and dream. These are zones of intense activity, conflict, and synergy, and as Perry and company avidly explore their native terrain from the industrial South Side to the bucolic North Side, Dybek homes in on just this sort of fertile ground.

In "Orchids," for instance, a dazzling story of fantasy and resilience, Perry revels in "a strip of wilderness" (176) along railroad tracks where wildlife, including a blue heron, thrive in the midst of urban clamor. Perry's favorite place is the fire truck graveyard along the Sanitary (he calls it Insanitary) Canal, a forgotten outdoor museum of city history, a place of rusted grace that inspires "a kind of reverence--not a feeling frequently encountered in Chicago." (180) And not a feeling shared by all, as Perry finds out so comically on a prom night from hell. But Perry is on to something important in his peculiar regard for this oddly hallowed place.

Perry, his brother, and his friends all possess poetic temperaments and questing souls (as well as caustic senses of humor), and are, therefore, drawn to the arts as they struggle into manhood. This creative impulse is a significant one, a potential path to a life more fulfilling than their parents', but also a way of understanding and valuing what they're so eager to leave behind. Dybek fills his painterly stories with ravishing descriptions of the hodgepodge of Chicago's streets and their quirky neighborhood characters, the chimerical lake, the white-cap-raising and trash-spinning wind, drastic weather, and dramatically slanting light to celebrate our ability to discern and be transformed by beauty however unlikely its manifestations and harsh its settings.

This receptivity to beguilement--this transcending of everyday cares and sorrows while watching frolicking children through a painted-open window in a Rogers Park apartment, or raising one's face to the pearly full moon floating above a puddled alley, or succumbing to music's dizzying embrace while driving too fast in an unreliable old car on Lake Shore Drive¬--this openness to out-of-the-blue beauty rekindles hope, inspires us to cherish memories of the dead, and induces us to seek and nurture love in spite of all the terrors that shadow our lives. This is what it is to be a human being. And this is Dybek's subject as he extracts a grand spectrum of experiences, emotions, and epiphanies from the potholed, broken glass-strewn byways of a sprawling city on a vast heartland lake in spellbinding stories that are, by turns, hilarious, stunning, and tragic, but always deeply moving, genuine, and compassionate.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Radio Review

Here's my Chicago Public Radio review of a powerful first novel, Miles from Nowhere, by Nami Mun:

Sunday, January 25, 2009

We Persist

With rumors flying about the demise of the Washington Post Book World, one of the last of an endangered species, the stand-alone Sunday newspaper book review section, the National Book Critics Circle has recognized the good and fine work of a Book World editor, Ron Charles, with the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. Congratulations to Ron and to the NBCC Board.

I'm also happy to report that I have a review in today's Los Angeles Times book section:,0,2128307.story

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Radio review

Chicago Public Radio broadcast my review of Tony Romano's ravishing story collection, If You Eat, You Never Die: Chicago Tales, on January 21, 2009 on Eight-Forty Eight. They have a great Web site:

And here's a link for the archived review:

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Thank you, Arne Naess

Arne Naess.

Arne Naess, the Norwegian philosopher and mountaineer who articulated the concept “deep ecology,” died on January 12, 2009 at the age of 96. Deep ecology is the essential perception that all living beings have intrinsic value, and, as Naess has said, “a right to live and blossom.” Naess also stated, “The earth does not belong to humans,” even though he understood that because we’re human, we look to our own first. Profoundly influenced by Spinoza and Gandhi (he wrote books about each), Naess was fascinated by the complexity of our relationship with the rest of life.

David Rothenberg, a philosopher, musician, and writer I greatly admire and learn from with great pleasure, studied with Arne Naess and worked on the translation of one of the prolific philosopher and ecologist’s major works, Ecology, Community, and Lifestyle (1989). Rothenberg is the author of Why Birds Sing and Thousand Mile Song: Whale Music in a Sea of Sound, and you can listen to Rothenberg talk about his music and writing right here on this site in Nonfiction interviews.

Rothenberg is currently working on a novel based on his experiences in Norway with Naess, an excerpt of which will appear in a forthcoming issue of TriQuarterly. In 1991, Rothenberg completed his Conversations with Arne Naess: Is it Painful to Think? (University of Minnesota Press). This is an excerpt from his introduction:

“Arne speaks of the small self and the “Self” with a capital s. The latter is the great Self, which is as near as he will come to the mention of God. It is the unity of the natural world, a singular thing with which we are meant to identify, as when we suddenly feel the suffering of the earth as a whole, under the vast weight of human transformation. And Self-realization is a way to link this intuition of the unity of life with our own individual lives and pursuits. . . .One approaches fulfillment through empathy with the world beyond the ego. This expansion of concern does not diminish humanity, but enriches us by pushing the meaning of humanity further and further away from any one person’s interest. As Spinoza says, we approach perfection with the more connections we apprehend of the innumerable links and branches that hold the world together as one.”

Arne Naess’ long list of books includes Life’s Philosophy: Reason and Feeling in a Deeper World (2002), and Harold Glasser has edited The Selected Works of Arne Naess (2005). When asked how he viewed the future in terms of humankind’s environmental impact, Arne Naess described himself as a “short-range pessimist and a long-range optimist.” What optimism we do feel is due in large part to Naess’ deep vision.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Meet Mary Austin

One of the January books I read that fascinated me on many fronts is a biography of Mary Austin, author of The Land of Little Rain, a seminal book about the West, and about nature and humankind. I sink into biographies about writers and artists, hoping to learn about creativity, and morbidly intrigued by the inevitable suffering. Here's my response to this tale of a spirited woman and writer with a sharp sense of life's inclusiveness.

Mary Austin and the American West.
By Susan Goodman and Carl Dawson.
2009. 352p. illus. Univ. of California, $29.95 (9780520246355).

Goodman and Dawson paired up to write William Dean Howells: A Writer’s Life (2005), and now continue their inquiry into the lives of seminal yet glossed-over American writers with a much needed reconsideration of the vagabond life and influential achievements of Mary Austin (1868–1934). Austin and her best-known book, The Land of Little Rain (1903) are often namedropped in books about the ecology of the West and the battles over water use, but Austin herself remains a cloaked figure. Goodman and Dawson convey all the trauma, originality, audacity, and courage of this against-type Illinois-raised woman’s adventures, from her college studies in psychology and botany, to her move to California with her widowed mother and siblings to her discovery of her great affinity for the “frightening beauty” of the desert and fascination with the culture of the Native Americans who truly called it home. Austin harbored an “anxiety to know,” and explored with world with a “double perspective of a poet and scientist.”

For all her brilliance, instinct for tolerance and justice, and mystical sensibility, she quarreled with her family, married a man she couldn’t live happily with, and had a mentally handicapped daughter she had no help caring for as she had to teach to earn a living. By sheer dint of her curiosity, empathy, and habit of chronicling her thoughts, Austin propelled herself out of the most isolating and depressing situations and wrote many works of nonfiction, nine novels, two hundred articles and essays, poems, plays, and short stories while traveling from coast to coast, sending herself to Rome when she believed at 39 that she was dying of breast cancer, effected a remarkable recovery, and befriended cowboys and shepherds as well as William James, Jack London, H. G. Wells, Lou and Herbert Hoover, W. E. B. Du Bois, Mabel Dodge, Robinson Jeffers, Ansel Adams, and many more.

We learn that Austin was an anthropologist by nature, a realistic advocate for Native Americans, women, and African Americans, a woman who excelled at friendship, worked under impossible conditions, supported herself with grueling lecture tours, speaking about an astonishing array of subjects, and became a member of the art scenes in Carmel, San Francisco, Greenwich Village, and Santa Fe. Unconventional, dynamic, prophetic in her environmental concerns and awareness of the dangers of big business infilitrating government, and an early practitioner of multicultural studies, Austin wrote “exalted,” outspoken, independence, and intrepid works. She was an “eclectic thinker and an intellectual magpie,” a phoenix, and, for all her posturing and infuriating assertiveness, she was fiercely private and deeply self-critical.

In their compelling biography, Goodman and Dawson achieve the perfect balance between fact and analysis, creating a deeply dimensional and genuinely illuminating portrait of a woman struggling to free herself to be an artist, while being pulled in different directions by money and health woes, good causes, and loneliness. Mary Austin is an important figure to bring forward in the pantheon of American writers and Western seers, and Goodman and Dawson have done so with empathy, drama, and clarity.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Lima Nights by Marie Arana

It was my great pleasure and privilege to review this potent novel for the Los Angeles Times.



'Lima Nights' by Marie Arana

An affair ignites passion between two ill-matched people in Peruvian society, but it isn't enough to help them permanently cross barriers of cultural understanding in this harrowing, supple novel.

By Donna Seaman
January 4, 2009

Lima Nights
A Novel
Marie Arana

Dial Press: 248 pp., $25

She has the first line: "Give me your hand." He has had enough to drink to risk making a fool of himself. So, pale, blue-eyed Bluhm, egged on by his friends, lets Maria, a black-haired beauty, lead him onto the dance floor at a dive called Lima Nights. And so it begins.
Carlos Bluhm, we learn, hails from a prominent German Peruvian family with deep roots in Lima. His grandfather built the gated mansion at 300 Avenida Rivera that Carlos' banker father filled with servants and the clink and laughter of lavish parties, and which his mother cushioned with fragrant gardens. But times have changed. It's 1986, the Shining Path is terrorizing the land, and the family's affluence and influence have waned. Still, Carlos, a camera salesman of modest means, lives in style in the Bluhm stronghold with his energetic mother, Dorotea; elegant wife, Sophie; and excellent sons, Fritz and Rudy. It's a "familial paradise." Yet Bluhm carouses with the boys and conducts casual affairs. He tells himself that sex is "just sex, an indulgence that didn't have to unravel the family fabric or drain anybody's bank account." And he laughs when his friends assume that he prefers dark-skinned women because "an Indian woman was more disposable."

Born on the edge of the Amazon jungle, Maria Fernandez lives in the poorest, foulest and most dangerous part of the city on a rutted dirt road in a "cement box with a corrugated tin roof." Her father was stabbed to death; her mother, "feral as a cat," takes in laundry; her two brothers are usually out of work. Determined Maria juggles two jobs: She bags groceries at an upscale store and dances at Lima Nights, wearing a red collar to signal her availability as a tango partner. Bluhm is shocked to learn that she is only 15, but he can't keep away. He finds Maria wild and joyous, the opposite of his restrained, increasingly severe wife. Determined Maria sees her golden admirer as the key to a better life.

Maria's family is mockingly skeptical when she tells them of the affair. Bluhm's friends are incensed by her youth and his romanticism. And their prejudice is stabbing. Indians are "dirty and dumb," says Marcus, the most flagrant. Bluhm shrugs it off, knowing that Maria is "pristine, luminous." He revels in her "unalloyed delight" for aspects of his daily routine he has always taken for granted. While she gambles on his willingness and ability to white-knight her out of poverty, he is oblivious to the consequences of his ardor. Of different generations and different worlds, they take immense pleasure in each other's bodies and coo together, "agreeing on some things they both loved: the color yellow, the warmth of the sun, the smell of the ocean." But such moments of contentment quickly give way to dread, setting the reader on pins and needles, certain that things will go spectacularly wrong for this outlaw couple.

Marie Arana is well-versed in dualities. In her much-admired 2001 memoir, "American Chica: Two Worlds, One Childhood," she tells the story of her heritage as the daughter of a Peruvian father and a blond American mother and of growing up in both Peru and the U.S. A former book editor and editor of the Washington Post Book World, she is now a full-time writer. Her first novel, "Cellophane" (2006), is an encompassing Amazon saga in which one family suffers the fallout of a pipe-dream endeavor that pits technology against nature. "Lima Nights," her second novel, is a study in contrasts and a devastating cross-cultural and cross-racial urban love story as sinuous, precise and incendiary as a tango.

The first half of this tightly wound and lacerating book comes to a shattering close. Fast forward 20 years. The once-gleaming Bluhm mansion is "decaying." The glum outcasts occupy separate bedrooms. Bluhm, now in his 60s, is feeling weak and bewildered. Maria has cut and bleached her hair, and she relies on telenovelas for company. Suspicion and doom fill the air. Like a surgeon making an incision, Arana slowly but surely reveals why the Indian and the German live as strangers. How each persists in seeing the other as somehow slightly less than human, more of an icon, a figment, a fading dream. Page by page, scene by scene, Arana discloses the lack of common ground and "common language." Maria and Bluhm share too few favorite things. Passion seems not to have led to understanding or trust. As for love, well, the dance isn't over until it's over. And Arana's characters are in for far more complex turns, dips and reversals than they, or we, can imagine.

Arana's prose is lustrous, supple and mesmerizing. The collision of finely rendered worlds that she choreographs is spiked with racism, class divides, the malignancy of imperialism and the poison of sexism. But as sociologically astute and psychologically nuanced as this whiplash tale is, Arana doesn't stop there. Instead, she infuses this vivid novel of eroticism and exoticism, scandal and alienation, pragmatism and betrayal with magic and spirit. There is profound failure in empathy, kindness and humor here, as well as deep-seated fear and pain. But there is also strength, revelation and hope. The novel ends with a fall and ascension. So rich in feeling and perception, so wrenching and paradoxical is "Lima Nights," its beautifully sad, mysterious and soulful music plays on long after the book is closed.

Seaman is an associate editor for Booklist and a book reporter for Chicago Public Radio (; her author interviews are collected in "Writers on the Air" and at

Sunday, January 4, 2009

A New Year

I'm holiday-impaired, but did manage to steal an e-image of one of my artist mother's paintings for a holiday card. I used a snippet of a poem to accompany it, and here I'm happy to reprint the entire poem, The Apple Tree. I'm working on securing the image of Elayne Seaman's painting, Apple Tree. Apples are emblems of knowledge and health, forces we surely need as this new year gets off to a harrowing, hopeful start.

The Apple Tree
by Wendell Berry

for Ann and Dick O’Hanlon

In the essential prose
of things, the apple tree
stands up, emphatic
among the accidents
of the afternoon, solvent,
not to be denied.
The grass has been cut
down, carefully
to leave the orange
poppies still in bloom;
the tree stands up
in the odor of the grass
drying. The forked
trunk and branches are
also a kind of necessary
prose—shingled with leaves,
pigment and song
imposed on the blunt
lineaments of fact, a foliage
of small birds among them.
The tree lifts itself up
in the garden, the
clutter of its green
leaves halving the light,
stating the unalterable
congruity and form
of its casual growth;
the crimson finches appear
and disappear, singing
among the design.