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.