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Brief book reviews - Storming the Gates of Paradise

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"Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics" by Rebecca Solnit; University of California Press; 416 pages; $25.

Part of what was remarkable about going to Cuyamaca in Southern California years ago - before much of the incinerated flora drifted westward and settled on our streets, houses, yards and windshields, not to mention in our lungs - was the crows.

Crows! It was startling to see those black, oversized raven-cousins hopping about on picnic tables, and to hear them croaking (crowing?) hoarsely from somewhere in the manzanita.

Yet as Rebecca Solnit points out in "A Murder of Ravens," one of the searing essays in her collection "Storming the Gates of Paradise," the success of ravens (or, in our case, crows) "means the failure of other species." In 1983, 14 ravens were counted in San Francisco, she writes; in 1999, there were 239.

These birds are smart and resourceful - and aggressive and destructive. Raven, Solnit says, was a creator deity among American Indians of the Pacific Northwest. "That something sacred or symbolic and has become a weed and a pest is disturbing," she writes. "... Perhaps in seeing ravens go wrong, we might see ourselves - if we looked hard enough."

Solnit looks hard enough, all right, and the subtitle of the collection, "Landscapes for Politics," zeroes in on her perspective. Much as Bill McKibben, in "The End of Nature" (1989), declared that omnipresent evidence of human activity has stripped the word "nature" of its essential meaning, Solnit views "place" not only as transformed by politics, but, in the glow of her enlightening gaze, incomprehensible without consideration of the political.

Which in her case is also personal. "In 1989, I went to a demonstration at United Technologies in San Jose, a company making fuel rods for Trident II missiles, which carry nuclear warheads," begins one piece. "There might have been as many as four hundred activists, marching toward the Chevron Texaco refinery in Richmond, California, on September 9, 2003," begins another. And, "About a month ago I planned to commit civil disobedience in New York. ..."

But Solnit is no latter-day "Armies of the Night" Norman Mailer, preening about being out there facing The Man with her "troops." Her activism is as central to her life as is her writing; not surprisingly, the two are, in the end, inseparable. As are her personal takes on what appear at first to be the most mundane of observations, which, through her ferocious intelligence, she expands until it explodes out into the world and settles, like ash from Cuyamaca, on ... everything.

Her review of a Sandow Birk-illustrated edition of "Dante's Inferno," for example, begins with impressions of museum-going in Los Angeles: "... when I came home," she writes, "I would find that the hours I'd spent negotiating freeway merge lanes and entrances and exits and parking garages were, in some mysterious way, more memorable than the museums. I was supposed to have my head full of paintings or installations. Instead, I had a head full of the anonymously ugly spaces that are not on the official register of what any place is supposed to be, the infrastructure of what for me in those days of my youth was despair."

When she visited the Getty Museum, her primary impression seems to have been of the parking garage and its nine circles of hell, "the first structure one encountered on arriving at the Getty."

Not that Los Angeles is unique. "When you think of Paris," Solnit writes, "you're more likely to envision gracious rows of mansard-roofed apartment buildings on chestnut-lined boulevards or the Eiffel Tower than the long cement passages of the metro lit by bad fluorescence and smelling of piss or the dank passageways descending from cafes into Turkish toilets."

She perceives the U.S.-Mexican border as a state of mind imposed on the landscape, "not so much a line drawn in the sand of the desert but in the imagination, a line across which memory may not travel, empathy may be confiscated, truth held up indefinitely, meaning lost in translation." Physical space, real places, she sees as inevitable starting points, "the arena in which people think about politics and public life and feel a sense of embeddedness in it as both beneficiaries and caretakers" - hence her visceral revulsion of suburbia.

These essays, almost 40 altogether, written over the last 10 years, encompass subjects as varied - superficially, at least - as the California Gold Rush and the movement of Jupiter's moons, a startling take on nature photography and an examination of gender and landscape. When written they were of course not intended to be read as a unified work, and most collections, of fiction or nonfiction, should probably be taken in piecemeal. But the cumulative effect of storming straight through "Storming the Gates of Paradise" is staggering. Solnit is a stylist of the first order, and her crystalline prose bedazzles whether she is making impassioned political and cultural points - though to her the difference is largely illusory, another line drawn in shifting sand - or, almost in spite of herself, reeling off some of the best nature writing you've come across since the Twelfth of Never.

Only once in 416 pages did I catch Solnit wielding a cliche to hammer home a point: "When the World Trade Center fell on September 11, 2001, a kind of American innocence, a widespread belief in American impunity, fell with it." But that's almost like an intentional flaw in a Navajo rug: Without it, the perfection would be an affront to some great spirit or other.

"Storming the Gates of Paradise" is being published six months after Joan Acocella's "Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints." Of that first book I wrote, "Collectively, these essays deliver a sustained, breathtaking aesthetic wallop," a line I'd like to filch not only for Solnit's work but to employ as a goad for purchasing the both of them. You'll survive the double wallop, I suspect, but rise to your feet and regain your footing as a different man. Woman. Citizen. Human.


In 2005, the Overlook Press began putting out inexpensive hardcover editions of P.G. Wodehouse novels - most starring that gentleman's gentleman, Jeeves (more accurately he was that twit's gentleman), but also the Psmith series and a passel of stand-alones. You should, of course, buy them all, but failing that (see Bertie Wooster, every time), you can get a good overview from within "The Best of Wodehouse: An Anthology" by P.G. Wodehouse; Everyman's Library; 796 pages; $30.

Along with 15 short stories there is one complete novel, "The Code of the Woosters," which is not the best because there is no "best." This is Wodehouse we're talking about. But it's as good as any, and a sign that the compilers knew what they were doing. They also knew what they were doing in snagging John Mortimer to write the introduction, though they slipped a little when neglecting to include any of the Mr. Mulliner stories. But to err is human, as Bertie would have reminded Jeeves - who would, in his way, have agreed.

- Arthur Salm
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 New York  demonstrations  Los Angeles  San Francisco  Joan Acocella  Rebecca Solnit  evidence  Mexican border

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