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Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics - Book review

 
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STORMING THE GATES OF PARADISE Landscapes for Politics By Rebecca Solnit University of California Press \ $24.95

Sierra Club founder John Muir once said, When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe." Although Muir was referring to the environment, he could have been talking about the 36 essays in Rebecca Solnit's vibrant new book, Storming the Gates of Paradise. Written over the past decade, the essays serve as a retrospective of Solnit's career, a display case of essential writings and opuscula in which seemingly disparate subjects are "hitched" together until all categories and divisions dissolve. What is left is the quintessential Solnit essay: a delightfully borderless, peripatetic piece of writing--equal parts memoir, reportage, political commentary, historical investigation, and art and literary criticism. Storming the Gates of Paradise covers myriad topics, including immigration, nuclear testing, the mythology of the Old West, Susan Sontag, the abundance of ravens and crows in American cities, and the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, but what is most striking about these essays is the way they engage the reader beyond mere advice and urging.

Solnit, a public intellectual and self-proclaimed global justice advocate, is often pigeonholed as a landscape writer, but these essays highlight her versatility and range. She writes as eloquently about the homeless in San Francisco's UN Plaza and Walter Benjamin's walks through Paris as she does about the Pacific Ocean and Devils Tower National Monument. For Solnit, "the environment" includes urban plazas and parking lots. The world is made up of systems, not isolated parts. Early in her career, while protesting nuclear experiments at the Nevada Test Site, she learns that radioactivity cannot be contained because it seeps into the water system. She experiences "a great collapse of categories," and limitlessness becomes her credo as an essayist:

Since then, I have been fascinated by trying to map the ways that we think and talk, the unsorted experience wherein one can start by complaining about politics and end by confessing about passions, the ease with which we can get to any point from any other point. Such conversation is sometimes described as being "all over the place," which is another way to say that it connects everything back up. Connections--or as Muir would say, hitches--are the fulcrum of Solnit's essays. She links New Mexico's...

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