READ GREEN WITH E-BOOKS
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READ GREEN WITH E-BOOKS
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Halogen light cones
reflect off dark snow crystals
as the red tongue drips
–S.Warner November 2005
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Almost as interesting as what our favorite authors write is what they read, and why. We asked more than two dozen—authors, bloggers, essayists, poets, comic artists—to recommend, in their own words, readings that bring solace and understanding in this age of political rancor. These are excerpts. Click on an author’s name or “more” to read their complete responses.
Margaret Atwood, Hag-Seed
In times of great anxiety, what could be better than The Lord of the Rings? A horrible tyrant. An obsession with power. Nine dead guys running errands for him. Small folks doing their bit. It’s okay to have pointy ears. And it comes out all right at the end. Or sort of all right. (more)
George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo
Anton Chekhov’s short stories, just because, in dark times, it’s important for people in resistance to fortify themselves with beauty, if only to remind ourselves that kindness, nuance, and ambiguity are real things. In particular: the beautiful trilogy consisting of “The Man in a Case,” “Gooseberries,” and “About Love.” (more)
Ana Castillo, Black Dove
Worth adding to any library is The Wind Is Spirit: The Life, Love, and Legacy of Audre Lorde, a collection of essays compiled by Gloria I. Joseph, Lorde’s romantic partner at the time of her death. It brings together memories from more than 50 contributors—such as Sonia Sanchez and Angela Davis—and reminds us not only of the significance of Lorde’s work but also of the importance of a writer’s perseverance in the face of political adversity. (more)
Daniel Alarcón, At Night We Walk in Circles
Sometimes I think dystopian literature is the only literature we can write these days. That Margaret Atwood’s masterpiece, The Handmaid’s Tale, feels so resonant more than 30 years after it was published is singularly depressing. Read it as a cautionary tale. (more)
Phil Klay, Redeployment
I’ve been thinking increasingly about Teddy Roosevelt’s 1883 speech “The Duties of American Citizenship.” Though some of his positions are dated—”the ideal citizen must be the father of many healthy children”—so much of it holds up as solid, practical advice in how to go about creating political change. Roosevelt continually stresses the hard work of building up organizations and institutions as the key component of American political life. “A great many of our men in business,” he says, “rather plume themselves upon being good citizens if they even vote; yet voting is the very least of their duties.” Sadly, he has little to say on the possibility of tweeting your way to a greater democracy. (more)
Piper Kerman, Orange Is the New Black
When I read Jesmyn Ward‘s Men We Reaped, it absolutely gutted me. I return to it again and again in my mind because it so perfectly crystallizes what’s at stake until we establish equality for all Americans when it comes to safety and freedom. Ward’s writing is heartbreakingly beautiful. The book that actually does provide me with solace is Alice in Wonderland. When I was a child I wanted to change my name to Alice. I had a copy in my locker when I was incarcerated, and there’s one on my bedside table now. (more)
Jesmyn Ward, The Fire This Time (editor)
The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism: Author Edward E. Baptist builds a very compelling argument that slavery made the foundation and growth of the United States, as an independent country, possible. This book is so necessary because it seems we live in a time where those in power are invested in willful ignorance, “alternative facts,” and a revisionist view of the kind of real pain, suffering, and dehumanization that actually allowed this country to ascend to “greatness.” We need books like this to shine light on the darkness that beats at the heart of America today. (more)
William Gibson, The Peripheral
Outbreak! The Encyclopedia of Extraordinary Social Behavior, by Hilary Evans and Robert Bartholomew, is a compendium of the workings of rumor, fear, and the madness of crowds. Baffled by Trump’s popularity? Read Evans and Bartholomew on lycanthropy and laughing epidemics. Seriously. (more)
Mohsin Hamid, Exit West
Fantastic Mr. Fox, by Roald Dahl, because he takes us into the world of imperfect but resolutely defiant characters who triumph in the face of impossible odds, and because no matter how powerful the mechanical shovels that come for us, we can always dig, dig, until we make a better world. (more)
Karen Russell, Sleep Donation
Because, if everything we write and read becomes dire and reactionary, Trump will have truly won, here’s a book that celebrates the radical freedom of the imagination: Cosmicomics, by Italo Calvino is brimming with recombinatory energy, play and joy. Light by which to see into many different futures. (more)
Reza Farazmand, Poorly Drawn Lines
Somehow, Cat’s Cradle still manages to present a fictional political setting stranger than the one we’re in now. I can reread Kurt Vonnegut’s absurd parody of Cold War politics and think, “Well, at least things aren’t this weird yet.” (more)
W. Kamau Bell, The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell
Lindy West, the author of Shrill, is a critical voice. If we all want to have any hope of not just surviving but thriving in the next four years to eight years and beyond, then we need to listen to her. Also, she’s funnier than probably everybody you know—unless you know her. (more)
Tracy K. Smith
Tracy K. Smith, Ordinary Light: A Memoir
Poetry helps me contend with the smallness of spirit—the greed, the dishonesty, the disregard for the lives of others—at the root of American politics. When I feel beaten down by all of the wrongheadedness, I turn to the wisdom, on what often feels like a cosmic scale, running through The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010. Clifton was one of America’s great poets, whose work throughout her lifetime was committed to chronicling and celebrating black lives. The honesty, joy, wisdom, and hope she brought to this task are regenerative. For years, I’ve been completely captivated by a poem cycle—”the message from the Ones (received in the late 70s)”—that appears in her 2004 collection, Mercy. What is the message? One we and our elected leaders need desperately to hear and to heed. (more)
Dave Eggers, Heroes of the Frontier
The Great Lie, edited by Flagg Taylor, collects essays by a wide range of writers who lived under tyranny, and the results are richly rewarding and surprisingly accessible. Taylor is a professor at Skidmore College and the book is about 800 pages, and yet it’s eminently approachable by anyone interested in seeing the parallels between our current flirtations with truthless fascism and those societies that were truly crushed by totalitarianism. Everyone you could think of is in there—Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Václav Havel, Hannah Arendt—and some lesser-known essayists like Aurel Kolnai and Waldemar Gurian get their due, too. The title, of course, references the sort of lie told by authoritarian governments that’s so outrageous and unbelievable that citizens feel it must be true. In our age of alternative facts, this collection is timely and deeply unsettling. (more)
Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Gene: An Intimate History
How could one not choose the timeless Henrik Ibsen play An Enemy of the People? A Norwegian doctor suspects that the municipal water in a town has been contaminated with toxins. He hesitates but ultimately follows his moral instincts to release the news to the public. He is dubbed an enemy of the people and publicly flayed. Perhaps the president forgot the irony of that title in using the phrase to describe the press. (more)
Rabbi Jack Moline, Growing Up Jewish
I can’t avoid including the Book of Psalms. Aside from the fact that it is the only book in the Jewish Bible that is of undisputed human authorship, it is a collection of essential yearnings and gratitudes that give me a sense that our current troubles, existential and political both, are neither new nor permanent. In addition, the melodies to which so many of the psalms have been set are inseparable from the words. And how can I not also hear Leonard Cohen in every “hallelujah.” (more)
Wendy C. Ortiz
Wendy C. Ortiz, Bruja
Handwriting, by Michael Ondaatje, lives in the drawer of my night table—it’s my antidote to despair of all kinds. The fragmentary nature and white space allow for breaths. I’ve memorized lines from this book over the years and consider it an influence on my prose, poetry, and my psyche. (more)
Kwame Alexander, The Crossover
There are so many incredible books that speak to our times, stories that take place in the past, present, and future. Stories that connect us to our ancestors or people who lived like our ancestors, or to the people who paved the way for our world today—stories like The Underground Railroad, All The Light We Cannot See, Freedom Over Me, March. Stories for adults, teens, and children. Stories that grab hold of us and show us all the pain and beauty that races through and weaves between covers—books like Speak, Pax, Brown Girl Dreaming, Radiant Child, Bridge to Terabithia, As Brave as You, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Tale of Despereaux. Selected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni (and Langston Hughes and Pablo Neruda). Books that will stick with us, comfort us, and strengthen us, long after we’ve read them. (more)
Peggy Orenstein, Girls & Sex
I’m reading My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, Emil Ferris’ graphic novel about a 10-year-old Mexican-Irish-Cherokee girl growing up in 1960s Chicago, a social outcast who tries to solve the murder of her Holocaust-survivor neighbor. The radical politics of her present spiral with the fascism and kink of the Third Reich: The novel tackles race, gender, and what it means to be “monstrous” in big and small ways. It could not be more relevant to today’s climate. (more)
Joe Romm, Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know
The last time this country was so divided, the greatest orator and writer ever elected president repeatedly shared his thoughts on what the country needed to do to preserve liberty. Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings, edited by Roy Basler and Carl Sandburg, is one of the best collections. It includes classics like the Gettysburg Address alongside lesser-known gems like “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions,” in which a 28-year-old Lincoln explains the danger to the Republic of a demagogue just like Trump. (more)
Alex Kotlowitz, Never a City So Real
For all the obvious reasons (yes, Mr. Trump, history matters), I’m revisiting former Sen. Paul Simon’s Freedom’s Champion: Elijah Lovejoy. As if we need reminding what happens when good and decent people don’t stand up against the onerous assault on a free press. (more)
Gene Luen Yang
Gene Luen Yang, Secret Coders
Silence, by Shusaku Endo, is probably my favorite fiction book of all time. It’s about a Catholic missionary to 17th-century Japan who eventually loses his faith. The story reminds me that grace can be found even when things are horribly broken. (more)
Ayelet Waldman, A Really Good Day
It was as if Mohsin Hamid knew exactly what would convulse the world when he wrote Exit West. It’s a novel about refugees, about cruelty and empathy and compassion, and in the end—oddly—about the possibility of an odd kind of redemption. (more)
Bill McKibben, Oil and Honey
This Is an Uprising, by Paul and Mark Engler, is the best summary of all that the last 75 years has taught us about nonviolent organizing. It’s the book I wish I’d had a decade ago, because it would have saved a lot of trial-and-error experimentation as we got 350.org up and running. (more)
Darryl Pinckney, Black Deutschland
These days I turn to the consolations of poetry. James Fenton, his Yellow Tulips: Poems. (He’s my partner, my life.) I open the Donald Allen edition of The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara that I have had for decades. His poetry is a past I share with several friends. And then for the small hours there is Thomas Wyatt: “These bloody days have broken my heart.” (more)
Michael Eric Dyson, Tears We Cannot Stop
Richard Hofstadter’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics offers bracing commentary and vibrant analysis of the fringe political movements that have defined our nation in times of crisis, paying attention to the paranoia and conspiracy that fuel reactionary outlooks. That clearly helps us to put this Trumpian epoch in illuminating context. (more)
T Cooper, Changers (YA novel series with Allison Glock-Cooper)
I frequently find myself turning to Kiss of the Spider Woman, Manuel Puig’s brave and stunning novel from the mid-1970s, but it’s hitting a little close to home just about now—what with the “freak” and the revolutionary locked in a cell together by a corrupt and repressive government. Molina and Valentin make strange but necessary bedfellows who run into some gender trouble and the usual wretchedness (not to mention betrayal), but also uncover unexpected tenderness and hope inside the walls of the prison where most of the novel is set. Running through it all (in the form of 1930s and ’40s movie plots that Molina recounts to Valentin to pass time and ease their suffering) is the promise of stories that are perpetually unfolding somewhere “out there” in another world, despite the horrors happening “in here” in this one. I’m grateful for the escapism, even if sometimes it feels there’s no real chance of escape. (more)
Illustrations by Allegra Lockstadt
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If you’ve ever been tempted to write a poem about your favorite landscape, the seashore or the rites of Spring, now’s the time to do it. April is National Poetry Month, so grab a pen and paper, find your favorite outdoor perch and start scribbling.
If you need inspiration, review the works of these five American poets who wrote about nature and used the natural world to help clarify daily life while exploring some of the more complicated aspects of society.
Emily Dickinson – Emily Dickinson lived in Amherst, Massachusetts in the late 19th century. Famously introverted and considered an eccentric by her neighbors, she spent much of her time in her bedroom, where she wrote nearly 1,800 poems during her lifetime. Though she often touched onthemes of death and immortality, she also had a keen understanding of nature, which she may have observed from her bedroom window.
One of her most charming poems is called “A Bird Came Down the Walk”:
“A bird came down the walk:
He did not know I saw;
He bit an angle-worm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw”
She also wrote “A Light Exists in Spring.” Here’s the opening stanza:
“A Light exists in Spring
Not present on the Year
At any other period –
When March is scarcely here…”
Robert Frost – This famous American poet won four Pulitzer Prizes for poetry. He took his inspiration from early 1900s rural life in New England. Though set in nature, his poems often focused on importantsocial and philosophical issues. You’ll probably know him best for “The Road Not Taken,” but don’t overlook “Mending Wall,” from whence comes the famous line, “Good fences make good neighbors.” It starts…
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast…
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows…”
Gary Snyder – Gary Snyder is an essayist, lecturer, environmental activist and yes, poet. A winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, he’s been described as the “poet laureate of Deep Ecology” as well as a writer associated with San Francisco’s Beat Generation. He’s a master at using natural imagery to convey universal truths. You’ll find references to mountains, volcanoes, the Arctic, flora and fauna in his stanzas, and in the books for which he became well known, such as “Turtle Island.”
Enjoy “Pine Tree Tops:”
“In the blue night
frost haze, the sky glows
with the moon
pine tree tops
bend snow-blue, fade
into sky, frost, starlight.
The creak of boots.
Rabbit tracks, deer tracks,
What do we know.”
Mary Oliver – A winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, Mary Oliver was born in the Midwest in 1945. Shebegan writing poetry and later moved to Massachusetts, which servesas her home base while she writes, teaches and leads workshops. Her poetry celebrates the natural world, beauty, silence, love and the spirit. She’s published many books, including “Wild Geese,” which contains a poem by the same name. Here’s an excerpt:
“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves…”
Ralph Waldo Emerson – Philosopher, Transcendentalist, essayist and poet:Ralph Waldo Emerson was another poet born in Massachusetts, though in 1803. His most famous essay was on “Self-Reliance.” He titled his first book Nature, which expressed his belief that everything in the world is a microcosm of the universe.
Here’s an excerpt from a beautiful, moving poem simply titled, “Nature.”
Easily to shed the snow,
And the untaught Spring is wise
In cowslips and anemones.
Nature, hating art and pains,
Baulks and baffles plotting brains;
Casualty and Surprise
Are the apples of her eyes;
But she dearly loves the poor,
And, by marvel of her own,
Strikes the loud pretender down.”
You can see a list of more Nature poems dating back to Virgil in 37 BCE and including the Japanese poet Basho, at Poets.org.
Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of Care2, Inc., its employees or advertisers.
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One snowy week near the end of January, the halls of the Elko Convention Center are abuzz with the tipping of hats and toasting of beers. Thousands of cowboys and girls had descended on the small northern Nevada city from all over the West for the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, the oldest—and one of the largest—of the various gatherings celebrating America’s waning ranching lifestyle.
Performing on the main stage on a Thursday night, Jessie Veeder doesn’t exactly match the current cowpoke demographic. She has dark curly hair, and wears a brightly colored top and pleather pants. More notably, though, she’s only 30—the same age as the gathering itself—which makes her a good deal younger than the average participant. The next night, 80-year-old Ian Tyson, a classic cowboy musician, would headline this stage in classic ranch-hand gear, crooning: “Everything’s fast forward now, years are flying by. Man, that can really fuck up a 1950s guy.”
Veeder’s showcase, “Straddling the Line,” features a bill of younger talents who are taking the torch from Tyson’s generation and adapting it to their own. It’s part of an ongoing effort by the festival’s organizers, who are desperate to diversify and expand the cowboy niche. The Elko shindig also includes panel and group discussions on the decline of ranching and the challenges facing the rural west. After all, what is cowboy poetry and music without cowboys?
There was once a time, at the turn of the 20th century, when half of America grew food. But the number of cattle raised in the United States is at its lowest since 1952. And nearly two-thirds of Great Plains counties declined in human population between 1950 and 2007—69 of them by more than half. There are plenty of reasons for these numbers: the industrialization of agriculture, encroaching development, battles over the use of public land for grazing, and an aging population. Ranching is increasingly unprofitable—feed prices have doubled in recent years—and the children of ranching families are fleeing for financially greener pastures.
By 2007, the number of farm and ranch operators younger than 35 had dwindled to 5 percent, down from 16 percent in the early 1980s. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that by 2020, agricultural operations will have shed 96,000 jobs (8 percent of the total), the largest decline of any occupational category.
Veeder is defying the trend. Three years ago, after college and a period of employment and touring, she moved back to the 100-year-old North Dakota ranch where she grew up. The day after her show, she participates in a panel called “Back on the Ranch” with three other young ranchers who followed a similar path.
As a musician, Veeder tells the audience, she is frequently asked why she lives so far from cultural centers like Nashville or Austin. She describes how she grew up riding horseback through the beautiful buttes alongside her father. To afford that kind of lifestyle, her dad had to work a professional job during the day. “I understood the sacrifice it took to keep a place like that intact and in the family, to continue the legacy,” she says. “I saw the work and the struggle, but I saw the passion.” The other panelists agree. “It’s not a great living, but it’s a really good lifestyle,” one adds.
Her connection to the land, and the hardships that go with that, is something Veeder explores in her lyrics. The words have always been front and center in cowboy music. Many of the songs have their roots in cowboy poetry, which harkens back to after the Civil War; bored cowboys picked up on a British Isles tradition, and started writing poems influenced by Spanish lingo and the songs of soldiers. The first collections of cowboy songs, in the early 20th century, paid little attention to melody. It was often just poems set to a tune. “Them that could sing usually did,” the poet and musician Dale Girdner once told Charlie Seemann, who runs the Western Folklife Center. “And them that couldn’t carry no kinda tune would usually just say the verses.”
The song “Boomtown,” Veeder explains during her performance, is an ode to her hometown of Watford City, which has ballooned from 1,200 to an estimated 10,000 people in the past six years due to the Bakken oil boom.
Stopped by the farmhouse the other day
Jimmy’s moved back home he’s helping dad cut hay
Pumps in the morning but he gets home by 5
We almost lost him there
Now he’s more alive
God bless the sound
Jimmy’s story is not too distant from her father’s—or her own. To make ends meet, Veeder’s husband works for Marathon Oil, and she works as a communication specialist, freelance writer, and musician. Ranching is their labor of love.
The festival’s attendees are also grappling with a changing rural landscape. Novelist Johanna Harness traveled all the way from Nampa, Idaho, to Elko to give her kids a taste of the culture. I meet her at an open discussion called “Into the Future,” held in a convention center room divided up by theme.
She and her kids had joined the Youth and Economics group. A large sheet of paper on the wall nearby bears questions scribbled in marker: “If there were no limitations, what is your vision of the West/rural you want to build? What is the story about the future you want to tell?”
Ivy, Harness’ 8-year-old, is curled up on the floor, a purple bandana around her neck, absorbed in drawing the family’s large converted red barn. Virginia, 15, takes notes while her brother Paul, 12 looks on bright-eyed, clad in a cowboy hat and sneakers. It’s the family’s second year at the fest, and Harness says she gets choked up just thinking about it. The poems and songs “are memories that my grandparents told me—and they’re gone now.”
She’s part of the first generation to leave the farm and attend college, but she misses the tradition of agricultural work. Her mother moved from Kansas to Idaho during the Dust Bowl at the chance of employment, only to give up the farm they lived on soon after for health reasons. Her father, the youngest of 11 children, dropped out of school at age 15 to work full-time, but the family still couldn’t make things work financially.
“There has to be a way for people to make a good living so that people can commit to that lifestyle,” another member of the Youth and Economics group comments in a hushed rant. “A lot of ranchers need to be more business-like, and I would whisper that, because we’re just doing that now in our 84th year. You can’t fall in love with your cows; you can’t fall in love with the old photos. You’ve got to put numbers on things and you’ve got plan ahead.”
Harness understands all of this. But “these are my roots,” she tells me. “This is incredibly important to me…I want my kids to hear these stories and know who they are.”
Virginia, Harness’ eldest, considers herself a “rural person”—one who always wants the elevation of the town she lives in to exceed its population. But she doesn’t think she wants to go into ranching. “How sustainable would it be for me to do that?” She would probably have to work a second job in town. Instead, she hopes to work in politics, lobbying for rural causes. Attending the festival has been “a form of education,” she says. “Rural people aren’t stupid. That stereotype is really harmful to teens and kids in rural communities.”
Roaming the center’s halls, an 11-year-old named Colton Lee is dressed in knee-high Tony Lama boots, Wranglers, a pocket watch, wool vest, polka-dotted wild rag, and Justin cowboy hat. He learned the ins and outs of cowboy attire on his dad’s ranch in Hudson, Colorado, although he doesn’t get to wear it all the time (during PE, for example).
But Colton, who aspires to be a rancher and a veterinary surgeon, brings a cowboy perspective wherever he goes. Like his father, and unlike most of his peers, he isn’t into the Internet. He’d rather listen to cowboy poets like Paul Zarzyski. And the ranching lifestyle still appeals to him, even if it’s a struggle.
“It’s worth it,” he says, wracking his brain for the title of a song he knows that says it perfectly. He can’t quite recall it, but he remembers the sentiment well enough: “You’re rich, but you’re broke.”