by Weston Cutter
What does one even say about Eliot Weinberger anymore? That’s not rhetorical—literally, what can one say? His essays on the Iraq war are still some of the best things that’ve been written on that subject (though The Good Soldiers by D. Finkel is riveting and harrowing and might end up being the single best thing written about the whole war), and nobody I know of, writing in any genre, can cram as much surprise into her/his work than E. Weinberger crams over and over in his stuff.
Meaning what? Meaning: the guy can write learned and accessible stuff about, say, Neidecker (which can be a tough subject to make accessible) and then turn around and write a phenomenal political and social and poetic piece about visiting China with Forrest Gander, but that’s not the half of it. The overwhelming beauty of Weinberger, to me, is most availble in the short, strange essays which are so stylistically him that it’s impossible to read one without being absolutely certain of the author.
The title essay in this book, for instance, is one of those, but the more riveting, to me, is a bit later, and is called “In Blue.” We could spend days talking structure—Weinberger’s mastered something shockingly cool way of organizing bits of info that reads as half-Zen and half-Jenga—but just read these lines. Just look at this:
Blue is a snail.
In Biblical Hebrew, the word for blue is tekeleth, the name of the snail from which a blue dye was derived.
The Talmud says these snails appear only once every seventy years.
Please know that that those three sentences comprise the entirety of section 4 of the essay “In Blue,” which essay, simply and wildly, tries to approach the color blue—starting, Weinbergerianly enough, with the line “Go back far enough and there is no blue.”
What’s the line about travel, how it makes the familiar strange and the strange familiar? Weinberger’s books are atlases, each essay a flight: you can’t see the world the same once you’ve read him.
Fort Red Border by Kiki Petrosino
True or false: one of the year’s best collections of poetry gets it title from anagraming Robert Redford’s name, and features a section of poems in which the narrator and Redford are together—having coffee, talking, traveling. Let’s skip the play, actually: the answer’s obviously true, and Kiki Petrosino’s debut collection’s not only features Redford (which’d make the book interestingly cool enough just for that), but features the sorts of lines that make poetry something to believe in, something you want to pick up and hold and cheer for. Here are a few opening lines:
Sorry, but I just don’t love you
more than Dawrinism.
(from “Valentine,” though you should know there’s a whole section of them, and they’re all titled “Valentine.” This one’s the fifth.)
Or oreo, or worse.
Or spork. Or smorgasbord.
Or tender lure of colored blood
God has spider skin and lives in secret trees. I have stood beside you, saying
this, as you reach into the cupboard for another stack of dry noodles.
(“You Have Made a Career of Not Listening”)
The list goes on. You have to read it all to believe what she’s capable of. The great thrill and dazzle of the book, though, is that Petrosino’s like some megic, futuristic battery, charging up the daily glunky stuff of life and giving it not just power or light or shine but a verve that keeps sparking long after you’ve read the poems. True: I got this book this summer and had to travel quite a bit, and of all the books I kept wishing I hadn’t put away in boxes, this was one of the ones I wished for most.
Subtitled Travels Through Urban Geology, David Williams’s book is a startling delight for at least two reasons. First, it’s just clever as all get-out: instead of talking about specific buildings, and instead of tracing the history of a single type of building material through the ages, Williams, in ten chapters, covers a huge swath of different stone—from different cities, used for different reasons on and in different buildings all over the country. That story alone would be fascinatingly great.
But Stories in Stone is actually far more than that, and this has (of course, as ever) to do with nonfiction and voice: Williams not just loves these different types of stones, but this book came from an ache, a sort of geographic homesickness. Here, from Williams’s preface:
“When my wife, Marjorie, decided to pursue her master’s degree, we moved to Boston. I hated the first few months. Where I had once traipsed through quiet sandstone canyons, surrounded by thousand-foot-tall cliffs of rock, I now walked through shadowy canyons crated by buildings. Where I once hiked on desolate trails, I now crossed busy streets. For the first time in many years I felt disconnected from the natural world.
And then I noticed Boston’s buildings. Half-bullion-year-old slates abutted 150,000-year-old travertines. Sandstone that formed in Connecticut sat on top of marble that formed in Italy…As I began to notice the stone in buildings, I found the geologic stories that could provide the connection to wildness I had lost.”
It’d be impossible to under-stress the importance of Williams’s realization, or the joy he clearly felt in reconnecting with his beloved stone. If that sounds hokey or sappy, well, maybe it is, but let’s be honest: what the world, and especially the publishing industry, needs more of are books in which authors care deeply and sincerely about that which they write of. Williams, in Stories in Stone, has written what feels like a love letter—to a world he’d feared lost, and the celebratory relief he seems to have felt on discovering that he still had a way to access what he loved is contagious and enthralling.