We see it all the time: a disaster barrels through a number of people’s lives and devastates countless communities, and the calamity is covered extensively (depending on the enormity of the story) for a week or two on the news before the next big thing strikes elsewhere. What we don’t necessarily see all the time: what happens during those weeks and months afterward, those moments that do not get documented in newsreels. Rebecca Solnit, in her book A Paradise Built in Hell—which Alta Journal’s California Book Club will discuss at its September 23 gathering—sheds some light on this missing narrative: not only do people band together after ruinous catastrophes, but people do so willingly, earnestly, with a stronger sense of the ties that connect us.
A Paradise Built in Hell investigates a series of tragedies across history—the 1906 fire and earthquake in San Francisco; the 1917 explosion in Halifax, Nova Scotia; the 1985 Mexico City earthquake; 9/11; and Hurricane Katrina—to uncover acts of mutual aid and the meaning of collectivity. The book is optimistic, sweeping, and shrewd, dismantling long-standing, bleak notions of “survival of the fittest” during moments of terrible upheaval. “The image of the selfish, panicky, or regressively savage human being in times of disaster has little truth to it,” Solnit says in her introduction.
It is not by any means a stretch of one’s imagination to say that the COVID-19 pandemic has offered us new language to talk about disaster. And while published in 2009, Solnit’s book allows us to recast the meaning of mutual aid during a moment in which isolation and distance were necessary for our survival. In any case, Solnit’s argument remains salient and poignant: disasters do not pull us apart but bring us together.
To join Alta’s California Book Club conversation with Solnit on September 23, click here. I also invite you to join your fellow CBC members in the Alta Clubhouse for an ongoing conversation about A Paradise Built in Hell:
WE, THE INDIVISIBLE
“In a pinch we’re mostly very good at mutual aid; we know how to self-organize to meet the needs of the moment, to work together, and most of us have the empathic desire to do so,” Rebecca Solnit says about the central arguments of A Paradise Built in Hell in an interview with John Freeman. —Alta
Did you miss last week’s CBC event with Dana Johnson, special guest Rasheeda Saka, and host John Freeman? If so, be sure to check out our recap and recording of the event. —Alta
MYSTERY SOCIAL NOVEL
Paula L. Woods considers how Naomi Hirahara’s novel Clark and Division, which takes place during World War II, masterfully showcases “a particularly dark period in the United States’ virulent history of anti-Asian hate and discrimination.” —Alta
Poet John Hirschman known for his approachability and his long prolific career died at age 87 on Sunday. —San Francisco Chronicle
NBCC VIRTUAL ACTION
The National Book Critics Circle’s first auction includes CBC selections, as well as consults with Alta Journal managing editor Blaise Zerega and books editor David L. Ulin. —NBCC
“Fugitive pedagogy, as I call it, is rooted in the covert acquisition of knowledge by slaves and their descendants and has evolved into the practice of Black educators covertly teaching counter-hegemonic ideas through subversive practices,” Jarvis R. Givens says of his method and model of teaching in classrooms. —Los Angeles Review of Books
DESERTS AND WATER CRISES
“In this wasteland, the only signs that made any sense were purely interpretive: most ubiquitously, CONGRESS CREATED DUSTBOWL,” Lisa Wells says about the ongoing water crisis in California’s Central Valley. —Literary Hub
There is a person on the loose who is intent on stealing manuscripts before they hit bookshelves around the world. But some questions remain: Who is it? What are their motives? And what are they going to do next? —Vulture
Nia Coats reviews Mothership: Voyage into Afrofuturism, the latest exhibition of the Oakland Museum of California, arguing that it “stresses the importance of centering the voices of Black creators illustrating Black experiences.” —KQED
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