Rebecca Solnit appears in conversation with Michael Lerner on Sunday, June 30, at the New School at Commonweal (451 Mesa Road, Bolinas; 2pm; free with reservation; www.commonweal.org) and in a reading and discussion on Tuesday, July 2, at Copperfield's Books in Petaluma (140 Kentucky St., Petaluma; 7pm; free; 707.762.0563).
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We've met on Sunday morning near the rowing club where Solnit takes to the bay on a sleek, white scull three times a week. Today, she's decided against going out, on account of the strong, cold wind blowing across the water, and it's appropriate that the strange June weather has created a steel-colored sky, similar to what Solnit might have seen during her stay in Iceland—one of those symmetries that's present in so much her work.
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Wearing a gray, fitted blouse over a black skirt, Solnit's appearance mirrors the dependable elegance of her sentences, whether she's writing about Google buses driving through San Francisco—with their darkened windows and screen-immersed tech workers—or migratory birds flying to the Arctic from all over the world. She talks of exhaustion after this particular book tour, where she's answered too many questions about a conflicted relationship with her mother, but it doesn't show on her face, which glows with health underneath her long, blonde-gray hair.
Throughout her career, Solnit has turned out more than 13 books and an impressive list of essays, including "Men Explain Things to Me," wherein she coined the term "mansplaining." In February of this year, Solnit contributed a piece to the London Review of Books taking on Google's private buses and the erasure of the working class and creative communities in San Francisco as the city becomes a bedroom community for Silicon Valley's tech elite. Solnit's love of the city intertwines with a fascination with maps in 2010's ambitious Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas; in one example, a map of San Francisco interposes murder sites with locations of Cypress trees. (A New Orleans sequel to Infinite City, titled Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas, comes out this fall.)
Now in her early 50s, and a graduate of UC Berkeley's journalism school, Solnit has written about visual arts, politics and the West Coast since 1988; she shares space with other California writers like Mike Davis and Joan Didion, those willing to take on the Golden State as a complex and serious topic of inquiry rather than a place of kooky mysticism, Hollywood superficialities and gridlock. River of Shadows, an examination of photographer Eadweard Muybridge and his groundbreaking experiments with stop-motion photography, earned her a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Lannan Literary Award and the National Books Critics Circle Award in criticism.
Solnit approaches the interaction between humans and the natural world—its puzzles, connections and symmetries—with a blend of precision and childlike wonder. That might stem from her early years as a child growing up in a northernmost subdivision of Novato.
"It was not a particularly encouraging suburb, but there were wonderful things," says Solnit. "A lot of kids on the block never left the asphalt, but my brothers and I were really fascinated by the natural world in different ways, and spent time there. I had fantasies about living like Native Americans, off the land and the plants. The landscape was my one good friend in elementary school."
Connection forms the literal core of The Faraway Nearby. As Solnit's close friend, the artist Ann Chamberlain, was dying of breast cancer, she constructed a plaster wall map of topographical reliefs of islands connected by strands of fine red thread, "like flight routes for planes or birds or neural pathways or blood vessels," writes Solnit. And it's a young Icelandic man with leukemia, who dies before Solnit has a chance to meet him, who forges the connections leading to her residency.