Call Them by Their True Names: American Crises by Rebecca Solnit

39688744In this powerful and wide-ranging collection of essays, Solnit turns her attention to the war at home. This is a war, she says, “with so many casualties that we should call it by its true name, this war with so many dead by police, by violent ex-husbands and partners and lovers, by people pursuing power and profit at the point of a gun or just shooting first and figuring out who they hit later.” To get to the root of these American crises, she contends that “to acknowledge this state of war is to admit the need for peace,” countering the despair of our age with a dose of solidarity, creativity, and hope.


Solnit, perhaps best known for Men Explain Things to Me, is back with another essay collection.  While her past two books centered on feminism this one is about social justice of all sorts, touching on climate change, police brutality, gentrification, wrongful imprisonment, and more.

The essays were largely written between 2016 and 2018.  The most powerful theme is the idea that names and language truly matter.  If you cannot name a problem you cannot begin to solve it.  A couple of the essays take a phrase – like “preach to the choir” or “break a news story” – and examine it from various angles.  If preaching to the choir is useless, does that mean we have to try and convert those utterly opposed to our views? Other essays hew closely to reportage, covering the killing of Alex Nieto in San Francisco and the failings of the legal system in the case of Jarvis Masters.

The writing is good but I had fewer “wow” moments than usual.  Solnit is great at stretching your brain and making you look at things from a different perspective but there wasn’t as much of it compared with her earlier essays.  Perhaps if this were my first Solnit, or if I were less versed with the issues, I would have felt differently.

In sum it’s a solid collection, as you would expect from such a good writer, but not my favorite nor her best.

Thanks to Haymarket Books and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

6 thoughts on “Call Them by Their True Names: American Crises by Rebecca Solnit

  1. Great review! I was curious about this one but I felt so-so about the Men Explain Things to Me collection, though beyond a couple of other essays published elsewhere that’s all I’ve read of hers so maybe I don’t have a good enough feel for her yet. I like the idea of examining bits of language like you describe, that sounds really worth reading!

    1. Thank you! The language bit was one of the most interesting for me. Men Explain Things to Me is my favorite of her books, so I suspect we’re opposites as far as taste in her writing is concerned. 😉 In that case this may be a great collection for you!

  2. I’ve not read anything of Solnit’s yet, although I have at least one of her books on my shelves. Sorry to hear this wasn’t quite as good as her older books! I should pick those up 🙂

    1. Men Explain Things to Me is my fav – if you don’t care for that you can stop right there. 😉 The Mother of All Questions would make a good starting place, too!

  3. inexhaustibleinvitations

    Great review! I just started the final section of the book, and I’m having similar feelings—solid but not as great as her past books. Some of the essays feel kind of rushed, and her style in general seems to lend itself better to long form writing.

    1. Thank you! Interesting about length – I wonder if she was given word counts to stick to for some of the magazine pieces, and she was forced to cram everything in. Hmm.

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