The absent hand Reimagining our American landscape

Suzannah Lessard

Book - 2019

"Following her bestselling The Architect of Desire, Suzannah Lessard returns with a remarkable book, a work of relentless curiosity and a graceful mixture of observation and philosophy. This intriguing hybrid will remind some of W. G. Sebald and others of Rebecca Solnit, but it is Lessard's singular talent to combine this profound book-length mosaic 'a blend of historical travelogue, architectural tour, philosophical meditation, and prose poem' into a work of unique genius, as she describes and reimagines our landscapes. In this exploration of our surroundings, The Absent Hand contends that to reimagine landscape is a form of cultural reinvention. The Absent Hand begins by observing the residual places from our country&#...039;s first European settlements, and continues to the life of our cities and their eventual overflow into suburbs and wildernesses. Yet Lessard is always joining us to discuss the effects of "enclosure," of how we manage to live on and in the land, how we surround ourselves on the land with stories, roads, buildings, and ideas. Whether it's climate change altering the meaning of nature, or digital communications altering the nature of work, the global enclosure is panoramic, infiltrative, inescapable. No one will finish this book, this journey, without having their ideas of living and settling in their surroundings profoundly enriched"--

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Location Call Number   Status
2nd Floor 917.304/Lessard Checked In
Travel writing
Berkeley, CA : Counterpoint 2019.
Main Author
Suzannah Lessard (author)
First hardcover edition
Physical Description
xi, 304 pages ; 24 cm
  • Author's Note
  • Part 1. Listening to the Fields
  • 1. In the Village
  • 2. Suburbophobia
  • 3. Gettysburg
  • 4. Natchez
  • 5. Truth or Consequences
  • 6. Flight
  • 7. The View from a Small Mountain
  • Part 2. The Hollowed City
  • 1. The Pumpkins of Bergen Street
  • 2. The Market
  • 3. Youngstown
  • 4. The Pendulum
  • 5. Fresh Kills
  • Part 3. The Absent Hand
  • 1. The Corporation in the Woods
  • At the Sheraton
  • The Corporation in the Woods
  • King of Prussia
  • 2. Atopia
  • Spreawlian
  • Death
  • Disney
  • Art
  • 3. Whose Hand?
  • MAD Wonks in Toyland
  • Monroe's Veto
  • Herbert Hoover's Hand
  • Whose Hand?
  • 4. The Inverted Cradle
  • Acknowledgments
Review by Booklist Review

This genre-blurring work of criticism part history, part travel diary, part personal narrative explores the contradictions of the American landscape. In episodic chapters, Lessard probes a medley of places: the mountain villages of upstate New York; Brooklyn housing projects; the sprawl and megamall of King of Prussia, Pennsylvania; and plantations in Natchez, Mississippi. What do they tell us? Little about the American landscape is what it seems. Lessard revels in the ambiguities, questioning her own assumptions and challenging the reader's preconceptions. One of her major themes is the connection between the local and the global how vernacular landscapes are encroached upon, resist, and relate to the homogenizing forces of global capitalism. As Lessard alternates between narrative and analysis, what begins as a pastiche of vignettes builds into an entrancing reconsideration of America's history, from the spaces of the antebellum South through the landscapes of the Cold War and beyond. Some readers will raise an eyebrow at the occasional sweeping assertion and purple flourish. But this nonetheless remains a stellar work of landscape criticism, a rapturous meditation on the revelatory power of place.--Sam Kling Copyright 2019 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

In an elegant series of essays, New Yorker contributor Lessard (The Architect of Desire) explores the American landscape as a metaphor for recent shifts in the national consciousness. She investigates places near and dear, like the idyllic town of Rensselaerville in the Hudson River Valley where she vacations, and the Brooklyn neighborhood where she lived in the 1990s, as well as those that are unknown to her, like the King of Prussia, Pa., shopping mall. She considers preserved Civil War battlefields and Southern plantations that have been whitewashed of any mention of slavery lest visitors feel the slightest discomfort, and uses the Columbia University campus to gauge the widening conservative-liberal divide. Her musings are richly poetic, even when describing prosaic features of the urban landscape, such as a "garbage truck grinding in a cold rain... a groan from the gut of creation." Describing how modern development can steadily blight a landscape, she encapsulates this process astutely as an "eerie burglary of the world as we have known it." Throughout, Lessard offers an extraordinary way of examining and understanding the aesthetics of different environments, whether urban, suburban, or bucolic, which will inspire readers to look with new curiosity at the places around them. (Mar.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

Lessard (The Architect of Desire) crafts an attentive book that explores how we view and understand our landscape, with a focus on how Americans give meaning and value to their environments. The work is divided into three sections, with the first two dedicated to rural and city landscapes and the third part dealing with businesses and governments that have sought to impose their agendas onto the modern landscape. Much of this follows the author's initial ruminations upon the meaning of beauty. Is it a manicured countryside, an overpopulated suburb, a glass-sheathed skyscraper? Intriguing examples explore how landscapes are viewed by different groups of people. For instance, pastoralism, or the practice of herding livestock, overlooks that these fields were, in many cases, wrought and maintained by slaves. Yet no landscape, argues the author, is without a type of majesty and depth. VERDICT Lessard's journey through the American landscape provides an insightful glimpse into how the changing of landscape aesthetics reflects concurrent changes in society. For readers interested in a unique blend of geography, sociology, and travel.-Brian Renvall, Mesalands Community Coll., Tucumcari, NM © Copyright 2019. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

Of beach plums, ramps, and Ramada Inns: a quietly sensitive, eminently sensible consideration of the landscapes of our lives.Lessard (The Architect of Desire: Beauty and Danger in the Stanford White Family, 1996), a writer and editor for the New Yorker and Washington Monthly, respectively, is a collector of placesand, she writes, she is amazed by people who aren't, as when she observes "how indifferent air passengers are to the view out the window." Some views are perhaps a little cheerless, such as the industrial wastelands of Ohio or the battlefield at Gettysburg. Some are stunning, and all shape the people who live in them without being aggressively assertive about it, as with the New York village in which she finds "something modestly, collectively triumphant," namely, a shared sense of belonging. Landscape, writes the author, incorporates layers of meaning that lie close to the "hidden springs of personhood," joining families and histories to the world. No matter how difficult some of those landscapes may be, from broken urban neighborhoods to abandoned cemeteries, the meaning is there to be sought out. Lessard usually finds something to like, or at least to point out, about the places she brings up for consideration. One good example is Wall Street, where she logged time as a young worker in a financial world "in which women especially were relegated to a lower order"no problem, really, inasmuch as she was busy absorbing the place and its glorious and messy chaos. The overall feel of the book, which blends poetic reverie with deeply learned geography and history, is friendly if just on the edge of being too much, of becoming encyclopedic. Still, you've got to like a narrative that includes a search for an elusive Staten Island landfill that ends in unlikely self-discovery: "You felt lonely just looking at it, as if you hadn't spoken to another human being in months, years maybe."A pleasant hodgepodge of observations on many places, all of them made more interesting than they perhaps really areand that's quite a gift. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.