A Famous Editor, a Famous Architect, and a Few Other Good Reads
It’s Minnesota Alumni’s quarterly books roundup.
Thirty years ago, an unlikely
Norwegian surname became
famous across the country thanks
to the growing popularity of the
Utne Reader magazine. Now the bearer of
that name and founder of that periodical,
Eric Utne (B.A. ’72), has written a memoir of
his experiences publishing
his digest of the alternative
press—among many other
life adventures. Far Out
Man: Tales of Life in the
House) brings the reader
along on Utne’s decades-long quest for answers and
meaning, which took him
from exploring Eastern
medicine and macrobiotics
to the men’s movement and
Waldorf Schools, with significant stops along the way to
found and run both New Age
Journal and Utne Reader.
Full disclosure: I served
as managing editor of Utne
Reader for eight years, and thus worked
closely with Utne. Despite that proximity, I
found I was unfamiliar with most of the rollicking, almost Zelig-like life he has led.
From his beginnings as a Baby Boomer growing up in a ranch house in Roseville, Minnesota, Utne became close friends with macrobiotics guru Michio Kushi, poet Robert Bly, and author Brenda Ueland, who also happened to be his step-grandmother (her third marriage was to his maternal grandfather, artist Sverre Hanssen). Along the way he also managed to rub elbows with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Tina Brown, Margaret Mead, Garrison Keillor, and many other famous 20th century characters mentioned within the book’s 300-plus pages.
Utne is and was a true seeker, and his persistent investigations of various philosophies
and spiritual practices make for fascinating
reading. Although such heartfelt and wideranging searching can be easily parodied as
dilettantism or flaky New Age meanderings,
his searches have been real, and the lessons
he has learned along the way many and true.
As can often be the case with lifelong
seekers, Utne’s childhood was a fractured
and fractious one; he writes he alternately
endured criticism and neglect from his
unhappy—and unhappily married—parents.
He remained close to his three siblings, however, particularly to his younger sister, Mary,
who died of cancer in her 50s, and younger
brother, Tom, who died much earlier.
Tom Utne—who was, if anything, an even
more ardent searcher than his brother—died
on the Oregon compound of the controversial religious leader Bhagwan Rajneesh, the
victim of an untreated allergic reaction to
peanuts. Tom had been instrumental in helping Eric pull together the first issue of Utne
Reader. It was published just after his death
and dedicated to his memory.
Utne was also strongly connected to
Ueland, who acted for him as a kind of combination cheerleader/mentor/inspiration for many years, until her death in 1985. After reading his description of the magazine he intended
to publish, “Brenda could not have been more
supportive,” writes Utne. “Without her hyperbolic and inflated praise, I might not have had
the courage to go forward. She acknowledged
me for qualities I didn’t know I had, and very
probably did not have until she claimed to see
them in me. Brenda’s encouragement made me
want to live up to her vision of me, to be better,
braver, and more noble—the heroic person she
challenged me to be.”
His memoir movingly describes the now
73-year-old Utne’s lifelong quest to become
that person, a quest he pursues even still.
And the rest…
For a look at the life and work of another
famous Minnesotan, pick up a copy of the
beautifully produced coffee table book
Elizabeth Scheu Close (University of Minnesota Press) by Jane King Hession (M.Arch.
’95). Elizabeth “Lisl” Scheu Close spent 60
years working as a Minnesota architect after
emigrating to the United States from Austria
as a young woman. Together with her husband,
Winston Close, she made important contributions to the Twin Cities residential architectural
landscape, designing more than 250 modern
homes, including a distinctive cluster in the
University Grove neighborhood of St. Paul.
One of the few women working as architects in
mid-century America, she inspired hundreds of
women who followed her into the profession.
The Twin Cities is also the setting of a
wrenching children’s picture book with a sadly
universal message about death. The Shared
Room (University of Minnesota Press) by Kao
Kalia Yang (with illustrations by Xee Reiter) tells
the story of a Hmong American family dealing
with their profound grief after the accidental
drowning of their older daughter. Told from
the perspective of the dead girl’s brother, who
is asked if he would like to move into her now-empty bedroom, The Shared Room is a beautiful
and tender story of loss and abiding love.
The lifelong resonance of home and family
is also the theme of The Second Home (St.
Martin’s Press), a first novel by Christina
Clancy (B.A. ’91). Set mostly on Cape Cod, the
site of the protagonists’ vacation cottage, the
book tells a kind of joint coming of age story
of the three Gordon siblings, Ann, Poppy, and
Michael. Their complicated relationships with
each other, their parents, and other Cape
Cod locals, and especially their profound
connection to a longtime, much-loved family
cottage, are skillfully explored in this evocative, richly detailed novel.
If you’d rather read something set a bit further afield, look for The Chile Pepper in China:
A Cultural Biography (Columbia University
Press) by Brian R. Dott (B.A. ’87). A professor
of history at Whitman College with a specialty
in China, Dott’s book is a fascinating look at
how the non-native chile (it wasn’t introduced
into the country until the 16th century) became
ubiquitous in China, influencing not only its
cuisine but its medicine, language, and cultural
identity as well.
Lynette Lamb (M.A. ’84) is a Minneapolis writer.