Saturday, July 13, 2013

Just Shelved

Pitch DarkPitch Dark by Renata Adler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Bow down to the collage novel! Long live the hybrid text!

My Love Is A Dead Arctic ExplorerMy Love Is A Dead Arctic Explorer by Paige Ackerson-Kiely
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This collection intrigued me and I stuck with it, though in the end, it didn't stick to my ribs or blaze through with an unforgettable line. I think the more colloquial, story-telling prose poems were the most accessible of the collection, though they, too, seemed to deliberately elude a complete grasp.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Alternately helpful and discouraging meditations on writing; worth it for the portions set in the Pacific Northwest alone.

The Wheel of LoveThe Wheel of Love by Joyce Carol Oates
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I admit that by the end of this large collection of stories, I was praying to myself, "please don't go crazy, please don't go crazy." Madness, obsessive thoughts, anxiety, drug use, familial death, and physical disfigurements all feature heavily in these dark pieces, all originally published by 1970. These are stories of their time, too: racial integration, counterculture in conflict with suburbia, trapped housewives, the decline of Detroit.

"Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" is by far the most famous story here, and it's really not overrated, in my opinion. I would group it among the most perfect, unsettling short stories written in the past 100 years. It's a distinctly American classic. Another classic would be "How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Corrections and Began My Life Over Again." Love and sexuality loom as disruptive forces for the men and women of these stories, especially the women. Characters are paralyzed in adulterous hell or transfixed in moments of despair over a life that stretches predictably ahead. On the other side, those who choose the bohemian way fare no better. They are flying dangerously free, unmoored and despised.

Oates' stories depict a culture at a crossroads and railing within it. The smoothness of artistic production can be ripped apart by the intrusion of the other. The burden of performing personality is a sentence of permanent psychic anxiety.

From a stylistic standpoint, these are also worthwhile fictional experiments. Rather than conventional plots, many of the stories in this collection rely on snapshots in time of the same character. Sometimes, they are told backward. Sometimes, groupings of experience and advancing psychological states are captured beneath obtuse or leading subject headings. I enjoyed this organizational ingenuity and the way Oates' distinctive prose lingers on mental states and character impressions. Nothing is described dispassionately; in contrast, everything is experienced as intense, jarring, and grating on the senses. This technique does a good job in creating unease for the reader and illuminating the interiors of Oates almost uniformly troubled characters.

This was my first time reading Oates at length, but I definitely would like to read more of her fiction. I feel after completing The Wheel of Love that I've experienced that time period more viscerally than I have before.

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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Artificial & Natural

Like many amateur smartphone photographers (and before smartphones, iPhoto & point-and-shoot aficionados), I take great pleasure in going to beautiful places and snapping eminently editable photos. Not that many areas in the Jackson Hole region need much of a boost in color saturation or sharpness, but still, the small tweaks here and there or the revelation of HDR make me feel that I've somehow done more than aimed and clicked. I've photographed.

Recently, I've been exploring the Gros Ventre region, which is full of pleasurable place names such as the Red and Lavender Hills, and is also the home of the most charming backcountry cabin I've ever encountered. Set betwixt a ridge and a burbling creek at the end of a scenic little dale, its outside was so perfect that I thought it might still be in use by the occasional Forest Service ranger. However, on closer examination, I found the cabin actually split in two and long-abandoned, even though its front windows still wavered with their original glass. In one side sat a 1940's era stove, and on the other, a built-in shelf and table. As to its owner, an hour of feverish internet research produced nothing, though I did uncover a snooty entry from an evaluator criticizing another Gros Ventre cabin's entry in the National Register of Historic Places. Historian snobbery, alive and well.

Klimt Stone

The Gros Ventre is defined by a massive 1925 landslide that brought an entire side of Sheep Mountain down in a crush of tons of rock and trees. The slide, in turn, dammed the Gros Ventre River to form Lower Slide Lake (the "Gros Ventre Slide" is also a locally-beloved breakfast dish at The Bunnery). Two years later, part of the dam gave way, flooding the nearby town of Kelly almost out of existence. Because of its devastation in the flood, Jackson stepped forward to become of the county seat of Teton County.

Evidence of the slide has not dissipated in the ninety odd years since it happened. Huge boulder fields and drowned trees rising eerily from the lake still attest to this past natural violence. Primarily composed of sedimentary Tensleep Sandstone, the rocks and boulders ejected from the mountainside have sometimes an orangish hue and are speckled with bright splotches of many-colored lichen. In my head, I've begun calling it Klimt Stone because this reminds me of Klimt's metallic, speckled, and variegated paint textures.

Burnt trees also lend themselves well to being re-interpreted and morphed into looming, portentous signifiers. The following was on an unnamed ridge (at least, unknown to me) bordering Granite Creek, which is south of Jackson. Against bluer-than-blue skies, the carbonized skin glitters--a stalk of coal.

And this brings us to cloudscapes--perhaps the easiest to manipulate into technicolor visions, mimicking the layering of paint pigment in the depth of the alabaster, the lemon, the champagne. Dialing up a cloudscape brings baroque and rococo heavenly vistas to mind--those windows into ethereality usually guarded by chubby putti with trumpets and garlands. The cherubim don't work for free in Wyoming, however. I've seen plenty of rare animals, including a wolverine (!), but so far, no swirling celestial babies. I'll keep you posted.

As I continue to walk the woods, thinking of my book, and continue to indulge my side interest in documenting new hikes and spectacles, the vividness of real nature and the artificiality of art and nature-translated-to-image continue to inform one another. Sometimes reading is the most vivid thing of all; sometimes writing feels like the shoddiest paintbrush to communicate what is real. Regardless, the richness of a life lived in art and in landscape imparts a reverence for all that hallows, communicates, and beautifies experience. The one is essential to the other.

(Painting: "Adele Bloch Bauer," Gustav Klimt)