Sunday, July 20, 2008

New interviews on the way

It's summer. That's my excuse. I have many new interviews to add to the site, and I'm working on putting all the elements together. Honest I am. In-between all the other urgent matters on my to-do list. For instance, I just recorded an interview with Miles Harvey about his fascinating and many-faceted work of history, biography, and scholarly sleuthing, Painter in a Savage Land: The Strange Saga of the First European Artist in North America. I spoke with the editors and contributors to a rich and resonant anthology, A Stranger Among Us: Stories of Cultural Collision and Connection. Great stuff. Check back.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

My Sister, My Love by Joyce Carol Oates

I read Joyce Carol Oates’ novel, My Sister, My Love, months ago, and I had been waiting for it to come out to see what other reviewers and readers thought of it. But before responses to the novel surfaced, breaking news on the actual murder case on which My Sister, My Love is based flooded screens, air waves, and newspapers. This is so Oates. She is so attuned to the collective psyche. The collision of the release if this searing novel with the announcement that improved DNA identification technologies have exonerated JonBenet Ramsey’s family affirms Oates’ attunement to the gestalt. What a gift she has for turning the true stories that rivet our attention, mostly grim outbreaks of violence tinged with aberrant eroticism and certain madness, into fiction of tremendous dark power.

It’s obvious why JonBenet Ramsey’s murder fascinates Oates, a brilliant and daring writer fixated on the valor and vulnerability of girls in an aggressively sexualized and murderous world. She wrote a stinging essay about the 1996 murder of the six-year-old beauty princess during the media frenzy generated by the grossly mishandled case. In My Sister, My Love, she fictionalizes the family horror implicit in the Ramsey tragedy in a novel of ferocious intensity and nervy wit.

In Oates’ tale, the Rampikes live uneasily in wealthy, white Fair Hills, New Jersey. Bix is a big, shambling, sexy, and ruthless guy intent on getting mega-rich in the bio-tech industry. Bosomy, high-strung, and needy Betsey longs for acceptance among the town’s thin and snooty elite wives, and tries to use her jittery son, Skyler, as bait. But it’s her second child, anxious and brittle Edna Louise, who fulfills Betsey’s dream of fame and fortune. Her vehicle is figure-skating, a heady mix of athleticism and exhibitionism perfectly suited to Betsey’s mania for capitalizing on feminine charms to get maximum attention. Oates’ choice of ice-skating is inspired. It’s a cold, hard, and precarious realm fraught with prurience of the pedophile kind—her descriptions of Tots on Ice competitions are gloriously creepy. And her choice of narrator is equally brilliant: Skyler tells the story of his sister’s grotesque transformation into a gauchely make-up and provocatively costumed ice fairy a decade after her death. He himself has barely survived his toxic family, and his chronicle of two adults who never should have had children in an affluent and deeply neurotic society that reduces childhood to an alphabet stew of psychiatric and neurological syndromes and doses them with fistfuls of pharmaceuticals instead of love is a mordantly satirical indictment of upper-class child abuse during the pell-mell greed of the corporate grabfest of the 1990s. Both neglected Skyler and his poor little sister––renamed Bliss and kept out of school and subjected to extreme and painful practice sessions, beauty treatments, and drug regimes (“I’m not a little girl. I’m a thousand years old.”)––are victims of their monstrous mother’s misery over her husband’s incessant infidelities, a storm of hurt and fury young Skyler struggles to understand.

Oates’ insights into her narrator’s psyche when he is nine and nineteen and astonishing in their nuance and stinging humor, culminiating in his fascination and disgust with atrocities of the media coverage in “Tabloid Hell,” and the fiendish cultism in “cybercesspoolspace.” Oates reachers higher peaks with each work, and this is a stop-in-your-tracks novel of extraordinary dimension and power, sympathy and indignation.

Friday, July 4, 2008

For the love of country

It's a surprisingly cool July 4th here in Chicago. The sky a weave of blue and white, the clouds pulled by the wind and sifting the sunlight. It's windows-open weather, which I love because I can hear all the leaves rustling in the breeze and listen to the birds talk and sing. Our milkweed is blooming and I watched a large monarch butterfly wing from one flower cluster to the next. I've spent the day, so far, reading a smart, eye-opening, and harrowing book about honeybees in decline. A book about interconnectivity and our species' inability to detect it. A book we'll be hearing about when it comes out in September.

But today I want to welcome another book into the world, a book officially released this week perhaps because its author, Rick Bass, is a great American. A valiant citizen of the world. An eloquent advocate for the living world, that is. His new book is Why I Came West.

Rick Bass writes out of a profound connection and commitment to wilderness, creating exalted and elegiac fiction—his last story collection, The Lives of Rocks, was absurdly overlooked, and molten nonfiction (no book more lucidly explained why drilling in the Arctic is a crime we must never commit than Caribou Rising). Clearly, his attunement to the great web of life is meshed with his love of language and story, but never before has he told the full tale of his apprenticeship to literature and the place that has defined his life for the past two decades, Montana’s Yaak Valley. In Why I Came West Bass looks back to his suburban Houston childhood and his work as an oil geologist in Mississippi, searching for clues to his love-at-first sight response to the Yaak. As he describes the rich diversity of life cradled in these northerly mountains and forests and his deep immersion in this bountiful land as a hunter, hiker, and meditative observer, he forges a majestic, sad, and clarion memoir of imagination and symbiosis, of “the spirit within us, and the spirit of a place, and then that third thing, that story-like thing––the ignition, or spark, that occurs between us and it.”

Bass shares his anguish over the clear-cutting of bear-sheltering woods, his turning away from writing fiction to do the hard work of environmental activism, and the virulent hatred aroused by his efforts to secure permanent protection for “fourteen little roadless areas.” Versed in duality and paradox, infused with fierce joy in the oneness of life, poetic, and philosophical, Bass is also “sensate and passionate,” qualities he holds in high esteem. In this ravishing and clarifying and important memoir of one life and the life of a place, Bass writes with incandescent frankness about how difficult it will be to change our ways, but how necessary, and about why we must cherish what little wilderness remains.

Rick Bass writes:

“Some landscapes these days have been reduced to nothing but dandelions and fire ants, knapweed and thistle, where the only remaining wildlife to be found are sparrows, squirrels, and starlings. In blessed Yaak, however, it is all still present: not a single species has gone extinct since the retreat of the Ice Age. I find this astonishing, and magical; I know of no other valley in the continental United States for which this can be said. The biota of the Yaak is the ecological equivalent of a Russian novel. It is a greatness, an ecological heritage, that we still have, barely, in the possession of public ownership. Unlike the Russian novels, however, which are preserved forever in libraries, the last roadless wildlands of the Yaak are not preserved: there is no guarantee of their continued survival, or of the survival of that wildness, that art, that exists between our imaginations and the landscape.”

If we be patriots, we will save this place.