Monthly Archives: May 2009

Literature: Shelley’s Frankenstein

“…the supreme and magnificent Mont Blanc, raised itself from the surrounding aiguilles, and its tremendous dome overlooked the valley.” –from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Mont Blanc in the alpenglowI’m excitedly preparing for a return to the French Alps, and in the process, I’m reading and rereading some of the literature that pertains to this area. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is one story that I reread last week. Frankenstein seems to be one of those stories that we learn as children. Its characters show up in Saturday morning cartoons, and references to Frankenstein surface in our adult conversations about science and politics. But as I reread the book, I was struck by its intellectual and spiritual depth…depth that is astounding when one considers that Mary Shelley was only nineteen when she wrote it. Sadness pervades the book, a sentiment that Shelley knew all too well in her own life. The story of ambitious Victor Frankenstein and his creation—the “monster” or “demon” as he is called—seems particularly relevant to today’s discussions of genetic engineering and stem cell research, to larger questions about science and ambition and the quality of life. In the process of exploring these larger issues, Shelley turns a keen eye towards natural landscapes. Frankenstein’s monster retreats high into the mountains above Chamonix, France and Frankenstein pursues him to the icy ends of the earth. The plot unfolds in places of singular beauty, contrasting with the story’s themes of spiritual and physical ugliness. I thought I knew Frankenstein until I reread it…and found it to be an old story that contains timeless truths about moral responsibility and the value of life.

Landscape: Boulder Creek

Deb on TyroleanWe call this time of the year “mud season” in the mountains. The snow is melting off the slopes, but the trails generally aren’t solid enough to hike on without slipping around in the boggy sections. A lot of people go on vacations to get away from it all, and I’ve just been taking weekend climbing trips to Boulder…transitioning, I suppose, from winter to summer activities. I’ve been having so much fun climbing that I haven’t missed the skiing a bit, and hanging out in Boulder Canyon is in many ways as beautiful as hanging out on top of a snowy peak. Boulder Creek thunders below the crags…swollen from the snowmelt.

In November, Boulder Creek was low enough to skip across on stones:

Creek November

But right now, the same area is frightening:

Creek Gushing

In order to access the climbing area on the opposite side, we had to do a Tyrolean traverse (Deb below, demonstrating her expert skills):

Creek Tyrolean2

I’m not complaining about having to Tyrolean across…it’s kind of fun! Even if the sound of the gurgling water can be unsettling, crossing Boulder Creek like this makes the outing seem more of an adventure.

Literature: The Nation’s Highest Honor

Title: The Nation’s Highest Honor // Author: James Gaitis // Publisher: Kunati Inc. // Date: May 2009 // 256 p.

Indian Creek
Anything about the American deserts excite me…so I was psyched to review James Gaitis’ The Nation’s Honor, published earlier this month. This novel’s main character is a reclusive artist-type named Leonard Bentwood who lives in a barnboard shack somewhere way out in the desert. The location sounds like places I’ve been to in the Utah desert, but Gaitis probably drew from his own knowledge of the Sonoran Desert to create Bentwood’s retreat. Plot basics: The reclusive Leonard Bentwood has been singled out to receive an award called The Nolebody Medal, which is widely regarded as the nation’s highest honor. The novel is set slightly into the future, and biotechnology has enabled governments to inoculate the global population against violence. So everybody gets along. But…scientists discover that the vaccine has a shorter half-life than they expected. The President decides to award Leonard Bentwood the Nolebody Medal—just as all hell is about to break loose—because he thinks that someone like Bentwood will assuage the masses. Bentwood travels to the nation’s capitol to receive the award, and he unwittingly sets off a chain of events far different from what the President expected. Of course, I can’t tell you what happens because it would spoil the ending, so I suggest you read the book yourself and find out! The Nation’s Highest Honor is a smart, satirical, political, environmental, pretty good read.

To read my more formal-type review of The Nation’s Highest Honor on NewWest, click here.

Life: F*%# Plastic!

Traci Macnamara PaintingI was recently told that I am “obsessive about plastic.” It’s true, and here’s why: there’s this thing called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a.k.a. the Eastern Garbage Patch, a.k.a. the Pacific Trash Vortex. Google any of those terms, and you will be more disgusted than you’d imagine. The gist is this: basically, there’s a bunch of plastic trash floating in the ocean. Now it’s estimated to be two times the size of Texas, and it’s threatening wildlife. It’s toxic to the environment. It’s way lame. So, what to do? Well, first of all, don’t buy plastic. Next, don’t use plastic if you don’t need it, and recycle as much of whatever plastic you have as you can. Sometimes you’ll just end up with it anyway.

I got inspired to make art out of my trash stash, so I recently went through my non-recyclable plastics and pulled out all of my take-out coffee lids. I try to use a mug or go without the lid, but here are all the ones I ended up with (non-recyclable in my local area):

painted lids

My earthy pal Arika inspired this idea, so I took over her garage for the day, and the result was a mobile made out of plastic lids and an Andy Warhol print. I attached it to a piece of cardboard (also trash), and hung it from a clothes hanger.

garage art

So. I’m calling the creation, simply, garage art. The idea behind garage art is to create something beautiful out of the trash we can’t get rid of and hang it up in the garage as a reminder to recycle. That way, more plastic is staying out of the oceans, and creative juices flow in the process. If anyone out there has any similar creations, I’d be psyched to see or hear about them!

Landscape: Tulip Time

Tulip Time BannerI went to Holland last week—Holland, Michigan, that is. The annual Tulip Time festival was on, with traditional dancers clogging in streets, carnival food, arts & crafts, and—as one might expect—lots of tulips. I had been wanting to go to Tulip Time since I first heard of it from my local pal Arika Theule-Van Dam, who taught me that “if you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much” in these parts. The festival was exciting, but not the kind of thing I’ll be raving about for decades. Maybe I should have eaten an elephant ear. Or maybe I should have insisted we go visit the tulip farms nearby. Instead, we took in some of these beauties from the sidewalk:

Red White Tulips

And some more colorful ones:

Red Yellow Tulips

The clickity-clack of these clogs in the street was, indeed, exciting. The street dancing was probably the best part of the festival. Local high school students dress in traditional Dutch clothing and shake some serious booty in the streets:

Tulip Dancers

Tulip Time also gave us an excuse to spend the afternoon in Holland revisiting my favorite café (The Good Earth) and Arika’s favorite cool design/optics shop ( Globe).

The details:
Tulip Time Festival
Holland, Michigan

The Good Earth Café
14 East Seventh Street
Holland, Michigan 49423

49 East Eighth Street
Holland, Michigan 49423

Literature: PEN/ O. Henry Prizes 2009

Title: The PEN/ O. Henry Prize Stories 2009 // Editor: Laura Furman // Publisher: Anchor Books // Date: May 2009 // p. 432

pen-o-henry-2009 Hot off the press: The PEN/ O. Henry Prize Stories 2009. This superfab story collection was just released yesterday, but I carried a pre-pub copy with me to read on a weekend jaunt to Michigan. I’ll enthusiastically report that none of these twenty stories had me dozing on the plane. Each of them is beautifully crafted, and however intricate some may become, the best follow a simple trajectory: a young man falls in love with a prostitute; an uncle takes on a mistress; a daughter fights to free herself from her mother. In a single collection, readers will feel as though they’ve traveled the world—settings circle the globe from South Africa to Scotland to Egypt to India to—of course—the Good Old U.S. of A. No matter where these stories are set, they have one thing in common. They bridge the gap between the individual and the community, as juror Anthony Doerr explains. “Writing stories,” says Doerr, “is not…about spending lots of time with oneself. It’s about learning to be able to look beyond the self, beyond the ego, to enter other lives and other worlds. It’s about honing one’s sense of empathy so that a story might bridge the gap between the personal and the communal.” Each of these stories has its own way of showing us what it means to belong to the whole.

Historically, the best of the best appears in this collection. Essays are selected from previous year’s submissions of more than two hundred literary publications. This year’s jurors—A.S. Byatt, Tim O’Brien, and Anthony Doerr—comment on their top choice, and each of the writers offers a bit about his or her writing and its inspiration.

Click here to read my more formal-type review of this book on the Contemporary Literature site.

Landscape: Lion’s Land

It’s early—before daybreak—and we’re driving in the dark through the St. Vrain canyon. Rob and Lee are sitting up front, Lee driving us to the Long’s Peak trailhead parking lot. We think we have a fourteen-hour day ahead of us if all goes well on Dream Weaver, but it’s too early to talk about it. I’m groggy in the backseat, drinking coffee, when I see a fox cut across the road. The fox perks us all up, and just when I sit back in my seat, Lee shouts out: “Lion!”


I catch her shadow off to the right, but I don’t get a good look. “Turn around, man,” says Rob. I think we must’ve spooked her. She’ll be gone. But as soon as we flip around, I see her standing tall, ears pointed, behind a large boulder near the road. We creep slowly back down the road and pull up directly in front of the boulder. The cat refuses to leave her spot. She’s feeding on something, we think, crouched down and rustling in the brush. She stands up again, our lights silvering her glossy coat.


I’ve never seen a lion in the wild, and this is one of the most beautiful creatures I’ve ever seen. I hold my breath. She’s really big. We can only linger so long, and besides we’ve got some climbing to do. But after we get shut down climbing into a route on Mt. Meeker (post-holing in knee deep snow, getting tossed about in high winds and blowing snow…), we return to the spot.


We don’t see her there, so we get out of the car and walk right up to the boulder where we had seen her earlier, crouching in the shadows. The whole area stinks with the stench of lion piss and warm meat rotting in the sun. Deer guts are scattered around, and hooves are littered about the scene.


We look up into the hills. Is she up there hiding out in a den? Or looking down at us looking up there for her? Lions are sneaky, and I like to think of her sleeping soundly somewhere with a warm belly full of food while we were freezing our faces off on a route we couldn’t complete.

P.S. Don’t laugh at the first photo. Do you know how hard it is to get a photograph in the dark of a freaked out mountain lion? Anyway. She’s there. Believe me, and if you don’t, hopefully the dead deer guts will convince you.