Monday, August 17, 2020

Doom with a View

Edited by Kristen Iversen, with E. Warren Perry and Shannon Perry

Expected publishing date Fall of 2020

Reviewed by Ginny Short

Warning: don’t pick up this book unless you are prepared to be shocked.

But frankly, if you happen to live in the Atomic Age – which, unless you have been sleeping you know that time is now – you should read this book. I remember learning to duck and cover. I remember being terrified that we would go up in nuclear smoke. I was born just upwind of Rocky Flats. I remember. I grew up about 100 miles from the Trinity Site in New Mexico. I remember. I have spent most of my adult life within 100 miles of a nuclear plant. I remember. This book jogs my own recollection, and reminds me that the nuclear reactor that I have lived close to for nearly 40 years, and the atomic skies I grew up under are still a threat, still something to fear. They are not something to hide, lock up and throw away the key. We have a radioactive history.

 This book is intense. Some of the essays are dense with science (I’m still struggling with the concepts of picocuries and curies), and some of them appeal to the broader public. But each and every essay sketches a story around the theme of radioactive contamination and secrecy and the promise of the American Dream. Imagine you are a couple with a new family. Imagine you have saved and saved and finally have enough for a down payment on a house. Imagine you buy it. I have neighbors who bought houses downwind of a series of sand dunes. To them the dunes are demonic: they coat their streets and yards and golf courses with fine, white sand. There is an odd, unwritten contract in the buying of a home: unless it is expressly encoded by law, you won’t find in the fine print the problems the house may have. Like dust. Like radioactive dust. My neighbors can see the dust and they howl like coyotes. This is annoying dust. Imagine if you can’t see the dust. Imagine then what it can do to you, to your family, your friends. But no one has any obligation to warn you about the dust. Would you howl if you knew your new home was contaminated with radioactivity that will outlast you for 959 generations to come?

This is the story, the complication, the audacity of Rocky Flats, one of many cold-war sites producing parts for the nuclear weapons that initiated the Atomic Age. This is a story that all those who live in our Atomic Neighborhood should read. And make no mistake, we are all in the Neighborhood as Linda Pentz Gunter’s essay The Nuclear Power-Nuclear Weapons Connection really makes clear. We are in the neighborhood, and you may find as you ponder these essays surprising connections in your own life. I was born 9 miles away from Rocky Flats (and upwind), just 4 years after it opened. I wonder if my parents knew about it?  They never mentioned it. My Dad worked at White Sands Missile Range – another site of cold war military expertise - for most of his adult life. He was never allowed to speak about his work.

I would caution you: some of the essays are difficult to read. Some because they are dense with scientific jargon.  Keep going: you can get through these. (Just remember that a picocurie is one measurement of the rate of decay of uranium: in one minute it will exhibit 2 decays or disintegrations. Each “decay” releases radioactive energy called alpha, beta or gamma rays. Each time it releases energy it bombards surrounding tissue and can damage it. If you inhale a single particle containing one picocurie of energy, and it lodges in your lungs it will bombard the surrounding cells twice every minute for the remainder of your life. If you live 40 more years you will receive radiation exposure 31,540,000,000 times over the course of your life in those cells.  So, a soil sample with 50 picocuries contained therein will decay at 100 times per day. So, if a particle of radioactive material containing 50 picocuries of energy lodges in – say your lung, it will continually bombard your lung tissue 100 times a day for the remainder of your life. Remember that that particle will outlast you.) Needless to say, that is a lot of radiation focused in a very small area. This is how I digested the information contained in these essays

Read through these. And be encouraged, many of the other essays will summarize what the geeky scientists like to read and write. Read through. But be advised, they are all difficult to read because of the allegations made, and the jumble of facts, and suppositions. They are difficult to read because of the allegations of cover ups, the disquieting stories of heroism, patriotism, loss and sacrifice. They are also encouraging: what better use of art than to illustrate this important part of our history?

Read on. The final essay is a wonderful tome on the responsibility we have towards ourselves and future generations. We don’t want to hide the fact of our nuclear history. This book is not about blame but about responsibility. This has been part of the problem. The author of the final essay (Kathleen Sullivan) makes a compelling case for us to own our nuclear history, claim it, explore it and save it for future generations. We can’t do that if we don’t know it exists. We already have a legacy of contaminated land and illness among our people. If we do not own that history, if we do not think about it, it will continue to silently contaminate our legacy for 24,000 years...if we survive that long.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Be The Artist by Thomas "Detour" Evans

Be The Artist (Fulcrum Books)

Thomas “Detour” Evans

Reviewed by Ginny Short

If you search Amazon for “art techniques” you get all sorts of choices, from botanical drawing techniques to how to do doodle art or paint on stones. Search for “the business of art” and you get a few choices. It often seems to me that we have a habit of separating art from business as if the two don’t go hand in hand. So often I remember hearing young people referred to as “creative” but encouraged to get a degree in something that will pay the rent. I was one of those. This likely creates a huge barrier between many a talented artist and success. Evans is trying to bridge that divide.

Thomas “Detour” Evans is a Denver based artist ( who, according to his own self-description, is an all-around creative. The book, he states, comes out of his own success and his desire to help others become successful as creatives. Nothing beats a good solid business background to get there.

This book is a highly readable book. You can read it straight through or you can pick and choose your chapters. Most of the chapters are applicable to many types of creatives – writers, actors, visual artists – but a few are really devoted to visual artists (and no wonder, this is Evans’ main focus.) As a writer I found many of his suggestions completely apropos to my work. Evans’ presents a chapter with some thoughtful ideas based on his own experience, then follows with examples, quotes from successful artists, “homework” or questions for thought and some suggestions for google searches to broaden your own horizon. I found these various approaches neat and easy to follow, while stimulating the thought I think that Evans’ is trying to encourage. This, I think, is the best part of the book: he is trying to have a conversation. Allow the conversation.

This book is a great introduction to the business of art.

Some of the topics he covers:

·       Mental health for artists (really, really important!!)
·       Finding your voice.
·          How to create a CV, resume and/or artist’s statement.
·       Funding, pricing and marketing your work.

He fills the book with good thoughts and insights like “don’t quit your day job” to start with, or encouraging you to ask and discover your art community (and how valuable that is), to thinking about your studio space to your legal rights as a artist. The various topics, while not in depth, gave a really good outline of important topics that an up and coming artist should consider, as well as tips on how to get more info or go deeper into each topic.

Finally, the book provided good inspiration from the words of successful artists. These quotes are scattered around the book and each was worth savoring. This book is a really solid background in the business of art, simple yet concrete. I enjoyed the conversation.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

What you have heard is True by Carolyn Forche

Review of What You Have Heard Is True

By Carolyn Forché

Penguin Press 2019

Review by Ginny Short

A mentor in one of my nonfiction workshops at Regis, University once advised me to “Think like a poet, write like a novelist and tell the truth.” I’ve thought about this often, sometimes with puzzlement, sometimes with despair. How does one do this?

Then I read this book. Carolyn Forché succeeds so well in this prescription that I could not put the book down. The story is that of a young woman who is recruited as a witness during the civil war in El Salvador. Conscripted is the right word, and yet it is not. Ms. Forché was approached by an El Salvadorian National, Leonel Gomez Vides in 1977, who invited her to come to see his country. It is a puzzling and interesting relationship. When asked why he was approaching her he responded, “Because of your poetry book, and Maya’s[1] letter. She told me all about you.” Because she is a poet.

In my view, this book justifies his choice of a poet for his witness. The book is a beautifully told story of her experience of El Salvador and its people, the country and the human rights violations that she witnesses. She tells her story and that of the people she Leonel introduces her to. The elusive Leonel (“…too mysterious for most people,” says Maya. “…it is also possible that he is with the CIA” Maya’s father opines) approaches her and invites her to visit El Salvador, a crazy idea that Forché is drawn to. Once in El Salvador – and not always certain why she is there – she is taken step by step into seeing the world around her.

This is a book about seeing, and isn’t that what witnessing is?  To see and attest to a fact or event, someone who knows something, sees something. It is easy to forget – as we are surrounded by our SUVs and country gardens and Starbucks on every corner that not everyone lives the way we do. In these days of rising tempers around the issue of migration, it is good to remember that other places are not like ours. This witness is not limited to time, but is as relevant today as it was to the events Ms. Forché is drawn into.

The world she is drawn into is both beautiful (From the high steps, the market stalls were a flotilla roofed by market tents like sails, white and hard to the wind, luffing at the edges, bright and taut, and beneath them people moved like schools of fish in the swells of commerce) and terrifying (“What happens to the unlucky?” “What happens? They are disappeared. The become desaparecidos. We don’t know after that, unless the corpse is found and even then we don’t know because they are, how do you say it? Beyond recognition”).

            Forché’s text is lyrical and moving, and she brings to us the reminder the power of story. This one reminds us of the need to be aware, to pay attention, and to not take our lives for granted. She brings to the conversation the need for empathy, the need to remember that we are all part of the same and that we are responsible, we are part of the problem. She impresses with the need to witness, more than the fact of her own act of witnessing.

[1] Maya was a friend of Ms. Forché’s and Leonel Vidas’ cousin.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Book notes: Listening to the Savage: River Notes and Half-hear Melodies by Barbara Hurd

Hurd, Barbara. Listening to the Savage: River Notes and Half-heard Melodies. Athens: University of Georgia Press. 2016.

“There is scarcely anyone writing better about the natural world than Barbara Hurd,” says Alan Cheuse of NPR. Hurd, a writing professor at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, writes here about the Savage, a river that she knows and explores, but also about music and sound and how we hear and what this tells us about ourselves and our world.

Her granddaughter says, “I used to think adults were smart,” and reading this suggests we need to get a lot smarter, not just about the world around us but about ourselves. Hurd explores everything from narcissism to Bach and entices the reader to see herself in a new and humbling way.

            This book was truly inspirational. Like Rod Saner, she is smart and succinct, making connections with herself and her world in clear and whacky ways. I loved how she brought her granddaughter into the discussions with the wisdom of a five-year old teaching us how to think more clearly about ourselves, our world. I loved the connections Hurd made, the way she thought through her writing, building steps and bridges and connections. Brilliant book. Brilliant writer.