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Culture Watch


By Wallace Stegner, © 1992

Published by Random House; Hardcover and paperback, 227 pp

Anyone who has read Wallace Stegner is prepared for his vivid portrayal of setting, especially of the West. Its landscapes and special sensibilities are at the heart of all his later work. In this collection of essays, he writes again of these things, but from a variety of positions intended to present the West as an entity that is undergoing an often alarming evolution. (Remember the copyright date.)

There is much here to interest readers without firsthand knowledge of the West. Stegner recounts a good deal of history to explain what distinguishes the Western life view from the rest of the country’s. He examines what forces have influenced the development and now the impending destruction of unique people and places. Stegner discusses the lasting effects of mining, of pressures brought to bear on agrarian ambition because of aridity and the ecological dangers of traditional irrigation. He speaks of ill-conceived architecture in inappropriate settings. And in so doing, sets in motion a train of thoughts about how to live in the arid west, and by extension, how to live anywhere that man is in danger of doing irreparable damage to his environment. It is a cautionary book about things that matter deeply to its author.

Let us hope it may support the delayed interests of today’s environmental movement.

Stegner’s prose marches to the stately rhythms of formal English, but with the grace of dance. As a writer of style and elegance, he has few equals. He eschews the affectations of an Updike or Wilde as well as the simplifications of modern journalese and minimalist fiction writers. Instead he follows a path that leads to clarity and to the kind of truth that includes resonances of emotion, nostalgia, and on occasion, philosophy. Reading these essays is pure pleasure.

Someone interested in the environmental movement, but perhaps without much knowledge of its founders, will be interested in the essay on George R. Stewart, who was far ahead of his time.

One of the most exciting parts of the book is Stegner’s treatment of novelists Walter Van Tilburg Clark, Norman McLean, and Wendell Berry. The last essay is a letter to Wendell Berry, once a student of Stegner’s and later his friend. It expresses not only Stegner’s admiration for Berry’s work, but includes an eloquent apology for a kind of book that is concerned less with extremes and violence, and even political conviction, than with learning about people who are common, good, unsung — for the kind of book, in fact, he writes himself. I wanted to clap when I read his defense of writers whose temperament is “quiet, recessive, skeptical, and watchful” and who have no time for sensationalism because there is too much in ordinary life to be understood. He speaks of himself as a writer who must “make do with spiritual uncertainties,” and thus work to clarify the life he knows. He says, “The guts of any significant fiction …is an anguished question.”

It’s rare to find a writer whose use of the language is so careful and whose purposes are so humane. It is rarer still to find a writer as fluent as Stegner and as humble.

Joan L. Cannon


By Laura Chester © 2008; drawings by Haeri Yoo

Published by Bootstrap Press; Paperback, 212 pp

A book, no matter what they keep trying to tell us, is an object we can hold in our hands. Ergo, it matters what it looks like and feels like, as well as what it has in its text. Rancho Weirdo is, by these standards, out of the ordinary. It's "only paper," but it's illustrated, its cover is eye-catching, and it even has beautiful end papers of a deep red and two pages about the author and illustrator with color photos of each. From the time you pick it up, you know it's special. (How long has it been since you've seen a book of stories with pictures to go with them for readers over the age of twelve?)

Judging from the title, one might be expecting some contemporary horror or shock-and- awe. It's quite different from that. Quirky is probably the word that jumps first to mind, but it's even more than that.

Maybe you don't believe in ghosts, and Ms. Chester doesn't quite suggest that you should, but then again, between chuckles, while reading the first story "True or Untrue, Grit," you might not be too sure.

The humor in these tales is integral, not incidental, and wonderfully irreverent. In this first story, a woman in an unfamiliar house somewhere in the desert is confronted by an apparition who appears to be Indian (with John Wayne overtones). Probably the presence of her dog gives the lady somewhat more courage than she might otherwise have shown. When she addresses the person as "Grit" and his response is, "…You can call me — Cool Hand F...... Wayne," our heroine thinks it's as if "…he were getting his Netflix shuffled." That's the kind of wonderful locution typical of these yarns.

"The Survival of Violet Girls" offers what seems to be a major challenge.  Is it stream-of-consciousness?  Sort of.  Is it blank verse?  Almost.  Is it a story?  Not really.  Is it a put-on?  Probably not at all.  It may not fit into any category which comes to most readers' minds, but it creates an extraordinary mischievous atmosphere you can almost touch with your fingers and pictures you can certainly see with your mental eyes.  Could it be allegory?  That's the impression it leaves.  Flowers and mud, blossoms and bugs, naughty and filled with double entendres, echoes of childhood and rebellion and delight and frustration flicker across the pages.

Some of these pieces are stranger than others.  Some are funnier than others.  Some are more puzzling than others.  Seldom will a collection offer the variety to be found in this one.  You are never in doubt about Chester's command of vocabulary and imagery.  Her prose (and poetry?) are just plain masterful.


Then there are the illustrations.  These seemed to me to be of varying appropriateness and/or illumination.  They echo the title (Weirdo), for all are peculiar.  The style is one of faux primitivism that titillates but sometimes annoys.  Nevertheless, they suit the odd-ball takeoff points of these stories. 


Most of the stories are set in an arid southwestern area that seems virtually unpopulated. None is exactly a ranch, hence the title, perhaps.  One, "The Art of Kissing," seems to take place in the French Quarter.   It is told by a frustrated young narrator who seems to be struggling to get out of her life.  This is not a coming of age story, though.  The listeners who help her celebrate her birthday are no more children than she is — less, in fact.  With artful, ugly dialogue, we read of a young woman deserted by the father of her children, who seems to have developed a hopeless obsession with a priest.  It's interesting that we have no idea how old he is or what he looks like.  Haeri Yoo shows two pictures:  one of a child reaching up to touch the extended tongue of a larger figure who might or might not be an adult; the other shows an inert, faceless baby in one of those wheeled contraptions with a kind of canvas bucket to sit in. Somehow, they don't quite seem to interpret the overt sexual vibrations of the story.


Every one of these compositions is unusual, inventive, entertaining, and sometimes even shocking. Most are to some extent mysterious.Whatever your taste in literature, it seems likely that you'll find something here to whet your appetite for short works.  Echoes of Kafka and Poe and Woody Allen may suggest themselves to a reader's bemusement, but boredom will never be a factor.

Joan L. Cannon

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