Thursday, October 5, 2017

Recommended Reading: South Pole Station by Ashley Shelby

South Pole Station by Ashley Shelby is one of the best novels I've read in 2017. It's funny, lively, stressful, aggravating - everything you want in a novel.

The protagonist is thirty-year old Cooper Gosling. Gosling was an art prodigy as a teen, but circumstances changed. Trying to get her life and career back on track, she applies to the National Science Foundation Antarctic Artists and Writers Program for a fellowship position at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. I'm not spoiling any surprise by telling you that, yes, she gets the gig, and we are then off with her on an adventure.

The crew at the South Pole falls into two camps, the scientists and the support team. (Cooper and the other artists, appropriately and predictably, are outliers). Author Ashley Shelby zooms in and out on these folks, providing interesting stories about unusual individuals who find that they are well suited to working at the end of the Earth.

There are also a couple of scientific battles underway at the research station. In one, two groups of scientists are working to determine which conflicting theory of how the universe began is correct. And in the second, there is controversy when a climate-change denier joins the ranks of scientists after political pressure is applied by a couple of Congressmen. Cooper connects with these plot lines as she struggles to find her path and sorts through just what to paint in the Antarctic in order to justify her fellowship. These connections and plot twists are highly entertaining.

Interesting characters, a unique setting, and a good story: All these factors make South Pole Station recommended reading.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Recommended Viewing: Finding Vivian Maier (2013)

Caught the documentary Finding Vivian Maier yesterday and absolutely loved it. The film raises interesting questions about just how much we know, or make an effort to know, about other people. Vivian Maier (1926 - 2009) took amazing photos during her lifetime, but she never shared her work. The documentary traces the discovery of her film and the subsequent search to find more information about Maier, who spent her working years as a nanny for various families. The central question the filmmaker presents is, why didn't this extraordinary talent show the world her art?

This central question is, of course, entirely conventional and learning about Maier's life is very interesting. However, it is also fascinating to look at and consider the perspective of the filmmaker - John Maloof, who discovered Maier's material in a box he purchased at an auction - as well as that of the people he interviews who knew Maier. The perspectives they bring make for interesting reflections on the culture at large and how people who don't fit conventional norms are viewed. Rose Lichter-Marck wrote an excellent New Yorker article that gets at that point:

There’s no disputing that Maier was peculiar and prickly, and that her interests spanned the benign and the morbid. But she was neither a Mary Poppins nor a surrogate Mommie Dearest. The people who knew her described an impenetrability that, even in retrospect, threatens the fantasy that people who choose to care for children are all hugs and rainbows. Her story suggests the unsympathetic possibility that a woman might choose something like nannying because it has an economic rather than emotional utility.

As Janet Malcolm writes in her A House of One’s Own,“Every character in a biography contains within himself or herself the potential for a reverse image.” So let’s consider “Finding Vivian Maier” in reverse:

Maier challenges our ideas of how a person, an artist, and, especially, a woman should be. She didn’t try to use her work to accumulate cultural or economic capital. She was poor but uninterested in money: when Maloof went through her possessions, he found thousands of dollars in uncashed Social Security checks. She didn’t marry or have children, and, when people mistakenly called her Mrs. Maier, she would reply, "Miss Maier, and I’m proud of it" echoing another female artist, who often instructed strangers not to call her “Mrs. Stieglitz” but “Miss O’Keeffe.” She died before developing more than a thousand rolls of exposed film, and there is no proof that she ever made a concerted effort to show her work to any dealers or other artists. To suggest that her choices were the result of some as yet uncovered emotional trauma is to assume that her life was lived in reaction to pain. But this shoehorns her into the very conventions of capitalism and bourgeois values that she eschewed so aggressively.
Vivian Maier and the Problem of Difficult Women, Rose Lichter-Marck, The New Yorker (May 9, 2014)(edited for formatting).

As Lichter-Marck states, "Maier had neither money nor connections, but she had control over how she lived, what she looked at, and what she photographed." Maier had her freedom.

Vivian Maier lived her life on her own terms, something that is not easy to do. And that is what makes the documentary fascinating.