Sunday, August 09, 2020

Summer catchup

Just as everyone else is experiencing, summer is different this year...mostly. I am still working full-time, reading as much as I can, gardening, and hiking. No traveling, though. No visiting the kids, or meeting up with them. As Rick Steves said in his recent article in Time, "Be in that group that loves it while we stay home..." So here is what I'm doing that make me say I am loving it at home.

Garden - my garden has never gotten this much attention. Every Sunday, I weed. Every evening after a hot day, I give the flowers a shower bath. I have been fertilizing, pruning, and noting each new blossom. The hummingbirds are having a great time. I think we have a couple of nests that have produced because we went from a couple of birds in June to literally a dozen or more now, doing aerial feats and dogfights all over the yard.

We've made pickles every Sunday for the past month - picking the right sized cukes fresh. I made salsa with tomatoes, onions, and peppers from the garden, only buying garlic as I forgot to plant any! I've made zucchini bread and the most delicious zucchini pancakes - a lot like potato pancakes, but better, I think.

Hiking - Rocky Mt National Park is only 40 minutes away, but they have timed entry this summer due to Covid-19. So we have gotten 8 am tickets for 2 visits in July, 3 in August, and 2 in September. Doing favorite hikes and exploring parts of the park we haven't visited often (aka the west side). Yesterday's hike took us to the site of Lulu City along the Colorado River - 7.4 miles but beautiful, peaceful, and full of wild flowers.

Birding - it's shaping up to be a good year. I got my 249th bird on my life list a week ago Saturday--a three-toed woodpecker. What a thrill! Same day we saw an American Dipper, and we had a Lesser Goldfinch take a bath in our backyard fountain.

TV - after years of prodding, my daughter finally convinced me to watch Once Upon a Time, and it is so much fun! Up to season 3, with Emma, Captain Hook, Snow White and Prince Charming, the Wicked Queen, and Rumpelstiltskin in Never Land trying to rescue Henry. 

Also watching the Rockies win most games. Don't judge me, but I'm liking the Designated Hitter--seems to be good for us anyway.

Italian - I've been in Duolingo's Diamond League for about 4 weeks now, trying to get at least 100 points a day learning Italian. I've been trying to read short stories in Italian, but I still don't have a big enough vocabulary to read much.

Reading - yep, as much as I can. In addition to the books that I've already blogged about, I've read:

Death in a Strange Country - book #2 in Donna Leon's Guido Brunetti series - so enjoying rereading this favorite series about one of my favorite cities, Venice.

Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens - what took me so long to read this? Absolutely loved every minute of it. Hope they make a movie. So good.

 Dressed for Death - book #3 in Guido series - I liked rereading book #2 so much, I just had to stay with Guido for another adventure.

The Perfect Couple, by Elin Hilderbrand - recommended by JoAnn at Gulfside Musing, a neat little mystery set in Nantucket, where I love to visit with Hilderbrand on a regular basis. It was fun, escapist, and enabled me to travel in my armchair.

The A.B.C. Murders, by Agatha Christie - I was reading Eight Perfect Murders and this was on the list, so I felt the urge to read it. Gave in to the urge and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Eight Perfect Murders, by Peter Swanson - another recommendation from a fellow blogger,and it was a so good. A psychological thriller, nice and tight, interesting. Usually I hold off reading mysteries until October, but with everything else different this year, I decided to just read whatever, whenever.

Hope you are all healthy and finding way to love being at home.

Sunday, August 02, 2020

Passing by Nella Larsen

I recently read a few reviews of Nella Larsen's Passing and promptly added it to my summer reading list. It was only after I glanced at the title page and saw that it was first published in 1929 did I realize that it would qualify for my 2020 Back to the Classics challenge in the category Classic by a Person of Color.

Here is Larsen's bio on GoodReads:
Nellallitea 'Nella' Larsen (first called Nellie Walker) was an American novelist of the Harlem Renaissance who wrote two novels and a few short stories. Though her literary output was scant, what she wrote earned her recognition by her contemporaries and by present-day critics.
Passing is the story of two black women who are light-skinned enough to pass as white. The main character, Irene, is married to a black physician and has two sons--one who is light-skinned like her, and another who is darker, like her husband. She lives a life of relative comfort and is active in her Harlem community--serving on committees, hosting parties and teas, socializing, shopping, and priding herself on her devotion to her sons. Irene only "passes" when it is more convenient to do so than not. For example, the book opens with her feeling ill while shopping, she hails a cab and the driver, thinking his passenger is a white woman, suggests she go to rest at an exclusive restaurant where she would be barred from entering if the staff knew she was a black woman.

Irene's nemesis is Claire--a beautiful, golden women who left the black community after her father died and she was cared for by elderly white relatives. She married a white man who doesn't suspect his wife is black, and she has never told her daughter of her real race. Irene and Claire met again after many years when Claire recognizes her in the restaurant where she is "passing."

While the themes of the novel do focus on the ethics of "passing" and what it means to shed or assume an identity within a prescribed community, the real tension of the novel stems from the ambiguity of whether Irene's husband has actually fallen in love with Claire and what this means for Irene and her sons.

Irene's husband is unhappy because he wanted the family to emigrate to Brazil in order to escape the racism of the US, but Irene refused to support this idea and now must live with the knowledge that he fears for his sons' future in a society that is so prejudiced against them.

While this seems like a novel of manners, it actually feels a lot like a thriller. It felt to me like Claire was stalking Irene. Certainly her presence unsettles Irene to the point where it feels like Irene is mentally cracking.

Passing is a short novel, elegant in its prose, and tightly wound. It crackles with tension. While Passing is the story of two black women, it speaks to the very real situation of someone trying to pass for something other than they are, whether that be more competent, more skilled, more educated, smarter, kinder, or better than you actually are. I doubt there is anyone who hasn't tried to "pass" at some time in their life. This story uses race and the experience of being black in white America to illuminate the human desire to pass and the dangers inherent in not being true to who you are and what you truly value.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Men to Match My Mountains

I like Irving Stone. He was in his heyday when I was in my youth, and so I always equate him with the blockbuster. I read his The Agony and the Ecstasy, a fictional bio of Michelangelo, before I went to Italy in 2015, and I've had his Men to Match My Mountains on my TBR shelf for years.

Men to Match My Mountains is non-fiction, published in 1956, and chronicles the story of the American West, 1840 to 1900. Bascially, there are 5 main story threads--the pioneer experience (including the Oregon, California, Mormon, and Santa Fe trails), the railroads (and all the backstabbing, manipulation, false advertising, backbreaking labor, and engineering that went into them), the growth of the major metropolitan areas (San Francisco, Sacramento, Denver, Salt Lake, and Los Angeles), the mines (gold, silver, god) and mining camps, and the Mormons (from polygamy to statehood),

Stone uses the stories of the men and women who starred in these main threads to paint a detailed account of the grit, heartache, and dreams it took to go create the American West so aptly portrayed in Hollywood's vision. While Stone doesn't completely ignore the Native American story, and he does give a fair account of the disgraceful Sand Creek Massacre and the string of broken treaties--it is not one of the main story threads that he follows completely.

Apart from the Native American part of the story, Stone really does recount virtually every story you've ever heard about the American West - the doomed Donner party, the explorations of Zebulon Pike and John Fremont, the scouting prowess of Kit Carson, the infamous Alferd Packer,  the California 49ers, the Colorado 59ers, Horace and Baby Doe Tabor, Leland Stanford and his cohorts in the Southern Pacific, Pikes Peak or Bust, the crazy land rush of Los Angeles, the ties to Mexico, and on and on.

It is a long book, crammed full of details and stories. It is a product of the mid-50s, though progressive in its time, I believe, it is a bit dated. Nevertheless, it was a fun book to read--as a Westerner, I loved reading about so many places that I know well, have visited often, and have wondered about.

This is definitely one of my 2020 Big Book Summer books.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Youth and the Bright Medusa - Willa Cather

Back before Covid-19 shut everything down, I had planned a trip to Nebraska in early April to see the sand hill crane migration and attend an event at the National Willa Cather Center in Red Cloud, just a short drive from Kearney, the epicenter of the crane migration. When that trip fell through, I toyed with the idea of attending an online Willa Cather conference in early June--I even went so far as to get a copy of the collection of the short stories that were the focus of the conference. Life and work got in the way of actually attending the conference, but I did enjoy Youth and the Bright Medusa, a collection of eight stories written over a 20 year period.

The stories in Youth and the Bright Medusa all deal with the pursuit of art and the loneliness, sacrifices, triumphs, and tragedies that those blessed (or cursed) with great talent must contend with as they try to live with and live up to the expectations of themselves, their teachers, their families, their patrons, and their audiences.

I ended up reading this book rather slowly, not wanting to race through the stories, but reading one or two a week so that I could think about them and let them settle into my thoughts gently.

I think my favorite was the last one, A Death in the Desert, about a singer who is stricken with tuberculosis and is dying and encounters the brother of her teacher and mentor during her last days and uses him to help her reconcile herself to leaving the world before her time.

Paul's Case was a very strange one--almost surreal--about a young boy who cannot accept the mundane, hum-drum life that he is forced to live and so devises a way to live, if only briefly, in the way he thinks his artistic temperament deserves.

Most of the main characters of the stories share much with Thea Kronborg of Cather's The Song of the Lark. They are mostly from small towns on the eastern Colorado or western Nebraska prairies, which they leave to pursue their art in Chicago, then New York, then Europe. They are often exploited, rarely at peace, but dedicated to living the role they have been given. There's a somber quality to the stories and tone, but Cather's poetic writing lifts them and makes them shimmer.

Cather is definitely becoming one of my favorite authors.

Sunday, July 05, 2020

Nicholas Nickleby

Nicholas Nickleby is the third novel by Charles Dickens, coming after Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist, and was first published serially in 1838 and 1839.

It has all the hallmarks of a serial novel as well as a Dickens novel--chock full of aptly named characters, lots of digressions and a few side stories that don't really relate to the plot, coincidences, mysteries, authorial sermons on pet topics, and acrobatic plot maneuvers. No wonder Dickens became such a popular author in his day--he definitely gave readers their money's worth.

This was a reread for me, but since I last read the book more than 30 years ago and only once, much of the story was fresh and highly entertaining. I really enjoyed spending the last two months in the company of stalwart Nicholas and his lovely sister Kate, though I found their mother more tiresome than Miss Bates in Austen's Emma. About the only part of the story I remembered well was Nicholas's employment at Dotheboy's Hall in Yorkshire and his dealings with the horrible Wackford Squeers and his befriending poor Smike. What I hadn't remembered was that Squeers remained a villain throughout the book.

I had completely forgot about Kate's various employments, Nicholas's time with the acting company, the completely heroic Newman Noggs who is like a guardian angel to Nicholas and a demon to wicked Uncle Ralph. And then there are the Cheeryble brothers who couldn't have been given a better name, the delightful Tim Linkinwater, sweet Miss La Creevy, good-natured John Browdie and his wife Tilda, and on and on.

The illustrations by Hablot Browne (aka Phiz) were a fun part of the overall experience.

I couldn't possibly provide a synopsis of the plot without writing a short story, so I'll just say it was a long, enjoyable romp with one of literature's most lovable heroes who can jest, flirt, and fight with the best that Dickensian London has to offer and come up smelling like a rose.

I know I will be rereading this novel again, but first I need to finish up the remaining three Dickens novels I still haven't read--Martin Chuzzlewit, Barnaby Rudge, and The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

This is my first book in the 2020 Big Book Summer Challenge, and qualifies for the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge in the category Classic With a Person's Name in the Title.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There

I just started reading this book -- cannot believe it's taken me so long to get to it -- and plan on reading it slowly. It's by Aldo Leopold, who advocated for setting aside Wilderness so that wild things could stay wild and apart from us.

Here's the first quote that jumped out at me, from the Introduction. Seemed to fit our current world situation so well. I think we have collectively bought into the idea that running faster on the treadmill is the only way to be well.

"But wherever the truth may lie, this much is crystal-clear: our bigger-and-better society is now like a hypochondriac, so obsessed with its own economic health as to have lost the capacity to remain healthy."

July 2, 2002 update - Lark asked if the book has many illustrations like the one on the cover, and the answer is yes. Charles W. Schwartz was the illustrator, and the book is peppered with lovely, detailed drawings like the one below.

Upland plover (sandpiper) from the May entry, illustration by Charles W. Schwartz

Sunday, June 07, 2020

Gods, Graves, and Scholars

I was absolutely delighted to reread Gods, Graves, and Scholars: The Story of Archeology with the GoodReads group True Book Talk. I last read it when I was in my mid-teens, and it sparked my lifelong interest in Troy, Pompeii, and the entire ancient Mediterranean world.

Rereading it was an absolute treat, and I was so surprised to find that it is translated from German. Once I found that out, I did a little research on the author, C.W. Ceram.
C.W. Ceram was the pseudonym of German journalist and author Kurt Wilhelm Marek, known for his popular works about archaeology. He chose to write under a pseudonym to distance himself from his earlier work as a propagandist for the Third Reich. 
Ceram was born in Berlin. During World War II, he was a member of the Propagandatruppe. His works from that period include Wir hielten Narvik, 1941, and Rote Spiegel - überall am Feind. Von den Kanonieren des Reichsmarschalls, 1943. 
In 1949, Ceram wrote his most famous book, Götter, Gräber und Gelehrte — published in English as Gods, Graves and Scholars: The Story of Archaeology — an account of the historical development of archaeology. Published in 28 languages, Ceram's book eventually received a printing of over 5 million copies, and is still in print today.
Here's his obituary in the New York Times, which is worth reading lest you think that his work during WWII makes this book not worth readingBTW, Ceram is sort of a backwards spelling of the author's real last name, Marek, which makes me smile.

The translation by Sophie Wilkins was absolutely brilliant. The book didn't ever read as a translated book, which can sometimes feel a bit formal or stilted. On the contrary, the book was easy to read, chock full of anecdotes and colorful asides, idioms, witticisms, and dry humor.

Now, about the book itself. It covers Pompeii, Troy, Mycenae, Crete, Egypt, Assurpanipal, Assyria, Babylon, Sumeria, Chichen-Itza, Mexico, Guatemala, et al, as well as the archaeologists (like Schliemann, Winkelman, Evans, Carter), the code-breakers (like Champollion, Grotefend), and plunderers (Napoleon, Cortes).

It truly is a survey of archeology through the middle of the 20th century, and while theories have evolved as more sites have been more fully excavated and science has advanced the ability to date objects, the history of the study of the ancient past remains riveting.

In the closing chapter, Ceram talks about what he doesn't include, namely the vanished civilizations that were in India and China. Despite those omissions, the book does cover a great deal of ground.

More than that, though, the author imparts his enthusiasm for his subject and makes me long to visit the sites, read more about each area, and definitely reread this book for a third time.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

2020 Big Book Summer

Nothing is the same this summer...except signing up for Suzan's Big Book Summer Challenge at Book by Book.

The challenge is incredibly easy...just read a book, or more, of at least 400 pages.

Here's my list of certain, probable, possible, and maybe candidates.

Nicholas Nickleby, by Charles Dickens - I started it and am on track to finish mid-summer. Goodreads Victorians group is also reading it this summer, which I am excited about because I can post thoughts there as I read.

The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck - I have been wanting to reread this book since high school, and this summer is the summer I make good on that wish.

Men to Match My Mountains, by Irving Stone - I always enjoy Stone's books, and this one about the opening of the American West has sat on my TBR shelf for way too long.

Devil's Brood, by Sharon K. Penman - the second half of the Eleanor of Aquitaine/Henry II story in Penman's march through English history; their sons are all grown up and ready to battle their father on the side of their mother, or is it the other way around? Putting the fun in family dysfunction. I love Penman's historical novels, and it's been way too long since I read one.

A Dance to the Music of Time, 1st Movement, by Anthony Powell - I have heard such good things about this series.

That should keep me busy while I watch the flowers grow on my back deck this summer!

Hope all my book blogging buddies are stay safe and healthy.

What are you reading this summer?

Sunday, May 03, 2020

April Roundup

April was a tough month on so many fronts, but at least I read some great books!

The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz, by Erik Larson - I like Larson's books and have read most of them and this is one of the best. Focus is on the Churchill family and the prime minister's staff. Larson's primary sources were the diaries of Churchill's youngest daughters, Mary, and one of his private secretaries, John Colville. While most of the narrative is on the British experience, it was interesting to read about the German perspective of the same events. Absolutely powerful book - one of the best of 2020 for me.

Case Histories, by Kate Atkinson - the first in Atkinson's Jackson Brodie mysteries, I absolutely loved this book. Atkinson is a very literary writer and this was a very literary mystery - she did a superb job of telling 4-5 different stories simultaneously, while also introducing her main character and giving us his back story. Eager to read the rest in this series.

Empire Falls, by Richard Russo - this is part of my Maine reading project for 2020, and was a very interesting story about a depressing little town in Maine. The mill has closed, no jobs or prospects of jobs, and the main character Miles is struggling with family, his past, his faith, and his job. Nevertheless, I thought it a compelling novel, and I plan to read more of Russo. Sadly, as expected, our trip to Maine this summer is cancelled, but I am enjoying digging into the fiction of the region.

Girl, Woman, Other, by Evaristo Bernardine - just finished this incredible book last night, and recommend it to anyone who wants to get a different view of Britain than the land served up by most of the novels I read. This is a collection of short stories about women of color in Britain whose lives intersect in the most interesting ways. This was one of the Tournament of Books contenders in 2020, making it to the quarter finals. I had read a few reviews that made it intriguing to me, and I thought it powerful, well-written and inventive, and broadened my horizons considerably.

The Atomic City Girls, by Janet Beard - I picked this up on impulse and wasn't disappointed. A novel about the women who worked at the Oak Ridge, TN factories that processed the plutonium used in the Manhattan Project (aka the atomic bomb). A fascinating story about race, naivete, patriotism, and ambition. I liked the main character, June, and thought her coming of age story was interesting and believable.

Hope you are all staying well and healthy, practicing social distancing, and finding comfort and strength or whatever you need from the reading you are able to do.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Charlotte's Web - In Memoriam

A few years ago, I stumbled upon The Story of Charlotte's Web, by Michael Sims, on someone's blog and promptly got a copy of it. It sat on my TBR shelf until last month, when I decided to read it as part of my Maine reading project for this year.

The Story of Charlotte's Web, is subtitled E. B. White's Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic. It did not disappoint. Essentially, the book is a biography of Andy White, and despite the subtitle, his wasn't a particularly eccentric life. From his earliest years, he loved nature and animals and writing, as so it is not exactly note-worthy that he became a writer best known for his novels about animals. He was an introvert and a keen observer of both people and animals and was able to write elegantly about the world he loved.

I really loved reading about his years as a staff writer at The New Yorker--one of my favorite books is James Thurber's The Years With Ross, and it was great fun to revisit the busy magazine office of the 1930s. While still writing for the magazine, White and his wife and son moved from Manhattan to a farm in Brooklin, Maine, and it is here where he wrote his masterpiece, Charlotte's Web, modeling Zukerman's farm on his own. White spent a long time studying spiders before writing the book, and he sent his favorite sources to illustrator Garth Williams, so that he too could get the details in his drawings right.

White was a perfectionist when it came to writing, and rewrote and revised Charlotte's Web for over a year before he finally sent it off into the world. I enjoyed immensely how he crafted the story and worked diligently to find not only the perfect opening but also the perfect ending to his story. The germ of the story was always the relationship between the pig and the spider and it took White awhile to discover that he needed Fern in order to add layers of complexity to his themes of salvation, friendship, and the circle of life.

After reading this marvelous book, of course I had to reread Charlotte's Web. It was a complete joy to reread and is definitely timeless. It is a comfort read. It instills peace and hope.

While I was rereading the book slowly - just a chapter or two a day - my elderly mother fell and broke her hip. While I was finishing the book, I was also supporting my mother as she continued to decline. As you may know, a broken hip is often a death sentence for a person already frail, whose body has already started to fail.

Here is what I shared with friends and family last Sunday:
Saturday morning, in the wee small hours, my beloved Mom passed away. Just one month shy of her 97th birthday, she remained loving and generous, warm and caring to the end.
On Friday, I spent the day with her, singing the Irish songs and ballads she loved, reading poems she loved (and which she recited back to me as I read), holding her hand, and helping her find the courage to leave this world that she loved so much.
I have never known anyone who loved life the way she did and hung on to it with a tenacity that was inspiring. She always had a twinkle in her eye, as if planning some fresh mischief.

She was quick to giggle at herself when she made a mistake. She was eager to try new things--this is a woman who learned to drive when she was in her late 40s. She took cooking classes, learned to quilt, made bread, had a fantastic garden, canned everything she could lay her hands on, grew dinner plate dahlias and gladioli, kept chickens, kept bees, and literally gave away the hand-knit sweater on her back when she saw a homeless woman who looked cold.

She was generous and kind, silly and sometimes self-conscious, but she had a capacity for friendship that knew no bounds.

I am so proud she was my mother and she will forever be my role model.
Love you, Mom - give Dad a hug and a kiss for me!

Charlotte's Web will forever be connected in my mind with my Mom--they had a lot in common, and I am glad I am one of her daughter spiders who remains in the barn to greet the spring.