Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Break Time

Thank you all for visiting my blog. I have had a strange summer, and as we go into fall, it looks like I will need some quiet time to hibernate.

As John Lennon said, "Life is what happens while you are busy making plans". Well, life is happening. Hopefully, I will get a lot of reading done as I hibernate and come spring will be energized and ready to move forward with my blog.

See you around the corner!

Friday, August 12, 2016

The Concord and the Merrimack, Part I: The White Water-Lily

Keeping in the spirit of nature and adventure writing, I decided to read this after Desert Solitaire. Written in 1849, ten years after the river cruise he took with his brother John, it is an account of their journey along the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Leaving on a Saturday afternoon in late August, Thoreau describes the end of summer flowers along the river bank and in the meadows nearby, and then recalls the "queen of the river flowers":

"In short, Nature seemed to have adorned herself for our departure with a profusion of fringes and curls, mingled with the bright tints of flowers reflected in the water. But we missed the white water-lily, which is the queen of river flowers, its reign being over for this season. He makes his voyage too late, perhaps, by a true water clock who delays so long. Many of this species inhabit our Concord water. I have passed down the river before sunrise on a summer morning between fields of lilies still shut in sleep; and when, at length, the flakes of sunlight from over the bank fell on the surface of the water, whole fields of white blossoms seemed to flash open before me, as I floated along, like the unfolding of a banner, so sensible is this flower to the influence of the sun's rays."

Can't you just see it?

I am just beginning this book, but could not wait to share this lovely passage with you.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Thoreau of the Desert

It is not the answer that enlightens,
but the question.
---Eugene Ionesco

Desert Solitaire, a 2016 Reading Challenge book, has been in my mental To Be Read (TBR) stack for many years. The title beguiles me and has kept me from reading the book because I was afraid it would disappoint, as if the title was too beautiful for what may follow. I have not been disappointed.

Desert Solitaire epigraph:

Give me silence, water, hope
Give me struggle, iron, volcanoes
-- Neruda

Delicate Arch

Edward Abbey worked as a seasonal Park Ranger at what was then called Arches National Monument in Utah, in the late 1950s. He lived twenty miles away from the nearest house in a "little tin government house trailer". Mice-ridden, (an adopted gopher snake took care of them), freezing cold in April, stifling hot in July, equipped with the bare necessities for living, the trailer became a place to store food and belongings. When the weather turned warmish, he built a lean-to "ramada" and a fire pit and moved outdoors, where he slept under the stars. Desert Solitaire was written ten years later from the journals Abbey kept during his seasonal work at the Arches.

From Abbey's Introduction:

This is not primarily a book about the desert. In recording my impressions of the natural scene I have striven above all for accuracy, since I believe that there is a kind of poetry, even a kind of truth, in simple fact. But the desert is a vast world, an oceanic world, as deep in its way and complex and various as the sea...If a man knew enough he could write a whole book about the juniper tree. Not juniper trees in general but that one particular juniper tree which grows from a ledge of naked sandstone near the old entrance to Arches National Monument. What I have tried to do then is something a bit different. Since you cannot get the desert into a book any more than a fisherman can haul up the sea with his nets, I have tried to create a world of words in which the desert figures more as medium than as material. Not imitation but evocation has been the goal.

Edward Abbey held strong views about modern America's attitude to wilderness. He could not abide the superficial way most tourists visited the Arches. His "word of caution" regarding "industrial tourism":

Do not jump into your automobile next June and rush out to the Canyon country hoping to see some of that which I have attempted to evoke in these pages. In the first place you can't see anything from a car; you've got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you'll see something, maybe...

Some have attributed Abbey with the beginning of the Earth First! movement and ecoterrorism. His book The Monkey Wrench Gang is about sabotaging a dam construction project in the Southwest, so it is kind of understandable that he would be seen as a proponent of drastic means to stop man's destruction of the natural environment. Abbey strenuously denied that he supported ecoterrorism. However, in Desert Solitaire, he admits to tearing out several miles worth of new road survey markers near his trailer house. A very naughty protest, but not ecoterrorism.

Rattlesnakes, wildflowers, poisonous water springs, fresh water springs, cliff seeps and hidden grottoes, flash floods, quicksand, range cattle, and uranium are described in beautiful prose in this masterpiece of nature writing. One of the most interesting things to me is that according to Abbey, the beautiful land forms in the Arches are not the result of wind erosion, but of the slow drip of water and the effects of contraction and expansion of cold and heat over eons of geologic time.

Lake Powell, Glen Canyon

Abbey describes not only his surrounds in the Arches, but a river raft trip down the Colorado through Glen Canyon, as the dam was being built. It is heartbreaking to know that the beauty he describes is now deep under water and silt, buried forever. Even if the dam is not permanent, the silt is. His solitary foray up the side canyon where the Escalante River enters the Colorado is my favorite part of the book. He finds the ruins of a cliff dwelling perched high up the canyon wall. It is all now buried forever. And sadly, Glen Canyon Dam was built not for irrigation but for electricity so that hordes of people could live in the desert southwest.

Mt. Tukuhnikivats in the La Sal range

We accompany Abbey on a camping trip and solitary climb up one of the highest mountains overlooking the Arches, Mt. Tukuhnikivats. And, we go to the bottom of Grand Canyon where Abbey spent 35 days camped near the Native American village of Havasu. While there he nearly trapped himself on a ledge while exploring the area around his camp. He worked his way down a cliff side and was stranded. Piling rocks and then centering his walking stick in the pile, he climbed up to the tip of his stick and used it as a launch to jump up to a handhold in the rock above. Risky.

Havasu Falls, Grand Canyon

The Maze

This same fearless attitude sent him and a friend to The Maze, a no-man's-land of canyons (now part of Canyonlands National Park). At the time, they were barely able to get into the area with a Land Rover. They repelled down a cliff face to the maze itself, not knowing if they would find a way to climb back up. Yes, risky but Abbey described himself as "not an atheist but an earthiest". He believed one should "be true to the earth". He was not afraid because he did not separate himself from the environment.

He believed in the desert.

"The finest quality of this stone, these plants and animals, this desert landscape is the indifference manifest to our presence, our absence, our coming, our staying or our going. Whether we live or die is a matter of absolutely no concern whatsoever to the desert."

The title Desert Solitaire is perfect for this book. It is beautiful. The book is beautiful. I will read it again.

P.S. While recuperating from hand surgery, I could hardly hold a book in my hands for more than a few minutes. This is what I did as I inched my way through Desert Solitaire:


Monday, July 11, 2016

Tunnel Redux

I am recovering from my second carpal tunnel surgery, doing well, but not ready to take up where I left off before this medical flurry.

One thing I am going to do in the next week or so is re-visit the purpose of this blog so I can focus on getting along with some serious reading. Using LibraryThing's Legacy Libraries, find authors I like, and read the books I have in common with those authors. Simple.

See you around the corner.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Still in the Tunnel and Mystery Bookmark

Sorry for the abrupt interregnum here. I should have let you know that I had carpal tunnel surgery on my right hand so would be absent for a bit. The surgery was not scheduled to happen until this coming Monday but there was an opening so they whisked me in on Friday, May 13th (yikes!!!) so it was all a big whirlwind. Anyway...three weeks into recovery and I am nearly back.  Very satisfied with the procedure and expect to be fully recovered in another week or two. Left hand is scheduled for June 28, so fair warning, another pause to come!

Enough about that.

With lots of time to dawdle, I finished two 2016 Reading Challenge books. I will post on the Lopez book soon, and the Farrell book later as it is part of trilogy I need to finish.

Also, I have listened to many audio books while playing one-handed Churchill Solitaire on my iPad. As usual, my genre choice is British mystery but I also listened to a short history of Greece and a mystery with a knitting theme. Random, but I do tend to choose my reading matter based on the most shiny thing I see at the moment.

Here is what I am currently reading in the physical book world:

Provence by Ford Madox Ford

Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey

In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje

I have "dipped into" Plutarch's Lives, The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett, and The Singapore Grip by J.G. Farrell. I will save those for later. The Dunnett is quite dense. So much so, I have a companion volume to refer to when I do not understand her historical references. I love the challenge but am not quite ready for it right now. Plutarch is part of my mental "must read the classics" obsession and the Farrell is part three of a trilogy so I will wait to post about it when I can speak to all three books. I need to re-read Troubles, the second book in the trilogy because for who knows what reason I began reading them out of order and it was several years ago and I cannot remember much about Troubles. The first book, Siege of Krishnapur, winner of the Booker Prize, is shown above. I am still thinking about that one so am looking forward to the next two.

Here is a teaser for you ~~

Side Two of a Bookmark

I found this in one of the books I am now reading...more to come. Now, I have to grab some ice and rest my hand.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Nature, Red in Tooth and Claw

"It ever was, and is, and shall be, ever-living Fire, in measures being kindled and in measures going out."

In the opening epigram, facing the Table of Contents page, Heraclitus, over 2,500 years ago, said in twenty words what Annie Dillard used 279 pages to say in her masterpiece of nature writing, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Using keen observation and much research, her chronicle of a year of life near Tinker Creek and its surrounds is a much more nuanced and detailed look at the Fire that keeps each of us and the rest of the Universe in constant aliveness and motion.

A 2016 Reading Challenge book, I finished my well-worn ex-library copy of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek last night, and have some thoughts about it before moving on to the next book on my list. This book reminds me of a project begun in 2013 by my favorite book blogger who blogs as dovegreyreader. She had been reading nature writers Robert Macfarlane and Roger Deakin and decided to learn as much as she could about the area covering a one mile radius surrounding her English country home. She has written about her explorations here: Beating the Bounds.

From the frontispiece of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:

"One day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with the lights in it. I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance...I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck."

"It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen..." From the beginning, Dillard is "beating the bounds" of her neighborhood in western Virginia while using what she sees and hears as evidence for her personal abiding faith in a Creator. We are with her as she walks along Tinker Creek and then stands stock still as she watches a frog collapse inward, like a leather purse being slowly folded flat. She then reports what she found through research that an aquatic water bug with pincers holds the frog in place from behind, injects a liquefying agent, and quickly sucks the frog to death. Poor innocent frog! But wait, does not the frog eat something else alive one second and dead the next? As Alfred Lord Tennyson said in a poem, nature is "red in tooth and claw" and that is quite apparent from the start in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

Organized by season, Dillard takes us around her suburban surrounds. From the sky to the quarry we learn how to "see" nature. Once seen, we learn a little more about how to understand what we are seeing. And, for some of us this understanding is a spiritual experience, for others a confirmation that physics and biology work together in mysterious ways.

For Dillard, the journey's ultimate goal is spiritual. For me, reading about the journey resulted in a better understanding of what is over my head, in the water around me, and under my feet. Satisfying enough for this reader. The ongoing confirmation of Dillard's faith actually seemed "preachy" at times and nearly caused me to put the book down and not finish it. However, reminding myself that not everybody is the same (thank you, Jane Austen!), I stuck with it and am glad I did.

For me, the most incredible bit in the book takes place in a quarry, in the fall. Dillard has decided to contemplate the sunset as she looks over a quarry. She notices a curved "something" on a rock ledge over the way. Deciding to take a look, she walks in that direction but stops as soon as she realizes it is a small copperhead snake resting on the rock, still warm from the last of the day's sunlight. Knowing the risk she is taking, she moves closer to the snake and sits down within four feet of it. She sits very still and observes the snake, its scales, how its tail decreases in size to nothingness, how its head is raised up above the rock. Then, in amazement she watches a mosquito land on the snake's back and begin sucking its blood. This lasts for about two minutes. She imagines how much effort the mosquito has to expend to reach between the scales and find the perfect place to insert its needle-sharp snout. After this is over, Dillard wonders if the snake could feel the mosquito as it went about its work. She also tells the reader that copperhead snakes are abundant in her area, account for most poisonous snakebites in the U.S., and are not quite poisonous enough to kill an adult human. There are timber rattlers in her woods too and she always carries a snake bite kit with her wherever she goes.

I admire her courage. Copperheads are found in the hill country of Texas too. When we visited relatives there I was always worried sick about one finding my kids as they played in the brushy areas around their grandma's house. We should have thought of a snake bite kit!

Here are a few of the notes I took as I went along:

Dillard quotes Arthur Koestler: "Gravity, to Copernicus, is the nostalgia of things to become spheres."

From a physicist: "Everything that has happened is a particle, everything in the future is a wave."

Dillard: "Beauty itself is the language for which there is no key."
"I find it hard to see anything about a bird that it does not want seen. It demands my full attention."

This is a GOOD book. If you are interested in nature and like nature writing, even down to the gory bits, I highly recommend it.

Annie Dillard is now in her early 70s and lives on an island in the Puget Sound. Here is what she has to say about her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

"In 1971 I wanted to try my hand at prose. My journals were full of facts that I used to write Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), a sustained nonfiction narrative about the fields, creeks, woods, and mountains near Roanoke, Virginia. Because I "Named" its chapters, in the style of 19th-century narratives, many reviewers took it for a book of essays. The book attempted to describe the creator, if any, by studying creation, leading one writer to call me (wonderfully) 'one of the foremost horror writers of the 20th century' ".

It's that "nature, red in tooth and claw" bit.

Friday, April 29, 2016

The Sea, The Sea and The Sea

The sea. My favorite, most favorite place is the seacoast. I love how the sea changes. I love the smell of the sea air and the feel of the biting wind. I can never get enough of sea gazing.

A friend is traveling to Ireland later this year. She is reading Irish writers for the culture, history, geography, and to take the pulse of the country. She mentioned that she was reading The Sea by John Banville. At the time of our conversation I was reading one of my 2016 Reading Challenge TBR books, The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch. Both Irish writers, both winners of the Booker Prize for these books. I had read Banville's book several years ago but hardly remembered it. We agreed that we would get together soon to talk about our respective books. I decided to re-read The Sea and have just finished it.

The books are quite different, but also eerily the same. Murdoch's The Sea, The Sea is a chunk at 495 pages. Banville's is a quick read at 195 pages. I say "quick read" with tongue firmly in cheek. He packs a lot into one sentence. Both books are about memory and its vagaries. The protagonists are both men approaching old age. The setting of both is by the sea and the sea is a main "character" in each.

In The Sea, The Sea Charles Arrowby, recently retired from the theatre, has moved to an isolated house somewhere in coastal north England. His property includes an old Martello Tower, a remnant of the Napoleonic Wars. The house has no electricity or central heat. He is a lifelong bachelor who cooks hideous meals from canned goods, and he hints at a grand romantic disappointment in his early years. Charles intends to write his memoirs, but the book is barely begun before he is frantically writing about current events, of his own making, as they spiral out of control.

Here is Charles' proud description of one of his meals:

"Spaghetti with a little butter and dried basil; spring cabbage cooked slowly with dill; boiled onions served with bran, herbs, soy oil and tomatoes, with one egg beaten in; with these a slice or two of cold tinned corned beef; a bottle of retsina."

Sounds good, eh?

Charles is self-regarding, manipulative, jealous, obsessive, treats people very badly, and thinks his house might be haunted. He has delusional visions which he ascribes to possible LSD flashbacks. He swims in the sea daily and is eventually visited by many of the old acquaintances he is meant to write about in his memoirs. Due to an obsession about his lost love, he commits a crime and finds himself in the middle of a horrible mess.

I could not put this book down. Murdoch's writing compels the reader to find out what crazy thing Charles or one of his visitors is going to say or do next. But it is not only Charles who is a main character. The sea, the sea is ever present. Murdoch's descriptions (written by Charles) of the sea are simply breathtaking. Rather than describing the sea in relation to someone or something happening at the time, it stands alone as its own separate entity, never just background for the action.

"There was nothing upon the luminous faintly-wrinkled expanse except wavery yellow replicas of the evening star and the low crouching moon. The sky was still a dimmed glowing blue, not yet sunk into the blackish blue of night."

"The sea was a choppy dark blue, the sky pale, with a smooth gleaming buff-coloured cloud just above the horizon like a long tatter of silk."

"Cool summer weather had come back with a misty sky and a calm sea. The water was a very pale luminous grey-blue almost white the same colour as the sky, shifting with a quick small dancing movement, and scattered by the misted sun with little explosions of metallic pale-gold light. It had the look of a happy sea..."

"The sea had regained its bejewelled purplish look, inlaid with spotted lines of emerald."

Sounds idyllic doesn't it, this deadly, beautiful sea?

Murdoch is known to be a difficult writer to "get". I have read several other works by her, and found them to be a bit inaccessible. Not so with The Sea, The Sea. She was a moral philosopher and this comes through in her writing.

"Emotions really exist at the bottom of the personality or at the top. In the middle they are acted."

Agree or disagree? Worth pondering. Personally, I think we are all actors most of the time.

Without giving away spoilers, I will leave it at that. Charles lands on his feet but is left with the prospect of aging:

"That is a dreadful land, old age."

I could not help thinking of Iris Murdoch's own "dreadful land" as she slowly succumbed to Alzheimer's disease.

 Moving on to John Banville's The Sea. What a treat! I am so glad I decided to re-read this book. I am going to go out on a limb here and suggest that Banville either unconsciously put in bits he gleaned from The Sea, The Sea or he was paying homage to Iris Murdoch. She won the Booker in 1978, Banville in 2005.

Both books include the word "plimsoll", a type of rubber-soled canvas slip-on leisure or sports shoe. The usage of this word is not very common nowadays so it seemed funny to me that both Murdoch and Banville would choose it to describe a pair of shoes.

In The Sea, The Sea Charles visits a churchyard cemetery. He finds a headstone with no name, just the word "Dummy" on it. Apparently a deaf-mute sailor from the 1800s is buried there. In The Sea Banville has given the nickname "Dummy" to one of the characters, a young boy who is mute and also has webbed toes.

As I said earlier, both characters are late middle-aged men, both remembering their lives, and dealing with those memories in their own way.

After his wife dies of cancer, Max, an art historian, moves to a lodging house called Cedars to grieve. The house is located on the seacoast. Max has been there before. As a young adolescent he stayed nearby with his parents in a lower-class beach shack for a few weeks each summer. Cedars (the entire house) was being rented by an upper class family called Grace. Max was befriended by the Grace twins, Chloe and Myles, who were about his age. He was swept into the family life of the Graces and referred to them as "the gods" because of their carefree, grand style of life.

Max worshipped Mrs. Grace. He watched her, relaxing on the beach:

"She lifts a hand up high to brush a clinging strand of hair from her damp forehead and I fix on the secret shadow under her armpit, plum-blue, the tint of my humid fantasies for nights to come."

Max is a complex character. He is from the lower classes but he marries the only child of a well-to-do businessman so he moves up in society. He had aspired to move up after his summer with "the gods" but has always thought of himself as a fraud in that world. He has had a career as an art historian and is supposed to be writing a book on the French artist Bonnard, but it is languishing, and Max thinks of himself as a dilettante. His daughter Claire has given up the pursuit of an art history degree for social work and Max is determined to steer her back on course because he expects his daughter to be a serious scholar, not half serious as he considers himself to be. Max shows us glimpses of his cruel side. As a boy, he used to beat his little dog so he could enjoy how it came cowering back to him for love and affection in spite of the beating. He bullied a village boy in the presence of one of the Grace twins so as to appear "better" than the low class boy. Max's version of events in the book make him seem like a good person, but memory is unreliable and the cruelty in some of his actions and his sudden anger at his dead wife belie his belief in his own goodness.

The Sea bounces back and forth between the present and the past. Max recalls his wife's last year as she is dying. He remembers that long ago summer when he was first introduced to death but it is not until the end that we find out how. As with Murdoch, the sea is also ever present in The Sea. However, not as a character, but more as a setting for the action. The writing is, like Murdoch's beautiful:

"...air like scratched glass..."

"...last spikes of sunlight..."

"...the water racing in over the flats, swift and shiny as mercury, stopping at nothing..."

"A breeze smacked down on the beach and swarmed across it slantwise under a skim of dry sand then came on over the water, chopping the surface into sharp little metallic shards. I shivered not from the cold now but as if something had passed through me, silent swift, irresistible."

"The mud shone blue as a new bruise..."

Overall, The Sea is, as reviewed by the NY Times, "about grief, the misery and confusion the narrator feels on losing his wife." It is also about memory and how we view the past through a small lens, in bits and pieces, usually static, and not necessarily as events actually unfolded.

Finally, from another reviewer:

"...Banville's prose is sublime. Several times on every page the reader is arrested by a line or sentence that demands to be read again. They are like hits of some delicious drug, these sentences. One has to stop for a while, and gaze smiling and unseeing into the middle distance, before returning to the page for one's next fix. For a shortish book, it takes a long time to read."

As I said, Banville packs a lot into one sentence.

I can highly recommend both of these books. Not light reads, either one, but good reading to take with you if you are planning a long visit to the seacoast. Just the descriptions of the sea are enough to keep one gazing out over the water for hours and hours.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Spotify and Desert Island Discs

Do you listen to music while reading? I do. Sometimes because I find it easier to concentrate without random noise, or because I am in the same room where television is on and cannot read otherwise. My favorite way to listen is Spotify. I subscribe to the ad-free premium version.

I first heard of Spotify when listening to the podcast Books on the Nightstand. Ann Kingman, one of the pair of publisher reps who created the podcast, was talking about listening to music while reading. She said she uses Spotify to find music to suit the mood of the book she is reading. This idea intrigued me, so I went looking for Spotify.

Now, several years later, I have many playlists that reflect my taste in music and I go to for enjoyment, background, or to set the mood for reading a particular book or author.

While reading Virginia Woolf, I play my "Woolf" playlist which includes Wagner, Beethoven, and Mozart (so far). I built this playlist from mentions of London concerts attended by the Woolfs in Virginia's diary.

Rainier Maria Rilke came from an old Bohemian aristocratic family. His letters and poems are accompanied by music from "old Bohemia", now part of the Czech Republic. I have downloaded Czech and Slovak folk music for my "Rilke" playlist.

A fun way to learn about an author's taste in music is to listen to BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs. I love this podcast! There is a treasure trove of programs in the archives on the website. I am a big fan of Ian McEwan. He was interviewed on Desert Island Discs and his favorite music includes jazz, Mozart, Bach, Schubert, Donizetti, and Van Morrison. If I am reading one of his books, I might create a "McEwan" playlist including some or all of these. Just to set the mood.

Spotify has become part of my reading life. Not for everything, but today as I work my way through John Banville's The Sea, I am listening to music about the sea, like:

La Mer

Now I need to go find some more quiet sea music for my playlist "The Sea". Thank you, Ann Kingman, for introducing me to Spotify.

I will be back soon with a post on two books, The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch and The Sea, mentioned above. Both Irish writers, both Booker Prize winners for these particular books.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The Leopard

I finished The Leopard last week and have waited to write about it so I could gather my thoughts a bit. I share this book with the LibraryThing Legacy Library of author Robert Graves and it is one of my 2016 Reading Challenge books. It is a treasure, and I will definitely read it again. In fact, when finished, I was tempted to turn back to the beginning and start over. Beautifully written by Giuseppe di Lampedusa, and a fascinating glimpse back in time to old Sicily when Princes ruled their isolated estates like Kings.

Our Prince is Don Fabrizio. He is based on the author's great-grandfather, Don Giulio Maria Fabrizio Tomasi, Prince of Lampedusa. Set mostly in 1860 at the time of the "Risorgimento" led by Garibaldi, when Italy ceased to be two states, "...and the whole Italian peninsula would soon be one state for the first time since the fall of the Roman Empire". Don Fabrizio realizes this means the end of his way of life, and probably much of his fortune. He chooses to embrace it all hoping, as his nephew Tancredi tells him, "...everything must change so that everything can stay the same."

For an excellent review, go to JeffreyKeeten.com

Also, here is a link to the 1963 movie starring Burt Lancaster: The Leopard

I highly recommend the original version of this beautiful movie. It is long and slow-moving, but a feast for the eyes.

My copy of The Leopard is a TIME Reading Program Special Edition, published in 1966.

Giuseppe di Lampedusa

Thursday, March 17, 2016


I love my local library. As a reader, of course I love it! Nowadays it has taken on a fresh new look. Comfortable easy chairs in a sleek art deco style, bright colors, indoor "patio" tables with bright colored umbrellas, a huge teepee, interesting displays, a full-sized plastic skeleton, "trader" paperbacks free for the taking, a wonderful dollhouse for my granddaughter to populate with her choice of toy people, dinosaurs, furniture, and a tiger (her favorite), plus the usual assortment of books, etc. For the past two years or so, I have been using the Library2Go Oregon Digital Library Consortium service too. This comes free with my library card.

I especially like to download audio books that I can listen to as I go about my daily routine. Usually I listen to British mysteries, you know, stories set in "peaceful" country villages where nothing ever happens. Ha!

I like writers such as P.D. James, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, M.C. Beaton, Agatha Christie, Elizabeth George and Deborah Crombie. The last two are American writers whose stories are set in Great Britain. There are many more I could list. Besides mysteries set in Great Britain, I also like to listen to Donna Leon's Detective Brunetti mysteries. These are set in Venice so I get a vicarious visit to that magical city with each new story.

 And, I like Andrea Camilleri's Inspector Montalbano series, set in Sicily, so more vicarious travel.

One caveat with my choice of mystery books. I do not like realistic detective fiction. Spare me the autopsies, and psychopaths who build snowmen in the yards of their victims, or put body parts in the car boot. No thanks. Some of my writers throw in gruesome scenes but one is not taken into the mind of the killer. Elizabeth George is an exception, I guess. My "cosy" mysteries, where there IS murder, it is (for the most part) sanitized such that my delicate sensibilities can handle it.

So far in 2016, I have listened to sixteen audio books. They are not all mysteries. I have "read" Rosamunde Pilcher, Emile Zola, Anthony Trollope, and listened to an Arthur Miller play. OK, I'm a dreamer but isn't reading an escape, no matter how it is accomplished? At least with audio books, I get my chores finished!

And, a trip to the library is as easy as picking up my iPod. However, these days, I am making more trips in person to my local library. Sitting in a teepee is fun!

Do you listen to audio books? What have you "read" lately?

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Truth and Vipers

"There are many ways to the recognition of truth, and Burgundy is one of them." -- Isak Dinesan

Earlier today I pulled some books off the bottom shelf of my study bookcase. I had decided it was time to add more books to LibraryThing and these had been lurking in a dusty corner for far too long. As you see, there is a theme:

Back in the day, we were avid home wine makers (and drinkers!). We planted twenty pinot noir (Burgundy) vines in the backyard and took several wine making and tasting classes. It was so fun! We made our own wine for a few years. It was so-so, and eventually we moved on. But one of the best things we did was travel to France. We used "Adventures on the Wine Route" by Berkeley wine importer, Kermit Lynch, as our guide through French wine country. We had many of our own adventures and have never even once been sorry we made the trip.

We traveled by train from Paris to Dijon. In Dijon we picked up a rental car and spent the next two weeks driving around Burgundy, Provence, the Languedoc, and Bordeaux. Here are few pictures of Burgundy:

Wine "growler" shop in Gamay

Burgundy Scenes

The center photo was taken near Savigny-les-Beaune. We were there looking for a particular vineyard, "Les Serpentiers". We were never sure, but hoped this picture was the vineyard. According to the wine making brothers Pichenot, Kermit Lynch tells us in "Adventures on the Wine Route":

"Having always loved the vineyard name, "Les Serpentiers", which goes back to at least the thirteenth century, I ask if they know its origin.

"There are a lot of vipers there."

"Not really. There in the vineyard?"

"It's true Just ten days ago a young woman was bitten and spent a day in the hospital."

We did not encounter any vipers, but we did encounter friendly people, breathtaking scenery, and some fabulous wine. Truly.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

A Horde of Rebels

"...reading, you know, is rather like opening the door to a horde of rebels who swarm out attacking one in twenty places at once..." -- Virginia Woolf

It is past time for an update on where we have been and where we are going on the Road Map journey. I have had the "rebels" on my tail for the past few weeks and I am glad to report they are harmless, and in fact, quite enlightening and entertaining.

Firstly, I can tick two of my 2016 To Be Read books off the list:

Millions of words have been written about Virginia Woolf, one of the early 20th century's vanguard novelists. She helped to bring the stream of consciousness style into being and because of this, her work is considered difficult. The Virginia Woolf Reader is like a See's Candy Christmas box. We get to taste bits from here and there, every one wrapped in bright foil paper with plenty of bows. Editor Mitchell Leaska chose well. There are bits from essays, novels, short stories, diaries, and letters. I did not read the diaries section because of this:

I really do not like to read extracts from diaries. I want the whole life story, as written by the diarist. This is Volume One of the definitive 4-volume set edited by Anne Bell with an introduction by her husband, Quentin Bell. Quentin is Virginia's nephew, son of her artist sister Vanessa. Quentin wrote this excellent biography:

Many years ago, I read To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway, two of VW's most well-known works. I then read this biography and have been a "fan" (aka "Bloomsberry") ever since. Much more to come about Bloomsbury at a later date. VW lived in a time of great upheaval. She experienced the pain of loss at an early age and suffered from intermittent mental and emotional instability. This instability led to VW's suicide by drowning in 1941. Speculation has ranged from bi polar to schizophrenia. In the early 20th century, her malady was called "insanity". She was fortunate to have been born into the upper middle class or she might have spent her life in an asylum. Instead, she was cared for in hospitals and at home with private nurses. She was lucid most of the time and was a founding member of the Bloomsbury Group, the famous set of authors, artists, intellectuals, and hangers-on who lived or met in the Bloomsbury area of London in the early years of the 20th century. Her life was rich, her writing was sublime, and I encourage you to investigate VW. Do not be "afraid".

In the 1920's, Virginia began a mild love affair with Vita Sackville-West. Vita was an aristocrat. Her family, the Sackvilles, have lived at Knole, one of England's largest country houses, since 1603. The vast estate was given to Vita's ancestor, Thomas Sackville by his cousin Queen Elizabeth I in 1566. The house dates to the late 15th century, with many additions over time. Vita became a celebrity in England in the early 20th century because of two famous court cases. In the first, Vita's mother was proven to be the legal heir to her father Lord Sackville (there was a question as to whether Lord Sackville ever married the Spanish dancer, "Pepita", Vita's grandmother). In the second, Vita's mother was proven to be entitled to a bequest made to her by one of her admirers. The English public was enamoured with Vita, the beautiful young heiress, and could not get enough of her and her family's public humiliation followed by triumph in the courts.

Vita was also a prolific writer. Her best known work these days is the novel, All Passion Spent. She married the diplomat, Harold Nicolson, at Knole in 1913. They were both bi-sexual and each had love affairs with both sexes. Vita and Virginia's affair was mild, mostly a meeting of great minds, as Vita was aware of Virginia's fragile emotional state, and did not want to harm her in any way.

In Portrait of a Marriage, Nigel Nicolson, Vita's son, presents us with a view of the unusual marital arrangement between his parents, Harold and Vita. Theirs was an unbreakable love, a bond strong enough to withstand the emotional turmoil of passionate love affairs. By agreement, they gave each other the room to live their own separate lives, knowing they were each other's ROCK.

The book is divided into parts written by Vita and by Nigel, as well as excerpts of letters written by Vita and Harold. Vita had written an autobiography but locked it away in her tower writing room, unseen by anyone until after her death in 1962. Her son Nigel includes Vita's autobiography and his wider-view version of the same events Vita writes about. Most of the book is taken up with the drama around Vita's passionate love affair with Violet Keppel, which lasted over two years. Vita and Violet wanted to live together but had to run away from England to do so. This planned arrangement created turmoil and tremendous upheaval for everyone involved. Finally, getting as far as France, they break up and Vita returns to her family and begins a much quieter life of seclusion in the Kentish countryside. She and Violet were to meet and travel together a few more times, but the affair gradually wound down.

Vita and Harold had two sons, and created one of England's great tourist attractions: the gardens at Sissinghurst castle, their family home. Now owned by the National Trust, Sissinghurst was a refuge and the gardens their major project after the stormy first years of their marriage. As a female, Vita could not inherit Knole due to the laws of primogeniture. She mourned the loss of her family home to a male cousin. Virginia Woolf was aware of Vita's great sadness over the loss of Knole. She penned Orlando, her well-known novel of gender bending and time travel with Vita and Knole as her inspiration. I am currently reading Orlando and will give you my thoughts on it at a later date.

Sissinghurst Castle
(note the tower, upper center -- Vita's writing domain)

Finally, Portrait of a Marriage is a lasting tribute to a great love. The love of a man and woman for each other -- come what may. To most, it seems scandalous and a bit naughty that they were tolerant of each other's affairs, and they even refer to this perceived naughtiness in their letters to one another (Harold, as a diplomat, traveled extensively). In their view it was not naughty, rather a mature and generous agreement to allow each other the freedom to live, really live, their own one life in this world.

Referring to Vita's feelings for Virginia and for the effects on her husband Leonard, Harold says in his 2 December 1926 letter to Vita:

"I am far more worried for Virginia's and Leonard's sake than for ours. I know that for each of us the other is the magnetic north, and that though the needle may flicker and even get stuck at the other points, it will come back to the pole sooner or later."

Quite civilized, I must say.

Reading update:

Listened to two cosy mysteries using my library's digital download feature.

Read my cousin's first novel, The Wish and the Waterfall. Quite the good book, and a post on it to come at a later date. Way to go, Ken!

Currently reading A Pilgrim at Tinker's Creek, also on the 2016 TBR challenge and Orlando by Virginia Woolf.

I think that is it for now. I am not worried about the hordes! Ciao!

Saturday, February 6, 2016

The Song of the Lark

Book One of Sixteen

My apologies for the sporadic posts. I am continually surprised by how long it takes to recuperate from serious illness at this age. Not feeling bad now, just low energy and low interest level in things that used to occupy my mind like an obsession. Some things remain constant -- I am reading several of the books from my 2016 reading challenge. This is a challenge to read through at least sixteen of the books in our "To Be Read" stacks. This is an update on the first of my sixteen. Have you joined the challenge?

My personal reading road map has guided me through myriad detours and strange meanderings over time. Willa Cather is an American author I have known about but not really taken that seriously. Considered a "western" writer, Cather wrote in the late 19th and first part of the 20th century. Stories about pioneers and the hardscrabble life do not usually interest me much. You see, I prefer English literature and have pretty much ignored American writers. I have lots of their books, but usually pass them over when looking for something to read. Is the writing too raw and new? Not serious enough? Perhaps, as I do like the history, established tradition, and the legacy of the ancients found in English literature. Snobbish prejudice aside, many years ago I read My Antonia by Willa Cather. I remember being moved to tears by the beauty of the writing, the story, and the feeling of being there, on the Nebraska prairie, as I read. For reasons I cannot even now imagine, I never read another of Cather's works or thought about her much, until now.

About a year ago, I was reading through a collection of nature writing by women, Sisters of the Earth, edited by Lorraine Anderson. One of pieces was an extract from Willa Cather's The Song of the Lark. Here is a snippet from the biographical sketch of Cather at the beginning of the piece:

"Cather's work has been praised for its lyrical and profound evocations of nature...The land is a central figure in her mature fiction; a primary theme is that if treated properly, the land is a source of well-being and -- in the case of struggling young opera singer Thea Kronborg, protagonist of Cather's third and longest novel, "The Song of the Lark" -a source of deep solace. Kronborg has tried to transcend the limits of her upbringing in the frontier Colorado town of Moonstone by escaping to Chicago; when that attempt has seemingly failed, she finds respite in Panther Canyon in the Southwest."

When I read the extract from Sisters of the Earth titled The Ancient People, I knew I had to someday read The Song of the Lark. Once again, Cather's writing was so evocative, I felt I was there, in the deep, winding crack in the earth called Panther Canyon. Here, where long-abandoned cliff dwellings occupy the inner gorge within the canyon:

"The dead city lay at the point where the perpendicular outer wall ceased and the V-shaped inner gorge began. There a stratum of rock softer than those above had been hollowed out by the action of time until it was like a deep groove running along the sides of the canyon. In this hollow (like a great fold in the rock) the Ancient People had built their houses of yellowish stone and mortar. The overhanging cliff above made a roof two hundred feet thick.

In both walls of the canyon the same streak of soft rock had been washed out, and the long horizontal groove had been built up with houses. The dead city had thus two streets, one set in either cliff, facing each other across the ravine, with a river of blue air between them.

The canyon twisted and wound like a snake, and these two streets went on for four miles or more.

All the houses in the canyon were clean with the cleanness of sun-baked, wind-swept places, and they all smelled of the tough little cedars that twisted themselves into the very doorways. One of these rock-rooms Thea took for her own...The day after she came Henry brought over on one of the pack-ponies a roll of Navajo blankets...and Thea lined her cave with them. The room was not more than eight by ten feet, and she could touch the stone roof with her fingertips. This was her old idea: a nest in a high cliff, full of sun."

Thea Kronborg, is a descendant of Swedish immigrants, and is one of a large family living in southern Colorado, desert country, in the late 19th century. Her father is a clergyman in the small town of Moonstone. Thea's mother recognizes a streak of musical genius in her daughter, and arranges for her to learn to play the piano. Her teacher, an alcoholic German musician, is a stern taskmaster. He too recognizes Thea's talent and pushes her to embrace her ability before she really understands what it is. Over time, Thea becomes aware that she is different from her brothers and sisters, and from her schoolmates. She feels the constraints of the small too-close community and finally breaks free. She travels to Chicago where she studies piano with a well-known concert pianist. When he has to leave because of a career opportunity, he hears Thea sing and is sure she is headed in the wrong direction with her piano studies. He arranges for her to continue her musical studies, and convinces her that her true musical talent is in her voice. Over time, Thea studies, learns the "ropes" of performance art, and then, just as she is about to launch her career, suffers a physical setback, contracting a serious case of pneumonia which nearly kills her. During her long recovery, she is invited to travel to the Southwest, to a friend's ranch for a healing rest. It is while visiting the ranch that she makes a personal breakthrough in her relationship to her art.

Thea stays at the ranch for weeks, making the trek into the canyon every day to occupy her "nest". There she finds badly needed solace and gathers into herself the canyon's raw energy and the spiritual echoes of the Ancient People.

"Not only did the world seem older and richer to Thea now, but she herself seemed older. She had never been alone for so long before, or thought so much. Nothing had ever engrossed her so deeply as the daily contemplation of the cliff...Here everything was simple and definite...Her mind was like a ragbag into which she had been frantically thrusting whatever she could grab. And here she must throw this lumber away. The things that were really hers separated themselves from the rest. Her ideas were simplified, became sharper and clearer. She felt united and strong."

Thea emerges from the canyon with renewed purpose as she pursues her musical career. She had gone through a "vision quest" of a sort, and now understands and believes in her gift. As she explains to her mentor, "Dr. Archie":

" 'You see, Doctor Archie, what one really strives for in art is not the sort of thing you are likely to find when you drop in for a performance at the opera. What one strives for is so far away, so beautiful' -- she lifted her shoulders with a long breath, folded her hands in her lap and sat looking at him with a resignation which made her face noble -- 'that there's nothing one can say about it.' "

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and plan to re-read My Antonia. It is on my Kindle. Many of Willa Cather's works are free for Kindle download, as they are in the public domain.

I hope to see you back here soon with another reading challenge update. This seems to be the right time to zip through these books as they are there in my TBR stack and so I do not have to do a lot of creative thinking about what to read next.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Pepys Exhibition and a Bit of Poetry

Samuel Pepys

You may recall, last summer I introduced my friend, the famous 17th century English diarist, Samuel Pepys. Well, there is currently a Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, just down the river from London. Oh, how I wish I could go to this!  Since I cannot, a bit of armchair travel is in order. If you are the slightest bit interested in 17th century English history, culture (think the movie "Restoration" starring Robert Downey, Jr.), or are just curious, check out the exhibition link. There you will find information about the exhibit, a link to expert Pepys blogs, and a YouTube introduction to the exhibit. The YouTube video is quite clever; I keep playing it over and over just because I am one of Samuel's most devoted fans!

He was a sexist pig by our standards, but I am over judging historical figures by our standards. It is an exercise in 21st century political correctness and ego. Things happened. They were bad things, and some people were awful racists, philanderers, etc., and that cannot be changed, just acknowledged. And we move on, hopefully having learned how NOT to behave. At least we should. The soap box just collapsed, so I am off it now.

Anyway, I have been reading Pepys Diary, kind of like the tortoise, plodding along, making progress, and enjoying it immensely. Still in 1668, the next to last year of the Diary.  My next Pepys read will be to finish this Claire Tomalin autobiography, Samuel Pepys, The Unequalled Self:

As you can see by the book's "well-loved" condition, I have been working on this one for several years. The snippet of one of my favorite Billy Collins poems mentions Pepys. Here is the text:

"...This is what Samuel Pepys did too,
        jotting down in
private ciphers minor events that
        would have otherwise
slipped into the heavy, amnesiac
        waters of the Thames.
His vigilance paid off finally
        when London caught fire..."

                    --Billy Collins, Tuesday June 4th 1991

Lots of reading to do before I get to 1666, the year of the Great Fire of London. 2016 is the 250th anniversary of the fire. Thanks to Pepys we know so much more about how events unfolded over the course of several days. His home and office came very close to being destroyed. The fire stopped only one street away.

In the Tomalin bio, I am just now reading about the role Pepys played in the logistics of the restoration of Charles II to the English throne in 1660. It would have been better to read the bio before the Diary, but of course I did not! Pepys was a low-level civil servant for the English Navy thanks to his cousin by marriage, Edward Montagu, later created the Earl of Sandwich by Charles II. Montagu was instrumental in the politics of getting Charles out of Holland to England when the Royalists regained power from the Cromwellians. Pepys was responsible for procuring the Royal Barge used to transport Charles back to England and accompanied Montagu as his secretary on the trip.

These experiences are just two of many in the remarkable life of Samuel Pepys. I hope you will find yourself just a little bit curious about this momentous time in English history and check out the exhibit links. If you do, maybe you will want to learn more about Samuel.

Next time, I will tell you a bit about my personal pilgrimage to the old City of London to see where Pepys lived and worked. Also, a bit about the journey by river boat down the Thames to Greenwich. There is a Royal Observatory and a pub involved.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

A Rare Opportunity, The Huntington, and Reading Updates

The Bard

We are fortunate to live near a university town. World class art, drama, music, book shops, restaurants, and more are just a 30 minute drive from home. And now, we  have a very rare opportunity to view a Shakespeare "First Folio" at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art located on the campus of the University of Oregon. The exhibit is ongoing through February 7, 2016.

If you live nearby, please do visit. If you do not, here is an article from our local newspaper about the exhibit and a link to the museum.


Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art

One of the great art and rare book collections in the world is in San Marino, California -- The Huntington.

Library and Grounds at the Huntington

I think I have seen a Shakespeare "First Folio" once before. I say "I think" because it was ages ago during a visit to the Huntington Library. I for sure remember seeing a Gutenberg Bible and Audubon's The Birds of America and have a niggling memory of strolling past the Shakespeare. Let's say I was a bit less aware of what was really important back in the day. Here is another link to the Huntington. Scroll down to see information about the major works on permanent display at the library. There is also an Art Museum and a lovely Botanical Garden at the Huntington. If you are ever in the L.A. area, schedule a visit to this wonderful place.

2016 Reading Update:

Finished reading:
Rose Cottage by Mary Stewart

Currently reading:
Pepys' Diary - 1668
The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather from my 2016 Reading Challenge
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke (also from the 2016 Reading Challenge)
The Fairy Tale Girl by Susan Branch (more about this book when I am finished)

Audio Books Update:

During my recuperation I have spent many hours listening to audio books (mostly cosy mysteries and romances set in England because I find them very relaxing) while knitting, crocheting, doing Sudoku puzzles, etc. Here are the books I have listened to in 2016:

The School at Thrush Green by Miss Read
Celebrations at Thrush Green also by Miss Read

Current listening:
That Summer by Lauren Willig

I should say that I plan to read more than 16 books in 2016. The Reading Challenge is focused on books I have had in my TBR stack for way too long. I hope to read or listen to at least 40+ books in 2016. I need to get with it or I will never finish all the books I have in the time I have left on this good earth!!!

My cousin just published his first novel, and it is coming in today's mail!!! Add another one to my TBR stack! See you next time...