Book Notes – The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey

We are all a lot more capable of overcoming obstacles and fears than we think we are.

I’m writing this is the midst of a windshield tour of Oregon with my husband, and the author’s recording of this book makes for a pretty perfect soundtrack. Beyond the obvious connection, it’s literary enough to satisfy my passion for memoirs while historical enough to interest us both, not to mention testosterone-laden for him. After all, you can’t much more macho than a cowboy adventure.

Here is a travelogue for the nostalgic reader, the dreamer brave or crazy enough to embrace the unattainable by following half-a-continent of wagon ruts, both defended and lost to development, in a journey of mythic proportion. Journalist Rinker Buck, a self-confessed dandy and control freak, and his mule-skinning free-wheeling brother Nick, a couple of baby boomers from New Jersey, are two such intrepid men.   

Here is the story of three Americas. First is the Pioneer America of heroes and misbegotten failures, litterbugs Buck calls them, who followed their predecessor’s trash across the continent. Second is the wide-eyed America of the Wagon Train TV series at a time when the Buck boys toured the mid-Atlantic in the family’s home-made prairie schooner. Finally is modern America, a country of pampered people who profess peace-loving values but who fight about everything. The beauty of it all is the brothers’ synthesis of all three Americas as their mules walk 2000 miles in the other guys’ horseshoes. Learning anew the hard lessons of the pioneers, they rediscover their filial connection while putting to rest old patriarchal resentments and taking stock of their late mid-life lives. It’s a beautiful journey recounted with warmth and self-deprecatory humor. For as Buck says, crazy-ass passion is the staple of life and persistence its nourishing force.

Watch the book trailer here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BbRkB5bnG8c

Book Notes—Edgar Allan Poe Stories and Poems

Perverseness is one of the primitive impulses of the human heart.  (The Black Cat)

Just in time for the Halloween onslaught, Spotify Free has released Caedmon Audio’s Basil Rathbone & Vincent Price Read Edgar Allan Poe Stories and Poems, five hours of the Master-of-Macabre’s greatest hits performed by two Shakespeareans titans. Poe’s work, noted for its exacting logic, comes to life with Rathbone’s narration as it summons his eminent Sherlock Holmes. And Price’s gently horrific quirkiness, last showcased in Edward Scissorhands, is ideal for Poe’s perverse imagination. Beware though; archaic speech coupled with many rushed and whispered passages make this recording a better accompaniment than a main course. I recommend following along in print as the voices wash you. There are countless free PDFs of each title available for download.

Scholars take note, however; some of the longer stories, including the hugely popular The Fall of the House of Usher (23 minutes) and The Pit and the Pendulum (over 30 minutes), have been heavily abridged, lending them a modern terseness that I find refreshing. Poe does have a tendency to go on at length when he might well trust the reader. But other stories are read in their entirety: The Black Cat, for example, is 36 minutes well-spent. Her is a tale any felinophobe will appreciate for its spot-on descriptions of the animal’s seeming malevolence in overstepping its welcome.

You can listen at https://open.spotify.com/album/6xDmRcD6sgsGbDvBRpyH5H but be aware some of the audio levels are so unnaturally low as to be little more than a ghostly whisper. The works I found to be inaudible on my laptop, however, were fine on my Spotify phone app. Happy listening!

Book Notes – Their Eyes Were Watching God

You got to go there to know there.

Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel of a young woman’s self-discovery paints “there” as not only different locales but different lives. From rural Eatonville, Florida (one of the nation’s first all-black communities) to the Everglades, Janie Crawford is transformed through three tragic marriages.

Raised by a watchful grandma, she morphs from dreamy teen to miserable child-bride in an arranged marriage with a landed geezer who sees her as chattel. She then she elopes with a sweet-talking social-climber, only to feel their love sour as he too grows old and jealous. Finally, as a widowed storekeeper wallowing in boredom, she finds happiness with a younger man, an itinerant laborer and gambler who keeps her teetering on the edge of faith. Yet she overlooks his many faults for the sake of passion. Then Mother Nature finds a bizarre and tragic way to separate them.

Though not a long read, the dialogue is dialect-heavy, which makes for slow-going if one is to digest its nuances. Hurston’s signature word-painting makes for vivid scenes and memorable one-liners, but the story doesn’t hit its stride until our heroine meets her match half-way into the 184 pages, at which point it’s hard to put down. With so many realistic yet stunning twists of fate, it’s easy to see why this story is a modern classic and equally baffling why it was so neglected until over a decade after Hurston was buried in a pauper’s grave. Sadly, racism is the likely cause, as white critics trashed it early-on.

For glimpses of Eatonville and a frank look at Zora Neale Hurston’s Hometown Legacy, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y_M-PfhgMsg.

Book Notes – A Piece of the World

The older I get, the more I believe that the greatest kindness is acceptance ~ Christina Baker Kline

This weekender of a historical fiction came to me as the unexpected benefit of mall-walking to beat the heat. It was in the branch library freebies-box, in large-print no less (388 pages). Not being much of a contemporary fiction reader, I was unfamiliar with Christina Baker Kline, who wrote the NYT bestseller Orphan Train, but I can see why she’s popular: vivid images, succinctly drawn, with heart. Her prose is sparse, a bit too sparse for my taste, but I love the backstory she paints to one of America’s favorite works of art, Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth. Here the nagging questions posed by the haunting scene are all laid to rest—how a girlish, crippled spinster came to be living in semi-isolation; why she drags herself through the grass with resolute pride; and perhaps most importantly, why she allowed herself to be captured on canvas after a lifetime of eschewing attention.

Baker Kline knows coastal Maine where the story is set. The sun-bleached Olson House that tourists still visit today is like a patriarch ensnaring Christina and her brother Alvaro for a lifetime of sacrifice. For as Baker Kline says in the prologue, the skeleton of a house can carry in its bones the marrow of all that came before. For a peek at the exterior of this 14-room colonial farmhouse, check out this brief video featuring Christina’s nephew John, who is also a minor character in the story. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IVEGpeqYRKc

Exoneration

Thanks to the Mueller investigation, this is Dictionary.com’s most-searched-for term of 2019. According to Congressman Michael Turner (R-Ohio), it’s meaningless, yet I heard it in traffic court only the day before and couldn’t help wondering if group-think had coopted the judge’s tongue. It would not be the first time I was last to the linguistic party of current affairs.

So many of our ten-dollar words come to us in this way, ignored or unknown for years until, suddenly, they crop up like kudzu in summer—in books, in conversation, in the news. Words, like fashions, trend, and trending words are often made-up words for which a great many of us have no use: twerking, shredding, phat. Yet there are real words for real things in this world that we never think about. Aglets recently came to my attention, those little plastic sheathes on shoelaces. Granted, they may not enjoy center stage yet, but who’s to say that aglets not the next chads? Remember those? Hanging chads, swinging chads, dimpled chads?  

That was an election to remember, as will be the next, no doubt. But whether Donald Trump is exonerated of collusion or not, exoneration, like chads, is a word that voters on both sides of the divide will never forget.

Book Notes - The Priest Fainted

. . . how easy it is now that (my mother) is no longer the part of me I have to fight against. We have come to a truce, the truce of two women who have been on a hard road and have come to respect each other’s fight.

Catherine Temma Davidson’s 2014 novel of self-discovery in her mother’s native Greece is as rich as baklava, tracing their respective tales of youthful rebellion and seasoning them with recipes and classical myths retold through an empowering feminist perspective.  A “Roots” story that draws back the curtain on a culture where “women never got a chance to decide for themselves which pieces (of the past) give good flavor and which are too grisly to swallow”, this is a delicacy to be savored, bookmarked, and reread. A perfect weekend reverie at 259 pages.

The Royal We

Only kings, presidents, editors, and people with tapeworms have the right to use the editorial we. ~ Mark Twain

 Remember last spring when our nation’s leader was mocked for tweeting, “WE are number one—President!”? Was he warming up for his visit to The Queen or merely cementing his narcissistic image? What if that one word, we, were stricken from our language for a day? Folks might think twice before spouting statements ranging from the banal “Please be patient; I care about your call” to the prejudicial “I don’t serve your kind here.”  

In the spirit of National Talk Like a Pirate Day (September 19) and National Speak in Complete Sentences Day (May 31), I propose National Don’t Speak for Me Day, to be celebrated January 1st—because 1 is as close as numbers get the personal pronoun I.  

Alas, for some the two are synonymous. Handwriting analysts are alert to writers who use the two interchangeably. Perhaps you’ve encountered a personal pronoun I, or PPI as we call it, that looks like the number one? I’m not talking about the stick-figure I you see in such fonts as Ariel, but the numerical-appearing I of the Gabriola, Brush Script MT, or Rage Italic font. Similarly, a writer who has always felt 2nd best may have a PPI that looks like a number 2, as in the capital I of Harlow Solid Italic. I don’t mean to make anyone paranoid, but few realize the subliminal implications of such choices.  

Getting back to the notion of National Don’t Speak for Me Day, though, might it not clear up a lot of misunderstandings in this world? Isn’t it time for more personal accountability without the ego?

Book Notes - You Can't Go Home Again

The essence of Time is Flow, not Fix. The essence of faith is the knowing that all flows and that everything must change. ~ Thomas Wolfe  

Sooner or later we’re all strangers in town, even if we never leave. Friendships, jobs, businesses morph. Life happens and we evolve. There are no human museums.  

This obsession so preoccupied Wolfe that his final novel, published in 1940, ran over 650 pages as his semi-autobiographical protagonist is ostracized for literary success at the expense of his personal acquaintances and discovers the futility of fleeing to find a new home. It’s a long read in hours but a short leap to universal truth. Even I, the slowest reader I know, never lost the thread of interest over the months I took to digest it, but I’m glad I went with hard copy instead of Audible. Some stories, like life itself, need to be experienced over the long haul.

 Home, the crux of my own writings, is less the state of Maine or New Hampshire than a state of mind. Entire blocks of the little town where I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s are now unrecognizable, but I catch snatches of home in the smell of the sea, the cry of a seagulls piercing September’s rain, and the sight of aged asphalt shingles in a newly gentrified slum.

 

 

 

Book Notes – The Bread Givers

The only sin on earth is to let life pass you by.

I’d never heard of Anzia Yezierska, The Sweatshop Cinderella, when I picked up this book. Yet the plight of her semi-autobiographical protagonist, Sara Smolinsky, the 1920’s immigrant daughter of an authoritarian rabbi, felt vaguely familiar. As a baby-boom descendent of Eastern European immigrants, I watched a spinster grow old under her parents’ roof. Unlike Sara, she had freedom, but the spunk of self-determination seemed to have been scared out of her—a situation few young women in America today could fathom.

            So blinded by faith is Sara’s father, a man she calls more terrible than the Tsar from Russia—with his misogynistic authoritarianism, foolish pride, and incredible naïveté, that he seems to have stepped from Grimms’ Fairy Tales. Like Hans in Luck who prides himself on his bartering skills, trading a lump of silver the size of his head for a horse ,and then a cow, pig, goose, and finally a whetstone that rolls into the river—Rev Smolinsky wastes not only his riches but his daughters’ lives. He puts them to work so he can study the Torah, then thwarts their romances until time and broken hearts tame them into submission for disastrous arranged- marriages. At one point, even the mother is complicit, lying about her daughter’s dressmaking skills, just as the miller in Rumplestiltskin bragged that his daughter could spin straw into gold.

            Sara’s journey from subservience to self-reliance is a bit overly sentimental, but with such stilted characters and family dysfunction, how could it read otherwise? Most frustrating is the seemingly magical way in which Sara overcomes practical hurdles in her progress from factory worker to school teacher. Yezierska is to be commended, however, for having her heroine refuse a wealthy suitor who appears like a miraculous savior just when she most needs one. Sara is well into spinsterhood when she finally meets her soul mate and the love story peters out. Still, this imperfect narrative, fanciful as it may be, remains a compelling classic.

Book Notes - Educated

You are not fools’ gold shining only under a particular light. Whoever you become, whatever you make yourself into, that is who you always were. It was always in you.

Tara Westover’s 2018 memoir of her journey from uneducated child of a Doomsday Fundamentalist Mormon to Cambridge-educated Ph.D. is sure to resonate with anyone who has striven or strives to overcome the low expectations of their youth. A bootstraps story with a twist, it gradually reveals a dangerous family that she learns to recognize as such only with age and distance: a mentally ill father with no regard for her safety, an abusive brother who threatens her very life, and a mother who looks the other way even as she devotes her life to healing others. That she should aspire to better circumstances only makes the family all the belligerent. Yet there are heroes in her world, both kith and kin, who help her cross the divide to the world she has been taught to disdain.

A finalist for several national book prizes, Educated won a 2018 Goodreads Choice Award as well as a 2019 Audie Award for Julia Whelan’s outstanding narration. That’s how I discovered this gem, on Audible—my favorite way to “read”, but I’m sure it would have been equally compelling in print at 352 pages.