Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

If you are from Seattle this is a book that you really must read. Not only does the novel evoke the very essence of the area but manages to maker her a co-star. You will find yourself walking the streets of local neighborhoods as you remain ensconced in your reading chair.

Not surprisingly the author Garth Stein makes Seattle his home. But Stein's use of a dog as his narrator allows him a descriptive freedom that creates an almost three dimensional world for his reader. It also will likely make you look at your dog in a whole new way.

The story is narrated by a Labrador mix named Enzo. As he nears the end of his life Enzo tells the story of his life and introduces us to the family of people that it revolves around. His owner Denny Swift, his wife Eve, and his daughter Zoe.

Denny is a race car driver who has to work in an auto shop between gigs to pay the bills. Enzo is his biggest fan and together they watch tapes of his races while Denny shares the tactics and tricks to getting around the track successfully. Enzo believes in them utterly and uses Denny's driving advice as a guide to getting around the sharp corners that come upon you in life.

Listen to Enzo as he talks about how Denny looks upon a particular aspect of racing. "This is something that I'd heard him say before: getting angry at another driver for a driving incident is pointless. You need to watch the drivers around you, understand their skill, confidence, and aggression levels, and drive with them accordingly. Know who is driving next to you. Any problems that may occur have ultimately been caused by you, because you are responsible for where you are and what you are doing there."

And it is a good thing that Denny and Enzo have this to fall back on because their lives provide more sharp corners than an octagon. The book is relentless in placing challenges in front of our two heroes. Even as the young family settle into their new home in the Central District Enzo senses that something is wrong with Eve.

Feeling helpless Enzo describes the agony of Eve's illness and the repercussions that ensue. His desire to help is almost painful to him at times and he laments his lack of thumbs and wishes for a tongue that would allow him to speak. When Enzo himself begins to decline he refuses to give up hope because he is convinced that he will come back as a man.

"I am ready to become a man now, though I realize I will lose all that I have been. All of my memories, all of my experiences. I would like to take them with me into my next life - there is much that I have gone through with the Swift family - but I have little say in the matter. What can I do but force myself to remember? Try to imprint what I know on my soul, a thing that has no surface, no sides, no pages, no form of any kind. Carry it so deeply in the pockets of my experience that when I open my eyes and look down at my new hands with their thumbs that are able to close tightly around their fingers, I will already know. I will already see."

This book will have you in tears but it will also open your eyes to new possibilities. It provides us with some unexpected insight on life from a truly unique source.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

High Endeavours by Miles Clark

If you have read any of my other posts you know that thanks to the author of A Passage to Juneau I became curious about a couple named Miles and Beryl Smeeton. I followed up be reading 3 of Miles Smeeton's books about their travels together. They were all fascinating but they left me wanting to know more about the Miles and Beryl themselves.

As the author of those books Miles Smeeton was always self-deprecating when describing himself or his actions while he often wrote of his wife Beryl as the real hero in their stories. Also because his books most often described single voyages they were not helpful in understanding how these people came to be who they became. Thankfully Miles Clark tries to do that very thing in his book "High Endeavors, The Extraordinary life and adventures of Miles and Beryl Smeeton."

Penned in 1991 it is a deeply researched and compelling look at one of the most interesting couples of the 20th century. Miles Clark was born in England in 1960 and his Godfather was Miles Smeeton. Since the Smeetons were either travelling or in Canada most of the time the relationship between Godfather and Godson was mostly via the letters they exchanged. This did not prevent them from developing a lasting appreciation and respect for each other and this radiates throughout Clark's book.

As an adventure book it does not have the flavor of an "Into Thin Air" or even Smeeton's own "Once is Enough." It represents the entire story of these two interesting people from their childhoods until their deaths. Fortunately for we adventure book fanatics they spent their entire lives, whether alone or together, doing the most amazing things. As an example Beryl Smeeton undertook solo journeys on foot, on donkeys, in trains, and ships in China, Burma, Russia, India, Persia, Turkey and freaking Patagonia! (And may I just add that when forced to use the convenience of a train or ship she always paid the lowest possible fare so she could sit in the dirt with the rest of the poor people.)

So Miles Clark has plenty of material to work with and he makes the most of it. When he touches on their idiosyncrasies it is in a loving and respecting manner. Descriptions of Beryl's cooking being an area where he was incredibly gentle. Clark manages to capture the essence of the Smeeton's relationship so that the reader understands the glue that holds them together. He helps us in some way imagine what it might be like to live your life with the single goal of being together while experiencing the world.

Reading this book lets you inside the relationship of these two fascinating people and also takes you on a journey of the world as it was when the Smeeton's were young. From Miles in the war in Africa for the British in the 1930's while Beryl travelled the remote corners of the world to finishing their lives in the Canadian Rockies attempting to save endangered species their lives do not have a dull moment. We are lucky that Miles Clark took the time to write it all down for us. Miles Clark died in 1993 at age 32 just six years after Miles Smeeton passed in Canada.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Hold Off on Buying "Holding Fast"

Recently our local book store in Winthrop, WA. called Trails End released their Winter 2009 Readers Guide. On page 2 they listed 4 "Great New Adventure Books" coming out. This caught my eye because I just love that stuff. Ever since I read the first article in Outside magazine and then the subsequent book "Into Thin Air" by Jon Krakauer, I've been addicted to adventure books. I must be in the category of those that can't do it read about it.

Of the 4 books presented I had already read one of them called "Ten Degrees of Reckoning." It's about a sailing mishap and it's well worth your time. It must be being re-released. Of the other 3 books mentioned I picked 2, "Holding Fast" by Karen James and "The Lost City of Z" by David Grann. The reason I picked Holding Fast is because Mt. Hood is pretty local and although I've never climbed it, I have gone skiing there.

Well the book was the wrong choice because it is no more an adventure book then say Winnie the Pooh. It advertises itself as a adventure book through the extended title "Holding Fast, The Untold Story of the Mount Hood Tragedy," but it's really about the author. If you are curious as to what really happened to these climbers you aren't going to find any answers from Karen James.

What will you find? A lot about her, her feelings, her love of God, her inability to swear even in a book, the love her stepchildren have for her, the love her now deceased husband Kelly had for her, how much people love her art, etc.,etc., etc. The title of the book should be "Holding Fast, The Untold Story of Me and How I Handled a Tragedy with the Help of God." Now that would be a truly descriptive title.

This book shouldn't be anywhere near the adventure shelf in the book store but placed firmly in the religious department. I should have read the back cover reviews before purchasing it from Amazon. If you have reviews written by such literary luminaries such as Troy Aikman, Roger Staubach, Sheriff Wampler, and wife of country singer Alan Jackson then as a reader you need to "take the hint!"

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Final Verdict

Journalist and author Adela Rogers St. John writes about her father Earl Rogers in this book penned in 1962. Mrs. St. John was 68 years old at the time she finally wrote her father’s biography but it was a story that had always been inside her to tell. The deep love and admiration she feels for him permeates each page of the book.

Earl Rogers was a lawyer in a small city called Los Angeles beginning in the late 19th century. I say small because that is what Los Angeles was in those days. If you click on this link it will show you a picture of Wilshire Boulevard in the period in which this book takes place. http://digarc.usc.edu/search/controller/view/chs-m14788.html. The city has seen some changes since then.

Adela is given a view of her father at work that few sons and daughters ever get to see unless they live on a farm or ranch. Instead of sending his young daughter to school, Earl Rogers kept his daughter mostly by his side as he worked each day. Adela writes that he considered her his lucky charm. Because of this Mrs. St. Johns had a front row seat on some of the most sensational trials of early Los Angeles.

You will recognize names like Clarence Darrow whom Earl Rogers defended in a jury bribery case. Adela always considered Darrow to be ungrateful for the work done for him by Rogers and his staff in getting a not guilty verdict from the jury. Even though Darrow delivered the final argument on behalf of himself most observers of the time felt that the case was won before he ever started speaking. Adela also relates that at the end both she and her father recognized that Darrow was actually guilty of the offense.

Earl Rogers was ahead of his time by being absolutely against the death penalty for any offense. His father had been a devout clergyman and he had passed on to his son a passion for fairness and justice especially for the underdogs of the world. Because of that Rogers may have represented some men that were guilty of their offenses but to keep them from the gallows he defended them in court.

One of the few times that Earl Rogers played the role of prosecution was in the case of the Los Angeles Times bombing in 1910. Adela was 16 years old at the time and her father’s office was directly across the street from the Times. The building was blown up by a pair of union organizers who thought that the bombing would be a great way to express their views. Twenty-one men and women were killed. Unfortunately for the murderers a reporter and great friend of Earl Rogers was working in the building when the dynamite exploded. The grand jury of Los Angeles County returned an indictment of murder on evidence presented by Earl Rogers. To view of picture of the dynamited building click here: http://www3.gendisasters.com/california/2680/los-angeles%2C-ca-times-building-explosion-fire%2C-oct-1910?page=0%2C0.

This book is a tribute to a daughters love for her father. She states clearly that being Earl Rogers’s daughter was the most important thing in her life and what she was most proud of. She name drops shamelessly and allows us to follow her as she trails after her father and famous friends such as Jack London. Considering how full and exciting her own life was (she lived until she was 94 and wrote 4 more books after this one) it didn’t compare with a childhood watching her Dad.

Reading this book is a wonderful ride through early 20th century Los Angeles and the politics and crimes of the era. Mrs. St. Johns escorts the reader through the trials and characters that were a part of their lives and allows us to imagine what it might have been like. A genuinely good read.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Crazy Rich People

Recently I posted about the March issue of Vanity Fair and some of the old Hollywood stories in it. I said at the time that the articles made me want to re-read Brooke Hayward's 1977 best selling book "Haywire." I try and follow up on these things so the book was retrieved from my parents bookcase and read again.

Years ago I gave the book as a gift to my Mother mostly because I had read the review in Time magazine and wanted to read it myself. The proof is on the opening page where I have scribbled "To Mom on her Birthday! Love, Jenifer, (1977)." That means that when I originally read the book I was all of seventeen years old. I recall that I thought it was terribly tragic and I couldn't figure out what all went wrong in that family.

The book is written by Brooke Hayward about her family and all that happens to them. Her father is the hugely successful theatrical agent and producer, Leland Hayward. Her mother is famous actress Margaret Sullavan. Brooke is born in 1937, her sister Bridget in 1939 and her brother Bill in 1941. They are raised in a Hollywood that is still undeveloped where groves of orange trees are nestled next to wild fields full of snakes and rabbits and where Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda live down the street.

It was all very romantic to me in 1977 and it seemed impossible to me that California had ever been like that. But it is amazing what 30 years of life experience can do for your perspective. As I read the book this time I could not help but be absolutely amazed at Brooke's recall of events. Whole conversations are brought back to life from the time that she is a toddler onward. Now this is something that some people are better at than others but my belief is that Brooke's apparent ability is nothing short of miraculous.

Even more interesting is that when events become more current her memory seems to become hazier. Her description of her Mother and Sister's death, although moving, seem to lack detail. As a reader, both young and old, I longed for Brooke to find out the truth about what happened to them but she never does. The reader receives a recital of her grief and bewilderment but that is about all.

It was a different time then when if you were rich enough you could put your misbehaving teenager in a psychiatric hospital. We know now, of course, that almost all teenagers misbehave and that putting them in the hospital is probably not the best thing for them. It happened to both Bridget and Bill when they were teens. It appears that Bill survived the ordeal but Bridget did not and killed herself when she was barely 21 years old. (Bill killed himself just a few years ago at age 61 but it appears that it may have been because of a bad motorcycle accident that had left him with severe mental and physical handicaps).

I would recommend this book for a trip into the lives of the rich and famous in old Hollywood. It is a poignant reminder of what it was all like at the beginning. The writing is good and makes you want to read more but the story may leave you wishing for more answers.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Miles and Beryl Smeeton Out of Control

The book "Once is Enough" by Miles Smeeton is fine narrative of a bordering on insane adventure. Miles describes how he and his wife Beryl, and their great friend John Guzzwell take on the southern oceans around Cape Horn. Originating in Melbourne, Australia after the end of the 1956 Olympics, the Smeetons waved goodbye to the great yacht Brittania and prepared for their own journey.

With their daughter Clio now safely in England attending school, Miles and Beryl chart a very southern route around Cape Horn. They have notched a few miles in their 46 foot yacht, Tzu Hang, but nothing as dangerous as this trip. Many a larger ship than theirs had been lost in the waters of the southern ocean. So with enough food and water to last a year the 3 of them sail away just days before Christmas.

Their first thousand miles they experience rough seas despite being in the southern hemisphere during summer. But what would make dread build in me seems to simply egg these people on. The rougher the better they seem to be saying, with John and their Siamese cat Pwe going along for the rugged ride. Miles describes the white capped waters surrounding their yacht in the manner of somebody who is in awe of what he is witnessing and not afraid.

His skill as a writer leads to equally impressive descriptions of his wife Beryl's breakfasts every morning. In whatever kind of weather she always pulled off porridge, bacon and eggs, and burnt toast with marmalade and in that order. Whenever I despaired of understanding these people during the reading of this book, I recalled these breakfasts to remind myself that they were not complete hair shirters.

I don't want to reveal the incredible things that happen to the crew and their ship during this voyage but I will say that it is a page turner. You will be riveted by the extreme nature of their peril and astounded at how they manage themselves and their boat. You do not have to be a sailor to appreciate this story but you better love adventure. "Once is Enough" is a book that you will want to read again.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Sea was our Village by Miles Smeeton

I wrote a review of Jonathan Raban's "Passage to Juneau" last week and I've already followed up on one of his reading recommendations. Early in the book Jonathan purposefully sails past a tiny cove on Salt Spring Island named Musgrave Landing. Since my own Mother was raised on Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, I immediately perked to attention.

It turns out he was investigating the old farm of Miles and Beryl Smeeton and the cove where they anchored their yacht, Tzu Hang. Miles wrote several books about their yachting adventures that Jonathan keeps in his library aboard his sail boat. One of the books mentioned was "The Sea Was Our Village." In answer to my query King County Library Systems responded that they did indeed have a copy of this book at their Vashon Island branch and in due time the book was sent to my own branch for pick up by yours truly.

I just finished it this afternoon. What a page turner! In a fortunate turn of events the first book KCLS could get their hands on for me is also the book that chronicles the Smeeton's very first voyages. Even though the couple had zero sailing experience and minimal boating experience they also apparently had enough gumption for twenty normal mortals. Their plan, if you can believe it, was to fly to their native England, buy a boat and then sail it back to Salt Spring Island via the Panama Canal. My husband and I have been sailing a few years and I would never consider doing something like this in a million years.

The book captures my imagination immediately because of the way Miles describes their search for a boat. My husband and I occasionally like to go to boat shows or shop online for them and it is always very personal for us. It was also so for the Smeetons. The boat had to speak to them on some level and when they saw Tzu Hang they fell immediately in love. It turns out to have been a match made in heaven as the big boat eventually transported them all across our oceans.

From my research this book does not have the drama of some of their later voyages. It lacks in incredibly horrible things happening to them but that doesn't mean it doesn't open a window of adventure that is wonderful to look through. The title of the book reflects the many people they met during their sail. I have witnessed the camaraderie that is often apparent among boat people, although sail and motor tend to go their own way, but what I have witnessed is nothing in comparison to what it used to be. Fellow sailors and harbour dwellers went out of their way to meet and greet the Smeetons.

As a reader it is great to be in a front row seat as the Smeetons approach the Hawaiian Islands of the 1950's. Since I was just there a month ago, I can assure you that it has changed dramatically from the lightly inhabited Islands of the past. They were met by natives in original boats going out fishing and the town of Lahaina was small and cute, complete with the still standing Banyan tree, and in Miles opinion, somewhat of a declining village due to the end of the whaling trade. My husband and I were despairing of how touristy it has gotten just since the late 80's. The Smeeton's would be shocked at what has become of Lahaina except for the still beautiful Banyan tree.

The Smeeton's are adventurous almost to a fault. From climbing mountains without trails, circumventing islands, and swimming to underground caves Miles, Beryl and Clio do it all. In the course of their travels they meet sailors like themselves, fisherman, and natives all of whom enrich their travel experience and our reading experience. This book is an adventurous tale told by the crusty adventurer himself. Truly a wonderful read and I can't wait to try another. Next: "Once is Enough."

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Clementine Paddleford a Pioneer of Food Writing

I just finished reading "Hometown Appetites: The Story of Clementine Paddleford, the Forgotten Food Writer Who Chronicled How America Ate" by Kelly Alexander and Cynthia Harris. The story started as an article for Saveur magazine with the same title and won a James Beard award for journalism. This along with the encouragement of friends and colleagues are what motivated Alexander and Harris to turn the article into a book.

Alexander had been a food writer for many years and was a highly placed Editor at Saveur. Harris on the other hand was a Kansas State archivist who had spent many thankless months going through Clementine Paddleford's extensive papers that had been rotting at the Dept. of Special Collections at Kansas State University. Between the two of them they manage to bring back to life this amazing, and trailblazing food writer.

Paddleford wrote for the New York Herald as food editor from 1936 to 1966. She was best known though for her weekly column in This Week magazine which was a Sunday supplement that was distributed all over the country. Her national exposure gained her fame and allowed her to travel the country as a well-respected food writer. Clementine was a bold traveller and that included visiting a nuclear submarine where she reported on what the sailors ate on the USS Shipjack. I'd like to see Rachel Ray do that!

I enjoyed the early chapters of the book where Alexander and Harris write about her childhood with her Mother Jennie. If you are like me then you will find a lot to admire in Jennie Paddleford's world. A great anecdote in the book recalls how her father insisted on building the hog run within eye shot of their big front porch. Unable to dissuade him Jennie proceeds to dig up sod, turn soil, and plant an enormous hedge of lilacs between her porch and the hogs. She then says to Clementine; "Never grow a wishbone, daughter, where your backbone ought to be." Now those are some words to live by. In memory of Clementine and her Mother Jennie here is one of Jennie's favorite recipes.


3 cups all purpose flour
5 tsp baking powder
1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
1 tsp salt
1 cup sugar, plus more to taste
1/2 cup plus 2 T cold butter, cut into small pieces
1 egg, beaten
1/2 cup whole milk
3 quarts fresh strawberries from the fields
1 pint whipping cream

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Sift together flour, baking powder, nutmeg, salt, and 1/2 cup of the sugar into a large bowl. Combine with the 1/2 cup butter in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse meal with lumps the size of small peas. Transfer dough to bowl. Make a well and add to it the egg and milk. Word dough very gently with fingertips or pastry spatula; knead until it just holds together, about 10 seconds. Dots of butter should be visible; do not overwork dough. Generously flour work surface, then roll dough out to form two circles that are 1/2 inch thick and 8 to 10 inches in diameter. Wrap the disks tightly and chill.

Set aside 16 of the best looking berries. Hull the rest, then halve and place in a bowl with the remaining 1/2 cup sugar or more, depending on the sweetness and ripeness of the fruit. Let strawberries macerate for at least 15 minutes but no more than 45 minutes.

Remove dough disks from refrigerator. On 2 ungreased sheet pans, bake dough rounds 12 to 15 minutes, until golden on the outside and just cooked through in the center. Remove from oven and cool 10 to 15 minutes.

Slather the remaining 2 T of butter evenly on each disk. Transfer large disk to a plate that will accommodate it and the juicy berries running off it. Pile macerated berries on top and then cover with the other disk. Garnish with reserved whole berries and serve with whipped cream if desired. Yield: 8 servings.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Vanity Fair's March Issue is Great

I used to work in the magazine business and I still receive a passel of subscriptions from Conde Nast. I have been watching as successful magazine's have become smaller and smaller due to lack of advertising. It is sad and I suspect we are going to see some titles disappear in the near future. I just hope it's not any of the good one's like Vanity Fair.

Vanity Fair was originally published in the United States in 1914. It celebrated the lives of the rich and famous. During the depression years a magazine devoted to such frivolous topics did not do well and the magazine finally closed it's doors in 1936 just 7 years after the stock market crash. Then in 1984 the magazine was resurrected and once again focused on the rich and famous in the era of Reagan.

The success of this magazine, in my opinion, lies not completely within its subject matter but with its plethora of gifted writers and photographers. Annie Leibovitz is an icon in her field of photography and in this issue she takes some great ones of our new President and his cabinet (including an unfortunate one of Tom Daschle.)

My favorite stories in the March issue are "Glamour Begins at Home" by Matt Tyrnauer and "Children of Paradise" by Todd S Purdum. "Glamour" is about architect and interior decorator John Woolf who practiced in Hollywood in the 40's, 50's, and 60's. It delves respectfully into the unique relationship John had with his partner, lover and eventual adopted son. The story has all the glitter of that period and includes wonderful pictures of some of the homes he built.

"Children" is similar in that it is about the older Hollywood that no longer exists. Purdum interviews some of the children growing up in Beverly Hills during the 40's, 50's, and 60's to find out how it was then. He describes a more innocent time where your every move wasn't monitored by a pack of paparazzi. Not that it made all of their lives perfect. Purdum also talks about the troubled families like the Crawfords (i.e. coat hanger girl), and the Crosbys.

The writer also reminded me of a great book that I read as a young woman called "Haywire" by Brooke Hayward. She is the daughter of Leland Hayward and actress Margaret Sullavan and describes in intimate detail the tragedy of her families life. Now that Vanity Fair has brought all of this up for me I've decided I must read it again. The book would be a great read for anybody interested in this period in Hollywood.

Monday, February 16, 2009

A Passage to Juneau by Jonathan Raban

I have been away for a while visiting the lovely island of Maui. I know it is a difficult job having to hang out in the sunshine in the Hawaiian Islands but I was happy to do it. We rented a condominium in Maalaea that was to die for! Not exactly inexpensive in the high season, $295.00 a night, but when compared to prices at Kaanapali and Lahaina it is very reasonable especially considering the quality of the condo. It is the Milowai Ocean Penthouse, #407. You can check out pictures of the condo at http://www.mauibayview.com.

Now that I have made everybody sick with the news of my very nice vacation we can go ahead and move on. Of course, you cannot go on a vacation without a great book to read. In my case I was able to kill two birds with one stone - please honey and have a book for Hawaii. My husband recommended that I read "A Passage to Juneau" a couple of months ago. We are amateur sailors and the book is about a man who sails his 34 foot sailboat from Seattle to Juneau, Alaska. My husband loved it and promised that I would too.

Well, he was right. The book is great. It was so riveting for me that sometimes it actually managed to draw my attention from the humpback whales playing in the bay in front of our condo, and that is saying something. Jonathan is an interesting fellow with a vocabulary that will make you wish you were carrying your dictionary with you. Try this one - cthonian.

The forest was the least of it. Above and beyond the treeline, Alaska looked like the work of a megalomaniac confectioner. In any other light but this freakish sunshine, its snowy barrenness would have appeared intimidating and oppressive. These were the forbidden mountains of Indian stories---a chthonian region to which unfortunate humans were occasionally abducted by terrible powers.

For the bewildered among us the definition of chthonian is "dwelling beneath the surface of the earth - nether regions" or "being of the underworld - infernal regions" according to freedictionary.com. Jonathan is saying that for the Indians the mountains were not beautiful but frightening and liable to kill you if you gave them a chance.

This book works for me on many levels as a reader. I majored in History in college and Jonathan intertwines the narrative of his journey with a lot of great historical stuff. He utilizes Captain George Vancouver's "Voyages" that describes the Pacific Northwest coast as it looked to the officers and sailors aboard the Discovery and Chatham in 1792. He also seriously explores Northwest Pacific Coast Indian lore. Jonathan at first seems harsh and overly critical in regard to white people's long held beliefs about the Indians and their traditions. But the author manages to squash and/or modify many of my previous assumptions in a way that is not negative to his subject.

The book is also chock full of scientific information. The author is clearly a renaissance man who takes an interest in everything around him. (If you need any further proof of that please note that he carries a microscope on board just so he can eyeball the tiny creatures who live in the water of the Puget Sound). He is fascinated with the way water moves, the way Dahl dolphins swim with the boat, and the depth of the sea underneath him to name just a few of his curiosities. The beauty of his writing is that he will make you interested in these things too.

And, of course, the author does not leave his own personal narrative out. During his trip his family is hit by a personal tragedy that calls him away for a few months. It also forces him to confront his own issues about growing up and the relationship he has with his parents. I sensed from his writing that he was less comfortable in this subject than in any other but that he still speaks in a sincere voice.

On a whole other level the book is great for me because I've actually sailed on some of these waters. I've woken up in a secluded bay in the San Juans to watch the sun rise, and viewed the dolphins race through the waves alongside the boat. I've sailed through the turbulent waters of Deception Pass and been scared witless even though we did fine. And I have enjoyed a glass of wine at sunset gunkholing in Shallow Bay on Sucia Island. These are fine things.

So whatever your interest whether it be sailing, Alaska, Indian lore, or the history of discovery, you will find something in this book for you. I'm notorious for reading books more then once and I'm pretty sure I'll be reading this one again. Hopefully by the light of a lantern rocking slowly in a cozy saloon somewhere out on the waters of the Pacific Northwest.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Sham - In the Shadow of a Superhorse

I already revealed my inner horse lover in last weeks review of "Old Friends", so I might as well dive all the way into the pool and review another horse book. Yesterday I finished "Sham" by Mary Walsh. Between watching the incredible inaugural and reading this book I shed a lot of tears and I have the swollen, and particularly unattractive, eyelids to prove it.

For those of you too young to have witnessed it yourself, Sham is the horse that ran second to Secretariat in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 1973. He was also the only horse to run with Secretariat, at least for a while, in the Belmont that year. Of course, everybody knows that Secretariat won all three of those races and became this countries first Triple Crown winner in decades. Mary Walsh looks at it from the view of Sham who without Secretariat would have been the super horse that year and perhaps the Triple Crown winner as well.

She rights a poem at the beginning of the book that expresses exactly what she means.

"To those
Who tried their utmost
At something they strongly believed in
With their whole heart and mind
And gave it their absolute all
Only to find that it was not enough,
because they were in the wrong place in time."

I know how she feels about Sham. He was a great horse that just ran into a phenomenal horse. I remember watching those races. In the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness I was actually rooting for Sham. But by the Belmont I realized what we were dealing with as far as Secretariat was concerned and I rooted for him to win the Triple Crown but I still felt sorry for poor Sham.
Even Penny Chenery, owner of Secretariat, had a soft spot for Sham.

The author begins with the birth of both Sham and Secretariat each at their own farms. Secretariat was born on March 30, 1970 (only ten minutes from the exact time that Man o War was born 53 years before) and Sham just a little over a week later on April 9th. She follows Sham's early years and training before embarking on his racing career at the age of two. Walsh does a good job of describing his races even though sometimes her language becomes a bit over the top.

Walsh tries to parallel the racing careers of the two horses as they work towards their destiny as rivals in the Triple Crown. After Sham won the Santa Anita Derby the owners knew they wanted to race in the Kentucky Derby. They also knew that their number one competition would be the big red horse called Secretariat who had also had very impressive racing results.

The rest of the story is just a heart breaking tale of the big, beautiful dark colt trying and failing against Big Red. Reading Walsh's description of the Belmont reminded me of something I read in "Seabiscuit" during his match race with the great War Admiral. Hillenbrand quotes Seabiscuit's jockey George Woolf as he described the race later, "Woolf looked back. He saw the black form some thirty-five feet behind, still struggling to catch him. He had been wrong about War Admiral; he was game. Woolf felt a stab of empathy. 'I saw something in the Admiral's eyes that was pitiful," he would say later. 'He looked all broken up. I don't think he will be good for another race. Horses, mister, can have crushed hearts just like humans.' "

After the Belmont Sham was also dispirited. Unlike the previous two races, his jockey Laffit Pincay Jr. did not push the horse past his limits to catch Secretariat. Sham had tangled with Big Red at the start of the race going head to head at ridiculously high speeds with Secretariat not even trying hard. Sham had been pushed to the point of breaking and Laffit knew it. He pulled him back.

Walsh uses a column in The Thoroughbred Record by Arnold Kirkpatrick to express how people felt about Sham after the Belmont. "To digress briefly, the one distressing facet of this year's Belmont to me was the damage to Sham's spirit.....a horse of great beauty, speed, and heart, who was, far and away, the best of the others of his generation....Secretariat had broken his heart like a twig, and Sham was fading to finish last, beaten by 42 lengths. Whether he will have the fortitude to return from his trouncing after a layoff, or if his spirit is broken altogether will remain to be seen, but it was indeed a sad thing to see the magnificent Sham come back an ordinary horse."

The epilogue was especially interesting to me since Mary Walsh gives us a rundown of what eventually happened to Sham's competitors - the ones that were not Secretariat. One named popped off the page - Stop the Music. Stop the Music was one of the few horses to beat Secretariat in a race even though it took a disqualification to pull it off. He was a great race horse who also became a great sire and grandfather to 2005 Kentucky Derby winner, Giacomo. The reason his named jumped at me was because he is featured in "Old Friends." When Livingston visited him at Gainesway farm he was 31 years old! According to Walsh he died at 35 years old from complications of old age.

Mary Walsh's sentiment for the horse aside the book is only adequately written. This is not Laura Hillenbrand's "Seabiscuit." The past conversations Walsh creates with the horse's owner, trainer and jockey are a bit stilted and don't sound very natural. She also takes a lot of license in describing the feelings of the horses and the people involved. But overall it was wonderful to remember that great horse and the part he played in horse racing history.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

"Old Friends - Visits with My Favorite Thoroughbreds"

I am the little girl who loves horses that never grew up. Most of us get over it when we meet boys but not yours truly. You will find me ensconced in front of the television for every Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont. And in the last few years the Breeders Cup.

Every time one of these beautiful horses gets hurt or dies I swear that I'll never watch racing again. But my love for the horses keeps bringing me back. So last month as I was searching for good horse books on Amazon I found "Old Friends" by Barbara D. Livingston, I immediately put it on my wish list.

The reviews I read absolutely raved about the book. The problem was the book is out of print but available online for $149.00. (Prices are down to 89.99 now). Her new book "More Old Friends" received equally fantastic reviews so that is the book that I requested for Christmas. Fortunately I am blessed with parents who go the extra mile. They found the original on e-bay being sold by the author herself! They even got it autographed with an additional bonus of a small drawing of a horse penned by Barbara Livingston.

Barbara is a photographer with a love for horses and it shows in her stunning pictures. Her camera and her love for her subject allow her, in some cases, to almost capture the soul of a horse. The elderly face on the cover on the book is Raja Baba son of Bold Ruler. In the photo he is 34 years old and had been fully retired since he was 19. He was moderately successful on the racetrack and was named leading sire in 1980. He passed away shortly after the book was published. For me, knowing the horrible fate of so many horses, it is heartwarming to read about them living long well cared for lives.

The author covers some of the true greats like Seattle Slew, Affirmed, John Henry and Spectacular Bid. Some of the very near greats like Pleasant Colony, Little Current, Gato Del Sol, and Genuine Risk. You may recall Genuine Risk who became only the second filly to win the Kentucky Derby in 1977. A pretty chestnut with white flash down her nose and the guts to beat the big boys. She died at age 31 just last August.

Along with these special horses are stallions and mares that very few of us know anything about. The story of the mare Our Mims was one of these. Born in 1974 Our Mims was a half sister to the great Alydar. Her 2 year old racing career wasn't much but when she turned 3 she burned up the track winning several stake races that earned her the Eclipse Award for 3 year old champions. After her racing career she was only moderately successful as a broodmare and so at 21 she was put out in a field with cattle to survive or die.

Fortunately for Our Mims a woman named Jeanne was working on the farm. She took a liking to Old Mims, despite her some times haughty nature, and fed her grain and groomed her. When the farm burned down she convinced the owners to give Old Mims to an organization called ReRun whose motto is "recycling racehorses." Old Mims got a full veterinary workup, grooming and food before being taken to Jeanne's farm to live out her days. She died in December, 2003 at the age of 29. Her story and her life prompted Jeanne to create the Our Mims Retirement Haven a nonprofit dedicated to caring for retired broodmares.

All of the horses in this book are special in one way or another. It is wonderful to find out what has become of the heroes of your past. If you love horses like me then you will love this book. Barbara Livingston has done a fantastic job of bringing them to life for her readers again and giving them their just recognition after all these years.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

More Kingsolver

With the completion of "Bean Trees" I reach immediately for "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle - A Year of Food Life." This is a non-fiction book about Barbara and her family living a year on food from their own garden or other local sources. Her oldest daughter Camille contributes recipes and weekly menus to the book. Her husband Steven L. Hopp, a college professor who teaches environmental studies, contributes unfortunate realities about the food we eat and her youngest daughter Lily holds the crazy looking lima beans on the book cover among other things.

I have a feeling that this book is going to have a lot of "inconvenient truths" in it. I already feel guilty just reading about the things that I shouldn't be eating. Which, if truth were known, encompasses just about everything served in America. Read the following grim reality from husband Steven.

"But getting our crop from seed to harvest takes only 1/5 of the total oil used for our food. The lion's share is consumed during the trip from the farm to your plate. Each food item in a typical U.S. meal has traveled on average 1500 miles. In addition to direct transport, other fuel-thirsty steps include processing (drying, milling, cutting, sorting, baking), packaging, warehousing, and refrigeration. Energy calories consumed by production, packaging, and shipping far outweigh the energy calories we receive from the food."

As interesting and perhaps less disheartening is Barbara's description of how America has moved away from food knowledge in a way never before seen in history. It is only less disheartening than Steven's contribution because it seems like something that is within our reach to correct. Admittedly, as she points out so well in the book, it would take some serious convincing to get some parents to believe that teaching their kids about agriculture is as important as math and reading.

We have recently seen that what you don't teach your kids is as important as what you do teach them. For many years we taught things in school like home economics and shop. Most adults today no nothing about economics in general. Our current financial crisis is a direct result of Americans blithely putting their money in the hands of "professionals" to invest. It is easier than learning how it all works and as long as we're all making money then all is well. Until we're not making money anymore and then we ask "What the hell happened?"

It is an abject lesson and Americans should take notice. Learning the basics is important. Knowing how food is made, what it is (why do you think we call it beef rather than cow meat?), and where it came from are things that our kids have no clue about. In their world these things come from "the grocery store" as if the shelves actually sprout that stuff.

Since I have just begun the third chapter of the book it is clear that it still has a lot to teach me. I hope it does more than teach me. I hope it inspires me to live better for myself and our planet. More on the book to come.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

"The Bean Trees" by Barbara Kingsolver

A few months ago I was introduced to the work of Barbara Kingsolver. My parents had encouraged me to read her for years but for some reason I just wasn't interested. Finally they sent me home with "The Poisonwood Bible" and I became a convert. Ms. Kingsolver is a fantastic storyteller and picking up one of her books is sure to trap you in it's spell until you have finished the last page.

Since I'm crazy about a lot of books I can easily be distracted so it's been a while since I put down "Poisonwood". But last week I ordered "The Bean Trees" from King County Libraries. I picked it up on Sunday and finished reading it on Monday night. Although the book isn't set in such a exotic location as "Poisonwood", Barbara Kingsolver still manages to enthrall us with the depth of her characters.

Our narrator for the tale is Marietta/Missy/Taylor Greer from a small town in Kentucky. Her number one goal in life is to get through high school without having children - a major feat where she comes from. She is an only child from a single Mother who thinks that everything that her only daughter does is just about the best thing ever....period.

After she achieves her goal and works a couple of years in a local hospital Missy saves her money and buys herself some very basic transportation. Missy takes her car and what little money she has and takes off West. The first town where she is forced to get gas is called Taylorsville and in the spirit of starting over she changes her first name to Taylor.

Taylor's trip across middle America is full of surprises but none bigger than the small child that is placed in the passenger seat of her car in the middle of Cherokee nation in Oklahoma. As Taylor is forced into caring for this small girl she finds out that the child has been horribly abused and is basically in a catatonic state. She calls her Turtle.

Taylor and Turtle's trip across America comes to an abrupt end in Tuscon when the tires of her car finally bite the dust. Fortunately for them they happen to land in a spot where Taylor learns that families come in all different shapes and sizes and that love is the glue that holds them together.

One of my favorite parts of the book is when Taylor and her roommate are woken by their elderly female neighbors and told to bring their children across to their house. "We followed her out our front door and up the walk to their porch. I could make out Edna sitting in the glider, and in the corner of the porch we saw what looked like a bouquet of silver-white balloons hanging in the air.


A night blooming cereus, Virgie Mae explained. The flowers open for only one night of the year, and then they are gone".

One of the things about this book is that near the end I had decided that I knew exactly what was going to happen. My ending was kind of sad but also kind of good too. But I was soooo wrong. Ms. Kingsolver resolves it in a way that had never occurred to me and it was very satisfying. This book originally published in 1988 is still a fantastic read and I recommend you enjoy it as soon as you can.

Friday, January 9, 2009

So Long to the Seattle Post Intelligencer

I did a very difficult thing today. I canceled my subscription to The Seattle Post-Intelligencer. We had already reduced the subscription to just Sundays but even that became too much. My husband and I reached this decision this weekend after reading through their Sunday edition. This comes at a time when the PI has just announced that they are putting the newspaper up for sale for 60 days and if it is not sold (which they are sure is what will happen) then they will close.

It is really a sad day for this city. The loss of the great writers, photographers and editors that we've enjoyed over the years will be bad enough. But when we add the long tradition of this newspaper and the historic ties with this city it becomes quite distressing. I don't want to seem trivial but I'm worried about the PI's globe. This is a Seattle landmark and we've already seen too many of them go. The globe was built in 1948 and has graced our skyline since then and I would miss it if it were gone. Remember the Rainier sign!!

We have been a fortunate city in that we have had two strong newspapers for more than a 100 years, The Seattle PI being first and the Seattle Times coming a few years later. Of course in those days multiple newspapers were the norm so the PI and the Times had more competition then. In modern times though it is fairly unusual for a city of our size to have two newspapers but we Seattleites are readers so we've managed to keep them both afloat. But times have changed and cities all over the country are having a hard time keeping even one newspaper in business let alone two.

The Times and the PI have been going at it for years but in the last 25 years as advertising dollars have become increasingly scarce it has become even more hostile. They've spent more time in court with each other than even the most heated of divorce couples. But in the end Hearst, the owners of the PI, were unable to turn the downward spiral around and were unwilling to sink any more money into the newspaper even in order to defeat their nemesis.

Personally I have always supported the PI over the Times. The Seattle Times has become conservative over the years. Their headlines and editorials during the recent gubernatorial race between (D) Governor Christine Gregoire and (R) Idiot Dino Rossi were so obviously biased as to be a joke. It was the opinion pages this last weekend that was the final straw for me.

Since 1983 the PI and the Times have been working through a Joint Operating Agreement. This means that they issue just one Sunday Times between the two of them. Recently the opinion pages have featured little but letters to the editor in the PI opinion pages while conservative creepo editorial columnists appear in the Times portion. Broder is a Republican apologist and Krauthammer still thinks (along with about 9 other people in the world) that George W. Bush did a good job. Now with the country firmly in the center and starting to lean left, and the King County area totally to the left, why would you, as our soon to be only local newspaper, feature two columnists spouting this garbage?

But I digress. I just want to wish all of those who've worked for the PI or are currently working for the PI a great Thank You and Good Luck. It is a terrible thing what is happening to our newspapers in the country. It might be bad for us if we do not fill their void with another source of FREE press. Remember what Jefferson said "Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it" (1786). So be aware people because we are all very much in danger of losing it.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Princess Margaret and Noel Coward

Yesterday evening I sat down with my new Vanity Fair magazine. For those of you who don't subscribe to this fantastic periodical I recommend that you do. Great writers and photographers. You should probably describe yourself as somewhat liberal first because that is certainly VF's perspective.

The front page bi-line "The Princess and the Photographer, The Romance that rocked Swinging London" caught my eye and so I immediately turned to the story in question. The article is an excerpt from Anne De Courcy's book "Snowdon:The Biography." The period covered in the story is the time in which he courted and then married Queen Elizabeth's sister Princess Margaret. It is a fascinating look at the royal family and the people who get involved with them.

But perhaps the number one thrill for me as I read the excerpt was Anne de Courcy's quoting of Noel Coward's diary. In my early twenties I moved in with my grandmother in Seattle. My grandfather had died only a year before and she needed the company. Since I was just starting a travel career and needed a place to stay the arrangement worked for both of us. During my year there we read a review in Time magazine for the newly released "The Noel Coward Diaries" edited by a former partner of Cowards, Graham Payne, and a friend Sheridan Morley.

My Nana enjoyed stories from old Hollywood and especially liked biographies. This book seemed like the perfect combination of both and since the reviewer raved about it I bought it for her for her as a Christmas present. Since she passed on I have the book in my library now. I was quick to pull it out to see if I could find the quotes that Anne de Courcy referenced. Fortunately his diaries have an index and I found that Coward made note of Margaret and Snowdon 16 times!!

Coward was a notorious name dropper. If you read his diary (which I totally recommend) you will find that out very quickly. He loved to hobnob with the upper crusties, movie stars, writers, generals, and you name it. He had an enormous ego that these people happily fed for him for many years. His writing, both in his plays, books and diary, is witty and entertaining. I will leave you with a quote that comes near the end of the book and was penned in December 1968. I also used the quote in my Nana's 70th birthday card because I knew she'd appreciate the humor and the reference.

"It has been a full and variegated year and I've enjoyed it very much. Now I must turn my questing violet eyes to 1969. My seventieth year! There is really no comment to make about that except perhaps 'Well, well', 'Fancy', or 'Oh Fuck'. Still, I suppose it is comforting to be able to remember the first aeroplane and almost the first motor car! I am very well except for a violent itching inside my right nostril which is driving me mad. But, like everything else in the mutable life, that too will go. Meanwhile I wish to hell it would get on with it."

Monday, January 5, 2009

Afternoon Tea with Precious Ramotswe

I have always been grateful to my parents for giving me the gift of loving books. It is a habit that has provided me with great joy and comfort throughout my life. I would say the ONLY drawback to loving books is when the time comes to move them. They are pretty heavy.

My father and I discovered Alexander McCall Smith's "The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency" series a couple of years ago and became immediately hooked. The books are so well written, the characters so vivid, and the place brought so alive with every word I dare anyone to resist these books charms.

The books are set in the African country of Botswana. The author was born in the country of Zimbabwe, which borders Botswana to the north, and his familiarity with the area helps him transport us to a place that we wouldn't normally give a second thought to. His main character, Precious Ramotswe, owner of the The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency in Gabarone, acts as our eyes in Africa. We all know that nobody can describe a place better than someone who truly loves it and Precious describes her surroundings with true affection.

At times her views are a bit like looking at things through frosted glass or watching a Barbara Walter's special where everything looks wonderful and just a little bit hazy but she is such a likeable, down to earth character it is easy to forgive. She at times reveals some of the troubles that burden her small nation but she doesn't see them as center stage in the story of her country.

Precious is a private detective in the burgeoning town of Gabarone. She went into business with the money she was able to get from selling her deceased father's cattle. All of her knowledge of private detection has been arrived at by reading a "how to" book that she refers to often. But it is clear from the first book that Precious has a talent for the business. She understands people and she listens well.

Her cases range from the most mundane of cheating husbands to children stolen by witch doctors. Just when it seems like she is doing almost nothing to solve a case she manages to find the right person to talk to. Her secretary/partner is an amusing woman named Mma. Makutsi who takes great pride in her secretarial skills. The two of them in their small office are entertaining and comforting in their daily rituals of work broken up with frequent tea breaks.

Precious once again reflects her love of her country by her choice of tea. She drinks African Red bush tea. I am having a cup right now and it is hardy and satisfying. Tazo does an excellent job of recreating this tea from the original recipe. I would recommend it with any of the books in this series. With these books you can travel to a warm loved place in the company of a warm, intelligent woman. Not a bad place to go in the winter of 2009.