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.