Changing seasons

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February is drawing to a close.  Each day there is more light.  Spring is in the air.  Today I ordered seeds from Territorial Seed in Oregon.  My first draft of federal Income tax is completed.  We’re looking to reserve our first get away in March or April, maybe to Virginia, Williamsburg area.

It’s been a dull winter so far.  Too many cloudy, rainy days.  Cold but not one good snowfall (although there is still time).  I’ve endured because of the woodstove and books.  Mornings are spent in daily routines, frequently a walk, maybe a little project.  But by early afternoon on most days I have a fire keeping me entertained and warm.

 

I’ve read a mixed selection of books since Christmas.  Dickens “A Christmas Carol” was the first.  I treasure a 1938 Garden City edition, illustrated by Everett Shinn from our years in Boston.  It was delightful.  Before the holiday, as we do every year, we watched Albert Finney in “Scrooge.”  Then the read.  Next up was a gift from our Taylor friends,  “Kitchen Yarns: notes on life, love and food,” by Ann Hood.  Another good food memoir.  Hood learned the basics from her mother and although she’s become a more adventurous cook, she consistently returns to Gogo’s meatballs and chicken salad.  Each chapter ends with recipes.  I’ll try some.

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I  decided to read a novel I’d given Diane, “Rattle of the Looms,” by Paul Lavalee.  We’d read about it in September when we explored several mill towns in central Massachuttes where Diane had relatives.  It traces the lives of several generations of French Canadians who move to the area to work in the mills.  Unfortunately there is a minimal about mill life; reads more like a soap opera.  It may have been sel-published. There are probably better books about the area.

 

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Like food books, there is always another book about books.  I’ve read many.  I had ordered “ A Passion for Books: a book lover’s treasury”  by Harold Rabinowitz.  It’s a collection of essays, poems, even cartoons about books, bibliophiles, and libraries.  I’ve written about my personal “passion” for books, so easy to collect, so hard to part with them.  I am not alone, although many of the collectors described in “Passion” dealt in rare books, first editions, special collections.  Rosenbach from Philadelphia was featured.  How do you store and organize your collection?  Do you lend books? Have you read every book you own?  Throughout the read, I heard Diane, “You need to get rid of all those books.”  (I’ve started, but slowly).

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A reread was “On the Rez” by Ian Frazier.  I may have been drawn to it after the Washington D.C. confrontation between the High School student and the Native American activist.  Much of the story is the friendship of author Frazier with an an Oglala Sioux, Le who is usually broke, borrowing money, sometimes drunk, into crazy schemes.  The Rez is Pine Ridge in South Dakota, poverty, unemployment, alcoholism, car accidents are common.   We learn a little about Crazy Horse and Black Elk (famous Oglala) and modern Native American activism in the 70s.  Frazier attempts to understand the culture.

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As a follow up I read James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Last of the Mohicans.”  A classic that I thought I’d read but maybe not.  Diane had bought the copy due to the New York State setting but didn’t get too far. It is a difficult read, flowery language, unusual vocabulary, multiple names for people and places and natives who frequently speak in metaphors and parables.  But I persevered.  The plot is the capture of two British officer’s daughters (Cora and Alice) by the French allied Hurons. The Scout, Hawkeye (in other books Natty Bumpoo) his Native friends and an officer in love with one of the girls attempt a rescue.  If the Hurons are pro-French, the Mohicans are pro-British and the Delawares seem to sit the fence.  There is a lot of killing, slaughter, scalping, and the feisty daughter Cora and the son of the Scout’s friend, Unas are killed in the end.  It was a surprising read but I’m glad I did.  Need to rewatch the recent movie.

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I don’t know the source of my next read but it was a disappointment.  Several times I was ready to give up but didn’t.  “How the Irish Saved Civilization: the untold story of Ireland’s heroic role from the fall of Rome to the rise of medevial Europe” by Thomas Cahill.  He writes about the fall of Rome ( speculations about the cause) and  the invasion of the barbarians.  A  threat to the classical world heritage.  But finally to the rescue, along come the Irish (actually Irish monks), monasteries, reading, copying, and preserving the classics of Greece and Rome.  They spread this learning throughout the emerging Europe.  Interesting but not a very good read.

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My eight book since Christmas was “Catfish and the Delta: confederate fish farming in the Mississippi Delta” by Richard Schweid.  The author lived in the Delta for months, meeting people, learning about the culture but focused on the catfish industry in the 1990s.  One of many books I’ve read about a particular food.  Of course I’ll be looking for catfish to fry in the coming weeks.  Schweid has a reporter’s style, similar to John McPhee who I wrote about recently.  He explores every aspect of the industry which replaced cotton as a primary Delta product.  From financing, raising, harvesting, processing, marketing he explores every aspect of the catfish industry including it’s ups and downs.  Lots of interesting details like how you can get cut handling the fish.  Race is another theme.  White farmers own the catfish  ponds and processing plants; Blacks work at low paying jobs that produce the catfish.  Ironically Blacks also eat a lot of catfish.  Schweid explores housing, the segregated educational system (private academies for Whites after “Brown”), the blues,  B.B. King and others (which sometimes brings the races together), mosquitoes, Delta pride and self-sufficiency but a declining, mostly poor population.  Schweid can the catfish save the Delta?

I know it’s days, weeks until Spring.  It’s warm today but 3 o’clock.  Time for a fire, new book, and glass of wine.  I’ll finish taxes tomorrow or the next day.

 

 

 

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McPhee

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Time magazine recently published a profile of John McPhee. He is one of, maybe my favorite writer.  First published in the New Yorker in 1963;  87 years old.  The Time interview takes place on the 4th floor of Guyot Hall, the geosciences building on the campus of Princeton University.  McPhee is reviewing applications for his Sophomore writing class. He’s taught at Princeton for decades.  Years ago I wrote him asking if I could audit  a class.  He responded that Princeton did not allow audits of his classes but he was giving a public lecture.  I went but was disappointed; I thought his writing was much better than his speaking.

I don’t think I realized McPhee’s childhood was in Princeton. From Time:

While growing up in Princeton, where his father was a sports-medicine physician at the university, Albert Einstein–leonine white hair and all–would watch McPhee and his buddies play ragtag football on the lawn of the Institute for Advanced Study, Einstein’s workplace. “He would stand there and contemplate us,” McPhee says. In high school he had a gig killing fruit flies and washing centrifuge tubes stained with beef blood for the university’s biology department, in the very building where his office now sits.“

I  enjoyed some of the personal stories.

“To keep sharp, McPhee tries to ride a bicycle 15 miles every other day in and around Princeton, where he’s lived all his life. During these treks, McPhee shares with his riding partners stories about the history of local landmarks, his journalistic adventures, his family. (McPhee dedicates The Patch to his 10 grandchildren.) One friend describes him as the world’s nicest know-it-all.”

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I think “The Pine Barrens” (1968) was probably my first exposure to McPhee.  “The Survival of the Birch Bark Canoe” (1982) was second.  Both of them were on a reading list I had for a junior English course at Holy Ghost Prep. McPhee’s New Yorker, magazine style combining history, science and personal observation had me hooked.

I began to read anything he published in book form.  Oranges (1975),   Encounters with the Archdruid (1977), Levels of the Game (1979), Pieces of the Frame (1979), A Roomful of Hovings (1979), Basin and Range (1982), The Control of Nature (1990), Coming into the Country (1991), Looking For a Ship (1991),  The Crofter and Laird (1992), The Headmaster: Frank L Bowden of Deerfield (1992),  The Curve of Binding Energy (1994), The Ranson of Russian Art (1998), Irons in the Fire (1998), A Sense of Where You Are: Bill Bradley at Princeton (1999),  Assembling California (1994), La Place de la Concord Suisse (1994), The Founding Fish (2003).  I’ve missed a few.

I have strong memories of many.  The geology books were not favorites but I was always intrigued by how McPhee made them interesting, especially Assembling California.  The more I learn about his life; it explained his books.  He went to Deerfield Academy after high school, before Princeton.  In Silk Parachutes (2011) which I just read, he writes about Deerfield and Lacrosse.  Diane and I have visited the historic town and taken open hearth cooking classes there several times.  I remember his fishing in the Delaware River near Trenton in Founding Fish; Bill Bradley; both Princeton connections.

Decades ago I wrote to McPhee asking if I could audit a class at Princeton, a day, a semester.  He responded saying the University did not allowbaudits of his classes but he was giving a public lecture that I could attend. I did.  Unfortunately I didn’t find McPhee the speaker as fluid or engaging as McPhee the writer.

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Last year I read Draft No. 4: the writing process (2017).    I was surprised when I recently found several McPhee books that I hadn’t read.  Heirs of General Practice     (1986) and Silk Parachutes (2011). I ordered and read both.  Still on my Amazon buy list is The Patch (2018).  This is a shelf in my library devoted to McPhee.  Most books are Farrah, Straus and Giroux paperbacks.  Somewhere there should be a hardback edition of the Pine Barrens with photographs by Bill Curtsinger.  Bill, a National Geographic photographer illustrated a magazine Pine Barrens article and later contributed to the  book.  He told a story of being high when he shot the National Geographic cover image.

Like many things in my life, it’s time to revisit, reread, reexperience John McPhee.  Maybe Princeton allows audits or I could apply for his writing class.  Dreams.

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A Gentleman in Moscow

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What would it be like to live in a hotel for a month, a year, decades.  Not just any run of the mill hotel, but the best.  The Bellevue in Philadelphia; Copley Plaza in Boston; The Plaza in New York City.  Remember Eloise?  Count Alexander Rostov shares his experience with us. For decades, under house arrest, he lived in the Hotel Metropol in Moscow.  “The Gentleman of Moscow,” by Amor Towles is a novel but reads as non fiction. You feel like you are in the Hotel with Count Rostov.

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During the revolution Rostov was in Paris but he was determined to return to the motherland.  In 1922 he is back but he is an aristocrat and is convicted of writing subversive poetry (ironically much later we learn the poem was written by a close friend).  At the time of his arrest, the Count was occupying a large, elegant suite on the third floor of the Metropol, the finest hotel in the city.  Instead of banishment to Siberia, the authorities decided a life confined to the hotel would be a suitable punishment for an unrepentent aristocratic, enemy of the people.

Sasha (as he is sometimes called, a nickname for Alexander) accepts the move to a sixth floor small, cramped attic room.  He must leave behind many of the expensive personal furnishings in his suite but moves a family desk, a portrait of his sister Helena and a few other treasures.  We will learn that the hollowed out legs of the desk are filled with gold coins.

The Count settles into a routine; a delivered breakfast; morning newspapers in the Lobby; meals in the Boyarsky (restaurant) or the more formal Piazza;  drinks in the Shalyapin; reading while leaning back in his chair (he was a lover of books and brought many to his attic room); interactions with the staff, a fantastic ensemble of characters, an evening aperitif, usually just one.  The life of a “gentleman.”

Two events alter his settled life.  He discovers a door in a closet that leads to an adjacent room.  He empties the room, there is a lot of storage in the attic, and creates a sitting room for himself, entry through the closet.  When visitors show up he guides them through the closet into the sitting room.  The second event is his meeting and eventual friendship with the precocious Nina Kulikova, a young girl who also lives in the hotel.

Nina had secured a pass key and guides the Count through the hotel.  They hide in a balcony, watch and listen to party committee meetings.  They visit the Count’s former suite, still furnished with his family heirlooms and there are the cellars, that area devoted to wine is of particular interest to the Count. They dine together and have all kinds of experiences.

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The years pass, Stalin dies, who will take over?  Towles provides just enough local color and history to root his story in Russia, the Revolution, later World War II and the Post War period.  To keep busy and be purposeful, the Count becomes the hotel’s  headwaiter.  Nina grows up, leaves the hotel and becomes associated with the party.  Traveling, she leaves her daughter, Sophia, in the Count’s care and the young girl, even more than her mother, becomes his constant companion and is often called his daughter. Like her mother, she is talented, clever, a delightful child.

Count Rostav becomes part of a Hotel Triumvirate with chef Emile and Andrey, the maitre d.  They meet regularly to plan menus, seating arrangements and any other important restaurant matters.  Ocassionally they must foil the attempts at control by the Bishop, a party functionary, appointed manager, who does not understand or believe in class.  One on the Bishops first actions (to Rostov’s horror) is to strip all labels from wine bottles.  Order white or red; no class pretensions.  The “three” however resist his leveling, and in one conspiracy, collect ingredients (some difficult to obtain) and create a magnificent bouillabaisse which they share in a two hour euphoric meal.

There are many other characters and subplots in the 30 years the Count lives in the Metropol. There are hotel staff including  Audrius, the bartender, Marina, the seamstress, and Victor Stepanovich Skadovsky, the orchestra conductor in the Piazza.  All play a role in the Count’s life; most have long Russian names.    Anna Urbanov, a former actress comes and goes and eventually becomes a lover.  Mishka, an old friend visits and it’s revealed that he wrote the poem that was the immediate cause of the Count’s arrest and confinement. There are years of activity as Sophia grows into a young lady.

There is a climatic “happy” ending, references to “Casablanca,” Sophia on a concert tour in Paris, and Count Rostav escaping the confines of the Metropol.  I recommend you get a copy of  “A Gentleman in Moscow,” and read more for yourself.

Diane originally got the book for a discussion group.  It’s not something I would typically read.  But reading is my escape to different times and different places.  I meet people not in my 2018, American, east coast orbit.  “A Gentleman in Moscow” was all those things.  Again, get a copy.

 

 

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Getting Away

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Frequently books can be a passport to escape from our daily routine. They can transport us to new shores, new adventures.  We meet people that don’t live next door or around the corner.  I’m drawn to books that describe “escapes” made by their authors.  Journeys, travel logs, memoirs.  Brought “On Whale Island : notes from a place I never meant to leave,” by Daniel Hays to Cape Cod this week. Finished reading it this rainy, overcast day.

Hays and his father built a twenty-five sail boat and sailed it around Cape Horn. That’s the bottom of South America; not an easy sail if I recall correctly.  He shared their sail in “My Old Man and the Sea (1995).  Hays grew up in New York CIty, went to a Vermont boarding school, with money inherited from a grandmother he bought a 50 acre island off the coast of Nova Scotia, you guessed, Whale Island.    A place to escape in the summer; he and his father built a small house there.  After the Cape Horn sail and book, he returns to graduate school and an internship in Idaho as a guide to troubled kids. There he meets Wendy, and her son Stephan (about 10).  Marriage.

Hays yearned to “get away,” “pack it up,” “escape civilization,” “get off the grid.”  He dreamed of following in the footsteps of Henry David Thoreau.  With the book royalties in hand, he convinced Wendy and Stephan, to move to Whale Island. It’s remote, cold, isolated, basic, primitive.  They last one year.

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“On Whale Island” is the story of that year.  It’s written as a diary, Day 1, Day 25, Day 200; most entries are in Daniel’s voice but Wendy and Stephan contribute some.  It’s not an easy life; cutting wood for heat and cooking (how much is needed); fixing or enduring house leaks (some won’t go away); creating, repairing, a water and sewage system (can be disgusting).  They seem to buy most of their food, with a boat trip into town.  Daniel has a gun (part of being a man in the culture and for him) shoots a few ducks; helps Lobster men and gets a few of the catch.  But no mention of gardening.

Wendy longs for a more civilized life.  While Dan is satisfied with a whalebone sink, plywood and foam rubber bed, Wendy wants a house that doesn’t leak and store bought furniture.  She ocassionally gets a package from mail order.  Daniel records their frequent outbursts, arguments, blow ups; usually followed with some humor and promises.  I found this very real, how couples can manage or work through different perspectives, dreams?

Daniel worries about a lot of things.  Survival,  being an accepted man with the local boys, his relationship with Wendy, and relationship with Stephan.  He writes frequently about his ability to be a good father.  He also admits to medications he takes for depression, mood control.  And he likes his rum.

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The environmental “escape” part of the story are the glimpses into life in Nova Scotia, on a remote island; the weather; daily chores; contacts with locals (some interesting characters).  Chapters are introduced by quotes, many from “Walden.”  “I should not talk so much about myself if there was anybody else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience.”

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Hays’ own writing contains quite a few quotable lines. I liked, “I want to stay forever. I want to become a professional scrounger, find a way to make seaweed taste good, trade labor for outboard-engine gas — better yet, trade the boat in for an old sailboat . . . Grow potatoes, set out fish traps, hunt, grow a beard, forget my social security number.”  No TV or internet on Whale Island.

For the past few days, I traveled with Daniel to the wilderness, to an island in Nova Scotia.  In fact, we both escaped.  But after a year Daniel and family returned to Idaho and I’m back in Cape Cod, in ten days, Yardley.  I’ll read another book; take another trip. Explore, experience, enjoy.  There are different ways of “getting away.”  I need to keep searching.

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Reading and Religion

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Several days ago one of my sisters dropped off a manila envelope from a distant relative. Her daughter found a book inscribed to me, “Love to Vincent, February 1956, Mommie.”  On the bottom of the cover was “Vincent Profy, Jr.  130 Mill St. Bristol, Pa.” The 188 page book, “Father Marquette and the Great Rivers” by August Derleth, illustrated by H. Lawrence Hoffman was part of a series, Vision Books.

I think mom gave be a subscription to the Vision Books.  They were mailed to me periodically.  Each featured the story of a “great Catholic.”  A promo for the series stated, “Vision Books are an exciting new series especially designed to acquaint boys and girls from eight to sixteen with they lives of great Catholic lay figures, martyrs, and saints. Vision Books will inspire and instruct. Their lively telling, their readability, and their historical accuracy make them unique.  These colorful action-filled life stories combine scrupulous fidelity to facts with high entertainment value.”

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I was eight years old, in third grade.  The gift from my mother represented two things very important to her — education, specifically reading; religion, specifically Catholicism. I attended a Catholic elementary school, would be sent to a newly opened college preparatory school, and was expected to attend college, probably Catholic.  I became an alter boy and very briefly considered a religious vocation.  I read the Vision Books and many other books from the local, later school libraries.

I recognized the book, the series and its author immediately.  A check online and I discovered there were 30 Vision books, I think I had about a dozen.  I recognized several titles. And Deluth wrote over 100 books including one on Thoreau and several featuring Solar Pons (a Sherlock Holmes pastiche) that I read.  I decided to re-read “Father Marquette.”

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Jacques Marquette’s story in the book echoes an online biography.  He joined the Jesuits as a teen.  Wanted and was eventually sent to Quebec for missionary work.  He learned many native languages, helped establish several missions. His most famous accomplishment was the exploration of the Mississippi River with a Canadian-French trapper, explorer, Louis Joliet. They encountered many Indian tribes. Joliet was driven to find the mouth of the river; Marquette driven to preach Christianity to the natives.  They turned around in Arkansas, before reaching the mouth due to concerns about unfriendly Indians and the Spanish. But they were convinced the river emptied into the Gulf providing a river connection between the Great Lakes and the Gulf Coast and provided a report and maps of their exploration.   The French would soon begin to control what became known as the Louisiana territory.

 

“Father Marquette” was a quick, easy read. The writing isn’t great but not bad.  It’s fascinating to read about the various tribes, some of their customs, food, dress, peace pipes and their encounters and reaction to the French, and missionaries.  I likes the geography and canoe explore. However for me missions to convert heathen natives is at least culturally insensitive and at times contributed to the destruction of native cultures.  Ironically Holy Ghost Prep, the high school I attended (and worked at for 40 years) was operated by a missionary order, The Holy Ghost Fathers or Spiritans.  Although professing to spread the word of God, they also claimed to totally respect indigenous cultures. My undergraduate college was Boston College, a Jesuit institution.  Probably positives and negatives associated with their extensive missionary activity.

I can thank Mom and Dad for encouraging me to read and succeed at school.  And although I have serious reservations about organized religion, I’m glad they gave me the background.  And it was fascinating  finding Father Marquette after over 60 years.

 

 

 

 

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