I have three relatively short trips planned for Oregon in 2017, but I won’t be surprised if a few more opportunities to travel there won’t pop up.  Oregon is one of my neighboring states, and I can cross its border after a three-hour drive south along I-5 from Seattle.  Like my home state of Washington, Oregon offers a selection of diverse geographic destinations — untamed ocean coastlines, mountains, dry lands, vibrant cities, and fertile agricultural valleys.  As I read my way across Oregon for this virtual travel post, I discovered that its literary offerings were as rich and varied as its physical ones.

Landscape near Antelope, Oregon

Landscape near Antelope, Oregon

I very much enjoy reading books in this series on armchair travel, but I have a tendency to get greedy and my book lists grow and at some point I begin to feel overwhelmed.  That certainly happened again with my reading about Oregon and by Oregon authors.  It didn’t help that a couple of the authors — William Stafford and Brian Doyle, for example — were such good writers that I wanted to read more deeply from their published works.  I hope this post can do justice to the literary wealth of the state.

Vintage postcard about Oregon

Vintage postcard about Oregon

I asked for recommendations for books that capture the spirit of Oregon from the reference librarians at the Multnomah County Library.  Tara, the librarian who responded to my request, is a native Oregonian, and she offered these suggestions:

  • Fiction (adult/young adult):  Ricochet River by Robin Cody.  This novel is told from the point of view of Wade, a high school senior from a small logging community.  While he is an easy-going guy, finding comfort in just going with the flow, his girlfriend yearns to leave and break free.  “Everything is so predictable,” she says.  “They box people up in tight little packages . . . Your cheerleaders, your farmers, your hoods, your jocks.”  But it is Wade’s friendship with Jesse, a Klamath youth and gifted athlete, that begins to open his eyes to the undercurrents of prejudice and conformity in his town.
  • Fiction (adult/young adult): Lean on Pete by Willy Vlautin.  Charley is a 15-year-old essentially raising himself.  His father has brought him to Portland and poor parenting leaves Charley struggling to cope on is own.  He shoplifts for food while diligently trying to keep in shape for the upcoming football season.  He takes on a job at a racetrack in order to earn some pocket money, but his boss is a shady character.  In a misguided effort to save the life of a horse destined for the knackers, Charley steals his boss’s truck, trailer, and horse, and sets off to find his aunt in Idaho and a chance for a more secure life.
  • Nonfiction:  Fugitives and Refugees by Chuck Palahniuk.  A tour of Portland showcases the “hipster and weird.”
  • Juvenile:  Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary.  What a joy it was to reread this book.  Cleary captures perfectly the trials of being a younger sister, the strange happenings at kindergarten, the perils of being misunderstood.  “Things had such an unexpected way of turning out all wrong.” I remember my ex-Marine, rather reticent brother-in-law reading Ramona and Her Father out loud to his two young sons, and breaking into guffaws over some of the antics in that book.  If you hanker to revisit childhood, I highly recommend all of Clearly’s books about Ramona, her sister Beezus, and neighbor Henry.
  • Poetry:  Traveling Through the Dark by William Stafford.
  • Art book: Oregon: A Photographic Journey by Greg Vaughn.


In addition to Tara’s recommendations, all of which I read, I also read the following books on my “Armchair Travels” to Oregon:

Fiction:  Martin, Martin by Brian Doyle.  This was the first book of Doyle’s that I read, and I liked it so much that I went on to read Mink River, The Plover, and Children and Other Wild Animals.  

Martin, Martin is about 14-year-old Dave and his loving family who live in a cabin on Mount Hood, and Martin, one of a litter of four martens born to a a single mother.  The lives of the two Martins cross paths from time to time, each watching the other with curiosity and interest.  Here the martens emerge from safety of their hidden home:  “And so it was the five marten made their way to the river through an astonishing new world of trees and rocks, songs and whistles, bushes and scents, mud and flowers, all bathed in the high thin light of a mountain afternoon in spring.”  And this is Dave’s first glimpse of the marten:  “. . . and then Dave saw, one after another in a line like hikers on a narrow trail, five small lustrous golden brown animals slip out of the woods on the other side of the river.  Four were smaller than the leader, who was clearly in charge, probably a parent, and the last one in line looked for all the world like he or she was the trusted deputy, bringing up the rear as a precaution against stragglers and mischief.”

The book is brimming with observations that evoke the lush Pacific Northwest forests and rivers landscape.  “We sit on park benches and beaches and couches and hilltops, listening and dreaming seemingly to no particular purpose.  But isn’t it often the case the when we cease to move and think, we see and hear and understand a great deal?”

You can tell that Doyle is a writer who just loves words and the sounds of words and the play of the tongue:  “By now, almost June, the snow was gone, this far down the mountain, but the river was still crammed with melt, and it raced and thrummed and braided in endlessly riveting ways.  You could, as Dave many times had, just sit there in the sun with your back against a tree and watch and listen to the river sprint and thurble and trip and thumble . . .”

You sense that Dave’s dad embodies some of Doyle:  “That is how Dave’s dad talks, with words like donnybrook and vainglorious and epistolary and he just expects you to know what he is talking about, says Dave, as if you too had read every book in the town library and every book in the bookstore’s lending library and every book in the lost-and-found library at Timberline Lodge up the mountain, where Dave’s mom works in laundry services.”

I just savored Doyle’s exquisite and apt descriptions:  “Dave’s dad knew that it was going to snow.  He could tell.  The clouds were pregnant, it was too cold for rain, and there was a sort of glower in the air . . . A sort of chilled expectation or premonition — like the air was grimacing, and soon it would begin to cough relentlessly.”

Doyle says, “People are stories, aren’t they?  And their stories keep changing and opening and closing and braiding and weaving and stitching and slamming to a halt and finding new doors and windows through which to tell themselves, isn’t that so? . . . You find that your story keeps changing in thrilling and painful ways, and it’s never in one place.  Maybe each of us is a sort of village, with lots of different beings living together under one head of hair, around the river of your pulse, the crossroads of who you were and who you wish to be.”

Mink River by Brian Doyle.  The protagonists of this novel are two guys in their 60s — Worried Man and Cedar — who are co-managers of the Department of Public Works in the small town of Neawanaka, where the Mink River meets the Pacific Ocean.  Their mission is “Brains against pain” in this town of 500 souls.

This is how Doyle describes Neawanaka as seen through the eyes of Worried Man’s wife, the town’s teacher:  ” . . . her town, the poetry and pain and poverty and plainness of it, the bravery and belly laughs, the stunning volume of rain, the sadness of winter, the petty crime, the smell of manure, the squelch of mud, the smell of skunk cabbage, the burble and babble and bubble of the children in her classroom, the endless fleeing of children to the city as soon as possible, the sticky smell of cottonwood buds opening, the prevalence of mold and mildew, the gargling snarl of chain saws, the violet green sheen of a swallow, the hollow eyes of retarded children, the stunning sunlight after rain, the prevalence of car parts in yards, the mustiness of basements, the prevalence of divorce, the slam of screen doors, the paucity of voters, the night oratorio of tree frogs, the smell of fish like a wall near the co-op, the smell of beer like an aura around the pub night and day, the thrill of thrushes, the smell of a crate of new school books, the riotous vegetation, the patient heartless brooding watchful sea.”

Doyle’s litanies are a signature characteristic of his writings.  Here he describes the Pacific Ocean:  “The sea is green and blue and gray and white and purple.  He stares at it for a long time.  It shimmies and shivers and shines and shudders and shimmers and twitches and glitters and trembles and gleams.  It stutters and whispers and moans and sighs.  It snarls and roars and hammers the patient shore.  It tosses its hair and rolls its shoulders an shuffles its feet.” Yes!

I fell in love with the human and humane, struggling, flawed, yet loving characters in this fictional town.  “Sometimes I think the all people in all times must have had the same joys and sorrows, says Nora.  Everyone thinks that the old days were better, or that they were harder, and that modern times are chaotic and complex, or easier all around, but I think people’s hearts have always been the same, happy and sad, and that hasn’t changed at all.  It’s just the shape of lives that change, not lives themselves.”

“. . . each of us, man and woman alike, is a seething sea of desires and shadows, of illusions and dreams, of courage and cowardice, and we arrive in peaceful harbors only by sailing ourselves true, by finding and wielding our talents and tools to help others.”

The town doctor says, “We make our holy gestures, we conduct our intricate and complicated rituals, we apply salves and poultices, elixirs and potions, and people remain broken and torn.  The best I can do it just witness the pain.”

The Road We Traveled by Jane Kirkpatrick.  My sister, who lives in Oregon, recommended Kirkpatrick to me.  She writes historical fiction.  The Road We Traveled was inspired by the life of Tabitha Moffat Brown, a widow and grandmother, who came west along the Oregon Trail when she was in her 60s.  She made the trip against the wishes and advice of her family, who wanted her to stay behind.  The novel imagines what the move might have been like — what to shed and leave behind, the nature of attachments, the courage to live true to one’s convictions, the tendency to second guess decisions.  Here is how Kirkpatrick describes Brown’s arrival in the Salem area:  “An afternoon of balm with shafts of sunlight through a pewter-colored sky greeted them.  The world here looked green and the Willamette River ran blue, unlike the brown Platte and Missouri they’d left behind.  Every shade of green covered the ground around them; fields, riverbanks, the centers of the trails they rose marked by sturdy grass.   Even tree trunks had moss, as did the shingle of the ferryman’s shelter.  The landscape promised spring even in December with a sky as gray as the bottom of a duck.”


Nonfiction:  Coastal Range:  A Collection from the Pacific Edge by Nick Neely.  This is a collection of essays about Oregon’s Rogue River valley and other landscapes.  Neely writes about the journey of salmon to their hatchery where they spawned, free gold mining by suction dredging along the Rogue River, madrone trees, and his experiences on a six-month writing residency off the grid in the backcountry of southern Oregon, among other things quintessential northwest.

Neely is a good writer.  Here’s how he describes salmon:  “fifteen or twenty pounds of sauntering muscle wrapped in silver” and “sleek torpedoes with jaws, speckled and scarred.”  And of the Pacific Coast he says,” This layer of continent is now disappearing: Sea stacks stand as pillars to a former coastline, and the basalt of the shore is riddled with coves and inlets the funnel waves furiously into blowholes, as if in homage to a volcanic past and the migrating gray whales.”  And, “. . . the sound of stones being tumbled by the waves is remarkable.  It is a thousand knuckles rapping softly at a door.”

“As we drove along the Oregon Coast, we were absorbed by the bands of the landscape:  The blue and white waves.  The slick and dry stretches of sand.  The quiet back pools reflecting the fast clouds off the Pacific.  Swaths of tidal marsh.  Bluffs and chasms.  The pavement the thinnest of lines.”

The love of this landscape permeates Neely’s writings.  “To become at home in a place, I think, is mainly to discover the words for things.  The names.”

Poetry:  I am drawn to the poetry of William Stafford, and have featured some of my favorites of his in past blog posts.  You can revisit them here: “Watching Sandhill Cranes,”  “Ask,” “What’s in My Journal,” “Things the Wind Says,” “The Dream of Now,” “Yes,” and “An Afternoon in the Stacks.”  Stafford was born in Kansas, but he lived and taught at Lewis and Clark College near Portland for many years.

I don’t have a favorite among the several collections of Stafford’s poems that I read and reread for this blog post.  I did copy out many poems and quotes that I am sure I will be sharing with you in future posts.  For now, I leave you with this William Stafford poem:

“You Reading This, Be Ready” from Ask Me: 100 Essential Poems

Starting here, what do you want to remember?
How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?
What scent of old wood hovers, what softened
sound from outside fills the air?

Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect the you carry
wherever you go right now?  Are you waiting
for time to show you some better thoughts?

When you turn around, starting here, lift this
new glimpse that you found, carry into evening
all that you want from this day.  This interval you spent
reading or hearing this, keep it for life —

What can anyone give you greater than now,
starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?




Purrfectly Happy Reading

August 19, 2016









Pile of books waiting to be read

Pile of books waiting to be read

Perhaps you are looking for something good to read this summer.  Of the many books I have read lately, I’ve made this list of a few worth recommending:


I am continuing my project of visiting all 50 states through books with a peek at Alaska.  I have actually traveled to Alaska twice, once on a cruise from Whittier to Vancouver, B.C. and once traveling the roads in a rented RV with my husband, brother, and sister-in-law.  I never felt far from true wilderness.  Alaska seemed far wilder than any national park I’ve visited in the Lower 48, like Yellowstone or Glacier, perhaps because of all the wildlife — including large mammals like moose and bears — that we encountered while we were out and about our daily rounds.  I would love to go back.

Moose stops traffic on drive to Kenai Peninsula

Moose stops traffic on drive to Kenai Peninsula

Grizzly Mom and cubs -- no way you could win this race

Grizzly Mom and cubs — no way you could win this race

I solicited recommendations for books that captured the spirit of Alaska from a reference librarian at the Anchorage Public Libraries.  Here are the titles he suggested:

  • for nonfiction:  Coming Into the Country by John McPhee and Aunt Phil’s Trunk, vol. 1 by Phyllis Downing Carles
  • for adult fiction:  The Woman Who Married a Bear by John Straley
  • for juvenile fiction:  The Trap by John Smelcer
  • for photography:  Hidden Alaska, Bristol Bay and Beyond by Michael Melford
  • for Native art: Raven Travelling, Two Centuries of Haida Art


Vintage postcard of Alaska

Vintage postcard of Alaska

Postcard from Alaska

Postcard from Alaska


Map of Alaska

Map of Alaska

Here are the books I actually read in my armchair travels to Alaska:

Travels in Alaska by John Muir.  This book recounts three of Muir’s trips to Alaska, his first in 1879, his second in 1880, and his third trip a decade later in 1890.  He says:  “To the lover of pure wilderness Alaska is one of the most wonderful countries in the world.”  The book was written by Muir from his travel notes and sketches.  It is filled with poetic descriptions of the land and the people of Alaska’s Inside Passage to Glacier Bay.  I was reminded how back in the days before the ubiquitous camera, people relied on the written word to describe the world around them and their experiences.  Muir was a powerfully descriptive writer.  Here is one of his passages about Dirt Glacier:

“I greatly enjoyed my walk up this majestic ice-river, charmed by the pale-blue, ineffably fine light in the crevasses, moulins, and wells, and the innumerable azure pools in basins of azure ice, and the network of surface streams, large and small, gliding, swirling with wonderful grace of motion in their frictionless channels, calling forth devout admiration at almost every step and filling the mind with a sense of Nature’s endless beauty and power.  Looking ahead from the middle of the glacier, you see the broad white flood, though apparently rigid as iron, sweeping in graceful curves between its high mountain-like walls, small glaciers hanging in the hollows on either side, and snow in every form above them, and the great down-plunging granite buttresses and headlands of the walls marvelous in bold massive sculpture . . .”

He captures the sounds as well:

“Hundreds of small rills and good-sized streams were falling into the lake from the [Stikeen] glacier, singing in low tones, some of them pouring in sheer falls over blue cliffs from narrow ice-valleys, some spouting from pipelike channels in the solid front of the glacier, others gurgling, out of arched openings at the base.  All these water-streams were riding on the parent ice-stream, their voices joined in one grand anthem telling the wonders of their near and far-off fountains.”

Muir’s writing captures the exuberance he felt in the sublime natural landscapes.  “Standing here, with facts so fresh and telling and held up so vividly before us, every seeing observer, not to say geologist, must readily apprehend the earth-sculpturing, landscape-making action of flowing ice.  And here, too, one learns that the world, though made, is yet being made; that this is the morning of creation; that mountains long conceived are now being born, channels traced for coming rivers, basins hollowed for lakes . . .”

Libby: The Alaskan Diaries and Letters of Libby Beaman, 1879-1880.  While Muir was off exploring glaciers in southeastern Alaska, Libby Beaman was living with her husband, a government agent supervising the taking of seal pelts on the remote St. Paul Island in the Pribolofs north of the Aleutian archipelago.  She was the first non-native American woman to live there, and she accompanied her husband against the wishes of his immediate supervisor and most of her friends and family.  America had purchased the Alaskan territory in 1867 for $7.2 million.  Beaman calculated that the purchase price was more than recouped in a few years of selling seal pelts.  But her husband found the business of taking fur beyond distasteful, and in addition to his unhappiness, Beaman had to deal with his jealousy and an extremely cold, hard winter which bound them to their quarters for seven weeks.  She survived that malnourished, suffering from scurvy, but undaunted.

“We find that the winter’s dark and cold are the facts that dominate all life up here.  Winter is the event for which everyone spends the other days of the year in preparation.”

Coming Into the Country by John McPhee.  McPhee published these essays in 1976, not quite 20 years after Alaska became a state in 1958.  In the Statehood Act, the national government promised to transfer to state ownership about a quarter of the land, and over the next 20 years, the fate of the land was debated by groups with conflicting interests:  environmentalists and conservationists, oil companies, Natives, and others.  In 1971, the Alaska Native Claims Settlements Act awarded about 1/10th of the land and $1 billion to 12 native corporations.  McPhee wrote about his impressions of the people, the land of  the Brooks Range and the Yukon,  Juneau, the debate about where to locate the state capitol and more.  He said, “The central paradox of Alaska is that it is as small as it is large — an immense landscape with so few people in it that language is stretched to call it a frontier, let alone a state.”  There were about 400,000 people in Alaska in 1976.  Current population is still less than 750,000.  McPhee writes about how “civilized imagination cannot cover such quantities of wild land,” and how most residents cannot afford the float plane rental to explore or travel in all this wilderness.

McPhee does travel into remote areas.  He describes a day on the river in the Brooks Range:  “All day, while the sun describes a horseshoe around the margins of the sky, the light is of the rich kind that in more southern places comes at evening, heightening walls and shadowing eaves, bringing out of things the beauty of relief.”  Of the tundra he says, “Possibly there is nothing as invitingly deceptive as a tundra-covered hillside.  Distances over tundra, even when it is rising steeply, are like distances over water, seeming to be less than they are, defraying the suggestion of effort.  The tundra surface, though, consists of many kinds of plants, most of which seem to be stemmed with wire to ensnare the foot. . . .  Tundra is not topography, however, it is a mat of vegetation, and it runs up the sides of prodigious declivities as well as across broad plains.”  He goes on to say, ” . . . the terrain is nonetheless valuable.  There is ice under the tundra, mixed with soil as permafrost, in some places two thousand feet deep.  The tundra vegetation, living and dead, provides insulation that keeps the summer sun from melting the permafrost.  If something pulls away the insulation and melting occurs, the soil will settle and the water may run off.  The earth, in such circumstances, does not restore itself.”

I think it would be fascinating to compare McPhee’s 1970s impressions with the Alaska of today, more than 50 years after statehood.  The conflicting interests of environmentalists and oil companies, wilderness advocates and developers, are still raging after all these years.

Chasing Alaska by C. B. Bernard.  This memoir of Bernard’s move to Alaska is intertwined with journal entries of an ancestor of his, Joe Bernard, who explored the Arctic and other parts of Alaska 100 years earlier.  C. B. Bernard lived in Sitka for two years and he paints a picture of modern life in this Baranof Island town.  It rains on average 230 days a year in Sitka, and he says, “Relentless rainfall gives everything the blurry focus of watercolor on paper.”  And, “Liquid sunshine, they call the rain here, an intentionally optimistic euphemism, but it’s more like a houseguest who won’t leave or  paranoia you can’t shake.  Want to survive Southeast Alaska?  Learn to ignore rain, or embrace insanity.”

The Woman Who Married a Bear by John Straley.  Cecil Younger, a private investigator in Sitka, is asked by an elderly Tlingit woman to look at the evidence in the police investigation of the murder of her son.  Though one of his workers was convicted of the crime, the mother wants to understand why he was killed.  As Younger starts his case review, he realizes he has stirred a hornets nest and someone has now taken a shot at him.  His investigations take him to Anchorage as well.  Here are some descriptive scenes from the book:

“Sitka is an island town where people feel crowed by the land and spread out on the sea.  This morning to the north and east, the mountains were asserting their presence by showing off the new snow that dusted them down to the two-thousand-foot line.”

“If you live in southeastern Alaska and are used to being stared at by the mountains with your back against the ocean, the country around Anchorage is a reprieve.  The horizons are broad and open.  The mountains slope up from the tidal flat, cupping Anchorage but not crowding it against the shallow waters of Cook Inlet.”

I found this to be a rather run-of-the-mill mystery novel, and I didn’t like it enough to find other of Straley’s books.  But for years I have followed another Alaskan mystery series by Dana Stabenow.  Her protagonist is an Aleut woman who lives in a fictional national park in Alaska.  If you are looking for Alaskan mysteries, I recommend Stabenow’s.

Two Old Women by Velma Wallis.  This is a recounting of a traditional Athabascan tale about two old women who were left to perish by their tribe, which was endangered by the scarcity of food during an extremely cold winter in the region north and east of Fairbanks.  Only such dire straits would have compelled the tribe to abandon the weakest members, but the women felt betrayed and decided to die trying rather than wait numbly for the inevitable.  They seek to make camp in a place that had been safe in the past, and by snaring rabbits and small game, and drawing on long dis-used skills from their pasts, the women not only survive, but put by surplus food and clothes made of rabbit fur in preparation for the next winter.  When their former tribe, still weak and struggling, crosses paths with the women, they share their bounty and regain the respect of the People.

I have read this story several times; once it was a selection for my mother-daughter book group.  I love this tale of subsistence — living off the land — and resilient elder women.

The Trap by John Smelcer.  This is a wilderness survival tale.  Eighty-year-old Albert Least-Weasel is checking his trap lines when he gets caught in one of its steel jaws.  As the story unfolds, Albert calls upon his past experiences and traditional stories to survive in the implacable cold.  His situation is a race against time as temperatures plummet, the supply of fire wood within his reach diminishes, and hungry wolves scent his growing weakness.


Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George.  This juvenile novel won the Newbery medal in 1973.  It tells the survival story of Miyax/Julie, a thirteen-year-old who became lost on the tundra after running away from her husband Daniel.  She comes upon a den of wolves — four adults and five puppies, and she strives to be adopted into the wolf family, knowing she would starve without their hunting skills.  Miyax did have some subsistence and survival skills after living in a seal camp for five years with her Eskimo father.  But in the summer’s perpetual day, she did not have stars to navigate by, and she did not know the ways of the tundra birds and animals as she did the coastal ones.  Miyax’s father Kapugen told her that the birds and animals all had languages and if you listened and watched them you could learn about their enemies, where their food lay, and when big storms were coming.  By mimicking the wolves’ gestures, Miyax is accepted by the alpha wolf, but once the pups are grown, they leave the den, and Miyax/Julie resumes her walk to Point Hope.  This is a poignant story about the difficulties of straddling two cultures.  Miyax/Julie ultimately wishes to live the Eskimo way, but the law says she must go to school, and the pressures to adapt to modern culture have compromised even her strong father.  The book concludes with the words, “the hour of the wolf and the Eskimo is over.”


Mama, Do You Love Me? by Barbara M. Joose and illustrated by Barbara Lavallee.  In this picture book for young children, an Inuit girl is reassured that her mother will continue to love her no matter what — even if the daughter breaks the ptarmigan eggs, throws water on the lamp, runs away with the wolves, or turned into a musk ox or walrus, etc.  I love that the illustrations include Inuit artifacts and Alaskan animals. In fact, I bought a limited edition print of one of the images from this book because I liked it so much.

My Barbara Lavallee print

My Barbara Lavallee print

Reading about Alaska appeals to my sense of adventure.  So many of the people live there by intention, drawn by Alaska’s diverse landscapes, the challenges of surviving cold and dark, and any number of individual dreams.  These books feed the imaginations of armchair travelers like me.

The next state on my literary journey:  Arizona

” . . . there were many hours when Humphrey was left all alone, which he did not mind in the least, for he was by temperament a bookish child, and the child who is at home in the world of books never lacks for companionship, entertainment, or adventure.” — Jacqueline Kelly, Return to the Willows

Detail of painting by Jeff Weeks, "Three Moons," Bainbridge Art Museum

Detail of painting by Jeff Weekly, “Three Moons,” Bainbridge Island Museum of Art

Detail of painting by Jeff Weekly, "Girl Behind the Books," Bainbridge Island Museum of Ar

Detail of painting by Jeff Weekly, “Girl Behind the Books,” Bainbridge Island Museum of  Art

I read a lot of books, and here are a few from recent months that I consider quite unique and exceptional:

What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund.  This book provides much food for thought about the inner world of reading.  Mendelsund says, “We imagine that the experience of reading is like that of watching a film.  But this is not what actually happens — this is neither what reading is, nor what it is like.”  He talks about how fictional characters are revealed incrementally, gradually materializing in our imaginations from a few distilled facts.  Our mental  images of them can remain quite vague, but our feelings about the characters are more firmly defined, and therein is where we find meaning.  This is true for me.

The sketchiness is part of the charm of reading.  That is at least part of the reason that seeing a film adaptation of a favorite book is often disenchanting.  “One should watch a film adaptation of a favorite book only after considering, very carefully, the fact that the casting of the film may very well become the permanent casting of the book in one’s mind.  This is a very real hazard.

When we read, we go back and make adjustments to our reconstructions of characters based on the play of elements and new details. And we each bring our own experiences to bear on our imaginings.  That is one reason why re-reading a novel can be a new and rewarding experience — we’ve changed since our last reading, and our impressions of the characters change, too.



Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant by Roz Chast.  Many, many people like graphic novels, but I have never been drawn to this genre.  I can remember reading just one graphic novel, Persepolis by Marjane Strapi, which was also an autobiographical story — very good.  However, I highly recommend Chast’s memoir to anyone who has cared for or is caring for elderly parents.  This is a poignantly honest portrayal of her role as daughter, a role that is constantly changing as her parents become increasingly frail and lose their ability to cope with living independently in their New York apartment.

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman.  This novel is a heartwarming testament to the healing power of community, even when “community” is a pesky, boisterous family who insinuates itself into the quiet life of a widow next door.  Ove, at 59, has recently lost his wife and then is involuntarily forced to retire from his job.  Life holds no meaning nor the promise of anything worthwhile, and Ove has practically become a hermit.  He decides to kill himself, but before he can get the job done, he is dragged back to life by the intrusiveness, and loving kindness, of his new neighbors.



Worn Stories by Emily Spivack.  In this book, Spivack has collected stories about special garments people have held on to over the years.  She says, “We all have a memoir in miniature living in a garment we’ve worn.”  What a fascinating idea for a book.  The stories will make you think about the provenance of clothes in your closet and their meaning in your life.






Map of Alabama

Map of Alabama

Today’s post introduces my newest project, armchair travel to each of the 50 states, journeying alphabetically from Alabama to Wyoming.  My intent is to imbibe the flavor of each state’s landscape, people, and culture through the words and images of a few books.  I hope to read at least one novel, one nonfiction book, and a juvenile title whose story takes place in the state or whose author was born there.  In addition, I hope to discover an artist or photographer or craftsperson who works/worked there.

This project is not intended to represent a comprehensive survey of the states’ literature and letters.  Rather, my reading will give me a peek through the pages of a few open books.  I will ask the advice of a reference librarian from one of the public libraries for each state, and I welcome suggestions from my readers, too.  I may not actually follow through on these suggestions, but I will consider them.

I will call this project Armchair America.  There will be no regularly scheduled posts.  They will appear as time permits — I will fit this reading in among the other demands on my life.

Vintage postcard of Alabama

Vintage postcard of Alabama

Vintage postcard of Alabama

Vintage postcard of Alabama

By my count, I have physically traveled to 31 of the 50 states.  Someday I may get to see them all.  It was a particular pleasure to journey in my mind to Alabama for this first post in the series because I have never been there in person.

The reference librarian at the Birmingham Public Library responded to my query about good books on Alabama, such as To Kill a Mockingbird and Up from Slavery, with these additional recommendations:

  • Alabama: The History of a Deep South State by Wayne Flint
  • Carry Me Home by Diane McWhorter
  • Forrest Gump by Winston Groom
  • Rocket Boys by Homer Hickham
  • and anything by Rick Bragg

But these are the books I actually read on my armchair travels to Alabama:

Up from Slavery: An Autobiography by Booker T. Washington.  Washington was born a slave on a Virginia plantation in 1858 or 59, so he would have been 4 or 5 years old when the Emancipation Proclamation was announced, and 6 or 7 years old when slaves were actually freed at the close of the Civil War.  He lived through the rough period of the Reconstruction, a time of poverty and hardship.  But through hard work, dedication and focus, and resilience, Washington put himself through school and eventually founded the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.

His experiences shaped his educational philosophy, that every student should be required to do manual labor along with academics.  He said, “Our greatest danger is that in the great leap from slavery to freedom we may overlook the fact that the masses of us are to live by the production of our hands, and fail to keep in mind that we shall prosper in proportion as we learn to dignify and glorify common labour and put brains and skill into the common occupations of life; shall prosper in proportion as we learn to draw the line between the superficial and the substantial, the ornamental gewgaws of life and the useful.  No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem.  It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top.”

In Washington’s time, about one-third of the population of Alabama was African-American.  Today it is about 26 percent black.  (In my own state of Washington, blacks represent about 4 percent of the population.)

To Kill a Mockingbird
by Harper Lee.  I consider this novel one of my all-time favorites.  It is the story of Atticus Finch’s defense of Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman, in the small town of Maycomb, Alabama, and the effects of this trial on his children and neighbors.

Lee is masterful at creating the ambiance of southern life — if I were to go to Alabama I would expect to see johnson grass and rabbit tobacco, smilex and scuppernongs (I had to look these things up.)  Lee describes her Alabama in passages like these:

“People moved slowly then.  They ambled across the square, shuffled in and out of the stores around it, took their time about everything.  A day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer.”

“There are no clearly defined seasons in South Alabama; summer drifts into autumn, and autumn is sometimes never followed by winter, but turns to a days-old spring that melts into summer again.”

The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee by Marja Mills.  This is a memoir by a journalist who lived for a year next door to the elderly Harper Lee and her sister Alice in Monroeville, Alabama.  While Mills considered herself their friend, this is not an authorized biography.  Mills is careful to stay on the side of memoir — her own personal experiences — which did not require the Lees’ approval.  Mills is from the north, so it was interesting to read her impressions of Alabama, land of red dirt and Piggly Wiggly grocery stores:

” . . . kudzu drapes over hundred-year-old oak trees.  It crawls up ravines.  It creeps across the caved-in tin roofs of abandoned country shacks.  It forms an intricate web of green so dense it seems to be hiding something.”

“We passed the occasional gas station and general store with ‘Coca Cola’ in fading white script on peeling red paint.”

“Around every other bend was a redbrick church or tiny white one with a steeple stabbing blue sky and a cemetery out back.  Most of the churches were Baptist, but we also saw ones that were Methodist, First Assembly, and Pentecostal.”

“Football was second only to God in inspiring devotion around here . . .”

The Watsons Go to Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis.  This award-winning juvenile novel is about a black family growing up in Flint, Michigan in 1963.  When the older son starts acting out, his parents decide to take him to stay with his strict grandmother in Birmingham, Alabama.  The family’s road trip points out the issues of blacks traveling in the segregated south.  While in Birmingham, the family witnesses the aftermath of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church.  I loved how the Watsons used warmth and humor and love in facing life’s challenges.

The Poet of Tolstoy Park by Sonny Brewer.  A man diagnosed with terminal tuberculosis decides to leave his family and friends in Idaho and live out his last days in Fairhope, Alabama.  I have written about this book before (link here).  I enjoyed rereading this novel, and this time I paid more attention to the descriptions of things I might see in Alabama:  piney woods, live oaks, water oaks, etc.  Brewer touches on hurricanes and their effects, and he says, ” . . . if you’re going to live in Alabama, you are going to eat grits for breakfast.”





Picture Taker: Photographs by Ken Elkins.  Elkins was the chief photographer of the Anniston Star for many years, and I was pleased to have I discovered his work through my research for this project.  Here is how he is described by Rick Bragg in the introduction to this book of photos:  “He rejects the stereotypes of despair and ignorance often depicted by big city photographers on safari, and reveals his subjects as individuals who have endured hard lives but have found humor, dignity and faith.”



The Quilts of Gee’s Bend.  This book showcases the handmade quilts by the women of Gee’s Bend, Alabama.  It includes historical photos and narratives from 200 years.  As a quilter, I find these graphic quilts to be beautiful as well as practical.

Next State on My Armchair Journey:  Alaska

















“One book has always led to another with me . . .”
— Louis L’Amour, Education of a Wandering Man

My library card and a stack of books to read

My library card and a stack of books to read

“Dreams, books, are each a world; and books, we know
Are a substantial world, both pure and good.
Round these, with tendrils strong as flesh and blood,
Our pastime and our happiness will grow.”
— William Wordsworth

I wasn’t a particularly precocious child.  I didn’t learn to read until I started elementary school, and our reading program was based on the Dick and Jane readers.  But reading soon became a most pleasant pastime, a way to escape the narrow world of the farm where I grew up.  I remember that we had a small shelf of books at home, including a well-thumbed Uncle Wiggly book with glossy color plates.  And my mother made time for library visits during her trips to town for shopping.  In the summer, we walked a mile to Union Hill, where the bookmobile made a regular stop. Books in my childhood were read over and over.

So my library card is one of my most valuable possessions.  It gives me access to more books and information than I could ever absorb in my lifetime.  I recently looked at a pile of library books and noticed that the call numbers ran the range of the Dewey decimal system.  My interests vary widely.  When a good writer or author mentions other books, I often jot those titles down and add them to my “To-Read” list.

I wish there were more hours in the day to read.  I am so addicted to reading that I worry I live too much of my life in my head, and not enough out in the physical world.

“A truly good book . . . teaches me better than to read it. I must soon lay it down, and commence living on its hint. . . . What I began by reading, I must finish by acting.”
— Henry David Thoreau, Winter: The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, vol. 8, February 19, 1841

“A purely mental life may be destructive is it leads us to substitute thought for life and ideas for action.  The activity proper to man is not purely mental because man is not just a disembodied mind.  Our destiny is to live out what we think, because unless we live what we know, we do not even know it.”
— Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude

Reading is my default when I am too tired to rouse myself to go do something or when I have too short a time to start a project or task.  I usually read in bed until I fall asleep.  Stories transport me.  Interesting points of view give me food for thought.  Reading gives me ideas for things to do and  inspires me to live a more interesting life.





April 2, 2013

Cooking with my Rival Crock Pot

Cooking with my Rival Crock Pot

I’m getting ready to leave on a month-long adventure.  I’ve been spending the last couple of weeks tying up loose ends and making preparations.  This involved eating up some of the food in my freezer and pantry — a flurry of rhubarb pie baking to use up the last of the frozen rhubarb.  And cooking chicken in my crock pot with nine cloves of garlic, knowing that if it sat around for a month, the garlic would be old when I returned.

Stack of recently read books

Stack of recently read books

I hauled out the lawn mower and gave the yard its first shearing of the year.  Always something of a milestone for the year.

One of the more pleasurable preparatory tasks involved managing my library account — suspending my list of holds so that my reserved items would not come in while I am away.  And hastily reading the stack of books currently checked out.  There were some good books there —

  • Susan Wittig Albert’s journal from 2008 called An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days (I love that title)
  • Gretel Ehrlich’s book about traveling in Japan in the year following the devastating tsunami called Facing the Wave:  A Journey in the Wake of the Tsunami (in which she stands as witness to the heartbreaking and excruciating pain of loss and the unexpected joys of survival)
  • Mary Coin by Marisa Silver, a fictionalized story about the lives of Dorothea Lange and the migrant mother in Lange’s famous WPA photo.
  • Eighty Days: Nelly Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World by Matthew Goodman about two young women, journalists and single, who in  1889 – 90 travel around the world by steamship and train in an effort to match or beat Jules Verne’s ’round the world in 80 days.  One woman travels east, the other west, and both beat the fictional travel record set by Verne’s hero.
  • Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd, one of the best books about writing that I’ve read in a long time.  Kidder and his editor Todd have around 40 years of experience crafting nonfiction books and articles, so they are worth listening to.  If I ever were to write more seriously, I would write nonfiction, so I found this book very inspiring.

I expect that I will write more about my adventures when I am back home, but while I am away for the next month I plan to take a (needed) break from writing new posts for my blog.  I will not be leaving you in the lurch, however.  Starting tomorrow (April 3rd), my blog posts will feature a new project, which will unfold in serial fashion over the next 30 days.  So please do continue to check in daily.  And although I am taking a break from posting and writing, I will be reading Comments from the road.  Your comments will keep me from getting homesick, so write (often).

Take care.

Dark mornings, house aglow

Dark mornings, house aglow

Winter is a quiet, contemplative time

Winter is a quiet, contemplative time

I do think that readers and writers and poets like winter, that quiet contemplative season.  (However, I’ve noticed that painting and drawing are more of a challenge because of the lack of light.)  Writer Timothy Egan recently wrote an interesting blog post about just this theme of creativity in winter — you can read it here.

“I love the winter, with its imprisonment and its cold, for it compels the prisoner to try new fields and resources.  I love to have the river closed up for a season and a pause put to my boating, to be obliged to get my boat in.  I shall launch it again in the spring with so much more pleasure.”
— Henry David Thoreau, Journals,December 5, 1856

“Such is a winter eve.  Now for a merry fire, some old poet’s pages, or else serene philosophy, or even a healthy book of travels to last far into the night, eked out perhaps with the walnuts which we gathered in November.”
— Henry David Thoreau, Journals, December 9, 1856

Winter is the Best Time
by David Budbill, from While We’ve Still Got Feet

Winter is the best time
to find out who you are.

Quiet, contemplative time,
away from the rushing world,

cold time, dark time, holed-up,
pulled-in time and space

to see that inner landscape,
that place hidden and within.