Purrfectly Happy Reading

August 19, 2016









Crocuses with raindrops

Crocuses with raindrops

by Raymond Carver

Woke up this morning with
a terrific urge to lie in bed all day
and read.  Fought against it for a minute.

Then looked out the window at the rain.
And gave over.  Put myself entirely
in the keep of this rainy morning.

Would I live my life over again?
Make the same unforgiveable mistakes?
Yes, given half a chance.  Yes.

I can see myself in this poem.  I can easily give myself over to books.  I can’t keep up with all the tantalizing titles that pass through my hands at work.  A couple of days ago, I shelved a book called The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs by Tristan Gooley.  By the time I got home and went online to place the book on hold, I couldn’t remember the exact title.  So I searched the library’s online catalogue for “signs of the seasons.”  I did find the book I was looking for, but some other intriguing titles, too — Pilgrimage to Vallombrosa: from Vermont to Italy in the Footsteps of George Perkins Marsh; Iambics of Newfoundland; The Road is How: A Prairie Pilgrimage through Nature, Desire, and Soul; and Nature-Speak.  So I added those titles to my request list as well. Is it no wonder I can’t stay ahead of my reading?



Having completed my armchair travels to Alabama and Alaska,  I am continuing my literary odyssey with a bookish romp through Arizona.  I have actually traveled to Arizona three times: once to Flagstaff where my husband and I met up with our guides for a rafting trip down the Colorado River, once again to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, and once to Page where I was privileged to walk through one of the most beautiful spots on earth, Antelope Canyon.

My daughter at the Grand Canyon, 2005

My daughter at the Grand Canyon, 2005


Antelope Canyon, Page, AZ

Antelope Canyon, Page, AZ

Once again before embarking on my armchair visit, I consulted reference librarians for their personal recommendations for books that best embody Arizona in print.

Deborah at the Pima County Public Library system suggested finding good selections on its link called Southwest Books of the Year.  And Karen, a another librarian at the Pima County Public Library system, offered a neat link with a map of literary locations along with these recommendations:

— These Is My Words:  The Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine, 1881 – 1901:  Arizona Territories by Nancy E. Turner
— The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver
The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey

A Gift of Angels: the Art of Mission San Xavier Del Bac by Bernard Fontana
The Devil’s Highway by Luis Urrea

Gila Monsters Meet You at the Airport by Marjorie Sharmat

Postcard with map of Arizona

Postcard with map of Arizona

Vintage postcard of Arizona

Vintage postcard of Arizona

Now let me take you on a whirlwind trip to Arizona through the books I actually read:

Adult Fiction:

The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver.  In this novel, Taylor, a young woman from Kentucky, sets out west for a fresh start in life.  While passing through the Cherokee reservation in Oklahoma, she is handed a baby girl for safekeeping, abandoned by a woman in obviously dire straits.  Taylor names the girl, Turtle, and together they end up in Tucson.  Here is a description of the Arizona landscape through Taylor’s eyes:

“We crossed the Arizona state line at sunup.  The clouds were pink and fat and hilarious — looking like the hippo ballerinas in a Disney movie.  The road took us through a place called Texas Canyon that looked nothing like Texas, heaven be praised for that, but looked like nothing else I had ever seen either.  It was a kind of forest, except that in place of trees there were all these puffy-looking rocks shaped like roundish animals and roundish people.  Rocks stacked on top of one another like piles of copulating potato bugs.”

“This is a foreign country,” I told [Turtle].  “Arizona.”

Even the citizens of Tucson were different:  “Standing in line at the lunch counters and coffeeshops [the New Age people of Tucson] would rub the backs of each other’s necks and say, ‘You’re holding a lot of tension here.'”

Later, after living in Tucson for a while, Taylor says:  “What still amazed me about the desert was all the life it had in it. . . . There were bushes and trees and weeds here, exactly the same as anywhere else, except that the colors were different, and everything alive had thorns.”  She watches an approaching storm:  “A storm was coming up from the south, moving slowly.  It looked something like a huge blue-gray shower curtain being drawn along by the hand of God.”

Taylor’s new friends in Tucson provide a safe house for political refugees from Central America, and this association opens her eyes to more of the suffering in the world:  “I thought I’d had a pretty hard life.  But I keep finding out that life can be hard in ways I never knew about.”  When the threat of deportation arises, Taylor offers to drive Esteban and Esperanza to another sanctuary in Oklahoma.  Taylor also hopes to find Turtle’s aunt and get signed guardianship papers, but that turns out to be like finding a needle in a haystack.  An “illegal” adoption, “illegal” aliens — this novel addresses the tensions between following one’s conscience to do the right thing and the rules of the legal system.

Vintage postcard of the Grand Canyon

Vintage postcard of the Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon postcard

Grand Canyon postcard

The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey. The four protagonists of this novel engage in eco-terrorism, sabotaging the billboards, bridges, construction equipment, and development that is destroying the wilderness of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.  The conspiracy to join forces and form the Monkeywrench Gang is launched during a rafting trip down the Colorado River, and Abbey’s descriptions of that boat trip brought back good memories of my own boat trip through the upper Grand Canyon in 1978:

“More gnashing river, heaving waves, the clash of elementals, the pure and brainless fury of tons of irresistible water clashing down upon tons of immovable limestone.  They felt the shocks, they heard the roar, saw foam and spray and rainbows floating on the mist as they rode through chaos into the clear.  The adrenaline of adventure, without the time for dread, buoyed them high on the waves.”

“In the grand stillness between rapids, which was half the river and most of the time, Smith and Hayduke rested on their oars and let the song of a canyon wren — a clear glissando of semiquavers — mingle with the drip of waterdrops, the gurgle of eddies, the honk of herons, the rustle of lizards in the dust on shore.  Between rapids, not silence but music and stillness.  While the canyon walls rose slowly higher, 1000, 1500, 2000 feet, the river descending, and the shadows grew longer and the sun shy.”

The gang escalates its clandestine activities against oil and mining companies, and inevitably draws the attention of the law.  The pursuit grows tense; several times they are nearly caught, but they navigate the inhospitable wilderness to their advantage under the relentless sun:  “That desert sun of Utah-Arizona, the infernal flaming plasmic meatball in the sky.”

These Is My Words: The Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine, 1881 – 1901 by Nancy E. Turner.  This is an historical novel about 17-year-old Sarah Prine’s journey across the Arizona Territories from Prescott to Texas and back again to Douglas.  The trek is beset by extreme hardships and trials — Sarah’s brother dies of snakebite, Indians raid and steal horses and kill fellow travelers, and Sarah’s father dies from an infected bullet wound.  Sarah regrets that she had never had the opportunity to attend school and finally passes her high school equivalency test as an adult and mother.

“It seems there is always a road with bends and forks to choose and taking one path means you can never take another one.  There’s no starting over nor undoing the steps I’ve taken.  It isn’t like I’d want to not have my little ones and Jack and that ranch, it is part of life to have to support yourself.  It’s just that I want everything, my insides are not just hungry, but greedy.  I want to find out all the things in the world and still have a family and a ranch.  Maybe part of passing that test was a marker for where I’ve been, but it feels more like a pointer for something I’ll never reach.”

This is a wonderful story about resilience in the face of sorrows.

Hondo by Louis L’Amour.  I could hardly visit Arizona without reading a classic western.  Hondo was L’Amour’s first full-length novel published in 1953.  It tells the story of Hondo Lane, a scout and dispatch rider for the General Cook during a time when the Apaches, “that fiercest and wiliest of guerrilla fighters,” were attacking white settlers in an attempt to clear them from the territory.  Lane encounters a lone woman, Angie,  and her 6-year-old son ranching on a small homestead, and they refuse to leave the area.  Hondo’s and Angie’s lives become entwined as the Apache threat runs its course.

The stark desert is a vivid backdrop to the story.  “Desert . . . not a dead land, but a land where all life is born with a fire, a thorn, a sting.  One cannot fight the desert and live.  One lives with it, or one dies.  One learns its way and its life, and moves with care, and never ceases to be wary, for the desert has traps and tricks for the careless.”

The Blessing Way by Tony Hillerman.  This was the first of 18 Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee mysteries set on Navaho tribal lands near Window Rock, Arizona.  I like this series for the snippets of anthropological findings about Navaho culture that tie into the various cases.  The Blessing Way, for example, touches on witches in the Navaho belief system.  “Leaphorn never counted on luck.  Instead he expected order — the natural sequence of behavior, the cause producing the natural effect, the human behaving in the ways it was natural for him to behave.  He counted on that and upon his own ability to sort out the chaos of observed facts and find them in this natural order.”

Lilies of the Field by William E. Barrett.  After his discharge from the army, Homer Smith has chosen the freedom of the road, picking up odd jobs when he needs money, and stopping or moving about as the spirit move him.  “A man was free when he could say ‘yes’ or say ‘no.'”

When Homer sees some women struggling to raise a fence, he stops to see if he can pick up some paid work.  He learns that the women were a group of four German-speaking nuns who had a dream of building a chapel in the desert.  They have no money but lots of faith.  Smith is irresistibly drawn to building the chapel for them, unpaid for his labor.  “These were people who needed something that he had to give.”

While this heart-warming novel does not name the state where this story takes place, it is in the desert west of the Rocky Mountains, and the movie adaptation was filmed in Arizona.

The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton.  In this novel, the Department of Defense orbits 17 satellites around the earth with the express intent of collecting alien organisms and bringing them back to earth.  It hopes to discover pathogens for possible use in biological warfare.  When one of these satellites lands in the tiny, remote town of Piedmont, AZ, population 48, catastrophe hits.  Most of the people in the town die mysterious deaths, astonishingly quick but exhibiting no bleeding.  Several short-term survivors commit suicide.  A team of five scientists race against time to discover the cause of deaths and try to contain its spread.

Adult Nonfiction:

Lazy B:  Growing Up on a Cattle Ranch in the American Southwest by Sandra Day O’Connor and H. Alan Day.  This is less an autobiography of our country’s first female Supreme Court Justice and more of an elegy for a disappearing way of life — the era of open range cattle ranching.  The ranch where Sandra Day O’Connor spent her childhood sprawled the high desert country on the border of Arizona and New Mexico, an area about one fifth the size of Rhode Island.  We learn how the Days survived and made a living grazing cattle in this land where water was scarce.  “Living at the ranch involved all of these components — association with our old-time, long-suffering, good natured cowboys; living in isolation with just one another and with few luxuries; eating mostly beef and beans, dried fruit, and biscuits; riding horseback for long hours in the heat and dust; seeing the plant, animal, insect, and bird life of the Southwest close at hand; and enjoying the love and companionship of Mo and Da, not just on evenings and weekends, but all the time.”  They lived close to the land and the cycles of nature.  “The Day family felt lucky to have such a place in our lives — a never-changing anchor in a world of uncertainties.”

The Grand Canyon Reader, edited by Lance Newman.  This collection of essays extols the wonders and diversity of the Grand Canyon.  It includes accounts by Colin Fletcher, “the man who walked through time,” who hiked the area and excerpts from Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire:  “Most of my wandering in the desert I’ve done alone.  Not so much from choice as from necessity — I generally prefer to go into places where no one else wants to go.  I find that in contemplating the natural world my pleasure is greater if there are not too many others contemplating it with me, at the same time.”

I particularly liked John Muir’s “Grand Canon of the Colorado” with his painterly descriptions:  “In a dry, hot, monotonous forested plateau, seemingly boundless, you come suddenly and without warning upon the abrupt edge of a gigantic sunken landscape of the wildest, most multitudinous features, and those features, sharp and angular, are made out of flat beds of limestone and sandstone forming a spiry, jagged, gloriously colored mountain-range countersunk in a level gray plain. . . . I cannot tell the hundredth part of the wonders of its features — the side canons, gorges, alcoves, cloisters, and amphitheaters of vast sweep and depth, carved into its magnificent walls; the throng of great architectural rocks it contains resembling castles, cathedrals, temples, and palaces, towered and spired and painted, some of them nearly a mile high, yet beneath one’s feet.”

from Cactus Hotel

from Cactus Hotel

Juvenile Books:

Gila Monsters Meet You at the Airport by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat.  A child, born and raised in New York, has to move out West, against his wishes, with his parents.  He will miss NYC, and dreads encountering the buffaloes, prickly cactus, gila monsters, and buzzards of Arizona.  And he doesn’t want to wear chaps and spurs and say “howdy.”  Landing at the airport, he overhears another child bemoaning a move to the East, where there are sure to be gangsters, crowds, heavy traffic, snow, and skyscrapers that block the sky.  Oh, how our preconceptions color our fears!

Cactus Hotel by Brenda Z. Guiberson.  This book follows the life cycle of the iconic saguaro cactus of the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona.  Two feet tall after 25 years, the cactus is visited by a pack rat, a squirrel, a coyote and a jackrabbit.  After 50 years, the cactus is ten feet tall and attracts birds and bees, bats and woodpeckers.  After 60 years, the 18-foot saguaro is home to ants and mice.  And so on to 200 years later, when it falls in a wind and its decaying ribs hide the collared lizard and ground snake.







A Book, a Potentiality

November 14, 2014

“A book which is left on a shelf is a dead thing but it is also a chrysalis, an inanimate object packed with the potential to burst into new life.”
—  Susan Hill, Howard’s End is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home

Just one of the places in our house that is overwhelmed by books

Just one of the places in our house that is overwhelmed by books

There’s a new book out about getting rid of clutter, and it seems to be taking the reading world by storm.  Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up brings a Japanese sensibility to the art of living a clutter-free life.  [Aside:  Why is it that foreign aesthetics seem so much more romantic than our down-home American ones?  Think of dining alfresco, “in the fresh air.”  Or bella cosa far niente, “it’s beautiful to do nothing.”  Or moritsuke, the traditional Japanese rules of food arrangement, making the presentation pleasing to the eye.  Or how a kimono embodies yugen, “the beauty of suggestion.”]

Kondo’s advice rejects other popular strategies, the ones that recommend tackling one room at a time, or doing a little each day, or discarding one item a day.  She advocates for tidying up in one big go, admittedly, one that might take six weeks or longer.  [The Japanese word for this is ikki ni, “in one go.”] Her advice is to start by discarding everything that does not “spark joy.”  Then finding the right place for each remaining object.

Tidying up in this way should be tackled in a certain order: first clothes, then books, papers, miscellaneous, and finally mementos.  I find it interesting that there is a special category for books, because that is one of the things in my life that seems to grow unrestrainedly (or out of control).  I know I would feel unburdened, lighter, and maybe even freer if I took Kondo’s advice and simply gave them all away.  Would I really miss them?  Perhaps not.  But I’m still reluctant to get rid of my unread piles of books because, like the opening quote, I see them all as potentialities.  Until I actually crack them open and start reading, I won’t know if they will spark my mind and influence my life in good ways.  Will they speak to me? Energize me?  Once I read them, I have no problem passing them on.

So I hang on to my piles of books because they have not yet fulfilled their purpose for me.  Check in with me again a year from now.  One of these days I may change my point of view.



“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.




Idle Moments

June 15, 2014


“Why is it so hard for us to simply stop for a moment? We are not so important — the world will continue grinding on — but I guarantee you, the seemingly idle moments you steal will be immeasurably gratifying. . . . Lying in the grass is sinfully pleasant.”
— Ken McAlpine, Islands Apart:  A  Year on the Edge of Civilization

“Creativity is the residue of time wasted.”
— Albert Einstein

Fisherman at Green Lake with great blue heron

Fisherman at Green Lake with great blue heron


It’s almost summertime, when the living is easy.  Aahhh!

One of my overflowing bookcases

One of my overflowing bookcases

My name is Rosemary and I am a book junkie.

I think it is fair to call myself a book addict.  The bug hit me when I was young, and like a chronic disease, I’ve lapsed again and again.  No, I haven’t fallen off the face of the earth;  I’ve simply been lost in good books.

We didn’t have cable T.V., videos, dvds, the internet, etc. when I was a child, and without those distractions I relied on books to transport me from my humdrum life on the farm.  During summer vacations, it irked my hard-working mother to see her kids sprawled around the house buried in books.  She’d often tell us to “get our noses out of those books” and go outside and play.  And if we didn’t want to play, she had plenty of outdoor chores we could do instead.

I majored in English literature in college and I actually read all the titles assigned on the syllabi.  There was no time for pleasure reading outside of the coursework.  This was in the early years of African-American studies and women’s studies, and once again I was transported to new (to me) worlds through books.

Since then I’ve always read, but my life was balanced with friends, family, hiking and biking, travel, and housework.  These days a disproportionate amount of time is given over to reading.  My child is raised; my nest is empty.  Working in a library is like being an alcoholic working in a bar.  Tempting titles pass through my hands daily, and my reading list grows.  I simply cannot resist.  Reading so much is a guilty pleasure.  I sense the spirit of my mother hovering and urging me to get my nose out of my book and go outside or get some work done!

So this is my confession.  I’ve been reading instead of writing blog posts.  I’ve been neglecting you and perhaps my family and friends, too.

Instead of an act of contrition, I will offer you a book recommendation.  My most recent favorite book is Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me.  It’s an important book, I think, reminding us that ignoring and discrediting what women say is on a continuum with violent silencing, including violent death.  This silencing, rape, and violence is a pattern whose causes are cultural and gender-based.  She reminds us, too, that revolutionary change can happen.  Once ideas — like owning people (slavery) is wrong, that women are people with just as much right to vote as men, etc. — are out of the bottle, they cannot be gathered up and put back under a lid.  That’s heartening.

To get a sense of Solnit’s remarkable writings, you can follow this link to her original posting of “Men Explain Things to Me” at Tom’s Dispatch online.



Unnoticed and Unannounced

December 27, 2013


I’ve been spending much of my time recently reading through a gigantic pile of books from the library.  I find wisdom and solace from other writers, and not infrequently writers seem to address questions I am pondering and issues in my life.

One of the better books I just finished was The Boy Detective:  A New York Childhood by Roger Rosenblatt, in which he spins a memoir as he wanders from about 14th to 42nd Streets in New York City.  I walked many of these same streets on my November trip, so this was a fun way to revisit vicariously.  Rosenblatt teaches writing, and he’s a good writer himself (so good that I will be looking up other of his books at the library).  And at one point he writes about the joys of living “unnoticed and unannounced,” which I imagine is something of a dilemma for a memoirist, and something I have been thinking about as the author of this website.  He says:

“I like living my life without telling anyone, as if whatever I did during the course of a day — get the car an oil change, shop for coconut ice cream, sit in Starbucks with my grande bold coffee and yellow legal pad — was between me and me and no one else.  I would not say that what I do is none of your business.  That’s not what I mean.  Everybody’s business is everybody’s business once in a while.  What I mean is that doing things like taking a walk in the city at night without telling anyone makes the thing being done a modest gift to myself.  We live most of our lives this way, do we not?  Unnoticed and unannounced.  And who would I tell anyway?  Do you really care if I buy coconut ice cream, or if one winter evening I leave my classroom and roam about New York in search of my inconsequential life?  Would you love me more or less if I told you?”

Well, I love Rosenblatt more for his telling of a few moments in his life.  His book brought me enjoyment and no doubt left him many other private moments, still not written about, as modest gifts to himself.  I can take this as a lesson for myself.

Leaving My Head Inside a Book

September 2, 2012

Piles of books on my dining room table

An Afternoon in the Stacks
by William Stafford

Closing the book, I find I have left my head
inside.  It is dark in here, but the chapters open
their beautiful spaces and give a rustling sound,
words adjusting themselves to their meaning.
Long passages open at successive pages.  An echo,
continuous from the title onward, hums
behind me.  From in here the world looms,
a jungle redeemed by these linked sentences
carved out when an author traveled and a reader
kept the way open.  When this book ends
I will pull it inside-out like a sock
and throw it back in the library.  But the rumor
of it will haunt all that follows in my life.
A candleflame in Tibet leans when I move.

This has been a week of books and reading for me.  The Seattle Public Libraries have closed for the week for budget reasons, and I spent my week off without pay immersed in book after book.  Books are my way to travel on the cheap, to transport myself out of the humdrum of my routine life.  An ideal vacation in many ways.

(P.S. One of my favorite novels from my week of reading was Ivan Doig’s The Bartender’s TaleDoig, who now lives in Seattle, is one of my favorite writers.)

Summer reading

“In books I have traveled, not only to other worlds, but into my own.  I learned who I was and who I wanted to be, what I might aspire to, and what I might dare to dream about my world and myself.”
— Anna Quindlen

A Book
by Emily Dickinson

There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
This traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of toll;
How frugal is the chariot
That bears a human soul.

I especially love this Dickinson poem for its reminder that public libraries make books and armchair traveling affordable and accessible to all.