Friday, August 28, 2009

The Road (A Book Review)

Cormac McCarthy, The Road, 2006 (unabridged audio book, 6 hours 40 minutes)

The Road grabbed my attention for the very beginning. A father and a son are traveling by foot down the road. He’s pushing a cart. As I’d not read the cover (I listened to the book), I wondered, “Are they homeless?” Slowly details begin to emerge about this post-apocalyptic world. They’re heading south, trying to beat the winter, trying to reach the sea. The world is dark and dead. Even at midday, the sky is gray and the air filled with ash. They cover their mouths with cloth, moving on, keeping a constant outlook for trouble. The road is a dangerous place and there are those who have resorted to cannibalism to survive. When someone comes along on the road or when they make their camp at night, they hid. Danger is never far away.
All the boy has ever known is this nightmare. His dad tells him stories of the way things were and through his dreams we learn of his love for his wife, the boy’s mother. The nightmare started in the early morning hours of night. There was a brilliant flash and the father got up and ran a tub full of water as the power went out. We never learn of the war or the conflict, just the aftermath. The father tries to instill into the boy his values. They are the good guys, he tells his son. But as they travel on, the boy questions whether or not they are the good guys. They’ve not resorted to cannibalism, scrounging for leftovers, mostly canned food, from the former world. But they’ve had to fight to keep what is there and haven’t been able to help anyone else. They finally make it to the sea. (I also listened to the last hour of this book sitting on the beach!) Their journey done, the dad dies. He’d been coughing and not well throughout the book and there’s been a sense of urgency in him to teach his son what he needs to know to go on. The book ends with the boy being adopted by another family. Interestingly, the boy is told that they’ll have to leave the road for safety.
This book gives the reader a lot to ponder. The question of suicide is raised, an option chosen by the boy’s mother. They were down to three bullets in his pistol and she wanted her husband to take them all out, to save them from the horrors of the world. But the father can’t do it. Yet, when danger arises and the father finds that he must leave his son behind to search for food, he leaves the pistol with the boy, having instructed him how to shoot himself in the mouth. But that seems a necessary precaution to protect the boy from the horrors of the world. The father has the will to live even though there is a question about what the future will look like. Everything is dead, trees and streams and rivers. What will be left when there is nothing else to salvage? Why keep on living when the odds are stacked against you? There is also the question of God. When the son is asleep, the father cries out in agony. Is he crying out to God and if so, does God hear? The narrative allows the reader to ponder such questions.
There is no doubt that the father loves his son and is willing to sacrifice for him. When he finds a treat, such as packaged drink mix, he insists the boy enjoy it. In this dark world, little things are special. When they find a bunker with lots of canned food, they have a feast and the father heats water and gives his son a bath in a tub, a luxury the boy has never experienced. There is something special about the boy. The father keeps telling him he’s carrying the fire and despite such a gloomy world, it seems to be true for goodness seems to flow from the boy.
It is interesting that McCarthy wrote the book without names. The boy and the father are nameless. A name is given to only one person whom they meet, Eli, and sickly old man who is kind of a philosopher. But the man admits that Eli isn’t his real name. In addition, the man and boy are traveling though a nameless world. The descriptions of the journey had me thinking they’re traveling though the Appalachian Mountains and down toward the coast. Throughout the book, the father lays out pieces of an old map, trying to figure out where they are located. But the location is kept from the reader, leaving us to wonder.
I also found myself wondering about the timeline from the beginning of the post-apocalyptic world. The boy was born after the destruction. The author provides clues that it’s been a while since the world changed. Once, the father looks up on a ridge, thinking of the cults that had existed along the hilltops, but are no longer present. Also, I found myself wondering about the leaves they sleep and hid in, when the trees are all dead. Or, the apples the father finds under the dead fruit trees. Were these trees still alive until the recent season or were these apples there from before the new world began? The latter doesn’t seem possible. Time and location are left vague.
I enjoyed this book. Although there are horrific elements in it, The Road has given me much to ponder.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Ewell's Ferry

Once, in the early 1980s, I spent a good hour on a bench on a bluff just beyond the ferry. Serenaded by the ripples of the water, I reread, for the fourth or fifth time, Siddhartha. It seemed appropriate to read about a man who found peace while transporting pilgrims and merchants across the river. Ewell’s Ferry wasn’t very busy that day and the ferry operator only had a few vehicles that crossed. I thought he had the ideal job. He worked at a pace about as slow as the muddy stream that divided Bladen County. His duty was to shuttle cars, trucks and tractors back and forth. He could take no more than two vehicles a trip and was limited to six passengers. When he wasn’t moving cars or mowing the grass, his other task in summer, I imagined him tending a trotline for catfish or sitting up under a shade trees and watching a bobber or reading a book, while nodding to the occasional fishermen or tugboats pushing barges of pulpwood, all while keeping an ear open for the horn of a car announcing a customer.

Ewell’s Ferry is located County, between the communities of Carvers and Kelly. It’s the only way to get an automobile across the Cape Fear River for fifty or so miles and it is the only inland ferry left in North Carolina. All the other rivers and creeks have been spanned by bridges. When the ferry isn’t running, which it doesn’t do at night or when the water is high or during fog, you have to drive up to Elizabethtown or down near Riegelwood to find a bridge. Last week, when I was driving from Wilmington to Pinehurst, I decided go up the north side of the Cape Fear and then cross over at Ewell’s Ferry. I wanted my daughter to get this experience, riding across a two car ferry that runs on a cable. Unfortunately, the ferry wasn’t running, but maybe that’s okay because she wasn’t impressed. The locked gate didn’t give a reason for the closing, but it may have been weather as the day had been rainy and there were a few light patches of fog. Or maybe its budget cuts, but I’d hate to think of that.
When I worked this area back in the early 80s, I occasionally use the ferry to get over to the northeastern part of Bladen County. If I had an evening meeting, it’d only been one way. I’d cross right before they shut down operations for the day and then drive back at night on Highway 53, taking it around White Lake and crossing the river at Elizabethtown. Without the ferry, I had an additional 45 minutes of a deer-dodging drive home. I loved it when I had extra time and could stop at the ferry. Sometimes I just sat on the bench and watched the water flow by, other times I talked with the operator or read.

Never had a river attracted him as much as this one. Never had he found the voice and appearance of flowing water so beautiful. It seemed to him as if the river had something special to tell him, something which he did not know, something which still awaited him. Siddhartha had wanted to drown himself in this river; the old, tired, despairing Siddhartha was today drowned in it. The new Siddhartha felt a deep love for this flowing water and decided that he would not leave it again so quickly.
-Herman Hesse, Siddhartha

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Grandma, Blackberries and Poetry

Last Friday and Saturday, while in North Carolina, I visited my grandmother in Pinehurst. She doesn’t live there anymore, but in an assisted living place near my uncle’s in Western North Carolina. He’d brought her down for the weekend which allowed my daughter and me to drive up to visit with the two of them. We had a great visit and I could tell my grandma was excited being back in her own home. My grandmother’s house has also been a welcome retreat for me and for many others, for she has always been a gracious host.

My grandmother came back home looking for a book of poetry. Finding the book, she was upset that it didn’t have the poem she was looking for. She told me about making a booklet of poems when she was in the seventh grade. The assignment was to copy poems they liked and to draw pictures to illustrate them. The two poems she remembered are Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees” and one titled “The House Beside the Road.” She illustrated the first with a tree, the second with a house. Grandma asked if I knew the poem, but I didn’t. Then I got an idea. Pulling out my Blackberry, which I’d gotten a couple months ago, I googled the poem. I came up with a poem by Scarlett Treat and read it to my Grandmother. She didn’t think that was the one because it was sad and about a house falling down. The poem she remembered talked about how to live a life. With some further checking, I learned that Ms. Treat was born while my father was in elementary school, making it highly unlikely my grandmother was reading her poetry in the seventh grade. So I did some more googling and came up with the poem, “The House by the Side of the Road” by Sam Walter Foss (1858-1911). As I read aloud, my grandmother smiled and said, “Yes, that’s it.” She was also shocked and just couldn’t understand how I was able to find it on my cell phone…

In many ways, this poem describes my grandmother, who has sought to be a friend to all. Here is the poem:

The House by the Side of the Road

There are hermit souls that live withdrawn
In the place of their self-content;
There are souls like stars, that dwell apart,
In a fellowless firmament;
There are pioneer souls that blaze the paths
Where highways never ran-
But let me live by the side of the road
And be a friend to man.
Let me live in a house by the side of the road
Where the race of men go by-
The men who are good and the men who are bad,
As good and as bad as I.
I would not sit in the scorner's seat
Nor hurl the cynic's ban-
Let me live in a house by the side of the road
And be a friend to man.
I see from my house by the side of the road
By the side of the highway of life,
The men who press with the ardor of hope,
The men who are faint with the strife,
But I turn not away from
their smiles and tears,
Both parts of an infinite plan-
Let me live in a house by the side of the road
And be a friend to man.
I know there are brook-gladdened meadows ahead,
And mountains of wearisome height;
That the road passes on through the long afternoon
And stretches away to the night.
And still I rejoice when the travelers rejoice
And weep with the strangers that moan,
Nor live in my house by the side of the road
Like a man who dwells alone.
Let me live in my house by the side of the road,
Where the race of men go by-
They are good, they are bad, they are weak, they are strong,
Wise, foolish - so am I.
Then why should I sit in the scorner's seat,
Or hurl the cynic's ban?
Let me live in my house by the side of the road
And be a friend to man.
-Sam Walter Foss

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Write with Fire (A Book Review)

Charles Allen Gramlich is a professor of psychology at Xavier in New Orleans, a blogger (Razored Zen) and an author of four published novels and numerous articles. After reading The Walking Man’s praise of his writings, I ordered a copy of his newest book, Write with Fire.” I read the book while flying to North Carolina last week. As one who tries to read a couple books on writing a year, I was more than happy to read what a fellow blogger has to say about the craft.
Charles Allen Gramlich, Write with Fire: Thoughts on the Craft of Writing (The Borgo Press, 2009), 247 pages.

Writing with Fire is a collection of essays, many of which have been previously published in magazines, newsletters and online journals. The independent nature of each essays means that information is often presented several times within the book. Some may find this obnoxious, but the repetition helps to remind the reader of what’s important. At least it helps me. Gramlich stresses that writing is hard work. It requires time, a commitment to finish what you start, and multiple drafts. I found it refreshing that another writer, with more publications than me, still has trouble with certain problem words such as affect/effect and lay/lie. In order to improve his skill, Gramlich keeps a lists of words with which he struggles. He also gives out this list to his students to help them in their papers and included a list for his readers benefit. In addition to discussing the mechanics of writing, Gramlich provides suggestions for connecting with editors and publications (including examples of query letters). He also gives us an insight into his personal writing habits, bits about his life including the turmoil after Katrina, and brief essays on some of his favorite authors. There is something for everyone here, including a bit of parody. Some essays are designed for those who are just beginning to write seriously while other essays could be more helpful for skilled writers wanting to refine their craft.

Gramlich has an equation that's a key to writing success. RQW3R (read, question, write, rewrite, rewrite and rewrite) is a variation of the study equation SQ3R (study, question, read, recite and review). Again, there is no short cuts, good writing requires multiple drafts.

For me, the essays on creating suspense were the jewels of the book. Gramlich’s genre of choice is fantasy and horror. I found his insights into “writer’s groups” helpful. I’ve never belonged to a writer’s group (unless it’s you folks who read my blog) and was surprised to find that he found value in such groups, while pointing out the pitfalls. I also found his discussion of how blogging relates to writing to be helpful. Gramlich concludes his work with a list of books on writing that he has found helpful and I’ve was pleased to see many familiar names there. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Ray Bradbury had published a book on writing, Zen and the Art of Writing. It’s being added to my reading list.

Over the years, I’ve written a few reviews of books on writings:
Patrick McManus, A Deer on a Bicycle: Excursions into the Writing of Humor
Mary Oliver, A Poetry Handbook
Lynne Truss, Eat, Shoots and Leaves
William Zinsser, Writing About Your Life

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

I'm back, again...

I’m back, again. Last week, my daughter and I flew down to North Carolina and spent a week with my parents. It’s always nice to be on the coast and we swam in the ocean and baked in the sun (when it wasn't raining) and spent a day offshore trolling for the big one. Six strikes in six hours is not very good, but the sea was beautiful and as someone reminded me, “A bad day fishing is better than a good day in the office.” I caught a dolphin (also known as a mahi mahi) as shown in the picture, along with an undersized king mackerel and a barracuda (both of which were released). As always, it’s emotional dealing with my mother’s illness. I felt blessed that twice during the week she called me by name, something I haven’t heard in a couple of years. But it’s also evident the Alzheimer’s is progressing and that she is able to do less than she was able to do in the winter.

As it always seems to be these days, flying was an adventure. But we did well! Last November, I’d flown down on frequent flier miles. Coming back, they’d changed my flight into Atlanta and it was going to be very late to get back home. So I willingly took a bump, pocketed the “Delta dollars,” slept well in a provided hotel room and flew home first thing in the morning. Thanks to that flight, I was able to purchase both of our tickets with only $40 out of pocket costs… So, when we got to the airport and they were again oversold, we took another bump for $600 a piece. We got to North Carolina a few hours later, but for $1200, I wasn’t complaining. As I told my daughter, she’s the only 11 year old I know making $130 an hour. Those frequent flier miles just keep on giving...

Hopefully I’ll be back writing soon. Going home always brings up memories. I also finished several books, so look for some book reviews.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Chicory and Lace (3rd Annual Queen Anne's Lace post)

Chicory and Lace
A smile broke over your face.
You blushed as your eyes twinkled
when you noticed me watching
you raise the cup to your lips
and gently blow across the dark
before sipping.

It was a chicory blend, wasn’t it?
Served early in the morning
at the sidewalk café
in that town along the Sierra foothills?
We searched for the ghosts of 49ers
yet couldn’t exonerate the spirits of our past.

We lingered that morning, I mesmerized by you,
sitting slightly sideways in that wrought iron chair,
a lacy-white sundress with blue flowers
that stood out against your tanned shoulders and arms,
and those long skinny legs, crossed at the knees,
a flip-flop dangling from your rocking foot

I don’t remember of what we talked,
nor now, even what year it was.
There have been so many since.
But I remember the chicory coffee and the lace of your dress
and seeing chicory grow wild along the roadside,
amongst the Queen Anne Lace, I smile.

This is my third annual Queen Anne ’s lace post! Last year I posted a photo of a red barn in a field of lace… In 2007, I also posted a poem. I’ve been meaning to photograph the great strands of blue and white along our highways, but hadn’t got around to it. Today’s hard rain has taken its toil on the chicory, so the photographs aren’t as nice as they could have been.

Sorry that I'm having a hard time keeping up with everyone's blog... Next week, I'm off again and will have limited computer access for a week (but I'll be enjoying the beach!) After that, I hope to catch back up with everyone... Have a great weekend.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009


I haven't had much time for writing (or inspiration) since returning home. I'm still trying to catch up and I leave next week for North Carolina, to check up on my Mom and Grandma. So, until I write more, you'll just have to enjoy some flowers. These were taken out west--most of them shot at Cedar Breaks. At 10,000+ feet, the flowers were in peak!