Friday, March 28, 2008

Eats, Shoots & Leaves: A Book Review

I should apology. I haven't felt much like writing this week and am way behind in reading blogs. The next couple weeks won't be any better, but I'll be back. Here is a review of a book that I enjoyed.

Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation (2003: New York: Gotham Books, 2006), 209 pages.

Imagine laughing out loud while reading a book on punctuation. Surely I’m joking. It’d take some good drugs to get a person laughing while reading a book on punctuation, or at least that’s what I thought before reading Eat, Shoots & Leaves. Without any chemical help, I found myself at times chuckling and other times rolling on the floor laughing. This is a funny book that drives home the necessity of punctuation, including telling the story about an Irishman hanged on a comma. Well, not exactly, but he did tried to defend himself based on missing punctuation in the legal code’s definition of treason (99f).


Lynne Truss is a charming British slut. Well, maybe she’s not a slut but I’m not sure what else you would you call a woman that swoons over semicolons (111) and offers to have babies for of the inventor of italic type (77). As an American reader of this book, I had to bite my lip and accept her additional “U’s” (as opposed to Us), her tendency to replace the noble “Z” with the common “S,” along with her criticism of American punctuation habits (but in fairness, she even criticized her own country’s tendencies in adding or not adding dots and sperm-like characters into text). Whether or not she’s a slut, Truss is an activist, calling on her fellow zero-tolerance folks to rise up and force grocers (green-grocers, as she calls ‘em) to abide by punctuation rules.

So what did I learn from reading this book? First of all, I realize now more than ever that I need to become famous. That way I don’t have to worry about punctuation as she gives plenty of examples of famous authors known for flaunting punctuation rules (88). A second thing I learned is that my secretary is from the old school (even though she’s much younger than me). She’s addicted to the Oxford Comma (and keeps adding these into my letters and reports). I, on the other hand, feel like the extra comma is about as unnecessary as Ms. Truss’ “U’s” (or is it Truss’s? Read pages 54-58 and then flip a coin). The Oxford Comma occurs when you have a list and you put a comma before the “and,” (This, that, and the other—as opposed to “This, that and the other). A third epiphany for me was the realization that semi-colons are sexy. I don’t know why it took Truss to get this point over to me, for there have been only two women in my life who have complimented me on my punctuation and in both occasions it was for my semi-colons. Semi-colons are kind of sexy; they flirt, indicating that we should expect something to come.

Applying my own logic to Ms. Truss’ wisdom, I’ve decided that excessive concern over hyphenation will lead to hypertension. And, just in case you don’t know the difference, hyphenation isn’t the same as hibernation.

Read this book. Laugh while learning bits of punctuation history. Punctuation, as Ms. Truss points out, is in constant flux which is good news for those of us who didn’t learn it the first time around. Wonder if it has changed enough to warrant me going back and having my high school English grades re-evaluated?


For other book reviews by Sage, click here.

For Semicolon's Saturday's list of book reviews in blogs, click here.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Fitzcarraldo: A Movie Review

Fitzcarraldo, Directed by Werner Herzog (German with English Subtitles), 1982

Fitzcarraldo is a comic opera set in the upper reaches of the Amazon in Peru during the early years of the 20th Century. Fitzcarraldo (Klaus Kinski) is a crazy Irishman whose idea of a trans-Andes railroad had failed. His prized possession is a phonograph and his collection of opera recordings. He is consumed with a desire to build an opera house in Iquitios. He enlists the help of his girlfriend (or wife?) the beautiful Molly (Claudia Cardinale), who runs the local brothel. Needing money to build, they decide to go into the rubber business. With her money, they buy a steamship with the idea of that Fitzcarraldo will claim a remote territory for its rubber. The idea is to take the ship upstream on one river, pull it across a small height of land into another river where they can go upstream and establish rubber plantations. Since that area they hope to claim wasn’t on a river navigable to the Amazon, they would bring the rubber to the isthmus, cross over the path which they’d hauled the ship to the other river, and then have another ship bring the rubber back to Inquitios.

The plan develops many problems. First, most of the crew deserts. Fitzcarraldo is left with just his mechanic, captain and cook. Then there are hostile tribes, who show up right after the crew has left. In a scene that recalls Col. Kilgore in “Apocalypse Now” (1979), where the leader of the Air Calvary plays Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” as his helicopters fly into battle, Fitzcarraldo mounts his phonograph on the top of the ship and plays opera for them. Fitzcarraldo’s Caruso is much tamer than Kilgore’s Wagner. In time, he befriends a tribe of natives who help them move the 300 ton ship overland, from one river to another. Unbeknownst to Fritz and his crew, the natives help because they want to sacrifice the great white ship to the rapid gods and after a night when Fitzcarraldo and crew drank heavily while celebrating their feat, the natives cut the moorings and the ship floats down into the rapids. Listing badly, the ship makes it through the rapids and limps back into Iquitios where the original owner decides to buy it back and repair it. Fitzcarraldo gets two weeks use of the ship and uses that time to bring an opera company to Iquitios. Their performance is done on the top deck of the ship with Fitzcarraldo sitting off to the side in a red velvet chair, smoking a super-sized cigar. Although ruined, he enjoys his moment in the spotlight.

Although I wouldn’t say this was a great movie (there is something about listening to the German language in a Spanish land), I still enjoyed it. The filming is superior to the other Herzog movie I’ve reviewed, Aquirre: the Wrath of God and I’ve always been fascinated with the Amazon jungle (see my review of Teddy Roosevelt’s expedition to the region, the River of Doubt). Kinski plays the lead in both movies. In both, he’s less than a likeable guy (or maybe I just don’t like his Einstein-inspired hairstyles). But as much as I found myself disliking his character, I found myself wanting him to achieve his dream for which he has such passion. His character is like many of us today, throwing ourselves into work so we can pursue our passions when we’re on off-duty, on vacation or after we retire…
Now let's see if my embedded trailer from YouTube works:

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Happy Easter afternoon! It is a nice day here in Upper Midwest, the temperature hovering a bit above freezing and a blanket of snow covering the ground with more promised for tomorrow night and Tuesday morning. That Ground Hog must not have been worth the price of his sausage… Easter is all about the open tomb and it looks like we have an open tomb in the backyard, but that’s actually my daughter’s snow cave. She dug it in the snow bank at the turn of the driveway, where snow has been pushed up and will stay long after the rest melts. It’s quite a cave and opens to an igloo like room in the middle (with a tarp on top that’s now snow covered). The cave is large enough the two of us to squeeze into it. Some kids have playhouses; others have to improvise with a shovel and what nature provides.

We did have an Easter Egg hunt. Now my daughter has a nice basket, one of those Longaberger Baskets, which normally looks pretty spiffy when filled with eggs. On a normal Easter, she’ll hold it, wearing a spring-like dress, posing and making funny faces for an Easter photo. So much for that! This year, she’s gets to wear her snow suit and instead of using the overpriced basket that might get damaged in the snow, a plastic movie popcorn pail has to do… By the way, just so you don’t get the wrong ideas about me, I didn’t buy her the Longaberger Basket. I’m way too cheap; that’s what grandparents are for! If I wanted to collect baskets that expensive, I’d taken up basket weaving in college.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Good Friday 2008

My grandfather, the farmer, always planted his garden on Good Friday. That’s what you do Down South, with the belief that what goes in the ground on Good Friday won’t stay there, but will come alive and thrive. I always think about him on this day. I was at church for the noon Good Friday service. When I went it, it was your usual Michigan gray skies… When we came out, less than an hour later, the snowplows were running. After stopping at the gym, I came home early in the afternoon and decided that instead of planting a garden, I’d bring in a load of wood and set a fire in the hearth. (The photo is looking west from the front porch.) My daughter wants to dye eggs. I told her the best camouflage this Easter would be to leave the eggs white, but she insists we dye them so she can find them! So this evening I’ll dye eggs with her and help her figure out some science project involving magnets while catching bits of the Carolina game. Ya’ll have a wonderful Easter weekend. And, by the way, does anybody have an egg salad recipe to share?

Thursday, March 20, 2008

3WW The Pennsylvania Turnpike

Bone’s 3-Word Wednesday assignment (or more correctly yesterday’s assignment) is to write something using these three words: money, tangled, and understood. This story comes from my years in Pittsburgh. The part about the tattoo woman in the toll booth who used to take my money as I got off the turnpike is true; the rest I just filled in to try to make it into a story. Enjoy.

The wipers fight the relentless rain as I squint at the headlights lights of trucks heading east, to Philadelphia and D.C. There are never too many cars at this time of night. The turnpike was been built long ago. Unlike modern interstates, with large mediums, here only a concrete barrier separated the wet highways that reflected the lights. I rub my eyes, and count off another mile. The rain makes it worse, but at least it's no longer snowing as spring has finally arrived to Western Pennsylvania. Finally, the lights of the Monroeville exit appear. I swing off the freeway and toward the toll booth, wondering if she's there.

Sure enough, as I drive toward the booth I see the woman of my dreams. Tall and slender, her lightly curled long dark hair reaches down her back. She always smiles. I’m sure she smiles for everyone, but I fantasized that the smiles she gives me are special and times it seemed even her eyes twinkle. We always exchange a brief greeting while she takes my money and hands me change. Our interaction only takes seconds; The light changes from red to green and I’d drive ahead into the city. I often thought about her, working night-shift in the toll booth, and wondered about her story. So beautiful, she seemed out of place working the graveyard shift. I imagine her in a club, dancing and wooing suitors.

Tonight I feel lucky as I notice she's wearing a sleeveless shirt. Her hair is pulled around to the right side of her neck and drapes down her chest, exposing the side of her neck that faces me. The car in front pays and pulls away, allowing me to ease up to the booth. She smiles as I roll down my window and reach out with my bills. As she takes them, I look up and am shocked to see a multi-colored dragon stretched out across her back, its head resting on her upper arm, red tongues of fire reaching down her arm toward me. I had never imaged that under those turtlenecks she’d worn all winter was hiding one of the most elaborate tattoos I’d seen on a woman. I try to smile, worried she might see the shock in my face as I take my changed and thank her.

The light turns green, I push in the gas pedal and take off while tuning the radio to Magic 97. At midnight, they always play uninterrupted albums. Tonight's feature is Dylan’s “Blood on the Track.” As I sped toward the Squirrel Hill tunnels I sing along to “Tangled Up in Blue,” keeping the words coming even as the station fades out when I enter the Tubes.
I seen a lot of women
But she never escaped my mind

Now, looking back over two decades, I finally understood what he meant.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Sunday Scribblings: "Hotel Stories"

Today's Sunday Scribblings assignment is "Smorgasbord." We are invited to draw upon any of the 100 plus previous assignments that we've not completed and to write a story based on them. I chose "hotel stories" and wrote about an experience on a vacation taken back in 1995. The photo of the Chateau Lake Louise is not mine (I can't find any photos I took of the place, I'm not sure what happened to them). The photo of the train tracks running through the Canadian Rockies is one of mine.

“What’s the awful noise?” I wonder. Still asleep, I roll over and try to bury my head in a pillow.

A second later, I jump up and yell, “Get up! It’s the fire alarm.”

It had suddenly dawned on me that we’re on the 8th floor of the hotel. It’s a little after 3 in the morning and the temperature outside is well below zero. I pull on pants and run to the door to see what’s happening. I stop and think, feel the door and make sure it’s not hot. I do and it’s cool, so I pull it open and look out. Other residents are poking their heads out of their doors. There’s no smoke and no sign of fire. I go back and quickly pull on shoes, not bothering to tie them, throw on a shirt and grab my coat. The wail stops and a voice over the intercom tells us there is an unconfirmed fire and to be ready to evacuate upon further instructions. I make sure I have the keys to the car and we go into the hall, our coats in our hands. Other people are gathering and someone nervously makes a joke about it being an inopportune time for a fire. I suggest we start heading down the stairs, wanting to get myself outside, but others suggest we wait. A few seconds later, we’re informed over the intercom that there is no fire danger and we don’t have to evacuate. Everyone retreat back into their rooms, but sleep isn’t exactly forthcoming.

It was early November 1995. This was our fourth and final night at the Chateau Lake Louise, one of the most beautiful hotels in the world. We’d been in Canada for the past week, in what was an interesting time to travel. All news is focused on the possibility of Quebec pulling out of the Commonwealth. As an American I felt a bit like a Peeping Tom listening to the Canadians debate their problems. I also felt a bit relieved that the topic of discussion wasn’t an American problem.
At about 7, I head to the gym, wondering if it was all a bad dream. I talk to the man on the stair-stepper next to mine. He’d been here the morning before and at that time we discussed the Canadian situation. This morning, all talk is about our early wake-up call. He said he heard one of the construction workers had started a fire with a torch. Several floors of the grand hotel are closed and workers have been working around the clock trying to remove asbestos as they remodel the rooms. After working hard for twenty minutes on the stair-stepper, I step over to the pool and swim a few laps before heading back upstairs. We pack up and grab a bit to eat. Before heading out, we walk one last time around the glaciered lake. It had frozen solid overnight and people are throwing rocks side-armed so that the stones skim across the ice, creating a unique buzzing sound. We’re on the road by ten o’clock, heading over Kicking Horse Pass, into British Columbia stopping often to observe the Canadian Pacific trains wind their way through the mountains.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

500th Post

WOW! I had no idea when I began blogging back in December 2004 I’d get to this point. I would like to look back over the past couple of years and see how much water has flown under the bridge. For the most part, blogging has been enjoyable. For me, it’s always nice to know that someone paying attention to my scribbling. I feel blessed to have so many of you reading my blog and cherish your comments as well as I enjoy learning about your life. When I first started blogging, it was an experiment to see what this was all about. I didn’t know anyone blogging, but in doing google searches had come upon some blogs that I found interesting. I entered into the blogging world slowly, only writing occasionally and being read just as infrequently.

It wasn’t until mid-2005 that I began to pick up regular readers, some of whom are still around. One of the first was Angie, (aka Jadeprimadonna, see sidebar for the blogs I refer to here), a graduate student at Clemson who was at the time writing about her Appalachian heritage. From her blog, I started reading Hillbilly Rave (now known as the Appalachianist, a blog that has included his stint in Iraq). I still read both of their blogs and they occasionally post comments here. It was through the Appalachianist's blog that Murf came across me and my life hasn’t been the same since. Somewhere about this same time I came across Michele and her weekend game that encourages you to meet new bloggers has always been enjoyable and helped me to pick up a few readers along the way (such as Kenju, Kontan, Keda, Karen. Carmi and Michael).

By the fall of 2005, I was blogging full-steam. It was then I started reading Suzy-Q (not her real name, but close) from Florida. She was interested in my outdoor posts and a trip I took to Honduras and she had an interesting blog even though she seemed to be a bit more conservative than me (or maybe I should say, she supported this president who, with his fiscal policies, is anything but conservative). Our honeymoon was short lived for she wrote a post, parroting the right-wing talk show host, about how Christmas is under attack from the secular world. Of course, I partly agreed with her, but instead saw the attack not coming from liberals but from business interest that had made the holiday into a sham. I'm not too worried about nativity scenes on public property… We’ll, my response didn’t sit too well with her and soon I found myself at war. About this time, her blog took an extreme right turn. We fought over Christmas and into the winter of 2006, until I and a host of others got banned from her blog. I should have known not to trust her when she took seriously my parody of the CIA sending a gay barber to give bin Ladin a close shave. The best part about this war was that I got to know Ed Abbey with whom I shared many outdoor interests. One of the interesting things about blogging is how one friend leads to another (through Pat I met Gautami, through V I was introduced to Diane, from Pia I got to know Bone, etc).

At first, I did more satire, making fun of Michael Jackson, the President, tidbits in the news like a Chicago streetlight casting the face of Jesus, picking on a blogger applying for grad school at Pat Robertson’s University, and even providing reference letters for Murf. I wrote about travels to Honduras and to post-Katrina New Orleans, about fishing at dusk and watching the stars… I wrote a poems such as an ode for an old hangout at Wrightsville Beach that was torn down when I was a youth, another that honored a farmer friend who passed away, and another for my secret love, Sylvia Plath. I shared with you the tragic suicide of a friend and innocent tidbits from my life. I reviewed movies and books. But my favorite genre has been memoirs—writing about my years working in the bakery (including Linda) to scoutmasters I’ve known, to places I’ve visited, and we can’t forget the Appalachian Trail. One of these days I need to collect all these in a book to give to my daughter so that she’ll know what my life was like before her birth.

I should introduce my side-kick, Nevada Jack, the author of many of the satires and parodies that I’ve written over the years. Some friends gave me this “frontier bear” when I first moved west. At first, I thought I’d name him Yukon Jack (for that Canadian knock-off of Southern Comfort, both sickly sweet liquors). But when I decided to elicit his help with my work with kids, I didn’t think it appropriate to have him named for a type of liquor, hence the change to Nevada Jack. He’s been a faithful companion for twenty years.

From the beginning, I noted I wasn’t going to talk about my family or work and have mostly maintained that standard… A handful of readers know me from outside the blog. Very few of these ever comment in the blog (there’s one exception). Most will email me when something strikes a nerve. A few others of my regular readers have gotten to know better via email, in which I’ve shared such secret information… As for family, I’ve have broken my pledge on a few occasions, especially when it came to my mother (we’ve been dealing with her diagnoses of Alzheimer’s since the summer of 2005) and my daughter who is the greatest kid anyone could ask for. My favorite adventures are with her.

We’ll have to see if I have enough material to write another 500 posts. I probably will, for writing memoirs is a lot like the widow in the Bible (1 Kings 17. A famine was on going and she had only enough flour to make one last loaf of bread. Elijah got her to make him a loaf and she did and found that the amount of flour kept expanding and she had enough for her and her son and the prophet until the famine had passed. I keep a list of story ideas to write, and it seems that every time I knock off a few of them, I’m adding just as many new story possibilities to the list. There are also variations of a tale that I might tell. And then, there are always things going on in politics and in my life which I can make fun of…

Thanks for reading my blog, I feel honored to have so many wonderful readers and blessed to have gotten to know people from all around the world via the blog.

Monday, March 10, 2008

A Childhood Memory: Attacked by a goat

This is my 499th Post!

Scarlet recently reminded me that I was going to tell my story of being attacked by a goat when I was a kid. We'll, there's more to the story than just a goat. Enjoy.
My Daddy deer hunted when we lived in Petersburg. Every Saturday during season he would get up before dawn and head down to the Nottaway River, to a farm in which the land was leased each fall to his hunting club. There, hunters would be stationed along two-track roads and at the edge of fields while dogs ran deer in the swamp in the hope that they’d come out in the open and the closest hunter would fill Bambi with buckshot. I went hunting with him once, a boring experience which cured me as this type of hunting. My brother and I sat on the ground, wrapped up in a blanket while Daddy sat with his pump 12 gauge at the ready, listening carefully to the sound of the dogs. That day, no deer can near us and by late morning it was over. We drove back in to a shack where the deer that had been shot were slung up and men busy with saws and butcher knives, carving up the meat and then wrapping it in butcher paper. They’d gotten three deer that day and everyone went home with several packages of meat.

My dad shot several deer during the three years we lived in Virginia. For years, he had the anthers of one deer mounted on the wall in his office. He also shot a turkey. He was near the river and the bird fell into the water. I loved hearing him tell the story stripping down and going into the freezing water to retrieve his turkey. There weren’t many turkeys around back then and from what I know, this was the only one he ever shot. That Christmas, we ate the old Tom, carefully watching for stray buckshot.

Belonging to the hunting club meant that one had obligations to fulfill in addition to paying dues. You had to take your turn feeding and caring for the dogs. Sometimes Dad would let us ride along. We’d drive out southeast of town on the highway, sometimes stopping at a gas station for a Coca-Cola. I remember Dad was furious when they went up to a dime a bottle. Deposit was two cent, but we always had a few bottles in the truck to exchange. We left the highway and went down a series of rural roads through fields of tobacco and corn and peanuts till we finally turned off onto a two-track that ran beside a field. In a few hundred yards, we were deep in the woods. We drove on a bit more till we got to a shady area where the underbrush had been cleared. There in pens, the dogs were kept. The hounds were all yelping as we arrived, in anticipation of running around and of having food. Dad cleaned out their cages and gave them food, which drew the dogs back into their pens. Water came from a pitcher pump. My Dad had to get primed, but after the water started flowing, I was allowed to pump water into the buckets.

One particular day still sticks in my memory. The well had gone dry. There were a number of metal water containers and Dad loaded them into the trunk and we drove further into the woods to a house that looked like none I’d ever seen. I thought I’d seen poor houses before, but this house sitting a mile or two back in the woods, was a new experience. The house was constructed of unpainted wood which, thinking back on it today, had obviously been uncured. Over time the lumber warped and twisted leaving gapping holes in the walls. At the time I didn’t know this and thought the guy could have used a square and level when building. About half the panes in the two windows on the front of the shack had cardboard instead of glass. Smoke was coming from a pipe, they obviously cooked with wood. Chickens, dogs, and hogs ran around and clothes hung from a line that was stretched between trees. As we drove up, several barefoot kids that looked to be about my age took off around back. My dad got out of the car and called out to a man who waved him on over. He took the water containers and followed the man to a pitcher pump where they filled the containers. I got out of the car and started to walk around the house, to where the kids were, when it saw me.

I quickly learned why Satan is often depicted as a goat when I looked up I saw pure hate in the eyes of this beast. His head was head down and he was charging straight at me. Even today, I remember the goat being much taller than me. At the time he seemed to be the size of a small horse. That probably wasn’t the case, but I was small for my age and, I think, was in the second grade at this time. Paralyzed with fear as the beast approached at full steam, his horns aimed for my gut, I was was unable to utter a sound. In quiet desperation I prayed, “help,” as the goat came closer. My prayer was answered for when the goat was only a few feet from me, his chain which I had not seen came to the end. I can see it today in slow motion even though it occurred in a split second. The goat that had been so intent on bucking me was jerked back by the chain around his neck so hard that he was flipped on his back. When he landed, his feet were still kicking the air above. About that point, Dad and the man realized something was wrong and started yelling for me to get away from the goat.

Dad placed the water containers in the trunk and gave the man a few dollar bills, thanking him for the water. “Thank you, sir,” the man said, obviously grateful for the cash. His children curiously started reappearing from around the house, staying well behind their dad as we stared at one another. When we got into the car, they finally waved. Although we lived only a dozen miles or so from each other, we were from two different worlds.

When I got home, I told my mother about the goat and how I’d bravely stood still until it came to the end of its chain and how funny it looked flipping on his back, his legs kicking in the air. Then I started telling her about the shack and how the guy needed to learn how to use a square and level. Dad had let me brag of my bravery, even though he knew that I had been scared to death, but he wasn’t going to let me belittle the man. “Some people got to make do with what they got,” he said, “we should be grateful that he let us draw water for the dogs.”

For years, I wondered about those kids. Although I joked about their house to my friends, I always felt guilty about it and wondered what it would be like to live their lives. I had never seen such poverty and felt blessed to have what we had. At the time, the schools in Virginia were still segregated, but that would all change in another year or two when integration arrived. At that point, those kids would be sent to school with white kids like me. How did they fit in? And today I wonder what those kids who grew up in a world more like my great-grandparents than my childhood world are doing as middle aged adults? As for the goat, I wish I could have been there when he was barbequed; I’d enjoyed gnawing his bones as I counted my blessings.

Friday, March 07, 2008

A 3WW memory: A 3rd Grader on Stilts

It's been a while since I've done Bone's 3WW writing exercise. This week’s Three Word-Wednesday challenge is to write something using these three words: Rest, Sidewalk, Twice. I’m not sure why, but for some reason the word sidewalk brought back images of me as third grader walking around the neighborhood on stilts.

Dad and I spent part of Saturday afternoon building a set of stilts for a Cub Scout project. When done and after a little practice, I found myself for the only time in my life as the tallest boy in my class. These wooden stilts gave me an eight inch lift. Soon, I was walking up and down the sidewalk, seeing how far I could go before I had to stop for a rest. Twice, I walked around the block, from Bishop Street down to Warren Street and back. Other kids tried them out, but I remained the king of the stilts, once staying up for a thousand steps. It wasn’t long before I was walking down to the Seabolts, who lived two blocks over. They had a son my age (I can’t remember his name), but I walked to their house because I really wanted to show off for his father, the PE teacher at Walnut Hills Elementary. He was impressed and encouraged me to bring the stilts to school to show others. I was always looking for a way to “stand out” in class and on that occasion, I really did.

I’m not sure what happened to those stilts. I probably gave them to Bubba and Denise when we moved back to North Carolina. Dad made us get rid of a lot of stuff and I never remember seeing the stilts after the move. It’s probably good because later in my life I learned that he only good use that came from the ability to walk around on stilts was to work in a circus (of which I had no interest) or even worse, to become a drywaller and spend your time mudding tape on ceilings.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Water for Elephants: A book review

Post 497 (I was one off earlier). Three more and I'll be at 500!

Sara Gruen, Water for Elephants (Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2004), 368 pages (unabridged audio version approximately 13 hours long)

Water for Elephants is a wonderful story. Jacob is just about ready to complete veterinarian school at Cornell when his world is turned upside down. His parents are killed in a car accident and he discovers that they were also broke. The Depression is on. Freaking out, Jacob hitches a ride on the Benzini Brother’s circus train and soon is working as the circus’ vet as they travel over the northeast and Midwest. He learns the ends and the outs of the business, the good and the bad. He gets to know and befriend everyone, from top performers and managers to the roustabouts, the lowest class of workers, those who sometimes find themselves being “red-lighted” or thrown off the train when “Uncle Al,” the circus owner doesn’t want to pay them or is short on cash. If the employee is seem as troublesome, he’s red-lighted over a trestle. Gruen crafts a story of life in the circus during the Depression as well as the life of an old man, as she tells the story from two points of view: Jacob as a young man and Joseph as an old man in a nursing home waiting to see the circus that has come to town.

This book centers around a triangle between Jacob and the lovely Marlena (the equestrian star) and her troubled husband August, the animal trainer. Jacob falls in love with Marlena. Marlena, we learn, ran away from home in order to marry August. Although August has a tender side, he’s also brutal and cruel and toward the end of the book we learn he’s mentally ill. Thrown into this mix is Rosie, an elephant that Uncle Al buys from a defunct circus. August treats Rosie with contempt for she cannot seem to do anything (she later becomes a star when it’s discovered she only understands Polish—a language Jacob Jankowski knows). As the store continues, Marlena leaves August after he hits her. Uncle Al, realizing that Jacob is behind the trouble that threatens to tear apart his major act (Marlena and her horses that are trained by August) orders Jacob to be red-lighted along with a number of roustabouts. But Jacob isn’t found. The climax comes when a number of the roustabouts catch back up with the circus and as they are getting ready to begin a performance, the roustabouts release the animals, creating a riot and disaster. In the confusion that follows, Rosie seizes the opportunity to do in August, her sadistic trainer, while she protects Marlena from the stampede. Uncle Al is later found, having been garroted by one of the roustabouts. When order is restored, Marlena and Jacob find themselves together. Jacob decides to go back and take his exams while he and Marlena go to work for Ringling Brothers. As an old man, we learn they spent seven happy years with Ringling, before settling down and living a long life together with a large family.

One of the themes of the book is Jacob’s love for animals. At one point, he’s ready to leave the circus, but can’t, because he feels responsible for the animals. His work isn’t just a job, it becomes a calling. Marlena also shares his love for the animals and in turn, the animals love and trust both Jacob and Marlena.

Although there is a fairytale ending to the book (I’ll save the surprise), good doesn’t always prevail. Gruen’s writing is more realistic. There are the innocent workers like Camel and Walter, who are red-lighted in an attempt to get at Jacob. The circus also takes advantage of the crowds and if I ever go to a circus again, I’m sure I’ll avoid the lemonade. Jacob is tested throughout the book and at one point is ready to murder August, but at the last minute he decides that’s not the solution.

I enjoyed this book and recommend it. I listened to the unabridged audio version on an ipod. The audio version used two readers, one for the older Jacob, another for him as a younger man, which made the listen all the more pleasant.

For other book reviews by Sage, click here.

For Semicolon's Saturday's list of book reviews in blogs, click here.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Here Doggie, Come here boy....

My daughter and I finished this puzzle yesterday afternoon. She loves dogs and I plan to have this one framed for her room. We'd been working on it for a few weeks, with a lot of the work being done by me when I was sick. We need to stop doing 1000 piece puzzles for they stick off the edge of the coffee table (or get a larger coffee table, but I happen to like this copper top one). I think there are 62 dogs in this puzzle, from all around the world. I also need to find a better way to photograph the puzzle--if you want to see it more closely, click on the picture.

In the comments of my last post, Murf asked what I would have turned out like if I had listened to "good music." (For her, I think good music means Country Music from the 80s). I'm sure that if I listened to what Murf considers "good music," instead of doing a dog puzzle, I'd be putting together puzzles like the one above!

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Sunday Prompt: Time Machine

Today’s Sunday Prompt is Time Machine. I spent a few moments this afternoon thinking about music that transports me back in time. The photograph is a copy of a slide I shot of Pittsburgh during light up night 1986. The shot was taken from the McKee’s Rock Bridge. This photo would be perfect if the album Goucho was playing in the background.

Music often serves as a vehicle to transport me back across time. Every time I hear an early Beatles tune, I remember Mr. Atkins. He lived behind us in Petersburg. The summer evening I recall, he’s sitting in a webbed folding chair, mocking his daughters who are crazy over the Beatles. It must have been in ’64 or ’65. Our families were grilling out. “All you have to say to be a rock star,” he kept insisting, “is yeah, yeah, yeah.” A year or two later, my brother and sister and I spent part of the summer with our grandparents while my parents moved us from Petersburg down to the coast. Whenever the Rolling Stones “Satisfaction” comes over the air, I recall my uncle playing his 45 of the tune over and over again, holding a broom like a guitar and dancing around his room. I was nine; he would have been fifteen. The horns on Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4,” take me back to a family vacation to Atlanta in the summer of ’69. We spent a day at Six Flags and another at the Cyclorama which depicted the Battle of Atlanta and also visited the zoo. The music of Chicago and the drive across South Carolina are cemented together in my mind. When I hear Maggie May by Rod Stewart, I think of an Order of the Arrow camping trip to Fort Fisher in the fall of 72. David Williams and I shared a tent. A northeaster blew in and a boat was lost in the surf. We were called out to help search for a missing person and spent a wet and miserable hour or so walking the shoreline with flashlights. It turned out the other person in the boat had safely made shore and headed inland before we were called out. When David and I got back to our tent, the lines holding the fly had ripped out of the gourmets. The fly was flapping in the wind and our sleeping bags were in about two inches of water. Wet and cold, we sought refuge in the back of an equipment trailer where we waited for dawn while listening to a station on a nine volt transistor radio that kept playing Maggie May. By the next morning, in which we could see the bottom of the hull of the boat rocking in the surf, Maggie May and Fort Fisher had been married in my psyche. Another song that brings back crazy memories is Angie, by the Rolling Stones. Angie is on one of my favorite LPs from high school, the Stones’ Goats Head Soup. My girlfriend in my senior year didn’t want me to play it because her “ex” used to sing it to her. We got married in college and after we split up, I found sardonic comfort listening to that album, the melancholy of “Coming Down Again” mirroring my mood at the time. Anytime I hear anything by Steely Dan, I think of Pittsburgh and Jim. We lived next to each other during my first year of grad school in the mid-80s and as I’d made cassettes of all my Steely Dan albums, he was always over listening to them. For good or bad, but mostly good, music has the ability to transport me back in time.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Saturday activities and photos

Five more posts and I'll be at 500! What should I do to celebrate?

With a blanket of fresh snow coming overnight and the promise of rain and warmer weather tomorrow, I decided to forgo my regiment of taking it easy as I recover from the flu and do a little skiing this afternoon. With no wind and temperatures right around 30 degrees, there was no need for heavy wool pants. Jeans were fine. A friend and I skied out at Yankee Springs. The picture of me is beside the overlook for the Devil’s Soupbowl, which is really just a big hole in the ground (the name makes it sound more exciting than it is). I was trying to give him instructions on the camera when he snapped the shot.
Our route took us by Hall Lake where ice fishermen were busy trying their luck. A couple of years ago I wrote about an evening fishing trip on Hall Lake that my dog and I made.
This morning I took this picture of a local farm that will probably become the site for our new hospital. I’ve been meaning to photograph this farm for sometime. No one has lived there since Howard died over two years ago. After Howard’s death, I wrote a poem which I posted here about him and the farm that was in their family for 133 years. Click on this photo to enlargen it and to get a beautiful view!