Monday, February 05, 2018

Angle of Repose

I'm staying busy and preparing to head to Guatemala late this week...  So for now, I just have another book review.  I've listened to this book while in the gym during January.  

Angle of Repose  (New York: Doubleday, 1971), 569 pages (Audible narrator Mark Bramhall, 22 hours and seven minutes). 

It’s the summer of 1970 in California. Lyman Ward is a divorced and retired professor. He has lost a leg to disease. He spends his days with the aid of a neighbor, going through is grandmother’s letters and using them to recreate his grandparent’s lives in the American West. Oliver, his grandfather, was a mining engineer. He married Susan, an artist and author from New York. After moving West, she continues her work while regularly writing letters to her friend in the East.  With her life tied to a mining engineer, she moves all over the West and even to Mexico. The two are always hopeful, but nothing ever works out.  Oliver creates a process for making cement, but doesn’t patent it and someone else develops it. He is honest about the mines he works which leads to problems in a society where many use fake reports to make a killing selling shares in worthless mines.  He has a vision for a massive water project in Idaho, but loses his backing before it pays off.  He trusts an attorney to file his papers for land and then learns the attorney has claimed the land for himself.  His honesty and the trust he places in others leads to disappointment and after disappointment.  While having a few good years, he never makes it big while Susan’s work (illustrations for books as well as articles on the West) keeps the family afloat.  In time, a gap begins to break between Susan and Oliver. She is lured away by Oliver’s loyal assistant, Frank.  Although she declines Frank’s offer, the rift between Susan and Oliver widens. After the accidental drowning of a child, Frank’s suicide, and more separation, the two live out their lives accepting their less than happy estate.

As Stegner bounces back and forth from the 19th Century to 1970, parallels between Lyman Ward and his Grandparents become apparent. While this is a novel about the West, it is also a novel about families and relationships. However, the West plays a role as the backdrop for the story. It’s a land of promise that often fails to live up to its hype. The Ward’s traveling from place to place in the hopes of hitting it big remind me of Bo and Elsa in Stegner’s first novel, TheBig Rock Candy Mountain which begins around the turn of the twentieth century, a few decades later than Angle of Repose (1870s-1890s). The families of both novels spend their lives jumping around over the West in an attempt to make it big.  But there is a difference in the two men.  Oliver is very honest, where Bo is often operating outside the law.  They both find more trouble than reward in the American West.
Stegner’s prose is masterful as he captures the landscape of the West.  As he did in Big Rock, he often uses the journey across country to describe the differences between the East and West.  There is something about the wide-open spaces that draws his characters back to their home.  Even though Susan resisted becoming a western woman, by the end of the book, she has been lured into the landscape. It may not always be a place where dreams are fulfilled, but it is a place of hope and promise.

The title has to do with an engineering concept about the angle material (such as tailings from a mine) will stabilize and not continue to roll down a slope.  Stegner is able to apply this term to human relationships and it comes up numerous times within the book.

Stegner won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for this novel, even though he did have its critics.  For a work of fiction, he does quote letters from a woman whom he modeled Susan Ward afterwards. These letters are extensively quoted throughout the book and provide opportunities for Lyman Ward (the narrator) to speculate about what was going on in the lives of his grandparents.  I enjoyed this book and do recommend it.  Of course, I have spent much time studying mining camps in the West and especially in Nevada, so this book was, as some say, “right up my alley.”  I listened to the book, but had a hard copy which I did some actual reading over interesting sections.  

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Hero of the Empire

Candice Millard, Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill (New York: Anchor Books, 2017), 382 pages including index, notes and a selective bibliography plus 16 pages of black and white photos and two pages of maps.

As the 19th Century drew to a close, Great Britain was as powerful as ever and a young Winston Churchill was dying (or at least willing to risk death) for fame. His goals were set high.  After serving in the military in India and the Sudan and as a military observer with the Spanish in Cuba during the revolution there just before the Spanish American War, the young Churchill ran for parliament. He lost, but this was first displayed his unusual talents of public speaking. Although he was only in his mid-20s, Churchill felt that his life was rushing away. He was also more than a little disturbed by his beautiful American mother (his father was deceased by this time) flirting with men not much older than him.  So when war broke out in South Africa with the Boers, Churchill took the first ship he could find to head south as a war correspondent. 

At first the war wasn’t going very well for the British. The Boers were fiercely independent and loyal to their homeland and were armed with better weapons than the British. Although the British had finally given up their red coats for khaki, they still fought as they had in the American Revolution, in lines that marched toward the enemy.  The Boers were masters at concealment (which the British felt was cowardly). But concealment was effective against the British discipline.  

Churchill traveled across the country by train and then ship to arrive where the fighting was underway. Once there, he volunteered to go along with risky missions including riding an armored train that would be used to spy upon the Boer’s movements. Of course, the train being limited to tracks, provided little useful information and made itself a sitting duck.  As the train was heading down a hill, the Boers caused it to jump track and then attacked, killing and capturing many of the British soldiers. Among those captured was a war correspondent, Churchill, who had essentially taken over command of the train and helped get it back on track allowing for part of the detachment to escape. The rest were taken to Pretoria where they were held as POWs.

As a POW, Churchill was in danger.  First, the Boers knew that he had been involved in the fighting even though he was a civilian, which was against the rules of war. Those who made it back to the safety of the British lines spoke of his bravery, which reached back to Britain. He was also the son of Lord Churchill, who had spent time in South Africa before his death and seemed to have upset everyone, especially the Boer population. But after a few uncertain days, the Boers allowed Churchill to stay with the officers, who were given a lot of privileges including buying luxuries, such as liquor and cigars, as well as receiving packages. While imprisoned, Churchill developed a wild plan for an escape. The officers would overpower the guards, then free the enlisted men. Together they would capture the Boer capital and end the war. That idea was shot down, but eventually another plan developed where three of them would escape together. 

Of the three, only Churchill was able to make it over the wall and then had to find a way to travel 100s of miles to reach Portuguese East Africa. Stealing away in a train, he headed across the country, which got him out of Pretoria.  He eventually finds his way to an English mine superintendent who, with the help of a merchant who exported wool, managed to slip Churchill out of the country.  

Churchill, once he made his way back to the British forces, is commissioned an officer and continues to fight (but we are only provided a brief summary of his war experiences).  After the war is over, Churchill returns to Britain as a hero and begins his rise in the political ranks. 

This was a book I read for a men’s book club of which I’m a member. I enjoyed it and found it a fast read.  However, there are some gaps. As this is a story about Churchill, Millard never really tells us how Britain’s as able to gain the upper hand in South Africa.  She tells some of Churchill’s military involvement in India and mentions the Sudan, but I found myself wanting to know more. She tells enough to make the point that Churchill (who wasn’t that religious) did feel he had survived because something great was expected from him. I found Churchill a bit annoying, partly because he felt his greatness was foreordained. Had I been those guys trying to escape the POW prison, I would have probably encouraged Churchill to go off along for it appears he couldn’t keep his mouth shut. In the movie, “Darkest Hour” which I watched with my daughter after Christmas, Churchill is recalling for his wife how he was so struck by her beauty that he was speechless. His wife laughs and said in that case she must have been very beautiful because it would have been the only time in his life in which he was speechless.  I also was shocked with how hard Churchill worked at giving speeches.  A close friend remarked that he spent the best years of his life composing impromptu speeches.  He also had a mild speech and struggled to pronounce the letter “s”, but this he overcame.  

I recommend this book to anyone interested in Churchill.  I now need to learn more of the Boer War!  This is the second book I've ready by Candice Millard. In 2006, I reviewed her book on Teddy Roosevelt's South America's Expedition, River of Doubt I like her writing style and will read more!  

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Catching Up

Heading out

Today was a pretty good day.  We raced this afternoon with one of the J24s our club recently acquired and had a good time even without the 12 knots of wind promised by the forecasters (it was probably more like 8). We came in first, well ahead of other boats.  Then I came back to an oyster roost birthday party for a friend. 

Steaming Oysters

Addressing the Haggis 
The past couple of weeks have been both fun and busy.  On Thursday night I was the keynote speaker at a formal “Burn’s Night” dinner for the St. Andrews Society here.  It was a lot of fun and if I could always have my audience lubricated like that before I speak, I could be a comedian.  Although I tried to pepper my talk with humor, I think I had more laughs than jokes.  I found myself having to go easy on the single-malt before the speech, but I still enjoyed the evening as I waxed on about Clarinda (not her real name), one of the women Robert Burns desired (the rest consisted of most of the female population of Scotland in the late 18th Century.

Mia's rehab
And a quick update on Mia.  This rescue dog isn’t cheap. I knew she had to lose some weight (and she has) but she also appears to have a knee problem in her back legs.  She is currently in rehab and seems to love the underwater treadmill.  I mentioned that I would like such a contraption myself and was informed that for a mere $40,000 I could own one. Maybe I’ll put that on next year’s Santa’s list. Or maybe not.

I don’t say much about the Volunteer Fire Department duties anymore, but I’m still there.  I just keep missing out on the good fires (the four major fires we had last year, I was out of town). I just had a few minor issues such as motors burning up on air handlers and smoking up the house, but not serious fires.  However, we continue to train. The other week we burned a doll house. My first thought was that someone’s daughter’s was going to be pissed, but it turns out this was a doll house built for such a training. They were able to simulate flashovers, backdrafts, and show the various types of smoke and the effect of ventilation on the fire’s progression.  All neat stuff.

As for reading, I am almost finished with John McPhee’s Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process.  I am sure I will write a review of it (I have two other reviews that I need to post, too…).

I also have 2 gallons of sauerkraut fermenting…  Life is good! ;'

Friday, January 12, 2018

Stuff Happening and a belated blog-hop post

The marsh the day after... 
I can’t believe we are well into January and I haven’t posted a thing…  I was planning on a post on the 3rd to advertise Chrys Fey’s new book, but was without power much of that day and the island was closed off as the bridges were way too icy.  We’d had a nice base of ice overnight followed by snow.  The snow made me happy but we never had enough for me to dig my backcountry skis out and then to try to find some wax… 

I was gone the week after Christmas to North Carolina and arrived back in Georgia in time to fix a New Year’s Day feast consisting of turnip greens and beans cooked in the hambone left over from the Christmas ham.  It was good food and the turnip greens were from my garden. 

Mint Jelly
There is a community garden here where you can rent space in a deer and wild pig protected area.  This time of the year, I’m getting lots of turnips and rutabaga and a few beets (they’re not doing as well).  Soon I will began harvesting cabbage and onions.  I am looking for a large crock to fix sauerkraut.   At the house, I raise a few herbs such as mint that could take over the garden.  Knowing that the freezing weather was approaching, I did cut back the mint and made four jars of mint jelly.  Now I need some lamb!

a few of my 30 cabbage plants and onions planted in between 
Two days after the snow I was with friends for a funeral up in Beaufort, South Carolina, at the National Cemetery there.  It is a beautiful spot, made more so by the snow.  Seeing the graves, the Christmas wreaths, palm trees and snow all in the same scene was a bit unique. I do like how all the headstones are the same and how a general can be buried next to a private. The cemetery also have a large number of Civil War graves including a section with each grave marker identifying them as with the U. S. C. T. (United States Colored Troops).  Many of those buried here died in the events highlighted in the movie "Glory." 

Currently, I’m enjoying two wonderful books: Candice Millard’s Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill and Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose. This is the second book I’ve read by Millard and she writes history as if it was a novel.  Years ago I reviewed her book, The River ofDoubt, which is about Teddy Roosevelt’s trip into the Amazon in 1914.  I have read a number of Stegner’s books and have reviewed The Big Rock Candy Mountain  (one of my all-time favorite novels) and Crossing to Safety.

Chrys Fey's new disaster series book is about fire…  With her background in disasters, I’m expecting to see Chrys star as next year’s Mayhem in the Allstate commercials.  Her question for us is what ridiculous thing we would save if our house was on fire (beyond things like your kids or pets).  I have thought about this a lot.  I am not sure that I would save anything ridiculous, but I expect it would be a quilt made by my grandmother or, if I couldn’t get back in the house as that is on a quilt stand in my bedroom, I might just grab the needlepoint she did which hangs in the dining room.  I am still amazed that the backing to this needlepoint is a cloth grain bag.  She did this needlepoint as a young girl in the late 1920s or early 30s. 

Now go check out Chrys book!  Have a good weekend. I hope the sun is shinning where you are, here we are seeming to have a lot of gray days... 
Savannah River looking toward the ports on a gray day

Sunday, December 31, 2017

2017 Reading Recap

Looking back (photo by my brother's wife)
I often make a list of all the books I read or listened to the unabridged version during 2017 (read paper or electronic copies: 34, listened to: 8). This year I decided to try to categorize them, which isn’t a perfect science.  There are some books (such as Theroux, Kingdom of the Sea and Bunting, Love of Country) that I debated whether they should be nonfiction of memoir.  And then there’s Engels, Woman on Verge of Paradise, that probably goes in the memoir column, too, but it’s just too funny not to be under humor.  While I wrote a number of reviews (17), I realize that I didn’t write one for my favorite book Herr’s Dispatches. I listened to the unabridged audio version of Herr’s memories as a Vietnam War correspondent twice.  I should also go back and write a review for Herr’s book along with Engels’ ”Paradise.” It’s pretty clear that within certain categories I enjoy books of certain subcategories (historical fiction, nature and travel).  It is also easy to see that certain books (like memories and biographies) are more likely to be reviewed by me.  Books less likely to be reviewed include those I listened to and poetry.  There were a few books that I have read before.  As a kid, I read Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe (and attempted Kidnapped). I had read Staael’s New Patterns in the Sky fourteen years ago, but reread it for April’s A-Z Challenge.  There were other books that I read significant portions of (such as Martin Luther’s Commentary on Galatians) but they didn’t make the list because I couldn’t say that I read them cover-to-cover.  Here’s my list:

Books read in 2017: 42  * indicates a review in Sagecoveredhills

Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe
Robert Lewis Stevenson, Treasure Island
*Robert Harris, Pompeii
*Michael Morris & Dick Pirozzolo, Escape from Saigon
Robert Lewis Stevenson, Kidnapped
*Frederick Buechner, Son of Laughter
Paul Young, The Shack 
Alice Hoffman, The Dovekeepers
Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding

*David I. Kertzer, The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret history of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe
Dava Sobel, Longitude 
*S.  C. Gwynne, Empire of the Summer Moon
Julius D. W. Staal, The New Patterns in the Sky: Myths and Legends of the Stars.
*Timothy B. Tyson, The Blood of Emmett Till 
*Rosalind K. Marshall, Columba’s Iona: A New History 
*David Whyte, The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America  
Hall and Padgett, editors, Calvin and Culture: Exploring a World View
David McCullough, The Wright Brothers  
Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation: A History 
Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit 
Craig Barnes, Body & Soul: Reclaiming the Heidelberg Catechism
Valerie P and Michael P. Cohen, Tree Lines
Madeleine Bunting, Love of Country: A Journey through the Hebrides
*Paul Theroux, Kingdom by the Sea

Memoir and Biographies
*Doris Kearns Goodwin, Wait Till Next Year: A Memoir
*Raymond Baker, Campfires Along the Appalachian Trail
*Jane Dawson, John Knox 
*Archibald Rutledge, God’s Children 
*John Lane, Paddle to the Sea: Eleven Days on the River of the Carolinas
*Archibald Rutledge, Peace in the Heart
Michael Herr, Dispatches

Alexis Orgera, how like foreign objects: poems
Nicola Slee, Praying like a Woman 
Rosie Miles, Cuts
*Danielle Lejeune, Landlocked: Etymology of Whale-fish and Grace
Anya Krugovoy Silver, Second Bloom
Carl Sandburg, Honey and Salt

Tom Bodett, The End of the Road
Robyn Alana Engel, Woman on the Verge of Paradise

Carl Hiaasen, Razor Girl