These are two other books which I read while down with COVID. While they may seem totally different, I did find some common ground between these two deep thinkers. Both are interested in how we can help others achieve their potential and sustain society.
Barry Lopez, Horizon(2019, New York: Vintage Books, 2020), 572 pages including maps, index, and bibliography.
In six extended essays, the late Lopez takes us along on his travels to isolated spots around the globe. As his fellow travelers, we are privy to his thoughts. Not only does he beautifully describe this location and what’s happening there, but each setting also allows him to converse with authors, artists, explorers, natives, and scientists. While each essay stands independently, there are several people from the past who appear in more than one of the essays. These include the British explorer, “James Cook,” the British scientist Charles Darwin, and a little known half-native Canadian, Randall McDonald (who taught English to the Japanese court years before Commander Perry opened the Japanese mainland to western shipping).
The book opens with a 47-page introduction titled, “Looking for a Ship” in which Lopez provides some background into his life and explorations. Much of this material was also covered in more detail his memoir,About This Life. However, the introduction does provide the reader with a context to understand Lopez’s journeys that take him to the polar caps and places in between. Lopez’s first essay centers around Cape Foulweather in Oregon, where Lopez lived when not traveling. Cape Foulweather is also the site of James Cooks first sighting of land along America’s West Coast in 1778. He tells about his many visits to this point, as he reads James Cooks travels and strives to understand how the landscape has changed over the years. His next stop is Skraeling Island in the arctic waters of northern Canada. Then he moves on to Puerto Ayora in the Galapagos, and then to the site of an archeological dig in Kenya (titled Jackal Camp). Next, he goes to an old British prison in Tasmania, before concluding his journey in the Antarctic. Some of these sites, Lopez visits for only a season. Others, he has returned many times.
Except for the Antarctic essay, which is the only place on earth without any human ancestry, Lopez seeks out to understand the lives of those who lived before the region was “discovered.” This includes Native Americans in Oregon, Paleoeskimos in the Arctic, South Sea islanders in the Galapagos, early humans in Africa, and Aboriginals in Australia. With his extensive knowledge in botany and biology, he discusses the changes to the landscape from human migration. As an example, I knew red foxes were not native to North America but learned the British also imported them to Australia for hunting.
These extended essays provide Lopez time to reflect on the colonial world, the role class plays in a society (which he even found in the scientific communities in the Antarctic), how animals and landscape evolve, and the concerns of the speed of such evolution in recent centuries. Lopez also looks to the future and ponders creating new ways of bringing more people to the table to discuss and help the world from the crisis that we are experiencing from industrialization. Lopez often comes back to the role elders play in traditional communities and suggests that we need to listen to them.
This is a book to be savored. Lopez encourages us to look around and to understand our place in the world.
QUOTE ON WHAT IT MEANS TO BE HUMAN: “to live in fear in a whole in which one’s destiny is never entirely of one’s own choosing.” (page 508).
Miroslav Volk, A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good(Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2011), 174 pages including notes and index.
There are many who blame religion for many of the world’s problems. Monotheistic religions seem especially vulnerable to such changes. While Volf is writing to Christians, he does make many references to Islam. Of course, all religions have examples of failing to live up to their potential (Volf labels this “malfunctions of faith”), Volf believes religion and especially the Christian faith has the potential to contribute much to the common good. Furthermore, as Volf notes, much of the terrible violence of the 20thCentury, the most violent century in human history, wasn’t because of religion. Genocide was most often conducted by secular regimes.
Volf begins his study by looking at how and why religious groups have failed to contribute to the common good. For Christians, this “malfunction of faith” is mostly due to our failure to “love God and love our neighbor.” The Christian faith, for Volf, is certainly not waiting for “pie in the sky.” Instead, our faith should be a source of human flourishing, and not just flourishing for believers, but all people. Religion is about the good life and requires religious people to engage in their communities for the good of all. However, he criticizes the extremes. The followers of Jesus should neither withdraw from society nor should they try to dominate society. Instead, with creativity, they should seek to engage positively in a religiously pluralistic world.
One of the problems in the West is that we tend to understand the good life as “experimental satisfaction,” which can never sustain our deepest desires. The source of the good life is not found within us, but outside, from God and from others. Only by living up to Jesus’ great commandment, can we experience such goodness.
Volf does not envision a world in which there is only one faith. In fact, as I pointed out above, he’s critical of such ideas. We will never be able to bring God’s kingdom to earth. Only God can do that. For us to attempt to bring about heaven to earth by silencing other beliefs will only lead to further malfunctions of our faith. Instead, he envisions a pluralistic world where those of all faith need to be in conversation with one another and learn from others. While Christians believe in the truth in Jesus Christ, that doesn’t mean there are not things we can learn from others. While he doesn’t use the term, the Calvinist view of “common grace” (as opposed to saving grace) seems to apply here. All good comes from God, including that which is good in those who may have a different view of faith from us.
Volf is a professor at Yale Divinity School and the director Center for Faith and Culture. There is a lot packed into this thin book on how we our faith can help a troubled world.
For those interested, Volf will be the keynote speaker at this year’s “HopeWords Writer’s Conference in Bluefield, West Virginia on March 24-25. This is a reasonably priced conference that I highly recommend. Check it out by clicking here.
As I’ve been treated with back to back bouts with COVID, I spent much of my time reading about the Appalachian Trail. I don’t think I’ve read a book about the trail since I read Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, back in the 1990s. It was great to visit the trail once more as I read these three books that brought back lots of memories and made me a little homesick. I’m including a few pictures from my own journey. The photo to the left is of me on Mt. Katahdin in 1987, after having hiked from Virginia to Maine to complete the trail.
By the way, I finally received a negative COVID test on January 9th!
Ben Montgomery, Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail
(Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2014), 277 pages including the index and sources. Maps and some photos.
I have been meaning to read this book for the past three years, ever since my ministry colleague on Skidaway gave me a copy. Of course, I have known of Grandma Gatewood’s walk since at least the early 80s, when I first started hiking the Appalachian Trail. Having completed the trail and having read many books about it (the last probably being Bill Bryson’s book in the mid-1990s), I had kind of put the trail out of my mind. But as I began reading about Grandma Gatewood, I was drawn back into the lure of the trail. This book is well written and is easy to read.
Part of the danger of having completed the Appalachian Trail is that I read this book through my own lens. Even without going back into my journals, the names of the towns, shelters, rivers, waterfalls, ponds, and mountains, all began to come back.
While I enjoyed the book, my critical eye questioned a few of the authors observations. I don’t think Gatewood saw any chestnuts on the trail. Certainly, even thirty years later when I was hiking the trail, there were shoots coming up from old stumps, but the chestnuts in the Appalachian Mountains had died in the 1920s. She didn’t have to fear water moccasins along the trail as they are not found in the mountainous areas of the south (and even Gatewood only acknowledging seeing rattlesnakes and copperheads). And the rugged rock in Pennsylvania was not created by glaciers (they tend to smooth out rock), but by upturned limestone that leaves a jagged edge to the rock that creates a challenge in what would be an easy part of the trail to hike. Finally, the author twice referred to Boy Scout “Packs.” It’s a Boy Scout Troop, Cub Scouts have packs. Again, these are just minor points. Overall, the books drew me in quickly and I read it in a 24-hour period while quarantined for COVID.
For the bulk of the book in which he tells of her first (of three) completions of the Appalachian Trail, the author creatively tells two stories. At one point, he’ll be telling of Gatewood’s hike as if he was with her as she made her way in her tennis shoes along the trail. Then, he’ll go back to share vignettes of her life before she set out in her mid-60s to hike the trail. We learn about her hard life and her abusive marriage. Gatewood had a wanderlust streak in her and had once before left home We also learn how she’d left her husband once before and traveled out to California in the 1930s. But she had children to tend. It was after they’d left home that she began hiking.
As Gatewood began hiking, she became famous with newspapers and Sports Illustrated running articles on her. After she completed the trail, she was on the Today’s Show and game shows. She continued hiking, doing two more trips on the AT, along with walking the Oregon Trail. She promoted the Buckeye Trail in her home state of Ohio. She died in 1973.
There were a lot of her stories to which I could relate and share similar experiences. She hiked through two hurricanes. I had a similar experience going over Standing Indian Mountain. That hike was miserable. The trail became a stream with the water over my boots. The next day, it was clear. I met a couple from Franklin, a town in the valley, who said the town had received 10 inches of rain that day I was climbing Standing Indian.
On her hike in 1955, coming off Mt. Cube in New Hampshire, Gatewood met the wife of Meldrim Thomson, whose family had a farm and a maple syrup operation off the side of the mountain. The author notes the Thomson would later become governor of the state. They became friends.
In 1987, when I came through this section, I stopped that morning for breakfast at a well-known pancake house that Mrs. Thomson ran. As she was cooking pancakes, I read framed news clippings about her husband that was posted on the wall of the diner. When she brought the cakes and a bottle of maple syrup, I said it appeared her husband had been governor wondered if he was still involved (he’d been governor in the 1970s). She said yes that he was out campaigning with Paul Laxalt who was running for President. As I was hosting my pack to head back to the trail, a pickup truck pulled up and two men in suits got out and ran over to me. It was the former governor with Paul Laxalt, who shook my hand even though I was not a New Hampshire voter. Laxalt pulled out of the primary long before the vote that February.
Even if you have not hiked the AT, Emma Gatewood’s story is one of courage and fortitude. I think you’ll enjoy taking a walk with her. I recommend this book.
Earl V. Shaffer, Walking with Spring
(1983, Harper’s Ferry, WVA: Appalachian Trail Conference 2004), 152 pages, no index or bibliography.
I first read this book in the mid-80s. I was living in Hickory, NC, dreaming of the trail. I lent my copy to a friend and never got it back and moved shortly afterwards. A few months ago, I was in a store along the Blue Ridge Parkway and spotted another copy and thought I should read this book again. When I first read the book, I had hiked most of the Appalachian Trail south of Bastian, VA (where I-77 crosses). A few years later I finished the trail after doing a long hike from the Shenandoah’s to Katahdin in Maine.
This book took me back to a time when the trail was young and not well known. Shaffer was the first person to hike the entire length of the trail which in one season. At the time, the trail ran from Mt. Oglethorpe, Georgia to Katahdin. A few years later, the southern terminus of the trail would be moved to Springer Mountain. While much of the trail and even some of the shelters were familiar with me, there have been many changes. Going through Southern Virginia, the trail Shaffer hiked headed east from Damarcus, where it picked up and paralleled the Blue Ridge Parkway. This section had a lot of road walking and plans had been made much earlier to move to trail to northward, toward Pearisburg, VA, before swinging it eastward and paralleling the parkway starting north of Roanoke. The plans, which were made before the war, didn’t materialize until around 1950. Interestingly, Shaffer would have hiked past Bluemont Presbyterian Church, one of the two Rock Churches I serve. While he doesn’t mention Bluemont, he does comment on Puckett’s Cabin which is two miles north. (See my book review of Orlean Puckett: 1844-1938.) He hiked this section at the right time because the flame azaleas were in bloom. He missed Mayberry Church for at the time the trail left the parkway and crossed over the crest of the Pinnacles of Dan before returning to the parkway just south of Mabry Mill.
In one of his poems at the beginning of an earlier section titled “Mountain Medley,” he wrote:
A medley of summit pastures, Spring flowers and whip-poor-wills, Stone Churches and upland rivers, And steep farm-sided hills.
This section of his book deals with his travels that crossed the Big Pigeon, Nolichucky, and Watauga Rivers, which are along the North Carolina and Tennessee border. I wonder if he mistakenly posted the poem there.
Shaffer also hiked before the availability of lightweight gear. He often ate canned food. He didn’t take a stove; instead, he built fires to cook his meals. He traveled light, with just a poncho which doubled as a shelter (with him putting his rain hat over the hole in the middle of the poncho). In 1948, much of the trail had been neglected because of the war. Another big difference in Shaffer’s hike and mine was getting into town to resupply. While we both often hitchhiked, he was often able to catch a bus. I only did this once, in Garrison, NY, where I caught a bus into Peekskill to get my boots repaired.
Shaffer, himself, had been a soldier in the South Pacific. While he often comments on his status as a veteran, he never writes about the war itself. But the war is mentioned. When a New England ranger invites him into his home in the woods and immediately sets on a pot for tea, he’s reminded of the kindness of New Zealand soldiers offering tea. On occasions, he meets other veterans from the Pacific, and they discuss their experiences which are not shared in the book. Shaffer, having lost his pre-war hiking friend in the war, had a good reason to “walk it off.” (Doug Peacock, who was a green Beret in Vietnam and the model for Edward Abbey’s Hayduke in The Monkey Wrench Gang, titled his memoir Walking It Off). In doing some research after finishing this book, I learn that he did write about his Pacific experiences in a book of poetry titled Before I Walked with Spring: A Dough Boy’s Odyssey and Other Poems of World War II.
Essentially, this book is about his walk on the Appalachian Trail. It’s a day-by-day journal that give us a taste of what Shaffer experienced on his “long cruise.” It is apparent that Shaffer is well-read as he often refers to literary works. He is also a poet and includes many of his own poems. The book wasn’t published until the 1980s which probably explains why he used a metaphor of “programing a computer.” Except for a few scientists, that term doesn’t seem to fit in the world of 1948.
Shaffer’s prose provides an understanding of the landscape. I didn’t realize that the New River in Virginia was the last of the rivers to flow west (and via the Mississippi, south to the Gulf of Mexico). Nor did I really put it together that Sunfish Pond, in New Jersey, was the southern most natural pond/lake on the trail. I do remember commenting in my own journals about how the water sources changed. South of New Jersey, there are many springs from which you get water. As you head north, they become fewer and fewer.
If you want to learn about the Appalachian Trail, this book is a good place to begin.
Sherry Blackman, Tales from the Trail: Stories from the Oldest Hiker Hostel on the Appalachian Trail
(North Hampton, NH: Mindstir Media, 2021), 231 pages including six pages of photos.
The Reverend Sherry Blackman, a former journalist, serves as pastor of Church of the Mountain, a Presbyterian Church in Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania. The church’s basement has served as a hostel for those hiking on the Appalachian Trail (AT) since 1976. In 1987, I spent two nights there while hiking from the Shenandoah Mountains of Virginia to Mt. Katahdin in Maine, which finished my goal of hiking the trail.
In this collection of essays, Blackman recalls many of the hikers she’s met along the AT since she began her ministry there in 2014. These stories explore a host of themes common to the human condition. Some hikers try to find something they feel they’ve lost. Others try to forget or to figure things out. The walking wounded often stop. Some wounds are physical. They try to push through the pain and limitations as they make it along the trail. Others carry mental and spiritual wounds. Can they find forgiveness, acceptance, or hope? And then there’s the ugly side, those who must be removed from the hostel for the safety of the other hikers. One essay recounts the number of murders that have occurred along the trail over the past 50 years. Mental illness is another battle many faces and which often leads to challenges for those running the hostel. Through all this, we also see how Blackman and those who run the hostel strive to be graceful. They listen and don’t try to force advice on those who come their way, as they offer hikers a shower, a bunk for a night or two, and once a week, a potluck dinner.
In all these essays, we see Blackman listening and accepting the hiker wherever they are on their journey (not just on the trail, but in their lives). Often, her conversations turn to spiritual issues. She asks gentle questions as she helps the hiker along their way. She provides compassionate and insightful counsel, along with learning herself from the stories of others. She also acknowledges the limitations we all have and how hard it is when we can’t help some people.
Delaware Water Gap is just a little beyond the halfway point for those who are hiking north from Georgia (the actual halfway point is around Caledonia State Park just north of the Maryland border. Those who have started in Georgia (northbound hikers) have been on the trail for roughly 1200 miles. The last hundred miles, while not having difficult climbs, are tough because of the upturned limestone rock grinds the feet down. Blackburn has an essay on the rocks, too. Being in the middle of the trail means Blackman only gets to encounter a hiker at point in their journey. Reading these stories, I recalled work as a night on-call chaplain where I often visited with those going into transplant surgeries and never knew what happened afterwards. That’s the way much of life plays out. Blackman does her part, then the hikers head down the trail.
I found a lot of insight into one hiker who, after hiking the trail, visited after he finished pointed out: “At the top of Katahdin, there are no blazes to tell you where to go now.” As the stories remind us, lots of people set out to hike hoping to find something, but ultimately, there are few Damarcus experiences along the trail. Most hikers gain insight about themselves without having a revelation.
I recommend this book to those interested in the trail as well as those in ministry who need to consider how we relate to others whom we interact through our lives.
Many of the books appear in more than one category, so they don’t add up to the total.
Last year I said I needed to read more fiction and humor and I read even less this year. Maybe that says something about 2022. There wasn’t a lot of humor to the year. I certainly need to laugh more!
I’ve questioned myself as to why I am not reading more fiction. I think the answer is that I am curious about so much and most of my reading is for knowledge.
I started tracking the number of books written by women authors this year. Interestingly, I read more last year, but this year I chose Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine as the most important book I’ve read. We all need to better understand the situation in Ukraine and her book on the Ukrainian famine in the 1930s helps us understand the present situation.
Books read by the Month
Below is my list by month. The highlighted books are ones I reviewed. Click on the link to go to the blog post where you can find the review. Like last year, I have picked my favorite of each month by posting a photo of the book. This I found hard. In March, Applebaum was up against Candice Millard, both incredible historians. In April, Updike’s novel, In the Beauty of the Lilies was up against the writings of the Anglican poet Malcom Guite. Then in May, I had to choose between a wonderful biography of Fredrick Laws Omstead and Trish Warren’s lovely commentary on the compline prayer. In August, the choice between Carver’s poetry, Herman’s philosophy, and Doig’s wonderful storytelling also created a challenge as did my November decision between Meacham and Doyle. What all this shows is that I read a lot of good books in 2022!
Helen MacDonald, H is for Hawk
C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (2nd reading, first in 1978)
We’re at the season when the days are slowly beginning to lengthen. Perhaps this is a good time to review this book which I read in October. I did not finish the review then, even though I quoted the book in several sermons. This is my last review of the year! On the COVID front, I am still testing positive, but feel great although I do tire easily.
On Sunday (as I am not preaching this week), I will post the review of 53 books read during 2023. This is one of the best books I read during this year, the other being Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine. It’s a hard pick between the two books. I recommend both. One enlarges our view of the world and our understanding on what is happening in Ukraine. This book provides insight into our own national challenge. Race is still the proverbial “elephant in the room,” in American politics.
Jon Meacham, And There Was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle
(New York: Random House, 2022), 713 pages (37-page prologue, 421 pages of text, 225 pages of notes on sources and bibliography, an index) plus 16 inserted color plates.
This is an excellent book that needs to be read and studied by Americans today. Meacham provides a biographical portrait of Lincoln, with an eye on the President’s struggle during the Civil War. He also delves, as much as one can, into Lincoln’s private faith that allowed him to continue in his position while the nation was being tested and as he endured personal tragedies including the loss of children and the challenges of an unstable wife. A politician who had served in the state house and one term at the Capitol in the House of Representatives, Lincoln seemed unsuited to lead the nation through our most trying hour. He also was a flawed man, hating slavery but not necessarily believing in equality of the races. But Lincoln was able to draw from his experiences and find the strength to become what many historians believe to be the best president in America’s history.
This book builds on Meacham’s earlier book, The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels. In the Soul of America, the author drew heavily around Lincoln’s first inaugural address. In this book, he begins with Lincoln’s second inaugural address, which is often considered the most theological of all inaugural addresses and was given just weeks before Lincoln’s assassination. In both books, Meacham does more than write about the past. His writings provide insights for our nation to move forward, even when deeply divided. Meacham see’s Lincoln as a providing a path, one in which we hold tightly to what is good and nobly while also being gracious to our enemies.
The Election of 1860 and 2020
Meacham provides a detailed account of the events between Lincoln’s election in 1860 and his inauguration in March 1863. Some of the details are eerily familiar. Vice President John Breckinridge, who had just been defeated by Lincoln in the general election, oversaw the counting of the electoral votes on February 13 (this was before the inauguration was moved to January). As with January 6, secret forces gathered in Washington hoping for a coup and to make Washington the capitol for the Confederacy. Like Mike Pence, Breckinridge, who would later become a Confederate General, did his duty. Furthermore, General Winfield Scott, the hero of the Mexican War, ordered troops into Washington to quell any attempt to overthrow the government. The electoral college votes were counted without trouble. The next step was the inauguration itself. As Lincoln moved from Illinois to Washington by train, there were plans to assassinate him enroute. Secrecy and security prevented it from occurring.
I couldn’t read the accounts of what happened between the election in November 1860 and the inauguration without being reminded of January 6, 2020t. It has been shown that the events on that day were not spontaneous but planned. I found myself wondering if those behind January 6 had studied what had happened in 1861 and attempted to “correct” the mistakes of those who had attempted to keep Lincoln from the presidency.
This volume is steeped in theology. On the one hand, this seems strange as Lincoln never joined any church. His background was Baptist and Presbyterian, but he also read widely including the Unitarian Theodore Parker. It appears that as President, Lincoln became surer of his faith. His discussions and friendship with the Reverend Phineas Densmore Gurley of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church helped the President see God as an agent in the world. Gurley comforted the Lincolns at the death of their son, Willie, and was present at Lincoln’s own death. In seeing God as active in the world through humanity, yet God’s providential will being at times hidden, Lincoln developed a trust that helped him moved from one who attempted to keep the Union together to one who sought to end slavery.
I hope this book is widely read. As a nation, we should learn from Lincoln’s struggles.
I have come to appreciate Meacham’s writings over the past decade. Along with this book and The Soul of America, I have also read two other biographies by him: Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush and American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House.
Fleming Rutledge, Advent: The Once & Future Coming of Jesus Christ
(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018), 406 pages including Biblical references
A few weeks before Advent this year, I began reading this collection of essays and sermons. However, I quickly learned I was already behind the curve. For Rutledge, the Advent themes begin on All Saints Day adding another four weeks to the season we generally think of as the four Sundays of preparation for Jesus’ birth.
The Christian year begins with Advent, but her sermons include the end of the old Christian year and the beginning of the new. This is the season of judgment, the return of Jesus, the end of the age, the need to be ready, to repent, to wait patiently. In writing about Advent and with a host of sermons that she preached during this season of the year, Rutledge reminds us that we’re not as good as we think we are and our need to depend on God. Her sermons are filled with reminders that evil is real and there a real battle going on in both the world and our lives. She warns against a Christianity that thinks we must make the right decision (accept Jesus) and not have to deal with the reality that there is an enemy of God, Satan. Her sermons are a call to action.
Sermons that tie into what’s happening in the world
Karl Barth is often quoted as saying we are to preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Rutledge, a student of Barth (along with Calvin and others), displays this wisdom. These sermons, delivered from the mid-70s through the first decade of the 21st Century, display keen insights into the events of the world: terrorist attacks, Rwandan genocide, the Gulf War, the Iraqi War, the Bush/Gore election, school shootings, Emmanuel AME shootings among others. I have never had the skill or maybe I lacked the boldness to directly include such topics in my sermons, often choosing to address them in prayers. The sermons are pastoral. Imagine preaching an ordination sermon the weekend after the Sandy Hook school shooting in a neighboring town. She handles the scripture, the charge to the pastor, and addresses the situation with grace.
Rutledge is a master wordsmith
Rutledge is well read, both in the discipline of theology as well in literature. Her sermons are steeped in scripture, which allows her to interpret the events happening in the world along with insights from theology and literature. She draws heavily on the poetry of W. H. Auden and T. S. Eliot. The combination results in convincing essays and sermons that give her listeners (and readers) much to ponder. While Rutledge (taking her clues from scripture) doesn’t provide an answer to the reason evil exists, she also doesn’t deny or diminish evil’s powers. But she reminds her readers of God’s greater power and love and leaves us with hope. While there is a lot of darkness in her sermons, there is also the anticipation of light (which is what the season of Advent is about).
Rutledge is an Episcopalian and one of the first women ordained into ministry by the Episcopal Church in the United States.
I recommend this book for both Christians and those who might be skeptical that the Christian faith has little to say to today’s world.
This is a delightful collection of poetry from Willis, an English professor at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. I purchased the book from the Calvin University bookstore when I was there in early October. I had met the author though Calvin’s “Festival of Faith and Writing” workshops. Once, when I lived in Michigan, I encouraged him to stay a few days afterwards to do a poetry reading at Pierce Cedar Creek Nature Center south of Hastings, Michigan. It was early April 2012. On the morning of the reading, I took Willis on a hike on the trails around the property. That evening he read a poem he’d worked out while hiking that morning titled, “Skunk Cabbage.” An edited version of that poem is in this collection.
Nature plays a prominent role in Willis’ poems. Many of these poems he locates in various places in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and Pacific Northwest. Faith and scripture references also abound in these poems, as well as the theme of fire. This collection was compiled after the author lost his home to the 2008 Tea Fire that devastated areas around Santa Barbara. I recommend this collection of poetry.
Brian Doyle, One Long River of Song
(New York: Little Brown, 2019) 251 pages.
This is a delightful collection of essays by the late Brian Doyle. I heard so much about him at the HopeWord Writer’s Conference this past spring and this is my first of his books to read. One Long River of Song is a book to be savored and read slowly, over time. This book spent a couple of months on my nightstand and whenever I didn’t have anything else to read, I’d read from one to a half-dozen essays before bed. Some made me tear up, others brought laughter.
All these essays provide the reader something to ponder. Each essay stands on its own. Doyle handles diverse subjects, from how he learned humility to how to write the “perfect nature essay.” There is an essay on the school shooting, a somewhat fictional account of William Blakes trial, on otters and wolverines and the human heart (that maintains a 4/4 beat). Doyle, who was Roman Catholic, explores the church and the meaning of faith. As the essays come toward the end, they tend to be more and more about death, but even here there is wonder.
This collection was published by Doyle’s wife after his death in 2017. I recommend it!
Carrot Quinn, The Sunset Route: Freight Trains, Forgiveness, and Freedom of the Rails in the American West
(2021, Audible Books), 9 hours and 27 minutes.
Someone had suggested that I read Quinn’s book, Thru-Hiking Will Break Your Heart. In looking up that title, I realized she’d written another book about riding the rails. I have done long distant hiking, but have never hopped a train. However, the lure has always been there, so I decided to start with this book. While there is a lot about catching trains and how to hide from the railroad police (who are not like the railroad bulls of the 1930s), this book is Quinn’s “coming-of-age” story. While I didn’t want to stop listening, it was hard to listen to much of Quinn’s story. Yet, she needs to be heard as she is not the only one to grow up in such difficult circumstances.
I found this book to be a cross between Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, and Chad Faries, Drive Me Out of My Mind which I read in early 2020. Like Faries’ experiences, I found myself angry at Quinn’s childhood. No child should have to live in such a manner. While such an upbringing has helped make her who she is, I worry about other kids who didn’t make it.
Review of The Sunset Route
Quinn flips back and forth, from her adventures on a train to growing up with a mentally ill mother in Alaska. Her mother believes she is the Virgin Mary and often has weird visions. At times, unable to hold things together, her mother would forget to file for welfare and Quinn and her brother along with their mother would be homeless. It was a difficult as she learns at an early age to forage food from dumpsters. In her teens, she is taken from her mother and sent to her grandparents in Colorado. Then she runs away. She becomes a part of a drug and alcohol-free anarchist community and learns about riding rails. As she rides the rails, she reads Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a book I read when I hiked the Appalachian Trail.
It appears to me that throughout her life, Quinn keeps trying to find love and failing. Her mentally ill mother can’t love her. When her mother is sick, she says terrible things to her children. Her estranged father has abandoned the family and while he brought her a plane ticket on one occasion, isn’t able to show love to someone he abandoned as an infant. Her grandparents don’t know what to do with two teenagers when all the rest of children have grown. When her brother becomes an addict, there is another rift from one she had been able to depend on. And then there are the relationships to others, mostly to other women but also to men. While Quinn doesn’t find love, there are a few bright moments in her life when someone helps her out.
At the end of the book (which has a big gap of the time when she hiked long distance trails) she seems to have come to peace with her situation. She and her brother have reconnected, as they both shared a terrible childhood. She even tries to find her mother, fearing that she might die in the cold in Anchorage.
While many will find this book difficult to read. But stories like these need to be heard because so many of these stories are not heard and are hidden from society.
(Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2017), 264 pages plus color plates of illustrations.
Growing up in North Carolina, I remember pecan trees on my great grandparents’ farms. Pecans were often linked to Christmas. I would find nuts in my stocking along and we’d eat pecan pies, sweet potato casserole with a pecan topping, and blueberry salad with a pecans and cream cheese topping. I assumed pecans were native to the area and used, along with everything else on the homestead, to provide a mostly self-sufficient estate. In reading this book, I learned otherwise.
Pecan expanding range
While Pecans are native to the Americas, their native range was somewhere along the Mississippi River, up to Missouri and Illinois, and along riverbanks in Texas and the north half of Mexico. Yet, no one is really sure where they originally developed. Pecan nuts may have been transported by humans and planted (or accidentally dropped and planted) even before the European conquest of the New World. This could have broadened their range.
The widespread planting of pecans in Georgia and the Carolinas began in the 19th Century. By the end of the 20th Century, one can find the tree growing across the southern half of the United States (from the Atlantic to New Mexico), along with places in South America, Australia, the Middle East, and China.
History of Pecans
Wells documents pecan history. The nut was a food stable among Native American tribes and helped keep lost Spanish conquistadors alive. They have even found their way into space as a snack for astronauts. Thanks to the marketing skills of Karo corn syrup, pecan pies are now a holiday staple in many parts of the country. However, pecan pies are like creamed spinach, taking something healthy and making it unhealthy. But with the extra sugar (and bourbon and butter and other things that go well with pecans), they are one of the healthiest nuts available.
Diversity within the trees.
Pecans are grown in the wild, in backyards, and in large commercial orchards. And planting a nut one is not sure of what kind of pecan will grow as nuts from the same tree may produce different results. The only way to insure you are reproducing a particular tree is grafting. Pecans are also one of the most diverse trees with lots of subspecies. This diversity protects the nut from disease. Wells outlines the growth of the pecan industry, the challenges of raising the nut, and how such orchards and nuts can be good for the environment and our bodies.
This book is well written and contains numerous wonderful stories about those who have been involved in the pecan business. He also provides many humorous anecdotes, such as the businessman who gave out a prize for the largest pecans, as a way to find valuable trees to reproduce. Visiting the winning tree on a riverbank in Texas, he found most of the limbs cut off. Locals cut the limbs as ways to harvest the nuts. That story seems like a metaphor for much of human development. And it rings true of those big-headed Texans. While Wells discusses technical aspects of growing such trees, such as grafting and soil types, he conveys scientific information in a manner that a lay person can understand.
There’s more I’d like to know
Upon finishing the book, I wanted to know more. Wells never mentions pecan as a wood product, yet it’s a rich and beautiful wood that can be used as veneer for plywood and for gunstocks. Maybe my wondering about alternative uses for the tree makes me a bit of heretic, for Wells has dedicated his life to the nut.
I am also curious about the relationship between the pecan and the American Chestnut. A blight wiped out the chestnut in the early 20th Century. Both trees provided nuts for pioneers in addition to providing a cash crop for those welling to gather and sell such nuts. Wells does discuss the relationship between pecans and hickory and walnuts. To modify a pecan for swampy soil, graft a pecan scion to a water hickory stock. Finally, I would have liked to have seen a list of the major types of pecans and their characteristics. Wells mentions dozens of varieties and it was hard to keep them straight. One variety, the Cape Fear, I was especially curious about as my great grandparents’ farms were in the Cape Fear River basin.
An additional recipe from me
At the back of this book, Wells includes some recipes. I’ll add my recipe to the mix as I eat a 1/3 cup of this every morning in a bowl of fruit and homemade yogurt.
Homemade Granola 3 cups finely chopped pecans 6 cups old fashion oats ¾ cup of olive oil ¾ cup of maple syrup 2 tablespoons of vanilla 1+ tablespoon of cinnamon 1+ tablespoon of sea salt
Mix in a large bowl until everything blended. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Split the mix and spread over the parchment. Bake at 325 degrees for 20 minutes. Stir the mixture and return to the oven for another 20 minutes. Store for 3 months in a glass sealed container. If storing longer, place the granola into storage bags and freeze.
I didn’t really have a dog in the hunt during the World Series, but I did enjoy watching parts of the games. However, over the past month, I did read two books about baseball in which I’ll review. If you’re a fan, you might find these books interesting and a way to carry you through the winter until February, when the pitchers and catchers report to spring training. The first book was to take me back to the second grade, about the time I learned about baseball. The second, a biography of Ty Cobb, took me back to an era even before my grandfather played ball. I’ve been reading a lot this year and I am way behind on book reviews.
David Halberstam, October 1964
(New York: Fawcett Books, 1994), 382 pages including a bibliography, plus 16 pages of photos.
1964 was the year I became aware of baseball. My dad giving me a bat that summer. Also, when my grandparents attended the World’s Fair in New York during the fall, they stopped by to see us on their way home (we lived in Petersburg, VA from 1963-66) and gave me a baseball cap that featured photos of Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. That cap would probably be worth something today. The year was also one for change for baseball. It was the last year for a while in which the New York Yankees dominated baseball. It was also a year the St. Louis Cardinals again became a dominate National League team. They would beat the Yankees in the World Series in seven games. Over the next few years many of the Cardinals would become familiar as I followed the game more closely. Lou Brock, Curt Flood, and Bob Gibson would again play in the first World Series I followed carefully as the Cardinals lost to the Detroit Tigers in ‘68.
While the book title just mentions October, Halberstam provides an overview of the entire season for the leading teams. He also provides historical background of players, coaches, and managers including delving into the Yankees fading glory and the building of a contending team in St. Louis. He also gives background into other teams in the chase for the pennant. Both teams in the World Series had won their pennant by only a game and there were several teams in the hunt until the last day, making it an exciting ending. New York ended one game ahead of the Orioles and two games ahead of the White Sox. In the National League, the Cardinals were never in first place until the last week of the season. On the last day of the regular season, they bested the Phillies and Reds by one game.
Another difference between the teams was the American League being far behind the National League in recruiting African American players. St. Louis hosted many black stars, while New York was just beginning to bring aboard black players.
While there was some acknowledgement to what’s going on in the world outside of baseball, Halberstam mostly focused on the game itself and how it was changing as you had more African Americans playing the game, television was becoming more important, and the players were becoming celebrities. Some, like Mickey Mantle, ate up the attention while others like Roger Maris wanted no part of it.
This book provides great introductions to the players, coaches, and owners of each team. It’s a good read for baseball fans. I have read and enjoyed several other books by David Halberstam including The Summer of ’49 and The Fifties.
Charles Leerhsen, Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty
(Audible, edited by Malcolm Hillgartner, 2015, 15 hours and 33 minutes)
Many believe Ty Cobb to be the best baseball player of all times. Sadly, even though motion pictures were available at the time he played, there are no films of Cobb running the bases or swinging a bat. Just a short movie of him warming up by catching and throwing a ball. While many think Cobb is the greatest, others believe that Cobb was one of the dirtiest ballplayers of all time. The rumor is that he was hated by most other players, and was a racist.
Leerhsen has taken it upon himself to challenge a lot of the rumors about Cobb. While he doesn’t come across like a Sunday school teacher, Leerhsen portrays Cobb as a complex human being. A great ball player, he probably didn’t sharpen his spikes (or if he did, it might have been to intimiate his players, but spiking of other players does not seem to have been a regular occurrence for Cobb. While this was the rumor even during his career, in one case where the commissioner was going to punish Cobb for such an infraction, a photographer provided evidence that he had not spiked the other player
As for being a racist, Leerhsen points out that as an older man, Cobb was one of the former great ballplayers to welcome Jackie Robinson, the first African American, into the major leagues. He was also elected to the baseball hall of fame its first year in existence and received more votes than Babe Ruth. Leerhsen, while correcting many of the misconceptions of Ty Cobb, show us a flawed man who was a talented ballplayer. He liked to win and worked hard. Cobb didn’t like spring training (and often showed up late) because he stayed in shape in the winter. He also studied the game and other players, which allowed him to get a “psychological jump” on them.
Cobb’s career begin in the “dead ball” era. Before the First World War, the baseballs were not as tight as those after the war. In addition, unlike today when balls are replaced regularly, during this era a ball might be used for the entire game. As the innings advanced, the ball tended to get softer. During his era, there were few homeruns. Cobb often bunted and depended on speed to make it to the base. Or he would punch the ball over the heads of the infield.
As a batter, Cobb had a unique stance and held the bat with his hands apart. This allowed him to quickly choke up on the bat if the ball was inside of the plate, or extend his grip if the ball was outside. After the war (in which Cobb volunteered), Cobb showed he could also reach the fence. Once, having been told Babe Ruth was the better ballplayer, he hit five homers in two games. Cobb still holds the highest lifetime batting average in the major leagues. But where Cobb really made a name for himself was baserunning, successfully stealing home a record number of times. And he liked to win!
Cobb was successful in life. He invested well (including in his home state’s Coca Cola stock) and was probably a millionaire halfway through his career. He was also one of the highest paid ballplayers of the era, earning up to $60,000 a year in the mid-1920s. But he did have a problem with violence and often got into fights with other ballplayers, with fans, with hotel clerks, and others. While Leerhsen acknowledges this tendency, he points out this was an era where were fighting was common among ballplayers.
Cobb became one of the first celebrities of baseball. He hung out with Presidents and often inviting other players down to Georgia to hunt or fish with him during the off season.
I enjoyed listing to this book as I drove back and forth from my father’s home last month.
It’s 1965. The Vietnam War heats up and involves Harry’s father. As a twelve-year-old who has lived around the world, Harry is sent to stay with his grandfather and uncle on a hardscrabble farm in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas. While most of his classmates look for ways out of the community, Harry wants to find a way to stay. He learns to fish and hunt along with gaining wisdom of the two old men (Albert and Emerson), and their dog, Cody. Both men have lost wives and now together. While they haven’t travelled far from where they live, they read widely. An atlas takes them to trout streams around the world. During trout season, they are on the creek at dawn. After fishing the morning Starlight Creek, around Cody’s Rock or Karen’s Pool, they work in the fields until evening, when they again fish. For the old men, fly fishing was a blessing to a “hard and often depressing life.”
Take only what you need
When a man in town known as a great killer of turkeys brags in the local diner about how one needs to be camouflaged to kill turkeys, Emerson digs out an old Santa Claus outfit and heads into the hills. Dressed as Santa, he kills a large Tom. He drops the bird off at the diner, saying that the key isn’t camouflaged, but being quiet. But the other man’s idea of slaughtering large number of birds goes against Albert and Emerson’s philosophy. Their fishing is mostly catch-and-release. Likewise, they only hunt for what they needed, a deer a season for meat and a few birds for a variety. When heading out to hunt, they only take a few shells. The rest of the time they delight in seeing.
Ambition appears lacking in Albert and Emerson. The local agriculture representative tries to tell them how their farm could be more profitable, but they aren’t interested. After all, more money would bring complications and complications are to be avoided. Fly fishing “saved them from the dreary life of subsistence farmers.” It gives “them a way to participate in the rhythms of the natural world other than my shouldering a hoe.” (77)
Nearby, in an old cabin, lives Elias Wonder, a Sioux and former Marine, who was gassed in World War I. Waking from the experience, he first thought he was Robert E. Lee and volunteers to surrender. As he regains part of his senses, he decides he is in hell as only white men populate the hospital. Ten years later, Elias shows up on the farm on his quest for death. The two old men, who weren’t yet so old but having lost their wives, adopt him and nurse him back to health. They help Wonder out by providing him with corn which he converts to moonshine to supply himself and the town. Along the way, for 40 years, Elias kept seeking death. When he was struck by lightning, he complained it only cleared his sinuses.
Another character in this book is the Reverend Biddle, pastor at the Primitive Methodist Church. One Sunday afternoon a month, he’d come over and enjoy some wine as he talked salvation with the two men and occasionally Elias. While Albert and Emerson fail to see the benefit in religion, they enjoyed the conversation. Having heard from the Reverend Biddle that the poor would inherit the earth, the two old men realize it wasn’t going to happen anytime soon. “‘By the time we get it,’ snapped Albert one Sunday, ‘it’ll be like inheriting last month’s fish.’”
Conclusion and my recommendation
This was a delightful story, but Middleton’s writing can be difficult. More than normal, I found myself reaching for a dictionary to check the meaning of words like piscator, prolix, bilious, and splenetic… At times, the author jumps forward and looks back, such as when in the middle of the story, he thinks back on one of the men’s deaths. While I found this annoying, it didn’t keep from giving the book a five-star review on Goodreads. I enjoyed this story and will have to read other books by the author. Sadly, he died young, in the 1990s.
Many writers compared this book to Norman Maclean’s novella, A River Runs Through It. Both are about coming of age and trout fishing. Both involve the author’s life’s story with some novelist flare. While I see the similarities, I found myself thinking about the movie, “Secondhand Lions.” The old men in the book and movie come from different circumstances, but both stories involve a young boy staying with older men and learning from them.
I found the book to be a joy. While I don’t recommend the religious attitudes (or lack thereof) of the men in the story, knowing that we’ve been given enough and being grateful for what we have is a lesson worth learning.
A Quote to take with you:
“The angler hopes for nothing and prays for everything; he expects nothing and accepts all that comes his way.” (79)
As a seminary student, I first introduced to the writings of Eugene Peterson. I don’t remember the class, but I had to read Working the Angles. Later, a girlfriend during my senior year gave me a copy of Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work. Shortly after graduating, I read The Long Obedience, which focuses on the Psalms of Ascents (Psalm 120-134). I would later read Under the Unpredictable Plant (a commentary on Jonah), Reverse Thunder (commentary on Revelation), among others. This was all before Peterson began to publish his own translation of Scripture which, when completed, came out as The Message. Shortly after its publication, I meet Peterson at a pastoral conference for those serving in Utah (where I was at the time). I remember him being willing to sign any book but The Message. He didn’t feel he should sign a book as he didn’t write it. It wasn’t his book, he just translated it. I also found myself surprised that he didn’t have the big booming voice one assumes of preachers. His voice was high pitched, but his words drew you in.
Peterson has been influential in my pastoral life. In 2013, after having completed a major building campaign and church relocation, I considered leaving the ministry. About this time, I read Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, Leaving Church. In the past, I had always found Taylor’s writings supportive and insightful, but read this book reinforced my thoughts of abandoning the ministry. Then, thankfully, I picked up Peter’s recent memoir, The Pastor. I again found purpose and encouragement for continuing the ministry. I am indebted to Peterson.
My Review of A Burning in my Bones
Winn Collier, A Burning in My Bones: The Authorized Biography of Eugene H. Peterson (WaterBrook, 2021), 339 pages including some photos and notes.
Eugene Peterson is from Montana and the West played a major role in his life. His father was a butcher and his mother often served as a Pentecostal preacher. From this background, Peterson was nurtured for what became his ministry. After college in Seattle, he attended seminary in New York City. While there, he begins to attend a Presbyterian Church and later even worked as a student at a Presbyterian Church. A student of languages, he started work on a doctorate with some of the top Old Testament professors in the country (Albright and later Childs) but felt the call to ministry.
Peterson was ordinated by the Presbyterian Church and sent to Baltimore, Maryland where he and his wife would help organize a new Presbyterian congregation. He would serve this church for 29 years. There were exciting times, especially in the beginning, followed by a period of doldrums, till finally Peterson understood his calling. Unlike many with his skills, he resisted the temptation to build or seek a larger church. He wanted to be a pastor. And in Scripture, he found solace. With his skill in language, he would often translate passages for Bible Study and preaching. These became the beginnings of The Message.
Much of Peterson’s life until he left the ministry is also told in his memoir, The Pastor. However, Collier provides a more critical view of his life. In addition to having access to this former volume and to his papers, Collier spent time talking to Peterson and interviewed his wife and family, along with colleague and friends.
As a pastor, Peterson began to write books and would take an extended yearly vacation to Montana. After retiring, he devoted himself to completing his translation of scripture in addition to teaching five years at Regents in Vancouver. Then he returned to his beloved Montana for the last years of his life. During this time, he began writing a series of books on pastoral theology. The last section of the book, from where Peterson left Baltimore to his death, was the most enlightening to me. I especially liked the sensitivity Collier shows in Peterson’s apparent flip-flopping on the issue of same-sex marriage. Sadly, his mind was becoming muddled. Shortly afterwards, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
Peterson has left behind a great volume of work that will benefit the church for years to come. His life was devoted to God’s word and God’s people. In many ways, he was both embraced and rejected by those on the ideological extremes, for Peterson refused to be used as a political pawn in church wars. I am thankful that Collier has provided those of us who found much to appreciate in Peterson’s writings an insight into his life. Last spring, at HopeWords Writer’s Conference in Bluefield, West Virginia, I met Collier. At the time, I had to admit that I had his book (it was a Christmas present) but had not read it. He signed my copy anyway. Now, I have read it!
I am trying to catch up on reading reviews. Below are four reviews that contain fiction, poetry, philosophy, and history. I will start with the lighter books and move on to the more heavy ones. There’s something here for everyone!
Aaron McAlexander, This Old Store
(Stonebridge Press, 2014), 95 pages including photos and maps.
There really is a place called Mayberry. It’s located along the Blue Ridge Parkway in Southwestern Virginia, twenty-some miles from Mt. Airy, NC. There was never much of a town here, just a few businesses and some farmers. Until the 1930s, there was a Post Office here. The store, where the Post Office resides, is still in business. The other reminder of the community that once existed is Mayberry Presbyterian Church. Aaron McAlexander, along with his late uncle, John Hassell Yeatts, have done their best to preserve the stories of this community. This is the fourth book I’ve read by McAlexander. It’s an easy read and a joy.
Throughout the countryside in these parts, there are lots of old boarded up stories. Many were two story stores, like Mayberry Trading Post. Most have been closed for decades. The Mayberry Store, which was built in 1892, remains open mainly because it is adjacent to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Today the store sells snacks, crafts, and souvenirs, along with jars of canned local treats from jams to chowchow.
This was once a community center. People picked up their mail in this old building, in addition to obtaining kerosene for their lanterns and later gasoline for their car or tractor. Hardware and tools along with that which they couldn’t produce themselves could be purchased at the store. The store would also trade for locally produced goods, from apples to chestnuts, which the storekeeper hauled to Mt. Airy or Stuart, Virginia to sell. While the storekeeper never sold alcoholic drinks, there would often be a bootlegger around who would have a bottle or two hidden nearby so those who wanted a nip could be satisfied. On slow days, checkers would be played.
Over the years, the store has changed hands many time (it’s been for sale for the last few years and from the scuttlebutt I recently heard, may be about ready to be sold again). McAlexander outlines these changes along with recalling stories from his mother and grandparents to his own stories of growing up in the area in the 1940s and 50s.
Narrated by David Aaron Baker, 14 hours, 47 minutes; (2012, audiobooks, 2013)
It has been a while since I read Doig. Almost a quarter century ago, when I was living in the Great Basin of the American West, I discovered Doig and read two of his memoirs: House in Sky: Landscapes of a Western Mind and Heart Earth. Living in an area where there were still sheepherders, Doig’s writings felt familiar. This is the first fiction I’ve read (actually listened to) by him and, God willing, it won’t be the last.
The book is told through the eyes of a child. This allows the author to lead us, in Rusty’s mind, down some wrong paths as a boy’s mind will often do. Is she my mother? What will happen if my father falls in love? You’ll have to read the book to learn the answers to those question and others that I ask.
The story begins in the early 1950s, when Rusty was six years old and being raised by an aunt with a couple of older boys in Arizona. He’s looking forward to school just so he can have time away from these taunting nephews. Then, like a good western, an outsider rides into town to save him. He is reunited with his father, Tom Harry, whom he had only seen occasionally. His father lives in Gros Ventre, Montana, where he runs the Medicine Lodge Saloon.
The novel then jumps ahead to the summer of 1960. Rusty is now twelve years old. This is a summer of discovery. Rusty meets Zoe, a new girl in town whose parents have purchased the Top Spot, the local diner. The two of them make quite a pair spying on everyone and trying out new characters as if they’re in theater. Throughout the summer, as everyone wonders if Kennedy will be the new President, there is a string of characters that make their way into town. One is Delano, an oral historian who wants to learn about the Fort Peck Dam project from Tom, who ran a bar there during the Great Depression. Delano is also interested in language patterns, which helps provide insight into the catchy phrases often thrown around by those visiting the bar. Also swinging into the Medicine Bar is Proxy, a former dancer in Fort Peck. In tow is her trouble daughter, Francine. Is Francine Rusty’s half-sister? Or his sister? Can Francine run one of the best-known saloons in Montana?
There is a lot packed into that summer of 1960, as Doig slowly fills in the details of Rusty’s inquisitive mind. Doig captures the western dialect, which helps create a delightful come-of-age story. He captures the life of the sheepherders along with working into the story a Class D League baseball team which he describes as being one step up from a picnic softball game. There is also some fishing. Doig captures the beauty of place as he describes Montana and the Medicine Bar.
Quote from their road trip from Arizona to Montana:
“My father always said, when stopping on a road trip in a place to pee, “nice joint you have here, even if it was as gloomy as a funeral parlor. I supposed I learned something of professional courtesy from these stops.”
Raymond Carver, All of Us: The Collected Poems
(1996, New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 2000), 386 pages including index, appendixes, plus Introduction and Editor’s Preface
I have only recently become acquainted with the writings of Raymond Carver who died at the age of 50 in 1988. He’s perhaps best known for his short stories, but I decided to sample a collection of his poetry. This collection was gathered and published after his death. While I was familiar with the poetry of Tess Gallagher before reading his volume, I did not know that she was Carver’s last wife. She provides both the Introduction to this work along with an extensive essay in the appendixes that served as an introduction to the last collection of Carver’s poetry.
The book begins with earlier poems which are often raw and sometimes vulgar. Some reflect the views of an alcoholic and of loss relationships. Other poems in this section come from the author’s travels, especially in Europe. Often, in these poems, he weaves in history with his own experiences. Other travels take him into the wilderness of the American West, and on fishing trips. One poem that stood out to me was “To My Daughter,” where he warns her that alcoholism runs in the family and warning her not to drink like she’d seen her parents do.
I found the poems in the last half of the book, written after he had quit drinking, to be more filled with wonder and gratitude. Here there are even more poems set around the Pacific Northwest. Fishing often comes up. Mixed into this section are many poems by Anton Chekhov. Sprinkled throughout the book are quotes and poems from other authors. Carver also brings other authors into his poetry such as Franz Kafka in “The Moon, The Train.” As the reader comes to the “first” end of the collection, the author knows he’s living on borrowed time. I had a sense of grace reading these poems.
But just because I reached the end of the collection didn’t mean I was out of poems to read, as the first appendix contained a group of “uncollected poems” from No Heroics, Please. His wife’s essay at the end is also worth reading as it sheds much light onto their life together and the last group of poems in this collection.
This is a large collection of poems. I spent a month and a half reading through them, often before bed, sometimes reading a poem several times. For those interested in poetry, this volume appears to me to be a “must read.” Yes, some of the poems especially in the first part of the book can be quite raw, but so is life for many people. As one continues to read, one will also find grace and hope and beauty.
Arthur Herman, The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Artistole and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization
(New York: Random House, 2014), 676 pages including notes, bibliography and index, or 25 hours and 26 minutes on Audible.
I started listening to this book on Audible but became so engrossed into Herman’s survey of Western thought that I ended up buying the book so I could go back and read and study sections of it. This is a massive undertaking. Herman begins by describing Raphael’s painting, “The School of Athens” which is in the Vatican. Over the next few hundred pages, he will expand upon the various philosophers in the painting. He’s concentrates primarily on Plato and Aristotle, who are depicted in two camps on the canvas. On Plato’s side is Socrates, Pythagoras, Speusippus, Zenocrates, Plotinus, Epicurus, the Arab scholar, Avernoes, and Heraclitus. In Aristotle’s camp are Eudemus, Theophrastus, Ptolemy, Euclid, and Stabo. From these two camps come a creative tension between the idealist Plato and the more practical Aristotle that has driven Western thought for the past 2500 years.
Herman takes the reader on a journey that begins in Greece and moves on to Alexander and across Europe. He discusses the influence of each of the philosophers on the Roman world, medieval Christianity, into the renaissance, reformation, enlightenments and on into the 19th and 20th Century. He discusses how these two schools of thought shaped not only philosophy and religion, but physical and biological science, government, and economics. I compare reading this book to retaking the year of Western Civilization required in college when I was a student in the late 1970s.
However, the book does not read like a textbook. Herman often draws on illustrations from art and for popular culture to make a point. And a few times, his writing seems to become “creative” as when he writes as to draw us back into a particular situation such as Michelangelo’s stroll to the Sistine Chapel to paint, a cart rumbling down a cobbled road to the guillotine during the French Revolution, or Alexander von Humboldt encounter with a jaguar in the South American jungles.
Herman’s thesis is that for a society to do well, it needs the creative tension that comes from Platonic idealism and Aristotelian materialism. When one side is over-emphasized, bad things happen. Plato leads to tyranny and Aristotle to stagnation. But when the two are in competition, society flourishes. While Herman could be critical of Hegel, there is a certain Hegelian logic in his thesis.
I really enjoyed this book even though at times I felt he had to stretch things to keep everything lined up between Plato and Aristotle. I wish he had spent more time with Scottish Common-sense philosophy and with the work of Edmund Burke, but when you are trying to pack 2500 years into one volume, you can’t have everything.
This is the second book I read by Arthur Herman. Several years ago, I read and enjoyed How the Scots Built the Modern World.