Saturday, May 7, 2016

Spring Reading


My personal reading challenge continues to be reading the books I already own, now amended to include those that find their way to me via our Little Free Library.  It feels like my TBR stack reproduces each night, and I fall behind daily in any effort to keep current on recently published books.  Mostly, I just read what I want to read.

This spring, my light fiction reading list has included the following:
 
The Lincoln Lawyer, by Michael Connelly (NY: Grand Central Publishing, 2005)

This book found its way to me from someone else’s Little Free Library.  This Connelly series features Mickey Haller, a defense lawyer, still in love with his ex-wife, a prosecuting attorney in the District Attorney’s office.  The book starts slow but picks up its pace, so it kept me reading late into the night, but I still prefer the police procedurals of LAPD Detective Harry Bosch.  A wealthy real estate agent is accused of the attempted murder of a prostitute.  Mickey is hired to defend him, but is the man innocent, or is Mickey being played?  The book was made into a movie starring Matthew  McConaughey. A theme of Connelly’s seems to be how well justice is served by the systems of law enforcement and the judicial process.  While Haller and Bosch always prevail, justice sometimes doesn’t.
 
Dead with the Wind, by Miranda James (NY: Berkley Prime Crime, 2015)

This series features sisters An’gel and Dickce Ducote, 84 and 80 years of age.  I like to see older protagonists in mysteries, plus this book was set in Louisiana, so I decided to read it.  The plot strains credulity more than once.  The sisters are invited to a family wedding but before it can take place, the bride, a real Bridezilla, is found dead, apparently swept off her balcony during a violent thunder storm?!  For real?  See what I mean?  The most interesting thing about this book is the author, Miranda James, is actually Dean James, a long-time librarian in Texas.  He started out writing non-fiction reference books about mysteries with a collaborator, then got into fiction writing and has since authored 18 whodunits.
 

Mrs. Pollifax, Innocent Tourist, by Dorothy Gilman (NY: Fawcett, 1997)

Such a treat to find a Mrs. Pollifax mystery in my Little Free Library—it just doesn’t happen often enough!  Emily Pollifax, the sixtyish senior citizen who studies judo and occasionally undertakes a clandestine mission for the CIA, is persuaded to go to Jordan with another agent to pose as an innocent tourist.  All they have to do is hang out at a popular tourist spot to obtain a book manuscript being smuggled out of Iraq.  Mrs. Pollifax, as usual, is in the right, or wrong place (depending upon one’s perspective) at the right time and ends up neck deep in multinational intrigue.  Never one to be under-estimated, Emily Pollifax survives with a little help from a Bedouin family.  The last two Mrs. Pollifax mysteries I’ve read have featured themes concerning turmoil in the Middle East.  Gilman is timely even though her novel was written 20 years ago.  Early in the book, Gilman writes that Mrs. Pollifax understands, “America was no longer immune to terrorism and bombs.”   Later a Jordanian character says, ”I think it is our one big danger of a country….That the extreme ones may become powerful and force our women to wear the heavy veils again…all of us to become unfree, when we have become quite free here. Of fear.”   


Julia’s Chocolate, by Cathy Lamb (NY: Kensington Publishing Corp, 2007)

Someone gave me this chick lit book.  Because it had the word “chocolate” in the title and because it had an intriguing opening line, I put it on a shelf and mentally marked it, “To be decided.”  I wasn’t sure I wanted to read the book, but the first line, “I left my wedding dress hanging in a tree somewhere in North Dakota,” reeled me in.  Julia Bennett is a runaway bride, leaving her wealthy but abusive fiancé at the altar.  She seeks refuge at the home of her aunt, who provided her with the only safe haven she knew as a child, and Julia knows she could count on her aunt.  Her aunt has a cadre of female friends who gather weekly to share, drink, shed inhibitions and empower each other and themselves.  The book is full of female rituals that Aunt Lydia makes up, but each woman is able to overcome her own “devil” because of the foundation gained at Aunt Lydia’s.   Julia is no exception.  In the end, it is the information about the author that interested me as much as the book.  A former fourth grade teacher, Lamb has written over a dozen books of women’s fiction.  She admits that she edits every book twelve times, eight times before she will submit the manuscript to her editor.  I enjoyed reading blog posts on her website as she provides insights into her life and her writing process.

We had a little bit of trouble last month with the Little Free Library.  About midnight on a Friday night, my husband comes flying down the stairs and says, “A group of kids just went by the library, stopped, and did something to it.  I’m not sure what, but I’m going to see.”

The six boys ran down the street when my husband went outside.  They had dumped all the books out on the ground and thrown some further down the sidewalk.  Ricky said, “I’m calling the police to report vandalism.” 

Soon two police cars pulled up in front of our house.  The officers looked at the books scattered about and the female officer told my husband, “Another officer has these kids two blocks up the street.”

She told the second officer to tell the officers to detain the youth while she reviewed the video.  She looked at our video of the incident, noted which boys did what, and asked Ricky if we wanted to press charges.  She and Ricky agreed that the boys hadn’t destroyed property, it was simple vandalism, but Ricky told her, “If you could scare them, it would be good.”

The police left.  We went to bed.

The next morning, I was in the house with the front door open and the screen door latched.  I heard someone walking up on the front porch.  It was a woman and her son.  The mother was making the boy come by our house to apologize for his part in the vandalism of the Little Free Library. She was one upset mother!  It seems a group of boys were spending the night together and had sneaked out.

The young man apologized.  I told him he could help me put all the books back in the library.  We talked a little as we worked.  It turns out he loves to read, he said The Count of Monte Cristo is his favorite book. I recommended another book from the LFL, and after examining it, he decided to check it out. 

While the boy and I were putting the library back together, a woman and her two kids stopped by. She thanked Ricky and me for finding her toddler's shoe, which the child had kicked off unbeknownst to the mother.  Ricky had found it and put it in the LFL for her to reclaim later.  The mom said she had never seen us outside to thank us personally. Then her grammar school-age son piped up and added, "You have good books in there, I like them."
We were glad the boys were apprehended before they got themselves in a real jam. Little Free Libraries—character and community building!

 

 

Monday, May 2, 2016

"Gardening’s real when so much of the world ain’t."

Gardening’s real when so much of the world ain’t-- Loretta Lynn (April/May 2016 AARP magazine)


Horse trough raised garden
Some people don’t like having an overabundance of garden produce, but I dream of such a problem—it makes cooking and eating fun and creative experiences.  Years ago when I was teaching school and enrolled as a graduate student at the University of Tennessee, I had part ownership of a large vegetable garden.  We were inundated with spinach and Swiss chard.  I had never even heard of Swiss chard!  This was before the internet so I pored through cookbooks hunting for suitable recipes.  I remember a chard and Parmesan cheese bake, but I’m not sure what else I came up with.  Other people in the house also had cooking responsibilities so they probably fixed “messes” of mixed greens and corn bread, and we all ate well.

I’m originally from a small town located in a wide valley between mountain ridges in Southwest Virginia.  Many people there agree with Loretta Lynn and still plant a garden, and harvest time inevitably brings forth an abundance of squash.  You would be hard pressed to enter a home that didn’t have at least one loaf of zucchini bread in the freezer, waiting for a new neighbor to move in, a friend to fall ill, the birth of a baby, or a bereavement.   Zucchini bread covers it all.

When I had an overabundance of zucchini in grad school, thanks to the largesse of a friend (as it was before I moved into the big garden house), I co-hosted a party that was billed as “Tribute to the Zucchini.”  I made zucchini Provençal, stuffed zucchini, zucchini dipped in a beer batter and fried, and zucchini bread, to name a few of the dishes. 

 A few years ago, I spearheaded the planting of a small garden at the Early Head Start Center I supervised.  Our successful crops were cherry tomatoes, okra, cucumbers—and zucchini.  When I bought the plants I didn’t realize that most of my staff only ate yellow squash and had never even seen a zucchini.  That meant that I had all the zucchini for myself!  I made a stacked squash casserole; zucchini corn bread, zucchini chocolate chip cookies, oven “fried” zucchini and, of course, loaves of zucchini bread. 

Zucchini chocolate chip cookies
Last week a friend gave me a bunch of Meyer lemons so I fixed black-eyed peas, sautéed Swiss chard, roasted red potatoes tossed with lemon juice and olive oil, and lemon corn bread.   
As you can see above, currently my garden is a raised bed, actually a horse trough, supported by a frame so it is modest in size.  I hope this experiment produces something edible.  If not, like Blanche Dubois, I’ll be depending on the kindness of strangers, or friends, to share their oversupplies with me.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Discovering the Harry Bosch mysteries

Maybe the Metropolitan Planning Commission knew what they were doing when they tried to close the doors of our Little Free Library.  I confess our LFL has turned me into a junkie.  I’ve become addicted to the Harry Bosch mysteries by Michael Connelly.  It started out innocently.  I saw a three volume tome of Harry Bosch mysteries in our LFL and took them out, thinking I had never read any of these books though I had heard of them.  One night when I was in the mood for something different to read, I picked up this thick book. 
I thought if the book wasn’t any good, I could return it to the LFL without reading it and have more room on my personal library shelves.  It didn’t turn out that way.  In quick succession I read the three books in that volume: The Last Coyote (1995), Trunk Music (1997)and Angels Flight (1999).  I stayed up until 1:00, 2:00 and 3:00 am reading these books.  I couldn’t put them down. 


Once I finished, I remembered I had another paperback by Michael Connelly that had been on my book shelves for months.  I found and quickly read City of Bones (2002).  I breathed a sigh of relief.  I might now get some sleep and complete other things I needed to do.  However, the next day I went out to the LFL after some school children had messed up the books.  As I straightened up the LFL, I saw someone had left another Michael Connelly mystery.  So, in the next couple of days I completed 9 Dragons (2009). 
 

Someone left a couple boxes of books on our porch.  Since ours is the most notorious LFL in town, we get a lot of donations.  Periodically I organize the books and share some with other LFLs if we are overstocked in a certain genre or author.  As luck would have it, one box held another Harry Bosch mystery, The Burning Room (2014), a more recent addition to the series.


I don’t worry about reading the books in order because I don’t seek them out.  They find me, so I read them in the order in which they appear in my life.
I like the titles of the Bosch books because the connection between plot and title is strong and helps distinguish one book from another in my memory bank.

The Last Coyote refers a bedraggled coyote that roams Harry’s neighborhood after the massive LA earthquake that severely damaged Harry’s home.  Or is the last coyote that Harry sees and dreams about really Harry himself who is in danger of being the last police detective of his ilk in the department?  In this novel, Harry is on forced leave from the department and takes advantage of the time off to investigate his own mother’s murder.
Trunk Music is what police term it when the killer shoots someone who is captive inside the trunk of a car at the time of the killing, an unpleasantly vivid image that describes the plot of this who-done-it. 

Angels Flight concerns the sexual abuse and murder of a young girl.  The title describes the way she was posed in death and her release from the horrors of her life on earth.
City of Bones is what the medical examiner called the grid she laid out when recovering bones from a suspected homicide site on the side of a hill. 

9 Dragons is the English translation of Kowloon, the name of the most populated region of Hong Kong. The murder of a Chinese liquor store owner takes Harry from L.A.’s Chinatown to Hong Kong where Harry’s daughter and ex-wife live.
The Burning Room refers to an unauthorized basement child care center in a tenement that was torched by arsonists. 

The Harry Bosch mysteries are gritty police procedurals, and Harry is a seasoned veteran.  His job is his life blood but his success in solving murders comes with high collateral damage to those around him.  The action is fast-paced and the body count high. Bureaucrats are Harry’s nemesis, and he often doesn’t have the support of his superiors in the police department.  Just when it appears Harry has worked his last case, he gets a reprieve and his services, investigating homicides, are again in demand.   

 

Friday, March 4, 2016

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikey


Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2014
“On the ferry from Hyannis to Alice Island, Amelia Loman paints her nails yellow and , while waiting for them to dry, skims her predecessor’s notes: ‘Island Books, approximately $250,000.00 per annum in sales, the better portion of that in the summer month to folks on holiday.’” 

 Amelia Loman, the publisher’s sales representative newly assigned to Island Books, is on her way to meet the store’s owner and proprietor, the often irascible A. J. Fikry.  Amelia has a personality as sunny as her nails and is confident she can handle Fikry.  Recently widowed, Fikry has little tolerance for people.  His old sales rep died and no one bothered to tell him, and now he has a different book rep assigned to his store, and he isn’t happy about it.

 The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry offers a glimpse into the world of booksellers and publishers in the days when publishing houses hired representatives, essentially traveling salespersons, to visit independent book stores to pitch the publisher’s latest offerings.  The lives and stories of Amelia Loman and A.J. Fikry soon intertwine, along with a small girl named Maya, Fikry’s former sister-in-law Ismay, her writer husband Daniel, and the local police chief. 

A.J. Fikry is a multidimensional character and most of the other characters are likable and well-developed.  Author Gabrielle Zevin begins each book chapter with notes that Fikry has written to guide and educate his daughter about selected short stories.  These prefaces add charm to the book.

I enjoyed the book more when I was reading it than I did after I finished it .  The author expects the readers to suspend disbelief at multiple illogical plot elements, and I eventually reached the tipping point.  I was also disappointed with the ending.  I felt the author was in a hurry to tie up all the loose ends in the plot, so the ending seemed glib and abrupt to me.  Nonetheless, the book was engaging.  I read it all one night after supper. 

My sister gave me this book when I visited her in November.  Her book club had read it, and the book includes suggested discussion questions for book club use.   I’m sure my sister’s group wasn’t the only one to select this book. It was also the featured book of the Target Book Club.  This novel generates spirited discussions.


Author Gabrielle Zevin is something of a child prodigy.  She began her writing career at age 14 as the music critic for the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel.  A Harvard graduate, she writes for the young adult market, as well as novels for adults.  Two of her screenplays have been made into movies.  The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry spent over four months on the New York Times Bestseller List.

 

Friday, February 12, 2016

The Wild Girl



(Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2013)
Early in the 19th century, Napoleon Bonaparte is taking over Europe, and the small German kingdom of Hessen-Cassel falls quickly to the French.  As the war continues, control of this kingdom switches back and forth, leaving the residents at the mercy of the French, the German, the Russian, or the Cossack armies.  In the midst of this tumultuous time, the Grimm brothers, Jacob and Wilhelm, are collecting as many old German stories as they can to preserve them.  Once completed, they hope to find a publisher for the compilation in order to support their family financially.  At this point, most readers of this review will realize that it’s the story of the Grimm Brothers Fairy Tales, but who is the wild girl?

One of their primary sources for the old tales is Dortchen Wild, next door neighbor at one time to the Grimm family and best friend of Lotte Grimm, younger sister of the brothers.  Years later Wilhelm Grimm will marry Dortchen Wild, but not much is known about Dortchen’s early life.  Author Kate Forsyth gives the reader Dortchen’s story in this novel, based on her research of a few existing documents and using her imagination to fill in the gaps. 

As a friend of mine observed, it's ironic that the Grimm brothers are close associates of the Wild family.  The surnames often fit the circumstances of their lives.  Dortchen is considered a wild child only because she loves the out-of-doors and is full of curiosity, which sometimes leads her to defy her father.  Her father seems intent on breaking her will to insure she will never leave the family home.  The Grimms’ economic condition is often grim but their lives are generally happy.  Dortchen’s family circumstances are often grim though they are better off financially.

In the author’s notes, Forsyth explains how she came to her conclusions about Dortsen’s childhood and early adulthood.  Forsyth holds a PhD in fairy tale retelling and has the necessary research and background to pull off this fictionalized historical account of the Grimm Brothers and Dortchen Wild.

Sometimes Forsyth’s dialogue strikes a false note with me, e.g., it seems self-conscious and interrupts my immersion in the story.  Sometimes the plot timelines get “jumpy” or the facts associated with the ongoing war get confusing, interfering with the flow of the story.  None of these issues diminished my pleasure in reading the book, however, nor my admiration of the Forsyth’s knowledge and skill in putting together a fascinating story of a little known literary figure.


 

Sunday, January 31, 2016

January Reading: Five Books

HOLLOW CITY, by Ransom Riggs.  (Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2014)

This is the sequel to MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN, and Riggs continues to use strange and unusual photographs to illustrate and drive the plot.  The safe loop of Miss Peregrine and her charges has been destroyed, Miss Peregrine has been turned into a bird, and the surviving children desperately seek another safe loop where they can take refuge and find someone who can turn Miss Peregrine back into a woman.  The peculiar children are chased by their mortal enemies, the wights and hollowgasts, and faced with almost insurmountable obstacles at every turn.  The characters are well-drawn, the plot continues to be fast paced and, when you finish reading this book, you're going to have to pick up book 3 immediately because book 2 leaves you hanging.
 
 
  

 

      SHOPAHOLIC  TIES THE KNOT, by Sophie Kinsella.  (New York: Bantam/Dell, 2003)

I don’t know how the children who read HOLLOW CITY feel after they finish the book, but I went to my book case looking for something humorous and so light, it would float off the shelf to me. I found it with Sophie Kinsella and read it in one sitting.  Becky Bloomwood is an outrageous heroine who, more than most brides, must juggle competing family expectations.  Somehow, with incredible chutzpah, she manages to keep everyone happy.

 





  
 
      THE GIFTS OF IMPERFECTION: LET GO OF WHO YOU THINK YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO BE AND EMBRACE WHO YOU ARE, by Brene’ Brown.   (Center City, MN: Hazelton, 2010)
 
This book was in a stash of books a friend donated to the Little Free Library, and I snatched it to read first.  While I was familiar with Brown, I've never read one of her books.  Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, studies people who live life “wholeheartedly” in this book written for the nonacademic audience.  She defines wholehearted living as “engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness.” Over the course of eight years, she interviews over 1,000 people and collects 10,000 stories.  She then analyzes the stories for commonalities and comes up with ten guideposts to help individuals move toward wholehearted living.  Her ten guideposts are helpful constructs, and examples include #1 Cultivating Authenticity: Letting Go of What People Think; #4 Cultivating Gratitude and Joy: Letting Go of Scarcity and Fear of the Dark;  #5 Cultivating Intuition and Trusting Faith: Letting Go of the Need for Certainty; and #6 Cultivating Creativity: Letting Go of Comparison.  Her research perspective is called “Grounded Theory,” a form of qualitative research methodology. I enjoyed the book and may have to hang onto it for a while longer to absorb it all.
 
 
 
      A KILLER COLLECTION, by J. B. Stanley. (New York: Berkley Prime Crime, 2006)
 
This is a mildly interesting cozy mystery, with characters that aren’t that well-defined, but I persevered and got caught up in the milieu of the Carolina Pottery world near Seagrove, North Carolina.  In the book, a pottery collector is killed and no one seems unduly sad about it, but, in the end, the killer is brought to justice.  The reader learns more about pottery than necessary for the plot of the mystery.  A KILLER COLLECTION is the first book in the “Collectible Mystery” series.  I became curious about the author and discovered this book appears to be her first published mystery, and when this book and others in the series were published in an e-series, they were revised and she used another nom de plume.  Stanley now writes multiple series under different names: J. B. Stanley (2 series); Jennifer Stanley (1 series); Ellery Adams (3 series); and she is half of the writing team, Lucy Arlington (1 series).  Obviously, Stanley is a hard-working author whose works others enjoy.
 
 
 
 
MURDER IN THE WHITE HOUSE, by Margaret Truman (New York: Fawcett Popular Library, 1980)

A friend recently gave me all of Truman’s mysteries.  This is the first one Truman wrote.  Robert Lang Webster is President.  He, his wife Catherine, and adult daughter Lynne occupy the White House residence.  Ron Fairbanks is Special Counsel to the President.  When the President’s long- time family friend and Secretary of State is murdered one night on the second floor of the White House, the President asks his Special Counsel to head the team, working with the FBI and Secret Service, to find the murderer.  The problem is only a few people had access to this floor, and they are all family members or close associates of the President, so Fairbanks must tread carefully but work quickly.  Although there are elements of the plot that don’t seem feasible to me, plot twists and a surprise ending keep the reader interested.

 
 
 
A sixth book I read in January will get a separate post, and I have a couple more books that are partially read, so stay tuned.  What did you read to start off your year?
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Willie and Willie Again


Willie: An Autobiography, by Willie Nelson, with Bud Shrake
New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988

It’s a Long Story: My Life, by Willie Nelson, with David Ritz
New York: Little, Brown & Co., 2015
I read both of these books over the recent Christmas holidays.  My husband gave me the new release for Christmas, knowing how I feel about Willie, and the older book showed up in a stack donated to our Little Free Library, and I snagged it to read when I had time.   The most recent book has more space between each line of type and is one of those celebrity autobiographies that is a breezy, fast read.  The older book appears denser when you open it because of the spacing.  It contains more biographical details of his early life and young adulthood, but the second book also covers his early life and continues up to the present, Willie at age 82.   

The 1988 book is organized into eight parts, each of the parts is named after a song Willie wrote and loosely reflects the content of that section:  Let Me Be a Man, Family Bible, Night Live, Write Your Own Song, I Gotta Get Drunk and I Sure Do Dread It, It’s Not Supposed to Be That Way, On the Road Again, and The Healing Hands of Time.   Each section contains one or more “chapters,” which is Willie’s voice telling about that part of his life, followed by a “chorus,” stories told by someone else—his sister Bobbie, an ex-wife, an old friend or colleague.  There are two groupings of photographs, plus an index. 
The more recent autobiography is divided into five parts, has two sections of photographs and an index.  The whole book is in Willie’s voice.  Some of the stories are the same as in book one but recollected differently, e.g. the time that Willie was working for a tree trimming company and fell 40 feet from a tree.  His friend in the first book remembered it one way, and Willie said he recalled it differently in the second book.  There are several such examples of differing accounts of the same incident in the two books.

After reading both of these books, I can rattle off Willie’s wives’ names (Martha, Shirley, Connie and Annie), the number of children he had with each and other details of his personal life.  A few years ago, tragically his oldest son committed suicide.  I know about his and Bobbie’s early upbringing and his lack of animosity toward his parents for leaving him and Bobbie to be raised by his dad’s parents, his early career, the business and art of songwriting, his passion for golf, his support for family farmers, and his life on the road performing.  Of course, Willie’s use of and support for marijuana is covered in both books.
I especially enjoyed Willie’s talking about his songwriting and creativity.  In his recent book, Willie says:
Well, songs come easy to me.  I’ve written hundreds of them.  I see them as little stories that fall out of our lives and imaginations.  If I have to struggle to write a song, I stop before I start.  I figure if it don’t flow easy, it’s not meant to be….The truth should flow easy.  Same for songs and stories.  If you overanalyze or torture yourself to bring them to life, something’s wrong. 

Willie is also a spiritual man, not as traditionally religious as he was in his younger days, but he writes about his faith and beliefs in his first book:
You can bring divine energy into your lungs by breathing.  Feel the beat of your heart.  It is holy light.  When you become conscious of the Master in your heart, your whole life changes.  Your aura goes out and influences everything around you.  You have free will to recognize it or to blind yourself to it.  Be quiet and ask your heart.  I mean, really shut up and listen to your inner Voice.  It will tell you this is the truth.

I’ve heard Willie Nelson perform several times—in Tennessee when I was in graduate school; in Rapid City, South Dakota, at a concert to support the occupation of the Black Hills by the Oglala Sioux; in Austin, Texas at a taping of a show for public radio; and at a small rodeo arena in East Texas.  There may have been other concerts along the way that I’ve forgotten. 
Willie says “telling stories has kept me alive.”  Since he turned 80, Willie has written a couple dozen new songs, recorded five new albums, and performed over 300 live concerts.  I never tire of Willie Nelson.  He's one of a kind.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Wild Ponies


Alan Dyson of Fairfield House Concerts introduces Wild Ponies.


Doug and Telisha Williams entertain the crowd
The band Wild Ponies, with Doug and Telisha Williams and drummer Jason Winebrenner, was in Shreveport last night.  They kicked off the 2016 Fairfield Studio House Concerts that, fortunately for us, take place in our neighborhood.  When I heard and met the husband-wife duo that comprise Wild Ponies, I felt I had found my people, and to some extent, I had.  Both Doug and Telisha hail from Martinsville, Virginia, but Doug has family roots in Galax, Virginia in the southwestern part of Virginia.  I’m originally from Marion, Virginia, in that same neck of the woods, and I traveled the mountain roads and hollars between Martinsville and Galax for my first job as a social services caseworker in Carroll County, Virginia. 
The name, Wild Ponies, comes from the wild ponies that roam the Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area (and are also found on the Virginia/Maryland coast on Chincoteague Island).  My mother worked for the US Forest Service and was the clerk on the Jefferson National Forest when the Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area was designated.  She then had responsibilities for both entities.  Doug Williams recounts fond memories of riding horses on Mr. Rogers with his grandfather. 

Doug’s Aunt Patty and her husband now live in Baton Rouge but drove up for the concert.  Patty and her sister, Doug’s mother, now own the family farm in Galax where Doug and Telisha plan to record an album this summer.  When I met Patty, we discussed the long drive between Louisiana and Southwest Virginia.  She commiserated with me about the two speeding tickets I got on my last trip. I felt like I was reconnecting with an old friend rather than chatting with a new acquaintance. 
All this to say, I felt an immediate bond with Wild Ponies who now make their home in east Nashville where they pursue their passion for songwriting and performing.  Doug and Telisha write the vast majority of the songs they perform and record. 

I loved every song Wild Ponies did!  As a writer, I’m into words and telling stories so the roots-folk-rock ballads in the first part of the show resonated with me.   Telisha and Doug don’t shy away from writing and singing about the tough stuff, as in the song The Truth Is.  “The truth is I’m more broken than brave/There are things I think about everyday/Like his footsteps in the hallway.”  Telisha is open in interviews about the childhood sexual abuse she endured and is an advocate for other victims.  Trigger is a song that Telisha introduced as both a lullaby and a song about murder.  Another Chance on their first album deals with addiction and recovery.

Telisha’s song Iris about her grandmother brought tears to my eyes with “I called her Granny/But she never hugged me/She was quiet and she moved slowly/But somehow, I know she loved me/She never told me, I just know.”  But the song also had me smiling as she sang about her grandmother chewing a plug of tobacco and spitting expertly into a can. 
We bought the vinyl of Wild Ponies’ first album, Things That Used to Shine.  The title song lists all the things the Williams cherish  that are “polished smooth by the hands of time.”   Among the things that they sing about is Appalachian folksinger, Hazel Dickens.  I wager I was the only one at the concert who was both familiar with Hazel Dickens AND who owns a CD that features Hazel Dickens singing a coal mining song.


My favorite song of the night, Trouble Looks Good on You, co-written with Amy Speace, is on the album that we bought, but I also had to download the song onto my phone.  It reminds me of meeting my husband!  He might have been trouble but what good trouble it has turned out to be.  To hear the song, click here .
I could go on and on about Wild Ponies.  They have a new album (they offer CDs, vinyls and digital downloads that come with the vinyls) with a more rock ‘n roll sound, and they performed several songs from it. 

In addition to their songwriting skills, Doug and Telisha are talented musicians and sing beautiful harmonies.  Doug plays guitar while Telisha pounds the stand-up bass, and Jason holds down the fort at the drums.  If you get a chance to hear them, meet them, purchase their music, take their Kentucky whiskey distillery tour, DO IT—that’s my advice. 

Thursday, October 8, 2015

I've been reading....


 
I’ve been reading, but of course you know that if you know me at all.  I’m always reading.  It may be “worthwhile” reading that educates or improves me in some way or expands my mind—that covers quite a bit of territory there—or pure escapist fare.  And I frequently engage in the guilty pleasures of the latter, even as I hear my mother's voice inquiring in a delicate, sincere, and non-judgmental manner, “Teresa, don’t you often find that they are not as well-written?”   This from the woman who primarily read good literature, books that warranted the descriptor, Literature.
That said, here are some of the books I’ve read in the last few months, arranged alphabetically according to author’s last name:
We’ll Always Have Paris: A Mother/Daughter Memoir, by Jennifer Coburn.  Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2014
Coburn is a young mother, convinced that she will die young, who wants her daughter to have special memories of their time spent together.  In 2005 they go to Paris and London together, followed by Italy in 2008, Spain in 2011 and Amsterdam and Paris in 2013.  Coburn writes of their adventures, some revolve around must-see tourist attractions that often involve climbing hundreds of steps to a high vantage point.  As I continued to read the book I realized that Coburn is seeking to view her own life with more clarity.  She writes as much about her relationship with her deceased, jazz musician father who popped into and out of her life with regularity as she does about the countries that she and her daughter visit.  Coburn is adventurous and anxious at the same time, both as a traveler and as a parent.  The trips start when her daughter is 8 and ends when she is 16.  Humor, pathos and their experiences in Europe made this enjoyable reading for me and reminded me of my mother’s “Grand Adventure” when she and I took a tour of four European countries the year after my father died.
The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion.  New York: Vintage Books, 2006.
A National Book Award Winner, this memoir by Didion captures the year following the sudden death of her husband and the grave illness of their only child.   Didion and her husband,  author John Dunne, are members of the New York literati whose lives are different from most of her readers’ lives, but she writes with such clarity and sincerity that the book is accessible and memorable for all.  As she seeks to understand these events in her life, she intersperses her personal saga with references to research she does in her search for answers.   I read this following the death of my mother, yet I didn’t find it depressing.    
Leaving Before the Rains Come, by Alexandra Fuller.  New York: Penguin Press, 2015.
I love all of Fuller’s earlier books, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood, Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier, and Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness as she describes her fascinating and slightly dysfunctional family and their adventures in Africa.  Fuller eventually married, had children and moved to Wyoming with her husband.  She continues her memoir as she examines her marriage, which is disintegrating despite the regard and loyalty that she and her husband feel for each other.  Part of the memoir takes place in Africa but most of the action and contemplation of taking action occurs in the U.S.  While I didn’t enjoy this book quite as much as her earlier ones, her descriptions and writing style continue to make her one of my favorite authors.
Star Island, by Carl Hiaasen.  New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2011.
Stormy Weather, by Carl Hiaasen.  New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 1995.
What can you say about Carl Hiaasen ‘s novels?  They aren’t like any others.  They are always outrageous and often crude. The action takes place in Florida with recurring characters Skink, the former governor of Florida who has gone off the deep end and subsequently into the depths of Florida’s wild swamplands where he lives as a half-crazed environmentalist, dedicated to saving Florida from overbuilding and exploitation, and his old friend Jim Tile who comes to Skink’s assistance when he is spinning out of control.  Skink eats road kill and helps people in trouble when their paths cross his in some highly outlandish way.  Hiaasen definitely has developed a formula for his books but, for some reason, I find them humorous and entertaining.
Grace Against the Clock, by Julie Hyzy.  New York: Berkley Prime Crime, 2014.
A friend passed this book along to me, so I read it but it is not one I would recommend.  Hyzy writes several mystery series, the White House chef series and this Manor House Mystery series.  This book is part of the latter.  Grace Wheaton is curator and manager for the Manor House museum.  The museum has agreed to host a charity gala to raise money to restore the town clock, their community’s equivalent of Big Ben, but the project gets off to a rocky start when one of the sponsors drops dead before his speech.   There is no shortage of suspects, and Grace must move quickly to prevent additional deaths.  Those who start reading at the beginning of the series may find this book more enjoyable than I did.
For every book I read, it seems ten more appear in my library that I want to read.   I am swimming against the tide.  So many books, so little time….

 
 

Friday, October 2, 2015

A Timely Topic & a Vintage Mystery


 
A Palm for Mrs. Pollifax by Dorothy Gilman was published in 1973, but is surprisingly and unfortunately current in the political concerns described.  To enjoy this mystery, the reader must suspend belief long enough to accept that the C.I.A. periodically recruits and uses Emily Pollifax, a sixty-plus-year-old grandmother, for clandestine operations.  In her off time Mrs. Pollifax gardens, does a little yoga, and serves on a save-the-environment committee.  She also keeps current on her karate chops. 
Gilman’s plots are fast-paced enough to engage the modern reader, but are old-fashioned in today’s mystery market.  There is no cursing or sex in Gilman’s books, but plenty of action and ingenuity.  Mrs. Pollifax is sent to Switzerland to an upscale health spa, ostensibly to recover from a virulent strain of the Hong Kong flu, but actually to investigate missing plutonium, some of which has been traced to a package mailed to the Swiss sanitarium. 

There is urgency to her mission.  Small amounts of plutonium have been stolen from several sites and soon the thief will have enough for an atomic bomb.   During her first weekend at the spa, Mrs. Pollifax meets fellow guests, including a bright, but frightened ten-year-old boy whose grandmother is a patient at the spa; a jewelry thief; another agent also stationed at the spa; and a host of villains.
Mrs. Pollifax quickly uncovers a plot to depose the king of a small desert country friendly to U.S. interests. The villain believes Allah speaks directly to him and tells her at one point, “The benefits are Allah’s, I am only the Instrument…” as he discussing the necessity of killing her and other hostages for the greater good.  He believes the time is right for a holy war.  He says, “One of the five pillars of the Moslem faith is the people’s willingness to participate in jihad….The Moslems have waited a long time….Nasser promised hope at first but it was Allah’s will that he be struck down.  Now Moslems quarrel among themselves.  There is Quadaffi and there is Sadat and Hussein and Jarroud and we are all divided but I shall unite us in jihad….and impose peace on the whole world.”  His plan to impose peace involves the stolen plutonium and an atomic bomb.

The suspense of the plot isn’t who the villain is, but can he be stopped before more lives are lost.  He is already responsible for the death of two agents--can Mrs. Pollifax and her new friends avoid being next?
I like Dorothy Gillman’s characters, including Mrs. Pollifax.  Her plots are suspenseful without being unduly violent.  There is an underlying humor.  Her descriptions are memorable.  She describes persons who kill for a living as having no soul and blank, empty eyes.  She writes of water gurgling “obscenely” when a murdered man is discovered in a therapy pool.

Several other things strike me about this novel.  It foretells an era of turmoil in the Moslem world and the desire of a few delusional men to kill indiscriminately in order to control the world in the name of Allah.  It also brings to mind the fate of the real Arab world leaders Gilman mentioned above, and what has transpired in the political vacuums they left behind in their respective countries.   
Mrs. Pollifax has a positive impact on the situation she faces and resolves in the name of the U.S. government.  There is definitely a Frank Capra-esque quality to the Mrs. Pollifax books. There is patriotism, a belief in American ideals, in good government and good citizenship, a faith that right will prevail and that the right path is obvious.  Unfortunately, more modern actions by the U.S. government to stop jihadists are not as clear-cut and have not turned out as well.