June 26, 2012

Wordless Wednesday

Today's Forecast: 

104 degrees

Chance of rain: 0%

Wind: SSW at 22 mph

Humidity: 45%

UV Index: 9 - Very High

Snow: 0 in 

Oh, well. One can dream.

June 23, 2012

Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs

Nonfiction – Memoir
2010 Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Finished on 6/9/12
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)

Publisher’s Blurb:

After a near-fatal bicycle accident in her tiny Alaskan town, bestselling author Heather Lende has an opportunity to contemplate faith and friendship, observe the breathtaking beauty of the northern wilderness anew, and truly come to appreciate the remarkable inhabitants of Haines, Alaska, without whom she could never have recovered. Lende’s idea of spirituality is rooted in community, and her irrepressible spirit and commitment to living life on the edge of the world deeps our understanding of what links us all. Like her own mother’s last instructions, “Take good care of the garden and the dogs,” Lende’s writing, so honest and unadorned, offers profound lessons to live by. Here she reminds us (courtesy of Ralph Waldo Emerson) that “the proper response to the world is applause.”

“Lende has a knack for subtly illuminating the remarkable in the commonplace, the transcendence in tragedy… Her voice, which alternates between folksy and formal, playful and prayerful, entertaining and elegiac, is reminiscent of Garrison Keillor, Krista Tippett, Tom Bodett, Kathleen Norris, and Anne Lamott.” ~ Minneapolis Star Tribune

Heather Lende has contributed to NPR’s Morning Edition, the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Washington Post, as well as National Geographic Traveler and Country Living magazines. She is a columnist for Woman’s Day magazine and also writes an online column for the Alaska Dispatch.

I am embarrassed to admit that I’ve had Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs for almost exactly one year. That’s not unusual for this bookseller/blogger. (I have hundreds of unread books, many of which I’ve owned for over a decade!) What’s embarrassing is that I accepted Heather Lende’s memoir for review. I received a query email from her publicist on April 29th, 2011. I promptly responded and the book arrived shortly thereafter. On June 20th, 2011, I received a follow-up email, which I planned to answer, but somehow neglected. Looking back at my Google Calendar, I see that we were in Colorado in late May/early June, followed by a trip to California for a 60th birthday celebration and a trip to Oregon shortly thereafter. Of course, that’s no excuse, but it was a busy start to summer. And I did plan to read the book—just not as promptly as I’d hoped. I’m not sure what prompted me to finally pull it from my shelf last month, but it was just the ticket after reading a few intense thrillers. As you can see, I found a lot to note:

On the Arrival of Spring:

The first day of spring was not March 20, and it wasn’t one day but a handful of early April days so bright that the residents of this little seaside Alaskan town crawled blinking out of our snow caves and welcomed it like sleepy bears. Spring fever hit so hard that everyone was smiling and doing their best to push winter out the door. Blankets and pillows were aired, decks were shoveled, and icy walks were chipped off...

As I walked to town, I realized that spring truly was here because no one asked if I wanted a ride. Even casual drivers-by could see it was a fine day for a walk. One pickup truck passed me, slowed down, and then parked at the bottom of Cemetery Hill, where my neighbors hopped out and took a stroll down Mud Bay Road, smiling at the views of the Chilkat Inlet, Pyramid Island, and the snowy mountains that look the way the Alps would, if Switzerland had a beach.

On Writing:

I write a weekly Thursday column for the Anchorage Daily News, in the Family & Life section. I write about anything I want to: Haines, my family, community goings-on. I try to make each piece local, as I figure I’m the only one sharing the news about this town with the world, but also personal and universal—that way you don’t have to live nearby to be interested. I spend more time on them than they are worth, but from the beginning I have felt an obligation to say something valuable. I looked to the Book of Common Prayer for guidance and found the prayer “For those who Influence Public Opinion.” (It’s an Episcopalian thing, these carefully scripted prayers for every possible need.) It says that those of us who write what “many read” (a writer can hope this is true) need to do our part “In making the heart of this people wise, its mind sound, and its will righteous.” It sounds corny, and I know I miss the ball more than I hit it out of the park, but at least I’m swinging for the fences. I still say that prayer before I begin every column. Blessing words, like blessing boats, can’t hurt. It may even help.

On Surrendering to the Moment:

The Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh tells a story about a man stranded on a mountain (he can’t go up or down) and of another man at an intersection (he is so confused he doesn’t know which way to turn). Both are equally stuck, and the worst choice either man can make is trying to think and plan his way out of it. The only way out of a bad situation for them—and, by extension, for all of us—advises the good monk, is to “surrender to the moment” and not even pretend to know the way out. As Bob Dylan sings, “Don’t think twice, it’s all right.”

On Cycling:

I might not like planes, but I love my bicycle. It is a Trek road bike made of carbon fiber and light enough to lift with two fingers. It is nicer than my old Subaru. Riding my bicycle fast may be as close as I’ll come to finding that peace they promise in church, the one that passes all understanding. When I’m riding twenty miles an hour, with a tailwind, drafting behind another rider, I think it must be what nirvana feels like. And, it’s good for me.

On Devotion and Home:

It was after midnight when we said goodbye to Linnus, and I kissed everyone goodnight. Chip tucked me in, and my little dog Phoebe jumped up next to me. The two big dogs thumped their tails at a respectful distance. Chip opened the windows to let the beach air in. The kids had put the screens in for me; they knew I liked the sounds and scents of the beach. In the late spring twilight we call night in Alaska, we listened to the sea lions exhaling, the gulls calling, and the waves meeting the shore. Robert Frost was wrong; there is a greater devotion than the shore to the ocean. It is a husband who will help you with a bedpan and the wiping up, and then say you are beautiful when you look as bad as you ever have in your life. The deep line Chip had been holding in his forehead since the accident softened. There was a lot I wanted to say to him, but all I could manage was “goodnight.” He whistled softly as he made up his bed on the window seat at the other end of our living room, where he’d stay until I got better, so I could call him in the night if I needed to go to the bathroom or to take another pain pill.

“It’s really good to be home,” he said to the house we had built together, to the beams in the ceiling, to the old Turkish rug from his grandmother’s house, to the dogs, to the too many books, to the piano my mother gave us, to our children sleeping upstairs, and beyond the green metal roof and graying shingles to the garden, to the cherry trees and beach roses, to the inlet and Pyramid Island, and to the mountains rising across the way. The grouse in the brush and the bears in the forest and the salmon in the sea, to all of it, he said, “It really is good to be home.”

Lende packs so much local and spiritual information into this gem of a book (including Ten Things to Think about if You Are Hit by a Truck). I could share more about her accident and recovery, or about the traditions and culture of the Tlingit people, the raising of a totem pole, the Blessing of the Fleet, and the beauty of a sung and chanted version of Compline, but then, why spoil your enjoyment, should you choose to read this memoir? And I urge you to do so. It’s quite lovely and one I know I’ll read again.

Final Thoughts: I was raised in the Episcopal church and while it’s been many years since I attended a service, Lende’s spirituality felt familiar and full of nostalgic comfort. And, of course, her bicycle accident has made me even more thankful for all the wonderful bike trails in my community. Not only is Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs a keeper, but it’s a book I plan on sharing with several friends and relatives. Now to make time to read If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name. And Lende's blog!

“This book is a wonder. It opens a door to Alaskan living, a world that, for most, will be both surprising and beautiful. As a person of Alaska and a person of faith, it is one of the best books of theology and spirituality that I have read in a long time. But the non-religious or the non-Alaskan shouldn’t be hesitant. They will also be glad to walk through this door to a world that is certainly and recognizably theirs, but will seem to hold much more—maybe things new or maybe things forgotten.” ~ The Rt. Rev. Mark MacDonald, formerly the Bishop of Alaska, now the National Indigenous Anglican Bishop of Canada

June 18, 2012

Life is Good - May

It's important to recognize and remember the good things in life, so I've decided to make a point of jotting down my monthly blessings.
So what made me smile (or laugh) last month?
  • Strawberry ice cream before dinner.
  • A hummingbird feeding at one of my potted plants on my deck!
  • Buying my husband a new bike for his birthday.
  • A 60th birthday celebration with friends from California.
  • A 50-mile ride in the countryside (spotted 2 deer, a wild turkey, orioles, cardinals, red-winged blackbirds, goldfinches and a heron).
  • A new bike jersey.
  • A delicious (and simple) new recipe for bolognese.
  • Two excellent nonfiction reads (Little Princes and Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs). Reviews forthcoming.
  • Godiva Chocolate.
  • Movie night with a good friend (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel).
  • A monthly total of 154 miles ridden on my bike.

June 17, 2012

Father's Day

Any man can be a father.

 It takes someone special to be a dad.

~ Unknown

Happy Father's Day to the three most important men in my life.

June 13, 2012

Wordless Wednesday


Chuckles Rose



Oakleaf Hydrangea

June 10, 2012

The Art of Fielding

2011 Hachette Audio
Reader: Holter Graham
Finished 5/27/12
Rating: 3.5/5 (Good)

Publisher’s Blurb:

At Westish College, a small school on the shore of Lake Michigan, baseball star Henry Skrimshander seems destined for big league stardom. But when a routine throw goes disastrously off course, the fates of five people are upended.

Henry's fight against self-doubt threatens to ruin his future. College president Guert Affenlight, a longtime bachelor, has fallen unexpectedly and helplessly in love. Owen Dunne, Henry's gay roommate and teammate, becomes caught up in a dangerous affair. Mike Schwartz, the Harpooners' team captain and Henry's best friend, realizes he has guided Henry's career at the expense of his own. And Pella Affenlight, Guert's daughter, returns to Westish after escaping an ill-fated marriage, determined to start a new life.

As the season counts down to its climactic final game, these five are forced to confront their deepest hopes, anxieties, and secrets. In the process they forge new bonds, and help one another find their true paths. Written with boundless intelligence and filled with the tenderness of youth, The Art of Fielding is an expansive, warmhearted novel about ambition and its limits, about family and friendship and love, and about commitment--to oneself and to others.

I love baseball. I grew up on the L.A. Dodgers (Dusty Baker, Ron Cey, Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Don Sutton, Steve Yeager, and Reggie Smith) and the San Diego Padres (Steve Garvey, Garry Templeton, Goose Gossage, Tim Flannery, Kurt Bevacqua, Carmelo Martinez, and Tony Gwynn). When we moved from Lincoln, Nebraska to Fort Worth, Texas, we were thrilled to be near a major league park. It was the summer of '98 and when we weren't watching our beloved Rangers at The Ballpark (in Arlington) or on TV, we were watching the the battle between Mark McGuire & Sammy Sosa. It was a thrilling season and we couldn't get enough.

When we moved back to Lincoln, I had to accept that fact that baseball wasn't going to be as prevalent in my life as it once had been. Sure there's the College World Series (in Omaha) and the Saltdogs (in Lincoln), and K.C. isn't all that far to go to take in a Royal's game, but it just wasn't the same. So the baseball books piled up. I loved Doris Kearns Goodwin's memoir, Wait Till Next Year and added Mike Lupica's Summer of '98 to my stack, along with David Halberstam's October 1964 and Roger Kahn's Memories of Summer. After reading a glowing review for Harbach’s debut novel, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy. I wound up listening to the audio and while I enjoyed the book, I can’t say that I loved it. A few of the situations (a sophomore in complete charge of recruiting a shortstop?!) were implausible and the ridiculous finale caused me to shake my head in disbelief. Several characters disappeared without a trace and some that that didn’t were nothing but cardboard cutouts. The first half of the book held my interest and enthusiasm, but the remainder of the novel was disappointing and I only finished out of curiosity.

Everyone deserves a second chance and Harbach’s prose, which at times was quite lyrical, has convinced me to refrain from complete dismissal of this author’s future works.

Final Thoughts: Fans of John Irving and Jeffrey Eugenides (The Marriage Plot) won’t be disappointed.

June 1, 2012

A Natural Woman

Memoir – Music
2012 Sound Library Audio
14 hours, 13 minutes
Reader: Carole King
Finished 5/8/12
Rating: 3/5 (So-so)

Publisher’s Blurb:

Carole King takes us from her early beginnings in Brooklyn, to her remarkable success as one of the world's most acclaimed songwriting and performing talents of all time. A Natural Woman chronicles King's extraordinary life, drawing readers into her musical world, including her phenomenally successful #1 album Tapestry, and into her journey as a performer, mother, wife and present-day activist. Deeply personal, King's long-awaited memoir offers readers a front-row seat to the woman behind the legend.

The book will include dozens of photos from King's childhood, her own family, and behind-the-scenes images from her performances.

I was 10 years old when I first heard Carole King’s album Tapestry. It was 1972 and my parents were rather cool, filling our house with the music of Bob Dylan, Jim Croce, Cat Stevens, Carly Simon, and Simon & Garfunkel. I immediately fell in love with King’s album, lyrics memorized, singing along whenever my mom played her album. When I was in my late twenties, I bought Rhymes & Reasons (recorded in 1972) on cassette (long gone now) and loved it almost as much as Tapestry. Love Makes the World (2001) is currently the only album of hers that I own on cd.

I’m a big fan of memoirs, but very rarely (if ever) read any autobiographies written by musicians or actors. However, when A Natural Woman was released, I was curious and decided to give it a try. I found the audio version online at my library and spent a couple of weeks listening to Carole’s personal story, which includes quite a bit of the cultural history.

I wish I could say that I loved this book as much as I love Carole King’s music. Unfortunately, the audio version was a bit tiresome. Carole may have a lovely voice for singing, but I grew weary listening to her not only speak, but sing portions of some of her songs a cappella. There were several occasions in which her voice sounded raspy and hoarse. However, I don’t know if I would have stuck with the written version of this memoir. I didn’t recognize a lot of the people she referred to in the first half of the book and I longed for more depth about her song-writing and her children. She seems to hold her readers at arm’s length, glossing over a lot of the more personal aspects of her life.

But wait! My wonderful (and much, much older) husband read the book as well, and agreed to write a guest post for my blog. So, without any further ado, here are Rod’s thoughts on A Natural Woman:

Every life has a soundtrack, and for many of us ‘boomers, that track included bands such as The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones, The Byrds, The Kinks, The Who, The Doors, and others. It also included singer-songwriters such as James Taylor, Janis Ian, Joni Mitchell, and Kris Kristofferson. And while the turbulent 60s and 70s swirled furiously around us, we listened—first on LPs, then on 8-track and cassette tapes—to the music that helped define us even as we helped define it. It was an ugly time, and a beautiful one—filled with contradictions, filled with anger, filled with hope.

But above all, it was filled with music, and Carole King, even before most of us knew her name, helped create that music. King’s string of hits started with 1961’s “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” and continued with pop-rock ditties and ballads that many don’t even realize she wrote: “The Loco-Motion” (featuring the lead vocals of “Little Eva” Boyd, King’s babysitter), “Up on the Roof,” “Take Good Care of My Baby,” “Natural Woman” (written specifically for Aretha Franklin), “Pleasant Valley Sunday” (yes, King wrote songs for The Monkees), and dozens—perhaps hundreds—more.

Beginning as a teenager in New York’s famed Brill Building (home of Don Kirschner’s Aldon Publishing), Carole King is a linear descendent of and a direct link to those writers and demo singers who populated Tin Pan Alley in the 1920s, 30s, and beyond—and she brought to her craft the same devotion, talent, and drive that made Tin Pan Alley famous.

King’s book, A Natural Woman, chronicles her life and, almost unavoidably, the lives and times of other musicians and artists of the era: David Crosby, James Taylor, Neil Sedaka (whose first #1 hit, “Oh Carol!” was written for and about King), Brian Wilson, Bob Dylan, Don Henley, J.D. Souther, and many others. For someone brought up on the music of the late 50s, early 60s, and beyond, the book is a warm, loving, and sometimes illuminating paean to an era.

A Natural Woman is flawed in the way of most autobiographies: In trying to paint a candid portrait, King sometimes goes out of her way to accept blame and to admit her failings. In other instances, though, she’s simply too sensitive—and too close to the subject—to be brutally honest. For instance, King’s relationships with her children are complicated and sometimes contentious, and yet she chooses to gloss over much of that. Certainly she was a loving and kind mother, but one gets the impression that for many years she was simply too busy and too self-absorbed to be a very good parent. Late in life, she has seemingly made peace with that—and with them—and tried mightily to make up for any earlier emotional distance that might have existed amongst all of them.

In King’s life, relationships (many of them with much younger men) come and go with astonishing rapidity. When they fail—as all of them eventually do—it’s never King’s fault. In fact, it’s no one’s fault; it’s as if they existed on some plane beyond her ken, to come and go at the whims of distant gods over whom she has no control. Marriages and relationships simply happen. And then they simply cease. No one is to blame. They just, seemingly inevitably, fade away. (Occasionally they become song fodder, providing material for her writing, so at least there’s that.)

But these are, in the larger and longer view, minor criticisms that could be said of many (or even most) of us. The fact remains that King is a supremely talented songwriter and performer who has contributed much to the musical tapestry (did you see what I did there?) of our lives, and who has also put her talents and her celebrity to good use promoting worthwhile causes and political efforts.

And she is in addition a good writer. King may have had help (certainly her editors provided guidance), but there is no co-writer listed for A Natural Woman. That’s not surprising: The book is well-written, an easy read, and solidly structured. As Carole King has been showing us for 50 years, she knows how to structure a tale, provide a hook, and tell a great story. This time she’s done it using not the piano, guitar, or voice—her usual instruments—but with a word processor.

So, there you have it. If you’ve read the book, I’d love to hear your thoughts. I’d also be interested to know if you have a favorite Carole King song. I’m not sure if I could choose just one, but I do love So Far Away. And Been to Canaan. And You’ve Got a Friend. See? I can't do it!

About the Author

Carole King had her first No. 1 hit in 1961, at age 18, with "Will You Love Me Tomorrow". Collaborating with former husband Gerry Goffin, the team went on to write more than two dozen chart-toppers, including "One Fine Day", "The Loco-Motion", "Will You Love Me Tomorrow", and "(You Me Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman." Her 1971 solo-album, Tapesty, won 4 Grammys, and earned her the record for longest time an album by a female artist has remained on the Billboard Charts (6 years), as well as the longest time holding the #1 position (15 consecutive weeks).

King, in addition to writing more than 100 top-selling songs has recorded 25 solo albums. In 2007 she and longtime collaborator James Taylor reunited and recorded Live at the Troubadour. Released in 2010 the album debuted at number 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and The Troubadour Reunion Tour became the second highest grossing Tour of that year. She has won numerous lifetime achievement honors and has been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, "Hit Parade" Hall of Fame, and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Carole King continues to entertain audiences the world over. She released her most recent album in December, 2011, Carole King: A Holiday Carole, to rave reviews.