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December 27, 2010

Yes, it’s been a while since my last posting. I am the first to admit that I may have hit the Modern Library Reader’s Block of All Time with A Clockwork Orange. I HATE IT. Can’t get into it at all. Hate the idea of a book that has to have a glossary so that you can follow what the hell is going on. And yet I hate the idea of skipping it and moving on to the next book. Man, it sucks to have integrity!! So I am going to give myself a bit of a break and see how I feel about starting it over in a couple of weeks. I probably won’t feel incredibly different about it, but who knows. If I made it through The Ginger Man and 100 pages of Finnegans Wake, I hate to think I couldn’t put my big-girl pants on and get through this one. 🙂

I have also been inspired, thanks to some fabulous books I picked up to finish out the Birth Year Reading Challenge, to start a blog for non-fiction books too. You can visit me at that site: Past as Prologue. I really welcome your ideas and suggestions for fantastic non-fiction you’ve read, since I don’t have a list to turn to.

Hope you’re having a great holiday. And look out for A Clockwork Orange to be reviewed sometime mid-January. 🙂


The Boys of Summer

December 4, 2010

Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese, 1952

About a month ago, my husband and I ran into Al Newman, one of the infielders on the 1987 and 1991 Twins World Series teams, at our local Buffalo Wild Wings. My husband recognized him immediately; I had no idea who he was. My husband was too intimidated to go over and introduce himself, but after a couple of Mike’s Hard Lemonades, I had no such inhibitions, and went over to shake his hand and strike up a conversation with him. He turned out to be a very real, genuine guy, who was coaching for one of our local high school baseball teams. His ex-wife worked for the same school district my daughter was in, and our kids were about the same age. It turned out (when my husband finally came over) that he and Al had played on many of the same fields growing up throughout Minnesota. When I asked why he wasn’t wearing either of his World Series rings, he smiled and said he didn’t like to draw attention to himself.  It was a great experience to meet him.

I think so many of us get overwhelmed by the cloak of celebrity that we forget famous people are still, in fact, people. Which is why I thought of our experience meeting Al Newman when I began to read Roger Kahn’s wonderful 1972 non-fiction book, The Boys of Summer. Kahn grew up a die-hard Brooklyn Dodgers fan  in the shadow of Ebbets Field, and was later given the opportunity as a sportswriter to cover his favorite team during the tumultuous Jackie Robinson years of 1952-53, when baseball was just beginning to be integrated. Although he always kept his journalistic objectivity, Kahn became friends with the members of the team, and the second half of the book describes his journeys to reconnect with the different team members and their lives since they left baseball.

Kahn strove mightily and well to humanize men like Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, and Duke Snider, who have become almost untouchable legends to baseball fans. Back then, before the lionization of athletes with Sportscenter highlights and multi-million dollar contracts, players were more like regular guys. None of the Dodgers traveled around with a posse of bodyguards or wore giant diamond earrings in their ears. In fact, almost none of the Dodgers turned out fabulously wealthy as a result of their playing days. Billy Cox, the third baseman, ended up a bartender, and outfielder George Shuba ended up working at the post office. Pitcher Carl Erskine became a stay-at-home dad for his disabled son Jimmy. Duke Snider at centerfield lost the farm he had always dreamed of after some bad investments. Second-baseman Jackie Robinson dealt gracefully with his son’s drug arrests and untimely death as well as his own health-related issues, and shortstop Pee Wee Reese was there for Kahn when Kahn’s son committed suicide. These guys were out in the real world, as real people, once their baseball days were done, faced with many of the same problems we have, with the added pressure of celebrity. Which I thought was pretty cool.

It was the parts of the book that talked about Jackie Robinson, pitcher Joe Black, and catcher Roy Campanella’s challenges of being the first black major league players, and the feelings of the team as the eyes of the world looked to see how they would handle integrated baseball that were so touching to me. The captain, Pee Wee Reese, refused to sign a petition other players had put forth refusing to play with the black players, and often publicly and genuinely showed his acceptance and affection for his black teammates both on and off the field (see the statue of Pee Wee and Robinson at Brooklyn’s KeySpan Park below the post). I was inspired by Jackie Robinson’s composure both at the plate and in the infield while angry white fans yelled racial epithets and made fun of him, and how he turned his anger into motivation to get great hits and make great plays at second base. His ability and courage changed the game of baseball forever, which is why his number has been retired for every single major league team, and players can wear it as a tribute on Jackie Robinson Day once a year.

“Thinking about the things that happened, I don’t know any other ballplayer who could have done what he did. To be able to hit with everybody yelling at him. He had to block all that out, block out everything but this ball that is coming in at a hundred miles an hour. To do what he did has got to be the most tremendous thing I’ve ever seen in sports.”
— Pee Wee Reese, on the performance of his teammate, Jackie Robinson

With the early death of his father, and the subsequent deaths of the players Kahn idolized as the years passed, he asks the important questions of what we do with our lives, and what we leave behind us when we pass away. Obviously the Brooklyn Dodgers teams of the ’50’s will always be remembered as one of the best teams in baseball, but Kahn wanted them to be remembered for more than just a pile of statistics that become less meaningful as time goes on. He wanted them to be remembered as his friends, as real men who did a brave thing that other teams may not have had the strength and foresight to do, and as men who loved their teammates and families. I loved getting to know the Dodgers, so Kahn definitely succeeded with me.

At 474 pages, and written in the same year I was born, this book counts as the last book needed to meet the Mor-book-ly Obese challenge for the Chunkster Challenge, and should also get me a candle for the Birth Year Reading Challenge. Whoooo hoooo! I was excited there were still some books from the year I was born that weren’t written on papyrus.  😉

A statue of Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese outside Brooklyn's KeyStone Park

#66…Of Human Bondage

November 20, 2010

All good things must come to an end.

I finished W. Somerset Maugham’s wonderful novel, Of Human Bondage, last night. Closing the book after a month-long love affair with it, I felt satisfaction at the book’s perfect ending, and at the same time, a profound sense of loss, like an empty nester whose kids have all left for college, or the house after the holidays are over. It was a profound sense of “what do I do now?” and, “why did it have to end?”

We are introduced to Philip Carey as a small boy, snuggling with his dying mother. Orphaned days later and crippled with a club-foot, he is sent to live with his cold and proper uncle the Vicar of Blackstable and his loving aunt. Philip is sent to school, where he is of course mocked for his deformity. On a whim, he leaves school to travel Europe, against the wishes of his uncle. After travels in Germany and art school in Paris, left with very little money, he decides to go to medical school in London, like his father. Upon moving to London, he has the misfortune to meet Mildred, a slatternly, rude, cold as ice waitress, and becomes obsessed with her, although she treats him like crap and uses him for his money. Through Mildred, Philip gets in touch with his stalker-esque and doormat-esque sides, throws years of his life and money away, and even ends up having to retake exams in med school because of his obsession with her. Finally, when she runs off with one of Philip’s friends, it looks like he may be on the road to recovery. He begins to like medical school and relies on his friends to keep him sane. Mildred of course turns up broke and ho-ing herself on the street corner months later. Now that he’s officially over her, but is still a chump, Philip kindly decides she and her baby can live with him, but only as a quasi-servant. Ironically, now that his obsession with her is over, it is only then that Mildred determines to have him. When Philip again reiterates that their relationship must be platonic, she trashes his house and disappears yet again.

In the meantime, Philip, glad to be rid of her, meets up with Athelny, an extravagant, over-the-top guy who adopts Philip as part of his family. When Philip bets the small remainder of his fortune on a bad stock tip, is cut off by his uncle, and is homeless as a result, Athelny and his family take him in, and Athelny gets him a job in a department store, which although humiliating to Philip, is money in hand. When Philip’s selfish uncle finally kicks it and dies, Philip is able to return to med school and get his degree. He meets up with a crotchety old private practice doctor, who takes a liking to Philip and offers him part of his practice. Philip refuses, because it has always been his dream to travel and see Spain. This dream gets sidetracked when he falls in love with Athelny’s daughter Sally. A false pregnancy alarm causes Philip to ponder putting his dreams aside to marry Sally, but when he discovers she isn’t pregnant, decides to ask her anyway, and she accepts.ï»ż

There was absolutely everything to love about this book. Philip Carey is about as human a character as I’ve ever found in contemporary literature. His struggles are real and heartfelt. You have to root for Philip, because he begins life as an underdog, motherless and deformed and derided by his peers. Anyone who’s ever wasted away over someone unreliable, unloving and unhealthy knows how Philip felt when Mildred led him on and took advantage of him. ï»żï»żEven at the end, when the obsession has passed, he still feels a twang when he sees her, and wonders if he will ever be free of her.

The parts of the book that spoke to me the most were when Philip became homeless. None of us really know what we would do or where we would go if we had absolutely nothing. He wanders around the park, listening to the bells chime the hours, wondering what he will do for the entire day, what he will eat and where he will sleep. I was unemployed for nine months, and I felt keenly Philip’s despair at lurching between job interviews and being rejected. Philip’s friendships were also painted very realistically, and as real friendships do, ebbed and flowed and evolved with changes in his characters’ lives. After Philip’s stock loss, he drifts away from his stockbroker friend (obviously) and also another friend from art school, when he is too humiliated to face him and explain his situation. I thought sure he would do the same to the Athelnys, but was glad they tracked him down and made him fess up.

Maugham’s characters were fully realized and likeable, excepting psycho Mildred and maybe his Vicar uncle, who was a selfish tightwad. It was felt that this book was somewhat autobiographical, as Maugham’s struggles with stuttering were much like Philip’s with his club foot. Maugham also lost both parents in his early childhood and spent his childhood with a cold Vicar uncle. Like Philip, Maugham dropped out of school, traveled to Germany, worked in an accounting office and disliked the work, and spent five years in medical school. Unlike Philip, Maugham had affairs with men and was able to travel to Spain as Philip had so desired to do, although he did end up marrying a woman and having a child.

Happy endings have definitely been at a premium on the Modern Library list. Some have even argued that this book did not have a happy ending. Those who don’t think so clearly weren’t paying attention. It was as perfect an ending as I could ask for. This book is my favorite on the ML list so far. If you haven’t read it, get yourself to the bookstore now, or  add it to your Xmas list. At a hefty 712 pages, this qualifies as book #5 towards the Chunkster Challenge. Only one more to go!

Grade: A+++++

Chasing Laura, Part Two

October 22, 2010

Today was the big day. Daughter and I stayed at a hotel in Brookings, SD, which is about 40 minutes from De Smet. In hindsight I’m glad we did this. Upon arriving in De Smet, food and hotel options were pretty limited. Plus we really enjoyed seeing Secretariat last night, which I would highly recommend if you haven’t seen it already.

We arrived in De Smet and drove first to the LIW Gift Shop, which is where you sign up for the tour. (Why do all tours start in gift shops?) We had 45 minutes to kill before the tour started up, so the guide gave us a map to go out and see the De Smet Cemetery, which is where the Ingalls clan, minus Laura and Almanzo, are buried. The cemetery was only about five miles from town, and was in a very peaceful spot. The map they gave us really helped us find the graves quickly, as it’s not a small cemetery. The Ingalls graves were all together at the back of the cemetery in a little roped-off area. Grace and her husband were by themselves a little ways over. All of the markers were newer except for Charles’, which was weather-worn and original. The map also helped us locate other famous De Smet settlers’ graves from Laura’s books. We got to see where the Boasts, Rev Brown and his wife, and Gerald Fuller were buried too. It was really cool.

We made it back in time for the Tour, which took us first into the Surveyor’s House. Those of you who’ve read On The Shores of Silver Lake will recognize the Surveyor’s House as the place where Pa and his family spent their first winter in De Smet before it was even De Smet, thanks to the railroad guys who needed someone to watch their tools all winter. The tour guide we had was wonderful. She reviewed the many moves the Ingalls family made, some of which aren’t included in any of Laura’s books. The Surveyor’s House was small by our modern standards, but must have been like a mansion to Laura and her family, who were used to tiny log cabins and dugouts. We learned there that Laura and Ma were only 4’11”, and that Pa was only 5’2″. All the cupboards and shelves in the Surveyor’s House and in the Ingalls house we saw later on the tour were built specially so Ma would be able to reach everything, which was hilarious. The guide took us into another room in the house that had a square of blue tape on the ground, about 8’x10′, and had us all crowd into the square before telling us that the area we were standing in was the typical size of a claim shanty. There were six growups including me and my daughter on the tour, and elbow room was definitely at a premium. Which led me to an interesting question: How the hell did the Ingalls family stay for months at a time in a house that was slightly bigger than my queen size bed, and not kill each other? It’s worth thinking about. They also had some examples of twisted hay sticks to see, which Laura and Pa spent the whole Long Winter twisting out back to keep the family warm. Back in the day there were no trees on the prairie, so once the lumber ran out at the lumber yard, that was all they had. The guide told us it took 12 sticks of hay just to make a kettle boil. This also led to an interesting question: How many sticks did it take to keep the family from getting hypothermia on a daily basis? And did Laura and Pa have time to do anything else BUT twist hay?

So we loved the Surveyor’s House. We were unable to go upstairs, but the tour company had arranged a mirror that was set at an angle so we could see what it looked like upstairs. We also finally got to see what a “whatnot” looked like. Aves and I have been mulling that one over for months. We also learned that the Surveyor’s House had been moved to this location from its original location out by Silver Lake, when the Ingalls stayed there. Sadly we could take no pictures inside. 😩

Next on the tour was a typical one-room schoolhouse, similar to Laura’s Brewster School from These Happy Golden Years. One thing that was really cool was to see the actual McGuffey readers they used in school. I flipped through the Fifth Reader, which is the one Laura was using in school in Little Town on the Prairie, and found excerpts from classic literature, the Bible, famous speeches, etc. that the kids would be reading before they could go on to the next book. I could see why people were so well-read back then. Nowadays if you get a kid to finish one of the Twilight books, it’s a miracle. I was also excited to see what a pioneer blackboard was like. From what I read in These Happy Golden Years, blackboards were just that…boards painted black. The one in the schoolhouse we saw today was a black-painted board…and the chalk worked great. The schoolroom was COLD, even though it was about 60 degrees outside. There was a stove in there, and I wondered during the sub-zero months how much heat one of those cast-iron stoves would have put out. Probably the smaller the school, the more heat there would be.

The last building at the tour site was the First School of De Smet, where Laura and Carrie attended school. This was a larger building that was pretty beat-up on the inside. The society has not decided whether or not they are going to raise the money to renovate it at the moment, because the cost would be substantial. They have some idea of where the blackboards were, and had actually located some items hidden in the walls of the schoolhouse, which was a little bit Ghost Adventures for my taste.

For the next and last stop, we had to drive in a caravan over to the Ingalls House, which is a house Charles built for his family about five blocks away. The drive took us through downtown De Smet, and although none of the original town buildings except the Lofthus store are still there, you could see what it might have been like. We were able to see a photograph of Pa’s store building, where the family lived during The Long Winter, but the building itself was gone. That was the only downer of the whole tour for me, was that so many of the original buildings I wanted to see had either burned down, been torn down, or no longer existed. I know we’re talking about shanties and other inconsequential buildings from 100+ years ago, but still, if the Ingalls House made it, why couldn’t the rest of them?

Anyway, the Ingalls house was awesome. We got to see the bedroom where Pa died, and the tour guide gave us the inside skinny on the lives of the rest of the Ingalls clan after Laura and Almanzo moved to Mansfield. Carrie was the one that surprised me the most. She held down her own claim in Colorado, and she married the man who named Mount Rushmore, David Swanzey. She also worked at the newspaper. She seemed so sickly and frail through most of the books, I was surprised that she became so hardy in later life. The house has gone through some reconstruction and restoration, but was really nice for a house that Pa built by hand, and must have felt like a castle after that claim shanty! There were five bedrooms, three on the top floor and two on the main floor, and they were all a good size. There was also a parlor, kitchen and entrance hall. Each of the bedrooms held items that belonged to Laura’s sisters. We were able to touch some Braille things and see an embossed Bible of Mary’s, look at Rose Wilder Lane’s books and office furniture, see Carrie’s jewelry, and Grace’s books. You really felt as if you were in a house with the Ingalls family.

De Smet more than made up for the cheesiness of the Walnut Grove stop from Thursday. Everything felt authentic and the tour guide we had was great. It was a long trip home, over a very vast, immense, endless prairie, but it was awesome to see views that Laura and her family probably saw every day while out there. Get out there if you can!

Chasing Laura, Part One

October 21, 2010

So daughter and I hit the road this morning for De Smet. I have never been through Southwestern MN or SD before, and I can honestly tell you that this trip so far has permanently revised my definition of the word ‘rural’. We live in a small town about 20 mins south of Minneapolis, that I so foolishly thought was in the boondocks. I tell ya, some of the ‘towns’ we drove through on our way here made our hometown look like a burgeoning metropolis. Is it even right to call a place like Revere, which had a population of 100 on their welcome sign, a town??

Up until DeSmet, the Ingalls clan were usually all by themselves in the middle of nowhere. Even in this day and age, rural communities still seem pretty remote and quiet. Every small town we whizzed through on our way here had four similarities: a gas station, a church and graveyard, a bar, and about ten farmhouses. You wonder to yourself how much life has really changed for folks who live here in the last fifty years. Do these guys have the Internet? ESPN? Nintendo Wii? I couldn’t find a fast food restaurant for an hour of the trip, so it’s not a reach to wonder.

Anyhoo. Daughter and I decided we would stop in Walnut Grove, MN, another home of Laura’s, on the way to break up the monotony of eating for four and a half hours straight. The Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum and Gift Shop was conveniently located right off Hwy 14. The entrance to the museum was of course located in the gift shop, which sold an overpriced array of Ingalls-themed gifts. The museum itself wasn’t so much a Laura museum as it was a Walnut Grove museum. There were a lot of pictures of Walnut Grove residents past and present, someone’s very large antique doll collection (???), and simulated chapel and school buildings, but overall the museum was seriously lacking in actual Laura stuff. They had some nice pictures of the Ingalls family and some other pics of people like Nellie Owens and Christy McClary from Plum Creek, as well as a whole room devoted to the Little House TV show, but no actual Ingalls memorabilia. Which was weird. We got really excited when we saw a fiddle on the wall with a sign next to it that said “Pa’s fiddle”, but then under that in smaller letters was “is on display in Mansfield, MO”. WHAT????

There were some nice antiques from the time period as well as a sample sod house. Was it worth the 10$ to get in? Not really. Big tourist trap if you ask me. I bet they make tons of money there just from putting Laura’s name on the door so suckers like me will stop and check it out for 10$ a pop. So tomorrow will be the big trip into DeSmet. We’re enjoying being back in civilization and will probably go check out Secretariat tonight. More posts tomorrow.

Little Road Trip Across the Prairie

October 19, 2010

I have a few things going on this week that are book-related that I thought I would share with you.

I have decided to channel Julia Child this week after enjoying her book My Life in France, by making the first main course she enjoyed on French soil…sole meuniere. Anyone that’s made it or had it, please leave a comment or suggestion! I feel pretty Bobby Flay when I don’t burn mac and cheese, so this should be a challenge!

Also, daughter and I are taking a literary road trip later this week, as I was able to accomplish the impossible..three days off work! We’re going to go to De Smet, South Dakota, the final home of most of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s family and the setting for several of our favorite books, Little Town on the Prairie, The Long Winter, On The Shores of Silver Lake, These Happy Golden Years, and The First Four Years. My daughter and I have a rich and proud tradition four years strong of reading these books together before she goes to bed. It will be so cool to see places we’ve only read about in person…the Surveyor’s House where they were the first official settlers of De Smet, the school where Laura, Carrie and Grace went, Pa’s house in town and their homestead claim. Apparently the entire family except Laura and Almanzo is buried there. Plus we get to do the things we’ve only read about, like ride in a covered wagon, write on a slate, and twist hay. Fun times for all! I will take tons of pics.

Back on Track

October 15, 2010

I’m still alive! I have to admit I have fallen off the Modern Library wagon as of late. Here are my not-so-good reasons:

1)I’m not sure who was more horrified two weeks ago: Kurtz right before he died, or me finding out I had to read the long-long version of Heart of Darkness. I had no desire to read anything for about three days afterwards, which is not cool when I have roughly 60 books left on the list. So, executive decision….we’re going to let the abridged version stand, and read on. The short version was bad enough, in my mind.

2) Daughter and I drove from Minneapolis to Kansas City two weekends ago for a soccer tournament. Unfortunately the team didn’t do very well, but on the plus side, I am happy to say I didn’t get one speeding ticket, which is miraculous for a road trip where I averaged 75 mph. (No worries, the speed limit was 70. I love Iowa!) Thankfully the fall soccer season is done and I can have my weekends back…at least, until winter dome league starts up in Feb.

3)I have been playing almost non-stop with my new HTC Evo cell phone. Seriously, if you don’t have one of these, you have Sprint, and you have a renewal period coming up, run, do not walk to Best Buy. It is the coolest thing ever. My favorite app is Shazam, which is an app that if you hear a song on the radio and you’re not sure who it is, you turn this app on and it will tell you the song title, artist and album. What’s not to love?

4) It’s been hard to concentrate on anything in the state of MN lately, what with all the media hype around here about Brett Favre’s disgusting text and picture messages. If I ever got a text with a picture of some guy’s junk, I would throw up. I don’t blame Jenn for not calling him back. I give that whole situation the Big Ewwww.

Okay, so enough of the excuses. Starting tomorrow, I am back on track with W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, which I actually did start when we were in KC and was enjoying. Read on, readers!