Monday, February 27, 2017

A Book Best Read at Halloween!!

Halloween photo is not mine; borrowed from Facebook post of neighbor's daughter!

Starting to read more non-fiction, I happened on a biography by Wendy Moore, "The Knife Man - Blood, Body Snatching and the Birth of Modern Surgery"; it details the life and works of John Hunter.

He was an energetic, charismatic British surgeon of the late 18th Century whose tireless work pioneered the early development of modern surgery as a medical specialty. It was not easy: he started as an apprentice to his credit-grabbing slave driver older brother, William, a shrewd, social climbing physician to the upper classes in London. He worked long hours through the cold winter months dissecting corpses (some of which he took part in stealing from cemeteries). In those days, there was no legal way for student-surgeons to obtain subjects for dissection, so grave robbing was an enormous trade. (If a less affluent person passed away in the winter months in London at that time, there was a very good chance they would end up on the dissecting table. Condemned criminals and their families sometimes sold those bodies, too.  Weird.)

But eventually, John Hunter's efforts paid off for the benefit of medical progress. And Hunter's "single-minded mission was to understand all of nature": human, animal, plant and mineral. He collected the "normal" and the "abnormal".  He was a friend of Captain Cook and most of the other intellectual luminaries of the 18th Century, including Benjamin Franklin; the painter Gainsborough was his neighbor, etc. etc. He kept a private zoo at his country home, to which the Queen contributed.

John Hunter's teaching inspired surgeons all over the world. His work became well known again toward the middle of the 19th Century. He was inspirational to several authors, including works like Dr. Doolittle, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Frankenstein; the published account of his dissection of a whale influenced portions of Moby Dick. The foundation of Hunter's collection still exists at the Hunterian Museum in London. Hunter contemplated the idea of evolution, 50 years before it became popular.

The book reminded me of "The Devil in the White City", though Hunter did not actually murder his subjects.

Amusing: Hunter's wife was a popular hostess at the time, a socialite who managed to entertain artists, musicians, intellectuals,  nobility, etc. in the same house where her husband dissected humans and animals on any available surface at any time, and kept stinking jars of specimens all over the place; the halls crowded with students at his lectures and young surgeons up to their elbows in gore. Good Times!

Monday, February 13, 2017

De-Stashification of my fabric supply...or "Finish Those Damn Projects!"

"Red Sunflower" by Barbara Besler completed 2/12/2017

I love red sunflowers. The picture is not so good, but the little decorative, "table topper" or "chair back" turned out really well.  It is richly embellished with hand embroidery. It was fun to design and produce.   Fortunately, I managed to locate fabrics that coordinated well, and the tones were harmonious.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

All Dogs Go to Heaven...Sadly, in Fiction about Dogs, the Ending will Make You Tear Up

"Where the Red Fern Grows" by Wilson Rawls...

The author of this lovely, classic "dog story" was able to tell just one or two good stories; but it is a wonderful book.

In Mid-20th Century America, elderly Bill Colman leaves his office on a picture perfect day and sets off for home. On the way, he encounters a pack of scrapping dogs, attacking a lone old Redbone Coon Hound, obviously a stray. As Bill helps this dog, he remembers his long ago, turn of the century-era boyhood and his tender memories of a pair of this breed who captured his heart--and saved his life.

Young Billy is one of the best little "good souls" you will ever meet in fiction: he's smart, he loves his family, he helps his family, he works hard, he is determined, he is kind, unselfish and has a great sense of humor. His one passion is the desire for a pair of Redbone Coon Hounds so he can train them and hunt raccoons in the eastern Oklahoma hills where he lives. He applies his mind, heart and prayers; patiently, he works to earn the money to buy the dogs.

The writing is clear and simple, like the heart and spirit of the little boy. The descriptions of the puppies, once they arrive, are so endearing: you see, hear, smell and feel the warm squirming little bodies. The dogs have different personalities, key to the story. The adults in the story are mainly good and supportive, though sometimes not able to provide the child everything he wants--he has to work to achieve his goals.

I don't know how I missed this book all these years, since it was published in the early 1960's. Anyone who enjoys solid, authentic-feeling fiction could love this story. Some may object to the hunting: but raccoons are prolific and mostly, a pest; these were the only animals intentionally hunted. To me, this story is "up there" with "To Kill a Mockingbird" for the portrayal of the child narrator and the richness of the story. (But I think the book might be too intense for my 12 year old niece.)  Dog books always end with the death of the dog---that seems to be a rule: Love and Loss.

This is not a Redbone Coon Hound!

Sunday, January 22, 2017

An Activity: "Making Mainbocher" Exhibit at the Chicago History Museum. (at last, something besides reading!)

Main Bocher was a Chicago boy, interested in the arts. After high school and a stint working at Sears Roebuck in the early part of the 20th Century, he left for New York. Eventually he lived in London and Europe. With no official training in fashion design, he re-invented himself as Mainbocher, a fashion design house in France. During WW2, he returned to America to continue his work.

The exhibit is not too large, but features a good selection of works from his design company, along with history; there are also works of art, sketches and drawings unrelated to fashion.

There is an interactive dress form with design options programmed into the software; on a limited basis, you can design your own dress ideas.

Incidentally, the exhibits nearby, "The Secret Lives of Objects" and "Lincoln's Undying Words" are also worth seeing.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Exploring the American Western Genre: "Fighting Caravans" by Zane Grey

Restoration Village in Abilene Kansas
A decade or so back, I came upon a copy of Larry McMurtry's "Lonesome Dove" and loved it; it left my mind open to reading other American Western-based fiction. Raised in the 1950's, I acquired a poor opinion of Westerns, since so many lower quality films and TV shows featured such plots.

Then I read the American Classic Western, "The Virginian", followed by a wonderful gem called "Jubal Sackett" by Louis L'Amour (part of a family saga series of novels).

Last summer, we traveled to Maple Falls, WA to rescue family documents and photos from the derelict property of my late Uncle; among the large collection of volumes in his (damp, rodent infested) storage shed was his boyhood copy of "Fighting Caravans"from 1929 (and a new paperback version of "Riders of the Purple Sage".) For sentiment, I chose to read the "Caravans" novel first.

It is what I call a "fly on the wall"-historical fiction novel. Fictional Clint "Buff" Belmet, a boy of 12, goes West with his parents in 1854. Through his eyes and experiences, we meet many actual historic figures of the West, such as Kit Carson, Lucien Maxwell, Charley Bent and many others. Clint can't walk across the street in a western town without having some hero "take a shine" to him, or else he gets crosswise with a villain. Typical Western.

It's a bit of a melodrama: first thing that happens, he meets a little 10 year old pioneer girl, May Bell, who attaches herself to him as the two are the only children in the group. Clint learns to drive a wagon loaded with goods, he can already fish, he soon learns to hunt. The two families part ways, but the kids promise to marry someday. As the author deals with the "children" as characters, the plot is a little sappy. As the characters mature, so does the action.

We see the Native Tribes both sympathetically, for their plight and through the eyes of the encroaching multitudes of new settlers and wagon drivers. There is constant conflict. The American Civil War makes that worse. And worse still in the decade after the war, when "riff-raff" from both armies go west to seek their fortune.

A couple of films were produced based on this story, but do not seem to follow the plot line of the novel.

The main benefit of the novel was that I used it as an opportunity to "google-research" the era, the historic characters, the Santa Fe Trail, the history of the mid-19th Century supply wagon era, which preceded the rail road by only a few years. Part of "Continued Education...."