Thursday, September 7, 2017

An Old Fashioned, Feel-Good Horse Opera: "Thunderhead" by Mary O'Hara

Photo by Barbara Besler:  Battle of Wills taken at Keeneland September Sales about 2 years ago.

Sometimes, I enjoy reading a book (fiction or not) that was written, say, 70 or 90 years ago, when the author and readers did not know there was to be a WW2, atom bomb, Vietnam War, Beatles, etc.
Mary O'Hara lived from 1885 to 1980, was married several times. She appears to be a little ahead of her time, but probably she was right in tune with her ability to use her education and talent. "Flicka" was published about 1941, "Thunderhead" in 1943.

"Thunderhead" is a sequel to the very popular novel, "My Friend Flicka" which I have not read, but movies and TV shows based on the story were everywhere during my childhood. Both stories focus on the "coming of age" of pre-teen Ken McLaughlin at his parents' financially troubled "Goose Bar Ranch". His iron-willed Dad is trying to breed and sell polo ponies during the time of the World Wide Depression of the 1930's; he's losing his shirt, and he is angry.

Thunderhead is the name that was eventually lived up to by Flicka's foal, a colt who is a throw-back to the mysterious, legendary Albino; that stallion terrorized the ranchers of Wyoming by stealing their broodmares. One of the McLaughlins' mares fell for the charms of this bronco, but eventually was found--with foal.  Thunderhead is pure white, like his great-grandsire, Albino; strong and willful.

There are several plots that thread through this story: the boy, the horse, the head-strong Dad and much from the point of view of the (pre-womens liberation) Mother, Nell; she can do nothing to help her husband till he decides to alter his business plan for the ranch.

Best: the author (who wrote the books to help save her own family's failing ranch) had a talent for getting into the head of the horses to help the reader think like a horse. She did a wonderful job of painting the Wyoming landscapes with words. Perhaps the book could have been 50-pages lighter.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

How Many More Butterflies Photos can I show Them?

The Butterfly Hotel will be closing it's doors for the year soon. There is one more Monarch chrysalis which will probably become a butterfly tomorrow. I have two Black Swallowtails which are either dead or else "of the second generation", meaning they should be the first flight of 2018. I have to figure out a place to stash these outdoors; I don't want them to become butterflies in January inside the house!

Probably we have sheltered about 25 Black Swallowtails and likely at least a dozen Monarchs.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

A Last Novel: The Swansong of Barbara Pym, "A Few Green Leaves"...

Photo by Barbara Besler for "A Few Green Leaves"

As a reminder, a theme of my reading is to catch up on the works of writers that I have missed over the last decades of working outside the home and raising a family. In my 30's, I tried a novel by Barbara Pym, but due to my own immaturity, was unable to finish it.

Now it is different. Probably, Barbara Pym is a literary genre all her own. Her novels seem like "cozy, British small village tales", but there is quite a sharp edge to her prose! It's all about those original on-liner observations she writes, choosing just the right words. It reminds you a bit of Jane Austin.

Barbara Pym was British, she lived from 1913 to 1980; by profession, she edited academic papers, preparing them for publication. She did not plan to support herself with her own writing, but her first few novels were published and she started out with promise. In the mid-1950's, her work began to be rejected by her own publisher and others. I think she fell victim to a fast change in "public taste" that occurred about that time in the arts, music, films, literature and clothing styles (and probably other areas as well.) She kept on writing, since it was her life time habit. She was rediscovered again the the 1970's.

Unfortunately, by that time, she had breast cancer. In those days, the disease was nearly always detected with a lump; usually the cancer had spread and most people died of the disease eventually.
(Now, with earlier detection, the results are often better.) Barbara Pym completed this novel just a few weeks before her own death--the shadow was over her as she wrote about village church grave yards, etc.

The main character in the novel, Emma Howick, is a modern, mid-30's, unmarried academic who finds direction and decisiveness in the course of the story. She's been floating on the currents of her life all these years, but hasn't learned to stand on her own ground. There is a gauntlet of village characters, two possible males she could end up with. Though no resolution is reached, Pym leaves Emma (and us) with a calm feeling that Emma is going to be alright.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Two Authors' "First Novels": one Noir and one, just plain Dark


James Anderson is a regional, Pacific Northwest writer of fiction, poetry, reviews as well as an editor and teacher. "The Never-Open Desert Diner" is his first novel.

I have mentioned my local book exchange often provides 'uncorrected proof; not for sale' books for advance readers, reviewer and I guess, the library.  I love these editions and always give them "a look". I find authors I never would have.   This book was one of those.

The Hero, Ben Jones, has an interesting business: he has a short haul (200 miles round trip everyday) truck service over an isolated desert route in Utah, south of Salt Lake City. His route is so remote that the Majors in the business hire him to carry their packages. Often, he's the only vehicle on the road.

Against this blank desert canvas, Anderson begins sketching the outline of various weird, eccentric characters Ben supplies with the things they need to survive, packages, things he sells from the truck, etc. (He is not a drug dealer.) The plot centers on an old man who runs a small but notorious diner-style restaurant with a violent, tragic history; it has been used in Hollywood films, we learn, due to its evocative appearance and location. So old Walt, the owner, has friends among the stars.

There is an interesting mystery woman who plays the cello, a cute sassy young juvenile girl who will become Ben's sidekick later in the book (an probably in novels to follow; this novel is intended as the beginning of a series). I will not discuss much of that: spoiler.

The writing is good, the main character is likable and evokes our sympathy, the plot is a little contrived (but aren't they all?), the atmosphere is camp and kitschy, as advertised, so if a person enjoys modern, slightly off-beat stories, this would be a "first novel" to try. The publication date was March 2016.

Just Plain Dark:

The late Mario Puzo, I have read, thought that "The Fortunate Pilgrim" was his best novel; I agree. As everyone knows, his best known work was "The Godfather"; between the novel and the films, that story is an American Iconic Classic.

The book I read recently was his first novel, The Dark Arena. He certainly titled the novel correctly!

Walter Mosca, a former American GI, once repatriated to the US directly after WW II, is unable to settle. He cannot re-bond with his family or fiancee; he has been through too much to simply get a comfortable American job, marry and have kids, as so many did. He has an emotional connections still in Germany, we learn. His mother has received mail from a German girl.

Walter Mosca joined the Army at 17 and stayed for the duration. He is 22 years old when the plot of this novel unfolds. Walter had fought in real battles, he witnessed but did not participate in atrocities, he was nearly killed in a landmine explosion (though the scars cannot be seen when he is clothed.) The book was published in 1953; PTSD was not in the vocabulary in those days, but Walter was surely a victim.

He reconnects with friends from the service who are working in the German reconstruction effort; he signs on as a civilian contractor to work in Bremen, a large German city in the industrial region of Germany, totally destroyed by bombs. His job concerns relations with German civilians working for the Americans. Mario Puzo used his own war experience as basis for the location and atmosphere of the novel. It's bleak: a year after the War, bodies are still entombed in the rubble and place still smells a little of death.  About the only services available to the people is the street car line. It is winter and all is cold, grey and dark.

Walter is pulled into an illegal, Black Market money making scheme by one of his American bosses; Walter is used for "muscle" in this operation; it is dangerous.

But Walter has a love interest, Helle. She was pregnant with his child when he left Germany; she had resolved to wait a year or so for him, then raise the baby herself and find another mate. But she lost the baby and she has documents to prove to him she is telling the truth. The two love one another, so they rekindle their affection, live together (illegally). She becomes pregnant again. They are happy, with plans eventually to return to the 'States.

But this is The Dark Arena, after all. Forces, the dark forces of the post-war rules and the Black Market economy and deep, dark despair and desperation of the German people to survive close in upon them slowly, like a vise.

Of the two novels in this post, "The Dark Arena" is the better quality: the writing a very good, the scene and the characters seem so true; you are totally transported to this awful place and time. The book reminded me of "Lie Down in Darkness" by William Styron (not an enjoyable read, but well done) and Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury".

Monday, August 7, 2017

Still "Hier"!

Having a great summer, having parties (this one brought both of our sons home (at the same time) for the first time in 7 years; and their sweet wives; it was great!).

A few more butterflies are nearing readiness for release; a few little trips still to come--and working steadily on trim painting details, etc. on the house.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Butterflies! Butterflies! and more Butterflies!

Above, the Before Picture"...

After about 12 days, the butterfly emerges from it's tight enclosure (on the lower left, above) with amazing speed, (like, 2 seconds) once it is ready. The swallowtail above was out for a few hours, since its wings are well expanded.

 After it has had time to dry off and expand, we take it--cage and all--outside. Sometimes they have to be coaxed onto your finger and lifted out, to fly away. Sometimes, they want to ride around on your finger for a while. They are surprisingly individual.

This one settled on a cone flower in the garden and sat for several hours, another perched in a tree for a while, others soar immediately and disappear.

When they first emerge, their wings are tiny.

Here is a glorious example! We charmed both sets our neighbors' visiting grandchildren with this venture.

The photos have all shown different butterflies--we've released about a dozen at least, by now. The one shown above was especially individual. After his/her purge, traveled around the cage for hours trying to decide where to settle; finally was happy with a place at the very top of the cage. Flew away immediately when the cage was opened; only had a second to snap his portrait.

The other day, I was on our deck--"the launch pad"--when a handsome large swallow tail zoomed into the yard, up to the deck and circled me twice before flapping away. Like, "Happy Mother's Day"!

Monday, July 10, 2017

...a Book by its Cover...Robert Hicks' "The Widow of the South"...

What an eye-catching cover design on this novel of historic fiction! So evocative of the second half of the 19th Century. But is it fiction? Partly: the story is a novel based on the life of a lady--almost totally forgotten now--whose name, Carrie McGavock--was practically a "household word" at the turn of the 20th Century.

In the tiny town of Franklin, TN (now part of greater Nashville; home to country music stars) late in the American Civil War, a giant gush of bloodletting took place called The Battle of Franklin. The South lost; even had they won the battle it would not change the outcome: the surrender came about 4 months later. For the number of troops and the length of the battle: about 5 hours, Franklin is considered perhaps the bloodiest battle ever fought by Americans; a hopeless charge by the South against entrenched Northern troops in the town.

At end of the day, about 6,000 Confederates were dead--all over town--along with 1,000 Northerners.
Countless were horribly injured, waiting to die in parlors, public buildings, churches---and all over Carrie's plantation farm, Carnton. (Northern dead and injured were quickly whisked away to Nashville and beyond.)

She and the others in town nursed the injured and helped carry off the dead to a common burial in a field near town. It took months until the scene was cleared.

Carrie became world famous because eventually, the farmer whose field was used for the burial, wanted to replant with crops. But Carrie and her husband organized an effort  to bring all the remaining dead back their own farm for burial in the family cemetery. She spent the rest of her life documenting the dead, answering letters from families who wondered if their relative was with her at Carnton and tending the large cemetery. It still remains today.

Carrie McGavock was so well-known in her old age (she died in 1905) that the story of her work was influential to Margaret Mitchell when she was crafting "Gone With the Wind".

We "accidentally" visited Carnton and the Cemetery years ago, about 1993: the house was a hulk, though the grave yard was maintained by a local group. Since then, the author was this novel and others in the Nashville-Franklin area have raised funds and renovated Carnton as it was before the Battle. It serves as a venue for special occasions, etc. as well as a tourist site.

Even if not for the history, the novel stands alone as an exciting story of courage--and even a little romance. It reminded me a bit of "Cold Mountain", my all-time favorite Civil War novel.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Update on the "Hotel"

A total of 11 caterpillars were found and brought inside away from the greedy beaks of the birds.

I was concerned the over-crowding would result in caterpillar fights, but they get along nicely together. Ignoring one another.

I clean the tank frequently. 7 caterpillars are actively eating now. 4 have purged, found a comfortable twig and formed their cocoons. That is a very interesting process to watch, too.

In a few days, we will have lovely butterflies to release. I will try to photo record them. I have plenty of nectar rich blooms to support them once they are free. I hope they hang around a while.

The only "down side": the messy tank and the overpowering "dill" smell. Otherwise, a fun experiment.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Our Butterfly Shelter Hostel and Resort (for Black Swallowtail Butterflies) is open for the Season!

A couple of years ago, we noticed the caterpillars on our dill plants; research showed they were of the Black Swallowtail type. To our horror, we observed that the little caterpillars were the perfect snack for any passing bird!

More internet research showed us how to bring the little guys (and girls) inside to a dry aquarium with paper towel on the bottom and several plastic contains for water to keep their food (dill sprigs) fresh. Cover the container with aluminum foil so the caterpillars don't fall in and drown.

You need a couple of strong twiggy branches in there too, for their last transformation into butterflies.

The caterpillars eat the dill and poop. So you need to get in there every couple of days, renew the dill and change the paper towel, maybe refresh the water.

The first year we tried this, we saved one butterfly. Last year, two. Downstairs in my butterfly hotel right now I have 8 or 10 specimens, in different stages of caterpillar-dom. Old Lady Fun.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

"Meh" Thrillers from (not-so) Great Britain...

The best books by John LeCarre may be behind us by now; but I keep on reading all I find.

Lately, that included "Single & Single", a post Cold War crime thriller, featuring violence, money laundering, vice peddling of all kinds, gun running and so on. A readable novel, certainly.

The relationship between the spymaster (or undercover agent runner, in this case) and his agent, the son of the money launderer who has "turned"is delved.  As in "Our Game", the agent goes rogue in former USSR Georgia; as in "The Night Manager", the agent flirts with love---this female character was stronger, more interesting than the ladies in either of the above.

Bad Bait:

I was interested to find a British novel, made and sold in the UK which somehow found its way to my local paperback exchange: John Harvey's "Good Bait". "No one in Britain is writing better crime fiction" gasps The Times on the front cover. I feel I was duped, or standards of crime fiction writing have declined in the UK. I enjoy fine British writers, etc. I was disappointed.

The novel was a standard, modern police procedural; the eastern Europeans are the bad guys in this novel, the police detectives felt quite contrived; one character was shamelessly used as a literary crutch, as the story limped along. The author peppers and pads the story with musical and literary references from mid-to-late 20th Century...that felt old, but that is because I've been there. I looked up the You Tube for the jazz selection "Good Bait"...I'm not a jazz lover.

This book was engaging enough to pass my "Thirty Page Test", so I was "trapped"; then the story fizzled for 300 more pages.  So I was not happy with "Good Bait" or John Harvey!

Monday, June 19, 2017

Lots of Renovation Projects in Paducah, KY

What a nice facade on this old retail and office building. I hope it will be saved.

Imagine the old hardware store in its prime. Clerks, customers, managers all busy; the place would have been brimming with stock. Look at those lonely shelves.

The old Public Market was converted into retail space and theater; lovely historic space.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017


Best "ghost sign" I've ever seen!

Paducah, KY is on the come back trail, I hope. After a long industrial past, the town is the center of a growing arts and touring destination, especially for people who enjoy or take part in, the textile arts.

I loved walking the main streets of the downtown, with many restored old store fronts from the various eras; many are in the process.

There is an entire museum dedicated to quilting; the art and workmanship makes this attractive to all but the tiniest children. My husband enjoyed it. No photography allowed inside the museum, or I would show some examples.

Paducah was fun.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Rowan Oak, home of William Faulkner, Oxford MS

The iconic view of the front entrance to the home (not so much a mansion as an old MS farm) built in the 1840's, purchased and named by Faulkner in 1930.  Probably the most photographed view in Mississippi.

Faulkner died young (by today's standards) from injury suffered in fall from a horse. The house was never occupied by other owners; was soon under ownership of Ol' Miss. Mostly, the house was left the way it was when the Faulkner's resided.  Perhaps and probably, he touched the door handle with is own hands. (when visiting homes of historic people, you don't usually feel the "presence"; here, you do.) His spirit might be amused to watch the dozens of reverent fans--young and old--trooping through the house, sitting outside on lawn chairs, some reading his books or writing in notebooks.

Faulkner's specially designed writing studio, with the typewriter he used. He would closet himself in this room for days on end--so there's a bed for resting while he was in process of writing. He would suffer no interruption!

Most of his books were conceived and completed from within these walls. And if you have read his work, you know it is very personal; specific to the locations that he knew and loved. That is why I believe his spirit still resides here.

 He would display his plot plans for himself on the walls of the study.  Directly outside the study room is a small, (once "full") bathroom; it is now the washroom for staff and public use; though some fixtures are new, the wash basin is old--vintage 1940's--so you can wash your hands at the writer's own facility.

 Faulkner was not an admirer of advanced, progressive technology; he used a standard, manual typewriter though electric brands where modern conveniences in his time. There was a family argument when his teenage daughter wanted a radio in the 1940's; she got it at the insistence of her mother. (The radio is in her bedroom upstairs to this day) The telephone was unavoidable but he didn't like it. As with other old places I've seen, important numbers were scrawled on the wall! The day after Faulkner's funeral, his wife had a window air conditioner delivered and installed for her comfort in her half of their bed-suite upstairs. The AC is up there, too.

This is the modern kitchen in the home. Previously, cooking was done in a detached, brick building in the yard. These were also called "summer kitchens", used so the heat from cooking did not heat up the house in hot, southern summers. I wonder if there was a fight over the freezer? I bet not.

The bed chamber--his half of the bedroom suite

Another view of Aunt Cally's house in the back yard. (his childhood nanny, who lived to be 100.)

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Memorial Day is a Remembrance Time

Remembering my Grandmother's younger brother, Frederick Ambrose Feigel (1900-1944).

He was a civilian working on Mindanao, the southern large island of the Philippines when the Japanese invaded in December 1941.

He and others like him; men, women and children, were trapped on the island for the duration of the war, in most cases. Only toward the end of the war were allied submarines able to sneak past the Japanese and rescue some, like his wife.

He and other American men, joined the Philippine-American Resistance to try to discourage the Japanese on the islands.

In this endeavor, he was commissioned a Captain in the US Army.

During operations in July 1944, he was ambushed and shot by Japanese snipers.

His body was never recovered.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Reading "Faulkner" in Mississippi...

While William Faulkner was not a perfect person, he had compassion, empathy and even sympathy for good people of whichever race; and he scorned evil and cruelty in anyone, regardless of race.

I read "Go Down, Moses", a group of stories and short novels from the early 1940's. The stories were published individually for nationwide distributions in magazines like Atlantic Monthly or Saturday Evening Post; later gathered together to loosely form the flow of a novel about the former slaves, servants and tenants of the McCaslin plantation (17 miles from Jefferson) and how their history influenced young Isaac McCaslin (direct heir to the property of his Grandfather) to renounce his inheritance and assume a modest role in town, living on a small stipend, till near 80. (Considered very old in 1940).

"The Bear" is one of Faulkner's most well regarded works; I don't know how you read that story without the context of the preceding tales in this book.

"Was" tells the love story of Tomey's Turl and his future wife, Tennie Beauchamp; the sad but hilarious way they got to be together, as slaves on neighboring plantations just prior to the Civil War.
Their descendants are important characters in subsequent stories.

Except for the tragedy of young Rider in "Pantaloon in Black". The excellent young worker is simply a tenant on the McCaslin place and has an important, well paying job at the sawmill, until grief becomes his undoing.

Great Book. It was dedicated to Caroline Barr, "Aunt Cally", Faulkner's own childhood nanny, whose house is shown above, along with the old kitchen building from Rowan Oak in, Oxford MS. Aunt Cally lived to be fully 100 years old, died in 1940.

I also reread "The Reivers", Faulkner's swan song. This was made into a crappy movie in 1969 which I refused to see even then. Whoever thought tiny Steve McQueen should portray Six Foot Four Boon Hoganbeck? I know, box office.

Aunt Cally appears as Lucius Priest's nanny in the story, which is, after all, a reminiscence.

Having recently read "Where the Red Fern Grows", it was interesting the similarities between the two little boys in either story; both saving up to buy themselves some hunting dogs in 1905, and getting into a peck of trouble on the way.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The final Resting Place of Wm. Faulkner and his wife, Estelle

As evidenced by empty liquor bottle and shot cups left graveside, people visit to drink a toast...or just tipple. He'd probably approve.  He was not a perfect person, not a perfect writer; but the body of his work adds up to "the Great American novel", in my opinion.

Monday, May 8, 2017

A Day Spent in Oxford, MS: University town; home and inspiration to William Faulkner.

If you are a reader of the works of William Faulkner, to see the monument and town square of  real world Oxford is to be transported to 19th and early 20th Century "Jefferson", even with today's cars.
In "The Reivers", Grandfather's car was one of only two in town in 1905. Today, the square is packed with traffic.

During his life, some in the town did not wholly approve of Faulkner, especially due to a shocking little book called "Sanctuary"(shocking for the time, sadly; today the story is all to familiar from any days' news.) But his body of work is expansive and deep, his words ring true with tearful sadness all the way to rollicking humor--sometimes in the same sentence! This statue of Faulkner will keep you company with you sit next to him on the bench on the square.

An Old Fashioned, Feel-Good Horse Opera: "Thunderhead" by Mary O'Hara

Photo by Barbara Besler:  Battle of Wills taken at Keeneland September Sales about 2 years ago. Sometimes, I enjoy readin...