Book Review: The Portable Veblen

 

I can say, unequivocally, that The Portable Veblen is the strangest book I’ve ever read. But fun. Oh, so much fun! Author Elizabeth McKenzie’s mind is something to behold; her pen magical. Yet, there is substance to this romantic comedy and messages on many levels.

Veblen Amundsen-Howda is a strange, but lovable young woman who tries to do the right thing. She goes out of her way to please her mother, an over-the-top hypochondriac whose husband is the glue that holds their family together. Her biological father is institutionalized with a mental disorder and, true to Veblen’s nature, she makes every effort to bring joy to his life.

Veblen, who was named after Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929), a Norwegian-American economist, draws many of her attitudes and passions from the writer and has a framed picture of him displayed prominently in her home.

Veblen’s financé Paul Vreeland, a brilliant neurologist, has been awarded an important military contract to test brain-damaged patients. When Paul takes Veblen to meet his aging hippie parents, the visit is as bad as he dreads. Trying to keep all these elements—her family, his family and his research project—on an even keel while putting together their wedding is a challenge.

In the meantime, one of the main characters of the book, a squirrel who resides in Veblen’s attic, is her joy, but Paul’s nemesis. It’s hard to imagine, but the squirrel has a surprisingly important role is this story.

For a refreshing change, read this book. As Jeff VanderMeer of the Los Angeles Times says, “It’s wise, deep, and complicated.”

Book Review: A Place for Mei Lin

Harlan Hague has written an intriguing historical fiction, A Place for Mei Lin, set in America’s Northwest in the early 20th century.

At one time Caleb Willis was blissfully happy with his wife and two children, but when his family all tragically died, he was without purpose, not caring what happened to him. He drifts from Virginia and settles in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains area and sets up a gold dredging operation near Stanley. On a trip to town, he encounters a young Chinese woman, Mei Lin, who had been sold and pressed into service in a brothel. He witnesses abuse to the woman and comes to her rescue.

Not knowing what else to do, he takes her to his cabin. Their relationship grows, but all the while Caleb, still mourning his family, resists acknowledging his feelings toward his young house guest. Mei Lin, on the other hand, feels a gratitude that turns into love toward Caleb. She’s a strong, capable woman who strives to prove her worth.

A Place for Mei Lin is an interesting book on many levels. I have spent quite a bit of time in the Stanley, Idaho area and have seen the old gold-mining dredges and technology described in the book. The author vividly describes the rugged Sawtooth area, giving the novel a strong sense of place. The tragic plight of Chinese during this time is a reminder of our country’s bigotry toward a race of people once their services are no longer needed. And lastly, the novel is a tender love story that at first is one-sided, but soon develops, only to be threatened by forces beyond their control.

This is a novel worth your time, written by a skilled story-teller. A Place for Mei Lin is available in print, ebook and audio formats. To learn more about Harlan Hague, visit http://harlanhague.us/

A Special Getaway: Sol Duc Hot Springs

Twenty-one of us—extended family and friends—gathered together for a glorious mid-May three-day weekend at Sol Duc Hot Springs in the Olympic National Park and Forest on the Olympic Peninsula, Washington. We’ve experienced an unusually wet spring here in the Northwest, but we lucked out on the weather with bright, sunny days, allowing us to spend treasured time outdoors.

Most of the group occupied accommodations at the Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort, either at the large “River Cabin” or in smaller cabins. Bruce and I opted to camp with our truck and camper at the lush campground, about a quarter-mile down the road. We felt we had the best of two worlds—visiting with family and friends during the day and spending the night in a quiet unique Hoh Rain Forest campground.

The Hoh is one of the finest remaining examples of temperate rainforest in the United States and is one of the park’s most popular destinations. The Hoh Rain Forest is aptly named. During the winter, rain falls frequently in the Hoh, contributing to the yearly total of 140 to 170 inches (that’s 12 to 14 feet!) of precipitation each year. The result is a lush, green canopy of conifer and deciduous trees. Mosses and ferns blanket the surfaces, adding another dimension to the enchantment of the rainforest. We had the best of both worlds—camping in a rain forest, but with no rain.

The resort itself offers a multitude of activities including hot mineral-spring pools, massage therapists, poolside deli, restaurant, gift shop, and convenience store.
A pleasant walk through old-growth forest to the Sol Duc Falls overlook is just a mile from the resort.

There are no modern distractions like cell or wifi coverage, telephones, televisions, or radios at Sol Duc, allowing a refreshing change of pace and a feeling of getting back to nature.

The Olympic National Park is a great destination, and Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort and Campgrounds make a perfect place to call base camp.

Book Review: The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography

Sidney Poitier is a long-time favorite of mine. I’ve seen all his well-known movies and have admired his achievements. His book, The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography is an engrossing read.

Born on Cat Island, a primitive island in the Bahamas, Poitier had a childhood of freedom and love, blissfully unaware of how poor in material things his parents were. When the family’s livelihood of growing tomatoes was no longer an option, they moved to Nassau and he was suddenly plunked down in a world of cars, movies, running water, electricity, white people and the resulting race distinction. He got into trouble and was sent to his older brother’s home in Miami, Florida. It was in those years he realized how ignorant he was, how slim were his chances of succeeding. He could barely read; was lucky to get dish washing jobs.

Poitier moved to Harlem, New York when he was 16. His acting career in live theater happened almost accidently, but he realized this was where he belonged. The old adage “when the student is ready, the teacher appears,” is an apt description of his break-through. But in the 1950’s, acting opportunities for blacks were stereotyped. He moved to Hollywood and managed to get roles, supplementing his income with restaurant work. After several minor roles, he and Tony Curtis starred in The Defiant Ones, a box-office hit. In 1964 he was awarded an Oscar for Lilies of the Field, Hollywood’s first Best Actor award to a black man, followed by To Sir with Love, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and In the Heat of the Night. Although these movies were met with success, they were thought to be atypical of black people. The three movies were made in the height of race riots and bigotry. Blacks resented that the movies didn’t portray the average black man, that the roles he played were non-threatening to white audiences, and even smacked of “Uncle Tom.”

After fifty years in Hollywood trying to portray life, Poitier learned about life. Seventy-two years old when he wrote this book, his reflections encompass a part of our country’s greatly changing history.

Poitier concludes his autobiography with an awareness of his perception of self, of others and of the world. Although the book’s title suggests spirituality, I found it
engrossing and thought provoking, but not necessarily spiritual. I enjoyed the book, even more so since I have seen most of the movies he discusses.

For an in-depth look at Sidney Poitier, read The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography. Even if you aren’t necessarily a fan (really?) it’s an interesting study of the times.

Navigating at Sea: Rules of the Road

At sea, this is how another boat looks at night.

Note: The following is taken in part from my memoir, Sailing with Impunity: Adventure in the South Pacific.

Operating a boat safely isn’t as easy as it might look. Before we embarked on our 13,000- mile journey aboard our Bristol 40, Impunity, Bruce insisted I take Coast Guard Auxiliary boating safety courses. I took several series of classes on boating safety, sailing skills, seamanship, and shoreline navigation. In addition, we had reference guides and nearly 200 charts on board.

Many books have been written on navigation rules of the road, and the reason for it all is safety. On the water, there are no visible traffic signals or lanes to use as guides. When you come upon another vessel, who has the right of way? How can you tell?

Like any specialty, the boating world has its own terminology. Such common words as right, left, front of a boat, back of a boat have nautical terminology (starboard, port, bow, stern). Even something as common as rope has another name: line. I could go on and on: a ceiling is overhead; wall is bulkhead, closet is locker, windows are port lights. There’s no sense arguing about it, it just is. Ocean travel is another world and if you’re going to be a part of it, you need to know the language.

Navigation rules to be observed:

●The first rule is to always have a proper lookout, someone on watch. We maintained a 24-hour watch system of 4-hours on, 4-hours off. That meant that at sea we never got more than 4 hours sleep. It also meant that our boat was in safe hands at all times.

● Boaters must have the ability to determine risk of collision. Use everything you’ve got: eyes, ears, radar, radio.

● Know how to read ships lights for night time visibility.
– Different types of ships— tugboat, fishing boat, cargo vessels, sailboats— have different light configurations. Aboard Impunity we had a handy chart we used for quick reference when we didn’t recognize another boat’s light configuration. Lights determine the type of vessel.

● International rules dictate that when underway all vessels must display prescribed lights.
– All boats must have sidelights: a green light on the starboard side; a red light on the port side.
– All boats must have a sternlight.
– All power boats and sailboats over 65-feet must have a masthead light, or lights, depending on the type of boat, placed over the center of the vessel.

● Know how to determine which direction a ship is sailing
– If you see a green light, the ship is passing from port to starboard (left to right).
– If you see a red light, the ship is passing from starboard to port (right to left).
– If you see both green and red lights, the ship is coming toward you and you are likely on a collision course.
– If you see only a white sternlight, the ship is sailing away from you.

There are many more “light” rules for various types of boats, but these are the basics that every boater should know.

● Know responsibilities between vessels and which vessel must give-way in an approach situation
– Learn the duties of the “burdened” (or give-way) vessel
– Learn the duties of the “privileged” (or stand-on) vessel

● Learn what to do when approaching buoys and markers

If you don’t know the rules of the road, you’re putting yourself and other vessels in danger. Knowing and following the Rules of the Road is not difficult. It is smart, courteous, and safe. And it’s the law.

 

Book Review: Bone Horses

Lesley Poling-Kempes’ Bone Horses captured my rapt attention with vivid scenes of New Mexico’s high desert country, a compelling blend of people, and a mystery line that weaves its way through folk lore and gritty realism. It’s no surprise that the novel is the recipient of four literary awards.

New York school teacher Charlotte Lambert is a serious, cautious woman, not inclined toward last-minute or brash actions. After attending a conference in Sante Fe, she decides to see the place where many years before her beloved late grandfather, a paleontologist, discovered an important fossil site. It is also the place of her mother’s sudden, violent death. She rents a car, assuring herself that she can visit the site near the dusty little town of Agua Dulce, return to the hotel for the final conference banquet, then catch her flight home the next morning.

The area Charlotte seeks is remote, raw wilderness, with heat so intense she can hardly breathe. Attempting to shoo a raven from her windshield, she hits a rock, high- centering the car. She has no choice but to start walking, walking to a new life with people of a wide mix of Hispanic, Apache, Anglo and combinations of all three, people who have their own mysteries. Some are welcoming, some bear grudges.

Charlotte learns about her mother’s death and the mystery surrounding it. She learns the ways of loyalty that knit together an extended family, land, and ancestors. She finds romance and contentment. But she also finds fear when old truths surface.

Bone Horses is a complex, magical mystery, full of wisdom and legends. Lesley Poling-Kempes has crafted a memorable, soul-searching story.

To learn more about the author, visit http://www.lesleypoling-kempes.net/

View at the Top: Bora Bora

A ways to go: hiking Mount Otemanu in Bora Bora

Note: The following is taken in part from my memoir, Sailing with Impunity: Adventure in the South Pacific.

Bora Bora was one of the highlights of our South Pacific cruise aboard Impunity, our Bristol-40. Bora Bora is as beautiful as postcards describe. The ocean couldn’t be bluer, the hills lush and green. Besides the main island of Bora Bora, there are several small uninhabited islands within the reef.

After we cleared customs, we headed out to the secluded little island of Toopua and Bruce dropped anchor in 35 feet of water. The clear turquoise water allowed us to easily see the bottom. We rowed ashore in our dingy to a white sandy beach lined with coconut palms. Although no one lived on the island, there was a small copra harvesting operation. Coconuts were collected, split open, the meat pried out and placed on a raised platform shaded by a tarp. Later, it would be bagged and shipped off to be squeezed into coconut oil, mostly for cooking and cosmetics.

In addition to coconut palms, there were orange trees and what we learned were vanilla plants.

Although we loved “our” little island of Toopua, there were no roads and it was quite heavily forested. Occasionally, we would sail back to Vaitape, on the Island of Bora Bora to shop. We longed to get out and really walk, but found the hiking in Viatape frustrating. The village had streets, but they seemed to service only commercial buildings or private housing. We couldn’t find a way out of town without going through people’s private yards.

When we first arrived in French Polynesia at the Marquesas Islands, we were required to post bonds totaling $1,700. We would soon leave Bora Bora, and since that was our last French Polynesian landfall, we would redeem our bonds. While having our bonds refunded with the bank official, we asked how we could hike without going through private property. That next weekend, he and a group of kids and a few teachers were going to hike Mount Otemanu and he invited us to join them. “Tell your friends,” the banker said. “All are welcome. Bring your lunch and lots of water to drink.”

We spread the word among the yachties and several joined us. Our instructions were to meet him in front of the bank at eight the next morning, a Saturday. When we arrived, about thirty 12- to 14-year old kids, all with palm tree saplings in backpacks, four teachers carrying shovels, and our banker had gathered. As we headed out, we crossed in back of what looked like private property. We were impressed that many of the hikers, including the banker, were barefoot.

Almost immediately, the hike went nearly straight up. We followed a path, but much of the time we used vines and small trees to pull ourselves up. At times, our French banker positioned himself at strategic places to help people over particularly rough spots. I admired the stamina of those kids carrying trees.

As the trail wound up the mountain, it often gave us a view of the harbor. Our 40-foot boat appeared to be a dot in the water from this vantage. The different depths of water as it covered coral reefs dazzled us in shades of blues and greens.

When we stopped to rest, we perched on the steep hill. I didn’t find it restful hanging on to something so I didn’t slide back down the mountain, or pitch off its steep sides.

The hike up took about three grueling hours. Near the 2,379-foot top, the kids and teachers planted the coconut palm trees. The theory was that a palm tree planted at the top of the mountain would shed coconuts that would roll down the hill to start new trees. Their purpose was to avoid erosion and to replace trees that had died.

We ate our lunches and then the group more or less disbursed. The teachers and banker took the kids back down and we left as we felt like it. I found the trip down far more daunting than going up. To look down those steep hills and descend into a void was far more challenging than clawing my way up.

Hiking Mount Otemanu with these local people, though a tough challenge, was a memorable, broadening experience. And I could feel it in my muscles in the sailing days to come!

Book Review: Barren, Wild and Worthless: Living in the Chihauhuan Desert

No one can bring a barren desert alive like Susan J. Tweit. But what appears to be a barren wasteland isn’t. In Barren, Wild and Worthless: Living in the Chihuahuan Desert, Tweit explains in fascinating detail what appears to be a worthless expanse, really is vibrant with all manner of life. But you have to know what to look for and when you’re apt to see it.

North America’s largest desert, the Chihuahuan spreads 175,000 square miles in northern Mexico and southwest United States. Most of the Chihuanhuan Desert is in Mexico with fingers reaching into Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Although the desert is not known for its beauty, when observed close up, magic is revealed. A variety of birds flit from creosote bush to bush, jackrabbits seek succulent plants, wildflowers and cactus bloom into magnificence with the slightest bit of rain. In the cool of the night, many desert inhabitants come to life. Bats, owls, scorpions, termites, snakes, rats and mice, to name only a few, scurry around prowling for food. Plants, too, adjust to desert harshness with blazing hot days and freezing cold nights, but will eventually show their splendor.

The author describes an intriguing little amphibian, the spadefoot toad, that remains underground for long periods of time, surfacing when it rains, and collecting moisture through its skin.

Educated as a botanist, Susan J. Tweit views the desert scientifically. Tweit, her husband, who taught at New Mexico State University, and daughter lived in Las Cruces, New Mexico while writing this book. Her first impression was disappointment in their bleak surroundings, but she soon began looking closer and learning about her new home.

The Chihuahuan Desert wasn’t always like it is today. Humans have changed the landscape with their large ranches and overgrazing cattle, beaver trapping, diverting water for farm crops, and grizzlies hunted to extinction. Tweit emphasis the importance of cooperating with nature, respecting the land, and taking only what is needed. Cooperation instead of competition benefits both man and nature.

Barren, Wild and Worthless gave me a lot to think about. I’ll view so-called wasteland differently and treat it with more respect. The book also gave me some chuckles, with the author’s view on the desert’s inhabitants and their means of survival.

To learn more about the author, visit http://susanjtweit.com/

Our Little Tagalong

Note: The following is taken in part from my memoir, Sailing with Impunity: Adventure in the South Pacific.

On the first day out of Bora Bora, when checking the jib and looking over the bow, Bruce noticed we had a little tagalong, a pilot fish. A beautiful little fish, silver with dark vertical stripes, the pilot fish was about 12 inches long. Impunity was scooting right along at 7 knots and the little fellow had no trouble keeping up.

Pilot fish normally congregate around sharks, rays, and sea turtles. Sharks, particularly the oceanic whitetip, are the pilot fish’s most common and advantageous companion. The ocean can be a perilous place for small fish with hungry predators lurking to strike the most vulnerable. For protection, many small fish travel in large schools, but the pilot fish has made a reciprocal partnership by offering a unique service: keeping the sharks free of harmful parasites and cleaning up bits of excess food. The pilot fish apparently knows that when it comes to making powerful friends, nothing beats the shark and the assurance of safe passage.

There is such trust between them that pilot fish are even known to enter their sharks’ mouths to nibble away food debris. It is extremely rare that a shark will eat a pilot fish—there seems to be a working bond between them.

Pilot fish are also known to swim along with boats and ships. Our little tagalong was probably feeding off Impunity’s “jaw” or hull. We enjoyed his company for four days.

 

Book Review: A Home in America: A Volga German Story

A Home in America: A Volga German Story by Eunice Boeve, though listed as a Children’s/Young Adult book, would be of interest to readers of all ages. This work of fiction that takes place in 1892 captivated me as I learned about a whole segment of people I hadn’t previously known.

Although the book is primarily about the Mueller family as seen through the eyes of Eva Maria, age twelve, it delves into the Volga German people who, in the mid-1700’s, settled in Russia’s Volga River area to escape war-torn Germany and the unreasonable demands of the ruling class. Contrary to promises made to them by Russia, the Volga River area was devoid of houses, horses or plows. But there was land, and the Germans carved out a life on the Russian plains. They remained staunchly German, did not speak the Russian language, did not intermarry, and clung to their own customs and faith.

When Russia began imposing mandatory military service on all males between the ages of sixteen and forty-five, Eva’s parents made the decision to emigrate to America. If they remained in Russia, her father and older brother would likely be conscripted into a service for which they felt no loyalty.

Now in 1892, the family— father, stepmother, two older brothers, a baby sister, and Eva — is leaving the only home they have ever known. One of Eva’s concerns is leaving her great-grandmother, the woman who was like a mother to her, since her real mother passed away giving birth to Eva. But her great-grandmother is 92, blind and frail.

They have a cousin in America, in Kansas, and he helps them financially and promises to assist them when they arrive.

Their journey to the Baltic Sea is a grueling series of crowded, dirty trains and finally the extreme discomforts of riding third class in the bowels of a ship bound for America. Arriving in New York, they endure the immigration procedures at Ellis Island, and finally take another train to Kansas where they are welcomed by their cousin.

The rest of the story concentrates on their first year in America, living on a farm near Herzog, Kansas, a Volga-German community with other predominately Volga residents. The newcomers are challenged with the new language and new customs.

A Home in America is a heart-warming story with the strong loyalty of family uppermost. I gained renewed respect for America’s early settlers and with the importance of working together for a common good.