Rain/Reading

 

It’s what we call the rainy season in Florida.  Many snowbirds have headed north.  The real birds have as well. When it rains here you can see fish in the street. It’s a fact. They come up through the drains.

dead wake

It’s time to read and possibly nap.  Yesterday I finished Dead Wake by Erik Larson.  I’m moving on, reading-wise, but first I wanted to congratulate Mr. Larson on clearing up a mystery.  His research into the lives of passengers on the Lusitania makes the story come to life.  I love narrative non-fiction, and he is a master. (ErikLarsonbooks.com)

Theodate Pope
            Theodate Pope

One of the survivors of the Lusitania’s torpedoing was named Theodate Pope. In her life, she had long struggled with depression. When she boarded the ship, Theodate was 48, wore a velvet turban and was a singular woman for her time.  She was born in 1867 and lived in Farmington, CT, where she went to Miss Porter’s school.  Since this is about me, as usual, it should be noted that one of my college roommates had attended the same school. I also take anti-depressants daily.

During one of her bouts with depression, Theo’s wealthy parents sent her to Philadelphia to be treated by Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell, who treated women with so-called nervous difficulties with a “rest cure.” If you took his cure, you had to remain bed-ridden for weeks, sometimes up to two months.  Inactivity was supposed to cure the patient, who was not even allowed to get up to go to the bathroom! No sewing, reading or–god forbid–writing. Nothing but cleaning your teeth–again all this information researched by the wonderful, curious mind of Erik Larson.

wallpaper

Dr. Mitchell’s approach was later exposed in a popular short-story called “The Yellow Wallpaper” written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Gilman was a patient in 1887, a year before Theodate Pope. Gilman’s story is still taught by English teachers today.  I was one of them. In my high school we taught it along with Kate Chopin’s classic The Awakening.  Mystery solved. I always wondered what the hell that story was about.  I had a dim idea it was about a woman going nuts, but I was never sure.  Truth be told, I’m still puzzled by it, but now I know the relevant back story and can see the link to emerging feminist thought. (Here’s a link to the complete story. You can read it in about 10 minutes. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1952/1952-h/1952-h.htm)

Reading can open closed doors!  But I hope it’s not to a room with yellow wallpaper.  Or a ship with four smoke stacks. Then again, we can read about them both on a rainy day in Florida. Next up, Sherman Alexie’s War Dances.

The Lusitania before she was torpedoed
    The Lusitania before she was torpedoed
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Always be Batman, and always read books

Florida Clouds in June
Florida Clouds in June

It’s summer in Florida. It’s hot, steamy and the clouds are fantastic. It rains. Time to read.  For the past two weeks I have been a happy woman, because–I have read some really good books, and have at least two more in reserve.  I love when books pile up, or queue up in the virtual library or are in some way in my possession. I know they are there, ready to open.

So here are my summer picks–all fiction so far:

Still Life with Bread Crumbs

Anna Quindlen’s Still Life with Bread Crumbs made me happy.  On page 29, these words jumped out at me:  “At the doctor’s she had read an article about the fact that women over fifty began to obsess about mortality, and she knew this to be true.”  Quindlen’s heroine, Rebecca, is an aging photographer who has moved from the west side of Manhattan to cheaper quarters upstate. In the middle of nowhere. No internet, no phone service. The novel takes her on a journey of self discovery, and it’s worth the ride, because Rebecca is a 60-year-old woman.  True, she is slim, fit and has great hair, but she’s worried about money and noises in the attic, and her son, and her place in the world.  “She was afraid she was going to live forever, impoverished, her career a footnote in a dissertation that no one even read.” Yep, that’s a lot of us, minus the footnote, which I keep typing as footnot, which sums up my spot in world nicely. And I do obsess about mortality. It’s a luxury, but I do.  And then I read some more.

Someone

Next, I picked up Alice McDermott’s Someone. Another woman’s story, set in Brooklyn this time, and so different.  While Rebecca is unmoored, McDermott’s heroine Marie is securely moored in an Irish Catholic neighborhood and family.  I especially loved the scene in the novel when her mother, who is dying, keeps asking if she is “home.”  Tending to her, Marie and her brother Gabe figure out she means Brooklyn, not Ireland.  The thought of being in Ireland distresses their mother greatly.  And when she says, “Show me,”  Gabe picks her up and carries her down four stories into the street, telling her again,  “Not home…Brooklyn.”

Both authors are wonderful writers and know how to tell a story. Their characters come alive, and the places they live come alive, be it a small town or an inner city block. It’s easy to slip into novels like these; you trust the authors not to abuse your investment. Jane Austen never abuses her readers either. I don’t need everyone to ride off in a carriage at the end, but I like fiction that goes somewhere and takes me with it. (I added Austen because I am that kind of woman and I have obsessions.)

Signature of all things

Before these two books, I read Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. Although I thought this book a slog at times, mainly because of the 1800s time frame,  I appreciated the last four pages immensely, and even made a copy of them to keep. I loved Gilbert’s  heroine’s last thoughts on life:   “I believe that we are all transient.  I believe that we are half-blind and full of errors.  I believe that we understand very little, and what we do understand is mostly wrong.  I believe that life cannot be survived–that is evident–but if one is lucky, life can be endured for quite a long while.  If one is both lucky and stubborn, life can sometimes even be enjoyed.” Amen to that, and women who study moss.

Chimamanda Ngosi Adichie

And lest you think I read only white female authors, dead or alive, my absolute fall-down favorite book of the summer so far is Americanah by Chimamanda Ngosi Adichie.  I am not the first one to sing the praises of this novel, but it deserves all the glowing reviews and prizes it gets. Want to feel what it’s like to be an immigrant?  Want to know what it’s like to come to this country and attempt to negotiate its bizarre racial codes? To have Black hair? What it’s like to love and be loved? To leave home and to come back?  Ifemelu, Adichie’s heroine leads us down these avenues fearlessly, and the reader and the characters are in this novel together.  It’s that strong and beautiful. And funny, and sad and moving.

Now for the really good part.  All these women have written other books, some of which I’ve already read, but some I haven’t. Goodie! Pile them up and put them in the queue. I’ll start one after I finish Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead. A few months ago I read and loved her first novel Seating Arrangements, the unforgettable story of a WASP wedding. It’s ironic, Edith Wharton, and then some. Told from a mostly male point of view.

So, I’ve decided it all comes down to this:  If ever someone asks me what I’m good at, I’m going to say. “I’m good at reading.” Including piling up books I’m going to read. It just may be one of the things that makes life worth living. But don’t quote me, I’m over 50 and obsessing.

the-most-important-thing-in-life-is-to-be-yourself-batman

 

 

Darwin, Mockingbirds and Vonnegut

booksKurt Vonnegut’s novel Galapagos was written by someone who’s been to the Islands.  How else could he describe the dance of the blue-footed booby, or the habits of a marine iguana?  Sometimes you just have to be there.

Things I did not take
Things I did not take

On the Galapagos Islands, you may take no souvenir, unless you buy it.  That was hard.  I wanted a rock, a shell, a feather, something tangible, and a t-shirt doesn’t count.  But I took nothing. All was left on the beach, because it was decreed, and because I have all the rocks, shells and feathers I need.  Which, as Vonnegut, would say, are exactly none.

When I found  the paperback copy of Galapagos in the ship’s library and started reading it, I wanted to finish it.  But, hard as it was, I took it back and placed it on the appropriate shelf during  my last hour aboard the National Geographic Endeavour.

GWLibrary1

Weeks later, I finished it on my ipad.  I don’t know whether or not Vonnegut would approve.  Maybe.  Hard to say.  Just now, I was trying to remember what was on the cover of the real book, and I couldn’t.  The trouble with not-real books is you can’t pick them up and handle them. Like so many things in life, first you need to find and then turn on a machine.

There’s a snake on the cover of Galapagos.  Why, I have no idea.  There are not many snakes on the archipelago.  There are not that many species in the Galapagos, but what there are are rare.  Endemic is the word visitors soon learn and repeat, as in– “Is that endemic?”  when referencing, say, the drink of the day.  A Pisco sour is not endemic, you can get one at most any bar.

GFMockingBirdOn the other hand, the Floreana mockingbird is endemic. So endemic, it is no longer even found on the island of Floreana, where it was driven to extinction, probably by rats, cats and other human-introduced predators.  We saw the Mocker on a nearby tiny lava-spewn speck called Champion Islet.  Like all birders, I know rare is good. People like rare. This bird is so endangered, it’s red-listed. Only about 200 exist.

I appreciated that mockingbird because it watched us briefly and then continued its search for food, oblivious to its fate and to ours. Survival takes many forms.  These mockers depend on prickly pear trees for nectar, fruit and nesting, but they also have adapted to eating bugs and even marine iguana eggs. Unbelievably, they might continue as a species partly due to the intervention of man and DNA from Darwin’s 1835 specimen. (Watch a fascinating video from the Natural History Museum in London. http://www.nhm.ac.uk/nature-online/species-of-the-day/evolution/mimus-trifasciatus/ )

It was the four distinct kinds of mockingbirds found on different Islands of the Galapagos, not finches, that provided Darwin’s first eureka moment about how species evolve and change.

So it goes.

Endemic prickly pear
Endemic prickly pear

The Way of the Owl

Wesley and Stacey O’Brien on youtube www.youtube.com/watch?v=vufEqpZZql0

Barn owls are beautiful and found in Florida and many other states.

Our photography professor at Syracuse University once told our class that kids, pets and nuns were sure winners. Nuns don’t wear habits anymore (my sister called them black brides when she was young) and our kids are grown and out of camera reach, so that leaves pets.  I just finished reading a wonderful book by Stacey O’Brien titled Wesley the Owl; she adopts an injured baby barn owl, it imprints upon her, and they have many years of togetherness.  The book is illustrated with photographs, and it is not a children’s book, although older children would enjoy it.  I loved it.

Wesley the owl trusts only Stacey and a few others.  He is a wonderful combination of instinct, emotion and  intelligence, as are owls in general.   For instance, Wesley, when he reaches maturity,  tries–successfully on his part (read the book!) to mate with Stacy’s arm, and in full courtship mode tries to feed her mice, even getting one in her mouth. Consequently, every day during  the normal owl mating season she has to pretend to eat a mouse, cleverly disguising it, which is not an easy task given how smart he is.  Justified, Wesley backs off–he has done right by his mate.

She loves this owl and he loves her.  There is no other word for it.  In fact, love might not even cover a cross-species relationship. They inhabit each other’s lives by sharing what they can, communicating, and everything in-between–testing, laughing, crying, debating and learning from one another. They are in constant company, indoors, throughout his life, and hers, even when she becomes dreadfully sick.

I especially love what she calls The Way of the Owl:

You commit for life, you finish what you start, you give your unconditional love, and that is enough.

My neighbor has rescued a lot of baby owls this winter and re-nested them too.  The barn owls were his favorites, and his wife and rescue companion  lent me this book. My thanks to them both.

My husband and I have two pets, pictured with this post. One barks at the UPS man and the other  appreciates anoles, a little too much. Toby the dog is sleeping at my feet and just wagged her tail while dreaming. Maybe she was running at the dog beach.  The scrawny wonder, Little Guy sleeps in the sun on the back of the claw-ripped sofa. He is an indoor cat with aspirations. They consent to be ours, even now, when an exciting time for the humans in the household is a good book or possibly a bird on the dock.

May there always be owls and pets. And books to read.

Our dog Toby, who is proudly a mutt with a purple tongue
Our dog Toby, who is proudly a mutt with a purple tongue
Little Guy, who bites gently when he's had enough, which is often.
Little Guy, who bites gently when he’s had enough, which is often.

Reflections on Hearing Mary Oliver Read

I go down to the shore in the morning

and depending on the hour the waves

are rolling in or moving out, 

and I say, oh, I am miserable, what shall–

what should I do: And the sea says 

in its lovely voice:

Excuse me, I have work to do.

Mary Oliver

Yeah, I love this little poem, titled I Go Down to the Shore in the Morning.  It’s not unlike William Carlos Williams classic, The Red Wheelbarrow:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

Both of these poems are easy to travel in–you can put yourself in that place, anywhere,anytime.  You can instantly imagine the sea, the sea’s voice, the white chickens, the rain.  You remember them always.
Mary Oliver read her poem last month in an ark-shaped church on Sanibel Island.  Dressed in black, she appeared unassuming, a friend you might like to talk to as your dogs play. Her new book of poetry is titled A Thousand Mornings. I recommend it.  She read several poems from it and her other books and confided, with humor,  about the trials of traveling, organizing papers and books to take to readings, and forgetting the order she wanted to read them in.  She answered questions at the end honestly and carefully. At one point she congratulated the huge crowd, some outside watching on a big screen, on not coughing. (Everyone was coughing where she came from, she disclosed.) She also took the time to sign “Mary Oliver” on our books.  I would think it would be difficult for anyone to keep signing and signing, all for strangers, but she did, and graciously.

Mary Oliver doesn’t give many readings, and I could almost feel her unspoken pain, her unwillingness to break her routine, which is getting up at dawn and walking, observing and reveling in the natural world, writing and taking joy in her close friends, her dog and the wonder of  what’s outside and inside us all.
She reminded the assembly that the  world doesn’t have to be beautiful to work, but it is.
And the sea has work to do.

IMG_0209