Saturday, March 17, 2018

Is it St. Paddy's Day already?

I haven't been around much lately.  The good news is that I've been working on a creative non-fiction project. The bad news is that I've been too busy to do many of the things I love.  I have sailed some, but it seems that lately we've had either too high winds or no wind.  As for kayaking, when I have had a chance to get out for a few hours, it seems the wind was just too strong to make me want to fight it.  Yesterday, I decided it has been too long and despite a 10-13 mile an hour wind, I went out for a good seven mile paddle!  That's me in a selfie in one of the few places I wasn't being blown away (in a small creek at low tide).  I hope you are all doing well.
Anyone doing A-Z in April?  I haven't decided yet and curious if others are up for the challenge.
Here is a review I wrote a few weeks ago. Those who are friends on facebook may have seen this as I also published on another site...
Brennen Arkins, The Magic Kings (2015), 259 pages.
The transition from elementary to middle school is a tough time for all students.  For Alan and his classmates, it is made more uncertain by the 911 terrorist attacks that occurs at the beginning of their last year of elementary school. Alan’s life is filled with challenges.  He’s being raised by a single mother. His father died when he was much younger. He’s now slowly coming to a realization of what it means to have a mother that is an alcoholic.  Arkins tells this story through the eyes of Alan. As a pre-teen kid, there are a lot of things he does not clearly understand. Like Alan, the reader is slowly provided clues.  Alan understands his mother is having problem with her former boyfriend, Art, who seems to be a good male role model for Alan. It appears Art and Alan’s mother both have issues with alcohol and even though they break up, Art helps her become involved with Alcoholics Anonymous.

As an escape from the confusing world of adults, Alan and his best friend Zak play in a fantasy world. Yet, they sense things are coming to an end (this will be their last year to “trick-or-treat” so they decide to make the best of it). But while they sense things are ending, they are excited about the fantasy world in which they create. They find a special spot on the other side of town (and across a dangerous bridge that they must ride across on their bicycles) in which they can live out their fantasies. There, Zak looks for his magic wand. But on their second visit, they are challenged by boys from the local neighborhood who have claim on the property. At this point, Zak decides they need a third king, and Joel joins them on their adventures.

As Zak and Alan play in their fantasy world, Alan’s mother begins to take him to church. Before, they had only occasionally attended church. Now they start going to Art’s church. His mother is concerned about Alan’s interest in fantasy and magic and suggests that it goes against the Bible. Their pastor isn’t as concerned as Alan’s mother, but she takes away his Harry Potter books as punishment for him riding over the bridge to their magic kingdom.

The book ends as Alan, Zak, Joel along with others including several girls, move into Middle School.  Alan notices the changes as he is more interested in the girls and less in the fantasy worlds that he and Zak had created. Alan is also more interested in sports and in reading the Bible, which seems to have become his new “magic book.” And construction has begun on the land upon which they’d envisioned their magic kingdom.

I found myself curious about Alan as he navigates his changing world. His challenges kept me engaged. At first I found myself not liking the pastor (who told Alan the only book he read when he was a kid was the Bible). I didn’t find that believable.  But I later liked him when he refused to tell Alan’s misdeeds to his mother, allowing Alan to take responsibility and to work it out himself.

This book could benefit a young boy troubled about his changing world (we’ve all been there, especially in those pre-teen years). The book could also help a boy with parents (or a friend’s parents) with drinking problems.  The story shows the benefits of a religious community and organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous to help address such problems. However, I found myself concerned with seeing the Bible as a substitute for “magic books.” In this way, I agreed more with the pastor, who didn’t appear overly concerned about the magic books. I found myself wondering more why Alan’s mother was so concern. Adding to the confusion was Zak trying to be a good friend to Alan and giving him a copy of C. S. Lewis’ “magic books,” The Lion, Witch and Wardrobe.  Lewis’ use of the fantasy genre as an allegorical way to understand Christianity is well known, and the gift shows that although Zak doesn’t get Alan’s interest in Christianity, he is supportive of his friend’s interests.

As for the Bible being some kind of magic book, I would hope that Alan would come to understand the purpose of Scripture is revelation. By showing us who God is and who we’re to be, the Bible helps bring us into a relationship with God. Maybe Alan’s new found interest in the Bible will help him appreciate it not just as a book with better magic or fantasy, but as a guide to a relationship with (to draw from AA language) a higher power.

I am curious as to how middle school boys might relate to this book.  While those of us who lived through the terrorist attacks of 2001 understand the fear and uncertainty expressed by Alan and Zak, I wonder if this would be the same for those who were born a decade later (Alan and Zak would be in their late-20s today). If Arkins was to do a second publication, I suggest he consider how that event might be perceived differently by younger populations.  The other issues that Alan face (a single parent with alcohol issues, fidelity to old friends while making new ones, and relationships with the opposite sex) are more universal than the 911 experiences.

The Magic Kings is easy to read.  Arkins is an excellent storyteller and his style maintains the interests of the reader.  I look forward to reading more books from him.

Disclaimer:  I am in a writing group with Brennen Arkins and was given a copy of the book for review.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Processional on the First Sunday of Lent

Colored Sawdust used to create mat

In February, as Lent approaches, the Jacaranda trees which are all around Antigua, Guatemala bloom. Their purple petals are royal in color and set the scene for the season. Antigua is known for it's processionals and on each Sunday in Lent, A processional will begin at a church on the edge of town and wind its way toward the site of the old cathedral at the City's Center. I was blessed to be in Antigua for the first such processional for 2018.  In preparation, large colorful designs made of flowers and/or colored sawdust, are placed along the route of the processional. 
Flowers are used for this mat

Those with banners lead the processional 
While the processional is still a ways away, young men with banners began to make their way down the street as the music from the band can be heard long before one sees the musicians.

The largest float with the suffering Jesus
As the processional approaches, priests swing censers filling the air with incense.  Immediately my head began to react to the smell and I realize why I could never be a Catholic, Orthodox or Buddhist priest (there's other reasons, but my allergies is at the top of the list). 

The floats are carried on the shoulders of men who wear purple robes.  Those who carry the float are exchanged each block.  As they slowly move forward, the float seems to rock back and forth. Time seems to appear to slow down as the float waddles down the street carried by local men.
The statue of Jesus carrying the cross provides a visual that goes well with the mournful sounds coming from the band.

The band follows the Jesus float, providing a mournful tune to encourage those who are a witness to the processional to reflect on their sins and on our human role in crucifying the Savior.

Following Jesus is a float of the blessed mother of the Savior, Mary.

I think these were statues of Mary and Joseph.

As soon as the processional passed, men were out with shovels and racks to clean up the streets. The vegetation and sawdust was tossed into a front-end loader who would dump the waste into the back of waiting pickup trucks.

It was over in 30 minutes. Even though my head was clogged, it wouldn't have missed this experience.  It was also beautiful and mysterious.  

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Back from Guatemala

Mt. Fuego puffing away
On Tuesday evening, I returned from an eleven day trip to Guatemala.  I went on a mission team and as no good deeds go unpunished, I came back with one heck of a congested head that has sapped my strength.  Over all, it was a good trip.  We started and ended in Antigua, which is a lovely old city.  But we spent four nights in Jalapa, a town in the southeast of the country, from which we ran clinics in two smaller villages.  When we returned to Antigua, the volcano that overlooks the city had become quite active, or at least it was sending up enough smoke to remind folks of its presence. 

I loved the climate (we were mostly above 4000 feet).  Nights were cool, days were warm.  I also enjoyed the food--lots of vegetables and fruit, good meats, wonderful spices and sauces, and cold beer!  Maybe I'll write more later (but I still have more to write about my summer trip to Scotland).

Chicken in Pepian Sauce

Monday, February 05, 2018

Angle of Repose

I'm staying busy and preparing to head to Guatemala late this week...  So for now, I just have another book review.  I've listened to this book while in the gym during January.  

Angle of Repose  (New York: Doubleday, 1971), 569 pages (Audible narrator Mark Bramhall, 22 hours and seven minutes). 

It’s the summer of 1970 in California. Lyman Ward is a divorced and retired professor. He has lost a leg to disease. He spends his days with the aid of a neighbor, going through is grandmother’s letters and using them to recreate his grandparent’s lives in the American West. Oliver, his grandfather, was a mining engineer. He married Susan, an artist and author from New York. After moving West, she continues her work while regularly writing letters to her friend in the East.  With her life tied to a mining engineer, she moves all over the West and even to Mexico. The two are always hopeful, but nothing ever works out.  Oliver creates a process for making cement, but doesn’t patent it and someone else develops it. He is honest about the mines he works which leads to problems in a society where many use fake reports to make a killing selling shares in worthless mines.  He has a vision for a massive water project in Idaho, but loses his backing before it pays off.  He trusts an attorney to file his papers for land and then learns the attorney has claimed the land for himself.  His honesty and the trust he places in others leads to disappointment and after disappointment.  While having a few good years, he never makes it big while Susan’s work (illustrations for books as well as articles on the West) keeps the family afloat.  In time, a gap begins to break between Susan and Oliver. She is lured away by Oliver’s loyal assistant, Frank.  Although she declines Frank’s offer, the rift between Susan and Oliver widens. After the accidental drowning of a child, Frank’s suicide, and more separation, the two live out their lives accepting their less than happy estate.

As Stegner bounces back and forth from the 19th Century to 1970, parallels between Lyman Ward and his Grandparents become apparent. While this is a novel about the West, it is also a novel about families and relationships. However, the West plays a role as the backdrop for the story. It’s a land of promise that often fails to live up to its hype. The Ward’s traveling from place to place in the hopes of hitting it big remind me of Bo and Elsa in Stegner’s first novel, TheBig Rock Candy Mountain which begins around the turn of the twentieth century, a few decades later than Angle of Repose (1870s-1890s). The families of both novels spend their lives jumping around over the West in an attempt to make it big.  But there is a difference in the two men.  Oliver is very honest, where Bo is often operating outside the law.  They both find more trouble than reward in the American West.
Stegner’s prose is masterful as he captures the landscape of the West.  As he did in Big Rock, he often uses the journey across country to describe the differences between the East and West.  There is something about the wide-open spaces that draws his characters back to their home.  Even though Susan resisted becoming a western woman, by the end of the book, she has been lured into the landscape. It may not always be a place where dreams are fulfilled, but it is a place of hope and promise.

The title has to do with an engineering concept about the angle material (such as tailings from a mine) will stabilize and not continue to roll down a slope.  Stegner is able to apply this term to human relationships and it comes up numerous times within the book.

Stegner won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for this novel, even though he did have its critics.  For a work of fiction, he does quote letters from a woman whom he modeled Susan Ward afterwards. These letters are extensively quoted throughout the book and provide opportunities for Lyman Ward (the narrator) to speculate about what was going on in the lives of his grandparents.  I enjoyed this book and do recommend it.  Of course, I have spent much time studying mining camps in the West and especially in Nevada, so this book was, as some say, “right up my alley.”  I listened to the book, but had a hard copy which I did some actual reading over interesting sections.  

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Hero of the Empire

Candice Millard, Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill (New York: Anchor Books, 2017), 382 pages including index, notes and a selective bibliography plus 16 pages of black and white photos and two pages of maps.

As the 19th Century drew to a close, Great Britain was as powerful as ever and a young Winston Churchill was dying (or at least willing to risk death) for fame. His goals were set high.  After serving in the military in India and the Sudan and as a military observer with the Spanish in Cuba during the revolution there just before the Spanish American War, the young Churchill ran for parliament. He lost, but this was first displayed his unusual talents of public speaking. Although he was only in his mid-20s, Churchill felt that his life was rushing away. He was also more than a little disturbed by his beautiful American mother (his father was deceased by this time) flirting with men not much older than him.  So when war broke out in South Africa with the Boers, Churchill took the first ship he could find to head south as a war correspondent. 

At first the war wasn’t going very well for the British. The Boers were fiercely independent and loyal to their homeland and were armed with better weapons than the British. Although the British had finally given up their red coats for khaki, they still fought as they had in the American Revolution, in lines that marched toward the enemy.  The Boers were masters at concealment (which the British felt was cowardly). But concealment was effective against the British discipline.  

Churchill traveled across the country by train and then ship to arrive where the fighting was underway. Once there, he volunteered to go along with risky missions including riding an armored train that would be used to spy upon the Boer’s movements. Of course, the train being limited to tracks, provided little useful information and made itself a sitting duck.  As the train was heading down a hill, the Boers caused it to jump track and then attacked, killing and capturing many of the British soldiers. Among those captured was a war correspondent, Churchill, who had essentially taken over command of the train and helped get it back on track allowing for part of the detachment to escape. The rest were taken to Pretoria where they were held as POWs.

As a POW, Churchill was in danger.  First, the Boers knew that he had been involved in the fighting even though he was a civilian, which was against the rules of war. Those who made it back to the safety of the British lines spoke of his bravery, which reached back to Britain. He was also the son of Lord Churchill, who had spent time in South Africa before his death and seemed to have upset everyone, especially the Boer population. But after a few uncertain days, the Boers allowed Churchill to stay with the officers, who were given a lot of privileges including buying luxuries, such as liquor and cigars, as well as receiving packages. While imprisoned, Churchill developed a wild plan for an escape. The officers would overpower the guards, then free the enlisted men. Together they would capture the Boer capital and end the war. That idea was shot down, but eventually another plan developed where three of them would escape together. 

Of the three, only Churchill was able to make it over the wall and then had to find a way to travel 100s of miles to reach Portuguese East Africa. Stealing away in a train, he headed across the country, which got him out of Pretoria.  He eventually finds his way to an English mine superintendent who, with the help of a merchant who exported wool, managed to slip Churchill out of the country.  

Churchill, once he made his way back to the British forces, is commissioned an officer and continues to fight (but we are only provided a brief summary of his war experiences).  After the war is over, Churchill returns to Britain as a hero and begins his rise in the political ranks. 

This was a book I read for a men’s book club of which I’m a member. I enjoyed it and found it a fast read.  However, there are some gaps. As this is a story about Churchill, Millard never really tells us how Britain’s as able to gain the upper hand in South Africa.  She tells some of Churchill’s military involvement in India and mentions the Sudan, but I found myself wanting to know more. She tells enough to make the point that Churchill (who wasn’t that religious) did feel he had survived because something great was expected from him. I found Churchill a bit annoying, partly because he felt his greatness was foreordained. Had I been those guys trying to escape the POW prison, I would have probably encouraged Churchill to go off along for it appears he couldn’t keep his mouth shut. In the movie, “Darkest Hour” which I watched with my daughter after Christmas, Churchill is recalling for his wife how he was so struck by her beauty that he was speechless. His wife laughs and said in that case she must have been very beautiful because it would have been the only time in his life in which he was speechless.  I also was shocked with how hard Churchill worked at giving speeches.  A close friend remarked that he spent the best years of his life composing impromptu speeches.  He also had a mild speech and struggled to pronounce the letter “s”, but this he overcame.  

I recommend this book to anyone interested in Churchill.  I now need to learn more of the Boer War!  This is the second book I've ready by Candice Millard. In 2006, I reviewed her book on Teddy Roosevelt's South America's Expedition, River of Doubt I like her writing style and will read more!