Books for the Reading: Reading Surprises

by Lynn Wienck, The Chisholm Trail Bookstore

It’s now winter in southern Oklahoma, complete with freezing temperatures and occasional snow. Frost forms on window panes; I’ve traced elegant, branching designs with my fingers. There is such surprising, amazing beauty in frost
patterns.

I always enjoy the Newbery Medal and Honor Books, although sometimes it takes me several years to read them; I usually just depend on serendipity to locate them. Over the last several weeks, I started and finished The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly, a 2010 Newbery Honor Book.

The protagonist, Calpurnia, is a precocious 11-year-old girl who aspires to study natural history. However, in Texas in 1899, women have lives mapped out for them in such domains as deportment, knitting, embroidery, recipes, marriage, and minding babies. Calpurnia, despite her mother’s traditional frame of mind, receives support from an unexpected source; her grandfather proves a staunch and learned ally in her nontraditional quests. It is he who offers her Charles Darwin’s book, The Origin of Species (first published in 1859 as On the Origin of Species) as an aid to her research; he also provides guidance and encouragement regarding scientific investigative methods and serves as an example.

And so Calpurnia’s real learning begins; she experiments and observes and records. Her scientific endeavors are sandwiched between sewing, music lessons, cooking instruction, and family squabbles. Her domestic skills are abysmal; her scientific discipline exceptional. She gradually realizes her own strengths.

For an element of surprise and beauty, step outside and take a moment to view winter’s frost closely. Then enjoy a book for the same reasons.

Books for the Reading: A Potluck Supper of Books

by Lynn Wienck, The Chisholm Trail Bookstore

It’s autumn in Oklahoma, it’s winter in Oklahoma, it’s autumn, it’s winter… The weather doesn’t quite know whether it’s autumn with red leaves on trees, but with winter’s frost in the early morning. Some days, it’s cold and crisp and other days it’s warm and playful. It’s rather like potluck supper – take what comes, in any form dished out.

Like the weather, my reading has also been similar to potluck supper. I had planned to peruse several biographies, but hadn’t considered more literature nor more science fiction. The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, a literary classic, by Daniel Defoe was on temporary hold to be resumed at some future date. The science fiction books, All about Emily by Connie Willis, and John Varley’s Mammoth were not in the plan at all. Potluck supper.

The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe as penned by Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) recounts the tale of a lone survivor shipwrecked upon an island. Robinson Crusoe was industrious, using everything he rescued from the ship — tools, firearms, and grain to build his future life. When supplies from the sunken ship were exhausted, the island provided him with many required necessities. Robinson Crusoe learned to craft furniture, produce candles from goat tallow, plant crops, and make clothing. The shipwreck built the man; as he mastered his circumstances, he also mastered his own life. The book is simultaneously profound and practical.

All About Emily by Connie Willis is a novelette loosely based on the 1950 film, All About Eve. This literary approach is a switch as many films are based upon short stories or novels. A young lady, Emily is an adoring fan of well-known and cynical actress Claire, but who or what is Emily and who or what does Emily aspire to be? As a suggestion and although it’s not necessary, start with the film and then read this book. (A little research revealed that the film, All About Eve had as a basis Mary Orr’s tale, “The Wisdom of Eve” and so we come full circle.)

I’ve always liked mammoths; they look so wildly improbable with those huge tusks. I’m sorry to have missed them by only about 14,000 years — give or take a few thousand years; it’s rather difficult to pinpoint the date of disappearance. John Varley, in his book, Mammoth, discusses the woolly mammoth, the Columbian mammoth, and the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, California. Although the tale is science fiction and I haven’t finished it, the mammoth information is based upon fact and makes a nice introduction to a mammoth pun-intended science.

Have a reading potluck supper; who knows what exciting books you may discover. Enjoy, too, the last days of autumnal confusion. Is it winter or is it autumn? No one, including me, knows for sure.

Books for the Reading: Blackout, All Clear, and Time and Again

by Lynn Wienck, The Chisholm Trail Bookstore

Autumn has clearly come to Oklahoma. Much cooler temperatures have arrived, and while it’s not quite frost on pumpkin in the early morning, it is quite close. Red and gold leaves have fallen from trees, although some foliage remains green. Soon winter will be here, the days have that flavor.

Several time travel science fiction novels have been started and completed. The first two, Blackout (2010) and All Clear (2010), are, according to the author, Connie Willis, one book which became two books. The first book, Blackout, opens in the year 2060 to set the stage for all that follows, and then leaps to 1939 war-torn England. World War II history is revealed in detail as time travelers swap between future and past and take on various tasks. Polly works as a shopgirl and quotes Shakespeare – an unlikely combination; Eileen, competent and knowledgeable, manages children who have been evacuated from London; Mike is hauled off to Dunkirk in a derelict boat; Colin, young, impetuous and forbidden time travel, remains underfoot. By the book’s close, situations look rather hopeless.

The second book, All Clear, is a continuation of the tale. If the first book presented complicated plots, characters, and situations, the second book is much more complex. The time travelers miss connections, and time travel drops don’t open. Gradually and over time, situations resolve themselves, but not necessarily as characters envisioned the results. It’s “all clear” with a satisfying, gentle, and complete conclusion.

Published 40 years earlier than Blackout and All Clear is the classic Time and Again (1970) time travel book by Jack Finney. A young man travels back to 1882 New York City as part of a top-secret project. As he works between then and now, time-travel researchers pursue the question: Can the past be changed? Only time and the protagonist, Simon Morley, will tell. Simon Morley balances his own agenda against those of his employers. The plot soon becomes complicated, but all time travel seems to be complicated. The descriptions of the then New York City are vivid, incredibly detailed, and somehow very fresh.

So, complicate your life, and try a little book time travel. Reading is a timeless pursuit, you know. Enjoy autumn, too, with its golden glow, not quite frozen chill, and the hint of winter to be.

Books for the Reading: Legend of Baby Doe

by Lynn Wienck, The Chisholm Trail Bookstore

Light rain, cooler temperatures, and early morning fog comprise Oklahoma autumn. My summer togs have been exchanged for warmer wear: sweaters and wool socks. I’ve taken to reading biographies, too, in a return to nonfiction works.

Legend of Baby Doe: The Life and Times of the Silver Queen of the West by John Burke is not Oklahoma fare, however, but Colorado lore. Colorado had a share of curious and colorful characters, many of them connected with gold or silver as Colorado was rich in natural resources. The tale of Baby Doe Tabor — born Elizabeth McCourt (1854-1935) and later known as Baby Doe after her first marriage to Harvey Doe — remains fresh because it was so scandalous. Baby, after divorcing her first husband, met Horace Tabor, owner of the Matchless mine located near the small mining town of Leadville, Colorado. Horace Tabor had no finesse; he was 24-30 years older than Baby Doe (depending on which source is presented), and he was already married to Augusta Tabor. He was also wealthy. Soon Horace Tabor divorced his first wife and married Baby Doe. Horace and Baby Doe squandered their wealth.

Perhaps this biography, although it treats Baby Doe kindly, but with no punches, serves as a cautionary tale. Baby Doe’s life was certainly wild, as wild as the Wild West. And rather sad, too. I’ve seen Leadville, walked through the town, imagined the whispered ghosts of silver, and somehow it makes history live. Somehow, too, the same tales repeat themselves. The past cannot be undone, but there is always the future.

It’s time to enjoy Oklahoma autumn and perhaps, read a few more biographies, too.

Books for the Reading: The Complete Sherlock Holmes

by Lynn Wienck, The Chisholm Trail Bookstore

Autumn, with cool mornings, is a welcome respite from Oklahoma summer heat. It feels autumnal, somehow, although the tree leaves have not yet turned to vibrant red shades.

The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), begun last spring, and on summer hiatus, has commenced again. I read this book comprised of four novels and 56 stories many, many, many years past and now from the same book, I am reading them again. The book is a shade worn, and the dust jacket much tattered and barely survives. For all the book’s shabby appearance, it is much treasured, and I wouldn’t exchange it for any other volume; it is my book. Of the tales themselves, I didn’t remember them, but I remembered the sense of them, with the air of old-world about them and a grace to the words. I wasn’t disappointed on reading them again; they were both fresh and familiar.

In the tales, British detective, Sherlock Holmes (using critical analysis), and with the assistance of his partner, Dr. Watson, solved numerous and intriguing cases. Mr. Holmes was portrayed as cold and cerebral; Dr. Watson as warmer and more congenial. Although all the tales are remarkably similar in tone, the first Sherlock Holmes tale was published in 1887 and the last in 1927 – a span of not quite 40 years. I am sure there are those who insist that Sherlock Holmes; and his partner and chronicler, Dr. Watson, were actual people, and that Sherlock Holmes did indeed live at 221B Baker Street.

Since that time, there have been numerous variations, updates, and modifications upon the Sherlock Holmes themes. However, the original stories remain better than the changes since that time. There is no improving the original tales.

My battered, personal volume of The Complete Sherlock Holmes will continue to remain greatly cherished. So, it’s time to finish the last of the tales for a second time, reflect on the past, and greet the future. Sherlock Holmes has returned, at least for me, and so has autumn.

Books for the Reading: Bill the Conqueror

by Lynn Wienck, The Chisholm Trail Bookstore

Autumn, perhaps, has arrived early in Oklahoma; it’s cooler now. In the dark of early morning, mystical clouds in the distance are backlit by lightning; small patches of damp remain on the roads after nightly rains. It’s a welcome relief from the relentless oven heat, blazing white sun, and desert-dry air of the last few months.

In keeping with the welcome relief of weather is a bright, cheerful book, Bill the Conqueror by P. G. Wodehouse. Although first published in 1924, the tale remains fresh, as do the characters. P. G. Wodehouse (1881-1975) wrote delightful, complicated fictional tales. The Wodehouse stories I know best are those where butler Jeeves rescues high-spirited social gadfly Bertie Wooster from dire predicaments and consequences.

This tale, however, is not about Bertie Wooster, nor is it about Jeeves. It is about Bill, an upstanding-all-around-good-guy who travels to England from America with his not-so-upstanding best friend, Judson. Bill, the hero (or conqueror, if you prefer) must isolate his best friend from trouble and drink, investigate a dubious-dealing business firm, and discover who he actually loves, Felicia or Alice. In this tale, everyone seems to know everyone else, but in a rather confused fashion with multiple misunderstandings. It’s usual Wodehouse mayhem and simultaneously manages to be good, humorous, and wildly improbable. I do wonder what the diagram showing the lines of all the relationships would resemble – a kaleidoscope would be my best guess.

This may be a plot spoiler, but the book finishes well: no dark humor, no hidden agenda, no reading between the lines. The action and multiple storylines are complex, but the intent is clear: enjoyment.

It’s also time to enjoy Oklahoma early morning soft rains, and lightning in mystical, dark skies.

Books for the Reading: Moby-Dick or, the Whale: Part II

by Lynn Wienck, The Chisholm Trail Bookstore

Summer remains in Oklahoma with early morning heat rising to a high by afternoon. The ground foliage is summer brown between clumps of distinctive orange dirt. When the wind blows, dirt rises and hovers; trees remain permanently bent. It’s startling and familiar to see half-curled trees; the scene makes for a true tale. Truth is always outrageous, more so than fiction.

There’s always the true tale of shipwreck. Thomas Farel Heffernan’s Stove by a Whale: Owen Chase and the Essex is biographical history during the whaling era. More specifically, the book recounts the fate of the whaleship, Essex, and her crew after being rammed by a whale.

By 1819, Nantucket, the small – approximately 47 square miles – half-moon island off the Massachusetts coast, was a thriving, prosperous site. Nantucket whalers were a large and close group, known around the world to each other. From Nantucket, twenty-one men sailed aboard the Essex; Owen Chase was the first mate. The ship, stove by a whale in 1820, sunk at sea.

All twenty men on board the Essex – one sailor left earlier – survived the whale staving; however, only eight survived until rescue. Owen Chase was one of the survivors; his Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-ship Essex, of Nantucket was subsequently published in 1821. This narrative formed the basis of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick or, the Whale. However, where Moby-Dick closes with the shipwreck, Owen Chase’s Narrative commences with the shipwreck and details the subsequent ordeal at sea.

Thomas Farel Heffernan in Stove by a Whale: Owen Chase and the Essex includes the Owen Chase Narrative in its entirety, continues the sea survival story, provides a biography of survivors, presents additional history, speculates about Owen Chase’s Narrative ghostwriter, and introduces other accounts – literary or historical – of the shipwreck or similar incidents. (A little further research on my part strongly suggests that there was, at least, Narrative ghostwriter assistance.) As for Owen Chase, he remained a career sailor. The sea always calls the sailor.

Far from the sea, the wind blows in Oklahoma. The wind, like the sea, carries its own true tales.

Books for the Reading: Moby-Dick or, the Whale: Part I

We have weather here in Oklahoma: hot, miserably hot, and dry. In the early morning, as the sun rises, the air glows hazy. Orange-red dirt hangs suspended from the blue sky. The wind blows, the dirt blows, and summer is here to stay.

If it is hot, dry, and far removed from large bodies of water here, it is always sea-damp in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, or the Whale. Late last year, I commenced reading this enormous tome on the chapter a day plan – no more, no less – a chapter a day. Published in 1851, it was not a critical success. However, by 1920 the winds of taste had shifted, and the book received laudatory notice from critics. The acceptance of the masterpiece came a little late for Herman Melville (1819-1891), who died in relative obscurity.

On reading this book, I envisioned pen-and-ink drawings all done old-style with detail. I also imagined steel or line engravings. The text was old-world, severe, and the stark simplicity of pen and ink or line engravings seemed a match to my mind. Herman Melville created a visual world of whaling with characterization, incredible detail, and background. He himself had put out to sea a number of times and these experiences were used in his writings.

Moby-Dick, however, had a factual basis. The Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex, of Nantucket by Owen Chase proved to be the inspiration for Moby-Dick. Thomas Farel Heffernan, in Stove by a Whale: Owen Chase and the Essex (University Press of New England, 1990), presents the Owen Chase narrative and a facsimile of Owen Chase’s title page with the complete title and date of publication. The Owen Chase narrative was published in 1821, thirty years prior to the publication of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, or the Whale.

A little research revealed that stove is the past tense of stave and stave defined as forcibly caved inward. The ship, the Essex, was rammed by a whale and subsequently sunk while at sea – a tragic fate. Sometimes, truth is outrageous and has been borrowed only to be dressed in fiction’s clothes. Moby-Dick, or the Whale is the fiction and a literary classic.

Summer is here. It’s a good time to read fact that made fiction: What better choice than Stove by a Whale: Owen Chase and the Essex, a biographical and historical exploration regarding the era of whaling and specifically the fate of the Essex and her crew?

Books for the Reading

Summer – after several weather-waffling weeks of confused warm, cool, rain, hazy, clouds, and clear – is here. The sun blazes mercilessly; the air is dry and warm; the wind blows. No clouds mar the clear azure of the sky. However, for the moment, the earlier mornings remain cool and quite comfortable. The rain will return in autumn.

The summer season is an opportunity to visit museums. There is a local museum, close to hand, with old cattle trail information and exquisite rotating or visiting paintings. This museum is always an exciting treat.

The Museum Book: A Guide to Strange and Wonderful Collections by Jan Mark and illustrated by Richard Holland is a delightful overview of museum history, purpose, and types; there are also a few museums of special note. Each page is filled with informative text and whimsical, busy illustrations.

The author’s narrative is simple and to the point. The word museum is derived from the word muse; the nine Muses were early Greek deities representing the arts. Education, not collection was the purpose of the first museum founded in ancient Alexandria. (Additional research placed the birth of the Musaeum at Alexandria, Egypt around 300 BCE. The Library at Alexandria was considered part of this museum. The library and museum may or may not have perished separately, but by 642 AD under the best case scenario, neither remained.)

In 1677, approximately 2,000 years from the first museum’s birth, a collection was donated to Oxford University of Oxford, United Kingdom with the stipulation that the collection was to be housed separately. The resulting museum, the Ashmolean Museum, was the first museum in the modern sense – a collection of artifacts. It is, according to the book, the oldest existing museum.

Richard Holland’s wonderful accompanying and rather dizzy illustrations in collage form add much in the way of visual information. Dinosaurs, coats of armor, ancient and modern structures, a dodo or rather what we think may be a dodo based on a few remaining dodo fragments, an Egyptian sarcophagus, a train locomotive, earthenware vessels, and much more adorn the pages. Every page is a visual delight.

This summer during the hot, hotter, hottest holidays, visit a museum. In the meantime, learn how museums came to be and why they are special. Soon, I will visit a local museum armed with newly found knowledge regarding these institutions. It’s a great start to the summer season.

Books for the Reading

Route 66: Part II

by Lynn Wienck, The Chisholm Trail Bookstore

Two books provided the jumping off point for an U.S. Route 66 search and travel trip: Route 66 The Mother Road by Michael Wallis (1990) and Searching for 66 by Tom Teague (1991). Both books were informative and entertaining, providing much history, folklore, and commentary about the road that was, is no more, but somehow lives on.

In as much as milder weather, late May, makes for wonderful travel, it was time to see the Mother Road: up close, personal, and live. Actually, any weather at all makes for wonderful travel, but this miniature trip was probably a better concept. (Conversely, traveling a logging road in the United States northwest many years past was probably not a better concept, but it made a great memory.)

The weather was hot, but cooperative – that is to say it wasn’t  pouring rain. My spouse and I didn’t quite roll down the windows and strain the bugs through our teeth, but it was close. It’s the first car I think we’ve ever had with working air conditioning.

So, off we went for discovery. About a two-hour drive north, put us at El Reno, Oklahoma and the road. We headed west, but U. S. Route 66 merged into Interstate 40. We got off  I-40 at the 108 exit toward Geary, did a little doubling back south on U.S. 281, and located quite by accident Route 66 again. Route 66 was absolutely unmarked, but the road went west and looked ancient. I was willing to try it which was another better concept.

What road is this, we kept asking each other? Beats me, came the answer, but we’re heading west. The route ran parallel to the interstate and when we crested hills, we could see the interstate to the south of us. I didn’t figure we were too far lost. For this stretch, the Mother Road was narrow two-lane, washboard rough-shake-your-teeth loose, no shoulder, and no center marking until the next major town. A sign marked U.S. Route 66 prior to entering Weatherford, Oklahoma. It was nice to have the sign. Finally.

The road carries with it the past; it’s like shifting time back 50 years. Although my spouse assures me that we have been on U.S. Route 66, we’ve never traveled the section between El Reno and Weatherford. It did seem that the only thing missing was my uncle’s Studebaker. If you think Studebaker is a Danish pastry, then you are younger, as opposed to Route 66 older.

Lunch was at the new Lucille’s, a retro-eatery off U.S. Route 66, in Weatherford and very close to I-40. The old Lucille’s was somewhere around Hydro, Oklahoma; Tom Teague’s Searching for 66 shows a picture of the old Lucille’s. We had passed it coming into Weatherford.

There you have it: books for the reading and for the great adventure. Someday, I have to see The Cadillac Ranch by Amarillo, Texas. Someday, I’ll have to see the road start to finish.