Monthly Archives: April 2019

THE SUN IS A COMPASS : a 4000 mile journey into the Alaskan Wilds

There is always a certain level of risk involved in negotiations with wild places and wild elements. Even those places that seem tame, or familiar. . . The key is finding a balance – trying to determine whether the risk is worth the reward. Caroline Van Hemert

Caroline Van Hemert and her husband, Patrick Farrell have reached a pivotal point in their lives. Life-long naturalists,  experienced wilderness trekkers and residents of Alaska have found themselves defined by their jobs and miserable. Caroline, after years of academic study is a research wildlife biologist “locked” inside a science lab peering into a microscope. Patrick, a home builder, yearns to see the trees still rooted in nature and simmers with repressed wanderlust.

They now face the end of what I call their “immortal” years. That spry time where you dream of what you want to be when you grow up and live life to its fullest pushing decisions that must be made aside for the time being. Unencumbered by children or full-time careers, Caroline and Patrick were free to dream and travel the world at leisure to experience the thrill of discovering what lies around the next bend.

But now they have reached their mid-thirties and they discover themselves sitting at the top of the roller-coaster staring down at all those weighty thoughts they put off thinking about.  Do we want a family? Have we reached that point in our lives where we live day-to-day repeating our activities like Ground Hog Day? They realize that they can’t answer those questions without taking time off to reflect. They are still strong and capable of physically challenging adventures and if they are to take one last fling at living life on the edge, it is now or never.

A long neglected plan created by the duo to travel over 4000 miles from the rain forests of Washington state to a remote point on the frozen shores of the Alaskan Arctic Ocean was dusted off, reexamined and with the help of family and friends carefully laid out. They were planning to “go where no man had gone before”. Traveling wild areas, some uncharted and vaguely described on maps. Testing their mettle in ways they could not have imagined. Meeting strangers and experiencing kindness and generosity unimagined.

Armchair adventurers, you are in for a treat. Caroline has a gift for writing that will have you breathless with excitement, slack jawed with awe, and dumbfounded that anyone would take on such a challenge to face starvation, marauding bears, and extreme weather conditions. Her descriptions of awesome beauty found in a single flower or the burst of birdsong flood your mind. The words so carefully chosen that the reader is engaged fully in Caroline’s journey physically and emotionally. She lets it all hang out and it is her honesty and sincerity that makes the book so special. The uninitiated backwoods traveler will be surprised that within the isolation and raw weather extremes, the mind slips into a zone where the issues that led you into the wilderness will surface giving true meaning to the phrase- finding yourself. We share her tears, laughter, joy, sorrow, thrill of discoveries, and love of life shared with her partner and husband, a man whose incredible skills seem to good to be true.  Everyone needs a man that can look at a fallen log and see a canoe – and makes it so!

The epilogue is icing on the cake; it would seem she found the answers to her mental questions. Recommended reading.

ARC provided by Edelweiss in exchange for my opinion and review.

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THOSE PEOPLE : a novel

My relationship with him? Mutual hatred, I would say. I recognized his type straightaway. Doesn’t give a shit what anyone else thinks. Uncivilized, basically. – Ralph Morgan, 7 Lowland Way

Lowland Way is a lovely tree-lined residential street filled with old Victorian homes. This award-winning community is known for self-monitored harmony and peace; a place where children can safely play in the streets on every Sunday. This upper class oasis turns a blind eye to the economically depressed area on the other side of their manicured hedges; this “Stepford” community pats itself on the back with haughty self-importance and perfect neighborly respect for rules and regulations. There is suspense hovering over the neighborhood. Who will inherit the home of the recently deceased neighborhood matron who lived at 1 Lowland Way?

The opening chapter reveals that the new owner, Darren Booth, having moved in eight weeks earlier, was not fondly received and that something tragic has happened at that address. The British Metropolitan Police are interviewing one of the residents, Frank Morgan from 7 Lowland Way.

Yes, we’re aware that someone’s been killed; of course we are. What a terrible way to die, absolutely horrific. . . Yeah, it all looked normal on the corner when I left. The usual scrap heap. Piles of rubble everywhere. . . A total disaster zone. . .

The neighborhood’s hopes that the heir to Jean’s home would be a respectable up-and-comer were dashed when Darren blew into town with massive sound system, fleet of rusting used cars, and a tool box filled with ear-splitting devices. This misplaced commoner began a 24-hour renovation of the house and staged a used-car business parking his broken down vehicles in the limited parking available on the street.

1 Lowland Way is a duplex; one of the only semidetached homes on the street. The residents of the other half of the house are introduced to Darren Booth in the dead of night when the adjoining wall in their baby’s bedroom came under assault from a power tool. The jack-hammering noise was overlaid with an accompanying dose of heavy metal music.

An elderly resident across the street from 1 Lowland Way suffers financial ruin as her B&B loses it’s ranking due to the situation at the Booth house. Guests were turned off by the noise, the rusty cars, and the haphazard scaffolding.

Day after day the noisy intrusion continues with no relief to be found. “Friendly and unfriendly” visits to the new home owner have been worthless.  The police and the community council feel they have no reason to step into the fray.

As the police investigate, what at first appears to be a tragic accident, the placid nature of the neighborhood begins to slowly disintegrate. Tempers rise and suppressed feelings surface that break apart friendships. A seismic shift begins in their group dynamics; everyone within range of 1 Lowland Way exposes their dark side.

When the repeated police interviews begin to reveal that a murder has been committed, everyone begins to take sides. Cue the finger-pointing and accusations.

The story unfolds slowly; excruciatingly slow, flipping from present day to events leading up to the tragedy. Although the story hones in on the lives of Darren Booth’s neighbors, we never get inside the heads of Darren or his girl friend, Jody. We are given just enough information to deduce that neither side of the neighborhood conflict is without fault. It is an interesting study of human behavior when individuals are put under uncontrollable pressure. Those People creates a scenario where both sides of the social strata make no attempt to find an amenable compromise. The ending, predictable, has a few surprises but overall leaves the reader feeling underwhelmed.

The book was an easy read but fails to match the success of the author’s first book, Our House.  Let’s hope the author steps up to the plate with her third book.

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FINDING DOROTHY

“Just because you can see a rainbow doesn’t mean you know how to get to the other side.” ― Elizabeth Letts, Finding Dorothy

Twenty years after the death of the “original Wizard”, Frank Baum, his seventy-seven year-old widow, Maud, headed to Hollywood. It’s 1938. MGM is making a movie based on Frank’s very popular book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. She’s ready to step onto the yellow brick  to help Dorothy on her journey.

Frank, himself, had seen the potential of bringing Oz to life in film but he feared, without his oversight, the intended message would be lost. Someone must protect Dorothy! Frank turned to the love of his life, Maud Gage Baum, to stand in his stead.

The engaging historical novel parallels narratives alternating between Maud’s time in Hollywood and her life story beginning in Fayetteville, NY when she is ten years-old. Tucked nicely in each narrative are clues to the magic of Frank’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and the source of Maud’s strength of character and inimitable spirit.

Much like our present day civil rights advocate, Tarana Burke and the Me, Too Movement, Maud was surrounded by strong willed 19th-century women’s suffragists. Her mother, Matilda Joslyn Gage and her “Aunt” Susan B. Anthony famous still today. She watched by the sidelines as her mother, a modern day Sisyphus pushed the large rock of gender discrimination up the steep hill toward equality.

Matilda was determined that Maud would get a world class education and was elated when she was accepted as one of the first women at Cornell University. Maud soon found that university life and studies were more her mother’s aspirations than her own. When she met her roommate’s cousin, Frank Baum, she knew where her destiny lay. She had met her soulmate.

Life was tough in the Baum household. Frank was a fabulous father, a dreamer, an actor, and a playwright. He lived with one foot in the real world and the other in his vivid imagination. A quick wit and a kind heart don’t go a long way to support a growing family. Maud was the backbone of the family and stood by her man through thick and thin as they moved from town to town following Frank’s latest vision.

Their destinies changed when Frank sat down and drew upon a lifetime of memories and wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The popularity of that first book led to many others and the family finances and security improved greatly.

Back in 1938 Hollywood, Maud knew the secrets of Frank’s books and our author has interjected some of them in the novel. Read carefully and you will spot some of them yourself.

It is true that Maud met Judy Garland and was on set during the filming. The author has chosen to expose the ugly underbelly of Hollywood and the tragic impact it had on Judy Garland’s personal life. It is doubtful that Maud had as much contact with Judy as the novel describes but it is engaging to think that Maud in some way did try to protect the innocence of a young actress.

“Magic isn’t things materializing out of nowhere, Magic is when a lot of people all believe in the same thing at the same time, and somehow we all escape ourselves a little bit and we meet up somewhere, and just for a moment, we taste the sublime”
― Elizabeth Letts, Finding Dorothy

Finding Dorothy draws together Maud’s story from all perspectives and makes a fascinating read.  Recommended reading.

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