Tag Archives: Social Isolation

Covid-19 Matters

As I try to form my thoughts here, I am reminded of Ian Strachan’s children’s book –The Boy in the Bubble. I can’t be the only person on the globe that’s chafing at the bit to get their hair cut and a hug from my best friends. Ya, I know. I could do those things. But you see, I am of the opinion that a longer life with my family outweighs looking good for the funeral director.

I consider myself one of the lucky ones. I live isolated on Alec Mountain. The only people I see regularly are the mail carrier and the garbage pickup crew. About every 2-3 weeks, I mask up and head to the grocery store.

But I want to tell you that life as a hermit isn’t perfect. By nature, I am a worry wart. Have been for over seventy years.

In the mornings, when the weather permits, I build a tiny fire, plop my tush in my wooden glider, sip my morning coffee, and watch the sun rise. The birds are outrageously loud this year.  It makes me feel better to be outside. I look around and realize that the natural world is going on just fine in spite of the pandemic.

I have my concerns and worries just like everyone else. There are family members serving their communities in the health care field to worry about. My son lives in Germany and recently had a serious crash on his bicycle requiring surgery and I can’t go to see him. My sister is in an Atlanta area nursing home where many residents and staff have Covid and a fair number of residents have died. I am her trustee and have been handling complicated financial transactions on her behalf standing in front of drive-up bank windows; the last time in the rain.

So where am I going with all this? I have come to the conclusion that my brain has been stunned and I just can’t stop my mental wanderings long enough to write reviews for my blog. I still read. I have read some very fascinating new fiction – pickup a copy of The Book of Lost Friends  by Lisa Wingate. Stay tuned, I will be back in the near future.

In the meantime, I will tend my gardens and occasionally sneak to a secret camping spot on the Chattooga River for a restful overnight. Alec Mountain is a wonderful refuge and I have generous neighbors that have allowed me to establish a series of hiking trails on their properties.

My wildlife camera captures guests on those trails. Some delightful and others requiring some intervention. Imagine my surprise to recently capture images of an entire herd of cows that had broken loose from their pasture and some how climbed the mountain to enjoy my trails. Please stay safe. Things will get better.I am sure of that for a fact.

Back with you soon.

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A LADDER TO THE SKY

Maurice Swift took a notebook from his bag… and began to make some notes.
“What?” asked Erich, “Did I say something particularly wise?”
“I’m writing something down about balance. You seem to have struck a good equilibrium between your work life and your artistic life,” said Maurice.
“You can’t write all the time, Maurice. There’s more to life than words and stories.”
“Not for me there isn’t,” says Maurice.

And believe me, this diabolical sociopath really means it.

In 2018, I was granted an advance copy of a reprint of John Boyne’s A Ladder to the Sky. I have always enjoyed his works including the 2006 young adult book, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and the wonderful 2017 novel, The Heart’s Invisible Furies.  But somehow this book became buried in my TBR stack. Now that I have read A Ladder to the Sky, I could kick myself for waiting so long to read and review it.

Truth be known, I can’t remember when I intensely disliked a protagonist more than Maurice Swift. I found myself hissing and booing but totally unable to put the book down. We have all met people that are manipulative and taken advantage of us. They have the uncanny ability to upset our resolves and get us to reveal our deepest insecurities or darkest secrets. Sometimes they seem to enjoy causing pain or harm to us for no reason other than they can do it.

Maurice Swift has always wanted to be a writer. And not just any writer. The best of the best. Someone that history will remember as a literary great and whose books will never go out of print. But he has one problem. He can put together the words on paper but he is incapable of generating the original idea; he lacks imagination.

Maurice is well aware of his assets. He was gifted at birth with a Hollywood attractiveness that he used to his best advantage throughout his life. He was also born an undiagnosed sociopath with a innate ability for furthering his long-term goals with charismatic charm, flattery, and deceitful behavior. His early books rejected or published with little success didn’t deter his goal. He just had to find someone with a story and steal it.

The novel offers three views into Swift’s life. The first begins as a novella of an aging German-American novelist. There’s a melancholy edge to his story. Narrated in the first person, Erich Ackermann speaks to us about his childhood, his literary career development and his modest successes. The narrative darkens as he relates meeting a sexy barkeeper who tells Erich that he hopes to become a successful author himself one day. Like a frog placed in a pan of tepid water on the stove, Erich doesn’t sense the danger until he is sucked into Maurice’s dangerous web and is unable to extricate himself. It is too late when he is tricked into sharing a dark secret from his own youth in Nazi Germany. Erich’s worst nightmare from the the past is exposed in Swift’s highly successful fiction entitled, Two Germans.

The second part of the book, to me, was the most interesting. Maurice Swift, accompanying his latest victim, American author, Dash Hardy, unexpectedly met the renowned Gore Vidal at his home in Italian villa, The Swallow’s Nest. This serendipitous encounter exposed Swift’s wiles as he tried to vandalism Vidal’s life and ingratiate himself into his social community; if successful there would be no need to squander his unproductive time with Dash. The world-wise Vidal recognized Maurice’s tactics. The acerbic literary elder sparred with Swift and privately let him know that wasn’t blind to the young man’s game; he couldn’t out-master the master.

Dash, poor defenseless Dash, was obviously besotted. . . Gore  lamented quietly, his heart grieving for the pain that this young man would inevitably cause his friend.

The third part of the novel begins with Swift, now recognized for his successful fiction, Two Germans, celebrating his fifth wedding anniversary with his wife, Edith. After five years, Maurice hasn’t achieved the second of his two life ambitions -becoming a father. Edith has been unable to produce a child having suffered four miscarriages.

To add insult to injury in Maurice’s mind, Edith, also an author, has recently published her first novel, Fear, to rave reviews. It has been eleven years since Maurice published Two Germans and he is beginning to be perceived as a has-been. When Edith announces that she has begun a second novel, the wheels come off the bus.

In the end, Maurice Swift earns his just reward, landing in Dante’s Ninth Circle of Hell after a lifetime of treachery.

I rarely give a book 5 stars. Giving a book a perfect score usually requires me to be transported to a different place and/or time. There were flaws in this book, but I have found myself reflecting on many aspects long after I finished reading it. Why did his mentors, sensing his disloyalty,  turn into simpering snivelers grasping at his ankles as he pulled away. But of more import to me revolved around the question -where do ideas for a book come from? When is it right or wrong to use something overheard or told by someone? And does anyone understand why a narcissistic sociopath would set being a father as a life ambition? Humm.

Recommended.

 

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GIVER OF STARS: a novel

6-minute audio with former pack horse librarian

Alice asked Margery, “If you’ve never been further than. . . Lewisburg. . . how is it you know so much about animals in Africa?” Margery yanks her mule to a halt. “Are you seriously asking me that question? ” The answer of course is because of books. Books that brought stories of Africa to Appalachia. . .

In the midst of the Great Depression, Eastern Kentucky was among those states most severely economically impacted. Thirty percent of the state was illiterate. Roosevelt’s New Deal initiative, The Pack Horse Library project, implemented by the Works Progress Administration in 1934 brought hope of a better future through literacy. The project provided jobs to local pack horse riders, mostly women, with a salary of  $28 a month ($495 in today’s dollars).  The project ended in 1943 with the ramp up to World War II and the elimination of the WPA projects.

The Pack Horse program was not immediately accepted by the mountain folks. Literacy threatened the status quo.  “Families should be reading the Bible. Nothing else.”  “We are struggling to control what influences are coming in and out of our own homes.”

Jojo Moyes, known for her numerous heartwarming romance novels, several made into movies (Me Before You) has written her first historical fiction featuring the Pack Horse Library project. Fans of her romance fiction will not be disappointed.

GIVER OF STARS, set in eastern Kentucky during the Great Depression, features a coterie of fictional pack horse librarians – Margery O’Hare, the daughter of a cruel and deceitful bootlegger heads the group. A woman comfortable in her own skin, outspoken and independent; preferring life alone in the wilds of the mountains. A woman stained by her family legacy. Alice Van Cleve, the daughter of wealthy English parents, newly wed to Bennett Van Cleve, the  son of a cruel American coal mine baron; her new life filled with coal dust and pack horses not racing thoroughbreds and Mint Juleps. Izzy, the reclusive daughter of local parents; the victim of polio. Beth, the daughter of a local farmer, and Sophia, the African-American sister of a crippled miner and a trained librarian from Louisville.

The town residents and the folks up  and down the hollers and along the creek beds include a destitute and distrustful father struggling to raise his motherless daughters, a few pompous asses of the human kind, most notably, Alice’s father-in-law, and a miner with a heart of gold and a determination to marry the wild child, Margery.

The novel is packed tightly with a whole slew of themes that are examined closely and intimately at times; some painful, some joyous, most true-to-life and a couple dragged out too long. Overall an enjoyable read that brings the reader into the beauty of the mountains at a time when nature is threatened by mining and the isolated residents face a paradigm shift in long-held traditions, gender roles and racial discrimination.

Jojo Moyes and “Giver of Stars” and a second novel by Kim Michelle Richardson entitled “The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek” were published in 2019 within months of each other and have been the subject of some controversy. Some critics feel elements of “Giver of Stars” closely resemble those in “The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek”. Both novels cover the Pack Horse Librarian project. Be that as it may – both novels have been very popular and Richardson’s novel is on my TBR list.

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THE STRANGER IN THE WOODS:

THE STRANGER IN THE WOODS:
the extraordinary story of the last true hermit

The trees are mostly skinny where the hermit lives,
but they are tangled over giant boulders with dead-fall everywhere
like pick-up sticks. There are no trails. . ..

[A]t dark the place seems impenetrable.
This is when the hermit moves.
He shoulders his backpack and his bag of break-in tools,
and sets out from camp.

Opening Paragraph : Stranger in the Woods.

 

Michael Finkel
Alfred A. Knopf | 2017
227 pages
Non-Fiction | Biography | Maine
Review Source : Personal Copy
★★★★☆

 

In 1986, 20-year-old Christopher Knight walked off his job (installing security alarm systems) for no apparent reason. With little preparation, he got in his new Subaru Brat and drove aimlessly south; away from his home state of Maine. When he never came home, his family matter-of-factly assumed he was off finding himself somewhere. In 27 years, they never contacted the authorities to report their son missing.

Much like Forrest Gump on his infamous walk to nowhere-in-particular, Christopher grew tired of aimlessly wandering and headed back to Maine. Reaching his hometown, Knight drove right past his parent’s house without stopping and kept on driving until the dirt road he chose ended. Tossing the keys on the dashboard, he walked into the woods and was not seen for 27 years. But his presence was felt. 

For 27 years, the circle of cabins surrounding North Pond endured strange burglaries. Mattresses disappeared; others lost clothing, food, batteries, radios, books, grills, propane tanks et all. . . For some homeowners, the home invasions were a mere inconvenience. For others, having been burglarized over 50 times, their vacation homes were a source of anxiety and insecurity.

Law enforcement authorities, for over 25 years, tried every trick in their arsenal to identify the burglar and failed. Finally, employing a highly technical bug devised by Homeland Security, Game Warden Terry Hughes hit pay-dirt. April 4, 2013, alerted by an alarm in the middle of the night from Pine Tree Camp, a day camp for the disabled, Christopher Knight was found “shopping” in the camp kitchen.

As his story unfolded during interrogation, authorities questioned the veracity of this bizarre man in the clunky old-fashioned glasses. They were to change their opinion as Knight led them through a tangled wilderness to his well camouflaged camp.

Staff photo by Andy Molloy
Game Wardens, State Police and Somerset County
Sheriff’s deputies hike
into Christopher Knight’s camp site.

 

As he languished in prison awaiting his day in court, everyone in the “civilized” world wanted to know how he survived the harsh Maine winters, what he did to fill each day, and why he chose to isolate himself from humanity. But Christopher Knight was not a man to share his inner thoughts and actions. After receiving over 500 requests from journalists for an interview, he responded to only one. Something in Michael Finkel’s handwritten letter spoke to Knight. Asked why he thought Knight was willing to meet with him, Finkel replied:

I believe that Knight realized he might be endlessly hounded to tell his story, and that if he told it once, and allowed it to be made public, he might be able to have more privacy going forward.

And what a story he revealed, piece by reluctantly chewed piece. Never revealing more than the bare facts; keeping his inner thoughts to himself. Desperate to feed the curious just enough to release him to a life of seclusion once more; if not in the deep woods, at least in the privacy of his family.

Knight doesn’t consider himself a hermit. He hated the word. He still needed the instruments of civilization to sustain him and to achieve his perfect world void of germs, people, and the great cacophony of society in general. He was known as a child to be a “genius”, a voracious reader, honest and someone who preferred his own company. Probably the hardest part of his solitary life was the requirement to break his own moral code. He must steal to survive. He never tries to hide the fact that he was a thief.

I don’t want people trying to justify my bad behavior in an attempt not to sully what they admire in me. Take the whole package, good and bad. Judge me on that. Don’t cherry pick.

To the arm-chair adventurers, Knight’s ability to survive 27 harsh Maine winters without once lighting a fire seemed mystical. To those more concerned about his felonious talents, he represented less a hero and more a mild Ted “Unibomber” Kaczynski bringing distress to the local community and costing years of tax dollars in the effort to capture him.

When Christopher had shared all he was going to share with Finkel, he told him is was time to leave him alone. And he did.

At times, Finkel strays away from Knight to expound on reasons for solitary isolation. He questions why some human beings choose to exclude themselves from the “pack”. In our current technology oriented world of Facebook, Twitter, and Texting, there is an effort to avoid isolation and self-reflection. There’s a monstrous market in self-help books, each flaunting the idea that they can help find what’s missing in your life. It is no wonder that people are attracted to someone who wholeheartedly rejects their world.

“I think that most of us feel like something is missing from our lives. And I wondered then if Knight’s journey was to seek it. But life isn’t about searching endlessly to find what’s missing. It’s about learning to live with the missing parts.”

I found myself, a person who treasures her quiet life on a small Georgia mountain, thinking, at what length would I go if I wanted to isolate myself from the rest of the world, never even hearing my own voice. My answer, not very far.

I need friends, smiles, conversation, a campfire and a hot bath.

You are going to either love the book or hate it. Either way, you should read it.

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