Monthly Archives: February 2017

THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD REIMAGINED

The Underground Railroad: A Novel
Author: Colson Whitehead
Publisher: Doubleday 2016
Genre: Historical Fiction
Hardcover Edition: 306 pages
Source: Personal copy

Critics praise this dynamic novel. Whitehead’s story takes readers places they have likely not been before. Though you may have found it improbable that an actual train whose passageway tunneled through the earth existed as part of the historic Underground Railroad, this writer’s vivid imagination and talent make the reader believe. The reader easily moves from skepticism at an outlandish idea to a fully realized journey, much of it beneath the earth. Think about the people who dug those tunnels, and laid those rails.

The story of Cora during the years before the Civil War builds on the power of previous slave narratives. It is a story that does not gloss over the human cost of slavery nor the brutality of that existence. This brutality is brought home to readers in these two simple sentences. “It was the softest bed she had ever lain in. But then, it was the only bed she had ever lain in.” Whitehead doesn’t tell us about life in slavery, he shows us in the voice of a born storyteller. And some of the things we read are beyond horrifying.

Her journey is long and Cora meets many other characters along the way. At times the novel’s pace may seem as jerky as the trip itself. The reemergence of some characters takes one by surprise and can seem difficult to follow. The where and when blur as must have been the case for those on the journey away from slavery toward freedom.

There were chapters when Cora and her resilience inspired me to stick with her tale, read more carefully, concentrate more fully. I’m glad I did. It is a read that brings thoughtfulness and some measure of satisfaction for a history buff striving to understand the experiences of enslaved people. When beginning to understand the horror, one is better able to understand events of the present. America’s past and present are intertwined. Poison lingers in the soil of our land. Compassion is one path toward healing.

FORT MATANZAS NATIONAL MONUMENT

The National Park Service maintains this historic site on the Matanzas River (Intercoastal Waterway) at Matanzas Inlet on A1A south of St. Augustine. The Fort was constructed in 1740-1742 in an effort to stop British encroachments to St. Augustine in the years after a massacre of French soldiers there in 1565. Matanzas inlet was used as a back door to St. Augustine. Over the centuries, France, Britain and Spain all tried to gain control of the area.

At present due to the recent hurricane, ferry service to the Fort has not been resumed. The fort is small, 50 feet on each side with a 30 foot tower. Soldiers posted here lived in a small space.

artifacts displayed near the visitor center

The grounds offer interesting information about the surrounding ecosystem and the history of the fort. A good friend is a volunteer at the Information Center. (Sorry I lost a terrific picture of him behind his desk.) I hope he will comment further on important information and answer our questions.

As one enters the site on the intercoastal side of A1A there is a bountiful grove of Live Oak Trees, at one time this distinctive tree was very important to ship building. Now, the trees are more bare than usual. Is this damage from the saltwater spray of the hurricane?

Along the waterway oyster beds are visible. Often dolphins can be seen in this area.

Travelers on A1A south of St. Augustine will not want to miss this site which is north of Marineland.

LUNCHEON AT THE PURPLE OLIVE

A creative name for a restaurant that serves creative food. Recently a large number of our Summerhouse Snowbird group enjoyed that food at the family-owned Purple Olive Restaurant located in Seaside Plaza 4255 A1A South St. Augustine, Florida. Here are some pictures of the food at a recent luncheon.

Artisanal lettuce, corn, chickpea tossed with sherry vinaigrette as a starter choice

crab bisque topped with a miniature crab cake as a starter choice

We choose from three starter items and then were served an Intermezzo of fresh pineapple with raspberry sorbet. Entrée choices included: Pan-seared salmon over mashed potatoes and wilted spinach topped with lemon sherry crab cream, Sautéed chicken breast with artichoke, caper and lemon sauce over angel hair pasta, Espresso rubbed pork loin topped with port wine mushroom gorgonzola demi-glace served with mashed potatoes, and grilled vegetables and gnocchi tossed with basil pesto.

pineapple and sorbet intermezzo

salmon entree

And, wait until you see dessert – a sampler of key lime pie, berries and zabaglione, and tiramisu. YUM. Absolutely!

The staff did a great job serving a large crowd from a limited menu. The cook deserves special recognition. This restaurant serves dinner from 5 p.m. and tells us they support local farmers and businesses. They have won a number of awards including most recently The Great Chowder Debate, RSVP Chocolate Gala and Chowder Challenge for Children.

One of our group summed it up perfectly when she said, “Love their food and loved seeing all the ladies.”

More info and a full menu at purple-olive.com

HISTORIC MEMORIAL PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH, ST. AUGUSTINE, FLORIDA

Located at 32 Sevilla Street, near Flagler College, this church was built in 1889 by Henry Flagler as a memorial to his daughter. It is a lovely and interesting building surrounded by gardens.

The interior is interesting and beautiful. The congregation is vibrant and welcoming. The service inspirational.

Learn more at www.memorialpcusa.org. Guided tours are available. Grounds are accessible.

LEOPARD AT THE DOOR: BOOK COMMENT

Leopard At the Door
Author: Jennifer McVeigh
Publisher: Putman and Sons, 2017
Genre: novel, historical fiction
Source: Kindle edition

From the first page Ms. McVeigh is able to transport the reader to Kenya of the 1950’s with her lovely prose. We see this country at that time though the eyes of an 18 year-old young woman named Rachel who is returning after six years in England where she has lived since the death of her mother. Grief at the shock of her mother’s death “spun on into a future without her.”

She returns to the farm and her father, the home she has yearned for, to find things changed more than she thought possible. Her father is with a new woman who is intolerant, determined to change Rachel and unused to living in a sparsely populated area in northern Kenya where the nearest farm is 100 miles away. The work to make a farm out of this country is incredible, so different than many readers will be aware of, and it is detailed with full understanding of the realities.

Other factors make Rachel’s adjustment to her old home difficult. There are changes among her childhood friends, and a young black man who was her teacher when she was young has returned to work on the farm after time away in Nairobi. Rachel also has memories of many kinds that occupy her mind and heart. She thinks, “I have come home to find the farm ransacked by a future I don’t understand.” The use of the word ransacked foreshadows future events. It also shows the devastation caused by the loss of workers to build the dams and carry out the multiplicity of tasks necessary to the dairy, sheep raising, land preparation for crops, and so many other aspects of this type of farm.

Dangers mount as the political climate continues to change. The threat to remote farms and to the way of life there grows from the Mau Mau, a secret society uniting Africans and working to overthrow whites through violence. When Rachel left Kenya as a 12 year old, these forces were just awakening with strikes and the like. It was the height of British colonial power in Kenya.

Rachel struggles to find her place at the farm, then she struggles to simply be safe. Her father’s attitudes and the woman who is now in charge of her home see the world differently than she does. This brings her into contact with one man who especially poses a danger to her, and drives her into the company of another whose danger comes from a different direction.

Sadness fills the reader when thinking of white farmers who have invested all in their African farms, some have lived in Africa for generations. They have worked hard. They face constant danger from the environment and in their work, and as many Africans become more involved with Mau Mau violence escalates. When what you have is built on the backs of other humans, eventually the risk of losing what you have won is likely to become very great.

In this tangle of events and beliefs, Rachel is caught between people and actions that pose increasing peril for her as well as her loved ones. This story is a suspenseful read, yet thoughtful. Kenya turned out to be a lesson for all of Africa and the countries who exerted power there in the twentieth century. This novel makes that time very real.

My rating: 4 stars.

BOOK CLUB INSPIRATION

Do you participate in a book club? What do you think are advantages? Disadvantages? If you attend, what keeps you coming back? What do you like best about your particular book club? Maybe you belong to more than one group. Do tell.

A few days ago, my book club experience was amazing, yes, that overworked word, amazing. Better if I had said remarkable. It was that, too. I sat around a large square of tables with more than 30 other women in a sunny room over the office at the condo complex where I am staying for a few weeks in Florida. I have stayed here for some weeks for quite a few winters and many of the participants are known to me.

Discussion was free and wide-ranging, punctuated by the jackhammer staccato of workmen using drills to repair sets of double doors. But the thoughtful women paid attention to the topic at hand, ignoring the drills as much as possible. So many different ideas, so much wisdom, nothing to do with drills; listening to each other, and chiming in with words toward a greater understanding.

The book happened to be A Fall of Marigolds by Susan Meissner. Yes, there are interesting ideas in the book. It is a novel of coping with sudden tragedy and loss, two stories – one from the time of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in the early twentieth century and the other from the time of the 9/11 violence. These stories are woven together like the scarf at the center of the novel. But my attention was held by the ideas, questions, revelations and differences of opinions discussed by the participants, women from states all over the eastern United States, Ontario and Alaska.

This book club keeps running because of a talented committee who pick the five books discussed at two week intervals over the winter when many snowbirds visit. Women who are adept at leading discussion volunteer to facilitate; we take turns. We talk and toss our ideas and opinions across the wide table over our bag lunches. Someone brings a dynamite dessert. Oh, the most beautiful chocolate cake this past week.

Each book club has an individual identity. All readers hold preferences built on backgrounds and reading experiences. But somehow when a group gathers to discuss a book, magic can happen. The book can seem a different level of story or information after discussion than it did before. Don’t you think so?

Share anything you might wish regarding the book club or the two, or three or more you may attend. This blog is the place to hear about the joys of reading. Sometimes that means sharing a book at a book club.

ST AUGUSTINE FIRST FRIDAY ART WALK

BRILLIANCE GALLERY AND OTHER ART GLASS

We visited many galleries but the after-dinner crowds made photographs difficult. This beautiful gallery is right on King Street near AIA Ale Works. They show a variety of subjects and mediums, not just glass. Check them out if you are in the area.

Thomas Long’s work was at another gallery nearby. www.thomaslongglass.com
More about art galleries in St. Augustine can be found at artgalleriesofstaugustine.org

A Spool of Blue Thread – Book Comment

A Spool of Blue Thread: a novel
Author: Anne Tyler
Publisher: Ballentine Books, 2015
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Paperback Edition: 398 pages plus Reader’s Guide
Source: personal copy

Pulitzer Prize winning author Anne Tyler writes books beloved by the critics and by her many readers. This time her story is about the Whitshanks, a family full of stories, filled with secrets, tender times, jealousy and disappointments through several generations. There’s meaning tucked into every situation, interaction, and exploration of their lives.

This reader missed the joy and humor. These emotions seem too often to escape the characters. I most enjoy books grounded in time and place. Sometimes in this story there seemed to be a lack of clarity about just where and when events were occurring. It’s structure moves about in time and place and the author’s choices about who and when to continue the story seemed always surprising, and not in a good way. Sometimes even what had happened seemed fuzzy to this reader.

I’m sorry I will miss the book club discussion. I know such discussions can clarify any reading experience. We know, too that a reading experience is a combination of what is on the page, and what the reader brings to the reading. Perhaps I was distracted and lacking in the careful reading this book deserves; perhaps the voice and circumstances of this story did not grab me as much as some.

A deep sadness overwhelmed this story and clouded the bits of cooperation and happy moments experienced by some family members. Each character struggled to be more connected, to be better in some way, but it seemed each was doomed to failure. Only the joy of a house, an inanimate object seemed to hold the family and the story together.

This reading experience did make me stop and think and vow to hold tightly to every bit of joy, humor and satisfaction in life, to magnify it, and to be deeply grateful for such moments. I will be picking up the pieces of this Anne Tyler story for some time. Wondering about the jigsaw nature of the relationships in this story, thinking about the near misses of life and its more solid connections may keep me on the edge of understanding this story and its lessons long after I close the book.