As the novel opens, Paul, who is now the Montana state superintendent of schools, returns to the one room school house he loved and reflects on his seventh grade year that propelled his course in life. Paul is the oldest of three brothers living on a Montana homestead near Marias Coulee in the first decade of the 20th century. His mother had died a few years earlier and one night his father’s attention is caught by an ad in the newspaper by a woman who is offering housekeeping services: “Can’t cook but doesn’t bite”. Thus they send for Rose. After wiring an advance to get to Montana from Minnesota, she unexpectedly shows up with her brother Morrie.
Their meeting at the depot was intriguing :
“In fact, I had noticed Father give a double look as if there must be more of her somewhere.” [p 31]
And of Morrie:
“He was lightly built, and an extraordinary amount of him was mustache.” [p 33]
After a somewhat uneven start Morrie winds up being Paul’s Latin tutor. Rose is a tireless worker and soon has the house in order even if she does refuse to cook. It is enjoyable to follow the family’s life for the year. The novel centers on the homestead and that “nearby” one room schoolhouse with occasional trips out to the Big Ditch irrigation project. There are memorable characters here including the school bully Eddie Turley and his imposing father Brose. But mostly we are intrigued by Morrie and Rose’s background. Paul finds out more and more about them and finally pieces much of it together. This is Ivan Doig’s strength: slowly uncovering a mystery with some steps creating more questions than answers.
I’ve enjoyed my recent sting of reading novels about the western homesteads and small towns in the first half of the 20th century. I enjoyed Doig’s The Bartender’s Tale but thought it leaned toward juvenile fiction in that the children were so clever and happy endings were handed out to everyone. In this novel we can guess much of what will happen. But not everything. The ending is more mixed, but much brighter – and less realistic – than, say, The Tie That Binds by Kent Haruf which covers another homestead around the same time. But realism isn’t Doig’s purpose; I suppose I shouldn’t judge the book by comparing it to Haruf’s novels.
Regardless, Ivan Doig’s does bring that era to life. His prose is touching and keeps me coming back to his novels. I adore the adult Paul standing at the schoolhouse and looking around the prairie.
“Perhaps that pattern drew my eye to what I had viewed every day of my school life but never until then truly registered; the trails in the grass that radiated as many directions as there were homesteads with children, all converging to that schoolyard spot where I stood unnaturally alone. Forever and a day could go by, and that feeling will never leave me. Of knowing, in that instant, the central power of that countryt school in all our lives.” [p 120]
I recommend this novel as an entertaining read. I suggest starting with this before The Bartender’s Tale. Morrie’s adventures are detailed in a couple of Ivan Doig’s later novels including Work Song, which I will report on next.
Although I read them out of order, I have now read all six of Kent Haruf’s novels about the fictional town of Holt, Colorado east of the Rockies. As the story opens, the town discovers that Jack Burdette has returned. Haruf’s beautiful prose perfectly captures him almost a decade after he left town.
“But Burdette looked bad now. In the eight years since Bird or any one of us had seen him he’d changed for the worse. He was fat now, obese; he was sloppy and excessive; his head had grown bald and the flesh hung on him like suet. ‘It was like’, Bird would say later, ‘like for eight years he’d be feeding on cream pie and pork steak and lately he hadn’t fed at all.’” [p 12]
The story is narrated by Pat Arbuckle who now owns the local newspaper. Arbuckle jumps back in time when they were kids and brings us up to date and why his return to small town Holt is such a surprise. He was never a good student.
“Thus for eight years he was passed from one grade to the next, from one old local spinster or balding man to the next one, passing, being promoted each spring not so much by his own efforts with books and maps and pencils as by the absolute refusal of our teachers to have anything more to do with him.” [p 24]
Burdette grew up taking advantage of whomever he could without a second thought.
“For we had all begun to expect the unusual of him by that time, while, he, for his part, had already learned – if acting on bent and sheer heedless volition can be said to be a form of learning – not to disappoint the expectations of anyone. Least of all his own.” [p 40]
Because he was a star athlete he got away with it and received preferential treatment as he reached adulthood. That “sheer heedless volition” propels the action and explains why he left town.
This, Haruf’s second novel is more plot driven than his final novel Our Souls at Night. Through the action we learn as much about the narrator’s life as we do as the subject of the story. And we get another viewpoint into small town life out in the west.
Haruf creates rich, beautiful characters. Professional reviews of his novels exalt Haruf more than I can; the only thing I need to add is “read his novels!” I suggest starting with Plainsong, then Eventide. Those two novels are among the best I’ve ever read. The older bachelor brothers in those two novels are so beautifully rendered they have stayed in my mind for years. The Ties That Bind and this novel are also excellent.
Our Souls at Night Author: Kent Haruf Type: Fiction Finished: March 3, 2019 Rating: ★★★★
One evening, the widow Addie goes over to her neighbor’s house to ask the widower Louis to consider something. After some hemming and hawing she gets to the point:
“I wonder if you would consider coming to my house sometimes to sleep with me.” [p 4]
But she isn’t talking about sex; she’s talking about not being alone.
“..I’m talking about getting through the night. And lyiing warm in bed, companionably. Lying down in bed together and you staying the night. The nights are the worst. Don’t you think?”
“Yes, I think so.”
And so, Louis does just that and they spend their nights talking and learning about one another. But this is small town Holt, Colorado – the fictional town Kent Haruf wrote about in six novels – and word gets around. The novel is a study of their growing relationship and the tides of public opinion. It’s a twist having an older couple being the subject of talk about an unmarried relationship. Talking with his daughter, Louis says “I never acted like a teenager. I never dared anything.” [p 52]
This is a beautiful novel – Haruf’s last – which he wrote after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. Perhaps that realization lends to the quiet tone of the book. It is interesting to read his novels and get six different perspectives of small town life in rural, small town eastern Colorado. Haruf playfully recalls his other stories in small asides of this novel.
Kent Haruf was a fantastic author and this is a worthy read.
The Tie That Binds Author: Kent Haruf Type: Fiction Date Finished: Feb. 27, 2019 Rating: ★★★★★
Image from Amazon
Roy Goodnough was a mean son of a bitch. When first introduced he seems almost comical,
“But Roy now, I suppose Roy would have come [to the West] anyway, even if Indians were still here. He was about enough of a fox terrier to trot into a territory that belonged to somebody else, and once he got there, raise his hind leg to it, claim it for his own, without thinking twice about prior claims or possible consequences.” [p 19]
Then over the early chapters we see more and more of him: “[n]eighboring families don’t visit much when one of the neighbors is Roy Goodnough.” [p 27]
After all, “he figured it was not only his God-given right but his particular duty too to be forever mean and harsh.” [p 170]
The novel takes place over a big portion of the 20th century. Roy moves himself and his wife, Ada, from Iowa to eastern Colorado to homestead a farm. Soon enough, kids, Lyman and Edith came along. Ada died when the kids were teenagers. Yet, no matter how terrible a father Roy was – no matter how terrible a person – the children stayed.
“It wasn’t enough that their father was Roy Goodnough or that their mother died early; there had to be at least one more thing to clinch matters, to fix them forever, to make Edith and Lyman end up the way they did…” [p 33]
Through shear force of will he made sure the kids never got an idea of leaving. As Edith later explains:
“‘But understanding it and liking it aren’t the same things.’ No,’ she said, ‘no, they are not the same things.’” [p 138]
Nevertheless, Edith made an attempt to break free of her father, and Lyman got a taste of town when World War II broke out.
This wonderful novel tracks the Goodnough family and the nearest neighbor – whose son narrates the tale – over half a century. We understand how and why this dysfunctional family stayed together. The story is both a riveting event-paced novel but a deep character-driven study. It’s hard to say much about the pivotal events without giving things away. Suffice it say that when the story opens Edith is an old woman in the hospital and accused of murder.
Kent Haruf was an outstanding novelist. If you haven’t read his work before, I recommend starting with the first two books of the Plainsong series: Plainsong and Eventide. Then read this: I like it better than Benediction, the last book of the Plainsong series.
In the early 1970’s Craig was the pitcher for The Rural Raiders – our slow-pitch softball team in Caldwell Idaho. As his battery mate behind the plate, I appreciated his steady, unflappable presence on the mound. Craig was as skilled, quiet and understated as I was inept, loud and clownish. Between the two of us we were a couple of average players. As an accurate pitcher, Craig allowed our defense to shade left or right as needed.
Our team was a group of college students playing in a league of working men. In the small town 1970’s Idaho town there was a definite divide between “town” and “gown”. Some teams – like Presba Garage Door – didn’t like playing against the long hair students in the first place; and they especially didn’t like losing to us.
Many members of the opposing teams couldn’t figure out why he was playing with us. Craig was a bridge between the two sides. He grew up in Caldwell and attended the College of Idaho. Not only were we students, we were long hair transplants from California. The college recruited well in California and attracted students from Southern and Northern California. We were sure we would bring our sophisticated city ways to rural Idaho; however, we quickly discovered that we were fish out of water. Most of us realized we made a mistake and started to plot transfers to other schools. But then we met Craig. Tim recalls that his calm, confident, and capable manner became a leading, steadying influence. On the weekends different groups of friends would pile into his 1950’s panel van and head out to Jump Creek or Succor Creek in the Owyhee mountains. Through his tutelage we became lovers of the desert wonders. Craig was one of the influences that kept us in the Northwest either physically or in spirit.
Craig got his nickname at the close of a softball season. We had a team enchilada dinner capped with a mock award presentation. We came up with nicknames for most of the players. Craig’s nickname was perfect; we still refer to him “The Chief” over 40 years later. If I recall correctly his moniker was inspired by the quiet, strong character in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. Like the Chief in the novel Craig was quiet and reserved; but when he was ready to take action he did it decisively.
The Chief was old school before old school was cool. He loved his old trucks and always found a way to tinker with them regardless of circumstances. If he needed to work on his 1930’s era International Harvester pick up in December where he didn’t have a garage, he’d simply start up a bonfire close enough to keep him warm. Craig’s house out at Route 3 was a hangout for our group. After the bars closed the night before graduation we gathered at his place listening to his fantastic sound system and playing poker – a typical hang. His house was surrounded by corn fields. On more than a few summer evenings we’d pull some fresh corn off the stalks and have them along with “guac tacs” cooked on his wood stove. We celebrated the Bicentennial July 4 in style at his house where he set up a concert sized sound system at the back of the house to serenade the fields.
In 1977 Carla and I moved to Oregon where I attended library school. Unfortunately, we couldn’t take Molly, our black lab. Craig was happy to take care of her for the year where she could be company for Fred B. Shepherd. At that time Craig drove a semi-truck for a living. One trip brought him close to Eugene so he stopped in for the weekend. We drove over to Florence for a day at the beach where we collected intact sand dollars. After we moved up to Portland he dropped in for another visit and got to meet our oldest son who was about 2 at the time.
By the mid-1980s Craig was a journeyman plumber at the University of Idaho. Distance and the day-to-day work of raising kids and pursuing careers pried us away from our old college crowd. But I’ve seen him a few times over the years. Now our chief has passed away. He approached death as he did everything else in life. Unlike the night he decided to try to outrun a police car on an old section road, Craig didn’t choose this last journey. But like that night he determined his path and followed it with strength and conviction.
These aren’t the best images; I’m shooting through glass and into the sun which gives some wicked reflection. But the subject is something I’ve been trying to capture for a while.
I’m at the breakfast table eating and reading when I look out and sure enough there are two pair of wood ducks hanging out. A couple on the deck railing per usual and a female on the wood duck box seeing if it is vacant.
The coast is clear so she flies out a bit, does a U-turn and heads for the box. Here are some shots from my burst.
The couple on the deck look at each other like “What the ….?””
Back in the 1990s I caught a few episodes of the crime drama “Homicide: Life on the Streets”. I liked it but we were busy raising our kids and didn’t watch as much TV. In subsequent years I’d catch an episode here and there and would try to catch it more regularly; but in the pre-Internet/ pre-DVR era, it was harder to watch a rerun series. I especially liked the actors Yaphet Kotto and Andre Braugher – who now stars as Captain Holt on Brooklyn 99. For the past year I’ve tried to track down the show on Netflix, Amazon Streaming, or wherever but it just doesn’t seem to be available unless I want to buy a DVD set – which I don’t.
Then searching the internet again I came across this book and learned the TV series was written by the same person – David Simon – and was based in the same city – Baltimore. So, Il gave it a try. I was glad I did. After reading the first few chapters I told my son about it. He told me “You know, I’ve been trying to get you to watch ‘The Wire’ for a few years now. It is also written by David Simon”. So, I started watching “The Wire”. The two are close; some of the detectives in the TV series are based on real people from the book. In fact some of the detectives play parts in the series. The writing of both is so good, I was having a hard time keeping scenes straight: which was in the book and which in the TV series.
David Simon took a year off his job working for a Baltimore newspaper to embed with the homicide team in Baltimore. This book traces that year with many of the murders and the process detectives go through from arriving at the scene through the end of the case. He found that the detectives’ jobs are much more than solving murders.
“For the murder police in the field, it’s not only the body lying before them that has to be dealt with but also what they carry on their backs, which is the entire hierarchy of bosses who answer to bosses – the weight of bureaucratic self-preservation.”[Location 129]
“The Wire” focuses closely on this aspect of the job.
To solve a murder, “the crime scene provides the greater share of physical evidence, the first part of a detective’s Holy Trinity, which states that three things solve crimes: Physical evidence. Witnesses. Confessions.” [Page 73]
Unfortunately, few murders have all three, meaning the murder police have to make do with what they have. Juries are made up of people who have been watching crime dramas on TV for years. They come to expect the cases to be slam dunks made by pretty people like they watched on the latest show.
“As a consequence, city juries have become a deterrent of sorts to prosecutors, who are willing to accept weaker pleas or tolerate dismissals rather than waste the city’s time and money on cases involving defendants wo are clearly guilty, but who have been charged on evidence that is anything less than overwhelming.” [Page 476]
The book keeps coming back to a murder from early in David Simon’s embedding: a young girl sexually abused and murdered. The challenges of the case showcase the various pressures detectives face – especially on these “red ball” cases.
In the 1980’s, Baltimore was suffering through almost 2 murders every 3 days, keeping the detectives and Medical Examines busy.
“Hell Night is three men on a midnight shift that never ends, with the office phones bleating and the witnesses lying and the bodies stacking up in the ME’s freezer like commuter flights over La Guardia” [Page: 391]
This type of work load engenders a dark humor.
“‘You shoot a guy, hey,’ the sergeant adds with a shrug. ‘You shoot another guy – well okay, this is Baltimore. You shoot three guys, it’s time to admit you have a problem.'”[Page 170]
The chronicle of the year excellently shows the problems and frustrations the detectives face day in and day out. Come the end of the day:
“For a detective or street police, the only real satisfaction is the work itself; when a cop spends more and more time getting aggravated with the details, he’s finished. The attitude of co-workers, the indifference of superiors, the poor quality of the equipment – all of it pales if you still love the job; all of it matters if you don’t.” [Page:613]
This is an engrossing telling of life of murder police in a big city. I loved it. I started to read Simon’s next book: “The Corner” where he embeds with some of the drug dealers in the city. But I put it down. Maybe it was too close to my reading of “Homicide” but I couldn’t connect with the people as much.
I’ve made this dish many times before and have blogged about a few times including most recently in 2016. I’m blogging about it here mostly because I used my new lighting setup – two flashes mounted on stands shooting through white umbrellas. But also because it’s so good and so easy.
Start with a couple of pounds of bone in, skin on chicken thighs along with a few stalks of celery, a few carrots, a cup of frozen pearl onions, a couple of sprigs of rosemary and a lemon. Add about 3 cups of chicken stock in for braising.
Set the oven to 425°. Roughly chop the celery and carrots.
Zest then juice the lemon and line things up for cooking.
Brown the chicken in two batches in a large Dutch oven.
Sauté the vegetables in a tablespoon or two of the rendered chicken fat. Add the whole rosemary sprigs for the last minute.
Use the lemon juice to scrape up the brown bits in the bottom of the pan. Add the onions, lemon zest, and chicken stock. Then gently place the chicken thighs skin side up in the pot with the skin above the liquid. Cook for 40 minutes basting every so often.
Start some water simmerings. When the chicken is almost done, cook some egg noodles according to package directions. Drain the noodles and put them in a serving bowl. Discard the rosemary sprigs and add the chicken and vegetables on top of the noodles.
Make a simple gravy by mixing 2 Tablespoons of butter with a 2 Tablespoons of all purpose flour then whisk into the chicken stock and simmer until it thickens. Pour the gravy over everything.
Pass the bowl around. We find that pasta bowls are nice for this dish.
If you have guests over, give up on the idea of leftovers for the next day. People will take second helpings.
Comfort food at its finest. Easy, delicious, and good for you.
On Friday March 1 our little expedition group split up. Carla and I headed to MoMA (Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art) while Nancy and Linda went to the 9/11 Memorial. Carla and I visited the memorial during our 2016 trip. The 9/11 Memorial is a must stop if you haven’t been there. But prepare to be overwhelmed with grief.
Carla and I spent a couple of hours on the 5th floor of MoMA. This part of the collection highlights the 1880s to the 1950s. It is where the heavy hitters are displayed – Van Gogh, Monet, Dali, Renoir, Rothko, Mondrian. As we walked through the galleries we were walking through time which helped me make sense of the changes in art. Early in the period the paintings are representational. As time passes the images become more abstract. Monet’s water lilies become more about the colors than the landscape. And then you get to Mondrian with his squares of colors and Rothko whose work at first just seems like a black canvas. Then as you study it you see the interaction of the slight shades of color. I’m no art critic – obviously; maybe I have it all wrong. If you go, avail yourself of one of the free headsets so you can hear details about the pictures.
We had a great lunch in the museum cafe. I had salmon sliders and we shared an artichoke dip with locally made potato chips. We sure ate well on our trip.
We headed back to the apartment to rest up for a busy evening; Nancy and Linda shopped around lower Manhattan. That evening we celebrated Kevin’s birthday at Momofuko Noodle bar in Manhattan. Friday night in New York City is a blast – so much going on and young people everywhere seeing and being seen. We had reservations for 8:00 but it was pretty obvious that was going to be a challenge. Kev put our names in and then we headed a few blocks away where the six of us could drink and visit. Finally we headed back to the noodle bar where Kevin pleaded with the hostess that he had some “olds” in tow. She took pity on us and we had a great dinner: most of us had the Ramen. I also had an alcohol slurpy drink. Yum. We were the oldest people there – and not just by a little bit. I think the next oldest people in the restaurant were in their 30s. Hanging with Kev and Nat we saw a side of New York we’d have otherwise missed.
After we made it back to our apartment Kevin and Natalie went back out to celebrate in earnest – having fun until 4 the next morning. Ah, New York.
Saturday morning was restful; we watched the snow come down and were visited by Linda’s son-in-law’s, brother’s family (got that?). They live in greater Brooklyn and it was fun seeing them. After a delicious Thai lunch we had delivered they went back home and we headed out to the Brooklyn Bridge Park. We stumbled across a model and her photographer.
The Brooklyn side tower is right on the bank of the East River and looms over the neighborhood.
We hung around the park a bit taking pictures like everyone else.
Most of these pictures were taken with my Sony RX100M6 pocket camera. I’m really pleased with the pictures I get from such a small camera. One of its weaknesses – or maybe on of my weaknesses – is taking pictures of architecture. When the camera is tilted up a bit to capture the skyscrapers the perspective gets very wonky. Vertical and horizontal lines curve. I had to do quite a bit of work in Lightroom to get things right. And it is still off a bit. If you look at the Brooklyn Bridge tower you’ll see the top isn’t level and the openings are skewed a bit. Regardless, it’s a great camera for travel.
Carla and I posed as well.
As we hung around the park waiting for Nancy to rejoin us – she had spent the day with a friend – Linda, Carla, and I looked at the bridge and said, “you know, it’s right there…”. Well, it IS right there but it is so high, we had to walk back east quite a few blocks to get up to the walkway. It was a cold day but crowded nonetheless.
The bridge was way more crowded that it was almost a decade ago when we did this walk. Back then bicycles went zooming by in their lanes. On this day, walkers dominated the dojo. I saw 2 people on bicycles – well, walking beside their bikes. We didn’t walk all the way to Manhattan, just around the Manhattan side tower. This is a second “must do” activity in New York. If you can manage walking across the bridge toward Manhattan as the sun sets, you’ll be glad you did.
Most of our party hung out in a bar near the park but I wanted to capture the Manhattan skyline as the winter sun set.
You need a panorama to really get a feel for the view. Click for a larger image.
One World Trade Center dominates the skyline.
Another composite of the Manhattan skyline in the late winter afternoon sun.
As the sun went down the skyline lit up and the Empire State Building – I think – shouldered above the skyline.
We joined up with the crew – who were smart enough to stay out of the cold. I hope you – and Nat and Kev – forgive me for the extra picture of them. They are thriving on their lives’ adventures.
We had to take a different subway back to Brooklyn because the L train is shut down on the weekends. This is an improvement over the original plan to shut it down for over a year while they make improvements. We picked up some New York pizzas and took them to the apartment for dinner.
Sunday March 3 was our departure day; but our flights didn’t leave until early evening so we spent some time in Williamsburg.
On our meandering we saw a Shake Shack. It’s not cool and hip but we don’t have them in Oregon and I’ve been wanting to try lunch at one.
It was delicious. Don’t tell anyone but I like In n’ Out better.
Another large late winter storm was working its way toward us. We started the afternoon walking without our jackets on. But over a period of just 5 to 10 minutes it got noticeably colder. Kevin had a meeting with a record label in Philadelphia Sunday night so he headed out. The rest of us returned to our apartment, packed, and caught a Lyft back to the Newark airport. We were hoping to beat the storm out of town. It started to spit snow as we arrived at the airport and the plane had to be de-iced before we took off.
We did a lot in our 5 days in New York. If I had planned these posts better I would have had more, shorter posts. Thanks for staying with me.