Inside the Oasis
Don’t you wish you could escape to an enchanted sanctuary where this convoluted existence would slip away? I am not talking about a two-day binge or a weekend of Netflix (that could make your brain cry out for a Bloody Mary). How about a refuge of the mind?
I know Netflix has been popular this Labor Day weekend because my internet/zoom connection fluctuates. Total Beverage made multiple deliveries to my neighborhood in preparation for the three-day. So, the bird has flown for some of you.
Just on a lark I offer some ideas from books to provide a break for however long we are sequestered. Browse through these paragraphs until you find something that appeals. Anne Lamont in Bird After Bird says it better: “. . out of these small flat rigid squares of paper unfolds. . .worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. . . They show us what community and friendship mean.” Lamont points out the lyrical language and attention to life’s enchanted details that we rarely stop to enjoy.
For Pure Pleasure
One book gifted to me by my daughter, Life with Picasso by Francoise Gilot and Carlton Lake, shows the demands Picasso placed on friendship. He took Francoise, whose paintings were already gaining interest, to meet his oldest friend, Georges Braque, a few weeks after she had come to live with Picasso. They met briefly and the couple saw his recent works. Afterwards Picasso said: “Now you see the difference between Braque and Matisse.” (Matisse was warm and called Francoise by name immediately.) “He (Matisse) wanted to paint your portrait.”
Picasso complained that even though he made a point in his introduction to explain Francoise was “not someone I just happened to bring by chance,” Braque repeatedly referred to Francois as Mademoiselle, a term that could refer to anyone. Picasso exchanged art with his friends, including Braque, and hung them in his atelier among canvasses of Matisse. When Picasso returned from Baraque, that painter’s still life with a teapot, lemons, and apples that Picasso had displayed prominently disappeared.
My curiosity about Picasso grew from childhood when I saw his cubist painting of a guitar. Later when I lived in New York briefly, I saw the muted gray and brown tones of distorted human heads and horses in “Guernica.” The painting with simmered with the strong emotion of a Spanish native reliving the destruction of German planes that strafed this Basque village in 1937. “Guernica” lives on as an ugly reminder of the human toll of war, yet its message goes unheeded.
A Love Letter to Paris
A contemporary of Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, fascinated me as a child. I read and reread An Old Man and the Sea, enjoying the simplicity of the words. Somehow, I did not realize the structure under the words or the many personal revisions and edits that went into each of his books. When I read it the first time, I thought when Heminway pulled a typed page out of his Remington typwriter, it was a finished masterpiece. Great disservice that nearly pushed me off the idea of writing, as an impossible act.
So, this summer I found a copy of A Movable Feast about his years in Paris from 1921-26. But Paris was in the rear view, even if it stayed in his mind, when Hemingway started to write this book thirty years later in Cuba. He took the manuscript with him to Spain and home to Idaho before he was satisfied with it in 1960, four years before he died. In the book, Hemingway speaks of Gertrude Stine and Sherwood Anderson and drinking at the bar in the morning with Scott Fitzgerald. He offers an inside take on writers of the 1940s and 1950s.
If you seek an oasis in Paris, maybe where someone does the drinking for you, this is your book. Hemingway finds Paris a never-ending place, where “each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other.” Your experience as a reader may differ as well, but it will not be boring. Writing to a friend in 1950, Hemingway explains the title: “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then where ever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”
Dog Lovers’ (and Ferrari Lovers’) Bonanza
Maybe you’d like something at appears more down to earth, but that takes you inside the car racing at rallies around the world? Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain has it all—an adorable Golden Retriever (I have a very soft spot in my heart for Goldens), a relationship, a deathly illness, car racing, Ferraris and human-dog friendship. Human wisdom runs through the book, but this particular gem speaks to me: “There is no dishonor in losing the race. There is only dishonor in not racing because you are afraid to lose.”
Finding Humor, Inspiration or Poop in Memoir
When someone else steps into dog poop, it is less of a nightmare than it when we dip our soft slippers into a nasty, brown mess. When a story of life gone wrong is not lethal, it can be downright instructive, even hilarious, if the account is beautifully written. Writers have crowned Mary Karr queen of Memoir. Chicago Tribune points out. “What distinguishes Karr is the ability to serve up her experiences in a way that packs the wallop of immediacy with the salty tang of adult reflection.”
Her title Liar’s Club comes from the stories her father and his collection of friends told around the bar. She must have been listening in to create these 1950s tales of family life in East Texas in a town depicted in Eastern publications as #1ugliest. Karr described her mom as a painter who “married instead of dating,” racking up five marriages. But her father, an oil and gas wildcatter, disappeared periodically. He had met her mother in Louisiana when she got a flat tire fleeing from number two. Her mother’s favorite book, Anna Karenina, indicates she had a serious interest in literature that could have been her greatest gift to her daughter.
Tent Revivals Provide Canvas for Holy Ghost Girl
Totally different, but equally compelling Holy Ghost Girl by Donna Johnson, an Austin writer, takes on the sawdust trail of the ginormous canvas-tent revivals of the 1940s and 1950s. A charismatic preacher drew in Donna’s mother as organist—requiring the four-year-old and her siblings to tag along. Brother Terrell seems to be so entwined with his own rapture that there is room for little else, though there are dalliances. Yet he rushes across multiple states to attend the bedside of his son, who has a rare blood disease that pools blood in his stomach when he’s stressed. Lacking any scientific underpinning and fearing the medical world, Terrell refuses to leave his son behind and pulls the tubes from his son’s arms and pushes his way out of the hospital. Returning to his kingdom of the tent, he uses his son as an example of the miracles he has wrought.
Donna, like Karr, many years from the tent, found solace in reading books. She leaves the world of evangelical preachers at 17. Yet her knowledge of this unique experience finds rest as a religion reporter for the Dallas Morning News and later teaching others how to draw personal stories onto the page.
Texas Wives’ Club and Men Who Run Towards Danger
Rachel Starnes knows what it is like to love a man who feels compelled to seek danger far from home. Her father was an oil rigger who worked in Saudi Arabia, where she lived for a year as a teenager. Back in Texas sshe fell in love with her brother’s best friend, who grew into a Top Gun pilot. Before marriage and kids, it was easier to believe this would just be Phase 1 of their life together and they would survive it to enjoxcczy Phase II. War at Home, A Wife’s Search for Peace (and Other Missions Impossible), weaves a story of a woman trying to carve out a life as a writer while making a life with the often-gone pilot, then raising their sons. Praised for being “elegantly written and with deep feeling and insight about a common, but little written-about and increasingly less understood, facet of American life.” (Karl Marlantes, New York Times bestselling author of What it is Like to Go to War).
History Makes Good Stories
Texas native Sarah Bird’s skills are exhibited in her 2020 book, Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen, tale of Cathy Williams, the only woman Buffalo Soldier from the 1870s. These Black soldiers, trained during the Civil War, did not find situations in the North and certainly not in the South in 1865, so they were sent west to fight Indians. To protect herself from her brothers in arms, she needed to hide her femininity. Until she found a soldier to whom she would eventually tell her secret. Further background and questions to jump start book clubs are in the back of the paperback.
S.C. Gwynne, another Austinite, wrote about Native Americans in several of his books. Before the Pandemic settled in, he spoke at the LBJ Auditorium about his 2019 book, Hymns of the Republic, and relayed how he was able to leave his job to research and write his first book. His wife, Katie, sold her first painting and offered him the payment as the investment needed to commence writing full time.
Empire of the Summer Moon, became a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Years later I stood in a crowded tent as he discussed his book about Stonewall Jackson, Rebel Yell, at the 2014 Texas Book Festival in Austin. Before the Pandemic, he talked about Hymns of the Republic, concerning the last year of the Civil War, when the end did not come peacefully as the brutal slaughter continued, but Lincoln knew the end was in sight. Many writers have attempted a new take on the Civil War but Gwynne’s gifts are noted by Evan Smith, CEO and editor-in-chief of The Texas Tribune, who called him a “master storyteller and a dogged reporter” who makes history come to life, making it “irrestible.”
Never Forget Leech’s Reveille in Washington, Well-deserved Pulitzer
Finally, Reveille in Washington by Margaret Leech, (1893-1974) who won the Pulitzer Prize for this book in 1942, while others were consumed by the pending war in Europe. A Vassar graduate she worked in publicity for Conde Nast before starting into journalism in the 1920s. The fact that she married Ralph Pulitzer in 1928 might cause one to question her second Pulitzer for In the Days of McKinley in 1960. But it should not. Civil War books are most always on my bedroom table, have been for years, but this book carves out an entirely new perspective. Leech takes you deep inside the story, placing you there at the critical dinner parties, as she paints the intimate lives of all the key players in the 1860s. That her work lies buried beneath more contemporary historians is painful. Here’s an example:
“At a dinner party at Mr. Corcoran’s, General Scott witnessed the passionate outbursts of Senator Toombs and Senator Benjamin, who cursed the President, along with Major Anderson (at Charleston) and the Union,” Leech writes, describing the event. “In the end, this sundered country was united only in the opinion that Mr. Buchanan was a coward and a fool. Sinking heavily into a chair in Scott’s headquarters, he exclaimed,” The office of the President of the United States is not fit for a gentleman to hold!”
I’ll leave it there. Plenty of other talents remain, but I’ve overstayed!