Ever since our stay at the Slocum house in West Tisbury on Martha's Vineyard, I've been curious about the life and voyages of Joshua Slocum. I feel lucky that I chanced upon The Hard Way Around: The Passages of Joshua Slocum by Geoffrey Wolff.

It is a wonderful tale of adventure, luck, skill and derring-do. I appreciate the way that Mr. Wolff incorporates history, literary allusions and his own personality into the story. Sometimes an author's intrusion into a story is distracting, but I found the story enhanced by Mr. Wolff's comments and footnotes.

This is one of those books that give you a real sense of the time and place -- sailing for profit is giving way to shipping by steamship. The old ways are again being replaced by the new.

The Brooklyn Bridge has just been completed and Slocum's son remembers the workmen dabbing the topmost masthead of his father's ship the Northern Light by a playful bridge workman. I love that Mr. Wolff stops the story of Slocum to give us a very brief look at the Brooklyn Bridge complete with an excerpt from Hart Crane's poem "To the Brooklyn Bridge".  

A few pages later, Slocum is sailing the Northern Light between Java and Sumatra while Krakatoa is in full eruption. The sea is boiling and "fretting about the ever-changing depth, Slocum ordered the lead line cast, and it came up from the bottom with its tallowed tip melted." Details like this add so much to the reader's enjoyment.

Slocum endures many trials and much controversy, both on land and on the sea -- from mutiny to squalls and battles over payment to some people's disbelief in his solo voyage.  

Much is made of Slocum's love of reading, his shipboard library and his writing skills. Enough examples are given that I now must turn to Slocum's own words in Sailing Alone Around the World.

How do you pick books? From the bestseller list? From blogs? Recommendations from friends? By reading reviews in newspapers and magazines? By browsing and scanning the shelves? By using Ask the Librarian?

Attracted by the unusual cover, I recently read The Kitchen Daughter by Jael McHenry. What a terrific surprise! Ginny is a young woman with Asperger's syndrome. She hates loud noises, being touched, and frequently hides in the closet when life becomes too much. Over the years, she has saved scraps of the use of the word "normal" gleaned from newspapers and magazines to prove to herself that normal has many different meanings. She has been sheltered and protected by loving parents but now they are dead in a tragic accident.

She must learn to cope with her grief and with her sister who wants to protect her. Ginny has long used thinking about the tastes and textures of food, and cooking techniques to help calm herself. Now she discovers that she has the ability to cook up family ghosts from their handwritten recipes. What she learns about cooking and ghosts, grief and love and the many ways of being normal make for a lovely book. I dare you not to be touched by this surprisingly good novel.

I've discovered a wonderful coffee table book that is a hymn to nature. It is the 100th Anniversary Illustrated edition of My First Summer in the Sierra by John Muir. It is a dip-in and refresh yourself kind of book, one that needs to be read in short sessions of meditation. Read and listen for the poetic language.

Come, climb to the top of a nearly cubical mass of granite:       

"...the one big stone with its mossy level top and smooth sides standing square and firm and solitary, like an altar, the fall in front of it bathing it lightly with the finest of the spray, just enough to keep its moss cover fresh; the clear green pool beneath, with its foam-bells and its half circle of lilies leaning forward like a band of admirers, and flowering dogwood and alder trees leaning over all in sun-sifted arches."

Feel the frustration after an afternoon spent forcing a flock of sheep across a small stream:      
"The wool is dry now, and calm, cud-chewing peace has fallen on all the comfortable band, leaving no trace of the watery battle. I have seen fish driven out of the water with less ado than was made in driving these animals into it. Sheep brain must surely be poor stuff. Compare today's exhibition with the performances of deer swimming quietly across broad and rapid rivers, and from island to island in seas and lakes ; or with dogs, or even with the squirrels that, as the story goes, cross the Mississippi River on selected chips, with tails for sails comfortably trimmed to the breeze. A sheep can hardly be called an animal; an entire flock is require to make one foolish individual."

Listen to the bubbling brooks:
"A more tuneful set of streams surely nowhere exists, or more sparkling crystal pure, now gliding with tinkling whisper, now with merry dimpling rush, in and out through sunshine and shade, shimmering in pools, uniting their currents, bouncing, dancing from form to form over cliffs and inclines, ever more beautiful the farther they go until they pour into the main glacial rivers."

Glory in the description and renew yourself.

It's the voice. Someone described Rick Bragg's voice as 'honey over smoke'. That intrigued me. I listened to a CD copy of Rick Bragg reading The Prince of Frogtown. That Alabama rhythm caught me, that pure Southern sensibility; the words just seem to flow. The storyteller's magic takes over.

In All Over but the Shoutin' Rick Bragg wrote about growing up poor in the hill country of Alabama, especially about his mother picking cotton and cleaning houses so her boys would have more than the welfare checks she received. Rick's father was an alcoholic man and very violent. He seemed to float into the life of the family and out again at regular intervals.

The author Willie Morris once told Rick that he would never have any peace until he wrote about his father. In The Prince of Frogtown, Rick pieces together the story of his father's life from interviews with his faithful boyhood friends.

The people seem so real. His father, Charles, was destroyed by drink and destroyed by his hard scrabble, blue-collar life in the mills of Jacksonville, Alabama. Yet Rick lets the soul's true light shine through the awfulness.

You can't help but like this young mischievous, hell-bent for leather boy. Rick retells one incident where Charles and his friend were flying a kite so high that it was nearly invisible in the sky.

Another boy comes along and asks, "What you doing with that string?"

"Why we're fishing," Charles answered.

You ache for the alcoholic man and the family that he has let down. Rick does not whitewash or rewrite his father's life. You get a sense of the man that could have been, but for that evil drinking and the streak of violence that resulted from that drinking.

No one is more disappointed than Charles himself. He knew he could not be with his family, that he had ruined all the chances of a life with them by his ceaseless drinking and violent temper.

Interspersed with chapters about his father are chapters about "the boy" Rick's stepson. In these chapters, he describes his own journey into fatherhood and his growing love for this boy. This story gives light and humor to a dark tale. You grow to love this boy and his stepfather who tries so hard.

Now I want to read Ava's Man, the story of Rick's maternal grandfather and the culture that shaped him.

A new edition of Letters from America by Alexis de Tocqueville has arrived at the library and what a find it is for me! Chatty, opinionated and full of history from the perspective of a Frenchman in America, these letters were written in 1831 and many of the trends and characteristics that struck Tocqueville are still evident even today. I can't resist commenting below.

His main opinion about the American character is that Americans have an "immoderate appetite for wealth, and a desire to get rich quickly."

Did this play out in the financial melt down of recent years?

He also characterizes Americans as living "in perpetual fickleness, a continual need for change, the total absence of old traditions, ancient mores, a commercial and mercantile spirit applied to the most incongruous things."

Perhaps this seeking spirit is why we are such an inventive, creative and industrious people today.

He and his companion and fellow lawyer, Gustave de Beaumont came to America to study the American prison system. They wrote that in the prisons of New York absolute silence was required of all inmates and harsh punishment for violations was rigorously applied. Tocqueville goes on to say, "Strength lies not in numbers but in association, and thirty individuals united by constant communication, ideas, common projects, schemes, have more effective power than nine hundred people whose isolation is their fatal flaw."

Does our strength lie in always being in touch through Facebook, Twitter and texting?

Tocqueville was concerned for his family left in France during much political turmoil. He writes, "While the political world engenders revolutions in Europe, here physical nature is prey to frightful convulsions. All the talk is about enormous hurricanes and appalling devastations; New Orleans, the Antilles, have been the theater of these calamities."

I couldn't help, but think about the recent devastation in New Orleans and Haiti.

De Tocqueville and Beaumont, visit the virgin forests of the Detroit area. I was surprised when he wrote, "some of the forest dwellers use the bears as guard dogs; I saw a few tethered near doorways."

I was also surprised to learn that "The custom among women of the forests (Chactas Indian)  is to have their feet pointing inward...It is achieved by binding the feet of female infants. By age twenty, a woman walks pigeon-toed, and the more pigeon-toed her walk the more fashionable she is thought to be."

I admire Tocqueville's endearing honesty: "In short, there is no one in the world I know less well than myself; I am a permanently insoluble problem. I have a very cool head and a reasoning--even calculating--mind; at the same time, ardent passions carry me off without convincing me, subdue my will without compromising my reason. I see the good very clearly, and spit it every day."

Tocqueville is clearly thinking of writing a book about his experiences and ideas about America when he writes, "I shall write what I think or write nothing at all, while bearing in mind that wisdom does not want every truth aired." This book would be his famous Democracy in America published in 1835.

My friend told me about a 2006 book by the Frenchman Barnard Henri Levy called American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville. He apparently traveled in America recently. Shall I make this my next read? What new surprises will I find?

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