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Sunday, March 22, 2015


I’m an Ernest Hemingway fan going way way back.  I love the crisp succinct style, the vivid description, the superb analysis of human nature, and the familiarity I feel each time I open a Hemingway novel or short story.  Part of the allure, of course, comes from the exhaustive materials written by scholars and not-so-much-scholars about this man.  Part comes from a fascination with the time period in which he wrote his greatest works, his long career as writer, his years as traveler and news reporter, his avocation as sportsman, and his intense international celebrity.  As a teacher I taught his works; I’ve lead library discussions and always find other readers intrigued as I am with his genius.  So when I came across Hemingway’s Boat by Paul Hendrickson, I had to see how the Pilar could have been such a central part of his existence. 

One would think that after all these years new Hemingway material would be hard to find.  Hendrickson found it.  He found previously unpublished materials.  He interviewed Hemingway’s sons and the few people still alive who actually knew the author.  He traveled to Cuba to see the Pilar, a rotting hulk outside the Hemingway museum there.  Covering the period from 1934 when Hemingway, a literary giant of the time, bought the Pilar in a Brooklyn boatyard until his suicide in 1961, Hendrickson explores the whole man and shows him with all the boorishness and weaknesses—his alcoholism and explosive temper--that alienated almost all his friends as well as his wives yet also exposes the soft side that nurtured young, struggling writers, shared generously of his home and boat, and tenderly interacted with the dying son of a friend.

If one thinks about Hemingway’s life in Key West and then in Cuba, so much is connected with Pilar which became a haven for friends, family, prostitutes, and employees.  It defined fishing, exploring, and escaping for him.  The Caribbean Sea, its currents, and its seasons feature prominently in his books, and Hendrickson defines the sea as the navigational chart of much of Hemingway’s life.  Those who tolerated him—for whatever period that was—understood that as guests on the Pilar, they might also become combatants against a man who always wanted to be #1—to write the finest, to hook the biggest.

Hemingway’s Boat is a fascinating read opening yet another avenue to understand and appreciate this great American author.  All that aside, however, it’s just a fascinating story of a brilliant yet damaged man and his greatest love.

Friday, March 20, 2015


Bull riding is just one of the dangerous events at a rodeo,
and it leaves you with your heart in your throat as you watch these cowboys and cowgirls.
One amazing thing about a rodeo is that events are measured in
fractions of seconds.  That's how difficult they are. 

Friday, March 13, 2015


Could not resist this beautiful spider and web in Florida's Morikami Japanese Gardens and Museum.
Isn't nature wonderful?

Thursday, March 12, 2015


Water for Elephants is a must read if you're looking for a colorful mixture of love and murder against the backdrop of a Depression-era circus (and who isn’t?). This is definitely not the circus your folks took you to when you were little. The first chapter is rife with hints of love, scenes of disaster, and a gruesome description of murder. With her phenomenal opening, author Sara Gruen has the reader hooked!

Told in flashback by Jacob close to the end of a lifetime, he takes us back with him to the Depression and a long-vanished world when circuses moved by train from town to town, each circus aspiring to be the next Ringling Brothers. With jobs scarce and starvation a real possibility, those who worked for the circus did just as they were told, and the conditions were mean and difficult. Gruen's description of the circus life, the kinds of acts, and the treatment of animals and people create an atmosphere of grunge and fear. Living conditions are atrocious on the train; horses are packed in so none can lie down. People are treated no better. There is a hierarchy among the circus folk—performers do not mix with the hands; the cook tent is handled differently for each level of worker, and everyone knows his place. Life is tough, and each member must earn his keep. It is not unusual for people no longer needed nor useful to be tossed from the moving train in the middle of the night. Gruen populates her book with the artists, performers, trainers, animals, and sideshow performers for which the circus is famous, but they do not become stereotypes; they're developed and interesting people who struggle to do their jobs and present the world with the illusions we wish to see.

Unfortunate circumstances initially bring Jacob to the circus, a world totally removed from the one he left behind as a Cornell veterinary medicine student. As he is introduced to the circus' unusual culture, so are we. A strange old man, Camel, an alcoholic in the age of prohibition, takes Jacob under his wing and makes sure he gets a job and a place to stay. At the circus Jacob meets August and his wife Marlena, a star performer on the Liberty horses, those regal white stallions with the beautifull girl standing and riding and guiding them around the ring. The couple’s and Jacob’s strange friendship evolves in and around the circus and grows more complex as time passes. Many of the characters have developed personal psychological defensive walls and come from strange and eerie backgrounds. Little by little Sara Gruen reveals them and forces her reader to react emotionally. She writes tightly, and no detail is unimportant.

In those crushing economic times, circuses fold, and the remaining ones rush to hire performers or secure animals that might add to their allure. At one such moment, the circus acquires Rosie, an elephant who does not seem to live up to her reputation as a wonderful performer. Although he hates Rosie, under August's direction she becomes the center of attention when ridden by Marlena. August is not happy with his new assignment as Rosie’s trainer. Rosie frustrates him and he retaliates cruelly. Neither Marlena nor Jacob can tolerate this abuse, and their concern for Rosie creates interesting consequences. It is Jacob who unlocks the secret to Rosie.

Water for Elephants is a wonderful book of layered stories. I got lost in each layer and enjoyed the richness and surprises. I cannot describe this novel as a “pretty” book. If you enjoy Americana and love an escapist adventure, this is certainly the book for your next vacation.

Thursday, March 05, 2015


Log Cabin--Elkton, Virginia
Log Cabin, Elkton, Virginia
Back in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia (do you know that bluegrass tune?), we had a wonderful week enjoying the fall colors in what is arguably one of the most beautiful places on earth.  Capitulating to our penchant for barbecue, we tried a new restaurant, Log Cabin at 11672 Spotswood Trail, Elkton, Virginia just down the road from the Massanutten Resort.

Log Cabin--Elkton, Virginia
Where it looks like a log cabin, it really is one!
The original restaurant used this 200 year old cabin, but as business
expanded, the restaurant had to too.
Log Cabin is an unpretentious restaurant whose initial attraction for me was the fact that the main part of the building is actually a 200 year old log cabin.  The dining room is built around that main section, and when you sit there, it does not take much to imagine eating similar foods sometime in history.  I like that.  Of course, I would be using entirely different dinnerware; Log Cabin is strictly Styrofoam and plastic.  That’s the main complaint you’ll find in looking at reviews.  Who cares about throwaways if the food is good?  And it was!

Log Cabin--Elkton, Virginia
This is a fried pickle.
It's breaded and fried.
The pickle stays crispy while the breading adds additional flavor.
It's really good!
On the menu was a southern favorite none of us northerners had tried before—fried pickles.  We had to order them.  Superb!!!  And different!!!  They really look like zucchini sticks when they are served with a dipping sauce of ranch dressing, but they are crisp and crunchy and very delicious.  If you ever see fried pickles on the menu, give them a try. 

The chicken tenders my cousin Rita ordered were delicious, she said.  When she saw fries being delivered to another table, she couldn’t resist the temptation and changed her side of potato salad to fries!  Loved them. 

My cousin Bill had barbecued chicken.  When he was about halfway through and thought he was full, he offered the rest to any one who wanted it.  We were all satisfied with our dinners, and by the time we were all done, Bill had polished off the rest of his too.  Guess that speaks for itself.

I ordered a dinner plate of half a rack of ribs.  I wish I had taken a video, because this was fall-of-the-bone meat.  They use a dry rub that is just seasoned enough to help bring out the incredibly good taste of this deliciously soft, smoked, meat.  These, arguably, could be the best ribs I ever tasted, the softest ribs I’ve ever had, and the only ones I’ve ever actually had to eat with a knife and fork (although I’m not even sure a knife was necessary all the time because of the tenderness).

My sides were macaroni and cheese and hush puppies.  The mac and cheese was lovely and creamy—very cheesy—and the hush puppies were crisp and delicious. 

Rob, true to form, ordered the Sampler Dinner Plate which included a quarter rack of ribs and your choice of pulled pork. 

Here’s a nice aspect of Log Cabin.  Their pork is smoked over hickory for 12 hours and then smothered in one of two sauces made fresh in-house daily.  The first is a red, tomato-based sauce, and the second is a vinegar and spice sauce called North Carolina or Eastern North Carolina.  It has a tangy, spicy taste.

Rob asked the waiter to split his pork into two sections so he could sample both.  No problem.  His sides were baked beans and hush puppies.

The pork was flavorful and tangy and really nicely cooked. The regular pulled pork sauce was tomato-y and just enough to satisfy.  Rob did use Cholula sauce, but he adds this to just about everything! It’s a staple in our house unless he’s using his homemade chili sauce.  There was a very distinct difference between that pork and the North Carolina pork which was new to all of us (so of course we all tasted it), and you could really taste the zippy tang.  I won’t say which we liked more because if you should ever have an opportunity to have a taste, go for it. 

The baked beans were rather ordinary, but he, too, liked the hush puppies.

Want to know why there are no photos?  We dug right in, and I just forgot!  By the time I remembered, it was too late.  It was that good!

We spent the day driving around the Shenandoah Valley and up and over the mountains to Charlottesville enjoying the beautiful fall colors and the history of James Madison’s Montpelier.  Coming home to the Log Cabin made a perfect ending to the day.