Walking with Hemingway

What I read

I finally read the book everyone (as in nearly 20,000 reader reviews on Amazon) has been talking about–Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing. And, oh my goodness. It’s worth every bit of the chatter.

You certainly don’t need me to give you a synopsis–and I won’t. Except to say it’s the story of Kya Clark, the Marsh Girl, who lives with incredible loss and isolation and eventually finds her own measure of peace.

I like a good story set in a time and place not my own, and Owens captured the beauty of living in the marshland along the North Carolina coast in the middle of the twentieth century. Kya was an artist (and an accomplished biologist) and I couldn’t help but wish the book had been illustrated with her sketches and watercolors. (I can see a companion volume, modeled on The Diary of an Edwardian Lady. )

I found an interesting interview with the author on this podcast–Owens is interviewed in the first twenty minutes–that includes an interview with Barbara Kingsolver, who also has a profound gift for laying the natural world in the laps of her readers so that we exclaim, “How exquisite … How inimitable … is our world.” There’s talk of a movie, and though I don’t usually watch The Movie of the Book, I might be tempted to in this case if only to see this countryside on a big screen.

Speaking of countryside …

What I lived

The water came up in a tile sunk beside the road, lipping over the cracked edge of the tile and flowing away through the close-growing mint into the swamp ~ “Summer People”

A few weeks ago I went on a Hemingway tour in northern Michigan with Chris Struble of Petoskey Yesterday. Many readers know that Hemingway spent his boyhood summers at the family home on Walloon Lake and later, after returning from the war, in Petoskey. But what remains of Hemingway’s time in northern Michigan is really the landscape itself.

So the trip was a wonderful blend of Hemingway lore (Chris is the current president of the Michigan Hemingway Society) along with readings from the Nick Adams stories. We got a feel for Hemingway’s life in Petoskey after the war and went from his rooming house to the library to the City Park Grill. We stopped at the Red Fox Inn and the Horton Bay General Store, both of which he frequented, then drove down a narrow country road to Horton’s Bay. Along the way, Chris read passages from the Nick Adams stories, and while there were no museums–and only one bronze sculpture–we were able to experience the countryside Hemingway loved so dearly.

602 State Street ~ Red Fox Inn

[Although I’d highly recommend a tour with Petoskey Yesterday, here’s a driving tour if you’d rather explore on your own. This article from the New York Times would make a great before-tour read. But be sure to bring along a copy of the Nick Adams Stories, and maybe a good Hemingway biography, to get the full effect.]

Sisters & secrets: The Ninth Hour

What I read

Alice McDermott is one of my favorite writers. I haven’t read all her work, but That Night and Charming Billy are books that have stayed with me. McDermott’s characters are finely drawn and her sense of what it is to be human is spot on.

The Ninth Hour is no exception. It’s a story of women who, while their lives might be restricted by the actions of men, are enlivened by a circle of women. Annie is young, newly married, and pregnant when her husband Jim gasses himself in their Brooklyn tenement. The Church refuses him a Catholic burial and Annie is bereft. The Little Nursing Sisters of the Poor step in. Sister St. Savior and Sister Jeanne prepare Jim’s body and sit vigil with Annie. They see to the burial in an unmarked grave. And they put Annie to work in the convent laundry with Sister Illuminata, a demanding taskmaster who comes to care for Annie in her gruff way.

Annie’s life–and, in turn, her daughter Sally’s–is as full as life can be for a poor widow and orphan in the early years of the twentieth century, and most of that can be attributed to the safe harbor the nuns provided. But as her years of mothering Sally come to an end, Annie feels drawn to the convent’s milkman Mr. Costello. She misses the companionship of a man. Sally, meanwhile, contemplates becoming a postulant and in her training begins to care for Mrs. Costello, his invalid wife, in their home. The story opens with the cover up of Jim’s suicide–and from there the secrets snowball.

The Ninth Hour is a story about the weight of secrets and how our lives often pivot on a single word left unsaid or an act concealed. Deceit can throw a shadow over an otherwise happy life–but it is for each of us to decide what good might be possible should what was hidden come into the light.

What I lived

I must admit I’m always a little shy around Catholic sisters. As a convert I don’t have the stories so many cradle Catholics revel in telling–there were no sisters rapping knuckles or throwing chalkboard erasers in my Protestant upbringing. But I also don’t have a sense of familiarity and ease around them, either. They are a bit mysterious.

Despite the fact that women religious are under the thumb of the Church’s patriarchy, the sisters I’ve met are curiously powerful women. And despite the sacrifices they make as religious, their sense of agency is solid. (One sister I knew would loudly replace “Him” with “God” in the liturgy wherever possible.) Or maybe I’m just judging sisters based on my own biases. I do take weekly yoga classes at the local Dominican Center, and, on occasion attend one program or another the sisters offer–I’ve walked the labyrinth and zoned out with Zentangle; I’ve meditated on the St. Francis sculpture path. Yesterday I took a class on the rosary. I admire the Dominican sisters’ spirituality and commitment to social justice. But it’s stories like The Ninth Hour that help me understand these strong women.

The Monk of Mokha: review

The Monk of Mokha
Dave Eggers
Vintage (2019)

I marvel at my own coffee evolution. Nearly forty years ago as a brand new bride I started with a percolator–Corning Ware in the ever-popular butterfly gold–and made one pot each week on Saturday morning. Several years later I moved up to a Mr. Coffee and what followed were any number of other drip coffeemakers. The coffee itself? Folgers or Maxwell House. And then I turned a snob–french press, coffee beans bought bulk, ground right before steeping.

Today? I wake up, stick a pod into a single-brew system … and fuss because the wait is so long for my morning cup ‘o joe.

Mokhtar Alkhanshali, a Yemini-American living in San Francisco, didn’t even drink coffee when he set out to become a coffee importer. His goal? To empower Yemeni coffee growers and bring coffee back to its origin story. Coffee, it seems, was first cultivated in Yemen. Not Ethiopia. Not Sumatra. Not even Costa Rico or Columbia. The Dutch stole a few plants in the 17th century, cultivated it in Java, and, subsequently, Europe spent a couple hundred years fighting over control of coffee production.

Mokhtar was out to return Yemen to its rightful place in coffee history.

His lofty goal must have seemed like a long shot to many. Mokhtar was a bit of a smart ass. A college drop out. His last job before becoming an entrepreneur? Doorman. But once he learned the story of coffee, Mokhtar threw himself headlong into making his dream a reality. He interned at Blue Bottle coffee. He insinuated himself into a specialty coffee conference. Wheedled and cajoled friends and relatives in the Yemeni community to back his venture.

And then he took off for Yemen.

Now even if you don’t know much about current events, you’ve surely heard of Yemen. Something about a civil war? The Houthis. Saudi bombings. Famine. Refugee camps. And there was Mokhtar Alkhanshali right in the thick of things.

He traveled the country with armed escorts. Was thrown in jail and detained multiple times. Lived through sniper fire and gun fights and bombing raids. All the while, pursuing his dream to bring Yemeni coffee–he had eighteen thousand kilograms waiting in a warehouse–to the rest of the world. Mukhtar was Teflon-coated. Nothing stuck. He could fast talk himself out of any situation.

In fact, at times his journey seemed fantastical. Beyond belief. Could a young man (he was only twenty-five at the time) really escape unscathed so many times? In the middle of a war zone?! I read much of the book with my mouth open in awe or was it maybe a hint of disbelief? Writer Dave Eggers accompanied Mokhtar to Yemen, visited the sites he talked about, and verified his experiences. (Here they talk about the book in this PBS interview in 2018.)

Mokhtar eventually makes it back to the U.S. via Djibouti. He gets that shipment of coffee. He roasts and markets the coffee. He makes his parents proud. It’s the American Dream, right?

Mokhtar’s coffee–marketed under the brand Port of Mokha–sells for $16 a cup, brewed. You read that right. Per cup. Even if I get fancy pants coffee pods, they go for less than a buck each. This is the fine wine of coffee, dear reader, and a far cry from my percolator-Mr. Coffee-or even French press days.

But I’m tempted to buy a cup should I ever have the opportunity.


Is it all too good to be true? I just read about a scandal related to Port of Mokha coffee and Mokhtar Alkhanshali. I don’t begin to know the ins and outs of the legal business dealings, but I do know the words “racketeering” and “embezzlement” aren’t good. You can read about the lawsuits Mokhtar is involved with here and here.

Mary

For someone who reads as much as I do, I struggle with contemporary poetry. What should be a pleasure–me! lover of word-craft and all that is story–is more often a frustration. I find most of it arcane. Baffling. And, dare I say, way too self-absorbed. I want my poetry rich with images that I can connect with, that touch my heart-center. I don’t want a poem heavy-handed, but rather one that brushes against my soul like a well-loved comforter–one that says “You’re home”. So the list of contemporary poets who have won my heart is short. Billy Collins. Ted Kooser. And Mary Oliver.

So much has been said about Ms. Oliver in the past week since her death–certainly don’t need to say more. I listened to any number of remembrances on NPR and sought out The New York Times to read her obituary. I recalled reading “Wild Geese” for the first time and the thrill of “only let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” I changed my letterboard to feature that most famous of lines “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

And I thanked the Google gods that, with only a finger tap or two, I found many archived articles that allowed me to tuck away a few more Mary memories. Here are my favorites:
What Mary Oliver’s Critics Don’t Understand” (The New Yorker; Nov. 27, 2017)
“Mary Oliver’s Poems Taught Me How To Live” (The New York Times; Jan. 18, 2019)
Listening to the World” (On Being–a rare interview recorded with Krista Tippet in 2015 and rebroadcast last week)

But for me, Mary Oliver became so dear because of the woman she was. Private to the point of eccentricity. Haunted by abuse. Reluctant to talk about herself. Yet always–always–sure of belonging in the woods and fields around her Provincetown, Massachusetts home because of what it had to teach her about her place in the world.

I look at her face in those last photographs–lined and weathered, the slight lift of her smile, a brightness in her eyes. Where age was Mona Lisa beautiful. And I want to grow into that woman. The one with the “wild and precious life”.

An evening with Stephen Mack Jones: GR Reads

Anyone can write a book. Just tell yourself a story a pebble at a time.  Stephen Mack Jones

Stephen Mack Jones: GR Reads

In most circles of friends there’s that One. You know, the one who tells great stories–and acts out all the parts. That friend who is self-effacing, no matter how successful they might be. The one who has a strong moral compass, yet never acts holier-than-thou. The one who is often the butt of the jokes they tell.

The Grand Rapids Public Library recently hosted An Evening with Stephen Mack Jones as part of their summer GR Reads program. Jones is the author of August Snow a crime novel that pairs a rollicking whodunit with insightful social commentary all set against the backdrop of Detroit. (Read my review of the novel here.) And if I had to guess, Jones is that One for his family and friends.

Dressed casually in jeans, a black tee, and sport coat, Jones began the evening by talking about the process of writing the novel. Joking that after he retired (Jones was a copywriter by trade) there was never anything new on Netflix, he set about to tell himself a good story. While mowing the grass one day the words “August Snow” popped into his mind, but it meant little to him at that moment. When he later looked back at some ideas he had jotted down for a story, he realized that August Snow was the hero’s name. Jones said as he wrote, the story moved him, making him laugh … and cry.

Readers of August Snow know August holds dear the memory of his parents and feels their influence daily. Jones said that during an early interview when asked who the story is about, it came to him that August Snow is the story of his father, the hero “that makes the hero yet never asks for any glory.”

After Jones told the story of writing the novel, he took just as long to answer audience questions. This is one author who was not stingy with his time, one who thanked the readers sitting in the audience again and again as being the source of the book’s success. Of course he was asked about a second novel (Lives Laid Away set to be released in January 2019), and of course he was asked about a film version of the novel (and the answer is probably–the novel was recently optioned).

Now to wait six months for that second August Snow novel …