February 8, 2014 § Leave a comment

“What has literature taught me about love? Literature (along with experience) has taught me that love means different things at different points in our lives, and that often as we get older we gravitate toward the quieter, kinder plotlines, and find them to be richer than we had originally understood them to be.” – Ann Patchett

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Attic bedroom with bookshelves

Loft bedroom with bookshelves

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“I had an epiphany of my own, and realized that I have always been my own problem. That I have always been more in love with my fantasies of the women I was with, and not with the beautiful and complicated human beings they actually were. That true love demands a ruthless self-honesty and true empathy, it asks us to look beyond our own neuroses so we can truly see the people we love. Literature offers us brutal epiphanies into our own hearts, and always in ways that are transformational.” – Chris Abani

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“Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill. Without books, the development of civilization would have been impossible. They are engines of change (as the poet said), windows on the world and lighthouses erected in the sea of time. They are companions, teachers, magicians, bankers of the treasures of the mind. Books are humanity in print. – Barbara w. Tuchman

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Home office

Home office

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“That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.”  – F. Scott Fitzgerald

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About Trixie: “A Big Little Life”

November 11, 2011 § Leave a comment 

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(¸.·Videos of Trixie:

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(¸.·Absolutely amazing organization.

Canine Companions for Independence:


The Soul Unearthed: Celebrating Wildness and Spiritual Renewal Through Nature

October 28, 2011 § Leave a comment


Aldo Leopold, patriarch of the modern environmental movement, began his classic book (A Sand County Almanac) stating: “There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot.” In The Soul Unearthed Cass Adams presents a collection of inspiring testimonials from more than seventy modern writers who share Leopold’s sentiments.

There are so many well-written essays in The Soul Unearthed it is difficult to select just a few to include in a one-page review. And, of course, other readers will take different pieces to heart. What follows here are descriptions of some articles that “spoke” to this reviewer.

Those who have an aversion to organized religion will find a wide range of topics relating nature-based spirituality, deep ecology and the “emerging field of ecopsychology.” Adams has arranged the book around eight categories-Spirit of Place; Quests and Rituals of Renewal; Men, Women, and Wildness; Animal Encounters; Teaching in the Wild; In Mourning, Defense, and Celebration of the Earth; Extra-Ordinary Wilderness; and Wilderness Ethics: An Emerging Perspective. Authors include famous individuals like Gary Snyder, Wendell Berry, Anne LaBastille, Matthew Fox, David Oates, Terry Tempest Williams, Roderick Nash, and others. It seems safe to call The Soul Unearthed an eclectic collection sure to provide something of interest to most any reader interested in the human/nature relationship.

Perhaps the highest compliment this reviewer can pay to The Soul Unearthed is to dare suggest that Aldo Leopold would approve of what Cass has assembled. Leopold’s greatest dream was that a critical mass of humans would come to embrace a “land ethic” and treat land with the same respect and dignity as espoused for people in documents like the Bill of Rights. He fretted, however, because in his day he saw no evidence that philosophy and religion had considered matters regarding ethical treatment of the land. He would rate The Soul Unearthed “two thumbs up, way up!”

—Charles Yaple, Taproot, Spring/Summer 2006

Love Longitude? ‘Maphead’ Locates Geography Buffs

September 24, 2011 § Leave a comment

September 21, 2011

Do you ever read an atlas for pleasure? If you go to a new city, can you imagine not knowing which way is north? Is it hard for you to imagine life without a map?



Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks

by Ken Jennings

Hardcover, 276 pages | purchase

Then you might be a maphead, says trivia buff Ken Jennings.

“If there’s a map on the wall of the room, people like us just cannot turn away,” he tells Fresh Air‘s Dave Davies. “There’s just something hypnotic about maps.”

Jennings, who rose to national prominence in 2004 with his 74-game winning steak on Jeopardy!, charts what he calls “the wide, weird world of geography” in his latest book,Maphead, which profiles Google Maps engineers, geocachers, imaginary mapmakers, rare map collectors, National Geographic Bee contestants, roadtrippers and other “mapheads” who love latitude, longitude and everything in between.

The Map Room

One of the places Jennings visited was the Library of Congress map division, which holds more than 4.5 million items.

“The librarian there told me that it had to be in the basement because the holdings were so heavy that if you tried to put the maps and atlases on the top floor, they would fall through to the basement anyway,” he says. “It’s a library straight out of Jorge Luis Borges. It’s a football field’s worth of shelves as far as the eye can see — full of maps and atlases — and it seemed like the librarian could, at any point, pull out any of them and pull out some historical treasure.”

For instance, the library contains George Washington’s hand-drawn map of Virginia, as well as the maps from the Versailles conference at the end of World War I and Theodore Roosevelt’s maps from South America after his presidency.

“It’s just amazing,” says Jennings. “It’s just like a walk through history to look at these maps.”

Ken Jennings won 74 consecutive games on Jeopardy! "It's a minor form of celebrity," he tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies.

Mindy Jennings/Simon and SchusterKen Jennings won 74 consecutive games on Jeopardy! “It’s a minor form of celebrity,” he tells Fresh Air‘s Dave Davies.

The Geography Bee

Jennings also went to the National Geographic Bee, the annual competition for teenagers who know all sorts of obscure geography trivia. He pitted himself in a trivia contest against a former contestant named Caitlin Snaring, one of just two girls to ever win the Geographic Bee. (Her winning question? What Vietnamese city, split by a river with the same name, was an imperial capital for more than a century? The answer: Hue.)

“I ended up getting a dozen right, and she ended up getting all but one of them,” he says. “She beat me by a margin of 10 questions. It was like we were in a different league. She’s in the pros, and she’s going up against some Little Leaguer.”

Jennings says that contestants know so much, they start running out of material to study.

“They’re frantically going to the library for new books in hopes of finding new facts about the world to learn,” he says.

A Different Kind Of Roadie

Jennings also met with a group of mapheads he calls “road geeks.” A road geek, says Jennings, is someone obsessed with the interstate system of roads.

That’s what unites all of these people: a desire to be explorers even though they were born centuries too late for the real era of exploration.

– Ken Jennings on ‘road geeks’

“They like to clinch roads — which means to drive on every inch of a certain highway — and they’re interested in minutia as far down as the streetlamps on a certain length of road, or the typefaces on the signs,” he says. “They notice when the government changes typeface on the interstate system. They’re scholars — they drive around on these roads, taking pictures of road signs and trying to find mistakes to write their congressmen about — or taking pictures of road construction projects as they develop. This is their life.”

Jennings says that “road geeks” are united by their need to be in actual places.

“They like to catalog and study things that could surround them,” he says. “We live in an age where the world feels very explored. … That’s what unites all of these people: a desire to be explorers even though they were born centuries too late for the real era of exploration.”

Interview Highlights

On the numbered highway system


“We don’t realize how hard it was to drive anywhere outside the major cities less than a century ago. After World War I, the U.S. government ordered a tank convoy of jeeps to cross the country, and it took them months. There were casualties. There were injuries. A huge percentage of the jeeps that set out couldn’t make it because the roads were so terrible. [The publisher] Rand McNally, looking for a way to map these roads … could only give you directions: turn left at the barn, or turn right at the grove of poplar trees, or whatever. There was no signage, and this was not working out.

“… Wanting to have easier-to-read maps, Rand McNally held an inside contest for suggestions. And one of their designers said, ‘There is no way to make the maps match the territory. We need to make the territory match the maps.’ So Rand McNally decided to create their own numbering system for roads in the U.S., and then they sent groups to paint their numbers alongside every highway that needed one. They called it the Blazed Trail System. … They would paint little flags with numbers and signs along these highways. The road atlas came first, and they had to change the maps to match it. … It became a hit, states started to do it, and finally the government imposed the system we have today.”

On geocaching

“These are people who are using GPS systems to find millions of little hidden objects throughout the world — often as simple as a piece of Tupperware hidden in the woods. You go to a website, you get the latitude and longitude to get the specific location of a certain specific hiding space, and then you go there and see if you can find it. Often it’s as simple as a piece of Tupperware with some Happy Meal toys for the kids … you can find hidden under a rotting log in the woods. Sometimes they’re more ingeniously disguised, or there’s a puzzle you have to solve. It’s a culture of 4 million people who are all over the Earth right now looking for treasure that the rest of us don’t even know about.”

On Jeopardy!

“I can’t relax and sink back in the couch and watch Jeopardy! the way I used to. That’s sort of the one regret I have is, when I hear that music or I hear Trebek’s Canadian accent, I used to get excited and now I just get panicky. It’s like an adrenaline rush — I have post-traumatic game show stress disorder or something. I cannot relax into Jeopardy! the way I used to.”

Bad Land: An American Romance by Jonathan Raban

September 18, 2011 § Leave a comment





There’s a fine moment early in “Bad Land,” Jonathan Raban’s new memoir/travelogue about the American West, that goes a long way toward explaining why this British-born writer (he now lives in Seattle) is among the most compelling and worthwhile travel writers alive. Poking around in the ruins of an abandoned Montana farmhouse, Raban stumbles upon a decades-old ledger that unwittingly tells the story of one farm family’s demise. Listing the ledger’s grim figures would have been dry history in another writer’s hands, but Raban brings the moment home. He pores over these figures, and he’s clearly moved: “By the last page, the handwriting was all over the place and the figures were standing, or leaning, an inch high on the paper. How do you turn $2.54 into $5688.90 [the farm’s debt]? I’ve made my own pages of calculations in the same distraught writing; seen the numbers gang up on me and breed. What the bottom line always says is the old 2 a.m. cry, We can’t go on living like this.

Like so many great travel and history books, “Bad Land” is as much about its author as it is about the territory it covers. You can feel Raban’s compulsive interest in the West expand as the book progresses (“An emigrant myself, [I was] trying to find my own place in the landscape and history”), and there are some wonderful moments when he tries to communicate his excitement to others, who look at Montana’s vast, flat, grassy surfaces and are reminded only of “badly maintained golf courses.” Raban is gruffly comic, too, on his inability to find anything to eat besides microwave burritos on his travels, and on the way contemporary Western women tend to dress for the 1990s while “nearly all the men appeared to have stepped off the set of a period Western.”

Yet “Bad Land” is more than a roadmap of Raban’s own neuroses and travails. His book is primarily about the European emigrants who were drawn to the West early in this century by the lure of cheap land, and by false promises — made by bankers, railroad companies, and the government — that they could succeed at “dry farming” in this arid landscape. Raban crafts this sad tale magnificently, contrasting the emigrant’s hope and determination with the bad faith of those who led them blindly into this forbidding landscape. It’s a bitter, compellingly-told tale.

— Dwight Garner


This is one of my favorite books…it really brought to life for me the odd mix of idealism and severe hardship of our midwestern settlers. Raban’s style of story telling is relaxed and detail oriented, but once I’m into it, it has a life of its own….the writing is just incandescent. I could really imagine myself trying to get my family through a minus thirty degree winter with the wind howling through my thin wooden house, and hardly any food in the pantry. It seems that Raban’s British sensibilities may have caused some unsatifying stereotyping of Montanans among his readers, but I didn’t read this book to get a politically correct viewpoint. I read it because as much as any writer working today, Raban is able to let me experience the situations he is writing about. One of the very few books I have read twice. 

The School of Essential Ingredients Book Review

August 30, 2011 § Leave a comment

The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister

When she was a little girl, Lillian discovered the power of food to bring people back to themselves. After Lillian’s father left the family, Lillian’s mother retreated into a fictional world, her face always hidden behind the pages of a book. Only when Lillian, desperate to reconnect with her mother, enlisted the help of an “Abuelita” from the neighborhood grocery store, did she discover that a perfectly prepared dish, a few “essential ingredients,” had the ability to bring her mother back to reality — and to her daughter.

This ability of food, and cooking, to connect people with themselves, their past and each other is the common theme of Erica Bauermeister’s THE SCHOOL OF ESSENTIAL INGREDIENTS. The novel gets its title from the cooking school that Lillian, now an adult, runs on evenings when her popular, high-end restaurant is closed. On the first Monday of each month, Lillian’s restaurant kitchen is filled with a colorful assortment of amateur cooks, some eager to deepen their own culinary connections, some unsure what brought them to this place.

There’s Claire, who’s been so smothered by the constant physical and emotional demands of being a young wife and mother that she’s forgotten what it means to make time and space for her own interests. There’s Carl and Helen, an older couple whose seemingly perfect marriage hides a history of betrayal, redemption and hard work. There’s Tom, whose passion for food was ignited by the love of his life. And there’s Isabelle, whose short-term memory is failing her in her old age, but whose rich, long life rushes back to the present when she indulges in the nourishing, delicious food Lillian’s restaurant prepares.

THE SCHOOL OF ESSENTIAL INGREDIENTS will likely appeal to fans of THE FRIDAY NIGHT KNITTING CLUB, THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB and other novels where a group encounter serves as the foil for exploring individuals’ stories. Unlike those books, however, Bauermeister’s is best read not as an overarching story but as a series of linked character studies, as exquisitely prepared and satisfying as the dishes Lillian prepares in her restaurant. Although two of the characters do begin a tentative romance and one fulfills a career aspiration, the focus here is less on where they’re going, plot-wise, and more on where they’ve been and who they are.

And then there’s the food. Bauermeister has a gift for writing about food in sensual, evocative terms, connecting the dish’s rich flavors not only to her characters’ rich histories but also to the reader’s inner palate. “She took a piece of melon in her fingers, wrapped it with a translucent slice of pink meat, and motioned for him to open his mouth. The meat was a whisper of salt against the dense, sweet fruit. It felt like summer in a hot land, the smooth skin in the curve between Charlie’s strong thumb and index finger. The wine afterward was crisp, like coming up to the surface of water to breathe.” Such intense, emotional descriptions of food deepen and enrich the gems of character studies that comprise the novel. They’re also likely to send hungry readers to their own kitchens, where they might find themselves reconnecting to the pleasures of food — and to their own intriguing life stories.

— Reviewed by Norah Piehl  ( on amazon)

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