Sunday, April 8, 2012

In the Stacks

The last few days here in my downsouth hometown have been full of running around, fighting traffic and revisiting points along the compass of years gone by. Good guess that a lazy day around the house was the most appealing suggestion for a lethargic kind of Saturday. And that’s just what it turned out to be. The air was chilly early in the morning, and even with a hot cup of coffee in hand, it called for more than short-sleeves. But the sun was shining and the garden hopping with wildlife and budding flowers. What better place to examine the freshening day while juggling the random thoughts of a sleep-blurry head?

Surrounded by all the right elements and floating on a river of mundane rumination it’s easy to lose sight of time, and you look up one moment to see that morning has fled, shadows have shifted, the coffee cup long dry and long-sleeves too warm. But no one moved or showed any inclination to change the pattern of our day. Dee decided to mix birdseed, Raymond disappeared inside long enough to pick up a book and I thought about it all some more.

After a walk over to the park and back, I ended up back at the patio table, but this time brought the moderate stack of books collected over the past week. In all the running around, time to sift through those books has been hard to find, but they have occupied my mind like a stack of unwrapped presents waiting under the tree. Sleepiness has defeated a favorite time for reading; clearly on-the-go vacations don’t make for a lot of bedtime reading. Saturday afternoon became the ideal time to line up the treasures of my recent bargain box buying.

A week ago another Scriblets chapter highlighted, or at least mentioned four books in the stack above, so they’ve been nudged out of the spotlight this time. The books above at least give a clue to the range of titles, but only three of them make it into the light here: Half Broke Horses (2009) by Jeannette Walls, Far Bright Star (2009) by Robert Olmstead and Millicent Dillon’s 1998 You Are Not I: A Portrait of Paul Bowles, all three unexpected random buys from chance meetings on bookstore shelves.

I had a new paperback in my hand when Raymond passed over a hardback book from the Barnes & Noble bargain shelf—a first edition of the same title I was holding and for half the price. Half Broke Horses is a book that boosted the author’s reputation even higher and hung on Top Ten lists for several weeks. So far, there’s been time enough for only the first chapter but enough to put the book high on my ‘next’ list. Half Broke Horses tells the story of the author’s grandmother Lily Casey Smith, a woman who began breaking wild horses at six, left home to be a teacher at fifteen, flew airplanes, raised children, managed a ranch, dodged tornadoes, floods and lived through the Depression. A blurb inside the cover describes it as ‘Laura Ingalls Wilder for adults.’ Below is a short passage from the first page:

‘The tree shuddered and bent over so far that you could hear wood cracking, and some lower branches were torn off. I feared it might be uprooted, but the cottonwood held fast and so did we, our arms locked as a great rush of caramel-colored water, filled with bits of wood and the occasional matted gopher and tangle of snakes, surged beneath us, spreading out across the lowland and seeking its level.’

Robert Olmstead’s Far Bright Star was a recommendation from that same Raymond, another day, another bookstore. He rescued a paperback copy from a dusty pile and handed it over with a succinct “Good Read.” It didn’t take near a full chapter for this one to grab ahold and send me racing across the pages. My kind of read from top to bottom, it reminded me first of Larry McMurtry’s classic Lonesome Dove, and then of the novel and short stories by Bruce Machart. Far Bright Star is a gritty, sun-scorched ride across hard country in pursuit of famed Mexican revolutionary-outlaw, Pancho Villa. The protagonist is hard-bitten Napoleon Childs, an aging cavalryman leading a troop of greenhorns on the trail of Villa. From the opening…

‘Thus far the summer of 1916 had been a siege of wrathy wind and heated air. Dust and light. Sand and light. Wind and light. There was drought and the land was parched and dry and the country bleached, burned out, and furnacelike. At first, dogs attended the troopers, but then they experienced a plague of fleas, so the order went out to shoot the dogs.’

You Are Not I: A Portrait of Paul Bowles is a book I picked up to look at, but then put back on the shelf. Maybe ten minutes later I returned and looked at it again, then put it back again. At the last minute before leaving the store I grabbed the book and bought it. Composer and writer Paul Bowles (1910-1999) has always been a fascinating figure in my imagination of Morocco and desert sands. He became known to many outside the music world when he published his first novel, The Sheltering Sky in 1949. I have a book of his short stories, stories that always leave me with a feeling I’d like to know more about the writer. And so, MIllicent Dillon’s biography…

‘The sun shone brilliantly on the tiled surfaces and on the white columns of the surrounding arcades. The air in Tangier carried an odor that was strange and yet familiar; I had noticed it the moment I landed that morning. It was an odor of the natural world, of plants and dirt, of moisture from the sea, compounded by car exhaust and spices and a faint hint of decay. At first I had thought it was like the smell of an older California. But this was no California, old or young, with its arches and tiles and triangular shadows, with its suggestion of an undertow that had nothing to do with the sea.’


  1. Sounds like a lazy read and relax day. I would be disappointed in you if you didn't come home with a stack or stacks of books.

  2. All worthy books waiting to be read, the language carrying one far from the comforts of patio and pleasant breezes.

  3. Taught "Black Boy" by Richard Wright on and off for the better part of 16 years... a narrative the likes of which is nearly impossible to come across in contemporary literature. Wright was a great American genius.


About Me

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America