Thoughts for Thanksgiving


 going to the execution

What happens when you are interested in a particular period in time? If you like to read, you will be drawn to books about that era. When I was writing My American Eden, I was tasked with researching Colonial America between the years of 1635-1660. It began when I found a tidbit in a history book about a woman who walked into Boston with her shroud in hand. She walked to the hanging tree twice, had the noose around her neck twice, and her face covered with her Pastor’s handkerchief twice. A last-minute reprieve by the Governor spared her the first time: the second resulted in death. This story struck me as one that every American should know. Because a law was passed banishing Quakers on pain of death, Mary Dyer challenged it with her life. As I began researching the event, I quickly realized that history is far from simple.

Amazon Link to mae

I found that perspectives differed depending on the author. Then something else came to light. The story tended to change over time. Quaker historians had one perspective, British authors had another, and then American academia added more confusion to the mix. I began to wonder if history is based on myth or fact and wondered how to find the truth. Official court documents, dates and times, all came up with discrepancies. Initially, I was obsessed with every detail. My first draft ballooned to eight hundred pages. When I learned that Mary Dyer traveled back to England and spent seven years there, I had to accept the challenge of understanding the English civil war. The Puritans and the Roundheads, the rise of Oliver Cromwell, and his destruction of Parliament were vague recollections from high school. I turned to my favorite historian Sir Winston Churchill. It was his description of a rising merchant class gaining sufficient power to challenge the established ruling class that piqued my interest. The more deeply I delved into the conflict, the more understanding I gained of what unfolded decades, and then centuries later. I learned of that the roots of the American Civil War stretched back to the events of the 1650s. One side, the Royalists, eventually gravitated to Virginia and the southern United States while the Puritans sailed to Boston. The events in New England also had an effect on the American Revolution and the founding fathers. Mary Dyer’s protests did not go unheeded. When Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, he immediately passed a law forbidding such discrimination.

JFK the Unspeakable

As we watch history unfold, try as we might, it is often difficult to find the truth. When asked if history would be kind to him, Winston Churchill replied that it would indeed because he intended to write it. As a child growing up in a military family in the post-war fifties and sixties, the shadow of war hung over the conversations by the adults. Watching the first reports of the news from Dallas, fifty-two years ago today, I had nothing but questions. At that point in time, I was obsessed with the Nancy Drew series. Even in the midst of the emotional wallop that hit us all regarding the assassination of the President, I sensed a murder mystery. People crave a simple explanation, but I feel we must be sleuths. What could be murkier than the events of November 22, 1963? One book leads to another; facts are disputed, and some facts are indisputable. The deeper one delves, the more confusion one is likely to find until at last the truth emerges. Should we accept the fact that we will never know? I have never thought so. The Unspeakable by James W. Douglass and The Devil’s Chessboard, by David Talbot have shed new light. Both books are thoroughly researched and beautifully written.

The final paragraph of the speech President John F. Kennedy was to deliver in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963:

We in this country, in this generation, are — by destiny rather than choice — the watchmen on the walls of world freedom. We ask, therefore, that we may be worthy of our power and responsibility — that we may exercise our strength with wisdom and restraint — and that we may achieve in our time and for all time the ancient vision of “peace on earth, good will toward men.” That must always be our goal — and the righteousness of our cause must always underlie our strength. For as was written long ago: “except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.”

SOURCE: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

Two statues in front of the Massachusetts State House: One by Sylvia Shaw Judson depicts Mary Dyer, and the other is Isabel Mcllvain’s President Kennedy.

bigger statue of Mary Dyerjfk statehouse

This week we will gather with friends and family remembering those first families who came to the New World seeking freedom. Some of us will pray for those around the globe who are fleeing terrible circumstances and conflict. Hopefully, we will all give thanks for the simple things: a roof over our heads, a warm house and a bounteous feast on the table. I hope we will all remember to cherish freedom too.

The Food of Love

 brown map of Paris

My last day of high school involved an exam. The subject was geography. My teacher, Winifred Prestwich, walked down the aisle in the prayer hall where desks had been placed, patted my shoulder, and wished me luck. She called me by my sister’s name, Mary. It didn’t matter. I was used to it. The fact that my sister graduated years prior made no difference. Miss Prestwich liked her enormously, so in calling me by her name, it felt like a token of affection.

I supposed I trembled a little as I read the exam questions. My school, Havergal College for Young Ladies, was famous for its tough standards. The packet was a fairly thick one. As I looked through it, I found a blank street map of Paris. We were to name as many streets and landmarks as possible. Each accurate answer yielded a point, and the map was worth fifty percent of the grade. It was never mentioned as a possibility in class. We had spent a few weeks learning about the city planning, but we expected an essay question on that topic. I filled in the map first. By the time I finished, I had to race through the other questions. When I heard the words, “Pens down,” my high school years came to a close. After spending countless hours complaining about the uselessness of what we were learning, and pontificating to all in sundry about what I would have rather been studying, I now had to concede that Miss Prestwich had given us a very practical application of knowledge. I feel at home in Paris. I would live there in a heartbeat if I could. I can always find my way around.


When I heard of the recent attacks, like so many others, I felt a great kinship with the people who live in my favorite city. It is hard to quantify places, and I am never a fan of ranking everything in sight, but in my mind Paris is the at the top of the pinnacle. My love of beauty is satisfied at every turn. The care taken with every morsel of food is so impressive that I feel as if I can live on the inspiration for years. I am a self-confessed Francophile. Isn’t anything one does, anything at all, worth doing well? That is what I admire about la belle France. The streets, washed every morning with a small flood that swooshes through, allows shopkeepers to sweep and scrub their sidewalks leaving them fresh and clean. The bakers are up in the dark making the daily bread. Working your way through a loaf of sliced bread from start to finish is unheard of in France. To everything, there is a delicate balance.

Now this: Violence. Disruption. Aggression. Brutality. Hideous darkness. What is to be done?

We cannot stop being hospitable. After 9/11, I thought of all the wonderful raucous times my family enjoyed in New York. The nights at Madison Square Garden, the restaurants, the hotels, and the famous cab drivers; the city vowed to carry on being New Yorkers. So I pray for Paris. I pray for it to remain as the City of Light, and I expect to visit it again sometime soon. I hope the cafes are never forced to close their doors again. Church bells rang throughout the city on Sunday. U2 had to cancel their concert. As reported in a radio interview with Irish D.J. Dave Fanning, Bono said, “ I think music is important. I think U2 has a role to play, and I can’t wait till we get back to Paris and play.”

Paris cafe

“If music be the food of love, play on.” Shakespeare: Twelfth Night, Act One, Scene One.

Good Books for Damp Days


Elena Ferrante


It is raining and damp on Windy Bay today. The lake is still and apart from the odd shot fired now and again, we hear almost nothing, save the delicious sound of raindrops falling on a metal roof. After a long walk and discussion about driving to town to see a movie, we opted, as we so often do, for a cozy afternoon with our books. My goal was to finish this month’s selection for The Best Food Ever Book Club.

If we had first come to see Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo, the two main characters of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, as young women, it would have been our loss. By describing the friendship of two little girls with all of its inherent passion and intensity we, as readers, never lose sight of those children. This device, whether intentional or not, gives the book much of its power.

Set in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples, we learn of a society struggling to cope with post-war conditions in Italy. As the girls observe events in the neighborhood, we see the volatile and frightening conditions in which they live. Girls are neither highly valued nor are kept very safe. It is this anxiety that creates a never-ending tension in the book.

As in most tales of girlhood friendship, there is a divergence in their respected paths. One will be continuing her education, and the other will have to work in the family shoe repair shop. As fate would have it, the girl with the greatest ability is the one who is stymied.

Knowing the rivalries, the competition and the gut- wrenching power these emotions have with both girls, the split is painful to imagine. Perhaps readers with a memory of such times and similar decisions made regarding the fate of sisters and neighbors, feel this more keenly. I will wait until the Best Food Ever Book Club discusses this work to see if anyone agrees with me. Perhaps I will share a personal story. It happened in a similar fashion. Sent to a private school, and then to compound matters, moving to a new house, drove a wedge between  my best friend from childhood and me. She went on to new friends as did I, and we were not able to maintain our former bond.

Even if the parting of the ways had not been centered around school, I was reminded of other factors that seem to break those incredible ties of friendship one feels in elementary school, and how something along the way always seems to come between cherished friends. If it isn’t school, it is a boyfriend, or lack thereof, or some change that often splits them apart. After reading L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables so many times over, and at least once per decade throughout the course of my life, my last go-round brought me to the understanding of the diverging paths between Anne and her friend Diana. With mouths to feed and a farm to run, Diana’s father decrees that she will not go on to further her education while Anne receives a scholarship. There is no remedy, no matter what the intention. Neither girl will be the same.

Anne of Green Gables

Elena Ferrante does a brilliant job of zeroing in on the truth of these girl’s circumstances. Neither one is safe. Not entirely, and the women who should be protecting them seem unobservant, distant, and oblivious. For how many centuries were girls and women told to accept their lot in life without complaint. For how long did we have the merest of choices over our destinies? While I would not call My Brilliant Friend a feminist novel, it certainly stirred those emotions.

My Brilliant Friend is the first in a series of four books. Whether I continue, or leave off here remains in the hands of my book club. Knowing some have already galloped on through, I expect to hear some heavy lobbying.

Fill Your Lungs With Language


Colum McCann’s Letter to a Young Writer

In the 24th in a series of posts on 2015 books entered for The Story Prize, Colum McCann, author of Thirteen Ways of Looking (Random House), shares some advice.

Do the things that do not compute. Be earnest. Be devoted. Be subversive of ease. Read aloud. Risk yourself. Do not be afraid of sentiment even when others call it sentimentality. Be ready to get ripped to pieces: It happens. Permit yourself anger. Fail. Take pause. Accept the rejections. Be vivified by collapse. Try resuscitation. Have wonder. Bear your portion of the world. Find a reader you trust. Trust them back. Be a student, not a teacher, even when you teach. Don’t bullshit yourself. If you believe the good reviews, you must believe the bad. Still, don’t hammer yourself. Do not allow your heart to harden. Face it, the cynics have better one-liners than we do. Take heart: they can never finish their stories. Have trust in the staying power of what is good. Enjoy difficulty. Embrace mystery. Find the universal in the local. Put your faith in language—character will follow and plot, too, will eventually emerge. Push yourself further. Do not tread water. It is possible to survive that way, but impossible to write. Transcend the personal. Prove that you are alive. We get our voice from the voices of others. Read promiscuously. Imitate. Become your own voice. Sing. Write about that which you want to know. Better still, write towards that which you don’t know. The best work comes from outside yourself. Only then will it reach within. Restore what has been devalued by others. Write beyond despair. Make justice from reality. Make vision from the dark. The considered grief is so much better than the unconsidered. Be suspicious of that which gives you too much consolation. Hope and belief and faith will fail you often. So what? Share your rage. Resist. Denounce. Have stamina. Have courage. Have perseverance. The quiet lines matter as much as those which make noise. Trust your blue pen, but don’t forget the red one. Allow your fear. Don’t be didactic. Make an argument for the imagined. Begin with doubt. Be an explorer, not a tourist. Go somewhere nobody else has gone, preferably towards beauty, hard beauty. Fight for repair. Believe in detail. Unique your language. A story begins long before its first word. It ends long after its last. Don’t panic. Trust your reader. Reveal a truth that isn’t yet there. At the same time, entertain. Satisfy the appetite for seriousness and joy. Dilate your nostrils. Fill your lungs with language. A lot can be taken from you—even your life—but not your stories about your life. So this, then, is a word, not without love, to a young writer: Write.

Serve the Work


Victor EspinozaAt a recent luncheon with fellow writers, the conversation turned to the nature of artistic temperament. We have all read articles about the connection between Genius and mental illness. We have also read and heard accounts of profoundly nasty moves made by some who are regarded as innovative, brilliant, immortal and gifted. What is the connection?

The nature of mania can be what is often called a brainstorm. With all circuits firing at breakneck speed, some have harnessed this heightened awareness and let their paint brush or their typewriters or quill pens, take record some of these rapid fire thoughts.

Any state or mood of increased consciousness would never yield great work in and of itself. The initial flow may be prolific and intense, but it could also be a great mess, yielding nothing of use to anyone. The ride on the back of a bucking bronco may be thrilling, but it is altogether too short. So a second talent is needed; one that allows for the discipline of picking oneself up once the inevitable crash seems to follow. Through those days, slow, painstaking effort and focus is needed to add layers and subtract all that is superfluous to produce a beautifully crafted work of art.

What is the artistic temperament? Lord Byron wrote: “We of the craft are all crazy…. all are more or less touched.” Is it a medical condition, a fine madness, or is it something brought on by the nature of the creative process? While most would feel the former is the most likely, I am tending more towards the latter. The forces of the world around us, seem to conspire in every shape and form to pull us away from the solitary work and into what Virginia Woolf described as the “tramp and trudge of life.”
Who lives on a street where the neighbors would discourage attendance at a potluck party in favor solitary confinement in a studio? Is the excessive sensitivity and irritability, as one definition stated, a by-product of what is required to keep the galloping herd at bay? This is what I wonder.

The romantic myth of the suffering artist and its link to creativity as a kind of requirement for genius is to some extent, a bit overblown. Plenty of successful working artists and writers live a steady and rather quiet life, where family duties are wedded to productivity and acclaim. It is not necessary to have a train wreck of personal relationships, followed by an early death in a sad hotel room, to be declared a genius. It is often the perception.

Part of the conflict and tension one reads about and is attributed to the artistic temperament, could also be tied to the anxiety inherent in wanting recognition, acclaim and financial security. If it constantly eludes a person who is truly original, sticks their neck out in dramatic fashion, takes huge risks and displays a lack of restraint to do so, and goes completely unrecognized in their lifetime, would not that fear and uncertainty contribute to a less compliant nature? Possibly.

I saw true artistry this weekend. A horse and a figure skater put me right over the moon. American Pharoah winning his last race in the The Breeder’s Cup, and Patrick Chan’s flawless performance in SCI showed us what devotion, hard work, and focus can accomplish.

An Inspiring Leader Takes the Stage

  Justin Trudeau, now Prime Minister of Canada, found inspiration on an early morning paddle on the Bow River in Calgary before the debate.

Justin paddling

I am filled with hope today. Why? I feel inspired.
What exactly is inspiration? I started to think about this when an old friend signed a note to me by saying, stay inspired. It is a daily quest, to be sure. Without going out and looking for it, I can come up empty. The blank page, now the white screen, gets the better of me, and no work gets done on either my novel in progress, Four Stanley Cups and a Funeral, or on my website. When this happens, I have not let anyone down, save myself. However, without self-respect where are we?

Inspiration seems to be gaining in popularity if you look at my Facebook page. Twitter runs hot and cold, but there are no shortages of inspirational tidbits there too. There are days when no platitudes seem to work, and I have to try harder. Others, like today, see me out in the thick woods marveling at the fall colors and circling ravens of Windy Bay. Why is there a spring in my step? Good news and glad tidings are sweeping down like a clean, north wind from Canada.

Whether you missed the election drama, or followed it day by day, last night, a victory occurred for a political party with a dynamic young leader. However, that is not all that took place. A contentious battle veered down the dark alley of the politics of discrimination. Divide and conquer was the failed strategy of the ruling, Conservative Party. Canadians rejected it soundly. That gives me hope.

justin trudeau

We all know better. We all had grandmothers who taught us good manners. We all had grandfathers who introduced us to right and wrong. We know what is called hate speech when we hear it. So why do we keep sinking into this abyss? It is the advice of political strategists. They feel it works. I am hopeful today that some may feel that it does not. It could backfire. It could come back to bite you

My grandfather told me that his father raised him on one simple statement from the Bible: “Yea as you sew, so shall ye reap.”
It is that simple. The man dispensing this advice was a new-age poet and journalist about one hundred years ahead of his time. He taught yoga classes and was a vegetarian. He believed in peace, and he worked to move his country beyond narrow-minded Victorian divisions to a model “free from discrimination of race, class, color or creed.” John Oliver said that the pervasive feeling in Canada of an election lasting seventy-eight days being way too long, was “absolutely adorable.” In this country, we still have a long, long way to go. What becomes tedious is not the exchange of ideas, it is what my grandmother would have called the unpleasantness. Do we really need this as part of the fabric of democracy, or is it rather a stain on our collective soul? Should we not look to leaders who provide inspiration? I am not all that interested in a person’s fears. Why would I even want to hear about them? Why should I be afraid? Why should I cast a vote because of my fears?

I looked up antonyms for the word inspire: Bore, deaden, depress, discourage, dishearten, and here is the best one of all- lull. Lull into a stupor comes to mind.

According to Webster’s, inspiration drives us to create. That is why it is worth seeking. That is why it is a hallmark of true leadership.

The sky is a bright blue today. The sun is glistening in the bay. The leaves are shimmering on the trees. Inspiration is everywhere. When our time to vote comes at last, I want to feel a sense of hope. I want to feel as if we have turned a corner. I want to feel that we are serving the better angels of our nature.  We still have a long way to go. It will be a tough portage.

Enduring Love


Canoe Country

Just in time to take the boats out of the water, Roy MacGregor’s Canoe Country: The Making of Canada, arrived on my doorstep. The glorious fall we have enjoyed on Windy Bay is more lovely than ever. Rain, sweet, heavenly rain, has made our parched woods practically sing with joy. Sitting on our deck with the last rays of summer keeping me warm, I was deliriously happy reading one of my favorite authors. Since there is so much to do this time of year in the garden, I had to ration my reading time, but the book got the better of me, and I took to picking it up at every break. Thanks to Roy MacGregor, my Christmas shopping is going to be a snap. Every canoe lover on my list will unwrap this treasure. Books written about canoes are few and far between, but we tend to see the same ones in homes of our friends.

The book, infused with passion, also carries a wealth of historical information.
From the back cover:

“The canoe made Canada. No canoe, no exploration of this second-largest country on earth. No canoe, no fur trade to open up the colony-then-country to commerce and settlement. No dugout, no birchbark canoe, no kayak, no umiak, then perhaps no survival for the for the various Aboriginal peoples who first inhabited this largely inhospitable and often frozen territory.”

Since I was lucky enough to spend my summers canoeing, and traveling on long canoe trips, I can attest to how utterly bonded the traveler becomes with his craft. When you think of the simplicity of the vessel, the adaptability of the voyageur, the mastery of the skills required to endure the journey, it is a wonder. The canoe is much more than a means to an end; it is a thing of inestimable beauty.


MacGregor writes of the transition from birchbark to cedar strip with chilling accuracy. It was gratifying to me to read that his research was thorough, and all credit due was given to David Thompson. As in all inventions, necessity brought us this development. As Thompson traveled west, he found birchbark to be scarce. Hence the cedar strip which while disputed seems to have been created out here in the northwest.

From Page 194:

“Thompson’s assignment from his superiors at the North West Trading Company, fourteen years later, was to cross the Continental Divide and establish trade with native tribes west of the Rockies. He and his party passed the winter of 1807 to 1808 at “Kootenae House,” the trading post they had built by a creek that ran into the Columbia.”

From Thompson’s journals, edited by Sean T. Peake and featured on page 204:

“We had to turn out thoughts to some other material, and Cedar wood being the lightest and most pliable for a canoe, we split out thin boards of Cedar wood of about six inches in breadth and builded a Canoe of twenty-five feet in length by fifty inches in breadth, of the same form of a common Canoe, which proved to be equally light and much stronger than Birch Rind.”

Beyond the practical and natural, there is also something mystical about a journey by canoe. I am not making preposterous claims alone here; I have heard this voiced so many times and have read enough accounts to consider it a common experience. It begins as a child when you set off in high spirits and boundless enthusiasm only to hit a wall in about say, twenty minutes, where you suddenly feel that old, are we there yet, impatience. There is a bit of a breakdown that occurs. You can’t get out, you can’t get comfortable, your knees hurt, you are hungry, and you are thirsty, and we have to do this for the next eight hours? One has to learn patience, and one has to learn to be calm, and one has to pass the time in silly conversations or find a song where everyone knows the words, or surely you think you will run mad. After time, the canoe becomes quiet. Words are not needed now, and only the next bend, the next portage or thoughts of a warm fire and a good meal are all that seem to be on your mind. What happened to all the cares, the concerns, the endless thought patterns? They start to slip away, and the contemplation of whirlpools around the dip of your paddle take center stage.

From Page 93 where the journals of Susanna Moodie are quoted:

“She claims to have felt  a magic spell upon our spirits. Every object was new to us. We felt as if we were the first discoverers of every beautiful flower and stately tree that attracted our attention, and we gave names to fantastic rocks and fairy isles.”

What used to transport me into the stratosphere of my highly excitable teen years was the knowledge that I had everything I needed. By the second week of canoeing, I did not want to return to civilization. I reveled in the simplicity of our world, and I could not get enough of exploration. I have been a happy wanderer, and I hope Canadians and Americans who love the outdoors will cherish this book.

Pictured below is the author on a canoe trip in Ontario, Canada.

me by harry

Just Below the Surface

Dead Wake

With Erik Larson’s Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania under my belt, I am tempted to read all of his other books. I know The Devil in the White City is in this house somewhere. It certainly did not escape my notice, but for one reason or another, I did not get around to reading it. Now I have that comforting feeling one gets when they find an author they enjoy; rather than having to wait for the next book to come out, I can backtrack with more interesting reading ahead.

In Dead Wake I found I could not get enough of the details that Larson seems to heap upon the page. Back in my salad days, while some in my midst could not stand James Michener, I was in the opposite camp and loved all of his books. It begs the question of why am I such an obsessed fan of literature in the first place? Do I read to learn about other people and places? Do I read to be swept away from mundane chores of everyday life? Do I read because I often wake up in the middle of the night? Do I read to broaden my horizons? Do I read to add to the bank of knowledge I have spent my life building? Perhaps I could answer yes to all of the above. I do love to learn about the inner workings of things. I also love to learn about what would possess a U-boat captain to fire on a passenger ship. Dead Wake furnished me with enough details to satisfy my never-ending curiosity. I simply could not get enough of learning what was on board that ship. I liked reading about the pounds and pounds of candy, of the many cases of whiskey and the refrigerated bunches of fresh roses. I also got involved with the characters.

There was much about the sinking of the Lusitania that I did not know. It was almost as if it was one of those incidents about which we choose not to think. Considering the proximity in years to the Titanic and the fascination with that story, I found myself wondering why I had not read more about it to date. How does an author manage to hold the reader’s interest when we know the outcome of the story? We know the ship will sink. We know that the event will bring the United States into The Great War. Yet the reader is captivated as if they were in the predicament themselves. U-boats were a new and terrifying reality creeping across England’s moat and striking terror on the high seas. I did not know that Germany gave advance warning to passenger ships informing them that they were crossing a war zone and could very well end up a casualty. I had no idea that the passengers had been informed of this before they boarded. The Lusitania was stuffed with munitions. That I did not know either.


One afternoon up at Bayview, in Idaho, when sitting on a friend’s deck, I spotted a massive submarine cruising along in the depths of Lake Pend O’Reille. What a sight! As the daughter of a naval officer, I heard many stories of the fear one feels while scanning the horizon, constantly on the lookout for the enemy. Previously impenetrable defenses could be breached and almost silently and from the dark and mysterious depths. Yet people had business to conduct, families to visit, and since the only way to cross the pond at that time was by ship, they ignored the risk or did not somehow believe it was possible and climbed aboard the ill-fated Lusitania.

pend oreille sub

Another figure in the story, President Woodrow Wilson, had a part to play as well. It is interesting to note how reluctant the United States was to engage in the war, how badly the Allies needed their support and what it would take to get them to engage. I always thought the sinking of the Lusitania did it, and as with Pearl Harbor, it was almost immediate. Not so. The President was out playing golf every morning and driving around the city in his Pierce Arrow. He was grief stricken and courting a new wife. He seemed very distracted and somewhat removed from the horrors of trench warfare.

Woodrow golf

Dead Wake served to put me in another place in time. I find that there is much to puzzle over. There is more I want to know and to imagine as well. Larson has the gift of depicting an historical event with enough sizzle to make it read as a novel. That is no easy feat. He has been called a master of narrative non-fiction.  I could not agree more.

In This Corner

As the smoke filled Windy Bay on Lake Coeur d’ Alene this week, allergies, the likes of which I have not yet experienced, came along with it. It soon became clear that going outside made the condition about a thousand times worse, and that my best bet was to stay indoors with the doors shut. Along with the continuing work on my novel in progress, I sought escape in the pages of Vendetta: Bobby Kennedy Versus Jimmy Hoffa, by James Neff. While fiction fills most of my days, I switch to non-fiction often. I am drawn to history and the history of the sixties and seventies, has always been of particular fascination. For one thing, the period is dramatic, and for another, I have been intrigued by the players.

Going back to why Vendetta became the recipient of my one-click shopping on Amazon, I liked the idea that it was written by the Pulitzer Prize winning investigations editor of the Seattle Times. Reading the reviews, I was struck by the fact that Neff chose to give a balanced approach to the subject. Never in a million years did I imagine I would have one scintilla of empathy for Jimmy Hoffa. My knowledge of him was somewhat limited, and I thought of him as a thug who harassed the Kennedy home at Hickory Hill by having his teamsters drive by the house at all hours.

Robert F. Kennedy, on the other hand, always had my affection and admiration. Having read his own words, as well as the accounts of others, I never accepted the negative adjectives applied to him. Authors have sometimes launched into the tales of the good Bobby, or the bad Bobby, but Neff resisted that trap. Who among us could not be described in those terms? Robert Kennedy and His Times, by Arthur Schlesinger, Robert Kennedy: His Life by Evan Thomas, and Robert Kennedy in His Own Words: The Unpublished Recollections of the Kennedy Years, and last, but certainly not least, Thirteen Days, by Robert F. Kennedy, are among my personal favorites. Vendetta is written with careful attention to detail, and an absolutely thorough look at the motives that drove both men. So reading of Hoffa’s tough upbringing, his ability to connect with people, and his drive to pull himself and his family up by the bootstraps, humanizes him. Seeing the full weight of the Justice Department, absolutely determined to get him, made me cringe a little. On the other hand, his heavy hand was patently evident, and I, too, thought justice would be in order. Reading this book, reminded me of a boxing match with Kennedy in one corner and Hoffa in another.

Rorbert F. Kennedy

It is almost incomprehensible to me to learn that J. Edgar Hoover had an almost hands off approach to organized crime. He was interested in pursuing communists, and the mafia, in retrospect, looked back those times as golden. Picturing the characters swirling around the courtrooms and halls of F.B.I headquarters, I felt I could almost smell the cigarette smoke, and that the picture in my mind seemed black and white. Yet the reader knows the clock is ticking. Time waits for no man. Suddenly it is November in 1963, and we all know what happens next. We know that Hoover will deliver the news to R.F.K. in a chilling and entirely dispassionate tone. President Kennedy once said that in politics one does not have friends, just allies.

Thirteen Days

We are so inundated by tales of good guys and bad guys that a balanced account is almost foreign. We live in a time where the news of the day is so unbalanced that as a nation, we are living in dueling realities. Therefore, Neff is to be admired for his account of a man of privilege setting out to do some good in this old world against a guy who wanted more out of life than the world he saw around him.

The review that sold me on this book came from Erik Larson:

“From the violence of its gripping opening to the sorrow of its close, this is an astonishing and eye-opening account of the vendetta- obsessive, intigue-filled, hatred-tinged-that pitted Robert F. Kennedy against Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa, and nearly consumed them both. Amazing stuff, really-a triumph of investigation and revelation.”

The Trough Between the Waves

young finnegan

When we watch surf competitions on television, we see the waves from a distance. Despite great advances in technology to bring us ever closer, we cannot see what the surfer sees when looking up. A great writer can take the reader by the hand. Therefore, if you pick up Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, by William Finnegan, be prepared to see the sport in a new and piercing light.

Having married a surfer, and having just crossed the thirty-seven- year mark, I can report that most people have the wrong idea about this breed. Based on silly movies, whose makers insisted on dopey characters, the mettle of the man who accepts the challenge of surfing had not been fully articulated. Not until now. If you love a surfer, you simply must give that person this book.

William Finnegan, a staff writer at The New Yorker, and esteemed journalist, has created a memoir that I venture to state will never be surpassed. The time he covers, from his youth in Southern California, to Hawaii and then to the spots around the world that where the best breaks can be found, will not come again. With the Beach Boys and the Gidget movies, even girls growing up in Toronto, Ontario, were pea green with envy about the surf culture of California.

It was a different story when I tried to take up the sport myself. A wave of four feet in height appeared enormous from the trough and been thrashed by one feels like an entirely bad idea once you are under the overhead washing machine. I decided to stick with my love of swimming and remain close to shore. I learned a lot about the culture in my salad days while I hung out on the beaches of San Diego and listened to tales of daring. Having grown up surrounded by the world of hockey, I knew about toughness, I knew about courage, and I knew all too much about hero worship. The flaky, airhead hapless teen, so often featured as part of the culture, bore no bearing on the guys I knew. To me, they were every bit as gutsy, fearless and brilliant as any men I had ever met. Hockey players, off-ice, in my experience, at least, were full of fun, gallant, sweet, kind and nice. Surfers were mercurial, often silent, cold and distant. We could jolly them along, and our friends were full of wonderful humor, but I noticed the younger surfers, the ‘grommets’ who followed them around were too afraid to say a word.

We listened to endless descriptions of breaks, rights, lefts, gnarly, mushy waves, closed out waves, glassy days, and every nuanced condition at Scripps, Wind and Sea or Blacks in La Jolla. I enjoyed every minute of these tales because the ocean is a dangerous mistress. Nothing, and I mean nothing, would come between these guys and their first love. This is the world Finnegan describes with such expertise and beauty that I felt transported. A big wave rider, he impressed me to my toes. I could picture every wave perfectly, and the line he constantly pushed between the wave that could kill you and the wave that could make you weep makes this the best adventure story I have ever read.

Finnegan surfing

I could gush on and on, and readers will have to forgive my fangirling here. Ever since I first saw those big wave surfers on Wide World of Sports, all those years ago in Toronto, I have known that surfers are men of exceptional courage. Mid-way through Barbarian Days, I knew we were going to hit surfer depression land at any moment. It is present in every surf movie, for the time will come when decisions have to be made, and comprises will be required. Dilemmas common to all risk-takers will be staring them in the face. The balance is as tricky as the ride itself, yet it can be done. As a reader, we pull for Finnegan through every phase of his life.

 Barbarian Days

From Page 360

“The takeoff was huge, clean open face, not breaking exceptionally hard, and the wall seemed to hold up reasonably, with no catastrophic sections, all the way down the point. Eventually, Peter caught a wave. With a shout, he jumped to his feet, rode over the ledge, and disappeared for what felt like a very long time. I thought I saw his track once down the line, but I wasn’t sure. Then he came flying over the shoulder far, far inside with arms raised. He came back raving. It was doable, he said. It was insane. I moved over, into the lineup, heart thudding, and caught a couple. The takeoffs were giddy, almost nauseating, but not overly steep. The rides were long and swooping, the blue walls like great stretched canvasses. Each of my rides ended with a safe, gliding pullout somewhere down on the boat ramp. I was very glad I was on my gun…”

People smiled when I said I was dating a surfer. Some of my friends said with disdain, “Oh Liz.” Lots of people thought our marriage would flame out. Everyone waited for me to return to my senses. Not so my grandfather, the consummate hockey man, a war hero who judged everyone by their toughness. He had utter contempt for a lot of the men my sisters and cousins dated. My husband came through unscathed. It was decided all at once. He passed.

Hero worship, plain and simple. Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life tops every chart I have to top. Take this book to the beach.