Monday, December 29, 2014

Best Books in 2014

For the purposes of this blog "best" is defined as my favorites among the books I read in 2014:


The Man Who Loved Dogs, Leonardo Padura (2009, translation 2014)
Cuban writer Leonardo Padura recreates the assassination of Leon Trotsky with a deft tale of intrigue set in the context of Joseph Stalin’s quest for absolute power in the Soviet Union and the pre-war climate of the 1930’s.  Leon Trotsky’s exile is a well-told story which Padura leavens with some introspection and regrets on Trotsky’s part.  Alongside Trotsky’s odyssey, the reader is introduced to Ramon Mercader, a Spanish Republican plucked from the defeat of the his cause by the KGB and trained as an assassin.  All of this is narrated by a Cuban writer who encounters a mysterious man and his two Russian Wolfhounds at a beach.  As the mysterious man confides in him, the narrator begins to suspect that he is talking to the assassin himself.  Each subplot brings its own set of contradictions, erratic behavior and, ultimately, understanding.   The early chapters read much like a history of the era but as each subplot evolves the reader is drawn into the details of each man’s thoughts and actions.  Although Trotsky’s assassination is a foregone conclusion, Padura invests the story with mystery and suspense.

The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion, Fanny Flagg (2013)

A tale well-told about discovery and history.  Sarah Jane Poole, “Sookie” to everyone in Point Clear, Alabama, approaches her 60th birthday to learn that she is an adopted child.  Her birth certificate showing the woman Sookie has known all her life as mother is a forgery.  Her real birth certificate lists a Polish mother and unknown father.  The discovery changes her life.  How Sookie’s life changes gradually reveals itself along with the story of Fritzi Jurdabralinski, the name listed on the birth certificate as mother.  Fanny Flagg tells the story in a lively, often funny narrative that captures the feel of small-town South and tells the story of the remarkable women who flew military aircraft during WWII.


The Heart of Everything That Is:  the Untold Story of Red Cloud, An American Legend, Bob Drury & Tom Clavin (2013)
Excellent history of the Indian leader Red Cloud, whose multi-year campaign against white expansion forced the US government to sue for peace.  Authors Drury and Clavin are clearly sympathetic to the Indian point-of-view; in their telling, Red Cloud’s resistance makes perfect sense.  What makes the story compelling is the detail about Indian culture and strategy.  Red Cloud’s achievement was unifying fractious and independent Sioux bands in a strategic campaign against the US Army whose institutional racism did not credit Indians with strategic ability.  This history debunks the image created in film and TV of the cavalry coming to the rescue.  Not only were the troops not cavalry—they were mounted infantry—but their horses were often worn-out, ammunition in short supply, and officers prone to fall for the bait in one of Red Cloud’s ambushes.  Add the Sioux’s mobility and knowledge of the terrain and you have the bluecoats at a disadvantage.  The authors don’t spare the Army leadership, a collection of officers whose ambition and prejudices often worked to Red Cloud’s advantage.

The Sleepwalkers:  How Europe Went to War in 1914, Christopher Clark (2012)
A detailed, intricate history of the interests, intrigues, rivalries that led the great powers of Europe to create a series of alliances with, as Christopher Clark writes, “a trigger set in the most volatile region of Europe.”  The story  is long and involved—562 pages of text, 100 pages of notes—but Clark carefully and systematically lays out all of the threads to present a comprehensive history of how that trigger exploded with an assassination in Sarajevo in 1914. 


Sunday, October 19, 2014

Oh Wow. Look at the Moon

Stepping on to my balcony to scan the pre-dawn sky I catch the fleeting image of a waning crescent moon as it disappears behind some fast-moving clouds.  What I saw was pretty--early morning crescent moons always are--so I wait to see if I get another look.  The clouds look pretty dense against the dark sky but after a couple of minutes patch of light appears in the dark and soon the crescent was visible again.

This morning's crescent is a delicate sliver of light on the edge of the moon's disc which is darkly illuminated by earthshine.  A very light haze gives the sky a soft focus so the crescent's image is gentle stark.  The look is suitable for a morning crescent.  It holds my interest.  I scan the separation between light and dark on the disc.  I follow the deep curve of of light and linger on its points, happy just to see this moon and morning sky.

The clouds return.  Slowly at first, hiding then revealing some or all of the crescent.  A brief final tease before dropping the curtain on this performance. 

Thursday, October 9, 2014

An October Day Hike

09 October 1978.  South of Reed's Gap, Virginia.  The mountains are gorgeous on this early fall day.  The leaves have started to turn color; patches of yellow and rust dot the forest.  A brilliant red or crimson is visible here and there as isolated trees display their fall colors ahead of the crowd.  Below the canopy, the woods are a soft yellow and green, alternating sunlight and shadow.  Yellows and reds dot the foliage across the forest floor.  From my perch I can see the many folds of the Blue Ridge to the southwest.  The Shenandoah Valley is to my north, I can see a small sliver of it between the ridges.  I bask in the warm sun and experience the quiet.  A lone woodpecker knocks intermittently on a tree.  Leaves rustle in the breeze.  I can hear vehicles in the valley below and the occasional people sound.  Good day for a trip.  Good day to be alive.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Taking Stock After Three Years

At the Speed of Foot was published three years ago this month.  I made some marketing effort early on but lack of response and my natural disinclination for self-promotion meant that the entire project has been mostly on autopilot since that initial burst of enthusiasm.  The decreasing frequency of posts to this blog are testament to growing inertia.

That said, Speed of Foot has met my expectations.  Sales have been respectable:  162 Kindle editions and 46 paperbacks.  I assume Kindle buyers are mostly strangers.  Virtually all paperback sales are to people I know.  I've recovered about two-thirds of my costs which is good enough for me.  I never expected a best seller. 

Reviews have been generally good.  I posted some early comments from friends.  Three of four Amazon reviews gave me four stars.  The fourth gave me one star.  Reading that review conjured up all the doubts I had as a writer and I knew for sure that my sketches were elementary.  But if I had waited for perfect, Speed of Foot would still be a manuscript. Beyond the images, the sketches represent time taken to think and see the trail and its environment.  All that is part of the book, some of which I present better than others.

Writing the book was an adventure in itself.  It required as much discipline and frustration as the actual thru-hike.  Parts of it had rattled around my brain from the earliest days on the trail.  I had always thought that the insights and cumulative experiences would be the focus rather than a south-to-north trail journal but I found that I needed the linear progression to carry the narrative.  With more time and effort maybe I could figured out a better approach but I was ready to be done with the project.

Except that publication meant marketing.  That's where I began this post and will wrap it up there.  The simplest way to summarize my thinking about Speed of Foot is that I wanted to write the story, I did, and I am happy with the results.