Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Half Broke Horses

Half Broke HorsesHalf Broke Horses, by Jeannette Walls

My book group selected The Glass Castle for March, and since I had read that book many years ago, I decided to read Half Broke Horses instead.

I loved this true-life novel/biography of Walls' spitfire grandmother, Lily Casey Smith, born in 1903, who was a "mustang-breaking, poker-playing, horse-race-winning schoolmarm of Coconino County, and it wasn't half bad to be in place where no one had a problem with a woman having a moniker like that.”

The book opens with a flash flood, and Lily helps save her younger brother and sister by having them all climb into a tree and clinging to the branches overnight, for dear life, while everything around them is awash in water.

When they wade home through the water the next day, her mom sinks to her knees, thanking their guardian angel for saving them. The way Lily saw it, she was the one who'd saved them:
"There weren't no guardian angel, Dad," I said. I started explaining how I'd gotten us to the cottonwood tree in time, figuring out how to switch places when our arms got tired and keeping Buster and Helen awake through the long night by quizzing them. Dad squeezed my shoulder. "Well, darling," he said, "maybe the angel was you."
As an oldest child, this story resonated with me immediately. In crisis as a child, I too rose to the occasion.

Lily was not your typical girl child. She worked side by side with her ranch-running dad, breaking and training the horses. When she was 15, she took off on her horse, solo, for a 30-day journey to Arizona, where she'd landed a job as a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse, even though she'd hardly had any formal schooling herself. (She spent a wonderful semester in a Catholic school, where she thrived, until her dad spent the tuition money to buy some dogs imported from Europe, which were soon shot by a neighbor.)
“Since Mom wasn't exactly the most useful person in the world, one lesson I learned at an early age was how to get things done, and this was a source of both amazement and concern for Mom, who considered my behavior unladylike but also counted on me. 'I never knew a girl to have such gumption,' she'd say. 'But I'm not too sure it's a good thing.'”  
Lily drove cars and flew planes, and she worked her fingers to the bone, carrying two jobs when she needed to, running a ranch and teaching in her spare time.
“Teaching is a calling too. And I've always thought that teachers in their way are holy - angels leading their flocks out of the darkness.” 
The irony of reading about her hard work was not lost on me one day, when all I wanted to do was lie in bed reading this book!
“It was good work, the kind of work that let you sleep soundly at night and, when you awoke, look forward to the day.” 
During the depression she sold moonshine out their back door (keeping it hidden under the baby's crib) to save their ranch.
“You can't prepare for everything life's going to throw at you. And you can't avoid danger. It's there. The world is a dangerous place, and if you sit around wringing your hands about it, you'll out on all the adventure.” 
She taught in a polygamist community and taught them about Amelia Earhart and women's suffrage. Soon she received a visit from the polygamist elder, who directed her to stop teaching these things to the children. She refused, and the next time he paid a visit, she prepared for it with her rifle. Of course, her contract wasn't renewed the next year, but it was the children's loss. She stuck to her principles and stood up for justice everywhere, always characteristics I admire!

She raised two children, one of whom was Rosemary Smith Walls, Jeanette Walls' memorable mother.
“God deals us all different hands. How we play 'em is up to us.”
Lily was not a fan of Rex Walls, Jeanette's ne'er-do-well, alcoholic husband, but she knew she couldn't stand in her daughter's way. Lily believed in encouraging independence, resilience, and spit and vinegar in her children, a tradition Rosemary carried to an entirely new (crazy) level in her own child rearing.

I loved this book and I would have loved to meet Lily Casey Smith. What a great American hero. This book has been described as Laura Ingalls Wilder for adults, so true for me! Of course, after I finished it, I had to re-read The Glass Castle.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Evil at Heart (Gretchen Lowell Series)

Evil at HeartEvil at Heart, by Chelsea Cain

I read these books because they're set in Portland and I got the privilege of hearing Chelsea Cain speak in 2010. I read Evil at Heart when I flew to Denver for a business trip--it was a great airplane read!

Gretchen Lowell is an evil serial killer on the loose, and Oregonians are apparently obsessed with her. Now of course I agree about the insidious influence of sensational media on citizens, but this seemed a bit over the top to me. I have to hope that if Gretchen Lowell were really a true character, she wouldn't have hundreds of admirers and fan clubs.

If you can suspend reality, it's a thrilling read. I will wait a few years before reading the next one though...it's a bit too light--and violent--for my regular tastes!

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Animal DreamsAnimal Dreams, by Barbara Kingsolver

I first read Animal Dreams soon after it was published in the early 1990s, but I reread it in February for my book group. Kingsolver masterfully writes colorful characters; the plot in Animal Dreams is secondary to characters and setting.

It's a story packed with community, redemption, ecological justice, family, and sisterhood...strong women and deep female relationships.

When I read this book initially, I did not have three boys...and now I do. I could relate so much to Emilina, Codi's friend who has multiple boys. And the storyline with Codi's sister Hallie recalled that horrible separation scene in The Color Purple between Celie and her beloved sister Nettie.

It takes a little while to get drawn in, but it's a beautiful novel, well worth the effort!

Prime Time

Prime Time: Love, Health, Sex, Fitness, Friendship, Spirit: Making the Most of All of Your LifePrime Time, by Jane Fonda

The ageless Jane Fonda breaks our lives into three acts, and she focuses most of this book on Act III. Weaving her personal life stories with strong research and tips on aging, food, fitness, friendship, love, and sex, Fonda recommends that we each perform a life review--especially while our elders are still alive so we can interview them--to better understand where we've come from and where we're going.

I must confess that I finished this book several weeks ago and forget much about it, but I made a few notes. Here are some highlights that stood out for me:

  • The importance of education, no matter your age. For every added year of education, you'll add one year to your life expectancy, according to the Stanford Center on Longevity.
  • "Girls' voices go underground at adolescence, whereas boys' hearts go underground when they are around five or six years old." (Lest you are of the opinion that Jane Fonda is a man-hater, she addresses the very real challenges men face, as well as women.)
  • The importance of resilience, which can be even more important than what happens to you.
  • The concept of a fertile void: For women in midlife, the void is fertile because we are becoming midwives to our new selves.
  • An aging brain just works differently, not less effectively. As we age and lose our crystal-clear memory, it's actually "judicious pruning." Dr. George Vailliant, Director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, likens the aging memory to "an attic that has filled up carelessly over the decades but now, with age, we clean it out and select only the most cherished, meaningful items to keep."
  • Fonda's experience among the early feminists, making her realize the power and beauty of female friendship, while burning "away my individualistic dross and allowing the pure gold of friendships to enrich and cushion me...I often think how different, how frightening, aging would be for me had this not happened...I know that I can lose everything but that my friendships with women, together with my family, will always be there, no matter what." (Fonda talks at length about the value of her friendships, which resonated me.)
  • Women over 85 are the fastest growing age group in the world!
Fonda has two chapters focused on sex during aging, with some particularly interesting information! She also discusses spirituality and shares her experience of going on a meditation retreat, trying to quiet her mind.

In the end, a well-worth-it read on aging for women!