Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

I was able to get the maid scheduled in this morning, and as she was vacuuming she informed me that my house is an ecosystem.   I really couldn’t argue with her, since the wolf spider that lives under the basket of pinecones had just stuck her head out to remind the vacuum operator that she still had squatter’s rights there.

I may have written about it elsewhere, but I believe that the boundary between inside and outside is very fluid, sort of transparent, blurry even.   Apparently it is blurrier than I think, since I found not just one or two, but several leaves scattered about the dining room as I ran the vacuum through the middle of that room on my way to the massage room.

“Hmm,” I thought to myself.   “I wonder how these got in here?”   I imagine them swirling in the door behind Ruby as she wags herself into the house, the vortex behind her waving tail carrying the dried leaves far into the house.   Or maybe they found the static electricity in my pants irresistible and hitchhiked in on me.   Or Jim.   ‘Tis a Mystery.

The dirt at the entry way is no mystery.   When it gets wet outside the soil around here reminds you of why it was the indigenous people discovered pottery.  You can stomp and scrape all you like, but there will still be clots of clay clinging to your heels and instep when you walk in the door and wipe them on the rug in the oh-so-appropriately named mud room.  Ah yes.  

Then, today I added to the chaos by making macaroons.   I emptied the dried coconut canister while putting together the first half of the batch.   So I went out to my oudside freezer and got out the big bag of dried coconut and brought it in the house to replenish my stock.    I managed to trip on the edge of the carpet as I was walking to the food room after filling up the canister.   I had chosen to save time by screwing the top on the jar as I walked towards the food room, so when I tripped on the carpet edge I was able to see the canister shoot forward out of my hands and land lip down in front of me.    Since I had not quite completed the lid-screwing operation when I tripped, the impact caused the lid to fly off as the canister neatly flipped end for end, leaving a pile of dried coconut as it did so, and landed open throat forward, spraying a cometary tail of coconut in front of and under my arm chair.    I grabbed the canister and scooped the coconut from the thick pile on the rug into it, carefully leaving the layer next to the carpet.   Then I rushed to the cupboard where I keep my vacuum cleaner, and dragged it into the living room. 

A startled awake Ruby sat up from her spot in front of the fire, fascinated by the sight of so much food-like substance scattered before her.   I ran through the catalog of foods I knew poisonous to dogs, and didn’t know about coconut.   “NO!”  I yelled at her urgently.    She sat back on her haunches, not believing that I was actually sane.     Then I confirmed her suspicions by turning on the vacuum.  

Both cats awoke.   Screaming, “AAAhhhhh!   The Suck Monster!”  they immediately left the room in high dudgeon.   Ruby let me know that the decibel level of the infernal machine was hurtful to her ears, and slinked into the kitchen.    She sat transfixed in the doorway, watching my inexplicable activities.   Once I got all the coconut vacuumed up, I did around the arm chairs and in front of the stove too.    God, this wood stove creates a lot of ashes.   Every time you clean the ashes out a new film of dust flies through the air on its way to covering everything in the house.    But I digress.

I have forgotten where I was going with this.   In addition to making the macaroons, I also made a batch of the peanut butter cups that my talented niece taught me to make during her visit here over the holidays.   It doesn’t get much better than this.  They contain only two ingredients:   Ground organic peanuts and 60% dark organic chocolate. 

I think there was going to be some sort of religious statement along here, about how you can’t control anything but yourself.   I try to follow only one rule, and that is to do to others what I would like to have done for me.    I try to pay my bills, and when I write a check there is money in my account.   I don’t always say the right thing, but I’m starting to learn that you can’t go far wrong just telling the truth.  

Or maybe you can.  It is one of the lessons I have learned from blogging.   Once your friends and family find out where you write, they come and read it.   They don’t always like what they see.   I guess some things are better left worked out in a private forum.   My dear sweet husband has taught me that you don’t ALWAYS have to tell everyone what you think of them.    It bears repeated viewings of the movie “Harvey”  to remind oneself that pleasant is recommended over smart.   

It is also important to remember that it is possible to be very upset with someone because of their actions at the same time as loving them as a human being.   I have been spending a lot of time meditating on unconditional love, and I study Ruby to get a good example of that.  

That reminds me that I finished reading the book our friend P gave us for Christmas.  “Merle’s Door” is the biography of a big golden dog who lives in Wyoming and loves to ski and hunt.   The sweet story is laced with good information about the history of the domestication of dogs and insights into dog/human relationships.    I found it a good read, and the ending was about a two hanky affair for me since the whole thing reminded me of the funeral of Cio-cio-san, the best and most beautiful calico Manx in the Universe. 

But now, my dear husband is home with his new tuxedo, which we have bought for our cruise so we can dine and dance in style.   He is almost prepared to model it for me.  


I’d better get busy sewing my skirt up!

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There, now doesn’t that sound like a cheery way to begin?  

Jim has been surfing the internet (who hasn’t?) and discovered a lovely and informative site.    If you ever  want to know what you might possibly want to celebrate on any particular date, head over to this site. 

By the way, this is Tick-Tock Day.   Well, isn’t this the day before the penultimate day of the year 2007 according to the modern Christian calendar?    If there was some stuff you thought you might get done this year, you better hop on it.   Time is running out.

I am reading a book called “Merle’s Door” which we received for Christmas from one of our best friends.   I fully intend to send this book on a further journey as soon as we are done reading it.   It is a biography of a dog, and full of snippets of research on dogs.  Beautiful, informative, touching, cathartic — I recommend it.

I took a break from the story to go out and check to see that the coldframes are open, since it is a bright sunny day.   They don’t need to be wide open, it is pretty chilly, but they do need to be able to breathe.   If we could afford the proper temperature powered lifters, we wouldn’t have to be here on the place to tend them.   As it is, the wonderfully functional coldframes we have were made using tempered glass designed for sliding glass doors.   They are way too heavy for the poor little hydraulic cylinders that automatically open commercially available coldframes. 

But the necessity of going outside made it possible for me to observe a little bit of  hawkish drama.   As I was standing there listening to the water running over the waterfall into the pond, I stood back to look at the big pine trees.   They are starting to recover from the stripping of their needle bearing branches last January.   We lost another branch a couple of weeks ago when we had that little accumulation of ice.   

I guess I didn’t talk about that, I was probably distracted by everything else that was going on.    I did take some pictures, however, and this is one of my favorite rocks draped in a veil of ice.   This is from December 10:

My mother’s 80th birthday party was a wonderful success.   Everyone was on their best behavior, and the dinner was fantastic.   We celebrated at a very fine restaurant up at Lake Ozark, Andre’s.  What a wonderful meal.

We started with salmon, lightly grilled with a sauce of mango and butter garnished with fresh cilantro.    That was paired with a very nice Pino grigio from Luna vineyards.    Very delicious.   The salad was perfect baby field greens dressed with a choice of various vinaigrettes.   I thought mine needed a touch of honey to balance the bite of the vinegar.   But my dinner companions shared tastes of their salads with me, and the other two dressings were superb.    High marks for the fresh bread too.   Our entree was perfectly grilled filets mignon filet mignons steaks accompanied by a baked potato and some asparagus spears.   The meat almost melted in your mouth, it was so tender.   I’m sure it couldn’t have been good for me, I thought I could feel my cholesterol rising as I ate it.    As far as I am concerned, once you have picked asparagus fresh from your garden, carried it in the house, rinsed it off, and immediately steamed it gently, no other asparagus will ever match up.    Sorry, Andre.  It was very good, but it wasn’t the best.   With that course we had a Kendall Jackson 2005 Cabernet sauvignon.   Very tasty. 

The birthday cake was truly amazing: hand crafted chocolate cake married with fresh strawberries and whipped cream.   With that we had a really tasty Eiswein.   After the cake was presented and served, they passed plates of beautiful pears, grapes and four kinds of cheese.   

We sang happy birthday to my mother, in four part harmony (as only befits a family of trained musicians.)  It was amazing, actually.   When we toasted her, someone started the “Champagne” song from “Die Fledermaus”, and we sang two choruses of that complete with Orlavski’s solo verse done perfectly by my older sister.    It’s probably a good thing nobody thought of Pooh-bah’s toast in “The Mikado” or we might still be in that room in the restaurant singing.   It was great, and after dinner when we were paying the enormous bill, the whole restaurant staff congratulated us on our singing.


Wow.   I just went back and read the beginning of this to see if I had any egregious spelling errors.   Have I ever gotten off on a tangent!  

I was in the middle of telling you what I saw when I was walking out to open the cold frames.   As I was surveying the pine trees, I noticed that the Cooper’s Hawk had landed on one of the bare branches about ten feet down from the top of the middle tree.   She (he?) was sitting perfectly still, perfectly mimicking a dried dead branch sticking up out of the bare, ice-wounded limb.  My eye passed over her once, and went back to her simply because I caught the shape of her hooked beak silhouetted against the sky.   

It made me catch my breath in delight.   Her feathers lifted a little in the breeze.   Still she sat, quiet.   There were finches on the feeder, oblivious to the presence of the raptor within pouncing distance.   I stood there and watched her for a while.    I noticed that Jim had already opened the cold frames, so I thought I’d go get my camera and see if I couldn’t catch the hawk on “film”.   As I hurried into the house, taking care not to slam the back door and startle all the birds in the yard, I wondered why she hadn’t already grabbed herself some breakfast from all the silly finches and sparrows chittering about the bird feeder where she usually preyed.

I exited the house with my camera in hand, located the hawk still sitting where I had left her, and had just started it through its wakeup sequence when what the hawk had been waiting for arrived on the scene.    One of the nice plump rock doves glided in under the poplar branches and the hawk pounced on her before I had a chance to lift the camera for a shot.   There was wild flapping and the dove escaped the talons sunk in its back, flipping the hawk off into a tangle of poplar twigs.   By the time the hawk had straightened her feathers the dove was off into the shrubs in the neighbor’s yard.   The hawk pursued her for a little way and then veered off angrily towards the bird feeder where the finches were still chirping in confusion and derision, and snatched one out of the air as she powered by.  The rest of the flock disappeared into thin air and the yard fell eerily quiet. 


I finished reading “Infidel”  by  Ayaan Hirsi Ali  a few days ago.   All I can say is, her words and the images they engender in me come up at most inopportune times.  Jim and I were making love, so tenderly and beautifully, shortly after I had read Ali’s matter of fact description of the excision of her genitals and sewing up of her vagina that was done to her when she was five or so.   In the midst of delicious passion, in the back of my mind the image of the marital rapes of Moslem women she described in her book arose unbidden:   disturbing, saddening.   I deliberatedly pushed them aside.  Later on, I mused about this juxtaposition of thoughts, and marveled at my ability to compartmentalize different trains of thought.   

I also thought about the several series of books there are out there about serial murderers, and how often the thought processes of the murderer are laid out for our “delectation” and horror.    Another way we are exposed to the objectification of women.   I have found myself reading novels aimed at a female audience, containing explicit descriptions of vicious sexual murders, tortures of women, written BY women, Best Selling Authoresses even.  I like a good murder mystery, but these books disturb me greatly. 

I celebrate my relationship with Jim, so tender and respectful and celebrating of the joy of partnership.    Oh, and we are very happy to relay the information that the surgery was a success, and healing appears to be sufficient that all systems are go.   Yum yum. . . .

“For, he’s going to marry Yum-yum! (Yum-yum!)/Your anger pray bury for all will be merry, I think you had better succumb (cumb-cumb), and join our expressions of Glee!”

And so I leave you, to imagine the group of 8 people, sitting around a beautiful table in a restaurant, laughing merrily and singing loudly, enjoying delicious food and celebrating the woman who had reached 80 that day.   It was good, very good.

Talk to you later.

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I live in a country that wallows almost obscenely in abundance.  

One of our biggest health care crises is the epidemic rise of adult onset diabetes, which is largely caused by eating too much of the wrong foods and not getting enough exercise.  In our news lately, we have been horrified to discover that cheap plastic toys imported from China are contaminated with lead.  We don’t apparently care about the phalates, or our trade balance; just the lead based paints.

We are in the middle of a housing/lending crisis caused by greedy people greedily buying large luxurious homes that are far more expensive than they could afford and then having reality check their fantasy of being filthy rich and suffering foreclosure.   No one involved in or discussing this “crisis” is mentioning or even questioning why a two person family requires more than 2500 square feet of living space. 

The world is facing a crisis of epic proportions.  Global warming is going on at an unprecedented and unpredicted rate, the price of fuel is at record levels and unlikely to drop, and yet still people feel free to drive vehicles that get 14 miles per gallon.  Even worse, they drive these vehicles the 3 or 4 miles it takes them to get to work, and then complain that they can’t lose weight, and then pay $25 or $30 a month for a gym membership so they can work out, driving their gas-guzzling behemoth there in an added ironical act.  None of these people seem to realize they could buy a nice bicycle and achieve the same purpose, and for a whale of a lot less money. 

On the political front, we are engaged in a war on terror with the Islamist hordes, a term I use because it shows up in the news and which I admit I am not exactly sure what it defines.   We are characterized by them as The Great Satan, they are routinely depicted in our news as crazed religious fanatics.   Our country is busy spending billions of dollars prosecuting a war in the Middle East at the same time that we cannot find the money to provide health care to our people.  

Down in Springfield, a large city nearby here, there is a group of people who are suing the school district.   They are not suing because their children are graduating functionally illiterate.   They are not suing because the school system is suffering from a record number of drop-outs and teen pregnancies.   Oh no.   The issue that is so important that they are planning to consume several hundred thousand dollars of the school district’s monetary resources defending the suit is that their poor daughters are forced to play softball on public ball fields, the schools do not provide them on campus softball fields!  The boys have baseball fields and it just isn’t fair! 

This opening polemic brings me to the subject of a book I just read:   “Three Cups of Tea”  by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Read.  Personally, I believe every person in America should read this book.   It is that important.

Greg Mortenson was a climbing bum.   He worked as a Registered Nurse and saved money by living in his car so that he could go off and climb mountains.   His passion finally resulted in his being invited to become a member of a party attempting to climb K2, the second tallest mountain in the world.   The attempt on K2 was not a success, at least not in terms of actually reaching the summit.

In the aftermath of the attempt, Mortenson became friends with the residents of the village of Korphe, a tiny, primitive community high on the flanks of the Karakoram mountain range.  There, people lived in stone houses, where they cooked over yak dung fires which also heated their homes.   They ate what they could grow in the fields that were carved into the side of the mountains, augmented by meat from ibex which they hunted with ancient black powder muskets left over from the British occupation of India.  There was no electricity, no running water.  People walked wherever they were going, even if that was 15 miles down the mountain to the next town.  There was no medical care.   The village school . . . 

“Mortenson told Haji Ali he wanted to visit Korphe’s school.  Mortenson saw a cloud pass across the old man’s craggy face, but persisited.   Finally, the headman agreed to take Morteson first thing the following morning.

After their familiar breakfast of chapattis and cha, Haji Ali led Mortenson up a steep path to a vast open ledge eight hundred feet above the Braldu (River).   The view was exquisite, with the ice giants of the upper Baltoro razored into the blue far above Korphe’s gray rock walls.   But Mortenson wasn’t admiring the scenery.  He was appalled to see eighty-two children, seventy-eight boys, and the four girls who had the pluck to join them, kneeling on the frosty ground in the open.   Haji Ali, avoiding Mortenson’s eyes, said the village had no school, and the Pakistani government didn’t provide a teacher.  A teacher cost the equivalent of one dollar a day, he explained, which was more than the village could afford.   So they shared a teacher with the neighboring village of Munjung, and he taught in Korphe three days a week.  The rest of the time the children were left alone to practice the lessons he left behind. . .

. . . the children sat in a neat circle and began copying their multiplication tables.   Most scratched in the dirt with sticks they’d brought for that purpose.  The more fortunate, like Jahan (Haji Ali’s daughter), had slate boads they wrote on with sticks dipped in a mixture of mud and water.  “Can you imagine a fourth grade class in America, alone, without a teacher, sitting there quietly and working on their lessons?”  Mortenson asks.   “I felt like my heart was being torn out.   There was a fierceness in their desire to learn, despite how mightily everything was stacked against them, that reminded me of Christa (his dead little sister).  I knew I had to do something.”

What Mortenson did is chronicled in the pages of this book.   He went back to the United States, burning with the promise he had made to Haji Ali: 

“I’m going to build you a school” he said, not yet realizing that with those words,the path of his life had just detoured down another trail, a route far more serpentine and arduous than the wrong turns he’d taken since retreating from K2.   “I will build a school,” Mortenson said.  “I promise.”

The story of how he accomplishes this feat is inspiring.   He worked persistently, in the face of two fatwas initiated by village mullahs, in competition with the madrassa schools teaching jihad that are funded by money from Saudi Arabia, in the face of indifference back in the United States.   Mortenson eventually founded the Central Asian Institute, and so far they have built over 50 schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, schools which teach girls as well as boys, schools that teach the basics of education: reading, writing, mathematics, history. 

I believe that when we run to our convenient fast food outlet and decide to spend a dollar adding fries to our order we need to think about the fact that in Pakistan it costs one dollar to pay a teacher for a day.   I believe that when we look at our cars and decide we need a $30,000 Suburban rather than a $10,000 Kia, we should be aware that it costs only $12,000 to build a five room school in Pakistan.    

I will close this review with the words of Brigadier General Bashir Baz of Pakistan.  This conversation took place in 2003 in Rawalpindi during a meeting Mortenson had with him:

Bashir paused to watch a live CNN feed from Baghdad.  Staring at a small video window inset into the flight manifests scrolling down his monitor, Bashir was struck silent by the images of wailing Iraqi women carrying children’s bodies out of the rubble of a bombed building.

As he studied the screen, Bashir’s bullish shoulders slumped.   “People like me are America’s best friends in the region,” Bashir said at last, shaking his head ruefully.  “I’m a moderate Muslim, an educated man.   But watching this, even I could become a jihadi.   How can Americans say they are making themselves safer?”  Bashir asked, struggling not to direct his anger toward the large American target on the other side of his desk.  “Your President Bush has done a wonderful job of uniting one billion Muslims against America for the next two hundred years.”

“Osama had something to do with it, too,”  Mortenson said.

“Osama, baah!”  Bashir roared.   “Osama is not a product of Pakistan or Afghanistan.  He is a creation of America.  Thanks to America, Osama is in every home.   As a military man, I know you can never fight and win against someone who can shoot at you once and then run off and hide while you have to remain eternally on guard.   You have to attack the source of your enemy’s strength.  In America’s case, that’s not Osama or Saddam or anyone else.   The enemy is ignorance.   The only way to defeat it is to build relationships with these people, to draw them into the modern world with education and business.  (emphasis added by reviewer)  Otherwse the fight will go on forever.”

Read this book.   Visit www.threecupsoftea.com  for more information.   If you purchase books online, go through this website and 7 percent of all your book purchases will go toward a girl’s education scholarship fund in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Read this book.

Read this book.


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Big Bad Johnny P left a comment on my previous post regarding my garden remodel project, asking me what exactly a stroll garden is.   There are two answers to this question, one which is very short and not very informative, the other rather long and involved.  

The short answer is a stroll garden is a garden which is designed to stroll through.   “Ha ha,” you say sarcastically,  “All gardens are designed to stroll through.  What makes this garden different from any other?”

A good answer to this question requires a short stroll through garden history.  I am not trying to set myself up as an expert here, so please forgive me if I make errors in the following discussion.

First of all, one has to believe that the formal garden does not appear in any culture before that culture has progressed to the point where there is a leisure class being supported in rather luxurious style.   As long as the focus of the tribe or village is on the survival of its members, there is no time or energy left over for creating or maintaining formal gardens.    You have to feed the people first.   Until you can do that, your focus on ornamental agriculture must necessarily be very fuzzy.

It appears that the first truly formal gardens appeared in China, and they came in two sorts.   One was for the pleasure and diversion of the rulers and rich, the other was for the elevation of the spirit.   Both incorporated elements designed to provide serenity and the opportunity for meditation.

Apparently, when the Japanese began to interact with the Chinese, they brought this idea home and began constructing their own versions of these gardens.   The first gardens were apparently associated with monasteries, and were intended to provide religious experience as well as a place for the deities to reside.  There is a very good article on the history of Japanese Gardens here which I am not going to quote.   It goes into quite a lot of detail and people who are interested will find it an interesting read.

These first gardens in Japan were quite large, and incorporated bodies of water.   They were designed to walk through, to provide vistas where the participant could sit and meditate.   Many of these vistas were designed to portray sacred sites, or to evoke a famous view.  Gardens in Japan were an important part of spiritual life, and as the population grew and space became a premium, the art of the Japanese garden evolved to create this serene spiritual experience in a very small space.   

Most of us think of the “Japanese Zen garden” as a place where there are rocks and gravel arranged artistically, and a minimum of plants.   Actually, there is a special name for this sort of garden, karesansui, and it is our Western idea that has attached “Zen” to it.   This probably happened because our first experiences of this sort of rock garden were with gardens that were attached to Zen monasteries.  

Anyway, the Japanese developed two sorts of gardens, the type that was designed to sit and look at and meditate, and the kind that was designed to walk through.   There is an amazing Japanese garden near the Kauffman Conservatory in St. Paul, Minnesota, The Ordway Memorial Garden, which is an extremely good example of the Japanese stroll garden.   The amazing thing about this garden is the way the paths through it are hidden from view when you look across the garden.   You stand at one side of the pond, and look across to see a “mountain view” in miniature, and never see the path through it unless there happen to be people walking there.   Similarly,when you look back from the “mountain” when you get there, you do not see the path you were on previously.

This sort of garden was a revelation to the Europeans when they arrived in the Orient and started trading there.   The Western mind had already conceived of the formal garden, but most of them were designed to be viewed from above, or to create a long vista.   I’m not sure exactly how it all evolved, because my overview of history is a little misty, but somewhere along there the English began to think about gardens as a place to walk through, where there are “rooms” in the garden that incorporate different feelings and styles.  

Rather than having a “destination” (such as a fountain or pond) which you could see in the distance, which had a clear path going to it, this “new” sort of garden incorporated the idea of hidden elements  within it.   You stroll along a winding path, through a garden that is artfully designed to conceal surprises.   You come around a turn in the path and discover a small arbor or bench, set so as to give you a view of some feature.  Or perhaps as you stroll you start to hear the intriguing murmur of water, and eventually you round a turn and find a small pond with a trickling water fall.   All these things were concealed from you when you entered the paths winding through the garden.

I believe this sort of combination of vistas and hidden paths, or paths with hidden surprises, is what constitutes the big difference between a “stroll garden” and the ordinary garden where you walk around and look at plantings.   The “surprise”, a garden visually divided into rooms or sectors, a view across to a space that seems distant because of the perspective and placement of rocks and trees, all these are elements of a stroll garden.  

The garden that we are constructing will contain surprises once the plantings are grown.   Eventually, when you enter the path at the opening by the bird feeder, the existence of the little seat/arbor will not be evident until you actually turn the corner and are there. The Japanese style karesansui garden will be designed to be a “view”, accessible and beautiful from several angles — not the least is the view of it from the bathroom window which overlooks it.

Now, I am afraid that in trying to define this term I may have made it even more obscure.  If so, please forgive me.

Finally, last but not least, I recommend a book entitled “The River Garden of Pure Repose” by Grace M. Boynton.   This rather insipid romance written in 1952 has as its main character an amazing garden in China.   It is worth reading simply because of that.  It is likely to inspire the dedicated gardener to create something amazing.   It has engendered in Jim and me a desire for a river to divert and the need for several hundred coolies.

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I decided to read “The Crow Road” by Iain Banks because when I was interviewed by Aphra Behn, she mentioned she thought I would enjoy it.  I put a request for it on Bookmooch, and for a wonder it was available.   It came to me all the way from Australia, which pleased my sense of irony.  The scene in the book that made Aphra think of me was one where the main protagonist Prentice and his friend Ashley visit a place that is special to her:

Ash bent down, and I saw one pale hand at first stroke the grass, and then dig down, delving into the soil itself.  She squatted like that for a moment, then pulled her hand free, rose, brushing earth from her long white fingers.

‘This is the Ballast-Mound, the World-Hill, Prentice,’ she said, and I could just make out her small thin smile by the light of the gibbous moon.  ‘When the ships came here, from all over the world, for whatever it was they were shipping from here at the time, they would sometimes arrive unladen, just ballast in them; you know?’

She looked at me.  I nodded. ‘Ballast; yeah, I know what ballast is; stops ships doing a Herald of Free Enterprise.’ 

‘Just rocks, picked up from wherever the ship last set sail from,’ Ash said, looking to the west again.  ‘But when it got here they didn’t need it, so they dumped it –‘

‘Here?’ I breathed, looking at the modest mound with new respect.  ‘Always here?’

‘That’s what my grampa told me, when I was a bairn,’ Ash said.  ‘He used to work in the docks.  Rolling barrels, catching slings, loading sacks and crates in the holds; drove a crane, later.’ (Ashley pronounced the word ‘cran’, in the appropriate Clyde-side manner.)  I stood amazed; I wasn’t supposed to be getting ashamed at my lack of historical knowledge until Monday, back at Uni.

‘”Hen,” he’d say, “Ther’s aw ra wurld unner yon tarp a grass.”‘

I watched from one side as Ashley smiled, remembering.  ‘I never forgot that; I’d come out here by myself when I was a kid, just to sit here and think I was sitting on rocks that had once been a bit of China, or Brazil, or Australia, or America. . .’

Ash squatted down, resting on her heels, but I was whispering, ‘. . .or India,’ to myself just then, and for one long swim-headed instant my veins seemed to run with ocean-blood, dark and carrying as the black water sucking at the edges of the tumbledown wharf beneath us.   I thought, God, how we are connected to the world!, and suddenly found myself thinking about Uncle Rory again; our family connection to the rest of the globe, our wanderer on the planet.  I stared up at the broken face of the moon, dizzy with wonder and a hunger to know.

That is just a taste of the beautiful writing and characterization to be found in this book.  One of the salient points of Iain Banks writing is his way of weaving the story and plot by means of flashbacks.   At first this bothered me, it seemed contrived and was difficult to follow.   Perhaps I have become a lazy reader, just wanting entertainment without intellectual effort.  Then one day I was driving somewhere, and something I saw reminded me of an event long ago in my past.   Thinking about that event led me to reminisce about an old friend I hadn’t seen for a long time, that led to another thought –and then suddenly I was snapped back to the present by another driver cutting me off.   That moment made me realize that all the changes of time and place in this book made sense.  It is the way our minds work all the time.  So I forgave the author for forcing me to pay such close attention.

The story is that of a quest to solve a mysterious disappearance.   But there is more.  Prentice needs to find his purpose.   He is embroiled in a disastrous fight with his father, an avowed atheist, because Prentice has cast off the light of reason and embraced religious faith.  Prentice suffers the agonies of a crush; how he survives the inevitable humiliation of being “dumped” (I use this term advisedly since he never was actually “with” the object of his affections) and finds his true love is twisted and woven in with his search for the truth of what became of his Uncle Rory.   And in the midst of it all other family events become clear as well. 

This is a tale well worth reading.   It made me think hard about subjects I had taken for granted I “knew” where I stood on.  It has been a long time since I read slower and slower the closer I got to the end of a book, not wanting it to end.   And when I finished it, I turned it over and began it again.

Highly recommended. 

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