Category Archives: Book Notes

A Robert Louis Stevenson card from the Authors gameI learned of Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) when I was maybe 9 years old, courtesy of the go-fish card game Authors.  Stevenson’s doleful countenance on the cards made more of an impression on me than did the titles of his works, the most notable of which were Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Treasure Island.  Sadly, the game did not sway me to read his works or, for that matter, any work by any author in the card game’s 11-deity pantheon.*

I bring up Mr. Stevenson now because, recalling him from the Authors game, I decided the other day to look him up in Librivox, an archive of recorded written works in the public domain.  Something I often plug into to fall asleep.

How surprised I was then, as I dialed up Stevenson’s short story Markheim, to find myself captivated by his writing.  The man tells a gripping tale, imbued with a dramatic flair that almost makes the start and finish beside the point.  My follow-up Stevenson selection was The Sire de Maletroit’s Door, an allegory of choice, chance and fate.  This story felt a bit contrived but its telling was just as suspenseful and rich in detail.

I ultimately arrived at the Librivox doorstep of Kidnapped, a novel published by Stevenson in 1886.  The tale is ostensibly about David Balfour, a young and earnest Scotsman who, recently orphaned and seeking to secure his inheritance, is kidnapped by an unscrupulous seaman (aren’t they all!) hired by David’s miserly uncle to make David — and his claim to the family estate — disappear.

But the meat of the story is about David’s post-kidnap adventure and evolving relationship with Alan Breck Stewart, best described in modern terms as a Scot activist/militant.  David meets Alan thanks to a chance collision between his kidnapper’s brig and a smaller boat ferrying Stewart to an unnamed destination.  The collision hurls Stewart onto the bowsprit of the brig, from where he is brought on board and from whence the real action begins.

David and Alan’s relationship is often described as a bromance (Kidnapped was dismissed as a “boy’s story” in Stevenson’s time) but I could make the argument, without authority, that the tale is about the perils, turmoils and vulnerabilities of gay relationships of the era.  It certainly reads as more-than-a-friendship to my 21st-century eyes.

In fact, I speculate that the title Kidnapped refers not to David’s confinement on the brig — which comes to an abrupt end via shipwreck — but to the capture of his heart by Alan.  This becomes clear as David, navigating his way back home, struggles to resolve his love for the risky Alan vs. his instinct for self-survival, a conflict which Stevenson casts in ever-sharper contrast as the story hurtles forward.

You will have to read (or listen to) Kidnapped yourself to see if you see what I see.  But in any event, there is more to Robert Louis Stevenson than a card with a mournful face and the titles of some boy’s stories printed on it.  I’m glad I went fishing and discovered him.

Postface… or Perhaps Just Part II

Songwriters Card This got me to thinking that there should be a children’s card game called Songwriters which captures the artistic tastes of its generation (mine) and would be just as dated as Authors was when it was published.  For authenticity, the portraits of the songwriters would have to be just as formal and stiff as in the original game.

My own Songwriters deck would feature 13 of them, like a regular deck of cards.  Here they are, in alphabetical order, along with the songs that would appear on each set of four:

Chuck Berry: No Particular Place to Go, Maybellene, Johnny B. Goode, Sweet Little Sixteen.

David BowieSpace Oddity, All the Young Dudes, Young Americans, Changes.

Willie DixonSpoonful, Back Door Man, Hoochie Coochie Man, I Just Want to Make Love to You.

Bob Dylan: Blowin’ in the Wind, Tangled Up in Blue, Like a Rolling Stone, All Along the Watchtower.

George Harrison: While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Here Comes the Sun, Something, My Sweet Lord.

Eddie Holland: Heat Wave, Stop! In the Name of Love, You Keep Me Hangin’ On, Reach Out I’ll Be There.

Carole KingYou’ve Got a Friend, It’s Too Late, So Far Away, I Feel the Earth Move.

John Lennon: Help!, I Am The Walrus, Strawberry Fields Forever, Imagine.

Paul McCartney: Yesterday, Hey Jude, Blackbird, Maybe I’m Amazed.

Sarah McLachlanAdia, Angel, I Will Remember You, Possession.

Cole Porter: Anything Goes, Just One of Those Things, I Love Paris, Night and Day.

Carly Simon: That’s the Way I Always Heard It Should Be, Nobody Does It Better, Anticipation, You’re So Vain.

Paul Simon: The Sound of Silence, I Am a Rock, Mrs. Robinson, Bridge Over Troubled Water.

Brian WilsonGood Vibrations, Surf City, God Only Knows, In My Room.

Neil Young: Down by the River, Heart of Gold, Ohio, Southern Man.

Can someone please produce a set of these cards?  I am dying to ask a fellow player if they have a Hoochie Coochie Man in their hand.


* The Authors pantheon, for the record: Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, James Fenimore Cooper, Louisa May Alcott (the only woman), Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Washington Irving, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Alfred, Lord Tennyson.  I remember thinking that Lord was a weird middle name.
☰  Read 5 comments and add yours | Other posts in Book Notes, Life

One year ago this week, as it happens, my longtime friend Rob Simbeck had his fifth book, The Southern Wildlife Watcher, published by the University of South Carolina Press.  Five is a goodly number (his fellow Pennsylvanian, ecologist Rachel Carson, only wrote four) but his total count should rightfully include the six books Rob has ghostwritten as well as the eight he has edited.

It was my good fortune to attend college with Rob in the early 1970s.  I can’t recall how we met — we lived in different dorms, had different majors and never took a class together — but one of my earliest memories of our friendship was working with Rob on his psychology class project, “The Freud Game.”  As it turned out, we would spend much Id and Ego time together in our college years.*

I know three people who were English majors: my son, my spouse’s sister-in-law, and Rob. According to Data USA, most English majors become schoolteachers, magistrates, judges, lawyers or legal workers.  The number who make their living as writers or journalists (as I once hoped to be) is fairly small.  But Rob made that tough choice: he focused his talents, he honed his craft.  Rob dedicated himself to dedication.

I don’t review books per se but I won’t hesitate to recommend the ones I like.  As such, I happily endorse Rob’s latest, The Southern Wildlife Watcher, in spite of (or respecting) the fact that it took me months to finish reading it.  Which I must now explain.

In TSWW, Rob organized 36 nature essays, originally written for South Carolina Wildlife magazine, into sections titled Air, Land and Water.  There is a comforting retro feel to this schema, like those white-tablecloth restaurant menus which helpfully sorted  your food choices into “Surf and Turf” or “Farm, Fish and Fowl.”

Rob devotes equal time to each of these categories and to each of the species he writes about, giving the crusty Eastern Oyster (almost) the same love and respect as the pretty Monarch Butterfly.  If the essays in TSWW convey a common message, it would be Rob’s conviction that every lifeform plays an important, but often hidden, role on our planet.  Rob strives to reveal these hidden roles, which I found to be the strength of these essays.

You may ask, if this trove of five-minute essays was so compelling, why did it take me nine months to finish it?  The answer is simple: I read Rob’s book as comfort food; I harbored it for that purpose.  I would pick it up and read an essay or two when I felt the need for that certain kind of connection.  And for me, these essays were best enjoyed when read outside, on quiet mornings.

To dot the i and cross the t here, I must mention a couple of things I learned from TSSW that really surprised me.  First, smallmouth bass and largemouth bass are not bass at all, but belong to the sunfish family!  Second, bald eagles are not only hunters but scavengers, which gives them something in common with crows.  Third, earthworms are 82% protein, so no wonder birds love them.  (The other 18%, Rob doesn’t mention but we can imagine.)

Rob, I’m sorry it took a year for me to promote your book.  But I’m more sorry that there remains no more of it for me to read.  Here’s hoping we can get together again soon and talk about your upcoming adventures.


* Mostly Id.

☰  Read 3 comments and add yours | Other posts in Book Notes, Life

by Gavin Larsen

[This is a guest essay by friend-of-the-blog Gavin Larsen, who lives and teaches dance here in Asheville after an illustrious 18-year career in professional ballet.  I invited Gavin to share her “what it’s like to be me” story here at The 100 Billionth Person, and I extend the same invitation to my other subscribers.  Hope you enjoy. – CHC]

In the ballet world, we say, “Once a dancer, always a dancer,” and it’s true: no matter how defiantly we may turn our backs and try to walk away from the art and craft of dance, particularly ballet, we cannot rid our bodies of its imprint.  Ballet tattoos itself on our physicalities and embeds itself in our souls.

I was a professional ballet dancer for 18 years.  Before that, I trained for about ten.  And after I retired (“retired”) from my job as a performer, even then I couldn’t quit.  I kept taking technique classes and even performed a little bit, on smaller stages and in less technical choreography.

But slowly, I felt my mind and body loosening their grip on my fine-tuned, fiercely perfected technique.  I remember vividly the day I stopped wearing pointe shoes.  I was at the barre, warming up with a few relevés, when I found myself struggling to find my balance — I had to hold the barre a little too tightly for support.  Though a casual observer might have thought I was very much on top of my game, I felt like an amateur, not a former professional with decades of experience.

But appearances were not what mattered:  I cared about how this felt to ME.  And I knew my struggles would only get worse.  So, I decided this would be my last day on pointe.

I’d begun teaching dance long before I stopped performing — most dancers do — but being a full-time instructor presented a different challenge.  While I was a good teacher and the work was engaging, it didn’t leave me with the same sense of satisfaction at the end of the day.   For professionals, a day of dancing always follows the same pattern (class, rehearsal, performance) and leaves you feeling full.  Whether or not the day went well, whether you mastered the tricky choreography or not, at the very least you know you have given of yourself, physically and emotionally and intellectually, to something larger — to the dancers around you, to the art form, to yourself.  You go home with the satisfaction of having worked hard and well, and the fatigue in your bones is proof.

But I didn’t have that fulfillment anymore.  No matter how capably I demonstrated the exercises to my students or how exhaustively I worked on them in the studio, I felt I was losing my grip on the life I had led.  And I got scared that, with every passing day, my memories would fade and that the dancer part of myself — which was, really, all of myself — would be gone forever.  I needed it and clung to it.  And in a fit of desperation to preserve it, I began to write it down.

• • • • 

One day in 2011 or 2012, after I had transitioned from performing to teaching, I was passing through the lobby of the building that housed Oregon Ballet Theatre’s company and school.  One entire wall of the lobby was a window to the main studio space, offering everyone who entered the building a view of whatever dance activity was going on.  Company dancers and school students, warming up, taking class, rehearsing ballets or learning new choreography, all were on full display, as if life in the studio was also on stage.

That particular afternoon, company dancers were in rehearsal with artistic director Christopher Stowell for his ballet, The Rite of Spring.  Standing in the lobby watching them practice, memories of my own experience as a member of the cast a few years earlier came flooding back.  It was an unusual production in that the piece was largely en masse: almost the entire company appeared in it, but only a couple of us danced apart from what was literally a mass of bodies.

I had been a principal dancer then, accustomed to using my single voice, so being back in an ensemble was jolting at first.  But I soon relished the familiar comfort of being in the corps de ballet where I had started my career. The warmth of camaraderie, the different and energizing sense of “power in numbers” and the hilarity we shared to break the tension when the going got tough – all the familiar feelings of the days in my late teens and twenties when I was learning to be a professional dancer re-emerged.

My view through the lobby window that day — although just a brief snapshot — stirred up a strong, visceral reaction in me.  The dancers were working on a section that we had called, years before, the “human monolith.”  Christopher hadn’t given us any technical steps to execute — he simply told us to “ooze” our way into a tower of people.  One dancer would become the capstone at the top, supported by a few of the strongest men in the group.  The rest of us cascaded downwards from there in gradually smaller, flatter, muddier positions. The only directions we were given were that everyone, at all times, had to touch at least one other person— a hand or a foot or a neck or a torso — and that no one except the supporter-men could be upright.  And no ballet positions were allowed.  We were to embody humanity emerging from primordial slime.

Through the window, I watched those dancers work on “oozing” into the monolith and I immediately felt myself in there with them — as if I were outside my own body, watching myself in the past, yet physically present.  I felt I was reliving a dream.  Every physical and emotional feeling from my own days in The Rite of Spring came flooding back with such force that I almost thought I was late for rehearsal and needed to run into the studio to join them.

Seconds later, another emotion overcame the first one: the relief that I didn’t have to.

I was retired – I had no need to pull my body into shape and into a leotard, no need to be ready to do whatever moves a choreographer dreamt up.  But what I suddenly longed to do was relive those experiences, capture the essence of them, and find within them a thread of truth about what on earth this dancing life of mine had meant, how and why it had happened, and why had it happened to me?

I went home, opened my laptop, and began to write.  What came spilling out, in one sitting, would become Chapter 46 of the book that many more years of memory-capture ultimately delivered.

• • • • 

After that afternoon in the lobby, a flood of other snapshot memories cascaded down, so many and so varied that I feared losing them if I didn’t work fast enough.  I furiously wrote them down.  Some were a couple of pages, others a few paragraphs, or even less.  There were episodes, fragments of episodes, slivers of thoughts, reflections, images, conversations.  Eventually, feeling I needed some instruction in how to do what I was doing (always a dancer at heart, I wanted direction and correction), I signed up for a memoir-writing workshop, led by the marvelous Merridawn Duckler.

Each week, Merridawn gave us a title prompt and an assignment to write two pages about it.  (Five of her title prompts became chapters in my book.)  I distinctly remember how excited I felt to run to my computer to write about “The Fork in the Road” and “The Time I Taught Someone Something” and “My Scar.”

The workshop members shared their writings each week.  As nervous as I was to read my essays aloud to the group, it finally proved to me that my conviction was right: people — not just other dancers but real people — could be as fascinated by ballet as I was, if they were shown something a little below its surface.

• • • • 

Now, at last, I have found gratification again: my book, Being a Ballerina: The Power and Perfection of a Dancing Life, was published in April by the University of Florida Press and reviewed in May by the New York Times.

How does a dancer become a writer?  One would think these art forms could not be more different: the one is intensely physical, interconnected with and dependent upon other bodies and minds, and effervescent, disappearing forever the very next moment; while the other is completely stationary, solitary, and permanent.

But for me, the similarities that make expressing myself in words on a page as natural as using my body are strong.  I still don’t have to speak out loud, which emboldens me to be forthright, daring and fully revealing.  On stage, costume, characterization, choreography and the buffer of a proscenium stage gave me that fearlessness.  On stage, no one can stop you.  On the page, no one can, either.

Once a dancer, always a dancer.

[Gavin Larsen retired as a principal dancer in 2010.  Her final principal performance was in Balanchine’s “Duo Concertant,” music by Stravinsky.  For several more minutes of pleasure, I recommend you watch this video of Gavin’s movements and reflections.]

☰  Read 4 comments and add yours | Other posts in Book Notes, Life