1100 Mile Challenge Report

Dear readers:  A year ago, I was inspired by Cheryl Strayed’s long hike and pledged to bike 1000 miles and hike 100 miles in 2015.

I succeeded in biking 1000 miles without too much difficulty, mostly on local (Minnesota) country roads and bike paths.  It was a fun experience for the most part.  (It helped that we had a really nice summer–not too hot or humid for once.)

I ditched the hiking challenge, though.  (After getting physical therapy for my knee, my PT wanted me to do some jogging just to see if I could.  My knee was fine, so I decided to focus on combining walking/jogging rather than hiking.)

Here are a few snapshots from some of my rides.

Do you have any challenges for 2016?

Clarice Lispector, “Near to the Wild Heart”

Clarice Lispector

My South American selection for my Around the World Reading Challenge is Clarice Lispector’s 1943 novel Near to the Wild Heart.  (It was originally written in Portuguese and entitled Perto do Coracao Selvagem.)  Clarice Lispector has been hailed by critics as “something exceptional” and possessed of a “bewildering verbal richness,” and her style has much in common with famous modernists such as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce.

Near to the Wild Heart was written when Lispector was only 23 years old.  The novel caused a sensation when it published because it was so different from anything Brazilians were accustomed to reading. The novel attempts to convey the inner life of a young woman named Joana, from her childhood until her early adulthood.

Lispector’s style is striking.  There is very little plot to speak of.  Instead, we are presented with snippets of Joanna’s impressions of the world.  Sometimes her thoughts are beautifully imagistic, as when she confronts her grief from her father’s death by staring at the sea.

“She climbed down from the rocks, walked weakly across the solitary beach until she received the water at her feet.  Squatting, her legs wobbly, she drank a little sea.  She rested there like that.  Sometimes she half-closed her eyes, right at sea level and swayed, so sharp was the sight—just the long green line, uniting he eyes with the water infinitely.  The sun burst through the clouds and the little sparkles scintillating on the waters were tiny fires flaring up and dying out.  The sea, beyond its waves, looked at her from affair, quiet, with no crying no bosom.  Big, big. Big, she smiled.  And suddenly, just like that, unexpectedly, she felt something strong inside her, a funny thing that made her shake a little.” (32)

At other times, though, her thoughts tend towards the abstract; at times the novel reads almost like philosophy or aesthetic theory.

“Music was of the same category as thought, both vibrated in the same movement and kind.  Of the same quality as a thought so intimate that when heard, it revealed itself.  As a thought so intimate that when she heard someone repeat the slightest nuances of its sounds, Joana was surprised at how she had been invaded and scattered.  She didn’t feel its harmony any more when it became popular—then it was no longer hers.  . . . Joana didn’t identify profoundly with all sounds.  Only with the pure ones, where what she loved was neither tragic nor comic.” (37)

I think that ultimately Near to the Wild Heart is about what it means to be human—or perhaps, even more basic, what it means to be alive.  Joana desires to feel fully alive, fully vital, which, I think for her means to reduce the distance between her core being and her thoughts, which seem to be an impediment to true life.  When her teacher asks her what is good and what is bad, Joana replies, “Good is living….Bad is not living” (43).  When she says “not living,” she does not mean death; she means not being fully alive, being deadened to existence.

Because Joana’s views of good and bad are unconventional, she has a tendency to alienate the people around her.  When she is still under the guardianship of her aunt, for example, she steals something, just because she can.  Her aunt is horrified at the theft, but also at Joana’s strangeness.  She calls her a “viper” and sends her away to boarding school because she finds her company unsettling.

Although Joana’s life is far from conventionally happy, she does seem to find satisfactions of a sort.  By the end of the novel, she feels something rising in her, something that feels like the life force she so cherishes.  What she wants most is that,

“the long gestation of her childhood would end and from her painful immaturity her own being would  burst forth, free at last, at last! . . . And one day it will come, yes, one day the capacity as red and affirmative as it is clear and soft will come in me. . . a day will come on which all my movement will be creation, birth, I will break all the noes that exist in me, I will prove to myself that there is nothing to fear, that everything I am will always be where there is a woman with my beginning, I will build inside me what I am one day, with one gesture of mine my waves will rise up powerful, pure water drowning doubt….” (158)

And one day she will “rise as strong and beautiful as a young horse” (158).

Near to the Wild Heart is undoubtedly an unusual book, one that is fascinating in its own way.  However, although I am a big fan of literary modernism, I cannot say that I loved this book.  I’m not sure whether or not I want to read another work by Lispector.  For me, at least, there is a coldness to Lispector’s explorations of her character’s inner life that leaves me…well, cold.  Perhaps this is because Lispector seems more interested in what it means to be alive than what it means to be human.   Joana’s goal, after all, is to be as vital as a horse.   I guess I am like Joana’s aunt in that I find the character off-putting and not somebody I want to spend a lot of time probing.

With this post, I have now completed my own 2015 Around the World Reading Challenge, with three days to spare.  Yay, me!

“The Secret River,” Kate Grenville

“He might as well have swung at the end of the rope they had measured for him. This was a place, like death, from which men did not return.”

My Australian reading selection for my Around the World Reading Challenge was a real treat:  Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, first published in 2006.


The subject of The Secret River is Australia’s colonial past as a dumping ground for English convicts.  William Thornhill, the main character, is transported to New South Wales in 1806 as his punishment for theft.  Originally, he was sentenced to hang, but he was granted a reprieve and sent to New South Wales for life instead, along with his wife and children.

In 1806, New South Wales is still not much more than a howling wilderness for someone used to the teeming streets of London.  Grenville begins the novel with Thornhill’s first impression of his new home, and his sense of isolation is palpable:

“Now, standing in the great sighing lung of this other place and feeling the dirt chill under his feet, he knew that life was gone.  He might as well have swung at the end of the rope they had measured for him.  This was a place, like death, from which men did not return.  It was a sharp stab like a splinter under a nail: the pain of loss.  He would die here under these alien stars, his bones rot in this cold earth.” (11)

I found this beginning captivating and could not help but read on.  I was not disappointed.  One of Grenville’s gifts as a writer is her ability to recreate times and places in vivid detail.  After the opening chapter in New South Wales, Grenville takes us back to Thornhill’s childhood in the slums of London.  William grew up poor—so poor that he was cold and hungry all the time.  Grenville gives Dickens a run for his money in her ability to recreate the stink and squalor of London.  Not surprisingly, Thornhill turns to thievery as a way to make a living.  Eventually he gets caught, which gets him sent to Australia.

Thornhill’s initial despair at finding himself in such desolate surroundings begins to shift.  He realizes that in this new country, he could escape the taint of class and become someone new—a landowner, one of the gentry.  He sets his sights on a piece of land that seems to promise him this new life and claims it for his own.  He moves his wife and brood of children to this unprotected space with high hopes.

As it turn out, however, this land is far from vacant: aboriginal people have been living there for thousands of years, and they have no intention of moving.  This tension between English settlers and the aboriginal peoples forms the basis for the rest of the narrative.

I highly recommend this book, which was based on the life of one of Grenville’s ancestors.  Grenville is a superb writer who makes history come alive. The characters are complex and realistic, and her portrayal of class and racial tensions is astute.

Her novel makes me want to read more literature from Australia and New Zealand.  Can anyone recommend others to me?

Live from America! “Star Wars”


(For information about the origin of the series “Live From America,” click here).

Dear Advanced Life Forms of the Future (Alf):

I would be remiss in my duties as American Reporter if I did not comment on cultural events as well as politics.  After all, millions of Americans completely ignore politics and foreign policy, but nobody is unaware of the recent movie release of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”  It came out at the end of last week and grossed more in opening weekend sales than any movie ever: $517 million in worldwide sales, with $238 million in the United States alone, according to the New York Times.

What is it about this movie—and the whole “Star Wars” series in general—that makes it so popular?  Honestly, I don’t get it.  But then, there are so many things I don’t understand, such as quantum physics, the popularity of tattoos, and why Ben Carson thinks he is qualified to be POTUS.

Just between you and me, Alf, I have only actually seen the first “Star Wars” movie, the one that came out in 1977.  I found it enjoyable enough, especially the android characters R2D2 and 3CPO and their bantering, bickering relationship.  When it came to the battle scenes, though, which I guess is the main attraction, I became bored.  Shoot-em-up chase scenes have never done much for me, whether they take place on earth or in space.

Overall, watching “Star Wars” passed the time pleasantly enough, but I wasn’t drooling with anticipation to see any more episodes.  In that way, I am apparently different from approximately 95% of the other humans on this planet.

In order to better understand the phenomenon that is “Star Wars,” I decided to interview an expert witness, “Star Wars” fanatic Mandolyn Manhattan.  On her Facebook page last week, she posted this status update.


GUESS WHAT COMES OUT TODAY YOU GUYS grin emoticon grin emoticon grin emoticon

Because of my advanced critical reading skills, I was able to detect from this post that she kind of liked this movie series.  So I asked Mandy to explain to me what makes “Star Wars” so appealing to so many people.

She responded, “I think the thing that makes “Star Wars” important is how it makes people feel.  “Star Wars” speaks to people of a better way of life.  Everyone knows how to speak other languages, fly a ship through space, fix things, or fight with a laser sword.  Everyone has these incredible skill sets and banks of knowledge!”

Mandy makes a good point: these characters are quite advanced in knowledge and skills.  Now that I think about it, they are also quite sophisticated in their dealings with creatures from other planets.  Where I live, there are plenty of suburban white folks who are afraid to go to downtown Minneapolis because there are black people there (no joke).  In “Star Wars,” people don’t bat an eye at the myriad life forms they run into—unless those life forms have turned to the Dark Side, like Darth Vader, and are trying to destroy them, of course.

Mandy also observes that in “Star Wars,” “morality seems simpler: you either hurt people or you help them.”  This is a key point, I think.  “Star Wars” depicts an epic struggle, one in which the Bad Guys (Darth Vader and the Evil Empire) are clearly Bad and the Good Guys are clearly Good.  Good vs. Evil fight it out, but in the end, Good triumphs over Evil.  What’s not to like about that?

While I understand this is an appealing narrative, its simplicity also explains why I am not an enthusiastic devotee of this series.  In real life, the conflict between Good vs. Evil is never that simple. In the original “Star Wars” movie that I saw, the fight was against the Death Star and its inhabitants.  All of the inhabitants, as far as we could tell were evil men clad in Stormtrooper armor.  We could not even see their faces, much less understand the characters as individuals with unique personalities and life histories.  Did they have mothers, fathers, wives, children who loved them and depended on them?  We don’t know and we don’t care.  Stormtroopers are just symbolic embodiments of the Bad.

In real life, bombing other countries leads to the destruction of some Bad Men, but also to the killing of Good Men, Fair-to-Middling Men, and Women, Children, Grandmas and Grandpas of all stripes.  It also leads to hatred of us and the cancerous growth of more Bad Men. But this is pretty complicated and not that much fun to think about.

That’s why people flock to “Star Wars.”  I think I get it now.

Changing Seasons Photo Challenge: December

Last January, I joined in Cardinal Guzman’s “The Changing Seasons” monthly photo challenge.  The goal is to choose one place near one’s home and take monthly photos to document the changing seasons.

I chose to focus on Murphy Hanrehan Park, which is near my home in Minnesota.  Alas, I neglected my blog for most of the  year, so I did not fully complete the challenge.  I did want to post my December photos, though, to round out the year. It is a dreary time year, especially since we have almost no snow on the ground.

My January entry to this challenge is here.  March is here, and May is here.

Back to the Classics Reading Challenge

Book Shelf


Karen at Books and Chocolate is hosting a Back to the Classics reading challenge for 2016.  Participants pledge to read 12 classic books throughout the year, following these guidelines:

1.  A 19th Century Classic – any book published between 1800 and 1899.

2.  A 20th Century Classic – any book published between 1900 and 1966.Just like last year, all books MUST have been published at least 50 years ago to qualify. The only exception is books written at least 50 years ago, but published later.

3.  A classic by a woman author.

4.  A classic in translation.  Any book originally written published in a language other than your native language. Feel free to read the book in your language or the original language.

5.  A classic by a non-white author. Can be African-American, Asian, Latino, Native American, etc.

6.  An adventure classic – can be fiction or non-fiction.

7.  A fantasy, science fiction, or dystopian classic. Dystopian could include classics like 1984.

8.  A classic detective novel. It must include a detective, amateur or professional. This list of books from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction is a great starting point if you’re looking for ideas.

9.  A classic which includes the name of a place in the title.  It can be the name of a house, a town, a street, etc. Examples include Bleak House, Main Street, The Belly of Paris, or The Vicar of Wakefield.

10. A classic which has been banned or censored. If possible, please mention why this book was banned or censored in your review.

11. Re-read a classic you read in school (high school or college).  If it’s a book you loved, does it stand the test of time?  If it’s a book you disliked, is it any better a second time around?

12. A volume of classic short stories. This must be one complete volume, at least 8 short stories. It can be an anthology of stories by different authors, or all the stories can be by a single author. Children’s stories are acceptable in this category only.

I hereby pledge to join this challenge.  I do not have a list of which books I will read, but I think I will read in the order of the list.  (I do not remember if that is part of the rules.)

Who else is in?

Live from America! Bombing Agrabah

Many people reacted to the results of this poll with derision. They think it is silly to bomb places that do not exist. I, however, think it is actually a brilliant idea.


(For an explanation of the Live from America! series, click here.)

Earth Date 12/19/2015

Dear Advanced Life Form (ALF):

Greetings! I hope you are doing well.   College students around the country are dropping into exhausted heaps of inert student masses as they finish their semesters.  I am a college professor, and like my colleagues around the country, I will dropping into an exhausted heap of inert professor mass as soon as I finish my pile of grading.

But first, I want to file my report to you on the state of America.  A recent poll can, I think, illuminate the nature of my people and the times in which we live. A sample of Americans was asked if they were in favor of an American campaign to bomb the country of Agrabah.  30% of Republicans polled said “yes.” After all, Agrabah must be an Arab, Muslim country, and we know that all of Those People are terrorists, so we might as well bomb them off the map, right?

The problem is, Agrabah does not exist.  It is the name of a fictional country taken from the Disney film Aladdin.  Oops.

Oh, well.  Everybody knows that knowledge of geography isn’t our strong suit here in America.  That’s OK, though, we make up for our ignorance with high self-esteem and lots and lots of guns.

Many people reacted to the results of this poll with derision.  They think it is silly to bomb places that do not exist.   I, however, think it is actually a brilliant idea.  Bombing real places with real people in them has a number of drawbacks:  it is costly, it is messy, and the people being bombed tend to form negative attitudes towards the bombers and then become terrorists.

Bombing non-existent places, though, has none of these drawbacks.  It is cheap, clean, and much less irritating to the people on the ground.  Bombers can get their jollies by pretending to destroy entire civilizations without spending trillions of tax dollars! We could use the saved dollars on other things, like mandatory geography education.

Why didn’t we think of this earlier?  Maybe I should run for president.

That’s all for now, ALF.  Take care.

–Dotty Olbatt





Travel Theme: Naughty or Nice?

Burro Beggar

Ailsa at Where’s My Backpack hosts a weekly travel photography theme.  This week’s theme is Naughty or Nice? 

My submission for the Naughty or Nice theme is this picture I took of a begging burro at Custer State Park last summer.  Technically, he (or she?) is being naughty by stopping a car on the road through the park, sticking his head in the window and begging for food.  But the burro was so cute that we couldn’t help but like the guy.  (Unfortunately, we didn’t have any food on us.)

I’m going to say this dude was NICE, even though he was part of a larger gang of feral burros who made their living by holding up every car that passed, just like the feared bandits of olden tymes.

Burro gang

Tipping My Hat to Sarah Waters

Sarah Waters. Photograph: Murdo Macleod Murdo Macleod/Murdo Macleod
Sarah Waters. Photograph: Murdo Macleod Murdo Macleod/Murdo Macleod

Sometimes I go through periods when I can’t find anything to read in my leisure time that is really captivating. That happened to me a few weeks ago.  Nothing seemed to “click.”  Desperate for something to grab my attention, I even turned to a best-selling thriller with no literary merit whatsoever. This thriller was appalling in its lazy, clichéd writing style and the way it wallowed in violence against women, seemingly because it sells books.  I regret reading it, but that’s what literary desperation will do to you.

Then Sarah Waters came in to my life and I was saved!  Waters is a Welsh writer well-known for her novels set in Victorian England and featuring lesbian protagonist, such as Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet.  I had never read her before, but after reading The Paying Guests and The Night Watch, I plan to read all of her works.

Paying Guests

The Paying Guests is about a young woman named Frances who lives in genteel poverty with her mother in post-World War I London.  I often associate the 1920s with a frenzied atmosphere of parties and pleasure-seeking—the so-called “Jazz Age.”  However, the tone is quite different in Waters’ novel, with its focus on reduced circumstances and austerity.  Frances has lost her brothers and her father in the war (the father due to illness), and with the death of her debt-ridden father, the family’s economically comfortable lifestyle was gone forever.

In order to help pay the bills, Frances and her mother take in two boarders the “Paying Guests” of the title. Len and Lily Barber are a young married couple trying to create lives independent from their families.  Frances becomes fascinated with this couple and her relationship with them changes her life forever.

I don’t want to give too much away in this post.  Part of the pleasure for me in reading this novel came from watching unexpected relationships develop.  I’ll just say that there is love, sex, secrets, and violence—the novel is certainly not lacking in plot developments.

What I most enjoy about Waters, though, are two things: her portrayal of complex characters with nuanced psychological observations, and her minute attention to period detail.  In particular, I admire Waters’ subtle portrayals of the way characters negotiate class and gender expectations and boundaries. Waters is an academic by training who does extensive historical research before writing her novels, and it shows.   I truly felt like I was in that house with Frances, desperately trying to make it—and herself–look clean and respectable with almost no money.  I also think Waters is superb at showing the after-effects of World War I on individual characters and on London as a whole.  Her characters are exhausted, but because of the seismic shocks that shattered English society, they also have the opportunity to reinvent themselves in ways they could not do before.

Night Watch

The second novel by Sarah Waters that I read is called The Night Watch.  This was written earlier than The Paying Guests, and was also about the effects of war on English society.  This war, however, is World War II.  The Night Watch focuses on the stories of four main characters– Kay, Helen, Viv, and Duncan—during and after World War II.  The complex characters and minute attention to period detail that I enjoyed so much in The Paying Guests are in this novel as well.  We learn about the love affairs of these characters (three of whom are gay) as well as their attempts to find meaning and identity while their city is being destroyed by war.

The structure of The Night Watch is unusual.  It is set in three different periods:  1947, 1944, and 1941.  Rather than starting with 1941 and moving forward, Waters starts the novel in 1947 and moves backward.  Readers are introduced to the main characters after the war is over.  We do not yet know their stories, but we know that they are emotionally wounded, living lives that are pale imitations of what they had once hoped for.  As the novel progresses, we learn more about the characters’ back stories and what brought them to their sad present circumstances.

I appreciate what Waters is trying to do with this backward technique.  However, because of it, I was not quite as engaged with the characters as I had been with The Paying Guests.  The combination of several different characters with the lack of “grounding” made it harder to connect with them.  Some reviewers have noted that a second reading of the The Night Watch is required to really appreciate the power of this work.  That makes sense to me, and I will probably do that.

Overall, I recommend Sarah Waters to anyone who is interested in finely drawn characters (many of whom are marginalized because of their sexuality), richly imagined period detail, and honest portrayals of erotic attraction.

(This post is my European entry in my Around the World Reading Challenge.)