San Diego Opera presents The Masked Ball

A few weeks ago, I was happy to be able to fly out to southern California to visit my Grammy and be her guest at the San Diego Opera for their production of The Masked Ball, a Verdi opera that I was unfamiliar with. (This is not surprising; I’m not a big opera fan.) It goes without saying that I was there to see my Grammy more than to see the opera, but the opera was rather good, too. First, Grammy had clipped a review for me by the local (San Diego) arts critic James Chute. Anyone could read this piece and see that it is a glowing review; but Grammy informs me that apparently Chute is a spectacularly tough critic, ripping apart even the good shows, so that context adds considerably to the power of his positive remarks.

Therefore, I went into the performance with a little less trepidation than I might have had. Recall that I have had difficulty appreciating opera in the past and had in fact mostly sworn off it. Well, I found the plot fairly strong and interesting, and rather tragic a la Shakespeare, as in: if only these people had talked to each other first! Or turned around and looked behind them! Ah well. The costumes were sumptuous and appropriate; the sets were fine (more on that in a moment). The singing was absolutely glorious – not my style, perhaps, but if I step back to gain a little perspective, there’s no question that what these folks can do with their voices is astounding and impressive. There was a small Korean-American woman who played a young man and sang such outrageous soprano, a very fun staccato part, that I was charmed. Indeed all the singing was very very good.

The acting is, again, not in my favorite style because it is so dramatic; but I believe that’s the operatic style, and I think it was well done. My biggest beef with the whole experience was its pacing and length; to be quite honest I found it painful right toward the end and wished I were elsewhere. This was a three-hour event with two intermissions, so three equal parts of pretty precisely an hour apiece. I could handle much more than that if it were anything but opera; but in this case I found it trying. As I keep repeating, this is an issue of my personal taste rather than how well the whole show was done. In fact, I can’t find anything to complain about from an objective standpoint. I’m just (still) not an opera person.

Where I am a philistine, though, my Grammy is a very experienced and worthy judge of the opera; she has held season tickets for gosh knows how many seasons in how many cities, and has attended overseas as well; she has a music degree and makes a fine critic. She judged this to be a near-perfect performance, with her one small concern being that the stage sets were not imaginative; she says she’s seen them done better (can’t recall if she saw this opera performed in an earlier San Diego rendition, or in Houston). It seems true to me, too, that this opera was traditional, in its sets, costumes, and performance; but traditions are not always bad.


To my personal tastes, this opera might earn a scant 3 or 4 herbs from the gallows – but that would be high for an opera, wouldn’t it! From a more objective view, though, I think it deserves at least 8. You be the judge.

My visit with Grammy? Absolutely ten old photographs, every time.

my beautiful Grammy with her first grandchild (that's me)

my beautiful Grammy with her first grandchild (that’s me)

West Texas bicycle adventures 2014

As you know, gentle reader, I occasionally digress from books to write about bicycles, travel, or other causes for personal celebration. Today is one of those days. If you just want the books, c’mon back tomorrow.

Last week Husband and I left town with a group of friends, as we try to do every February, headed for the Big Bend area of southwest Texas. Unfortunately I have missed the last two years: in 2012 I had just had knee surgery and couldn’t ride, and in 2013 I chose to go to Australia to see friends instead. So I last wrote about Terlingua and Lajitas back in 2011. It was so very good to be back in the big desert: big land, big sky, amazing great mountain bike trails, some of our very closest friends, and not much to do except slow down and enjoy ourselves. I thought I’d share a quick synopsis here with you, accompanied by some great photos. These were all taken by either me or my friends who I trust won’t mind. Thanks, friends. (As always, click to enlarge.)

On day 1, we arrived in Terlingua, checked into the cabins our team rents each year, and started packing up. Four of us (Husband, Holt, Damian and myself) were off for an overnight bikepack – camping out and self-supported, in Big Bend Ranch State Park.

fully loaded

fully loaded

Day 1′s riding was pretty consistently up, up, up; we did a lot of hike-a-bike:

a rare moment in which I simultaneously push my bike and SMILE.

a rare moment in which I simultaneously push my bike and SMILE.

there was a lot of this.

there was a lot of this.

Just a little wildlife:


Although not as much as one could wish. We saw bobcat prints, and I think I heard the guys say they heard coyotes yipping at night. (I am a good sleeper.) One year Husband and I saw a mule deer; not this year.

I had some issues with my rack, which afforded us the chance for this dusky repair job at a fortuitously placed picnic table up in the middle of the high nowhere:

lovely view, no?

lovely view, no?

Resulting in this repair (shot taken in the light of day 2):


But it all worked out fine. And what a sunset!!

beautiful picture by my handsome Husband. (recommended: click to enlarge.)

beautiful picture by my handsome Husband. (recommended: click to enlarge.)

Settling in for the night…


We ate, had a few sips of whiskey, and fell asleep under the mixed blessing of a very bright full moon that obscured the outrageous stars visible out there where the light pollution is minimal.

The next morning we got a leisurely start on a much more leisurely ride, generally downhill and starring views like this one.


Although day 1 had been challenging, I think we were all very pleased with our self-sufficient journey and solitude. I especially had a difficult time with all the hike-a-bike, which aggravated both my feet and my bad knee (and all that pushing of the very heavy bike bothered my lower back) – but I was with a small group of good friends & good people. They helped me out and encouraged me, and never made me feel like I was a bother. Thanks, guys.

what a crew.

what a crew.

On day 3, we did a much lighter-weight ride, with more friends, from the cabin – no gear required.

Husband conquers the ruins

Husband conquers the ruins

And at night, the whole pack of us enjoyed each other’s company.


I mean, really. Look at these views from the porch of the cabin complex.


photo 2

It was another great trip, and our love of these parts is confirmed and strengthened once again.


The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking by Olivia Laing

Laing’s poetic ruminations on the alcoholism of six authors will charm readers of travel writing, biography and literary criticism.

echo spring
Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring studies six authors whose lives meet at the juncture of creativity and alcoholism. While Laing (who walked along the river where Virginia Woolf killed herself for her previous book, To the River) acknowledges she had many alcoholic writers to choose from, the half dozen she selected justify and reward her nuanced attentions. Though F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams have been studied to the point of exhaustion, John Cheever, Raymond Carver and John Berryman have been less comprehensively examined.

Laing’s exploration of these extraordinary men’s lives has many facets. The Trip to Echo Spring, named for the bourbon favored by the maudlin Brick in Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, is partly literary criticism–and no lightweight in that department, showing serious attention to her subjects’ works. Meanwhile, the level of biographical detail reveals Laing’s interest in their intersections with one another in life as well as literature. There are hints of travelogue as well, as Laing crisscrosses North America to visit the crucial locations in these writers’ lives, from Hemingway’s Key West to Fitzgerald and Berryman’s St. Paul, Minn., to Port Angeles, Wash., where Raymond Carver finished his life.

The common themes Laing finds in the cities and the bars where these men drank themselves into misery, death, and art include swimming, fluidity and the cleansing properties of sea and stream. She delves into the biology and psychology of of alcoholism, with several forays into Alcoholics Anonymous, and finally touches on her own upbringing as the child of alcoholics. While she focuses on the relationship between writing and drinking, another key part of her journey is personal–but her own history with drunks is only gradually revealed and never takes center stage.

These disparate elements come together elegantly in Laing’s quietly contemplative prose. She is sensitive to the struggles of these tortured men (among them several suicides) and deeply appreciative of their accomplishments, but also clear-headed about their shortcomings and their abusive treatment of others as well as themselves. A lovely piece of writing in its own right, The Trip to Echo Spring is a fine tribute to artists as well as a lament for their addiction.

This review originally ran in the November 20, 2013 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 8 bottles.

on staying home

Husband and I recently took a 4-day weekend off from work. Timing called for it: the rhythm of working hard and playing hard made it clear that we were due for a few days. Our original plan was to drive up to the Ouachita Forest in Arkansas to camp and ride mountain bikes on some cool trails that we’d raced on but never “just” ridden – the latter being a better way to have fun and see the scenery. But as the weekend approached, the weather forecasts turned against us, predicting cold (30′s at night, 50′s during the day) and rain (60% chance). These conditions don’t lend themselves to either camping or mountain biking. So we started examining other attractive options: Jamaica? Cozumel? West Texas?

However, in the final days leading up, as we considered options and I stressed out at work – I’d be leaving a big project and returning to a big project that I had just abandoned for several days! – I didn’t feel up to airport schedules or travel time. I just wanted to rest. We literally left it up to the last minute, and when we woke up on Thursday morning – without an alarm – we just… stayed.

Because Husband works for an airline, we get to do far more fun, exotic travel than our paychecks would indicate. It’s always an exciting ride! And I guess I’d gotten into the mindset that a vacation should involve going somewhere that would make our friends jealous or experiencing a different climate than the one we’d left behind. This year I’ve been all over Texas, twice each to Colorado, California, and Washington, and to Australia. And I felt a little sheepish at choosing to just stay home on this recent weekend.

But you know what? It was freakin’ amazing, and just what I needed. We did a bunch of great things: happy hour with our bike racing team; a walk in the park (midday on a weekday!) with the dogs; sushi; a bike ride on gravel and another on trails; camped out one night; visited with old friends; met some new family-friend twins for the first time; and cooked up a storm on Sunday. We also found a little dog that needed some help, and he spent a few days with us before going home to his family – but we’ll be seeing him again.

fancy new car-camping tent at one of my favorite spots

fancy new car-camping tent at one of my favorite spots

exploring some new-to-us unpaved roads

exploring some new-to-us unpaved roads

relaxing at the campground

relaxing at the campground



our visitor - we temporarily named him Ernesto (after guess who)

our visitor – we temporarily named him Ernesto (after guess who)

And the reading, you ask?? Well, naturally. I got a good ways into Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby by Sarah Churchwell, about which I have been excited! and also began Snowblind by Christopher Golden, which grabbed me on the very first pages. And because we spent no time in my car, I took several days off from listening to Amanda Coplin’s The Orchardist, but was pleased to get back to it on Monday morning.

The weekend ended with a relatively calm – and therefore extremely rare – Sunday, and I got to do a few chores around the house and prep comfortably for the week to come. I learned a valuable lesson on this staycation: it’s not always necessary to go somewhere exciting or exotic to have a really pleasant, relaxing, fun, rejuvenating break from the daily grind. This will go down as one of the better vacations of the year. And now, I want to be careful to keep this lesson learned in my consciousness for future reference. Here’s to another day off – and staying home.

long weekend

To celebrate our five-year wedding anniversary, both our birthdays, and Cinco de Mayo, Husband and I spent a 4-day weekend in and around Fruita, Colorado, doing stuff like this, this and this:
And in between, we did this:
Ahhh. Lovely. :)

hypothetical travels: Fruita, Colorado

Over the weekend, and today, Husband and I may be riding some of the trails mentioned in this magazine article… maybe in a place that looks something like this…

As we depart Houston, the weather’s looking pretty grand!

fizzling out on a Friday

I don’t have a book to tell you about today, friends. I know! I’m sorry! But rather than go silent, I thought I’d give you a little photo tour of what I’ve been up to lately that explains why I haven’t been reading at the usual pace… well, it’s more complicated than that, but look at these pretty pictures first and then I’ll tell you about the books at the end.

When not reading, I have been:

Mountain biking in Australia with Husband (pictured) and our friends/local hosts Kristi & Brian


Hiking in Australia with Kristi (pictured)


Petting a kangaroo!


Hiking with my Pops and the dogs not far from Houston


Awww (that’s Ritchey in the flowers)


Visiting sister-in-law Julie (pictured) and her husband David, in North Carolina, with Husband


Aaand, I confess, always a little of this. (Beers with my parents at my local favorite, Mongoose vs. Cobra.)

And what about the reading? Well, I do some of that too:

(Camping out, and reading while not mountain biking, at Double Lake)

But seriously, I have been reading as furiously as ever; we’re just caught in a strange lull right now, for a few reasons. For one, I’ve been doing a lot of reading for the book reviews I write for Shelf Awareness, which means that I read a book, write a review, submit it for editing & publication, and then am able to post said review after it publishes – which is easily 6-8 weeks after I read the book. So I’ve got a backlog of great reading to tell you about, but none of it is ready to post yet. In between, I’ve been listening to The Hunchback of Notre Dame on audiobook, which is great but long and means I won’t have an audiobook to tell you about for another week and a half at least.

All of which are just excuses, and I’m sorry that I don’t have a great book to tell you about right now! But speaking of excuses – I have now justified showing you pictures of my fun times & the beautiful people in my life, so we’re all winners on that count. :)

Happy Friday, and thanks for your patience, friends. Maybe I’ll read another de Maupassant short story over the weekend and have that to write up for you on Monday! In the meantime, more bikes in this lovely spring weather, please!

Encounters from a Kayak: Native People, Sacred Places, and Hungry Polar Bears by Nigel Foster

One man’s reminiscences of flora, fauna and miscellanea encountered while paddling the globe.

For decades, Nigel Foster has been kayaking the world’s oceans, lakes and canals–as well as teaching the skill, designing the equipment and writing about his experiences. Encounters from a Kayak collects more than three dozen of his articles in a single volume, many of them never previously published. Each examines a moment in time in which Foster–sometimes alone, sometimes with fellow enthusiasts–interacts with the natural world and its inhabitants from his small craft. It is one of the strengths of the collection that not even the oldest pieces (extending as far back as the early 1980s) feel dated.

The stories are organized thematically around creatures, people, places, and flotsam and jetsam; the diversity and scope of Foster’s contacts in all these categories are impressive. In his encounters with historic artifacts in Scotland, local police in Shanghai and monkeys in the Florida Keys, Foster brings a sense of humble wonder to his environment. Naturally, he considers issues of ecology and conservation in his travels, but he never lectures. Rather, in unadorned prose, he delivers the experiences themselves: the glow of bioluminescence, the ordeal of a Dutchman’s flight from Nazi occupation by kayak, the history of a sleepy Minnesota town and the real-life Scylla and Charybdis of Scarba and Corryvreckan, just off the Scottish coast. Foster’s unassuming consideration of his surroundings is charming, simple and occasionally poetic. Natural history, human history, birds, jellyfish, thunderstorms and more come together to entertain and educate in Encounters from a Kayak.

This review originally ran as a *starred review* in the December 14, 2012 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 5 campfires.

Massachusetts and Vermont travel report

I shall try to keep this brief for you; but I want to at least list the things I saw and did on my trip up north in late October. With pictures.

I flew to Boston on a Friday night after work to join my parents where they were house-sitting for a month in a lovely home belonging to family in Concord. We spent Saturday in Boston, walking the Freedom Trail there, which exhibits historical landmarks like cemeteries, churches, and monuments (and starts and finishes in Boston Common – lovely). We had lobster for lunch (out) and swordfish for dinner (in) and it was an exhausting, but exciting, first day.

greenhouse in our Concord home

Granary Burying Ground in Boston

Sunday we spent in the Concord area, starting with Walden Pond, which was lovely – you will recall a picture I posted recently. We took a sampling of the Concord town sights, including the Concord Museum, the Emerson House, the Wayside, and the Orchard House. Clearly this was a breakneck pace, less than ideal to take everything in. The guided tour my mother and I took at the Wayside was great and I recommend it; hopefully the others offered similar quality but I didn’t have the time to explore.

Thoreau’s cabin site at Walden Pond

Monday we drove to Salem to see a few sites related to Nathaniel Hawthorne: the Custom House (of The Scarlet Letter) and the House of the Seven Gables (of the novel of the same name). We also visited the Witch Trials Memorial, a sober reminder of the history of this town, which was overrun in late October with plasticky, touristy, “fun” witchiness which was a little less respectful, methinks.

statue of Nathaniel Hawthorne in Salem

And later in the day, Pops and I headed back into Boston for a quick pub tour. He had it narrowed down for me to a favorite three, and I may as well give them the free advertising here for what it’s worth. We started and finished at Redbones, a barbecue (!) spot with great beers and a comfy atmosphere. I would like to have that place within walking distance. The beers at John Harvard’s were good, not world-class, but it was in a neighborhood I had to see. And the Druid seemed a fine example of the Irish pub I’d been hunting – and Pops is still raving about the oxtail soup.

I was scheduled to head to Vermont on Tuesday – Pops driving me up there, isn’t he a peach – but we took the morning first to revisit the Battleground Road between Lexington and Concord, again at a faster-than-ideal pace. We had stopped off at the Old North Bridge, where the American Revolutionary War began, on Sunday evening. It made an impression. And we had glimpsed the Old Manse from without – I regret not finding time for a tour of the interior. Now we visited a few stops along the Battleground Road (think Paul Revere, “the British are coming”).

statue of a colonial soldier at the Old North Bridge: they put down their plows and they took up their muskets…

And then we started out for Vermont, where Pops had time for a short walk with Molly & her family & I before he headed back to Concord. Bye, Pops.

Wednesday I had a fairly lazy day on the farm in Vermont, which felt well-deserved after the busy days in Massachusetts. I was reuniting with my old friend Molly, who moved here with her husband and new baby this summer, and is now just 100 yards away from her parents.

Molly and I on the deck

Thursday we took a hike up nearby Whiteface Mountain…

green and mossy

And Friday was mostly another lazy day. I held a baby.

look how he’s grown!

And Saturday was a full travel day Houston-bound. Happy to be home, as always! I missed Husband and the dogs, and they missed me. But I also miss those lovely views.

vacation reading: a quick note (reviews to come)

Hello, friends! I’m home! It was a whirlwind week. I intend to write up the week’s activities in another post for you. In a nutshell, I visited lots of sites in Concord, Boston and Salem, Mass. of literary and historical interest; visited several pubs in Boston; kept a fast pace with my parents in Mass. generally; and then had a slower-paced few days in Vermont with a friend’s family on their farm.

As for the reading, I have less to report than I might have – this reflects the fast pace of the first part of the week, and the relaxation of the second part. I mostly gazed at the mountains rather than at the page. I did finish listening to The Shining (because listening is compatible with gazing), and I finished Walden on my long travel day homeward-bound. So those are two reviews that I owe you. Just give me a few days.

I also carried with me James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, which I started but may have to return to the library unfinished… and Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, and Edward Abbey’s The Brave Cowboy (wasn’t I ambitious?), neither of which I started but both of which I’m excited about when I find the time…

So I owe you two book reviews and one travel write-up. For now, I’ll leave you with a few choice photographs!

Salem, Mass. harbor

Walden Pond

unread books on the deck in Vermont


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 345 other followers