Ray Lum and Oral Traditions in the American South


William Ferris is an American author and one of the most important historians of Southern culture, with an emphasis on African-American music and folklore. He co-founded the Center for Southern Folklore in Memphis, Tennessee, and served as the founding director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi.

In the early 1970s he began making documentary films in the Mississippi Delta. In 1972 he made this film about Ray Lum, the mule trader and two decades later published the book You Live and Learn. Then You Die and Forget It All, later retitled Ray Lum’s Tales of Horses, Mules and Men.

I saw the film last summer while taking an online course taught  by Mr. Ferris on the American South, and recently read the book.

I have long known of the importance of storytelling as part of the culture of the American South – from the way my father loved to tell stories and the way parties during childhood summers in Magnolia, Arkansas would dissolve into evenings where a handful of folks would tell stories late into the night. However, William Ferris best encapsulates the importance of this culture in the South: “Stories are our oldest way of communicating knowledge, of passing on traditions, and Southerners have a gift for that. And when you ask a Southerner to answer a question, they will tell a story,” he said.

Ray Lum was a mule trader, who according to Mr. Ferris, was a man born and bred to the practice of the country monologue. “A one-of-a-kind figure who seems to have stepped full-blooded from the pages of Mark Twain,” he wrote of Mr. Lum.

Ray Lum was born and lived within an hour’s drive from Mr. Ferris’s childhood home near Vicksburg, Mississippi. He traded mules and horses with three generations of Mr. Ferris’s family.

In the pre-industrial world of the 1920s, 30s, and 40s horses and mules were the primary mode of transportation for work and recreation – especially in the rural South. A heavy-set man who stood six feet tall and is described as having been gracious and articulate, Mr. Lum brought to life the worlds readers discover in the pages of William Faulkner’s novels. As anyone who has read those great books knows, that means a healthy dose of both beauty and darkness.

Ray Lum was born in a log cabin on June 25, 1891 in Rocky Springs, Mississippi. One of nine children, his grandparents served as foster parents. The town’s population numbered around seventy-five. Eighteen years prior to Lum’s birth, General Ulysses S. Grant and his Union troops passed through the community during their march toward Vicksburg. Today, little remains of the town.

As a child, Lum would hitch a horse to the family’s buggy and take his grandmother’s homemade butter to a nearby town – where it was sold for twelve and a half cents in trade. This and a few early horse trades naturally lead him to his path as one of the south’s greatest traders. By 1912, Lum owned five stables that housed hundreds of mules and horses.

His stories tell of gypsies, whiskey runners, mangy dogs, whores hanging about, outlaws like Frank James and Pretty Boy Floyd, racial violence, and the lives of families during the Great Depression.

While many of his stories are fascinating, most are sad truths of the times – in particular the animal abuse. I mentioned one story to my friend and horseback riding instructor C and she said that kind of abuse still happens, but at least less so now because people are aware it is not correct. In my humble opinion, Mr. Lum was a truly great storyteller and trader, but quite the lousiest of trainers. For all my admiration for Mr. Ferris I am still struggling a little with why he did not admonish him in the littlest bit, but then he said himself that as a supporter of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s he found beauty and darkness in Mr. Lum’s southern culture.

Gordon Parks

Gordon Parks was born in Kansas and died in New York City. In between he spent a lot of time in the American South. His best known images from the segregated South are from an assignment he had for Life magazine in 1956 to document the everyday lives of an extended African American family living in rural Alabama under Jim Crow segregation. The article “The Restraints Open and Hidden” ran with text by Robert Wallace.

I was fortunate enough to see some of Mr. Parks telling images at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts just about this time last year in the exhibition “Gordon Parks, Back to Fort Scott.”  Fort Scott, Kansas was the town that he had left more than 20 years earlier, when after his mother died, he found himself—a teenager and the youngest of 15 children—suddenly having to make his own way in the world. His pictures bring the places he photographed to life. He is one of my favorite photographers. As we celebrate African American History Month I encourage you to learn about Mr. Parks and look at his images.

*An American South post about the Southern storyteller and horse and mule trader Ray Lum is coming next week. ox

Gordon Parks. “At Segregated Drinking Fountain, Mobile, Alabama,” 1956.

Off to the Side

In his brilliant memoir Off to the Side, author Jim Harrison writes with the diversion of television people aspire to the speed of the passing images on screen and develop impatience and boredom with anything less. He also writes “man has an inexhaustible ability to beshit his environment, with politicians well in the lead.” (note Flint, Michigan)

A friend recently called upon me to go to the mall with her to purchase a television. That digressed (progressed) to just looking at them and in the end we went not at all. I am not an advocate for television considering the emphasis on reality television and commercialism. There is a flimsy barrier between news and entertainment if one at all. I would rather read, write, exercise, hang out with friends, and watch the birds and animals on my land. **Note, I own a television for football season otherwise it is disconnected.

As a result of television and the Internet and all our electronic gadgets we are quite an unreasonable people. The dramatic way in which we embrace the times we live in – the incessant need for more for me for I. The indecent marketing of our values, the tearing down of moral behavior, the selling out of our culture and the dehumanization of society. I am coming to loathe social media – the too much too quick take. The me me me of it.

In an attempt to escape “real life” some of us escape to a rural life. Four years into my stay in rural(ish) Maine I am confronted with threats of pollution and feel an increasing sense of claustrophobia.

Pickup trucks speed down the two-lane road with such force it seems they are flying from a Nascar pit station onto the straightaway. Entitled persons throw their empty fast food containers on the front of lawns and I feel certain try to edge other drivers off the road. Who are these wretched people and where did they come from – who raised them – who didn’t.

I was in a supermarket checkout line last night behind a woman who – no judging …but – was overweight with bad skin wearing too large sweatpants – listening to her tell the bag girl how she wanted to kill herself or her kid because the kid was with her all the time and this by the way was because she pulled her out of kindergarten because she didn’t think she was getting anything out of it. *Note, her storytelling was interrupted briefly by her running after her screaming child at the front of the store. Her grocery items included several bottles of alcohol – rung up separately than the other items, which may or may not have been paid with food stamps. Once gone there was a collective relief felt between myself, the checkout man, and the bagger – the latter of whom stated her child (note, this is a young mother) is doing well in the same program and stated matter of factly the woman who had just left (she knew her somewhat) just didn’t want to take her kid to school. I asked how this is legal. No answer. I also worried and still am about the child abuse in that household.

Here’s the thing – the woman with the poor health and questionable parenting approach – she represents a too large part of society than we are willing most of us middle or upper middle class individuals to admit. She exists because she can, because there are cracks a mile or more wide in systems set up to try and prevent just this – whatever this is – and here’s the thing – she may or may not even watch television. No diversion needed. She is part of a society so far removed from one I understand or am grasping with all its changes to understand – that she may as well be a member of some indigenous tribe I read about in all those stacks of books on my shelves and tables.

And there it is or part of it. I read, always have. I choose books over radio (well, Spotify now or podcasts except in the car) and often over television (just not during the football season). Maybe she wasn’t read to as a child maybe she has never read a book maybe she cannot read. Seriously, real problems.

We need to leave the me, myself, and I era behind us. We have a heck of a lot of work to do to improve our communities and our planet. We need to believe a better experience is possible for all of us.

As for me, when I look out my window I see a large family of wild turkeys enjoying the worms and bugs brought up from the rain and that’s far more entertaining than anything that is likely on television right now.



What better time to share a few TV series and movies I think worth watching than on a rainy February day?

Programme Name: River - TX: n/a - Episode: River - First Look (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: John River (STELLAN SKARSGARD) - (C) Kudos - Photographer: Nick Briggs

River – the BBC detective drama on Netflix starring Stellan Skarsgard. WATCH IT!!!!!

actually, that’s it for TV right now.



Straight Outta Compton – in fact watch this INSTEAD OF the Oscars.

and Sicario, The End of the Tour, and definitely (!!!) Spotlight – sooo good.


Angels of Ascent

Next time I do a book list I’ll tuck Angels of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of African American Poetry in there, but the book deserves it’s own post.

It is edited by Charles Henry Rowell, the founder and editor of the literary quarterly Callaloo.

The 600 plus page book is divided into four parts, organized around the ‘waves’ of black writing since the demise of the Black Arts Movement (Northern urban phenomenon built around idea “work of and for black people”) in the late 1970s. Eighty-six poets are included; arranged in chronological order of the trajectory of African American poetry. Poets who built a tradition which disregards geography, race, culture, class and those other boundaries which do violence to human beings in the west.

Gwendolyn Brooks was the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. She did this in 1950. And I would have included her poem “Boy Breaking Glass” except that I fell in love with Robert Hayden’s “Elegies for Paradise Valley”. Hayden was a Poet Laureate of the US from 1976 to 1978. He grew up in the black section of Detroit called Paradise Valley, taught at Fisk University and then the University of Michigan, and passed in 1969. Here is a link to an interview he did on NPR.


A portion of the poem “Elegies for Paradise Valley”….

I shared bedroom’s window
opened on alley stench.
A junkie died in maggots there.
I saw his body shoved into a van.
I saw the hatred for our kind
glistening like tears
in the policeman’s eyes.

No place for Pestalozzi’s
fiorelli. No time of starched
and ironed innocence. Godfearing
elders, even godless grifters, tried
as best they could to shelter
us. Rats fighting in their walls.

Waxwork Uncle Henry
(murdered Uncle Crip)
lay among floral pieces
in the front room where
the Christmas tree had stood.
Master Hong of the

Chinese Lantern (there
Auntie as waitress queened it
nights) brought feesias, wept
beside the coffin.

Beautiful, our neighbors
murmured: he would be proud.
Is it mahogany?
Mohogany – I’d heard
the victrola voice of

dead Bert Williams
talk-sing that word as macabre
music played, chilling
me. Uncle Crip
had laughed and laughed.

Great horned owl

Another favorite – Clarence Major’s “The Great Horned Owl” (Major was born in 1936, he was the first editor of American Book Review and taught at UC Davis from 1989 – 2007.)

He glides, descending
to the forest floor –

his round face
like an African

mask, carved out
of soft wood.

He sails down smoothly
(his face as wide

as his shoulders
with big ears

jutting straight up
like horns) – descending

to the forest floor
where a mouse

scurries along.
And the wingspan

of the great night bird
spreads, showing

his white plumage
in this, his pale phase,

as he snatches it

he sings and dances
in the half-light,

scattering dry leaves,
spreading again

those great wings.
On the takeoff

he fans his fluffy
black-and-white tail.

Still Standing


During February we all have an “extra” opportunity to learn about the history of African Americans. Those of us who are white can lean into the uncomfortable stories and I suppose move forward more educated more sincere in our appreciation of what individuals like John Lewis and Alice Walker went through – the mountains moved to liberate African Americans not just from whites only water fountains but to undo the cultural shackles of the “Mississippi cotton-field dialect” attributed to black people in films and books.

In celebration of African American History Month I want to share two posts with you – this one and the one going up right after on Angels of Ascent.

Last Friday night I attended the event “Still Standing” celebrating stories of Maine’s past, present, and future African American leaders who through steadfast resilience and determination overcame, and are still standing today. The evening was a partnership between The Abyssinian Meeting House and MECA Public Engagement. Standouts included musician and writer Samuel James, City Councilman Spencer Thibodeau, and Linda Ashe Ford.

James recalled encounters with racism at eight and nine years old. He spoke beautifully about his father. A rare kind of man – extraordinarily strong in character and build (6’2, 200 pounds) with a significant number of physical scars (from war?) – including a knife wound the length of his abdomen, and two bullet holes in his back – only one of which he remembers. At eight he and his father (an African American) and mother (a small white woman) were walking down the town sidewalk when a white man came out of a shop and called him a “ni…r” and his father responded not with violence but this – he said “I don’t know who taught you that word, but it’s rude.” I loved his father in that moment. I loved him more when he went to Samuel’s school to complain about the bullies throwing rocks at his son and calling him a “ni..er” and the receptionist says to him “Oh, are you here about the janitor position?” (As if – in case it’s not clear – the only reason a black man would walk into a school admin office is for a janitorial position.) He took the job, held it till Samuel graduated, then put down the broom and walked out. WOW.

Spencer Thibodeau’s story was sad – not because what happened (he was adopted by a white couple after his African American mother in Kentucky gave him up in her teens), but because he is still figuring out who he is. He said, “My greatest failure is understanding who I am.”

Linda Ashe Ford is nothing short of a treasure. A great African American treasure who should have her own live storytelling night day. I could have listened to her for hours. It wasn’t just the stories she told, it was the way she told them. One of those rare figures whose stories of her grandparents, her memories of the street she grew up on, the ups and downs of life are told with common-sense lessons and humor. “It’s not what people call you, it’s what you answer to,” she was told by her mother and sadly had to tell her son. I relished the story of her grandfather buying a home in a white neighborhood and sending his wife out to wash the windows. Inevitably, someone would come up and ask his wife who she worked for – she didn’t work for anyone – her husband bought the house. And with that they would get offers by whites to buy them out and they would move with their profit to another neighborhood and do it all over again and with that clever maneuvering paid for Mrs. Ford’s college education.

The Abyssinian Meeting House is among Maine’s most significant cultural landmarks. It was built in 1832, and is the third-oldest black meeting house in America. It was a hub for the Underground Railroad used by slaves to escape the South in the 1800s.
It was almost demolished in the 1970s, and is the focus of an ongoing effort to preserve and restore it.

Thanks for the invite JM!!!

American South


Far too frequently I am reminded of the negative stereotypes people have about the American South. That everyone is ignorant, inbred, racist, overweight, and a right-wing conservative (note while we can sadly claim Rush Limbaugh who embodies most of the above mentioned stereotypes, Dick Cheney is from Nebraska and let’s not forget Sarah Palin’s base is Alaska). People I know, educated well-traveled individuals, have told me they are scared of traveling in the south – this is the American South folks not Honduras. They have not been below the Mason-Dixon line and can no more understand why I am proud of my Arkansan heritage than why I travel through the south every few years.  Look, I won’t lie even I have gotten the heebie jeebies driving through Mississippi on my own – there is just too much history in the air there sometimes and well the last time it didn’t help I was chasing to get to a hotel before some unfriendly (is there any other kind) line of tornadoes blitzed through (I made it to a gas station a couple hours from my hotel).

To help educate those folks I love dearly and all the strangers out there with the same misconceptions, I have created the following list of people/places/things I think of when it comes to the American South. The good, bad, ugly, delicious, beautiful, fun…. And yes there will be a few more American South posts in the near future. ox


Sweet iced tea, cornbread, fried chicken, collard greens, pecan pie, Atticus Finch, Friday Night Lights, community, Mardi Gras, churches, gun shows, college football, Coca Cola, Huck Finn, hobo camps, Angola State Prison, Eudora Welty, Walker Percy, tobacco barns, Southern belles, Buck Owens, Rosa Parks, Arkansas, Texas, honky tonks, Lexington KY horse country, preserved antebellum plantation mansions = museums/wedding venues, spiral bound Junior League cookbooks, Y’all, Deliverance, blues and rock and country, Edna Lewis, The Help, confederate war memorials and civil rights museums, South Carolina, Georgia, kindness, discrimination, elegant Victorians and Greek Revivals, John Grisham, horse racing, Driving Miss Daisy, Robert Penn Warren, Virginia, Outer Banks, Nat Turner, Fannie Flagg, biscuits, shrimp and grits, antiquing, Elvis Presley, William Faulkner, graveyards, abolitionists, baptists, Andy Griffith, gardens, farms, slavery, Selma, cotton-growing and manufacturing, moonshine, Blue Ridge Parkway, Democrats and Republicans, Hot Springs National Park, Cajun and Creole cuisine, Ku Klux Klan, lynchings, Southern Poverty Law Center, justice, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Paul William “Bear” Bryant, Moses Grandy, Zelda Fitzgerald, Monticello, High Museum of Art, Georgia peaches, porches and patios, Savannah and Charleston, University of Virginia, Duke, soul, rocking chairs, Sookie Steakhouse, cozy B&Bs and luxury hotels, NASCAR, Johnson Space Center, quilts of Gee’s Bend, Florida, French Quarter NOLA, Southern Foodways Alliance, respect, Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium (loyal to my Arkansan roots), Bryant-Denny Stadium, Rick Bragg, Morgan Freeman, Muscle Shoals, Grand Old Opry, stitching, master distillers, The Blind Side, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Jackie Robinson, Medgar Evers, Congressman John Lewis, Gone With the Wind, shotgun houses, Boeing and Lockheed and Delta, patriotism, craftsmen, tradition, and Pulled Pork BBQ.



Parisian Style and Decluttering


Before we get to how to accomplish Parisian style.  Let’s talk about expectations/stereotypes and decluttering. These will be important in achieving some level of Frenchness without losing your cool or too much money.

Dame Vivienne Westwood once said “Buy less, choose well, make it last.” Smart advice.

Here’s my take on clothes/accessory shopping…. There are real people and the people in magazines. There is real life and the lives of the elite (for the purposes of this post let’s say the top echelon of fashion editors, celebrities, people with a whole lotta cash). People in magazines can do without things real people need. People in magazines can wear Gucci, Balmain, Isabel Marant… *There are also credit cards, which in my humble opinion are never a good idea unless you have 1) the money in the bank 2) someone who is willing to pay those bills for you who has money in the bank.

Decluttering – There is that book all my friends have talked about at some point or another during the past few months – the one on using Feng Shui to clear your clutter – Creating Sacred Space with Feng Shui by Karen Kingston. I semi-agree with her regarding this quote “Holding onto old books doesn’t allow you to create space for new ideas and ways of thinking to come into your life.” Just try and take away my wall of cookbooks (many of which I don’t cook from anymore, but just love the same).  On the other hand, this morning, I lugged a big bag of books I am donating to the public library. Even with the room I just don’t care about those books.

Klingman’s idea is by decluttering you will simplify and thus open up your life and allow those dreams stocked away in a box behind the cookware you don’t use to become reality and allow newness in your life. Space Clearing is what she calls it.

Well, anyone who has been to my home knows I don’t have much clutter. Something about a childhood filled with it = no thanks. Friends describe my home as being curated. It is, but believe me it’s also quite livable. The one part of my home friends don’t often see is where I keep my clothes and accessories. It’s a bit of a disaster really. Tops and bottoms jammed into dressers and hung haphazardly in a too small closet. I end up wearing the same stuff over and over, because I am too lazy/busy to dig. If I don’t see something how can I be excited about it.

I am far from the only one – according to this WSJ article – Only about 20% of clothes in the average person’s closet are worn on a regular basis, says Ginny Snook Scott, chief design officer of California Closets, the designer of customized closets and storage spaces.

OK – Parisian style.

After reading My Paris Dream by Karen Betts (NYT review here) I began missing Paris. Maybe it’s all the gray here or that I don’t have an out of state trip lined up till summer, or out of the country till 2017, but I was really missing it and then – and this also might have been all the coffee I was drinking while finishing said book (which was done within 24 hours of opening it), but I began thinking about my wardrobe. How to dress like a Parisian.  The book wasn’t even that great, but it was all about fashion – except towards the end where she finally bared her soul (and that part was well-written).

How do French women achieve their beautiful looks effortless style? Based on my time in Paris and having read several books on Parisian chic I would say in no particular order it’s because 1) they know who they are = they own what looks great on them and they carry themselves confidently (and what is sexier than confidence?!)  2) they live in Paris where the best stores are thus access to the best classic and trendiest pieces 3) they eat real food and don’t snack and walk everywhere and don’t overdo it = great figures and when you have a great figure generally speaking the clothes look better. *On this last remark I am not advocating for skinny, but rather healthy.


What’s in their closet?
Jeans – highwaisted, black, skinny, standard straight-leg, white
Black blazer!
Ballet flats – if you can afford Repetto great, if not then whatever is made well and comfortable.
Scarves – try secondhand shops, buy them when you travel (what better souvenir). You do not need a Hermes scarf!! If you can afford one great, they sure are beautiful! Thick scarves too – made with big yummy wool yarn. My godmother gave me a black and white and gray wrap from H&M. I don’t shop there, but I wear it so much. Did I mention she is French!?! The other morning I wore it to a meeting and felt so chic.
White shirt
Long trench – tan
Oversized sweater – maybe it slips off your shoulder, maybe it is black or maybe a mossy green
Navy v-neck sweater
Striped longsleeve t-shirt
Nice t-shirts (I live in James Perse). Nice ones range from $ Uniqlo and J Crew to $$$ Anthony Thomas Melillo and Alexander Wang! White, gray
Tanktops (see brands above) – white, gray, black, navy
Leather jacket – black (I have a tan one too I wear as much as the black ones) – **to me this is an item you take time to purchase. Save for and when you buy it is something you truly treasure. If you are going to spend money do it on the leather jacket and ballet flats.
Open-toed sandals
Boots (magazines would say “riding boots” I would say what makes sense w/ your life – for me it’s big old green waterproof warm Mudruckers)
Black heels (another investment item – or cheap ones and a heck of a lot of bandaids)
Converse sneakers – I have a pink pair I never wear, and I think therein lies the problem. I should have invested in a gray pair. White seems totally impractical to me, but if you live in a magazine go ahead.
Black mini skirt – I wore one throughout my 20s. My incredibly chic friend C has a gorgeous one. I suppose it’s worth giving this item another thought.
Black clothes!

Accessories – have fun, have some gold, diamond studs, costume jewelry, pieces you picked up on a trip – but under NO circumstances when it comes to what you carry should it be fake. Fake is WRONG and everyone will know it’s fake – believe me.

And lingerie and fun socks (when only you will see them) and black tights.

Books on the subject of French style (I **starred my favorites):

**Entre Nous: A Woman’s Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl by Debra Olivier

**How to Be Parisian Wherever You Are by Caroline de Maigret, Audrey Diwan, Ann Berest and Sophie Mas

Parisian Chic: A Style Guide by Ines de la Fressange

Paris Street Style by Isabelle Thomas & Frederique Veysset

Preston Davis on Why Less is More – article/blog post link here

And use Pinterest – my fashion icon is Emmanuelle Alt. She is the essence of French chic to me. Maybe it’s because she always wears jeans and I live in mine. ox

Bookends: My Winter Reading List


Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. A few interesting facts I learned about this book from a Coursera class I took last fall via the University of Michigan “Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World”:
Mary Shelley was 18 when she began writing the book.
The book was published in 1818 and 1823 with two different introductions. Shelley’s husband may have written the first.
Think about this – science fiction is about personal and social consequences, of access to new knowledge, and the power that goes along with the gaining of that knowledge.
Have you ever considered this book to be romantic literature? I had not until (a) friends who found me reading the book said “oh such a romantic book” and then it was explained to me during the course of the class. It became so obvious.
Shelley is using fright as a tool to tell a story that validates domestic affection. Victor was this egotistical man who betrayed his son (the monster).
Society misunderstanding, withdrawing from community.
This book is so much more than monster science, it is a book that if we truly let absorb us will teach us how to realize our own ideals and hopefully be better, more inclusive, helpful persons. A truly magnificent book.

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain. I enjoyed this book a lot more while reading it. Once I put it down I realized the writing really was not that great, but the story of Beryl Markham is. McLain took great liberties in the writing of this book and in my humble opinion could have used more time in Kenya absorbing who Markham was. Instead, it reads as someone sitting in a city daydreaming about this amazing woman’s life. A lot can be left out and frankly the more I have read about the Kenya of the 1920s and 30s the less research I think McLain did. An enjoyable read, fantastic travel or winter reading book.
Two of my favorite quotes from the book:
“We’re all of us afraid of many things, but if you make yourself smaller or let your fear confine you, then you really aren’t your own person at all—are you? The real question is whether or not you will risk what it takes to be happy.”
“Things come that we never would have predicted for ourselves or even guessed at. And yet they change us for ever.”


West with the Night by Beryl Markham. Learning about Markham has changed my life. Raised in British East Africa to a father who was an accomplished racehorse trainer, Markham was as much raised by the Nandi and other ethnic groups on her family’s farm. Born in 1902 (she passed in 1986), she lived most of her life in Kenya. A pioneer of transatlantic flight, she was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west. Fearless, beautiful, and indefatigable. She was married once and had numerous affairs. She trained champion race horses (she felt more at home on a horse than walking barefoot), scouted elephants (sadly for hunting, later for photographing), and she lived really truly LIVED.
**(NYT) The 1985 film of Isak Dinesen’s “Out of Africa” introduced a much wider public to the vanished world Markham had shared with Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen); her hunter husband, Bror Blixen; her sometime lover, the pilot Denys Finch Hatton; and the other settlers, including Lord Delamere and the Birkbecks, Cockie and Benedict.
***Whether or not Markham wrote the book (I doubt seriously she did) is of little consequence. By the time you finish the book you are so grateful just to have read it. (Markham had little formal education. The book was written in the late 30’s while she was married to a writer named Raoul Schumacher. More though, it would have I believe been uncharacteristic for her to have referenced Edgar Allan Poe as the book does at least twice.)

The Walled City by Elspeth Huxley. It is with a wonderful sense of humor and great intelligence, that Huxley tells the story about a British colonial administration in Nigeria between the First and Second World Wars.
“A group of Englishmen who are uprooted and dropped into the “steaming witch-haunted” African bush country with its riots.” Looking beyond the colonial politics and “black intrigue” and its resistance to the white man, is a story about two husbands and two wives trapped by their ambitions, their pursuit of power, and their lingering ideals. This is the first of Huxley’s novels I read. She wrote 30 books, many inspired by her childhood on a 500-acre coffee farm in colonial Kenya. Her novels are a joy, her biographies (see below re Lord Delamere) are well researched and fascinating, but her memoir (”The Flame Trees of Thika”) also described to me as autobiographical fiction – I found disappointing. The author’s own story pales in comparison with those characters she knew and created. Perhaps I just need to try harder when reading it?

Lord Delamere

White Man’s Country: Lord Delamere and the Making of Kenya by Elspeth Huxley. This was her first book. It is the story of Lord Delamere, a white settler who helped establish a permanent British settlement (now Nairobi) and revolutionized large-scale farming in the highlands of East Africa (Kenya). A big-game hunter during his early days he thankfully (and like many other settlers who saw the depravity in the sport) gave up guns for cameras and even (like several others of his kind) created a game sanctuary. He is a model of diplomacy, believing in not taking things by force. His relationships with local tribes (specifically the Maasai). The book describes the change in attitude in England of settlers in Nairobi, Europeanization vs. “savages”, his plans for various types of farms (settlers and their livestock were vulnerable to numerous challenges including weather, pests, and diseases). His was the time of the telegraph wire and steam engines. A fascinating read.

The Merry Hippo by Elspeth Huxley. What a cast of characters! Merry Hippo is the headquarters of the Connor Commission. It has been formed (malformed) in London and sent out to dizziest Hapana, an African state on the verge of independence. I love how the elitist British are SHOCKED that African women have no nylons, children no shoes, and thousands are without electricity. How to some “unfortunate girls the benefits of Christianity and the democratic way of life have not yet been extended…” Huxley is so good at mocking the British colonialists and creating fun characters – Chinese acrobats, Russian technicians…they are all here in this wonderful read.

Edgar Allan Poe: Complete Tales and Poems. Yes, finally. The Fall of the House of Usher, Tell Tale Heart, The Black Cat, The Haunted Palace, The Raven. Brilliant. Fantastic. What a wonderful storyteller and poet. The true inventor of the modern detective format.

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe.  Howe is a descendent of two Salem witches – the accused Elizabeth Proctor and condemned Elizabeth Howe. In 1991, (fictional character) Connie Goodwin is a graduate student at Harvard in American Colonial studies. The story goes back and forth between Goodwin’s summer in her mother’s house in Marblehead, Mass. and the 1690s during the Salem witch hunts. Several liberties have been taken with characters, but a few real life folks appear including Mary Sibley, who baked the infamous witch cake which encouraged the early panic. It is an especially fun book for anyone interested in New England history. **Only complaints, I found the ending abrupt as in diving off the deep end.

The Witches: Salem, 1692 by Stacy Schiff. A brilliantly researched book, though at times nowhere near as enjoyable as her exquisite Cleopatra. At times she just gives lots of data. That said, it’s all here. Sorceresses, a cider-soaked town, slander suits that became witchcraft accusations, absurd witch tests, pitch black nights, ruthless teenagers, scandal mongers, hangings, a detailed description of a Puritan adolescent’s life, the vulnerability of women at that time, frontier life – Native American attacks…. The accusers were as young as 12 the accused as old as 70. A tragic time for families, frontier towns, and American history.

The Beautiful Struggle: A Memoir by Ta-Nehisi Coates. A portrait of adolescence in Baltimore in the Age of Crack. Beautiful, smart, haunting. A triumph. Read everything this man writes as far as I am concerned.

The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad. It took about 30 pages for me to get into this book, then it flowed. Check out this New York Times article on the book!!

Wilfred Thesiger

Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger. We learn about the customs and traditions of the nomadic, camel-breeding tribes of the deserts of Arabia. Born in Addis Ababa, where his father was British minister, he grew up in the barbaric splendour of an imperial court, and was privileged to see a victorious and blooded Abyssinian army marching through the city in the full panoply of war. It was an experience he never forgot. Educated at Eton and Oxford, he gave up his suit for a saddle.
Thesiger writes often his years in the desert were the happiest of his life. He felt at home there and greatly resented the juggernaut of western “civilisation” believing mechanization would destroy the earth’s peoples. A great adventurer and even greater humanist. I plan to read his The Marsh Arabs soon.

Please Forward: How Blogging Reconnected New Orleans After Katrina. Ten years after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, this collection of blog posts bear witness to the horrific aftermath of a storm and political ineptitude (racism, corruption). After the story, Cynthia Joyce evacuated to Oxford, Mississippi, where she now lives and teaches. Numbed by seemingly unbelievable national news reports, she turned her gaze to blogs by New Orleanians to gain a grasp of the city’s destruction.

Deep South by Paul Theroux. He is a keen observer, brilliant writer, curious and enthusiastic. He is set free as a traveler driving south in his own car to travel the country roads in search of people, ruined towns, stories, and beauty. His car, packed with books, hard-boiled eggs, cheese, fruit, and bottles of wine. I would love to have been a passenger for this ride. Only complaints, about halfway thru the book he begins to repeat himself. One wonders how much a better editing job could have salvaged those sections. It seems there could have been a lot more stories. You get the horse farms and fine dining along with the poor and the ghosts.

All Over but the Shoutin’ by Rick Bragg. The story of a strong woman, a tortured man, and three sons who lived in northeastern Alabama in the foothills of the Appalachians. Brilliant, but it is his book Ava’s Man about his grandmother that truly stole my heart.

My Southern Journey: True Stories from the Heart of the South by Rick Bragg. His essays from Garden & Gun, ESPN the Magazine (I loved as anyone who knows me knows I would the two on Alabama football – YAY SABAN), and Southern Living. So many great stories about food, people, and times.

Tristes Tropiques by Claude Lévi-Strauss. (the French title translates literally as “The Sad Tropics”) A memoir, first published in France in 1955, by the anthropologist about his personal experiences in the West Indies, Amazonia, Panama, and Brazil. He tells his life story dividing the book to some degree into a travelogue (fascinating how society’s interest in travel changed before/after the Second World War, study of ethnography/anthropology, and critique of society.
A favorite quote from this incredible book – I enjoyed immensely!!!!
“So I can understand the mad passion for travel books and their deceptiveness. They create the illusion of something which no longer exists but still should exist, if we were to have any hope of avoiding the overwhelming conclusion that the history of the past twenty thousand years is irrevocable.”

Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry, Wildflower: An Extraordinary Life and Untimely Death in Africa by Mark Seal, The Bolter by Frances Osborne….

On my nightstand:
The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, Jack & Jill by Alex Patterson, You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down by Alice Walker, South of Broad by Pat Conroy, and Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson.

Get Lost: Nature Nurtures Us


When I was a kid, my dad and I took trips to several national parks: Yellowstone (Wyoming), Arches (Utah), Zion and Bryce Canyon (Utah), and Rocky Mountain (Colorado). We stayed in rustic lodges, rode a mule or two, saw a lot of small mammals and a few snakes (I clearly remember one large rattler) – no grizzly bears – and ate our fair share of hamburgers and granola bars.

I finally visited the Grand Canyon (Arizona) with a friend the summer I moved from California to Maine (at that time I did not realize I was moving to Maine), and have spent enough time in Acadia to know it’s one of my favorite places.

“National parks are the best idea we ever had,” wrote American novelist and environmentalist Wallace Stegner. “Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”

I could not agree more. So too do the folks at National Geographic magazine. They must, they are dedicating a number of issues to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. In the kick-off issue, there is an article about how when we get closer to nature – be it untouched wilderness or a backyard tree – we do our overstressed brains a favor. David Strayer, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Utah, specializes in attention and he believes when “we slow down, stop the busywork, and take in beautiful natural surroundings, not only do we feel restored, bur our mental performance improves too.”

Maybe, the article suggests, the large-scale public health problems e.g. obesity, depression, and pervasive nearsightedness, are because folks are spending way too much time indoors. Let’s be honest here – we were not meant to be indoors as much as we are and to live in places with no trees or grass as part of the view.

South Korea gets it – they are planning 335 healing forests manned by “health rangers” – imagine hiking, drinking elm bark tea, rubbing lavender massage oil onto someone else’s forearms…Embracing nature. A hundred-million-dollar healing complex is under construction next to one healing park and then there’s the government-run “happy train” that takes kids who have been bullied into the woods for two days of camping. WOW!

An ancient Korean proverb “Shin to bulk ee” – “Body and soil are one.”

Environmental psychologist Stephen Kaplan and his colleagues at the University of Michigan have found a 50-minute walk in an arboretum improves attention skills and short-term memory. A street walk does not.

What do you say to getting outdoors every day – ok once a week – walking in the woods or a large park and taking in the naturalness of it all.  No cell phone needed.

I can only imagine how much clearer, happier, and relaxed I will be after several days in Grand Teton National Park.  And yet, I have access to the outdoors every day – the life I have created for myself is one with minimal light pollution at night = amazing star gazing, and access to a field where I can wander and feel nature whenever I like. During the summer I go barefoot in the garden, dirt under my nails and am so happy.

The power of the outdoors.


Top: Central Park, NYC in November. My backyard winter 2015.

about this blog

About Me Sharon Kitchens and Delicious Musings. Welcome and thank you for visiting my blog. I write about all the things I enjoy - Culture, Food, Photography &Travel. Read more on my about page.


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