Book Review: Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner (1909-1993)

Angle of Repose

Fifty-eight year old Lyman Ward, the narrator of the story, is a retired historian, wheel chair bound with a painful bone disease. Estranged from his wife and bitter about his life, he makes a decision to return to his family home in Grass Valley, California, and write a biography about his grandmother, Susan Ward, who made her own trip west in the 1800s.

Lyman first introduces his grandfather, Oliver Ward, as an honest man searching for a place to focus on his life’s work. A mining engineer, he believed the West held unexplored opportunities, and he moves his family to different areas there in search of a good life as he tries to succeed in a rough environment.

Susan Ward left a promising future in New York to follow her husband, fully expecting to someday return to the East and resume her art career. In the course of her journey, she and her family confront challenges and endure many hardships, as she becomes more and more disappointed with her life. The couple stays together for sixty years, although not always joyfully. Writing and re-living his grandparents’ lives helps Lyman face his own health and marital problems.

Angle of Repose is an exceptional novel that exposes through a well plotted story the early myth of America’s West as a land of opportunity and glamorous cowboys. This 1972 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction is based on historical letters of Mary Hallock Foote, a little known 19th century writer. By using the facts found in these letters, Stegner sets his novel in the 19th century while also having his characters spend time in the 1970s. He creates convincing, complex characters who are a meld of America’s past and present.
The title of the book comes from a geological term for the diminished incline that will halt a movement; the steepest angle at which a sloping surface formed of loose material is stabilized. The author’s characters try valiantly to find their own angle of repose. Not all succeed.

William Stegner said of his epic novel, “It’s perfectly clear that if every writer is born to write one story, this is my story.” Through his rich prose, in Angle of Repose he shares his love of the land and impresses on the reader his extraordinary insight into human nature.

Reviewed by Mercedes Horton (OLLI Member)


The Tongue


The Tongue

I immigrated to the USA almost 40 years ago, and came directly to North Carolina. I was transferred from an ITT company in Portugal to a sister company in Raleigh.
On my first days at work I discovered, with apprehension, that some North Carolinians had such unique accent that made conversation quite difficult for me to follow, especially on the phone. Back in Portugal I had a Scottish neighbor, Donald, with whom I had a similar, embarrassing problem. Every Saturday morning, washing our cars in the front yard, I had to stop and move closer to him to maintain a coherent conversation. At work, when I got a call I couldn’t follow, I walked to the caller’s office and spoke face to face.

I have to admit here that the problem is reciprocal; some people cannot understand me because of my accent (yes, I still have one), my Portuguese background creeping through. Compounding this, some forty-five years ago, a surgical procedure cut off one tenth of my tongue, which made it difficult to speak in any language. With time I overcame the difficulties, except for the pronunciation of some consonants.

There were other causes of confusion. When I speak I tend to use words with Latin roots, close to the Portuguese equivalent. Some of these words, albeit correct, may not be the most common in English parlance. When I write (I have my fingers crossed here) I realize with frustration, and my family doesn’t let me forget it, that I build my phrases in English following the rules of the Portuguese syntax; they follow the architecture of my mother tongue.

Sometimes I had problems with people who, viewing me as a Latino (which in fact I am, not hailing from South America), automatically made up their minds that they did not understand me. The most egregious of these encounters happened with a top corporate lawyer, who, with a smirk on his face from the moment I started talking with him, pretended he did not understand me, making the conversation painful. An ashtray on top of his desk came very close to making an indent on his frontal lobe.

My work entailed travelling to Europe and the Middle East to promote and sell the company’s products. As part of the marketing and sales efforts in Egypt, I had appointed a retired Navy Admiral as our representative. This gentleman visited our company a few months later. I took him around to show the installations and then brought him to the conference room for a presentation on our capabilities. My boss and president of the company, and now my friend, joined us to meet the new representative and discuss prospective business. At one point of my presentation my boss interrupted me and addressed the admiral. “What Henrique means is…” The admiral waved his hand. “Dear Sir, please let Mr. Henrique proceed; I understand him much better than I do you.” We all laughed. Apparently the Egyptian language syntax was closer to the Portuguese.

Henrique Gomes (OLLI Member and Coordinator of OLLI Writers Group)



Musings From an Amateur Cosmologist

Eclipse 2

On the subject of solar eclipses, here is just a bit more to think about.

Viewed from Earth, the disk of our small moon nicely covers the sun’s much larger disk (but not the corona) during a total solar eclipse. The reason that the moon appears to be the same size as the sun is that the sun, which is actually 400 times larger than the moon, is also 400 times further away from us than the moon is. Some find this to be too much of a coincidence but that is exactly what it is, a coincidence. We just happen to be living at a time when the apparent sizes of our moon and the sun are the same.

How do we know this? Well, the moon was formed 4 to 4.5 billion years ago when a Mars sized proto-planet collided with the young Earth. Since that time, the moon has been slowly but steadily receding from Earth as it “steals” a little of Earth’s momentum and its (the moon’s) orbital distance increases. The moon’s current movement away from Earth, its recession rate, has been measured to be about 1.5 inches per year.

This isn’t much, but over billions of years it has accumulated so that the moon has moved from Earth’s vicinity to almost 239,000 miles away today. This means that in the distant past the moon’s apparent size, as viewed from Earth, was much larger than it is today and the moon more than covered the sun’s disk and corona during a total solar eclipse. This also means that in the distant future, the moon’s apparent size will be smaller than it is now and a total solar eclipse (from Earth’s perspective) will be a thing of the past. The sun will still be 400 times larger than the moon, but the moon will be closer to the sun and further from Earth than it is today.

Incidentally, the ongoing transfer of some of Earth’s momentum to the moon has, over the last 4 billion years or so, caused Earth’s day to lengthen slightly as the lost momentum continues to reduce the Earth’s rotation rate.
Howard Horton – OLLI Member

The Market

Market Cascais

I remember very well the events of this story, although it happened a long, long time ago. I was four years old, living in Portugal. My parents hired a maid, a young girl of eighteen from a northern province; her name was Domingas. Every day Domingas went to the fresh food market, three blocks away from my house, and dragged me with her.

I hated the fresh food market. Hate is a strong word for a four-year old boy but I really hated it. I hated the smells, especially those of the fishmongers stores, I hated the people pushing to get closer to the vendors booths, I hated the price haggling of potatoes or cabbage, I hated the comments vendors made about me, I hated those who patted my head and, supreme ignominy, I hated the old fishmonger woman that tried to kiss me every time I passed by. “Such a cute little boy… I wish I could take you home with me…”

I returned to the market every day; I had no say on this matter. I complained, stomped my feet and cried or made believe I did. In the end I had to go. Every day I had to leave the toys I so much enjoyed playing with, empty match boxes, a couple of colorful marbles, and my precious possession, a matchbox car made in Germany. I had to dress up and follow Domingas, in small strides.

So, one day, while Domingas negotiated the price of a couple of lettuce heads, I squeezed through the legs of the other customers and rapidly managed to get to the market’s gate. The route home was pretty well known to me with only a couple of streets I had to cross. I got home and as I could not get in I just sat down on the front steps, hoping Domingas would come soon. She did indeed, sobbing loudly, following my mother, worried sick, pointing her finger in my face and uttering words, which I forgot.

This is a true story. One may question my memory from when I was a four year old boy. But please do not doubt; my mother, from that day on, repeated the story so many times, angrily at first and lovingly later on, that I could recall it even in my sleep.
This summer I went back to Portugal, on vacation, together with my wife, my daughter and my grandchildren.

Fish Marker

One of the things we most enjoyed was to go to the fresh food market. We all meandered among the various booths of fresh fruits, vegetables, cheeses (oh man, those cheeses) and I particularly enjoyed visiting the fishmongers’ section with the large variety of fish, shellfish and mollusks.

Fish Market 2

My younger grandchild, as soon as he perceived the odors wafting from the fishmongers’ section, firmly excused himself.
“Grandpa, I’m not going in there.” And he stayed out.
I know he’ll grow up.

Henrique Gomes – OLLI Member & Coordinator of OLLI Writers Group



OLLI Instructor – Renee Michelle Ragin


Renee Cropped

Renee Michelle Ragin may be unique among this year’s OLLI instructors. For one thing, she could pass for a teenager. For another, as a U.S. Foreign Service officer she had many run-ins with the feared religious police in Saudi Arabia. This was in spite of the fact that she spoke Arabic and wore the customary long abaya (Saudi women are expected to cover their bodies in a long black cloak when in public).  During the worst confrontation, she was with a U.S. Marine who was out of uniform.  Since she’s African American and he has Latin American roots, those police — and some civil police who suddenly joined them — decided both were from the Middle East and treated them accordingly. Renee argued with them for nearly an hour as crowds gathered at the restaurant complex she’d been leaving. “They were demanding that I come with them to headquarters,” she said, “but a passer-by who happened to be a Saudi diplomat finally intervened on my behalf.”

In spite of that experience, Renee said being a woman in Jeddah — Saudi’s commercial capital and arguably its most progressive city — wasn’t a problem. “Unfortunately, I think Saudi’s reputation for hostility to women — especially per U.S. cultural norms — outstrips the reality. The vast majority of my two years there were quite pleasant.  Although I’m sure this had to do with my status as a representative of the U.S. government, and the rather elite circles to which I had access, I was treated quite well by everyone I worked with.” And being a woman, she said, gave her access to circles that her male peers didn’t have.

Renee explained that “Foreign Service Officers specialize in a particular field, but we wear many hats.” For a year she issued visas and helped U.S. citizens with routine and emergency problems. She spent her second year in media relations: “I wrote speeches for senior members of our Embassy community, as well as talking points and press releases. I also conducted interviews and hosted events designed to strengthen our relationships with Saudi youth.”

Prior to her assignment in Saudi Arabia, she worked in Washington, D.C. at the State Department headquarters as a “desk officer” for several African countries. This meant being the point person on every issue in a country, and connecting with her counterparts at other federal agencies and departments. “We’re the connective tissue between the Embassy in the field and the Washington agencies and departments to whom they’re responsible,” she said. She also pinch-hit for colleagues with other portfolios, and briefly supported a task force on the conflict in Libya.

Today Renee’s life is far more tranquil as a doctoral candidate at Duke, teaching (next year she’ll teach Hannah Arendt’s “The Banality of Evil”) and researching her dissertation on the impact of Lebanon’s civil war on its national identity. And this semester she’s teaching an OLLI course: “Middle Eastern Art: Is Everything Political?” Its visual vocabulary is wide-ranging: film, artistic social media, and participation on Skype with Middle Eastern artists.  In class discussions Renee reveals high energy, a vivacious personality, and a great sense of humor.

She was born and raised in Manhattan. Her mother is a psychology professor and her father, now retired, worked in finance and philanthropy, but he’s a serious history buff. A cousin was a United Nations diplomat in Vienna. Renee attended demanding New York schools: the United Nations International School and the Bronx High School of Science. She went on to Harvard, where she studied post-colonial Latin American and Caribbean history and literature of the post-colonial era. Her senior thesis was on the role of Haitian- and Dominican-American literature on a 30-year dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. “I also dabbled in contemporary Middle Eastern literature,” she said. She was unusual in going straight from Harvard to the State Department and was the youngest Foreign Service Officer in her entering class of 100. “I’d planned to stay in the Foreign Service: I was promoted to mid-rank,” she said, “but now I’m thinking of an academic career.” A visit to Duke “felt right,” and the faculty impressed her as supportive. On top of this, she said, “I like North Carolina!”

Barbara Haddad Ryan


Kuruvilla Verghese

In April, 1963, as a young man about to complete his doctoral degree, I landed at the Raleigh-Durham airport, nervously awaiting my interview the next day for a faculty position at North Carolina State College. It was a beautiful night as the Eastern Airlines plane landed at about eleven and I walked down the stairs towards a small airport building. I remember looking up at the sky and smiling at the moon playing hide-and-seek with a few powder puff clouds.

My instruction from the University host was to take the limousine and ask to be dropped off at the Velvet Cloak Inn on Hillsborough Street, a brand new hotel. Sir Walter Hotel downtown was the only other major hotel in Raleigh. After some initial confusion with the announcement in a strong Southern accent over the intercom about a limousine, I found the proper limo for Raleigh and got dropped off at the hotel just before midnight. As I approached the front door, an African-American man dressed in a tailcoat and a black top hat held the door open for me. I walked across a large lobby to the registration desk and spelled out my name to the elderly woman at the desk. She scanned through a large book in front of her and then disappeared behind a wall I could hear the muffled sounds of a telephone conversation. She returned to the desk in a few minutes.
“Yes, you do have a room reservation but would you mind waiting until the manager comes?” she asked.

Immediately, the words of my professor came to my mind. `NC State is a good school but keep in mind that you will be in the South, although North Carolina is considered the most progressive of the southern states.’ He was alluding to potential discrimination I might face because of my dark South Indian complexion.
“Yes, I would mind,” I told the lady and walked out through the door held open again by the same black man in tailcoat. I had noticed a YMCA building next door and knew that YMCAs usually had rooms for rent.


This was the tumultuous period in the deep South when Governor George Wallace was blocking the entrance to two black students at the University of Alabama, Ku Klux Klan was fire-bombing Black churches and Martin Luther King was leading non-violent protest marches. Comparatively, North Carolina was fairly quiet, thanks to a progressive Governor named Terry Sanford. Indeed, there were `Whites Only’ and `Colored Only’ restrooms and the rants of bigotry from the future US Senator Jesse Helms on the radio. Nevertheless, it was still a beautiful spring in Raleigh with multitudes of flowering dogwoods, peaches, red buds and crab apples.

One of the interesting parts of growing old is recollecting all the changes that I have seen over my fifty four years in Raleigh.

Kuruvilla Verghese (OLLI Member)