When Jim Sterba handed me a copy of his autobiographical book, Frankie’s Place, shortly after we finished taping an episode of Wildfire last August, and said something modest like he hoped I’d like it – it was about their summer place on Mount Desert Island - I was skeptical. In fact, I put it aside until the Christmas ice storm when I was perusing my shelf of unread books and came across it.
Jim was a foreign correspondent for decades for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. He was on Wildfire, the TV talk show I host with Harry Vanderweide, to discuss his terrific book, Nature Wars. You can find my review of that book in this section of my website. And you can access that Wildfire episode on Maine Audubon’s website.
I decided to give Frankie’s Place a try after reading the lengthy number of comments at the front of the book written by everyone from Tom Brocaw and David Halberstam to Morley Safer and Joan Didion. Clearly, from what I read, this book was about a lot more than a summer place on Mount Desert, and had drawn the interest of a lot of important people.
Woven throughout this love story about Jim and his wife Frankie, a very prominent writer herself, are fascinating stories about Jim’s youth, his reporting days around the world, and a lot more. He has a very acerbic sense of humor – something I appreciate – and his comments about some of the summer folks on Mount Desert made him sound like a Mainer – and that’s a big compliment from me.
While some of the stories are touching, it was Jim’s humor that I enjoyed the most. Here’s an example, from the days when Jim, shy and sensitive about his poor farm upbringing, was courting the worldly Frankie with an aristocratic and impressive family tree.
“I hid the farm kid as best I could,” writes Jim. “But he found his way out of the closet often enough. One winter morning in Manhattan, I walked to her place over icy sidewalks. ‘How is it out there?’ she asked. For the farm kid, this was a setup line too good to resist. ‘Slicker than deer guts on a doorknob,’ I said.”
I tell you, right then, I could feel those deer guts on that doorknob!
I imagine Jim could have written an entire book about his decade of reporting from China – including the uprising in Tiananmen Square - and his many other worldly adventures. And his does weave some of those stories into this book. But Frankie’s Place is a much more personal tour of Jim and Frankie’s lives.
Jim’s observations and anecdotes are fascinating. I especially appreciated his story of how “improvements” to a remote village on the island of Java ruined the place. And how he and Frankie were stay-at-home non-lobster eating types when enjoying our summers along the coast.
It turns out that Jim is quite a cook. He includes favorite recipes in this book and I am anxious to try a few. Linda and I will also try some of Jim and Frankie’s favorite hikes on Mount Desert Island next summer.
Frankie’s Place turned out to be one of the best autobiographies I’ve ever read. And it sure did help me get through the ice storm!