Personal posts by public historian, Rose O'Keefe
O happy day! Just because I finally could, I ordered 10 copies of Animal ABCs through B&N on New Year’s Day. What a great way to start the year.
Does it matter where I found a list of suggested Christmas reading and or gift books? Not really. I enjoyed most of Pearl Buck’s, Once upon a Christmas, A Collection (1972). There were 14 very different stories but a few reminded me too much of myself – long-winded and serious. The best were heart-warming remembrances of simple Christmases from her life in the United States and early years in China.
Most likely Pete Seeger’s Storysong Abiyoyo (2021, came from a KidLit411 list. I was sure I’d heard him sing it years ago – the cover said, Reading Rainbow Book, but the illustrations were so vivid it brought it even more to life. Mimic Makers: Biomimicry Inventors: Inspired by Nature by Kristen Nordstrom (2021) This was the kind of book that made me shout with joy about new information uncovered recently. What a great read, as was Family Reunion by Chad and Dad Richardson (2021) which tackled not wanting to go see relatives. Well done!
How I ended up with a trio of rom-coms is a puzzle being as it was not my usual choice forty years ago – I’m guessing Lisa Plumley’s target audience. What I did learn in skimming through Mistletoe and Holly in Once Upon a Christmas (2005) was she had it together about pacing, plotting and a satisfying answer to the main conflict. Some of her characters were predictable and others not at all. I didn’t read Christmas Honeymoon or A Baby for Christmas.
To be honest, I had to renew Bill Bryson’s cd set Shakespeare: The World as Stage (2007) because both listeners in our house fell asleep, one of us more soundly than the other on cds 1, 2 and 3. We gave up on cd 4, out of 5. I mentioned this at a New Year’s Eve dinner with good friends and one of them had read it and loved it. I’m guessing, it would be a good one to read, since the author’s voice and the amount of information contained were too hard to keep up with.
Here’s my latest blog post. https://rokeefehistory.com/blog
#amreading; #RochesterNY; #Ingramspark; #AnimalABCs; #johnbender; #PearlBuck; #PeteSeeger; #KristenNordstrom; #ChadandDadRichardson; #LisaPlumley; #BillBryson; #KidLit411;
Dare I admit to being distractable? Yes, at times shamefully so. In particular, I kept the Weekend Interview about Robert L. Woodson Sr., 84, (WSJ, Oct. 16-17-2021) on my save pile for weeks. Why? Because I wanted to send a letter to the editor about what a wonderful reflection it shared on race and poverty. Writer Jason Willick touched on their mutual loss of a father, teen suicides, and Willick’s access to social services as compared to Woodson’s.
Woodson’s take on youth suicides and youth murders was that they were flip sides of the same coin of self-hatred. He had experienced different versions of racism in Philadelphia where he grew up, and in the South when he went in the military. In college he was drawn to help juveniles in jail. He learned to envision partnerships between say a restaurant owner who needed 100 customers, and 100 neighbors who needed work. In 1981 he founded the Woodson Center which collaborated to send 600 public-housing students to college over a dozen years.
Another big success was promoting a truce between rival gangs after the murder of a 12-year-old, leading to a drop in gang violence. The Center’s 1776 Unites, was Woodson’s response to the New York Times’s 1619 Project. He compared those who viewed black history as either a crucifixion of suffering or a resurrection of resilience as being limited in their POV. His goal was for America to get race off the table so that the moral and spiritual issues that all people face are addressed – to stop letting race distract us from doing what needs to be done.
Out of all the news in print that day, Willick’s article was outstanding. I wish such articles were front page every day. That issue had no letters signed by women on the editorial page; the daily cartoon was so-so and Peggy Noonan’s column addressed Dave Chappelle and wokeness.
Our household has subscribed to the Journal for several years, and once I started counting, I’ve been dismayed that women are signers maybe 1 out of 10 times for letters to the editor. In keeping with the spirit of the season, I extend forgiveness to the editorial page for their oversight. Again, I offer peace and joy to all.
#amreading; #RochesterNY; #WSJ; #RobertLWoodsonSr; #JasonWillick; #1619project; #1776Unites; #PeggyNoonan; #DaveChappelle; #wokeness;
Today marks not only the anniversary of my oldest sister’s death, but the birthday of my late father in law. After her death I made a decision to use or lose the stories and essays I’ve saved in paper and online files. So, here’s a list I wrote in 1999 of favorite books:
Russell Baker’s memoir, Growing Up (1982) for its honesty; Robert Crichton’s novels The Secret of Santa Vittoria (1966) which had one of the best first lines I’d ever read, and The Camerons (1972); Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphin (1960) which I got for my 10th birthday and reread over the years; Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982) which made me want to be a better more honest writer; The Story of Marie Antoinette (1968) by Victoria Holt which went into her life in details I had known little about.
Conversations with God, (1995) by Neale Donald Walsch and his others showed it was okay and even good to talk with God; Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich (1937) introduced me to the five fears that plague people: illness, death, poverty, old age and criticism; James Redfield’s Celestine Prophecy (1993) and The Tenth Insight (1996) – one of them had a list that I studied and led me to research history.
My mother had sent me a copy of Embraced by the Light (1992) by Betty Eadie, and I called her to tell her about reading it, the day before she died! Talk about memorable. And Ladies of the Club (1982) by Helen Hooven Santmyer showed me women learning to deal with finances; and the herbal guide, Back to Eden (1939) by Jethro Kloss always fascinated me with details about a thousand and one healing plants.
Three summers ago I decided to read a chapter a day of Pearl S. Buck’s All Men Are Brothers (1930). It had 70+ chapters that got more and more gruesome and fantastical as it went along. In it, 105 men and 3 women in Imperial China had become outcasts for not complying with local corruption. It was not the kind of story I usually read, but some of her descriptions of people and places took my breath away. While their lives were different from mine, I could still relate to its humiliated and betrayed heroes, who with bowed heads exclaimed, “Ah, bitterness.”
Technically, I didn’t read Ntozake Shange's play For Colored Girls Who’ve Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf (1975). I saw it while visiting in San Francisco in 1978. It was life-changing!
As for choosing only 10 favorite books from this year – I’ll have to think about it. Books filled such a big place for me and I’ve read many more than usual. As we near the end of 2021, I offer peace and joy to all.
Here’s my latest blog post. https://rokeefehistory.com/blog
#amreading; #RochesterNY; #RobertCrichton; #RussellBaker; #ScottOdell; #AliceWalker; #VictoriaHolt; #NealeDonaldWalsch; #NapoleanHill; #JamesRedfield; #BettyEadie; #HelenHooverSantmyer; #JethroKloss; #NtozakeShange; #PearlSBuck;
Ideas from Obits and Book Reviews
Sometimes I wish I could read more slowly, but I started Goodby Chunky Rice by Craig Thompson, (1999) and pushed my way through his graphic retelling of a painful homelife and drive to escape it. Then, I couldn’t believe that I was halfway through his compelling Blankets (2003) and plowed through it in three easy sittings, but not easy processing. His honesty and artistry were refreshing and haunting.
Sometimes people ask, where do you get ideas from? There are so many, I can’t keep up with them, but one place is obits. I have wished I could write about dozens of people like pioneer Helen Murray Free, 98, (WSJ May 2021). She studied chemistry in college and went on to invent color-coded strips to measure glucose levels. Powerful! The obit of bookseller T. Sarvotham Shanbhag, 84, (Economist May 2021) owner of Premier Book Shop in Bangalore, covered a wonderful man and the end of a classic book store.
Esther Bejarano, 96, (Economist July 2021) survived the Auschwitz Girls’ Orchestra, revived her father’s collection of Yiddish songs, and later formed a band to revive songs from the Jewish resistance. An impressive woman. The quiet-living Yang “Baiwan” (Millions) Huading, 70, (Economist July 20210) was a front-runner in China’s government bonds. He remained humble -- surprising. Didier Camilleri, 64, (Economist August 2021) known as “Frenchy Cannoli” was a character and a half, who believed hashish was a gift.
Englishman Sir Graham Vick, 67 (Economist August 2021) set a standard for bringing opera to average audiences, even though he didn’t fully succeed. The amazing Jean “Binta” Breeze, 65, (Economist September 2021) became the first woman to put poetry to a reggae beat, called dub poetry. This Jamaican woman used her words to give voice to working women, who spoke to her in her head. As for A.Q. Khan, 85, (Economist October 2021) he was a metallurgist who persuaded Pakistan’s president to build its own nuclear devices. He sounded like a conniver and quite the contrast to Colin Powell, 84, (Economist October 2021). It was fascinating to start Powell’s obit, wondering if it would do justice to his integrity. It did.
Bernard Haitink, 92, (Economist November 2021) was one of the most humble orchestra conductors ever. Although he had become famous as a young man, he attributed his success to the fact that in Holland most of his Jewish classmates and musicians had perished. One of the best obits I’ve read was for Aaron Beck, 100, (Economist November 2021) who later became a psychiatrist after an illness as a boy triggered anxiety attacks that he taught himself to control.
A book review for “Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch” by Rivka Galchen, (WSJ June 2021), is set in Germany in 1619, at the start of the Thirty Years War. The fictional version of actual events described the story of astronomer Johannes Kepler’s mother, Katharina, who was denounced as a witch by a neighbor. I don't know why I kept the review because I don’t think I’m ready to tackle that book.
Here’s my latest blog post. https://rokeefehistory.com/blog
#amreading; #RochesterNY; #CraigThompson; #GoodbyChunkyRice; #Blankets; #WSJ; #Economist; #obits; #bookreviews; #RivkaGalchen; #KatherinaKepler;
Big Day, Big Deal
It’s definitely a big day and a big deal tomorrow at 11 a.m. with the unveiling of a large mural in honor of the renaming of Rochester’s airport for famed orator, Frederick Douglass. A thousand thanks go to Michelle Daniels for all that went into this event. That the Douglass family lived in Rochester for 20 years in the mid-1800s is not widely known, and I have the honor of being one of the locals who will commemorate the occasion.
Back to books. Listening to audio books is not usually on my list, but on a recent car trip I listened to a 5 CD set of My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey, by Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D. (2006). Who’d have guessed that her detailed descriptions of the morning that she had a stroke at age 37, would be so interesting? Her collapse, surgery and recovery are all recounted. With time-out between cds this was a compelling story.
I didn’t complain about being stuck for an hour in 20 mph traffic over the holiday, because I was listening to the ever-so mellow soundtrack to The Straight Story. It’s been years since I saw the movie, but that music soothes me every time.
Next on the listening list was Tina Fey’s Bossy Pants cd set. The first two cds were mostly funny, but I have yet to laugh at the sexualization of girls and teens which she tackled head on. The third cd had more oomph than the second. On to the fourth.
Home again, with my favorite reading chair and reading lamp, I was surprised by Hanna Astrup Larsen’s biography, Selma Lagerlof (1936/reprint 1975). Talk about dropping into another era! I’d read about Lagerlof as the first woman and Swede to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1909. The Story of Gosta Berling was famous around the world. The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, (1907) was also a worldwide success. Nosey me, I would like to know why.
In the meantime, I finished The Sun Will Come Out, a MG story by Joanne Levy (2021). After waiting almost half the book for the other shoe to drop, it finally did. The summer-camp woes of a highly-nervous teenager Bea, shifted as she befriended another teen, Harry, who had a fatal disease. The book offered a wonderful take on friendship. Well done.
Thank you, Jesse Thistle!
I tiptoed my way into From the Ashes, by Jesse Thistle (2019) not sure how I would handle the topics of racism, addiction and homelessness. Once I saw how refreshing his honesty was, how his poetry was so tender and his family’s sense of humor so much fun, I ended up devouring the rest of the book in one sitting. If anyone has ever been baffled by the life of someone who struggles with multiple addictions, his guided descent into hell and back is breathtaking. Thank you, thank you, thank you Jesse Thistle. It made me think of the refreshing and brutal honesty of biographies about and memoirs by Danny Trejo, Johnny Cash, and Brian Wilson.
Lately as I’ve read my way through some health setbacks, I’ve thought about what it means to be statistically insignificant. Since most vaccination are considered safe for the majority of the public, those who have adverse reactions to them are considered an acceptable statistical risk. Ouch!
#amreading; #RACWI; #RochesterNY; #jessethistle; #dannytrejo; #johnnycash; #brianwilson; #nonfiction; #memoir;
On my way to reading one of Rick Bragg’s favorite dog books, the library got me, Three Dog Tales: Old Yeller by Fred Gipson (1956), Sounder by William H. Armstrong (1969) and Savage Sam by Fred Gipson (1962). I can see why Old Yeller won the Newbery Honor Award in 1957. The first-person POV is authentic, the setting in 1860s Texas is harsh, brutal, beautiful and vivid. The pace moved at a clip that left me breathless. It demystified any glamor about the Old West, and accurately showed the world view of that era from the life of a hard-scrabble white youth. I cringed at the view of Comanches and Apaches as enemies and cringed even more at the feral boars brought in by early Spanish soldiers, knowing how they have become an enormous environmental issue. Very much in sync with the stories by one of my favorite authors, the late great Gary Paulsen.
It’s hard to put into words what I felt after reading Sounder. It is such a painful story of racism and cruelty and yet, it shared the redeeming power of kindness, books and learning. Painfully unforgettable.
It was easy to see why Bragg recommended Savage Sam. What a whirlwind of a story with the gripping and harsh realities of frontier life in Texas. It had dramatic encounters with the land and weather extremes, adding to a desperate search for three children kidnapped by Apaches. The racism of certain characters was cringe-worthy, the level headedness of the lead tracker about why natives would feel desperate after the loss of their lands and livelihood was a relief, and the intensity of a ferocious hail storm in the middle of the search was gripping. Colloquialisms, like describing the magnificent mutt as a Genuine Amalgamated Pot-Hound, were delightful. This trio of stories, is a keeper.
Here’s my latest blog post. https://rokeefehistory.com/blog
#amreading; #RACWI; #RochesterNY; #rickbragg; #Old Yeller; #Sounder; #SavageSam; #FredGipson; #WilliamHArmstrong; #feralboars; #garypaulsen;
Finished One, Not Another
Finishing In the Words of E. B. White, Quotations from America’s Most Companiable of Writers, (2020) was one of those soft letdowns. I could have read more. The entry from 1938 about his having owned 117 chairs, sold off half his possessions only to find that he had merely scratched the surface, was followed by an excerpt from Charlotte’s Web: “A rat never knows when something is going to come in handy. I never throw anything away.” How could I not smile?
After deciding not to finish Watchers by Dean Koontz (1987) I could make a guess as to why journalist, author Rick Bragg chose it as one of his favorite dog stories. Even though the first chapter starting with the good robo-dog was engaging, the shift to creepy and then sadistic scenarios was a turn off. What a relief not to force myself to cringe my way through it in order find out how it all turned out. Oh well.
Thank you to all the viewers who turned out for the first virtual Rochester Children’s Book Festival Kids’ Books Roc, on Saturday. It was fun, and obvious to see that the presenters enjoyed themselves too.
#amreading; #RACWI; #RochesterNY; #ebwhite; #rickbragg; #deankoontz;
Kids Books Roc!
It is a pleasure to repeat the announcement I will be part of an authors’ panel tomorrow at the Rochester Area Children’s Writers and Illustrators online book festival Kids Books Roc! It’s a great line-up of 43 authors and illustrators, Sat. Nov. 6, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. I am on from 4 to 5 p.m. in Room 1: How To Write Non- Fiction That Middle Graders Want To Read with Ronny Frishman, Andrea Page, and Sally Valentine. https://www.liftbridgebooks.com/rochester-childrens-book-festival
It bugged me that I couldn’t remember the exact title of the book that I’ve been reading: In the Words of E. B. White, Quotations from America’s Most Companiable of Writers, edited by Martha White (2020). I envied Martha White once I learned she was E. B.’s granddaughter. I imagined something idyllic, like the softly-lit, honest but kind world that Charlotte wove in the barn in Charlotte’s Web. I didn’t grow up with that book, nor Stuart Little, which I found peculiar. Reading his words triggered nostalgia for a perfect world that didn’t exist, making me wish I were wittier and a more clever writer. The way he wrote about turning away from the world and all its troubles and spending time admiring nature worked for me.
#amreading; #ownvoices; #RACWI; #RochesterNY; #ebwhite;
Living with Dogs
When I returned Dark and Shallow Lies to my branch library I told the librarian how much I had enjoyed it. She in turn told another worker there who was delighted to hear about it and we enjoyed that sweet high sharing a tip for a great read. I also told the librarian I couldn’t find all the five dog books Rick Bragg had said were his favorites. His new book The Speckled Beauty (Oct. 2021) was mentioned along with My Dog Skip (1995) by Willie Morris; The Call of the Wild by Jack London (1903); Savage Sam by Fred Gibson, (1962); Watchers by Dean Koontz (1987) and an essay by E. B. White, edited by Martha White (2013). I enjoy letting my fingers do the walking through the online catalogue and was able to place a hold on 3 out 5. Having read Call of the Wild decades ago, I decided to pass on that but could not find Savage Sam there, or at my second favorite go-to place, Abe books.
It made my day to bring home Speckled Beauty, My Dog Skip and collected essays of E.B White. So far, I went through Skip that rainy afternoon and evening and started and later finished Speckled the next day. So much for lamenting our rainy fall weather. Skip is a memoir of an only child growing up during WWII greatly enhanced by the shenanigans of his lively dog.
It’s hard to imagine anyone sticking with a dog as difficult as Speck, but Rick and the Bragg family do. This memoir starts out slowly, but picks up as it goes and I couldn’t wait to see how things turned out. Ends up, quietly for Rick who has struggled with illness, and fair for the astounding dog that could have been dead a dozen times. Another good read.
It is a pleasure to repeat the announcement I will be part of an authors’ panel at the Rochester Area Children’s Writers and Illustrators online book festival Kids Books Roc! It’s a great line-up of 43 authors and illustrators, Saturday Nov. 6, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. I am on from 4 to 5 p.m. in Room 1: How To Write Non- Fiction That Middle Graders Want To Read with Ronny Frishman, Andrea Page, and Sally Valentine. https://www.liftbridgebooks.com/rochester-childrens-book-festival.
#amreading; #RACWI; #RochesterNY; #rickbragg; #williemorris; #jacklondon; #jackgibson; #deankoontz; #ownvoices; www.rcbfest.com; #ebwhite;
Upcoming author panel
It is a pleasure to announce I will be part of an authors’ panel at the Rochester Area Children’s Writers and Illustrators online book festival Kids Books Roc! It’s a great line-up of 43 authors and illustrators, Saturday Nov. 6, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. I am on from 4 to 5 p.m. in Room 1: How To Write Non- Fiction That Middle Graders Want To Read with Ronny Frishman, Andrea Page, and Sally Valentine. https://www.liftbridgebooks.com/rochester-childrens-book-festival.
Over the summer, I was so excited to start the Canterbury Classics, Charles Dickens Four Novels (2019) of The Adventures of Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations, that I skipped the introduction and dove into Oliver Twist. Last week I finally finished Great Expectations and same as with Oliver Twist, it took me a while to shake the lingering blues after reading Pip’s tale of woe. After finishing them all, I turned to the introduction by Ernest Hilbert, PhD. His facts and information were fascinating and made much more sense after reading the foursome. My understanding of Dickens and his complicated life grew tremendously. Sobering.
The list of books suggestions from KidLit411 could keep me busy for a decade. I finally read an earlier posting that mentioned a debut YA novel by Ginny Myers Sain. I started Dark and Shallow Lies (2021) cautiously because I don’t like gore, but her setting in a tiny backwater town in Louisiana with the dubious distinction of being the Psychic Capital of the World drew me in. The story followed Grey, a high school student who returned for the summer, months after her best friend Elora had disappeared. Elora was one of group of teens who each had a different psychic skill. Wow! Myers Sain hit one nail on the head after the next with descriptions of the range, depth and hardships that came with each ability. It made me wonder if that’s what that odd word neuro-divergent was all about. It had taken me a long time to understand that I was clairaudient, so reading about talents I had never heard of was refreshing. The story itself was a complicated murder mystery that the author pulled together as a massive hurricane barreled into the Gulf Coast. My only afterthought was it was hard to tell if the locals in the struggling Cajun, Acadian community, were all white. Even so, a powerful story about hidden abuse.
#amreading; #ownvoices; #RACWI; #RochesterNY #ginnymyersain; #KidLit411;
Happy Birthday Nikki Grimes!
Even if I had next to nothing to say today, it is an honor to send Happy Birthday greetings to Nikki Grimes, poet and author extraordinaire! If it weren’t for the national group SCBWI and our local RACWI, I wouldn’t know about this remarkable, magnificent woman. Thanks for blessing our world with works that uplift and inspire!
That said, I have started Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (1861) and am amazed at his skill in describing ordinary scenes and spot-on about the double standards, cruelty and poverty that so many ordinary people lived under, in 1800s England.
#amreading; #ownvoices; #SCBWI; #RACWI; #RochesterNY #nikkigrimes;
Last week, I had the mixed blessing of lugging home an armload of books from the library that was heavier than what I liked to carry. But right away at home I sat down and read Nikki Grimes’ Growin’ (1977) the story of a feisty girl Pumpkin who got in the face of a sullen boy, Free. Despite being a bit dated, it was full of believable scenarios of school children in New York City moving on after a death and job loss. My Man Blue (1999) was a wonderful, touching take on the friendship between a boy without a dad and a man who had lost his son. At Break of Day (1999) paired her rewording of the biblical creation story with magnificent artwork –breathtaking and uplifting. As for Shoe Magic (2000) – what fun! How I wish I’d read books like them to my children when they were young.
It took me a few tries to find the haiku buried in plain sight in Pocket Full of Poems (2001). Worth the effort. At Jerusalem’s Gate: Poems of Easter (2006) was also magnificent. The combination of the retelling of the Passover story and the colorful illustrations was breathtaking. Grimes worked her healing word-magic again in Oh, Brother! (2008) in which the older boy in a blended family of a newly-married mom with a son and dad with a son, learned to trust there was enough love to go around. The love even grew with the addition of a baby sister. Sweet. The first illustration in Voices of Christmas (2010) of the archangel Gabriel was so powerful it took me by surprise. The text and image for each of the characters, Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, Zechariah, a neighbor, the innkeeper, a shepherd, Gaspar, Herod, Melchior, Simeon, Anna, Balthasar, and the reader, was a wonderful step-by-step walk through the Christmas story from each point of view. Holy, wholly genius!
Nina Allender Suffrage Cartoonist: With a Drawing Pencil She Helped Win the Vote for Women, by Ronny Frishman (2020), is a short, fact-filled biography. There was so much history in it, that I will have to study it again. And, I have been plugging away at Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities, aiming for 25 pp. a day and sometimes succeeding.
So Many Good Books
Because I enjoyed Nikki Grimes’ One Last Word (2017) so much and am not familiar with her work, I placed a number of her books on hold. The first one that came in to my branch library was Dyamonde Daniel: Make Way for Dyamonde Daniel (2009). What a good and quick read after a long day. Despite being a bit dated in pre-cellphone time, the characters are real, the New York City setting is believable, and Dyamonde’s decision to find out what’s bugging a new boy at school leads to a good ending. I’m looking forward to more.
Congratulations to me! I finally finished How Long Will I Cry? Voices of Youth Violence. Each interview was honest and good and I’m glad I did. In, Home Was the Three of Us, teaching artist Jeff Maldonado Sr. shared about how he coped after the unexpected death of his gifted son Jeff Jr. Their neighborhood was covered in reminders, J-Def R.I.P., they received letters from strangers, there was a peace march and spontaneous fundraisers for the funeral. Maldonado handled the grief was by painting an ofrenda, an altar, for a three-month exhibit for the Day of the Dead at the Mexican Art Museum that included a video, and handwritten personal notes.
In The Funeral Home Lady, Cathlene Johnson, a retired funeral home manager, shared how her role was to be there patiently while others’ lives were in turmoil. Some people came back to her just to talk and she saw that the need to be comforted was the same for the family of victims as the family of murderers.
Daisy Camacho shared in The Scar Tells a Story, how when she was a doctoral student in developmental psychology, she attended a house party where the person she went with was randomly killed. She was shot in the neck and has a scar that shows when she tilts her head back, when she’s laughing. In the final interview How Do You Learn to Live Again?, the mother of the student shot at that fateful party, Joy McCormack, told of the despair and deep depression she struggled with after Frankie’s death. It took years before she could laugh and smile again, and to her surprise, the day she did, her other son happened to take of picture at just the right time.
On a gray and wet Sunday, I started tiptoeing my way into Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. My mantra is, “I can read 25 pages at a time.” Between the old-fashioned style and horrible descriptions of lawlessness and crime in 1755 London, and poverty, filth and stench tenements in Paris in the shadow of Notre Dame Cathedral, it’s not a fun read. I don’t make it through 25 pages every time.
I counted how many books I read in September: 15.
The similarity between two new books, Thunder and Cluck: Friends Do Not Eat Friends, by Jill Esbaum (2021) and Trejo: My Life of Crime, Redemption and Hollywood, by Danny Trejo with Donal Logue (2021) is a surprising and a different take on the painful tale in Dicken’s Oliver Twist that I finished a week ago. In the graphic easy reader, an orange-and-purple dinosaur learned to get along with a blue-green insect that was not fazed by its size, roar or rage. Cluck asked Thunder for its version of how things were supposed to go, and then asked more questions. By the end, Thunder changed from a predator to a friend. At first the pace seemed tedious. After I re-read it, I saw how Cluck’s patience allowed the beast to change at its own pace. Genius.
The beginning chapters of Trejo were so brutal I cringed waiting for the shift into redemption. Danny Trejo’s training into a leading family of crime lords was as stunning in its truthfulness as Dickens was about urban crime in 1800s London. Trejo’s shift from utter despair to wondering if there could be a better way to live, is wonderful. The bumpy ride he had on his road of sobriety over the next 20, 30, 40 years was engrossing. I’m a bit curious to watch Machete, the first super-hero action flick to feature a Mexican hero, and the movie he made with his son, From Son to Father. Trejo’s honesty about anger is refreshing.
The horror of Oliver Twist’s step brother being hell-bent on turning his innocent little brother into a thief still lingered and reading Trejo’s story pulled me out of it. The centuries old legacy of anger and violence and how to address it is as timely as ever. Whether the recent surge of solar flares made a difference or not, I felt very testy lately. Computer techno glitches sure didn’t help.
Thank YOU, Floyd Cooper!
By the time I get my books from the library, I don’t remember what prompted my choices, but I have enjoyed this latest bunch. It is hard to say which I like more: Floyd Cooper’s illustrations or text? Mandela, 1996, is a superb biography with a satisfying author’s note. It may be impossible to read Cumbayah (1998) without singing along. Jump, from the Life of Michael Jordan (2005) and Willie and the All-Stars (2008) are terrific. Max and the Tag-along Moon, Grandfather, grandson and the moon above them both (2017) is exactly what the world needs more of. Same goes for Coming Home from the Life of Langston Hughes (2021). Thank YOU, Floyd Cooper!
To my surprise, three more interviews from How Long Will I Cry? Voices of Youth Violence have been sobering but good. In The Walk Home, a couple, Juan and Dr. Esther Pitts, shared stories of being one of the first black families in a particular neighborhood, of it changing, how they lost two of their teenagers to violence in 2009 and how they coped. So powerful. In the interview, When a Bullet Enters a Body, Dr. Nancy L. Jones, who retired as chief examiner in the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office, gave a tour of the facility and that was processing 4,500 to 5,500 cases a year. She saw her work as bringing peace to the families and friends of the deceased. In, How Dare I Still Be Happy, a woman nicknamed Tu-Tu, who grew up with her grandparents in Chicago, got by starting at age 15 under the protection of a gang and had two daughters in 1991 and 1995. After more bumpy roads, she moved away and was amazed she could still laugh and be happy.
Don’t let the Pigeon Drive the Bus by Mo Willems (2003) surprised me because I didn’t know what to expect. Even though it came across as dated, this story about a foolish bird hit the spot.
Life can be so strange, right? Last week, when I checked my blog, it seemed that several of them had not uploaded since mid-August. Yikes! Not a crisis. I did finally finish Oliver Twist, by telling myself I could handle Dicken’s long-winded prose 25-pages at a time. I never expected it to be so gruesome and the cruelty lingered long after the sweet and happy ending.
#amreading; #ownvoices; #SCBWI; #RochesterNY; #Floyd Cooper; #Mo Willems; #OliverTwist;
Tough issues and happy thoughts
One of the things I tell myself is that I’m better at remembering faces than names. So the other day when I was scolding myself for mixing up Nikki Giovanni and Nikki Grimes, I did the obvious and googled them. Yes, I had the pleasure of hearing Nikki Giovanni’s interview at the SCBWI summer conference and admired her tremendously. Yes, I am in the middle of reading Nikki Grimes’ One Last Word (2017) and savoring it as I go. Then, after reading copies of PW out of order, this week I read the Aug. 30 issue that featured Grimes’ back-page essay on Soapbox. What a life – can you imagine making it through countless hardships, achieving remarkable success and then having school districts claim your sensitive treatment of painful topics is inappropriate? Grimes’ essay gave me a boost about tackling my own tough issues.
Speaking of tough issues, three more chapters in How Long Will I Cry? Voices of Youth Violence, are stunning. In, Where in This Community Does It Say We Care?, Chicago neighbor Diane Latiker told of adding bricks with the names of 118 murdered children to a memorial she started in 2007. As of the time of the interview it had 376 bricks and the Chicago City Council approved a larger site for a public park for her Kids Off the Block that had already helped 2,000 kids. In Hell Broke Loose, Hynth Davis, a 20 y-o neighbor described being the only of his friends to survive high school, one of the fallen being someone described in Latiker’s interview. In I Only Work Here, retired police captain Thomas McMahon described how his work day began with each tragedy in various Chicago neighborhoods, particularly the one right next to the blocks where Latiker was doing her successful outreach. The odds seems so tough then. We need to hear more of the good things that are being done. Grimes’ On Bully Patrol is a magnificent expansion of Georgia Douglas Johnson’s Hope. Her final poem, I Leave the Glory Days is a sweet and uplifting ending to a moving collection. My list of books to read seems never ending and adding each of the authors and illustrators at the end of her book will no doubt take me all winter. What a happy thought!
What a genius!
Sometimes it’s hard to decide where to draw the line and give up. One of the strangest books I have ever read was Daniel and Dani Nayeri’s Another Faust (2009). This was a retelling of the tale of bargaining with the devil, in which five lonely, miserable teens learned to manage their ill-gained powers. The shifts in mindset within and among the characters was so fluid, as well as the alternating inserts about historical figures who’d manipulated time and destiny, that it was one of the most slithery stories I’ve ever read. Some of it was uncomfortable, but it was also intriguing to wonder whether good triumphed over evil. I was glad I stuck with it but couldn’t do the same with, Straw House, Wood House, Brick House (2011). But I got his drift -- teens and YA readers hate reading boring stuff. The contrast between Straw House and Nikki Grimes’ magnificent One Last Word (2017) and a few more chapters in How Long Will I Cry? Voices of Youth Violence, was too much genre hopping for me. Instead, I decided to switch to Nayeri’s Everything Sad Is Untrue (2020). Finishing it over the 9/11 weekend was oddly reassuring, because I was so pleased with how he told his story, mixing it with his Iranian culture and bringing in everything from the Hobbits to Super Heroes to Scheherazade to fill in the many blanks. What a genius!
#amreading; #ownvoices; #RACWI; #RochesterNY; #danielnayeri; #nikkigrimes; #teenfiction;
Labor Day Leisure
What a privilege on Labor Day to share a blog post. Lately it’s been challenging to stay calm as national and international news screamed so loud. I took relief from the news and hot and humid weather by finishing Richard Peck’s New York Time (1981). His take on a middle-aged white woman whose suburban life fell apart got off to a slow start, but once it took off, it did! He has such a way with oddballs and stereo-type-busting people. What a master story-teller.
After another humid scorcher of a day, I tackled Enid Blyton’s The Adventures of the Six Cousins (1948 and 1950/2010). I’m not sure where I got her name, but after reading that she wrote 700 books for children, some translated into 30 languages, I decided to study her. At first glance the story seemed out-of-date with its English mom, dad, 3 kids, pet and barnyard animals, but there was so much more to this paired book about country-mouse and city-mouse cousins who had to get along in a cramped old farmhouse. Without ever mentioning a countryside that would have been rebuilding itself after WWII, she captured the clash of personalities and lifestyles with kindness, honesty and clarity. I can see why they were so popular. Reminded me of Pearl Buck’s riveting books from the 1930s about China.
It is so humbling to tackle a few more chapters from How Long Will I Cry? Voices of Youth Violence. We’ve had enough sad news going around Rochester with gun violence that you would think reading more about it would be a downer, but no. In Trying to Break the Cycle, one author described her bleak childhood as a Vietnamese American in Uptown Chicago; her rebellious detour into hanging with violent peers; a brush with the law and decision to make a better life for herself. What a turn-around. At the time of her interview she was studying criminal justice in college.
In The Girl Was a Fighter, Cristina Figueroa described constant beatings at home and the relentless threat of getting beaten after school. She decided that getting pregnant at age 14 and living with a thug was one way to get her own home, but that teen father also turned abusive. She moved back with her parents, taking her 2 year-old and 4 year-old stepson. Then, she and her best friend decided to take the GED and she went on to Northeastern Illinois University, worked fulltime and became a probation officer. Thinking she knew it all, she got a wake-up call in learning to listen to youth whose stories were as harsh as hers, but varied tremendously. One of the toughest street-fighting girls she ever met ended up doing volunteer work in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. Impressive.
#amreading; #ownvoices; #SCBWI; #LaborDay; #RochesterNY;
While making my way slowly through Oliver Twist, I commented to my family how in the days before electricity, TV, radio, all the computers, Dickens spends an entire page describing the city at night, in rainy weather with biting winds, that barely changes as dawn slowly reveals its filth and poverty. I’m getting weary here, but one installment at a time, they seemed to hit the spot for his readers who would have known every street, alley and all the bleak scenery he described. I long for a zippier speed.
To my surprise, I’m having a similar experience reading Richard Peck’s New York Time (1981). He is spot on about a certain white-middle-class female mindset, but so many of the quips are dated enough that I miss them, and pages of them get tedious. His Through A Brief Darkness (1973) is another powerful and painful page turner about a high school student whose family has moved to a chi-chi Connecticut suburb, where her struggles to get used to chi-chi life are upended by getting raped by the son of a local rich family. Considering the date of publication, this is a brutally frank take on blaming the victim. Ouch! I would say, he and Dickens are kindred spirits.