More Books

I devour historical romances. The historical details and events may be carefully researched, but the plots are not moored to reality. This is perfect because I am not looking for reality when I read historical romance.

One of my favorite authors is Georgette Heyer. Heyer wrote for an earlier generation so her books never impose 21st century norms on the heedlessly rich of the past. Her fictional lords and ladies reveal their character through their treatment of lesser beings — like servants or shopkeepers. However, none of them apologizes for obscene wealth acquired from cotton, indigo, or sugar plantations or extracted, with the help of the British military, from China or India. In real life, these are ill gotten gains. In Heyer’s books, the wealth just IS and the source is never examined. The plots are light-hearted with clever banter and amusing characters. No mental exertion required.

I like a romance that glosses right over such concerns so, as the reader, I am as untroubled as the heroine is when accepting a glass of champagne from a liveried footman. When I want challenging reading, I know where to look.

Some contemporary authors feel compelled to create heroines who found orphanages, schools, or hospitals for the indigent. Or heroes who are exemplary landlords and lawmakers on the right side of history, right along with their wise investments. Often, this kind of main character, one who could stand up under modern scrutiny, will pull me right out of a story. It’s a tricky goal for a writer: a main character with access to unlimited wealth who is one of the good guys. (It is nice when anyone recognizes injustice, but it ruins escapist fiction when the reader can’t escape.)

Lately, I’ve set aside my historical romance. I now read with ulterior motives. Submissions to literary agents often require a list of “comp” titles, published books whose readers might also buy the manuscript under consideration. So I’m reading lots of cozy mysteries to find comp titles for my unpublished novel, Thrift Store Daze,  which is also a cozy mystery.

Mostly, I am not entertained.

The ones I toss aside after ten pages or three chapters, resemble Mad Libs — just fill in the blank for your plot and start writing your scenes.

Example: (Obnoxiously nosy but thoroughly lovable main character) and her (quirky animal companion) move to (picturesque town) where she opens (cute shop or trendy service). She meets (Gay or POC friend) and (hunky neighbor) who is a (cop or carpenter etc.). She eats (tasty sweet thing: recipe included) and stumbles onto a murder scene. Body is of (person nobody liked). Incredible coincidences allow her to untangle the motive and nail the killer.

Historical romance novels are also predictable and trite. I think fantasy is easier for me to swallow when it’s set in the past. I get annoyed with the main characters in contemporary cozy mysteries who are too much like people who annoy me in real life.

Do I even like cozies? Oh, yes.  I like the Agatha Raisin and Hamish MacBeth series by M. C. Beaton. But I would never claim my book could sell like Beaton’s books do. Arthur Nersesian’s Mesopotamia is a ride you don’t want to miss, though it starts out a bit dark. Food of Love: A Comedy About Friendship, Chocolate and a Small Nuclear Bomb by Anne R. Allen is not exactly a cozy mystery but it’s close and it’s funny.

The right books are out there somewhere. I am still on the hunt.

Please! Point me toward a cozy mystery that I will happily read all the way through — if you can.

Familiar Songs Part 2

Whose history is it anyway?

A friend gifted me with The American Songbook Treasury, copyright 1964. As I was pounding away on the piano this morning, aiming for a livelier rendition of “Sweet Betsy from Pike,” an observation popped into my head: My friend Mary might not find the verse that begins “The Injuns came down in a wild yelling horde” amusing. Mary holds tribal membership.

My father used to tell me that folk music in pre-radio times reported current events to the illiterate masses. (I formed the childish idea that songs were the only form of news for most people.)

According to the Song Treasury, “Sweet Betsy” was popular during the California gold rush days and reflected “the hardships of our westward-bound ancestors.” So there’s our point of view.  In 1849, Betsy and Ike would have been among 25,000 -30,000 others following the lure of gold across the plains. No wonder the song was popular. But that viewpoint leaves out those of us who have ancestors who traveled east over the Pacific to California or who tried to stay where they were (e.g. those “Injuns).

When history represents only one point of view, usually that of the victors, any inconvenient details that don’t support the narrative are left out. Leave out the indigenous peoples populating the plains, and the doctrine of Manifest Destiny triumphs.

But there was a lot going on in that vast stretch of territory between Pike County, Missouri, and California. Who was living there? Why were they harassing Betsy and Ike?

Too often, we swallow our news in whatever form it presents itself, like it’s impartial. Even “Just the facts, ma’am” requires a context.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy slid their distorted “facts” into textbooks and enshrined their version of history in innumerable monuments and statues. Their narrative found fertile soil in a nation overgrown with racism. The UDC were technically on the losing side of the Civil War but they triumphed in maintaining white supremacy through pen, marble, and noose. They were the ladies embroidering KKK robes by lamplight. Their descendants are among the beneficiaries of an exploitive economic system that still serves Whites over everyone else. A few weeks ago, the UDC memorial building was fire bombed. It is not possible to feel much sympathy for the property destruction.

In this age of video, us White people are forced to examine our trust in official reports. Obnoxious, hostile, and violent police officers are usually outside of our personal experience. But video shows us how Black citizens die for minor infractions. The police spokesmen sing those same old songs, “Resisting Arrest” and “Drunk and Disorderly”. Will you believe them or your lying eyes?

People are singing new verses to old songs as they march in the streets, wearing masks and social distancing. And somewhere, someone is composing the Sonata for the Pandemic on an out-of-tune piano.

The World Expands

“How old were you when you first experienced integration?”

That was the question Margaret Edds asked at the beginning of her talk on her book We Face the Dawn several years ago. I didn’t have to think hard to answer it.

I was eighteen. I left my all white town for college, never having had a conversation with a Black person. Now, here I was, one of thousands of young people in a multi-racial, multi ethnic crowd. Inside that swarm of bright-eyed, energetic people bursting with opinions and perspectives, I felt the world expand. This was what I’d been missing in high school.

I (mistakenly) didn’t consider myself a product of white supremacy — I was better than that! — but I knew that my light skin tilted the scales in my favor. I benefitted from institutional racism.

My little sundown home town is in Ohio but now I live in the capitol of the Confederacy, Richmond, Virginia. Like many other U.S. cities these days, Richmond’s streets and parks are filled with protestors coalesced around the Black Lives Matter movement. The towering monument to Robert E. Lee and the Lost Cause, now colorfully contextualized, is a focal point for unrest. A few blocks away, the headquarters of the Daughters of the Confederacy was fire bombed.

A friend’s comment struck me: “These young people aren’t going to put up with what we put up with!”

HOLD ON!, I said to myself. “HAVE I been putting up with stuff?”

Well, duh — YES! I’ve been well aware that BPOC are abused and disrespected by our white dominated society. But — here’s an example of white privilege — I didn’t have to think about it everyday. My efforts to ameliorate conditions were piddling at best. This tree has to come out by the roots.

If I don’t want to put up with it anymore, what do I do now? Being nice is not enough.

I turned to a trusted advisor — Google. I read articles and watched YouTube and listened to podcasts.

I bought the Me & White Supremacy workbook and am using it as best I can.

I’ve donated to two bail funds for protestors and set up a monthly donation to Friends Association for Children. Founded with the help of Quakers in 1871 to care for newly-freed orphans, Friends still serves a primarily Black community. I increased our long-standing monthly donation to the Southern Poverty Legal Center.

I’ve written to my county supervisor to urge creation of a civilian review board for our police department and asked others to do the same. If we stay on it, it will happen.

I am deliberately choosing books by BIPOC*. I’m following Black authors and book reviewers on Twitter and YouTube.

It’s not very much and it’s not enough. But I’m learning. At the very least, I might avoid offending  BIPOC through ignorance.

Are you also white? How are you responding?

 

 

*Black, Indiginous, People of Color

 

 

 

 

 

 

Those old (somewhat) familiar songs

IMG_0114Do you remember old songs with pleasure? Really old songs? One hundred years old or more?

I do. I don’t know why I remember them or where I first heard them. I’ve never been a fan of barbershop quartets and I wasn’t in the school choir. But I’ll sometimes hum that big hit of 1892 — “Bicycle Built for Two.”

My last piano lesson, pre-coronavirus, was February 1, and I have been practicing the same two assigned pieces every morning since then, right after I pull the quilt up over the bed and before breakfast. After weeks of daily exercise, my fingers fall smoothly on the right keys for all the chords, without crashes. The harder piece begins to sound like music. The other piece is a march so even through fumbles, a steady rhythm saves it. 

But I have to practice something besides those two pieces.

Happily for me, a friend, learning I was taking piano lessons, passed along her childhood copy of  The American Song Treasury – 100 Favorites and it was right on top of my piano, staring me in the eye.  Almost every song inside is familiar to me.

But not some of the words. A cheerful tune does not guarantee cheerful verses.

Sure, things are great for Daisy Belle and her anonymous groom on that tandem bike, but what’s really going on in “There is a Tavern in the Town”? Turns out it’s not a jolly drinking song at all. It’s a song of betrayal ending with a grave.

And that haunting waltz, “After the Ball is Over”? It’s the heartbreaking story of a man’s true love, lost to him through his own mistrust, and how she died and he never loved another — as told to his little niece. Now there’s a bedtime story any little child would enjoy!

“The Man on the Flying Trapeze”? The handsome aerialist steals the singer’s girlfriend. “Listen to the Mocking Bird” is a tearjerker. The Sweet Hallie of the song sleeps in the valley and the mocking bird sings over her grave. Oh, also weeping willows (of course). “Camptown Races” glories in the joys of gambling. “Billy Boy” is about a child bride, unsavory (to say the least) from today’s perspective. But the tune is catchy.

Nursery rhymes can be problematic for me, too. Is Bobby Shaftoe trustworthy? What the heck is going on with the Spanish nut tree? Where do I stand on the politics of “Goosey, Goosey Gander”?

Because I never learned to carry a tune, I don’t condone these verses with my own voice. Why wreck a good tune with off-key singing?

If only I could refrain from thinking, the music would sound even better!

 

You give me reason to live

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Chicken clucking about elderberries

Good produce did not grace my childhood.  We had bananas and red delicious apples and two kinds of vegetables: canned or frozen. Mama’s choices were limited. She didn’t keep a garden and she didn’t have a car to search out better grocery stores or summer produce stands. 

There were watermelons, of course, and those were wonderful. And for a few days in the summer ripe pears fell from a tree in a neighbors’ yard. We kids brushed the wasps off and ate around the rotten spots with juice dripping off our chins.

After I married, my in-laws supplied us with bushels (literally) of fresh vegetables. I took up gardening, too, though not on the same scale as my in-laws. Green beans snap louder when you pick them from your own vines. And we live close to a farmers’ market piled high with all the produce I don’t grow. And, oh, the fruit! The glorious fruit.

In our kitchen, right now, there is watermelon, three kinds of peaches, nectarines, small yellow plums, apricots, blackberries, red raspberries, blueberries and sweet, plump cherries.

Spring through fall is a parade of fruits at Lakeside Farmers’ Market, from the first strawberries through the last kinds of apple. The peaches taste better every year. To smell of a ripe white peach is reminiscent of a rose. It is no work at all to eat three of the little donut peaches in a sitting.

Today, in our own back yard, birds are plucking elderberries off the bushes, the figs are fattening, and the persimmon tree sports squat green globes. Egg-shaped fruits ripen on  the passion flower vine, but our June apples are long gone, baked in a pie.

Are you feeling depressed and discouraged from an overdose of The News? Are your brain cells discombobulated from Too Much Screen Time?

Cleanse your mental palate with a peach! Savor a miracle of creation. The right peach can rekindle your appreciation for the world.

 

 

 

Endangered Species or Evolution?

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A friend’s email begins: “Thank you for your real mail note sometime ago.”

I am sorry that my friend feels her email message is somehow Less Than a snail mail note. If an infrequent email is the best way for her to send me news of her life, she can be sure I am happy whenever that email pops up in my inbox.

Of course, “real” mail has the distinct advantage of being tangible.

Real mail can be crushed in anger and lit with a match. It can be ripped up in frustration — used as lining on the bottom of the parakeet’s cage — soaked in tears or treasured for years.

My own emails can take on a cold tone I never intended. My friend of the email above, in contrast, writes in a way that even Comic Sans MS font cannot diffuse the warmth and personality.

Email is great for factual messages — date, time, place — but usually too dry for nuance. A group email to my bookclubs is so much more efficient than individual phone calls.

Text messaging my have the same built in limitations as email but it also has easy-to-use emoticons, the hieroglyphics of the modern age. A smiling cat face humanizes any message (sometimes inappropriately!). And texting is so immediate, so of-the-moment, that it can’t be beat for sending out a “We are running five minutes late” kind of message. Take THAT, snail mail!

It’s nice to live in an age with so many choices, but, I confess, I do like snail mail. A handmade card, a lovely paper, inked script in lavender or orange — snail mail can be a small treat for the senses.

Meditation on updating an address book

Free range rooster.

Who stays in? Who’s left out? And  what painful twinges will bite me when I read some of these names?

These are the questions facing me as I slip a new address book out of its clear cellophane envelope and set it on the desk beside the old, battered address book.

The new address book sports a pristine white cover with large, evenly-space gold dots. It opens flat for easy use. It is larger than the shabby old address book with its worn corners, covers bulging from the scraps of paper tucked between its pages, messy with crossed-out entries and new information glued over the old.

The new address book is appealing, in part, because its holds no entries. Each page waits to be filled in. Like January 1, it’s all new. Anything is possible and there are no mistakes and no regrets. This address book, like anything else new and shiny, promises a fresh start to a small section of my life.  I am lured by this golden mirage, and allow myself to fall into the myth of consumerism: The right purchase can save me!

Of course the new address book is not really a pill for what ails me. I am way behind in my correspondence (procrastination? distraction?) and, about those names and addresses that won’t be transferred, I am sad. But I will have to face the names and addressed in the old address book to fill in the blanks in the new one, even if this is a task fraught with emotion. Each name sparks a response, however fleeting.

There are entries that won’t be transferred because the names that head them have gone home, passed on beyond the reach of even the United States Post Office, as efficient as its mail delivery system is.

My brother recently assumed membership in this group and I miss writing to him, which I did two or three times a month. He never wrote back. In my letters, I wrote about whatever held my interest at the time. Only beside his bed in the hospice wing of the hospital, where he lay comatose, did I learn that he not only read my letters, he also sometimes read them aloud to others. I hoped to brighten up his day with my letters. I guess I did.

No, my brother no longer needs space in my address book. Nor does my baby sister. She is angry at me for undoubtedly appears to her more than sufficient grounds. She moved across the country and sent no forwarding address. I can’t blame her. It’s not her fault. But I miss her wit and sparkling stories. Will I ever see her or my nephew again?  Of all the family traits we would carry through the generations, never-speaking-to-you-again is one I had hoped would drop from our DNA. (Sigh.)

Other old entries memorialize several valiant crusaders for the welfare of mankind. These friends, too, have passed on. If they have found an afterlife, I hope it provides a comforting perspective on the troubles of civilization so they can put down their banners and petitions and put up their feet. They did their best and deserve some rest.

What to do with those addresses of people I haven’t heard from in years? This man was widowed and took up a new life in Seattle. It seems unlikely he’d still be living in the same apartment. I write his name in ink and his address in pencil. Here are good friends from college. We were witnesses at their marriage. Though they are still together and still overseas, this address surely isn’t still current. Again: name in ink, address in pencil.

I work my way through the alphabetized entries, smiling at some names and (a couple times) cringing at other names. At the end of the old book, I toss its pages into recycling. All that remains is a pile of loose notes and clipping that were tucked between its pages. What is all this stuff, anyway?

Mostly, is it the current addresses of inmates whose “housing assignments” may change at any time at the whim of the state. And there are lists of internet pass words. What to do with these?

And here is where I make the happy discovery of a folder attached to the back cover of my spanking new purchase — a perfect place to tuck these loose papers. In this one minuscule way, my new address book delivers on that implied promise of a Better Life through Consumerism.

But wait! Oh no! This new book is too large to fit in the drawer where I kept the old one.

Now I have to clean the drawer out. Once again, I am ensnared by materialism.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Music in the air

img_20190416_080729.jpgWhile waiting in my car for my daughter-n-law to emerge from Kroger’s with her shopping cart, I lifted my head from my book at the sound of whistling. A man with a single bag of groceries swinging from his hand walked across the parking lot under the clear blue sky of a perfect spring morning, whistling a clear and perfect tune. The notes hung in the air, outside of time, creating a clear and perfect moment.

That same evening, as I parked my car in another large parking lot, I was surprised by the sound of a recorder weaving under and over the soft buzz of a light rain. A woman sat under the canopy in front of Barnes & Noble, a music book open on the bench in front of her. She wasn’t as accomplished as the morning’s whistler. Her notes were sometimes sour and the tune was hard to follow. It sounded to my ears as if she were trying the music for the first time. Still — there she was! playing a recorder in front of the book store in the rain.

Could these be the first signs of societal transfiguration, I wondered. If so, what could be next? My neighbor singing along to golden oldies on the radio while he weeds his peas?

Maybe the dog walkers and stroller pushers will leave their phones at home and sing a happy song as they walk down the street past my house. Maybe they will all walk together and sing rounds. The babies will laugh and clap along. The dogs will prance.

Maybe — instead of the harsh racket of lawn mowers, leaf blowers and chain saws — the birdsong of a summer’s day will be over laid with with happy sounds of neighbors on their patios and porches laughing and strumming guitars and dancing to fiddle music. 

What is life for anyway? ear protection, weed killer and uniformly green lawns? or joviality, music and meadows?

My contribution toward this coming transformation? I practice piano with the windows open.

So pull out your trombone or accordion. Pick up your drum sticks or bagpipes. Polish up your flute. Warble with the mocking bird. Be the change I’d like to hear.

 

Lost in Translation

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YouTube found “Havana” by Camila Cabello just for me and I liked it. I listed to it again and again. Havana’s story arch — punctuated with laughter and complete with happy ending — drew me right in. The video switches back and forth, from English to Spanish.

Because I liked “Havana”, YouTube brought me other bi-lingual music videos. I liked those so YouTube presented Spanish only videos, including ones featuring Natalia LaFourcade. Her voice is so pure and her songs so compelling, I was briefly convinced that I must be the last person in the whole world to know about her. Even if you, like me, don’t understand Spanish, surely you know Natalia LaFourcade!

LaFourcado’s “La Llorona” opens with graceful guitar lines and waltzes into a haunting song. A figure draped with an embroidered shawl flits about cemeteries, churches, and streets during Day of the Dead. Candles flicker by tombstones decked with flowers and Marigold petals drift from a child’s hand. Faces in the street are painted like skulls.

When I visited Oaxaca during Day of the Dead, I could feel things happening all around me. But it was like being color blind in front of a peacock. The solemnity passed through me, a sigh of mystery, incomprehensible, foreign.

In a house with the rooms built around an open courtyard, two elderly women sat at a long dining room table, drinking mescal with their late husbands, whose faces smiled from faded photographs decked with flowers. In a cometary after dark, families picnicked on grave sites, sharing food with the dearly departed. Something was happening, but I couldn’t say what.

The song La Llorona was an echo of that feeling. But I thought maybe I could pin it down.

An internet search supplied three different English translations of LaFourcade’s lyrics — different being the key word. At least two of the translations had to be wrong. According to Wikipedia, La Llorona is the legendary Mexican ghost, The Weeping Woman who drowned her own children. The traditional folk-song version has many verses, with multiple interpretations.Death, Life, Loss, and Love are all in there, but they slide around. It is a folksong with a number of meanings. I could forget about pinning it down.

Death, Life, Loss, and Love were also the underpinnings of a lengthy phone conversation between my uncle and me the other night. He would ask me, Do you remember your grandparents’ house on Markley Street? Your Great Grandmother Creager? Her mother, Grandma Clark, who saw Abraham Lincoln from her father’s shoulders? Our Grandmother Barnard? I remember them all. I can pick them out in photos and home movies. They are the main characters in family stories.

My father’s and my uncle’s perspectives are different, so even when they tell the same story, it is not exactly the same. But the woman shine. The stories of these strong women nurtured me. It makes sad to know that someday a descendant will pick up a photo of Grandma Clark without knowing who she was or the courage she wielded as a young widow.

Marigolds, candles, and mescal will not summon any of my grandmothers or my father for a visit, even on Day of the Dead. And I wouldn’t know it if they did? It’s outside our tradition and copying the trappings from Day of the Dead won’t bring us into a space where we will know each other again.

But, even in Oaxaca, someone must remember you to put out your photograph. Someday, no one will remember you or put out your photograph and you, and all your stories, will be truly gone from this world.

 

Brief Comments on Three Books

ONE

The Last Days of Night starts not with a bang, but with bright sparks and a POP. What follows is historically accurate and gruesome enough for a zombie flick.

Author Graham Moore shrinks this tale of the patent wars between George Westinghouse and Thomas Edison and hangs it over a coat hanger constructed of the imagined biography of a real couple, a young New York lawyer and a celebrated opera singer. Also, J.P. Morgan, Nikola Tesla, Fisk College, Niagara Falls, a glittering New York City, and Alexandra Graham Bell.

Our hero, Paul the lawyer, on behalf of inventor Westinghouse, tries to counter the machinations of inventor Edison. Paul gets played. Then he gets wise.

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This story rattles straight down the tracks like the locomotives pulling one of the many trains Paul boards. Each of the seventy-two (yes, 72!) brief chapters starts with a quote from an inventor or scientist. The narration itself shares this bent toward the contemplative even as it moves right along. Paul’s interior monologue is often insightful. 

Abrupt jumps between chapters/scenes can be distracting. And my pleasure in reading was interrupted by wondering which parts of this historical fiction were real and which parts were invented. (The epilogue clears up this up.) To me, the build-up to the climax  was somewhat mechanical, and the conclusion itself was a bit too feel-good to be true.

That said, it’s a good read: Titans of Industry brawl across the North American continent like Godzilla vs Mothra!

 

TWO

After every mass shooting, the cry goes up: Why does this keep happening? Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment is aimed right at naive gun control advocates.

Roxanne Dumbar-Ortiz packs a powerful explanation into these two hundred pages. You may already be aware of the historical events here, but after this book you will no longer see them as isolated incidents, anomalies outside our country’s march 61MaXbW3GkL._AC_UL436_toward liberty and justice for all. This relentless account is a kick in the solar plexus of that comfortable mythology. The book is one bloody scene of genocide and corpse mutilation after another, with context. [If this blog had sound effects, there would be wails and sobbing here.]

Loaded not only opens your eyes, it rips off your eyelids you can never not see this stuff again. You may not agree with Dumbar-Ortiz’s explanation of how we got where we are — but you won’t forget it.

 

 

THREE

 

Any book that can make me see Henry Kissinger as an affectionate friend instead of a comic book villain is a book worth reading! Losing Mum and Pup, A Memoir is that book.81EjHrfOVzL._AC_UL436_

I was no fan of William F. Buckley’s syndicated newspaper column. His over use of five-cylinder words came across as sneering to me and I didn’t understand the underpinnings of his viewpoint. But his son’s novels? Christopher Buckley‘s fiction is funny.

So when I saw the younger Buckley’s name on the spine of this book at Book People, I plucked the book off the shelf. I thought I would enjoy it. I did.

The Buckley’s knew people whose names I know only from the news. Christopher Buckley brings them to life, including his famous father and much-loved mother. Looking back through the lens of this book, I can almost see W.F.B.’s long words as humorous and almost see where he’s coming from.

Losing Mum and Pup is funny. It is touching. It is as real as can be. And it includes one reason the Viet Nam war extended into the Nixon years. All very nice.

Almost restful.