Book review, book reviews, books, Family history, Family story, journalism, librarians, libraries, lifestyle, opinion, Uncategorized, writing

Recent reading adventures: A “Some-ary”

 Before I was a librarian (by which I mean from the time I was about 3), I read a lot.  As a baby journalist in the early 1990s, I started reviewing books and discovered the fun and wonder of sometimes getting paid to read. Which didn’t stop me from continuing to do it for free.

Since becoming a librarian, I have discovered that what I read has now taken on the weird addition of having some sort of Mystical Librarian Stamp of Approval.

I have noticed this both in and outside the library.

Confession: I like it.

So, without further ado, I thought I’d share some of what I’ve been reading lately.

“The Wonderling” by Mira Bartok

thewonderling
I just finished this and wish I hadn’t, because I didn’t want it to end. I’m probably going to read it again. Soon. Evidently there’s a movie deal in the works, and it’s easy to see why. Bartok’s imagination pantry is a well-stocked place, and she’s a great cook.

Because we tend to like our comparisons,  I’m just going to say that this book is what you might get if you tossed Frances Hodgson Burnett, Charles Dickens, Phillip Pullman, Garth Nix, JK Rowling,  Charles deLint and an afternoon soap opera into a blender. Perfect for the tween set and anyone who loves getting lost in a good yarn. (My nephew is totally getting this for Christmas.)

“What this story needs is a Vroom and a Zoom” (A Pig in a Wig book) by Emma J. Virjan

VroomZoom

The Grandkid (aka my favorite small person) was over last night and I read this aloud to him. That was after reading it aloud to Sweetheart. Grandkid was riveted, which is pretty impressive given that he’s 19 months old. Not so surprising, though, because the story is about a race and like Sweetheart, he’s a big motorized things fan. Good for car enthusiasts. Also wee people and the people who love reading to them.

“Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of my Hasidic Roots” by Deborah Feldman

Unorthodox

This one is a library weed my sister told me to read years ago. (There are plenty of copies available in other branches). Feldman describes growing up curious in a religious sect that frowns on imagination and constrains its adherents to the narrowest of options. I have a particular bias for these types of books, partly because I’m in the process of work on a book-like object and partly because someone in our own family a generation back made a similar break, although from a far less (though still plenty) restrictive sect. Being raised by her grandparents after her mother broke away when she was small, leaving her behind, and a father who was part of the community but incapable of caring for her meant she was slightly different and suspect from the start. Growing up, she knew to hide her love of reading and keep trips to the public library secret. As an adult, watching the community protect ideals over exploited and injured community members pushed Halpern to pick a side. In the war between her love for the grandparents who raised her and the chance for her child to grow up whole, she chose her son.

“Miriam’s Secret” by Debby Waldman

MiriamsSecret

Yeah, she’s my sister and yeah, the book is set in on a fictional farm that draws heavily from our family’s farm.  But this Depression-era story of a kid from New York City who spends a few months with her grandparents provides a kids-eye view of life in tough times without a bunch of moralizing and commentary. Same goes for Jewish ritual and practice. It’s all very matter-of-fact and organically woven in to the story, mostly told through the relationships between Miriam, her grandparents and the hired men who help run the farm. Also, anyone who is my cousins will laugh themselves silly at the grandmother in this story. To say ours was never that tender is a major understatement.

“Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson

JustMercy

I’m only on page 23, which is okay because Book Group isn’t until next week. But already I’m looking forward to bedtime so I can read more of this story by a lawyer who has made addressing inequities around mass incarceration and the death penalty his life’s work. And I’m very grateful to Sally for choosing it for us to read. It’s been on my list for awhile, and this is the push I needed to get off my tush and read it.

“Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun” by Sarah Ladipo Manyika

Mule

It’s very short, only 118 pages, but so very good. Another book club pick, this one thanks to Cynthia, who hosted last month. I’ve never met a protagonist like Morayo, maybe because most of the fictional 75-year-olds are supporting characters who are usually supported. By a cane or a wheelchair or some other old-person marker. Morayo is  single, childless, a retired academic who drives a Porsche and is and living the good life in San Francisco. Well, that is, until she falls and breaks her hip. Maybe it’s because I have a mom in a nursing home. Maybe because I’m getting older and have a slew of friends who are single and childless. But this book really resonated. Also, anyone who arranges their books by how well their characters would get along, as Morayo does – real or not – is my kind of person.

 

Facebook Posts

I should probably spend less time reading these, but there is this one group to which I belong that is feeding my brain-growing side a lot. I can’t talk about it, because it’s a secret group. But it’s very good for my soul. And it’s good for my soul to keep up with the people I value in 3D, given our sometimes way-too-busy lives.

 

My Twitter Feed

Not as much here, but it’s interesting to see what people think and to get information on breaking news stories – bearing in mind, of course that it’s always best to verify.

Twitter is also a good place to remember how little you matter if you are not a brand or a celebrity. Most of my posts are met with radio silence. I might as well be posting on my bathroom wall. But it’s okay. In 100 years, no one will care anymore about most of what’s happening now anyway, and so in at least one sense, my tweets are on the leading edge of a curve!

 

Road Signs

Because I drive. And sometimes ride my bike.

 

“Jonah” by Some old Middle Eastern Storytellers (Translation by the Jewish Publication Society)

Yesterday, in Mom’s room. As part of my alternative Yom Kippur observance.

 

 

“Believe Me: A Memoir of Love, Death and Jazz Chickens” by Eddie Izzard

BelieveMe

See above about “Unorthodox” and book-like objects. I am a big Eddie Izzard fan, so when I saw this on our “New” shelf, I was all over it. I read it at work and wrote a review for a future issue of the library newsletter. It’s pretty humble stuff for a celebrity memoir, mostly him describing what it was like before and after his mom died when he was six, his decision to live as openly transgender in 1985 and the process that led him to be able to carry that to his onstage persona, which, for years he stuck to what he describes as “boy mode,” and generally his operating philosophy, which is to act as if you’re capable of more than you are. It’s actually a very Jewish concept (not that Eddie said that) – the “engage in action and intent and belief will follow.”

Sweetheart and I have tickets to see him here this coming weekend, and I’m looking forward to it.

“Liner Notes: On Parents & Children, Exes & Excess, Death & Decay & A Few of My Other Favorite Things”  by Loudon Wainwright III

LinerNotes

I just started this one, too, at work. What I said about “Unorthodox” and “Believe Me.” It’s interesting to read in narrative form about some of what he’s written and sung. You get a bigger picture and context, and it’s fun to be a fly on the wall for his encounters with Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Judd Apatow and other household name-type people. Because I’m also a big fan of the work of his singing family members and friends (Lucy, Martha, Rufus, Sloan, Chaim Tannenbaum, Suzzy Roche and the McGarrigle Sisters), reading about them is kind of like getting to hang out with people you know but not so well and learning more about them.
On a separate but related note, I will always have a tender spot for LWIII, who gave me what remains one of the nicest compliments anyone ever has about my writing. I profiled him 12 years ago for a piece in our local alternative paper. When he showed up for the gig, I asked him to sign the story. He said “I read it over dinner, and it didn’t even give me indigestion.” When I told this story to Suzzy & Lucy a couple of years ago, Lucy’s comment was “That sounds like him.”

“Toad on the Road: A Cautionary Tale” by Stephen Shashkan

Toad-on-the-Road

What I most like about this picture book is that you can sing it as your own improvised blues tune.  It probably works in other genres, too – punk, jazz, plainsong, recitative, rockabilly. It’s adorable, funny, charming and features a female tow-truck driving working mother. Which is pretty much everything.

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beekeeping, bees, Book review, book reviews, books, lifestyle

For a minute, they were the world’s tiniest motorcycle gang: Now, our new backyard crew is in the hive

It’s official. As of last night, I am a beekeeper.

A woman and a package of bees.

Me and my 8,000 new backyard buddies.

It feels very strange to write those words. My mental image of a beekeeper used to be some sort of slightly feral sage, an interesting sort of semi-holy person standing quietly in the midst of a raging storm of flying, buzzing, stinging creatures.

In other words, someone who is not me. Feral is a good description of me as a housekeeper, or a writer. But the closest I get to sage is Thanksgiving dinner, when I’m making the stuffing.

But that’s irrelevant now.

When I got home from work yesterday, Sweetheart had the bike out and ready. I was just walking toward him when Tammy, Dan and her son Larry showed up. I met Tammy at Large Midwestern Technical College not long ago, and we quickly discovered that Larry goes to the school down the block from me and one of his teachers is a friend. So, we invited them to hang out with us for a bit while I carried the newly-painted hive box, bottom board and top out to the back yard and placed them on the stand.

I replaced two of the wax-only frames with honey frames, so my bees would have something to eat until there is enough flowering plant life to sustain them. Kind of like a bee SNAP program (that would be food assistance, for all you non-US readers) that works the way it’s intended to work – a handup, not a handout. If all goes well, they’ll be making their food soon enough.

Tammy told me a beekeeper is coming to one of her classes to present soon, and I kind of want to hear that presentation. (Note to self: Find out when.) I also showed her some pictures from a terrific book I’m reading. It’s called “Plan Bee: Everything you ever wanted to know about the hardest-working creatures on the planet” by Susan Brackney.

I love this woman’s outlook on bees and beekeeping. Also her nose for research and her companionable writing style.

Here’s an example, from a passage she wrote about having to buy a new queen for a hive that had not (as is customary when a queen dies) replaced their queen:

“They seemed so lost. At least, they sounded that way. Rather than offering the unified, major-chord buzz I was used to hearing, individual bees were humming quietly to themselves, out of phase, the result of a weird discombobulation. Without their queen, the workers didn’t know quite what to do with themselves, and obviously, they wouldn’t survive without new bees being made. To fix the problem, I rush ordered a new mated, Italian queen from a honeybee supplier in the South. Just days later, she arrived, caged along with several of her attendants, in a large, puffy envelope.”

Brackney goes on to describe the hazards of introducing a new queen into an existing hive, and does what Sweetheart and I did last night with our queen (who I have named Latifah, in case you were wondering).

The queen cage is a small wood block, about 1.5 inches long and hollowed out in the middle. There’s a layer of mesh stapled around the hollowed out side with a hole on one end. The hole is plugged up with a small bit of cork. After making sure you’ve got your finger close to the cork, you pry it off with a small knife and plug the hole with your hand so she doesn’t fly away. Then, you jam a miniature marshmallow into the hole. Take your marshmallow-cage queen, and turn the block so the mesh side is facing down into the hive. Place the block between two honey frames. The time it takes for the queen to eat through the marshmallow on one side, with bees on the other side helping her, gives everyone a chance to get used to each other.

The queen drops down into the hive, starts laying eggs, and everyone lives happily ever after.

Anyway, Brackney decided to throw caution to the winds and skip the slow introduction process.

“I carefully pried out the cork and summarily dumped the queen and her attendants onto the frames in the top of the hive.What happened next astonished me, but I guess it shouldn’t have. I’d read that queens sometimes ‘toot’ or ‘pipe’ loudly to their subjects, but I never expected to have a chance to hear it firsthand. It was a startlingly loud and clear ‘Whooooo-Whoooo-Who-Who-Who-Who!’ As she piped, the queen pressed her midsection against the wooden tops of the honeycomb frame, serving to amplify her high-pitched, staccato calls. It sounded a bit like a kazoo being played by a teakettle.”

Any writer who can come up with a phrase like “a kazoo being played like a teakettle” is my kind of writer. She’s actually anyone’s kind of writer if you’re interested in bees and like your facts wrapped up in engaging prose.

Enlisting Susan Brackney as a beekeeping resource was as easy as plucking her book off a sale rack. But my real beekeeping knight in shining armor (okay, so his shining armor is a flannel shirt, but who’s counting?) is Andy Hemken.

Andy taught the Beginning Beekeeping workshop I took on Valentine’s Day. When I saw him at the beekeeping meeting, he looked over the Mann Lake order my friend Jeff helped me put together. There were a couple of things he said not to bother with because he had them and I could come out and pick them up.

Then, when the Mann Lake order wasn’t here but the bees were going to be, Andy told me not to worry. We drove out to his place over the weekend with every bee thing we had, and he looked it all over. He suggested we paint the box, and gave me a new bottom board and a top (Jeff was using a slab of something that wasn’t a beehive top). When we asked how much we owed him, he said $10. It seemed like way too little, especially given how reassuring it was to have someone treat as pretty much routine that we’d be fine making a go at this beekeeping thing.

Then, yesterday, we picked up our bees. Andy had said anyone who wanted to could put some of the package bees into one of his hives (“I have 500 packages to install. Every one someone else does is one I have to put in.”). It was one of those rare “something in it for everybody” situations – Andy wins because he has a few less packages to install, and we baby beekeepers really win because we get to practice installing bees into a hive under the guidance and tutelage of an expert.

Bee packages

Some of Andy Hemken’s 500 bee packages, and more for people like me, who only have one or five or 15 hives. (One is plenty for me!)

I had my vintage bee veil and a pair of spa gloves. Andy’s wife Cheryl handed Sweetheart a bee veil, and the three of us headed out to the bee yard with a five packages. I was pretty nervous trying to remember the proper sequence for what I was supposed to do when, but by the third package, I pretty much had it down. Here’s a 12-step program for Bee Package Installations:

  1. Take top off hive, put it on the side of the hive.
  2. Take out three middle frames, put them in front of the hive.
  3. Using hive tool, pry can up from inside bee package. Quickly cover hole from can with square of wood so bees do not fly out.
  4. Take hold of small metal piece protruding from top of bee package. Lift piece and slide it toward the covered hole. Uncover hole with hand not holding metal piece, shake it as you remove the tiny wooden block to which it is attached, because it will be crawling with bees who need to stay in the can.
  5. Turn wooden block over and peer in at the queen. Make sure she’s alive. She’ll be pacing back and forth in her mesh-covered cage.
  6. Pick up a mini marshmallow and a small knife.
  7. When the queen is pacing away from the tiny wooden stopper at one end, use the knife to remove the stopper. Quickly plug the hole with your finger. Put down the knife and plug the hole with the marshmallow.
  8. Now, if you don’t have stray bees clinging to the queen cage, you can put her in your pocket to keep her warm. I had stray bees every time. So I just put her nearby where she was safe.
  9. Pick up the can, quickly remove the wooden top and turn it upside down. Tip the box from side to side, tapping on the side that’s angled down so that the bees fall into the hive. When most of them are out, set it down.
  10. Gently replace the frames, making sure you’re not crushing your new colleagues.
  11. Now, using a hive tool (if you have one, which we did not), make a space between two of the newly-replaced frames. Place the queen cage there, mesh side down. Hook the metal perpendicular to the cage, so it doesn’t fall in.
  12. Close up the hive, and make sure the opening in the box with the remaining bees is facing the hive so the stragglers can find their way to their new home.

We came in from the bee yard. I picked out a package from the hundreds there – the sound of all that buzzing was something to hear. Sweetheart wrapped the package up in my jacket and put it in the top case of the motorcycle. We got home as the sun was setting.

Bees and motorcycle

Sweetheart gets the bees ready for the final leg of their journey from California.

We had just enough light to install our package. I had my bee veil on, but couldn’t shake the feeling that I had a bee down the back of my pants. (I didn’t.)

The near-final moments of our installation. The queen cage, with our queen (Latifah) inside is the small bar on the left.

The near-final moments of our installation. The queen cage, with our queen (Latifah) inside, is the small bar on the left.

It turned out when we got inside, though, that Sweetheart had picked up a hitchhiker. He was standing in front of the open refrigerator when it happened. He slammed the door shut and shook like a dog that had just been sprung from a bathtub.

We couldn’t find the bee. Then, a few minutes later, Sweetheart opened the fridge again. She was sitting there, shivering. He picked her up and took her outside so she could find her way to her 8,000 sisters, a few brothers and Latifah, her queen.

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Book review, book reviews, books, lifestyle, opinion

Trees on TV and a review of Judith Claire Mitchell’s “A Reunion of Ghosts”

This past weekend Tuki and I walked with R & Bailey again. We talked about her TV spot. She’s a city forester and was interviewed by a local station about damage to the trunks of her city’s streetside trees because of the extreme cold.

She was pretty pleased with it but wished the reporter had included that the tree cracks occurred in places where they were structurally weak. R has taught me a lot about trees. This particular day, she pointed to one we were strolling past. Its lowest limb was almost as thick around as the trunk itself. You never want that, she said, because it’s bad for the tree. She added that in Europe, people are more obsessed than we are when it comes to making sure limbs are proportional.

We also talked about books. I love talking about books so much that if you get me started it’s pretty hard to shut me up. So I try to rein it in with most people. But R loves hearing about books as much as I love talking about them. We hadn’t really talked books until recently, because until last May, I’d been in grad school for the entire time I’ve known her. “Basic Research Methods for Librarians” and “A Rationale of Textual Criticism” are not books you recommend to regular people if you want them to be your friends. (Although I have to say “Class Warfare in the Information Age” is a worthwhile read for anyone who’s awake and alive in this particular historical moment.)

A few of the books I'm reading - or have recently read.

A few of the books I’m reading – or have recently read.

So when she asked what I’d been reading lately, first I thanked her for giving me a “pass-along” copy of “The Secret Life of Bees,” by Sue Monk Kidd, which I loved and had passed along to one of my workmates.

Then I told her I’d just finished “Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and was starting “He Wanted the Moon” by Mimi Baird (with Eve Claxton), but had also recently read “The Orphan Master’s Son” by Adam Johnson (my Book Group pick – I’m hosting this Sunday), and am also reading “First Lessons in Beekeeping” by Keith Delaplane. I wasn’t recommending that one to her, but she knows about my impending beehive, so she knew that already.

Then, I remembered that Judith Claire Mitchell’s new novel “A Reunion of Ghosts” is out and I can tell everyone about what an amazing book it is and that they can run out and buy or borrow a copy. I started by telling R.

“It’s genius!” I said, “It’s a suicide note. The whole novel!”

Then I told her that there was a device Mitchell employed that I found particularly clever, but that I couldn’t say more about because it would be a spoiler. (If you read the book, you’ll know what it is when you get there.)

Here’s what I did tell her: That forty-something sisters Lady, Vee & Delph have communally decided to carry on the family tradition of dying by suicide. Unmarried (one widow, one divorcee, one “spinster”) and childless, they are the last of their line.

The novel chronicles four generations of Alters; the sisters have decided to document their family history, “to record all the sorrows and stumbles as well as the accomplishments and contributions.”

They are quick to point out that whoever writes their eulogies will have their work cut out for them.

“We’ve brought the family name no glory,” they write. “On the other hand, we’ve brought it no shame either, which is more than certain preceding generations can say. That first generation, for instance, which starred our infamous great-grandfather, Lorenz Otto Alter, World War I hero, World War I criminal. Genius and monster. He was the sinner who doomed us all.”

His explicit sin is the invention of poison gas. But Lenz’s wife Iris is also a gifted scientist. In an era where a man could have a child and career and a woman could have a child or a career, Lenz receives a Nobel Prize and Iris, who decides to devote herself to being a stellar mother and wife, becomes the first Alter to die by suicide.

If your idea of a good book is one that makes you laugh and cringe and not want to go to the bathroom unless you’re taking it with, this is your kind of reading material. Truth is though, I read it slowly – a bit each night. I wanted to keep the Alter sisters alive as long as I could. Taking my time was a way of prolonging their lives, as it were.

Mitchell moves backward and forward in time, weaving the stories of Alters past with the individual and communal stories of the sisters. With the exception of Vee’s husband Eddie, loved by all three, their primary intimate relationships are with each other. The more they write, the easier it is for readers to understand why, having shared everything, they would want to die together.

It all sounds terribly bleak, but Mitchell has managed to tell a story about generations of unbearable sadness with heart and humor. It’s one of the most unconventional and satisfying love stories I’ve read – maybe ever.

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Book review, book reviews, books, Family story, opinion

North Korea and Canada between covers: A pair of mini book reviews

One of the best things about finishing grad school is getting to read for pleasure again. I recently finished one novel – “The Orphan Master’s Son” by Adam Johnson, and am currently about halfway through “All My Puny Sorrows” by Miriam Toews.

My Facebook pal Chase recommended the Johnson book in the wake of the Sony hack. Here’s his post:

“Re-recommending one of the best books I have read the last decade, in light of the focus on North Korea; if you want to understand their society, read The Orphan Master’s Son.”

I’ve never met Chase in person (he’s a friend of a friend and we connected that way). But I trust his taste. Also, when I was the editor of The Key Newspaper, a publication for new adult readers, I discovered the DPRK News Agency site  and it remains among my favorite internet recreational reading destinations to this very day. (Check the calendar for today’s date – 22 January, 2015) and look for this article – “U.S., Germany Urged to Give Up at Once Screening of Anti-DPRK Movie: DPRK FM Spokesman” if you’d like to get the North Korean perspective on “The Interview” straight from an approved government source.)

Anyway, the book. Which received the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. That was the year I moved my mother across six states while trying to work and go to graduate school. So it’s not surprising that I missed the news of its existence.

I’m not usually so good with violence in literature, but I can handle it if it makes sense within the context of the story. And here, it makes lots of sense. It helps, too, that Johnson plays it straight. Much of what happens in the book is deeply upsetting for a reader experiencing – albeit vicariously – North Korean culture for the first time. But horrors and small daily normalcies of life in the DPRK are just facts of life for his narrators.

Johnson’s ability to pick out details that make us, as US readers, look at ourselves in ways we might not be entirely comfortable, was one of my favorite parts of this book. Here’s an example:

“This was a signal that breakfast was over, but the still the boy had one last question to ask. ‘Do dogs really have their own food in America, a kind that comes in cans?”’

The idea was shocking to Ga, a cannery dedicated to dogs. ‘Not that I saw,’ he said.”

General Ga is the star of the second half of the book. Jun Do Park, the son of the book’s title, narrates the first. There’s another narrator in the second, a creative soul whose main goal is to record truth for posterity.

I really want to talk about this book with someone, so I’ve made it my book group pick for next time I host. Sadly, it’s not until September. I plan to serve edible flowers, peaches and ice cream, all of which play roles in the story.

The Toews was recommended by two people – my friend Shauna (who read it as a judge for Canada’s Giller Prize) and our mutual pal Dan, who owns Boswell Books, my favorite independent bookstore. He doesn’t usually tell me, “You have to buy this one.”

But he did. So I did. It’s the story of a pair of sisters, Yolandi and Elfrieda. The big thread in their Canadian Mennonite family is suicide, and the story is centered around Elf’s determination to end her life.

It sounds depressing, but it isn’t. By ordinary reckoning, Elf has plenty to live for – a devoted partner and a great career as a concert pianist. Yoli, six years younger, is at the tail end of her second divorce – from the father of the younger of her two children – and carrying around a manuscript of her novel in a plastic grocery bag.

Toews has structured the novel to move forward and back in time, but not in the jarring way that too many less accomplished writers do. I’d like to tell you more about it, but I’m going to stop here so I’m not late for work.

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Book review

The race mess

I hate that young black men in America seem to be heading toward a place on the endangered species list. I hate that police officers who do their jobs honorably and well are reaping a harvest sowed by less competent colleagues too, but that’s another post for another time.

First there was the Trayvon Martin mess. Then there was the Michael Brown mess, which was quickly followed by the Eric Garner and Tamir Rice messes. And here, locally, there is the Dontre Hamilton mess.

Things are not great on the race front these days, and that is bad for everybody.

Besides channeling my rage about this into action, which I get to do on a daily basis because I am incredibly lucky, I would like to recommend two terrific books.

“Strange Fruit: Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History” by Joel Christian Gill is an amazing collection of graphic biographic tales of black historical figures.

Gill’s managed to infuse whimsy and gentle irony into the story of Henry “Box” Brown, who traveled via post – in a crate – from slavery to freedom. He keeps it straightforward in the rags-to-riches-to-rags story of Marshall “Major” Taylor, a bicycle racer known as “The Black Cyclone who was, by 1899, the fastest in the world. In “Two Letters,” Spottswood Brown stares into the face of evil for the sake of love. Gill’s illustrations, tender and savage, are perfectly calibrated to the power of Brown’s words.

The drawings are a remarkable combination of comic and fine art. Gill mixes it up, using lush, full-page drawings and varying the sizes of the frames to convey a sense of emotion that matches the story he’s telling.

The other is “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave,” Written By Himself.

Except for telling you that he learned to read on the streets, away from his owners, I’m just going to tell you to read it if you haven’t already. The man was a lovely writer who knows how to tell a story.

We can’t change the past. But we can find stories that inspire us to make the future better, and use that inspiration to create newer stories. Stories that, hopefully, will have happier endings than those we’re living  through in Milwaukee, Ferguson, Cleveland and New York.

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Book review, lifestyle

Out from under the bed, with a couple of books

So, Tuesday was Election Day and we all woke up the next morning here in the US either depressed beyond belief or jubilant. Neither one is a very healthy state to maintain over time.

Truth is, the world is kind of a scary place these days. What with beheadings making an unfortunate comeback, income inequality, climate change, the digital Third World (more on this sometime later) and other things, the underside of my bed is becoming a very attractive place to be. So what if you can build a Great Dane out of the dust that’s collected there? I just think of it as soft lining for my secret nest. But only one percenters can spend all their time hiding beneath their beds (and they’ve no reason, even though I’m sure even their underbed regions are plush and fabulous with real soft linings and not the imitation stuff made from excess pet hair). I do not have that luxury.

Which might explain why I was particularly drawn to two recently published books.

Adrian and the Tree of Secrets (Arsenal)” is a graphic young adult novel originally published in French with a story by Hubert (English translation by David Homel) and illustrations (no translation needed) by Marie Caillou.

I’d actually never read one of these before. It’s more a short story than novel, the tale of a teenage boy for whom school and home are both equally unpleasant. The smart-and-awkward combo plate is generally a one-way ticket to high school pariah-land. Toss coming to terms with being gay into the mix and you’ve got a whole new level of angst. Adrian is handling it pretty well until Jeremy, the most popular boy in school, turns out to have his own secret. Jeremy also has a girlfriend, who doesn’t take kindly to idea of losing – or sharing – him. Caillou’s drawings are a worthy match for Hubert’s spare prose, and the point at which they leave Adrian is both disturbing and authentic. I would go with 13 and up on this one, and it’s a great way to spark a discussion about difficult topics with people in that age group.

The other, “Graphic History of Anti-Semitism (Schiffer)” is a coffee-table book, a perfect gift for the history buff in your life, particularly if your history buff is a Jewish fatalist. Jerome Forman, a retired attorney, began collecting antique European and American anti-Semitic graphic art – postcards, posters, ads, sheet music, books and other material – after handling an employment discrimination case. His client, an African-American woman, had worked for years at the same company and was passed over for a promotion which was, instead, given to a white woman who was less qualified than she. As he prepared for and tried the case, Forman wrestled internally with his own issues and thoughts about the consequences of hatred borne of differences between people of different hues and beliefs.

Forman has divided the book into several chapters, among them, “The Mythical Jew,” “Organized Anti-Semitism” and “Jewish Power.” Many of the pieces in his collection are not in pristine shape, because he sought out material that had been used – postcards that were purchased, written on and mailed.

Forman provides information on the pieces in his collection (the places from where and to where a postcard was mailed, the history of terms such as “Sheeney,” thought to have originated in England in the 19th century). His descriptions are informative without being tedious, and devoid of outrage, a wise move. Letting the art speak for itself is a big part of what provides this worthwhile book with its power.

I’m sure they’re out there on the big web-based bookselling behemoth, but if you decide to buy one or both and there’s still an independent bookstore in your town, go there. You can also check out Worldcat, which will steer you to the nearest library where they’re available.

Or just skip it and go hang out under your bed.

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