Tuesday, February 7, 2012

January Storytellers: A Month of Books

"The transforming power of a single book is beyond our reckoning," says historian David McCullough, author of works on Truman, John Adams, 1776 and more. Don't you agree? I think of how books form who I am. Some books can be life-changing, and lead you on a different path, others simply offer an enchanting tale. He spoke of Jefferson bringing 80 crates of books back to the United States from Paris to elevate the culture.

I think our culture in 2012 needs elevation. Most of us don't have the time or resources to go back to school, but reading, as much as it is about entertainment and escapism, is very much about continuing education. For last month's reading list, which I'm posting a bit belatedly since it took me into February to finish the last one, I'm including some observations in the context of my blog about the American dream and experience, along with some words from Mr. McCullough. He says he hopes he makes up for some of the bad history teachers people had in school who made it all about dates and memorization. He certainly does for me.

For some reason I was drawn to some New York stories, all stories about women and many about education. These were my storytellers and teachers for January.

Vector: A Modern Love Story, by J.J. Brown, a Christmas gift from the author, a friend.

An unconventional love story about the HIV/AIDS crisis set in New York City with a backdrop of Puccini's La Boheme involving a young opera singer Eva and a philanthropist Michael. Infatuation maybe more so than love for one of the two main characters, but love is everywhere around us in this book: of other people, of causes, of the lands traveled, of the beautiful things we fill our lives with.

This book raises some interesting ethical questions. For example, Eva struggles to understand why Michael helps those in Africa when the suffering and sick are all around him. Isn't this a common society question today? An American actress goes to Cambodia for a film and falls in love with its people and sights and adopts a child in need, but then always the question, but what about those in our backyard?

There is a sick, homeless woman who keeps reappearing who seems to act as some kind of conscience. Eva first seems to finds her repulsive, but later humanizes her and gives her a golden raincoat. Often at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, I see a mentally ill older woman pushing around a baby carriage with her possessions. She's in the ladies room sometimes in the morning wiping down the counter and floor with a paper towel. I want to help her but I'm not sure quite how. Is it easier to help those far away than to deal with someone we see all the time?

Brown's book also very much makes you consider where you get sick impacts your treatment and how long you will live. We now know AIDS isn't the death sentence it once was, but that's if you are born in the right place. If you die of AIDS or an end you brought on yourself by your own actions, are you judged by society and remembered for how you died versus the life you led? When you think of Robert Reed, the iconic father of The Brady Bunch, does how he died come to mind first? How about Rock Hudson? My generation mostly doesn't know his work (only recently did I see Pillow Talk and the other classic films he did with Doris Day). Does his AIDS related death and the fact he was a gay man define his life that strongly?

Vector has a strong moral tale for youth too who view life as being invincible and make bad choices. Many of us here have made some reckless decisions in our life, particularly at an earlier age, and it is only by luck, fate or divine intervention for some unknown reason that we didn't harm ourselves or others. This book, like my final January book, deals with the realities of consequences, and cause and effect, which Mr. McCullough says history is all about. Clearly, Brown's book, like her short story collection Death and the Dream, had my mind racing.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith, 35 cents, library book sale.
First, did you know they made a film version in the 1940s? I'd love to do it for my Retro Matinee Movie column, but it's a bit hard to come by.

I know this book always gets summarized as "a coming of age story of a young girl growing up in the early 1900s," but if someone asked me what it is about, I'd say one word: education. I loved the passages on education, how when Francie was born her mother's mother told her to read a page from the Bible and a page from Shakespeare each day so they'd know their world was bigger than their small community. To tell them fairy tales and stories they know not to be true to inspire creativity. How Francie longed to go to a better school and was always on a path of knowledge and betterment. She is a role model for the ages.

Francie so loved the library, as do I. I can still picture her stealing away some alone time on the fire escape with her water and blue bowl of peppermint treats about to savor her next good read. How important libraries are to all income levels and ages to have access to learning.

"The basis of who we are and why we improved in the course of time - in our lifetime - is education. Education, education, education," says Mr. McCullough. He notes, "Jefferson said, 'Any nation that expects to be ignorant and free expects what never was and never will be.' We must keep our education up to the highest standards. We're not doing as good a job as we should be and we can't leave it just up to the teachers. We have to take part ourselves as parents, as grandparents."

I also loved the savings thread. Remember that can Francie's mom would keep tucked away to save. I know so many women who are not saving.

Fifth Avenue, 5 AM, Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and The Dawn of the Modern Woman, by Sam Wasson, $13.99, Posman Books in Chelsea Market, New York City.
I purchased this book on a whim. I wanted to support bookstores and print books since the growth of all those eBooks is truly starting to frighten me.

This is an overview of the players behind Truman Capote's book-turned-film, and was a quick easy read. I haven't read Breakfast at Tiffany and don't really have a desire to, but Capote's In Cold Blood was a masterpiece. I didn't know Audrey Hepburn suffered from so many miscarriages and had a controlling husband. It is a reminder no charmed life is ever what it seems. Nor did I know about the censorship board of the 1950s keeping all the sex out of films and how groundbreaking some of these movies were. Some interesting tidbits: Capote supposedly wanted Marilyn Monroe to play Holly Go Lightly, and Henry Mancini's famed "Moon River" met with resistance from studio heads. Can you imagine how different that movie would have been?

On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder, 50 cents, Housing Works Thrift Shop, NYC.
Shortly after reading this book, when people complained to me about trivial things like walking to work in the cold in our pretty mild January, I wanted to respond back, "But what about when millions of grasshoppers invaded the prairie and destroyed the Ingalls' wheat crop (and next year's!) when their house wasn't paid for, and Pa had to walk three hundred miles to find farmhand work in his shoes that were falling apart, and Ma had to use a rope to guide her to the barn in the freezing cold and blinding snow to milk the cows, and when Mary and Laura had to use their shiny Christmas penny and had to share, share! the other remaining penny to buy a slate pencil. You can't imagine real suffering and hardship!" But I stopped myself. So good I stop myself.

While the book takes place in the 19th century, I think Mr. McCullough's sentiments about the century before apply here too,

"Anyone who studies the 18th century soon realizes that they were very strong people. Tough. You had to be. Life was as hard as can be. By our standards almost intolerably tough. Uncomfortable, inconvenient. They would look at upon us as softies. We're so coddled and protected. We whimper and complain and cry over the least little thing by their standards. In a day when disease was rampant, when every job had its physical dangers, when people were marked by work injuries, by childhood disease, by childhood accidents that left them with a permanent limp or head cocked to one side. You can read it in the description of what people looked like - pock marks from small pocks. They weren't figures in a costume pageant. They were real human beings."

Laura Ingalls and her family were real human beings too, and yes, their trials do make us look like softies.

I so loved the descriptions of nature in this book. We should all spend one summer on the prairie wading in a creek and eating corn dodgers (no lard on mine!) I worry about all these children glued to devices so young and what effect it will have on their creativity and appreciation of the natural world. Youth is the time to be out exploring nature. I need to explore it more in my adult world too.

Heart of the Trail, The Stories of Eight Wagon Train Women, by Mary Barmeyer O'Brien, $9.95, purchased at Bryce Canyon National Park gift shop in Utah.
This was the only book I bought out West, and I wished I purchased more books about Western history and figures. These were short stories of women who migrated Westward. A good overview book that was a bit sparse in detail. So many women recorded what they saw in diaries and letters to loved ones which we now have as a historical record of their trials and also the natural beauty they saw on the trail. While this book is about women, as someone interested in animal welfare issues, I couldn't help hope there's a special peaceful place in the afterlife for the animals who lugged people, supplies and possessions over treacherous conditions for mankind's pursuit of gold, a better life, or many times, just wanderlust. They couldn't speak for themselves, but their plight is remembered in the letters and diaries too.

"You're reading their letters, you're reading their diaries. You can't do that in real life. And of course now today nobody writes letters, nobody writes diaries, so it's going to be tough sledding for the biographers and historians of the future" said Mr. McCullough of his research and the death of the written word. There's not the same permanence to Facebook or blogs. We don't have the moving or visual images of them, but we do have their language, as Mr. McCullough points out. And what a language it was, how people expressed themselves using the beauty of words. It wasn't about clicking "Like" and coming up with a short reply that other users will give a "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" to.

The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade by Ann Fessler, 25 cents, library book sale. This book came with high recommendations from Cate from Liberal Simplicity, so when it found me the same day she mentioned it on her blog, I knew it was a sign to read it.

"Between 1945 and 1973, one and a half million babies were relinquished for nonfamily or unrelated adoption," says the author, who was adopted herself. We tend to think of history as some faraway thing or about wars, presidents and religions, but this is personal history that happened in our lifetime. Like Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken, this is a book that will stay with me always, and I'm sure might transform the lives of those who read it who have been impacted by adoption. I agree with a Goodreads.com reviewer calling this group, "highly marginalized." I never even considered the plight of these women, and didn't realize what a national crisis this was. This is about lack of education on a different level - sex education.

The running thread is the societal judgment of who was fit to be a mother. Was a generation of babies surrendered simply because of what the neighbors thought?

There's a show on MTV called Teen Mom which documents the lives of teenage mothers. I watched some of season one, where a couple Tyler and Catelynn give up their child to a couple in the suburbs and it follows the aftermath. While they were clearly extremely young and had some turbulence in the household (one of the couple's parents had trouble with the law), to me it always smacked a bit of, "Isn't the child so much better off with that well-to-do white couple in the suburbs and not these poor folks."

This quote really stuck with me from a woman named Judith who was forced to give up her child and is now a therapist, "We have changed our idea of mothering. Now you're supposed to have enough money to have two homes and four cars and send your kid to graduate school. Where in the world does this come from? I mean, I see people in therapy who want to be stay-at-home parents when they grow up because both of their highly educated parents have not been around."

In a Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Francie and her brother actually feel sad their new baby sister will not grow up with the hardships they had. They looked back on their childhood, filled with so many hungry nights, with happy, grateful hearts. It made them who they were. Read any of the Little House books, and find simple pleasures everywhere, like Laura's first taste of lemonade.

I couldn't help think of our attitudes toward the less fortunate and judgement toward them even in 2012. The New York Times featured this ludicrous article about the Eisenhower family objecting to plans to include a barefoot image of the President as a young boy in a memorial.

"The family says Mr. [Frank] Gehry should portray Eisenhower as a man in the fullness of his achievements, not as a callow rustic who made good."

"He was chief of staff of the Army; he was a two-term president of the United States," said Susan Eisenhower, a granddaughter. "It's in those roles that America has gratitude for him, not as being a young boy with a great future in front of him."

"The statue of Ike as a Kansas farmer-boy mocks the president as cornpone in chief, the supreme allied bumpkin," said the nonprofit National Civic Art Society, which focuses on architecture and urban design.

Callow rustic? Cornpone? Bumpkin? Am I the only one who finds this a slap in the face of those of humble means? Are we that hard on the poor or those from rural origins? It reminded me of when Rose told off Blanche on the Golden Girls to stop mocking her St. Olaf, Minnesota farm community and they were descent hard working people and if there weren't farmers there wouldn't be food and then Blanche couldn't go on a diet and what would she do for the rest of her life!?!

I think of Laura Ingalls walking to school barefooted with her sister Mary. I don't consider them callow rustics. Laura would grow up to be a great author who would enlighten millions of readers what it was like to be raised during the expansion of our young nation and give us in modern life a good dose of perspective.

Fessler's book made me grateful for the advances we've made, but sadly ignorance and discrimination are underlying currents in any society.

What great books have you been reading? Please share your thoughts in the comments section.


  1. I love this post, Catherine. I agree that A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is heavily focused on education. I also love the part where Francie switches schools to be in a more pleasant environment that's more conducive to learning. I've often wondered why so many schools are hideous...our surroundings make such a huge impression on us.

    I always kind of want to cry when I read the Little House books (even the picture book versions) where Laura and Mary are so excited about the peppermint stick in their stockings, etc. etc. They really did appreciate such simple things.

  2. Hi Cate. Thanks! Like Hermoine Granger in the Harry Potter books, I love Francie as a role model for being so interested in education. What a long way public schools have come since Francie's day (and the original school she went to was horrendous!) There was an article in The New York Times about foreign born, well-off parents rejecting private schools and sending their children to public schools. I like the idea of home schooling, but that's a whole other blog post!


    I agree about those Little House books! Such simple, timeless pleasures they delighted in. I wonder if the generation coming up is going to be a little too entitled. It baffles me how every young kid in my area seems to have a phone with internet. I don't (and won't!) have one. I had a quarter when I was a child when I needed a ride home from a movie or school! And we didn't carry "designer" bags. My friends and I often say we are glad we are not growing up now.

  3. I don't think I've ever read Laura Ingalls though I have read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, but too long ago.
    I must play catch up and none of Ingalls are on the Kindle which is growing on me.
    Thanks for all the research.

  4. Hi Carol. I have no idea since I don't have one, but I wonder about illustrations in print books and their translation to eReaders. Garth Williams' illustrations in the print version of my Little House books are just marvelous. My first book of February was a children's book which I'll talk about in February Storytellers and the illustrations so enhanced the reading experience.

    Happy reading. I hope to get one French-themed book in this month!

  5. I have a feeling some of these books would upset me so much, I'd need a Valium! And no, you are not alone in being offended by the disdain for rural America. It's a sentiment that is so alive and well. And when did insane affluence become the new normal? There's nothing wrong with being poor and/or just getting by. Yet we don't have a right to have children if we're not living in affluence? Oy. Oy!

    Well, I just finished Tina Fey's "Bossypants." A far cry from the above genres, ha! But oh so funny.

  6. You would definitely need one after The Girls Who Went Away! I almost didn't finish it, it was so upsetting, but the author became extremely repetitive at the end.

    Yes, yes, yes! I still remember Pete Campbell on Mad Men set in the 1960s saying the American Dream was that everyone would have a house, car and color television to now I need house (plus landscapers to take care of it), two cars (which will be massively fuel efficient so we can complain about gas prices), constantly upgrading of televisions, eReaders, phones with internet, "designer" clothes and bags (really all mostly made in China with questionable labor – the same with everyone's eReaders).

    Sometimes we all need some lighter material, and the world needs more laughter.