Saturday, April 7, 2012

March Storytellers: A Month of Books

Thank goodness for the escape of a good book. The most trying time of my life was during my job loss and unemployment uncertainty, but 2012 has proven itself continually challenging with the loss of the beloved family dog, my father's heart surgery (he's back at home now from the rehab center) and our ongoing mortgage delay. When the bank decided to cancel the mortgage signing for no particular reason Thursday, I wanted to start wailing like an infant. I was on the bus that day coming home from work and still digesting the news that yet again we weren't moving on the weekend when the bus broke down. I was so grateful Laura Ingalls Wilder was there to tell me a story. I wasn't on the bus, I was witnessing the expansion of the American West. But more about that in April Storytellers.

I read four books in March, but I'll mostly write about two. I found Peter Mayle's The Vintage Caper at Cinema Verite thrift shop in New York City for $2. It was a fairly entertaining tale about an entertainment lawyer from Los Angeles whose wine collection gets stolen and the detective on the case who travels around Paris and Marseilles. I read a lot about the food scenes but they are very meat-centric, and since I'm a vegetarian, I'm not drooling over eating lamb or kidneys. I did get to thinking about the idea of wine as "liquid art," and about the idea of collections and why we start them.

I also read Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a selection from our book group at work which meets sporadically. I purchased it at Shaw's Book Shop in Westwood, New Jersey, my go-to shop for new books. I really wasn't in the mood for a depressing book about the slums in India, especially one with a vague ending. When I told a coworker I guess it makes you grateful, she's said, "Catherine, we're already grateful." She's right. But even if I was in a better frame of mind, I don't think I would have a different opinion. I found virtually no hope in Boo's portrayal of life in the Mumbai slum, in which a garbage collector and his family are accused of a terrible crime. Everyone seems to be corrupting everyone. I should have skipped Boo's book, but I'm so glad I didn't skip...

Abigail, Portia Howe Sperry and Lois Donaldson, $1, estate sale.
Some background on this book from

"When the Great Depression hit in 1929, life changed for millions of families across the United States. The Sperry family of Fort Wayne, Indiana, was one such family whose comfortable life was shattered by the depression. Penniless, the Sperrys pulled up roots and moved to Brown County, Indiana, a vacation place that held happy memories for them. Portia Sperry found work at the Nashville House hotel and became the gift shop manager. In response to requests for locally handcrafted items she designed a rag doll that she named Abigail. The doll was educational, having buttons, snaps, shoelaces, and string hair that could be braided. The doll was so popular it eventually was sold at Marshall Field's department store in Chicago. As a result of the doll's popularity, Mrs. Sperry, along with Lois Donaldson, wrote the fictional tale called Abigail. Their efforts resulted in an educational and entertaining book describing how families in the early 1800s journeyed from Kentucky to Indiana.

This Hoosier classic was written in 1938 and sold at the Brown County Folks shop in Nashville, Indiana, where the Abigail doll was created and sold. Set in the 1830s, the story centers on young Susan Calvin, her doll Abigail, and the adventures they share while traveling by covered wagon from Kentucky to their new home in Brown County, Indiana."

Fans of the Laura Ingalls Wilder series will likely enjoy this book, but with a major word of warning if you're reading it with children that you're in store for the same attitudes of the time: jumping up and down over the killing of a bear, one shocking use of the "n....r" word and disparaging attitudes toward Indians whose lands they were settling on.

"Not so many years ago, the Indians were still warlike, and bitterly resented the white man's coming to take more and more of their territory."

Well no kidding!

I loved a chapter where Susan's grandmother tells her a bedtime story "about a lazy boy who grew to be one of Virginia's finest men, and one of America's great leaders." The tale was not about George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, but of Patrick Henry.

"My father said Patrick Henry's words were the first words of the American Revolution. Not many ever felt the same way after he heard them. We didn't have war for ten years, but this was the first time the colonies had differed from the mother country..."

Grandmother said he was often called the "silver-tongued orator" and her father heard him speak before the House of Burgesses in a "speech - it will go down in American history - never to be forgotten. Some day, Susan, you will learn all of that speech by heart. He closed by saying, "I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death."

I thought about much we have forgotten Patrick Henry, probably a footnote in most of our history classes. I also longed for leaders who are powerful orators. Our governor of New Jersey Chris Christie not long ago called one of his constituents "an idiot" and has called a colleague a "jerk." He does this often, and I wish he would not stoop to these levels as a leader of our state. It's an embarrassment to a state that is ridiculed enough by the nation. Overall, though, I can't think of any leaders now that I consider great orators. I don't think we live in an age that celebrates the power of language and the beauty of the word.

Susan spots "pretty yellow balls" and asks mother what they are. "Those are oranges, Susan. I haven't seen any since I left Virginia," answered Mother. "What do you do with them?"

When I eat oranges (I'm snacking on one as I type this), I often think of our pioneers who found them rare and so coveted them. In the superb and highly recommended PBS documentary Frontier House about three modern families living as if it were 1883 in Montana, I also recall a scene where the modern pioneer children savored oranges.

Favorite March storyteller: The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, 50 cents at the CATS Resale Shop in Westwood, New Jersey, by storyteller extraordinaire, Julie Andrews Edwards. What thrifted luck to find this so soon after reading Mandy! I never would have even picked it up but I recognized the title. She writes in the introduction that she declined the publisher's offer to provide an illustrator, and there are no splendid drawings like in Mandy. She said this tale is about using one's imagination, and what an imagination she has.

"As the years passed, man became involved in technology and agriculture and industry. Of course, it was natural for him to want to learn about his environment and the laws of nature, about the universe and how to get to the moon, and so on. But as he broadened the new part of his mind, so he closed down a beautiful and fascinating part of the old – the area of fantasy. The more knowledge man gained, the more self-conscious he became about believing in fanciful creatures. People began to think that such things didn't exist. The terrible thing is that when man dismissed all the fanciful creatures from his mind, the Wangdoodle disappeared," Professor Savant tells siblings Ben, Tom and Lindy, and travel to Wangdoodleland to find this mythical creature.

This fantasy book is so different from Mandy, about an orphan sprucing up a cottage in the woods and hoping for a family of her own, but it's very similar in that they are both very much about finding your way, the challenges we face on our path, and an appreciation of nature.

There's a scene were the Professor is outdoors with the children asking them what they see. The children hadn't noticed the tree trunks aren't just brown. "The trunk of that one is copper and smooth, and that one is grey and rough. Those dead leaves are a russet color, aren't they?" He told them to look under a hedge, "Can't you see the cluster of red berries hanging under the tree? The children looked closer. Suddenly, as if the focus were being changed on a camera, the red berries came into view."

"There aren't many people in this world who know how to actually look. Usually one glance is enough to register that the grass is green and the sky is blue and so on. They can tell you if the sun is shining or if it looks like rain, but that's about all. It's such a pity, for there is texture to everything we see, and everything we do and hear," the professor tells them.

As a result of reading this book, I have became more observant of colors, textures and what was before my eyes and I have also broadened my definition of "music."

"As each day passed, the children's ability to look, listen, feel, taste and smell improved immeasurably.
The professor taught them the wonders of music; not only instrumental music, but the music of running water and the sighing of the winds, the hum of a city and the song of the birds."

Lessons taught to the children were good reminders at any age: to listen to people, and that what they say might not always be what they mean, and that people we will distract you and taunt you to veer you off your path, but that you should not fall off course from your goals. This book also made me grateful to explore the world of children's and young adult literature (this book is for "Ages 8-12!") and that I'm reading more period. I know too many people who spend a sunny, warm spring day in front of the television.

In a USA Today article about the national parks service trying to get younger people in the parks, they cited a "2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study found that people ages 8 to 18 spent an average of 7 1/2 hours a day on digital media. Last month, a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that three times as many Millennials — born in the 1980s and '90s — as Baby Boomers said they made no personal effort to help the environment.

A "big concern" of the National Park Service "is maintaining 21st-century relevance," says James Gramann, a Texas A&M professor writing a book on people-park links. Visitors ages 16-24 are most under-represented, he says."

I think as a civilized culture, we should resolve to step away from our devices more often, get out in nature, care about our Mother Earth, and spend time with a good book.

I'm already excited for my April reading list, which will include a Native American storyteller.

What good books have you read lately that you'd like to share? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section.


  1. Unfortunately, having a car for the past 4 months nearly killed my reading. I'm reading a book of short stories by Flannery O'Connor now called, "A Good Man is Hard to Find." It's fabulous, although rough and dark in some places (set in the South when the "n" word was used quite casually, so that is a bit shocking at times). Outside of that, I haven't read much!

    In other news, I'm so sorry to hear of your heartbreaking troubles as of late. I'm so far behind in my blog reading, I didn't know this was going on. Sending warm fuzzies your way.

  2. I'm unfamiliar with that book. For some reason I rarely pick short story collections up. I hear the "n" word used far too often by the youth I pass by on their way to school here in New York City. It's really upsetting how casually it's thrown around like some term of endearment.

    Thanks so much for the well wishes. My Dad is doing well, my family has been searching for a homeless dog to adopt and the house is coming along slowly but nicely. Hope you are doing well!