Friday, September 7, 2012

July and August Storytellers: Two Months of Books

One of my most favorite sonic storytellers, Tori Amos, talked in an interview about "the mythology of ancient Ireland whereby the poets do battle before the warriors do battle and if the poets are good then hopefully they intimidate the other side so much." Maybe poets should have done battle before the national conventions. We need more of the beauty and power of the word in our daily lives, don't you agree? I could listen to Amos tell stories in song form or other all day. She made my reading list, as did a chef, a scientist author/poet, a local historian and a famous frontier author and her daughter.  These were my storytellers for July and August.

 Tori Amos: Piece by Piece, by Ann Powers and Tori Amos, Shaw's Book Shop, Westwood, New Jersey, aprox. $20.

It's funny how books sit on your shelf and wait patiently for their turn.  I've owned this book almost since its release several years ago, but it found me only now. I could relate to Amos' desires to become a mom, although I've never had to endure any of the miscarriages she suffered before she produced her daughter Tash. I also thought of her mother's story about putting aside her own ambitions to follow her husband's path. As I prepare for a wedding in a Catholic church (I'm not Catholic) and have to tell the priest we intend to raise our children Catholic (can I say "intend") I'm struggling a bit with my own path.

The book about Amos is told in dialogue form with journalist Ann Powers with a host of Amos confidants chiming in this work very much about her journey and creative process instead of a traditional biography.

"The romantic myth of the artist says that you are the Source. I have no illusions about that. I think this goes back to my grandfather. That was his great gift to me. Native Americans don't believe they are the Source. They have access to the Source. Endless access.  But don't get confused.

I can have access, but so can a librarian..."

Song Canvas sections give some insight into her works. So many people know her as the Cornflake Girl singer, but to me she's so much more. Her song Garlands, from The Beekeeper album era that disappointingly didn't make the album but appears on an extra with the bonus album, reminds me of my author friend J.J. Brown's Vector: A Modern Love Story. Vector is an ill-fated love story of a young opera student Eva and an older man, Michael set in in New York City. I thought if they made a movie about it, Garlands, where two lovers are meeting in Washington Square Park to go see the Winged Painter in a museum uptown, would certainly appear.

"I'm off in flight towards another light. Rest. Youth."

I love that Amos finds inspiration in the skies of New Mexico. I find creativity in our office painted a sage green and decorated with Southwest fare, with a raspberry colored rocking chair and a book case filled with favorites.  I do declare that I believe my ghost will roam in the Southwest. Where do tap into your creativity?

She talked about her mother, a literature major who dropped out to become a minister's wife after Amos' father switch from pre-med giving her the "keys to the library." Her mother read her Edgar Allen Poe, Robert Browning, and William Faulkner. Amos feels she wouldn't have been a songwriter without this influence of her mother's texts and her father's theology. Who gave you the keys to the library?

I love the chapter "Corn Mother: Genealogies" the most in which she shares memories of her Cherokee grandfather and the wisdom he passes on. Her stories about an ancestor escaping the Trail of Tears is something out of a Hollywood movie. Powers shares here too a Cherokee story. Let's take it in:

"Selu, the Corn Mother, lives with her grandsons in the mountains. The young men are hunters, and Corn Mother provides the staples that round out their meals. The men want to hunt and hunt, and this greed for meat makes Corn Mother sad, yet she loves her descendants and does not challenge them. One morning her grandsons spy on Corn Mother as she makes the corn, which falls from her body whenever she slaps her sides. This terrifies the men, and they reject her. She withers, but before dying, instructs them to bury her in the earth and tells them she will arise again as a plant that will need to be cultivated. Corn Mother does as she promises, but in her new form she cannot be blithely generous. People must learn to cultivate her; they must earn her fruitfulness. With this lesson Corn Mother teaches humankind the need for balance and the love of nature's gifts."

Amos recalls the medicine women coming backstage after 2001 and the Afghanistan War. One said to her, "Do you feel the soul of our land is in the right hands....Would you turn over your physical mother to those who are in control of she who we call America?" Bluntly put, the medicine woman tells her "Caretakers or Takers- you're either one or the other. If the masses keep taking and not caretaking, then your grandchildren will have very little to nurture them....Your loyalty should not be to anyone who claims power over the land at any given time, whose intentions can change on a whim, depending if they've been seduced by power and what it brings."

I've never understood how things like clean water, air and soil ended up so low on our list of national priorities. It won't matter as much if you can't pay off student loans when the water isn't good to drink. One of the greatest environmental threats of our times I believe is the danger to our water supply by oil companies and politicians promising jobs and domestic energy production in the area of "natural" gas. I've written about my opposition to fracking, the process to extract natural gas, before. Fracking sounds like the premise for a dark science fiction story - but it's true. There was an article in The New York Times, "Tapping Into the Land, Dividing Its People" about fracking in the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana - so they can pay off debts for building a failing casino?  My thoughts: when an oil company comes bearing gifts for your community's children - run. Burn their contracts. In Colorado, farmers are now competing with oil companies for water for these great domestic jobs and energy source. I need not consult a psychic to see higher food prices acoming. They're even tapping into municipal fire hydrants. Who do you think will win?

There's been a few news reports about cleaner air as a result of natural gas when it's used instead of coal, but does cleaner air trump polluted water? Not for me. Politicians only need to use the words "jobs" and "domestic energy" to generate applause. Both Obama and Romney support natural gas. On this issue, I call them takers, not caretakers. I applaud Obama's efforts with wind and solar, but am so disappointed when he speaks of  the 100 year supply of natural gas and the jobs it's going to create. He's mentioned it in the State of the Union and at his acceptance speech at the DNC. I would like to see Romney and Obama drink from a water supply that's been fracked or send their family members off for a week to take part in these "good" jobs. I hope they'll join the side of the caretakers.

On a lighter note...Bon Appetit! The Delicious Life of Julia Child, by Jessie Hartland, free, the library. The hardcover retails for $17.99 (is that what children's books cost?!) While everyone was looking at their fancy gizmos waiting in line for the bus at Port Authority (I'm often listening to music on one), this time was cheerfully lost in this most charming children's picture book about the life of Julia Child. With her 100th birthday coming up in August, I was searching for books and discovered a slew of new Child fare

Who says you can't learn something new from a children's book? One of her projects while working at the OSS (Office of Strategic Services in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka) was to help develop a shark repellant to keep curious sharks away from underwater explosives meant to destroy enemy ships. I also learned her high school French class was a disaster, it took her two years to speak well enough to get by once in Paris, and four years to become fluent. I've taken community school French classes here and there and love the language, but have never put a serious effort into it. Really, it was most fun to socialize with other Francophiles.

Minette's Feast, by Susanna Reich, free, the library.

Less informative biography wise but very sweet about Julia and her cat Minette. I'm loving all things feline lately - maybe the spell of watching Disney's Aristocats hasn't worn off yet. I think I'm so drawn to Julia's path even though I don't share much of her cooking beliefs (this vegetarian won't be deboning a duck anytime soon!) I'm always fascinated how Julia didn't figure out her path until she was in her 40s. I'm grateful - vey grateful - for my job, but I wonder about passions for a career.

The Goffle Road Murders of Passiac County: The 1850 Van Winkle Killings by Don Everett Smith, $20, Well Read Book Store, Hawthorne, New Jersey.

An intriguing account of the murder of a judge, John Van Winkle, and his wife, Jane, in Hawthorne, the county's first murder trial that would send the killer to the gallows. Crowds came to watch as high as Garret Mountain on execution day. Imagine if there were public executions today. I pass the house the murders took place in nearly every day and never knew its dark story until this book found me at this wonderful local bookstore, which I decided to support with my purchase.

The author starts the book with the haunting "The House with Nobody In It" by Joyce Kilmer, which talks of an old farmhouse the narrator passes,

"I have never seen a haunted house but I hear there are such things;
That hold the talk of spirits, their mirth and sorrowings.
I know this house isn't haunted, and I wish it were, I do;
For it wouldn't be so lonely if it had a ghost or two."

The poem ends...

"So whenever I go to Suffern along the Erie track
I never go by the empty house without stopping and looking back
Yet it hurts me to look at the crumbling roof and shutters fallen apart,
For I can't help thinking the poor old house is a house with a broken heart."

Think of all the lonely old houses you've passed. Do you believe in ghosts? Consider all the storytellers there are about our very own local history. Why the nation is consumed with "reality" television when history serves up so much more interesting fare, that's the greatest mystery to me.

Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer's Life, by Pamela Smith Hill $9.94,

"If you write for children, then I am in my second childhood," Wilder's editor George Bye declared. Anyone who has found these books as an adult will understand that sentiment. 

The book made me a better Little House reader. I've read through By the Shores of Silver Lake. The book examines closely the relationship Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane shared professionally and looks at some of the fact and fiction of the book. No, Lane didn't pen the books, but according to Hill did largely lift large parts of Laura's unpublished (rejected) Pioneer Girl manuscript to piece together Lane's Let the Hurricane Roar. I think what most surprised me is that the Ingalls family was made to sound so isolationist when they weren't. That snug winter in the surveyor's house? They had a boarder. All alone in The Long Winter? They had a couple with them who had to have a shotgun wedding. No going to see the railroad with Pa in By the Shores of Silver Lake. He would have never taken her along.  In the books they always looked West. Not so in real life, as they backtracked.

There was also some interesting history here. I didn't know Little Women is considered the first young adult novel. Wilder's books start out as children's books but branch out into young adult fare as Laura's journey grows.

Rose Wilder Lane instructed her mother to "show not tell" readers, and show she does in her magnificent Let the Hurricane Roar. Dare I say it, I almost liked this more than some of the Little House books.

I inhaled my library copy before the one I ordered from my favorite online book retailer Better World Books arrived. I just couldn't wait a day longer for it.

This book is a cautionary tale against accruing debt that could be true for any age, and reminds us of the humbling power of Mother Nature, which simply doesn't care about your plans. Spoiler alert: after the grasshopper invasion strikes as it did in On the Banks of Plum Creek," she writes,

"Grasshoppers, going west - like the railroads, like the people, like cities and settled lands and law and government. Yet grasshoppers were as alien, as indifferent to human suffering, as wind or cold. Perhaps they were no more indifferent to human beings than human fate itself."

Natural Supernatural Love, J.J. Brown, $8.99, A collection of poetry to read in your comfy, coziest share under a blanket with some tea. Sharing one of my favorite poems here, what seems like a perfect end to this Storytellers column.

Library Lantern

light a candle in the lantern
this quiet evening to read by
and close the patterned metal door
to watch the shadows cling to the wall
as people have done evenings
for ages and ages past
lean against the bookcase
and imagine each book is a person
lined up side by side
and take one from the shelf
to leaf through captured thoughts
of lives that refused to end
light a candle in the lantern
this quiet evening to read by.


  1. Wonderful books here to share with your readers Catherine, thank you so much for including mine and the poem! I've always loved libraries and the company of distant friends I found in them. Now I have these books on my reading list for fall. Better World Books is a great place to find books and share the love of books with others, through their donations. I'll look for these books there, thanks again.

  2. Thanks for entertaining with your wonderful stories. Your short story collection, Death and the Dream, is a great autumn read.

    Thanks also for recommending Better World Books.

    They support so many causes and things I advocate for: the secondhand market (keeping a lot of books, including library discarded books) out of the landfills, promotes literacy and is great for people minding their money (shouldn't we all be) with such low prices.

    I too so love libraries, both public ones and my home library of books with old and to-be-discovered friends and storytellers.

  3. Hi Catherine, You are nominated for the One Lovely Blogger Award, at should you choose to accept!

  4. Thank you so much for the recognition of this humble little blog I pen from my home here in New Jersey! It is so appreciated!